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Although you have a clear plot that you have created from the position of author, it is going to look quite different to each of your characters, depending on their particular situation and tempered by where they are coming from and how they see the world in general.
Now your characters aren’t going to be thinking about the plot the way you do. They can’t even see that there is a plot. Rather, they see their situation and have attitudes and feelings about it – some modest and some passionate.
They do their best to understand what’s going on, where things are headed, what their options are, and what they might try to do to bend things more in a favorable direction for themselves and/or those they care about.
Your story will become much more involving if you can convey all your characters’ different perspectives, including information about why they feel that way, what they want, what they don’t don’t, and even how they feel about each other.
This information can be doled out over the course of your story – a little bit each chapter or act. In this way, an air of mystery envelopes each character and your readers or audience are drawn eagerly forward to learn more about these people that they are becoming attached to.
To begin this process, review what you have developed about your characters and your plot. Now stand the shoes of each of them in turn and write a first person description of how they see themselves and their situation, perhaps telling us about their hopes and dreams, but most of all, let them tell you about their place in the story and what it looks like to them, in their own words and through their own voice, mannerisms, and attitudes.
Here’s a couple of examples from a sample story of mine – a comedy about 105 year old man who was just elected sheriff in an old western town besieged by a gang of cutthroats:
James Vestibule – The New Sheriff
You’d think at 105 I’d be entitled to some peace. But NO! I was born in 1765 when there was no US of A and served in the Revolutionary War. Fought in the War Of 1812 too, and met my good friend Francis Scott Key. In fact, it feels like it was one war on the heels of another. First as a soldier, then as an instructor, and finally as an informal adviser in the war between the states. Too much experience for them to let me be, I suppose.
I had always reveled in the patriotism and glory, but this last conflict left me sour – brother against brother – father against son against grandson (oh, my dear beloved Jonathan). And I think it was that – the loss of Jonathan – that tore me and my wife Amoire asunder. My son, Jacob, had sided with the Rebels, and and he was a hard man, even cruel at times. His son Jonathan joined up with the Union. One day Johnathan came home on leave to visit us on our family farm in Kentucky, not knowing Jacob was already there. Jacob just saw the uniform and shot him dead. Once he saw it was his son, he turned the gun on himself and we lost both of them that day.
Amoire and I were cut with such grief we couldn’t even talk, and in short order we divorced. I left her to go out west and try to find some peace in my remaining years. But no sooner do I get here but they thrust a badge at me for the honorary position of sheriff (due to my military experience) and now I have to attend meetings, sit in that rat hole of an office from time to time, and coddle the drunks, cheats, and ne’er-do-wells. Fine life. Honestly, I was still dreaming of that ranch Amoire and I had always wanted, but under the circumstances, I guess that really is just a dream…
NOTES: Okay – this has clearly taken a more dramatic turn than I intended in a comedy. Can I use it? Don’t know yet. Sometimes a good dramatic foundation can enrich a comic character by giving it more depth than simple superficial laughs. You can be sardonic, cerebral, philosophic, and ironic. And in the end, you can make their dreams come true, adding a feel-good experience and a sense of relief to what would just have been a simple comedy if the dramatic depth had not been plumbed.
One thing is sure. This character inspires me.
Let’s try the same thing with a really minor character in my story and see what happens:
Nancy Lacy – Blacksmith
They made fun of me as a child. Mancy Nancy they called me on account of my size. And then I’d bash ’em in the face and they wouldn’t call me that no more. But truth be told, there’s a big difference between how you look and how you feel. You think I dreamed of a life as a blacksmith? Well, you’d be right. I did. I just love bending metal to my will. I love bending anything to my will. But don’t let that fool ya… I only do that to make my life genteel. I have iron daisies over my mantle, just above the 12-gauge.
I pretty much keep to myself, aside from clients – ‘cept for that new sheriff. He’s just so sweet. He sees beyond my looks and can tell that beneath it all, I have a heart of steel.
NOTES – Okay, a potentially comic character here. She needs more development and I can probably write some good material standing in her shoes. But, she doesn’t strike me as having the potential to be a major character at all. Nonetheless, I can see calling on her in the plot from time to time, and even perhaps a touching comic scene when she quenches a blade with her tears.
And that is why this exercise of having each character write about their situation in your story in their own words in first person is so important.
The whole point is to get to know how your characters see themselves, their lives, their role in the story and even how they see each other. Your story will be the richer for it.
