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Inner demons

You know that your major character is going to make or break your novel, so you’ve studied up. You’ve got a list of strengths and weaknesses, some defining quirks and maybe a back story to add credibility. Set to go, right?

No. Because so far the characteristics aren’t related to the story. Great characters aren’t built up from features, they are crafted with an eye to dramatic functions.

If you’re writing a story with even a smidgen of inner story (characterization) then you need to understand the role of weakness in character–otherwise known as  inner demons. These demons may be fear, ignorance, immaturity, crippling ambition, or any other negative impulse that places your major character at a disadvantage in doing what must be done. If  your hero is perfect on page one, he’s got nowhere to go (or grow) except to solve the plot problem.

But, since he’s imperfect, he has to solve the plot problem despite his weaknesses. He needs to conquer that impulse, overcome that ignorance or naivete, or sacrifice the selfish ambition. This is his character arc. He grows through the scenes of your story as he gathers information, allies, and perspective.

An inner story based upon demons makes for a story that is likely to hold our interest. You don’t have to have a story like this. But it brings strengths to your novel that you’ll likely need. Unless you’ve just thought of a plot like The Da Vinci Code. Some stories are just carried by plot, let’s face it.

But we’re gonna do character. We’re gonna have an inner story with a nice fat demon.


It places doubt on the outcome.

The story problem is a difficult one, right? It involves obstacles, or you wouldn’t have a story at all. But how much more unlikely does success appear when the character’s own tendencies may defeat her? The reader must feel that the end is in doubt. We may know that the author will deliver an upbeat ending, but we just can’t figure out how the hell they’re going to do it. Believe it or not, that’s the main reason readers keep reading.

It gives the forces of opposition something to exploit.

Your character may be a chimp who wants to be free (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) let’s say. But his dependence on trusted humans (inner demon) holds him back. The sadistic zoo keeper will play the bad parent all day long–and that’s how the screenwriters planned it. The cruelty drives Caesar the chimp to break out of captivity. Notice how this major character has in a way caused his own misery, or at least perpetuated it.

It provides a deeper basis for your story architecture.

You don’t want your story to be episodic, with one damn thing happening after the next. There must be escalation. A classic way to escalate plot is for the character to become more committed, more insightful and more effective. She invites a stronger push-back from the forces of opposition when she exhibits these new strengths.

So far so good. But with an an inner demon, we introduce a more interesting evolution of your character and plot. Now she must conquer herself as well as the situation. In hero’s journey terms, your character moves from an unknowing, uninitiated person to one transformed by experience, a person who has returned from the cave reborn. Larry Brooks (Story Engineering) is especially effective in explaining how character transformation matches up with a four-part story structure.

It helps to frame the dramatic question of your story

A great way to focus your story is to find a defining dramatic question. Such as: Can the first highly intelligent chimpanzee find a place of belonging in this world? Now, use your character’s inner demon to add another layer: How does my character’s inner demon cause his own problem or worsen the one he’s handed? (Caesar’s dependence on misguided humans makes him subservient and blind to the possibility of independence.)

A good dramatic question will assure your novel is worth writing. A great dramatic question will guarantee it is worth reading.

And back to story structure: When Caesar figures out that he’s better off not counting on human friends, he evolves from learner stage to confrontation stage, in screenwriting terms. And that’s not just an internal thing. Changed people change how they act. So when we overcome our demons, the veil lifts and we can overcome the opposition. Thus we deepen the connection between plot and character.

If all this seems a bit prescriptive to you, just remember that any basic storytelling strategy needs to be transformed by art into a seamless and memorable whole. It’s just that art alone won’t get you there. First, the basics.


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