A story without a clear indication of success or failure is a failure with your readers or audience. You need to work out exactly how the audience will know the goal is achieved or not.
This might seem obvious in an action story, but may be much more difficult in a story about character growth.
Success and Failure don’t have to be binary choices; they can be matters of degree. For example, the effort to bring back a treasure may fail, but the adventurers discover one large ruby that fell into their pack. Or, someone seeking true love might find love but with someone who is rather annoying.
Whether either of these examples is a partial success or a partial failure depends largely on how you portray the characters’ attitudes to the imperfect achievement. To ensure a sense of closure in your readers/audience, make sure they know exactly how things end up on the success/failure scale.
Welcome to our new series designed to focus on one practical way to improve your story each weekend.
This week, try coming up with a log line for each of your characters.
A log line is a one-sentence description of what each character is all about and can help focus your understanding their motivations and their behavior.
John is a marketing executive and frustrated artist, unable to pursue his talents because of the financial needs of his family.
Sally, a fashion reporter, is determined to step out of the shadow of her sister, the adventurer, she accepts a dangerous assignment from her newspaper.
Each of these examples gives the character’s name and illuminates their situation and the key issue or issues that affect or drive them.
Individually, each log line provides a core or spine for each character and, collectively, the log lines suggest the nature of the conflicts you might want to explore between your characters and how their relationships might progress.
By referring back to your log lines as you write, you can keep your characters consistent and on track. And by revising each log line as your characters (and your understanding of them) evolves during the writing process, you will build a template to help with revisions to the beginning of your story when you approach your second draft.
Your thematic message (moral of the story) has two sides: the Point and the Counterpoint. The Point is the human quality under examination in your story (such as greed) and the Counterpoint is the opposite trait (such as Generosity), presented for contrast. Together, they play both sides of the moral dilemma (Greed vs. Generosity). But how do you go about making your thematic point to your readers or audience?
The most important key to a successful thematic argument is never, ever play the Point and Counterpoint together at the same time. Why? Because you don’t want to come off as preachy and ham-handed with a black & white one-sided message.
The thematic argument is an emotional one, not one of reason. You need to sway your reader/audience to adopt your moral view as an author rather than telling them to adopt it. This will not happen if you keep showing one side of the argument as “completely good” and the other side as “completely bad” and making that message by direct comparison. Such a thematic argument would seem one-sided, and treat the issues as being black-and-white, rather than gray-scale.
In real life, moral decisions are seldom cut-and-dried. Although we may hold views that are clearly defined, in practice it all comes down to the context of the specific situation. For example, it is wrong to steal in general. But, it might be proper to steal from the enemy during a war, or from a large market when you baby is starving. In the end, all moral views become a little blurry around the edges when push comes to shove.
Statements of absolutes do not a thematic argument make. Rather, your most powerful message will deal with the lesser of two evils, the greater of two goods, or the degree of goodness or badness of each side of the argument. In fact, there are some story situations (as in real life) where both sides of the moral argument are equally good or equally bad.
To create this more powerful, more believable, and more persuasive thematic argument follow these steps.
1. Determine in advance whether if you want each side of your moral argument to be good, bad, or neutral, in and of itself in regard to the situation your story is exploring.
Assign a numeric “value” to both the Point and the Counterpoint. For example, we might choose a scale with +5 being absolutely good, -5 being absolutely bad, and zero being neutral.
In our sample moral conflict between Greed vs. Generosity, we might assign Greed a value of -3. This would mean to your readers/audience that greed is a negative when it crops up in your story. In other words, when someone is greedy, it makes things worse.
Generosity (our Counterpoint) might have a value of -2. So, in this story, Generosity also has a negative impact on things. In such a message, you are saying that in your story’s world, folks shouldn’t hoard nor give away because either way will lead to bad consequences. Both Greed and Generosity are bad (being in the negative) but Generosity is a little less bad than Greed since Generosity is only a -2 and Greed is a -3. Still, it would be better to just keep what you’ve got and neither try to garner more nor give away what you may later need. Pretty complex message.
Of course, you could still show Generosity as all good and Greed as all bad, but what about those real word situations where Greed is good- in other words, what if Greed is actually necessary to solve the story’s problems? By using a scale ranging from Good through Neutral to Bad, you can fashion a far more realistic, believable, and practical message that your readers/audience can take back to the real world and act upon.
2. Show the good and bad aspects of both the Point and the Counterpoint.
Make sure you include in your story examples of each side of the thematic argument being good in some scene and bad in others. In other words, just because a Thematic Point or Counterpoint turns out to be, for example, a +3 in the end doesn’t mean it is a +3 in every scene. In some scenes it might even be a negative. In fact, even if one side of the argument turns out to be good in the end, it might be shown as bad initially. But over the course of the story, that first impression is changed by seeing that side in other contexts.
