Tag Archives: character

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.

Invitation

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Understanding Archetypes I

We know that creating engaging and effective characters involves observation, maturity, and imagination on the part of the writer. Well-written characters feel real; they radiate naturalness and spontaneity through their thoughts, emotions, and actions — they resonate with verisimilitude. But there is another layer to character creation that has less to do with serving character, and more to do with character serving the story — character as a function of the story argument.

In The Writer’s Journey, Chrisopher Vogler, who built on the work of American mythologist Joseph Campbell, offers a theory of storytelling based on the structure of myth and archetype. Carl G. Jung first used the term, archetype, to refer to the shared ancient patterns that find their way in our dreams and stories. Exploring this further, Vogler argues that myth examines the basic materials of the human psyche through the medium of storytelling. He sees stories as journeys undertaken by the Hero to achieve a goal with physical, spiritual, and emotional dimensions. In this sense, each narrative element has a function to perform — to help create and sustain the story across a myriad of layers. And so too with Character, which draws on the notion of archetype to broaden its universal appeal.

Vogler offers eight character types, or archetypes, that, collectively, fulfill the story argument: Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shape Shifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster. Although these names may sound somewhat arcane, we’ve met them before under different appellations — Hero/Protagonist, Ally/Sidekick, Shadow/Antagonist. Each of these characters acts according to his or her type, presenting one side of the argument while propelling the story forward towards its ultimate conclusion. In this post we look at some of the main characteristics of two archetypes: Hero and Mentor.

Hero

Hero

Hero

One of the earliest renditions of the Hero was Perseus — the monster slayer — who encapsulated the Greek ideal of heroism. At a psychological level, the Hero archetype represents the ego’s search for completion and identity. As a dramatic device, however, the Hero offers the reader or audience a specific perspective, someone to identify with, drawing us deeper into the story. Typically, Heroes grow and learn rough hardships encountered in pursuit of the goal (although some Heroes may remain static, causing others to change around them, instead). They are doers — they initiate and sustain action. Often, Heroes are asked to sacrifice loved ones and/or themselves in pursuit of the goal. Additionally, Heroes are often flawed and may be willing or unwilling pursuers of the goal. Although Heroes may be leaders, captaining armies or groups into battle, they may also be loners, attempting to solve the world’s problems on their own.

Mentor

Mentor

Mentor

A Mentor is closely allied to the Hero, training and guiding him or her during the pursuit of the goal. Vogler reminds us that psychologically, Mentors represent the higher Self — the wiser, nobler, more god-like aspect of us. The dramatic function of the Mentor is to teach and train the Hero, preparing him for the challenges ahead. This is often a two-way process, with the Mentor learning from the Hero as much as the Hero learns from the Mentor. Mentors typically provide the Hero with gifts, be it weapons, medicine, or food, again, intended to aid in the attainment of the goal. Gifts, however, should be earned, either through self-sacrifice, or commitment. Like Heroes, Mentors may be willing or unwilling participants in the task. Occasionally, a flawed Mentor may instruct through counter example — by showing the Hero the dangers of taking a wrong path though enacting it in his own life. Sometimes, a Mentor can mislead the Hero, typically in Thrillers such as Goodfellas or The Public Enemy, which invert heroic values in the telling the tale. Finally, a Mentor, who may either show up early in the story, or towards the end, when he is most needed, provides the Hero with inspiration, guidance, and motivation, granting her gifts to aid her in the task at hand.

In Summary

Archetypes are shared character types, found in myths and dreams, that reoccur across all cultures. Archetypes form the universal language of storytelling, and, as such, are an indispensable part of a writer’s craft.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.