Showing posts with label Character development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Character development. Show all posts

Friday, March 5

How to Write a Genre Story: Characterization and Character Description

(Note: I'm starting a series of interviews with other writers. If you would like to discuss being interviewed, please contact me on Twitter (@WoodwardKaren) or via email: I would like to talk with you!)

The Importance, and Unimportance, of Character Description

I realize that opinions differ about this, but when I first started writing I thought that I needed to describe what the protagonist looked like in great and gory detail and preferably in the first few paragraphs. I thought the reader had to know the protagonist’s hair color, its length, the shape of her face, her height, her taste in clothes, and so on, as soon as possible.

Now, I believe that--while it’s good to let the reader know what your main character looks like before she gets too far into the story--you shouldn’t try to make it the first thing you describe. If you disagree with me let me make my case and then, share your view in the comments. I’d love to talk to my readers about this.

The Character of Characters

I don’t identify with a character because of her long luxuriant hair or cute dimples, I identify with her--or at least become curious about her--because of the kind of person she is (I’ll get more into this in a moment).[1] Yes, a character’s looks may have something to do with this, there are other qualities that are much more important. 

I do think it’s important to communicate what the character looks like (long or short hair, what color, and so on) before too long, otherwise the reader will form their own idea what the character looks like and when I tell them differently the reader will likely be grumpy about having to update their already formed image. [2]

Characters are the most important part of any setting

As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows, I admire the way Stephen King can draw me into his story world in a few paragraphs. I used to think dark magic had to be involved. Now I realize that King’s magic has to do with showing us the inner workings of his characters, of their contradictory souls.

I want to talk about this but, first, let’s look at the first few paragraphs from one of Stephen King's best books, The Shining (1977).

First Three Paragraphs

"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [so-and-so].

"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

"As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances." (Stephen King, The Shining) [1]

An Analysis

Right away, I noticed three things about these paragraphs. First, King uses them to describe the characters and not the room. We understand the characters and only then do we get to the physical setting. Second, the setting reflects the personality of one of the characters in the scene. (I go into how setting is linked to character development in my post, “dkdkdkd.”) Third, the setting increases conflict between the characters in the scene.

a. Character first, setting second.

The first time I read the above paragraphs I don't think I realized that Jack Torrance was in Ullman’s office or that he was there for a job interview. But that's okay, I was still drawn into the world of the story. So, obviously, that information wasn’t essential, at least not right away. Also, the question, “What, exactly, is happening here?” was important enough to me that I wanted to keep reading.

What is important is that we get to Jack and that Jack--and the situation he is in--makes us want to read on. I didn’t understand why Jack was so angry, why he hated Ullmann so much.

Notice, though, that after reading the first three paragraphs we don’t know the color of each man's hair, we don’t know if the walls are painted or wallpapered, we don’t know what kind of desk Ullman has, and so on.

We do know the important things, though. We DO know that Jack is an angry SOB and that he hates Ullmann. And we get it, right in the first sentence. Jack views Ullman as an individual deserving of contempt. But… Why? After all, in the third paragraph Jack admits to the reader that regardless of what Ullman said or did he wouldn’t have liked him because--if things worked out well--he was going to be Jack’s boss. And, right there, we see not only that Jack is capable of being honest with himself but that he has a problem with authority, and it isn’t a small one!

Let’s drill down into the nitty gritty of what the first three paragraphs tell us. In the very first sentence we are told that the protagonist’s name is Jack Torrence. We also have something of an idea how old Jack is, an age range because of the language used. For example, a child probably wouldn't have thought 'officious' and wouldn’t have the kind of interaction with Ullmann that Jack is having. It seems like something formal, something that a child’s parents would be present at. The word “officious” belies not just an adult's vocabulary but also either an educated person or someone who reads a lot. 

Also, a child who thought "officious little [so-and-so]" (depending on their temperament) might well have also said it. But Jack didn't. He's angry but controlling it. 

And, finally, that first sentence also gives us the point of view: third person, subjective.

"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men."

From the second sentence (I'm only going to talk about the first two) we learn that Ullman is short and fat and that Jack thought he was prissy. It's interesting (interesting to me at least!) that while we're told how tall Ullman is, how he moves, that he's plump--quite a number of physical details--we aren't given any of this information about Jack Torrence, the protagonist.

But that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, we're seeing all this from Jack's perspective, from the narrator's point-of-view which is firmly ensconced in Jack's mind. As a result everything Jack sees, everything the narrator tells us about the world, also tells us about Jack. And Jack--this character--couldn't care less about his hair color or how it's cut and styled. One feels Jack would label that as 'prissy,' something Ullman would be concerned about. 

It isn't until a few paragraphs later that we learn what we are watching is a job interview and that the characters are in Ullman's office:

"He slipped Jack’s application back into the file. The file went into a drawer. The desk top was now completely bare except for a blotter, a telephone, a Tensor lamp, and an in/out basket. Both sides of the in/out were empty, too.

"Ullman stood up and went to the file cabinet in the corner. 'Step around the desk, if you will, Mr. Torrance. We’ll look at the floor plans.' He brought back five large sheets and set them down on the glossy walnut plain of the desk. Jack stood by his shoulder, very much aware of the scent of Ullman’s cologne. All my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all came into his mind for no reason at all, and he had to clamp his tongue between his teeth to keep in a bray of laughter. Beyond the wall, faintly, came the sounds of the Overlook Hotel's kitchen, gearing down from lunch."

The second thing that jumps out at me is that ...

b. Intimate settings reflect the personality of the characters.

I went into this in great detail in my previous post, so I won’t belabour the point here.

When Stephen King--or, rather, the narrator--describes Ullman's desk (see the passage, above), he is describing Ullman. He is describing items--the desk, the chair, the in/out basket--that Ullman has impressed his personality upon. These setting details, therefore, are a reflection of Ullman's character, of who he is and how he wants the world to be. 

(See: How to Write a Genre Story: Setting: How to Show Not Tell)

It is only in the last paragraph that we are given the information that these characters are at the Overlook Hotel and that it's just after lunch. By this time we know that Jack was enduring a job interview ("He slipped Jack's application back into the file"). But I am only interested in these things because, now, I am interested in these men--particularly Jack--and the peculiar tension between them.

c. Use elements of the setting to introduce conflict.

As I’ve mentioned, Stephen King uses the setting--which largely consists of the two men, at least at the beginning--to inject a mammoth amount of conflict right from the first line: "Officious little [so-and-so]." But, as I mentioned above, Jack's thoughts tell us more about him than about Mr. Ullman:

"Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."

What are the circumstances? King doesn't answer this question right away. He lets the information unfurl, naturally, like we're perched on Jack Torrance's shoulder, riding along with him on this most disagreeable of days, a voyeur learning about Jack and his world. But notice what he’s done, he has gotten us to ask a question and now he’s making us wait for an answer. (For more about Lee Child and how to create suspense by asking a question, see these articles: Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense, Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense, Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down.)

After those three paragraphs I was hooked.

Describe only those aspects of the setting that are relevant to the scene's purpose.

