How to Write Likable Heroes

Likable HeroesIn his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hague, emphasises the need to make our heroes likable in order to create audience and reader identification.

Likable heroes make for more successful films and novels. A consistently repellent, unlikable hero is almost a contradiction in terms and usually accounts for the failure of a film at the box office.

Likable Heroes

Here are three simple but effective ways to achieve likable heroes:

Make your hero a kind, good person, as with the heroes in Norma Ray, or Crimes of the Heart.
Make the hero funny and entertaining, as in Beverly Hills Cop, or Lost in America.
Make the hero tough, or good at what he does, as in Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon.

Using one or more of these traits (preferably all three) will make your hero more sympathetic and engaging – vital steps in creating identification with the audience.

Additionally, be sure to establish these positive traits as soon as possible – especially if you are dealing with complex, flawed characters. Only after you have created identification can you begin to reveal their inherent flaws. Once we begin to root for our hero, we are likely to continue to do so, no matter what imperfections we spot in him later on.

Summary

Ensure the heroes in your screenplays and novels display some likable traits from the get-go, before exposing their flaws.

In Stories It Is All About Emotions

EmotionsI have often written about the importance of soliciting emotions in the stories we write.

Yet, the topic is of such monumental importance that I can’t write about it often enough.

Emotions, Emotions, Emotions

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty reminds us that soliciting emotion for the characters in our stories is the single most important thing we need to master. Here’s an extract from Katherine Mansfield’s, The Fly, that has stayed in my memory from the first time I read it.

A fly has fallen into an ink pot and can’t get out. The other character, referred to only as the boss, watches its desperate struggles with glee.

“Help! Help! said those struggling legs. But the sides of the ink pot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim. The boss took up a pen, picked up the fly out of the ink, and shook it on a piece of blotting paper. For a fraction of a second, it lay still on the dark patch that oozed around it. Then the front legs waved, took hold, and, pulling its small, sodden body up, it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from its wings … it succeeded at last, and, sitting down, it began, like a minute cat, to clean its face. Now one could imagine that the little front legs rubbed against each other, lightly, joyfully. The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.

But then, the boss had an idea. He plunged the pen back into the ink, leaned his thick wrist on the blotting paper, and, as the fly tried its wings, down came a heavy blot. What would it make if that? The little beggar seemed absolutely cowed, stunned, and afraid to move because of what would happen next. But then, as if painfully, it dragged itself froward. The front legs waved, caught hold, and more slowly this time, the task began from the beginning.”

This goes on until the fly is dead. If we can feel compassion for a fly, imagine what we can feel for animals and humans.

Emotion can also be present for the reader or audience, but be hidden from a character who may not yet understand it, such as a child. In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I use this technique subtly to suggest a sense of unease in the relationship between a mother and her brother-in-law, as experienced through the sensibility of a child:

“One hot afternoon, my father’s older brother, Fanos, a mechanic with the merchant Greek navy, sailed into our lives, without warning, like a bottle washing out to shore. He carried a small black suitcase in his right hand. The hand was stained by a faded blue tattoo of an anchor that started at the wrist and ended at the knuckles. I found myself staring at it at every opportunity.

Would it be fine if he stayed with us for several days, while his ship underwent repairs at the port of Piraeus, he wanted to know?

My father, who seemed both pained and glad to see him, said it would be, if that was all right with my mother. My mother had nodded and rushed out to the backyard to collect the washing from the clothes line. She had trudged back in and made straight for the bedroom where she proceeded to fold, unfold, and refold the clothes. She did this so many times that I thought she was testing out some new game, before asking me to play.”

The boy may not understand the underlying conflict, but we do, and that makes it doubly effective.

Summary

Use the emotions of your characters to bind your readers and audiences to your stories.

How to write Nonhuman Characters

Nonhuman CharactersWe often need to create nonhuman characters in the stories we write – animals, robots, talking trees.

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that human characters achieve dimensionality by highlighting their human attributes.

