As trite as it might seem, ask yourself “What would a story be without characters?” The answer can help you get a grip on exactly what characters really do in a story, and therefore how to build them effectively.
Although it is possible to write without the use of characters, it is not easy. Characters represent our drives, our essential human qualities. So a story without characters would be a story that did not describe or explore anything that might be considered a motivation. For most writers, such a story would not provide the opportunity to completely fulfill their own motivations for writing.
For example, we might consider the following poem:
Rain, rain, go away.
Come again another day.
Are there characters in this short verse? Is the rain a character?
To some readers the poem might be a simple invocation for the rain to leave. To other readers, the rain may seem to be stubborn, thoughtless, or inconsiderate. Of course we would need to read more to know for certain.
Suppose we wrote the sentence, “The rain danced on the sidewalk in celebration of being reunited with the earth.”
Now we are definitely assigning human qualities to the rain. Without doubt, the rain has become a character. Characters do not have to be people; they can also be places or things. In fact, anything that can be imbued with motivation can be a character.
So, a fantasy story might incorporate a talking book. An action story might employ a killer wolverine. And a horror story might conjure up the vengeful smoke from a log that was cut from a sentient tree and burned in a fireplace.
When we come to a story we either already have some ideas for a character or characters we would like to use, or we will likely soon find the need for some. But how can we come up with these characters, or how can we develop the rough characters we already have?
Coming up with characters is 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. Making these characters intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. But first things first, let us 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. The point is, we can come up with a whole population of characters just by picking the vocations of those we might expect or at least accept as not inconsistent with the subject matter. Now these characters might seem quite ordinary at first glance, but that is only because we know nothing about them. I promised you a trick to use that would make ordinary characters intriguing, and now is the time to try it.
Of course, we probably don’t need that many characters in our story, so for this example let’s pick only one character from each of the four groups above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.
First 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 a mousy thing.
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. 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 Emit Kelly, sleazy like Crusty 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 are given – so far 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!
Many authors come to a story realizing they need some sort of central character and then try to decide what kind or person he or she should be from scratch. But it is far easier to first build a cast of characters that really excite you (as we did above) and then ask yourself which one you would like to be the central 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?
And how would things change depending upon who we pick as the Villain or Antagonist? In fact, by choosing one of these characters as the Hero and another as Villain it will begin to suggest what might happen in the plot, just as picking the subject matter suggested our initial characters. Writer’s block never has to happen. Not when you are armed with this technique to spur your passions.
Here are four useful techniques to add to your novelist’s bag of tricks:
Novels Aren’t Stories
A novel can be extremely free form. Some are simply narratives about a fictional experience. Others are a collection of several stories that may or may not be intertwined.
Jerzy N. Kosinski (the author of “Being There,” wrote another novel called “Steps.” It contains a series of story fragments. Sometimes you get the middle of a short story, but no middle or end. Sometimes, just the end, and sometimes just the middle.
Each fragment is wholly involving, and leaves you wanting to know the rest of the tale, but they are not to be found. In fact, there is not (that I could find) any connection among the stories, nor any reason they are in that particular order. And yet, they are so passionately told that it was one of the best reads I ever enjoyed.
The point is, don’t feel confined to tell a single story, straight through, beginning to end.
Rather than think of writing a novel, think about writing a book. Consider that a book can be exclusively poetry. Or, as Anne Rice often does, you can use poetry to introduce chapters or sections, or enhance a moment in a story.
You can take time to pontificate on your favorite subject, if you like. Unlike screenplays which must continue to move, you can stop the story and diverge into any are you like, as long as you can hold your reader’s interest.
For example, in the Stephen King novel, “The Tommy Knockers,” he meanders around a party, and allows a character to go on and on… and on… about the perils of nuclear power. Nuclear power has nothing to do with the story, and the conversation does not affect nor advance anything. King just wanted to say that, and did so in an interesting diatribe.
So feel free to break any form you have ever heard must be followed. The most free of all written media is the novel, and you can literally – do whatever you want.
Get Into Your Characters’ Heads
One of the most powerful opportunities of the novel format is the ability to describe what a character is thinking. In movies or stage plays (with exceptions) you must show what the character is thinking through action and/or dialog. But in a novel, you can just come out and say it.
For example, in a movie, you might say:
John walks slowly to the window and looks out at the park bench where he last saw Sally. His eyes fill with tears. He bows his head and slowly closes the blinds.
But in a novel you might write:
John walked slowly to the window, letting his gaze drift toward the park bench where he last saw Sally. Why did I let her go, he thought. I wanted so much to ask her to stay. Saddened, he reflected on happier times with her – days of more contentment than he ever imagined he could feel.
The previous paragraph uses two forms of expressing a character’s thoughts. One, is the direct quote of the thought, as if it were dialog spoken internally to oneself. The other is a summary and paraphrase of what was going on in the character’s head.
Most novels are greatly enhanced by stepping away from a purely objective narrative perspective, and drawing the reader into the minds of the character’s themselves.
Keep A Daily Log Of Tidbits
One of the biggest differences between a pedestrian novel and a riveting one are the clever little quips, concepts, snippets of dialog, and fresh metaphors.
But coming up with this material on the fly is a difficult chore, and sometimes next to impossible. Fortunately, you can overcome this problem simply by keeping a daily log of interesting tidbits. Each and every day, many intriguing moments cross our paths. Some are notions we come up with on our own; others we simply observe. Since a novel takes a considerable amount of time to write, you are bound to encounter a whole grab bag of tidbits by the time you finish your first draft.
Then, for the second draft, you refer to all that material and drop it in wherever you can to liven up the narrative. You may find that it makes some characters more charismatic, or gives others, who have remained largely silent, something to say. You may discover an opportunity for a sub-plot, a thematic discourse, or the opportunity to get on your soapbox.
What I do is to keep the log at the very bottom of the document for my current novel, itself. That way, since the novel is almost always open on my computer, anything that comes along get appended to the end before it fades from memory.
Also, this allows me to work some of the material into the first draft of the novel while I’m writing it. For example, here are a few tidbits at the bottom of the novel I’m developing right now:
A line of dialog:
“Are you confused yet? No? Let me continue….”
