Category Archive: Character Development

How to Straighten Your Story’s Spine

Sometimes I write a story where lots of exciting stuff happens, my protagonist is proactive and has a goal, and I’m hitting all the right beats (if you don’t know what those are, check out this post on the 15 Story Beats), yet the story still feels flat. What’s wrong? What am I missing?

The truth of the matter is often I’m not missing anything. I spend a lot of time developing my stories and I know all the story parts that I need to make a story sing, but effectively implementing those parts into a manuscript is a whole other challenge. In a manuscript, those parts can get out of whack or lost or muddy. So how do you fix it?

By doing something we screenwriters often call “tracking the story’s spine.” A story’s spine is the character arc woven into the plot; the two should always go together just like your vertebrae and your spinal cord. Tracking a story’s spine means making sure the protagonist’s transformation (arc) is addressed in EVERY SCENE of the journey (plot). Because after all, as I’ve said before (specifically in this post about character journeys), every story is about change.

So let’s get started…

To track a story’s spine, you need to know these 3 Basic Story Parts:

  1. What’s the Character Change?

  2. What’s the Inner Conflict?

  3. What’s the Big Story Question?

Part 1: In order to have a character arc, the protagonist needs to change. They have to start out one way (flawed and not the best person they could be) and end up another (flaw overcome and better because of the journey – that is if the story follows a positive arc; negative arcs are the opposite). For example, in my WIP the heroine starts out doing bad things like using people to try to get ahead. By the end of the story she needs to change into someone who doesn’t do bad things to succeed.

Part 2: Because of their character flaw, the protagonist will have an Inner Conflict. For a detailed explanation of what that is, read this post. In general, Inner Conflict is a desire for two things the hero wants (one of which is their outer Goal), but the catch is the hero can’t have both. So the whole story the protagonist must constantly choose between these two wants. Back to my WIP example, the heroine wants to be a better person (stop doing bad things like using people) but also wants a better life (her Goal is to escape the cycle of poverty by getting a college scholarship), yet she believes she needs to do bad things to achieve that. So yeah, she’s conflicted.

Part 3: The Big Story Question is the will/won’t issue based on the Inner Conflict. Basically, in my story the question is: Will the heroine get a better life? The writer must make the protagonist face that question in every scene, and alternate between scenes that make us and the protagonist think they WILL succeed, followed by scenes that make us think they WON’T. And this question always pivots on the protagonist’s Inner Conflict.

Not lining up the story’s spine is an easy blunder for writers to make, mainly because though we may KNOW the character’s arc, we don’t SHOW it in the plot. Note that I said “show” it, not “tell” it. You can’t solve this problem with internal monologue alone. The character transformation (arc) must manifest itself through actions (plot).

In conclusion, to straighten your story’s spine, check each scene for these 3 things and make adjustments accordingly:

#1 – Change. How does this scene influence your character’s arc? It can be a step forward or a step back, as long as something changes.

#2 – Inner Conflict. Which “want” is your hero leaning towards in this scene? Make sure to alternate this from scene to scene. After all, a hero who favours one desire over the other isn’t very conflicted.

#3 – Big Story Question. Does this scene ask the big, overall question? If not, your story has probably veered off course. Either cut the scene or revise it to make it relevant.

You can test your own manuscript, or a book you’re reading. I bet a million smiley face emojis that books that aren’t very engaging don’t have straight spines! Let me know in the comments what you find out. 🙂 Now I’m off to straighten my story’s spine…

 

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4 Core Components of an Awesome Sidekick Character

I’ve always loved sidekicks, Chewbacca, Samwise Gamgee, Ron and Hermione.

Sidekick characters can enhance the story tension, help flesh out the protagonist, and move the plot forward in a number of significant ways. Several of the masterplots that Heather and I wrote about last year include a sidekick character as a possible component. Sidekicks are often included to give the main character a partner, someone to talk to, which helps limit the need for internal dialogue, but they can be so much more. In the hands of a skillful writer, sidekicks are even capable of stealing the spotlight from the main character.

There are four core aspects I like to think about when writing a sidekick character:

1. Emotional Growth

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Sharing common traits and interests is one way to create character bonds, but they can also be created by friendly conflict. A great protagonist is a complicated character, and their friendship with the sidekick character should reflect that. I want these characters to challenge each other emotionally and change because of these interactions. If the protagonist is reluctant about the quest, make the sidekick a true believer and let them push the future hero into action. If the protagonist is rash and ruled by emotions, pair them with a cool and logical sidekick, someone who can teach the protagonist how to think before acting. When there is emotional contrast between these two characters, I find the relationship exciting to watch. Of course, these characters can be alike in a few ways (perhaps they share the same honor code), but I like it best when this pair knows how to disagree.

