Tag Archives: character

Writing Characters that Sell

Money flying

Successful Characters:

At the end of his chapter on character development (Writing Screenplays that Sell), Michael Hauge offers the following useful summary:

According to the Hollywood screenwriting guru, there are three facets to character: physical makeup, personality and background.

In order to create character identification and sympathy, Hauge suggests variously placing your lead in jeopardy, making her likable, introducing her to your audience early, making her powerful, witty, or good at her job, positioning her in a familiar setting, and granting her familiar flaws and foibles.

Ensure originality by performing adequate research on specific individuals whose lives seem authentic, unique, and interesting; go against cliche by altering the physical makeup, background and personality to make your character less predictable. Pair her up with an opposite or contrasting character and cast her, in your imagination, assigning her role to an actor that is best suited to the part.

Remember that there are two levels of character motivation: outer motivation, which is the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story, and, inner motivation which is the reason she strives for the goal in the first place—the why to the what and how.

The sources of conflict are outer conflict—conflict between other characters and nature, and, inner conflict—conflict between warring aspects within the character herself.

The four categories of primary characters are: hero or protagonist, whose motivation drives the plot, the nemesis or antagonist who tries to prevent the hero from achieving the goal, the reflection or guardian who most supports the protagonist, and the romance character, who, according to Hauge, alternatively supports and quarrels with the hero.

Secondary characters are created as needed, in order to provide additional plot support, add obstacles, bring relief, humour, depth and texture to your story.

Summary

This post summarises suggestions for developing successful characters for your stories.

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Understanding Inner and Outer Character Motivation

Running shoes

Motivating Character:

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

It’s important to note that much of the wisdom developed by the likes of Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, Michael Hauge, 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 as a counter to reader fatigue and boredom.

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 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. This is a clear example of the knotting together of the inner and outer journey strands.

Here, then, is a summary of 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 chief aspects of the protagonist’s inner and outer motivation.

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How to Write your Pivotal Characters

Embroidery

Pivotal Character:

The respected teacher, Lagos Egri writes about the importance of the pivotal character in your story.

Although Egri may have seen this character apart from the protagonist or antagonist, I believe this type is one which encapsulates the traits described below.

This character may appear in one of several guises, and may appear as the antagonist, protagonist, love interest, sidekick, mentor, and so on. In determining who is to be the pivotal character in your story, decide who will force your characters into action.

The pivotal character forces the conflict from beginning to end. He is the motivating power, the cause of conflict in your story—the driving engine of all stories. He experiences no doubt within himself about his course of action and knows immediately what he wants. Othello’s Iago is such a character. His function is to force the conflict to the bitter end, never backing down. He is relentless because circumstances beyond his control force him to be so. If an honest man steals, it’s not for excitement or gain, but because his family is starving, or he needs money for an operation for his child.

Whatever the reason, it must be an overpowering one. If the pivotal character stops forcing the conflict, the story skids to a halt. The pivotal character usually seeks change because he’s dissatisfied. She aggressively and relentlessly tries either to change or to maintain her status quo. A well-crafted pivotal character holds nothing sacred and feels that nothing can prevent her from reaching her goal.

The pivotal character knows where he’s going, and tries to bend everyone to go his will. If the antagonist refuses to go along with him, therefore, it’s not because the pivotal character didn’t push him hard enough. The pivotal character is an obsessively focused individual who sees only his own goal. He is reactionary, militant and passionate. This applies to good men or women as well as it does to criminals.

Here are some characteristics that make for fine pivotal characters:

Someone who wants revenge on the man who ran away with his wife.

Someone who loves a woman madly but must make money first to marry her.

Someone who is willing to give his life for his country, which he loves more than anything.

Someone who is greedy. His greed sprang from poverty and he exploits others because he fears hunger.

Someone who will stop at nothing and will destroy others to achieve his goal.

Someone who desperately and obsessively wants to achieve success in a specific job or profession and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal.

Summary

The pivotal character in your story (who can be drawn from one of several types—protagonist, antagonist, love interest, mentor), is the character who forces others into action and drives the story forward.

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3 Rules of Character

Three fingers

Constructing Character

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA reminds us that there are three fundamental rules for creating great characters:

1. Avoid stereotypes.
2. Inject some sympathetic aspect into even the most evil and despicable of your characters.
3. Force your characters, especially your protagonist, to change and grow throughout the tale.

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are boring. Avoid them like the plague. The kind-hearted priest? Seen it. The hard drinking Irish cop? Seen that too. The pissed off police captain? Ditto.

A useful way to avoid stereotyping a character is to think of a type then present its opposite. Imagine a sheriff from the deep south who is not a bigot and a dimwit, but is bristling with intelligence and dignity, passionate about revealing the truth and delivering an even-handed justice. Or a nun who is a baseball fanatic and is a genius at game statistics.

Character Growth

Truly memorable characters start off in one place and end up in another. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman begins as an insensitive, selfish narcissist but ends up as a kind and wise father who puts the happiness of his child first. At the start of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is innocent, principled, moral. By the end he is heartless, bereaved and soulless—a power hungry murderer of many, including his own brother.

