Tag Archives: writers

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.

Plot and character – how to integrate them

Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character
Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character

How are plot and character related?


In the previous three articles I laid out the following steps for writing a new story:

  1. Define the premise.
  2. Boost the premise.
  3. Grow the premise into a summary.

In today’s article I complete the process by showing how to integrate the hero and his nemesis with the plot. This is the last stage of story preparation.

Plot and character

To engage us, a hero needs to be in jeopardy; he needs to be active but vulnerable. He must also be sympathetic, yet flawed or wounded, and he needs to harbour a secret. In my story I have a protagonist who feels guilt for having led his followers to the dangerous world of the surface.

Additionally, my hero is hiding a secret of an imminent danger to himself and his followers at the hands of cannibals. This knowledge generates great conflict in him, inviting us to participate in his mental and emotional state. 

But a hero should not be a wilting daisy either—weak, indecisive, or incompetent. That is the domain of the anti-hero. To this end I intend for my hero to stay one step ahead of the enemy in order to increase our admiration of his strategic abilities—he is dynamic.

Lastly, his decision to offer up his infected body to the cannibals for them to feast on, when he is finally cornered, is a clever but devastating move. Importantly, the story’s plot emerges from the hero’s psychology—his flaws and values, his character arc. 

“Writers need fully to understand the essential aspects that motivate the hero and his nemesis. In the light of this understanding, the actions of their characters will yield a plot that is fully integrated.”

His nemesis, too, is driven by his wounds and weaknesses, but also by his pride. As the physically and emotionally scarred leader of a tribe of cannibals ranging over an apocalyptic land, he has long yearned to be more like the blue-eyed heroes of myth—more like the young man he is hunting. He believes that if he were to defeat this interloper, humiliate him in front of the tribe and his own followers, he would usurp his power and elevate himself to the status of legend. This ambition makes him susceptible to the trap our hero lays for him. 

Both our hero and his nemesis, then, act in a way that is in keeping with their psychology—through actions that reflect their scars, ambitions, hopes and fears.

This sort of dual-character-sketch approach, brief as it is, cuts to the core of what makes each character tick. It grants us an understanding of who these people are and why they act the way they do. It offers a method for integrating character with plot— the last stage of story preparation rendered in this series of articles.

Summary

Integrate plot and character by having the action spring from the scars, ambitions, hopes and fears of the hero and his nemesis.

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.

Your Story Premise – how to improve it

How to improve your story premise to avoid shipwrecking your tale.
How to improve your story premise to avoid shipwrecking your tale.

Nailing your story premise from the get-go can save you a lot of frustration later. A great story premise serves as the basis from which to grow your entire tale.

There was a time when I’d get an idea for a story and start writing right away, letting the muse guide me. The Nostalgia of Time Travel was such a muse-inspired story. But since then, running aground at sea made me think again. Sure, I still encourage the muse to ride on the mast and sprinkle her magic down on me, but I no longer set sail without a story map.

That map is the story premise—a compacted form of the tale, containing essential ingredients that act as a checklist for a yet-to-be-written story.

“Inevitably, your story premise improves when it hints at the secrets, wounds and flaws of your hero, the power of his nemesis, and the difficulty of attaining the story goal.”

There are many opinions about what constitutes a great premise. Here’s mine:

A story premise ought to: 

  1. Introduce a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming outer challenge.
  2. The pursuit of the challenge must be complicated by the hero’s secret, a wound or a flaw.
  3. The story premise must include a powerful and intriguing nemesis.
  4. It ought to exude a sense of verisimilitude, no matter how fantastical the story.
  5. It should hint at a theme that is both personal and universal.
  6. It must fascinate or intrigue.

Take the sentence: After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster must lead a band of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain.  

This gives the reader an idea of the story, but it is colourless and thin. Filtering the idea through the first of our six must-haves we get:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster reluctantly steps up to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain, when no one else will.

“If your premise does not grab your attention from the get-go, neither will your fleshed-out story—at least not without many unnecessary rewrites.”

Not there yet? How about:

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 has to lead a group of teenagers through dangerous terrain to a new place of safety.

