Category Archives: On Character

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.

How to Make Your Story Believable

Believable Characters

The utterly believable Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot

How do you make the characters in your films and novels believable?

In his book, Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual, Dwight V. Swain offers us two principles that underpin verisimilitude in stories – justification for everything that happens in the tale and a proportional response from the character to the events that confront him.

Believable Characters

Justification boils down to the readers and audiences believing that given a specific personality type, a character would react to a challenge, to any sort of stimulus really, precisely in the way that he does. In short, if your readers understand why your character acts in a specific way, they will experience his actions as believable and appropriate.

But it is also important to render a character’s actions in proportion to the stimulus that initiates them.

Exaggerated, unmotivated behaviour, under normal circumstances, can spoil a scene. If a girl turns down a casual request for a date from a man she hardly knows and he then proceeds to burst into tears, his behavior would be considered an overreaction.

If, on the other hand, a child were to run into a room, screaming and bleeding, and her mother were to ignore her in order to finish her bridge game, we would consider her behaviour as an underreaction.

Over and under reactions are major flaws that undermine believability in stories.

In Some Like It Hot, the director, Billy Wilder, was asked why he opened the film with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He explained that he needed to provide the audience with a powerful reason why the two musicians, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, would dress up in girls’ clothes (used to generate the many priceless moments in the film). Their need to hide their identities from the mob makes their behaviour credible.

Summary

A character’s actions will be believable if they are justifiable and proportional to the event that initiates them.

Conflict through Dilemma in Novels and Screenplays

DilemmaWHAT sort of choice or dilemma makes for the best dramatic conflict in stories?

In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, for example Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate any possibility of a risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful dramatic technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma generates inner conflict that escalates the tensions between himself and other characters in the story.

In Stories It Is All About Emotions

EmotionsI have often written about the importance of soliciting emotions in the stories we write.

Yet, the topic is of such monumental importance that I can’t write about it often enough.

Emotions, Emotions, Emotions

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty reminds us that soliciting emotion for the characters in our stories is the single most important thing we need to master. Here’s an extract from Katherine Mansfield’s, The Fly, that has stayed in my memory from the first time I read it.

A fly has fallen into an ink pot and can’t get out. The other character, referred to only as the boss, watches its desperate struggles with glee.

“Help! Help! said those struggling legs. But the sides of the ink pot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim. The boss took up a pen, picked up the fly out of the ink, and shook it on a piece of blotting paper. For a fraction of a second, it lay still on the dark patch that oozed around it. Then the front legs waved, took hold, and, pulling its small, sodden body up, it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from its wings … it succeeded at last, and, sitting down, it began, like a minute cat, to clean its face. Now one could imagine that the little front legs rubbed against each other, lightly, joyfully. The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.

But then, the boss had an idea. He plunged the pen back into the ink, leaned his thick wrist on the blotting paper, and, as the fly tried its wings, down came a heavy blot. What would it make if that? The little beggar seemed absolutely cowed, stunned, and afraid to move because of what would happen next. But then, as if painfully, it dragged itself froward. The front legs waved, caught hold, and more slowly this time, the task began from the beginning.”

This goes on until the fly is dead. If we can feel compassion for a fly, imagine what we can feel for animals and humans.

Emotion can also be present for the reader or audience, but be hidden from a character who may not yet understand it, such as a child. In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I use this technique subtly to suggest a sense of unease in the relationship between a mother and her brother-in-law, as experienced through the sensibility of a child:

“One hot afternoon, my father’s older brother, Fanos, a mechanic with the merchant Greek navy, sailed into our lives, without warning, like a bottle washing out to shore. He carried a small black suitcase in his right hand. The hand was stained by a faded blue tattoo of an anchor that started at the wrist and ended at the knuckles. I found myself staring at it at every opportunity.

Would it be fine if he stayed with us for several days, while his ship underwent repairs at the port of Piraeus, he wanted to know?

My father, who seemed both pained and glad to see him, said it would be, if that was all right with my mother. My mother had nodded and rushed out to the backyard to collect the washing from the clothes line. She had trudged back in and made straight for the bedroom where she proceeded to fold, unfold, and refold the clothes. She did this so many times that I thought she was testing out some new game, before asking me to play.”