3. Have the good and bad aspects “average out” to the thematic conclusion you want.
By putting each side of the thematic argument on a roller coaster of good and bad aspects from scene to scene, it blurs the issues, just as in real life. And, as in real life, the reader/audience will “average out” all of their exposures to each side of the argument and draw their own conclusions by the end of the story as to what the final rating or value is of each and how they compare to one another.
In this way, your thematic argument will move out of the realm of intellectual consideration and become a viewpoint arrived by feel. And, since you will have not only shown both sides, but the good and the bad of each side, your message will be easier to swallow. And finally, since you never directly compared the two sides in the same scene, the reader/audience will not feel that your message has been shoved down its throat.
What a character likes and dislikes takes the curse of its larger than life stature. Whether you are writing a novel, play, screenplay, or teleplay, your characters loom in the hearts and minds of the audience. No one can relate to a loom. To humanize your characters and bring them down to size, give them feelings rather than just points of view.
You work in an office. Everyone does their job. The place runs like clockwork. Who ARE these people?! Until you know if they love football but hate sushi, you don’t really know them all. Who CARES what their functions are; more important to your readers is what do they take in their coffee, or tea, or do they not touch either but guzzle cola and pistachios.
Red. Does it do anything for them? What about wall paper patterns with thousands of little ducks? The things your characters like and don’t like set them apart from the crowd. And letting yourself go a little bit off the wall can bring forth attractions and repulsions that can suggest settings for a whole scene, sequence, or even the whole story itself.
Work yourself into the words. If you have pet likes and dislikes, this is the place to spout off about them. Assign them to your characters and you can get back at all those hated things, and express all those yearnings for the loved ones.
Archetypal characters have a bad name. Many writers think such characters are two-dimensional stick figures that come off more like plot robots than real people. But the truth is that archetypes represent essential human qualities that need to be explored in every story, such as trying to solve the story’s problems through logic as opposed to another character who hopes to succeed by following his or her heart. The story’s message is which approach turns out to be the best one in regard to the particular predicament explored in the story.
So if these archetypal human qualities need to be explored, how can you write a plot in which the characters that represent these attributes come off as flesh-and-blood, rather than automatons?
To find out, let’s build a plot using only archetypal characters. For this exercise I’ll be using the eight archetypal character described in the Dramatica approach story story structure that I co-developed along with my writing partner many years ago. You can, of course, use any archetypal system that is comfortable for you, such as those of Campbell or Jung.
A Sample Story Using Archetypes
To build our sample story, let’s take each archetype one by one and see how each can add the potential for interpersonal conflict and internal conflict as well.
Creating a Protagonist
Everyone is familiar with the Protagonist archetype, so let’s begin there and arbitrarily create a PROTAGONIST called Jane. Jane wants to… what?… rob a bank?…kill the monster?… stop the terrorists?… resolve her differences with her mother? It really doesn’t matter for our sample story; her goal can be whatever interests us as authors. So we’ll pick “stop the terrorists” because it interests us. All right, our Protagonist — Jane — wants to stop the terrorists.
Creating an Antagonist
Our Dramatica approach says we also need an ANTAGONIST. Antagonist by our definition is the person who tries to prevent achievement of the goal. So, who might be diametrically against the completion of the task Jane wants to accomplish? The Religious Leader whose dogma is the source of inspiration that spawns the acts of terror?… The multinational business cartel that stands to make billions if the terrorists succeed in their scheme?… Her former lover who leads the terrorist who are really an elite band of criminals? We like THAT one! Okay, we have our Protagonist (Jane) who wants to stop the terrorists who are led by her former lover (Johann).
Creating a Skeptic
Two simple Characters down, six to go. Dramatica now tells us we need a SKEPTIC. So who might be doubtful of the effort and not believe that success is possible for our stalwart Jane? Perhaps a rival special agent who doesn’t want to be left in the dust by her glowing success?… Maybe her current love interest on the force who feels Jane is in over her head?… Her father, the Senator, who wants his daughter to follow him into politics? Good enough for us. So we have Jane who wants to stop the terrorists, pitted against her former lover Johann who heads the criminal band, and opposed by her father, the Senator.