Not every character needs to change, of course. Patton stays the same throughout the movie of the same name, although his character is challenged and is explained in a way that reveals to us why he is the way he is—an inflexible but powerful warrior to the last.

Sympathy

Well rounded, complex and conflicted characters are more absorbing than facile, boring ones. But with the interest that comes from lying, scheming and conniving comes the danger of characters becoming unlikable. It is, therefore, important to ensure that some aspect remains sympathetic to the reader or audience. If we don’t like our characters, especially the protagonist, we won’t like her story.

Oedipus murders his father then performs incest with his mother: horrific actions for a protagonist to indulge in. The writer, Sophocles, ensures that Oedipus remains sympathetic to his audience firstly by showing that Oedipus is unaware of the true facts of his coupling, and, secondly, by having him show deep and genuine remorse upon learning the truth.

In a Bridge on the River Kwai the Japanese commander of the prison camp is a cruel tyrant whose humanity still manages to peep through, if even once. He violates international laws, holds his prisoners in hot boxes, tortures and humiliates them, yet the writer portrays him as an unfortunate wretch who is tapped in a harsh command structure by permitting us to see him weep.

Summary

Well drawn characters are an indispensable part of successful story telling. Avoiding stereotypes, injecting character growth and creating sympathy are some of the ways of creating engaging characters.

Writing is Rewriting III

People talking

Characterisation:

Having already written two drafts, one focusing on comprehensibility and the other on structure, we now turn our attention to character.

Writer/director Clive Barker once said with regards to character: “Always try to trip yourself up—look for the places where you’ve done something which was convenient rather than true.” This is no more true than when applied to your characters’ actions.

Keys to Good Character

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Are the characters in my current draft distinctive? Does each character have her own goals, foibles, mannerisms, and way of speaking that sets her apart from all the others?

2. Do I need all the characters in my story? Have I invented characters to solve plot problems that would otherwise require more ingenuity and hard work to solve? If so, cull them, or combine them into a single character and find better ways to solve story problems.

Remember that most stories revolve around three or four main characters: Protagonist, antagonist, mirror or reflection character and, sometimes, a romance character.

Character Check-List

1. Have you established the pivotal emotions and values that exist in your story-world from the start?

2. What attitude, emotion, value, and belief changes do your main characters go through? Do these changes occur at the structural nodes of your story (turning points, midpoint, climax)? We refer to such changes as the transformational arc of the character.

3. Is there a strong correlation between your characters’ (especially the protagonist’s) inner and outer journey? In other words, does your protagonist’s action stem from his inner values, beliefs, background, attitude?

4. Are your characters original? If not, think about having them act contrary to reader or audience expectation—though still in keeping with their defining traits. Have your character(s) do something unpredictable at some crucial junction in the story (usually at a structural node).

5. Avoid clichéd characterisation by ensuring that your tale contains unexpected outcomes stemming from pertinent but surprising character actions.

6. Try to establish an enigma around a main character’s actions and maintain it for as long as possible. Provide a satisfying answer by the end of the story as part of the climax or resolution.

Summary

The focus of your third draft is on character. Work on making your characters as sharp, true and interesting as possible, using the above tips as an aid.

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More on Dialogue Subtext

Road sign

Subtext

For our purposes, subtext in dialogue, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning hiding beneath the obvious. Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo and is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

Although there are many techniques for generating subtext, in today’s post, I’d like to explore two important ways which may assist you in doing so.

The Lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve actually occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. There are several ways to do this. The wider sense of a lie in terms of subtext can be characterised by a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, change of subject, and the like.

So, when one character asks of another: “Are you telling me the truth, yes, or no?” and the other character replies: “Have I ever lied to you before?” one has the sense that the answer is evasive because it fails directly to answer the question, parrying instead, with another question.

The overall context of the subtext in this example, is, therefore, The Lie, but is specifically modified by a sense of evasiveness, although any one of the other modifiers in our list could suffice, depending on the context.

Manipulation

Another useful category for subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when her or his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a certain secret objective. Specific instances that are associated with manipulation are: being corrupt, conniving, concealing, sowing suspicion, secretive, crafty, underhanded, shifty, shady, unethical, and the like.

Fred: “I thought you told me your wife was visiting her parents in New York for the week while you looked after the kids?”
Jack: “She is.”
Fred: “Strange. Must’ve been mistaken then.”
Jack: “What do you mean?”
Fred: “It’s nothing. Sorry I mentioned it.”
Jack: “Spit it out.”
Fred: “Well…It’s just that I thought I saw her getting into a limo on Sunset Boulevard early this morning as I was leaving a club. Clearly I need new glasses.”
Jack: “I thought you just got new glasses.”
Fred: “I did.”

In this example, Fred sows the seed of suspicion by suggesting Jack’s wife might be playing around without Jack’s knowledge. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.

Summary

Lying and manipulating are two layers of subtext that enrich any piece of dialogue. Use these techniques, when appropriate, to imbue your dialogue with rich layers of meaning.

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How Paradoxes Deepen Character

Spatial paradox

Paradox:

Complexity is an indispensable ingredient of life, and so it ought to be with the characters we create in our stories.

