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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.

Your writing – how to improve it

Stephen King‘s It—genre writing at its best.
Stephen King—genre writing at its best.

Accomplished writing is rooted in social and psychological awareness, perseverance, technical expertise, passion, talent and luck.

There’s little you can do about luck, but there is plenty you can do to make your writing so accomplished that it can‘t be ignored.

Firstly, believe that you can and will improve as a writer if you work on your weaknesses. Writing is a craft, much like painting, woodwork or dressmaking. Practicing the skills and techniques that go into it yields results.

Although there is almost as much advice on writing as there are people offering it, I believe that a writer’s development will benefit through study in four areas: 

1. A passionate and genuine interest in people—the ins and outs of human motivation, their hopes and fears.

2. An understanding of story structure—how the parts of the story engine work together to deliver an emotive experience to the audience or reader.

3. The ability to identify and deploy abstract ideas such as morality and ideology and distill them into specific themes, characters, and events in a way that makes your stories meaningful and appealing.

4. The development of a distinctive voice that reflects a unique style.

“Apply to your writing knowledge from the four areas of focus.“

Having identified these areas, take time each day to observe how people interact with each other—at social gatherings, cafes and shopping centres. What clues do they offer through their posture, tone of voice, and general demeanour?

Read an article on some aspect of narrative structure from a book or website every day. Can you describe the function of the inciting incident? Its relation to the first turning point? Learn something new every day.

Can you identify the warring ideologies of the day? Unfortunately, the world is bristling with strife, now more then ever, so it shouldn’t be that hard. How would you package these ideologies into characters that tell a powerful and dramatic story?

Which authors and screenwriters do you admire? Stephen King? Margaret Atwood? Aaron Sorkin? David Mamet? All have a distinctive voice revealed through their use of theme and genre, as well as sentence structure, word choice and the speech patterns of their characters. What are the patterns in your writing?

Work to perfect them.

Summary

Identify and rectify weaknesses in your writing by focusing on the relevant categories of knowledge.