Category Archives: On Character

Hero on a Journey of Discovery

A student recently asked me how she could bolster the credibility of the actions of her hero in a story she’d written. 

Joseph Campbell’s book goes to great depths in exploring the hero and his journey
Joseph Campbell’s book goes to great depths in exploring the hero and his journey

Was there a guideline, other than instinct and experience, she could glean from a structured approach to storytelling?

The answer, of course, is yes. 

Assuming the decisions and actions of your hero respect his background and character traits, you should ensure they reflect his current emotional, moral, and spiritual status too.

Let’s look at the pivotal action which occurs at the first turning point. This is the moment, we are reminded, when the hero decides to accept a challenge, choose a goal, and embark on a course of action that sets into motion a series of cascading events. It is the true start of the story.

Let’s also remind ourselves that a hero typically has the most to learn at the start of the tale. We refer to this as his developmental arc. 

Perhaps he is morally naive and misguided, or emotionally immature and spiritually bankrupt, and tends to confuse his want with his need.

It stands to reason, then, that his initial plan for pursuing the goal is flawed. It allows his nemesis to stay a step ahead, handing him a series of defeats. 

It is only towards the end of the story when the hero has reached the zenith of his moral, spiritual, and emotional development that he is able to choose the right plan and find the strength and self-belief to defeat his nemesis. 

In The Matrix, Neo is unable to beat agent Smith in hand-to-hand combat before he discovers who he truly is. Were he to achieve victory before this moment, he would not only throw the pacing off, but his actions would appear inauthentic.

So, when are your hero’s actions credible? When his outer experience tracks his growing maturity.

Summary

Tie the actions of your hero to his developmental arc to ensure his inner and outer journeys stay in sync.

The flawed Protagonist

There is an interesting tendency in new television series in the past few years to present a flawed protagonist that is not only dark, but often, downright pathological.

The chief difference between the flawed protagonist and antagonist seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dr. Chance, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.

Dr. Chance as the flawed protagonist

Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like the flawed protagonist in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?

Part of the answer lies in the notion that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.

Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through his eyes. He is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for his dilemmas and motivation.

Flawed protagonists are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient. 

Dr. Chance keeps outsmarting his opponents, with his side-kick’s (D’s) help, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business. 

Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and nifty dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He succeeds in staying ahead of his opponents and surprising them with his ingenuity. 

But ultimately, even a flawed protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dr. Chance loves his daughter deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel abuser’s and killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had. 

Making the flawed protagonist likable

Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to grow to like the protagonist first before we see him drag himself through the mud.

Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.

But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.

Summary

To foster empathy, introduce your flawed protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.

Turning Points in Stories

Turning Points in Die Hard

Turning Points in Die Hard

I’ve talked, more than once, about turning points in stories. This post takes another look at this all important topic, adding what, I hope, is fresh insight.

A turning point occurs when something big happens in a story to spin it around in an unexpected direction. This takes the form of new information granted to the protagonist and audience.

I’ve indicated that an action-orientated turning point should be supported by a strong inner motivation. I’ve suggested that such motivation is nested in the inner journey. So, if we draw a zig-zagging line to represent the outer journey as the physical series of actions and events, the inner journey is the line that rides below it, tracking it in parallel. The turning points are the horizontal lines intersecting the two.

Examples of Turning Points in film

But what form should this new information take? Specifically, should it come from the outer journey—such as news that a solar flare seems set to destroy the earth in the film, Knowing? Or should it spring from the inner journey of the hero, as in Oblivion, when Tom Cruise’s character realises that the flashes of memory that have been plaguing him are actual memories of his wife (albeit, as we’ll later find out, through the medium of resonance, which unites his clones).

Does it really matter, which comes first, you may well ask, since the outer and inner journeys meet at the turning points anyway? My personal view is that it does.

Turning Points that come from the inner journey to intersect with the outer journey, contain more of an “Aha” moment.

Such turning Points draw our attention to the character’s background and motivation and makes us care more about his predicament. It makes the action more meaningfully, right off the bat. It bestows empathy and verisimilitude.

This is not to say that pure action can’t give rise to a turning point. Action films such as Die Hard and the crop of superhero films such as Batman and Superman often take that route. Still, letting the turning point spring from the inner journey heightens the authenticity of the protagonist’s actions. It may therefore be the more appropriate place to mine for turning points in drama-ordinated genres.

Summary

Turning points that spring from the inner journey increase character authenticity and verisimilitude in stories.

