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!

The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 4: Character (Part 01)

Most writers come at character all wrong. They start by listing all the traits of the hero, tell a story about him and then somehow make him change at the end. That won’t work.

The steps we’re gonna work through are the following:

  1. We look not just at our MC but at all characters together, as part of an interconnected web. We’ll distinguish them by comparing each to the others according to story function and archetype.
  2. We’ll individualize each character based on character and opposition.
  3. We’ll concentrate on the hero, ‘building’ him step by step so that we end up with a multi layered, complex person that the audience cares about.
  4. We’ll create the opponent in detail, since this is the most important character after the hero and is the key to defining your hero.
  5. We’ll end with work on character techniques for building conflict over the course of the story.

Character Web 

Thinking of your characters as separate leaves your hero in a vacuum, unconnected to others; leaving the hero weak, his opponents — cardboard cutouts, and an even weaker support cast to round it all up.

Think of your characters as parts of a web in which each one helps define the others. A character is often defined by who he is not.

The most important step to creating your hero and each of the other characters is to connect and compare each to the others.

Each time you compare a character to your hero, you force yourself to distinguish the hero in new ways. You also start to see the secondary characters as complete human beings, as complex and valuable as your hero.

Characters connect and define each other in four major ways: by story function, archetype, theme, and opposition.

By Story Function

Every character must serve the function of the story, which is found in the story’s designing principle (in Chapter 2). Every character has a specially designed role to play to help the story fulfill that purpose.

All characters in a story represent either an opposition, an alliance with the hero, or some combination of the two; the twists and turns of the story are largely the product of the ebb and flow of opposition and friendship between various characters.

As for the opponent, his and the hero’s relationship is the single most important one in the story. The struggle between the two reveals and unfolds the larger issues and themes of the story.

The Ally is the hero’s helper, and serves as a sounding board, allowing the audience to hear the values and feelings of the lead.

Fake-ally opponent — character whose appearances deceive his true intent, which adds power to the opposition and twists the plot.  Complex, fascinating characters, usually torn by a dilemma.

Fake-opponent ally — not as common as the previous ‘model’, since he’s not as useful to a writer (to which I heartily disagree).  An ally, even one who first appears as an opponent, can’t give you the conflict and surprises of an opponent.

Subplot character — Most misunderstood character in fiction. The subplot is used to contrast how the hero and a second character deal with the same problem in slightly different ways. The subplot character highlights traits and dilemmas of the main character.

The subplot character is usually not the ally. He tracks a line parallel to the hero, with a different result.

Extraneous characters are a primary cause of episodic, inorganic stories. Ask if the character serves an important function in the overall story. If the answer is ‘no’, you should consider cutting him from the book entirely.

Character Web by Archetype  

Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person; they are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.

An archetype gives your characters the appearance of weight, since each type expresses a fundamental pattern that the audience recognizes, and this same pattern is reflected both within the character and through interaction in the larger society.

An archetype resonates with an audience. But it is a blunt tool in your repertoire since, unless you give it detail, the archetype becomes a stereo type.

Always make the archetype specific, individual, to your unique character.

For fiction writers, the key concept of an archetype is the notion of a shadow. The shadow is the negative tendency of the archetype, a psychological trap that a person can fall into when playing that role.

What follows in “The Anatomy of Story,” is a look at major archetypes, their strengths and weaknesses. We’ve got the king (father), queen(mother), magician(shaman,) trickster, artist, clown, warrior, and so on.

Individualizing characters in the web

You compare your characters, this time through theme and opposition. We’ll look at theme in detail in the next chapter, Moral Argument. We do need to look at a few of the key concepts of themes now. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world, expressed through the actions your characters take in the plot. Theme isn’t subject matter, it’s your view of how to live well or badly, and it’s unique for each story you write.

You begin individualizing your characters by finding the moral problem at the heart of the premise. You then play out the various probabilities of the moral problem in the body of the story through the opposition. 

You create group of opponents who force the hero to deal with the central problem.

  1. Begin by writing down what you think is the central moral problem of your story.
  2. Compare your hero and all other characters on the following : weaknesses; needs – physical and moral; desires; values; powers, status and ability; how each character faces the central moral problem in the story.
  3. Start with the relationship between hero and opponent. The opponent holds the key to creating a great character web.
  4. Compare the hero to the other opponents, then — to the allies. Finally, compare opponents and allies to one another.

We’ll stop here for now; but don’t worry, there’s plenty more to talk about on the topic of Characters. As before, all this comes from The Anatomy of Story, a very good book on writing, which I’m slowly making my way through. 

 

 

 

 

Writing Advice: Memorable Characters

How do we create memorable characters?

Well, you’d need a dozen eggs, a bit of vanilla and seventeen cups of sugar to make your average Mary Sue; or you could whip yourself good old-fashioned one-dimensional characters by doing the same thing you’d do to get stale bread — don’t spend any time cooking them up in the oven; just make sure they’re one-note ponies, one and all.

These are not examples of memorable characters? Alright, alright, I’ll try harder!

What the above-mentioned is example of traps that writers fall in all the time. Perfect characters and one-note characters are both leading causes of aneurisms among enthusiast readers. By their very nature, these archetypes are dull; not in terms of ‘good’ dull–characters you’re writing with the intention of bringing something to your story by virtue of this attribute–but the kind of dull that makes your story just that much more unreadable.

You don’t want that.

You want your characters three-dimensional and unique. You want them to have flaws and strengths, to be internally consistent and not alien to the world you’re building around them.

Sounds simple enough, right?

…Perhaps I should dig into these points, just to be safe.

Three-dimensional characters require hard work and a lot of time invested in them. A good place you could start off with is by modeling your character after a real person you know; it’s not a method I consciously use, but I’ve heard that some people go with it, and are pretty happy with how it turns out.

I like to use chunks of small details as building blocks. I dislike bombarding my readers with every small quirk a character they’ve just met has; rather, it’s important to remember that just as we don’t notice everything there is to notice about a person the first time we meet them, neither do our protagonists, point-of-view characters and so on.

Unless you’re writing Sherlock Holmes. If that is the case, however, let me pose a question…do you really want to be writing Sherlock Holmes?

Don’t forget that your characters have lived lives before they appeared on page 423 of your novel. Draw from their past; you don’t have to write detailed backgrounds of every single character to appear in your book, but it’s good to have an idea of where they’re coming from. Sketch that with a few quick sentences over lunch break or on your commute from work or university; or if you’re too lazy (and you really shouldn’t be), think about it.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always go back to my Writing advice about Villains, and read all about how they act as foil to your protagonists, allowing all parties to learn more about where they stand in terms of morality, ethics, decency and everything else!