I am always eager to get characters on the page quickly, without fuss, without muss, and doing something immediately. Not like, sitting around, flicking their genitals and staring at the Travertine tile reminiscing about that time the exposition exposited about that other exposition, but actually up and about. Active. Interacting with the world — exerting will — with agency.
This was my motivation for writing an earlier post about creating kick-ass characters.
So, I figured I’d share another one of the little things I keep in mind when flinging characters into the gnashing hell-jaws of my monster machine — er, I mean, “into the story.”
This is: MAC.
It goes like this:
A character has a need. A want. A major motherfucking desire. This isn’t just a small-time yeah, maybe I want that. This is something they are motivated to achieve. Motivated as in: moved to act. This isn’t, “I want those new Zesty Bold Pecan Habanero Diapercrisp Doritos I keep hearing about.” This is: killing someone. Falling in love. Hiding a body. Proving one’s innocence. Blowing up a planet. This is something that would change the character’s life for good or bad. Not just revenge, but a specific revenge on a particular sonofabitch.
The character is driven.
The character takes action. They are forced by their want/need/desire to do something. Not talk about it. Not just turd around and ruminate upon it. They are pushed to drastic, compelling, fascinating action. They violate their own status quo. They do something they wouldn’t normally do. They push. Take risks. This isn’t like, putting money in a parking meter. This is betting it all. This is putting every last bit of oneself on the line to enact a fantasy.
This doesn’t have to be just one action. It can be several — a whole chain of them. A plan. A scheme. A sequence. A plot in and of itself. (And if you’re catching a whiff that this is how plot is actually made — well, you ain’t wrong about that.)
As they say, actions have consequences. Push down on one bubble, another pops up. That whole scientific principle of ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction?’ True for stories. (Though I’d argue that you could, in the service of brevity, shorten it to every action has a reaction.)
Sure, it’s entirely possible that the consequence is: THE CHARACTER GETS WHAT HE WANTS AND THEN BUNNIES FROLIC AND EVERYTHING IS CHOCOLATE, THE END.
That sucks, though. You’re a storyteller. ‘Consequence’ is a word with great, well, consequence. It’s heavy. Foreboding and forbidding. It could just as easily be written as: and then shit happens because you accidentally fucked up in dogged pursuit of your desires. Character needs money for his baby girl’s heart transplant (motivation) so he robs a bank to get the money (action) and, well, c’mon, robbing banks usually comes with an unholy host of complications, right? Dead guard. Cops outside. No money in the vault. Hostages. Bill Murray in a clown costume.
Lots of potential conflicts and complications.
Both also great ‘c’ words that could sub-out for Consequence, should you so choose.
(Unlike “cock-waffle.” That gets us no closer to illumination, you cad.)
That Gets You Started
This is just a very, very simple way to get characters on the page — characters who want things and are willing to pursue their wants with diligence and fervor. Characters who are vulnerable to the truest, most vile antagonist of them all: you, the evil-ass storyteller.
(“And I would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling characters!” — every good storyteller ever, unmasked for the monster that they are.)
You may again notice that, from this simple-yet-vital springboard, sweet plot waters flow.
It’s true. Plot is easily and competently built from even a single character’s chain of motivation, action, and consequence. Want shit. Do shit. Fuck up shit. Boom, plot.
Except, here’s a secret.
Shhh, A Secret
Characters with divergent motivations and actions intersect.
And this intersection creates drama.
Darth Vader wants to bolster the Empire and hunt down that pesky princess who keeps stealing his plans and giving them to warbling droids. Luke Skywalker wants to get the fuck off his sandy cat-turd of a planet and with the help of one such warbling droid undertakes a mission to save the very princess that Darth Vader captured. When these two characters intersect, it creates drama — drama that is further fueled by the lie of Vader killing Luke’s father and the truth of Vader being Luke’s father. Each character is dicking up the other character’s plans.
Think about how multiple characters want different things.
Or sometimes want the same things, but demand different actions.
Or how the consequences of one character’s actions push and pull on the life of another character.
These three simple building blocks are bricks.
And sometimes characters fling these bricks at each other’s heads.
Sometimes on purpose.
But drama is born as a result.
And in that conflict and that drama:
*mic crushes a pretty butterfly*