Showing posts with label am writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label am writing. Show all posts

Thursday, March 25

How to Write a Genre Story: A Character's Dominant Attitude



I’ve already gone over Swain’s idea of a character’s dominant impression, now let’s talk about their dominant attitude.

A character’s attitude

“Attitude is a matter of behavior patterns—a character’s habitual way of reacting to a particular kind of situation. Mary Poppins’s eternal cheeriness reflects an attitude, and so does Rambo’s macho stance.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain) 

Other examples of attitudes: sanctimony, ingrained suspicion, anxiety, discontent, and so on.

Like flesh and blood people, a character has more than one attitude. For example, a character can be both cheerful (like Mary Poppins) and sanctimonious, though at any one time one attitude will be stronger than the other. Overall, though, the character will have one attitude, aptly named the ‘dominant attitude’ that defines the character more than any other. I’ll go over a character's dominant attitude in a moment, but before I do let’s look at some examples.

Examples

I was at a party the other day and fell into conversation with someone I knew slightly. This wasn't the first time we'd met, but it was the first time we had a chance to exchange more than awkward pleasantries.

After a minute or so my impression of him was fixed: he was not a person who suffered fools gladly. It was an observation that didn't set me at ease since I was keenly aware that what constitutes a fool in someone's mind can be distressingly relative. Anyway, if he was a character I was writing, that would be his dominant attitude.

Keep in mind that our characters are pseudo-people and so tend to have less subtlety than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. For example, if a character's primary attitude is fearfulness, then that trait, that quality, will find a way to insinuate itself into everything that character does. 

Example 1: Mr. Midgley

If a character--Mr. Midgley--is, say, irascible then he might snap at other characters over minor slights or inconveniences. As a response to this, other characters might gossip about him. This character’s house would be the one school children are gently but firmly steered away from on Halloween. 

An irascible character can be kind or considerate, but there would have to be a reason. It would require an explanation. For example, perhaps one of the neighborhood children--Sarah--reminds him of his estranged daughter and so he has a soft spot for the child. He's sentimental. It's his daughter’s birthday so he bakes his daughter's favorite cookies--chocolate chip with extra chips. Then he sees Sarah creep hesitantly, fearfully, onto his back lawn to retrieve a baseball that has landed in his flowerbed. Something about the sight makes it hard for him to swallow and he wipes his eyes with a tissue. Rather than bawl her out for trespassing he goes out and gives the child a cookie. An unlikely friendship is forged.

Example 2: Monica Geller from Friends

Here's another example, this time from the TV show Friends. I would say that Monica Geller's primary attitude was obsessive compulsiveness when it came to cleaning. Informally, we would call her a neat freak. Everything had to be just so or she'd clean and scrub and rearrange until it was. Monica didn't need a reason to clean, no explanation was required. If she didn't clean up a mess, THAT would require an explanation.

Example 3: Mr. Monk

One last example: Mr. Monk from the TV show Monk. I would say that Mr. Monk's primary attitude was fearfulness. 

Mr. Monk was obsessive compulsive and he had an uncanny knack to remember even the most minute, irrelevant detail about his environment. He was also scared of just about everything. Even milk. Milk! One reason that show was a success was that, in practically every scene, the screenwriters demonstrated Monk's primary characteristic--fearfulness--and tied everything else to it. Then, at the end of nearly every show, the writers had Monk do something that for him was courageous. He had goals he was driven to attain--becoming a detective again, figuring out who killed his wife, protecting a friend--and was temporarily able to overcome his many fears. So, really, the most terrified man in the world was courageous.

Once you've picked a character's dominant attitude it should be reflected in some way in nearly every scene.

The Dominant Attitude

Dwight V. Swain writes, “...you’ll need to become aware of the special areas of mind and thought that your story brings into focus.

“You can do worse than to term this collective pattern your character’s dominant attitude.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

“Thus, in a romance, Female Lead’s dominant attitude very well may center on the way she sees—and, in action, reacts to and behaves towards—men. Are they dominating bullies, like her boss? Frail reeds, in the manner of her hopeless, helpless uncle? Eternal womanizers...? [Are they] [s]hadow images of her boastful, bragging brother?…. Stalwart partners for a lifetime of warmth and peace? (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

In a science fiction story the dominant attitude of the protagonist might be one of ingrained suspicion. In keeping with this attitude he might believe that the human race is doomed to extinction at the hands of an alien race. He feels/thinks that, because of the aliens’ technological superiority, that our only hope is to ‘acquire’ their technology before they have the opportunity to crush us.

In a suspense novel, perhaps the protagonist’s dominant attitude is one of distrust. He looks at his fellow humans either as perpetrators--those who take advantage of others--or victims--those who are taken advantage of by others. Because of this belief he becomes withdrawn, leaves society and goes to live all by himself in the hills.

In a mainstream novel, the protagonist might have the dominant attitude of cheerfulness, she believes that there is good in everyone, even the most hardened murderer. Because of this belief she becomes a psychologist and opens a rehabilitation center for hardened criminals.

So you see the pattern. A character has an attitude which, in conjunction with a belief, contributes to the character having a goal. The conjunction of the attitude with the belief might even suggest a way of achieving the goal. 

Attitudes and beliefs

Above, I’ve mentioned a belief. 

I haven’t written much about what this belief is, where it enters into things. It seems as though the belief encompasses that character's view of what the best way to live one’s life is. Perhaps the character’s attitude stems from this belief, or perhaps the belief is a result of their attitude. Who knows!

In my last example the belief (or worldview) the protagonist had was that, "Good is in everyone," and the course of action she took based on that view was to get a degree in psychology and open a rehabilitation center.

Dominant Attitude and Theme

At some point I would like to write a blog post about a story’s theme, what it is and its importance to making a story riveting. It seems to me that a character’s dominant attitude would tie them into the theme of the story, or--to put it another way--set the theme of the story. I need to think about that some more. 

That’s it! As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. 😀

Good writing. I’ll talk to you on Monday.

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
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Monday, March 8

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: Homo Fictus

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: Homo Fictus


Characters--Homo Fictus--are the raw material from which stories are created, but who are these entities who populate our stories and how do they differ from flesh-and-blood people?

Homo Fictus

Characters can be viewed as a pseudo-species of humans that differ from their flesh-and-blood counterparts in at least three respects.

1. Characters are fathomable, understandable. Humans aren't.

I'm not suggesting that great characters, outstanding characters, don't have contradictory desires or goals. All the best characters do.

