Tuesday, December 29

Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)

Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)

[This is Part Two of a mini-series on good storytelling. This part can be read on its own, but if you would like to read Part One it is here: Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)]

This might seem obvious, but in order for a character's stakes to matter the character’s goal must be clear.

Goals

Every main character must want something. This goal, achieving it or failing to achieve it, will define the character’s arc. (And each arc will itself usually have a beginning in the Ordinary World, a middle in the Special World and, in the end, the Return.) 

The protagonist’s arc is also the arc of the story.

External Goals

All characters have external goals. In Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones's external goal was to obtain the Ark of the Covenant. He didn’t have an internal goal.

An external goal is something concrete, something you could take a picture of, something that exists in the external world independently of your character.

Internal Goals

Shrek, though, had both external and internal goals. His external goal was to get the fairytale creatures out of his swamp. His internal goal or challenge was to allow himself to be connected to others. In addition, there is tension between Shrek’s external and internal goals. He wants the fairytale critters out of his swamp because he is the ultimate loner, but his internal goal/challenge is to become more connected to others. His love for Princess Fiona is the concrete manifestation of that inner challenge.

An internal goal is usually a need or challenge that the character must meet or overcome. Usually it is the internal need or challenge that is met at the end of the B-story and that contributes to the epiphany that gets the character out of the All Hope is Lost moment and helps him formulate a new plan.

I’ll say more about all this later on, but I wanted to begin to introduce the ideas here.

One Goal to Rule Them All

A main character--like the real people they are a fiction of--can, and should, have more than one goal, but it must be clear they want one thing desperately and they must want it more than anything else. The thing that the protagonist passionately wants becomes the story goal. If the protagonist achieves the goal then she's succeeded, if not then she's failed.

For instance, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, if Indiana finds the ark and brings it back with him then he has succeeded. If not, he's failed.

What are the stakes? If Indy achieves his goal then he gets professional kudos and the opportunity to study a fascinating artifact. If he doesn't, then the Nazi war machine will use the ark to help turn the tide of war in its favor. 

Of course, the goal can change along the way. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere starts out wanting to be a rich lawyer then, about halfway through the story, his goal changes: he just wants to be free, he doesn't want either the FBI or the mob to own him.

The stakes must matter to the characters

This seems obvious. If the stakes don't matter to a character that's like creating a beautiful car but neglecting to put gas in the engine. 

Tying Stakes to Goals

The other day I was walking through a fairground and one of the hawkers called out to me: 

"Hey! You wanna play this game? I know you do. It's fun and you could win a great prize." 

"Oh?" I said. "What prize?" 

The youth held up a big stuffed pink and green elephant.

No thanks. It would be cheaper--a lot cheaper--for me to go out and buy myself a stuffed elephant! 

Now, if he'd held up the promise of a critique by, say, Stephen King I'd have played. Heck, he wouldn't have been able to get rid of me!

Why? Because the stakes, the possible consequences of a course of action--in this case winning a critique by Stephen King--are connected in the right way to my desire to become a better writer. That is, the stakes would help further my goal.

When the stakes help a character further their goal then the stakes will matter to your character.

Tying Stakes to Emotions

This is basically just another way of saying the same thing I just said, but it takes the topic from another direction. 

This point about the stakes needing to matter to your characters is also about believability. 

When the going gets tough and your character is getting beaten up, whether literally or figuratively, the character needs a believable reason for why they keep on keeping on.

How do you, as a storyteller, make it plausible that your characters will go through hell to achieve their goal? You make the stakes matter to the characters. Okay, but how do you do that? Simple: you tie the stakes into your character's wants and fears.

I think this is one reason why stakes are often life and death. Whether or not a person continues living matters a great deal to them and it doesn't need explanation. If a burglar pulls out a gun and points it at your character, the reader understands the character's panic. 

-- --
Thanks for reading! I'll post Part Three in this series soon. In the meantime, good writing.

