Category Archives: On Character

Working with Character Traits

Character traits in the Gladiator

Character traits in the Gladiator

ONE OF THE HALLMARKS of accomplished writing is how well the writer uses character traits to generate the hero’s outer and inner journey in the story.

Which is to say: How well does the inner journey support the visible events of the plot?

One way is to relate the hero’s arc to the antagonist’s character traits. We are reminded from previous articles on this topic that, typically, a character has four or five traits — mostly positive but one or two negative for a hero, and the inverse for an antagonist.

This allows the writer to tie the hero’s inability to achieve the goal to his negative trait by allowing the villain to exploit it.

 

Not only must the writer present clearly defined traits to drive the developmental arc of his hero, he must relate that arc to the antagonist’s actions, too.

But, by the end of the story, the tables turn. Schooled by experience, the hero is not only able to dig deeper and unleash the power of his positive traits, but he can identify and use the villain’s own weakness against him, too. This is a one-two punch combination that gains the hero his goal by allowing him to knock out his opponent.

Traits define a story

In Gladiator, Maximus is able to muster his remaining strength and slay the usurping emperor with his own sword. In so doing, he fulfills his promise to revenge his family and keep Rome safe from all enemies, including tyrants. He is able to manifest his inner strength, which stems from moral fortitude and loyalty, as physical strength, and use it against the villain’s own weakness: Had Commodus not been an egoistical coward determined to show Rome that he could defeat the world’s greatest gladiator in the arena, he might well have lived.

It is this combination, this conflict between the hero’s and villain’s traits, that allows the final showdown to resonate with irony, tension, and a sense of justice. The result is a powerful and memorable story skillfully rendered. We would do well to emulate this in our own writing.

Summary

Use your hero’s and villain’s warring character traits to drive the story and integrate the inner and outer journey events.

Conflicting Characters Sell Stories

Conflicting characters: A performance of Ghosts in Berlin, 1983, with Inge Keller, Ulrich Mühe, and Simone von Zglinicki.

A study in conflicting characters: A performance of Ghosts in Berlin, 1983, with Inge Keller, Ulrich Mühe, and Simone von Zglinicki.

The noted teacher and dramatist, Lagos Egri, provides some sage advice of how conflicting characters help sell your story.

Remembering that stories need to hold our interest from the get-go, he suggests we start at a crisis point—the turning point in our protagonist’s life.

In Ghosts, by Ibsen, for example, the basic idea is heredity. The play grew out of a Biblical quotation which formed the premise: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.” Every action, every bit of dialogue, every conflict in the play, arises out of this premise.

Egri states that the correct way to start a story is to involve your main character in conflict. Conflicting characters not only drive the story forward, but they reveal their true selves in the shortest possible time.

Forcing conflicting characters together is the best way of exposing them to a reader or audience. Opposing characters should be militant, passionate, and active about their positions. Egri calls this process orchestration.

Recepies for creating conflicting characters:

Optimist vs. pessimist
Miser vs. spendthrift
Honest vs. dishonest
Loyal vs. disloyal
Believer vs. non-believer
Agapi vs. Erotas

Diametrically opposed values make conflicting characters inevitable. Two perfectly orchestrated characters will oppose, or, perhaps, even destroy each, other depending on circumstances, making your story a page turner.

Although conflicting characters form the foundation of any good story, you should first determine why they can’t simply walk away from each other, while the conflict rages. Determine the precise nature of the unbreakable bond that keeps them together until the climax: is it revenge, hate, jealousy, pain?

Summary

Conflicting characters generate story interest when they are forced into an unbreakable union. As they struggle to break their bonds, they generate even more rising conflict that drives the story forward.

Character Motivation in Stories

Character Motivation in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Character Motivation in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

.

In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge examines the important topic of inner and outer character motivation in relation to story structure.

It’s important to note that much of the knowledge developed by the likes of Michael Hauge, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, and others, is aimed at the screenplay, but is, nevertheless, of direct benefit to novelists too. It is my opinion that some novels would benefit from the injection of pace and a deeper understanding of story structure.