A silly comment:
“None of the victims was seriously hurt.” Yeah – they were all hurt in a very funny way.
A character name:
A new phrase:
Theorem ~ Absolute Corruption Empowers Absolutely
Corollary ~ There are no good people in positions of power
I haven’t worked these into the story yet, but I will. And it will be richer for it.
Don’t Hold Back
Unlike screenplays, there are no budget constraints in a book. You can write, “The entire solar system exploded, planet at a time,” as easily as you can write, “a leaf fell from the tree.”
Let you imagination run wild. You can say anything, do anything, break any law, any taboo, any rule of physics. Your audience will follow you anywhere as long as you keep their interest.
So, follow your Muse wherever it leads. No idea is too big or too small. Write about the things you are most passionate about, and it will come through your words, between the lines, and right into the hearts and souls of your readers.
The StoryWeaver Method is a step by step approach to developing your novel or screenplay.
StoryWeaver will help you create your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.
The StoryWeaver Method ~ Step 2
Introduction to Inspiration
Inspiration can come from many sources: a conversation overheard at a coffee shop, a newspaper article, or a personal experience to name a few.
And, inspiration can also take many forms: a snippet of dialogue, a bit of action, a clever concept, and so on.
One thing most inspirations have in common is that they are not stories, just the beginnings of stories.To develop a complete story, you’ll need a cast of characters, a detailed plot, a thematic argument, and the trappings of genre.
But how do you come up with the extra pieces you need?
In the steps that follow, StoryWeaver will help inspire you, even if you can’t come up with an idea to save your life!
If you don’t yet know what your story is going to be about, StoryWeaver will help you find out.And if you do have something already worked out, these questions will help you fill in the details.
In the next step, you’ll begin your story development process by writing a short synopsis of what your story is about. But, if you are starting from scratch without a story concept, StoryWeaver will help you to develop one.
Email correspondence with a less than pleasant potential purchaser:
I recently came across your site as I am needing to purchase Move Magic Screenwriting 6. I see that you beat other authorized online pricing. I almost purchased one on this site: screenplay.com
when I decided to do some comparison shopping. I see that yours is more expensive, but if you are truly able to beat that price, I will purchase from you instead. I would love to purchase this weekend to start a class Sunday night if possible and would appreciate a quick response. Thanks!
Unfortunately, the 4th of July Sale ended yesterday on July 7th. You can see that is the end date on the screenplay.com web sit. They are the manufacturers and our reseller price depends on when they lower it for a sale. So prices went up today to us as well, so we can’t beat the expired sale price.
I emailed you yesterday [Saturday]when that price was still active.
The price wasn’t active yesterday [Saturday]. The sale ended on Friday. The manufacturer just hadn’t taken the advertisement down yet, but the ad does state the end date of July 7.
Oh interesting. I didn’t realize they could falsly advertise a different price than they would process at checkout. (I got all the way through the checkout process last night except to confirm it with that listed price)
Is ok though, I can let our group know to be aware of this in the future.
Turns out we are going to be able to get the program for $90 anyway, so it all worked out in the end!
Hi, Maryann. I’m very glad you were able to get a good price! Actually, please don’t let your disappointment at being able to take advantage of the sale make you think the manufacturer was falsely advertising. We, for one thing, do not put the products on sale at all – always the same price – though we will beat other prices that are currently valid by the manufacturer or any other licensed reseller.
And as for the manufacturer – I went to college with these guys and they are honest as the day is long. All that happened was that they put up a notice of a sale that specified that the end date was July 7 right in the text in a prominent place. And since the sale ended Friday night and they aren’t open on the weekend, they just didn’t get around to taking down the notice – probably just an oversight, but they never falsely advertised.
So, with your comment, “Oh interesting. I didn’t realize they could falsly advertise a different price…” as you see they didn’t advertise a different price. I’m sorry you didn’t see the end date when you went to order.
Still, accusing my good life-long friends of falsely advertising does offend me, and I’m very sorry you felt the need to sling accusations. Though I am still glad you found good price.
— Now normally I just accept the abuse some customers feel they need to dump on me, as if I wasn’t a real person and as if their disappointment, justified or not, is a valid reason for shedding their own unhappiness onto someone else and making them miserable. Just the price of doing business I figure.
But THIS day, I’m sitting here watching a beautiful PBS documentary on the Pacific ocean, enjoying a Sunday dinner of pot roast, potatoes, and of shallots and carrots we grew in our own garden. I served it up on the very plates my beloved grandmother used to serve the very same meal for Sunday dinner hundreds of times in my life – very special.
And I am doing a little customer service on the computer to help any wayward purchasers, even though I’m technically closed for the weekend. And this one person stomps into the middle of that with accusations against my friends and just a generally bad attitude.
It is moment like these that make we want to retire from selling products at all and just do it all through Amazon or just focus on my story consultation services.
But I suppose my main reason for posting this is to remind us all (me included) that even a casual snarky comment, in person, in email, or in a post on social media and throw a little bitterness into a beautiful moment, or worse, be the straw that broke the camel’s back for someone just barely managing to cope with a bad day.
To paraphrase a famous quote: “Think twice, post once.”
Story Structure can be a straight-jacket for your Muse. On the one hand, structure is necessary for a story to have a point or even just to make sense! But on the other hand, structure tends to channel ideas down predictable paths and to rob a story of serendipity.
In my twenty-five years as a teacher of creative writing and story structure, I’ve developed a number of techniques to help you find your perfect balance between the rigors of structure and the free-wheeling flow of inspiration.