Creating a Sidekick
To balance the Skeptic, we’re going to need a SIDEKICK is, by definition, has complete unshakable faith in the Protagonist. We could bring back the idea of using her current lover but this time have him knowing how much ridding the world of scum appeals to Jane so he remains steadfastly behind her. Or we might employ her Supervisor and mentor on the force who knows the depth of Jane’s talent, wants to inspire other young idealists to take action against threats to democracy, or prove his theories and vindicate his name in the undercover world… We’ll use the Supervisor. So here’s Jane who wants to stop the terrorists, pitted against her former lover Johann, the head of the band, who wants to stop her, opposed by her father, the Senator, and supported by her Supervisor.
Creating a Contagonist
Let’s bring in a CONTAGONIST. What’s a Contagonist, you ask? It’s an archetypal character we developed uniquely in Dramatica. Essentially, they gum up the works. Sometimes they act as tempation to lure the protagonist off the proper path. And other times they gum up the works by doing or saying something that creates problems for the Protagonist, often quite by accident.
Here are some possible Contagonists for our sample story: the Seasoned Cop who says, “You have to play by the rules” and thwarts Jane’s efforts to forge a better approach?… Or, the Ex-Con with a heart of gold who studies the classics and counsels her to base her approach on proven scenarios rather than her own inspirations?… Or, her friend Sheila, a computer whiz who has a bogus response plan based on averaging every scenario every attempted? Computer whiz it is. So Jane wants to stop the terrorists, is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, opposed by her father, the Senator, supported by her Supervisor, and tempted away from the strength of her own inspired approach by her friend Sheila, the computer whiz.
Creating a Guardian
Keeping in mind the concept that for every archetype there should be another one who represents the opposite human quality, we are going to want to balance the Contagonist (who tempts and gums up the works) with a Guardian archetype (who appeals to conscience and smooths the way).
We might go with a Master of the Oriental martial arts who urges her to “go with the flow” (“Use The Force, Jane!”)?… The Ex-Con again who says, “Get back to basics”?… or perhaps the Seasoned Cop who paves the way through the undercover jungle?…. We like the Seasoned Cop. Note that we could have used him as Contagonist who says “You have to play by the rules,” but elected to use him as Guardian instead, who paves the way for Jane by giving her the benefit of his experience. As you can see it’s totally up to us as authors which characteristics go into which players. Jane wants to stop the terrorists, is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, is opposed by her father, the Senator, supported by her Supervisor, tempted by her friend Sheila the computer whiz, and protected by the Seasoned Cop.
Creating Reason and Emotion Characters
The final two archetypal characters in our Dramatica system represent our intellect and our passion, respectively. Since we really like some of the character we came up with earlier but not to use, let’s bring back the Ex-Con as REASON, stressing the need to use classic scenarios. We’ll balance her with the Master of the Oriental martial arts, who maintains Jane’s need to break with the Western approach by letting loose and following her feelings.
Well, that covers all eight Archetypal Characters: Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic, Sidekick, Contagonist, Guardian, Reason and Emotion. So now we end up with Jane who wants to stop the terrorists and is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, is opposed by her Father, the Senator, is supported by her Supervisor, tempted by her friend Sheila the computer whiz, protected by the Seasoned Cop, urged by the Ex-Con to copy the classics, and counseled by the Master of Oriental martial arts to let loose and follow her feelings.
As was pointed out at the beginning, you can use any archetypal characters you like, and simply applying the human quality they represent to their plot function, they will have the potential not only to come off as real people but to lay the groundwork for conflict within themselves and with the other characters as well.
1. Read the instructions on each Story Card (like this one). Sometimes the Story Cards just provide information. Other times they direct you to do some thinking and/or writing about your story.
2. Click the Save button. If you have entered text, be sure to click the Save button before leaving that Story Card or Window or what you wrote might be lost. If you forget to save and leave the page, try using the “Back” button on your browser and your text may still be there.
3. Continue to the Next Step. Once you have completed your work on a Story Card, click the Next Step button, which you’ll find near the top right of this window (or just below this text on small screens such as smart phones). It will carry you to the next Story Card in the story development path.
If you are really eager to get started, that’s all you need to know.
But if you’d like a quick tour of StoryWeaver’s other key features and how to use them, click the “Tell Me More” button below for a fully detailed description.
Tell Me More…
StoryWeaver’s Key Features
StoryWeaver consists of more than 200 interactive Story Cards that take you from concept to completion of your story step by step. Each Story Card covers one dramatic topic in the StoryWeaver story development path. Sometimes cards just provide information to get you ready for the next kind of development you’ll be doing. But most cards ask you to answer a question about your story, develop a concept, or pull several of your ideas together into an integrated story thread. That’s why it is called StoryWeaver – you are guided step by step to weave together all the threads of your story into a tapestry the fulfills your original vision.