The Antagonist and the Influence Character do two different things, but both of those jobs can be given to the same person in your story.
The Antagonist fights against the Protagonist over the goal; The Influence Character fights against the Main Character’s morals or philosophy.
When the Antagonist and Influence Character jobs are done by the same person, the story tends toward melodrama because both the plot and message are anchored in the same place, muddying the waters so that it is hard for your readers/audience to follow the plot and/or understand your message.
Similarly, the Protagonist and Main Character have two different jobs. The Protagonist tries to achieve the goal and the Main Character tries to solve the moral or philosophical issue that is causing them disquiet, angst, or difficulties with others.
Full-on melodrama occurs when the Protagonist is also the Main Character AND the Antagonist is also the Influence Character. Then, both the plot line and the message line are completely on top of each other, and the points you are trying to make are all mixed up with each other, losing the details and creating a much more “primary color” story than one of depth and shading.
Most often, those two parallel story lines, the plot line and the message line, are pried apart at one end to separate them, creating a Dramatica Triangle. So, the Antagonist is one person and the Influence Character is another. But, the Protagonist and Main Character jobs are still done by the same person. This creates the typical Hero at the anchor point who is trying to defeat the Protagonist in the plot and also prevail against the Influence Characters in the message.
In Dramatic Triangle stories, the Antagonist is often the Bad Guy or Villain, and the Influence Character is often the Love Interest, or someone the Hero loves, as in a child or someone he wishes to protect. The Antagonist tries to stop the Hero and the Influence Character tries to argue for, or represents value standards in conflict with the Hero.
In the end, the Hero must choose to stick with his values or adopt those of the Influence Character, and how the Hero chooses (often in a leap of faith) determines whether the goal will be achieved or not.
And to make matters even more dramatically tense, you can have the Antagonist put the Influence Character in danger and arrange a dilemma for the Hero so can only save his Love Interest if he violates the Love Interest’s value standards, thereby losing their love, or he can hold to the Influence Character’s value standards and lose the one he loves. The message is, which is the right choice? And the proof often comes with a surprise boon of success if the Hero chooses properly, or with a surprise failure or cost if the Her chooses improperly.
Famous Influence Characters are the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Obi Wan Kenobi In the original Star Wars movie, and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, who pressures Clarice Starling to let go of her angst and ultimately asks her over the phone, “Tell me , Clarice… Are the lambs still screaming?” Clarice, the Hero, chooses not to give up her angst and still suffers for it into the future. But, on the plus side, it is that angst that drives her, which helps her solve crimes and protect others, so it is a good choice for her good works, but a horrible choice for her own peace of mind.
Finally, sometimes the plot and message lines are completely split, as in To Kill A Mockingbird. In this story, the Protagonist is Atticus, the lawyer in a small southern town in the 1930s trying to get a fair trial for a black man accused of raping a white girl. The Antagonist is the girl’s father, who wants the man lynched.
But the Main Character is Scout, Atticus’ daughter, and the Influence Character is Boo Radley who she has always presumed to be a dangerous child-killer, buying into the town rumors. Turns out Boo is simple-minded but good hearted and has been protecting Scout all along.
When the father of the girl tries to endanger Scout, Boo stops it and saves her. And scout comes to realize that she was wrongly basing her feelings about Boo on hearsay.
This makes the story’s message point. That any of us, even a child, can buy into prejudice, and it doesn’t have to fall along race lines.
So, in this case, it was important to separate the plot line to run in parallel to the message line, rather than anchoring them together in a Dramatic Triangle, in order for the point to be made.
Characters are not real people: they represent types of people. Rather than creating characters from scratch or based on an individual, fashion them on the personality types you encounter every day.
Build characters step by step with StoryWeaver
Every writer knows a story needs a protagonist and an antagonist who battle over the goal, but equally important are the main and influence characters who battle over the message.
Typically, writers recognize that their plot would have no tension if they only had a protagonist trying achieve something. Without an antagonist working against the protagonist, there would be little tension in a story – just obstacles to overcome.
But when it comes to the main character who represents a way of looking at the world, such as Scrooge or Hamlet, writers often don’t consider that without a character representing the opposing point of view, the message is just a moral statement lacking the power to convince.
For example, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s world view is challenged by the ghosts (including Marley) so that the message that we must open our hearts to our fellow human beings is not just stated, but argued scene by scene and “proven” by the outcome at the end.
