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How to Write Engaging Characters

Engaging Characters in Knowing

Engaging Characters in Knowing

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BELIEVABLE and engaging characters are essential to most successful stories.

While it is true that certain genres such as Action Adventure or Science Fiction adopt a more plot driven approach, others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character driven.

All stories, however, require convincing characters to complement an effective plot.

 

 

Pointers to building engaging characters.

As Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are important characteristics that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on.

Importantly, most traits have a moral or ethical flavour. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst to act in a cowardly manner is to be devoid of righteousness.

Additionally, engaging characters change and grow. They learn from events around them.

How does change affect existing traits? It reorders the hierarchical prominence of certain traits over others.

Typically, 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-emphasises 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 localised and manageable way.

In the film Knowing, John Koestler, an astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world.

This eventually causes John to in entrust his son’s future to a group of alien observers who offer to take the boy and his young friend Abby to another planet to ensure humanity’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 kicked down the ladder by his newly promoted trait of faith, not in science this time, but in his belief that the aliens will secure his son’s future.

Summary

Traits have an ethical or moral flavour. They are fundamental to the formation and growth of engaging characters.

How the Inciting Incident Works in Stories

inciting incident in Shutter Island

Can you guess the inciting incident in Shutter Island?

I have mentioned in previous articles that the inciting incident is an initial narrative event that gets the story going.

In this post, I want to highlight two of its main functions—-to create momentum by moving us away from the ordinary world of the protagonist, and to keep us interested in the story by setting up the first turning point as a surprise.

The first turning point, as Syd Field reminds us, is the moment the plot truly begins to unfold — the real start of the story. Stated in another way, it is the moment the protagonist is issued a new challenge, accepts a new opportunity, formulates a new plan, and embarks on a new journey to achieve it.

The function of the inciting incident, then, is to introduce an event which disturbs the status quo and initiates a course of action with unexpected consequences. In this sense, it is an early mislead that helps the writer set up events as a series of surprises.

In Shutter Island, police marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Auel, arrive at the hospital for the criminally insane, which operates under Boston’s jurisdiction, ostensibly to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the facility.

When his request for access to the hospital’s personnel files is refused, Daniels begins to suspect a sinister plot by the doctors to cover up his investigation into unethical and illegal medical procedures. Soon, however, Daniels begins to doubt everything around him, including his own sanity.

The inciting incident in Shutter Island

The inciting incident occurs when Daniels arrives at the island to investigate the patient’s disappearance. The main thrust of the story, however, is to determine what is real and what is the psychotic delusion of a sick mind.

The plot starts in earnest at the first turning point — the doctors’ refusal to grant Daniels access to the hospital’s personnel files. This sets up the dramatic question which drives the entire story—what are the doctors hiding from Daniels?

Summary

The inciting incident kick-starts the story by pushing the protagonist past the ordinary world towards the surprise of the 1st turning point.

What makes a good story – revisited

Kramer vs Kramer is a prime example of a good story that engages through emotion

Kramer vs Kramer is a prime example of a good story that engages through emotion

What goes into writing a good story?

Many things—-maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on.

But is there one element in particular whose absence would make a story significantly weaker?

Yes.

A  story that fails to solicit emotion on the part of the reader or audience is headed for oblivion.

A story filled with characters who leave us cold is probably not worth writing. It may be overflowing with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy, but who cares? If your focus is more on such insights than the emotions in a story, go publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or give a talk at your local philosophical society. Your efforts might go down better there.

A story is, of course, capable of conveying deep, world-changing ideas, but only if the emotion in it causes us to care enough about the events and characters in the tale to delve deeper into the text in order to ferret out such ideas.

So, how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we must nurture throughout our writing careers. It does not come overnight.

Emotion makes for a good story

If I could give one bit of advice to kick-start the process it would be to make your lead characters worthy, interesting and caring people who find themselves in worsening situations of undeserved misfortune. This is the first step in creating empathy for your characters, and therefore, in wanting to get to know and care for them.

Summary

One of the most important requirements of a good story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.

How to write a minor character

Minor character

There is no truly minor character in Toy Story in terms of impact


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Most novels or screenplays contain at least one minor character. This is a character who serves the plot in some important way, but who does not warrant the time and space required to develop him into a major player.