2. Sidekick Motivations

Sherlock

No two people, no matter how close, share precisely the same motivations. Everyone wants, needs or secretly desires something different. Although the sidekick and main character will travel the same path, I like to make their reasons for wanting to reach their end goals different. For one character, completing the quest might mean fame and riches. For the other, the quest might be a spiritual journey. I often associate the best sidekicks with the push and pull created by them clashing with the hero. Contrasting motivations provide great conflict and help build story tension; it also give the characters an opportunity to compromise.

3. Sidekicks Need a Moment to Shine

Guardians of the Galaxy

The sidekick’s moment to hold the spotlight is often brief, but critical to the story. These defining plot points take just about every shape, but some of the best sidekick moments often involve self-sacrifice. Many sidekick characters will give their own life to save the hero’s. The sidekick’s big moment can also work in reverse; the hero only finds their courage because the must save the sidekick. The reality of storycraft is the hero must live to fight another day, but the sidekick is expendable. That means this story device can get overused and feel too predictable, but it can also be the most touching part in the story and a true transitional moment for the other character.

4. Contrast is Key

The Iron Giant

Protagonists come in every form, and so can sidekicks. The visual contrast between these two characters might be small, or it might be huge, as in the case of pairing non-human with humans. I think contrasting outer forms and inner strengths helps the reader keep the two characters clearly defined, and makes it possible (and even likely) that each character will have unique skills to bring into the story. I love it when the sidekick can do something the hero can’t. One of the biggest complaints I have about sidekicks is when they feel like a pale reflection of the hero. I want the sidekick to have value that extends beyond just being the protagonist’s buddy. If the sidekick doesn’t serve a single plot function, there is a strong likelihood they shouldn’t be in the story in the first place. Clearly separating these two characters into unique beings is a critical step to making the sidekick character shine.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, nothing elevates the quintessential hero like the perfect sidekick. Find the right mix and you might create a powerful pairing, one the world will never forget. There are a million different ways to create a sidekick character. I’ve already written about some of the most popular sidekick archetypes, like the cheerleader, the class clown and the skeptic. You can read that post here. However, even that post is just a small sampling of possible sidekick characters. They can be young and old, strong and weak. They can be pillars of righteousness, or shady criminal types, and I’m crazy about them all.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about sidekick characters. Did they make stories better? Please share in the comments.

 

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5 Overlooked Pixar Storytelling Tips

Pixar Tips For WritersI bet most writers have heard of Pixar Studios. They are the huge animation powerhouse that is now owned by Disney. They’re best known for a string of huge blockbusters films, all earmarked for family viewing. Even if you don’t make a point of watching Pixar films (and by the way you should), you may have stumbled across a helpful and widely shared infographic about the 22 storytelling basics attributed to Emma Coats, a former member of the Pixar creative team.

After watching hours of Pixar movies with my kids, I’ve realized there are some less well-known Pixar tricks. Some of the things I noticed relate to the Pixar 22, while others aren’t mentioned at all. However, I can say with certainty they show up time and time again in Pixar’s films.

Heather and I both love watching movies and they’ve taught us a lot about story craft. Heather wrote about her experiences in a post called Watching for Writers. I’m following her lead today with 5 overlooked storytelling tips I learned from watching Pixar films.

1. Have a Theme:

Pixar admits to loving a good theme; it’s number #3 on their storytelling list. What they didn’t mention is the themes they like best are always about the value of self-sacrifice. It shows up when Flick ventures into the unknown to save his ant hill in A Bug’s Life. We see it with Eve, who is willing to put everything aside as she strives to finish her mission directive in Wall-E. And it’s in Brave when Merida finally accepts her role in preserving the safely of her clan, even if that means marrying someone she barely knows. Whatever the storyline, putting personal needs aside for the sake of someone else is a critical stage in almost every Pixar film. In some, such as Brave and Cars, this realization shows up in the climax as part of the character’s change. While in other stories, like in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, the safety of others is always something the characters are willing to fight for.

2. Give Characters Opinions:

Number #13 on the Pixar list is: give your characters opinions. However, what isn’t mentioned is reversing those opinions is also critical to the formula. At least one character will always revise their core opinions of another character during the course of the film. It shows up in Finding Nemo as Marlin learns to let go and trust others (including the wacky Dory). And it’s in Cars as Doc realizes that beneath McQueen’s bragging is a kind heart. Revising popular opinions is one of the core plot points of Monsters, Inc. The whole society is based on one belief: that frightening children will produce scream power and save their world from a power shortage. Yet they must revise that core viewpoint in order to survive. Characters with strong opinions are fine, but knowing when and how to revise those viewpoints is makes characters great.

