Showing posts with label characterization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characterization. Show all posts

Saturday, May 20

Differences between Murder Mystery and Fantasy Stories




As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve recently read Deborah Chester’s excellent book, “The Fantasy Fiction Formula.”

Inevitably, I started to think about the differences between the fantasy genre and the murder mystery genre.

Note: I've included this material in my book: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

5 Differences between a Fantasy and a Murder Mystery


1. The Protagonist’s Goal


Murder mystery. The main (external) goal of the detective is always to identify—to unmask—the murderer. Let me repeat that: The protagonist’s main goal in each and every murder mystery regardless of subgenre is to identify the murderer.

Fantasy. The main goal of the protagonist can be just about anything. Save the kingdom, rescue the princess, find the lost gems of Icondria, destroy the One Ring, and so on.

2. The Visibility of the Antagonist


Murder mystery. In a murder mystery, although the antagonist is (usually) onstage from the very beginning, he or she is hiding. They are masked. After all, discovering the identity of the murderer is the entire point of a whodunit!

Fantasy. In a fantasy story it’s usually clear, at least in broad terms, who the antagonist is from the start of the story. For example, consider Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yes, we don’t know that Saruman has been corrupted until later on, but for the most part we know who the good characters are and who the bad characters are. On the other hand, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Voldemort is the Big Bad but Professor Quirrell is the hidden antagonist. One of the terrific things about Rowling’s novels—I think it’s one of the things that made them so popular—is the mystery element.

By the way, if you want to read more about the difference between the Big Bad and the nemesis, see: Character Types And The Five-Bad Band.

3. Conflict Characters


Which leads to yet another difference between murder mysteries and other stories: the conflict character. (For more on this see: Writing a Murder Mystery: The Conflict Character.)

As you’ll recall, the main function of the antagonist is to oppose the protagonist, oppose his or her goal, and in so doing supply continuing, escalating, conflict. Since the antagonist/murderer in a murder mystery is hidden, cloaked, disguised, we need other characters to help create this conflict.

Although all stories have characters, characters who aren’t the antagonist, who help create conflict in a murder mystery there is often ONE character who has a story-long antagonistic arc with the detective, an arc that helps complicate the main storyline and increase the conflict. This is what I think of as the conflict character.

For instance, consider Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Though Lestrade takes on a number of roles, he often acts as a conflict character. Other conflict characters are Anderson and Sgt. Sally Donovan. Even Mycroft, when he’s not being a mentor, often steps into this role. (Of course the Moriarty episodes are an exception.)

4. The Missing Mentor


In a fantasy or action-adventure the hero often starts out as a wet-behind-the-ears innocent and, through his adventures, ends as a seasoned, experienced, hero. One of the characters that helps the protagonist begin/complete his journey is the mentor. (Think Star Wars.)

In a murder mystery the protagonist’s arc IS from ignorance to knowledge—namely, ignorance of the murderer’s identity to knowledge of the murderer’s identity. And, yes, in murder mysteries there is often a character—sometimes the sidekick—who he goes to for inspiration. But, generally speaking, the mentor isn’t of the ‘wise elder’ variety. If the sidekick acts as mentor often the crucial clue—what I like to call the ‘ah-ha’ clue—is given unconsciously.

5. A Minor Arc


The detective often has a more-or-less minor problem at the beginning of the story. Perhaps he hasn’t had an interesting case for a few days. Perhaps—this often happens in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories—the detective has been having the devil of a time finding a reliable person to help her around the house.

But this arc—though it spans the entire story—is a minor one. In Deborah Chester’s terminology, it’s a plate; a question put into play (Will the detective find a case deserving of his great intellect? Will lovely Miss Marple find someone who doesn’t break her prize china on a regular basis?)

But, again, this is a minor question that doesn’t involve a great deal of growth (or any growth!) on the part of the detective.

I bring this up in part to underscore the fact that many detective’s don’t have a mentor. Rather THEY are the wise old man or woman. When inspiration is needed often their sidekick supplies it without realizing it.

In this sense the detective in a whodunit is a bit like James Bond. Though Mr. Bond might have a relatively minor lesson to learn—something along the lines of: Don’t always trust blonds with long shapely legs!—there is relatively little character growth and audiences are fine with that!

One more thing ...

Is vs Ought


So far I’ve talked about the way many murder mysteries ARE, but is this how they SHOULD be? Or, better, is this the way they MUST be? After all, the genre has changed quite a bit over the years. (The POV character used to be the sidekick, the Watson. The detective was the focal character. Today this setup strikes many writers as counterintuitive.) Perhaps our protagonists, our brilliant detectives, should go on more of a personal journey?

Well, sometimes they do! Consider the Wallander novels by Henning Mankell. These books are deep, angst ridden, and beautiful. What they are NOT are cozys! Cozy’s are LIGHT entertainment. Part of the reason they are light entertainment is that the protagonist doesn’t do a whole lot of soul searching and—unless you’re one of the unfortunate victims—not a lot of tragic things happen. That’s one reason folks (myself included) love to read a good cozy!

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Sure, you could write a murder mystery where the protagonist has an arc more like a fantasy or action-adventure but it wouldn’t be what the average reader of a cozy is expecting.

The Truth to be Uncovered


One thing is sure, there needs to be a truth the detective must WORK FOR over the course of the novel. And he needs setbacks. He needs to be tricked by the murderer once or twice.

That’s it! My next post will be about the first victim and what makes them unique. Stay tuned! Have a terrific weekend and 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, 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.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (the Hobbit / the Fellowship of the Ring / the Two Towers / The Return Of The King), by J.R.R. Tolkien.

You've likely seen this clip from Stephen Colbert's and James Franco Tolkien Showdown (Parts 1 and 2), but I thought I would include it here because it always makes me laugh. I am in awe of that man's knowledge of Tolkien lore. Actually, I'm in awe of his memory full stop!