The Muse explodes outward into a world of passion and possibilities. As a teacher of creative writing for twenty-five years, my experiences with many types of writers tell me that one should never consider structure at … Continue reading →
Let your Muse run wild The easiest way to give yourself writer’s block is to bridle your Muse by trying to come up with ideas. Your Muse is always coming up with ideas – just not the ones you want. … Continue reading →
The concept behind this method of finding inspiration is quite simple, really: It is easier to come up with many ideas than it is to come up with one idea. Now that may sound counter-intuitive, but consider this… When you … Continue reading →
Drudge people. You see them every day. On the news. In your town. Outside your window. Perhaps, even in your own home. You can easily recognize them as they have lost their tales. With no tale, they are directionless, shuffling … Continue reading →
back in the early 1990s, my writing partner, Chris Huntley, and I published a book on narrative structure entitled, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story. It begins: “Part of what makes a story great is its … Continue reading →
We think in narrative, but think about topics. Narrative is the operating system of our own minds, and we seek to impose that upon every topic we encounter. For if we can, then we have the most touch-points with our … Continue reading →
Sweet potatoes are the best. And they are best described in Ralph Ellison’s story of a black man coming to terms with his identity entitled “Invisible Man,” in which he has always avoided eating his favorite childhood food, hot buttered … Continue reading →
Structuring before writing or anywhere in the beginning of the process hobbles the Muse and creativity stops and progress bogs down. This can make it appear as if story structure is your enemy. But, if you … Continue reading →
Introduction to StoryWeaver StoryWeaver is a new method of story development with a revolutionary approach. Rather that focusing on what stories need to be complete, it focuses on what authors need to complete stories. Other methods look … Continue reading →
In this article, we’ll first take a quick look at the origins of the concept of fictional characters, then outline some practical techniques for creating compelling characters from thin air. Where Do Characters Come … Continue reading →
sit in your favorite writing chair, by the window, on the porch, or in the study. You wear your favorite tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches, or your blue jeans, or your “creative shoes.” … Continue reading →
Unlike screenplays, there are no budget constraints in a book. You can write, “The entire solar system exploded, planet at a time,” as easily as you can write, “a leaf fell from the tree.” Let you … Continue reading →
I’m Melanie Anne Phillips, owner of Storymind.com as well as the creator of StoryWeaver, Idea Spinner and the co-creator of Dramatica. I’ve been teaching creative writing now for more that twenty-five years, and the best tip I have is both … Continue reading →
Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not really possible to write a novel (or screenplay) step by step because that’s not how the creative mind works. Rather, we come to a story with a whole bag of bits and pieces of ideas, some complete, some half-baked. But, we can describe in step by step terms our own creative processes by which we assemble those ideas into a finished book or script.
To begin with, the ideas we have are from all across the board: a snippet of dialog, a setting, a bit of action, a type of personality for a character (even though we don’t yet have any idea if it’s a protagonist or antagonist or even if it is the Main Character).
You see, inspiration – the desire to write a story and an idea of what it will be about – comes from the subjects that interest us. But stories themselves come from the structure that holds them together. And that is the age-old author’s dilemma: “How do I turn my interests and motivations into a finished novel that makes sense?”
When embarking on a new writing project, it often seems as if the whole process is summed up in that old saying, “You can’t get there from here.” And for many writers, once the novel is written, they can’t really see how they did it, or more aptly, “You can’t get here from there.”
Yet, there is hope. There is an approach you can take that works with your Muse, rather than against her. And, it is a real step-by-step method that will actually take you from concept to completion of your novel or script.
So what is this miraculous “silver bullet” for banishing writer’s block and dancing merrily down the garden path to a finished novel? Simple. Rather than focusing on the needs of the story, focus on the needs of the author.
No matter what kind of author you are, no matter what kind of novel you want to write, you share the same sequence of creative steps with all other authors everywhere. Just like the stages of grief or Freud’s psycho-sexual stage, there is a common order to the creative process which drives us all.
This process can be divided into four Creative Stages: In order, 1 – Inspiration, 2 – Development, 3 – Exposition, 4 – Storytelling. Let me define each a little more fully.
Inspiration comes to us all, sometimes through great effort; other times unbidden. From the outside, it appears as if a person plucks an idea out of the ether, creating something from nothing. But in truth, every inspiration is just the synthesis of some combination of new and previous experiences.
Many inspirations aren’t worth pursuing. But, occasionally, a worthwhile concept pops into our heads that’s just too appealing to toss away. These little visions can be single grains of sand that require lots of time and effort to develop into a pearl. Or, they may be fragments, glimpses really, of something larger for which we do not yet see the full extent, scope, or shape. The most impressive of these little mental feats are those rare ideas which thrust themselves upon our conscious minds completely developed already, like a snap-shot of the whole shebang in a single big bang moment of creation, right out the head of Zeus, as it were, mature upon birth.
There’s many ways to help bring inspiration about, and I’ll be writing about those in articles to come. But for now, here are some links to previous articles I’ve penned on the subject:
For your convenience, I’ve also compiled all my best articles on finding inspiration into a twenty page booklet called The Case of the Missing Muse, available as a PDF Download and also in Kindle Book format on Amazon.com.
As obvious as it may be, it bears repeating: You can’t develop an inspiration you haven’t had yet. And just as important: Inspiration doesn’t stop just because you move into Development.
You see, these four stages the creative process don’t follow each other one after the next. Rather, they are layered, like a layer cake or the floors of a building under construction.
No matter what the story, you have to start with Inspiration – there’s no way around it. Once you have that inspiration you can start adding depth and detail to it until it fleshes out in a fully developed story concept, or at least a part of one.
But even while you are developing one part or aspect of your story – perhaps because you are developing one part – new inspirations start popping up all along the way. The very act of enriching a previous inspiration add more concepts and new perspectives into the mix. Those bounce around in your head, run into each other, and merge and blend to create whole new inspirations.
So just because you have all your basic ideas worked out, don’t shut your mind to Inspiration just because you have started Development. It may turn out your best ideas are yet to come!
What’s more, you don’t have to wait until you have your whole story worked out to start developing the parts you have. There’s no reason why you can’t figure out the arc of one of your characters before you even know who the other characters are or what the plot is about.
It is more like weaving than building timeline. You follow one thread until inspiration runs dry, then pick up another and run with it for a while. And even these don’t have to be in story sequential order. You can jump to the end to dabble with a surprise conclusion to your plot, for example. You might not yet have any idea how you are going to get your characters there, but you know what kind of twist you want. So, just go for it. You can always rewrite later if you get in a bind.
You know, a lot of writers worry that if they don’t have everything figured out in advance, they may have to get rid of a lot of work they had already done that just doesn’t fit with the way the story turns out to be.
Hey, words are cheap. If you are any kind of an author at all, you’ve got an endless supply of them. It pays to remember that writing a novel almost always takes a long time. You’re going to spend hundreds of hours tooling it together. Don’t cry over a few hours or even dozens of hours that have to get ripped out later. It is all part of the process of finding your story.
