Category Archives: On Character

Character Description in Screenplays and Novels

Character description and the Mona Lisa
No character description would be complete in this example without reference to Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

Character Description: In a typical screenplay or novel, character descriptions should be written when the characters first appear on the page. These descriptions should be brief and to the point. This post looks at this often misunderstood aspect.

In a screenplay, there are only two things to establish about a character from the outset—gender and age. Pedantic descriptions about physical attributes, cars and pets, musical instruments played, should be avoided, although, in a novel, lengthier descriptions are more common.

If a characteristic is crucial to the story, state this succinctly. If, for example, one of your characters, say, Bruce Dunn’s graceful movement somehow ends up saving his life then foreshadow this in your description of him: Bruce Dunn was built like an army barracks shithouse but moved with the grace of a ballerina.

Lengthy, unmotivated descriptions slow the thrust of the story and betray the writer’s inexperience. 

So, why do so many writers include them in their stores? Because it is far easier to describe a character’s varied physical attributes and traits than to reveal them adroitly through dialogue and action in a scene.

Character description that references physical stature, hair colouring, and weight, therefore, is relevant only if it foreshadows aspects of the plot, such as the stutter that causes the murderer to trip up at the end, or the lack of height that motivates a man to over-achieve in other areas. 

This extends to emotional traits as well. Indeed, one of the best ways to make emotional and physical traits germane to the story is to interweave them and have them explain some aspect of the character’s action(s).

This brevity of description extends to the novel and short story too, for much the same reasons. In her wonderful book on the craft of the short story,  Inside Stories for Readers and Writers, Trish Nicholson offers us several examples of this skill.

In Modus Operandi she describes a character’s physical size: “A big man, too–he had to duck under doorways. His hands were as wide as dinner plates. To see those long fleshy fingers you’d realize the strength in them.” This description is not only germane to the story but it foreshadows menacing aspects in the plot.

Summary

Character description should be brief and germane. Describe only those traits of a character that serve as triggers to the plot, and do so succinctly

The Role of the Archetype in Stories

Archetype and Story
How to work with an Archetype

In their book, Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley present a system for crafting stories, which, although somewhat counterintuitive, brims over with important advise—especially with regards how to work with the archetype. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of whom vary in naming convention from those put forward by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Christian Vogler.

The Protagonist (hero) and Antagonist, whom we recognise from other writers on the subject, form the first pair. The function of the protagonist is to pursue the goal identified towards the end of the first act and, hence, drive the story forward. The function of the antagonist is to try and stop him at all costs.

The next pair is Reason and Emotion. Reason is calm and collected. His decisions and actions are based solely on logic. Star Trek’s Spock is a typical example of this archetype. Bones, the ship’s doctor, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. Although a medical man, his opinions and actions are deeply emotional. He presents the emotional dimension of the moral premise.

The Sidekick and Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the story. The sidekick is the faithful supporter of the protagonist, although he may attach himself to the antagonist since his function is to show faithful support of a leading character. The skeptic on the other hand is the disbelieving opposer, lacking the faith of the sidekick. His function in the story is to foreshadow the possibility of failure.

The Guardian and Contagonist form the last pair of archetypal characters. The job of the guardian is that of a teacher and protector. He represents conscience in the story. Gandalf is such a character in Lord of the Rings. He helps the protagonist stay on the path to achieve success. By contrast, the contagonist’s function is to hinder the protagonist and lure him away from success. He is not to be confused with the antagonist since his function is to deflect and not to kill or stop the opposing character. George Lucas’s (Star Wars) Jabba the Hut is such a character. As with the sidekick, the contagonist may attach himself to the protagonist.

As a group, the archetypal characters perform essential functions within a story. Because they can be grouped in different ways, versatility can be added to their relationships. 

Their usefulness becomes apparent when editing your manuscript, especially in sagas such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings

Does your story ‘feel’ wrong? 

Do your characters drift? 

Identity the function of each character archetype to see if it is functioning correctly in your story.

Of course, the task becomes more complex when the archetypes are mixed to create more complex and realistic characters, but even then, you may be able to pin-point their essential combinations and, therefore, work to improve their shared functions—but that is the subject of another article.

Summary

Understanding archetypes and their function in your story will assist you in troubleshooting loose and imprecise aspects of your tale.

