The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 4: CHARACTER, Part 2

If you missed Part one of this chapter, click here.

CREATING YOUR HERO

…is a complex process that requires a number of steps. The most important outlook you need to have is that you must build the character in layers.

Step 1: Meeting the Requirements of a Great Hero

Make sure that your hero meets the requirements that any hero in any story must meet!

  1. Make your lead character constantly fascinating.
    No dead time, no treading water, no padding in the story — whenever the lead character gets boring, the story stops. Making the character mysterious is a great way to grab and hold your readers’  attention. Show the audience that the hero is hiding something!
  2. Make your audience identify with the character, but not too much.
    Audiences don’t identify with characteristics such as background, job, sex, dress, race, income. (Magnus commentary: regrettably, that doesn’t stop certain authors from believing that that race and sex, alone, make for compelling minority characters. They do not.) Readers identify with a character based on two elements — his desire and the moral problem he faces.
    Be careful not to let the audience identify with the character too much, since they need to be able to step back and see how the hero changes and grows.
  3. Make the audience empathise with your hero, not sympathise with him.
    What’s important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does.
    To empathise with someone means to care about and understand him. The trick to keeping the audience’s interest in a character, even when the character is not likable, is to show the audience the hero’s movitve. Showing the hero’s motive to your readers doesn’t mean showing it to the hero.
  4. Give your hero a moral as well as a psychological need.
    Remember: a psychological need only affects the hero, where a moral need has to do with learning to act properly towards others.

Step 2: Character Change

Also known as character arc or development, refers to the changes occurring in the character over the course of the story. Might be the most difficult and most important step in the entire writing process.

Let us explore The Self, expressed as a character.

What is the purpose of the self in storytelling?

A character is created to show simultaneously:

how each human being is totally unique in an unlimited number of ways;

while at the same time always and forever remaining human, with features we all share.

This fictional self is then shown in action, in space and over time; compared to others, to show how a person can love and grow over his lifetime.

Character change doesn’t happen at the end of the story but at the beginning. It is made possible at the beginning by how you set it up.

Don’t think of your Main Character as a fixed, complete person whom you then tell a story about. You must think about him or her as a range of change, of possibilities, from the get-go. You have to determine the range of change of the hero at the start of the writing process, or change will be impossible for the hero at the end of the story.

Here’s a Rule of Thumb for you: The smaller the range, the less interesting the story, and vice versa. By this range we mean the range of possibilities of who the character can be, defined by his understanding of himself. Character change is the moment when the hero becomes who he will ultimately be.

You can show a character going through many changes but not all of them represent character change.

True character change involves a challenging and changing of basic beliefs, leading to new moral action by the hero.

Certain kinds of character change are more common than others:

  1. Child to adult. (Duh.)
  2. Adult to leader.
  3. Cynic to participant.
  4. Leader to tyrant.
  5. Leader to Visionary. (Careful with that vision, Eugene).
  6. Metamorphosis.

Creating Character Change into your story

This is where you set the frame of your story.

Always begin at the end of the change, with the self-revelation; then go back and determine the starting point of the change, which is the hero’s need and desire; then figure out the steps of development in-between.

This is one of the most valuable techniques in all of fiction writing. This technique rather than awaken fear in you, will give you greater freedom because you always have a safety net.

Step 3: Desire 

This step is, as we discussed in Chapter 3, is the spine of the story.

The three rules for a strong desire line are:

  1. You want only one desire line which builds steadily in importance and intensity. In good stories, the hero has a single overriding goal that he pursues with greater and greater intensity. The story moves faster and the narrative drive becomes overwhelming.
  2. The desire should be specific — and the more specific, the better!
  3. The desire should be accomplished — if at all– near the end of the story; if it’s accomplished in the middle, you have to create a new desire line, effectively beginning a second story and sticking it together with the first.

Step 4: The Opponent

The trick to defining your hero is to figure out your opponent. Theirs is the most important relationship; on it is built the entire drama of the story.

Your hero learns through his opponent.

The main hero is only as good as the opponent he faces.

Let’s look at elements that might help you in creating a great opponent.

  1. Make the opponent necessary.
    The main opponent is the one person in the world best able to exploit the great weaknesses of the hero; he should do so relentlessly. He’ll either force the hero t oovercome his weakness, or destroy him. He makes growth possible for the hero.
  2. Make him human. 
    As complex and valuable as the hero, that is.
    Structurally, this means that the opponent is some form of double of the hero. This leads to the opponent-double having weaknesses, and a need that interferes with the hero’s own desires and need, while at the same time the two share a goal.
  3. Give him values that oppose the values of the hero. Let them come into conflict.
  4. Give the opponent a strong but flawed moral argument.
    In a well-drawn story, both hero and opponent will believe that they have chosen the correct path, and both have reasons for believing so. Both’re misguided, but in different ways.
  5. Give him certain similarities to the hero.
    Contrast between the two is powerful only when they have strong similarities. It’s in the similarities that crucial and instructive differences become most clear.
  6. Keep him in the same place as the hero.
    This runs counter to common sense; the trick is finding natural reasons for the hero and opponent to stay in the same place during the course of the story. (Magnus Commentary: Not too sure about that point’s necessity. I see it as working in only certain kinds of stories, where others demand that the  two are removed from one another.)

BUILDING CONFLICT

Your purpose is to put constant pressure on your hero, because this is what will force him to change.

A simplistic opposition between two characters kills any chance at depth, complexity, or the reality of human life in your story.

For that, you need a web of opposition.

The Four-Corner Opposition:

In this technique, you create two secondary opponents (or more if the story demands it), in addition to your hero and main opponent.

Five rules to keep in mind:

  1. Each opponent should use a different way of attacking the hero’s greatest weakness.
    This technique guarantees that all conflict is organically connected to the hero’s great flaw.
  2. Try to place each character in conflict, not only with the hero but also with every other character.
    The result is intense conflict and dense plot.
  3. Put the values of all four characters in conflict.
    Be as detailed as possible when listing the values of each character.
    Don’t come up with a single value for each character, come up with a cluster of values they each can believe in.
    Look for the positive and negative versions of the same value.
    Believing in something can be a strength, but also a source of weakness. (Determined-aggressive, honest-insensitive, patriotic-domineering).
  4. Push the characters to the corners.
    Make each character as different as possible from the other three, in other words.
  5. Extend the four-corner pattern to every level of the story.
    Consider extending the pattern to over levels of the story; you might set up a unique four-corner patter of opposition within a society, institution, family or even a single character.

 

That’s it for Chapter 4, beloved readers! I hope you found it an interesting read, and as always, if you’re looking for concrete examples, you can grab the actual book in a nearby bookstore, or on your e-reader! 

I’ll be back with Chapter 5: Moral Argument, soon!

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