One of the most interesting characters I've come across is Walter White from Breaking Bad. What are his two main drives? To take care of his family and to make is mark on the world. He wants to unleash his intellect and, no matter the consequence, show the world what he can do. 

These two desires--to provide for his family and to be remembered--often come into conflict and drive the story forward. And we easily understand this clash of motivations.

Humans, though, can be truly unfathomable. We want one thing one minute and then the opposite the next. I’ve gone into an ice cream shop with a friend convinced that regardless of what my friend wanted I was not going to buy an ice cream cone...and walked out with an ice cream cone.

Humans can be flaky, their goals can and do change on a whim and they make bad decisions in silly ways that aren't interesting. 

How well do you know your friends and neighbours? If you think you know them pretty well, think about how many times you've heard the neighbors of a serial killer say, "He seemed like such a nice man."

The key point here is not that characters shouldn't have contradictory drives or desires--they should!--it is that readers must be able to understand them. As a story progresses we need to see more of a character’s layers. Although I may revise my initial judgement about a character, by the end of the story I must feel that I understand her. Not necessarily approve or condone, but understand. I must be satisfied that the kind of choices a character made were a result of the kind of person she was.

For a character to be interesting and memorable she must be fathomable. If she isn't, the reader will become bored, turn away from the story and find something more engaging to do.

2. Characters are exceptional; most humans aren't.

Granted, not all characters are exceptional, but every character I've fallen in love with, every character that has lingered with me after the page on which they were introduced, has been. 

To understand the importance of this let's look at what Dwight V. Swain calls a trait, or a tag of attitude (for more about this read Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer). A tag of attitude is a behavioural quirk or disposition. He writes:

"The key thing to remember about tags is that their primary purpose is to distinguish . . . to separate one character from another in your reader’s eyes."

For example, on the show Monk, the lead--Mr. Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub--is a former police detective with an obsessive-compulsive disorder whose main goals in life are to find his wife's killer and to get back on the police force. As a character, Mr. Monk is mostly unexceptional. His wardrobe is bland, his culinary tastes are bland, and his personality is bland. 

So, why did so many people--myself included--love the show? Mr. Monk is exceptional in two ways: he is fanatical about cleanliness (as well as orderliness) and he is the best detective in the world. His core skill (or trait/tag of attitude) is that he notices absolutely everything in his environment regardless of whether it's important, something that is both (and this is Mr. Monk’s catchphrase) a gift and a curse.

3. Humans are infinitely complex, characters aren't.

Fictional human beings are simpler and more goal-oriented than ordinary flesh-and-blood people. As E.M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel:

"But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are im­perfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy be­ing one of the conditions of life upon this globe."

I used to have a gal pal I went to go see movies with, I'll call her Rachel. In general, we had the same taste in movies. After awhile we got to know each other well. I could tell which parts of a movie she'd find funny, which parts she'd roll her eyes at, which parts would make her cry, and so on. 

But she continually surprised me. Occasionally, she wouldn't laugh at something I thought she'd think was hilarious or she thought the hero who sacrificed it all for his true love was an idiot, or...well, you get the idea. No matter how well I think I know someone they can surprise me. But this isn't true of a character. 

If a character surprises us--for instance when I learnt Keyser Söze's true identity at the end of the movie The Usual Suspects--I looked back through the movie and realized that I'd missed, or misunderstood, quite a few things. The ending made perfect sense. If it hadn't then it wouldn't have been a good ending. In real life, though, endings often don't make a great deal of sense but, hey, that's why we tell ourselves stories! ;)

-- --

Humans are complex. We do unexpected things with unsatisfying results in ways that make little or no sense. That's boring. Or maddening. Often both. Compared to humans, our characters are blessedly simple. They have fewer desires, fewer goals, and the needs they have are more exaggerated and more intense than yours or mine. 

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:

Thursday, February 11

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)



In the last few posts I’ve discussed a story’s setting. Today I want to discuss a story’s setting and how it changes in the context of the hero's journey.

Setting Reflects Changes

The setting of a story changes as the story progresses. Often, the setting for each scene mirrors the hero’s arc. (If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of the hero’s journey, I’ve written about it here.) 

Just in case all that is clear as mud, let me give you a few examples of what I mean.

Setting Reflects Story

Dichotomies: Tagging the hero and villain

In the movie, The Matrix, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are dressed in black while their opposition wears business suits. 

Here the opposites are agents of order versus agents of chaos. The agents of order (and, yes, they were actually called Agents!) are dressed in business suits and are part of an irredeemably corrupt system.

The agents of chaos, the ones wearing black, are trying to tear down that corrupt system. It was clever to subvert the audience’s expectations and have the good guys wear black. This nicely illustrates that aspects of a setting, such as the clothing/uniform each side wears, helps with characterization. Or, at least it can. 

On the topic of business suits, in The Matrix the enemy was an outside force but often the enemy is closer to home, sometimes it even wears a seemingly friendly face. In the movie, The Firm, Mitch McDeer’s opposition was the people he worked beside everyday and they all looked alike. They wore the same thing, they had the same kind of house, the same kind of car (expensive!). They were “one happy family”™. The sameness was part of what made the opposing force so insidious and scary.

Setting Reflects The Protagonist's Need

In general, at the beginning of a story the protagonist has a weakness, a need. For instance, take Susan. She has a weakness that prevents her from realizing her full potential, something that prevents her from living a life that is as meaningful as it could be. In order for Susan to meet this need, she must change. But this is mixed news for Susan because there is no change without destruction, without sacrifice, and that brings turmoil, pain, and possibly death.

The storyteller’s goal is to construct a suitable crucible for heroes-to-be like Susan, one that will challenge her and, ultimately, singe off the bits that have to go to make room for new and improved bits.

The Hero’s Desire

A story world should explain the hero's desire for their goal. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere's desire is to never, ever, be poor again and his specific goal is to make partner in a wealthy law firm. At the beginning of the film he’s poor and working as a waiter while still receiving top grades from one of the best law schools in the world, Harvard Law School. That nicely illustrates Mitch’s ambition and intellect. 

Here’s another example. (I know I used this example too much!) Luke Skywalker was a skilled pilot but, while his uncle kept promising he could leave the family’s moisture farm and attend the academy, something always came up to prevent it. A droid would break down, the crop wouldn’t be as big as expected, and so on. This meant they couldn’t afford to hire someone to replace Luke, so he felt obliged to stay.

