Category Archives: On Character

Story Strands — How To Merge Them

Story strands in Braveheart
William Wallace perfectly merges the story strands in Braveheart


The outer and inner Journeys comprise the two most important strands of a story, which is another way of saying that they relate how the hero acts in the world, and why.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts, beat-by-beat, the external events of the Hero struggling against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the race, preventing a robbery, and so on. 

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, and setbacks.

“The pivot points merge the story strands, the outer and inner events of the tale, into single actions.”

Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing, explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, the turning points, including your midpoint, describe events that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his evolving inner state.

Is it preferable to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? There is probably no definitive answer to that question—either will do, as long as both through-lines are tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength. He manages to kill the fop, an expert English swordsman, despite his being defeated in the actual sword fight, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Breaveheart, William Wallace accepts his knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes up arms against the English. The ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection. 

Summary

The pivot points are the perfect place for the story strands to merge and ensure that the “why” explains the “what” in the story.

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Unforgiven
Character conflict in Unforgiven arises from William Manny’s thinking he can stay true to the wishes of his dead wife to be a better man versus his true nature as a hired gun.

We’ve often heard that character conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories lack dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Character Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how juxtaposing the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, against an external conflict makes for a gripping tale.

“Internal and external character conflicts continuously struggle against each other, thrusting and parrying like opponents in a fencing match, until there is an eventual winner.”

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the length of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict that arises, should build on the danger and intensity of the previous one. This means that inner conflict is adjusted to suit changes to the physical threat. Is the character more or less fearful after each physical challenge? More or less prejudiced or committed?

Character Conflict in Unforgiven

What, then, follows a scene containing such conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven Ned Logan decides to walk away from the job involving killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic Schofield Kid to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces an entire saloon filled with men seeking to kill him. This is the result of the setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan, who was unjustly accused of murder. Manny now has no alternative but to revenge Ned’s death.

It is important to note, then, that each conflict has the following structure—conflict, setback, climax, resolution.

Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as inner conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

Character Flaw in Stories — what is it?

The character flaw in Macbeth
Few enduring stories illustrate the influence of the character flaw more strongly than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

What is a character flaw, anyway?

One way to think of a flaw is as a glitch in a character’s internal makeup that shapes his interaction with the world. In trying to hide or suppress this glitch, the character engages in an inner struggle, which drives the story forward. 

A Character flaw may be born out of an internal cause, such as an emotional scar from the past, or an external one, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice.

Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character make for interesting stories that resonate with readers and audiences.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, such as the three witches and his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.

“The Character Flaw generates inner conflict in the protagonist. It is a prolific generator of subtext in a story.”

Additionally, a flaw generates questions about the story: What lies and obfuscations has the character created to conceal the flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And, crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point, and climax? 

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey through the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”.

In The Matrix Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self-belief (flaw) to one of belief.

This inner journey—Neo’s character arc—influences each major action in the story and, therefore, gives shape to the story as a whole. It neatly ties into the notion of want vs. need that we examined in an earlier post, by relating the external (want), to the internal (need).

Summary

A character flaw directs a character’s response to the world. It helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his actions.

No villain, no hero

The villain in Ordinary People
The mother as villain in Ordinary People


The success of a story largely depends on how well the writer uses the protagonist’s inner and outer struggles, juxtaposed against a powerful villain, to prove the theme.

But it’s not all just about the protagonist. Behind every successful hero lurks a relentless and ruthless villain.

Inexperienced writers tend to develop their heroes and villains separately, instead of crafting them as polar opposites of a single narrative entity.

If your hero is a formidable Kung-fu expert you need an even more powerful villain to stand up to him. Pacific Rim is filled with battle-hardened hero types, driving highscraper-tall machines. The writers, therefore, had to come up with monster-size villains to fight them. 

The more powerful your hero, the more powerful your villain needs to be in order to generate risk, suspense, and excitement—to pose a worthy threat to the hero. 

Strength, of course, is not merely physical. In Ordinary People, the mom is a formidable and relentless opponent whose implacable determination to take custody of her young son drives the plot forward.

“Never forget that it is the villain that inadvertently spurs the hero to achieve his best in order to win the day.”

