This is part of a six-part series on characters that I'm doing. You can find the other parts here:
~Character is destiny, part 1: The Edward/Bella dilemma.
~Character is destiny, part 2: The Character Store
~Character is destiny, part 3: Character Store, cont.
~Character is destiny, part 5: Building a villain
~Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman
Catalyst: a substance that initiates or accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being affected.
Some of you right now are reading the title of this post and scratching your heads. Why am I talking about catalysts in a post about characters? Aren't catalysts, or inciting incidents, as some people call them, part of the plot?
But in fiction, as in real life, incidents don't just HAPPEN. People make them happen. Sometimes a lot of people make something happen, sometimes it only takes one. And even when an incident can be classified as an Act of God, the effect of the incident depends on the people involved.
To use a recent example: An earthquake in a desperately poor country like Haiti will have a different effect than one that strikes New York or LA, because the people and culture involved are different.
Remember in the first post of the series when I asked you "Who has the power?" Well, figuring out which of your characters is the catalyst is a good way to find out who has the power. Or to give power to a character that needs it.
You can have more than one catalyst in a story, in fact, most stories have at least two. In the movie, The Mummy, the catalyst for the main conflict is when Evelyn reads from the Book of the Dead and releases the mummy. But the catalyst, or inciting incident for the story itself, is when Johnathon, (her brother, and the Trickster character in the story) gives her a puzzle box he stole off a drunk.
Johnathan is mostly comic relief for the rest of the story, but the fact that HE was the one who started the whole thing off gives his character substance. And since it was Evie who awoke the Mummy, it gives her an incentive to face off against an ancient evil instead of running away. (Evie needs that piece of motivation to be plausible because she is a somewhat clumsy Intellectual character and not a person of action.)
In many good vs. evil stories, the catalysts are shared between the protagonist and the antagonist. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron's rise to power is a catalyst in and of itself. But Bilbo Baggins's accidental finding of a magic ring in The Hobbit, and later giving it to Frodo, is also a catalyst. And one that will ultimately prove to be Sauron's undoing.
This dynamic is extremely common with murder mysteries, and suspense. Because the antagonist gets the first catalyst (usually a murder or explosion), they're instantly set up as powerful characters. The protagonist's decision to chase the enemy is the catalyst that draws us into the conflict.
Finding those catalyst moments can also be a good way to solve the problem of passive or helpless characters.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets a catalyst moment, when the council decides that the only way to destroy the ring is to drop it in the fires of Mordor. The members fall to arguing over who will take the ring, and Frodo, the least powerful character in the group, stands up and volunteers.
This is a character who has spent most of the first part of the movie running away, and much of the latter part being protected by others. But because he's the one who volunteered at that critical moment, he retains his power, and when he decides to go off on his own at the end of the movie, we believe it.
Any thoughts? Can you think of other uses for characters and catalysts?