The Protagonist and the Voodoo Doll

Most writers are familiar with the saying, “In the first act, get your hero up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him, and in the third act, get him down safely.” I just learned that quote is by George Abbott, director/playwright. I’ve heard iterations of that quote for years from multiple sources, but never knew who first coined it until I tapped into the power of the Google. (That’s a capital “G”, as in deity, not “G” as in the trademarked company logo. That might be… some kind of infringement. I live in fear of infringement.)

Scout, my writing muse.

I started a new book three weeks ago and that’s what got me thinking about an expansion of Abbott’s quote. Sure, ya gotta put him up that tree, and sure, you gotta throw some projectiles, and in popular fiction, hopefully, you get him safely down out of the tree, but it’s a little more involved than that.

The Protagonist Voodoo Doll. (Poor thing.)

I started a new book three weeks ago and that’s what got me thinking about an expansion of Abbott’s quote. Sure, ya gotta put him up that tree, and sure, you gotta throw some projectiles, and in popular fiction, hopefully, you get him safely down out of the tree, but it’s a little more involved than that.

Writer, Carolyn Greene, is warm and squishy in addition to having a profound understanding of story structure. Part of her m.o. is to ask you a simple question and let you squirm until you answer it or figure out that you don’t have an answer and you need one. While whining to her about the limpid middle of whatever book I was writing at the time, Carolyn asked, “what’s your protagonist’s internal conflict?” Sure enough, I had not identified that before writing. If stories are character-driven, then knowing their internal conflict will have a profound effect on the trajectory of the story. Boom! Identify I.C. First!

But let’s take it one step further. Writer Abbie Emmons summed it up nicely in her discussion of the protagonist’s misbelief. By determining the character’s “misbelief”, it takes the internal conflict one step further to establish how the character will grow. Booya!

I work better in pictures and it’s more likely more people have seen the same movie than read the same book, so let’s do a “fer example.”

“Fer example”, let’s take the movie, BIG, with Tom Hanks. Love this movie. It’s so cleanly written. Tom Hanks’s character, Josh Baskin, thinks all of his problems could be solved if only he were big. That’s his misbelief. Over the course of the story, he grows in understanding that being BIG doesn’t matter if it’s not accompanied by maturity and that can only be achieved through life experience. The whole movie is spent showing the conflicts that arise as a result of being a child in an adult body. (Plus, I love that the inciting incident/mentor is an awesome vintage fortune-teller called Zoltar. I love creepy movie props.)

Picture
A little board art.

And that’s it in a nutshell. You figure out your character’s internal conflict by way of their misbelief and that will inform the better part of your character-driven plot.

Now, off with you. Put on a favorite movie and look for the internal conflict and the protagonist’s growth as a result of their misbelief. You won’t be disappointed… and you’ll never watch a movie in the same way.

Make some art. Write some words!
And if you are so inclined and would like to be informed of the release of my next book, feel free to contact me for inclusion in the notifications and other special stuff.

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