Hamlet seeks revenge and sets all kinds of conditions on obtaining it, such as when he cannot kill his father’s murderer because the kind is praying and might go to heaven. In the final battle, he fails to change and also fails to achieve revenge.
As you can see, the outcome of the plot is hinged to the personal or moral decision made by the main character as when Luke Skywalker (in Episode IV) finally comes to trust in his own inner voice (the Force), and shuts off the targeting computer. The message is that only by trusting in ourselves can we achieve our goals. Simple, but effective. Imagine how less involving it might have felt if that scene were removed where the spirit of Obi Wan tells Luke to trust in the Force. What if Luke just used the computer like everyone else? Then was he just lucky to win or just more skilled? Sure he achieves the goal, but where is the sense of personal fulfillment as when Scrooge changes to embrace compassion?
Some stories focus on the plot, like Star Wars, and others focus on the message, like A Christmas Carol. But if Star Wars had no message at all, or A Christmas Carol had no plot to carry the message forward, each would lose something essential that contributes greatly to their importance and staying power with each and every reader/audience member.
But we are here to discuss the Influence Character. Actually, just to introduce the concept for now. You can find all kinds of articles about that character just by searching on this blog.
So in the simplest sense, the Influence character has an opposing world view, philosophy, or moral outlook to that of the main character at the start of a story. These views are clearly delineated so the readers or audience understand the issue at the heart of the story’s passion.
The main character is defined by embracing one of these views and the influence character is defined by the other. The plot promotes the author’s opinion as to the best way to solve a logistic problem, and the theme promotes the author’s opinion as to the best way to solve a passionate problem.
Sometimes both of these lines are closely intertwined so that the protagonist is also the main character and the antagonist is also the influence character. This often results in melodrama since he entire story is reduced to all the good traits in one character and all the bad ones in another.
One solution to this is to have one character anchor both stories, such as in Star Wars where Luke is both protagonist and main character, but have the plot battle with the antagonist and the message battle with a separate influence character. In Star Wars, it is Obi Wan who provides the moral influence to Luke to let go and embrace his inner Force, even while Luke must battle the empire (Darth, Gran Mof Tarkin, Stormtroopers and all) in the plot.
This creates a classic “Dramatica Triangle” in which both logistic and passionate forces converge on one character, but each line is separate so that each can be explored individually. This is often done with a love interest that has a philosophy or moral view opposite to that of their lover, the protagonist/main character. The love interest is the influence character, and the protagonist battles the antagonist in the plot.
This often leads to an opportunity when the antagonist holds the love interest in danger, and the protagonist / main character must, due to circumstances, go against the love interest’s moral view in order to save them. This really puts the p/mc on the spot since they really are making a choice between losing the life of the love interest or losing their love – a classic dilemma requiring a leap of faith. And then, as an author, you can have them go with the morality or go against the morality, and as a result of their choice succeed or fail in the goal. The choice is really up to you as to the meaning you want your story to have.
Other times, the split between plot and theme is into two completely separate lines, such as in To Kill A Mockingbird where the plot is all about the protagonist a lawyer trying to get a fair trial for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in a small 1930s southern town, and the antagonist, the father of the rape victim, who wants the defendant lynched without a trial. But the theme is all about the lawyer’s young daughter and here unwitting prejudice against a mentally challenged neighborhood man she has never met. He turns out to be her protector, and through his actions, convinces her (just as the ghosts convince Scrooge) that she was wrong to pre-judge him. Two message of prejudice – one of fighting against it, and one a word of caution to look for it within ourselves.
Well, I could go on and on, and in fact I have in many articles over the years on the same topic that you can find just by searching on this blog.
But the concluding point is that if you are only writing with a protagonist and antagonist and have the protagonist grappling with some personal issue, you are missing the push-back on that issue that could be provided by an influence character. If you add one to your story, your message will be far more powerful, and your outcome will be far more satisfying.
Melanie Anne Phillips
Characters have two jobs. One, they must respond as real people so we can identify with them. Two, they must function as part of your plot to they contribute to the message.
Characters who don’t ring true drop your readers (or audience) out of their involvement with your story.
Characters who don’t have a plot function seem pointless and can disrupt the flow of your story.
That being said, there is no need to develop the personality of a character who is simply a vehicle of exposition to provide some necessary information to your readers.
Similarly, characters can provide color and passion to a story, even if they have no impact on the course of events.
