craft post by Anne-Marie Strohman
In stories, characters WANT things. The character’s pursuit of this desire drives the story, typically the external arc of the story. This external desire works best if it’s something concrete–something specific that will tell us when the character has accomplished their goal. So, for instance, a character who wants to prove that she is a great singer might have the goal of winning a TV singing contest. If she wins, we’ll know she achieved it.
But sometimes in planning a story, you might find that the character’s desire is a little more abstract, or that their desire isn’t really something they can affect.
There is a solution: a controlling belief.
Controlling Belief: A Definition
The term “controlling belief” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “misbelief,” but I’m using it in a slightly different way. A “misbelief,” according to Lisa Cron in Story Genius is a belief the character has about the way the world works or about themselves that is mistaken. It often is generated in their youth and is reinforced at various points of their life. The story, then, is the movement of the character from this misbelief to a new understanding about themselves or the world. This concept focuses on the character’s internal arc.
I’m using the term “controlling belief” in relation to the external arc. It’s the way a character is convinced they will be able to achieve their goal, especially a squishy goal, or one where the typical approach to the goal would be boring on the page.
Let’s look at a few examples:
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
When You Trap a Tiger is the story of almost-seventh grader Lily, who moves with her mom and sister from California to Washington state to live with her grandma. It turns out Lily’s grandmother is dying. Lily’s desire is for her grandma to live.
It’s unrealistic for a pre-teen kid to be able to make her grandmother well, and the story of how people recover from cancer, if they do, involves a lot of medical appointments and treatments. Not typically something that could successfully fill the bulk of a middle grade novel. And the medical approach wouldn’t be something Lily would have much say in anyway.
So Keller gives Lily a controlling belief.
In the first chapter, as Lily’s family drives toward her halmoni’s (grandma’s) house, Lily sees a giant tiger in the road, one that her sister and mom can’t see at all. After a couple more encounters with the tiger and through the retelling of Korean folktales her grandmother has told her, she comes to believe that if she traps the tiger, and if she returns to the tiger stars that her grandmother has trapped in jars, her grandmother will be saved.
This controlling belief gives Lily agency–an active way to pursue her goal. She longs for her grandmother to be well, and she can actively work to trap the tiger in order to make that happen.
Calvin by Martine Leavitt
I first learned this version of controlling belief from a workshop I took with Martine Leavitt, and her book Calvin is a clear example of the technique.
Calvin is about a seventeen-year-old boy named Calvin who suffers from schizophrenia. He so associates himself with the comic strip Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) that he comes to believe that if the comic’s creator Bill Watterson writes another comic about the comic-book Calvin when he’s seventeen, with no Hobbes, that our protagonist Calvin will be cured of his mental illness–the Hobbes he’s hallucinating will disappear.
His desire is to be well. His controlling belief is that this new panel of the comic will give him permission to be well, or heal him, or something of that nature. Getting Bill Watterson to draw the comic becomes his concrete goal.
In order to accomplish this goal, he decides to go on a pilgrimage from the hospital where he is in Canada across an iced-over Lake Erie to find Watterson in his hometown of Cleveland. This journey provides a compelling narrative–unlike days of therapy and meds might.
In my own work
I’ve been working on a novel about a sixteen-year-old pianist who wants to win a music competition at an arts summer camp he’s attending. He has a clear goal–win the prize. But I ran into problems when I tried to follow his arc toward winning the prize: he has to practice a lot. I’ve figured out a lot of ways to describe music with words, but no one wants to read about endless practice sessions for pages and pages.
Martine and her controlling idea came to the rescue!
Through a freewriting exercise, I came to the idea that my protagonist is so committed to winning that he’ll become a monk if he has to. Martine pointed out that that’s a controlling belief.
Within a very social setting, my protagonist attempts to create a life of isolation that he believes will be the path to achieving his goal. Now instead of endless pages of practicing, I can show my protagonist being proactive about controlling his environment and contacts with others, and having those attempts be frustrated by other characters.
It’s just a slight shift of focus, but that slight shift can take what would be a very boring novel and turn it into something with conflict, tension, and a clear desire line.
Now it’s your turn!
- Identify your main character’s desire. What do they want? How will they get it?
- If the desire is abstract, what’s something concrete that will show they’ve achieved it?
- If you can’t come up with anything, consider a controlling belief. What could the character believe would solve their problem or accomplish their goal?
- If the path to achieve the desire is clear but boring, consider a controlling belief. What do they believe is the way to solve the problem or accomplish the goal?
Remember, the controlling belief should be concrete and give the protagonist agency. Also, it’s a great opportunity to be creative, to use magical elements or magical thinking–the sky’s the limit. It doesn’t have to be something that would really work to solve the problem; the character only has to believe it will. If your character believes it, your readers will too.
Check out these KidLit Craft posts on internal and external character arcs:
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.