Choosing Character Names in Stories

Character names
Character names perfectly capture the biblical resonance in The Book of Eli

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Character names are an important part of constructing character identity in stories.

Not only does a name help us to identify the players in your story, but it often carries the flavour of the character.

What to avoid in character names

An expectant mother is overheard choosing a name for her child: Pat, Kelly, Terry, Bobby. Her sole reason for considering these particular names is that each can be applied to both a boy and girl. This flexibility could save her the disappointment of choosing a name early only to have her give it up upon discovering the actual gender of her baby.

But this lack of precision is exactly the reason we should avoid assigning interchangeable character names in our stories.

Although an audience will immediately recognise characters by their appearance, this is not the case with words on a page. Here, the character description performs this function, which, in the short story or novel, may be purposely brief, or scattered throughout the text.

Character names are the gateway to individuality and character identity.

It is also good practice to avoid giving characters similar sounding names. Clive and Kyle, Sharon and Shannine, Harry and Larry—except, of course, where the possible confusion flowing from this similarity helps the plot.

But a name may also add additional meaning and flavour to a character: Biblical names such as Paul, Peter, Ezekiel, Rachael, Mary and David, although commonplace, may still carry a trace of biblical resonance, especially if the context supports this.

Certain names may hint at an entire belief system or only certain aspects of a character whether that character turns out to adhere to that association or not. The more unusual or uncommon the name, the stronger the association. Few of us, for example, would name our character Hitler without expecting some association to accrue, and without providing some sort of reason in the plot why we have chosen to do so.

The web is replete with lists and articles providing and explaining the origin of names, their meaning and history. Books on naming conventions, available at any bookstore, are also a good place to start hunting for that all important handle of characters.

Summary

Choosing the right character names is the first step in developing a unique and effective character identity.

Minor Characters in Stories

 

Minor Characters in Dark city
Nosferatu-like creepiness characterizes the minor characters in Dark City

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Do the minor characters in your story exude personality? Do they have small but noticeable eccentricities? Are they memorable in some or other way? If not, they need to be.

A bevvy of minor characters

In Dark City, detective Eddie Walenski, played by Colin Friels, is obsessed with drawing circular patterns on the walls of his dark prison-like room. He behaves like a man who has seen a terrible truth about existence and it has tipped him over into madness.

In Body Heat, D.A. Assistant, Ted Danson, is a minor character who pretends he is Fred Astaire, performing dance steps whenever he gets the chance. Odd but strangely captivating.

In The matrix, the Oracle is a minor character loaded with strong habits and mannerisms. She smokes like a chimney, drawing on her cigarette with excessive deliberateness, is obsessed with baking, and never answers a question directly.

In Down Periscope, writer David Ward creates a wonderful array of minor characters for his Lt. Dodge to engage with:

Nitro, the electrician is dumb, erratic, but very efficient at his job. It’s as if his I.Q. has dropped as a result of all the electrical shocks he’s received over the years. In order to have Lt. Dodge communicate with his superiors, Nitro has to turn himself into a conducting conduit each time!

Engineer Howard Elder is a sailor with many years of experience, which seems to have made him eccentric, if not downright wacky. He sports a filthy Hawaiian shirt and stubble. It’s as if Pearl Harbour has traumatized him so that time has stood still and he has never changed clothes.

Executive Officer “Mart” Pascoe is rigid and authoritative with a bad temper. His intimidation tactics are compensation for his diminutive stature. He repeats orders from Lt. Dodge by shouting them at the crew at the top of his voice.

Although the characters mentioned in the examples above are indeed minor in terms of the time and space they occupy in the story, each is made memorable through colorful mannerisms, eccentricities, or obsessions.

Summary

Minor characters need not be bland and flat, only serving the plot. Give them quirks and eccentricities to make them and your story more memorable.

Genre and Story

Minority Report is a fine example of the science fiction genre
Minority Report is a fine example of the science fiction genre

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IN his book, Story, Robert McKee states that “to anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master genre and its conventions.”

If a film or book has been correctly promoted the audience or readers approach the story with a certain expectation. In marketing jargon this is referred to as “positioning the audience”. This alleviates the danger of readers or audiences spending the first part of the story trying to find out what it’s about.

Genre is as much a marketing tool as it is a story creation one.

Adroit marketing taps into genre expectation. From the title, to the fonts used in the text itself on posters and in television ads, the promoters are at pains to telegraph the sort of story the audience or readers are to expect. This means that the conventions of the genre have to be adhered to. But what are some of the most important conventions?

Genre Specifics

Music, Location, Dress Code, Gadgets, Vehicles, Lighting, and Narrative Conventions

In film, music forms one such convention. Traditional love stories, for example, use a certain type of score to elicit emotions appropriate to that type of story. The mellifluous musical score for Gone with the Wind would not be appropriate for Alien, or vice versa.

