Category Archives: On Character

How to Write Memorable Antagonists

Memorable Antagonists

Ed Harris, as General Francis X. Hummel, is one in a long line of memorable antagonists in stories.

ANTAGONISTS fulfill an indispensable function in stories. They act as spurs to protagonists forcing them to achieve their true potential.

In The Rock, Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical warfare expert working for the F.B.I. is sent on a mission with a former British spy, John Patrick Mason, to prevent General Francis Hummel from launching chemical weapons into San Francisco from Alcatraz Island.

The General demands one hundred million dollars in war reparations to be paid to the forgotten families of slain servicemen who died on covert operations. His actions, therefore, stem from his sense of duty to his men and their families, whom he believes have been abandoned by the country they served.

A well-crafted antagonist is more than a mere technical device. He is also a flesh-and-blood character with a personality, a belief-system, and a goal of his own.

How many times have we seen the villain doing villainous things, but can’t understand why?

This is because he is merely a cog in the writer’s plot. Since the antagonist and protagonist form the essential narrative unit that drives the story forward, a poorly written villain will stall the engine.

Nailing your Antagonists

Generally speaking, many of the aspects that apply to writing a credible character apply to the antagonist, but one in particular aspect warrants special mention: The villain believes he is the hero of his own story. He believes he is justified in doing what he does because of some past injustice, injury, or misconstrued sense of duty.

In The Matrix, agent Smith despises human beings. He hates their smell, their sweaty bodies, which he sees as prisons of meat. His job is to rid his perfect world of anyone who threatens it. He is intelligent, determined, skilled — in his own mind, a hero with a cause. It is partly this self-belief that makes him such a memorable villain.

Summary

Give your antagonist a powerful cause, operating within a self-consistent value system, in order to lend him credibility and depth.

Character, Plot and Verisimilitude

Character,  plot and verisimilitude in Edge of Tomorrow

Character, plot and verisimilitude in Edge of Tomorrow

HOW do you achieve verisimilitude in stories?

Make your story a consequence of character instead of making your character a mere pawn of the plot. In other words, have character, typically your protagonist, drive the story forward in a convincing and germane way.

This is not as complicated as it may seem if you ensure that your protagonist’s traits are in keeping with his actions at the nodal points of your story.

In Edge of Tomorrow, for example, Major William Cage initially refuses to do his job of filming the allied landing in France against the alien invaders. This action aligns with his trait of self-preservation.

But when the General orders Cage to the front as a private, an encounter with the enemy results in alien blood being spilled on the major. This endows him with the power to keep returning to the moment of his death so he may take a different path.

Through trial and error he learns to use this power not only to survive in a personal sense, but to try and defeat the enemy in order to save humanity, and specifically, the woman he has fallen in love with. His focus on self-preservation has expanded to include the preservation of the human race.

His heroic actions at the end, when he loses the power to return to the moment before his death, reveals that he is willing to sacrifice his life in one last-ditch effort to save the world. The trait of selfishness has given way to the hitherto hidden traits of self-sacrifice and duty, awakened by the endless series of hard knocks he has endured. His actions at the nodal points, therefore, are determined by his inner traits and are part of his character arc.

Similarly, in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos’ choice between seeking safety in his cyclone-resistant house, or letting the storm end his life lies in the tension between his sense of guilt for the death of his wife, and the love he bears his parents.

Ultimately, a third characteristic, his gift of intelligence, arbitrates between the first two warring traits. His decision, an inevitable consequence of his character, results in appropriate action and is a major turning point in the story.

Summary

Make your protagonist’s actions an inevitable consequence of warring traits. This will help lend your story verisimilitude.

A Good Villain?

Pablo Escobar as the chief villain

Pablo Escobar as the chief Villain

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IN his book, Screenwriting, UCLA professor Richard Walter, reminds us that just as there are few purely good or purely bad people in life, a well observed character, particularly a villain or an anti-hero in a story, should contain at least some small trace of good in him.

“What Makes A Good Villain?”

In Narcos, for example, the drug lord, Escobar is responsible for establishing the cocaine trade in Miami, and murdering many innocent people in his own country, Colombia, as a show of force against the government.

Yet, his love for his family and his generosity to the poor people of his own town point to some good traits in him. When the tables are turned on him by rival cartels, as well as an equally brutal police force, he is separated from his family as he attempts to get them out of the country to safety. To make matters worse, they end up in the hands of the Colombian police. That is the beginning of the end for Escobar.