The boy may not understand the underlying conflict, but we do, and that makes it doubly effective.

Summary

Use the emotions of your characters to bind your readers and audiences to your stories.

How to write Nonhuman Characters

Nonhuman CharactersWe often need to create nonhuman characters in the stories we write – animals, robots, talking trees.

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that human characters achieve dimensionality by highlighting their human attributes.

Highlighting nonhuman attributes of dogs, such as barking louder or digging faster to get the buried bone, will not make them more endearing. To achieve that we must give them human personality.

We need to do at least three things: choose one or two attributes that will help create character identity, understand the associations the audience itself brings to the character, and create a strong story context to deepen the character.

Attributes in themselves do not give enough interest and variety. Audiences need to project associations onto them. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in advertising.

Reader and Audience Association with Nonhuman Characters

Mercedes is branded as the car of engineering, Ford represents quality, and so on. By associating the car with a certain quality you get the rub-off or halo effect. In advertising this causes the consumer to want to purchase the product. In films and novels the effect draws us closer to the characters through our projecting personal feelings onto them.

In producer Al Burton’s TV series, Lassie, the dog part is written in a way that allows the animal to become part of the family, a best friend to the adults and their son. Through this deft move the series becomes family viewing, and not merely a kid’s show.

A character such as King Kong, however, brings very different associations. He comes from the South Seas. He is enveloped in a dark, mysterious, and terrifying aura. His associations include a vague knowledge of ancient rituals, human sacrifice, and dark, unrepressed sexuality. We, as adults, are frightened of King Kong because we bring to his character our apprehensions of the unknown.

In my novel, Scarab, the Man-Lion, a mythical creature in the likeness of the Spinx of Giza, carries the same sort of frightening mystery and intrigue. Its dark fascination for the reader is generated more by the power of association than a detailed description in the pages of the novel.

Understanding the power of association and how to use it, then, is a crucial part of creating and positioning characters in your stories, and in the market place.

Summary

Highlighting specific human characteristics in nonhuman characters, and using them to amplify our reader’s and audience’s personal experience, helps to make them more engaging.

What is the Decision-Making Mechanism in Stories?

Decision-makingJust lately I have been preoccupied with the inner journey in stories, which got me to thinking about the decision-making mechanism that drives it.

I have been emphasising that the story, at the level of plot, is the reflection of the protagonist’s character arc – that until the character achieves a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness she can not prevail against the antagonist.

I want to say a little more about the mechanism that allows us to bridge the inner and outer journeys.

How the Decision-Making Mechanism Works

The protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, she receives a challenge which she is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that she first make a decision of how to proceed.

So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.

But because the protagonist lacks emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, she fails to make the right decisions until her suffering, resulting from her string of defeats, causes her to learn from her mistakes.

The quality of the protagonist’s decision-making, therefore, directly impacts the quality of her actions. Her efforts can only lead to victory when she has fully achieved maturity – usually by the end of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, can only break his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to change his life forever.

Summary

The decision-making mechanism is the bridge between the protagonist’s inner and outer life and is tied to the character’s developmental arc.

Why Plot Hinges on Character

CharacterThe more time I spend thinking about stories, as a writer and teacher, the more convinced I become that it all really hinges on character.

It wasn’t always the case. When I was first starting out, I tended to emphasise the outer journey – the series of tangible events that exist at the level of plot. Back then I focused on the originality of the idea, the high concept, the attempt to grab one’s attention through a new and unique premise.

Certainly, these are important tools for developing a story. The success of my first novel, Scarab, is proof of that.

But as I went along, my focus shifted to character. I began to conceive of a story from the inside out. I obsessed over questions such as: what does the character lack at the beginning of a story in terms of her self-awareness, her moral and ethical values? What must she learn before she can accomplish her goal? What is the tension between her want and her need? In short, how could I create her developmental arc?

I began to see that the outer journey, the plot, needs, somehow, to be molded from the materials of the inner journey. And that the events occurring at the level of plot need to be synchronised to the flows that occur along the character arc.

