It's called SWBS, and while in this form it looks like you're cussing someone out online, it's actually very practical.
Somebody Wants But So
I know that I'm usually not a great advocate for formulas, and while I don't actively create these charts for myself, the basis of what this chart stands for is something that I strongly believe in and always try to replicate in my own story writing. Like all tools, use them to get you started, and then you can adjust and adapt from there until you've got a rhythm of your own.
I bring this one up now because if you remember last week's post, you'll note how my writer examples struggled with deciding which characters to develop.
This was the advice I gave to one of the authors. Yes, only one, because only one needed a tool to start with, the other needed to purge her toolbox!
I'm going to lay it out the way that I told this writer to use it, which means that she already had a draft written and her first issue that we are trying to resolve is maintaining a plot with an ensemble of characters.
I am a character-driven writer. These writers that I've been helping have read some of my work so they know what my style is. They in turn can take my advice with however big a grain of salt they wish. But as a reader, I also lean towards characters over plot, so that's the direction that this particular tool leans to as well.
Let us begin!
First you are going to take a large piece of paper (or word processor document) and divide it up into 4 columns.
At the top of the first column, you are going to write Somebody. From this point forward, as you read your draft, every single character name you come across is going to be listed in this column. Do this part first! Fill it all in!
Second you are going to fulfill the remaining column headers. This is where the digital version might be easier. Otherwise, prepare to write small.
2nd column is called Wants
3rd column is called But
4th column is called So
If you haven't guessed yet, this chart is going to help you pin point character motivation.
So let's start with an example:
We see here that each category has been filled-in in relation to one particular aspect of our character in this story:
Somebody: Harry Potter
Wants: In this scene, Harry Potter has only one desire that's driving him into action. The thing that he wants most in this moment is his mail! (This can all change later, and I'll show you when we get there!)
But: The thing that is keeping Harry Potter from getting the thing that he wants most, is his Uncle Vernon who continuously finds ways to destroy his mail before he can ever open them!
So: What Harry does about it. In this case, he can do nothing. He has yet to learn that he has any power over his terrible uncle and so he must remain sad and helpless - until another catalyst comes into play (but we'll get to that later).
So to recap:
Somebody: your character
Wants: What that character wants
But: The thing that is keeping your character from what he/she wants
So: What they can/can't do about it.
I chose the above example because your character might not always be able to attain what he/she wants, so don't feel bad if your So doesn't actually resolve the issue.
What you'll notice as you start to chart out the things that your characters want, is how essential these desires are, as well as the consequences of not having these things. If it's a minor detail, like Harry not getting his mail, you may not have much more to develop on that point. At least, from that character's perspective.
Watch as I move on from Harry, and this same scenario suddenly gets a little more complex:
You'll notice that I've had to go back and forth with my But So categories.
It's alright if you're giggling now. I've been using/explaining this chart for years and I still feel silly for constantly saying "but".
Now that we've got some back and forth action in place in our chart, we can see how much more essential this character and his motivations are. If we were to just leave it here, it looks like Uncle Vernon is our lead and Harry Potter just a supporting character, but as we all know, Harry's desire to have his mail is just one small thing in a long list of desires that crop up in his story. This is because it all comes down to the importance of each desire.
In the grand scheme of things, Harry's mail has nothing to do with Harry so much as it does the secret that his Uncle has been keeping.
This may seem backwards since we're doing this from an already-made draft perspective, but if you're plotting out your story from scratch, you will probably be starting with the BIG PICTURE.
The BIG PICTURE is the deepest-inner most desire.
So for Uncle Vernon, we know that the reason he wants to keep Hogwarts a secret is because he has a fear and distrust of magic paired with his wife's own jealousy. If we started from here, we'd be going back and forth with our But So for pages as we cross the entire 7 book series!
And Harry? What is the driving force for Harry Potter over these 7 books?
Happiness. And for Harry, happiness comes in the form of friendship and love, that's why he will often meet road-blocks that he cannot overcome on his own. His So's will seemingly be dead-ends until another character steps in.
This is where you will discover who your main players are. If Harry Potter is your intended lead, then his greatest desire should be the centerfold of your plotline. Even if it isn't his intention to follow it.
For example, Bilbo Baggins just Wants a normal average life, But a wizard comes along offering an adventure So he refuses it, But dwarves show up believing that he's already signed-up for the mission, So Bilbo gets peer-pressured into becoming a burglar.
