Once you’ve figured out the theme of your novel, it’s time to start nailing down how that is going to play out and shape your manuscript. The easiest place to start with this is the main character.
I’m going to use Hamilton
and Zootopia to illustrate this first.
I’m also going to take you through the thought process on my current WIP so you can see it in action (also, it will help me jump back in and finish drafting this thing so it’s a win-win.)
First, you need to think of your theme in two ways. The first is as a general sort of topic, try for just one or two words.
My current WIP: COMMUNITY (or WANT VS. NEED. Not totally sure yet.)
Now I want you to come up with a sentence that sums up the “truth” about this topic that you want your story to get across. The realization that your MC will have at the end of the book.
Hamilton: YOU HAVE NO CONTROL WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, WHO TELLS YOUR STORY.
Zootopia: CHANGE STARTS WITH YOU.
My current WIP: We are each part of a community and we use the community to address each other’s needs.
That sentence you just wrote is the end of your main character’s arc. Now, that means that your MC needs to start the story believing the opposite. This will help you figure out your main character’s weakness/lie they believe. We’re going to call it your character’s false truth or false theme statement.
Hamilton: I can create a legacy for myself by taking risks and doing big things.
Officer Hopps: I will make the world a better place by making sure EVERYONE ELSE does what they should according to MY world view.
MC in my current WIP: I am not important but maybe I can make everyone happy by granting their wishes.
These two statements will create your MC’s character arc. At the beginning of the story, they believe the false theme statement, but by the end they should understand the second theme statement. Your entire story revolves around getting your character from false theme statement to true theme statement.
With this idea in mind, it’s time to think about your MC’s internal and external struggle. The external struggle is what we really think of as the plot. But the internal struggle are those motivations that power the choices that fuel the plot.
What does your MC want most? (external struggle)
How does this reflect the internal struggle around theme that I just laid out?
Theme should relate to the external struggle, but the meat of your theme will be found in the internal struggle and the two of these need to be related. The interplay of internal and external struggle, character arc vs. plot doesn’t look the same for every book.
Sometimes the external struggle and internal struggle are very obvious and similar.
Look at Hamilton. His goal is to create a legacy and everything he does is powered around that goal. All of his external struggles are a result of his trying to fulfill that goal. So to me, the external struggle and internal struggle nearly overlap.
In Zootopia, it isn’t quite as obvious. Officer Hopps’ external goal is to become a police officer and, in the process, prove everyone wrong who ever put limitations on what small animals can do. Her internal struggle is about overcoming her own bias. These two struggles strongly mirror and affect each other (as the external and internal struggle always should.)
My current WIP: My MC’s external goal is to make her new neighborhood like her old neighborhood and have a fourth of July barbecue. A real community. Her internal struggle is about seeing herself as an important, integral, and change-making part of that community.
Now that you know the beginning and ending points of your MC’s character arc and have an idea of their external and internal struggle and how they relate, you’re ready to fill out those character sheets full of questions.
Why not before? Because you are designing/creating a character. And you need to make sure that you are creating a character who really would believe that false theme statement at the beginning of the book. So questions about backstory are especially important. What has brought your MC to this place? Now that you know the attitude he/she needs to have, you can create a backstory and character details that support that.
At this point, you may be able to see some plot points. You may even be able to fully map out the character arc. But we’re not done planning yet, because next Thursday I’m going to talk about planning your supporting cast and they will be vital to your conflict and tension!