Eve3. Value Teamwork:

Pixar says in their number #19 storytelling tip that coincidences are perfectly acceptable for getting characters into trouble, but they are not acceptable for getting characters out of trouble. In almost every film, it is teamwork that gets Pixar’s characters out of trouble. The value of teamwork is a concept that shows up with both good and bad repercussions in The Incredibles. It’s even Mr. Incredible’s moto, “I work alone!” that ultimately drives his number one fan Buddy to a lifelong quest to kill all superheroes. Lightening McQueen shows the same disregard for his pit crew in Cars. Later both characters realize their mistake and make amends. Mr. Incredible accepts the support of his whole family, and McQueen builds a new pit crew and decides to stick with his original sponsorship team. Playing into this aspect of teamwork, Pixar always reminds us of the value of family. When Remy marshals the other rats into helping him cook (Ratatouille), or when the ant colony stand up to Hopper and his gang (A Bug’s Life), it is solidarity that gives the hero their strength. The reoccurring role of community and family factors into almost every Pixar climax.

Backup Antagonists-14. Include Extra Antagonistic Forces:

Pixar favors clear-cut villains. There is often nothing redeemable about their bad guys, and several of them (most notably Hopper in A Bug’s Life and Mor’du in Brave) meet with a rather gruesome end. Pixar villains are young and old, male and female, and even robotic with the 2001: A Space Odyssey homage to Hal of the villain Auto in Wall-E. Pixar also favors what I like to call the back-up antagonist. This is a character who is not the main antagonist and is often not inherently an evil character, but adds significant tension to the protagonist’s life anyway. It’s often the back-up antagonist that sparks the protagonist to make a critical change in Pixar films. Later these back-up antagonists will often evolve into a supportive role. We see this with Anton Ego the bitter food critic who later champions Remy’s right to cook in Ratatouille, and with Mirage changing sides and handing over useful information at the end of The Incredibles. There is also Doc who switches from McQueen’s jailer to his mentor in the second half of Cars.

Toystory 25. Secondary Characters:

Pixar likes strong male friendships and almost all of their films have a sidekick character, included in their huge casts of secondary characters. These characters are frequently quirky and easily distinguishable from the other characters because Pixar gives each character (from service robots,  to slinky dogs, to caterpillars) a collection of critical attributes to make them interesting. Unfortunately, that means some of these secondary characters are stereotypes or even caricatures, and in terms of female or minority characters there are sadly too few. Still each minor character creates an impression on the viewer and we remember them. From the adventurous and trusting Dot in A Bug’s Life, to the neurotic dinosaur in Toy Story, to the no-nonsense clothing designer Edna of The Incredibles. These are fleshed out supporting characters and we know who they are and what they want.

What do you think? Is Pixar doing a great job as a storyteller? Do these fives aspects of the Pixar model help or hinder the storytelling experience for you?

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Character Need: Psychological + Moral

I’ve been reading writing craft books for almost two decades, and it’s gotten to the point where most of them don’t tell me anything I don’t already know. But recently I had a creative crisis that prompted me to look hard for new information, and after a couple misses I came across THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby. I highly recommend you check it out. I’m not going to regurgitate the book’s content here; I’m simply going to highlight a small tidbit I found in Chapter 3 that has completely changed how I approach developing a protagonist’s journey…

Character Need-PsychologicalMoral

Early on in my career, I learned that the hero’s WANT and NEED are two separate things and integral to the Character Arc. Let’s refresh…

WANT = What the hero desires and believes will make them happy. WANT is the motivation behind the hero’s GOAL.

FLAW (personal characteristic) + LIE (personal belief) = What prevents the hero from achieving their GOAL.

NEED = What will actually make the hero happy. The NEED overcomes the hero’s FLAW and counters the LIE they’ve believed up until the Climax of the story. Recognizing this need is what prompts the hero to change; acting on this need is what allows the hero to triumph in the end (which may or may not involve achieving the original GOAL).

Note: The above applies to stories with a positive character arc rather than a negative character arc. Also, an arc period. Some people don’t think having the hero change is a necessary part of a story. I do simply because I prefer stories where the hero changes and am disappointed with stories where the hero doesn’t change. But I recognize that this is my opinion and not the law.

Now back to this Character Need thing…

Notice the use of the word “personal” in the definitions above. Most students of writing craft learn that the hero’s NEED is something deeply personal that affects the hero. Truby calls this a “psychological need.” However, he also identifies another type of need: moral.

“In average stories, the hero only has a psychological need [that] involves overcoming a serious flaw which is hurting nobody but the hero. In better stories, the hero has a moral need in addition to the psychological need… [which is] hurting others.” — John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, pg 41.