Keep in mind the salesman’s creed: If you get nineteen doors slammed in your face before you make a $20 sale on the twentieth call, well then you made $1 each time you knocked on a door. Same with writing. It doesn’t matter how much work you have to throw away. By following each inspiration as far as it will go, even if that material is never used, it was a necessary step to get you to the material you WILL use.
We’ll get into this a lot deeper in articles to come, but for now, here’s some links to a few techniques that will help you during the development process:
Okay. So you had some inspirations and you’ve done some development. Perhaps you’ve even worked out your entire story and everything in it. You know your story up one side and down the other. But – your readers don’t. Exposition is the process of working out how and when you are going to reveal everything you know about your story as it plays out over time.
Perhaps the most common mistake made in Exposition is knowing your story so well that you forget to share that knowledge with your readers. It is so easy to leave out a critical piece of information because it is so important it never occurs to you to see if you actually conveyed it.
But exposition is much more than that; it is an art form in its own right. Intentionally holding back on information to create assumptions or misunderstandings can help set your readers up for jaw-dropping shockers. Putting information out of sequential order in flashbacks and flash forwards can force your readers to have to reevaluate characters and plot . This makes the “read” an active endeavor rather than just a passive experience.
There are two basic ways to approach Exposition: 1 – Work out an Exposition Plan in advance so that you know how and when each key bit of information will unfold. 2 – Just go ahead and write the story and then go back to make sure you put everything in that ought to be there.
The first approach works well when you want to keep the readers guessing, as in mysteries or conspiracy stories. The second approach is better if you are the kind of writer who likes to go with the flow and not feel too constrained while writing.
If you elect not to have an Exposition Plan in advance, here’s a tip that will still ensure all the crucial bits of information made it into your story: Before you write in fine literary prose, write a shopping list of all the elements of your story you want your readers to know. Describe your characters, plot, theme, and genre all in terse, concise terms.
Then, when you have written your story, refer to your list and find each element in the story as written, checking it off the list when you find the actual place at which you’ve conveyed that information. If any of these character and plot points doesn’t get checked off your list, you’ve gotten so wrapped up in the storytelling you forgot to put them in and need to find a place to insert that information as gracefully and dramatically as possible.
As before, Exposition is layered on top of Development and Inspiration. So, even while you are working out how to unfold your story, that very process may inspire whole new concepts to include the your novel and also suggest new details that can enrich the ones you’ve already got.
Here’s some links to some of the best techniques for solid exposition:
One of the best tools for working out an exposition plan is the new Outline 4D program from Write Brothers.
Finally, we arrive at the last stage of story development. This is the part where you actually put words on paper that you intend your readers to see. (Keep in mind that for a screenplay, your readers are not the movie-goers but the cast and crew who will interpret your words and present them to the audience on your behalf).
Now there’s no right or wrong way to tell a story, but there are more and less effective and involving ways. Of all four of the stages, this is the one most dependent on natural ability. Let me say a few words about that:
You are only as good as you own talent – get over it!
Most cases of writers block occur not because authors don’t have any ideas but because they don’t think the ideas and/or the way they expressed them is good enough.
Hey, we all want to be celebrated in our own time – the toast of the town, the person everyone wants to know. Dickens was a rock star of his age – revered by scholars and applauded by his fans, especially when he went on tour throughout England doing “one-man-show” performances based on readings from his “greatest hits” and acting out all the characters himself.
Not everyone can be Dickens. Hardly anyone can be Dickens. In fact, only Dickens could be Dickens and only Shakespeare could be Shakespeare. I’m sorry but that’s the way it is.
Some folks, like the aforementioned, are notable for many fine literary works. Others, like Mary Shelly, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison really only had one superb novel in them. (Ellison might have had two but his entire manuscript burned up in a house fire and he had to reconstruct it from memory).
Fact is, if you aren’t good or lucky enough to be a Dickens or a Shakespeare, you’ve go two choices: 1 – labor over one single work all of your life until it is as perfect as you can make it. 2 – Write a lot of books (or screenplays) and hope one of them turns out to be great.
It really depends on whether you are writing to ensure how you will be remembered, or writing because you want to share something with people today.
Either way, there’s still only one cardinal rule in the art of storytelling: Never bore your audience! Someone once said, “They won’t remember what you said and they won’t remember what you did. They’ll remember how you made them feel.”
To be sure, there are all kinds of tips, tricks and techniques you can use to improve and hone your storytelling skills. Just don’t get hung up on whatever level of ability you’ve go. Rather, make the most of it. After all, the more you write, the better your writing will become.
Here’s a link on storytelling that can help grease the wheels of self expression:
Naturally, the less that gets in the way of your writing process, the more smoothly it can proceed. When you write novels or screenplays, consider Movie Magic Screenwriter. It is not just for scripts, but automatically formats your novel, script, or stage play while you write.
I was going through some old back-ups of my computer from many, many years ago and came across this lecture I had prepared for a meeting of psychiatrists involved in the psychological aspects of art and therapy.
Alas, after being invited to speak, I met with one of the principals involved (a Freudian psychiatrist) and he was so appalled by the “radical” concepts I was proposing that he cancelled my appearance, rather than subject the members of his group to these dangerous and subversive concepts.
Hey, I thought I’d toned it down. Go figger….
Well, here’s the transcript of what I would have said, given the chance….
Transcript of a Lecture
Prepared for the semi-annual convention of
The Southern California Psychoanalytic Society
The Center for Psychoanalytic Studies of Creativity and Art
of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute
Media and the Individual
Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, the Dramatica theory of story
Stories, especially those told in the media of film or television, can have a tremendous impact on an audience. Experiencing a story is similar in many ways to experiencing events in “real life”. Stories can make us laugh or cry, leave us feeling euphoric or depressed, lead us through a logistic consideration, or leave us in an emotional state.
In this age of broadcast media, CD ROMS, and high-tech motion pictures, the average citizen in our society may be exposed to almost as many narrative experiences as life experiences. As a result, understanding the nature and mechanism by which stories affect audiences can lead to insights in media impact on an individual’s outlooks and attitudes.
