Welcome back to the next S in our 4S author career series!
Story is arguably the most important part of a writing career. You can be wicked confident and have a ton of money to throw at an in depth marketing plan, but if your story isn’t compelling all the hype will quickly flop.
Now, there’s no possible way to get all the ways to improve your writing skills into a single post. I would never even try.
Instead, I will walk you through how I work with authors to deepen their own stories. Notice I said stories, not writing. Wordsmithing is a skill separate from storytelling in my mind, and the most critical part of writing a page-turner is having a solid story behind your beautiful words.
Great stories are always about compelling character growth. A character starts at point A and ends at point Z, an entirely different person—for better or worse. Humans are drawn to human struggles. We are sucked in by a character in a seemingly impossible situation, and it’s curiosity that drives us to know if they will get through this list of insurmountable obstacles. We absolutely must know what happens next.
As an exercise in character growth we are going to turn to my favourite thing: Trees.
I’m obsessed with trees (I have a giant tree tattooed across my whole back as proof), which I combined with my love of story to create the Character Growth Tree.
Let’s chronicle the growth of your protagonist through trees…
Stay with me here.
The characters are the trees; the story is the forest; the plot is the elements.
The tree has four parts for the purposes of this character lesson—roots, trunk, branches, and leaves.
The Roots are Character Misbeliefs
The roots are invisible but the most vital bit to the tree’s chance of survival. Without roots, there is no tree. Without understanding and developing solid character’s roots, the book you’re writing will not be able to grow and flourish as spectacularly as it could.
I love to poke at character motivations. It’s my whole editing style. Why did the character do that? Why doesn’t she trust men but still is a serial monogamist? Why did he choose this over that? What happened in their life to foster this train of thought? And on and on I go. I drill my authors with questions about the exact details of why their characters think, act, and speak the way they do. They both love and hate me for it.
Because the series of events that shaped a character’s entire belief system before the story begins culminates with the root scene–or the moment the character chooses to go all-in on their misbelief (or the lie/fatal flaw, as some editors call it).
The key to a sturdy root structure for your character is choice. The events in your character’s life do not make them, how they choose to react and respond to those events shapes them. Your character must have agency in their own story. Too many times characters just weather storms that come at them with no active participation in them. Take what happens to your character and analyze what they choose to do with their circumstances.
The Trunk is Character Reactions
The trunk of your character is their foundational choices and reactions. Once you understand their roots and how strongly a character holds tight to their misbeliefs, you can bring them out of the ground and expose them to the elements (the plot that will continuously batter the character’s misbeliefs like wind and rain). This trunk will be the protection they use against the plot assault. Think carefully about how your characters protect themselves. Their actions, choices, and reactions will protect the soft core of vulnerable insecurity that lives beneath the bark’s sharp hardened edges.
It’s completely pointless to know things like what kind of coffee they order at Starbucks unless there is a reason that is relevant to the story. Do they order an iced caramel Frappuccino—even though they think cold coffee is blasphemous—because their friends do? Perhaps they’re terrified of not fitting in, so they suffer through gross ice coffee to keep their popular friends thinking they belong with the popular crowd? Because in that case, their Starbucks order is relevant, not because of what they order, but WHY. They choose to silently suffer to protect their belief that popularity is more important than joy.
Your plot is going to challenge that misbelief. They will grow to realize that their happiness is more important than being popular (if it’s a happy ending), or they will destroy themselves in the effort (if it’s a cautionary ending).
The Branches are Character Behaviours
The branches of your character are their behaviours that result from their misbelief and the protective way they respond to threats against it. Keeping on with the Starbucks analogy, if our character wants to be popular and is willing to drink gross coffee to achieve it, what sort of outward habits would stem from making decisions to follow the crowd? They would be more aware of what others were doing. They’d hesitate before making decisions, ask a lot of questions, or maybe they’re never the first one to speak, instead they wait for their friends to say something first. They lie about having plans and blame it on others, so they don’t have to go to Starbucks and suffer one more sugar cup of yuck but still get to keep their status.
The options are endless, but your character’s behaviours grow directly from their protective reactions to keep their misbelief alive.
The Leaves are Character Mannerisms
The leaves are the outermost layer of your character’s misbelief. The beautiful, colourful distractions from what’s going on beneath the surface. All the ways in which their mannerisms, habits, actions, choices, and misbelief are left to reader interpretation.
Maybe they touch their mouth a lot to stop themselves from talking, or laugh nervously, or stand defensively. They might be twitchy or stutter when asked their opinion. Character mannerisms also grow from environmental circumstances such as sharing a trait with a parent, culture, social group, or geographic location. Still, the core reason the character adopted these habits will always trace back to that character’s root—their misbelief about the world.
What happens next?
Once your characters have all been created, you then have a forest. An interesting tidbit of tree knowledge is that all trees in a forest are interconnected by their root systems. Nutrients are passed back and forth from tree to tree or cut off from the trees that are unlikely to survive, for the greater good of the forest.
In a similar manner all your characters roots, misbeliefs, and mannerisms are going to become intertwined and feed off each other.
This process is how you take your characters and create a story around them that creates a compelling experience for your reader, not just a book to be read. After your readers take in the characters and understand them, they will begin to see how it’s all interconnected beneath the surface, and they’ll be desperate to see how it ends.
Are you looking for help strengthening your characters to create a truly compelling story for your readers? If you’d like to DIY this, you can check out the PRE-WRITING GENIUS or FIVE-POINT STORY MAPPING.
And please know that my very favorite thing to do is to talk writers through their books. You can find information on that HERE.