How to Write Paradoxical Characters

Paradoxical characters in Erin Brockovich

Paradoxical characters in Erin Brockovich

 

 

Paradoxical characters arise from the complexity of life itself. A paradox, in this sense, represents a deeply baffling complexity in a character navigating through life.

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger wrote:

Paradoxes do not negate the consistencies, they simply add to them. Characters are more interesting if they are made up of mixed stuff, if they have warring elements.

To create warring elements, you begin by establishing one and asking: ‘Given this element, what other elements might there be in the same person that would create conflict?’

Why Paradoxical Characters are Good Characters

In the film Erin Brockovich, for example, Erin’s paradoxes include her desire to succeed professionally, juxtaposed against her need to take care of her children.

Her trailer-trash sexuality versus her ability and commitment to fight a huge corporation.

Her foul language and aggression juxtaposed against her desire to assist people find their way through the complex legal system.

In The Matrix, Neo is a hacker and merchant who is wanted by the law, yet, he is the one chosen to save humanity. The irony is not lost on the audience who, despite this, see him as a kind of modern day Christ figure.

If we think hard enough about the people we know we will find some fine examples of paradoxes drawn from real life. It’s part of the fabric of character: the bible-puncher who is involved with a prostitute, the club bouncer who is putty in his girlfriend’s hands, or the sweet old man with a foul mouth when it comes to dealing with the payment of bills.

Introducing paradoxes, or warring elements, into your characters will inject verisimilitude and interest in the stories you tell.

Summary

Paradoxical characters are an important part of creating vibrant, interesting, and authentic stories.

How to Write the Story Midpoint

The story midpoint in Field of Dreams

The story midpoint in Field of Dreams

Although much has been written about the story midpoint, not least in this blog, it is a crucial structural element in a story that deserves revisiting.

The middle of a story is the point in which the Hero makes an important decision: He can choose to turn back from the path he has been following, or press on with renewed insight—stemming from an event that has caused him to reassess his approach to it.

In my newest novella, Before the Light, about A.I. and the origin of the universe, the midpoint occurs when the protagonist, Sam Yeager, decides how best to proceed against the plot to destroy the quantum computer he helped to program.

Unlike the first or second turning point, the midpoint does not necessarily involve a huge climax or action scene.

What the midpoint does do is:

Cause the Hero to reassess the quest

Have him consider giving up

Lead him to the realisation that he must continue

Have him formulate a new or more specific plan of action and commit to this new goal in a way that he can not back out of

Cause him learn something new about his innermost self.

Story Midpoint Examples

In Field of Dreams, the midpoint occurs at the baseball game with Terence Mann, when Ray notices the sign about Archibald ‘Doc’ Graham, then hears, once more, the voice saying ‘Go the distance’. In The Crying Game, the midpoint occurs when Fergus uncovers Dill’s physical secret. In both cases, there is a strong inner, or, psychological aspect to the midpoint.

Typically, the midpoint changes a crucial aspect in the Hero’s inner life that impacts on his outer life: if he was not in control, he seizes control, if he was uncommitted, he becomes committed, if he was a victim, he decides to hit back, if he was hunted, he becomes the hunter, if he was delusional, he starts to deal with reality, if he was defeated by the goal, he begins a new struggle to achieve it.

In this sense, then, the midpoint brings the inner and outer journeys together by fusing self-illumination to a plan of action, which leads him to  achieve the story goal.

Summary

The story midpoint is not only the half-way point of the story in terms of length, it is also the moment in which the Hero reassesses his situation, regathers his strengthen and resources, and presses on with renewed insight and wisdom.

Strong Character Relationships in Stories

Strong relationships in Breaking Bad

Strong relationships abound in Breaking Bad

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that character relationships are at the centre of most stories. With the exception of such stories as Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, or Steven Spielberg’s Duel, most tales consist of characters who love, hate, like, or dislike each other.

Novelist Leonard Tourney stresses that couples have become more important in fiction and in film.

Pairing people up into relationships changes their individual chemistry; it brings out differing aspects in them: Walter White’s complex master/slave relationship with Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, is one of the many examples of this sort of complexity. Older television series such as Cheers, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, and Moonlighting, are more cases in point. This is not limited to television alone.

Ask yourself the question: How successful would Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rain Man, or Breaking Bad have been without the special relationships between the lead characters?

All of these stories have characters based on traits that cause the most bang for the buck when mixed together. And it’s not any old mix.

The nature of character relationships

It involves certain recurring traits and patterns in stories:

1. Characters who have something in common that brings them and keeps them together.

2. A conflict between characters that threatens to tear them apart and is the cause of much of the humour or drama in a story.