Location is another important convention. Westerns use the untamed countryside as part of the backdrop, while science fiction films include high-tech interiors such as spaceships or futuristic exteriors and interiors to convey mood and a sense of otherworldliness.

Clothes, gadgets, and vehicles, and lighting, are further clues to identifying genre. Who can forget the white high-tech armor of Star Wars‘ Storm Troopers, the Jedi Light Sabers, or the hi-flying cars and taxis in The Fifth Element and Minority Report? In terms of lighting, Film Noir, for example, utilises a stark chiaroscuro style to dramatise seedy streets, alleys, rain-coat wearing detectives, and the femme fatale.

But beyond the physical elements, narrative conventions also apply. Sad or tragic endings form part of the narrative tradition of tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, while “up endings” are traditionally associated with comedies and musicals, although exception do occur, as in Evita.

Things get interesting when genres mix, as in Blade Runner, which utilises conventions from film noir and science fiction. Indeed, the mixing of genres presents writers with the biggest opportunity for dressing up old stories in new clothes. Done well, the result is a tale that draws on tradition and novelty to produce narrative that is fresh and rooted in verisimilitude.

Summary

Genre is both a creative tool helping writers shape their stories based on what has gone before, and a marketing tool used by marketers to tell audiences what to expect in a film or novel.

World Building in Stories

World Building via Dean Kontz
Dean Kontz explores world building in his book, Writing Popular Fiction

In his book, Writing Popular Fiction Dean Koontz offers writers useful advice on a number of aspects that go into writing a well-crafted story.

In this post, I want briefly to look at one aspect of the writer’s toolkit à la Koontz: World building markers of near-future worlds (as opposed to words set in the far-distant future.)

Writing about our world, as opposed to writing about a completely alien planet, is more difficult because not everything can be made up; our crystal-ball gazing has to ring true. Near-future worlds have to contain enough extrapolated but recognisable elements to convince us of the verisimilitude of such worlds.

World building requires the ability to predict then project the outcome of trends and defining issues, or, at least, the ability to sound convincing.

Here are some markers, suggested by Koontz, to get you thinking.

Getting started on world building:

Moral Codes

What is considered acceptable today, wasn’t mildly acceptable, even in the West, a few decades ago. One only has to look at the issue of gay rights to realise the extent of the shifts currently underway.

Domestic Politics

Will current political systems still be defined by polarities seen in countries such as the Untied States (Democratic/Republican), Australia, and the UK (Labour/Liberal)?

World Politics

Will the U.S. continue exist as a dominant power? Will Russia or China? Or, will a new power have risen to prominence. Brazil perhaps?

Religion

Will the U.S. remain predominantly Christian, or will another religion rise to displace it? Perhaps science will eventually weaken religion to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant? Or perhaps the reverse is true: the resurgence of monolithic religion?

Personal Lives

This is, perhaps, the most important and detailed category.

How will our homes change? Our clothes, music, transportation? What types of food will we eat? Will marriage still exist as an institution? Will the number of children be limited by the sate? Will the smoking of cannabis be legalised? Will the moon and Mars harbour human colonies? Will space travel be made accessible to common folks? Will cancer, dementia, disease in general, be cured or will new diseases arise?

These are some of the categories, which, Koontz suggests, are useful in helping the writer to sketch in the background of a world that is both familiar and strange—a world that allows one’s characters to live and breathe in the imagination of the reader.

Summary

In thinking about world building of near futures, concentrate on key markers that define a society. This post suggests what some of those markers might be.

How to Write Story Characters

Leonardo DiCaprio as a great story characters in The Great Gatsby
His capacity for hope makes Gatsby one of the truly great story characters

DURING one of my recent lectures a student asked me about the nitty-gritty of writing great story characters for her screenplay.

This got me talking about how to avoid making the forth trait of a character appear trite and forced.

I suggested that in some of the films and books, even by established screenwriters and authors, this contrasting trait appeared stilted and detracted from the effectiveness of the overall story character.

Typical story characters comprise of four defining traits, the fourth of which stands in stark contrast to the others—this, in order to create inner tension and conflict.

For example: a generous, intelligent, educated man who keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouses; a merciless, relentless, serial killer who supports a favourite charity dedicated to uplifting the education of underprivileged children in the inner city.

I emphasised the importance of tying each character trait, and especially the fourth trait, into that character’s backstory.

Keeping story characters on track

So, if a someone keeps choosing the wrong spouse, find an event in his past that explains this trait, and make it integral to the story. Was he rejected by girls as a youth for a specific reason? Is he simply compelled to accept marriage proposals by women because he knows what rejection feels like?

