Creating interesting characters and defining the ‘golden thread’

The wonderful thing about being a writer and an illustrator is that you get to play with ideas in a very visual sense before you commit to anything with the keyboard.

As an illustrator I love to create characters. Characters that have a story within themselves are the most interesting characters to create and lend themselves to the most interesting stories.

I love to see a strong character curve. For example, a young farm hand dreams of adventure but feels like there is no escape until one day is hand is forced; imperial troops destroy his homestead and murder his family.

I tend to enjoy the concept of immediately placing my protagonist on the back foot. Perhaps they are painfully shy, unadventurous or even disabled. Something for them to overcome themselves before they can entertain achieving their goals and ambitions.

It’s often fun to hurl a character into a scenario and have them deal with it. But this is an approach that I feel you have to be careful with. Whilst it can be exciting to explore as your protagonist explores it can also lead to issues with crafting deeper challenges or tying up loose ends. You just have to be organised and think several steps ahead.

For me it’s far more efficient to establish a few of the protagonist’s goals before they pass through that Inciting Incident.
That way I can plan a good deal more and importantly place those plans into the mind of the reader. It presents a thread (a golden thread, if you will) to the reader which they can follow and will hopefully keep them tuned into the story. Everything that happens in the story hearts back to this golden thread.

the golden thread

The Golden Story Thread

In the diagram you can see that my golden thread is consistent. This is my protagonist’s primary goal.
The black line is the protagonist’s journey toward that goal.
Finally, the red line is what I call the visibility line. The closer the black line (the hero’s journey) gets to the red line, the less visible the golden thread becomes.

You can see that the journey starts off with good visibility and then around a third the way through something happens. Something that places the hero right on track to achieve his goal.

In screen writing terms this is often referred to as the Inciting Incident. That one moment that takes my hero out of his normal life and thrusts them into new and unchartered territory. Literally, in most cases.

You can see that the hero has clear sight of his goal but around half way he suffers a setback. Something pulls him away from his goal and he loses that clarity of the thread. He’s been tested!
A little while later when it looks as though he’s getting back on track he’s tested again. At this point it takes iron will to get over the line.

I often think of the questions that readers may ask themselves.

Why am I still reading this?
What is the point?
Who am I rooting for?

These are great questions to ponder when you’re reading a book or even watching a film. It really helps to have that thread that you keep a hold of throughout the story. No matter where the story takes you, you still have that golden thread which is essentially pulling you through the adventure and you know will lead you to the finale.
Everything in the story is designed to lead you back to that thread.
Clever writers (far more clever than me) are able to wander so far off the path that the thread completely disappears from view for some time, and then, with cleverly crafted prose, you’re right back holding onto that thread.

Yeah, yeah. But what is this golden thread, I hear you ask?
I guess for me it’s the protagonist’s primary goal. It’s what she really wants to achieve, what she’s always wanted to achieve and what we the reader are rooting for her to achieve. We want her to succeed but dramatic structure dictates that she must first be challenged. We cannot simply hand her her goals on a plate.
There will be times when that thread appears to break or vanish completely. We assume all is lost. But then, somehow, she picks that thread up again and motors on.

I want to focus a little more in future posts on stepping outside of my comfort zone as a writer. I’ll be looking at fiction for 8 – 11 year olds specifically and trying to figure out some useful techniques for crafting rich stories that never lose sight of that thread.

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