The Dangling Carrot and Character Development

I ran this post last year, and I thought I’d run it again, since I’m giving this seminar at the Florida Writer’s Conference this weekend.

Since we specialize memoir/biography, I am regularly humbled by people’s experiences and how they had to dig deep to overcome whatever experiences unexpectedly entered their lives. It’s like the Cosmic Muffin looked down and said, “Ok, see that huge pile of goo I just dumped in your lap? Deal with it.”

We never really know what we’re made of until we face that pile of goo. Some people fold like a bad poker hand, and others rise to the occasion and become better/stronger/more thoughtful people for their experiences. These kinds of people don’t know they have the strength within them until they are tested to the limits. Many of have to gain those abilities along the way in order to overcome or push through their experience. Hardship and challenges are the great separator of the wheat and chaff. I love hearing the “wheat” stories.

I thought about those elements that make for great nonfiction and how they play into the character development of fiction. We all know that characters are the vehicles used to unfold the plot, so it goes to reason that these characters need to be three-dimensional in order to maintain our interest. I read a lot of manuscripts, and the biggest problem I see is with character development. They are flat, colorless things,which makes me think the author doesn’t know their characters well enough.

The Dangling Carrot may be an important feature to helping you give your characters a few extra layers and, therefore, a lot more interest and dimension. I’ve separated The Dangling Carrot into three distinct elements.

The Dangling Carrot – three part symphony

The Dangling Carrot is something waves right in front of your face, but it’s out of your reach. The harder you run to grab it, the more frustrated you become because it’s always just beyond your grasp. The only option left to you is to develop new skills in order to nab that dang carrot. You might have to test out a few ideas before you find the one that helps you achieve your goal.

So here’s how that normally plays out:

1)  Your character’s current life:  When we meet your character, he/she is rolling along with his/her life, la dee da.

2)  Holy shock, Batman!:  While your character is innocently moving through his life, something comes along to test/challenge/frighten/influence him. This event, which is your plot, dangles in front of him and upends his world.

3)  “Do I have what it takes?”:   The carrot forces your character to dig deeply into their souls to obtain/overcome/destroy/resolve the plot. The problem is the character doesn’t have the skills to overcome the obstacles facing him, and this forces him to draw upon a strength they didn’t realize they possessed. The act of denying your character of the skills in which to overcome the plot makes for a much richer story because the character is playing off the plot.

What moves the story along is the character’s journey of growth and maturation to meet this new demand because there are numerous choices the character can make that will influence the outcome.  Your character(s) has to rise to the occasion in order to achieve their goal, or they’ll fail. The lovely byproduct is that the character is changed forever, which is your “riding off into the sunset” moment, be it tragic or happy.

Even Superman has his Kryptonite, so absent the clear view of elements 1, 2, and 3, you create a disconnect that pulls your reader out of the story. I’ve found that if writers adhere to the Dangling Carrot, they are forced to delve more deeply into the psyches of their characters’ backstories. It’s an important consideration because I see far too many stories where I feel the author doesn’t really know their characters, that they sprung to life on page 1…which really isn’t the case.

Our characters have a backstory just like we do. They have baggage, fears, and Kryptonite. Your job is to have that clearly defined in your mind when you start to develop your characters. Otherwise, they could be lifeless gobs of goo that I don’t care about…the characters, that is, not the authors!

If you consider the three elements of the Dangling Carrot when you’re creating your characters and the structure of your story, it might be the difference of a ho-hum story to a “Stop the margaritas, beagle, I gotta have that story!”

One Response to The Dangling Carrot and Character Development

  1. Val says:

    Enjoyed your post. Thanks!

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