Highlighting nonhuman attributes of dogs, such as barking louder or digging faster to get the buried bone, will not make them more endearing. To achieve that we must give them human personality.

We need to do at least three things: choose one or two attributes that will help create character identity, understand the associations the audience itself brings to the character, and create a strong story context to deepen the character.

Attributes in themselves do not give enough interest and variety. Audiences need to project associations onto them. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in advertising.

Reader and Audience Association with Nonhuman Characters

Mercedes is branded as the car of engineering, Ford represents quality, and so on. By associating the car with a certain quality you get the rub-off or halo effect. In advertising this causes the consumer to want to purchase the product. In films and novels the effect draws us closer to the characters through our projecting personal feelings onto them.

In producer Al Burton’s TV series, Lassie, the dog part is written in a way that allows the animal to become part of the family, a best friend to the adults and their son. Through this deft move the series becomes family viewing, and not merely a kid’s show.

A character such as King Kong, however, brings very different associations. He comes from the South Seas. He is enveloped in a dark, mysterious, and terrifying aura. His associations include a vague knowledge of ancient rituals, human sacrifice, and dark, unrepressed sexuality. We, as adults, are frightened of King Kong because we bring to his character our apprehensions of the unknown.

In my novel, Scarab, the Man-Lion, a mythical creature in the likeness of the Spinx of Giza, carries the same sort of frightening mystery and intrigue. Its dark fascination for the reader is generated more by the power of association than a detailed description in the pages of the novel.

Understanding the power of association and how to use it, then, is a crucial part of creating and positioning characters in your stories, and in the market place.

Summary

Highlighting specific human characteristics in nonhuman characters, and using them to amplify our reader’s and audience’s personal experience, helps to make them more engaging.

Asking and Answering the Central Story Question

The central questionThe first act of a story performs several central functions. Syd Field refers to this act as being governed by the setting-up process. It introduces readers and audiences to the world of the characters and their roles in it. It contains the inciting incident and the first turning point. It establishes the mood and genre.

But it also poses the central question the story must answer by the end of act three. This is something that the writer might easily neglect to emphasise in the hurly-burly of setting up the tracks the story needs to ride on.

Asking and Answering the Central Question

In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger writes that once the central question is raised, usually within the first fifteen minutes in a film, and certainly by the first turning point in any story, everything that follows it is in response to it.

In Jaws, the question is “Will Martin catch the shark?”. In Witness, it is “Will John Book get the murderer?” In my novel, The Level, it is “Will the hero mange to get back his memory and escape the asylum?”

In a story with an up-ending the answer to the central question is usually “yes” and favours the hero.

Sometimes, however, in a more ambiguous or ambivalent tale, where solutions are not as clear-cut, the answer can be “yes” and “no”. In The Level, for example, both the hero and reader discover that the hero’s identity and capacity for escaping his confines, are inexorably linked.

Linking the answer to some unexpected deeper revelation that has been withheld until that point is a powerful way to bring the outer and inner strands of a story together at the climax. The technique offers a symbol crash to the drumroll of the final act.

Summary

The first act poses the central question of the story that is answered at the climax of the third act.

How to Calibrate Actions in Stories

ActionsIN previous articles I talked about the need to synchronise your hero’s actions against his character arc. I emphasised that the quality of his actions depends on his state of moral, spiritual, and psychological development. The hero can not defeat the antagonist until he has achieved maturity through pain and suffering – through trial and error.

But at which point, and how often, does the writer interrogate his hero?

Calibrating Actions

The answer is that the hero should be examined, at least, at the pivotal points in the story – the introduction to the ordinary world, the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the climax, and the resolution.

Indeed, the introduction to the ordinary world and the resolution present the sharpest points of contrast in the hero’s growth, being at the polar ends of his character arc. They help to set the scale for calibrating his growth.

