Category Archives: On Character

Two Lives – the hero’s twin struggles

To]wo lives in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a novel by Stavros Halvatzis
in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has to unearth the secrets in his past, settle the suppressed conflict in his two lives, in order to survive the raging storm which has engulfed his small town of Mission Beach, Queensland.

One of the most common errors in writing is the failure to motivate the hero’s actions, the failure to sync up his two lives.

All too often the hero acts too wisely or performs too competently during the story, especially at the start. His actions do not reflect his current state of knowledge, skill, and moral awareness. Typically, this is because his inner and outer lives are out of step with each other. This is a most common ailment that presents as a glaring lack of motivation in a character.

Let me explain: If, as is the case in a typical tale, the purpose of the story is to showcase the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge through a series of hard knocks, it stands to reason that the quality of his actions must be lower at the beginning of the story than at the end. A hero can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the antagonist, taking the high moral ground, too early. He has simply not earned that right yet.

“The quality of a character’s actions is related to the quality of his moral awareness—these two lives are causally linked.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t break free of the guilt that has paralysed him for decades until he recognises the truth about his past through a series of suppressed recollections about his childhood. His freedom must be earned, not dropped into his lap by the writer. Facing up to the reasons for his actions is what the story is about.

And so it is with most stories.

One way to add to realism to your hero’s actions, then, is to link his outer growth to his inner growth—to sync up his moral knowledge to his acquisition of physical skills and resources. This will go a long way in making your story feel more authentic.

Exercise: Examine one of your stories. Record your hero’s moral strength as well as his physical skills, as measured against the story goal. Go to each pivotal moment in the story—turning point, mid point, etc. How do these twin journeys relate to each narrative twist? How does a defeat in the world affect your hero’s moral growth? Does it lead to a change in perspective that better prepares him to cope with the next challenge? If not, be sure to show the consequences of his failure. Do this for every major action your hero undertakes. Your story will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Coordinate your hero’s two lives in order to help authenticate his actions.

Invitation

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Characterising details – what are they?

Book cover of a nook which contains a chapter on characterising details.
Characterising details—an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Characterising details do not only provide important facts about story characters, they grant insight into their traits through a show-don’t-tell technique.


In her chapter, CHARACTER OBJECTIVE AND CONFLICT (Creating Characters: The complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Mary Kole defines characterising detail as “[a] multilayered piece of information or action that teaches us something deep-seated about a character.”

Height and hair colour are usually not significant details. Far better are small but telling actions that tell us something hidden about a character.

Someone who drops a sweet on the ground, looks left and right to see if he’s being watched, then picks it up and surreptitiously pops it into his mouth, does tell us something significant about that character: that he so compulsively loves sweets that he’s willing to eat germs off the ground to reacquire them, and that he is ashamed or embarrassed by his action. Importantly, it does it through the show-don’t-tell technique, making it a more rewarding reading experience.

“Characterising details are snippets of telling action that shed light on a character’s hidden traits.”

Place descriptions, too, may serve to characterise through a similar technique.

“The house was in desperate need of repair. The floors were damaged and caked with grime and dirt, the wall plaster was peeling, the ceilings were descending into the rooms like great arching sheets of cloth. There was a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time to do it in.”

This is not a bad description, but here’s a better one:

“Matthew studied the shell of the house. He’d have to start right away if he were to have it ready before she arrived—rip down the damaged ceilings, replaster a good portion of the walls, sand down the wooden floors and fit in new boards to replace those destroyed by termites. Finally, he’d have to paint and varnish the whole catastrophe. And all this in a week. With no money. It was an impossible task, but that, of course, was what Matthew did. Pursue impossible tasks. Like impressing an impossibly beautiful girl who had ignored him for a year.”

This passage is more effective because it not only puts us in the head of the character, it shows us something about his grit, drive and objective, too: to try and win the attention of a beautiful girl who doesn’t know he’s alive.

Exercise: Find a passage in your own writing that describes the motivation of a character. Does the description contain superfluous details that leave the reader un-engaged? Replace them with detailed actions that characterised through the show-don’t-tell technique.

Summary

Characterising details are snippets of telling information, usually revealed through action, that tell us something important about a character

Supporting Characters – Essentials

Great supporting characters from the Harry Potter saga.
Great supporting characters from the Harry Potter saga.

Supporting characters are ones who act to highlight your protagonist’s needs and shortcomings.

In her chapter, CRAFTING EFFECTIVE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS (Creating Characters: The Complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Hallie Ephron provides several examples of such characters. She points out that Dr. Watson’s function as Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick is to be a sounding board for the brilliant sleuth’s ruminations.