Another thing. I see Luke’s landspeeder as a representation of this conflict between Luke and his family. It reminds us of Luke’s desire to become a pilot as well as the sacrifices he has to make. (That, and landspeeders are just plain cool!)

The Opposing Force

A story wouldn't be much fun if the protagonist wanted something then, without further ado, got it. They must be opposed. This is the job of the antagonistic force that opposes the protagonist in their attempt to attain their goal. 

There is a symmetry between the hero and villain. Whatever the hero’s specific goal is, it needs to be something that both the villain and he want, but which at most one of them can achieve. Both can fail but both can never win

The Hero Confronts Death

At some point the hero will suffer a devastating setback. It will seem to him that his quest is over. It is at this point that the hero often has an epiphany, a revelation. 

How could the story world reflect this, both the danger and the epiphany? 

This is going to sound obvious because it is obvious… I could say ‘dead obvious’ but I think that would be going too far! ;) Anyway. Often the hero confronts death in a setting that brings death to mind. So, how do we do that? What makes us fear? Well, the dark. So caves, dungeons, crypts, pits--sometimes even one’s bedroom at the witching hour! What was that noise? Footsteps? But no one’s home! 

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke and his allies are nearly crushed in a trash compactor. Countless movies have the hero visit a creepy old house, or abandoned insane asylum. Perhaps the hero is lured into a cellar, or a dark and musty basement (the Paranormal Activity movies), and then is brought close--even symbolically--to death. (Also, sometimes at this point one of the hero’s allies dies. In a mystery this will often give the hero/sleuth a valuable clue.)

That said, the hero could confront their mortality anywhere; for example, in a law office or as the hero runs through a crowded city. There are no hard and fast rules. The only thing you can take to the bank is that if you don’t write anything you’ll never have a story! So write!

-- --

I think that’s a good place to stop for today. I’ve only blogged half my chapter, so I’ll try and get the second half up tomorrow. In the meantime, 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:

Sunday, February 7

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)


This post is a continuation of yesterday's post BUT in what follows I don't talk about horror stories. Alas. Horror stories are very fun to talk about--or even to write about. Here I go on about the various wonderful ways in which your setting can affect your story.

2. Setting And Character

I've already written about the importance of the social environment of the story for character development (see the links at the end of this article), and given that we are social critters, it’s obvious that it would be significant, but I want to step back for a minute and ask what will at first seem like a silly question: Why? 

Why is it the case that the social environment is so important for character development? It is the social environment, the society, that sets the rules for what counts as acceptable conduct. The society sets up the specific expectations for your character, how they should act, who they should love, what profession they should study, and so on. The social environment sets up what the society thinks the character’s goals should be, it sets up the default value structure. 

(And this is one reason that the first five or ten percent of a story is so important, because you’re setting up these background conditions, conditions that everything else in your story will contrast against.)

Of course your character will depart in various ways from what is expected of them, and that’s good. That creates conflict. However, everything depends upon making it clear what values your hero is departing from.

Shared Customs

As Dwight V. Swain says in his excellent book, Creating Characters: How To Build Story People, shared customs (customs such as which clothes are acceptable for which occasions) and appropriate behaviors (for example, how to behave in a church as opposed to a temple as opposed to a mosque as opposed to a synagog as opposed to...) are just the sort of things that breathe life into, and that differentiate, characters.

When developing a character I ask myself what social rules and practises, what rituals and traditions, this character follows.

Another thing I try to pay attention to when creating a character is the distinction between knowing a social custom and following it. Perhaps a character knows that Custom A is mandatory, but do they follow it? Perhaps they follow it in public but not in private. Perhaps if they are given an opportunity to depart from the norm, they will. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, that says something about them.

3. Setting And The Senses

In the classic movie Die Hard, the initial setting was a Christmas Party, in Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the initial settings was a long abandoned ancient temple. The particular setting of your story is essential to bringing the world to life. How do things come to life for us? What makes us pay particular attention to something? 

In a word, vividness. 

Everything, of course, comes to us through our senses--smell, taste, sight, touch or hearing--and then is stitched together, somehow, to create our own personal version of this wonderful world in which we live. For us to pay attention to one particular thing, for it to be memorable, it must stand out from the rest.

As Dwight V. Swain writes in Creating Characters, our world is made of hot, sticky, ashvalut and looming, grey skyscrapers, barking dogs and purring cats with bottomless copper eyes; it's made of cheese so pungent it will make your eyes water, and hot bitter coffee, fresh squeezed apple juice, and hot sticky cinnamon buns. It's made of the comforting weight of linen and the harsh blare of car horns. 

Sensory impressions bring a story to life, immersing readers in the story world, wrapping it around them, drawing them ever deeper into the fantasy you're weaving. Swain writes that "the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted" are how we spin a world into being. So, what is the takeaway? Make your images vivid.

4. Setting and Conflict

Conflict isn’t everything, but if you don’t have conflict you don’t have a story. 

Conflit is what results when a character's efforts to attain a goal are opposed or frustrated. What sorts of things oppose a character's efforts to attain their goal? Quite a few. Another character, sure. Often it is that character themselves! But many times what opposes a character's efforts to attain their goal is the setting itself. 

For instance, perhaps your protagonist, Hank, is a teenager and his goal is to win the prestigious Sunnyside Surfing Competition but he can't win unless he trains. That’s a problem because Hank's family recently moved from the sunny, sandy beaches of Sunnyside California to the snowy confines of Montreal Canada and it's the middle of December. That means Hank can’t surf, so he can’t train for the competition. So he’s not going to win. Here just a change of setting sets up a problem, an obstacle to the protagonist reaching his goal.

Increasing Conflict

Have you ever watched the television show, Monk? The screenwriters were fabulous at using setting to introduce conflict. Here’s the description of the show from IMDB:

“The series follows Adrian Monk, a brilliant former San Francisco detective, who now consults the police as a private consultant who battles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

For example, in Mr. Monk and the Psychic (season 1, episode 3) Monk is introduced to the police commissioner, someone he needs to impress since he wants to get back on the police force.

Monk wants to convince the commissioner that he has his OCD under control. But, Monk is Monk. He is unique. In one scene the commissioner has a few crumbs on his jacket. That’s the setting. Monk is compulsive about cleaning and really wants to brush the crumbs off the commissioner's jacket but he knows that would seem odd to the commissioner and if he seems odd then he won’t get his job back.