It is now easier to position actions and events between the two extremities on a scale of lesser or greater effectiveness. The second turning point, for example, contains some growth in wisdom, certainly more than at the first turning point, but less so than at the climax, which delivers the maximum growth – if the hero is to defeat the antagonist.

In Edge of Tomorrow‘s endlessly cycling reality, Major Cage, who is committed to defeating an alien enemy that can see the future, is repeatedly killed, triggering a reset in his life. It is only when he lets go of his fear of losing the woman he loves, and decides to ultimately sacrifice himself, that he is able to blindside the enemy. That moment is the climax of the story and represents Cage’s full maturation.

In my own novel, The Level, the protagonist perceives the nature of his captivity only when he embraces his true identity and uses it to defeat the antagonist.

In both cases the culmination of the inner and outer journeys create the climax of the story.

Summary

Calibrate inner and outer actions along the nodal points in your story to keep them in sync.

What is the Decision-Making Mechanism in Stories?

Decision-makingJust lately I have been preoccupied with the inner journey in stories, which got me to thinking about the decision-making mechanism that drives it.

I have been emphasising that the story, at the level of plot, is the reflection of the protagonist’s character arc – that until the character achieves a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness she can not prevail against the antagonist.

I want to say a little more about the mechanism that allows us to bridge the inner and outer journeys.

How the Decision-Making Mechanism Works

The protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, she receives a challenge which she is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that she first make a decision of how to proceed.

So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.

But because the protagonist lacks emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, she fails to make the right decisions until her suffering, resulting from her string of defeats, causes her to learn from her mistakes.

The quality of the protagonist’s decision-making, therefore, directly impacts the quality of her actions. Her efforts can only lead to victory when she has fully achieved maturity – usually by the end of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, can only break his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to change his life forever.

Summary

The decision-making mechanism is the bridge between the protagonist’s inner and outer life and is tied to the character’s developmental arc.

So You Want to be Writers?

For WritersWriters? Really? In this day and age of shrinking readership? A time when video games, a thrill-a-minute movies and digital media are stealing the public’s attention away?

There’s no money in it, you’re told – except for a lucky few. Go train for a real job.

And, perhaps, there is some evidence to support this view.

Are Writers Dispensable?

But you know what? The stats don’t really matter. The truth is that the world needs writers. Without a clear and unfaltering narrative, society has no sustained and unambiguous conscience. It can’t fully grasp or describe its dreams. It can’t vividly and critically explore the possibility of a brighter future against a backdrop of darker ones, thoughtfully and cogently, weighing up the consequences of each.

Writing is, by its very nature, equipped to expose, explore, evaluate. Yet, it can entertain as much as it can school.

Films present meaningful narratives, but they need screenwriters to do so. Games, too, need writers to create the game worlds their characters inhabit. Art and music can indeed critique and inspire society, but its appreciation and significance is often communicated through words, after the fact.

In their purest form, stories that first exist as novels, novellas and the like, being able to directly inhabit a character’s mind, uniquely capture the debate around a theme, a moral system. They minutely trace consequences in a way that is difficult to do elsewhere. So much so, that they often inspire other forms.

We could sit here all day debating the strengths and weaknesses of our craft in our contemporary world, but it wouldn’t really matter. Because ultimately, true writers are stubborn, willful, and imbued with a sense of purpose that can’t be shaken off.

Writers are born, not made. We do what we do because we can’t imagine doing anything else. And you can take that to the bank.

Summary

Writers consider their labours as a calling and not a mere job.

Why Plot Hinges on Character

CharacterThe more time I spend thinking about stories, as a writer and teacher, the more convinced I become that it all really hinges on character.

It wasn’t always the case. When I was first starting out, I tended to emphasise the outer journey – the series of tangible events that exist at the level of plot. Back then I focused on the originality of the idea, the high concept, the attempt to grab one’s attention through a new and unique premise.

Certainly, these are important tools for developing a story. The success of my first novel, Scarab, is proof of that.