As his men are killed off one by one he becomes increasingly isolated. His father rejects him. His wife asks him to turn himself in. Despite his record, we cannot help but feel a wisp of sympathy for him.

    “A villain who is completely villainous, without a single trace of humanity in him, is essentially uninteresting and unconvincing in a story.”

In the 1970’s television series, Archie Bunker, the lead character is portrayed as stubborn, not very bright, and bigoted, hardly traits that we admire.

But who amongst us has never felt some prejudice or acted in a willful way towards others? Despite his negative traits, and because of the skillful writing of his character, we, unexpectedly, come to love the bigoted, stubborn Archie. Richard Walter suggests that part of the reason for this lies in that in comparing ourselves to Archie, we can at least feel relief that we are not as bigoted as he is.

Additionally, we are forced to recognise that prejudice can reside in anyone – a beloved grandfather, a friend, even a spouse, and we strive to guard against it in our own lives. The reason that we give such characters the time of day at all, then, is because, at the very least, we feel some sympathy for them. Without sympathy, without liking some aspect of their character, we would not waste our time on them.

Summary

Add some sympathetic traits to your most unlikable characters, especially to your villain, to avoid making them flat and stereotypical.


Signaling Emotional Changes in Story Characters

Emotional changes

Signaling Emotional Changes in Character

ONE of the hallmarks of good writing in films and novels is that there are emotional changes to the characters through time.

In stories, as in life, people learn from their mistakes, from life’s hard knocks, and try to prevent them from recurring by adjusting some aspect of their character.

Some, of course, never do, but that’s a topic for a future article.

But how do characters move from one state to another? How does love turn into hate? Passion into indifference?

Cueing Emotional Changes

Novice writers often make the mistake of creating characters who erratically jump from state to state. I’ve written before in this blog about the need for introducing transitional emotional states.

But how do we specifically convey these shifts to our readers? Is it through dialogue? Is it through narration?

In most cases, the best way to signal change is subtly, through small but telling actions. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty offers the example of a girl falling out of love with her boyfriend.

Does the girl tell him outright that she no longer loves him?

That might be too abrupt (unless that is the specific effect we are after). It would also be spoon feeding the reader. The story might require that the breakup be dragged out a bit.

In the example provided by Geraghty, the character stops using hair conditioner when washing her hair. It is a sign that she no longer cares about looking her best for him – that he’s not worth the extra cost of conditioner.

Subtle, but telling.

In planning for an emotional shift in your characters, then, identify the spot where the shift is to occur, then insert a telling but subtle action to signal it. This technique will add polish and finesse to your writing.

Summary

Signal a significant change to the emotional state of your characters through subtle but telling actions.

Archetypes and Characters in Stories

Archetypes - Gandalf in Lord of the Rings

Gandalf as one of the Mentor Archetypes in Lord of the Rings

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood studios, offers us eight character archetypes found, in one or other combination, in many successful stories.

They are the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster.

Most writers are familiar with some of these archetypes, albeit by different names, such as the Protagonist (Hero), Antagonist (Shadow), and Sidekick (Ally). Others, such as the Shapeshifter and Trickster, however, are less obvious.

The Trickster and Shapeshifter Archetypes

The Trickster represents mischief and the desire for change in the story. Clowns and comical sidekicks are examples of this sort of character. A chief psychological function of the Trickster is to cut the Hero’s ego down to size, typically through humour, in order to spotlight some absurdity in his thoughts and actions.

The Trickster’s dramatic function, as distinct from his psychological one, is to add comic relief to the tale. Some Tricksters may even rise to the level of a Trickster Hero, such as Bugs Bunny or Duffy Duck. Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop, captures many of the energies of this archetype, disrupting the Californian police system, while remaining unchanged himself.

The Shapeshifter expresses the energy of the animus and anima, which, in Jung’s psychology, characterises the male and female elements in our unconscious mind. We all embody aspects of the opposite sex within us, traits which are often repressed by society. We are told that girls play with dolls and teddies, and boys with cars and guns. When they cross over, it creates conflict in the characters, which, in story terms, enriches the plot.

The Shapeshifter’s dramatic function is to bring uncertainty and suspense to the tale. When the Hero keeps enquiring, “Is he friend or foe? Does she love me? Will she betray me?” a Trickster is generally present. A famous Trickster, who also embodies the attributes of the Shadow (Antagonist), is Iago who helps push Othello to murder and despair.