One of the pitfalls of crafting minor characters is that they can easily slip into stereotype or cliche, possibly because writers tend to create such characters more out of necessity than passion. Yet, such pitfalls are easily avoided.

Aks yourself the following questions:

1. What is the function of the character in the scene you intend to write?

2. Can this function be performed by an existing character?

In deciding this, consider whether this is truly a secondary character, or a bit-part player. Bit-part players occupy brief moments in a story and need not be extensively fleshed out. What is this character’s relationship to the plot? Is it simply to convey new information, or is the character emotionally linked to the protagonist or antagonist? If emotionally linked, he/she/it is a minor character, rather than a bit-player.

3. What is your minor character’s background — upbringing, education, occupation? Her background will influence her style of dress, body type, body language, dialect, speech idiosyncrasies, hobbies, unexpected interests. The latter are markers which, in the absence of deep interaction and complexity, grant a minor character uniqueness at a glance.

The Minor character in Toy story

In the film, Toy Story, the Dinosaur and Mr. Potato Head are minor characters who are uniquely differentiated through their speech, appearance, and psychological make-up. The Dinosaur is timid and nervous, while Mr. Potato Head is irreverent, bold, and sure of himself. They are as different from each other as Woody is from Buzz Lightyear. They are a wonderful illustration of coulorful and interesting characters made so through broad strokes.

Summary

Create interesting minor characters by infusing each with physical and psychological traits that manifest in unique dialogue and behavioural patterns.

Dramatic Irony in Stories

Dramatic Irony in Moulin Rouge

Dramatic Irony in Moulin Rouge

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Dramatic irony typically occurs when the reader or audience, and at least one of the characters in a story are made privy to important information that the protagonist is unaware of, or presumes the opposite of what is known to be true.

Create dramatic Irony in your story by doing the following:

1. Show the reader or audience the kind of misunderstanding or deception that is being perpetrated. This could be intended or unintended.

2. Place the protagonist in that situation without revealing to her the information necessary for her to know she is being deceived.

3. Play the scene out, step by step, allowing the reader or audience to observe the protagonist suffering the consequences of events and actions, whilst thinking the situation to be precisely the opposite of what is actually happening.

Use dramatic irony to heighten the emotion in a scene or scene sequence.

In Moulin Rouge, Satin pretends not to love Christian. She does this to force him to leave her and so save his life, since Maharaja, the owner of the establishment, who wants her for himself, will kill him if he stays. Christian believes her and this causes him immense pain. The dramatic irony of these actions generates heightened emotion in the audience which perceives Satin’s motive as a selfless show of love.

Summary

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience as well as one or more character is made aware of the true nature of a situation while the protagonist is not. The effect on the reader and audience is to heighten emotion.

Writing a strong story ending

Strong story ending in Unforgiven

Unforgiven has a strong story ending


A strong story ending is essential to the success of your tale and is the result of deliberate planning from the very start of your manuscript.

Here are five suggestions for writing such an ending:

1. Play up the reputation of the protagonist, and even more so, the antagonist

Stories are about the protagonist and antagonist involved in a life and death struggle of some sort. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the stakes and leads to a more engaging and tense ending.

In Unforgiven, William Munny, the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Later he is described by the Kid as being “the same one that shot Charley Pepper up in Lake County? You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train in Missouri.” Likewise, the antagonist, Sheriff Bill Daggett, is described by a deputy as being utterly fearless. He is seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.

A truly memorable story ending is as surprising as it is inevitable. Foreshadowing it, therefore, has to be subtly crafted so as not to show its hand.

2. Cast doubt about the outcome of the final confrontation

The more we doubt the ability of the protagonist to achieve his goal by defeating the antagonist, the more we root for his success, and the more we fear for his failure. When we first meet William Munny we find him slipping and falling amongst the pigs in the pen. The Kid says of him: “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin.” And later, it takes Munny four shots to get the first cowboy. Compared with Little Bill’s ruthless skills, this makes us fear for his survival against the Sheriff.

3. Shift direction

Introducing twists which thwart our expectations, causes us to worry about the outcome. Little Bill beats up William Munny at the saloon, and Munny spends three days hovering near death. The Kid remarks that Munny is useless. Munny hardly appears as a man who can fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.