Monday, December 28

Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)


First, a caveat. In the following I say things about ‘all X,’ for example, ‘all main characters,’ but of course statements like that are generalizations. There are wonderful stories that do not fit into the patterns I describe.[1] 

That said, I think reading about the hero’s journey is valuable even if the stories you are interested in would traditionally have been described as more literary. After all, there are patterns, rhythms, to good storytelling regardless of the story being told. And while I do wholeheartedly agree that there are more ways for a story to express these patterns than are described in the hero’s journey, I do believe that the hero’s journey IS one way to access those patterns.

The Importance of a Good Stake (Punny ;)

I've already discussed the importance of having goals and the inevitable conflict that follows from that (blog post: Storytelling). But the amount of conflict depends on how high the stakes are.

Think of it this way, if you bet the price of a coffee on your sports team winning a particular match you wouldn't care as much about the outcome as if you had bet your entire rent for the month. (Not that I’m recommending that!)

Stakes and Suspense

Goals--especially diametrically opposed goals like the ones I’ll talk about, later--are important because they create conflict, but this conflict means little without high stakes. The stakes control the suspense. Low states, low suspense. High stakes, high suspense.

Stakes are the possible consequences of a course of action. What will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal? What will happen if she doesn't?  

For example, let's say we have a character, Rob. Rob is on a diet, he wants to lose 20 pounds before his brother's wedding. Here are two versions of the story:

Version 1

Possibility A: Rob loses the 20 pounds and doesn’t have to rent a tuxedo.

Possibility B: Rob failed to lose 20 pounds and had to rent a tuxedo.

The story question: Will Rob lose 20 pounds and not have to rent a tuxedo or will he fail and be forced to rent a tuxedo for his brother's wedding?

Either way, so what? Why should we care? I don't know about you, but I don't have strong feelings either way about rented tuxedos!

Let’s increase the stakes.

Version 2

Rob makes a bet with his brother that if he can't fit into his tuxedo in time for the wedding he'll pay for the wedding. But paying for the wedding would wipe out Rob’s savings and he wouldn't be able to fulfill his lifelong dream of climbing Mount Everest. And if he doesn’t fulfill his dream of climbing Mount Everest he will be depressed, stop making friends and develop an unnatural addiction to Cheetos.

Now we have:

Possibility A': Rob loses the 20 pounds and so not only fits into his tuxedo but is able to fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Afterward, Rob starts a new blog to share his experiences, meets lots of other cool people and lives a meaningful life surrounded by those who care about him.

Possibility B': Rob fails to lose the 20 pounds and so not only has to rent a tuxedo but can’t fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Rob becomes depressed, never blogs, becomes addicted to Cheetos and dies alone.

Here’s our new story question:

Will Rob be able to lose the 20 pounds before the wedding and fulfil his dream to climb Mount Everest or will he fail, pay for his brother's wedding, become depressed and die alone?

That's a better story question. Obviously the example is tongue in cheek, but hopefully it illustrates the point. 

As soon as Rob has something with emotional weight to lose, we begin to care more about what happens to him.

In order for this to work, though, the possible consequences of a course of action must be clear.

-- --

That's it for now! I'll try and get Part Two of this miniseries up tomorrow or the next day. I'm blogging a draft of my new book on writing, so your input on anything I write would be greatly appreciated! If you think I'm wrong about anything I say, please let me know! I enjoy discussions about writing. Thanks for reading.

Cheers.

Notes:

[1] 
I went looking for examples of stories that I didn’t think easily fit the form of a hero’s journey. For example, Pulp Fiction. Yes, Pulp Fiction is a film, but… See Note 2, below. Anyway, I came across the article, “Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey,” over at NarrativeFirst.com. (I looked for the author’s name, but couldn’t find it. My apologies. If anyone knows the author’s name please tell me and I'll add that information.)

Although I disagreed with some things in the article, I liked this part:

“There can be nothing more destructive to the world of storytelling than this compulsion for spiritual metamorphosis.

“Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don't. There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.” 

I really liked the author's style and wit. I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the article (I’ve listed it in Further Readings).

But, anyway. The hero can, and often does, fail to achieve his goal. One of the ways the hero can fail to achieve his goal is that he fails to transform. To my mind, though, the hero’s transformation does not guarantee success. That said, I liked the comment that stories are about solving problems. Yes! Agreed.