Thursday, April 13

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction


Fan fiction, for many people, is ... a gateway drug to all other fiction writing.”
—Emma Lord

Before Amazon came out with Kindle Worlds I never seriously thought about trying my hand at writing fan fiction. This blog post was inspired by a podcast I listened to a couple of days ago: NPR 1a: Fans And Fan Fiction (I've also embedded the podcast, below). It got me wondering: can fan fiction help writers hone their skill and, if so, how?



Why write fan fiction?


We’ve all heard of fan fiction, or fanfic. Fan fiction is just what it sounds like, fiction written in an established universe which features characters and settings from that universe.

For example, the TV show Supernatural has a LOT of fans. I’m one of them, but certainly not the most hardcore. Over at fanfiction.net Supernatural has the biggest community in the TV show section. Supernatural has acknowledged their fans by making fanfic the subject for a couple of episodes (my favorites!).

But, why write fan fiction? 

4 Reasons to Write Fan Fiction


1. Personal fulfillment.


You love a particular narrative world and there are stories you’d like to read which aren’t being written.

Have you ever wanted characters to do something that you know can’t happen on the show? For example, you want to tell a story about the main character’s death or you would like two characters (possibly the protagonist and antagonist!) to begin a romantic relationship. Or perhaps the stories being spun in a particular universe are strictly PG and you want to take things in a more NC-17 direction. 

2. Change part of a story


You might love a particular story but hate the ending. For example, I’ve always LOVED Bram Stokers Dracula. If any of you haven’t read the original, please do. But I’ve never been a fan of the ending. I’ve always wanted to take Stoker’s story, put it in a modern setting, and—while  leaving the beginning more or less the same, change the ending. 

3. The series is finished


No more shows are being produced, no more books are being written. The only way you’re going to get a new story is if you write one.

4. Mashup


You want to mash two narrative worlds together. For instance, Buffy wakes up in Mordor and takes on Sauron.

The Advantages of Writing Fan Fiction


Writing fanfic has definite advantages for new writers—I wish I had written fanfic when I was a kid; I think most of my stories would have been set in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia!

Another advantage for new writers is that they don’t have to create everything—the characters, the world—from scratch. They can work with fully developed characters that work and they can draw from LOTS of examples. It’s a bit like being an apprentice writer.

That said, I don’t mean to suggest fanfic is ONLY for new writers! 

The Rhythm of Story


Just today I was listening to an interview with one of Stephen King’s children, Joe Hill (10 Minute Writer's Workshop: Workshop 18: Joe Hill). He mentioned a time when he was blocked. To push through he wrote out, longhand, great chunks of a story by one of his favorite authors. It helped him internalize those story rhythms. (Incidentally, several best selling authors have also given this very same advice; it’s what they did at the beginning of their careers.) I think fanfic can help writers in a similar way. By trying to write in the same voice (or a similar one) as a more experienced writer we can internalize the rhythms of successful storytelling.

Tags and Traits


Established characters generally have well-defined tags and traits and seasoned writers deftly weave them into character introductions and reintroductions. This, however, is one of the things it is sometimes difficult for a beginner to pick up, even though it's one of the most important. There are several TV shows that do this exceptionally well. In my opinion, one of the best shows for this is Archer (<-- NSFW). That show continually amazes me! See also: The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural

Watch or rewatch an episode of one of these shows and pay attention to how the characters are introduced, how tags and traits are used to define the characters and hook viewers, as well as how they hook into the story arc for that season. Also (and this isn’t specific to tags and traits) notice how these shows get right to the inciting incident with minimal preamble.

Where to publish fan fiction?


The legalities are beyond me but if you would like to read about this I suggest the wikipedia article on Fan Fiction.

Non-commercial


It seems as though copyright holders will not prosecute if a work of fan fiction is published on a site devoted to that purpose, for example fanfiction.net.

Commercial 


In the case of commercial fiction things are much different. Generally speaking, without some sort of prior understanding between you and the copyright holder, one cannot write in another author’s universe and get financial remuneration. But some authors do allow others to write in one of their fictional worlds AND receive compensation for their efforts.

For instance, Kindle Worlds offers writers a place to publish fan fiction inspired by popular books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games. Of course there are conditions and restrictions which you can read about here.

Tips for Writing Fan Fiction


Voice. If your goal is to write in the voice of the original author then you must get the atmosphere right. In this context Ian Sansom’s positive review of The House of Silk (a Sherlock Holmes novel) might be of interest: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.

Characterization. Even if your goal isn’t to write in the voice of the original author and even if you intend to transform the characters in some way or other, be careful to make your characterizations are consistent. Of course this applies to ALL writing but chances are your readers will already be fans of the characters and may be even more sensitive to inconsistencies. Further, if you change any of a character’s traits be careful that the characterization you settle on doesn’t ‘break’ the character.  

For example, in the 1992 retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the big screen, Lucy was depicted as more sexually inquisitive than in the book. Even so, she was recognizably Lucy. I’m not suggesting that each character has a core set of characteristics that any fan fiction must adopt—I rather doubt this—but that’s part of what makes writing a deliciously dark art. Keep in mind that IMHO no matter what you do, no matter what decisions you make in writing (as in life), there are going to be folks who vehemently disagree with you.

List of Fan Fiction Sites and Resources


Fanfiction.net. This is a huge site that serves the interests of a vibrant community. If you’re at all interested in writing fan fiction I encourage you to wander down its highways and byways.

The Writers’ Area. This is a master list of miscellaneous resources devoted to fan fiction. 

Harry Potter Fanfic Resources. There are many sites devoted to all things Harry Potter and this is by no means the only fan fiction resource for that universe but it’s a place to start. 



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 wholeheartedly recommending The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester. DC taught Jim Butcher in university and he dedicated his first book, Storm Front, to her. I’ve read DC's blog for years and love it!