Conflicting Story Characters Make for Better Tales

Conflicting story characters
Rob Roy has strong conflicting story characters to drive the action forward

Conflicting story characters are the engine of your tales. Do you want your characters to drive the story forward? Then push them into situations of increasing conflict. 

In Rob Roy the conflict between Robert Roy MacGregor and Archibald Cunningham involves murder and rape and defines the plot of the story.

Conflict, which is both internal and external, comes from contradiction—contradiction between warring traits inside the character such as fear versus ambition, and contradiction as a result of a clash between two external and powerful wills pitted against each other. Animosity, jealousy, covetousness, hate, and overbearing ambition fighting against their opposites make for a powerful conflict. 

Conflicting story character traits heap trouble and misery upon our characters. To rectify a wrong decision a character makes another, drawing on those traits, then another, and a third to fix the second, and so on.

Conflict provides the causality that drives the story forward, like a stack of falling dominos.

Some characters will eventually concede defeat. Others will remain stubborn until they succeed or die. 

As a writer, your interest lies in characters who, because of their physical and psychological traits, are predestined to defy the odds and never give up. They are reckless. They relentlessly try to achieve their goal, no matter what. 

Such driven people, however, become desperate only after dire necessity forces them to a decision, and any delay in acting might cost them their lives, loves, wealth, health, or honour. Desperate necessity propels them toward their ultimate goal, which is clearly stated in the story’s premise. 

The greater the conflict in the characters’ lives, therefore, the greater their growth. End-to-end growth as a result of the journey from jealousy to trust, or from hatred to love, and how it happens, makes for the most satisfying and successful stories.

Summary

Conflicting story characters promote growth by causing contradictory traits to collide and resolve themselves into an outcome, allowing one trait to gain prominence over the other.

Character identification in stories—how to achieve it.

Rob Roy uses great character identification
Rob Roy is a great story made greater through the use of strong character identification

A well-crafted film script or novel contains strong character identification—characters we can identify with. At the very least, it allows us to identify with the protagonist , if we are to be drawn into the tale at all. By identification I mean the tendency to experience part of a character’s achievements, failures, foibles, likes and dislikes, as if they were our own.

Identification is not the same as liking the character, although, in a traditional story, it is one of the most important elements.

Because character identification helps to draw us into the story more effectively than is otherwise possible, it is one of the most important story-telling skills to master.

In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hague lays out several ways to achieve this. Here’s six of the most important:

1. Create sympathy for your characters. This is one of the most effective ways to achieve identification with a fictional character. A character that has been made the victim of some undeserved misfortune is a someone we can root for — Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Rob Roy are all people that did not deserve the punishment meted out to them.

2. Place your character in peril. Worrying about a character’s well-being draws us closer to him. In The Matrix we worry that Neo’s conflict with agent Smith will result in his death. This forces us identify with his predicament even more.

3. Make your character likable. The more we like someone the more likely we are to root for him. A character that is funny (Inspector Clouseau), good (William Wallace), or merely skilled at what he does (Dirty Harry), posses traits that make him likable. 

4. Make your character powerful. Readers and audiences are fascinated with powerful figures. Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, holds our interest precisely because his is a powerful enemy.

5. Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. The reader is waiting for someone worthy to root for. The sooner you bring him into the fray, the sooner the process of identifying with him can begin.

6. Give your character flaws and foibles. We often identify with a character who is quirky, awkward or clumsy precisely because we recognise some of these characteristics as our own. In my best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist refuses to get rid of his old bell-bottom trousers and keeps a bowl filled with milk for his dead cat as if she were still alive.

Summary

Achieve a stronger and more engaging story by creating character identification with your protagonist through these six techniques.

Hero on a Journey of Discovery

A student recently asked me how she could bolster the credibility of the actions of her hero in a story she’d written. 

Joseph Campbell’s book goes to great depths in exploring the hero and his journey
Joseph Campbell’s book goes to great depths in exploring the hero and his journey

Was there a guideline, other than instinct and experience, she could glean from a structured approach to storytelling?

The answer, of course, is yes. 

Assuming the decisions and actions of your hero respect his background and character traits, you should ensure they reflect his current emotional, moral, and spiritual status too.

Let’s look at the pivotal action which occurs at the first turning point. This is the moment, we are reminded, when the hero decides to accept a challenge, choose a goal, and embark on a course of action that sets into motion a series of cascading events. It is the true start of the story.

