I’m going to start out this post by saying, no, I’m not a published author. But I do love stories. I love movies, books, manga, fairy tales, anything with a beginning, middle, and end that transports me to another place. I’m one of those people who watches movies or reads books over and over and over, and it’s as if I’m reading or watching them the first time; I get totally into them.
But once I’m done, I also really like analyzing them. I like knowing what it is about the story that made is so good…or what made it annoy me.
So the following post (and a couple after) are just things I’ve gleaned from reading, watching, writing, and studying how to write books. Take what you want, ignore what you don’t.
So let’s start with your beginning, the once upon a time. Here are two very general ways most novels (and movies) start:
- The main character is happy with their life, and the author ruins it
- The main character is unhappy with their life, and the author gives them a chance to be happy
Seems simplistic, right? Bear with me.
Battleship. A great movie, and a good example of a happy character about to have a majorly bad day. If you haven’t seen it, spoiler alert!!
In the first 20 minutes or so (forgive me, I didn’t time it) we learn Hopper has a pretty great life. He has a job in the Navy, is close to his brother, and has a pretty girlfriend. But in those first few minutes, we also learn Hopper is arrogant, immature, and selfish. Not a bad guy, but he just needs to grow up.
Now, this could be a movie about how his life continues to be great. He marries his girlfriend, gets a promotion in his job, yada yada. Boring. Instead, his life takes a 180. A huge change happens.
His reckless actions get him reprimanded by his commanding officer (who just so happens to be his girlfriend’s dad), kicked out of the navy, his brother disappointed him, and his girlfriend upset.
Okay, now things are more interesting. But the movie doesn’t stop there. Then aliens land, cut off all of the Navy except for three ships, and blow up two of those ships, including Hopper’s brother. Now, the fate of the entire world rests in Hopper’s hands. Time to grow up.
If you can stop watching the movie at that point, I either greatly admire or pity you.
Beastly by Alex Finn, Frozen, Spirited Away, Spelled by Betsy Schow and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens are great examples of this. And note, most of these also have main characters with character flaws they must fix in order to get their lives back in order. Hopper had to grow up. Elsa had to learn to love herself. Scrooge had to stop being a miser and start helping others. Basically, the true story is about them changing for the better.
Harry Potter is a perfect example of an unhappy character about to get a chance at happiness. Most of us know the plot, so I won’t go into too much detail! When we first meet Harry, you can’t help but like him and feel a bit sorry for the guy. His normal is sleeping in a cupboard and getting beat up by his cousin. Strange things happen around him, and though he can never explain them, he’s punished for them. Nevertheless, he’s spunky and a fighter.
In short, Harry is an underdog, and most of us love rooting for underdogs.
Then the change comes in the form of a letter, inviting him to attend a school for wizards, and Harry’s entire world is turned upside down. For the first time, he has a chance at happiness. But it isn’t going to be easy; he has to fight to keep the chance.
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, Annie, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and Matilda by Roald Dahl also have this type of start.
This group of characters, instead of having major flaws, often are lonely or feel as if they don’t belong. Annie was an orphan who longed for her parents. Matilda is unlike the rest of her family and longs for friends. Bella feels alone and out of place. Here, the true story is often about these characters finding where they belong and gaining family.
Of course, some novels don’t fall neatly into either category. In The 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, Pongo and Missus have a ruined day (getting your puppies stolen will do that!) but they don’t have character flaws that need to be addressed. On the other hand, Ralph in Wreck-it-Ralph is unhappy with his life and is given the opportunity to change it by winning a medal, but he has to learn to put someone else’s needs first in order to really be happy.
I can hear you now: What’s your point??
When starting your book, figure out which way your story is leaning. If your character is going about her life, happy as a lark, how are you going to mess it up? Be mean! If he is a spoiled, snooty, blue blood, don’t just throw him out of his house, toss him all the way into the sewer (Flushed Away). Are there any character flaws you can give her, something she must overcome? One reason Spirited Away is such a great movie is the way Chihiro changes from a whiny brat who is easily upset to a brave girl who risks her life for her friends.
If your character is unhappy with her normal life, what kind of chance are you going to give her to be happy? And make her fight for it! Rapunzel in Tangled has a chance to fulfill her dreams and see the ‘floating lights,’ but she has to take major risks. She has to choose to leave her tower. Harry has to go with Hagrid. Bella has to take a risk with Edward.
Anyway, I guess I’ve rambled long enough. Here’s the sum up: Show us your hero’s normal, happy or unhappy, then make a change in her world. The rest of the novel is about how she deals with that change, and whether she herself changes and finds a happily ever after.