From the blurb: “There's more to writing a successful fantasy story than building a unique world or inventing new magic. How exactly is a plot put together? How do you know if your idea will support an entire novel? How do you grab reader attention and keep it? How do you create dynamic, multi-dimensional characters? What is viewpoint and do you handle it differently in urban fantasy than in traditional epics? What should you do if you're lost in the middle? How do you make your plot end up where you intend it to go? / From the writing of strong, action-packed scenes to the handling of emotions, let award-winning fantasy author Deborah Chester guide you through the process of putting a book together.”



I’m curious, do you write fan fiction? If so, when did you start? Do you also write original fiction? What do you love most about writing fan fiction? Is there anything you don't like about it? I’d love it if you posted your comment for all to read but if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can also contact me directly. I’d love to hear about your experiences! 

Reference:



Friday, September 16

Creating a Three Dimensional Character

Creating a Three Dimensional Character


Three dimensional characters are interesting. Readers care about them. So the question is: What makes a character three dimensional?

Robert Mckee, in his wonderful tome, "Story," talks about how giving characters opposing qualities helps breathe life into them.

One way to make a character three dimensional is to give them diametrically conflicting characteristics. And, of course, the best way to do this is to show and not tell. Which raises the question: if a character is, say, both generous and selfish how do we show this?

Showing opposing characteristics:

1. People. Have the protagonist interact with different people. With one person they are, for example, bold and outgoing, with another they are shy and retiring.
2. Setting. Either have one character interact with two different settings, or have two characters who have opposite characteristics interact with the same environment.
3. Time. Look at a character at different times. (This is, I think, the most common way of exploring character.)

How to show opposing characteristics:

1. Using other fictional people to develop character.


In real life I wouldn't act one way to a friend and the next second act the complete opposite way. For instance, I wouldn't give a friend—or anyone!—a big bearhug and then slap their face. That behavior wouldn't even make sense.

Obviously, our characters shouldn't behave that way either. If we want to use our character's interactions with other, fictional, people to bring out diametrically opposed aspects of their personality then we craft other characters to specifically tease these characteristics out.

For instance, with one character—perhaps a character who is absent-minded (they’re always dropping things, forgetting where they left their glasses, their keys, etc.)—the protagonist is snippy and short. But with another character, perhaps one that is polished and who comes from a wealthy family, the protagonist goes to great lengths to be pleasant. This tells the reader much more than if we either just showed one side of the protagonist or told the reader the character in question was a snob.

2. Using setting to show character.


Think of a haunted house. The dark hallways, the creaking floorboards, the mysterious groans as the house settles. You turn a corner and a sticky cobweb stretches across your face and ... what’s that? Something cold and slimy presses against your cheek. You scream and fling it off you, not really wanting to know what it was, but you can’t help it, you’re curious. You look at the object lying before you. It’s long and thin, slightly curved and covered in what looks like oil. It's a severed human finger! (Cue screaming violins.)

So there we have a setting. Now let's look at how that setting can help us with characterization.

Let's say Character A is naturally skittish and doesn't like dark old houses with ominously creaking floorboards. How would this character behave in the setting described above? I think that, like Gus on Psych, he would scream and run. (At least, that’s what I’d do!).

But what would a character like Indiana Jones do if confronted with a severed finger in the way described? I think Indy would look at it dispassionately, wonder who the finger used to belong to, then step over it. This shows us that Indy is the kind of person who has seen (and possibly done) it all. Nothing phases him. As was the case in Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is even more effective when you pair someone like Character A with Indy (as they in fact did).

Then, to show that Indy isn't just a calloused adventurer, that he is human, throw a few snakes in with him. That's right! The animal he is truly scared of. This shows us that Indy is both brave and timid, and we've demonstrated this simply by changing the environment. (The idea is to tailor the setting, the environment, to bring out these aspects of character.)

When we use a setting to show who our characters are as opposed to telling our readers who they are, not only do we avoid boring exposition, but we create movement, action and, ultimately, (hopefully!) interest.

3. Character change over time.


The most common way to exhibit opposite traits in a character is to do it over a span of time.

We’re all familiar with this. The protagonist starts his journey as, say, a cringing milquetoast and, over the course of the story, gains confidence in his abilities, in himself. At the climax, he courageously faces the very scary antagonist and defeats her.

This is also what we mean by a character arc.

That's it for today! I'll post writing exercises on my new site (www.karenwoodward.org/blog) Saturday and Sunday and share them in my Twitter feed. Then on Monday I'll be back here with a new blog post. Until then, good writing!

Other articles you might be interested in:


The Key to Making a Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites
Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?
Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy

Thursday, November 13

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Character Driven Openings




The Character Opening


The character story opening is my favorite kind of opening, though it’s arguably the trickiest to pull off. 

At the moment I’m on a Gillian Flynn reading jag. Her books, all but the first, start out with strong, shocking, character descriptions. 

Here’s the first few lines of her second book, Dark Places:

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it.”

Dark Places is (or so it seems to me, I’m about 25% of the way through) a mystery wrapped in a horror story. But not supernatural horror, not the kind one can laugh off after leaving the theater. This is about something that feels real, the sort of thing we hear about on the news and are enraged by, or crushed by, for a few hours or days until the ebb and flow of our daily lives draws us back and makes us forget the evil that lurks beneath the skin. 

Gillian Flynn smashes off a chunk of that evil and forms her all-too-human characters with it.

But perhaps horror isn’t your cup of tea. (It would make a nasty cuppa, black and bitter and deadly.)

His jaw was long and bony ...


Here’s one of my favorite first paragraphs:

“Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

Yes, this is also a descriptive opening, but it gives us a peek (if I may put it like this) into the protagonist’s soul. It gives us a broad hint at exactly how difficult Sam would be to manipulate and how far he might take things. 

Why Do These Openings Work?


I want to write a longer post on why certain openings are effective but, here, I’d say that both openings surprise (perhaps even shock) the reader. Also, both openings have an intimate tone. And both these protagonists are, let’s face it, strange.

Most importantly, though, each opening raises questions.

