Tag Archives: character development

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.

How Paradoxes Deepen Character

Spatial paradox

Paradox:

Complexity is an indispensable ingredient of life, and so it ought to be with the characters we create in our stories.

Why Paradoxes are Good

Linda Seger, in her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, 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 date conflict?'”

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.

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

Character paradoxes are an important part of creating vibrant, interesting, and authentic characters and ought to be used at every opportunity.

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Understanding Character Flaws

A Flawed Diamond

The Flaw

What is a character flaw? One way to think of a flaw is as an imperfection in a character’s soul or psyche that helps shape the character’s personality. In seeking to hide, suppress, or remove this imperfection, the character engages in a constant tug-of-war between external and internal forces, which helps to drive the story forward.

Types of Character Flaw

Ostensibly, the flaw can be born out of internal causes, such as an emotional scar from the past, or, external ones, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability of a character to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice. Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character help to make for interesting stories that resonate with verisimilitude.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw in character. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, especially 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.

Additionally, a flaw generates questions which serve the story: What lies and defenses 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?

The Character Flaw as a Synching Device

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey though 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, for example, 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, which represents Neo’s character arc, inflects 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 inflects a character’s external response to the world, and in this sense, helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his or her actions in a story.

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Understanding Archetypes II

In the previous post I began exploring Christian Vogler’s use of eight Archetypes extracted from his study of myths — specifically the archetypes of Hero and Mentor. In this post I look at two more — Threshold Guardian and Herald.

Threshold Guardian

Threshold Guardian

Threshold Guardian

Vogler sees stories as journeys to reach an important goal through obstacle-strewn terrain. Each obstacle is typically patrolled by powerful guardians. Threshold Guardians are the antagonist’s henchmen, or lesser villains, but they may also be morally neutral figures, objects, or elemental forces that are simply in the way.

Psychologically, the guardians represent the obstacles we encounter in daily life — bad luck, bad weather, hostility, repression, prejudice and the like. At a deeper level, they represent our inner demons — emotional scars, vices, and neurosis that manifest themselves more strongly at the threshold of obstacles.

At a dramatic level, the Threshold Guardians’ main function is to test the Hero — they are not necessarily evil in themselves. Indeed, they often help the Hero articulate and cross thresholds of resistance. Typically, the Hero must solve a puzzle as in the example of the Sphinx who presents Oedipus with a riddle before allowing him to continue his journey. A Hero may challenge the guardian, offer to bribe him, sidestep him, or literally get under his skin: In The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow manage to enter the heavily guarded castle by overcoming then disguising themselves as three sentries — by donning the (outer) skin of the Threshold Guardians. As Hero’s evolve, however, they learn to recognize Threshold Guardians are not necessarily enemies but opportunities to grow and acquire new power.

Herald

Herald

Herald

Heralds typically appear near the beginning of a story to issue a challenge to the Hero in the form of a call to adventure. The Hero, who has previously lived an ordinary life, is now asked to help prevent some impending catastrophe to himself, his family, or society at large because of a new threat. Occasionally, the threat is disguised as a new opportunity, which, when pursued, turns out to be fraught with dangers. In terms of structure, the Herald functions as the Inciting Incident, kicking-starting the story at the earliest opportunity.

Psychologically, the Herald represents our unconscious need for change — the need to restore internal and external balance. It may come as a dream, a new idea, a person, or as the mysterious voice in The Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

At the dramatic level, the Herald provides the Hero with a new practical challenge — the motivation to commence the journey. Again, the Herald may appear as a person, or an event such as a hurricane, even as mail. In Romancing the Stone, the Herald takes the form of a treasure map that arrives through the post and a phone call from Joan Wilder’s sister, informing her she is being held hostage in Colombia.

In Summary

Threshold Guardians take the form of characters or forces that cause the Hero to confront and overcome internal and external obstacles during his journey to the goal. A Herald may appear as an event or character that imparts new information that helps to initiate that journey.

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How to Develop Conflict in your Stories

Conflict

Conflict

We’ve often heard that 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 are bound to appear staid and static — lacking dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External 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 (Keanu Reeves) 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 thus rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how synchronising the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, to the external conflict makes for a gripping tale that stays on track.

Mounting Conflict

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the spine of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict which arises, should build on the previous one in terms of danger and intensity — both internally and externally. This means that the conflict is adjusted to suit — as the physical stakes change, so does the character’s internal response — fear/prejudice/courage/etc. The internal and external journeys continuously track each other, like partners in a dance. Additionally, obstacles which gives rise to conflict differ from previous ones in order to avoid monotony and repetition.

Structuring Conflict

What follows a scene, or scenes containing mounting conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven, for example, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) decides to walk away from the job, which involves killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces, on his own, an entire saloon filled with men out to kill him. This situation has arisen as a result of a setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan who, himself, has been unjustly accused of murder — and Manny’s pledge to revenge Ned’s death.

Lastly, it is important to note that each conflict has a definite climax, leading directly to the setback: Manny’s shooting of one of the cowboys leads directly to the setback — Ned Logan’s death.

In Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as 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.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.