Keep description focused.

Each scene has a purpose: the protagonist wants to achieve some goal and they probably won't. At the same time, each scene must advance the overall plot and move the story closer to the final, inevitable, showdown between hero and villain. 

Here are elements each scene needs to communicate to the reader:

- Who is the main character, the FOCAL CHARACTER, in the scene?

- What is the focal character's GOAL? 
To get through the interview without insulting Ullman and in possession of a job.

- What must the focal character accomplish to ATTAIN that goal? 
Control his temper.

- What OPPOSING FORCE prevents the focal character from attaining their goal? 
Jack’s own temper. And Ullman.

- How does the focal character MEET THIS OPPOSITION? 
Jack contains his anger.

Once you answer these questions you'll know what information needs to be communicated in the scene. I’m not saying that no more than this information can be communicated, but unless this information is communicated the scene won’t make sense.

Make sure that each setting has been described in enough detail, and with enough emotion, to ground each turning point. Part of this is making it clear what has led up to these changes.

If a detail of setting doesn't contribute to answering any of these questions then it might not need to be included in the scene. Perhaps it would be better placed in another scene. Or another novel. 

I hope some of what I've written, above, is of help in deciding how much description is enough. In the final analysis I agree with Stephen King: It's all on the table. Use whatever you want, especially in the first draft. Experiment, try new things! After you've set your manuscript aside for awhile and come back to it, and read it with fresh eyes, then it will be easier to see which parts work and which don't, as well as where you've described too much or too little.

That’s it for today! I hope you’ve found something useful in this. If so, leave a comment. If not, and you’d like to tell me about it, please leave a comment! Whatever you do, good writing. Cheers.


1. Notice that these paragraphs were written in third person and yet King seems to have achieved all the intimacy of first person. I've written a bit about how Stephen King might have achieved this--one of the techniques I think he makes use of--in this post: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.

2. The idea is that what interests me as a reader isn’t the length of a character’s hair. Take Jim Butcher’s character Harry Dresden, the only professional investigating wizard as an example. He has a proper wizard’s laboratory in his lodgings, it’s in a hidden basement no one knows about. Harry is unrepentantly snarky--a true curmudgeon--and yet can’t help himself when a beautiful woman asks him for help. Also, he collaborates with a spirit named Bob who lives in a human skull. After the first page of Butcher’s first Dresden book, Storm Front, I knew I wanted to know more about Harry. From reading what I’ve just written about him, do you have something of an idea who Harry Dresden is and whether you’d like to read more about him? If so, note that I haven’t said anything about what the character looks like.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 27

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting: How to Show Not Tell (Part 2)

Summary: Setting is an essential part of good writing because a well developed setting helps a writer show rather than tell. Each object in a story has a function, a purpose, a goal. This implies that if we were to get a peek into the hero's--or villain's--lair, that simply by looking at the objects that are most important to him would allow us to, in a sense, read the character's mind. We would know who they really were, what they wanted as well as what their goals were. In what follows I unpack this idea.

Nothing is more important to character development than setting.

At least, that’s what I think. After you’ve finished reading this, let me know if I’ve convinced you.

Setting enables a character to become who they really are and, in so doing, shows what that character wants and why they want it. Setting puts the character’s passions on display, it reveals their loves, hates, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t believe me?

It will take me a few paragraphs to develop this idea, so hang in there. It’ll be worth it.

Things and Goals

Look around. You’re surrounded by things. I’m sitting cross legged in my black office chair typing on a keyboard. There are miscellaneous pens scattered in front of me, a coffee grinder, a pair of reading glasses, a magnifying glass, a box of sticky notes, a desk lamp and a cup full of steaming hot coffee. 

But… So what? What do any of these things mean

Well, why do I have any of them? I need my pens bcause without them I couldn’t scribble in my writing journal and that wouldn’t be good because that’s how I write most of my rough drafts. Now, I don’t always like writing rough drafts, but I do it because I like eating and having a roof over my head. 

Each object on my desk is like my pens in that each has a function and, as such, is tied to a goal. 

Here’s another example. When I was a teen one of my best friends, Carl, was always on a diet. His Achilles' heel was junk food, when he was stressed he couldn't resist it. 

One day we were meeting up with friends so, being kind, he drove by my place and picked me up so I didn't have to take the bus. When I climbed into his car the first thing I saw was a discarded Big Mac wrapper that had escaped the garbage. That discarded wrapper told me quite a lot about him: he was stressed and, because he'd had a Big Mac recently, he was feeling guilty for cheating.

Goals and Things

Okay, so far so good. Now let’s talk about goals. 

In a story, every object is tied to a goal via either it’s function or by what it represents. (If it isn’t tied to a goal, why have it in the story?)

I think that all things--and therefore all goals--could, more-or-less, be said to fall into one of three categories: things we need to SURVIVE, things we use to PLAY and (for lack of a better term) things associated with DEEP MEANING. Let’s look at each of these in turn.


In life we do certain things (for example, go to work at a job we hate) to get other things (like food and shelter) we need to survive. 

My example for this category is a briefcase. A briefcase isn’t wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it would help someone achieve their goal of helping them at their job. Now, this isn’t to say that everyone who owns a briefcase hates their job, but my guess is that if 100 briefcase owners were each given 10 million dollars they would quit their jobs and divest themselves of their briefcases. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. 

This goal is all about removing the negative--starvation and homelessness. There is nothing the person values in itself in pursuing their goal of being employed. I could imagine that some people, upon retiring, burn their briefcases!


We do other things (for example, go fishing) to get things (for example, fish plus a feeling of tranquility) that we like. As with the above category, certain objects, certain ‘things,’ can be associated with this activity. For example, a fishing rod. A fishing rod isn't wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it would help someone achieve their goal of helping them catch fish. 

But, unlike the survival category, this goal is not just about removing the negative, it is also about introducing a positive, desired, emotional or mental state. Associated with this kind of goal is something a person values in itself (for example, a feeling of wellbeing). I could imagine that some people, upon retiring from fishing, still keep their fishing rods as a reminder of good times, or perhaps they gift it to a young friend.

I’ll talk more about this, below, but of course while we perhaps have a stereotype in our heads about what the ‘average’ fishing experience is or why people fish (I fished quite a bit as a child) of course not all people have positive experiences or mental states associated with fishing. In this case such a person might toss their fishing pole into the garbage (similar to the briefcase). BUT this would be unusual and so would (or so I think) make us curious WHY. We don’t need an explanation for why a person would enjoy fishing, but we do need one for why they hated it. Again, this is my claim, please feel free to disagree!

Deep Meaning

We do still other things (for example, get married) to get things (a family as well as a purpose in life) that we love, things that bring a deeper meaning to life, things that help us structure our life, things that provide a framework. I’ve called this category ‘deep meaning.’ 

Certain objects, certain ‘things,’ can be associated with states-of-affairs that bring our lives deeper meaning. For example, a wedding ring. Generally speaking, the ring isn’t wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it symbolizes the desired state-of-affairs of being married, of the commitment one spouse has made to another. This state-of-affairs is something the person values for itself and it will greatly change their life and how they move about in the world. 