What does Monk do? Does he sacrifice his chance to get back on the police force so that he can brush the crumbs of the commissioner’s jacket? Of course he does! And what happens because of this? Conflict.

Here's another example, one you've probably seen countless times in movies and on TV. Two characters are sitting at a table. Perhaps it is a job interview or perhaps it is a first date. The general idea is that it is a situation in which one of them is trying to impress the other. Then a server walks by, stumbles, and spills scalding coffee into the character’s lap who most wants to impress the other. 

How will they react? Will they jump up and yell at the server? Will they be gracious and downplay the incident? Will they turn the incident into a joke and make the other character laugh? How that character handles this situation, this conflict, will help reveal what kind of a person they are.

These are just a few of the ways in which the setting can be used to introduce or increase conflict. The way I think of it, characters are not created to populate a world, a world is created to, as John Truby wrote in The Anatomy of Story, "express and manifest your characters, especially your hero."

And that’s it for today! Thanks for reading, good writing, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

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 6

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)


(FYI, this post is part of my How to Write a Genre Story series. By rights I should have titled it How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Mood (Part 2), but I couldn't resist the more evocative title: "How to scare the pants off someone!" There are links, below, to other articles in this series, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand what follows.)

Setting does many things in a story. 

First, it helps establish the mood. Do you want your reader to be horrified (horror/thriller)? Do you want your reader to be curious (mystery)? Do you want your reader to be excited to explore a society dramatically different from their own (fantasy)? And so on.

Second, the setting brings the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. 

Finally, the setting of a story is used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Today I'm going to chat about the first of these, setting and mood. I'll address the second and third points in the very near future.

1. Setting And Mood

Mood draws the reader into a story. Since one of the reasons to tell a story would be to produce a particular emotion in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is crucial.

An Example

How can setting affect mood? 

I think the best way to illustrate this is by talking about horror, both the mood and the genre. So let's say that you’re writing a horror story. Naturally, you want to horrify your readers.

It is so obvious I hate to say it (well, type it), but a person isn't going to be horrified if they aren't afraid. What has to happen for a person to be afraid? They need to perceive a threat and feel vulnerable to that threat. 

For example, imagine that you're walking down your front path to get your mail from the cute letterbox your kids got you for Christmas. You hear a noise, perhaps a footstep, to your right. Out of the corner of your eye you see something pink and frilly. "Oh that's Mrs. Jones," you think. Mrs. Jones is your relentlessly friendly nextdoor neighbour who walks around in a poofy pink dressing gown. You turn to wave but then you see that Mrs. Jones has turned into a shambling, half decayed zombie. And she's heading right for you!

Perhaps you're made of sterner stuff than me, but I would be horrified! I would promptly forget all about getting the mail and, fearing for my life, run inside. Why? Because (of course!) I would be afraid of being turned into the thing my grey haired, slipper-wearing, absent-minded next door neighbour had become. 

I think that fear is, fundamentally, an acknowledgement of, or recognition of, my vulnerability in the face of imminent danger. 

Here is a partial list of what I think evokes a feeling of horror:

- Recognition of the imminence of my death or the deaths of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of my pain or the pain of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown (or unknown unknowns).
- Recognition of the imminence of my disfigurement or the disfigurement of my family/friends. (Think of slasher films like Saw.)
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment or the imminence of destructive revelation.

Now ask yourself: What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? What would its characteristics be? 

I had intended this post to be about how to evoke more moods than just horror, but here are a few things that I think would contribute to evoking that particular mood.

4 Things that Evoke Horror

The Dark

The dark hides things, it makes the familiar alien, it contains unknown unknowns. Chaotic things lurk out there beyond the light of the bonfire.

I know that observation isn’t original, but the dark is used in (I’m rifling through my memories) every single horror story for a reason.

Isolation

When the hero confronts the Big Bad they can’t receive any help, they have to confront the antagonist all by their lonesome. If the hero is to win and escape the horror, they will have to do it relying on their own wits and strength. This is especially true in the case of a horror story. 

The hero, or the hero and his allies, usually travel to someplace remote and unusual. Someplace they haven't been to before. (And then of course there's a story a local tells them that scares the pants off them but which they discount, and so on.) At the end, the hero's allies have met an unpleasant death but she is still there and now she's really ticked off and has a plan. But all of this is facilitated by the isolated nature of the setting. Otherwise she'd just use her cell phone to call someone for help!

Monsters

The monsters that scare me the most are normal things that have been twisted. I haven't been the same since I read Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary! 

Here's an example of how twisting a familiar setting can create horror. The story is called Bad Dreams and was published anonymously on Dramatica.com but, before you head off there, know that the site is NOT work safe. That's putting it mildly. But this story is fine, it is one hundred percent PG.

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness--it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.

Great story, right?!

The setting used here is familiar. Intimate. Isolated. The protagonist is in his bedroom with his wife and child. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour? Would the story have the same impact if the exchange took place while the protagonist was preparing to drive to work? I don't think so.

I think that the closeness, the intimacy, of the threat contributes to the isolation. If the wife was in the kitchen or even just out in the hall the situation wouldn't feel so intense and creepy. It's the intimacy of the threat (your wife is lying right behind you) that adds to the feeling of isolation. For example, I'm in a crowd then someone sticks the muzzle of a gun in my back and tells me, "Don't scream, don't talk, just walk." I'm instantly isolated because I can't call for help.

Surprise, Disorientation & Isolation

I've already talked about some of these things, but I need an excuse to trot out one of my favorite horror scenes. This scene--well, I suppose it is more like a series of scenes--occurs toward the end of one of the best horror movies ever made, Alien. (Yes, okay, that's my personal opinion. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.)

Toward the end of Alien, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) makes her way to the shuttle, she runs down twisting hallways expecting danger at every turn. For me, that was the most suspenseful part of the movie. 

The dark--both of the spaceship and the surrounding, suffocating, emptiness of space--isolates the hero from any possible aid and disorients her, magnifying her fear--which, mysteriously, has become your fear even though you're perfectly safe and sitting snugly on your couch chowing down on buttered popcorn. Or, no, wait! that was me. ;)

Well, that's it for today. If you'd like to chat or ask a question or tell me I'm wrong, leave a comment. Until then, good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

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:

Wednesday, February 3

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

There are many stories that don't fit the hero’s journey. For example, the movies Psycho and The Princess Bride. And that's great! There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. 