I recognised that the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story – the reason the hero reacts to events, or initiates action in the way that she does.

This realisation has made it easier to write action and plot that is an intrinsic part of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow characters that are inauthentic or artificial – a bit of advice that my students, especially those new to the subject, find helpful.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I write about a man obsessed with fixing a dreadful mistake that resulted in the death of his wife many years previously. Every action, every thought he experiences stems from this obsession. Whatever else the story is about, it is also a tale about a driven man relentlessly attempting to do the impossible. A man who refuses to give up. In many respects his outer life is nothing more than a reflection of his inner life.

One of the greatest examples in literature of how character shapes the story lies in William Golding’s great novel, The Spire. The novel describes the Dean of the Cathedral’s, (Jocelin’s) determination to build a spire on top of a structure that will not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a master study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength.

Summary

The character arc is the progenitor of a viable plot.

How to Sympathise with a Flawed Hero

Sympathise with  flawed heroOne of the most important requirements in writing a successful story is that we sympathise with the hero. The hero, in a typical tale, is the character through whom we chiefly experience events.

This does not mean that the hero has no flaws. Indeed, the flaw is what helps define the hero’s character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful action to swift and righteous action that helps him achieve his goal.

Yet, crafting a sympathetic hero has become increasingly difficult. A variety of scandals involving our politicians, military and religious leaders has served to soil our trust in the existence of unsullied, altruistic heroes.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc.

The notion of a flawed hero, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet. These tragic heroes are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes, in recent times, is noteworthy.

Dexter, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe.

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters pulled this off? Here are some suggestions:

We sympathise with a flawed hero because …

The hero finds himself in a situation of undeserved misfortune:

Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can ill afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay his bills.

The law-breaking hero is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to do this and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he outsmarts both the police and his criminal victims time and again.

The hero acts for a cause other than himself:

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Understanding the underlying motivation of these deeply flawed heroes helps soften our critique of them.

Summary

Understanding a character’s motivation, no matter how flawed, helps us to sympathise with his predicament.

Emotions Bind Us to Stories

EmotionsROBERT Frost, highlighting the importance of emotions, famously wrote: “No tears in the writer no tears in the reader.”

Although he was referencing a specific emotion, it applies to a range of emotions solicited by great writing – compassion, awe, elation, fear, anxiety, jealousy, and the like.

The Importance of Emotions

Stories that evoke a range of emotions – emotions that are tested against the writer’s own experience – bind the reader to the characters of a story by soliciting identification, sympathy, and empathy in the reader.

Accomplished writers understand that such novels and screenplays are difficult to put down. The reader is compelled to keep turning the pages in order to discover how those emotions play out.

Emotions cross the boundaries of age, gender, race, and even species. Consider the following passage, taken from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, in which a character, Violet, tries to come to terms with the death of her beloved dog, Carey. Instead of the writer describing Violet’s feelings of sadness directly, she lets us experience these emotions vicariously through the technique of show-don’t-tell:

“When the vet had gone, Violet knelt down on the worn rug beside Carey’s basket. His was still, his mouth slightly open, one ear bent over like a rose petal, revealing the pink skin inside. He smelt a little. Nothing bad, just the way you’d expect an old dog to smell. […]

In the end, she […] went to run a bath. Cleanliness was next to Godliness. She’d always believed that. When the bath was full, she went back to Carey, gathered him in her arms, and gently, carefully lowered the stiff little body into the warm water. It was, she reflected, the first time that he hadn’t struggled.”

That last line in particular is a genuine tear-jerker, compacting all the years of love for her dog in one distinguishing moment.

Significantly, there is no abstract description of Violet’s sadness, her sense of loss. What we have instead is a concrete and specific scene that conveys immediacy by granting us access to Violet’s direct experience. Our hearts and minds jump back to a time when we, perhaps, had lost a beloved pet, helping to make Violet’s loss our loss.

This technique lies at the heart of creating deep and genuine emotion in the reader and is one of the secrets in welding the reader to the characters in our stories.

Summary

Use emotions to bind readers to the characters in your stories.

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.