Also, I liked the comment, “There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.” Of course, it depends on what one means by better. What is the criterion? Perhaps I’m going too far afield, but is the criterion subjective (I liked this story better than that story), or objective? 

I favor the idea that there is an objective aspect to such a criterion. Let’s say we have two stories. Here’s the question: Could one story help someone live a better life than the other story? For example, if we had two identical populations, and one took the first story as a myth and the second took the second story as a myth and we ran the simulation over 1000 generations, in which population would individuals have lived more meaningful lives? And we could run this entire experiment many hundreds or thousands of times. Would one civilization be much more successful than the other? Of course, such an experiment isn’t possible.

Anyway. I do think that is why we are fascinated with stories. It’s why a character’s goals matter to us, it’s why stakes matter to us, it’s why we care about endings. But I’m open to people disagreeing. I love those sorts of conversations.

[2]
Books versus films. I regard a book as a way of carrying a story around in the world. Similarly, I regard a film strip--or these days a thumb drive containing an electronic file--as another way of carrying a story around in the world. Of course there are differences. In a book bits of ink form letters which form words and when read images unspool in the theater of the mind. In a film images are displayed on a flat surface and they flick by so quickly that our eyes and brains are fooled into seeing motion. Sure, films--flicks--generally don’t require the viewer to bring the same mental equipment to bear to unspool a story as books do but, in terms of the story told, I don’t believe there is an essential difference between the media.

Or, to put it another way, a book or film is a medium/container for a story in something like the way a body is thought to be a medium/container for a mind. It’s the story that is the essential thing, not the specific form in which it exists in the world. Or something like that. At least, that is one way of thinking about it.

Further Reading:

Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey, over at Narrativefirst.com.

Friday, December 25

Storytelling


My Dad was an amazing storyteller. Because of him, I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about stories, thinking about whether there’s something that great stories have in common.

There is: the hero’s journey. (Also called the monomyth.)

I started blogging about writing in 2010 because I believed that, as Seneca wrote, "by teaching we are learning." My blog grew from that quest.

The sort of stories I focus on are genre stories. Those are the kind of stories that keep decent hardworking folk up until indecent hours, unable to put their book down until they find out what happened, whether the hero or heroine rescued their love, recovered the treasure, saved the day. 

The key to writing good genre fiction is to create suspense. Which means creating complex, compelling, characters, putting them in an interesting yet hostile setting, introducing believable opposition with clear stakes, and wrapping it all up in a well thought out plot.

So...simple. ;)

Genre

I know it’s an obvious point, but stories within the same genre have a common structure. An example: for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will be a sleuth and they will uncover various clues. Some of these will help the sleuth nab the murderer, some won't. Certain characters will be red herrings and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at the end of the story the sleuth will reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how they uncovered the suspects' lies to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

Murder mystery stories are a subgenre of mystery stories, but the divisions and subdivisions don't stop there. There are many different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more demanding set of requirements. A cozy or whodunit (think of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above as well as a logical, rational solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions. The focus is on the mystery of the murder itself--how it was accomplished--as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. It is crucial that the storyteller plays fair with the reader and tells them everything the sleuth learns as he or she learns it. A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and its solution and more on action and gritty realism. 

I'm not going to go through each genre and give a detailed map of reader expectations. What I'm going to do is talk about a structure that is common to all good stories, regardless of genre. At least, that's the plan. 

A Three Act Structure

Most stories can be broken into three acts.

Act One—The Ordinary World—First Quarter

Act One is where you introduce your characters and the world they live in. As the story unfolds, readers find out more about the characters as they interact with each other as well as with the world around them, both physical and social. We see their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. The most important character in all this is the hero because the story revolves around his quest. That's what a story is, fundamentally: a description of a character's pursuit of a goal.

The Inciting Incident And The Call To Adventure

The Ordinary World of the hero is static, at least in the beginning. Often, there is something deeply wrong with the hero's normal existence. The hero exists in a state of imperfection. He isn't happy but he's afraid that if he tries to change anything things will get worse. 

