At the outset of any good story, we meet our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs, the inciting incident.
The inciting incident:
- Happens to your protagonist
- Disrupts your protagonist’s life
- Is personal to your protagonist
- Gives the protagonist an objective/quest
The hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation, which is the core idea of your plot. This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story. The circumstance forces an objective upon the main character.
In the opening pages of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a respectable hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is living a comfortable life in a prosperous, sheltered village, and has no desire to change that in any way. However, a casual, polite greeting made to a passing wizard sets a string of events into motion that will eventually change the course of history for the world of Middle Earth.
The wizard, Gandalf, tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon, Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition’s “burglar.”
The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo becomes a little indignant and agrees to do it despite his misgivings. The next morning he has second thoughts, but at the last moment Bilbo literally runs out the door with nothing but the clothes on his back.
- You must have a strong, unavoidable event that is your inciting incident. Ask yourself:
- What is the hero’s personal strength and health at the beginning?
- How will his physical and emotional condition be changed, both for better or worse? Will these changes be triggered by the hero himself or by the antagonist?
- What could possibly entice the hero out of his comfort zone?
Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: Objective
A protagonist has no business showing up on the page unless he/she has a compelling objective. If he doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.
Bilbo does have an objective. Once he gets past his feeling of having made a terrible mistake, he desires nothing more than to help his friends achieve their goal: that of regaining their lost kingdom.
Gandalf exerts a parental influence over Bilbo at the outset, guiding him and pushing him out of his comfortable existence. But it is Bilbo who has common sense and compassion, who gradually takes over leadership of the party, guiding and rescuing them from their own greedy mistakes. This is a fact the dwarves can’t bear to acknowledge, and a fact he doesn’t realize himself.
Those turning points where with each adventure Bilbo gains confidence and a tool or weapon he will later need are what make up the best parts of the adventure. That is what you must inject into your story, be it a contemporary drama, an urban fantasy, a bedroom farce, or science fiction.
- At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
- How badly does he want it and why?
- What moral (or immoral) choice is he going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
Perhaps your tale is set on a space station. What does your protagonist need that is in short supply? What does he have to do to get it?
Perhaps you are writing an urban fantasy. Perhaps your main character is a vampire. Vampires requires sustenance–what will she do to get it? Or conversely, if a human, what will she do to avoid becoming vampire-food?
Protagonists begin their tale in their current surroundings. They are thrown out of their comfortable existence by circumstances and forced to identify objectives they must achieve or acquire to resolve their situation.
Thus, whichever you conceive first, characters or objective, you need to know why your character is willing to leave his circumstances and embark on his adventure. That objective must be compelling enough for him to risk everything he values to achieve it.
But what if a side character has such a compelling story that the book becomes his story and is no longer about our hobbit? If you notice that is the case, rewrite your book so that the character with the most compelling story is the protagonist from page one.
The potential for gain must outweigh the potential for loss. The stakes must be high: perhaps they are headed into a life and death situation, or a couple finds their marriage on the rocks. Perhaps a young woman stands to lose her wealth and security. These are good core circumstances for plots, but for me, the greatest risk a hero faces is in moral coin. This is because personal values are fundamental to who we are as individuals, and when those intrinsic values are threatened, the risk is emotionally charged.
Emotionally charged stories are powerful. Objectives create risk. Without great risk and potential for gain, there is no story.