From one perspective, we might identify four areas in which this impact manifests itself: One, the emotional mood an audience is left with at the conclusion of a story, Two, the emotional journey experienced by an audience during the unfolding of a story, Three, understandings arrived at by the audience by the conclusion of a story, Four, logistic considerations made by the audience during the unfolding of the story. Because these are so basic and important, let me take a moment to expand slightly on each of these concepts.
1. Emotionally, a story can change the mood of an audience from what it was at the beginning of a story to a completely different emotional state by the time it is over. This might pertain to the way the audience feels about a particular topic, or simply might change the underlying mood of the audience overall.
For example, in a story such as “Remains of the Day”, an audience might be brought to a saddened and frustrated emotional state that might linger well after the story is over. This mood could even recur when some symbol or set of circumstances in everyday life triggers a conscious re-consideration of the story or a subconscious response based on patterns experienced in the story.
In addition, an audience’s emotional response toward a particular topic, symbol, circumstance, or pattern may be altered through the story experience, leading to anything from changes in likes and dislikes to changes in attitudes, loyalties, or motivations in regard to a specific topic.
2. In the process of experiencing a story, audience members may be carried from one emotion to another in an order that might conform to or differ from their experiences in “real life”. This can either reinforce or alter habitual patterns of emotional response, albeit in a small and perhaps temporary way. For example, if an audience member were to identify with a character, such as Agent Mulder in “The X-Files”, he or she might (over time) become more likely to play hunches or, conversely, less likely to accept things at their face value.
3. By the end of a story, the audience may be brought to an understanding it did not possess prior to participating in the story process. For example, in “The Usual Suspects”, the big picture is not grasped by the audience until the final pieces are dropped into place near the end. This creates an insight, as opposed to a logistic argument, and can be used to change audience opinion in regard to a particular issue, either through manipulation or propaganda.
4. As a story unfolds, a logistic argument may be constructed that leads linearly from one point of consideration to a conclusion. In “JFK”, for example, a continuous chain of logic is built link by link over the course of the film in an attempt to prove the filmmaker’s contentions about the Kennedy assassination. This method can exercise audience members in logistic methods that may be repeated unconsciously in their everyday lives.
From this brief look at the power of the visual media, we can get a sense that many people might be better understood by becoming aware of the kinds of stories to which they are exposed, and many people might also benefit from carefully tailored story experiences.
But what exactly is the mechanism of story, and precisely how can one use that mechanism to create specific impact on an audience? Those questions have plagued authors for centuries, and are also of utmost important to those who may feel that an understanding of story can enhance therapist/patient interactions.
Fifteen years ago, my partner, Chris Huntley, and I began an exploration into these issues which culminated in a book, “Dramatica – a New Theory of Story.” Tonight I want to touch on a few of the essential tenets of the Dramatica theory which I hope will provide some insight into the mechanism of story.
Traditional theories commonly see stories as narratives in which characters, representing real people, engage in activities comprising a plot which illustrates a moral point pertaining to a particular theme in a setting and style which determine genre. In contrast, Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity. That’s quite a mouthful, so let me say it once again for clarity… Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity.
In other words, stories are not really about characters, plot, theme, and genre, but rather, characters, plot, theme, and genre represent different families of consideration that go on in a single human mind when it is trying to come to terms with an inequity. Characters are the different motivations of the Story Mind that influence each other, jockey for position, or come into conflict. Theme represents the value standards of the Story Mind – the measuring sticks by which the Story Mind determines what is better and what is worse. Plot demonstrates the Story Mind’s methodologies or techniques it employs in trying to resolve the inequity at the heart of the story. And genre determines the Story Mind’s personality – what kind of a mind it is that is doing this consideration.
Well, that’s a rather bold statement to make. After all, why would such a complex model of psychology end up being at the center of story structure? Surely writers didn’t sit down and say, “I think I’ll write an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity.” Not hardly. So where does the Story Mind come from? According to Dramatica, this model of the mind happens quite naturally, by itself, as a byproduct of the process of communication.
When we seek to communicate we can’t reach our audience directly – mind to mind . Rather, we must transmit our message through a medium. To do this, we fashion a symbolic representation of what we have in mind in the hope it will affect our audience the same way it does us. In effect, we create a model of what we are thinking and feeling for the audience to embrace. Which symbols we use depends upon our personal experiences and the culture in which we are working. But beneath the specific symbols are the essential human qualities that are the same in all of us – all cultures and all times.
In and of themselves, these qualities do not yet constitute a model of the mind. For example, if we wanted to convey fear, then we would choose a symbol that would invoke fear in our audience. That human quality would then be communicated. But it is only a small part of what makes up each of our minds.
As communication evolved, the earliest storytellers progressed beyond simply expressing basic emotions or single concepts and began to tell tales. A tale is a progression of symbols that connects one feeling or consideration to the next in an unbroken chain. In this way, an author could lead an audience along an emotional journey and also illustrate that a particular approach led to a particular outcome.
It didn’t take these authors long to realize, however, that the human heart cannot leap from one emotion to another indiscriminately without passing through the emotions in between. This concept is well documented in The Seven Stages of Grief, and even in Freud’s Stages of human development.
Similarly, a logistic chain must not skip any links or it will be held as invalid. So, when telling a tale, the early storytellers developed a feel for which intermediate symbolic steps were required to get from one point of view to another, both logistically and emotionally. We see the result of these discoveries in concepts such as the hero’s journey, and story as myth.
Still, this is not a complete model of the mind. A tale is simply a statement that a series of concepts led from point A to point B. In other words, the message of a tale is that a particular series of events can happen. It will be accepted or rejected by an audience solely on the basis of taking the right steps logistically and making the right connections emotionally. Yes, this could happen, or no it could not.
Many fine works through the ages and even today in novels, motion pictures and television are really not complete stories, but simply tales. So what constitutes a story? Well, if a tale is a statement, then a story is an argument. A tale says, “this path led to this outcome indicating it is a good way or a bad way to go about solving a problem”. A tale states that a particular outcome is possible. A story says, “this path always leads to this outcome indicating it is always a good way or a bad way to go about solving a problem”. A story argues that a particular outcome is inevitable.