During the Inciting Incident something happens that changes the hero's world. This change will eventually effect the hero and shatter his status quo. The Inciting Incident creates an imbalance, an inequality, that must be addressed. This is the problem the hero seeks to solve, the wrong he seeks to right, when he answers the Call to Adventure.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the namesake character is an ogre who says he wants to be left alone in his swamp. Of course, what he really wants is for people not to make up their minds about him before they meet him. He wants to forge some sort of connection with others, but he's afraid of being rejected because it happens so often.

When Lord Farquaad exiles legions of fairytale creatures to Shrek's swamp (this is the Inciting Incident), Shrek's solitude is stripped away. This sends Shrek and Donkey off on a mission to confront Lord Farquaad and convince him to send the fairytale creatures somewhere--anywhere--else. But Lord Farquaad has another idea. 

Lord Farquaad proposes (this is Shrek's Call to Adventure) that if Shrek conquers the fire-breathing dragon and frees Princess Fiona from her imprisonment in the castle, that he will grant Shrek's wish and clear his swamp. Shrek accepts and, in the process of accomplishing his mission, falls in love with the princess. Now Shrek has another goal, to tell the princess he loves her. What prevents him from doing so is his fear of rejection. This fear is what Shrek has to overcome if he is to achieve his goal and win Fiona's hand in marriage.

The Lock In

At the end of the first act the hero is locked into their quest. He has a moment of realization and understands that if he takes up the quest he must leave his ordinary world behind. It is important that the hero understand the stakes involved and, despite the dismal odds of success, choose to take up the quest knowing that, if they do, there is no going back.

In Shrek, when Lord Farquaad gives Shrek his Call to Adventure, Shrek has a choice: accept or not. But archers perch atop the walls ready to shoot him dead if he refuses. After that, Shrek is locked in to the quest. 

In Star Wars when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, massacred by storm troopers, he understands there is no going back. His ordinary world is gone. 

I think the most obvious case of the Lock In is The Matrix. At the end of Act One Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill or the blue pill. The red pill will change Neo's entire world and show him the truth he has always searched for. The blue pill will restore the status quo of the Ordinary World. His choice is irreversible.

Act Two—The Special World—The Middle Half

At the end of Act One the hero answers the Call to Adventure and crosses the threshold into the Special World. Here everything is different, strange, reversed. The hero's strength (usually characters have at least one strength) isn't going to serve him as well here, perhaps it even puts him at a disadvantage. 

In the first part of Act Two the hero goes through a series of Tests And Trials, most of which he fails, and he makes new acquaintances, both Allies and Enemies. It is also here, at the beginning of Act Two, that the B-story starts. Some of those the hero meets will become his staunch allies and will join his quest while others will become his enemies. This time of Trials and Tests is also a time of Fun and Games. In a movie this is where you often have a feel-good montage.  

The first half of Act Two often contains a moment of bonding. If there is a romance, the hero and his love interest may deepen their relationship. After all, the hero is about to confront the villain and, perhaps, pay with his life. If there is no romance, the story will likely still contain a moment of bonding between the hero and their sidekick, a pause, a girding of the loins, as well as a review of the stakes. What will happen if the hero loses? If he wins? Who will it effect? 

The Midpoint

Finally, the moment of confrontation has arrived. The Ordeal has begun. Since we know the stakes of the battle we watch anxiously as the hero risks everything to defeat his foe. The confrontation between the hero and his nemesis can be a physical one but it needn't be. Sometimes they are each going after the same item. In the movie Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy loses the ark to Dr. René Belloq, his nemesis. In Star Wars, Luke discovers the Death Star.

Regardless of whether a physical confrontation occurs, the Midpoint represents a sea change in the story. Where before the hero was passive, now he is active. This doesn't occur all at once, but the Midpoint marks the change. Often this change occurs because the hero receives information. This information could be about the villain. It could also be about the nature of the Special World and the villain's--as well as the hero's--place in it. 