She goes on: 

“Virtually every mystery protagonist has one [supporting character]. Rex Stout’s obese, lazy, brilliant Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin—a slim, wisecracking ladies’ man. Carol O’Connell’s icy, statuesque, blonde Detective Kathy Mallory has garrulous, overweight, aging, alcoholic Detective Riker. Robert B. Parker’s literate, poetry-quoting Spenser has black, street-smart, tough-talking Hawk.”

“Supporting characters should come across as ‘real people’ while simultaneously performing a specific set of narrative functions.”

In designing your cast of supporting characters, then, remember to utilise the principle: Opposites attract. To that end, weigh up your protagonist’s traits against those of your supporting characters and offer a contrast between them: Holmes is brilliant and unconventional; Dr Watson is slow and a stickler for decorum. Inspector LeStrade’s dislike of Holme’s whimsical flair provides an incessant critique of Sherlock’s investigative technique. 

You get the idea.

The point is that a level of conflict between your supporting characters and your protagonist, whether these characters are friends or foes, is a requirement if the story is to engage us.

Of course, it is not all strife and conflict with supporting characters. They can often provide comic relief. Shakespeare’s unforgettable Falstaff comes to mind. Still, even here, the main function of such a character is to act as a foil to the protagonist.

Getting the names straight

A last word on naming your supporting cast. Ephron admonishes us to assign names to characters that help us differentiate between them. She states: 

“It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond, or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.”

There you have it . A snapshot of supporting character functions to get you started.

Exercise: Go through any story you’ve written but not published. How many of your supporting characters act as a foil to your protagonist? Do they provide a humorous or critical commentary on your protagonist and his views? If not, strike these characters from your story, or combine them into one more pithy character.

Summary

The supporting characters’ function is to throw your protagonist into bold relief through praise or criticism, while simultaneously coming across as ‘real people’.

Anti-heroes – essential characteristics

Walter White as one of the quintessential anti-heroes in Breaking Bad
Walter White’s Breaking Bad is one of the most quintessential anti-heroes in recent times.

WITH the erosion of morality as an absolute set of values centred around faith in a deity, there has arisen an ethical relativism which has contributed to a crop of protagonists who are best described as anti-heroes. But just what is an anti-hero? 

In a chapter titled, CREATING AN ANTI-HERO, taken from the Reader’s Digest book, Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction, Jessica Page Morrell defines this character type as someone with specific reasons that explain his behaviour.

Hence, anti-heroes are not simply rebels or ‘bad asses’ for the heck of it. Their actions and beliefs spring from a personal, clearly reticulated philosophy.

“Anti-heroes are protagonists whose values do not align with traditional morality but rather spring from their own individual philosophy.”

Morrell offers the following role-defining characteristics of anti-heroes:


  • Anti-heroes are not role models, although we secretly would like to kick ass like they do.
  • They can be selfish and essentially bad people who occasionally are good. 
  • They are sometimes unglamorous and unattractive in character as well as in appearance.
  • They can be motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, but there is usually a line anti-heroes won’t cross, which sets them apart from villains. 
  • They often have motives that are complicated and range from revenge to honor. 
  • If they are forced to choose between right and wrong, will sometimes choose wrong because it’s easier. 
  • They can play both sides with good guys and bad guys, profiting from both. 
  • They can sometimes be coerced to help underdogs, children, or weaker characters, and they sometimes do so voluntarily. 
  • They can embody unattractive traits and behaviors, such as sexist and racist attitudes, and violent reactions when wronged. 
  • They can show little or no remorse for bad behaviors. 
  • They are a mess of contradictions.




These characteristics, then, distinguish anti-heroes from classical heroes since the latter tend to act out of a sense of honour, nobility, altruism, or a belief in God. 

What is lost by having characters act outside conventional morality is the behavioural clarity based on centuries of human development within the context of a religious and cultural vision. 

What is gained is a more original, if ambivalent, nexus of character action that perhaps more vividly represents modern society, for good or ill.

Summary

Anti-heroes are not necessarily evil. They are characters who act according to a philosophy that is often at odds with received morality.

Story beats – how to write them

A typewriter as an illustration of story beats.
Great stories are made up of powerful story beats that perform act-specific functions.

What are story beats, and how does one write them?

Last week I showed how to turn a story premise into a summary by adding a life-altering event to the hero’s path, and factoring in the ending of the story.

This filled out the story somewhat, but it was still missing important narrative beats. In order to make the acquisition of these beats a little easier let us now pose an overarching story question as well as three act-specific ones. Note that the overall story question overlaps with that of the last act’s.