Story Development Box
On Story Cards that ask you to work on your story you’ll find a Story Development box where you can enter text in response to the Story Card’s topic. The point of each topic is to do some thinking about an aspect of your story and then describe how that topic applies specifically. You can write as little or as much as you like, but quality is always more important than quantity.
The SAVE Button
Directly below the Story Development area is the Save button. Be sure to click the Save button before leaving a Story Card or your work on that card won’t be saved. Very important safety tip! But should you forget and click on another card, you can usually use your browsers Back button to return to the previous story card, and most often your work will still be present in the Story Development box so you can still save it. Who says there are no second chances?
On most devices you can also right-click on any text field and select Undo to removes changes to your text that you have recently made. This can be especially useful if you accidentally delete the text you have entered.
The References Box
After you’ve responded to a few Story Cards, you’ll see a References box show up just above the Story Development box. The References box quotes your responses to previous Story Cards to help you respond to the topic of the current Story Card. This is one of StoryWeaver most powerful features and is at the core of the StoryWeaver process. By folding your previous work into your current work, you continuously integrate your ideas, build on your story’s central concepts, and create a rich and detailed story world.
Directly below each topic are the Action Buttons. Some of these are links to helpful in-depth articles on story development that are pertinent to that Story Card’s topic. Others may open an informational video or an example to illustrate how to respond to this topic.
Every Story Card has a Notes and Story button. Click on the Notes button to open a window where you can jot down any creative ideas that may come to you while you are working on that story card. The Notes window is free-form – use it as you like. The Story button opens another text window where you can jump ahead and start writing your story if you like. Perhaps you have a first draft already written and want to paste it here so you can revise it as you go. Or, you might suddenly get an inspiration about how you want to begin your story and write your opening lines down while the notion is hot. In a nut shell, the Story button is where you go when you want to jump ahead of Story Development for a bit and work on your overall story.
Many cards have a Tell Me More button that provides additional information about the topic being covered. And some cards have buttons that link to in-depth articles that inform the topic at hand, or provide an example to illustrate one way of responding.
The StoryWeaver Path
This is the collapsible menu to the right on larger screens and at the bottom of each Story Card on smaller screens. It outlines the entire 200 topic story development path. Normally, you only use the Next Step and Previous Step buttons just above that collapsible list, but you can click directly on the list should you want to go back and change an earlier response or expand the list to see what’s coming up.
The “My Stories” Menu
At the top of each Story Card is the My Stories menu. It allows you to create or delete a story project, open one you’ve been working with, or rename a story project. You can work on as many stories at a time as you like – just create a new story project for each. StoryWeaver saves your stories securely on our server, and you can also download all your story text (everything you’ve written in StoryWeaver) any time you like in a text file. Just click on the My Stories menu and select Download Story Text for any given story project.
The “Font Size” Menu
Click the Font Size menu to make all the on screen text (including what you write) larger, smaller, or back to default so that you can maximize readability on any size screen.
The “StoryWeaver” Link
In the upper left corner of every Story Card is the word “StoryWeaver.” It leads to the StoryWeaver home page where you can learn all the latest StoryWeaver news and contact us with questions, comments or (hopefully not) problems.
You Are Here
Directly below the StoryWeaver link is a “You are here” address that shows where you are in the process. On this Story Card it looks like this: “My Story / Welcome to StoryWeaver / Getting Started.”
That’s all there is to it. StoryWeaver is powerful in how it guides you to develop your ideas into a fully crafted story, yet it is also streamlined and easy to use.
Still, if you run into any problems, let us know and we’ll help you get back on track.
Here’s step 1 in our 200 step StoryWeaver story development software. Follow the steps and you’ll go from concept to completion of your novel or screenplay. Look for a new step to be posted each week.
Step 1 – Welcome to StoryWeaver
Welcome to StoryWeaver – your step by step path to a completed novel, screenplay, or other narrative manuscript.
StoryWeaver is so named because it employs a technique for drawing story threads from your original concept much as a weaver might draw thread from wool. Step by step you grow and clarify your story as you twist the threads into a yarn, spin that yarn, and eventually weave it into the tapestry of your story.
Whether you already have a story you wish to improve or are just starting out with no more than a concept, StoryWeaver will help you grow your story, adding power to your plot, passion to your characters, humanity to your theme and richness to your genre.
StoryWeaver isn’t a web site, an organizational tool, or a series of fill-in-the-blank questions, but a sophisticated story development program. It runs on our servers and is accessed through your web browser, so you can use it on any internet connected device. As you work with your story, you can move seamlessly from laptop, to tablet, to smart phone, and from Windows to Mac, iOS, Android, or Chrome so you can follow your Muse wherever she leads.