So, if there are two types of NEED, there are two types of character FLAWS: psychological and moral. Sometimes a psychological flaw (such as alcoholism) has an obvious moral flaw (hurting the ones you love) attached to it, but not always. Take a psychological flaw like low self-esteem. How does that flaw hurt others? It’s easy to brainstorm ways, but up until now, this is not something I’d ever made a point of doing. And I realize this was a missed opportunity to: 1) add more poignant conflict to the protagonist’s relationships; 2) create deeper stakes; and, most importantly, 3) perfectly intertwine Character Arc and Theme.

In my post The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme, I talk about how a story’s Theme always revolves around a human value, and when we test values we are debating morals. But before coming across this concept of a hero’s “moral need” I had developed Character Arc and Theme separately. I knew each was affected by the other, but my process was more like putting two things side-by-side and trying to make them complement each other. Now I approach Character Arc and Theme as puzzle pieces that fit together and develop them in tandem.

This was such a lightbulb moment for me, and made my WIP’s character revelation scene finally click into place. I’ve been playing with the character arc for months. It’s always been connected to the theme, and there was a moral flaw in there somewhere too, but before I clearly identified the moral need, I hadn’t been able to really focus my heroine’s character change into something powerful. Now I think I have.

In conclusion, the tiniest writing tips can be just what you need for a story breakthrough.

PS – Are you wondering why Dustin Hoffman from the movie Tootsie is in the title card? Well, because his character is a perfect example of psychological and moral need working together, as John Truby discusses in THE ANATOMY OF STORY.

 

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Guest Post: General Leia — Aging on the Silver Screen

General LeiaOur guest today has been here several times before. Most recently she blogged about writing Wise Women Characters, a must-read post if you want to find some fresh ways to show women as strong, without making them fighters. She also invited us to take part in her fabulous SciFi Women Interview series early this year. She is a scholar with a broad background in gender and media. Her extensive research into the depiction of underrepresented characters in the Star Wars universe sparked a whole book: A Galaxy of Possibilities: Representation and Storytelling in Star Wars and it’s available from Amazon. Please welcome Natacha Guyot.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS featured the main trio from the original saga trilogy, including Leia Organa. While it made complete sense to include her, seeing an older female SciFi character on screen isn’t common. An older Leia Organa in the new movie was thus a strong choice, and might help attitudes change regarding women characters in films and television. Indeed, the “youth at all cost” can be damaging societally speaking, when on the contrary, people should be embracing all ages for all genders in terms of representation. The fact that backlash occurred against Leia’s older figure shows that there is still room for people to accept something as natural as women aging and still being capable of great professional and personal accomplishments.

Like in her younger days, Leia Organa held a significant position in Episode VII’s narrative and continued to be a leader figure, which was refreshing. Yet, I refuse to say that “General Leia” is better than “Princess Leia” because I believe that both titles had validity in the universe and nobility title, including “princess” shouldn’t diminish a character’s credibility nor should be considered “girly” in a bad way. Leia has inspired many people for years because she was more than a “pretty girl who could shoot a gun”. She was a leader from the start and had great strength beyond her physical resilience.

While the presence of older women isn’t widely spread, including in Star Wars, small roles, some important regardless of limited screen time, have appeared in the Star Wars movies since the very first one, A NEW HOPE, released in 1977. In it, Beru Lars raised her nephew Luke Skywalker. This maternal figure soon gets killed along with her husband, to allow Luke to begin his journey. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, political and Rebellion leader Mon Mothma partakes in a crucial briefing, along with male military counterparts.

The Prequels also included a few older women in supporting or minor roles, mostly mother and Jedi figures. The latter case is Jedi Archivist Jocasta Nu in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Where male elder mentors are included in all trilogies so far with characters such Obi Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Luke Skywalker, women are still to occupy such positions. In that, Jocasta Nu, who briefly showed up again in the CLONE WARS series, is an exception.

In THE FORCE AWAKENS, Leia Organa has a multi-faceted representation, which shows actual care to her character from the movie’s script writers. Due to that, she ties all the previously included threads of older female characters in the saga’s films. Her portrayal encompasses both the professional aspect, respecting her as a political leader as a General in the Resistance, and the personal. In the latter case, the narrative gives her space to be a (former) romantic partner with Han Solo, where the relationship still has great depth, no matter the longtime separation. She is also a mother who struggles with what her son has become, but still has undying faith in his return to the Light Side. The same way, she is a sister who seeks to find her brother Luke and bring him back to help in the fight against evil forces.

By allying professional and personal, the story gives Leia the possibility to show how she has developed off-screen over the decades. Despite struggles of all kinds, she continues to fight for what she believes in, including when it requires her coming to the battlefield. When she first appears in the movie, after several mentions from multiple characters, it is at the end of a fight, where she came aboard one of the crafts, even at the risk of being shot down in the process.