Women, portrayed through sudden changes in mood and appearance, typically make great Shapeshifters. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the woman quickly shifts from passionate lover to murderous harpy when the man with whom she is having an affair tries to end it.

Wizards, witches, and ogres are typical of this archetype in fairytales. The femme fatale, found in the noir films of the forties and fifties, finds deadly expression in cop and detective stories – Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, or Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.

Archetypes, then, allow us to create more complex characters by mixing them together to create more unique characters. At the same time, they allow us to map and track the psychological and dramatic requirements of a story – a boon to any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Understanding the psychological and dramatic function of archetypes allows us to mix specific elements from each. The result is new, exciting, and viable characters for our stories.

Structuring Emotion in the Novel and Screenplay

Emotion in the novelIN a recent article I wrote about how to avoid blunting the creative impulse resulting from excessive preparation of a novel or screenplay.

I suggested that for some writers knowing the protagonist’s obsessive desires, then placing obstacles in her way, is enough to start us writing.

But for those who need to know a little more about character motivation from the start, what other background facts would be helpful?

Character Motivation in a Novel or Screenplay

In a chapter on shaping character Lagos Egri suggests that we first need to understand the underlying causes of obsessive desire for a specific goal. Is the action driven by jealousy, as in Othello? If so, we need to know that before jealousy there is suspicion; before suspicion there is antagonism – a primary motivator of hate; before antagonism there is disappointment.

Identifying the underlying emotions that drive our characters will help us propel them through the story. Strong ambition, for example, implies the need for fame, wealth, power. But all of these might stem from a suppressed but potent sense of insecurity. In constructing that particular sort of character, then, the writer knows that she has to include scenes which explore these emotions.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Nugget’s hatred for Paulie, the story’s protagonist, arises from jealousy. Anthea, the girl he loves, seems to like Paulie, a mere labourer, more than him. Being a senator’s son, Nugget believes he is the superior choice. Her preference for Paulie, undermines his fragile confidence in himself.

Additionally, he fears that his failure to procure Anthea will diminish him in the eyes of his father, whose success is difficult to emulate. Coming up with a plan to defeat Paulie, therefore, stems from his jealousy, which in turn, springs from his insecurity.

In brief, then, exploring the chain of emotions that results in a character’s obsessive desire, is a useful spur to the writing process.

Summary

Know what lies behind your protagonist’s desire to achieve some tangible goal, prior to starting your screenplay or novel.

Simplifying Compelling Characters

Compelling CharactersCRAFTING compelling characters for your screenplays and novels is a basic requirement for any successful story. A plot without compelling characters to drive it will seem trite and unconvincing.

There is no shortage of advice on how to set about creating successful characters for your stories – from writing lengthy and detailed backstories, their moral, political, social, and ideological viewpoints, to details about their personal tastes. What food do they like? What’s their favorite colour? Do they have all their teeth? And so on, seemingly, ad infinitum.

Truthfully, I have always found such an approach daunting and demotivating.

Certainly, the writer needs to know how a character will react to certain challenges presented by the plot. And, yes, character reaction needs to be rooted in who the character truly is. But do we really need to have prior knowledge of his dental health, unless that impacts the plot directly?

My personal experience has been that delving too long and too deep into the background of the characters may actually block the writing of a story. I get diverted and eventually lost in the details. Indeed, certain details, which initially seem like beacons of inspiration, often create a confusing kaleidoscope of colors that derail progress.

Writing compelling characters need not be that complicated

The point is that for some writers, the act of writing embodies an organic, perhaps even spontaneous fusion of many serendipitous elements – textures, senses, feelings, values, facts, intuitions, plot points. Pre-planning for them is an almost impossible task because many are often discovered on the fly.

My approach to theory, therefore, has been to learn as much about the different aspects of the craft as possible, identify, in broad strokes, the overall direction of the plot and the chief motivation of my characters, then get down to writing.

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, stresses that in order to get to the heart of a character we need to know what that character wants – and not wants in some mild, would-like-to-have sort of way, but wants in a compelling, urgent, obsessive way.

Is it love? Then our character must desire it more than anything else in the world.

Is it wealth? She must be willing to push herself to breaking point to acquire it.

Is it revenge? He must be willing to risk death to get it.

In my latest story, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos is trapped by an all engulfing sense of loss resulting from the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. His unyielding desire to try to rewrite the past, through cutting-edge physics, drives his every thought and action.

