Category Archives: On Character

Realisation, Decision, Action in Stories

Realisation, Decision, Action In You can count on me
Realisation, Decision, Action in You Can Count On Me.

A character decision in stories usually follows a realisation of some hidden truth. A pivotal action springs from that very decision, forming a realisation-decision-action unit. Although the timing varies, these three nodes are tightly integrated.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if a relisation leads directly to an action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear fake. Sandwiching a pivotal action in between realisation and action avoids this error: 

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the Machine World and Agent Smith. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

“Realisation, decision, action: Realisation leads to decision. Decision leads to action. Action defines character. Character creates plot.”

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.

Great Characters — How to write them

Great characters in the Godfather
The Godfather is bursting with great characters that keep us riveted to the story.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA reminds us that there are three fundamental rules for writing great characters:


1. Introduce a scintilla of sympathy even into your most evil of characters.
2. Force your characters, especially your protagonist, to change and grow throughout the story.
3. Avoid stereotypes.

Stereotypes

Let’s start with the last point first: Stereotypes are characters that are predictable through type. Avoid them at all times. The kind priest? Already met him. The hard-drinking Irishman? Him too. The pissed off police captain? Ditto. 

A useful way to avoid stereotyping a character is to think of a type then write the opposite. Imagine a sheriff from the deep south who is not bigoted and stupid, but is bristling with intelligence and dignity, passionate about revealing the truth and dishing out an even-handed justice. Or a nun who is a baseball fanatic and is an expert at game statistics.

“If our story lacks great characters, if we despise them through and through, especially the protagonist, we will dislike the story they inhabit.”

Character Growth

Truly memorable characters start off in one place and end up in another. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman begins as an insensitive, selfish narcissist but ends up as a wise father who puts the happiness of his child first. At the start of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is innocent, principled, moral. By the end he is heartless, bereaved and soulless—a power hungry murderer of many, including his own brother.

Not every character needs to change, of course. Patton stays the same throughout the movie of the same name, although his character is challenged and explained in a way that reveals to us why he is the way he is—an inflexible but powerful warrior to the last.

Sympathy

Well-rounded, complex and conflicted characters are more absorbing than facile, boring ones. But with the interest that comes from lying, scheming and conniving comes the danger of characters becoming unlikable. It is, therefore, important to ensure that some aspect remains sympathetic to the reader or audience.

Oedipus murders his father then performs incest with his mother: horrific actions for a protagonist to indulge in. The writer, Sophocles, ensures that Oedipus remains sympathetic to his audience firstly by showing that Oedipus is unaware of the true facts of his coupling, and, secondly, by having him show deep and genuine remorse upon learning the truth.

In a Bridge on the River Kwai the Japanese commander of the prison camp is a cruel tyrant whose humanity still manages to peep through, if even only once. He violates international laws, holds his prisoners in hot boxes, tortures and humiliates them, yet the writer portrays him as an unfortunate wretch who is tapped in a harsh command structure by permitting us to see him weep. 

Summary

Great characters are an indispensable part of successful stories. Avoiding stereotypes, injecting character growth, and creating sympathy are some of the ways of creating such characters.

Tension in Stories

Tom Cruise —tension in A Few Good Men
Courtroom tension in A Few Good Men

Tension sucks your readers and audiences into your stories. In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers urges us to keep ramping up the tension of our tales. The tension he is referring to here is different from shoot-outs and car chases – that’s chiefly excitement through action, not tension. 

True tension is coiled up inside difficult moral choices: Which one of her two children does a mother sacrifice to save the other — Sophie’s Choice. Does the father in Mast lower the drawbridge to prevent the train from falling into the river, or does he leave it up and avoid crushing his son who has fallen into the lifting mechanism of the bridge?

Not all choices have to be world changing. They can be small, as long as they are significant to the characters who make them. In Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins keeps the inquisitive Emma Thompson from seeing the title of the book he is reading. It’s a small action in the scene, but the tension in her wanting to know is palpable.

“Tension spring-loads your story. It keeps it taut and delivers a walloping release at the end.”

Higher stakes need higher sacrifices to resolve them. Whether the stakes are world domination as in a James Bond movie, or merely the control of your home, they are still high for the affected characters. If your characters don’t have everything to lose, ratchet up the stakes and keep doing so as the story progresses to keep the tension high.

In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is trying a big case which will send his client to prison for a long time, if he loses. But later in the story, the stakes rise even more. If Cruise gambles on turning the tables on the Jack Nicholson character, and fails, not only will he lose the case, it will cost him his Navy legal career. For a man living in the shadow of his father, the previous U.S. Attorney General, the stakes are high indeed.

In filling your story with tension, ask yourself the following questions: What are the stakes for my hero and how can I raise them? What is the moral choice he faces, and what does he stand to lose if he makes the wrong one? Correctly structuring the tension in your story will make for a more gripping tale.

Summary

Keep the tension high in your stories by resenting your hero with difficult moral choices.

Story Map – what is it?

So, you want to write a story but have no story map. Sure, you have a genre or character in mind. Maybe even the beginnings of a plot. But you sense it’s not quite enough to get you started. So, where to from here?

Story map in Before the Ight
Story map techniques in Before the Light

You need a story map to help you find your way.

It’s worth remembering that stories come from the generation of multiple ideas distilled to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”  In Before the Light, the core idea is: can super-powerful computers be trusted?

But an idea without a story is toothless. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, all of which help the writer determine the genre. 

“A story map assembles all the ingredients necessary to the writing of your first draft.“

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title. 

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one explores the main character and supporting cast, his backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, goal and transformational arcs. Simultaneously, one builds a plot guided by structure—the inciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid-point, climax and resolution. 

Now the writer is ready to create subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions—in other words, to write the treatment, followed by the step-outline.

By the time you have outlined your obligatory or climactic scene, you will have exposed the main theme of the story, since the winner of the final conflict carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, the theme is: human instinct and determination trump artificial intelligence. 

Of course, the first draft is one of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the light of day.

(For a detailed explanation of each narrative element mentioned above, please use the search box to locate relevant articles on this website.)

Summary

Creating a story map helps you plan your story. This article mentions some of the many components of such maps.

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.

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