Although villains are crafty and tireless plotters, they are not always 100% bad. Remember, villains don’t see themselves as villainous. They feel justified in doing what they do. In their minds, they are merely seeking revenge, righting a wrong, balancing the books, for a perceived injustice perpetrated against them.

Additionally, a successful villain knows how to punch the hero’s buttons. He takes advantage of the hero”s weakness. If your hero is a rich stockbroker, the villain is an even richer businessman who manipulates the market to bring him down. If your hero is a champion boxer, his opponent is a seven foot, three-hundred pound Russian giant. 

Remember, then, that the hero and villain form a single unit. Identify the hero’s weakness and the villain’s strength, and have the villain take advantage of that weakness—until the last moment when the tables turn and the hero uses the same technique against him. 

Lastly, have the final confrontation play out in the villain’s lair—the place that is most advantageous to the villain. It will raise the tension and fill your readers or audience with dread. Providing you have chosen an up-ending, it will also make your hero’s final victory that much sweeter.

Summary

The hero and villain are polar opposites, forming a single narrative unit.
The hero’s weakness juxtaposed against the villain’s strength complicates the plot and heightens tension.

Eccentric characters – Foibles, kinks and rituals.

Eccentric Characters - Uriah Heep
Charles Dickens’ stories are filled with eccentric characters such as David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep.

Eccentric characters in stories, are filled with foibles, kinks and rituals. As are real people in the world. .
We often like to do things in a certain way: follow a particular path to work from the parking lot, place our shampoo bottle just-so on the basin, put on the right shoe first, rather than the left. We create little rituals, which, ostensibly, grant us comfort, provide us with some semblance of meaning, and, perhaps, point us to some deeper truth.

Studies by psychologists, neurologists, and a myriad of other specialists, showcase personalities that range from the eccentric to the pathological.

As a writer of novels and screenplays, I too am interested in the various in-depth explanations of ritual and habit. I routinely read papers on neuroscience, psychology, and the social ‘sciences’. But the truth is that I am far more concerned with understanding emotional motivation as a function of drama in a story

“Eccentric characters, handled adroitly, make for colourful and engaging stories.”

I remind myself that the best stories are not simply about philosophy, psychology, social justice, although, they do touch on those subjects. The best stories endure because they expose a character’s peculiarities and weaknesses—they offer us good drama, and in so doing, engage our emotions. If stories get us to wrestle with the underlying concepts at all, they do so because they first get us to feel something about the people they describe—colourful characters brimming over with kinks, foibles, and rituals.

Some years back, I taught a documentary filmmaking course every Friday at a college in downtown Johannesburg. Traffic was bad at that time of morning so I would leave home early to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway. Trouble was that the college opened at 8am and I would arrive at my destination way before then.

Luckily, I could while away the time at a nearby Macdonald’s. Call me an early bird, but I was usually the first customer to be served when the doors opened at 6am. Hotcakes with butter and syrup and coffee were just what I needed before that first lecture at 8am.

But sometimes I was pipped at the post by an even earlier bird. 

Not much of a problem in the grand scheme of things. There were, after all, more than enough hotcakes to go around.

But then, there was the small matter of my favourite spot. 

The table, tucked away in a far corner of the shop was flanked on two sides by large windows that looked out into a parking lot dotted with trees. I really liked that spot. I liked it almost as much as I liked my hotcakes.

The trouble was, so did the earlier bird.

Now, good sense would have me gracefully yield my spot to her. First come first served and all that.

But on such occasions I secretly wished I had got there even earlier to stake my claim. Or that she’d been held up by some event or other, granting me first access. I found myself anxiously scanning the interior of the shop for a sign of her, even as I was pulling into the parking area.

Thinking about it now, I can’t help lowering my head in embarrassment. Was I really that petty-minded?

Even so, I believe that such foibles, habits, and rituals, trivial as they are, are useful markers of personality.

At the very least they offer writers an opportunity to inject their experiences into their characters, rendering them more eccentric and interesting. In observing ourselves through such characters, we may even succeed in purging ourselves of some of our more irrational inclinations.

Summary

Studying eccentric characters on a daily basis, ourselves and others, helps us write captivating, fictional constructs that bristle with life, eccentricity, and colour.