I would expect that were the relationship to end suddenly that the nature of the relationship and the reason for its termination would affect one’s attitude toward one’s wedding ring. For example, if a beloved spouse passes on then I would imagine the ring would be treasured, kept. If John has a nasty divorce I wouldn’t be surprised were he to toss his wedding ring into the ocean or garbage can.

What we have so far:

There are certain objects (e.g., briefcases) that are stereotypically associated with negative things and others (e.g., wedding rings) that are stereotypically associated with deeply meaningful wonderful things (e.g., marriage). Still others (e.g., fishing rods and playstations) have some emotional valence that falls somewhere in between the two.

So, to recap. The idea is that objects have functions and that these functions imply particular goals. Therefore, when writing a story, in introducing an object with a particular function or one that represents a certain thing, you are also introducing a goal, one that might say quite a lot about the character. 

This is an essential part of showing not telling.

Using Setting to Show Not Tell

An example: Carl

Let’s go back to the example of my friend Carl. The Big Mac wrapper implied something about his goals and the extent to which he was achieving them. If I were writing a story about Carl, the discarded McDonald’s wrapper would say quite a lot about my friend’s success in achieving his weight loss goals. But, also, and more importantly, it would tell me he was under a lot of stress. He wouldn’t have to say anything to me in order to communicate this information, all I needed to see was that discarded wrapper. That’s a big part of showing and not telling.

So there are objects, and objects have a function, and objects are tied to goals via their function. Also, we have either positive or negative feelings about an object based on loosely two things: First, how we feel about the goal and, second, how efficiently the object gets us to that goal.

You can see where I’m going with this. Since the possession of an object can imply a goal, a desire, what objects your characters have in their homes, their private abodes, say quite a lot about first, what face they want to present to the world and, second, what they really care about. It can tell the reader what the character loves, what she wants, what she hopes to achieve. That goes to the essence of characterization.

But that’s not all.

Kicking it up a notch: Breaking Stereotypes

This is really what this post is about: How to use the juxtaposition of setting and character to create conflict and surprise. But before I talk about that let’s get more specific about desires and goals.

Mixing it up: Subversion of Expectation


Comedy often results when an object that is used for play is used instead for survival. For example I can imagine a modern day Wednesday (from the Addams Family) being forced to play on a Playstation as though it were much loathed homework. This would tell us A LOT about Wednesday and the values of the Addams family.

One of the things that separates an entertaining story from a boring one is that an entertaining story will have a few of these surprises.

How do we do this? 

One way we can both surprise and intrigue the reader is to take an object that is commonly associated with one category--say a wedding ring--and have a character feel about it the same way we normally feel about a briefcase. 


Have you seen the 1987 movie Black Widow, the one starring Debra Winger? Here’s the description from IMDB: “A federal investigator tracks down a gold-digging woman who moves from husband to husband to kill them and collect the inheritance.” So, for Catherine, the murderer, her wedding ring had the same emotional significance as a new briefcase would have for the average person. When it comes to understanding such a person that’s a valuable piece of information! That sort of thing paints a powerful picture.

Or how about this: Imagine you have next a door neighbour who everyone thinks adores his wife. She passes after a lengthy illness. He seems devastated. A couple of days after she passes there is a bad windstorm and garbage cans are tipped over, their contents strewn about all over the block. On your way to the store you pass your bereaved neighbours home and see that the wind has tossed the contents of his garbage can all over the road. There, in front of you, is his wife's wedding ring. That would be a good opening for a mystery!

The Harry Potter stories used this device. There are two things here. First, school is more in the survival category, not many children are terribly excited about going to school or doing homework. But J.K. Rowling, first, made a character--Hermione--who loved doing homework like many people love football or hockey. 

Second, the entire school is one that many of Rowling’s readers dreamt of attending! She took something--schooling--that usually is in the “I need to do something I don’t like” category and put it in the “play” category by uniting it with the idea of wizardry, of learning how to control magic.

Show Don’t Tell

You might be thinking: well, Woodward, isn’t that all just a part of characterization? Yes! But to SHOW who a character is we want to have the character react to something important to them--to someTHING in the setting. In doing so, the character will be brought to life. 

(Jim Butcher has written about how to create an interesting character.)

Also, when we take a thing that normally belongs in one category and put it in another, our character is shown to be unusual. That’s a good thing because unusual characters are memorable characters, and memorable characters are fun to read about.

Finally, a thing that characterizes the fictional person is the relative proportion of, say, survival items to play items. Or play items versus deep meaning items. What would it say about a character if his man cave had NO deep meaning items, NO survival items but a lot of play items? He would seem to be a playboy, a dilettante, someone who was truly interested in nothing and lived only for the pleasure of the moment. But (putting a twist on this) what if (as in The Scarlet Pimpernel or Batman) our hero had a secret room that was full of objects from the survival and deep meaning categories? That would indicate that his playboy image was a ruse, a smokescreen.


It’s fun for me to think about objects this way, it helps me understand the characters I’ve loved in new ways. I hope you’ve gotten something from my ramblings, perhaps a slightly new way of thinking about something you’ve always instinctively known. I hope it was worth it. 😀

(By the way, if you write--you don't have to have anything published--and would like to be interviewed, tweet at me (@WoodwardKaren).)

Thanks for reading! This post took me a long time to write, I’m hoping to have my next blog post up next week. Good writing.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, October 18

How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws

How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws

Let’s talk about blind spots.

We’re often told that protagonists need to be likable but it’s just as important that they have flaws.

I’ve just finished reading “Falling Angel” by William Hjortsberg. In that book the protagonist loses everything, even his identity. Which is a tragedy. He was courageous, resourceful and generally likable. It’s easy for the reader to identify with him, and if this was true for the reader I imagine it was true for the writer as well. But Hjortsberg resisted the impulse to coddle his protagonist and the book was better for it. 

That said, Hjortsberg didn’t give his protagonist, Harry Angel, just any flaws, he gave him flaws that seemed to grow organically from the core of his character. Giving a character blind spots is one way of achieving this.

What are blind spots?

A blind spot is a flaw, a weakness. For example, I have a friend who often complains about not being able to lose five pounds while she’s eating a bag of crunchy, vinegary finger-licking-good potato chips.

What creates a blind spot?

Desires create blind spots. Specifically, desires which fly in the face of strongly held beliefs either about ourselves or the world around us.

In my example, above, the desire being indulged was of the potato-chip-eating variety and the strongly held belief was that my friend was doing everything she could to try and lose weight. 

Taking this to a more serious level, a person might have a strong desire to learn the truth about a particular situation but not be able to get past the strongly held belief that their friend (or sibling, or mother, or father) is a good person and would, therefore, never do certain things.

Denial and unconscious defense mechanisms

I would, of course, never be this bold (or foolhardy!) but were I to call my friend on her chip-eating-duplicity and say, “You’d lose five pounds if you stopped eating potato chips,” what do you think her immediate reaction would be?