In other words, seek to explain, in a credible way, where his ‘wrong choice’ trait stems from, then reveal its backstory at a significant moment—typically at a turning point in the story. The same goes for the remaining three traits. Doing so will deepen your understanding of that character and legitimise his contrasting trait.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is intelligent, educated, persistent, but he’s also overly nostalgic as a result of having lost his wife in a ferry accident in Sydney Harbour years previously, for which he blames himself. This fourth trait dictates the way he lives his life. It underlies his every thought and action. Only if he can only prove that time travel to the past is possible can he change destiny and eliminate his grave mistake.

Were it not for the backstory that explains this ‘negative’ trait, Benjamin might simply appear foolish, or crazy, and not worth our time and empathy.

Summary

Define strong story characters by tying their traits into the significant events of their lives through backstory.

How crisis leads to the story climax

Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise
Crisis and climax in Thelma & Louise

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WHAT is the story crisis and how is it related to the story climax?

This post traces variations of this most important relationship.

The story climax is generally preceded by a crisis resulting from a dilemma in which the Protagonist faces a final life-changing decision. In Thelma & Louise, the crisis occurs moments before the end of the film, right after a climactic chase by the cops, which brings them to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The choice is simple: prison or death. They choose death.

In some stories the crisis may be spatially and temporarily separated from the climax, although they are intimately linked in filmic time and space.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she finally gives in to him in the Act II climax. In the next scene, however, Lazlo presses Rick to rejoin the anti-fascist cause, precipitating a dilemma, which ends when Rick puts Ilsa and her husband on a plane to America, sacrificing his desire to be with her. The final part of the third act plays out the climactic action resulting from Rick’s (crisis) decision to help the couple escape at his own expense.

Although crunch decisions  and climactic action usually follow closely together towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic events to occupy different spatial and temporal settings. They should always, however, feel as if they are inexorably linked.

Crisis and climax in Kramer vs Kramer

In Kramer vs Kramer Act III opens with Kramer’s lawyer saying that he has lost the case, but could win on appeal, providing Kramer is willing to put his son on the stand and ask him to choose between himself and his mother. The boy would choose his father, but at great psychological cost. Kramer simply states “I can’t do that.” This is the crisis decision in which Kramer decides against his own needs. We then cut from Kramer and the lawyer to the climax—an anguished walk in Central Park as Kramer explains to his son about their future life apart.

McKee points out that when crisis and climax occur in a different time and place, “we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic time and space,” or risk draining them of pent-up energy, reducing the effect to an anti-climax.

Summary

The crisis forces the Protagonist to take a decision which leads to the story climax. The timing of the crisis-decision and climax varies depending on the story, but should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

The Dramatic Question in Stories

The dramatic question drives each season and episode of Gotham
The dramatic question drives each season and episode of Gotham

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IN a previous article I discussed how each act in a story is driven by a question it needs to answer. In the first act of The Matrix that question is: What is the matrix? In the second: Is Neo The One? And in the third: Can Neo defeat agent Smith and his cronies?

But just as there are questions that frame each act, so there are questions that frame each episode and each season of a television series.

 

 

The Dramatic Question in a TV Series

In Gotham, the first season’s overall question is: Who will win the mob war, and how will that affect Jim Gordon’s attempt to clean up the city, as he continues to solve specific crimes, while the overall series question is: How does Bruce Wane’s attempt to find the killer of his parents shape his transformation into the Batman?

Each episode typically features a villain-of-the week and is driven by the dramatic question: How is this villain to be defeated? But the episode must also acknowledge the season’s question: How does the defeat of the villain affect the mob war? The death of the witness to the Wane’s murder, for example, would impact the entire series question — not that Cat is about to be killed off by the writers.

The dramatic question also applies, with minor adjustments, to a book series.

A book series, too, asks at least two overall questions. In my book series, The Land Below, the first novel’s dramatic question is: Will Paulie make it to the surface? In a future book, The Land Above, the question might be: How does Paulie, and his companions, survive the horrors that lurk on the surface?

Each story in a series, then, is governed by several interlocking questions that not only drive a specific episode, but help keep the entire series on track.

Summary

Sketching in the dramatic question for a series, season, or episode, prior to commencing the actual writing of the screenplay or book, is the first step in mapping out the direction of your story and its characters.

How to Write Better Heroes for your Stories

Heroes and villains in Edge of Tomorrow
Heroes and villains in Edge of Tomorrow

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IT happens to all of us at some point or another. We set out to make a certain character the Hero of our story only to have him turn into a wimp by the end of the tale.

What went wrong?

Here, curtesy of William M. Akers, are some suggestions to avoid this happening to you.

Writing better heroes

1. Heroes have well defined problems—-something they need to solve to win the prize, save the earth. But in order to do so heroes have to learn things about themselves, which may be even harder than the physical obstacles they encounter.