Better, but not quite there yet:

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.

Although this premise, based on my forthcoming novel, The Land Above, must be refined further it is a more effective snapshot of the potential story than the first version. It addresses the main requirements on the list: 

  1. It contains a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming challenge.
  2. It tells us that the hero hides a secret, suggestive of a wound, weakness or flaw.
  3. It includes a terrifying and motivated antagonist. 
  4. It feels authentic, given the genre. 
  5. It contains a theme that is both universal and personal—individual and group survival.
  6. It is intriguing.

Running your story premise through these filters will undoubtably improve the potential of your story.

Exercise: Write down your story premise in a single sentence. Don’t be too critical at first, just capture the thrust of your tale. Then, apply the six filters suggested above. The sixth version of your premise ought to be much improved.

Summary

Come up with a single sentence snapshot of your story premise. Improve it by applying the six filters discussed in this article.

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.

How does location influence your story?

Location influence – this is particularly apparent in Interstellar.

How much does your choice of place or location influence your story?

The short answer is—significantly. My advice, therefore, is to write about places you are familiar with in order to retain a sense of realism.

But this is not always possible. Your story might demand exotic locations you’ve never visited, or include character types you’ve never encountered. After all, not many of us have flown into outer space or tangled with aliens.

Thankfully, we have research and imagination to rescue us, because, make no mistake, location deeply influences plot and character. Without an understanding of the physics of acceleration on weightlessness, stories such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, Apollo 13, Space Cowboys, Interstellar, and countless of others, would not have been as convincing.

“The influence of location on your story should not be underestimated. Location shapes the narrative by placing unique temporal and spatial constraints upon it.”

In Before the Light, much of the plot taps into the challenges that space presents to the crew of the space station, Gravity. The story which unfolds in this inhospitable environment, coupled with a seemingly rogue quantum computer, would not be as effective if it took place on earth.

The Great Gatsby required an understanding of 1920’s America, including prohibition, in order to tap into the ambience and motivation of the plot and characters.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula would not work without the cavernous castle in the Carpathian mountains of Romania, or the English setting of the protagonist’s love interest.

In short, write about places and people you know. Failing that, conduct research by visiting the locations you intend to describe, watch documentaries on the subject, or conduct interviews with people who are familiar with it. Your writing will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Since location does indeed influence the story, write about places and people you know. Fill in the gaps through imagination and meticulous research.

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.

Plot through character—how to write it

The Spire-plot through character
The Spire projects plot through character.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt over the years is that successful stories are written from the inside out – plot through character. That is to say that action and plot are projected from the emotional, physical, moral, and spiritual perspective of the protagonist.

The external events of a story are, of course, of great importance—they are what draw readers and audiences into the story in the first place—but without a deep involvement with the protagonist’s obsessive desires, fears, foibles, successes and failures, the story falls flat.

If we don’t care about the characters’ hopes and fears, if we won’t share in his pleasure and pain, we won’t care about his involvement in the plot.

Characters respond to life-threatening challenges in unique ways because they have a sense of ‘felt life’—they have a backstory, a personality, a set of hopes, fears and obsessions. It is these treasures that make a story compelling.

“Plot through character refers to a technique whereby the writer filters the protagonist’s action through her inner life—her hopes, fears, flaws and obsessions.”

In William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral, is a man consumed by the desire to extend the cathedral’s magnificence by building a spire at the top of the existing structure. He ignores the advice of his master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning a place of worship into a building site, with catastrophic consequences. Events are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological sensibility, making his experience our experience, while simultaneously showcasing his folly.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a theoretical physicist obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical problem that could allow for time travel into the past in order to undo an event that cost his wife her life. This obsession prevents him from living the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him. It takes a cataclysmic cyclone to force him to recognise the deeply buried truth about his past—a truth that has the potential to set him free. Or kill him. This climactic event can’t be dealt with externally, at least not initially. It has to be dealt with from within. The process of laying Benjamin’s inner conflict bare, written in the first person present tense, draws us into his world and keeps us immersed in his story.

Summary

Filter your plot through your protagonist’s inner life. It will make your story more believable and engaging.