4. Increase the suspense around the final confrontation

When Munny is told that Ned Logan has been beaten to death by Little Bill, he knows that he has to go back and revenge his death. He knows that this might result in his own death. He tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s doubts about the outcome of the confrontation increases our suspense even more.

5. Have the final confrontation play out in the antagonist’s stronghold

Facing the antagonist in his own lair weakens the protagonist’s ability to prevail. Munny faces Little Bill in the saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies and henchmen. This stacks the deck against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.

Summary

A powerful ending increases the tension in the story by making the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist seem unlikely.

Plot Types In Stories

Adventure as one of the plot types in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Adventure as one of the plot types in Raiders of the Lost Ark

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HOW many plot types are there in stories? Opinions differ, but here are twelve suggestions to get you going:

A sprinkling of Plot types

1. The Adventure: The Hero travels to exotic lands and experiences extraordinary events—typically in search of some sort of treasure, but ends up gaining true love instead/as well: Raiders of the Lost Arc.

2. The Rescue: The protagonist has to rescue the victim from the antagonist by following her to the ends of the earth if needs be: Taken.

3. The Redemption: The hero has to free himself from the internal and external consequences of a past action through atonement. This usually involves gaining insight about his past through a series of increasingly challenging actions: The Nostalgia of a Time Travel, Atonement.

4. The Quest: The protagonist goes on a journey to acquire or protect something of great value. The story usually describes the character’s vicissitudes and ultimate growth during this journey: Lord of the Rings.

5. The Temptation: This type of plot explores the concept of morality and exposes the effect of giving in to temptation. It usually involves the Hero resisting temptation, giving in to temptation, suffering the consequences of temptation, and finally achieving some sort of insight, growth and redemption through a sacrificial act: Dangerous Liaisons.

6. The Revenge/Payback: The protagonist assumes the moral high ground by invoking an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance for a great wrong perpetrated by the antagonist: Unforgiven, The Count of Monte Christo.

7. The Rival: The Hero and antagonist are locked in together in a struggle to achieve dominance over a situation or person: Face Off.

8. The Escape: The protagonist, usually innocent of the crime or accusation, is imprisoned against his will. The plot charts the protagonist’s journey from capture, thwarted attempts to escape, and the final get-away: Escape Plan, The Shawshank Redemption.

9. The Underdog: Here the protagonist is seriously outgunned in his life-and-death struggle with the antagonist. The antagonist need not be a person. It can be a force of nature which threatens the life of the protagonist. Deep Impact, Twister.

10. The Heist: This involves the identification and setting-up of a target to rob, the execution, the unravelling, and the resolution: The Great Train Robbery, Ocean’s Eleven.

11. The Riddle: This story type sets up a difficult question, mystery, or puzzle as the driving force behind the story. It invites us to find the solution before the Hero does. Solving the puzzle requires that the protagonist use his wits and ingenuity to overcome physical as well as mental obstacles, involving self-sacrifice and the threat of death: Sherlock Holmes.

12. The Chase: In this type of plot the pursuit drives the events and character relationships. For tension to be maintained the chaser(s) must have a reasonable chance of catching the chased: World War Z, The Fugitive.

What kind of plot type drives your story? Is it a mix of several, perhaps? Determining your plot type(s) will help guide the development of your characters and action.

Summary

Plot types help you write your story by setting up certain requirements and expectations. This article suggests twelve such types.

Metaphors in Stories

Visual Metaphors in The  Piano

Visual Metaphors in The Piano

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IN his book, On Writing, Sol Stein, suggests that writers can enrich their stories through resonance — the sense that something has significance beyond its physical boundary.

‘My name is Ishmael and I hail from Bethlehem’, for example, evokes a religious tone, through biblical resonance.

Visual metaphors involving objects, places and actions connote something over and above their denotative aspect – they carry ideas that resonate with readers and audiences. They typically form part of an image system that supports the story’s hidden meaning while simultaneously being part of the mise-en-scène.

Visual metaphors take many forms: the breaking of a chain may represent the onset of freedom; a broken mirror might represent the theme of illusion and deception, or a shattered persona.

Examples of visual metaphors

Shakespeare often uses visual metaphors to suggest the story’s deeper meaning – a tormented soul surrounded by rain, thunder, and lightning as in King Lear; the murder of a king causing imbalance in nature – as in Macbeth, where horses are reported to have eaten each other.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the category five cyclone that threatens the protagonist’s life is not only a physical phenomenon. It is also a metaphor for the inner storm that forces him to choose between life and death.

