Tag Archives: character development

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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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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Understanding Character Flaws

A Flawed Diamond

The Flaw

What is a character flaw? One way to think of a flaw is as an imperfection in a character’s soul or psyche that helps shape the character’s personality. In seeking to hide, suppress, or remove this imperfection, the character engages in a constant tug-of-war between external and internal forces, which helps to drive the story forward.

Types of Character Flaw

Ostensibly, the flaw can be born out of internal causes, such as an emotional scar from the past, or, external ones, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability of a character to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice. Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character help to make for interesting stories that resonate with verisimilitude.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw in character. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, especially his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.

Additionally, a flaw generates questions which serve the story: What lies and defenses has the character created to conceal the flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point?

The Character Flaw as a Synching Device

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey though the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self belief (flaw) to one of belief. This inner journey, which represents Neo’s character arc, inflects each major action in the story and, therefore, gives shape to the story as a whole. It neatly ties into the notion of want vs. need that we examined in an earlier post, by relating the external (want), to the internal (need).

Summary

A character flaw inflects a character’s external response to the world, and in this sense, helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his or her actions in a story.

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Understanding Archetypes II

In the previous post I began exploring Christian Vogler’s use of eight Archetypes extracted from his study of myths — specifically the archetypes of Hero and Mentor. In this post I look at two more — Threshold Guardian and Herald.

Threshold Guardian

Threshold Guardian

Threshold Guardian

Vogler sees stories as journeys to reach an important goal through obstacle-strewn terrain. Each obstacle is typically patrolled by powerful guardians. Threshold Guardians are the antagonist’s henchmen, or lesser villains, but they may also be morally neutral figures, objects, or elemental forces that are simply in the way.

Psychologically, the guardians represent the obstacles we encounter in daily life — bad luck, bad weather, hostility, repression, prejudice and the like. At a deeper level, they represent our inner demons — emotional scars, vices, and neurosis that manifest themselves more strongly at the threshold of obstacles.

At a dramatic level, the Threshold Guardians’ main function is to test the Hero — they are not necessarily evil in themselves. Indeed, they often help the Hero articulate and cross thresholds of resistance. Typically, the Hero must solve a puzzle as in the example of the Sphinx who presents Oedipus with a riddle before allowing him to continue his journey. A Hero may challenge the guardian, offer to bribe him, sidestep him, or literally get under his skin: In The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow manage to enter the heavily guarded castle by overcoming then disguising themselves as three sentries — by donning the (outer) skin of the Threshold Guardians. As Hero’s evolve, however, they learn to recognize Threshold Guardians are not necessarily enemies but opportunities to grow and acquire new power.

Herald

Herald

Herald

Heralds typically appear near the beginning of a story to issue a challenge to the Hero in the form of a call to adventure. The Hero, who has previously lived an ordinary life, is now asked to help prevent some impending catastrophe to himself, his family, or society at large because of a new threat. Occasionally, the threat is disguised as a new opportunity, which, when pursued, turns out to be fraught with dangers. In terms of structure, the Herald functions as the Inciting Incident, kicking-starting the story at the earliest opportunity.

Psychologically, the Herald represents our unconscious need for change — the need to restore internal and external balance. It may come as a dream, a new idea, a person, or as the mysterious voice in The Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

At the dramatic level, the Herald provides the Hero with a new practical challenge — the motivation to commence the journey. Again, the Herald may appear as a person, or an event such as a hurricane, even as mail. In Romancing the Stone, the Herald takes the form of a treasure map that arrives through the post and a phone call from Joan Wilder’s sister, informing her she is being held hostage in Colombia.

In Summary

Threshold Guardians take the form of characters or forces that cause the Hero to confront and overcome internal and external obstacles during his journey to the goal. A Herald may appear as an event or character that imparts new information that helps to initiate that journey.

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How to Develop Conflict in your Stories

Conflict

Conflict

We’ve often heard that conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories are bound to appear staid and static — lacking dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and thus rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how synchronising the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, to the external conflict makes for a gripping tale that stays on track.

Mounting Conflict

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the spine of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict which arises, should build on the previous one in terms of danger and intensity — both internally and externally. This means that the conflict is adjusted to suit — as the physical stakes change, so does the character’s internal response — fear/prejudice/courage/etc. The internal and external journeys continuously track each other, like partners in a dance. Additionally, obstacles which gives rise to conflict differ from previous ones in order to avoid monotony and repetition.

Structuring Conflict

What follows a scene, or scenes containing mounting conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven, for example, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) decides to walk away from the job, which involves killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces, on his own, an entire saloon filled with men out to kill him. This situation has arisen as a result of a setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan who, himself, has been unjustly accused of murder — and Manny’s pledge to revenge Ned’s death.

Lastly, it is important to note that each conflict has a definite climax, leading directly to the setback: Manny’s shooting of one of the cowboys leads directly to the setback — Ned Logan’s death.

In Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

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How to Build a Character Profile

As has often been suggested in previous posts, well-developed characters are the lifeblood of any story. Even stories rooted in plot-centered genres such as action adventure, require that we care about the characters we are reading about or are watching on the screen, if we are to care about the story at all. 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 the Character Profile.

Character Profile

Character Profile

Character Profile

A character profile is a grouping of elements that work together to deepen the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude of a character. In this post we shall examine six of the most important ones: 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

As discussed in a previous post, what a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most interesting 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 defend and bolster his self-respect by taking everything the champion throws at him.

3. Opposing Elements

Inner conflict arising out of waring elements, makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Manny (Clint Eastwood), a cold blooded killer in his youth, is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who still continues to exercise an influence over 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 make a fresh start for his children from the reward money.

4. Keeping Secrets

Someone with a secret makes for a far more engaging character. Secrets sow the seeds of suspense, surprise, and subplot, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s (Faye Dunaway) 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, played by Jack Nicholson, (and the audience) 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 totally unusual; one or two unique habits or surprising traits are often enough to differentiate a character 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. His unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his vision of Daisy as the beloved.

In Summary

A character profile is a way of defining and managing essential aspects of your characters. Keep each character profile close at hand as you write your scenes to ensure that the action and dialogue your characters engage in stay on track.

How to Deepen Character: Want vs. Need

In a previous post, I defined the protagonist’s character arc in terms of the rise and fall of certain 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 a character’s awareness of her want vs. her need. Prior to the mid-point, or, the moment of illumination, the protagonist pursues the goal chiefly out of want. She mistakenly believes that by attaining the outer goal, happiness will follow. This is because she has not yet discovered or acknowledged her need. The trait driving the protagonist’s search towards the goal, based on this lack of self-awareness, therefore, lies on the negative side of the spectrum.

After the mid-point, however, the protagonist is granted insight into the true nature of the goal and herself. What seemed like a good path at the beginning of the story, no longer does so. From the perspective of technique, this means that the prominent traits motivating the character have been overshadowed by other less prominent traits. This change in the goal, or, in the path to the goal, illustrates the causal relationship that exists between the inner and outer journey in the story.

Blade Runner

In the film Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford), 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 (Rutger Hauer), 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 acts to protect her from harm.

Swapping Traits through Want vs. Need

Deckard’s inner journey is to realize 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 is transcended by the traits of love and compassion released in him by Rachel, who, we are informed, has no expiry date. In committing to protecting Rachel from those who would kill her, Decker proves that he finally understands that what he wants is not necessarily what he needs. This change of heart clearly illustrates how traits work hand in hand with the story goal to adjust the outer journey — Decker goes from killing Replicants to protecting them.

In Summary

Crafting your character arc in terms of what your protagonist wants vs. what he needs allows you to design change in terms of a start and end point. The want is driven by negative traits; the need, by positive ones. Approaching character design in these terms, not only grants you the tools to effectively shape your protagonist’s developmental arc, it also allows you to fashion the outer journey in a way that is consistent with inner growth and motivation.

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How to Write Great Characters

Great characters are an indispensable part of any successful story. Certain genres, such as Action Adventure, or even Science Fiction, tend towards a plot-driven approach; others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character-driven. All stories, however, require convincing and believable characters to complement an effective plot. Much has been written on the subject over the centuries and it is not my intension to rehash this here. Certainly, observation, honesty, intelligence, maturity and empathy, are all attributes that aid the writer in this task. These attributes can’t always be taught in class; they accumulate over a lifetime. There are some core techniques, however, that can be taught and do provide the scaffolding for building successful characters by utilising a set of well-chosen traits.

What are Character Traits?

As the famous writing teacher Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are values or character components that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on. Most traits have a moral or ethical component. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst cowardliness is inconsistent with righteous behavior.

The Character Developmental Arc

We’ve often heard that successful characters change and grow. They learn from events around them. What does this mean in practical terms? In its simplest sense, change in a character means the gaining of prominence of certain traits at the expense of others. Typically, a character is defined by four or five traits. 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-emphasizes 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 localized and manageable way.

Knowing

In Knowing, John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), an atheistic astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than Devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is indeed predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, which accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world. This eventually causes John to entrust his son Caleb’s (Chandler Canterbury) future to a group of alien observers who offer to take Caleb and his young friend Abby (Lara Robinson) to another planet to ensure mankind’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 replaced by the dormant trait of faith (at least, in the ability of the aliens to secure his son’s future).

In Summary

Traits contain an ethical or moral aspect, and lie at the core of character formation. Having one trait in opposition to others creates the potential for interesting conflict within the character. Traits, in relation to the structural turning points of the story, afford the writer a way of managing a character’s transformational arc, essential for crafting successful stories.