If an early author made a statement that a particular case was good or bad, he or she would simply have to prove that a particular approach led to a positive or negative outcome. But if that author tried to tell the audience the approach was always good or always bad, more than likely someone in the audience would say, “Well, what about under these conditions,” or “what about in this context?” Being right there, the author could counter that rebuttal by explaining how the approach would still be best or worst even in that additional case. He or she would either make the point, or fail to make it, in which case the argument would be lost, and the tale would remain as a only a statement, true for that case alone.
As the art of communication evolved beyond the spoken word to the written word, however, the author was no longer physically present to argue the point. Instead, if an author wanted to “prove” inevitability, he or she would have to anticipate all reasonable challenges to that statement, and preclude dissension by incorporating all appropriate arguments in the work itself. In this manner, by the time the story is told, not only is a statement made that an approach is good or bad, but all necessary supporting arguments have also been made to “prove” it could not be any other way.
To make these supporting arguments, an author needs to look at the story not only from his or her own point of view, but to anticipate all the other points of view on the issue that audience members might take. By the time the work is finished, it should represent a full exploration of the issue at the heart of the story – both logistically and emotionally, addressing all considerations a human mind might explore within the scope of the argument. In so doing, a complete mind-set is created – an full analogy of a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity – the Story Mind.
Characters, plot, theme, and genre, evolve naturally out of this process to represent the full spectrum of considerations made by the human mind. Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Events also evolve naturally as the Story Mind finishes considering the issue from one point of view and shifts it’s attention to another.
Okay, suppose we have a Story Mind. What do we do with it? Or, more importantly, how does the audience receive it? In fact, the audience examines the Story Mind from four distinct perspectives. Imagine for the moment that a story is a battle. We might hold the Story Mind out in front of us, “Alas, poor mind,” and look at it from a distance. For the audience, this perspective is like that of a general on a hill, watching the story’s battle. From here, we are looking from the outside in. We can see all the broad strategies and forces at work, but we are distanced from them. Although we may be concerned for the soldiers on the field, they are too far away to identify as individuals, so we classify them by their functions instead. There might be the soldier leading the charge – a protagonist archetype, or a deserter cowering in the bushes – the skeptic archetype. In an of it self, this view offers the best perspective on the “big picture” but at the expense of any personal involvement. So, in Dramatica, we refer to this as the Objective perspective.
For a more involving point of view, let us zoom our audience into the shoes of one of the soldiers on the field. Suddenly, we are seeing things from the inside, looking out. We are no longer privy to the broad developing movements of the battle as a whole, but we have a much better understanding of what it is like to be in the midst of the bombardment, trying to do our job and get out alive. The soldier from whom the audience experiences the story first hand is the Main Character of the story. It is important to note that the Main Character need not be the Protagonist, any more than any of us has to be the central figure in every group in which we are involved. Authors may choose to position the audience on the sidelines to gain an understanding of the battle from off-center. For example, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the Protagonist is Atticus (the Gregory Peck part in the movie), while the audience see the story through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout. If Atticus had been the Main Character, the audience would have felt self-righteous in doing the “moral” thing. But by placing the audience in Scout’s shoes, Lee Harper suckered us into being prejudiced against the unseen Boo Radley, showing us all that prejudice does not have to come from intentional hatred or meanness, but can rise quite innocently through assumption. In Dramatica, we refer to this most personal view as the Main Character perspective.
Now, as the Main Character struggles to make his way through the field of battle, a figure blocks his path. Through the smoke of all the dramatic explosions, the Main Character cannot tell if this figure is a friendly soldier trying to divert him from a mine field, or an enemy soldier trying to lure him into an ambush. As the Main Character approaches he yells, “Get out of my way!” The obstacle in his path shouts, “change course”. In the end, either the Main Character will run through the Obstacle Character to succeed or die in the mine field, or he will relent and change course to succeed or fall prey to the ambush. Neither decision guarantees success except as a reflection of the author’s argument This view is called The Obstacle Character perspective.
Finally, the audience will want to examine growth in the relationship between the Main and Obstacle characters as they “have it out” in their personal skirmish in the midst of the overall battle. No longer standing in the Main Character’s shoes, the audience judges on against the other as if they were two fighters circling. Because it deals with the conflict between two subjective points of view, this is called the Subjective perspective.
One way to get a feel for these four perspectives is to think of how the audience relates to the characters in each. The Main Character is first person singular – the “I” perspective. The Obstacle Character is seen through the Main Character’s eyes, and is the “you” perspective. The Subjective view is the “we” perspective, and the Objective view the “they” perspective. “I”, “you”, “we”, and “they”.
Symbolically, the Main Character represents where we are positioned at any given moment in our own minds – our sense of self. The Obstacle Character represents an alternative paradigm we are considering – we haven’t adopted it yet, so we don’t see things from that perspective yet, but merely examine that perspective from where we are. The Subjective view represents the process of trying to weigh the pros and cons of two points of view in a balanced fashion. The Objective view represents our attempt to look at our own mental processes analytically. Taken together, all four perspectives are like different camera angles on the same football game. Each is valid from its own point of view, but also incomplete. If they run in parallel the audience will come to a full understanding of all valid considerations regarding the story’s central issue and a complete argument will have been made.
There isn’t time this evening to even scratch the surface of describing the components of these four parallel arguments, but let us focus on the Main Character and examine some of the key considerations as an example. In this way, the nature of a story’s impact and how to control it to desired audience effect can be, at lest partially, illuminated.
To get meaning from the Main Character’s journey, and audience will need to know some things about the nature of that journey and its outcome. For one thing, by the end of the story the audience will want to know if the Main Character has changed or not. Many students of story erroneously believe a character must change in order to grow. In fact, a character might grow in their resolve while remaining the same. This calls for clarification of terms. In Dramatica, we define a steadfast character as one who keeps the same paradigm or character traits in regard to the story’s central issue of argument. A change character is one accepts the Obstacle Character’s alternative paradigm and adopts a new way of thinking or feeling. Because of the difficulty in overcoming obstacles and avoiding the apparently easier way out, a steadfast character needs to muster emotional reserves in order to remain steadfast, much like Job in the bible story.