Yep, anger. Then she would try to justify her behavior. She would try and explain how her behavior really did, despite appearances to the contrary, fit with her desire to lose weight. 

Most folks, when it’s made clear to them that one or more of their behaviors flies in the face of a real or stated desire will attempt to justify it rather than change. “Oh this package of potato chips is so small and it’s only one bag. It’s not like I have one every day.” Or, “You’re right! This will be my last one, I’ll stop tomorrow.”

How to make bad things happen to good characters

Writers have to be the bad guy. They have to be mean to their characters. (Don’t Flinch)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, one of the ways we can lead our characters to ruin is by giving them blind spots.

The ones I’ve talked about so far are relatively mild. To show you the kind of blind spots that can make for great literature let’s take another look at “Falling Angel.” Here the protagonist, Harry Angel, has a core belief, one you and I likely share: I know who I am. Harry couldn’t have been more wrong. 

When Harry Angel finally realizes he has been blind, that he has believed a lie, it is far too late for him to save either himself or the girl he has come to love.

Creating Character Flaws: How to Use Your Character’s strengths against them

I’d never thought much about blind spots and how they can be used to create tragedy until I sat in on a workshop Bob Mayer taught at the Surrey International Writing Conference. Mayer gave some wickedly useful examples of how your character’s strengths can suggest desires which can, in turn, be used to create character flaws.

An Example: Loyalty

Loyalty is an excellent trait for a protagonist to have. Since we, as humans, tend to believe that other people are like us—that they have the same desires and strengths and weaknesses we ourselves do—people who are loyal tend to believe that other people, especially those they consider their friends, are loyal as well. (Also at work here is the principle that it’s much easier for a person to believe a statement they want to be true than it is for one they want to be false.)

Underlying need/drive/desire:
- To trust others and to be trusted in return.

To see the world as you would like to see it, not as it actually is. This can lead to (at least) two weaknesses:
- Gullible. The need to trust others can make a hero gullible. They want to trust others even if, deep down, they know they shouldn’t.
- Unreasonable skepticism. Often when a person has trusted someone when they shouldn’t have—and been harmed because of it—they can swing to the other end of the spectrum and not trust anyone, even someone who has proven themselves trustworthy.

Blind Spot:
- Here is the loyal character’s blind spot (or at least one of them): Even though he’s let me down in the past, this time will be different.

Another Example: Competitiveness

Let’s say a character is naturally competitive. That can be a very good thing.

Underlying need/drive/desire:
- To achieve, to conquer.

- To achieve and to conquer no matter the cost, no matter who it destroys in the process.

Blind Spot:
- My drive to achieve isn’t hurting anyone.

In conclusion

If you ever have a chance I highly recommend Bob Mayer’s writing workshops. I haven’t read it (I’m still snailing my way through Robert McKee’s excellent book, “Story”) but his book The Novel Writer’s Toolkit comes highly recommended.

What blind spots have you given your characters?

Photo credit: "Cat's shadow" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, August 13

Robert McKee And Characterization vs Character

Robert McKee And Characterization vs Character

I’m reading “Story,” by Robert McKee and kicking myself for not doing this long ago. I’ve reached the part where McKee talks about the difference between character and characterization and says some eye-poppingly interesting things. Useful things.

If you haven’t read “Story,” get your hands on a copy. If you don’t want to shell out 40 dollars for a hardcover, take the book out from the library. You may end up disagreeing with what McKee says--and that’s fine, different strokes and all that--but it can help you grasp the essence of what makes a story absorbing: character and structure working together.

What Is Character? Characterization vs Character

McKee writes:

Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes–all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. [...] This singular assemblage of traits is characterization ... but it is not character.” 

McKee goes on:

“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure–the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

True character has to do with whether someone is loving or cruel, generous or selfish, strong or weak, and so on. In life as in art “The only way to know” whether someone is generous or selfish, kind or cruel, and so on, is to “witness him make choices under pressure [...]. As he chooses, he is.”

Yes!! That. What he said. I’ve felt this myself but hadn’t put it into words. Of course Dwight V. Swain, Jack Bickham and Jim Butcher have said much the same thing but for some reason when I read McKee’s “Story” the light went on. 

McKee goes on:

“Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little.”

Exactly! And these choices are made in sequels.

The importance of structure–and the reason why structure and character are two sides of the same coin–is that character can only be revealed over time through the choices a character makes. It is the unfolding of these choices we call structure.

For example ...

Character Arc

1. Beginning of story: Characterization

At the beginning of a story, in the setup, characters are described; characterized. Readers are told what the character’s gender is, approximately how old they are, and so on.

2. First choice: The Character’s deep nature is revealed through their choices.

I re-watched The Matrix yesterday. At the beginning of the movie Thomas Anderson (aka Neo) makes a number of choices. 

- He chooses to follow the white rabbit to a nightclub even though he knows he has to work the next day. 
- At work, he has a choice whether to trust Morpheus and do something dangerous or play it safe. 
- At the end of Act One he has to choose whether to take the blue pill and forget all about The Matrix or take the red pill and learn the truth, even though learning the truth will cost him everything.

Notice how these choices build on each other, becoming more difficult (the stakes increase) and, correspondingly, more revealing of Thomas Anderson’s deep nature.

3. Conflict between characterization and deep nature.

Here the writer shows that the character’s deep nature is at odds with his characterization.

McKee calls James Bond a lounge lizard. Bond wears expensive clothes and lurks around nice hotel lobbies chatting up and bedding beautiful, rich women. That’s all part of his characterization. But his character is quite different. The average lounge lizard wouldn’t risk his life to defend his country--he wouldn’t know where to begin.

McKee writes:

“[The character’s] deep nature is at odds with the outer countenance of the character, contrasting with it, if not contradicting it. We sense that he is not what he appears to be.”

4. The character’s choices become more difficult.

After a character’s inner nature, their deep nature, has been exposed they must be driven to make even more difficult choices.

5. End of story: The character--who they are at the deepest level--has been profoundly and permanently changed.

By the end of the story the character’s choices have “profoundly changed the humanity of the character.” 

McKee sums it up like this:

“Whether our instincts work through character or structure, they ultimately meet at the same place.

“For this reason the phrase ‘character-driven story’ is redundant. All stories are ‘character-driven.’ Event design and character design mirror each other. Character cannot be expressed in depth except through the design of story.”

That’s it for today! 

Photo credit: Untitled by Helmut Hess under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0.

Wednesday, February 5

What Kind of Writer Are You? Part Two of Two

Yesterday (see: What Kind of Writer Are You? Dramatic Action versus Character Development) I talked about two kinds of writers or writing styles: those who preferred stories with a lot of dramatic action (Die Hard, for example) and those who favored tales that focused on the character's emotional development (The Notebook).

Following Martha Alderson's lead, I introduced the first part of a whimsical test one could take, one designed to indicate which kind of writer you may be. The idea is this: if you know you prefer stories jam packed with dramatic action it could be that--either consciously or unconsciously--you aren't focusing enough on developing your character's emotions. 