But as I went along, my focus shifted to character. I began to conceive of a story from the inside out. I obsessed over questions such as: what does the character lack at the beginning of a story in terms of her self-awareness, her moral and ethical values? What must she learn before she can accomplish her goal? What is the tension between her want and her need? In short, how could I create her developmental arc?

I began to see that the outer journey, the plot, needs, somehow, to be molded from the materials of the inner journey. And that the events occurring at the level of plot need to be synchronised to the flows that occur along the character arc.

I recognised that the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story – the reason the hero reacts to events, or initiates action in the way that she does.

This realisation has made it easier to write action and plot that is an intrinsic part of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow characters that are inauthentic or artificial – a bit of advice that my students, especially those new to the subject, find helpful.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I write about a man obsessed with fixing a dreadful mistake that resulted in the death of his wife many years previously. Every action, every thought he experiences stems from this obsession. Whatever else the story is about, it is also a tale about a driven man relentlessly attempting to do the impossible. A man who refuses to give up. In many respects his outer life is nothing more than a reflection of his inner life.

One of the greatest examples in literature of how character shapes the story lies in William Golding’s great novel, The Spire. The novel describes the Dean of the Cathedral’s, (Jocelin’s) determination to build a spire on top of a structure that will not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a master study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength.

Summary

The character arc is the progenitor of a viable plot.

Transitions – the Hard Cut

Cuts and transitionsTransitions are a necessary part of storytelling. Leaping over unnecessary chunks of narrative through hard cuts keeps the story pacy and exciting. They free the reader from having to trudge over flat terrain.

This is no more obvious than when comparing today’s films and television to those of even a couple of decades ago. What would once have been considered lively viewing now seems dull and languid.

Pace and Transitions

No doubt the pace of our contemporary lifestyle has much to do with the speeding up of the narrative flow. But it also has to do with the realisation that gaps created by effective transitions allow the reader or audience to fill in the gaps without a loss of pace. It also increases participation in a story.

But the attempt to keep things moving, especially in action genres, is not new. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, points out that Alistair Maclean faced a potential pacing problem in his novel, Where Eagles Dare, when Major Smith and his group get to the Oberhausen airfield and have to wait for the rescue plane to arrive.

A scene of the fugitives sitting around waiting would make for unexciting narrative. Instead, Maclean switched the viewpoint to the pilot in the rescue plane, which brought with it new information and renewed interest.

In my own novels, Scarab and Scarab II, I extensively use this technique of switching viewpoints to important characters to leap to significant parts of the story. This does not only keep the story moving along at a brisk pace, it injects new interest by exploring new information from the best possible vantage points in the story.

Additionally, when done well, the technique allows readers to fill in the missing parts which, significantly, ramps up involvement in the story.

Summary

Use hard cut transitions to skip over unnecessary parts of a story.

How to Sympathise with a Flawed Hero

Sympathise with  flawed heroOne of the most important requirements in writing a successful story is that we sympathise with the hero. The hero, in a typical tale, is the character through whom we chiefly experience events.

This does not mean that the hero has no flaws. Indeed, the flaw is what helps define the hero’s character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful action to swift and righteous action that helps him achieve his goal.

Yet, crafting a sympathetic hero has become increasingly difficult. A variety of scandals involving our politicians, military and religious leaders has served to soil our trust in the existence of unsullied, altruistic heroes.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc.

The notion of a flawed hero, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet. These tragic heroes are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes, in recent times, is noteworthy.

Dexter, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe.

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters pulled this off? Here are some suggestions:

We sympathise with a flawed hero because …

The hero finds himself in a situation of undeserved misfortune:

Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can ill afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay his bills.

The law-breaking hero is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to do this and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he outsmarts both the police and his criminal victims time and again.

The hero acts for a cause other than himself:

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Understanding the underlying motivation of these deeply flawed heroes helps soften our critique of them.

Summary

Understanding a character’s motivation, no matter how flawed, helps us to sympathise with his predicament.