Tag Archives: novel

A character profile – making characters more compelling.

In Macbeth, the protagonist has a compelling character profile. He is  brave and courageous man but with one damning flaw — overriding ambition.
In Macbeth, the protagonist has a compelling character profile. He is brave and courageous man but with one damning flaw — overriding ambition.

A character profile helps you write compelling characters—the mainstay of any story.

Learning to write 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 deploy a character profile prior to commencing the writing of your character(s).

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

The character profile check-list:

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 Munny 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, Munny 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.

“A character profile pin-points the elements that will create the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude in that character.”

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 helps us write compelling characters. It helps ensure the action and dialogue stay on track.

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Plot from character

William Golding is a master at forging plot from character
William Golding is a master at forging plot from character.

The longer I think about stories, both as a writer and as a teacher, the more convinced I become that it all 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 the following questions. Does the character lack self-awareness at the beginning of the story? Moral and ethical values? What is her wound, couched in a secret? What must she learn/heal before she can accomplish her goal? Is there is tension between her want and her need? In short, how what is her character arc?

“Plot from character is an insurance policy against shallow and inauthentic character action.”

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 understanding the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story. It is 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 as manifestation of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow, inauthentic characters.

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 is found 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 may not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength. 

Summary

Plot from character is a methodology that many of the world‘s greatest writers have perfected.

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To be or not to be a writer?

This story explores the torments faced by a writer.
This story explores the torments faced by a writer whose talent has seemingly dried up.

So, you want to be a writer, you say? Really? In this age of shrinking readership? A time when video games, a thrill-a-second movies and digital media are stealing the public’s attention away from reading? There’s no money in it, you’re told – except for a fortunate few. Go get a real job. 

The truth, however, is that the world needs writers. Without well told stories the world would lack conscience. It could not fully articulate its dreams. It could not vividly weigh one possible future against another and articulate a moral message.

Writing is, by its very nature, exposes, explores, evaluates. But it also entertains. 

Films do indeed relate meaningful stories, but they need screenwriters to do so. Games, too, need writers to create the game worlds their characters inhabit. Art and music can indeed critique and inspire society, but its appreciation and significance is often communicated through words, after the fact.

“A writer is someone who keeps on writing despite the odds.”

In their purest form, stories that first exist as novels, novellas and the like, being able to directly explore a character’s mind from the inside out, uniquely capture the debate around a theme, a moral system. They trace the consequences of character action in a way that is difficult to achieve elsewhere. So much so, that they often inspire other forms.

We could sit here all day debating the strengths and weaknesses of our craft in our contemporary world, but it wouldn’t really matter. Because ultimately, true writers are stubborn, willful, and imbued with a sense of purpose that can’t be shaken off. 

Writers keep on writing because they can’t imagine doing anything else.

Summary

Writers consider their labours more as as a calling than a mere job.

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Improbable action? How to render it believable.

Interstellar - making character action believable.
Interstellar – making improbable action seem believable.

How do you make improbable action appear 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.

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 or her actions as believable and appropriate.

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

“Improbable action can be made probable by having it spring from the twin launchpads of justifiability and proportional response.”


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 interstellar, the earth is dying. Humanity needs to find another home. Cooper, a conscientious, widowed engineer and former NASA pilot turned farmer, lives on a farm with his father-in-law, his 15-year-old son, and his 10-year-old daughter, Murphy.

After a dust storm, strange patterns appear in the dust in Murphy’s bedroom. Cooper realises the patterns were caused by gravity fluctuations that represent geographic coordinates in binary code.

Cooper follows the coordinates to a secret NASA facility headed by Professor John Brand, where he learns of the existence of a wormhole. When he is re-recruited by NASA to fly a mission through the wormhole to confirm the planet most suitable for mankind’s survival, he promises his distraught daughter that he will come back at any cost. This promise creates the motivational spine of the story. It helps Cooper’s actions to appear both justifiable and proportionate, despite the improbable nature of events in the story. It does this by balancing his duty to humanity with his unbreakable promise to his child.