But it works the other way too. If you are a sucker for a tale chalk full of characters exploring their shifting (/developing /maturing) emotions, then you could have a tendency to give dramatic action short shrift. At least, it might be something to watch for.

So, back to the test:

A Character's Emotional Development

In the following we will look at a character's internal traits (the same character as last time); her feelings, her hopes, her fears.

4. What trait, more than any other, holds your character back from succeeding? What is her greatest fault? 

Continuing my example from yesterday, if Tia's goal is to get enough money to pay for her sister's operation, her greatest fault might be a lack of patience (or perhaps people skills). This is why she hasn't--or can't--go through the normal channels.

5. What is your character's greatest strength? (This is the trait that has the greatest chance of helping the hero attain his goal.)

For example, though impatient, Tia could be charismatic and able to convince people to do things they'd rather not, thinks like helping her rob a bank!

6. What one thing does your character hate above all else?

Perhaps Tia hates the cold depersonalization of any system that could see anyone, especially her sister, as a number. In this case the number being the amount of money the insurance company would have to pay for the operation.

7. What one thing does your character love above all else?

I'm tempted to say that Tia loves family, the bonds of family, above all else, but I think the deeper answer is that she loves freedom. (It's interesting that Tia has become real to me. I feel as though I know her.)

At bottom, Tia can't stand for a nameless, faceless, bureaucracy to decide matters of life and death. She doesn't think it's fair. She doesn't think it's right. She is robbing the bank as much to get the money as to make a point. Perhaps a silly point (robbing a bank isn't a bright idea, especially for someone whose never done anything remotely illegal before), but a point nevertheless.

8. What does your character fear above all else?

Death. And loss. Tia fears the death of those she loves. (I borrowed that from J.K. Rowling & J.R.R. Tolkien.)

9. What secret is your character keeping? (The biggest, most potentially life-changing one.)

Perhaps Tia recently broke up with her fiancee. She told everyone it was because he was cheating on her but the truth was that she was cheating on him.

10. What does your character dream of doing? If this character could do anything, anything at all, what would it be?

All her life Tia dreamt of being a singer but when she was a child her parents didn't have the money to pay for voice lessons. But they had enough money to give her sister voice lessons. Tia had always held that against her sister and now--in an odd twisted sort of way--Tia feels guilty about her sister's illness.

The Test

These questions, from one to ten, were part of a test. Here's the test question(s): 

Which questions were the easiest for you to answer? One to three, or four to ten? Which answers came the quickest? Those that had to do with your character's external goal, with the dramatic action of the story, or those that had to do with your character's internal goal, with your character's emotional development?

Scenes And Sequels

Another way of asking whether you're more comfortable writing scenes chalk full of dramatic action or scenes filled with your character's emotional development might be to question whether you are more comfortable writing scenes or sequels. 

I haven't talked about scenes and sequels in this article, but Jim Butcher has an excellent discussion of both. Also, Dwight V. Swain spends a lot of time discussing scenes and sequels in his marvellous book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Briefly, a scene is "a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It's a blow-by-blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition." Furthermore, a scene has the following structure: goal, conflict, disaster. That's from Techniques of the Selling Writer.

In a scene the character actively tries to achieve a goal, encounters an obstacle (this results in conflict) and, just when it looks as though he'll attain his goal, the worst happens and it all ends in disaster.

A sequel, on the other hand, is "a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your character's reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come." Again, that was from Techniques of the Selling Writer. A sequel has the following structure: reaction, dilemma, decision

In a sequel, the character reacts to the disaster at the end of the previous scene (reaction), enumerates--this could be explicit or implicit--the various possible paths he could take, as well as the pros and cons of following each, (dilemma) and, finally, picks one of the paths and begins to pursue a new goal (decision).

The description I just gave of scenes and sequels is just the barest of bare bones. I encourage you to read Jim Butcher's articles and, if you can spare $16 or so, pick up Swain's book.

Dramatic Action and Character Development 

A good, engrossing story (of course) needs both dramatic action and character development, though when a story begins often we need more dramatic action than character development because we want to draw our readers into the story quickly. On the other hand, readers are very likely to lose interest if we don't get them interested in our characters and the only way to do that is to reveal their emotions, their desires, what makes them tick. That's the stuff reader identification is built from.

How to strengthen the emotional development of your character

If you thrive on action and view character development as a necessary evil, Martha Alderson has this tip for you:

Use the person you know best as a template for your characters. Namely, you. You know what you're afraid of, you know your flaws, your fears, your secrets. Use this in your writing. Is that thought scary? Would it be painful? You bet! But that's why Hemingway once said, "Writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed."

How to strengthen your dramatic action plotline

If, on the other hand, you love books heavy on character development and view dramatic action as an unfortunate necessity, then, as before, try using yourself as an example. What goals do you have? What tasks are you trying to complete? What are the stakes? What will happen if you succeed? If you fail?

Martha Alderson also has this tip:

"Start with the Climax of your story, and work backwards. Using your intuition, pay attention. Link Dramatic Action to the changes in your character's emotional development."

I like the idea of starting from the climax of the story and working backward. (That's also how Dan Wells writes.)

I'm going to try using different color index cards to indicate scenes and sequels, dramatic action versus character development, external versus internal goals.


There seem to be three ways of talking about more-or-less the same thing:

1. Dramatic action versus Character Development.

2. External (/outer) versus internal (/inner) goals.

3. Scenes versus sequels.

The important thing is to find out what kind of story you prefer to write and make sure, in your final product, you have a mix of both dramatic action and internal development. Really, it's all about pacing.

Generally, the pace of a story is adjusted by controlling the length of scenes (dramatic action) and sequels (character development). Experiment. Try adding a bit more character development (Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Character Workbook is great for this) and seeing how it changes the story. Perhaps even try adding a bit of dramatic action and see how it alters the pace. 

Experiment! That's how one grows as a writer. 

Good writing.

Photo credit: "Enthusiasm" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, February 4

What Kind of Writer Are You? Dramatic Action versus Character Development

What Kind of Writer Are You? Dramatic Action versus Character Development

Character Driven versus Action Driven Stories

I love stories driven by dramatic action. Stories like Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Paranormal Activity. Yes, sure, I can appreciate other kinds of stories, stories driven by the emotions of the characters, stories driven by their loves and desires and fears and regrets. But given a choice between Die Hard (the first one) and The Notebook, I'll take Die Hard.

I stand by what I've just said but there's another way of looking at this. Stories like Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, stories that are driven by plot and action, tend to focus on the protagonist's external goal and feature his attempts to attain this goal. Sometimes these heroes (the first Indy movie is a good example) don't even have an internal goal. 

On the other hand, stories like The Notebook focus on a characters' emotions, their loves and hates and fears. These kind of stories, stories fuelled by character development, tend to focus on the protagonist's internal goal and feature their internal transformations.

I think most movies--arguably the 1999 remake of The Mummy falls into this category--are a blend of dramatic action and character development, of the protagonist striving to attain both internal and external goals.

Two Kinds of Writers

There seem to be, broadly speaking, two different kinds of writers to go along with these two different kinds of stories: stories top heavy with action or top heavy with character development. Although, that said, many, perhaps most, stories are a mix of the two styles.

Speaking as someone who gravitates more towards an action style I can appreciate I might need to force myself to slow down occasionally and do a bit more character development, and I can easily imagine that writers who like to writes stories chalk full of their characters' emotional development--of fictional people pursuing their internal goals--occasionally need to remind themselves to throw in a bit of dramatic action to spice things up. 

(Keep in mind that dramatic action tends to increase the pace of a story while exploring a character's emotions, their internal goals and growth, tends to slow the pace of a story. I will say more about this, and about scenes and sequels, in the second and last part of this series.)

Knowing what one's preferences are (as both a reader and a writer) may teach one something about the kind of strengths and, possibly, weaknesses evident in one's writing.

The problem: Not everyone knows what kind of writer they are, whether they favor outward goals and dramatic action or internal goals and character development.

The Test: How To Tell Which Type You Are

I got this idea from the article Character-Driven or Action Driven by Martha Alderson.

I've found that in order to change one first needs to understand oneself, to understand the problem. In this case that means finding out which kind of writer you are. Are you someone who prefers to fill your stories with dramatic action? Are you someone who prefers to showcase your character's emotional development? Or, perhaps, your stories balance perfectly in the middle.

Think of your protagonist for your work in progress. (Alderson describes a protagonist--and I think this is an excellent definition--as "the character who is most changed by the dramatic action"). That said, I think this test can work for any character.

Try to answer these questions as quickly as you can:

Dramatic Action

1. What is your protagonist's overall, external, story goal?

What is the thing they desire most? In concrete terms, how can they fulfill that desire? 

For instance, a character--Tia--might desire great wealth. That's fine, but that isn't specific enough, it's not concrete enough to be a goal. Robbing the bank on 1st and 3rd during July 4th is a goal.

2. What is preventing your character from achieving this goal?

What external force opposes the character achieving what they desire? 

Continuing my example, perhaps a detective has his eye on Tia. He suspects her of planning a big heist and has sworn to catch her in the act and put her in jail--or worse.

3. What are the stakes? What will this character lose if she fails? What will she win if she succeeds?

Perhaps Tia needs the money to pay for her sister's operation. If her sister doesn't get the operation she'll die, forcing her foster children back into a cold, uncaring, system. If Tia does get the money the sister will live and continue to provide a loving home for her foster kids. 

Or perhaps Tia's grandmother is close to losing her house to the bank and she can't bear for that to happen; her grandmother took care of Tia her entire life, now it's time for her to take care of grams. In this case the stakes would be: if Tia fails grandma loses the house her husband built and has to move in to a Dickensian old-folks home. If Tia wins grams gets to keep her house and will die a happy woman surrounded by the memories of a long happy life. 

Character Emotional Development

That's enough for this post. Next time I'll go over questions that will focus on a character's emotional development. Then you can ask yourself: which set of questions were easier to answer? That may indicate which kind of story you find easiest to write.

Update: You can read the second and final part of this series here: What Kind of Writer Are You? Part Two of Two.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "High-Octane Villain" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, January 11

Narrative Setting: Part Two

Narrative Setting: Part Two

This is part two of a three part series about narrative setting. In part one (Narrative Setting) I talked about what setting is. Today, in part two, I'll go over how setting can be used to develop character. In part three I'll focus on how setting can be used to introduce--and increase--conflict.

Before I talk about setting and character, let me tie up a loose end from my Narrative Setting post and talk briefly about how setting can affect the mood of a story.

Setting And Mood

"Mood creates an emotional setting that envelops the reader." 

The key point here is that mood is something that is created in the reader. (Tone, on the other hand, has to do with the voice of the narrator.) Recall that since our goal in telling a story is to evoke certain emotions in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is important.

I'll be talking a bit more about mood in my third post when I discuss examples.

All right! On to the topic of todays blog post: how a good setting helps us develop our characters' character.

Ways In Which Setting Can Be Used To Develop Character

1. Setting is essential to bring the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch, hearing.

2. Setting is essential for situating the character in--not just surroundings--but a society, a culture.

3. The setting of a story can be used to introduce, and increase, conflict.
Let's take these point by point.

1. Setting is essential to bring the world of the story to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch, hearing.

The following is from Dwight V. Swain's excellent book, "Techniques of the Selling Writer":
"... How do you bring a setting to life?

"The answer, of course, lies in the human animal himself. His world is a sensory world—a world of green grass and white houses . . . purring kittens and thundering trucks . . . Chanel No. 5 and curling wood smoke . . . fresh cold orange juice and hot crisp bacon . . . silk’s rich smoothness and the harsh grit of volcanic ash.

"So, you build your story world of these same sensory impressions—the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted. Emphasis is on the vivid image and the impactful figure of speech."
A trick I sometimes use--I suppose it's not really a trick, more like a practise or a habit--is to keep lists of sensory words close at hand and review them periodically. 

Also, if I come across a particularly vivid turn of phrase--for instance, "curling wood smoke"--I write it down. And, as I write, I say it aloud. Picture it. For me, "curling wood smoke," that phrase, gives a certain feeling, it conveys a certain mood. It invokes memories of campfires and long warm nights up at my parents' place. Think how you could describe something else and invoke the same, or a similar, memory/feeling.

Here are a few links to lists of words that evoke the senses:








2. Developing a milieu is essential for situating the character in--not just surroundings--but a society, a culture.

I talked a bit about this last time. This advice is from Dwight V. Swain and appears in his book "Creating Characters." He writes:
"Milieu is a word I like. Because while, technically, it’s defined as environment or surroundings, it implies a great deal more.

"Specifically, it captures the feeling not just of setting or landscape, but of a society; a social as well as a physical locale. Growing up in San Francisco implies more than just the Golden Gate, Pacific Park, and Union Square. Life in the Mississippi Delta is one thing; that in a Pennsylvania Amish community, another. And double that in spades for a past in the slums of Juarez, the singles bars of New York’s Upper West Side, or a French convent.

"Such social settings reach out to embrace people as well as geography. They mold the various strata of society that fix standards, for mutually accepted norms and rules are the glue that bonds any group or class together. Shared customs, which clothes are acceptable for which occasions, and how to behave in church or mosque or synagogue are what create a society."
Dwight V. Swain continues on to say that writers must know at least these two things regarding a character in a society:

1. "[...] know the rules and conduct patterns that govern behavior in that particular setting;"

2. "[...] know the degree to which Character follows these rules;"

This presents the writer with three questions:
a) What are the rules of your particular society (or societies)?

b) Does your character know the rules? (Did he grow up in this society or is he a stranger?)

c) Does your character follow the rules?
That's it! Next time we'll finish off this series by looking at how to use setting to increase conflict. 

Update: Here's the link to Narrative Setting: Part Three.

Stay tuned. Good writing!