After the confrontation at the Midpoint the stakes of the battle get cashed out. If the hero is successful, he will get a reward. If the hero isn't successful then usually this is just the beginning of the grief that rains down upon him and those he cares about. Often, if the hero fails at the Midpoint he will also fail at the Climax of the story. Similarly, if the hero wins at the Midpoint he will likely win at the Climax.

Regardless of whether the hero wins at the Midpoint, the stakes go up. Way up. The hero hasn't resolved the conflict, he has increased it. I can't stress this enough. Where before it was only the hero's life at stake now it is also the lives of the hero's allies. Perhaps, by the time we reach the Climax, even the lives of his loved ones back home--as well as, perhaps, the world or even the entire galaxy!--will lie in the balance. 

Another important change that occurs around the Midpoint is that now it's not just the villain who is driving the story forward, it's also the hero. You even see this in stories that have a non-traditional structure, stories such as The Usual Suspects.

Disaster

Toward the end of Act Two matters have radically changed, and for the worse. There is often a Major Setback, quickly followed by an All Hope Is Lost moment (or, rather, by a series of them where each is more intense than the one before). As the name implies, something occurs that transforms the hero's world, or his view of it, and brings him to his lowest point.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the Major Setback comes when Shrek overhears Princess Fiona talking with Donkey. Shrek misunderstands who Fiona is talking about and jumps to the mistaken conclusion that Fiona thinks he is ugly and unlovable. Since he was working up the courage to tell Fiona he loved her, this revelation comes as quite a blow.

The All Hope Is Lost moment comes shortly after Shrek is cruel to Donkey. Of course we, the audience, know Shrek is acting as he is because he mistakenly believes Donkey was deriding him. Shrek tells Donkey to go away, that he isn't welcome in his swamp again, ever! This is Shrek's lowest point. As a result of his own actions, Shrek has become estranged from the two people who care about him most.

Act Three—The Return Home—Last Quarter

After the All Is Lost moment the B-story is usually resolved. Because of the way the B-story ends, an important change occurs in the hero and he is able to resolve his inner conflict as well; this often takes the form of an epiphany. The hero then uses this revelation to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate try to achieve his goal. 

 I don't mean a superhuman ability--though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be. But whatever it is, the ground must have been laid for it, otherwise it would be a cheat. Perhaps the hero is now, finally, able to think clearly. Perhaps the hero lacked empathy but now understands how other people feel.

Whatever the case, something fundamental within the hero changes and, as a result, he is able to defeat the villain and achieve his goal. (I should mention, though, that not all heroes have an internal conflict. If there is no inner conflict, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero who lacks any significant internal conflict.) 

(Note: Though, having said this, one of my readers quite rightly pointed out that Indiana Jones starts out the movie doubting that the power of the Ark is real. By the end he knows it is. So his is a journey from ignorance to knowledge.)

One way of describing this point in a story, this beat, is that the scales drop from the hero's eyes. He thought he knew how things were, but he didn't. To use Shrek as an example again, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He was dead wrong. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before, he decides to risk rejection and ridicule and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.

Here's another example. At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's The One, and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes and he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and this realization transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. Neo triumphs over The Matrix and becomes The One. 

I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it. 

But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.

Aftermath

In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of his adventure? What was his reward? Or, if he failed, what was the cost of his failure? This is where any loose ends are tied up.

Caveat

I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that there's only one story structure. As Chuck Wendig says, every story has a unique structure if looked at in all their particularity. No one can look at the structure of a story and say, "That's wrong!" just because it's different. The bottom line is: If a story works, then it works.

The structure I've talked about, above, is one I've been thinking about and working on for a while now. I think that it describes over 90% of the stories I've read, listened to, or watched; or at least parts of it do. That's because it looks at a story abstractly. It is a web of generalizations and so is almost guaranteed to get something right! 

As I write I like to think about the structure of the story I'm working on and make it explicit. Often, if I feel something is wrong with a story but I just can't put my finger on it, I go back to basics and study various story structures in an attempt to puzzle out what the problem is. I think that's the bottom line. If something helps you, use it, if it doesn't, ignore it. Let your own sense of what is right for you be your guide.