In Dark Places the question is one of nature vs nurture. One asks: Why does the protagonist (Libby Day) have a meanness inside her? Is she correct, is it a matter of who she is, a matter of her blood? Is it the case that there’s something wrong with her and it doesn’t matter what she does, it’s always going to be there? Or perhaps something, something horrible, happened in her past, something that changed her, that warped her. Something that, perhaps, can be at least partially undone. And if so, what was it?

This is a terrific opener for the book because those questions form the core, the irregularly beating heart, of the story. They never go away, they just become more and more urgent. 

Character openings are infrequent


There are good reasons to not start a story off by looking into the soul of the main character. Many folks need their curiosity peeked first, they need to know a bit about the underlying story before they can be interested in a particular character.

The power of plot vs the power of characterization


I don’t believe there is any tension between characterization and plot; one can’t have strong characters without plot because plot flows naturally from the conflicts between strong characters. That said, I do think a story can be suspenseful in the absence of strong characterization. 

Don’t believe me? Read Stephen King’s retelling of “The Hook” (found in Danse Macabre), an urban myth that has a strong plot (that has narrative drive, suspense, etc.) but hardly any characterization. I wanted to reproduce it here but it was too long. If you do, imagine you and your friends are leaning forward into the warmth of a dying fire while one of you tells the tale. 

(Here is a link to The Hook over at Wikipedia; it’s not as good as Stephen King’s retelling but it will give you an idea what the story is if you’ve never heard it before.)

Here’s King’s comment:

“The story of The Hook is a simple, brutal classic of horror. It offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty or try to summarize the times, the mind, or the human spirit. [...] No, the story of The Hook exists for one reason and one reason alone: to scare the shit out of little kids after the sun goes down.” (Stephen King, Danse Macabre)

And I think Stephen King would agree that the same could be said for most urban myths.

Why does The Hook work? Call it whatever you want, dramatic tension, narrative drive or suspense. 

My point (yes, there is one!) is that we often need whatever it is that the story of The Hook possesses, we need it at the beginning of the story to seduce readers into caring about the characters, to get the story rolling. 

Summary


I’m not putting this forward as a rule (there are no rules in writing) and as we’ve seen, some authors are brilliant at character introductions, so I would never try and discourage someone from starting their story off this way. It’s just, depending on the story and the style of the writer, more difficult to grab readers from the very first sentence.

Often writers reach for something shocking or contradictory or, failing that, something that frustrates our expectations and makes us think, something that gets us turning pages, something that gets us to care about the characters. Because, ultimately, it’s all about the characters.

So. That’s my take on why most openings are plot oriented rather than character oriented. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at humorous openings and try to pin down what makes something funny.

Photo credit: "Chihuahua" by kenichi nobusue 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, April 30

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?




The other day I watched a video of Lee Child talking about writing. It was a question and answer period and someone asked how he got in touch with his character, Jack Reacher. They asked how he knew Reacher's likes, wants, needs, fears, and so on.

Lee Child said something to the effect that Jack Reacher is a fictional character and, as such, had no likes or dislikes. It was the reader who had likes and dislikes. Child didn't care about what Reacher wanted he cared about what the reader wanted. And, he added, hopefully they'd want to turn the page![1]

This startled me. 

One of the first things I wondered in my budding career as a writer--I think I was about four at the time--was how to make my parents interested in my stories. Really interested, not just "Oh another story, how lovely." It was a challenge since my interests weren't their interests and vice versa.

Since then my audience has changed radically, but the question has remained the same: How can I write stories that make readers want to finish them, stories which drag readers from the first sentence to the last sentence?

From what I can tell, here's the standard answer:

You get a reader to care about the story by creating a round character, a 3D character, one with hopes and wants and needs and fears and then you break their hearts. 

You endanger what they care about most, you strip them of what they need, and then you give them a way to win it back, but the way is narrow and fraught with deadly peril. The environment opposes them, some of their allies oppose them, their all-too-human enemy opposes them. And the obstacles keep getting thornier and higher and eventually seem insurmountable. 

But the hero has heart. He's not giving up. He battles on. And he's clever. He's got skills. We, the readers, can't help but root for him and find it impossible to sleep until we know how it all turned out in the end. Did he achieve his goal or did he lose everything? (Which I think, really, equates to us wondering what kind of a universe it is. Fair or random.)

That was a (very) rough sketch, but you know what I'm talking about. That's the bones of the hero's quest.

But ... is that it? Is that right? Is that (the hero's quest, character identification, creating 3D characters, and so on) how we get people to care about stories?

Let me play devil's advocate:

"Characters don't have hopes or wants or needs or fears because they don't exist! They're fictional. Besides, they don't have any money so they can't invest in one's next book, so what writers should be concerned with are the hopes and wants and needs and fears of flesh and blood readers. And (in general) what matters to humans is mystery and puzzles and action."

Or something.

I think, in practise, readers read on because they care about both the characters and the bells and whistles of the plot; action and mystery and all that kind of thing.

I know I've used it as an example too many times, but it's one of my favorite movies, and it does illustrate my point beautifully. In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I did care whether Indy found the ark and it didn't have anything to do with me wanting Indy to achieve his goal (or because I cared about the character yada yada), it had to do with the ark itself. I was curious whether this really was the Ark of the Covenant and, if Indy or the Nazi's found it, what it would do. And would whatever it did be cool. (And it was!)

Something similar happened when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones. One of the questions that season was: Are dragons real? Is Daenerys Targaryen part dragon or is she just delusional? The last episode of that season answered the question beautifully. 

I did care about Daenerys and whether she salvaged something from the ashes of her life, but more than anything I wondered: Do dragons exist? Granted, I wouldn't have cared as much about the answer if Daenerys hadn't staked her life on it. And this only mattered because I'd come to care about the character. But still.

I think what I'm talking about, or gesturing toward, is the interaction of character and plot. Readers care about the plot, in part, because of the characters and we get interested in the characters, in part, because the plot spurred them on to do interesting things.

What do you think? Why do you read stories? Is it the plot? The characters? The interaction of the two? 

Links/References


1. I can't remember exactly where I saw this, I was going through Lee Child's interview page. I think I watched everything from 2012 on.

