Let’s start with the basics. What is Newton’s First Law? It could be stated like this: A body at rest stays at rest, and a body in motion carries on in the same speed and direction—unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
In WriterSpeak, we might say that a character “at rest” (or in motion) will remain “at rest” (or in motion) until acted upon by an outside force.
Let’s explore this analogy further…
At the beginning of each story, the main characters are living out their lives. They may not be physically resting (i.e., inactive / external rest). They may not even be at peace with their life (i.e., contented / internal rest). But they’re not yet motivated to stray from their everyday course…
UNTIL an outside force (likely caused—directly or indirectly—by the antagonist) sets off the central conflict that forces the protagonist to change plans. The initial force permanently alters the hero’s course and initiates his mission against the enemy.
But what does that mean?
The phrase “outside force” speaks of the external nature of the dilemma. This isn’t mere angst over some long-standing issue, but rather an unexpected plot event that presents a new challenge. The outside force is also important in terms of cause & effect. That is to say, realistic characters won’t drastically change course without good reason. The hero only acts in response to the proper motivation.
For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke discovers a secret SOS in a droid his uncle recently purchased. After Old Ben thwarts the sand people’s attack, Luke mentions the message—then declines when Ben invites him on his quest. Why?
Because Luke is not yet motivated enough to go to Alderaan. He has plans in the works he’s not ready to scrap, even if they happen to spring from a sense of obligation toward his uncle. Sure, the plot would’ve been easier to write if Luke had just said,“Sure, why not?” But his motivation throughout the rest of the story would’ve suffered as a result.
The point is this: Luke doesn’t/shouldn’t decide to change his plans on a whim. And so, at this particular point in time, he realistically rejects the journey.
Whatever story you’re writing, it’s just about guaranteed to involve some kind of literal or figurative journey—one your hero would rather avoid. We’ve already seen Luke reject his mission. But what finally gets him involved? In generalized terms, why don’t our heroes perpetually turn and run when the going gets tough? Because the outside force imposes a situation he can’t ignore, thereby forcing the choice that propels him on his journey.
The first set of key words here is “he can’t ignore.” Why doesn’t the character just walk away? Because too much is at stake—and not in a purely altruistic way. Whatever it is that’s gotten your hero’s attention, it’s personal. Sure, in the beginning he might’ve said, “It’s not that I like the Empire. I hate it. But there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” But then the antagonist hits him where it hurts and he makes a choice: “There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”
That choice always leads to action and thereby alter’s the hero’s course.
Examples from Film
Consider the change of course for the characters in each of the movies listed below, and ponder this question: Would the character have made his or her decision if not for the pressure exerted by the “outside force”? Also, see if you can identify the personal stakes for each character (easier for some than others).
EXAMPLE 1: The Hunger Games
Character Status Quo: Go hunting. Feed family. Don’t starve. Outside Force (External Events): Little sister’s name is drawn as tribute for the Hunger Games. Character Decision: Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.
EXAMPLE 2: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
This particular example is complicated by multiple characters, each with their own interacting decisions. It also involves a complex series of forces that thrust the Pevensies on their journey. As such, this particular film is a good example of how the motivational transition that turns apathy into action isn’t always a straightforward singular event.
Character Status Quo: Boredom in the Professor’s mansion. No one expects good from Edmund. Intermediate happenings: During a game of hide and seek, Lucy discovers the wardrobe portal. No one believes her. Edmund follows her in one night and meets the White Witch, who deceives him with flattery. (He thinks that she, unlike his siblings, sees his value.)
Series of forces and Decisions leading up to the journey: Edmund sends a ball through the upstairs window. Mrs. Macready’s offstage shrieks send the Pevensies running for the wardrobe. The two elder Pevensies are wowed by the snowy world within, and Peter—after calling Edmund out for lying—apologizes to Lucy by indulging her desires to visit Mr. Tumnus. There they learn the White Witch has captured Mr. Tumnus. Though Lucy is personally invested in what happened to Mr. Tumnus, Peter is not. He’s preparing to get his family safely back through the wardrobe when Mr. Beaver shows up. Warned about the trees, they reluctantly follow Mr. Beaver back to his house where he and the missus explain the perpetual winter and the prophecy.
Note: If the external forces had stopped here, the Pevensies would’ve had no reason to stay in Narina. They’ve learned about the prophecy, but they have no personal motivation to help fulfill it… Until…
Character Decision: Edmund—motivated by Turkish Delight and his underlying need for approval—sneaks away to see the White Witch. His decision serves as the Outside Force that shoves his siblings on their journey to find Aslan and thereby save Edmund’s life (Decision).
EXAMPLE 3: The Lord of the Rings
Character Status Quo: Enjoying a simple life in the Shire. Avoiding adventure. Outside Force (External Events): Frodo inherits the ring of power and Ring Wraiths are headed their way. Character Decision: Deliver the ring to Rivendale in the hopes of dumping the dreaded relic on the elves.
EXAMPLE 4: Star Wars: A New Hope
Character Status Quo: Working for his Uncle. Apathy regarding the Empire. Outside Force (External Events): By chance, Luke’s uncle purchases the very droids the Empire is seeking, Luke discovers Leia’s hidden message, and his Aunt and Uncle are murdered. Character Decision: Go with Obi-wan, learn the ways of the force, “and become a Jedi like my father” (but not too much like his father, we hope).
So, a heroine at rest tends to stay at rest—indulging the same old habits and plodding along in the same direction as before—until derailed by an outside force. That force is external, personal to the protagonist, and eventually leads to the key decision that cements her new course.
What do you think? In your own WIP, what external force of change begins your hero’s journey? What about the protagonist in your favorite novel? Can you think of any stories that don’t meet these qualifications? For a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel, simply join the discussion below (and drop your email here for the draw.)
Come back next week to peruse the next article in this series: Story Physics, Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s second law.