Think of these two approaches to character as the “play by play” and “color commentary” on a sporting event. One announcer tells you what’s happening and how it fits into the big picture. The other announcer provides interesting information about the backstory and personality of each player, helping us see them as people, and drawing our interest and involvement.
In your story storytelling, review your work from time to time to ensure your critical characters are working to advance the plot. And then take an emotional picture each character in your story verify that they have sufficient personality traits and personal information to attract your readers, hold their attention throughout the story, and lead them to identify with your characters or at the very least, identify them as a “type” they see in everyday life.
More on character types in future Beginning Writer Tips from StoryWeaver.
“Snakes… Why did it have to be snakes….???”
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 preferences 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.
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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.
You can learn more about the Dramatica approach to archetypes by downloading a free PDF version of Dramatica: A New Theory of Story, and you can put it to work with our Dramatica Story Structure Software, which you can try risk-free for 90 days.
Over the course of the story, your reader/audience has come to know your characters and to feel for them. The story doesn’t end when your characters and their relationships reach a climax. Rather, the reader/audience will want to know the aftermath – how it turned out for each character and each relationship. In addition, the audience needs a little time to say goodbye – to let the character walk off into the sunset or to mourn for them before the story ends.
This is in effect the conclusion, the wrap-up. After everything has happened to your characters, after the final showdown with their respective demons, what are they like? How have they changed? If a character began the story as a skeptic, does it now have faith? If they began the story full of hatred for a mother that abandoned them, have they now made revelations to the effect that she was forced to do this, and now they no longer hate? This is what you have to tell the audience, how their journeys changed them, have the resolved their problems, or not?
And in the end, this constitutes a large part of your story’s message. It is not enough to know if a story ends in success or failure, but also if the characters are better off emotionally or plagued with even greater demons, regardless of whether or not the goal was achieved.
You can show what happens to your characters directly, through a conversation by others about them, or even in a post-script on each that appears after the story is over or in the ending credits of a movie.
How you do this is limited only by your creative inspiration, but make sure you review each character and each relationship and provide at least a minimal dismissal for each.
Melanie Anne Phillips
The concepts in this article
are from StoryWeaver
For just about any story you read, you get a sense of who it revolves around – who is it really about? Who is the character whose shoes we stand in, through whose eyes and heart do we see and feel the story at the most passionate personal level?
In Gone with the Wind, for example, the two most prominent characters are Rhett and Scarlet. We like Rhett, but it is clearly Scarlet’s story – the whole thing revolves around her, what she thinks, what he feels, the plans she makes, her attitudes, and so on. Rhett, as charismatic as he is, does a lot of things, but he even disappears for quite a while at one point in the picture, but that’s okay because Scarlet is the core of the story. So, she’s the Main Character.
In both the book and movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus (the Gregory Peck part) is the protagonist. The Story Goal is to try and save the black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in the 1930s south. By definition, the Protagonist is the one pushing forward the effort to achieve the goal. So, that is clearly Atticus. And his opponent, the Antagonist, is the father of the offended girl who wants the man lynched. That’s the plot and Protagonist and Antagonist fight for it. But, neither of them is the Main Character, and we can tell this because we don’t stand in either of their shoes – we don’t see the story though either of their sets of eyes. Rather the Main Character is Atticus’ young daughter Scout. She is also the narrator of both the book and movie, but that is not what makes her the Main Character. Rather, it is that we see the story through her eyes – a child’s view of prejudice.
And there is one more character – the one I want you to focus on creating next for your story – the Influence Character! In TKAM, it is Boo Radley – the Boogeyman who lives next door. While the logistic argument of the story is between Atticus and Bob Ewell over the trial and the fate of the defendant, the passionate or philosophic argument is all about Scout’s prejudice against Boo without ever having seen him. And in fact, he turns out to be the one who has been protecting her from Bob Ewell all along. In other words, any time we make judgements about someone without knowing them, that’s what prejudice is all about. That’s the message of the story. And that’s why Atticus is NOT the Main Character. If he was, we’d stand in his shoes, be all righteous defending a black man, and nothing would be learned. But by standing in Scout’s innocent shoes and still finding ourselves to be prejudiced (because we buy into her fear of Boo) the message is made.
From these examples, you can see that while a protagonist is essential as the driver of the quest for your goal, the passion and message of your story revolves around your main character, who may or may not be the same player as your protagonist.
Use this perspective to ensure both your plot and your message are clearly and powerfully represented.
And use our Dramatica software to develop both your protagonist and main character, whether they are the same player or not.