Summary

Improbable character action can be rendered believable by making it justifiable and proportional to the events that initiate it.

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Evoke emotion if you want your stories to succeed.

Being able to evoke emotion is a must for masterful writing.

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty reminds us that the ability to evoke emotion around the characters in the stories we write is the single most important skill to master. Here’s an extract from Katherine Mansfield’s, The Fly, that does just that.

A fly has fallen into an ink pot and can’t get out. The other character, referred to only as the boss, watches it struggle 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.

“Learn to evoke emotion through your characters. It is one of the keys to successful writing.”

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.

The writer may often amplify an emotion by providing new information to the reader but hide it 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 the reader does and that makes it doubly effective.

Summary

Learn to evoke emotion through your characters. It will draw readers and audiences into your stories.

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Tagline – how to use it in stories

The tagline captures the essence of Aladin.
The tagline captures the essence of Aladin.

A logline is a short pitch that sets up the story. It is intended to sell the story idea in just a sentence or two. A tagline is even shorter and is typically used to sell movies to an audience on a poster or billboard.

If the purpose of a logline is to attract interest in the story by creating the right expectation in agents, producers and the audiences, a tagline points to the specific emotions solicited by that story and may help the writer in the writing of the tale. Taglines are usually attached to film projects, but can also be applied to stories of any format, such as the paperback or kindle novel.

“A tagline exposes the emotional core of a story.”

Although usually written last as part of the marketing strategy, coming up with the tagline from the get-go can help the writer focus on the emotions through-line of the story.

From a technically perspective, taglines consist of three key elements: a repeating or punchy sentence structure and an element of contrast that solicits a specific emotion. Here are some of my favourite taglines:

‘Imagine if you had three wishes, three hopes, three dreams…and they all came true.’  Aladdin

‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’ Alien

‘Honour made him a man.
Courage made him a hero.
History made him a legend.’  Rob Roy

‘Someone said “Get a life” – so they did.’  Thelma And Louise 

‘This is Benjamin…He’s a little worried about his future.’  The Graduate

‘A story of Love, Laughter and the Pursuit of Matrimony.’  Muriel’s Weddin

‘Don’t breathe. Don’t look back. The Dark Side of Nature.’  Twister

‘Everything is Suspect. Everyone for Sale. Nothing is what it seems.’  L.A. Confidential

Summary

A tagline highlights a specific emotion. It is used for marketing purposes but is also helpful in writing the story.

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Inner and outer motivation in stories

Sarah Connor: Inner and outer motivation in The Terminator.
Sarah Connor: Inner and outer motivation in The Terminator.

What is the difference between inner and outer motivation? Merriam-Webster defines motivation as:

1a: the act or process of motivating. b: the condition of being motivated.

2: a motivating force, stimulus, or influenceINCENTIVE, DRIVE.

Typically, the hero’s inner motivation springs from his or her mental life – values, needs, background. These elements, in turn, guide the physical actions that arise in response to some outer challenge or opportunity, in other words, the 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 combination of inner and outer motivation serves to explain character action reaching for an external goal.”

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 of hubris, 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 pursuit of the goal, guided by the reasons that drive him.

Summary

Inner and outer motivation explain why the hero physically responds to some external challenge or opportunity in the way that he or she does.

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The likeable protagonist in films and novels

The likeable protagonist: Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The likeable protagonist: Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hague, stresses the need to create a likeable protagonist if our stories are to succeed.

Likeable protagonists make for more popular films and novels. Unlikable heroes make for unpopular ones.

“A likeable protagonist is exceptional, interesting, eccentric. He stands out from the crowd. He is the sort of person we would like to know long after the story has ended.”