Some well known Steadfast characters are James Bond in every movie except “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, and Clarise Starling in “Silence of the Lambs”. Well known change characters are Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”, and Ebeneezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”
As indicated earlier, change or steadfast alone does not guarantee success or failure. So an author must decide which it is to be. By “success” we do not mean a value judgment, but a simple assessment – did the Main Character achieve what he set out to achieve or not? It doesn’t matter if the Main Character realized that achieving his goal would be the wrong thing to do, for example, but simply, in the end, did he do it or not.
Once that determination is made, an author can ask himself or herself, “Now, how does the Main Character feel about the outcome? Did he or she resolve his or her personal angst or not?”
Earlier, I mentioned Clarise Starling in “Silence of the Lambs”. This story ends in a success because the original goal was to capture “Buffalo Bob” and rescue the senator’s daughter, which she does. But, if you recall the end of the movie, her graduation ceremony is not presented as the celebration we might expect. Rather, the camera moves slowly in long shots, the music is very somber, and Clarise is left pretty much alone – until she is called to the phone. It is Hannibal Lecter who immediately asks her, “Are the lambs still screaming?” She does not answer because they still are.
Hannibal Lecter was her Obstacle Character, even though Buffalo Bob was the Antagonist. With his question and answer, “quid pro quo”, he forced her to tell her story and ultimately to face the reason she is in her career – trying to save every lost lamb to make up for the one she couldn’t save as a child. To find relief from this central angst, she must let go of that experience and move on. But she cannot, and hence her success is tempered with her ongoing angst. In Dramatica, we call this a judgment of “Bad”. If angst is overcome, the judgment is “Good”.
Audiences are strongly affected by the four combinations of Success/Failure and Good/Bad. Look at the different overall viewing experiences of the Failure/Bad story of “Hamlet”, the Failure/Good story of “Rain Main” in which he doesn’t get the inheritance, but overcomes his hatred for his father, the Success/Bad story of “Remains of the Day” in which he successfully maintains the household through all trials and tribulations but fails to obtain a loving relationship, and the Success/Good story of “Star Wars”.
There are many more considerations pertaining to a Main Character, and a multitude of others in the other three perspectives as well. For example, a more Objective issue is whether the story’s scope is such that it is brought to a conclusion by a Timelock or an Optionlock. We all know Timelocks like “48 hours”, but just as many stories are drawn to an end by running out of options, again, as in “Remains of the Day.”
Why a lock at all? Since the choices a Story Mind is pondering have dire consequences, the consideration might go on forever if the scope of the argument were not limited. I know I never go to the doctor until I’ve exhausted all other possibilities that could avoid it. In that case, I have been trying to deal with an inequity limited by options – when there are no alternatives left, I must choose to go or not, but I can learn nothing else (within the scope of my argument to myself) that will help me make the decision. In contrast, a Timelock is as simple as having a friend ask you to join him or her for a movie that starts at 9:00 and you can’t make up your mind because you like the movie and hate the friend, or vice versa. Not surprising that real human considerations should be reflected in story or in the Story Mind.
Unfortunately, my presentation is also under a timelock, so I must soon draw my argument to a conclusion. Before I do, however, I have one final area I’d like to touch upon – the subject of Propaganda, as it . Dramatica theory holds a wealth of information about propaganda, but one particular notion is particularly intriguing.
(Here I will hold up a larger version of the attached picture)
What is the first thing you notice about his picture? I’m almost afraid to ask this question of a room full of psychiatrists! For most people, they would notice the missing eye. In fact, they would, at some level imagine an eye in that vacant spot to, if nothing else, verify their assessment of what is missing. The propaganda in this picture is that is a man’s face, due to the tie at the bottom. While the audience is busy filling in the blank, they don’t notice the ace up the sleeve. It’s the old slight of hand – you watch the magician’s right hand, while his left is palming the ball.
This particular propaganda technique is used to strong effect in “Thelma and Louise”. There is one piece of missing information. It is never explained in the story exactly what happened to Thelma in Texas that is clearly fueling her drive for independence. The subject is brought up but the missing piece is never filled in. So, the primarily female audience fills it in for itself. Subconsciously, if not consciously, most female audience members make an association with something from their own lives or their own fears that would be strong enough to conceivably drive them to the same response. In this manner the plight of Thelma is personalized.
So far, so good. But when Thelma and Louise drive over the cliff rather than spend the rest of their lives in prison, the message is also personalized – if you try to buck the system, you will have a choice of death figuratively or literally, or a more confining prison than the one you are already in. By making one a housewife and the other a waitress, most women will even more strongly identify at some level with these characters than if they were a bank president and a congresswoman. But the key to the impact is the missing Texas piece, which changes the movie from a story about two women seeking independence to a propaganda piece which puts emotional pressure on female audience members to stay in their place – or else!
Was this intentional? Who’s to say. The script was written by a woman, and it is my understanding that the Texas Story is told in the first draft. But as we know from ink blots, author intent need not be present to generate audience effect.
Of course, we have only explored one kind of propaganda. In fact, there are a multitude of others. In “Thelma and Louise” the mechanism of propaganda involves a missing piece of information. Another technique adds an unnecessary piece of information. As an example, let us look as Disney’s “The Lion King.”
Much has been written about the possible negative racial bias created by the Hyenas in the story. Whoopi Goldberg does the voice of the principal Hyena. The Hyenas, which are dark-skinned, live in the symbolic equivalent of a ghetto. They are forbidden to set foot in the sunny world of other jungle animals. They are shown to be stupid, sneaky, and cowardly. When they do have the opportunity to enter the forbidden world, they destroy the neighborhood. Order is only restored when they are driven back to their wasteland.
But this is not the propaganda of Lion King; it is merely “manipulation”. By way of definition, “manipulation” occurs when a meta message which exists above the structural message of the story at large is discernible to the audience. In other words, if the audience is able to tune in to a bias, it is manipulation. But if the audience is unaware that it is being biased by subliminal symbolic references – THAT is propaganda.