Why Paradoxes are Good

Linda Seger, in her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, 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 date conflict?'”

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.

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

Character paradoxes are an important part of creating vibrant, interesting, and authentic characters and ought to be used at every opportunity.

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How to Manage Your Story’s Characters

Card with writing

Remembering Traits

Much has been written about how to craft successful characters for your stories, including advice offered by this blog.

In writing one’s story, however, one may wrongly allow the plot to force a character’s actions, making it appear trite or contrived.

Here’s something I do to help me keep my story’s characters on track.

Constant Reminders

1. I keep each character’s essential characteristics foremost in mind by listing them on separate post-it cards or paper. I keep these in front of me throughout the writing process.

2. Here’s what I note down: 4 or 5 positive traits and 1 negative or contrasting trait for a “good” character, and 4 or 5 negative traits and 1 positive or contrasting trait for a “bad” character.

Now, when a character acts, or speaks, I can peruse the list and see if any of these traits are overtly, or covertly expressed through subtext.

3. The character’s want versus his or her need.

Here, I look for opportunities to illustrate the differences between these two crucial drivers of character.

4. The character’s changing moral values (if any) at each major junction point—the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the resolution.

This allows me to hold the character’s developmental arc firmly in hand.

And that’s about it. Of course, there is much more to crafting authentic and engaging characters, but this list ensures that we, at least, get the basics right.

As to the rest, well, I’m a firm believer in the muse.

Summary

Keeping a list of essential character traits on hand at all times is a good way of ensuring that your characters never lose their path as they follow their way though your story’s plot.

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The Basics of Scene Description

Building blocks

Description Basics:

In a screenplay, dialogue is one of the few things that survives “as is”, albeit in a different format. Of course, actors and directors often change dialogue to suit, but, on the whole, dialogue is meant to transfer to the screen.

Scene descriptions, on the other hand, have a different function. A scene description tells the director, art director, cinematographer, actor, and so on, how to render a performance, select or construct an environment, light and move through the set. The words on the page, do not, in themselves, appear in the final product. Rather, they are used as instructions for constructing a movie.

Yet, a screenplay has to be read and enjoyed first if it is to have a chance of being made into a movie. Exceptional descriptions certainly help your story and may prevent it from ending up in the slash pile.

Three Levels of Description

For the sake of brevity we may condense the sorts of description that occur in a screenplay into three main categories:

A. Describing of what is seen and heard on the screen: the environment, characters, action, and events.

B. Descriptions that convey the emotion, tone, attitude, and subtext of the scenes.

C. Descriptions that grant insight into the characters, their relationships, and the overall story.

The Basics of Scene Description

Listed below are some of the specific guidelines that operate within the above categories.

1. Describe your scenes in the present tense.

2. Limit your descriptions to four lines or less. No one enjoys unpacking dense paragraphs.

3. Be economical—describe only what is essential to your story.

4. Convey the essence of what’s occurring on the screen. Lengthy descriptions about the leading lady’s golden locks will fall by the wayside if the director decides on a brunette.

5. Make every word count. Brevity and efficiency is more impactful. In one of my screenplays, I describe my male lead as “a panther in jeans and teeshirt.” Those six words evoke more about the character than I could say in one rambling paragraph.

Summary

Descriptions in a screenplay function as instructions for making scenes; they also help to draw in the reader through their vividness, brevity, and appropriateness.

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How to Write Story Through Character

Chicken and eggs

The Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first, character or story? Does story lay the character, or character lay the story? This perennial chicken-or-the-egg question has many supporters on either side of the fence, or, road, if you prefer. Despite the levity implicit in the metaphor, however, the topic has serious implications for the way we approach writing a novel or screenplay.

A Character’s Story

One of the dangers facing an inexperienced writer writing what he considers to be a thrilling action-packed story is that he may loose sight of character motivation. One big event slams into another, and before he knows it, he’s written a story which uses characters like puppets in the hands of a novice puppeteer – their movement is trite, abrupt, and artificial.

So how do we avoid this without sacrificing pace and excitement in the stories we tell, or, without weighing down our thinking with reams of character traits and back-story? The simplest and most unobtrusive way to do so, I’ve found, is to take the central thought/philosophy/emotion of a character and keep it foremost in mind when writing her scenes.

Scarab II

In my forthcoming science-fiction novel, Scarab II, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler is drawn into a rerun of the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the North West Province of South Africa some five years previously. In Scarab I, Jack is swept along by events, forced to react to rather than to initiate action. But in the follow-up novel, Jack has a better understanding of what lies in store. He is also haunted by what occurred in the past and driven by one overpowering question: can he do anything to prevent the suffering and mayhem that is standard fare in the world today?

This question, born out of a troubled conscience and the knowledge that he may indeed have the power to intervene, motivates most of his underlying thoughts and actions. Understanding this essential aspect of Jack’s character has allowed me to write scenes that are powerfully motivated – an important part of fleshing out an inner journey that explains and fuels the outer one.

In Summary

Identifying the essential preoccupation of each character, and keeping this foremost in mind as you chart the outer journey, allows you to write scenes that are inwardly motivated and stay on track.

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