Let’s also remind ourselves that a hero typically has the most to learn at the start of the tale. We refer to this as his developmental arc. 

Perhaps he is morally naive and misguided, or emotionally immature and spiritually bankrupt, and tends to confuse his want with his need.

It stands to reason, then, that his initial plan for pursuing the goal is flawed. It allows his nemesis to stay a step ahead, handing him a series of defeats. 

It is only towards the end of the story when the hero has reached the zenith of his moral, spiritual, and emotional development that he is able to choose the right plan and find the strength and self-belief to defeat his nemesis. 

In The Matrix, Neo is unable to beat agent Smith in hand-to-hand combat before he discovers who he truly is. Were he to achieve victory before this moment, he would not only throw the pacing off, but his actions would appear inauthentic.

So, when are your hero’s actions credible? When his outer experience tracks his growing maturity.

Summary

Tie the actions of your hero to his developmental arc to ensure his inner and outer journeys stay in sync.

The flawed Protagonist

There is an interesting tendency in new television series in the past few years to present a flawed protagonist that is not only dark, but often, downright pathological.

The chief difference between the flawed protagonist and antagonist seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dr. Chance, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.

Dr. Chance as the flawed protagonist

Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like the flawed protagonist in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?

Part of the answer lies in the notion that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.

Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through his eyes. He is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for his dilemmas and motivation.

Flawed protagonists are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient. 

Dr. Chance keeps outsmarting his opponents, with his side-kick’s (D’s) help, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business. 

Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and nifty dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He succeeds in staying ahead of his opponents and surprising them with his ingenuity. 

But ultimately, even a flawed protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dr. Chance loves his daughter deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel abuser’s and killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had. 

Making the flawed protagonist likable

Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to grow to like the protagonist first before we see him drag himself through the mud.

Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.

But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.

Summary

To foster empathy, introduce your flawed protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.

Turning Points in Stories

Turning Points in Die Hard

Turning Points in Die Hard

I’ve talked, more than once, about turning points in stories. This post takes another look at this all important topic, adding what, I hope, is fresh insight.

A turning point occurs when something big happens in a story to spin it around in an unexpected direction. This takes the form of new information granted to the protagonist and audience.

I’ve indicated that an action-orientated turning point should be supported by a strong inner motivation. I’ve suggested that such motivation is nested in the inner journey. So, if we draw a zig-zagging line to represent the outer journey as the physical series of actions and events, the inner journey is the line that rides below it, tracking it in parallel. The turning points are the horizontal lines intersecting the two.

Examples of Turning Points in film

But what form should this new information take? Specifically, should it come from the outer journey—such as news that a solar flare seems set to destroy the earth in the film, Knowing? Or should it spring from the inner journey of the hero, as in Oblivion, when Tom Cruise’s character realises that the flashes of memory that have been plaguing him are actual memories of his wife (albeit, as we’ll later find out, through the medium of resonance, which unites his clones).

Does it really matter, which comes first, you may well ask, since the outer and inner journeys meet at the turning points anyway? My personal view is that it does.

Turning Points that come from the inner journey to intersect with the outer journey, contain more of an “Aha” moment.

Such turning Points draw our attention to the character’s background and motivation and makes us care more about his predicament. It makes the action more meaningfully, right off the bat. It bestows empathy and verisimilitude.

This is not to say that pure action can’t give rise to a turning point. Action films such as Die Hard and the crop of superhero films such as Batman and Superman often take that route. Still, letting the turning point spring from the inner journey heightens the authenticity of the protagonist’s actions. It may therefore be the more appropriate place to mine for turning points in drama-ordinated genres.

Summary

Turning points that spring from the inner journey increase character authenticity and verisimilitude in stories.

How to Write Paradoxical Characters

Paradoxical characters in Erin Brockovich

Paradoxical characters in Erin Brockovich

 

 

Paradoxical characters arise from the complexity of life itself. A paradox, in this sense, represents a deeply baffling complexity in a character navigating through life.

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger wrote:

Paradoxes do not negate the consistencies, they simply add to them. Characters are more interesting if they are made up of mixed stuff, if they have warring elements.

To create warring elements, you begin by establishing one and asking: ‘Given this element, what other elements might there be in the same person that would create conflict?’