One of the most famous visual metaphors in film is the eating scene in Tom Jones. Seemingly about eating, the scene is really about sex – the spontaneity, rebelliousness, naughtiness of the carnal act inherent in the excitement of going after the wrong woman. It is a metaphor for sexually devouring a lover’s body.

When Baines (Harvey Keitel) painstakingly dusts the instrument, in The Piano, he is not just cleaning an object. His actions represent the caresses he wishes to bestow on his lover.

To work well visual metaphors need to be carefully constructed. Consuming a salad would not work as well as chewing on flesh and bone. Dusting the piano with a rag would not be as effective as a naked Baines cleaning the instrument with his shirt. The setting and detail of metaphors are crucial to their nuance and meaning.

Summary

A visual metaphor creates resonance by pointing to layers of meaning beneath the surface of a story.

Deflection in Dialogue

Deflection in Dialogue

Deflection is one of the many techniques discussed in Sol Stein’s marvelous book


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IN his book, On Writing, master editor and storyteller, Sol Stein stresses that good dialogue is never on-the-nose. It does not solely focus on the plot. It is certainly never trivial, unlike much of the dialogue we hear in casual conversations at parties or in supermarkets.

Good dialogue is oblique and unexpected. Yet, in deflecting, it hints at the very secrets the characters are trying to hide. It heightens our sense of intrigue, curiosity, and suspense.

Deflection takes several forms. Here are some examples:

Types of deflection

1. Abruptly changing the subject:

“Got that hundred bucks I lent you?”
“Went to the bank to draw it. Saw your girlfriend in the queue. Don’t think she spotted me. Too busy falling all over some guy with male model looks.”

2. Answering a question with a question:

“Have you ever stolen anything of value from a friend?“
“Are you serious?”

3. Silence:

“Are you having an affair, Peter?”
Peter looks at his wife but says nothing. At last he gets up and pours himself a stiff drink.

4. Action that is at odds with the dialogue:

She slaps him hard across the face so that his hair flies to the side.
He responds: “If you ever stop doing that I’ll leave you.”

5. Counter attacking:

“You look bad.”
“So do you.”

6. Threatening :

He says: “Don’t wait up for me tonight, honey. Working really late at the office again.”
She says: “Mind if I drop by after gym to say hi?”

7. A counter revelation:

“I’m sorry Sam. I never meant to sleep with your girlfriend. It kinda just happened. And it was only that once.”
“That’s ok, Ben. It’s not like I haven’t slept with yours!”

In each case deflection acts to parry the original question or statement.

Summary

Deflection, in its various colours, is indispensable to the writing of good dialogue. Done well it helps to sustain curiosity and suspense. Use it often.

Attitude and Character

Attitude

Attitude

Crafting distinctive characters is not easy. The danger is that we create robots who merely drive the plot forward. One remedy for this is to think about your character’s attitude to life.

Just what is attitude in character?

Attitude is the underlying manner which motivates and shapes the way a character speaks, moves, makes decisions. It contains traces of a character’s backstory, value system, and intention.

An attitude can be optimistic, pessimistic, challenging, proud, sardonic, supercilious, courageous, cowardly, and so on.

Checking for Attitude

How do you check for this distinctive quality in your characters? In a scene where two or more characters interact, ask yourself whether you could swap dialogue and action between them without your readers noticing. If you can, then the chances are that your characters are mere generic engines whose sole aim is to push the plot forward.

Who but the Terminator would say: I’ll be back. Or, Bruce Banner warn: Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like it when I’m angry, or Dorothy: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. And, is there anyone who can’t name the movie franchise with a lead character whose favourite drink has to be prepared in a very specific way: A martini. Shaken, not stirred.

In terms of small, defining actions, can you imagine anyone chewing on a cigar, or parting his poncho to reveal his gun and holster, in quite the same way as Clint Eastwood does in his portrayal of the laconic anti-hero in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns? Or The Nostalgia of Time Travel’s Benjamin Vlahos being preoccupied with solving a mathematical equation for thirty years in order to undo a dreadful mistake?

Granting your characters different attitudes will help you create memorable individuals for your stories.

Summary

Grant your characters specific attitudes towards life to give them individuality.