by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
Imagine a book like this.
First page: We see Alex being crowned Ruler of the Empire, it’s thrilling!
Second page: Alex is kidnaped by terrorists from Alpha Centauri, terrifying!
Third page: Alex escapes and an hour later wins the Nobel Prize, amazing!
Fourth page: College roommate leaves Alex a baby to raise, life-changing!
Fifth page: Baby is diagnosed with incurable leprosy, devastating!
When the back-and-forths come this thick and fast, readers can be forgiven for wishing things would—well, just slow down a bit.
After all, it’s full of good action, good drama, good suspense, good ups and downs... but you see what’s missing?
We have no idea what makes Alex tick.
Until we have an idea who Alex really IS—both the appealing features we’ll enjoy watching through various situations, and the not-so-appealing ones that’ll lead to trouble until some kind of change takes place—we don’t have a whole lot of incentive to be interested in Alex’s life.
No matter how many back-and-forth, up-and-down events and emotions there might be.
That raises the question of how to show readers who this character truly is. Not just how they’re dealing with the situation at hand, but what got ‘em to that point in the first place... and what they’ll need to change in order to come through Okay (if not a Nobel Prize-winning ruler of the empire) by The End.
Most of us have a quite a few systems for discovering what makes someone tick. There are all kinds of good processes out there, some of which I’ve studied and then either tried or discarded, same as you’ve probably done over the years.
No matter which system/s we prefer, though, they’re all aimed at creating ways to move a character forward and back. Back and forward. Not always in that order, but with enough variety that the story isn’t a constant uphill climb nor a constant downward slope.
And everything in between.
We know that on this person’s way to their happy ending, they’re gonna face all kinds of hurdles. There'll be setbacks and advances, triumphs and disasters, and at the end they're gonna be a little more battered, a little more wise, and a lot more deserving of whatever their final triumph might be—or their final defeat if they're the villain.
Why? Because they've taken every step, sometimes up and sometimes down, from beginning to end. They've reached the top of what I view as their “personality ladder.”
In real life, of course, we're all climbing ladders all the time. We climb from infancy to childhood; from childhood to adulthood; from irresponsible student to responsible worker; from carefree party-goer to committed spouse...life is full of ladders.
But the ladder our characters climb ISN'T a lifelong one.
Maybe it's a three-day period of thrilling adventure. Maybe it's an eight-month saga of blooming love. Maybe it’s a twenty-year mission of colonizing a new planet. But regardless of length, it's a ladder these characters climb all the way from the bottom (stasis) to the top (triumph) during the course of this book.
Everyone's got their own seven steps to complete, scene by scene and chapter by chapter, on the way to becoming a stronger and better person who deserves a happy ending. And where they start depends on what kind of person they are at the beginning of the book.
Take a minute and think about your main character. What's this person’s greatest strength? And how is the reverse side of that strength gonna create problems for them at some point (or probably at several points) during the story?
If so, his strengths will be...what? Doing a fabulous job at whatever he undertakes. Refusing to settle for second best. Getting the job done at all costs. Delivering a stellar performance in every conceivable area (OR in just one vitally important area). Being the best he can be. Leading the field. Top of the heap, no matter what the heap might be. And so on.
You can see what the corresponding weaknesses will be too, right? Lots of possibilities: Ignoring others on his quest for excellence. Driving himself too hard. Not taking on anything unless he knows he'll be great at it. Never stopping to smell the roses. Lacking the ability to forgive anything less than perfection. And so on.
So whatever this guy’s heroic strength and troublesome flaw might be, he’s gonna have to climb all seven steps on his personality ladder to reach the victorious finale at the top.
... from Stasis
This gives you enough back-and-forth, forward-and-back action to keep readers engaged...without feeling like there’s too much melodrama, nor too little credibility.
They’ll get to witness every step of this climb, and celebrate a happy ending for someone who’s not only earned it, but who’s made them root for it because they’ve seen who this person IS. They’ve seen what makes ‘em tick.
Somebody who comments will win free registration to “His Personality Ladder,” a November 6-17 email class on the seven steps. On Tuesday evening I’ll have random dot org draw a name and post it waaaaay down at the end of the comments. (Because after all, our characters start their climb at the bottom!)
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After winning Romantic Times’ “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops including the one at groups.io/g/Ladder, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. With 50+ titles there so far, she’s always hoping for more.
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