3. Characters have contrasting traits — opposites may attract, but they often combust when brought together.

4. Characters that have the ability to transform each other, for better or worse.

Marshaling characters utilising these relational traits is a useful method for creating interesting stories.

Summary

Writing characters engaged in strong relationships with one another is an important way of generating interest in your stories.

What are the Stakes for your Hero?

Stakes and Deliverance

The stakes could not be higher in Deliverence.

 

What are the stakes for you hero?

In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger points out that studio executives, producers and story editors are fond of asking this question of every writer.

The answer to this question can make or break a story.

The Stakes

If the risks are weak or unclear, readers and audiences have no reason to care about the characters in our story or see any connection between their experience and the experience of our fictional characters — our characters will not evoke a sense of empathy.

Abraham Maslow devised a seven-part hierarchy to explain what drives us as people, and what the stakes are if we fail to get what we need or seek.

1. Survival: Many excellent stories are about survival. This primal instinct is basic to all animals and we are no exception. By centering our story around the hero’s (or community’s) survival, we’re ticking the first box on the list of creating empathy. The movie, Deliverance, is a fine example of this.

2. Safety and Security; Once our survival needs are met, we seek a safe and secure place to keep the dangers at bay. We lock our doors, build forts, raise armies to guard us. Voyage of the Damned and Country utilise this need in their stories.

3. Love and Belonging: But what is a safe home without love and family? We have a deep need to connect with others. We need to love and be loved in return. In Places of the Heart, Edna desperately wants to preserve her family — a family that comprises of more than just her children. It includes Will, the blind man, and Moses, a black male. This need drives the story to its inevitable conclusion.

4. Esteem and Self-Respect: People desire to be looked up to, respected. But this respect has to be earned through knowledge and hard-knocks. Luke Skywalker earns respect at the end of Star Wars after a series of lessons learnt the hard way.

5. The Need to Know and Understand. We are insatiably curious creatures. We seek to understand how things work, how they fit together. We seek to know what life is, where we came from. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is driven, in part, by such a curiosity, while films such as Back to the Future and The Time Machine show characters perpetually struggling to understand how to travel back and forth in time.

6. The Aesthetic: Once we are secure and confident, we seek to create a sense of order in our lives by connecting to something higher than ourselves. This can be a religious or aesthetic experience, but it often involves the search for epiphany. Films such as Joan of Arc, Amadeus, and Never Cry Wolf, use this more abstract need to drive their stories.

7. Self-Actualisation: Finally, we need to express ourselves — to communicate who we are, to declare our skills and talents to ourselves and the world. Artists and athletes express this need through their desire to finish a work, break a record. The need to excel is strongly displayed in films such as Chariots of Fire and The Turning Point.

Used in combination these needs, instincts and desires form the backbone of many successful stories. They create empathy in readers and audiences, linking their own desires to the dreams, hopes and fears of fictional characters.

Summary

Use Maslow’s hierarchy to help you establish the stakes for your story‘s fictional characters to motivates their actions and experiences.

Character Development in Stories

Scarab and Character Development

Scarab and Character Development

At the end of his chapter on character development, in Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge offers the following useful advice:

In order to have effective character development, identification and sympathy, place your protagonist in jeopardy.

For example, in my bestselling novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is under constant threat of being murdered by the man in the black suit. This sustains the suspense, keeping the reader turning the pages to find out if Jack lives or dies.

Additionally, make your protagonist likable. Introduce him to your audience early. Make him powerful, witty, or good at his  job. Position him in a familiar setting. Grant him familiar flaws and foibles.

Ensure originality in your character development by researching specific historical figures whose lives are authentic, unique, and interesting.

Go against cliche by altering the physical makeup, background and personality to make your character less predictable. Pair one character up with an opposite or contrasting character and cast him, in your imagination, by assigning his role to an actor that is best suited to the part.

Character Development Essentials

Remember that there are two levels of character motivation: outer motivation, which is the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story, and inner motivation, which is the reason he strives for the goal in the first place—the why to the what and the how.

Conflict also spurs a character to develop. There are two sources of conflict: outer conflict, which is the conflict between other characters and nature, and inner conflict: the conflict between warring aspects within the character herself.

Finally, there are four main categories of primary characters: hero or protagonist, whose motivation drives the plot, the nemesis or antagonist who tries to prevent the hero from achieving the goal, the reflection or guardian who most supports the protagonist, and the romance character, who, according to Hauge, alternatively supports and quarrels with the hero.

Create secondary characters as needed, in order to provide additional plot complications. Add obstacles, bring relief, humour, depth and texture to your story.

Summary

This post offers concrete suggestions for successful character development in your stories.

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.