From this point on, Bilbo will be fluctuating from his initial desire to not have adventures, to satiating that little bit of curiosity that he has in him, to being loyal to his newfound friends.
Whatever it is that gets your lead going, that's your plot. The characters who intersect those needs, for better or worse, are your supporters. Those that share most of that plotline journey, may in fact be co-leads, so your villain should pop up in this category if you've given them a reason for their desires to collide.
Uncle Vernon is support. Harry cannot move forward unless his uncle gives him something to react to.
Hagrid is support. Harry cannot move forward unless Hagrid gives him something to react to.
Dudley, as much as we love to hate him, is more prop than person. And that's okay. It doesn't really matter if he's the favourite son, the prize poodle, or a highly sensitive cactus. This SWBS should tell us as much as Dudley focuses on being the star of his own adventure. He may occasionally be afraid of Harry, but his real desires have nothing to do with Harry. While Harry is at Hogwarts, Dudley doesn't even have to think about Harry. Harry is Dudley's setbacks, at least some of them, but their narratives don't really intersect meaningfully.
Draco Malfoy trumps Dudley as the bully. Draco's desires are actually not that different from Harry's, and their rises and falls are pretty intertwined.
So, if you're reading along with your manuscript, and you find that a lot of your chapters revolve around your Dudley, you need to really step back and think about what you're doing with your story. Maybe Harry Potter isn't the lead you thought he was going to be. Maybe your Harry Potter stops with his mail.
Whoever is having the adventure, that's who you're writing about. It sounds obvious I know, but if you're struggling with perspective and making your characters relevant to each other, use the chart! Find where But So's intersect with one another.
And unless you're planning on writing a super long epic to rival George R.R. Martin, limit your leads. (I for one do not want to start charting A Song of Ice and Fire). Because in order to really be a lead, they will need to have a sophisticated repeating But So exchange, and not just as a sidekick to help your lead, that would then make them a supporting character, but an actual series of goals of their own.
Yes, series of goals!
This is another thing that will classify what type of character you have.
How essential is the Want.
Happiness. True Love. Revenge. Saving the World. These are pretty essential Wants.
Not saying that you can't base an entire novel off of wanting to get a cup of coffee. Neil Gaimen did beautifully with Fortunately, the Milk which was all about, as you might have guessed, bringing home milk. The point is that it has to be the most important thing to your lead character. If it isn't, then that's not the story you should be telling, that's a subplot.
What is subplot? It's the other thing that your lead wants in reaction to events.
Harry Potter still wants happiness, and when he sees a letter addressed to him for the very first time, all he wants is that letter, not because it's more important to him than happiness, but because of the possibility that happiness might be attached to it. Someone thought about him enough to personally address an envelope to him. And while the rest of us would dismiss personally addressed envelops as a bill or jury duty, a little recognition is enough to feel world-changing to that little boy. To him, that letter is a big deal, even before he knows that it will change his life, he just wants to be acknowledged, accepted, and, if someone could spare it, loved.
Every interaction that Harry has after that letter fuels him for a new direction, a new desire.
Subplot one: discover the secret
Subplot two: learn about parents and try to be like them
Subplot three: be better than the Durlseys (why he won't befriend Draco in Slytherin, remember?)
Subplot four: help those he cares about
This isn't all of them. And as you know they'll get more specific as each occasion arises. And when you're writing, it can be quite tempting to follow each of these little mini adventures regardless of where they take you. But never forget your plotline. Always ask yourself how this desire relates to the BIG PICTURE.
Harry Potter sits in front of the Mirror of ERISED because it makes him feel close to his parents. If that's where JK left it, I would have advised her to cut the scene out entirely, but it serves a greater purpose, doesn't it? Not only is it a platform for character development for both Harry and Dumbledor, but it gives us the tool necessary for Harry to save Hogwarts, to save everything and everyone that makes him happy.
Scene, Subplot, Plot.
I know that this was a long post, and I may have ended up causing more confusion with my chosen examples than I've helped with, but at least you still have the chart. Use the chart. Trust the chart. And when you've seen where your characters are going, you'll have a better sense of how to push them where you intended them to go - or, as I usually find, you'll discover the story that you didn't even know you were telling!