A final point that was thankfully not ignored was her Force potential. While she isn’t presented as an actual Jedi, and any training she might have received or not is left unknown, she still remains able to sense strongly for her loved ones. THE FORCE AWAKENS picks up from when she reacted twice to her twin brother’s situation through the Force in the Original Trilogy. Indeed, a shot clearly shows her shattered when she feels Han’s death. While a very brief moment, it is significant to see Leia’s potential and skills acknowledged during such a pivotal event.

In the end, the Star Wars movies have included older women in most of them, though until THE FORCE AWAKENS none has had as much screen time as Leia Organa. There is still progress to be made, but here is to hoping that Leia’s influence will continue to bear fruits, not only in her portrayal in the upcoming movies, but also more generally speaking, so that older women may still be valued in narratives of different genres and formats.

 

Guest Blog PhotoAuthor’s BioGalaxy - Revised Cover
Natacha Guyot is a French researcher, author and public speaker. She holds two Master’s degrees: Film and Media Studies (Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle) and Digital Culture and Technology (King’s College London).
Her main fields of interest are Science fiction, Gender Studies, Children Media and Fan Studies. Besides her nonfiction work, she also writes Science Fiction and Fantasy stories.
Natacha’s Blog | TwitterFacebook | Goodreads | LinkedIn

 

 

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Character Development: The Reaction Chart

Creating characters to populate your novel or screenplay is a lot of fun. You get to devise different backgrounds and opinions and alliances and secrets and all kinds of interesting stuff that brings the cast to life. But you can have the most detailed character sketches and richly drawn cast ever, and your story could still fall flat. How? It all comes down to how your characters react.

Character Reaction Chart

A couple months ago I wrote a post about how characters interact with each other (Character Development: The Interaction Chart). Today I’m focusing on how characters react to story events. This is especially relevant with ensemble casts who are together as a pair or group for much of the plot, common in such genres as horror, buddy comedies and heists.

I’ve created two types of Reaction Charts: General Emotions and Plot Points.

The General Emotions Reaction Chart

This one is handy for the brainstorming stage and/or the pantser who doesn’t plot out their story. Put the general emotional situations your characters will likely encounter together in the top row, and the character names in the left column. That top row will differ depending on what genre you’re writing. You can have as many columns as you need. Here are a couple examples I came up with…

General Emotions Reaction Chart — Comedy Reaction Chart - ComedyGeneral Emotions Reaction Chart — Horror

Reaction Chart - Horror

The point of making this chart is to ensure the characters don’t react the same. I was reading a book a couple weeks ago, a creepy horror that started off pretty good, but as the story went along I became bored. Why? Because even though the characters had different POVs and personalities, every time they faced the monster, they all reacted exactly the same way! Why have three characters if they’re all going to do the same thing? In my opinion, the fun of an ensemble horror is seeing how each character reacts, who is going to screw up, who is going to fight the monster, who is going to run from the monster, etc. If everyone reacts the same, you might as well just have one person encountering the monster (or going on the road trip, or robbing the bank, etc), and that simply isn’t as interesting.

The Plot Points Reaction Chart

This chart is for the plotter who made an outline, or for the pantser who is done their first draft and wants to check their characters’ reactions to actual story events. Basically, this is a handy way to see how each character reacts to the major plot points of the story. (For a review of these plot points, check out this post: The Basic Story Beats.)

Reaction Chart - Plot Points

The point of making this chart, besides to diversify your characters’ specific reactions to the plot, is to track how the characters’ reactions change as the story progresses. For example, a character who reacted by rushing into danger at the beginning might learn to hold back and plan first before confronting the enemy. We all know our characters should grow and change, but sometimes it’s hard to see how that is happening within 300+ pages. That’s why I find this chart so useful.

What about you? Do you chart your characters’ reactions? Or do you have another way to keep track? Let me know in the Comments!

 

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Writing Lovable Rogues

Lovable RoguesLovable rouges are not villains, they are fascinating antiheroes. These characters are everywhere, in books, movies and on TV. They are young, old, male and female. And they have wowed us as protagonists, love interests and sidekicks for a long time.

A few notable rouges are:

Tom Sawyer from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean

Fred and George Weasley from Harry Potter

Logan Echolls from Veronica Mars

Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It’s not surprising they’re popular, because these bad characters are so darn amazing. Traditionally they’re easy on the eyes, combining poise under pressure, with a sense of humor and killer fight moves. They walk the fringes of society with conviction, clear-cut goals and style. Their wild side calls to us. We want to break the rules and run wild with them.

