Monthly Archives: May 2016

Writing Great Point-of-View Characters

Writing point of viewWHAT makes for a great point-of-view character? In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margaret Geraghty offers us the following advice.

A great point-of-view character is one whose problems fuel the story; the character who has the biggest emotional and physical stake in the story – the most to lose if things go belly up for her.

Writing Point-of-View

Such a character is at the center of the action. Passive characters who merely observe rather than act are not vehicles through whose hearts and bodies we want to experience the story. Imagine if Edge of Tomorrow‘s Major William Cage, played by Tom Cruise, was a mere observer to the alien invasion rather than a key figure in defeating it.

Point-of-view characters are the most interesting. Their thoughts, feelings and opinions are what the readers find most intriguing and absorbing.

A point-of-view character is the most complex. The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s Benjamin Vlahos is such a character. Guilt, nostalgia, and longing, coupled with a powerful intellect have brought him to a stalemate. He can’t go back and he can’t move forward. Not unless he finds the solution that has eluded him for thirty years – prove that time travel to the past is possible.

Other point-of-view characters may appear deceptively simple, but only from the outside. In Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea, the character of the old man appears seems straight forward. But his tenacity in holding onto the fish, even when all seems lost, speaks of a deeper reason.

The old man has a reputation of coming home empty handed from his fishing expeditions. No one wants to go out on his boat with him any more. He appears habitually unlucky and this has cast a shadow over him. It is something he needs to shake off if he is to hold his head up high again.

Interesting, complex, and emotionally invested characters who have the most to lose in a story, then, are great candidates for the point-of-view mantle.

Summary

Writing point-of-view characters whose emotions and actions drive the story forward makes for absorbing stories.

What Drives Your Protagonist?

ProtagonistCONTINUING my exploration of Robert Mckee’s, Story, I highlight an important technique: How to make your protagonist more engrossing. This entails that I talk about the tension between want and need.

The Tension driving your Protagonist

The protagonist is a willful character. His pursuit of his desire is relentless. It is also the outward manifestation of an unconscious inner conflict. It stems from what he believes he wants in life.

In The Land Below Paulie’s desire is to reach the surface in search of wonder. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel it is Benjamin’s obsession with solving an intractable mathematical equation. In Scarab it is Jack’s desire to undo Emma’s death. Often, clear and conscious desires are enough to drive the story forward.

But the greatest stories do not only pit the protagonist against external obstacles to desire. They also pit him against himself.

They do this by infusing him with an unconscious desire that is at odds with his declared want. The result is an inner conflict which is resolved only when he realises that his want is inferior to his need.

Indeed, it is this very recognition that is the final proof that the protagonist has grown. It indicates that he has learnt from his mistakes. It heralds his final readiness to face and defeat the antagonist at the level of external action.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is able to move on from a life of regret and stasis only when he realises that his salvation lies not through mathematical solutions to impossible problems but in self-forgiveness through art. In Scarab, Jack is able to save the woman he loves through sacrifice – by walking away from the relationship he so desperately desires.

In these, and other stories, it is the tension lurking beneath what the protagonist wants and what he needs that fascinates readers.

Summary

The tension between what a protagonist wants and needs is the engine of conflict in the protagonist.

Conflict, Complication and Complexity in Stories

Complexity out of complication and conflictIN HIS book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that conflict arises the moment the protagonist steps out of the Inciting Incident and heads towards the turning point at the end of act one.

Act two, the longest act of any story, is held together by conflict, complication and complexity. Every obstacle the protagonist encounters in trying to attain the goal, is complicated by these three aspects.

But what is the difference between complication and complexity? Aren’t they one and the same thing?

Complexity from Conflict and Complication

Complexity, according to McKee, results from the deepening interaction between three layers of conflict:

Inner
Personal
Extra-personal

In Kramer Vs. Kramer, for example, Kramer, whose wife has left him and his son, is torn by inner doubt. He loves his son, but is he in over his head? Can he bring up the child on his own?

There is also personal conflict. The boy is acting-up. He is terrified that he’ll starve without his mother to feed him. Kramer has a hard time pacifying the hysterical child.

Finally, he experiences extra-personal conflict. The kitchen is a dangerous, alien place for the inexperienced Kramer. He does his best to feign confidence. Things, however, degenerate rapidly as he tries to fry eggs for his son.

As the ill-equipped father fights the forces that threaten to defeat him, comedy turns into pathos. The result is one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

In my recent novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a middle-aged theoretical physicist, too, has to battle complex internal and external conflicts in order to survive. Years of deep-seated guilt, an almost intractable mathematical problem, and an approaching category-five cyclone threaten his life. Together these conflicts create complexity that makes for engrossing reading.

Summary

Complication rises to the level of complexity when a character experiences inner, personal, and extra-personal conflict.

How to Make Your Story Universal

universal storiesEVERY great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows it to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension.

Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent.

Done in a crude way, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in gradually, skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly.

Making Stories Universal through Symbolism

Symbolic ascension works in this way: At first the settings, incidents and specific actions of characters in a story represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.

In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier – the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills.

But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself – as does Nick (Christopher Walken).

The death of Nick precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this effortless duality that gives the story its enduring power.

In my own novel, The Land Below, life in a converted underground mine (the sanctuary of the only humans to have survived a cataclysm), becomes increasingly claustrophobic for its young protagonist, Paulie.

He dreams of the open resplendent spaces filled with grass and waterfalls that he has only seen in books. His decision to climb to the surface, against the warnings of his elders, is a symbolic rejection of fear and ignorance. It represents his desire for knowledge. His actual physical journey to reach the surface has therefore acquired symbolic meaning.

Summary

Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.

The Gap in Stories

Stories and the Gap

Stories and the gap

IN his influential book, Story, Robert McKee explains a mechanism that is central to understanding the protagonist’s action in stories. He calls this mechanism the gap.

The gap refers to the distance between the protagonist’s subjective evaluation of the achievability of the goal and its objective evaluation by the external world.

From the protagonist’s point of view the paths to the goal seem initially doable and efficient. But as he initiates action the reaction of the world creates a resistance which is proportional to the effort expended.

Extending the Gap in Stories

The more the effort the more resistance he encounters. The result is that his initial evaluation of the goal, too, begins to change. Inner and personal conflicts combine with external conflicts to open a gap between his action and its effectiveness.

This constant expansion of the gap changes the protagonist. He begins to doubt his ability to achieve success. He starts questioning his values and resources. He is forced to take more desperate action, take more risks, in order to try and reverse each failure.

Without a gap between expectation and result in stories, without increasing risk, there would be no tension and conflict. There would be no drama.

The gap between intention and result, therefore, is the space in which interesting and engrossing conflicts play themselves out. Additionally, the gap is not only the generator of inner and outer conflict, it is the motivator of change in the protagonist.

Summary

The gap in stories is the space that separates action and reaction, intention and result, emanating from the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal.