Every extraordinary adventure requires an extraordinary catalyst. If the hero is about to depart for a months-long adventure to destroy an ancient and powerful ring that an ancient and malign dark lord wants to get his hands on, he needs to have a reason that is compelling enough for him to do such a thing.
Now, when it comes to inciting incidents, there are three kinds of main characters: Content, Restless, Sworn, or Afraid. To determine the type of incident you need, and the compulsion of such an event, you need to size up your main character. The inciting incident must be tailor-made to the needs of your main character.
The first kind of character is Content. This is a character who is perfectly content in his worldly goods and circumstances, and doesn’t want to go anywhere or do anything unexpected. There has to be a strong motivation for this kind of character to do anything spectacular, because they would refuse to go on a quest if asked.
The latter kind of character is Restless. This character can’t wait to explore the world beyond, to live an adventurer’s life. However, this character needs an inciting incident as well, even though they’re already itching to get somewhere. Granted, it’s easier to motivate this kind of character and you can do that in different ways, but I’ll touch on that again in a moment.
Sworn is a kind of character that has an oath or compulsion to stay home, and this is their main reason for not going on an adventure. They may want to, they may not want to, but neither of those are their primary reason. It doesn’t have to be a specific oath, either. It can just be that the heroine has to take care of her old, sickly grandmother because no one else will.
The last kind of main character is Afraid. Granted, this isn’t much of a hero to start with, but often this kind of main character’s arc includes them becoming less and less of a coward until they become the true hero that you’re glad to cheer on. Notwithstanding, this character requires the most motivation.
The primary example of a content hero is Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit. He doesn’t want to leave his comfortable home and go reclaim lost treasure–that ism not at first. We learn that he really was suffering from Disney Princess Syndrome when he was a child (the urge to go out and find an adventure) and that the “Took” side of his ancestry caused an internal struggle within him. Eventually, once he had the taste of adventure when the dwarves came to his house, he couldn’t let it alone. The allure of adventure was just too much for him. The carrot was too tantalizing, the apple too shiny. That’s why he left to go reclaim the dwarves’ lost gold.
There are plenty of restless main characters out there, and the condition is commonly referred to Disney Princess Syndrome (as I mentioned before, it’s a boredom with one’s present life and the urge for something new and exciting). Probably my best example would be Luke Skywalker from Star Wars (all Disney princesses notwithstanding, that is), as Luke is eager to leave the farm and go to the academy. However, when the adventure comes to him, he chickens out and refuses, only to come home and find that his aunt and uncle were killed. Thus he is motivated.
Sworn main characters are less of a type of character and more of a subtype. Usually an oath, compulsion, or duty is a cover for the real reason (which often is that the main character is scared), because the hero hasn’t grown enough to recognize that some things are more important than their personal vows. A good example of this is Rand al’Thor from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: when Moiraine tries to compel him to go, he cites that he has to stay and help his father recover from his wounds.
Scared main characters are simple: they’re just afraid of what it takes to go on an adventure. There’ll be lions, tigers, and bears, and your hero will shake in his boots when reminded of it. However, since cowardice is a vice, you’ve got to find some way to send your hero on the journey anyway, and becoming a true hero will be part of their character arc.
Now, why did I mention all of that? The Inciting Incident has to be tailored to the weaknesses of your main character: if he’s content, stop at nothing until he’s malcontented with his circumstances. If he’s restless, give him the juiciest adventure that he’s always wanted. If he’s bound by oath, have some terrible calamity break the oath or compulsion. If he’s afraid, have his fear turned inwards at the rest of his dwelling.
I have a few more notes on inciting incidents, as I’d like to cover the subject extensively. Another trait that your inciting incident is that it’s irresistible for one reason or another. You could make it too tempting to resist. You could make the alternative death and destruction. You could simply pose it as the only option when all others have been eliminated. Remember: an unsatisfying inciting incident relies on the excuse “but the story must go this way!”. Tailor the circumstances to fit the reason, not the reason to fit the circumstances.
A common course of action that writers often do is to make the inciting incident explosive and dangerous. This is an excellent choice for an inciting incident, as it effectively burns the bridges that would lead to “the good ‘ole days” and keeps the main character from slipping back into mediocrity.
Good luck, and happy writing!
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