[Resource article – Creating characters ] Characters, Take the Wheel

Characters drive the story. The plot is the road taken. Structure is the map. Your main character’s goal is to get to his destination and he’ll do whatever it takes to get there. He chooses the route. Sometimes, he chooses right. More often, he chooses wrong. Though once in a while something bad might happen to him during his trip, such as a detour caused by construction, many times he causes his own misfortune. He fails to listen to his wife’s brilliant directions, he drives too fast and gets a speeding ticket, he runs out of fuel in his quest to find a station with gas pennies cheaper than the last one. He’s a good guy but he’s flawed. He needs to find his way and defeat the bad guy who slashed his tires. Finally, in most cases, he’ll reach his desired destination; a little worse for the wear, but wiser for the experience.
Okay, I’m getting carsick from this analogy. Hopefully, this road trip tale will help you to remember that characters drive the story, not the other way around. If the ride is nothing but construction detours, accidents, bad weather, and crossing deer, you’ve got a contrived story, not one that comes from characters taking the wheel.
Take the movie SPEED for example (sorry, I guess I just can’t stop….). The bomb on the bus isn’t just bad luck that happens to the good guys. It was planted there by a bad guy, which certainly shows his character. It is also the hero’s choice to climb aboard the doomed vehicle, showing his character and well, cojones. Complications ensue, such as nearly running out of gas, but even those complications arise out of the original problem caused by the villain. In addition, the occupants of the bus must use their wits to try to escape while being constantly watched, via remote camera, by the villain. By contrast, the fact that the road is not finished (a device used TWICE in the film) is an eye-rolling coincidence and is much less satisfactory because it’s an outside complication and not caused by any character in the story.
The character drives the story, but what drives her? “What’s my motivation” isn’t just a cliché. We need to know what motivates the character, otherwise we don’t care if she gets what she wants or not. Inigo Montoya wanted vengeance for his father’s death. We know some brute murdered his father when Inigo was just a young boy, so we can’t wait to see him kick some ass when he finally gets the chance. Ace Ventura goes on a quest to find a missing dolphin out of a love of animals and because it’s his job. Both E.T and Dorothy are motivated by a desire to go home. Harold and Kumar just want a burger.
Characters cause change in the story. Certainly, outside forces can act upon a character to cause great changes in his life. In Groundhog Day, Phil is forced to repeat the same day in his life and over and over again. What does he do with a challenge like that? At first, he uses it to his advantage. He learns things about other people and then uses the information the next “day” to get what he wants. Soon, he grows tired of this and tries – repeatedly – to kill himself. Finally, he uses his time to help others, thus ending the vicious cycle. Consider this same film with Forrest Gump instead of Phil Connors as the main character. Forrest is a swell guy. He doesn’t need the lesson that Groundhog Day teaches. Sure, he’s a bit slow and could probably use a couple of repeated days to catch up with the rest of us, but he would likely have started helping people by the second day. No conflict. Boring is as boring does.
The best method to ensure that the characters drive the story is to develop the characters AS you develop the plot. Don’t plot the course and then hang characters on there like hood ornaments. The main character must be in the driver’s seat. She controls the motion of the story. Don’t start planning the trip without her. Groundhog Day only works as Phil’s story. If he didn’t have the attitude that needed adjustment, there would be no story to tell. His dramatic need or goal is to be able to give and receive love. The goal (desired destination) of the protagonist is the whole focus of the story you’re telling. If we don’t have a clear idea of who he is and where he wants to be, why do we care if he ever gets there? The strongest stories are ones where the characters and plot are deeply integrated. You can’t have one without the other. Only when we truly care about the characters do we want to go along for the ride.