Rogues share five common attributes, by using these traits any writer can turn this naughty character into something very nice.

tnt-the-librarians-john-kim1. They have a keen intellect:

Darn this character is smart; they can think fast on their feet and plan circles around the other characters. They’re not just street smart, they’re often book smart. Rogues have a smattering of knowledge in almost every area and off the charts skills in at least one or two key areas. They are the ultimate chess players and the world is their board. To catch up with a rogue’s mental processing, you need to think twenty steps ahead of everyone else. Crafty schemes with long-term objectives, make these characters ideal for dishing out twisty story surprises.

 

whitecollarreturns2. Their confidence is sexy:

Rogues make eye contact. While lesser criminals hide, these characters never shy away from the spotlight, as long as it serves their needs. Sharp dressed or in rags, these characters feel at home in their own skin. Even when a rogue is unsure of the right path, they have faith they can and will find a path around any obstacle. They grab hold of life with both hands, and that passion makes other character what to get close. They are shining stars, burning bright in their own universe. Rogues have the wherewithal to be loners, or self-assurance to be leaders of the pack.

 

 

Sawyer From Lost3. They know how to manipulate:

Smooth con men with a wicked grin, rogues know how to get what they want. Sometimes they take it; other times they sweet talk their victims with a wink and smile. What rogues might lack in manners, they make up for in charisma. Some of this polish is natural, a byproduct of good looks and a surplus of sex appeal. Some of it is being a skilled observer. Rogues are wise interpreters of human behavior. These characters excel when it comes to adaptability and make some of the best fictional chameleons.

 

Angelina_Jolie_in_Mr._and_Mrs._Smith_Wallpaper_5_8004. They’re viewed as unethical, yet abide by a personal code:

Rogues know they don’t play by society’s rules and they’re not particularly conflicted about it. They often show up as gentleman thieves, stealing as much of the glory as the gold. Some rogues have a Robin Hood complex, they fight to balance the odds. While others are just so good at being bad they see their skills as a gift. Rogues find the beauty in being a great assassin, a liar or a forger; it’s an art form. They’re even able to walk the moral high ground in their own minds. If society didn’t want them to be the bad guys, they shouldn’t make it so darn easy to cheat.

 

To_Catch_a_Thief_19555. They hide a difficult past:

A hint of mystery in any character is enticing, but in a rogue it’s necessary. They keep everyone in the story off balance. Even when they offer us a suggestion of their hidden depths, they wiggle out of it. There is always a suspicion of a backstory worthy of a few tears, but getting a rogue character to come clean is going to take some leverage. Rogues know information is power, they don’t grant just anyone a free pass into their personal pain. What (or who) they care about is a closely guarded secret, for telling anyone that bit of information could be orchestrating their own downfall. Most rogues have been on the outside looking in for a long time. Trust is not given lightly, and even if they grant it, they will remain ever vigilant for signs of treachery. This need for secrecy turns up the story drama, and makes for spectacular misunderstandings and explosive betrayals.

 

fireflyLovable rogues don’t enjoy hurting innocent people. They have a line they do not want to cross, but if someone pushes them too far, they can release the most ruthless part of their character.

Then people get hurt.

 

the-mummy-movie-poster-1999-1020199235Rogues love to push the envelope and test themselves. It’s common for them to get swept up into monumental troubles. It’s all part of what makes them exciting characters.

Most important of all, we must root for the rogue to win. If we can, then it’s a flawed character we can learn to love.

 

 

I would like to hear what you think of rogues. Love them, or hate them?

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/writing-lovable-rogues/

Character Development: The Interaction Chart

Last week I shared Ten Questions To Ask Your Characters to make sure the supporting cast is as well-rounded as the protagonist. But that’s just step one to developing a novel’s cast. Now that we know who everyone is, what they want, and what their role is in the story, it’s time to figure out how they interact with each other.

Character Development-Interaction

How To Make a Character Interaction Chart

To start, list all character names in the left column and the top row, beginning with the protagonist. Read across to figure out how that character interacts with the other characters; read down to find out how others react to that character.

Character Chart

The above example is super simple just so I could demonstrate how to read the chart. Now for the details of what goes in each little box…

1) Relationship.

State the basic status of the characters’ relationship. Do not only use words like “brother” or “neighbour” or “wife.” Though descriptive, these definitions tell us nothing about the characters’ personal interactions. Instead, clarify the relationship with words like: ally, enemy, friend, lover, competitor, etc. After all, one’s brother can be an ally or an enemy.

Also note if the relationship changes over time; two brothers may start as enemies and end as allies, or two co-workers may start as friends and end as lovers.

Another thing to consider is that the characters may see their relationship differently. One may think they’re dating, but the other thinks they’re just friends with benefits. This is why in the chart there are two corresponding boxes for each relationship – one for each character’s POV.

Character Different Opinions-Chart

 2) Behaviour.