To start weaving your story, click the Next Step button near the upper right corner of this screen, or just below this text on smaller screens such as smart phones, and may the Muse be with you!
What’s in a name? Choosing names for your characters can be perfunctory or can provide your readers or audience with insight into your characters’ natures, add humor or surprise, or even at the very least break out of ordinary monikers into the realm of the unusual.
So far, we’ve been dealing with characters primarily by their jobs, vocations or roles since we derived them from your plot. Now it’s time to start building some personality into your characters to see if they really have potential for your story, and we’ll begin by giving them names.
Few people (other than performers, artists, and writers) get to choose their own names. But as a writer, you have the power to choose the names of all your characters. And with this power comes the opportunity to say something to your readers or audience about a character’s inclinations, accomplishments, or outlook.
A name could convey military service, religious affiliation, or status. A nick-name might illuminate a major character trait, some event in a character’s past, or the way other characters feel about him or her. Names can add to comic value, hint at danger, or flirt with with mystery.
In this step, add a name to each of your characters that doesn’t already have one and reconsider the names of those characters who do.
TELL ME MORE
In this step, you’ll start interviewing all the folks that showed up for your casting call so you can learn a bit more about them in order to decide who to hire to be in your story.
The first step in any interview is to get to get the character’s name. You probably already have names for several of your potential cast members, but there are likely to be some whose names you don’t yet know.
For the nameless ones, it’s time to give them a moniker. Names give us our first impression of a character. In most stories you’ll want to keep most of your characters’ names normal and simple. But if they are too normal or if everyone has an ordinary name, you’re just boring your readers.
However, if your story requires typical names, try to pick ones that don’t sound like one another or your readers may become confused as to which one you are talking about. Personally, I’ve always had trouble remembering which one is Sauron and which is Sarumon, but that’s just me. Nonetheless, try to stay away from character combos like Jeanne and Jenny, Sonny and Sammy, Bart And Bret and – well, you get the idea.
If your story might benefit from giving some of your characters more unusual names, consider nicknames. Nicknames are wonderful dramatic devices because they can work with the character’s apparent nature, against it for humiliating or comedic effect, play into the plot by telegraphing the activities in which the character will engage, create irony, or provide mystery by hinting at information or a backstory for the character that led to its nickname but has not yet been divulged to the readers.
Keep in mind these are just temporary names for identification. You’ll have the chance to change them later. So for now, just add a name to every character in your potential cast list.
What’s in a name? Not a name like “Joe” or “Sally” but something that opens the door to further development like “Muttering Murdock” or “Susan the Stilt.” Often coming up with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call another is a great way to establish a character’s heart.
What can we say about Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for that matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread and then ask questions. So, for ol’ Muttering Murdock, the name is the loose end just hanging out there for us to pull. We might ask, “Why does Murdock Mutter?” (That’s obvious, of course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human being? Is Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What attributes describe Murdock’s physical traits? How smart is Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so on….
We don’t need to know the answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.
Why Does Murdock Mutter?
Because he has a physical deformity for the lips.
Because he talks to himself, lost in his own world due to the untimely death of his parents, right in front of his eyes
Because he feels he can’t hold his own with anyone face to face, so he makes all his comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word in his own mind.
Because he is lost in thought about truly deep and complex issues, so he is merely talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is a genius because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.
You get the idea. You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that’s the key. If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well good luck. But if you pick an arbitrary name, it can’t help but generate a number of questions. If you aren’t trying to come up with the one perfect answer to each question, you can let your Muse roam far and wide. Without constraints, you’ll be amazed at the odd variety of potential answers she brings back!
In our sample story, we’ve added names to all our characters with a good mix of the ordinary and the odd, including proper names and nick names. Some names just came to mind. Others are alterations of names of characters I’ve seen in television shows and movies. Some are based on sound-alike first and last names. In other words, names aren’t hard to come by, and mixing them up a bit just livens the party.
You’ll note that in several names, such as those of the posse, the gang, the businessmen, and the shopkeepers, I’ve given them organizational names such as The Gazpacho Enforcers. In so doing, I’ve given the town our example story the name of Gazpacho, so always be aware of opportunities to extend other parts of your story than the one you are currently working on. I’ll put the town name of Gazpacho in the Notes window to make sure I can refer to it later.
Also note that I’ve added an all new group character at the end of the list – a charitable organization: the Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society. The name just fell into my mind when I was naming all the Gazpacho groups and it struck me as to how ridiculous and pompous they sounded. Again, be on the lookout for random creative ideas: they can pop out of the shadows at any time!