Essential Characters in Stories

Travis, in Taxi Driver, combines characters is of two essential characters - hero and villain simultaneously.
Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, combines the characteristics of two essential characters – protagonist and villain, simultaneously.

Casting essential characters, such as a protagonist and antagonist is of little value unless you surround them 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 you need to include:

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).

Essential characters are the tools through which the writer puts the story premise to the test.

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 him more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine himself 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.

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

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

Summary

Essential characters interrogate your story premise by exploring it from several angles—through the eyes of each character. Opinions differ about the ideal number of types, but the four discussed above set the lower limit.

Invitation

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Character Description in Screenplays and Novels

Character description and the Mona Lisa
No character description would be complete in this example without reference to Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

Character Description: In a typical screenplay or novel, character descriptions should be written when the characters first appear on the page. These descriptions should be brief and to the point. This post looks at this often misunderstood aspect.

In a screenplay, there are only two things to establish about a character from the outset—gender and age. Pedantic descriptions about physical attributes, cars and pets, musical instruments played, should be avoided, although, in a novel, lengthier descriptions are more common.

If a characteristic is crucial to the story, state this succinctly. If, for example, one of your characters, say, Bruce Dunn’s graceful movement somehow ends up saving his life then foreshadow this in your description of him: Bruce Dunn was built like an army barracks shithouse but moved with the grace of a ballerina.

Lengthy, unmotivated descriptions slow the thrust of the story and betray the writer’s inexperience. 

So, why do so many writers include them in their stores? Because it is far easier to describe a character’s varied physical attributes and traits than to reveal them adroitly through dialogue and action in a scene.

Character description that references physical stature, hair colouring, and weight, therefore, is relevant only if it foreshadows aspects of the plot, such as the stutter that causes the murderer to trip up at the end, or the lack of height that motivates a man to over-achieve in other areas. 

This extends to emotional traits as well. Indeed, one of the best ways to make emotional and physical traits germane to the story is to interweave them and have them explain some aspect of the character’s action(s).

This brevity of description extends to the novel and short story too, for much the same reasons. In her wonderful book on the craft of the short story,  Inside Stories for Readers and Writers, Trish Nicholson offers us several examples of this skill.

In Modus Operandi she describes a character’s physical size: “A big man, too–he had to duck under doorways. His hands were as wide as dinner plates. To see those long fleshy fingers you’d realize the strength in them.” This description is not only germane to the story but it foreshadows menacing aspects in the plot.

Summary

Character description should be brief and germane. Describe only those traits of a character that serve as triggers to the plot, and do so succinctly

The Role of the Archetype in Stories

Archetype and Story
How to work with an Archetype

In their book, Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley present a system for crafting stories, which, although somewhat counterintuitive, brims over with important advise—especially with regards how to work with the archetype. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of whom vary in naming convention from those put forward by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Christian Vogler.

The Protagonist (hero) and Antagonist, whom we recognise from other writers on the subject, form the first pair. The function of the protagonist is to pursue the goal identified towards the end of the first act and, hence, drive the story forward. The function of the antagonist is to try and stop him at all costs.

The next pair is Reason and Emotion. Reason is calm and collected. His decisions and actions are based solely on logic. Star Trek’s Spock is a typical example of this archetype. Bones, the ship’s doctor, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. Although a medical man, his opinions and actions are deeply emotional. He presents the emotional dimension of the moral premise.

The Sidekick and Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the story. The sidekick is the faithful supporter of the protagonist, although he may attach himself to the antagonist since his function is to show faithful support of a leading character. The skeptic on the other hand is the disbelieving opposer, lacking the faith of the sidekick. His function in the story is to foreshadow the possibility of failure.

The Guardian and Contagonist form the last pair of archetypal characters. The job of the guardian is that of a teacher and protector. He represents conscience in the story. Gandalf is such a character in Lord of the Rings. He helps the protagonist stay on the path to achieve success. By contrast, the contagonist’s function is to hinder the protagonist and lure him away from success. He is not to be confused with the antagonist since his function is to deflect and not to kill or stop the opposing character. George Lucas’s (Star Wars) Jabba the Hut is such a character. As with the sidekick, the contagonist may attach himself to the protagonist.

As a group, the archetypal characters perform essential functions within a story. Because they can be grouped in different ways, versatility can be added to their relationships. 