How do the characters behave around each other? Some examples: friendly, hostile, affectionate, dismissive, concerned, suspicious, etc. Like with the relationship status, these behaviours can change over the course of the story. Also note if there is a difference in behaviour when two characters are alone with each other versus in a group.

3) Opinion.

What do the characters think of each other? This, of course, can vary greatly from their behaviour. As we all know, people often hide how they truly feel about a person (i.e. behaving in a friendly manner when deep down they hate the person and are planning their demise), but of course you the author must know the truth.

How to Use a Character Interaction Chart

A story is simply a series of conflicts between characters. Charting your characters’ interactions is an easy way to see if you have enough conflict. When I first made this chart I realized I had conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist, but minimal conflict between my protagonist and the other characters. No wonder my first few scenes had turned out a little flat. And this chart makes it easy to see that conflict doesn’t have to be openly hostile; it can be a secret difference of opinion or an awkward behaviour. And last but most important, make sure all this conflict affects the protagonist’s journey.

In conclusion, use this Character Interaction Chart to ensure you have enough conflict between the characters to sustain the story.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you use charts to map character interactions? Or do you have another system? Let me know in the Comments!

 

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Top Ten Things Writers Should Ask Their Characters

A week before NaNoWriMo began, I realized I didn’t know my supporting characters. Whoops! I had spent so much time figuring out my plot based on my heroine’s goal that I had neglected all the other characters, of which there are many because I’m writing a horror and a body count is required! But I didn’t have time to do full character sketches for all of them. So I came up with ten questions to ask my characters that cuts to the essence of their very souls — in ten minutes or less.  🙂

TTT Writers Should Ask Characters

1) Who are you? This question encompasses more than just basic facts like age, gender, profession, family status, etc. It gets inside each character’s head and finds out how they describe themselves versus how the world sees them, which may also be very different from how you the writer see them. This isn’t the truth of the character; this is their own bias towards themselves. Knowing a character’s personal bias is indispensable when figuring out how they would react to events in a story and what actions they would take. For example, the best villains see themselves as the hero of the story and act accordingly. Now what if your hero sees themselves as the villain? Or the loser? How does that inform their behaviour?

2) What do you want? Every character wants something, even if it’s an uninspired desire like being left alone to binge-watch Netflix. It’s important that each character has something they want that relates and/or conflicts with the plot, hero or other characters.

3) Why do you want it? An important follow up to the previous question. There must be a reason why your characters want what they want. Perhaps the Netflix watcher just broke up with his girlfriend and that’s why he would rather stay home than help his friends on their quest. So now you have conflict (a character who does not want to be on this quest with the hero) and relatability (a character we empathize with because we’ve all had relationships end).

4) How do you plan to get it? This is obviously a very important question for the hero because the whole story hinges on how the hero plans to achieve his goal. But secondary characters have plans too. Maybe Netflix watcher wants to get this quest over with asap so he can go home. Or maybe he realizes that helping the hero will impress his ex and gets a little carried away with the heroics. In short, this question helps the writer determine how the character interacts with the plot.

5) How do you handle crises? Stories are full of problems and setbacks and crises, so it’s essential to figure out how each character reacts to the troublesome twists and turns of their life (aka your plot). This question is especially useful if you have a group of characters in crisis together to make sure that they don’t all react the same.

6) What are you scared of? Knowing characters’ fears also informs how they would react in crises. Are they scared of what just happened or merely annoyed? If they’re not scared of the bad guys in the story, what are they scared of? Even the bravest character must fear something.

7) What is your weakness? This is not the same as a fear. I think of a character’s weakness as something they struggle to resist, something that will tempt them away from the story’s goal and/or create conflict with the hero. To use Netflix watcher as an example, his weakness could be his ex. If she calls and wants to talk, he’ll be tempted to abandon the hero and quest.

8) Who do you love? Even the most cantankerous character loves someone. Perhaps they only love themselves or their dog, but that’s something. Who they love can be their motivation or their weakness or their strength. It’s crucial to know which.

9) Who do you hate? Not all characters need to hate someone; the absence of hate is important to note as well. Which characters have enemies? Which are everybody’s friends? Or perhaps their hate is not directed to a person but towards a thing or idea or movement. What irks them and how does this inform their actions within the story?

10) Why are you in this story? This is perhaps the most important question of all! Does each character have a role? Here are some general examples: antagonist, voice of reason, comic relief, hero’s confident, troublemaker, love interest, smart one, victim, betrayer. Bottom line, there must be a reason for every supporting character to be in the story. Watch out for characters who play the same role; you can probably combine them into one.

I hope these questions help you develop your characters. I’m not quite done answering these questions myself, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish that and get started on NaNoWriMo. Good luck, everyone!