A clever propagandist will use manipulation as a distraction, to better obscure the propaganda going on elsewhere in a story. In “The Lion King”, while attention is drawn to the potential racial issues, it is hardly ever noticed that there is an even stronger anti-female bias in the undercurrent. Why doesn’t Simba’s mother ascend to the throne when her husband is killed? Why do all the female lions accept the rule of the Simba’s evil uncle? Why do they do all the hunting as if it is their genetic duty? What of Nala, the female lion who stays during the hard times, tries to help and pays her dues while Simba is hiding in the forest living the good life? Why is the cowardly Simba who runs from responsibility given the crown as soon as he returns? These biases seldom come to conscious consideration, as the minds of audience members are busy wondering why the Hyenas are black.
And, being a children’s film, the damage is even worse, since the racial manipulation is beyond the scope of most children, so the built-in bias is accepted as propaganda instead, influencing a whole generation of young people to unquestioningly believe that minorities belong in the ghetto and males have a divine right to rule. Again, was this intentional? Who’s to say. But if it wasn’t, imagine the damage caused by accident.
Clearly, the visual media have a powerful impact on society as a whole and each of us individually. When one becomes familiar the mechanism of story, one can better identify this impact, and even work to employ it with precision.
I thank you for your time, and hope you found it well spent
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Every author has a hero – that one special character their story revolves around. But who is this guy (or gal, or thing or ?) Why he’s your main character, that’s who. And he’s also your protagonist. And he’s your central character. And he’s a good guy (unless he’s an anti-hero, in which case he might be a bad guy, a troubled guy in a story of redemption or, as Jessica Rabbit said in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
But in a practical sense, what do we really know about your hero, his attributes, and how he functions in your story structurally? To find out, let’s look at each of htese different facets of your hero one at a time.
Based on our list above:
1. Your Hero is the Protagonist
2. Your Hero is the Main Character
3. Hour Hero is the Central Character
4. Your Hero is a Good Guy
The Protagonist is the Prime Mover in the plot – the chief driver toward the story’s overall goal.
The Main Character is the most empathetic character – the one with whom the reader or audience most closely identifies: the character the story seems to be about.
The Central Character is the most prominent one – the player who stands out above all the others and steals the show.
The Good Guy is the moral standard bearer – the character whose intent is to do the right thing.
Putting it all together then, a typical hero drives the story forward, represents the audience position in the story, is the most prominent character, and tries to do the right thing.
A list of typical heroes includes Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen and, of course, Superman. Anti-heroes (and those in stories of redemption) include Scrooge, Captain Jack Sparrow, Deadpool, and Gru in Despicable Me.
Now, let’s unmask your hero….
The four heroic attributes we delineated above aren’t necessarily tied together into one person. In fact, they can be swapped for other attributes, distributed among several characters and put together in different ways!
For example, suppose we change one attribute of the stereotypical hero to create a character with the following four qualities:
2. Main Character
3. Central Character
4. Bad Guy
Now we have the typical anti-hero (in the popular vernacular). Such a character would drive the plot forward, represent the audience position in the story, be the most prominent, but represent a negative moral outlook or ill intent.
Let’s try a differnt combination:
2. Main Character
3. Central Character
4. Good Guy
In this case, we have a character who is trying to prevent the story’s goal, represents the audience position in the story, is the most prominent, and tries to do the right thing.
James Bond is such a character. He did not instigate change; he is responding to an effort begun by the villain! In almost every Bond story, the villain is actually the driver of the plot – the proactive one – the Protagonist by definition, though clearly a bad guy, while James Bond is perpetually trying to put an end to the evil scheme.
As you can see, though typical heroes are just fine, if mix them up a bit, you create all kinds of opportunities to develop far more interesting characters who are just as viable in your story’s structure, but is unexpected fresh ways.
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Is your story a good enough conversationalist, or does it need to go back to finishing school with another draft before it is ready for prime time? You have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one conversation. How disappointing is it to an audience when a story’s personality is plain and simply dull?
As an author, thinking of your story as a person can actually help you write the story. All too often, authors get mired in the details of a story, trying to cram everything in and make all the pieces fit.
Characters are then seen only as individuals, so they often unintentionally overlap each other’s dramatic functions. The genre is depersonalized so that the author trying to write within a genre ends up fashioning a formula story and breaking no new ground. The plot becomes an exercise in logistics, and the theme emerges as a black and white pontification that hits the audience like a brick.
Now imagine that you are sitting down to dinner with your story. For convenience, we’ll call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences.
Over soup, he describes what was driving him at various points of his endeavors. These are your characters, and they must all be aspects of Joe’s personality. There can be no characters that would not naturally co-exist in a single individual. You listen carefully to make sure Joe is not a split-personality, for such a story would seem fragmented as if it were of two or more minds.
While munching on a spinach salad, Joe describes his efforts to resolve the problems that grew out of his journey. This is your plot, and all reasonable efforts need to be covered. You note what he is saying, just an an audience will, to be sure there are no flaws in his logic. There can also be no missing approaches that obviously should have been tried, or Joe will sound like an idiot.
Over the main course of poached quail eggs and Coho salmon (on a bed of grilled seasonal greens), Joe elucidates the moral dilemmas he faced, how he considered what was good and bad, better or worse. This is your theme, and all sides of the issues must be explored. If Joe is one-sided in this regard, he will come off as bigoted or closed-minded. Rather than being swayed by his conclusions, you (and an audience) will find him boorish and will disregard his passionate prognostications.
Dessert is served and you make time, between spoonfuls of chocolate soufflé (put in the oven before the first course to ready by the end of dinner) to consider your dinner guest. Was he entertaining? Did he make sense? Did he touch on topical issues with light-handed thoughtfulness? Did he seem centers, together, and focused? And most important, would you invite him to dinner again? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, you need to send your story back to finishing school, for he is not ready to entertain an audience.
Your story is your child. You give birth to it, you nurture it, you have hopes for it. You try to instill your values, to give it the tools it needs to succeed and to point it in the right direction. But, like all children, there comes a time where you have to let go of who you wanted it to be and to love and accept who it has become.
When your story entertains an audience, you will not be there to explain its faults or compensate for its shortcomings. You must be sure your child is prepared to stand alone, to do well for itself and to not embarrass you. If you are not sure, you must send it back to school.
Personifying a story allows an author to step back from the role of creator and to experience the story as an audience will. This is not to say that each and every detail in not important, but rather that the details are no more or less important than the overall impact of the story as a whole. This overview is one of the benefits of looking at a story as a person.
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