Recommended Reading

Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D. James.

Storyville: What is Literary Fiction? by Richard Thomas over at litreactor.com.

Le Guin’s Hypothesis, at Book View Cafe by Ursula K. Le Guin.

On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules.

Wednesday, December 9

A Theory of Story


What makes a story seem real? What gives it verisimilitude?

I'm trying out a new idea or perhaps just putting a twist on an old one. I'm not sure if you'll agree with me and if you don't that's okay! I would be interested in what you think.

A Theory of Story

Stories are nothing new. I think in our earliest days as a species we were already telling ourselves stories, stories that helped us understand the world around us. But certain stories were better than others at doing this. Over time, one can imagine that the stories that were better at helping people succeed in the world were favored. They spread.

There are two things here: First, some sort of theory, some sort of idea about how the world works, Second, there is what is actually out there in the world.

And there are levels here. In real life I tell myself stories about molecules and atoms and subatomic particles and I expect that out there in the world there are things that these ideas, these theories, more or less refer to. The theory has some ‘traction’ on what is out there, on whatever it is that impinges on my senses.

These two things, these two levels, let's call them A and B.

A) What is

When we write a fictional story we take one step back. We’re no longer talking about an objective reality. We are the gods of our stories, creating worlds from whole cloth. As creators we get to invent whatever we want. 

Broadly interpreted, what we create is what we call the setting of the story. What is the physics of this world? What is the politics like? What sort of biological systems exist? Do gods exist? Does magic exist? If so, how does it work? And so on.

B) Human (or other) machinations

Then there is what I’ve called some sort of theory of the world, some sort of story--or stories--that the characters tell themselves about what is true, about what are the best ways of getting what they want. 

My point is that these two constructions (A & B) are related, and that things will turn out for a character better or worse depending upon how well they hook into each other. 

The Idea

So here’s my idea. This is an oversimplification, but for every major character, they will have ideas about what the story world is like. Now, you will have made the story world--the setting--in a certain way so there are only two possibilities: your character will be right about how the world is or they will be wrong about how the world is. 

Let's call "alignment" the degree to which how the character sees the world aligns with or agrees with how the world really is. I think that a character's degree of alignment is relevant to the kind of character they are. 

If there is a high degree of alignment, if how the character sees the world more or less matches up with the character's ideas of how best to get on in the world, then chances are the character is either the protagonist or someone helpful associated with the protagonist such as his sidekick or his mentor.

On the other hand, if there is a low degree of alignment, if the story they tell themselves about the best way to get on in the world, is at variance with how the world really is then chances are the character is either the antagonist or someone associated with the them such as their sidekick, mentor, minion, and so on.

Here's how this idea, or these ideas, relate to the notion of verisimilitude: A character's degree of alignment needs to be matched up to the kind of character they are (for example, protagonist or antagonist) in order for the story to feel real, or at least, in order for the story to feel satisfying. [1]

In what follows I try to unpack this idea. [2]

Luke Skywalker

For example, Luke Skywalker. He is a young man working on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm, but he is a skilled pilot and wants nothing more than to head offworld, fly fast planes, and have adventures. 

In a way, that is every teenager, ever. 

And then something unexpected happens (The Call to Adventure) and Luke is asked to go on an adventure to help the rebel alliance and save a beautiful princess. This is everything Luke has ever wanted… And he says “No.” Why? Luke says he has a duty to his aunt and uncle and he can’t just leave them to run the farm on their own.

And this is consistent (or so I would argue) with Luke’s character. Yes, he wants to go off on an adventure, but then why hasn’t he? He could have left and gone to school even though his uncle and aunt didn’t want him to. He stayed because he was grateful to them and because he loved them.

Let’s break this down into (A) and (B).

B: The parts that are important here are Luke’s attitude toward his aunt and uncle, his belief that duty matters--this shows how he feels toward those close to him and it shows that he loves his family. He is loyal. He puts the needs of others above his wants. 