I mention this to emphasize that what I am going to talk about is only one way of doing things. If it doesn’t work for you, or you have developed your own way, great! However, if you are looking for an example of how things could be done, this is one possible way.

Narrative Setting

Narrative setting is the setting where the events of the story take place. 

The story world includes, among other things, the physical environments your characters will encounter as well as the groups they interact with. You can create these environs from your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

Conjuring a story world from nothing but the materials of your imagination may save long hours of research, but keep in mind that the story world (unlike the real one!) needs to be consistent. A happy medium between these two is to set the tale in a fictional world but to use the actual world as a starting point. By changing aspects of the actual world one can often produce a setting that is both unique and plausible.

Social Setting

However you go about crafting your story world, the most time-consuming, intricate and important aspect of a character's environment is their social environment.

What are the rules of your world's societies, rules both written and unwritten? What sorts of pair bonds are sanctioned? What are their norms, their unwritten rules? Are certain practices, certain actions, sanctioned but discouraged? 

Getting finer grained, what kinds of groups, or sub-groups, does the society contain? By this I mean any kind of group: political, recreational, medical, artificial, criminal, natural, sanctioned and unsanctioned. And if you see fit to give your world something like the internet, don't forget online groups!

The most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, our coworkers, our distant relatives, our facebook friends. Of course, your protagonist need not be sociable! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

Above all, think about ways to introduce opportunities for conflict when creating a story world.

The Elements of Setting: Time

What time of year is it in the story? Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons? How much time passes in your story? Hours? Days? Months? Years?

Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps for flashbacks to convey the story? 

The Elements of Setting: Place

Where does your story take place? What is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? Does the story take place in a town? A city? A tropical jungle? A rainforest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?

Is there water nearby? A pond? A sea? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? For example, could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances

What social groups is your character involved in? Are they religious? Spiritual? Politically involved? Do they have a large family? Small family? No family? If they're a loner, do they have a network of friends online? What kind of social groups is your character a part of at work? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Are they the first one at the water cooler in the morning, gossiping, or do they keep to themselves? Do they get along with their boss? 

What are the signs of group inclusion? Do your characters have an accent? Do they wear a uniform, or some sort of special clothing? Do they have markings that identify them as part of a particular group?

Do different groups, different societies or cultural groups, have different accents? Different ways of speaking?

How do these marks of social inclusion, these accents and languages, differ from those which existed a century ago? A millennium ago? Also, what will these groups, these societies, be like a century--or a millennium--from now?

Setting & Scenes

Let’s talk about setting as it relates to each scene.

I've touched on some of this information above, but let's get specific. Stories are made up of scenes and scenes occur at a place and a time. 

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends. Also know what time of day it is. Is it morning or high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? You don’t have to--you likely shouldn’t!--put all this information in the scene, but it helps to know.

What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it invoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child. (This introduces conflict: the character would like to sleep but the nightmare, and now the memories invoked by it, trap them in the waking world.)

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?

If the scene takes place outdoors what's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds turning day into twilight? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes making the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Does the unbearable heat of the sun bake everything to a brittle hardness? Are the characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by distance and the unbearable, bitter cold? What associations might they have to snow? How about rain? 

While an adult might hate to wake up to a winter wonderland, a child would likely be overjoyed--especially if it means a snow day!

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. 

Wherever your characters are, were they invited here? Are they comfortable here? Does this place make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

A room could be lavish and yet make a character uneasy because, while they have always desired it, they are unused to such luxury. Another character, one equally uncomfortable in such surroundings, might feel the urge to destroy it. Setting can be used to develop character. Before we examine that, though, let's briefly look at the importance of being able to use setting to generate conflict.

Conflict

I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. One thing all stories must have, whatever the story world is like, is conflict. Political parties contend with each other. Countries go to war. Social groups hold diametrically opposed yet strongly held views about what constitutes appropriate conduct.

What do your characters believe? Where in this ever shifting maze of interconnectedness do they fit? What groups do they belong to? What do they believe about the world? Which social practices and which social institutions do they embrace? How do these preferences generate conflict both within and between characters?

It is one thing for a character to understand what sort of behavior a particular society expects from its members, and quite another whether, and to what extent, they will go along with it.

Writing Challenge

Select one of your favorite books and try to answer the following questions: 

- What is the setting for the story?
- Does the world have seasons? If so, during what season, or seasons, does the story take place?
- How much time elapses during the story?
- What is the geography of the story world like?
- How many distinct social groups exist and what characteristics distinguish one from another?
- Which aspects of the setting created the most conflict and how was it generated? 

A Thought Experiment

Imagine two societies are remarkably similar but one--Society A--helped defend the surrounding region against an enemy while the other--Society B--did nothing. As a result, many citizens in Society A despise Society B. It's winter, food is scarce, and a fire has ripped through Society B destroying its food reserves. Many in Society B accuse Society A of setting the fire. One thing is certain, unless Society B gets food many of its citizens will starve to death. What will Society B do? Attack the city that defended it? What will Society A do? Share it's food reserves with the city that not only didn't help defend against the enemy but that now accuses them of sabotage?

Given this setting, who would be your protagonist? I think I would choose a child from Society B who discovers evidence that their food reserves were destroyed by the enemy they thought Society A had defeated. But will he be believed?

Okay, that’s it! This was a bit of a grab bag of ideas. I hope you got something from it. I’ll talk to you again soon. In the meantime, 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:

Thursday, January 28

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict

How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict


How to Generate Conflict

Conflict results from the clash of two things: a character's goal and the opposition to that goal. It follows that every scene needs two opposing forces, in genre fiction these are usually a viewpoint character who wants something desperately and a force that prevents her from getting it. 

Specific Goals

The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy a lottery ticket! 

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

Opposition to the Goal

Something must oppose the hero reaching her goal.

What characteristics should the opposing force have? First and foremost, it must have the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal. Second, it must give the opposing force the ability to evoke the hero's deepest, darkest fears.

Indiana Jones’ antagonist, his opposing force, was Belloq. He managed to keep track of Indy’s activities and rob him of whatever artifact he sought. Also, when Belloq sealed Indy and Marion in with the Ark when they were in the Well of Souls, there were lots and lots of snakes, the creepy crawlies Indy was terrified of.

Luke Skywalker’s anatangost was his father, a sith, and his darkest fear was being seduced to the dark side of the force.