Character motivation à la Hauge

Hauge reminds us that motivation exists on two levels. Outer motivation is the goal that the character, chiefly the protagonist, strives to accomplish by the end of the story. It is the answer to the question: What is the story about. Solving a puzzle? Catching the murderer? Winning the love of a beautiful woman? These questions and answers are all visible, plot orientated, outer journey motivations.

Inner character motivation, by contrast, is related to the inner journey of the protagonist. It is the answer to the question: Why does the protagonist strive to achieve her outer motivation? The answer always involves, at least in part, the protagonist’s desire to gain self-worth and an understanding of her place in the scheme of things.

Because it belongs to the inner journey, it is, by definition, invisible and exposes its presence through the outer actions of the character. Inner motivation is more tightly related to character growth and theme than it is to plot, although it motivates, explains and impacts plot.

In The Matrix, Neo strives to understand why the world he inhabits feels wrong. He seeks to answer the question: What is the matrix? Having been given the answer to that question, he then strives to discover whether or not he is The One. Both these questions are fundamental to his growth as a person and inform the decisions and actions he makes.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin’s character motivation stems from his obsession with proving that time travel is possible—this in order to correct the error that led to the death of his wife. It underlies his every thought and action.

Here, then, are the chief aspects of inner and outer motivation, à la Hauge:

Outer motivation is visible, desires outward accomplishment, is revealed through action, and answers the question: What is the story about?

Inner motivation, by contrast, is invisible, seeks to secure self-worth, is revealed through dialogue and action, and answers the question: Why does the character desire the goal?

Summary

This post sheds light on character motivation as aspects of the protagonist’s inner and outer actions.

How to Write Essential Backstory Elements

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

ONE of the potential problems of expositional backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us.

Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable.

A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

Backstory Essentials

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest.

In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand which the backstory then satisfies. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.

Summary

Backstory provides essential information to the reader or audience needed to understand the narrative. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is an effective way of making it unobtrusive.

Every Hero Needs a Nemesis

The nemesis in Crash

Matt Dillon is a strong nemesis in Crash

.

.

ONE of the chief functions of the nemesis in stories is to force the hero to evolve. Without the nemesis’ constant prodding, the hero’s effort to achieve the story goal is doomed to failure.

The Model Nemesis

Die Hard‘s John McClane is in a bad marriage. He is separated from his wife and is headed for divorce before Hans Gruber enters the fray, kidnaps a bunch of people, including John’s wife, and forces him to step up to the mark. By having to rescue his wife from the arch criminal’s clutches, John realises how much he truly loves her and what he has to do to save his marriage, which he does. Thank you, Hans Gruber.

In The Matrix, Neo is riddled with self-doubt. Is he indeed The One? The answer remains unclear until he faces and defeats his nemesis, agent Smith. But for Smith, Neo might still be vacillating over this world-saving question.

At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick Blaine is self-serving and unlikable, until he gives up on the woman he loves in order to contribute to the war effort. This is a huge shift for him. Were it not for Ilsa Lund, the opponent who turns his world upside down, he would not have grown through this sacrifice, remaining static and selfish — someone of no moral consequence.

In Crash, Terrance Howard has to deal with a series of problems concerning his wife, as well as with the specter of racism. But having to overcome Matt Dillon’s constant harassment, causes him to emerges a stronger and better man. Here again, no Matt Dillon, no personal growth.

Although the clash between the hero and the nemesis ostensibly occurs at the surface level, the level of actions and events, it is the effect on the hero’s inner landscape that marks its true significance.

Summary

The nemesis is the hero’s polar opposite and forces change in the hero. Ironically, and unintentionally, the nemesis teaches the hero the skills and values he needs to learn in order to achieve the story goal.

Actions in Stories

Small actions in Loves a Blonde

Small actions in Loves a Blonde

.

.

IN HIS BOOK, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA, writes: “(1) any action is better than no action, and (2) appropriate imaginative, integrated action, action complementing a scene’s other elements and overall purpose, is best of all.”

Telling actions need not only be about Godzilla crushing cities underfoot, or King Kong swatting helicopters from the sky. They can also arise in the most seemingly mundane or non-threatening scenes.