Jedediah Farnsworth – The Old Sheriff
James Vestibule – The New Sheriff
The Hole in the Head Gang – Gang of Cutthroats
Armoire Vestibule Gang Leader (The sheriff’s wife)
The Gazpacho Enforcers – A posse
Stiff-Leg Sam – Deputy
Shandy Stilton – Mayor
J.W. Blinkers – Banker
The Gazpacho Consortium – Businessmen
The Gazpacho Retail Trade Association – Shopkeepers
Nell Goodtime – saloon girl
Slick Nick – bartender
Hugo Laughter – blacksmith
Bart Costello – rancher
Brother Bob – preacher
Nancy Lacy – schoolmarm
The Tumbling Troubadours – A troupe of traveling acrobats
Ulysses S. Grant – President of the United States
Percy Prancy – A bird watcher
Ghost of Julius Caesar – Annoying Spirit
The Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society – Charitable organization
Coming up with characters can be as simple as looking to our subject matter and asking ourselves who might be expected to be involved. But that only creates the expected characters – predictable and uninteresting.
Building characters that are intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. Here’s a method you can use to break away from standard characters and sculpt them into far more interesting people, step by step.
To begin, let’s create some ordinary characters and then breathe fresh life into them. First, we’ll look to our subject matter and see what characters suggest themselves. (If you like, try this with you own story as we go.)
Suppose all we know about our story is that we want to write an adventure about some jungle ruins and a curse.
What characters immediately suggest themselves?
Jungle Guide, Head Porter, Archaeologist, Bush Pilot, Treasure Hunter
What other characters might seem consistent with the subject?
Missionary, Native Shaman, Local Military Governor, Rebel Leader, Mercenary
How about other characters that would not seem overly out of place?
Night Club Singer, Tourist, Plantation Owner
And perhaps some less likely characters?
Performers in a Traveling Circus (Trapeze Artist, Juggler, Acrobat, Clown)
We could, of course, go on and on and eventually we’ve have a complete cast for our novel or screenplay. The problem is that when we go to develop each of these characters, we tend to have a predisposed idea of what they would be like. This expectation comes from our personal experience blended with our cultural indoctrination. And the result is the same old characters you’ve seen again and again.
So how do we break free of these stereotypes? To make a clear example, let’s just choose four characters to work with. We’ll pick just one character from each of the four groups listed above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.
Now we’ll assign a gender to each. Let’s have two male and two female characters. Well pick the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary as male and the Night Club Singer and the Clown as female.
Now, picture these characters in your mind: a male Bush Pilot, a male Mercenary, a female Night Club Singer, and a female Clown. Since we all have our own life experiences and expectations, you should be able to visualize each character in your mind in at least some initial ways.
The Bush Pilot might be scruffy, the Mercenary bare-armed and muscular. The Night Club Singer well worn but done up glamorously, and the Clown shy and hiding behind the makeup.
Now that we have these typical images of these typical characters in our minds, let’s shake things up a bit to make them less ordinary. One way to do that is to change the gender of some of our characters to play against expectations. As an example, we’ll make the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary female and the Night Club Singer and Clown male.
What does this do to our mental images? How does it change how we feel about these characters? The Bush Pilot could still be scruffy, but a scruffy woman looks a lot different than a scruffy man. Or is she scruffy? Perhaps she is quite prim in contrast to the land in which she practices her profession. Since female bush pilots are more rare, we might begin to ask ourselves how she came to have this job. And, of course, this would start to develop her back-story.
How about the female Mercenary? Still muscular, or more the brainy type? What’s her back story? The Night Club Singer might be something of a lounge lizard type in a polyester leisure suit. And the male Clown could be sad like Emmett Kelly, sleazy like Krusty the Clown, or evil like Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It.” The key to this trick is that our own preconceptions add far more material to our mental images than the actual information we specifically developed, which so far were only only vocation and gender.
Due to this subconscious initiative, our characters are starting to get a little more intriguing, just by adding and mixing genders. What happens if we throw another variable into the mix, say, age? Let’s pick four ages arbitrarily: 35, 53, 82, and 7. Now let’s assign them to the characters.
We have a female Bush Pilot (35), a female Mercenary (53), a male Night Club Singer (82), and a male Clown (7). How does the addition of age change your mental images?
What if we mix it up again? Let’s make the Bush Pilot 7 years old, the Mercenary 82, the Night Club Singer 53, and the Clown 35. What do you picture now?
It would be hard for a writer not to find something interesting to say about a seven-year-old female Bush Pilot or an eighty-two year old female Mercenary.