A: Also, we get a peek at the political world of the story, at that part of the setting. There is an Empire (bad, repressive, brutal killers) and a resistance (fighting for life and liberty). And, of course, given what we know of what kind of character Luke is, we aren’t surprised that he sympathizes with the resistance BUT refuses to join because he recognizes his duty to his aunt and uncle.

So I would say that Luke was a good character in the sense that we are given a certain setting (the external world filled with rebels and stormtroopers) and a certain kind of character (loyal, courageous, a bit impatient) and how that character acts in that world makes sense. We have a character with a good goal and a close fit with reality.

More Examples


The Evil Queen from Snow White

As I mentioned, not all characters, though, have a close alignment. An example of a character with a distant alignment and a bad goal is the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

I think this is often true for antagonists; that is, they often misrepresent the world to themselves. Why? It often happens that a certain way the world is radically disappoints them. Often this disappointment is due to what we might consider a character defect.

The Evil Queen, for example, has a magic mirror that always tells her the truth. So here we have (A), how the story world really is. And the queen, who we are told is vain, asks the mirror who is the fairest in the land, and one day she is told that it’s not her. Instead, it’s her step daughter.

It seems to me that we all realize that people age and beauty doesn’t last forever. At a certain point the queen had to know she wouldn’t be the fairest in the land. But, what’s her reaction? Does she react in a way consistent with this truth, with reality? Not so much. She tries to kill Snow White so she will, once again, be the fairest in the land. 

I think this is very effective at setting the queen up as an evil character. I mean, what is her long term plan? As she continues to age her beauty will continue to fade so what is she going to do, kill all the pretty young women in the land until she’s the only female left? That shows she doesn't care about the people in her community. 

Also, and as you know, this is another mark of an antagonist: her goal is a bad long term goal. As I mentioned, her beauty will inevitably fade but, more than that, putting her entire focus on being the most beautiful is a selfish goal. She isn't trying to accomplish anything that will help her community or the broader world.

But the Queen's behavior (exaggerated though it is) is believable, it’s plausible, because she is vain and intentionally not thinking things through because that would be traumatic for her, it would uncover certain errors in how she understands the world around her. (I’m not saying that most of us haven’t had a moment of vanity here and there, but hopefully none of us carried things quite this far! ;)

Cypher from The Matrix

Let’s look at one more character: Cypher from The Matrix. Like the Evil Queen, Cypher wanted to deny reality. What he wanted to be true and what was true were at variance, and since he couldn’t change reality, he decided he would change his beliefs about reality, he would rather accept a lie as true than accept the bitter dystopian reality that the world actually was. And so he betrayed those who had been his friends to their enemies and exchanged the bitter truth for a pleasant lie (although it is hinted that Cypher’s actual reward for his treachery was death). 

Conclusion


I'm not sure whether this has been one long waffle or if I'm beginning to get at what might be an interesting idea. But I thought I'd share! Let me know your thoughts, and good writing!

Notes:


1. Here I don't say anything about, for instance, the protagonists arc. At the beginning of the story there will be some distance between at least one of the protagonist's beliefs and how the world really is. For example, Luke Skywalker is naive. This was the result of a lack-of-fit between how he viewed the world--his ideas about how to best get on in the world--and the way the world really is (I'm including the social world, other characters, in "the world" since they are, perhaps, the most important aspect/part of the world/setting).

Similarly, I think the same applies, only reversed, for the antagonist. Perhaps at the beginning of the story the antagonist's ideas of how best to get on in the world more or less match up with how the world really is, but over the course of the story they will become more and more divergent.

2. In a future blog post I want to incorporate into this analysis the idea of a character's goal, whether it is good or bad. Broadly speaking, I would say that a character's goal would be considered a good goal if it helped the hero's community and/or his entire world and bad if it would harm them. So this would yield a 4x4 matrix. On one axis we have good and bad goals and on the other we have a close and distant alignment. I think this is how the combinations break down:
a) Close alignment & good goal --> protagonist
b) Distant alignment & good goal --> fool
c) Close alignment & bad goal --> nemesis
d) Distant alignment & bad goal --> big bad
Anyway, I may have more to say about that in a future post.

