Monthly Archives: November 2011

How to Write Great Characters

Great characters are an indispensable part of any successful story. Certain genres, such as Action Adventure, or even Science Fiction, tend towards a plot-driven approach; others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character-driven. All stories, however, require convincing and believable characters to complement an effective plot. Much has been written on the subject over the centuries and it is not my intension to rehash this here. Certainly, observation, honesty, intelligence, maturity and empathy, are all attributes that aid the writer in this task. These attributes can’t always be taught in class; they accumulate over a lifetime. There are some core techniques, however, that can be taught and do provide the scaffolding for building successful characters by utilising a set of well-chosen traits.

What are Character Traits?

As the famous writing teacher Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are values or character components that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on. Most traits have a moral or ethical component. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst cowardliness is inconsistent with righteous behavior.

The Character Developmental Arc

We’ve often heard that successful characters change and grow. They learn from events around them. What does this mean in practical terms? In its simplest sense, change in a character means the gaining of prominence of certain traits at the expense of others. Typically, a character is defined by four or five traits. A traditional Protagonist tends to have three or four positive traits and one negative one. This juxtaposition is essential in creating dynamic characters who experience internal conflict. A conflicted character is inherently more interesting than a static and stable one. Character change, on these terms, involves managing the emphasis of these traits. In an “up ending” the Protagonist de-emphasizes his negative trait and accentuates his positive ones. In a “down ending”, the opposite happens. These changes typically happen at the structural turning points, particularly the mid-point. These are the moments where important events impact the character and cause him or her to respond. This allows the writer to craft character growth in a localized and manageable way.

Knowing

In Knowing, John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), an atheistic astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than Devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is indeed predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, which accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world. This eventually causes John to entrust his son Caleb’s (Chandler Canterbury) future to a group of alien observers who offer to take Caleb and his young friend Abby (Lara Robinson) to another planet to ensure mankind’s survival. As a marker of his transformation, John reconciles with his father, a priest, after many years of alienation. His trait of skepticism has been replaced by the dormant trait of faith (at least, in the ability of the aliens to secure his son’s future).

In Summary

Traits contain an ethical or moral aspect, and lie at the core of character formation. Having one trait in opposition to others creates the potential for interesting conflict within the character. Traits, in relation to the structural turning points of the story, afford the writer a way of managing a character’s transformational arc, essential for crafting successful stories.

How to Establish Dramatic Context

During my classes on story, I often talk about the multiple layers that go into the crafting of a tale. The inciting incident, turning points, pinches, and midpoint, are structural units that help the writer to formulate, position and strengthen narrative incidents by locating them within a specific dramatic context — the beginning, middle, and end; each structural unit has a specific purpose and function within each dramatic context. Syd Field reminds us that another way to think of the dramatic context is in terms of its purpose — the purpose of the beginning is to set up the story, the middle, to create confrontation and complication, and the end, to bring about a resolution. But here’s the useful part: each context can be formulated in terms of a specific question to guide the writer in creating scenes that, in effect, answer this question.

Legion

In the movie Legion, Archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) disobeys God’s command to wreak vengeance on Man for his perpetual disobedience. Instead, Michael cuts off his wings, making himself human, and appoints himself protector of a waitress at a remote diner, Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), and her unborn child, who, he declares, is mankind’s last hope. In choosing this path, Michael pits himself against the hordes of horrific angels led by Archangel Gabriel (David Durrand) who have come down to earth to kill the unborn child. This causes Michael to sacrifice himself for his cause, a sacrifice, which, ironically, leads God to restore Michael to his former self, intact with wings and angelic powers. Michael then defeats Gabriel and saves the child, and by implication, mankind.

Questions Asked and Answered

The setup (beginning) asks and answers the question: what is the purpose of the strange happenings occurring around the remote diner? The confrontation (middle), asks and answers the question: will Archangel Michael and his motley crew prevail against the hordes? The resolution (end) asks and answers the question: having beaten the horrific hordes, will Michael overcome the final obstacle by defeating Gabriel, thus saving the child and the world? Writing scenes that collectively pose and answer these questions provides a road map to your story which helps to keep it on track.

In Summary

The dramatic context defines the kind of incidents that occur at the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Each context can be formulated in terms of a question. Structuring our scenes in answer to this question provides us with a blueprint for crafting each stage of our story.

If you have enjoyed this post or have any questions concerning it, leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

How to Strengthen the Middle Part of a Story

In The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the second act of your story, being the longest and the one containing the most conflict and complications, needs special handling. Here, novice, or even experienced writers, are most likely to wonder off track and end up at a dead end. The midpoint, or the moment of illumination, as we’ve discussed in an earlier post, is that moment in which the Protagonist receives new information that allows him or her to proceed from a changed moral or ethical perspective to the second turning point. In the first half, the Protagonist pursues the goal based on negative traits. In the second half, he or she realizes that the best way forward is through the activation of positive traits inherent in his or her personality.

The Pinch

Dividing the second act into two sections allows for additional structure on either side of the midpoint. Field calls this structure the “pinch” in that it brings together the threads in each half in a way which keeps the story on track by driving the action on to the mid-point, and plot point II.

An Unmarried Woman

In An Unmarried Woman, the young, unhappily married Erica (Jill Clayburgh), enrolls in art classes and has an affair with her teacher, Saul. Against her will, she falls in love with him, then discovers she is pregnant. Torn between her lover and her husband, she decides to leave both and raise her child on her own.

The inciting incident occurs when Erica’s husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), asks Erica for a divorce. This leads to the first turning point when she begins art classes and meets Saul (Alan Bates). Pinch I marks the start of her relationship with her teacher. The mid-point occurs when she finally has sex with him. Pinch II describes her realization that she has fallen in love with Saul, while plot point II occurs when she discovers that she is pregnant with his child. These events clearly illustrate the strong relationship that both pinches share with the first and second tuning points respectively — often one of cause and effect: in An Unmarried Woman, Erica’s sexual relationship with Saul is a direct result of her starting art classes (tuning point I), while her realizing that she is pregnant with his child (turning point II) follows from her having fallen in love with him (pinch II). Including these structural entities not only ensures consistency in narrative incident, but also ensures that you have something to aim for as you seek to structure the longest part of your story.

In Summary

Pinches occur on either side of the mid-point. Each is strongly related to the turning point nearest to it, helping to ensure narrative consistency.

How to Write Effective Subplots

Subplots perform several functions – they add depth and resonance to your story by inviting comparison to the main plot, allow for variation to the tone and pace, often through comic relief, and cause deviations to the plot itself. Linda Seger remarks that subplots give your protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, or to learn a new skill. Subplots also echo the main concerns of the story at a more transcendent level, by adding a different perspective, enriching the tone, and strengthening the themes and symbols of your story. But subplots are not only concerned with protagonists and their world. An action originating from a minor character within the subplot, may twist the plot around in a surprising way. Indeed, crafting a turning point from the subplot is one way to ensure that you don’t telegraph the event and ruin the surprise. Like the main plot, a subplot has a beginning, middle, and end. The number of subplots depends on the needs of the main plot, and how much underpinning it requires.

Sherlock HolmesMain Plot

In the 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to stop Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) poisoning all opposing voices in parliament, installing himself as leader of the nation, and extending the Empire. A declared practitioner of the dark arts, Blackwood personifies the forces of irrationality, Holmes, the forces of logic. At a thematic, moral, and symbolic level, the premise is of cool-headedness and rationality vs. fear and irrationality.

Subplots

Enriching the story are three subplots: that of the mysterious Professor Moriarty who, behind the scenes, manipulates the conflict between Lord Blackwood and Holmes, and in particular, Irene Adler’s (Rachel McAdams) love for Holmes, for his own evil ends; the Holmes/Dr.Watson/Mary Morstan triangle; and Holmes’s own relationship with Irene Adler. Some of the major deflections to the main plot come from these subplots: Moriarty gets Irene to drug Holmes in his own rooms by threatening to kill him if she doesn’t (subplot 1). Irene has access to Holmes because of her (past) relationship with him (subplot 2); meanwhile, Holmes tries to break up Watson’s (Jude Law) relationship with his girlfriend, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), perhaps for fear of losing his only friend and confidant (subplot 3). Holmes’ antics succeed in making Watson feel guilty about abandoning his old friend, which results in his saving Holmes’ life on several occasions (main plot). Coincidently, the Watson/Mary relationship invites comparison to the Holmes/Irene one, suggesting an even tighter bond between the two men. In this way, events and motivation from a subplot serve the main plot, helping to keep it on track.

Summary

The function of subplots, as shown in Sherlock Holmes, is to explain and motivate character actions, deflect the main plot, and deepen resonance through contrast and parallel. Although subplots vary substantially in focus and emphasis from story to story, the use of the three aspects identified above will certainly help to deepen and enrich any plot.

How to Write Endings That Work

During my classes on writing, people often remark that they find the ending of a story the most difficult to write. The ending, after all, is where everything must come together to excite, explain, and validate that which has gone before. Shaky endings leave us feeling unsatisfied and render the entire story suspect. Writing a great ending isn’t easy. But it is, in my opinion, easier to write than the beginning.

Consider the start of the story – what we sometimes refer to as the “ordinary world”. Here, the right genre must be chosen, the dramatic question created, and the theme and moral of the story conceived. The characters must be crafted from scratch, and then established through pertinent traits; the world they inhabit, too, must be thought out and sketched in – in just the right detail to foreshadow the reveals that are to follow.

Of course, your endings, too, have much to achieve — generate heat and excitement, preferably in a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, answer your story’s overall dramatic question, explain some of the riddles that have occurred along your story spine, show how the protagonist and other important characters have been changed by the journey, and provide the final twist to the theme, or moral premise. Yet, unlike the beginning of a story, the ending is driven by a sense of inevitability that may serve to guide the writer’s hand. Once the writer identifies the central premise, he or she should able to craft the conclusion as a surprising but inevitable result of that premise.

Unlike beginnings, which may commence at any point, endings are constrained by their point of origin and should therefore be easier, although not necessarily easy, to write. This analysis applies specifically to what we call closed endings, rather than open endings. Open endings are inconclusive or ambiguous by intent, as a way of suggesting the uncertainty and multiplicity of life, and are handled differently. (My novel, Scarab, for example, manages to present an open and closed ending simultaneously). In this post, then, we look at four of the most important characteristics of the closed ending – the second turning point, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution, or the return to the ordinary (but changed) world.

The Final Act

The third, or final section of your story, is intimately connected to the second turning point – the last big event that turns the plot around, leading to the obligatory scene. The second turning point causes a crisis which forces the protagonist to choose between what he wants (the outer goal), and what he truly needs (the two are often at odds). This decision leads to the climax – the do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. The protagonist then returns to the ordinary world, changed by the ordeal, to find that his world has changed too. Let’s see how this works in the example below:

Unforgiven

The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny (Clint Eastwood) learns that his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) has been murdered by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) and his men. This leaves him no choice but to seek revenge over and above the job he was hired to do, which was to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. For a man who has fought hard to leave behind his days as a ruthless killer, this represents a crisis point. What he wants is revenge. What he needs is to leave his old violent life behind. His decision to avenge Ned’s death leads directly to his confrontation with Little Bill, which he wins hands down. His thirst for vengeance sated, Munny rides back to his ordinary world to raise his children in the manner his wife would have wanted. Although there are many embellishments and complications to each structural unit, the ending, as a whole, follows the classical pattern mentioned above – second turning point, crisis, climax, and resolution. Crafting your ending in this way ensures that your overall structure is sound, allowing you more freedom to add depth, colour, and resonance to your story.

Please feel free to add a comment, ask a question, or suggests further topics for forthcoming posts.