Stakes

I’ve written quite a lot about stakes in my “Good Storytelling” posts, I’ll leave links to them below. 

Anyway. Stakes. This part is easy: the hero must have something to lose and something to gain.

To create suspense, the stakes of a conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by danger. If the hero achieves his goal, how will his life change? If he loses, what difference will that make?

In The Matrix Neo would have lost the love of Trinity as well as his life if he had not achieved his goal and become The One.

In Star Wars IV, if the resistance had lost and failed to destroy the Death Star then the resistance would have been snuffed out. Of course, the resistance won, the resistance survived and went on to topple the Empire.

Ticking Clock

To build tension it helps if the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight. 

I know I’ve talked quite a bit about Star Wars IV but that was a good story. At the end Luke, and the entire resistance, are rushing against a ticking clock. The Death Star is powering up to destroy the planet that the resistance is based on. If the Death Star isn’t destroyed by then the resistance will blink out of existence.

Raise a Question

I’ve also talked about this in Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense.

When we talk about creating suspense we are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader. We generally try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters, especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs, as well as what he fears, and then we force the hero to face his darkest fears as he struggles to attain his goal. 

Because the reader has identified with the hero they feel concerned for him and this keeps them turning pages to see whether the hero will succeed.

And it's effective. I've stayed up into the wee hours of the morning more times than I'd like to admit simply because I had to know what happened. 

Well, Lee Child is a proponent of another, easier, way of creating suspense: simply raise a question. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about your characters, there is something about a question being raised that makes readers want to know the answer.

Photo Credit

FRANK IN STEIN by JD Hancock.

(BTW, I also write about this in How to write a genre story: how to create suspense.)

-- --

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
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter


Blog posts you might like:

Tuesday, June 6

How to Write a Book, Part Two

How to Write a Book, Part Two


This article is part two of How to Write a Book.

2. Figure out how many words you can write a day.


As you write your Zero Draft you’ll also get an idea for how many words you can write in a day. You want to shoot for a SUSTAINABLE amount. Writing a book isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

NaNoWriMo is wonderful practice for writing everyday. It doesn’t matter if you can write 50,000 words a month, but trying helps you get in touch with your inner writer and figure out your average word output.

If you can’t write every day, that’s fine! Perhaps you have an insane schedule conceived in the depths of hell and can only write once a week. That's okay! All you’re trying to do at this point is figure out how many words you can write over a certain time period.

3. Create a story outline.


Don’t worry if you don’t know how the story ends (the Climax) or what the middle bits are (Midpoint Crisis) or even what sets all these events in motion (the Inciting Incident). That’s what we’re going to work on now.

Take what you know about the story and:

a) Internal: build on your understanding of the story, and
b) External: shape the basic story outline so it fits the structure of your chosen genre. 

Before we think any more about (a) or (b), though, let’s talk about suspense.

3a. A note about suspense.


I’m interested in writing stories that entertain. Not everyone is! And that’s fine. But I love a rousing, suspenseful, tale. Since these kind of stories are what I love to read it’s natural that they’re also what I love to write.

Another thing: It’s MUCH more difficult to sell books that aren’t entertaining. Yes, there are folks who read and enjoy stories that do not have even the faintest smidgeon of suspense—I’ve met them!—but that’s not my audience.

When I write these posts I’m writing to those who, like me, want to craft stories that entertain.

3b. Begin at the end.


When I create an outline for a story I begin at the end.

Sounds perverse, doesn’t it?! But—especially if you’re writing something with the element of surprise—it makes sense to start with what we KNOW and then work out what needs to happen for us to get there.

For example, let’s say you know that Bob Boisterous murdered Sally Soffit with an experimental drug because Sally was going to get the promotion Bob coveted.

Means: Experimental drug
Motive: Bob wants the promotion
Opportunity: Bob says he was taping a podcast in his private studio when the murder occurred—and it seems as though he’s telling the truth.

You know Bob has to get caught which means he has to make a mistake. Let’s say Bob put the poison in Sally’s coffee. When she tasted the coffee she cringed and said, “Someone put sugar in this,” but drank it anyway because she was caffeine deprived and in a hurry.

The killer didn’t know Sally would tell anyone her coffee was too sweet or that the person she told would remember it. When the dregs of Sally’s coffee is analyzed it seems to only contain coffee because the killer switched the cups.

Our detective thinks Bob’s behavior is fishy. Bob hated Sally (and vice versa) and Bob’s grief seems false. If he had nothing to do with her death, the detective feels he wouldn’t be as intent on hiding his true feelings.

Also, the victim’s comment about the sweetness of the coffee (Sally NEVER used sugar) is enough to make our intrepid detective suspicious. Further, the detective knows of a poison that would act on the victim in a way consistent with what the coroner told him about the body.

The murderer was counting on the death being put down to natural causes—the victim had a heart condition and the effects of the poison looked like cardiac failure.

You get the idea. Everything is much easier once you know where you’re going. Because of this you can save a LOT of time.

3c. Complete your outline.


At this point you don’t have to know every last little thing about the plot but try to have something down for the main points. Keep in mind that your outline isn’t written in stone! It can and will change as you write.

Even if your outline has gaps it helps to have the bones of the story written down. You’ll be able to see which parts are missing. A well-defined, concrete, problem is much easier to solve than a nebulous ill-defined one.

ACT ONE (25%)
(This is the Ordinary World. Describe it as you introduce your characters IN ACTION. Give them an initial problem to solve, setbacks, etc.)
Inciting Incident: What is the Inciting Incident?
Call to Adventure: What draws the protagonist into the quest?
Journey to the Special World: What mini-quest takes the protagonist from the Ordinary World into the Special World of the Adventure?

ACT TWO (26 to 75%)
(Introduce the Special World of the Adventure. It should be starkly different from the Ordinary World, inside out and upside down.)
Trials: What challenges does the protagonist have adjusting to the Special World?
Approach the cave: What crisis compels the protagonist to confront the antagonist at the midpoint?
Midpoint: What happens at the confrontation? Does the protagonist win or lose? Do they acquire any information?
Complication: Something goes very wrong and complicates the protagonist’s quest, what happens?
More complications: Events keep going wrong. What happens?
All Hope is Lost: What happens at the All Hope is Lost point?