Small actions, large impact

In the Czechoslovakian film, Loves a Blonde, two groups of labourers, one male, one female, working on a project in a remote area of the Carpathian foothills end up eating in a dining hall. Both the men and women are equally nervous about meeting each other. The scene isolates one man in particular who fidgets absentmindedly with his wedding ring.

Is the fidgeting an attempt to hide his marital status from the women? We suspect so.

Suddenly, the ring slips from his finger, clutters loudly to the floor, and begins rolling away. The man drops to his hands and knees and scrambles after the ring.

So engrossed is he in his pursuit of the tale-tale object that he fails to notice that the knees he is shuffling past are no longer those of men but of women! By the time he finally captures the elusive object and pops up from under the table, triumphantly holding the ring up in his hand, he finds himself amongst the very group of women from whom he was he was trying to hide the ring in the first place!

The action itself is small in scale, but its emotional impact is huge, making for a scene that is fresh and inventive. It satisfies Professor Walter’s second observation of integrated action and exploits that age old maxim of “show don’t tell”. This is writing at its simplest and best.

Summary

Drama is action. Static scenes make for boring stories. While there is nothing wrong with large action in stories, there should be a liberal sprinkling of smaller, well-observed action too.

Character Traits, Wants, Needs.

Character Traits in Blade Runner

Character Traits in Blade Runner

.

.

IN A PREVIOUS POST, I defined the protagonist’s character arc in terms of the rise and fall of certain character traits at the expense of others.

I suggested that the best way to manage this process is to make changes at specific structural junctions such as the inciting incident, first turning point, mid-point, and second turning point.

Another way to think of the character arc is in terms of character traits vying for dominance as a result of the tension that arises between a character’s wants versus his needs.

Let me explain:

Prior to the mid-point, sometimes referred to as the moment of illumination, the protagonist pursues the goal chiefly out of want. He mistakenly believes that by attaining the outer goal, happiness will follow. This is because he has not yet discovered or acknowledged his need. The trait driving the protagonist’s search towards the goal, based on this lack of self-awareness, therefore, is a negative one—obsessive desire, overblown ambition, and the like.

After the mid-point, however, the protagonist is granted insight into the true nature of the goal and himself. What seemed like a good path at the beginning of the story no longer does so. From the perspective of technique, this means the prominent trait(s) motivating the character has been overshadowed by other more positive traits. This causes a change in the goal, and therefore, in the path to the goal. It illustrates the causal relationship that exists between the inner and outer journey in the story.

In the original Blade Runner, Deckard, a retired blade runner, a hunter of off-world synthetic humans, is persuaded to come out of retirement to hunt and kill a group of dangerous Nexus-6 Replicants, led by Roy, who have landed on earth illegally. We later learn that they’ve come in search of their creator Tyrell, of the Tyrell Corporation.

Their intent is to have him extend their lifespan which has been set at four years to prevent them from developing emotions and becoming a threat to humans. During his investigations, Deckard discovers that Tyrell’s personal assistant, Rachel, is herself a Replicant although she is is unaware of this fact. The plot thickens when Deckard falls in love with her and tries to protect her from harm.

Adjusting Character Traits Through Want vs. Need

Deckard’s inner journey is to realise that what he wants — to get rid of Replicants, is not what he needs — to rise above his prejudice and to keep Rachel alive. Ironically, during a fight to the finish, Deckard is rescued from falling to his death by Roy, the Replicant he has sought to kill. This act proves Replicants are capable of compassion, a trait that humans seem to have lost.

Deckard’s dominant trait of cold efficiency in tracking and killing Replicants becomes subservient to his traits of love and compassion released in him by Rachel, who, we are informed, has no expiry date. In changing his goal by protecting Rachel from those who would kill her, Decker acknowledges that his need is greater than his want. This change of heart (character arc) illustrates how traits affect the story goal — Decker goes from killing Replicants to protecting them.

Summary

Crafting your character arc in terms of character traits as well as what your protagonist wants vs. what he needs allows you to integrate the outer and inner journey of a story.