The overall story question is: Does the hero succeed in defeating a tribe of cannibals to lead his followers to a place of safety?

This question helps to keep our sights trained on the through-line of the story—what has to be answered at the end of the tale.

Following on from that, we can use our summary to generate appropriate incidents within each act. Remembering that each act is governed by a question aimed at providing a narrative outcome, we have: 

Act One: Is the land above as idyllic as it first appears to be? 

How about: 

After a short euphoric encounter with the land above in which our hero notices a large eagle watching them from the sky, the landscape turns gloomy: The sun dims under thick plumes of smoke wafting over from the distance, the bones of dead creatures proliferate on the ground, the hero’s grandfather becomes ill and has to be carried on a make-shift stretcher, and acid rain begins to waft down. 

A day or so later a tribe of disfigured wretches approaches the group. A terrible storm is brewing and the tribe offers to lead the youngsters to safety. The leader seems in awe of our hero, rambling on about the legend of a blue-eyed king who will emerge from below the ground to lead the world to salvation. Speaking in a broken dialect, he promises to return the next day for our hero’s decision. 

That night our hero falls into a stupor where he dreams that the tribe is really a band of cannibals responsible of much of the hellish state of the terrain. Convinced that his vision is prophetic he awakens the others and persuades them to leave their campsite before the tribe returns. 

“Story beats are best generated by asking questions related to the state of the hero’s plight within the context of each act.”

Act Two: How does the hero manage to stay ahead of the cannibals against the odds?

Perhaps our hero forms an occult bond with the giant eagle that has taken an interest in the band of youngsters? Perhaps he can see through the eagle’s eyes, giving him an edge as he and his followers flee across the dangerous terrain?

But then the cannibal leader shoots down the eagle with a poison arrow at the story’s mid-point and everything changes.

Our hero now realises he can no longer keep the group safe from the murderous tribe. He has to change strategy: He willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if they agree to let his followers live. The leader, who is obsessed with the idea of stealing the hero’s power by having him accept a humiliating defeat, agrees. 

Act Three:  What goes wrong with the bargain and how does the hero finally outsmart and defeat the cannibal leader and his tribe?

Perhaps our hero has foreseen his own death in another dream and knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others. However, he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stock, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe is wiped out after the feast, allowing his followers to escape. 

This final act answers the overall story question too—the hero does indeed defeat the enemy, but at the cost of his own life.

Although these beats are far from complete—I still need to tie in the hero’s weakness/flaw/secret (his character arc) into the antagonist’s motivation and plot twists in a more detailed way—they do grant me confidence about the potential of the story.

Summary
Story questions resolve into narrative events within the context of each act.

Story Summary from Story Premise

Gladiator provides a fitting example of story summary discussed in this article.
Gladiator draws on a classical story structure that involves a sacrifice.

How do you extract your story summary from your story premise?

In last week’s article I discussed ways to improve your story premise by sifting it through several story-boosting filters.

In order to hold an entire tale in the palm of your hand, however, you need to add a couple more elements to it—the ending, and a big story event that turns the fortunes of the hero, for good or ill.

Know your ending

The ending is the bullseye of the story. It gives direction to the narrative events that comprise the tale and defines the theme.

Back to our concrete example. The premise for the story is: 

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh.

This says quite a lot already about the tale, but it doesn’t give me the ending. What kind of ending do I want? Well, in an up ending, the hero would triumph over his nemesis, ensuring survival for himself and his followers. 

This is uplifting, but predictable. 

down ending, on the other hand, sees the hero winning the day, but having to sacrifice his life to do it. Much like in Gladiator. I like that ending more.

Know the hero’s life-altering insight

So, how would the hero defeat his nemesis? Remembering that the antagonist is a cannibal, it might be fitting that he offer up his body in exchange for the lives of his followers. 

Gruesome, but powerful. 

Let’s say the nemesis, who wants to humiliate the hero by having him willingly kneel before him in front of his own followers, accepts his offer.

“To expand a story premise into a story summary add an appropriate ending preceded by an event which unveils a big secret that turns the hero’s fortunes.”

Of course, our hero is altruistic, not stupid. Stupid heroes don’t make for good reading. He knows the villain will not keep his word, but in a variation of the Trojan Horse ploy, he secretly swallows poison before offering himself up for the feast, ensuring that the enemy won’t survive the night.

