Thursday, January 28, 2010

WRT: The Importance of First Words - What Does Your Character Crave?

It's a rookie mistake to introduce your main character as a flawless, perfectly content human being. Who cares? Well, you do. You love your protagonist and you don't want anything bad to happen to him. But your reader does. That's what makes your reader come back for more. There are two things you, as a writer, will naturally resist doing to your character.

1. Make them want something.

2. Put obstacles in their way to getting it.

The first is called Craving, and it's what I'm focusing on today. It's what compels your character to act, and what compels your reader to connect. Which is why it's so important to define what your MC wants very, very soon after you introduce them.

In Markus Zusak's Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Cameron Wolfe, Ruben's brother, is the narrator. In the book's opening page, we find them at the track making illegal wagers on the dogs:

A girl walks past.
Jesus,
I think.
"Jesus," Rube says, and that's the difference.


Zusak immediately shows us the kind of person Cameron is. He idolizes and wishes he could be more like his older brother. This is how Zusak sets up the story, which we know almost from the start (if you haven't read the jacket blurb), entails an eventual boxing match between the two Wolfe brothers. Zusak helps us connect with Cameron by showing his weaknesses, because, like the rest of us, we all wish we were better and stronger and smarter than reality reminds us we are. (Although the next First Lines subject is about conflict, it's worthwhile to point out the irony in how Zusak provides it here: in order for Cameron to prove he's more like his brother, he'll have to beat him).

In the English translation of his book, the invisible, Mats Wahl tells us in the very first sentence what minor character (but the story's focus) Hilmer Eriksson wants:

It was on one of the first days of May that Hilmer Eriksson discovered he had become invisible.

It's obvious what Hilmer wants: to be visible. Why? And is he really invisible? And if so, what made him invisible? We shortly discover that Hilmer is missing, later presumed dead. During the investigation, Hilmer "haunts" the novel's main character, Inspector Fors. Which leads to an even greater craving by Hilmer: he wants to know what happened, for his disappearance to have meaning. Who among us hasn't at one time or another feared disappearing without leaving some kind of trace behind, for our lives to have meaning? (In fact, I would have to say that that is one reason so many of us write.) Reminds me of a quote by Jim Morrison (of Doors fame): "The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death." It's what makes the invisible so appealing to read.

So, dear Writer, make sure you know and show what your main (and even secondary)characters want in your story's First Words.

Next time: Conflict.

Happy RoadTripping.

1 comment:

  1. You're so right. When I can't identify a character's craving, a book is lackluster. The character’s craving and the quest to fulfill it makes me want to turn those pages.

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