What we’ve just discovered is that the best way to break out of your own mind and its cliché creations is to simply mix and match a few attributes. Suddenly your characters take on a life of their own and suggest all kinds of interesting back-stories, attitudes, and mannerisms.
Now consider that we have only been playing with three attributes. In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of attributes from which we might select. These might include educational level, race, disabilities, exceptional abilities, special skills, hobbies, religious affiliation, family ties, prejudices, unusual eating habits, sexual preference, and on and on. And each of these can be initially assigned in typical fashion, then mixed and matched. Using this simple technique, anyone can create truly intriguing and memorable characters.
Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that we have become so wrapped up in these fascinating people that we have completely forgotten about structure! In fact, we don’t even know who is the Hero, Protagonist, or Main Character!
So, imagine…. What would this story be like if we chose the seven-year-old female Bush Pilot as the Hero. How about the eighty-two year old female Mercenary? Can you picture the 53-year-old male Night Club Singer as Hero, or the thirty-five year old male Clown?
Many authors come to a story with a main character in mind and can use this technique to break out of developing a stereotypical one. Other authors are more interested in the events or setting of their stories and discover their characters (including who is the main character) in the process of working out the plot. In that case, using this technique provides them with a whole cast of intriguing characters from which to choose the Hero.
The bottom line is that whether you have some or all of your characters in mind from the get-go or start with a story concept and create your characters along the way, these character development tricks will help you come up with the people you need to populate your story and ensure they are both fresh and real.
In this article you’ll discover a technique for drawing characters out of a one-sentence description of your story called a log line.
These steps are excerpted from the all-new version 4 of our world-famous StoryWeaver Software that carries you through 200 story development steps to a completed novel or screenplay.
Characters are the heart and soul of every story. It is through characters that plot events become meaningful, theme becomes message, and genre envelopes your readers or audience.
You may already have quite a few characters in mind, perhaps your hero or main character, and you may have done quite a bit of preliminary development. Or, you may have only created the characters that grew from your log line. Either way, it never hurts to put out a general casting call for additional players to populate your story.
Step One: Write a log line for your story
A log line is a one-sentence description of your story such as A sheriff is trying to stop a gang of cutthroats from repeatedly robbing his town.
Clearly, a log line lacks any passion, but that is its purpose: to describe as concisely as possible the essence of your story’s plot and the most central character(s).
This can be a bit challenging since there is so much you may want to include about your story – the things that make you want to write it in the first place.
Read your log line and list all the characters it explicitly mentions.
For this step, list your characters by their job or role such as Mercenary, John’s Wife, Village Idiot, etc. If some of your characters already have names, you can include them, but if any of your characters are listed only by their name be sure to add their primary activity or position, such as “Jane – Office Worker,” “Lieutenant Colonel Jane Maddow,” or “Tom’s Cousin, Jane.”
In a later step, we’ll develop interesting and perhaps significant names for all your characters.
Tips for Step Two:
Be sure to read your log line carefully as it is easy to miss some minor characters such as “a maid discovers the notebook.” or group characters as in “the hero faces off a crowd” Both the maid and the crowd are explicitly mentioned characters, and though they may not have a lot to do now, by listing them, you may find occasion to employ them more effectively or to expand or recur their roles as your story develops.
Example for Step Two:
For all of these steps we’ll use the log line we introduced in step one as our example:
A sheriff is trying to stop a gang of cutthroats from repeatedly robbing his town.
Now, we list the only characters explicitly named in the material:
Gang of Cutthroats
Step Three: Expected Characters
Your log describes the event(s) that are central to your plot. In this step, list any characters that your synopsis doesn’t specifically name, but that would be almost necessary to drive your plot forward. For example, if your story was about a sailor on an eighteenth century ship, you would expect to encounter the captain, even if he wasn’t mentioned in the long line because the story is all about the sailor’s relationship with a rat in the hold.
In other words, shake yourself free of your focus on the characters you already have in mind and put yourself in each scenario in your synopsis. Lift up your head, look around, and see who’s there (or who you’d expect to be there). The expected characters may not be connected to your plot yet, but by recognizing who’s in the vicinity you will open up opportunities to enrich your story and make your scenes more real.
Again, list your expected characters by role, though you can include a name if they have one.
Tips for Step Three:
In this step, list just those characters whose absence might be surprising in a story such as yours. As we continue through the steps, we’ll range farther from the these expected characters, but for now, think within the box. In this part of your casting call, stereotypes are welcome.
Example for Step Three:
A sheriff is trying to stop a gang of cutthroats from repeatedly robbing his town.