With this ending in mind I can turn the premise into a mini-summary, providing a blueprint for the entire story:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh. A series of escalating close-shaves forces our hero to negotiate a deal, whereby he willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if the cannibal leader agrees to let his followers live. The cannibal, who is obsessed with the idea of his enemy accepting a humiliating defeat, agrees. The hero, who has foreseen his own death in a prophetic dream, knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others—but he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stores, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe will be wiped out after the feast, allowing his own followers to escape.

Sure, it’s a dark, painful move to kill off the protagonist, reminiscent of ancient Greek theatre, but I like it. It has gravitas. It appropriates the enemies’ practice of cannibalism and uses it to defeat them. Additionally, it points to a synergy between narrative elements, such as the use of the secret, that draws on Aristotle’s idea of unity in dramatic structure. Finally, it provides the theme of the story: Sacrifice of the one ensures the survival of the many.

Summary

Expand your story premise into a story summary by adding an ending preceded by a fitting and powerful event that turns the hero’s fortunes.

Effective characters – how to write them

Effective characters in House of Sand and Fog
Effective characters in House of Sand and Fog

In his book, The Art of Character, David Corbett offers several suggestions for constructing effective characters: Characters must demonstrate a powerful desire, hide a secret, suffer a wound, and display a contradiction. What is equally important, however, is how these elements interact to produce authentic and individual behaviour. 

In this article we’ll examine the relationship between a character’s desire, secret and wound—three crucially important elements for authentic behaviour. I would argue that David Corbett’s fourth element—a character’s clashing traits, such as a murderer with a soft spot for stray animals, although useful, can be subsumed within the character’s secret or wound. It is, therefore, not discussed at length. 

In House of Sand and Fog, Kathy Nicolo is defined by a desperate desire to keep the house she has inherited from her father, not only because it provides security, but because its loss will expose the secrets she has been hiding all along—that her husband has left her and that she is suffering from depression which renders her incapable of living a normal life.

”Effective characters fight for external goals while simultaneously struggling against their inner demons. Characters must confront these demons before they can exorcise them.”

Kathy’s desire, her secret and her wound, then, are causally connected—a row of dominoes about to fall. Kathy’s desire to keep the house stems from her wound, while her secretive behaviour stems from her need to keep the truth hidden.

Here is an extract from David Corbett’ s book that highlights the power of wounds and secrets, and how they motivate character behaviour: 

Midnight Cowboy exemplifies a psychoanalytic view of man’s condition: We are wounded psychically, often early in childhood, and live with continuous anxiety over abandonment, rejection, or abuse. To protect ourselves from further wounding, we develop a shell, a false persona, a defence or adaptation—we drink, do drugs, become perfectionists, work ourselves to death, pursue only meaningless affairs, get stuck in unfulfilling marriages, shy away from the risks necessary for true success, adhere to Pollyannaish optimism, hide away in cynical isolation.”

“An effective character is created by a writer who understands the relationship that exists between a character’s desire, secret and wound, and uses it to drive authentic behaviour.”

In the Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist, seems more than a little eccentric. He goes to the same beach cafe every day, eats the same waffles, drinks the same coffee, and works on the same equations representing an intractable mathematical problem. His behaviour seems totally unreasonable, given that he has done this for thirty years. It is only when we dig deeper into his secrets that we begin to understand his motivation.

We could sum up a character’s behaviour, then, as desire + secret + wound = authentic action.

EXERCISE: Before writing a new story identify the central desire of your protagonist. Next, motivate his need by tracing it back to a wound that occurred in his past. Foreshadow, but do not reveal, the secret motivation for his behaviour by dropping hints along the way. Find the right moment to reveal all.

Summary 

Create authentic behaviour for effective characters in your stories by causally linking their desires, secrets and wounds.

Five points to consider prior to pantsing a new story.

Nabokov believed that any new story starts with a ‘throb’
or a ‘glimmer’ of recognition.


What’s the quickest way to get into a new story?


Some writers have neither the temperament nor the inclination to spend months gathering information about their projects, clarifying minute details about their characters’ likes and dislikes. These are the pantsers of the writing world—their writing flows better when they write from the seat of their pants.

Yet, even they, I would argue, need to address five essential points prior to commencing their stories in order to avoid stalling later on.

“A blank slate may cause writer’s block in the pantser, interrupting the writing for weeks, months or even years. This can be avoided by understanding the basic connections—statements reduced to single sentences—that arise between the hero, plot and theme, in a new story.”

Jot down the answers to the following questions and keep them close at hand while writing of your story:

  1. Describe the story in one or two sentences. The description should include a beginning, middle and end.
  2. Explain why the hero is compelled to try and attain the goal.
  3. Note the secret the hero is hiding from everyone, perhaps even himself. How is this secret related to the hero’s flaw or wound?
  4. Show how the discovery/admission of his secret realigns his goal, turning his want into his need.
  5. State the theme of the story.