 

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Writing Fish-Out-of-Water Characters

fishwaterThe fish-out-of-water character is one of my favorites. It is remarkably versatile and there are so many story situations it works perfectly for (18 according to TV Tropes). I’m currently writing a fish-out-of-water character, which should not be confused with using a fish-out-of-water plot device.

A fish-out-of-water character adds comedy, or gives depth and diversity to the worldbuilding. C-3P0 from Star Wars: A New Hope is the perfect example of a fish-out-of-water character. Although he plays several important roles in the main plotline, the story would not fall apart without him. Other characters could be rewritten to carry his part of the story without any significant plot loss.

The same could not be said of Marty McFly in Back to the Future. In this case, the protagonist being a fish-out-of-water, namely a person trapped in the wrong historical time, is a huge part of the plot. Of the two, the fish-out-of-water plot device is the more common.

See the distinction?

Both types (character driven and plot based) share four elements.

1. Juxtaposition: The fish-out-of-water character needs to look, sound, and act differently from others characters.

C-3PO has a gleaming golden body. This contrasts sharply with the other characters who are dressed in monochromatic neutrals of brown, white and black. He maintains an overly erect posture, while the other protagonist characters (often to avoid injury) are slouching and/or crouching. He speaks in clearly enunciated full and complete sentences and uses a superior and elaborate vocabulary, while others speak more causally and/or use slang.

Marty also dresses differently from those around him. He maintains a casual fashion style, relaxed body posture, slang-rich speech patterns, and more erratic mannerism. The 1950’s kids Marty encounters are extremely repressed, and the world they live in is slower paced than Marty’s. The kids reflect the common values of 1950’s America about class, race, and gender roles, while Marty’s sensibilities are decades more evolved.

 

2. Self Awareness is an Issue: The fish-out-of-water character might not understand their outsider status. Once aware they are often unwilling, or unable to change.

In the case of C-3P0, he is a bit of both. His protocols are his lifeline during unfamiliar situations and he sees his worth reflected in the value of his programming. Yet his programming is almost worthless in real world situations and he can respond inappropriately to a crisis.

Marty knows he is not fitting in, but he is unwilling to change. He attempts to disguise his behaviors to blend in. However, he gets tripped up a lot, mostly when he thinks his actions reflect the correct behavior.

 

3. Differences = Benefits: Ultimately these characters offer prospective and/or clarity because they are unique.

C-3P0 is able to see solutions and problems others might miss. His suggestions are often off-base or ill-timed, but he wants to help. Often his only function is to translate for R2-D2, who has many useful abilities.

Marty uses his modern and assertive perspective to teach his teenage father how to stand up to his high school bully. This one change in Marty’s family history snowballs and when Marty returns to his own timeline his father is a new man, confident, strong and successful. This wouldn’t have happened without Marty interjecting his values into the situation.

 

4. Supports Theme: The fish-out-of-water character’s journey often reaffirms the story’s overall theme.

C-3P0’s character arc mirrors one of the biggest themes of the Star Wars franchise, Public Interest vs. Self Preservation. C-3P0 starts off only slightly loyal to others, but slowly he begins to risk his own safety to help his friends. C-3P0’s shift in perspective is echoed in the shift of Han’s character from self-centered mercenary to hero.

For Marty it was always about family. Marty felt like an outsider in his own home, but by going back in time and being forced to walk in his parent’s teenage shoes, he finally finds a way of connecting with them. His experience teaches him the value of love, and he starts to cherish the family he worked so hard to save.

The fish-out-of-water character sometimes assimilates by the end of the story, but not always. C-3P0 never fundamentally changes, instead the other characters learn to value him for his differences.

Or the fish-out-of-water character can return to his own environment at the end. Marty returns to his correct time, but as an improved version of himself.

 

Some of my favorite fish-out-of-water examples from books, movies and TV are:

Miss Elizabeth Charming of Austenland. She flies thousands of miles from home to take part in a Jane Austen theme vacation, but has never heard of Pride and Prejudice.

Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop. This streetwise African-American cop, runs headlong into the privilege and prejudices of a rich and famous world. And still gets the better of them.

River and Simon Tam from Firefly. This sister and brother pairing are out-of-place almost everywhere. It’s why they are stronger, and more fiercely loyal to each other and the other crew members, than anyone initially gives them credit for.

All the Hobbits in any book written by J.R.R. Tolkien. No one has ever put together a better cast of fish-out-of-water heroes.

And the best fish-out-of-water in water is: Nemo and Marlin from Finding Nemo.
Once this father and son team leave the small, safe world of the reef, neither is prepared for the challenges of the deep blue.

What about you? Do you have a favorite fish-out-of-water plot or character?

 

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