Their usefulness becomes apparent when editing your manuscript, especially in sagas such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings

Does your story ‘feel’ wrong? 

Do your characters drift? 

Identity the function of each character archetype to see if it is functioning correctly in your story.

Of course, the task becomes more complex when the archetypes are mixed to create more complex and realistic characters, but even then, you may be able to pin-point their essential combinations and, therefore, work to improve their shared functions—but that is the subject of another article.

Summary

Understanding archetypes and their function in your story will assist you in troubleshooting loose and imprecise aspects of your tale.

Conflicting Story Characters Make for Better Tales

Conflicting story characters
Rob Roy has strong conflicting story characters to drive the action forward

Conflicting story characters are the engine of your tales. Do you want your characters to drive the story forward? Then push them into situations of increasing conflict. 

In Rob Roy the conflict between Robert Roy MacGregor and Archibald Cunningham involves murder and rape and defines the plot of the story.

Conflict, which is both internal and external, comes from contradiction—contradiction between warring traits inside the character such as fear versus ambition, and contradiction as a result of a clash between two external and powerful wills pitted against each other. Animosity, jealousy, covetousness, hate, and overbearing ambition fighting against their opposites make for a powerful conflict. 

Conflicting story character traits heap trouble and misery upon our characters. To rectify a wrong decision a character makes another, drawing on those traits, then another, and a third to fix the second, and so on.

Conflict provides the causality that drives the story forward, like a stack of falling dominos.

Some characters will eventually concede defeat. Others will remain stubborn until they succeed or die. 

As a writer, your interest lies in characters who, because of their physical and psychological traits, are predestined to defy the odds and never give up. They are reckless. They relentlessly try to achieve their goal, no matter what. 

Such driven people, however, become desperate only after dire necessity forces them to a decision, and any delay in acting might cost them their lives, loves, wealth, health, or honour. Desperate necessity propels them toward their ultimate goal, which is clearly stated in the story’s premise. 

The greater the conflict in the characters’ lives, therefore, the greater their growth. End-to-end growth as a result of the journey from jealousy to trust, or from hatred to love, and how it happens, makes for the most satisfying and successful stories.

Summary

Conflicting story characters promote growth by causing contradictory traits to collide and resolve themselves into an outcome, allowing one trait to gain prominence over the other.

Character identification in stories—how to achieve it.

Rob Roy uses great character identification
Rob Roy is a great story made greater through the use of strong character identification

A well-crafted film script or novel contains strong character identification—characters we can identify with. At the very least, it allows us to identify with the protagonist , if we are to be drawn into the tale at all. By identification I mean the tendency to experience part of a character’s achievements, failures, foibles, likes and dislikes, as if they were our own.

Identification is not the same as liking the character, although, in a traditional story, it is one of the most important elements.

Because character identification helps to draw us into the story more effectively than is otherwise possible, it is one of the most important story-telling skills to master.

In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hague lays out several ways to achieve this. Here’s six of the most important:

1. Create sympathy for your characters. This is one of the most effective ways to achieve identification with a fictional character. A character that has been made the victim of some undeserved misfortune is a someone we can root for — Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Rob Roy are all people that did not deserve the punishment meted out to them.

2. Place your character in peril. Worrying about a character’s well-being draws us closer to him. In The Matrix we worry that Neo’s conflict with agent Smith will result in his death. This forces us identify with his predicament even more.

3. Make your character likable. The more we like someone the more likely we are to root for him. A character that is funny (Inspector Clouseau), good (William Wallace), or merely skilled at what he does (Dirty Harry), posses traits that make him likable. 

4. Make your character powerful. Readers and audiences are fascinated with powerful figures. Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, holds our interest precisely because his is a powerful enemy.

5. Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. The reader is waiting for someone worthy to root for. The sooner you bring him into the fray, the sooner the process of identifying with him can begin.

6. Give your character flaws and foibles. We often identify with a character who is quirky, awkward or clumsy precisely because we recognise some of these characteristics as our own. In my best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist refuses to get rid of his old bell-bottom trousers and keeps a bowl filled with milk for his dead cat as if she were still alive.

Summary

Achieve a stronger and more engaging story by creating character identification with your protagonist through these six techniques.