Sunday, April 27

Stakes: How To Make Goals Matter



I've already discussed conflict and the importance of having goals, but a goal is useless without stakes.

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

Stakes generate tension. Conflict. They create suspense.

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

a. Bob lost 20 pounds in time for his brother's wedding.
b. Bob failed to lose 20 pounds.

Either way: So what? Why should we care?

How about this:

c. Bob makes a bet with his brother that if he can't fit into his tux in time for the wedding he'll pay for the wedding. But paying for the wedding would wipe out Bob's savings and he wouldn't be able to take his girlfriend on the dream vacation he has been promising her for the past four years. If Bob doesn't make good on his promise, his girlfriend will leave him. He knows he was an idiot to make the bet but what's done is done. He can't welsh. Will Bob be able to lose the 20 pounds before the wedding or will he fail, pay for his brother's wedding and die alone?

That's better. It's still not a terribly interesting story, but there's potential. As soon as Bob has something to lose and something to gain, we can begin to care about what happens to him.

The possible consequences of a course of action must be clear.


In order for the stakes to be clear, the goal must be clear.

A protagonist wants something. She can want more than one thing, but she must want one thing desperately and more than anything else. The thing that is desperately, passionately, wanted becomes the story goal. If the protagonist achieves the goal then she's succeeded, if not then she's failed.

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

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

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

The stakes must matter to the characters


If the stakes don't matter to the characters that's like creating a beautiful car but neglecting to put any gas in the engine. If the stakes don't matter to the characters there's nothing to drive the story. After all, if your characters don't care about achieving the goal, why would readers?

The other day I was walking through a fairground and one of the hawkers called out to me. "Hey! You want to play this game? I know you do. It's fun and you could win a great prize." 

"Oh?" I said. "What prize?" 

The boy-man held up a big stuffed pink and green elephant.

No thanks. It would be cheaper--a lot cheaper--for me to just go out and buy myself a stuffed animal. Though if he'd held up the promise of a critique by, say, Stephen King I'd have played. Heck, he wouldn't have been able to get rid of me!

This point, about the stakes needing to matter to your characters, is also about believability. When the going gets tough and your character is getting beaten up, whether literally or figuratively, they need a strong--in other words believable--reason for why they keep on keeping on.

The stakes must tie into your characters' wants and fears.


How do you, as a storyteller, make it plausible that your characters will go through hell to achieve their goal? We've just seen how. You make the stakes matter to the characters. How do you do that? You tie the stakes into your characters wants and fears.

I think this is one reason why stakes are often life and death. Whether or not a person continues living matters a great deal and it doesn't need explanation. If a burglar pulls out a gun and points it at your character as they're taking a shortcut through a dark alley, the reader understands their panic. 

A character's wants and fears should be unique. So should the stakes.


What does the character want? What drives him? What gets him up in the morning? If he won an obscene amount of money what would he do with it? 

What does the character fear? When he was a kid what kind of beasties lived under his bed? Everyone fears hunger, pain and death, give your character unique fears. One of the things I loved about Mr. Monk was that he was scared of milk. Milk! Who is scared of milk? Monk, that's who. That says something about a character.

A character's wants should reveal something unique about him.

Why a character's wants and fears are important.


Why, from a storytelling perspective, do a character's wants and fears matter? I've heard different answers to this question. Some say they matter because they tie characters to their goals, other say they matter because they tie characters to the story. And those answers are, I think, good answers. They're both correct. 

But I would also say that the stakes tie the reader to the characters and, in so doing, to the story.

For example, in William Goldman's incomparable story, The Princess Bride, why did Inigo Montoya devote his life to becoming a master swordsman? It was because the six-fingered man (Count Rugen) killed his father and Inigo had sworn to avenge his father's death. So yes, sure, Inigo's goal was to kill Rugen but I would argue that generally, he wanted to do right by his father. The love that Inigo had for his father was the glue that kept him focused on his goal. 

What are the stakes for Inigo? When Inigo finally fights Count Rugen it seems as though Inigo is dying, felled by a sneaky, dishonorable, blow meted out by Rugen. We understand from the very beginning: the stakes of this contest, this battle, are life and death and Rugen isn't going to fight fair.

All that is true, but I would argue that for Inigo the stakes that matter to him aren't life and death--his life and death--they are whether he succeeds in avenging his father. If he were to discover that avenging his father would mean his death he wouldn't hesitate. If Inigo doesn't succeed in avenging his father's death, it seems to me that Inigo wouldn't want to live. Inigo doesn't count his life as precious, he lives with one goal in mind: avenge his father's death.

Does the reader/viewer see it that way as well? I don't think so. I think we care much more than Inigo does about his life. Yes, absolutely, we want to see justice done. We want to watch Inigo complete his quest and kill the dishonorable Count Rugen. But it is also very important to us--much more important than it is to Inigo himself--that he survive.  
So all that has been building up to this: the stakes of the character aren't necessarily our stakes. We don't necessarily care about the same things the character cares about. 

When, at the end of the story, the stakes of the battle between Inigo and Count Rugen come down to life and death, I care more about Inigo's life than he does. 

Stakes: Internal and External


Just as characters have internal and external goals so there are internal and external stakes.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the protagonist's internal conflict, his challenge, was to risk rejection and let people in, to let others know how he really felt (for example, to tell Princess Fiona he loved her). Shrek needed to risk rejection so he could make connections with others and find true love.

Shrek's outer challenge was to rescue Princess Fiona so Lord Farquaad would remove the fairytale creatures from his swamp.

Different kinds of stakes accompany different kinds of goals. If Shrek failed to rescue Princess Fiona from the castle, Lord Farquaad would have had Shrek killed. If Shrek failed to lower his defences and let people in, he would have lost the love of Princess Fiona and endured a sad and lonely existence in his now vacant swamp. A pyrrhic victory.

It's not size, it's complexity


It's not the size of the stakes that count, it's their complexity. Complex stakes involve not just a character's internal or external goals, but both together. It's not just about saving the world, it's about overcoming one's fears to save the world. 