In the previous step we listed all the characters explicitly identified in our sample log line. But, you’d expect the sheriff to have a deputy and the town to have a mayor. And, if the town is being bled dry, then a banker, some businessmen, and shopkeepers would be in order as well. Without these additional characters, it would be hard to see how the plot could move forward smoothly and naturally.
So, in this step we list:
Step Four: The Usual Characters
Near the end of the classic motion picture, Casablanca, the prefect of police tells his men to “round up the usual suspects,” and that’s what you’re going to do here.
In the previous step, you added characters to your growing cast list that are almost required to move your plot forward smoothly, though they weren’t specifically mentioned in your synopsis. Range a little wider now and consider other common characters that might populate stories such as yours, though they may not play a major role.
Example for Step Four:
In the example story about the sheriff that we’ve been using, no one would be surprised at all to encounter:
There is no specific limit to how many or how few “usual characters” you can or should add to your growing cast list. So just add the ones that come easily to mind and appeal to you.
Don’t be worried if any of your additions seem stereotypical or too predictable. By the time we’re through a few more steps they will all become far more interesting.
So for now, beef up your cast with any additional characters that would fit right in your story as described in your synopsis, even if at the moment they are rather mundane.
Step Five : Unusual Characters
In the previous step you added some characters to your cast list who would not raise an eyebrow if they showed up in your story’s world.
Now, let yourself go a bit (but just a bit) and list a number of characters that might seem somewhat out of place but would still be fairly easily explainable in such a story as yours.
Tips for Step Five:
Adding one or two somewhat unexpected characters to a story can liven up the cast and make it seem original, rather than derivative.
Remember, you aren’t committing to using any of these characters in your story; you’re just making them available to consider for inclusion.
The more unusual characters you can list, the more variety you have to choose from. And in addition, each unusual character offers the opportunity to develop an interesting story line that can enrich your plot as well.
Example for Step Five:
In our example story of a small town in the old west, these “unusual characters” might include:
A troupe of traveling acrobats
Ulysses S. Grant
A Prussian Duke
A bird watcher
You may be wondering why you’d want to have such odd characters in an otherwise normal story. The reason is to prevent your story from being too normal.
Neither reader nor publisher, audience nor producer will want to waste time or money on a book or movie that is just a rehash of the same tired material they’ve read or seen over and over again.
What they are looking for is something with a unique personality – something that sets itself apart from the usual run of the mill.
Adding one or two somewhat unexpected characters to a story can liven up the cast and make it seem original, rather than derivative.
Once again, you won’t be married to all these characters. They are just a gene pool from which to select your actual cast in a later step.
So, add to your list some slightly odd, offbeat, unexpected or quirky characters – no one too unusual, mind you – just folks who would not immediately come to mind in a story such as yours but could be explained with a little effort – folks to add a dash of color and interest to your story.
In the next step we’ll pull out all the stops!
Step Six: Outlandish Characters
Finally, pull out all the stops and list some completely inappropriate characters that would take a heap of explaining to your reader/audience if they showed up in your story.
Example for Step Six:
Richard Nixon, Martians, the Ghost of Julius Caesar
Although you’ll likely discard these characters, just the process of coming up with them can lead to new ideas and directions for your story.
For example, the town sheriff might become more interesting if he was a history buff, specifically reading about the Roman Empire. In his first run-in with the gang, he is knocked out cold with a concussion. For the rest of the story, he keeps imagining the Ghost of Julius Caesar, giving him unwanted advice.
Step Seven: Your Casting Call
You now have a group of potential players for your story ranging from those specifically called for in your log line to a few odd-balls hanging around in the shadows.
In this step you’ll review that list and eliminate any characters you are completely sure you will never use. (But keep in mind how we decided to employ the Ghost of Julius Caesar in our example in the previous step, so give each character due consideration before discarding it out of hand.)
First, combine all your characters into a single list. Once you have them grouped together, think about each one independently and determine if it potentially has something to offer to your story, either directly to your plot or even as a “Window Dressing Character” that doesn’t affect the plot but provides some color, energy, or comic relief. Remove any characters from your list that don’t make the cut for any reason, even if you just don’t like them.
In the steps that follow, we’ll do additional development of your remaining characters to better judge their potential, and then you’ll make a final cut to narrow your casting call down to just those characters you are absolutely sure you really wish to pursue.
After that we’ll employ a technique for busting stereotypes and then move on to the next section of story development.
These steps are excerpted from the all-new version 4 of our world-famous StoryWeaver Software that carries you through 200 story development steps to a completed novel or screenplay.
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