These five questions are enough to give any pantser a great start and keep him from going astray when the light dims, the muse gets Covid 19, and the rocks loom up ahead.

Summary

Prepare for the writing of a new story by carefully considering five essential questions about your tale.

Preparing your story – how to get started

Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.
Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.

If you could summarise areas of writing as a way of preparing your story, what would they be?

For me the story premise and theme form the foundation of all accomplished writing. I spend time on ensuring that the story premise is the best it can be before starting on a new manuscript.

“Preparing your story refers to the initial process you undertake prior to commencing the writing of your screenplay or novel.”

A story premise, we are reminded, can take the form of a what-if statement: What if the DNA of a Jurassic animal is discovered, fully preserved, in a mosquito caught in a dollop of ancient tree resin? What if the DNA can be used to clone the animal?

The best story premises are engaging, original, and fit the mood of the times. The best themes, on the other hand, espouse social or moral truths that are universal. In the example above, the theme might be colloquially summed up as: Don’t mess with nature or it will mess you.

Characters come next. How many characters do I need to achieve the maximum dramatic impact; to explore the theme from a number of different points of view? Too many characters and the theme becomes muddled. Too few and it remains under-explored.

In Jurassic Park we have the hero, his love interest and his supporters arguing for one side of the theme—respect nature. Arguing for the opposite side—exploit nature for gain, we have the antagonist and his crew. But of course the real antagonist is the T-Rex, the rod of God striking down humans for their greed and arrogance.

Next, are the character arcs. How do the characters change, especially the protagonist? How does the protagonist’s wound get in the way of his goal? What does the character have to learn, or heal, in order to defeat the antagonist? When thinking about any character arc try to relate it to the theme of the story, remembering that the theme is the pilot that flies the tale to its final destination.

In The Land Below, Paulie, the story’s reluctant hero, has to overcome his lowly social status as an orphan and lead a band of rebellious teenagers to the surface against the opposition of the ruling elders. To do this he has to accept his leadership role by acknowledging his past.

I next expand the story premise into a beginning, middle and end—Act I, II and III. I generate the main story beats and place them into a logical sequence within each act. The beats now have a direction, all pointing to the theme.

Lastly, I think about how I will write each scene based on such beats. I remind myself that most scenes should start late and end early. I ask, what goal must each character try to achieve in each scene? How does this goal fit into the character’s overall purpose?

But because the character has both an outer and an inner life I also ask: What is the character’s emotional state at the beginning of the scene and how is it conveyed to the reader through his demeanour?

How do the competing goals of the characters in the scene create conflict between them? What are they hiding from each other? Finally, what is the outcome of the conflict? Who is the winner and who is the loser? How does the outcome of the scene change their original demeanour?

These questions help to keep scenes focused.

Taken as a whole, these steps are enough to get me started on a new story. Perhaps you may find such an approach useful too?

Summary

Review essential skills and clarify foundational elements as a way of preparing your story prior to writing it.


Strong Emotions – how to use them in your stories.

Strong emotions - F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a master at using emotions to draw his readers into his narratives, as evidenced in stories such as This Side of Paradise.

Here is an effective way to draw your readers into your stories—infuse your writing with strong emotions.


Strong emotions draw us into intimate situations, allowing us vicariously to experience the characters’ lives as our own. But this demands maturity on the part of the writer. Firstly, to recognise the intricate web of emotions resulting from one’s own life. Secondly, to tie these emotions into a theme or premise. It involves a high level of self-awareness and critical thinking.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered some advice in response to a short story sent to him by Francis Turnbull, a Radcliffe College student and family friend.

“… I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at the moment. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly … It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile …” 

”Strong emotions are the key to reader and audience engagement.”

What Fitzgerald is saying is that new writers have a better chance of engaging readers if they relate stories that contain heightened emotions based on personal experience. Characters and events can be adjusted to suit, but emotions should be drawn from strong, ‘lived’ experience. Fitzgerald believes this is the price of admission writers have to pay.

He continues, “the amateur, seeing how the professional having learnt all he’ll ever learn about writing, can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming – the amateur thinks he can do the same.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, then, is to use powerful, personal experience to evoke heightened emotion in readers and audiences, especially when first starting out. Mining smaller, more trivial details for subject matter takes time and maturity to pull off.

Summary

Search your life for big, wrenching emotions and distill them into your stories. It will make your characters more authentic and impactful.