Escalate the stakes


Stories contain complications. The hero sets out to do one thing, a complication pops up and blocks him, he tries to get around the complication by doing something but that only makes things worse, and so on.

As I discussed in the chapter on Try-Fail Cycles, the stakes escalate throughout the story until everything comes to a fever pitch at the end.

Conflicting goals mean conflicting stakes


For instance, in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, there's a terrific scene in the middle where Indy ducks into a tent to hide from the bad guys and comes across Marion tied to a tent pole. Indy begins to untie Marion then realizes that if the Nazis discover Marion missing they'll know he is in the camp looking for the ark. He can't give himself away.

What does Indy do? He ties Marion back up! She is furious with him. It's a great scene.

Lets take a look at the stakes at play in this scene. At the beginning of the scene Indy is trying to hide from a guard so he ducks inside a tent.

Indiana's stakes:


Goal: Escape the guard's notice and obtain the ark.
Success: Indiana doesn't get captured and is one step closer to his goal. 
Failure: Indiana is captured, possibly tortured. He fails to obtain the ark and the world is taken over by the Nazis.

Marion's stakes:


Goal: Get untied, sneak out of the Nazi camp, go to America.
Success: Marion gets her freedom.
Failure: Marion's future is unknown. She could be tortured, various nasty things could happen to her.

In the middle of the scene the stakes change when Indy realizes he has to tie Marion back up or risk losing the ark.

Indy's Goal: To NOT completely alienate the affections of Miriam.
Success: Marion's love and gratitude.
Failure: Her lasting wrath.

For Indy to succeed in winning Marion's affection--or just to avoid making her furious with him--he must help her escape. But he can't. If he helps her, then he risks his primary mission. So he fails to achieve this minor goal, accepts Marion's wrath, ties her back up, and exits the tent.

The point is that conflicting mini-goals with their own stakes often pop up within a scene. The scene between Indiana and Marion was especially interesting, I thought, because it highlighted their diametrically opposed interests. Marion would much rather just escape and forget all about the ark, but not Indy.

*  *  *

As we've seen, characters have goals. Depending upon whether they attain these goals different things come about. Good things will happen if they attain the goals, bad things if they don't. This--the space between where the character is and where the character could be; the possible future that awaits them--creates conflict and conflict is the engine that moves a story forward. Simple as that.

Thursday, April 17

Parts of Story: How Setting Can Help Bring Characters To Life



When writing a scene, how much description is enough?

All writers have certain things we do well--or at least, that we do better than others. Things that, relatively speaking, we excel at. I know someone who writes descriptions that make you feel like you're there; you taste the salt in the sea air and feel the early morning chill. But when this person writes dialogue, although it's good, it's not at the same level. And that's fine! Actually, it's reassuring. It wouldn't be, well, human, to be terrific at everything. (Which, I suppose, is an argument that Neil Gaiman is not quite human, but I digress.)

Descriptions aren't my best thing. There, I've said it. I'm talking specifically about the sort of description that needs to go at the beginning of scenes and stories to orient the reader; description that isn't intimately connected with the action of the story but needs to be mentioned. I can't tell you the number of first drafts I've finished where I had given no hint as to the protagonist's hair color, it's length, whether she was cute or handsome or beautiful. Or even a he or a she!

Why? Because it wasn't intimately connected with the action of the story. Or so I thought. Obviously, I under-describe. Readers like to know, for example, whether a character is male or female because they form assumptions, assumptions that may later be proved wrong and that can be disconcerting. 

So back to my question: When writing a scene, how much description is enough? 

I've spent some time mulling this question over and rereading many of the books I've listed in the recommended reading section. I think that, perhaps, in order to answer this question we need to recognize that:

1. A setting isn't just physical, it's also emotional.


In his book, The Fire In Fiction, Donald Maass writes that we should select specific things about the characters environment and describe them in a way that shows the character's emotions. He writes that the combination of details about the setting and the emotions attached to them, "together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story's characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel."

Yes. Exactly. That's a great way of stating what we want to do. But (and this is the 64,000 dollar question), how do we do it? I hate it when writers state a question perfectly then quickly pronounce it a problem for the ages, shake their hoary heads, and move on.

Donald Maass doesn't do this. He answers the question and does so with examples. I won't reproduce them here, those were Donald Maass' examples, passages that spoke to him. I've written before about Stephen King, enough perhaps to give you the idea that I admire his writing, especially the way he could draw me into the worlds he created.[2] (I used to swear there had to be dark magic involved!)

But I think Donald Maass, here, has put his finger on another technique King uses, one which I hadn't noticed.[4] The following are the first few paragraphs from one of Stephen King's best books, The Shining (1977).
"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

"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."[1]
Right away, I noticed three things about these paragraphs. First, King uses them to describe the characters not the room. We understand the characters, the circumstances, first. Then we get to the physical setting. 

a. Character first, setting second.


The first time I read the above paragraphs I don't think I realized I wasn't 'seeing' an office. I don't think I realized that Jack Torrance was there for a job interview. But that's okay. That information isn't important, not right away. What is important is that we understand the kind of man Jack is, what is important is that we understand how he reacts to Ullman as well as what sort of relationship they have to each other. And we get that (a start at least) from the opening paragraphs, all without knowing the color of each man's hair, if the walls are painted or wallpapered, what kind of desk Ullman has, and so on.

But look at the information we are given. In the first sentence we are told that the protagonist is Jack Torrence and, through that, we know he's (probably) male. We also have an idea of how old Jack is, an age range. A child probably wouldn't have thought 'officious.' That belies not just an adults vocabulary but, most likely, either an educated person or someone who reads a lot. 

Also, a child who thought "officious little prick" (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 narrators 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.


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 on. These setting details, therefore, are a reflection of Ullman's character, of who he is and how he wants the world to be. 

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 we are only interested in these things because, now, we are interested in these men--particularly Jack--and the peculiar tension between them.

c. Use the setting to introduce conflict.