More on Constructing Compelling Characters

Chinatown is replete with compelling characters

Chinatown is replete with compelling characters

As has been suggested in previous posts, compelling characters are the lifeblood of any story.

Learning to craft fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad.

There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is to plan characters through the use of the character profile.

Profiling Compelling Characters

A compelling character profile contains elements that work together to increase the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude of a character.

In this post we examine six such elements: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.

1. Basic Traits

Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.

2. Want vs. Need

What a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most compelling characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to bolster his self-respect by enduring the punishment the champion throws at him.

3. Opposing Elements

Inner conflict arising out of warring elements makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Manny a cold blooded killer in his youth is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who continues to influence him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Manny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and provide a fresh start for his children from the reward money.

4. Keeping Secrets

Someone with a secret makes for a far more compelling character. Secrets promote suspense, surprise, and enrich the backstory, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.

5. The Flaw

A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.

6. Uniqueness

A unique personality doesn’t have to be bizarre; one or two unique habits or unusual traits are often enough to make a character stand out from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. The unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his beloved vision of Daisy.

Summary

A character profile is a way of fashioning compelling characters. It helps ensure the action and dialogue stay on track.

How to Write Engaging Characters

Engaging Characters in Knowing

Engaging Characters in Knowing

.

BELIEVABLE and engaging characters are essential to most successful stories.

While it is true that certain genres such as Action Adventure or Science Fiction adopt a more plot driven approach, others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character driven.

All stories, however, require convincing characters to complement an effective plot.

 

 

Pointers to building engaging characters.

As Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are important characteristics that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on.

Importantly, most traits have a moral or ethical flavour. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst to act in a cowardly manner is to be devoid of righteousness.

Additionally, engaging characters change and grow. They learn from events around them.

How does change affect existing traits? It reorders the hierarchical prominence of certain traits over others.

Typically, a traditional protagonist tends to have three or four positive traits and one negative one. This juxtaposition is essential in creating dynamic characters who experience internal conflict. A conflicted character is inherently more interesting than a static and stable one. Character change, on these terms, involves managing the emphasis of these traits.

In an “up ending” the protagonist de-emphasises his negative trait and accentuates his positive ones. In a “down ending”, the opposite happens. These changes typically happen at the structural turning points, particularly the mid-point. These are the moments where important events impact the character and cause him or her to respond. This allows the writer to craft character growth in a localised and manageable way.

In the film Knowing, John Koestler, an astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world.

This eventually causes John to in entrust his son’s future to a group of alien observers who offer to take the boy and his young friend Abby to another planet to ensure humanity’s survival. As a marker of his transformation, John reconciles with his father, a priest, after many years of alienation. His trait of skepticism has been kicked down the ladder by his newly promoted trait of faith, not in science this time, but in his belief that the aliens will secure his son’s future.

Summary

Traits have an ethical or moral flavour. They are fundamental to the formation and growth of engaging characters.

How to write a minor character

Minor character

There is no truly minor character in Toy Story in terms of impact


.
.
Most novels or screenplays contain at least one minor character. This is a character who serves the plot in some important way, but who does not warrant the time and space required to develop him into a major player.

One of the pitfalls of crafting minor characters is that they can easily slip into stereotype or cliche, possibly because writers tend to create such characters more out of necessity than passion. Yet, such pitfalls are easily avoided.

Aks yourself the following questions:

1. What is the function of the character in the scene you intend to write?

2. Can this function be performed by an existing character?

In deciding this, consider whether this is truly a 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. What is your minor character’s background — upbringing, education, occupation? Her background will influence her style of dress, body type, body language, dialect, speech idiosyncrasies, hobbies, unexpected interests. The latter are markers which, in the absence of deep interaction and complexity, grant a minor character uniqueness at a glance.

The Minor character in Toy story

In the film, Toy Story, the Dinosaur and Mr. Potato Head are minor characters who 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. They are a wonderful illustration of coulorful and interesting characters made so through broad strokes.

Summary

Create interesting minor characters by infusing each with physical and psychological traits that manifest in unique dialogue and behavioural patterns.