Photo credit: "2014-009 - dry folsom" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, October 13

Techniques of the Selling Writer: How To Create A Story With An Interesting Hero & A Satisfying Ending

Techniques of the Selling Writer: How To Create A Story With An Interesting Hero & A Satisfying Ending

Today I'm going to talk about how to craft a story so that not only will the average reader find the ending satisfying but you'll also have created, in the process, a well-rounded, sympathetic, likeable hero.

What follows, the ideas, come from one of the best books on the craft of writing ever written: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain. Though the ideas are Mr. Swain's I've put them in my own words. And, by the way, this is all from just one chapter of Mr. Swain's book, chapter 5: Fiction Strategy.

The Hero's Motivation

What do heroes seek? They seek what we all, on some level, seek: security, safety.

For example, take Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He doesn't seek his own safety, true, he seeks the safety of the world because if the Nazi's capture the ark they'll win the war and that would be, to put it mildly, bad.

What does a hero (what does anyone) need to feel safe and secure? Mr. Swain argued that the hero needs to feel he controls his destiny. That is, he needs to feel that his choices and actions are related to what happens in the (story) world in such a way that what he does matters.

To put this same idea another way: in a story world there needs to be a connection between what the character does (his DEEDS) and what happens (his REWARDS).

The question: Just how do we build this connection between deeds and rewards?

Let's go back a bit.

At the beginning of the story your hero isn't going to feel safe and secure. She isn't going to feel that there's a satisfying connection between her deeds and her rewards. The hero is going to have to fight for this, it's part of her quest.

For example, at the start of Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke lives with his aunt and uncle on their farm on Tatooine. Does Luke feel he controls his destiny? No

If Luke had a choice, he'd be off to the Academy but his aunt and uncle won't let him go. By the end of the movie, as a direct result of the choices Luke has made, he is in charge of his own destiny. Case in point: he made the choice to ignore the targeting computer and, as Obi-Wan Kenobi instructed, use the force. The outcome of the entire movie (not to mention the known universe!) hangs on this choice and he is rewarded. Luke achieves his goal, the destruction of the Death Star.

Or take another terrific Harrison Ford movie, Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. What does Dr. Belloq keep saying to Indy? At the end of the opening sequence he says: "Dr. Jones, again we see that there is nothing you possess which I cannot take away." Then, again, at the midpoint, just before he seals Jones inside the Well of Souls, he taunts him by saying, "So, once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine."

What Belloq is saying here is: You don't control your destiny, I do

That's what the hero has to wrench control of by the end, that's his great task, to control his destiny through the choices he makes.

The Hero's Deeds Need To Be The Cause of His/Her Rewards

I've already mentioned that there has to be a certain kind of cause and effect relationship between DEEDS and REWARDS for a story's ending to be truly satisfying. (Remember, I'm talking about the kind of stories where the hero wins the day, stories like those behind all the Indiana Jones movies). Rewards must be meted out on the basis of deeds. Your hero's behavior--her choices--must determine her fate.

Specifically, Good Deeds Must Be Rewarded

As DVS says, having a causal relationship between a character's deeds and their rewards isn't enough. Good deeds must be rewarded.

The Hero Must Deserve To Win

Let's say we've built a story, a world, in which deeds are the cause of rewards and in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are (eventually) punished. It follows that your hero must demonstrate he's a good guy if we want him to achieve his goal in a plausible manner. (Which isn't to say that he can't make the occasional mistake in the beginning.)

How does the hero demonstrate what end of the moral/ethical compass he's on?

In this post I'm going over this material using broad strokes, but I'd like to slow down at this point and go over some specific examples DVS gives (this is all from chapter 5 of Techniques of the Selling Writer). These examples are designed to show ways, small ways, in which your hero can demonstrate to readers what kind of guy he is.

Also, although DVS couches this in terms of morality I think it could just as well be put in terms of that holy grail of character creation: likability.

Example 1: A clerk gives your hero too much change. It would be easy to keep the change and walk away. But that's not what a hero does. He gives the change back.

I'm going to get to this in a later post, but memorable characters--and memorability is a very good thing; after all, it's hard to like a character you can't remember!--are (in general) extreme characters. Giving back 25 cents because it would be wrong to take it is extreme, and in your story world that's a good thing.

Example 2: Your hero dings someone's fender in the parking lot but no one noticed. Does he leave a note taking responsibility or just drive away? 

I think many people would drive away, which gives you an opportunity to show that your hero isn't like other people.

The Hero Must Demonstrate, Through His Choices And Actions, That He Deserves To Win

Let's focus on the end of the story. At the end of the story the hero is presented with a choice. The specifics of this choice should come as a surprise to the reader ("Marion, don't look at the light!" "Trust the force, Luke") but the general dimensions of the choice--good against evil--are not new themes. You've been foreshadowing this climactic confrontation, this decision, since the opening lines.

What is this confrontation? 

The confrontation is, classically, between the hero and the villain, or--using different terminology--between the protagonist and the antagonist. Fundamentally, it's a moral dilemma. Right against wrong, good against evil, love against hate. There should be two paths before the hero, one leads to the dark side, the other to the light. The hero makes his decision and if (when) he decides to do the right thing, the two fight (either actually or metaphorically).

Everything must hang on what the hero chooses to do. And by everything I mean EVERYTHING. If we haven't made it so that the hero's life, his love's life, his travelling companions' lives, his friends lives, his village's existence and, possibly, the fate and happiness of everyone in the known universe, hangs on our hero's choice then we've taken a wrong turn somewhere. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)

The Hero's Choice: The Path of Darkness & The Path of Light

The paths are mutually exclusive. We've established that the hero's choice is going to be between two paths, the path of darkness and the path of light. Each path, each choice, has an outcome that is antithetical to the other. If the hero chooses the path of darkness then whatever the path of light would have brought about, resulted in, is irrevocably, irretrievably, gone. And vice versa.

The Hero's Choice Must Resolve The Dilemma

This seems obvious, but I thought I'd say it anyway. The general dimension of the problem, good against evil, will still be there but this PARTICULAR problem will be finally and absolutely resolved, one way or the other. If the problem isn't resolved then your readers aren't going to feel satisfied by the ending and that's what our goal is.

For instance, in A New Hope Luke must decide between safety and trust. On the one hand, Obi-Wan Kenobi is telling him to turn off his equipment and trust the Force. On the other hand, his inner critic is telling him not to be stupid--there is no such thing as 'the Force' and, even if there was, he couldn't harness it--just be smart and use the equipment. 

The safe course is the selfish course because then, if it fails, it wouldn't be Luke's fault. (Sure, they'd all be dead, but, still, not-his-fault.) He was just doing the sensible thing. 

The path of trust is the true course. And it's risky. It likely won't work. It's not the easy way. Or even the sane way. But there's something about Luke, about who he is: he's strong in the force, like his father. He's special. And when he trusts that, when he believes it enough to act on it, to go 'all in,' then he wins the day.

The Path of Light And The Path of Darkness: Selflessness vs Selfishness

I've been talking about good vs evil, the path of light vs the path of darkness which, really, has been a bunch of handwaving. So let's cash out these terms, how I've been using them. 

In our story universe good is defined by one simple thing, SELFLESSNESS, just as bad is defined by just one thing, it's opposite, SELFISHNESS.