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 prick." 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 this character and his world; a world which just happens to be the world of the story.

And we're hooked!

Or at least I am. King gets me every time. After I read about three or four paragraphs I couldn't put the book down if I tried. And who's trying? 

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


I've spent most of this chapter talking about Stephen King and what his work can show us about how and when to use description (he also has a wonderful discussion of this in his book, On Writing). I'd like to close with a more general point about keeping description focused.

As you know, each scene has a purpose: the protagonist wants to achieve some goal and they probably won't. Each scene must advance the overall plot and move the story closer to the final, inevitable, show down. 

- Who is the main character, the focal character, in the scene?[3] 
- What is the focal character's goal? 
- What must the focal character accomplish to attain that goal? 
- What opposing force prevents the focal character from attaining their goal? 
- How does the focal character react to the opposing force? 
- How does the focal character meet this opposition? 

Once you answer these questions you'll not only know the scene's purpose you'll know its overall structure.

But how does that help us describe the setting? Donald Maass suggests that to discover what aspects of the setting are important--to discover what aspects of the setting we must describe to readers--we must first find the turning points. To do this ask:

- What has changed?
- When does it change?
- How is the focal character affected by this change?

Make sure that setting has been described in enough detail, and with enough emotion, to ground each turning point. What has led up to these points, these changes?

Everything else--including details about the setting--should focus on these points. If a detail of setting doesn't contribute to any of the turning points in the scene then ask yourself: do you really need to include it? 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 describing 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 on the first draft. Experiment, try new things, let it fly! After you've set your manuscript aside for awhile and come back to it, and hopefully read it with fresh eyes, then it will be easier for you to see which parts work and which don't, as well as where you've described too much or too little.

(Note: This is a chapter from my upcoming book: Parts of Story. I've decided to blog the book because, that way, I'm more likely to stay on track. And it seems to be working (Yay!).)

Links/References


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. Stephen King, since writing his enormously helpful book, On Writing, is well known for believing that stories exist external to, independently of, writers. He believes he discovers stories in much the same way an archaeologist discovers dinosaur bones.
3. Briefly, a viewpoint character is the character whose point of view the chapter is being told from. If the point of view is limited then this viewpoint character will be one of the characters in the story. The focal character is the character that all the fuss is about; they are the protagonist, the main actor. For example, in many of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes was the focal character while Watson was the viewpoint character. 
4. Stephen King also, and very powerfully, uses his character's emotion-laden thoughts to lay bare their souls and make us interested in them. Or at least that's what I think. I've written a bit about this in my article on Free Indirect Discourse (I've given the link, above, in note 1). See also: How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?
5. The remark about it all being on the table is from King's book, "On Writing." 

Friday, March 28

Crafting Interesting Characters

Crafting Interesting Characters
As you've probably guessed, no one quality or characteristic can make a character interesting. Jim Butcher puts it like this: While no one characteristic can make a character interesting, there are five qualities that "consistently make a team contribution".

Let's examine each of these qualities in turn.

1. Exaggeration 


Interesting characters are extreme characters. Think of Stephen King's character, Carrie, from the book of the same name. Carry White, a traumatized young girl, is pushed too far, snaps, and kills half her town. Carry isn't just telepathic, she's the most powerful telepath who ever existed! 

That's extreme. 

Or take Lee Child's hero, Jack Reacher. Reacher is 6'5'' tall, has a 50-inch chest, and weighs about 250 pounds. He is a physical wrecking machine. 

That's extreme.

Jim Butcher uses one of my favorite detectives as an example when he writes "Mister Monk is not merely fussy and unstable, he is fussy and unstable to an insane degree". He really is. This is the only character I know who is scared of ... wait for it ... milk.

Rick Gekoski writes:

"The major pleasures of a Reacher book are relatively simple. The ex-army major and MP, a peripatetic loner who leaves no traces except in the hearts of those he has touched, is a one-man wrecking crew, hurling bad guys into the darkness with breathtaking efficiency. In one scene, a fight in a bar, five roughnecks are dispatched within a minute. How cool is that?"[2]

Very cool!

Why does exaggeration work? Two reasons:

i. Wish fulfillment.


Humans crave excitement. Most folks would rather read about a 6'5'' mountain of man-muscle who is a vagabond on a mission than about Joe Milquetoast, a man who makes a good wage, has 1.6 kids, takes a vacation a year; a man for whom a speeding ticket is a major event.

ii. Exaggerated traits are memorable. 


An exaggerated, extreme, over-the-top trait captures one's imagination. 

This quality of being memorable is critical. What, as storytellers, are we trying to do? Among other things, we're trying to recreate a world, our story world, inside our readers' minds. The more readers remember about our characters, the more vivid and appealing this world will be.

2. Exotic Position/Exotic Setting


Exotic position is a kind of exaggeration, but one that is focused on place and occupation. All things being equal it's more interesting for a character to be a wizard or a CEO or even an archaeology professor than to be an ordinary dad or mom with an ordinary job. 

That said, it seems to me that this particular principle is especially true of action heroes and, perhaps, less true of the work-a-day characters that often populate comedies.

3. Introduction


First impressions count. When your character comes onto the page for the first time take the opportunity to do something characteristic, unique and memorable.

Characteristic: We can make a character's introduction characteristic by using tags and traits.[1] Which tags and traits are most important to the telling of the story? Those are the ones you want your readers to remember so those are the ones that should be showcased when introducing the character.

Unique: In order for an action to be characteristic it must be unique to the character. For example, if white-blond hair is one of a character's tags then no other character should have white-blond hair. Similarly, if one of your character's tags is their beaten up leather jacket, then no other character should have a beaten up leather jacket. (That said, your antagonist could have a pristine leather jacket, this would help to compare and contrast the two men, who they are, their characters, their values.)

Memorable: Although just about anything can serve as a tag, it helps if it is memorable (something exaggerated, fun, or linked to a significant event in the character's life). So, for instance, Jim Butcher has made Harry's staff one of his tags, as well as his shield bracelet. He gets bonus points for linking these tags to significant events in the character's backstory.  