Not only does this sort of obsessive desire increase the intensity of a character, but it gives the story direction. After all, the character’s wants are what drive the tale forward.

Just think of Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s murder, or Cinderella’s compulsion to go to the ball, or Heathcliff’s obsession with Cathy.

You get the picture.

Which brings me back to my opening remarks: what must I know about a character before I begin writing her story?

I need to know what she desires and how far she is willing to go to achieve it. I can then begin to generate the plot by placing obstacles in the path of that desire.

Summary

Know your character’s compelling desires before you begin writing her story.

Are your Stories Plot or Character Driven?

Plot and character in Gladiator

Plot and Character: Russel Crow as Maximus in Gladiator

Students of writing often ask how character relates to plot. Which is more important, or at least, where should the emphasis fall?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than a European art film that concentrates more on character.

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because plot and character are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other?

How character affects plot

The following analogy is helpful: Plot is to character as a beam of light is to a prism passing through it. The prism refracts the flow of the plot.

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena?

Much more fitting is that Maximus pull the Emperor’s sword from his belly with his bare hands and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it.

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.

Summary

The plot of a story is directed through the prism of character.

Do your Minor Characters Have Character?

Minor charactersIn his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers admonishes us to make all our characters, even minor characters, memorable and fascinating in some way. He believes that no role is insignificant unless you make it so.

In Body Heat, for example the writer gives assistant D.A. Ted Danson, one of several minor characters, an interesting habit – he pretends he is Fred Astaire, often doing little dance steps as he swings across the room much to the bewilderment or amusement of others. It is a small thing but this makes his character interesting. He stays in our minds long after the film has ended.

In the film, Down Periscope, one of the the minor characters, Seaman 2nd Class ‘Sonar’ Lavacelli is blunt and a bit of a roughneck, but he is also loyal. He has amassed an impressive collection of whales sounds on tape. When, during the war game, he finds himself in the presence of an enemy ship, he plays the sounds of whales having sex in order to confuse and divert the attention of the enemy away from the submarine.

Eccentric behaviour often does wonders to beef up a minor character. Imagine a character who is so obsessed with order and neatness that he measures the distance of every object in his room after cleaning to ensure that it is in precisely the same position as before. This not only speaks volumes about his character, but it is visually interesting to watch.

Or someone who is so spotless that she washes and shines the vegetable cans she has purchased before placing them in the cupboard for storage.

You get the idea. Go have fun with the minor characters in your stories by giving them interesting and fascinating things to do.

Summary

Make each character colorful or unique in some way in order to make her memorable and fascinating.

Distinguishing Between the Hero’s Inner and Outer Motivation in Stories

MotivationDictionary.com defines motivation as ‘the act or an instance of motivating, or providing with a reason to act in a certain way.’

As a technical device in stories motivation can be understood as something that involves two interwoven aspects – inner and outer persuasion.

Motivation Within and Without

Typically, the hero’s inner motivation springs from his mental life – his values, needs, background. These elements, in turn, guide the physical actions that arise in response to some outer challenge or opportunity, in other words, his outer motivation.

Importantly, it is the outer goal that first catches a reader’s or audience’s attention, ordering the events of the story in a visceral way – as in a story about a man who uses his superpowers to try and save the world. Any inner persuasion lies beneath the surface of the tale and is revealed as the story progresses. The outer motivation, then, is the initial cause that starts the hero down a certain path.

Inner motivation, however, is important because it helps to keep the hero’s physical actions to that path. Together, outer and inner motivation form an integrated unit – the description of the event-driven action and its justification.

The Terminator, for example, is about a waitress who wants to prevent a time-traveling cyborg from murdering her. That is her outer goal. But her ability to do so needs to be grounded in her traits of resilience and determination.

Ghostbusters is about a fired university researcher, and his team, who wants to make cash by ridding clients of ghosts. Acumen in the paranormal field and the need to survive in a harsh real-world environment outside the university result in the creation of a ghost-busting business.

In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s desire to provide for his family in light of his seemingly fatal illness, drives him to cook meth. But as the story progresses we realise that he is increasingly propelled by a desire to regain the power and reputation he lost when he sold his share of his company years previously, for a pittance. In one telling moment, he demands of a dangerous drug distributor, “Say my name!”

The hero’s inner and outer motivation, respectively, then, can be understood as his physical response to the goal, guided by his reasons for doing so.

Summary

Inner motivation explains why the hero physically responds to some challenge or opportunity, outwardly, in the way that he does.