The physical barriers that heroes face are often reflections of the inner fears and thresholds that they have to  overcome in order to achieve the outer goal.

2. Heroes are active. They may be aided and abetted by a bevy of allies but they are the ones who initiate actions, reach for the goals and never quit until the bad guys are defeated and the goals achieved. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise keeps coming back to life again and again in an attempt to defeat the Mimics.

3. The Hero’s problem must be absorbing to an audience. The bigger the stakes, the more interesting the plight. In Breaking Away, the hero struggles to discover whether he is a bike rider or a stone cutter. This may not be much of a problem for you or me, but it is a problem for this particular character. Since we identify with the hero, we, too, desire that he solve it, and that he do so in an intriguing way.

4. Heroes must be steadfast. Aimless, unfocused Heroes who drift in and out of fuzzy situations are best left for art films with niche followings, because they will not prove widely popular with mainstream audiences.

These, then, are some of the characteristics that define the Hero in your story. So, when is your Hero not a Hero? When he turns into an aimless wimp.

Summary

Heroes are active problem-solvers whose actions drive the story forward. They are leaders not followers.

Brevity, Clarity, Simplicity in Writing

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
If brevity, clarity, simplicity are important in specialist writing, they are crucial in a screenplay.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is full of laconic one-liners that crisply capture the essence of the characters.

Who can forget the Sundance Kid’s film-defining line: “I’ll do anything you want me to but I won’t watch you die.”

Hollywood has a notoriously short attention span. Readers have to wade through dozens of new screenplays daily, and their tolerance for poorly worded stories is short.

Of course, Hollywood is not the only place to peddle your screenplay, but if you’re looking to play the Lotto, there’s nowhere better.

Let’s look at two aspects of tight, vivid writing in screenplays: the use of verbs that capture the essence of character in the action block, and the use of metaphor in character descriptions.

Here are three examples of weak verbs:

1. Benjamin looks at the girl standing opposite him.

How does he look at the girl? Does he frown, gaze, leer, glance, squint, or peer at her?

2. Claire enters the room.

This is inadequate. How does Claire enter the room? Does she stride, limp, march, slink, flow, or pad in?

3. Olivia stands waiting.

How does she stand? Is she slouching, leaning, erect?

Never miss the opportunity to have a verb convey the personality and attitude of your character. Not only do you void the need for adverbs, you make your sentences crispier and more vibrant.

Character descriptions in screenplays, too, should be brief but impactful. Because they influence how we view the character, they should be crafted with care.

Brevity, clarity, simplicity at work

Consider this character description from one of my stories:

I started with: “SAMUEL is big and muscular, but with a surprisingly light gait that belies his enormous size.”

…but ended up with: “SAMUEL is built like an earthmoving truck, but can turn on a dime.”

or…

“A well-dressed John Flyn pads into the room. He is strong and graceful, with a feline quality that suggests a strength and agility that comes from years of training.” Too wordy.

“John Flyin pads into the room, a panther in an Armani suit.” Better.

Appropriate metaphors enliven character description and eliminate unnecessary words.

Summary

Use brevity, clarity, simplicity in describing your subject. Where appropriate, use metaphors to capture your character’s essence.

The Story Ending

Story Ending in The Matrix
Story Ending in The Matrix

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FLEDGLING writers are often told that they should know the story ending before they start writing its beginning. Syd Field immediately comes to mind.

But why should this be the case? What’s so important about the story ending?

Think of it this way: All journeys point toward their end. Simply put, the ending gives the story its purpose, it confirms its theme – its raison d’être.

The theme, which contains the moral essence of the tale, is only proved as a result of the final showdown between the hero and his nemesis at the end of a story: The winner carries the theme. Badly crafted endings, therefore, make for badly themed stories.

How the Story Ending Shapes the Tale

In The Matrix, human love, imagination, and determination, trump machine intelligence. This only emerges at the end of the story with the resurrection of Neo through Trinity’s kiss and the result of his final confrontation with agent Smith. Had Neo died at the hands of Smith, the theme would have been exactly the opposite. Knowing the ending, therefore, shapes the kind of beginning your story may have, within your chosen genre, in order to maintain believability and coherence.

But to chart the path to a final location in three dimensional space, you need three points. That’s where the midpoint of your story comes in. The midpoint forces the beginning to deflect through a further point in story space in order to reach the endpoint. The midpoint, therefore, further influences the sort of beginning your story may have and still achieve a pleasing shape. Carelessly placed beginning, middle, and endpoints result in meaningless squiggles.

How do you draw a pleasing story shape? You use mounting opposition to the Hero’s achieving his goal, driven by tension, pace, and conflict, to guide your hand. Joining the dots , then, will result in an interesting zigzagging line which climbs upwards to a powerful ending.

Summary

Crafting the story ending as an inevitable part of its beginning and middle makes for a coherent tale.