Why Paradoxical Characters are Good Characters

In the film Erin Brockovich, for example, Erin’s paradoxes include her desire to succeed professionally, juxtaposed against her need to take care of her children.

Her trailer-trash sexuality versus her ability and commitment to fight a huge corporation.

Her foul language and aggression juxtaposed against her desire to assist people find their way through the complex legal system.

In The Matrix, Neo is a hacker and merchant who is wanted by the law, yet, he is the one chosen to save humanity. The irony is not lost on the audience who, despite this, see him as a kind of modern day Christ figure.

If we think hard enough about the people we know we will find some fine examples of paradoxes drawn from real life. It’s part of the fabric of character: the bible-puncher who is involved with a prostitute, the club bouncer who is putty in his girlfriend’s hands, or the sweet old man with a foul mouth when it comes to dealing with the payment of bills.

Introducing paradoxes, or warring elements, into your characters will inject verisimilitude and interest in the stories you tell.

Summary

Paradoxical characters are an important part of creating vibrant, interesting, and authentic stories.

How to Write the Story Midpoint

The story midpoint in Field of Dreams

The story midpoint in Field of Dreams

Although much has been written about the story midpoint, not least in this blog, it is a crucial structural element in a story that deserves revisiting.

The middle of a story is the point in which the Hero makes an important decision: He can choose to turn back from the path he has been following, or press on with renewed insight—stemming from an event that has caused him to reassess his approach to it.

In my newest novella, Before the Light, about A.I. and the origin of the universe, the midpoint occurs when the protagonist, Sam Yeager, decides how best to proceed against the plot to destroy the quantum computer he helped to program.

Unlike the first or second turning point, the midpoint does not necessarily involve a huge climax or action scene.

What the midpoint does do is:

Cause the Hero to reassess the quest

Have him consider giving up

Lead him to the realisation that he must continue

Have him formulate a new or more specific plan of action and commit to this new goal in a way that he can not back out of

Cause him learn something new about his innermost self.

Story Midpoint Examples

In Field of Dreams, the midpoint occurs at the baseball game with Terence Mann, when Ray notices the sign about Archibald ‘Doc’ Graham, then hears, once more, the voice saying ‘Go the distance’. In The Crying Game, the midpoint occurs when Fergus uncovers Dill’s physical secret. In both cases, there is a strong inner, or, psychological aspect to the midpoint.

Typically, the midpoint changes a crucial aspect in the Hero’s inner life that impacts on his outer life: if he was not in control, he seizes control, if he was uncommitted, he becomes committed, if he was a victim, he decides to hit back, if he was hunted, he becomes the hunter, if he was delusional, he starts to deal with reality, if he was defeated by the goal, he begins a new struggle to achieve it.

In this sense, then, the midpoint brings the inner and outer journeys together by fusing self-illumination to a plan of action, which leads him to  achieve the story goal.

Summary

The story midpoint is not only the half-way point of the story in terms of length, it is also the moment in which the Hero reassesses his situation, regathers his strengthen and resources, and presses on with renewed insight and wisdom.

Strong Character Relationships in Stories

Strong relationships in Breaking Bad

Strong relationships abound in Breaking Bad

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that character relationships are at the centre of most stories. With the exception of such stories as Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, or Steven Spielberg’s Duel, most tales consist of characters who love, hate, like, or dislike each other.

Novelist Leonard Tourney stresses that couples have become more important in fiction and in film.

Pairing people up into relationships changes their individual chemistry; it brings out differing aspects in them: Walter White’s complex master/slave relationship with Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, is one of the many examples of this sort of complexity. Older television series such as Cheers, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, and Moonlighting, are more cases in point. This is not limited to television alone.

Ask yourself the question: How successful would Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rain Man, or Breaking Bad have been without the special relationships between the lead characters?

All of these stories have characters based on traits that cause the most bang for the buck when mixed together. And it’s not any old mix.

The nature of character relationships

It involves certain recurring traits and patterns in stories:

1. Characters who have something in common that brings them and keeps them together.

2. A conflict between characters that threatens to tear them apart and is the cause of much of the humour or drama in a story.

3. Characters have contrasting traits — opposites may attract, but they often combust when brought together.

4. Characters that have the ability to transform each other, for better or worse.

Marshaling characters utilising these relational traits is a useful method for creating interesting stories.

Summary

Writing characters engaged in strong relationships with one another is an important way of generating interest in your stories.