ACT THREE (76 to 100%)
(All subplots have been closed out or will soon be closed out. We’re concentrating on the hero’s quest, racing toward the finish line.)
Race to the Finish: How does the protagonist get his/her mojo back and get back on track?
Climax: What happens at the climax? Does the protagonist win and, if so, how?
Wrap up: What happens to the major characters?

You don’t need to answer these questions in any detail at this point. This will just give you the big points, the turning points.

Now we have an outline. Granted, this outline will vary depending on the kind of genre you’re writing for, but you’ve got the bare-bones done. High-five!

4. Decide how long you want your finished manuscript to be.


Now figure out how your story fits into, or onto, your outline. When I think of this step I think of pulling a dress (your story) over a mannequin (the outline).

I’m not going to fib, this step is a bit of a dark art. Let’s start by deciding how long we want the finished manuscript to be.

If you’re writing a fantasy you might want to shoot for 90,000 to 100,000 words or, if you’re writing a romance, you might want to keep your word count closer to 60,000 or 70,000. It’s my experience that mysteries range from anything between 60,000 to 85,000 words.

Let’s say you decide to shoot for around 80,000 words and use a three act structure.

Act 1: 20,000 words.
Inciting Incident (5%): 4,000
Call to Adventure (10%): 8,000
Journey to the Special World (20%): 16,000

Act 2: 40,000 words.
Trials (26%): 20,800
Approach the cave (40%): 32,000
Midpoint (50%): 40,000
Complication (55%): 44,000
More complications (60%): 48,000
All Hope is Lost (70%): 56,000

Act 3: 20,000 words.
Race to the Finish (76%): 60,800
Climax (90%): 72,000
Wrap up (98%): 78,400

Of course you might not want to use three acts, perhaps you’d prefer four or five or even six! All the major points (Inciting Incident, Call to Adventure, etc.) will be the same. Also, keep in mind that at the end of each act, a major event should occur which spins the hero’s journey (the through-line) in a different direction and increases the stakes.

As far as what happens in each act you’ll want to adapt it to the genre you’re writing in. For instance, here’s a five act structure for a murder mystery.

5. Write your first draft.


Congratulations! You’ve got an outline. Sure, there are gaps but you’re getting the feel for the general shape of the story, the major moments. Now let’s see what we can do about filling in the missing bits.

For example, there’s 4,000 words between the Inciting Incident and the Call to Adventure. One thing that can help get you through the gaps are scenes and sequels.

I’m putting together an example outline for Murder in Meadowmead. I’ll try to finish that up today and publish it tomorrow (Wednesday).

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!



Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending: The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, by Donald Maass. I’ve had the privilege of taking a couple of workshops from Mr. Maass. He’s terrific! If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, take it! His books are amazingly helpful. Highly recommended!

From the blurb:
While writers might disagree over showing versus telling or plotting versus pantsing, none would argue this: If you want to write strong fiction, you must make your readers feel. The reader's experience must be an emotional journey of its own, one as involving as your characters' struggles, discoveries, and triumphs are for you.

Readers can simply read a novel...or they can experience it. The Emotional Craft of Fiction shows you how to make that happen.



Friday, June 2

How to Write a Book


How to Write a Book


The question I’ve been asked more than any other is, “How can I write a book?” Here's my attempt at an answer. Please keep in mind this is just ONE WAY to write a book not the only way.

How to write a book


Neil Gaiman once said—and I’m paraphrasing—that each time he writes a book it’s a different process. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Each book is different, each book presents its own challenges and its own rewards. But if you’ve never written a book and would like to take a peek at how I TRY to do it, read on.

1. Write a Zero Draft


You’ve heard of discovery writers. A discover writer doesn’t have preconceived notions about the content or shape of their story (though they may have an idea, or a few ideas). They write by the seat of their pants, discovering where the story takes them.

(For more about what a Zero Draft is see: The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block.)

My Zero Drafts are strange amalgams of discovery writing and conscious plotting, heavy on the discovery. (If you’re curious about how I go about getting ahold of a character, see my posts Let's Make a Detective! and Let's Create a Sidekick!.)

That said, when I’m in discovery mode, I try not to consciously think too much about the structure of my story; I brainstorm.

But everyone’s different. Some folks like to dictate their ideas, their musings, into a recorder (if you don’t want to buy a voice recorder there are some decent apps—Android; Apple—that do basically the same thing).

Free writing. After you've practiced free writing for a while you'll get a feel for what works best for you. Myself, I find it works best if I put on my favorite tunes, curl up in my office chair with my writing journal and write longhand.

1a. Do not censor yourself.


Some folks refer to the Zero Draft as a ‘vomit draft.’ Gross, right? But that’s what it’s supposed to be! The Zero Draft is a safe place. Don’t censor yourself, don’t question your ideas, write them down. Remember, no one but you is EVER going to see your Zero Draft.

1b. Ideas, not words.


In a Zero Draft it isn’t the words that's important, it's the IDEAS.

After all, YOU have to discover the story before anything you write will make sense. You have to call the events of the story, as well as the characters, to life within you. If you haven't gotten ahold of the ideas how can anything you write evoke them? At least, that’s my take on it!

I find that the act of writing often works as a kind of invocation. And, ultimately, I think that’s what a zero draft is. It's an invitation to your characters to come to life and do interesting, scandalous, things in the settings, the playgrounds, you create for them.

1c. How long should your Zero Draft be?


The Zero Draft can be any length you like, regardless of how long you want your finished manuscript to be.

As I said, above, the purpose of the rough draft is to call your story into existence, to form that first connection with it. Here’s what I’ve found: 

The shorter your Zero Draft is the better. 

The Zero Draft will be a bit of a mess (after all, it is a vomit draft!) so short is good; less mess to wade through. Also, keep in mind that the Zero Draft is just a beginning. Your understanding of your characters, your understanding of your overall story, will change over time. Your names for them will change, their desires will change, their childhood peccadilloes will change, their connections to other characters will change.

Next Post: In my next post in this series I'll talk about creating a story outline. Stay tuned!



Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.




Sunday, February 12

The Structure of Character

The Structure of Character


Most of the time I focus on story structure rather than character structure.

Now, you might wonder: Is “character structure” really a thing? Do all the different elements that go into making up a fictional human have a structure?

