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Show the reader what the protagonist wants

Bondi Beach

I'm channeling my inner CW here, and so with apologies to him here's what Aaron Sorkin says on how to introduce a character: when the character first appears show what he or she wants, not who he or she is (unless, obviously, the two go together).

Never mind for the moment the obvious caveat: Sorkin's a screenwriter and he's talking about writing a script, not a novel.

I'm thinking about my own stories as well as others I like and it seems there's a lot more latitude with a novel. That said, is Sorkin right? I've read novels that opened with what he describes ("They threw me off the hay truck around noon," from The Postman Always Rings Twice is a pretty good example [not an exact quote]), but I'm kind of at a loss to think of one that *doesn't* do that and still succeeds. Is there one?

This is from a promo for Master Class. Sorking's clip is here.

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maroon

Buttercup was raised on a small farm in the country of Florin. Her favorite pastimes were riding her horse and tormenting the farm boy that worked there.

Crumbly Writer

It's a useful technique, especially for major characters and essentially for those involved in the major story conflict. For lessor characters, you can take your time, but it's still important to work on and with their motives, as it adds complexity to the character, and makes the story more interesting through the inter-character conflicts. As I always say, nothing makes a normally slow recitation of facts and summary of strategy more interesting than differing motives between the 'good guys'.

The sooner you can establish the motives, the sooner you can play off them. If you're not sure what someone's strategy and motives are, put them into a situation with someone they trust and who'll push them, and they'll likely reveal it by their actions.

Sorkin's advice is excellent, but remember, he's restricted by a single hour's time frame, which is taken by by another twenty characters. Often, it's more effective if you slowly reveal someone's motives more slowly, a bit at a time.

Replies:   Bondi Beach
Bondi Beach

@maroon

Buttercup was raised on a small farm in the country of Florin. Her favorite pastimes were riding her horse and tormenting the farm boy that worked there.


Perfect example. See, we don't need to know her weight, her bra size or the color of her hair, where Florin is, what kind of horse she has or the size of the farm boy's dick.

Although I am wondering whether she dreams about going to college. Or moving to the big city someday.

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Replies:   madnige
Bondi Beach

@Crumbly Writer

Sorkin's advice is excellent, but remember, he's restricted by a single hour's time frame, which is taken by by another twenty characters. Often, it's more effective if you slowly reveal someone's motives more slowly, a bit at a time.


A character might conceal his motives as well, and we might find out his real motive, what he really wants, much later after we think we've got his number.

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Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Bondi Beach

I'll have to remember that. Thx

awnlee jawking

@Bondi Beach

That advice could lead to an overabundance of one-dimensional protagonists. That might be okay in short stories or parables, but I prefer characters to be multi-dimensional.

AJ

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
awnlee jawking

@maroon

That doesn't tell us anything about Buttercup's motivation. It's just a small scale infodump.

AJ

madnige

@Bondi Beach

Although I am wondering whether she dreams about going to college. Or moving to the big city someday.


Whoosh

The Princess Bride

Replies:   Bondi Beach
Crumbly Writer

@Bondi Beach

A character might conceal his motives as well, and we might find out his real motive, what he really wants, much later after we think we've got his number.

Although, typically, in a case like that, most successful authors leave clues, so you're never quite sure where they stand, until the big reveal, when everyone learns what an ass the character is. That's where the SHOW is vital, as the character's behavior often belittle their words.

Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

That advice could lead to an overabundance of one-dimensional protagonists. That might be okay in short stories or parables, but I prefer characters to be multi-dimensional.

There's nothing requiring simple characters here. Even if reader's know the character's primary motive, they may be conflicted, torn between two competing motives/emotions, which one that wins out deciding how they'll finally act. Conflict, especially internal conflicts, are the driving force of fiction and drama. It's in real life that we can never tell what someone really thinks about something, and is why we're reluctant to trust anyone!

Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

That doesn't tell us anything about Buttercup's motivation. It's just a small scale infodump.

No, it encapsulates her driving motivation, at least for the moment: she's not going to let anyone else push her around, to tell her what to do. What you do with that, and how you develop her as a character, all revolve around that, but it's hardly the end of her story, it's just the starting point: one which governs how she'll respond to any given situation.

What's more, knowing she has a stubborn streak, any time something happens in the story, readers will instinctively turn to her to see how she'll respond, possibly allowing the protagonist to slip in and surprise everyone.

Replies:   awnlee_jawking
Bondi Beach

@awnlee jawking

That doesn't tell us anything about Buttercup's motivation. It's just a small scale infodump.


We know what she likes to do and we might assume she'd like to continue doing it. So we do know what she wants for now. Until she meets that dark handsome stranger we already know is in her future, of course.

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Replies:   awnlee jawking
Bondi Beach

@madnige

The Princess Bride


Well, um, yes. I didn't want to be too obvious about it.

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awnlee_jawking

@Crumbly Writer

Buttercup was raised on a small farm in the country of Florin. Her favorite pastimes were riding her horse and tormenting the farm boy that worked there.


You really think that tells us Buttercup won't let anyone push her around and has a stubborn streak? I didn't get that at all. I got that Buttercup is too lazy to do any work and likes to bully people, not a nice person at all.

AJ

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
awnlee jawking

@Bondi Beach

It tells us what Buttercup likes to do. It doesn't tell us what she wants. She might want to be a jockey or a showjumper, or the horse riding might just be a form of escape, to get away from a horrible home life.

I think this is one of the examples you asked for, which succeeds despite not revealing what the protagonist wants.

AJ

Replies:   Bondi Beach
Crumbly Writer

@awnlee_jawking

You really think that tells us Buttercup won't let anyone push her around and has a stubborn streak? I didn't get that at all. I got that Buttercup is too lazy to do any work and likes to bully people, not a nice person at all.

The one sentence alone (not referencing the movie) could go either way, which is why it's a great opening line, as it makes us want to figure out which she is--a positive force in the world, determined to achieve something--or a negative force, equally determined to tear others down.

But then, opening lines are a separate issues than introducing character's motives when you introduce the character.

richardshagrin

Buttercup? Is that a name for a human being?

"but·ter·cup.
[ˈbədərˌkəp]
NOUN
a herbaceous plant with bright yellow cup-shaped flowers, common in grassland and as a garden weed. All kinds are poisonous and generally avoided by livestock."

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@richardshagrin

Buttercup? Is that a name for a human being?


No, in this case it's the name of a bloodsucking insect, normal food horses but also partial to humans ;)

AJ

Bondi Beach

@awnlee jawking

I think this is one of the examples you asked for, which succeeds despite not revealing what the protagonist wants.


Got it, thanks.

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