Here are four simple but effective ways to write a likeable protagonist in a screenplay or novel:

  • Make your protagonist someone who represents something bigger than himself. Indiana Jones is likeable and heroic not only because he is able to do things no one else can—his actions showcase his passions and skills—but because he fights to preserve the values that define and enrich society. This increases his aura.
  • Make the protagonist funny and entertaining, as in Deadpool.
  • Make her a kind, good person, as are the heroes in Norma Ray, or Crimes of the Heart.
  • Write a protagonist who is tough, or good at what he does, as in Gladiator.

Using one or more of these traits, indeed, preferably all four of them, will make your protagonist more likeable and engaging. This is vital in helping your audience or readers to form a relationship with the character—one that will endure throughout the story and beyond.

Most importantly, establish these positive traits as soon as possible—especially if you are dealing with a complex, flawed characters. Once an audience gets to like the character it will more easily tolerate his or her flaws.

Summary

Craft likeable and engaging protagonists for your screenplays and novels by having them display likeable traits early, before exposing their flaws. This will grant us time to get to like them.

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The strength of language

Elements of style unleashes the strength of language in your writing.
Elements of style unleashes the strength of language in your writing.

SOME of the most useful writing advice for harnessing the strength of language comes from Strunk and White’s brief but perennially insightful book, The Elements of Style. In the chapter, Principles of Composition, we learn to ‘prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’

Writers seize and hold the reader’s attention by being definite, specific, and concrete. Among the greatest practitioners of this skill are the immortals— Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Their writing is powerful because their words render up experiences that are just that—specific, definite and concrete.

“Harness the strength of language by studying it diligently in the authors you admire, but also through inspirational gems such as Elements of Style.”

Here is an extract from The Zoo from a short story by Jean Stanford, a lesser known, but accomplished writer:

‘Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in Rickey’s and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had a little stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think of their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

This is a powerful evocation of environment, a personality, indeed, a world, and all done through the use of concrete and specific language. This language can not only evoke a felt experience in short stories and novels, it can also do so in the ‘action block’ of screenplays. Here brief, specific, and concrete description adds to the precise direction needed by actors, set designers, and set dressers to render scenes effectively.

Summary

Use the strength of language by being specific and concrete in the scenes you write. This will help render up a potent audience and reader experience.

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Use the strength of language by being specific and concrete in the scenes you write. This will help render up a potent audience and reader experience.

Strength of language

Symbols – how they operate in stories

The power of symbols is clearly in evidence in Shutter Island
The power of symbols is evident in Shutter Island.

Symbols are narrative objects that have significance over and above their denotative presence in a story.

They manifest as audio-visual images, which recur throughout the story. Each iteration is an echo of a previous instance, reinforcing the main concerns and themes of your tale. These images function in two ways—they are part of the actual “physical” world of your story (denotative), but they are also reflections, or symbols, of your story’s interior concerns—the inner landscape (connotative).

In Shutter Island, symbols add resonance and depth to the story by utilising images of water, the sea, and wind, whipped up into a hurricane, which is closing in on the island housing a mental hospital. The hurricane is an important plot element that ups the ante as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) races to conclude his investigation of the disappearance of a mental patient, who he suspects is hiding on the island, before the storm hits.

“Symbols are representations of elements that have significance beyond their denotative aspect.”

Aggravating the frenetic search for the patient is Daniels’s own deteriorating mental condition, as images of his past life as a soldier, then as a husband and father, flash before him, adding to his overall instability and confusion. The image of the hurricane, therefore, is more than a major plot element. It is also a symbol of his inner landscape, a warning of the potentially tempestuous and uncontrollable behaviour that smoulders in all of us.

In the film, The Piano, images of water, the sea, and mud are deeply embedded into every aspect of the story—they are a part of the setting, which sets the tone and mood of the tale. But these images, drawing on basic psychological analysis, also connote the sexual and emotional tension of the characters, becoming stronger each time we encounter them. The piano perfectly captures the two-fold function of imagery. The instrument is as much a vehicle for the plot, as it is a substitute for Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter) lost voice and suppressed passion.

Summary

Symbols are images in narrative that point to a significance beyond their denotative aspect.

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