In your story universe the path of light, the good/moral/right thing will always be the unselfish thing. Further, doing the unselfish thing will always bring the hero all kinds of pain and misery. Conversely, the path of darkness, the evil road, will always lead to the selfish choice. Doing what's best for the hero. Making life wonderful for him even though, because of his choice, countless people will suffer and die. 

At this point you might well wonder, "Why would anyone choose to do the selfless thing if the odds of winning are slim to none and you'll lose everything if your plan doesn't succeed?"

Mr. Swain has an answer: Because of EMOTION. Because of who the hero is, intrinsically. So, you see, it all comes back to CHARACTER. Even if it would be more intelligent (certainly more self-preserving) to follow the wrong road, the hero follows his feelings instead. Remember, the test the hero goes through is one of character, not logic or reason or even intelligence.

This has been a long post, but before I end it I'd like to briefly talk about other kinds of cause and effect structures.

Other Kinds of Cause-Effect Story Structures

So far, I've talked about a story universe in which a person's deeds determine how they are rewarded in the end. (It's like that scene from The Mummy where Evelyn 'Evy' Carnahan whispers to Beni, "You know, nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance." Great line.)

But it's not always like this. We've all read and enjoyed stories where a person's deeds are completely uncoupled from their rewards. But, here, that's not the kind of world we've set out to build. We set out to build a world that is both just and fair. 

But you don't have to, you can set up any sort of cause-effect relationship you want, and they can all work, they just appeal to different sorts of audiences and require a different sort of structure. That said, in North America at least, you probably won't have as large an audience for those kinds of stories. 

Oh, and one more thing. If you want to see Dwight V. Swain's principles at work, read The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It's one of my favorite urban fantasy series and each book is better than the one before--and that's saying something. Highly recommended, not just for what you'll learn from them regarding technique but also for the pure pleasure of it.

This post is itself a kind of foreshadowing. This post, suitably tweaked and transformed, will appear as a chapter in my upcoming, as yet unnamed, book on the craft of writing.

by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, October 9

On The Art Of Creating Believable Characters: No Mr. Nice Guy

On The Art Of Creating Believable Chacaracters: No Mr. Nice Guy

I love my characters. This is what you'd expect. After all, I've created them, they have (in some way I don't begin to understand) been formed from the very stuff of who I am.

So perhaps it's not surprising I find it agonizingly difficult to put my protagonist in harms way, to tempt her, to see her stumble and fall all in the service of creating conflict. I'm not talking about physical, external, obstacles/conflict like the kind Jason Bourne or Indiana Jones might encounter--blocked lanes, men with guns, exploding cars. These type of obstacles are important--they batter the character, test their courage, their mettle--but the real grist of character development occurs when internal obstacles, internal conflicts, enter the mix.

You don't--I don't--want my lead character (who, since I write in the first person I can't help but think of, at least a little bit, as me) to betray what they believe, to make a wrong choice, to fail or do something she'll regret. And yet these are the events which create tension and drive a story forward.

Internal conflicts set up an impossible choice for our characters. These aren't win-win situations. Just the opposite.

Janice Hardy has written an excellent article on ways to force your characters to do things neither of you want them to do ("Forcing the Issue: Adding Conflict to Your Scenes"). Here are five questions you can ask yourself as an author that will help you grow horns (and perhaps a tail) so you can introduce internal conflict into your story and give your saintly protagonist a few regrets.

1) "How can I force them to go against their morals/belief system?"
Janice writes:
This plays off the inner conflicts. If they need to steal a car to save the girl, how can I make stealing that car involve a choice that would eat at them?
For instance, the car could belong to someone in the mob and "borrowing" it would mean your character would owe them a favor--if they decided not to kill her first!

2) "How can I force them to make a choice they really don't want to make?"
For instance, a triage situation. You have two people, a friend a your client. Your friend has stood by you during difficult times, you've known this person their whole life. They've become more than a friend, they've become your family. You also have aclient, someone you have pledged to protect and take care of. They are both mortally wounded but you only have enough supplies to save one of them. Which one will you choose?

Either way your protagonist chooses they will lose something of great importance.

3) "How can I force them to make a bad choice?"
Janice writes,
Mistakes are great fodder for plot. Protagonists can act, and that action causes more trouble than they were trying to prevent in the first place. This works even better if they make the wrong choice because they're try avoid violating one of their belief systems.
Let's say your character believes strongly that meat is murder. She is a hot-shot bodyguard and has taken on a job to pose as her client's date at a black tie affair. Her professional reputation is on the line: she must keep him safe no matter what. Your client has received a tip that an assassin tasked with killing him is attending the banquet.

At the gathering their obnoxious host announces, long and loudly, that the only good animal is a dead one--and preferably slow roasted with a touch of pepper. Your character is presented with a choice: eat meat and stay at the party so she can guard her client or be true to what she believes and refuse to eat meat. This, though, will get her kicked out of the party and put her client in danger.

Your protagonist remains true to her beliefs/ethics and refuses to eat meat. While standing up for what one believes is admirable it forces her to abandon her professional obligations. This leaves her client vulnerable and he is killed.

4) "How can I force them to fail?"
Your character, if you want them to be interesting, can't win all the time. They have to fail as well. But they can't just fail. The trick is to get them to fail because of an inner conflict.

I just finished reading A Discovery of Witches. In it the protagonist, Diana Bishop, fails to extract the secrets from an enchanted grimoire because she has sworn not to use her magic.

Her inner conflict is that she has a desire, a need, to be normal, to make her way in the world without her magic because she feels it was magic that was responsible for her parents' death. This failure--which may in the end turn out to have been a good thing--is the event that launches the protagonist on her journey. This is the event the story grows from and revolves around. No failure, no story.

5) "How can I force them to do something they'll regret?"
For instance, take the situation in (2), the triage example. Let's say that, at her friend's urging, the protagonist let her friend die and saved the client.

But perhaps the friend wasn't just a friend, perhaps he was her business partner. Perhaps he had a wife and children.

Now your protagonist is faced with running the business all by herself. On top of that her partner's widow hates her. Still, she doesn't shirk her obligations and takes on the financial responsibility of of helping support her late friend's widow and children.

You can see how the protagonist could regret the choice she had made for the rest of the novel.

Janice concludes:
It's easy to throw more "stuff" in the way of your protagonist, but also look at your scenes and see what mental obstacles you can toss into their path. Not only can that help deepen your plot, but deepen your characterization and themes as well.
Agreed! I would encourage you all to read Janice's article in its entirety: Forcing the Issue: Adding Conflict to Your Scenes.

Do you suffer from NWS (Nice Writer Syndrome)? Take Janice Hardy's test: Do You Suffer From NWS?: Living With Nice Writer Syndrome.

How do you produce inner conflict in your characters? Do you have any hints or tips you'd like to share? :)

Other articles you might enjoy:
- Jim Butcher On Writing
- What Is A Writer's Platform?
- Perfection Is The Death Of Creativity

Photo credit: Rafael Peñaloza