Example 1: Indiana Jones in Raider's of the Lost Ark

Although Indiana Jones is on-screen from the movie's beginning, the character is introduced the first time we see his face. In that scene he uses his whip to disarm an associate who is about to shoot him in the back. This scene introduces many of Indy's tags and at least one trait. His whip is a tag, as is his leather jacket and high-crowned, wide-brimmed, sable fedora. Traits that are consistently reinforced in the trailer are his keen sense of hearing, a well-honed survival instinct and a sense of compassion and fair play.

(I find it interesting that in the revised third draft of the script for Raiders that Indy kills his would-be executioner, Barranca, rather than, as happens in the movie, letting him go. I think the writer's final choice was the best; it shows Indy's compassion without taking away his sense of danger.)[5]

Example 2: The sisters in Frozen

One sister, Anna, pushes the other, Elsa, to use her gift and, ultimately, attempt to do things she doesn't have the control to do. At the same time, we see that Elsa has an unusually strong ability to "create and manipulate ice and snow." 

Throughout the movie Elsa struggles to conceal and control her abilities. Elsa's actions throughout most of the story are driven by her fear that she will harm others, especially her younger sister, Anna, who she loves dearly.[3] All this is encapsulated in the scene that introduces Anna and Elsa. We see Anna's naive exuberance as well as Elsa's budding gift and the potential for disaster that lies within it.

Characteristic Action


We've seen that each character should have a few memorable qualities which are depicted using tags and traits. Further, since we're likely to remember the first time we catch a glimpse of the character--and since we're likely to remember it more clearly than any other moment--it's good writing practise to use a character's introduction to indelibly inscribe the essence of that character in our readers' minds. (No pressure or anything! This is why I hate writing openings.) 

All things being equal, the character should be doing something that only they do, something that is exaggerated, over the top. Something that will allow the reader to grasp--and remember!--the essence of their character. Butcher does this with his wizard, Harry Dresdon. 

In the 6th book of his wonderful Dresdon Files series, Blood Rites, Harry Dresdon is in the midst of fighting monkey demons trying to save a litter of ... can you guess? That's right, puppies. I guess he read Blake Snyder's other book, Save The Dog! (I jest, of course) 

But, still, puppies. Can you get cuter than that? A litter of them. Talk about pulling one's heartstrings. It's a terrific read; not a bad one to start the series with.

If you haven't read Butcher's Harry Dresdon novels, think James Bond. If you've never heard of James Bond, the opening sequence of the movie will tell you everything about him you need to know. Curvy young woman (not wearing enough to clothe a toothpick) swoon over him, he is suave, a skilled fighter, and a stone cold killer.

In general, you want the reader to be able to think, afterward, "Yes, that was so them." Like Harry Dresden nuking a huge demon-monkey in the opening pages of Jim Butcher's Blood Rites.

4. True to life


Even though your character is a pseudo-person they need to be true to life. If a character isn't true to life they're not going to be believable and unbelievable characters are boring characters. 

A character has to be believable in their actions, their responses, their thoughts and their dialog. Showing a character's emotions to the reader is a huge part of creating a character that is true to life.

There are two tools of the trade that can help a writer out here: first, what I'm calling mini-sequels and, second, tags and traits.

4a. Mini-sequels


Jim Butcher writes that the best way for giving the reader the sense that your character is "a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story" is by showing your character's emotions, reactions and decisions. That is, show how the one leads naturally into the other. Events happen and rounded characters react to these emotions believable in a way unique to them.[1]

If you haven't read Jim Butcher's posts about scenes and sequels and aren't quite sure what they are, I highly recommend them. 

4b. Tags & Traits


Tags

Jim Butcher writes:

"TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you're putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you'll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character."

That's a great description. Here's another, this time from Dwight V. Swain and his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer:

"A tag is a label.

"You hang tags on story people so that your reader can tell one character from another. An impression [...] is created by the tags a character bears.

"Black hair is a tag. It helps distinguish the raven-tressed girl from another who’s a blonde.

"A stutter is a tag. It sets apart one character from others who speak without impediment.

"Shuffling your feet is a tag. It keeps people from confusing you with your friend, who strides along.

"Pessimism is a tag. It marks its victim as different from the joker.

"Tags also may translate inner state into external action. Each time the brother in Arsenic and Old Lace shouts “Charge!” and dashes up his imaginary San Juan Hill, we’re reminded that he lives in a private world."

Dwight V. Swain goes on to describe four different categories tags fall into: appearance, speech, mannerism and attitude, but that is outside the scope of this article. 

Jim Butcher writes:

"This [tags] is a really subtle psychological device, and it is far more powerful than it first seems. It's invaluable for both you as the writer, and for the construction of the virtual story for the reader."[1]

Traits

So far we've looked at tags. What are traits? Dwight V. Swain calls them tags of attitude and writes:

"Tags of attitude—sometimes called traits—mark the habitually apologetic, fearful, irritable, breezy, vain, or shy. Obsequiousness is an attitude, and so is the habit of command. Here, too, are found the men and women preoccupied with a single subject, whether it be golf or babies, business or yard or stamps or fishing. For all preoccupations, in their way, represent habit of thought or view of life.

"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."

After all, if the reader has trouble telling one character from another--or, worse, can't remember the character--then they can't be very interesting.

5. Empathy


Jim Butcher calls empathy the Holy Grail of character design. He writes:

"If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

"Like V-Factor [verisimilitude], empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader's emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

"Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again."[1]

That's it! I said, in the beginning, that this post was about characteristics that make a character interesting but, really, I think it's more about avoiding things that could make your character boring. 

Notes/Links/References

1. Jim Butcher, Characters.
2. Why I love Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. The Guardian, August 2013.
3. Elsa (Disney), Wikipedia.
4. Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
5. Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark while George Lucas and Philip Kaufman created the story. (See the entry for Raiders over at IMDB.)