Friday, December 4

7 Tips for Keeping a Journal

7 tips for keeping a journal


I have started journaling again. I kept a diary when I was a teenager, but then my diary mysteriously disappeared and I lost interest in the artform. A friend and pen pal got me started again and I’ve found it helpful, both in my personal life and my writing.

I wish I'd never stopped. I wouldn’t have to puzzle over, “What day did that happen?” Also, it keeps me honest about how I’m doing emotionally. It can be easy to think, “Oh, sure, my mood has been pretty good this week,” but then I review the record of my days and see, yeah, not so much. But it has also helped me spot patterns and that has been useful because it lets me know what has helped improve my mood.


Journaling has made writing easier. I’ve found that the more I write the easier it is to write.


For me, journaling is closer to fiction writing than to non-fiction. For example, here is a sentence I wrote a couple of days ago, “The sun had tucked itself under the horizon.” It’s playful. I was trying to describe something and that image popped into my head. Journaling has given me permission to play because it's informal and completely private. Like a first draft, no one else will see it. Well, except that they will, since I mine the record of my daily life for story nuggets that could amuse. 


If you don’t journal and would like to begin but are finding that difficult I suggest writing to a pen pal. You will find yourself running out of material quickly and will soon begin to mine your daily life for anecdotes. Journaling has made my daily walks much more fun because now I look for events that could blossom into a story the way a hungry crow looks for worms. A random interaction with a stranger on a sidewalk can turn into a mini-adventure. 


But like just about everything worthwhile there is more than one way to do it. If I could go back and whisper tips into the ear of my former self, here’s what I would say:


7 tips for keeping a journal:


1. Pick a time of day to journal.

I tend to review my journal in the morning. I read over the last entry in it and try to remember more details, or I try to express a thought more clearly. When I've gotten to about ten pages--this takes me about two weeks--I'll read the whole thing over and think about turning it into a letter or essay.


2. Nothing is too minor.

Throughout the day, I jot down anything that was interesting or made me smile. It can be something as simple as a funny thing that happened in line at a supermarket, a cute thing a cat did or a joke that popped into my mind. 


3. Memories.

After I had been journaling for a couple of weeks certain memories would bubble up to the surface and hang out. I’ve begun turning these errant strands of memory into journal entries. Maybe one day I can turn one of them into an essay. For instance, I wrote something about the advantages of being organized. BTW, I am not at all organized and have pretty funny anticodes because of it. Now if I could only find where I put them… ;)


4. Be kind to yourself.

Don’t stress if you don’t make a journal entry every single day. I often skip days because nothing happened, just a lot of time whooshing by while I did mundane things. And other days I’ll write two pages. It’s all good.


5. Experiment.

I don’t know if I’ll keep this up but I’ve been keeping a record of my running. This is more for my own personal motivation. For years I jogged 5k a day but I stopped around the beginning of this worldwide virus thing. I’m getting back into it again but I know it's easy to quit. I find that if I do something each and every day for about two weeks it becomes a habit and I start to feel odd if I DON’T do whatever it is. So, for the next two weeks I’m committing to recording my runs in the hope that this will help keep me on track.


6. Give yourself permission to write drivel.

I hope that doesn’t sound harsh, but as anyone who writes regularly knows, sometimes you’ll have a day (or two, or three, or …) where you feel that words are not your friend. They assemble on the page in ugly ways and refuse to say what you would like. I find that when this happens I just have to write ugly. Usually I'll come back to my scribblings days later and conclude that it wasn't too bad. Besides, if I don't write even if what I write is ghastly, then there will be nothing to revise.


7. Protect your journal.

You probably don’t want anyone else reading what you’ve written without your permission. I don’t have a lot of recommendations here except, if you can, password lock the file and change the password often. Failing that, you could keep your diary on a thumb drive and keep the drive someplace safe. Sometimes lockets have places inside them to put things. If you had a tiny thumb drive and a large locket, it might fit.


Thanks for reading! 


References:

Here are some articles I consulted while writing this article: