Monthly Archives: June 2012

How to Design Minor Characters

Minor Characters

Minor Characters

Most novels or screenplays contain a set of secondary, or minor characters. These are characters who serve the plot in some important way, but who do not warrant the time and space it would take to develop them to the level of major players.

Avoiding Pitfalls

One of the dangers we face in creating minor characters is to fall into the trap of stereotype and cliche, probably because we tend to invoke such characters, at specific points in the plot, more out of necessity than passion. Yet, brevity and functionality need not result in shallow, trite characterisation. In seeking to avoid this trap, consider the following:

1. Identify the function of the character in the scene you intend to write.

2. Ask yourself whether this function can be performed by an existing character. In determining this, consider whether this is a genuine secondary character, or a bit-part player. Bit-part players occupy brief moments in a story and need not be extensively fleshed out. What is this character’s relationship to the plot? Is it simply to convey new information, or is the character emotionally linked to the protagonist or antagonist? If emotionally linked, he/she/it is a minor character, rather than a bit-player.

3. Identify your minor character’s background — upbringing, education, occupation, and keep this in mind when you consider the following: dress style, body type, body language, dialect, speech idiosyncrasies, hobbies, unexpected interests. These are shortcuts which, in the absence of deep interaction and complexity, serve to create a sense of uniqueness around a minor character.

4. Keep the above points in mind when you come to write dialogue for this character. Dialogue, and its ancillary, subtext, can reveal much about the character’s background, current social standing, world view, and so on — all aspects that help to differentiate minor characters from their more complex counterparts in the story.

In the film, Toy Story, for example, the Dinosaur and Mr. Potato Head are minor characters that are uniquely differentiated through their speech, appearance, and psychological make-up. The Dinosaur is timid and nervous, while Mr. Potato Head is irreverent, bold, and sure of himself. They are as different from each other as Woody is from Buzz Lightyear. The Dinosaur and Mr. Potato Head are a wonderful illustration of coulorful and interesting characters infused with a few well-chosen attributes.

Summary

Create interesting minor characters to serve the plot, by infusing each with different physical and psychological traits that manifest in unique dialogue and behavioural patterns.

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How to Use Theme to Orchestrate Your Story

A story typically comprises of a sequence of linked events, centering on a protagonist who pursues a difficult goal against a rising tide of obstacles orchestrated by the antagonist, (or antagonistic forces). In achieving the goal, the protagonist has to overcome an inner weakness or limitation, which results in his/her becoming a wiser and more accomplished person.

Conducting

Shaping the Art

But how do we, as writers, select the most appropriate incidents to relate? Certainly, verisimilitude, suspense, drama, excitement, and uniqueness play a role. But how do we choose between two actions of equal weight, in terms of this list? One way is to let the theme or controlling idea guide us.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee defines the theme, or controlling idea, as he prefers to call it, as a statement expressed in a single sentence that describes how and why life undergoes a change in value by the end of a story.

McKee explains that the controlling idea has two components: value and cause. The controlling idea identifies the change from a positive to a negative value (or, vice versa) at the story-climax as a result of the protagonist’s final action, and provides the main reason for this change. Value plus cause, McKee informs us, captures the meaning of the story.

Value

Value is the positive or negative charge found at the end of the story. In an up-ending, good triumphs, as in Groundhog Day, where cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness; in a down-ending, negative values prevail. In Dangerous Liaisons, passion turns into self-loathing, resulting in hatred that destroys.

Cause

Cause, on the other hand, provides the reason why the protagonist’s world has been transformed into a positive or negative value. In writing a story, we work back from the end value, to the beginning, and trace the causes within the character, society, or environment that has brought about this change.

Theme as a Scene Creation Tool

In Peter Falk’s Columbo, for example, we track back from the theme or controlling idea — Justice is done because the protagonist is cleverer than the criminal — selecting for inclusion only those story beats that serve the theme. Sherlock Holmes style scenes in which Columbo uses deductive reasoning to corner the criminal are appropriate for a man of superior intelligence and observation skills. Reaching under his raincoat for a .44 Magnum in order to frighten the criminal into confessing, or beating the daylights out of him, is not, although it is a fitting action for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.

Summary

The theme or controlling idea encompasses a change in value plus the reasons for it. Keeping the theme foremost in our minds assists us in writing appropriate scenes that stay on track.

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Understanding Character Flaws

A Flawed Diamond

The Flaw

What is a character flaw? One way to think of a flaw is as an imperfection in a character’s soul or psyche that helps shape the character’s personality. In seeking to hide, suppress, or remove this imperfection, the character engages in a constant tug-of-war between external and internal forces, which helps to drive the story forward.

Types of Character Flaw

Ostensibly, the flaw can be born out of internal causes, such as an emotional scar from the past, or, external ones, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability of a character to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice. Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character help to make for interesting stories that resonate with verisimilitude.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw in character. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, especially his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.

Additionally, a flaw generates questions which serve the story: What lies and defenses has the character created to conceal the flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point?

The Character Flaw as a Synching Device

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey though the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self belief (flaw) to one of belief. This inner journey, which represents Neo’s character arc, inflects each major action in the story and, therefore, gives shape to the story as a whole. It neatly ties into the notion of want vs. need that we examined in an earlier post, by relating the external (want), to the internal (need).

Summary

A character flaw inflects a character’s external response to the world, and in this sense, helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his or her actions in a story.

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How to Establish Story-Context from the Get-Go

Starting gun

Starting gun

The purpose of the establishing scene is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early. In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World. By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasize the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around her — the amount of change that this world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of success that the Hero has achieved in acquiring the goal. How do we go about sketching in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One answer is to do so through the deft use of imagery.

Establishing Context Through Imagery

Precisely what is established at the start of a story? In Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger, suggests that an establishing scene should introduce the tone, time, location, as well as, the theme of the story, in other words, the framework of the tale. The first couple of minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduces us to the world of business through a series of images — its buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are. Indeed, the first images in a film or novel are often the most powerful and, therefore, need to be selected carefully since they set the framework for the entire story.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent and influential world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with a defining sequence of images, those of a school preparing for its opening day procession — banners announcing the school’s solid foundations of education and moral learning, foundations steeped in discipline, excellence, and honour. Such images help to establish the theme of conformity stemming from such traditions, a conformity which will be questioned by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established the time, place, tone, and theme through an effective use of starting imagery, the writers of these stories are now able to concentrate on plot and subplot from the basis of a solid framework. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.

Summary

Selecting the right images with which to start your story is important, since such images help to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your entire tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead and confuse the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.