In my post, “How writers can use the psychology of motivation to create believable characters,” I explain the 18 steps every real-life human being follows when choosing and accomplishing a goal. Here, I boil those down to 12 simple steps for you to use in your stories to make sure your character’s actions are logical and believable.
- State the hero’s need.
In order for a hero’s actions to be logical, they must be done in pursuit of obtaining an incentive that will satisfy an unfulfilled need. So the first step is to state or illustrate the hero’s need.
- State the stakes of completing/failing to fulfill the need.
If a hero has a goal but no reason to accomplish the goal, then his actions will only be half-logical. The more clearly the audience understands the hero’s motive, the more reason they have to care if he accomplishes his goal. The less they understand his motive, the more distracted they’ll be trying to figure out why the hero is doing anything. The more poignant the hero’s motive, the more poignant the story will be to the audience. The less poignant the hero’s motive, the less reason the audience will have to finish watching or reading the hero’s story.
The reason the hero wants to accomplish his goal is because there are stakes at risk. If he succeeds, something good will happen. If he fails, something bad will happen. Since there are foreseeable good and bad consequences, the hero could literally write down the cost/benefit analysis of trying to accomplish his goal and come to the logical conclusion that he must take action. It could be patronizing to the audience to have the hero spell out his motives so explicitly, but the audience does need to know the consequences of both success and failure to fully understand the hero’s behavior.
When brainstorming the stakes in your story, bear in mind that the stakes will define the hero’s character. Whether the author intends it or not, the fact that the hero cares about the stakes, says something about his internal character. If you use the most exciting stakes you can brainstorm, it will make the hero seem like an exciting person. The more you personalize the stakes to the hero, the more depth the hero’s character, and his relationship to the story, will have.
- State the condition of fulfilling the need.
The fact that the hero has an unfulfilled need, implies that he must do something to satisfy it. If he didn’t have to do anything, then that would imply it’s already satisfied, unimportant or absurd.
The thing the hero must do to get the incentive is the condition (aka, goal). One condition/goal can have multiple conditions. The hero can learn all the conditions at the beginning of the story or along the way. If/when the hero doesn’t know his goal’s conditions, his immediate goal can be to learn them.
- State the hero’s decision to fulfill the conditions.
If the audience doesn’t witness the hero consciously decide to engage in his quest, then his behavior will appear random. When the hero chooses to commit to accomplishing a goal, he takes ownership of his quest. Plus, when he states what he’s about to do and why, the audience can follow the story.
- State the hero’s plan to achieve his ultimate goal.
After the hero has stated his goal and the condition to complete it, but before he takes action, he must decide what action to take. He must have a plan. The more clearly the plan is stated, the easier it is to follow the story.
Children’s stories state the hero’s plan almost every step of the way so children don’t get confused, but adults find this patronizing . They can easily follow the plot if the hero’s plans are implied.
The hero should state his plan for his major goals, but the audience doesn’t always have to know what the hero intends to do before he does it, especially when he’s completing minor goals. If the plan isn’t stated, as long as his behavior is within his character, the audience will accept the hero’s unexplained behavior as natural.
- The hero enacts his plan to meet the condition.
Once the hero knows what he wants to do, the next step is to do it. If he does anything between the time he formulates his plan and acts on it, he’s wandering around aimlessly. He might have an interesting adventure, but the story won’t move forward until he gets back to his plan, and a tightly written story is always moving forward.
- The hero encounters an obstacle or complication.
Technically, it would make a logical, coherent story if the hero decides to do something, does it and succeeds. Psychologically, though, that’s not very interesting. An enthralling story needs tension, and tension comes from the fear the hero won’t succeed.
So, the hero must encounter something at odds with him achieving his goal. Since a hero is measured by the quality of his opponents, the hero should encounter poignant ones that are tailored to reflect and draw out his character.
Whatever stands between the hero and his goal must have a logical reason to be there. Surprises are great, but the less relevant they are to the story, the more absurd your story will be.
The obstacle must have a conflict of interest with the hero achieving his goal. If the problem is a person, they will have a reason why they would benefit from the hero failing and lose something they value if the hero succeeds.
If the obstacle is inanimate, then its existence is the worst-case scenario God or the universe could put in front of the hero to prevent him from achieving his goal. It helps to imagine that “God” is the antagonist, and God has a conflict of interest with the hero achieving his goal. So God keeps putting worst-case scenario obstacles and complications in the hero’s path.
- The hero reacts and adapts to the obstacle or complication
The obstacle will require the hero to perform an action to neutralize it. The hero can use one of his signature moves and neutralize minor opponents directly and immediately, but his major goals will need more eloquent problems and solutions.
- The hero fulfills the condition of the need.
Ultimately, the hero will either succeed or fail to fulfill the condition/s of his ultimate need. The only question is how many conditional steps he has to accomplish along the way.
- The hero attains the incentive.
The act of the hero accomplishing his goal is the catalyst of a cause/effect reaction that manifests the incentive that will satisfy his need. In other words, he gets the prize.
- The repercussion
The premise of the whole story is that something good would happen if the hero satisfies his need, and something bad would happen if he didn’t. Whenever a hero accomplishes a minor goal, the repercussions of that accomplishment will determine what he does next. In the second to last scene of the movie, the audience sees the repercussions of the hero fulfilling his ultimate need.
- The sunset
After the hero fulfills his need and experiences the repercussions, the story still begs the question, what does the future hold for the hero? What’s the hero’s next goal? The beginning of each beat is the sunset of the previous beat, and the last scene is the final sunset of the story.
Technically, a story doesn’t have to include steps 10-12 at the end of the story, but the whole story has been a stick and carrot leading up to this point. The author practically promised it, and the audience will be insulted and let down if they don’t get what they expected. You’re really not being clever by ending a story abruptly.