Tag Archives: protagonist

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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Image by: Run On Beat
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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.

How to Create the Final Story-Moment

Exclamation Mark

Exclamation Mark

A truly memorable final moment, image, or line is the cherry on top of your story. It acts like a handle with which to pick up the tale and helps the reader or audience recall the story through the sheer brilliance of its visual or descriptive presence.

The Final Image or Moment

What makes for a great final image? The simple answer is: one that captures the essence of what your story is really about. It is the exclamation mark that occurs at the end of all great narratives.

In constructing this last image ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does it solve, or support the previous solving of the main story puzzle?

In The Planet of the Apes, the chief story puzzle is to find out which planet astronaut Leo Davidson’s (Mark Wahlberg) space capsule has landed on if he is ever to try and return home. The last image of the sunken Statue of Liberty, however, strikingly reveals that he’s been on earth all along.

2. Does it answer, or support a previous answer to the central dramatic question of the story?

In the same movie, this image also answers the chief dramatic question:
What allowed apes to gain evolutionary ascendency over man?
Answer: Time.

3. Does it reveal the protagonist’s hidden hope, ambition, or fear?

Davidson’s hopes of ever returning home come to naught. He is already home—in earth’s bleak future.

The power of the film’s final image is truly memorable—it causes a major change in the protagonist’s and the audiences’ understanding of the story.

Summary

The final moment, line, or image of your story ought to act as the final exclamation point of your tale, revealing or encapsulating the essence of your story. In doing so, it will assist in making your story more memorable.

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Simplifying the Story Question

Question Mark

The Story Question

During one of my lectures on storytelling in Sydney, Australia, I remember one student asking me if there was one single piece of information, one pithy piece of advice, I could offer novice writers, which might help them to kickstart their story?

This reminded me of my asking the very same question of one of my mentors at the London International Film School, many years ago. The advice I received back then was the same advice I offered my Sydney students: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it?

This generic question incapsulates most traditional tales in one single sentence. Answering it involves telling a story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, seeks to solve it, is opposed in solving it by the antagonist, and either succeeds or fails to do so by the end of the story. Chunking these considerations into separate parts, yields, most typically, a three act structure based upon that well known Aristotelian observation that a story has a beginning (what is the problem), a middle (how does the protagonist engage with the problem) and an end (how is the problem finally resolved/unresolved).

Exploring Character

Probing the sentence further we uncover a psychological element: What does your protagonist ‘want’? Exploring your protagonist’s want(s) leads us to consider deeper elements of his/her life such as background, occupation, relationships, psychology, want versus need (see previous post). Some of these elements are typically revealed in the story’s subplot, involving minor characters who are arrayed into two main camps, the protagonists’ and the antagonists’. Typically, the subplot acts as a foil to the plot, highlighting, either by comparison or by contrast, similarities and differences in character, values, goals, as well as strengths and weaknesses of the major characters.

Exploring the Inner and Outer Journey

The question also hints at a dual journey to be undertaken by the protagonist in order to achieve his/her want: Clearly there is an outer goal to be achieved in order to fulfill the want, which, most typically, involves a physical entity or result: get the girl, stop the bomb from exploding in downtown Los Angeles, save the cat (outer journey). But the want involves a need: Why does the protagonist need to risk life and limb to do so (inner journey)?

We can see, even from a brief exploration of this basic question, how probing it yields an individual story that is, nevertheless, based upon a general truth. A typical story is nothing other than the tale of someone who wants to achieve something because of some deep psychological/human need, but is being prevented from doing so by opposing forces.

Summary

At the deepest level, individual stories may be summed up in universal structures. One such structure comes in the form of a question: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it? In answering this general question, you are, in fact, telling an individual story.

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Managing Story Conflict

Wrestling match

Dramatic Conflict

We’ve heard again and again that conflict between characters is what drives our stories forward; that without conflict, the story stalls like a truck that has run out of fuel.

But what precisely are the guidelines to creating strong conflict? The list that follows, although by no means replete, should prove a useful starting point in upping the ante in your stories.

Checklist

1. Is more than one character pursuing a similar goal or avoiding a similar problem?

2. Does the conflict affect the protagonists’ inner and outer goals?

3. Is the main conflict the most interesting and compelling it can be?

4. Can a deadline force an action or decision that is less than the best?

5. Can a “solution” actually cause a worsening of the situation?

6. Can you implement the opposition to the threat in a more dangerous, powerful way?

7. Is there something or someone, apart from the protagonist, keeping the protagonist from achieving his/her goal?

8. Are there conflicting goals among the minor characters that can increase the conflict between them?

Doubtlessly, you may add to this list, but that, at least, is a good start.

Summary

Conflict is the lifeblood of all drama. Using two or more of these techniques mentioned above in specific scenes should result in a ramping up of conflict in your stories.

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How to Design Your Cast

Cast Design

Cast Design

Having a well-rounded protagonist is of little value unless you surround her with other characters to react or relate to. Indeed, your choice of characters may be one of the most crucial decisions you take in writing a story. Here, it is helpful to remember that each character performs a certain function in your tale. Knowing your story premise–the problem to be solved by the protagonist, allows you to design a cast of characters who test, resist, and assist the protagonist to achieve this goal.

Four Primary Characters

In the book Screenwriting, Raymond G. Frensham suggests that there are four primary character types to choose from:

Protagonist

The job of this character is to propel the story forward. This character’s desire to achieve the goal is a crucial aspect of the story. His decisions motivate his actions and explain why the pursuit of this goal is necessary–given the character’s background, beliefs, desires, and commitments.

Antagonist

The antagonist or nemesis is the character who most opposes the protagonist as the former attempts to pursue his goal. This character is a visible and persistent generator of conflict in the story. Without him it is difficult to muster enough energy to drive events forward.

Occasionally, ambivalent antagonists, or, anti-heroes are the protagonists of the tale, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Robert de Niro).

Mirror Character

A mirror character, also known as a reflection or support character is one who is most aligned with the protagonist. This character type supports the protagonist and adds colour and resonance by helping to make her more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine herself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.

Romance Character

This character is the object of your protagonist’s sexual or romantic desires–the reward delivered at the end of the journey. The romance character may also, however, support or bedevil the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal–at least initially. This is because without conflict, the relationship degrades into stasis and boredom. Ultimately, however, the protagonist and his love interest end up together to live happily (or unhappily) ever after.

Rules of Thumb

In designing your cast remember the following:

Character types should be introduced by the end of act I; certainly no later than the start of act II.

Each character should stay within his or her character type for the duration of the story. Changing types midway through the story causes confusion and weakens impact.

The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.

Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite.

Summary

Character types are a way of interrogating your story premise by exploring it from several angles–through the eyes of each character. Although opinions differ about the ideal number of such types, the four types discussed above typically define the lower limit.

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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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