I think they do, though it’s not as clear cut as it is with story structure. By the way, I’m not putting this forward as the way things are, I’m musing aloud. In what follows I lay out my reasoning, and I would be very interested in what you folks think! :-)

Motorboat Example


To make things easier, I’m going to refer to the following diagram in what follows:



In this figure you see three things:

- A shark
- A man driving a motorboat
- An island

When we talk about character, the following terms are often used:

- Motivation
- Goals
- Desires (internal & external)
- Flaw
- Wound

I want to try and explain what I mean by each of these terms with reference to the above diagram.

MOTIVATION: The shark is the man’s motivation for heading to the island.

DESIRE: The man’s desire sets his goal. We can’t actually see the man’s desire. In this case it’s something like, “Stay alive!”

GOAL: The island is the man’s goal. If the man reaches the island he’ll be safe from the shark.

FLAW/WOUND: Flaws come in many different varieties. The character can have a physical imperfection: a sprained leg, a scar, a physical wound, and so on. The character can also have a psychological flaw. He could be depressed or his anxiety levels could be so high he can’t think straight. Or perhaps he’s lost someone he loves. In terms of the motorboat example, if the man had a broken arm it would be more difficult to steer the boat toward the island.

Desire vs Goals


Some folks talk about internal desires and external desires—and that’s great! An example of an internal desire would be the desire to be loved. An external desire, on the other hand, would be wanting Handsome John, the crown prince of Egodia, to ask one out on a date. This way of talking about things is fine—great!—but I prefer to simply think about these things in terms of desires and goals.[1]

A desire, at least in the sense I’m using it here, has the following connotations:

  • It is about the heart rather than the head. 
  • It is personal vs impersonal.
  • It has to do with “unkickables”; that is, things you can’t take a picture of—things like the desire to be loved or to be a success.
  • It is broad vs narrow.


A goal, on the other hand, is very different:

  • It is about the head more than the heart.
  • It is impersonal vs personal.
  • It is “kickable”; tangible. That is, you could take a picture of it. This covers things like winning the lottery and climbing Mount Everest.
  • It is narrow vs broad.

The way I think of it, a goal is a specific, concrete, expression of a desire. While the desire is broad, general, even nebulous, the goal is concrete. One could take a picture of the character accomplishing it.

For example, if a character—let’s call her Jane—has the desire to be rich, there are several concrete, specific goals she COULD have:

  • Buy a lottery ticket.
  • Go to school and become a lawyer.
  • Become a day trader.
  • Rob a bank.

And so on. Jane’s personality, skills, background and environment will no doubt influence which goal Jane selects, but that GOAL will be an expression of her DESIRE to be rich.

Of course, you could think about desires differently. For example, Jane could have a specific desire (e.g., I want to get rich by becoming a day trader). That’s fine. Think of desires and goals however makes the most sense to you!

The Structure: Incompatible Desires


When I talk about the structure of character I think about how desires and goals relate to one another. Specifically, how the secret to making a lifelike character is to give her incompatible desires (which, in turn, translate into incompatible goals). In a well-structured story this will eventually force the character to prefer one desire, one goal, above another.

Perhaps the best way to communicate what I mean is to look at examples:

Example 1: Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris


I’m guessing that you’ve either read the book or seen the movie. If not, what are you waiting for!? If you’d like to read a summary of the story, head over to Wikipedia.[2]

In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling has two main desires:

Desire1: Save lives, help those who can’t help themselves.
Desire2: Gain status, be recognized and valued for accomplishments.

These desires are expressed as the following goals:

Goal1: Save the girl ([name], the senator’s daughter) Buffalo Bill has captured.
Goal2: Climb the career ladder at the FBI. (Graduate and become a full-fledged FBI agent. Be recognized and rewarded for hard work and excellence.)

Before Clarice started working for Jack Crawford her internal and external desires were in sync. She believed her superiors at the FBI were interested in saving innocents, that this concern trumped their ambition.

Another way of saying the same thing is that, in the Ordinary World of the story, Clarice’s goals were aligned. AFTER she begins working for Crawford she realizes her superiors in the FBI don’t care about saving Buffalo Bill’s victims as much as they care about politics—that is, in not ticking off the wrong people and climbing the career ladder.

When Clarice’s internal and external desires come into conflict her life becomes disharmonious. Clarice realizes she must choose, one desire must rule the other. Either she will give up her ambitions and try to save the girl or she will let go of her desire to rescue the innocent in favor of getting ahead at the FBI. Whichever way Clarice chooses it will reveal her character. In the end she does the only thing she can given who she is: she tries to save the girl.

Example 2: The Matrix


For both Neo and Trinity their goals change during the course of the movie. At first Neo is focused on finding Morpheus and figuring out what the matrix is. When he accomplishes that at the Lock-In his desires change. Neo wants to be what Morpheus wants him to be: the One. He also wants to protect the resistance—both the movement and the people within the movement, especially Trinity. So ...

Desire1: Protect and serve the resistance.
Desire2: Become the One.

Early in Act Two these desires are in harmony, but after Morpheus is captured they come apart. At this point Neo believes he has a choice: save Morpheus and die himself or sacrifice Morpheus and live on in the hope he (Neo) will become the One.

Goal1: Kill Morpheus before the agents can extract the codes from his mind and use them to quash the resistance. (Morpheus dies, Neo lives.)
Goal2: Rescue Morpheus and, in so doing, give up his own life. 

Neo wants to save the resistance—and himself—(Goal1), and he wants to save Morpheus (Goal2), but he can’t do both. So he chooses, and his choice reveals his character and sets him apart as a hero. He chooses to give up his own life so that Morpheus might live and the resistance continue.

So, what do you think? Is there a structure to the desires of a well-drawn character?



Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending something a bit different. Sometimes I use a voice recorder to start my writing off. I love writing while I walk! The voice recorder I use is the Sony ICD PX333. I’m sure there are better recorders out there, but not for $29.99! I’ve had it for years and I've dropped it, used it out in the snow, the rain, and it still works fine! If someone else would like to recommend another voice recorder, please do!



That’s it! I was a bit late with this post—there was a lot to think about! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. Till then, good writing!

Notes:


1. To me this seems like a simpler system, though I likely find it simpler simply because it clicks with me. Each of us is different and so it’s reasonable that we each need to make sense of these concepts in our own way. If my way of thinking clicks with you, great! If not, then ignore it. Do whatever makes sense to you.

2. Although the book and the movie are quite similar there are significant differences. For example, Clarice’s anger plays a much bigger part in the book as does Crawford’s scheming and behind the scenes manipulations.

3. The Oracle has told Trinity that the man she falls in love with will be the One.