Writing: Your Character’s Journey

If you write fiction, chances are that you’ve heard the term “hero’s journey.” But what does that actually mean for you as the writer?

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about the hero’s journey and what it means for your story.

Somebody to Love

Your hero or she-roe must be someone whom readers can at least want to follow—if not thoroughly like or lovable. I once had a student whose protagonist was a man with a terminal illness who set out to kill every person who’d ever wronged him. This kind of main character would be extremely difficult to write successfully. Readers would balk at being inside the skin of a murderous character for long.

Your character doesn’t need to be perfect—in fact, flaws will help you create a more memorable and realistic character. But do think about the qualities your character will display in the story. It’s been noted that readers respond better to characters with traits such as honesty, loyalty and generosity.

Before you write the real-time story (or novel), create a back story for your character. Just try not to dump all that info into Chapter One. Instead, let the back story inform your character’s every action, dialogue bit and thought. For instance, the murderous guy I mentioned would see everything in terms of his own victimhood and resentments. Your character can be angry about something—just try not to make the goal mass murder.

Something to Work Toward

When you create that back story, you’ll want to incorporate the real-time story goal. The back story will show the “why” of that goal. The plot is the “what, when and how.” Learn to weave the back story “why” in and around your scenes instead of info-dumping in Chapter One. Readers are willing to forego information for action and passionate emotion.

Let readers discover the “why” of your character’s journey little by little. You can weave bits and pieces of this strong motivation into your scenes. It all comes back to “show, don’t tell.” A character who has a burning need for something will, if written appropriately, pique reader interest and help them to engage or sign onto the journey.

When you identify the main goal, try to make that goal matter as broadly as you can. If your character is journeying toward being loved, belonging or saving the world, you’ll see that there are concentric rings of the stakes. Whether your character wins or loses the quest, readers can identify with loneliness, rejection or fear of evil on a personal, familial, community and societal ring of the circle.

Magic Carpet Ride

If you create a character who is memorable and who has passionate reasons for pursuing the journey goal, readers will be able to engage and identify with that character. The most effective story journeys or arcs transport readers so that they may even “become” that character for the duration of the journey. Humans love stories because we are hard wired to identify with one another.

As your character journeys through the story, be sure to place obstacles in the character’s way. We tend not to value things we haven’t earned, so be sure your character’s journey offers up a gradually steeper set of obstacles—bad guys, nature and the problem that stops the character for a bit. If you make it too easy, readers lose interest. Keep your character walking through the fire, increasing the temperature all the way to the climax scene.

Your character’s journey is a little like hiking a mountain trail. As readers accompany your hero or she-roe, they should feel more and more tension as they worry: will the character be able to stand the steepness? Will he/she still be able to breathe as the air thins? Will this character make it to the top (goal)? If you write your character’s journey with enough emotion, grit and movement, you’ll be more likely to attract and keep readers engaged to the end.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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