There are all kinds of arguments about which area of craft is the most important for creating great fiction. Plot? Character? Voice? Theme? My opinion. They’re all organs in one body. Our brains will still work if our lungs have bronchitis, but maybe not at an optimal level. Similarly, there are people with brain injuries who have a strong heart. A body can “live” without everything operating in concert, and so can any story.
It’s ideal to hone our skills in all areas, and our goal is to be skilled at all of them. Can we be equally skilled? That’s another debate for another post.
I will say that plot (skeleton/brain) is very important. Our characters (heart) are only as strong as the crucible. Ultimately, all stories are about people. We might not recall every detail of a plot, but we DO remember characters. Ah, but here’s the sticky wicket. WHY do we remember characters? Because of plot. Stories are more than about people. Great stories are people overcoming great odds.
We don’t remember Luke Skywalker because he hung out on Tatooine waxing rhapsodic about his plight as a moisture farmer. We remember him and his allies because they went up against seemingly unbeatable odds and WON.
Yet, even if we come up with the coolest plot in the world, there are elements of character that should also be in the mix, lest our novel can become the literary equivalent of a CGI Star Wars Prequel NIGHTMARE. Characters should develop organically or the reader will call FOUL.
Additionally, if our characters are as deep as an Amarillo puddle, it will be virtually impossible for readers to emotionally connect.
But Obi-Wan doesn’t take me seriously. Whaaaaahhhhhh! *SLAP*
If we’re missing emotional connection between the audience and our characters, our story loses critical wattage. What are some ways we can help form that connection? Today…
Real humans have wounds that drive our wants, needs, perceptions, and reactions and so should all our characters (even the Big Boss Troublemaker-Antagonist). Recently, I was helping a student of my Antag-Gold class plot her novel. She had a good protagonist who was a control freak. My question: WHY?
Yes, genetics will have a role in forging our personality, but genes do not a good story make. Having a character be a certain way simply because we need them to be or act that way will work, but so will a heart with damaged valves.
Wounds drive how we perceive our world, what we believe we want, and how we will (or won’t) interact with others. This is critical for generating story tension and character arc.
For instance, my father abandoned us, my mother was chronically ill, and my little brother was legally blind. I was left to grow up too fast and take care of far too much way too early. THIS is why I struggle with being a control freak. From MY wound, %#!* didn’t get done unless I did it.
Additionally, because I grew up in the wake of constant broken promises, I’ve had to work hard to trust. It’s been a challenge to delegate and allow others to fail or succeed without my meddling. Also in my growing up years, achievement=love/attention. That wound drove me to seek dreams that weren’t mine to please others. I had to “arc” to walk away from people-pleasing if I wanted fulfillment.
Wounds Don’t Have to Be Big to Be BIG
Often, new writers will default to wounds like rape or death or some big tragedy to create the wound. To be clear, I am not saying these aren’t viable wounds, but never underestimate the “smaller” and more relatable emotional injuries. The more a reader can empathize with one or more characters, the deeper that connection becomes.
Not everyone has lost their family to a sudden alien invasion— 😉 — but they can empathize with maybe never living up to expectations, being bullied, or not fitting in. LOTR rests on a small band of Hobbits who believe they are too little to make a BIG difference.
Perhaps the character is the invisible middle child trying to forge an identity, the eldest trying to hold the world together, or the baby who “got away with murder” and “was handed everything.” Never underestimate family dynamics as sources for realistic and powerful psychic wounds.
For instance, my father was all play no work. Unfortunately, we suffered the consequences. Ironically, my grandfather was all work no play. Doubly ironic, my childlike father created a workaholic daughter (me); like thread, one loop feeding into the next weaving the “pattern” until someone changes “the pattern.”
I’ve had to learn to lighten the hell up and balance The Force. But my workaholic, overachieving nature served up far more thorns than fruits.
Wounds Will Distort Happiness
Wounds generate illusions. Because I grew up poor and lived hand-to-mouth all through college, I “believed” that money and financial security would make me happy. At 27, I made more money than any person in their 20s should make…and I was miserable. I was eaten alive with emptiness. I’d achieved all that should have filled that hole—the college degree, the premium job and premium pay. And yet?
I was the person stranded in a desert gulping sand I believed was water from an oasis.
Character arc comes when a protagonist is placed in a problem strong enough to challenge the illusion and break it. The protagonist believes X=happiness/fulfillment. It is only through the story problem that the protagonist rises to become a hero, a person capable of realizing they were wrong and that they’d been coveting a shill at the expense of the gold.
Thus, when creating characters, keep the wound at the forefront of your mind.
How does it affect what he/she believes about their own identity? What do they believe will make them happy? What is it that you (Author God) know that’s really what will make them happy? What needs to change for that character to lose the blinders? What is the perfect problem (plot) to force the protagonist to see the hard truth of the unhealed wound?
What are your thoughts? Writing can be healing and therapeutic. Have you ever siphoned from your own hurt-reservoir to deepen your characters? Can you think of how even small hurts can become super-sized? What are some ways you’ve witnessed wounds driving people in wrong directions toward false happiness? Have you been there, done that and earned the t-shirt?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Winner for August is Lara McGill. Lara, please send your choice of 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. You can also choose to send a query letter (250 words) or a synopsis (up to 750 words). Congratulations!
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
Recently, I’ve added homeschooling The Spawn to the list of what I already do. Blog, write books, teach, run two small businesses and keeping a house clean, the yard mowed, and my family fed. As an introvert who works from home, it’s easy to realize you no longer leave the house and are talking to yourself way more than is healthy. Thus, I’ve been on a mission to break some patterns and do what might scare me (talking to other people in person).
Btw, writers don’t count.
Welcome to Nerd Land
In the spirit of this “Doing Stuff Differently” I joined some friends for a monthly game of Dungeons and Dragons, and took Hubby as a hostage teammate. I hadn’t played D&D since I was in high school so there is a learning curve. But one thing that struck me is how being an author had changed my perspective. The first duty I had was to choose and create characters for me and Hubby.
When I looked at who was playing what, I spotted a big problem. The existing party was far too homogenous, so the only real conflict was going to come from whatever bad creatures they happened to fight. What did I do? My writer’s mantra.
THROW A ROCK IN IT.
Instead of playing a ranger as I always had, I chose a Kender (Halfling). Kenders are loved and despised. They are tiny and childlike and have an affinity for anything shiny (yeah, it fits). They can pick locks, spot and disarm traps, and they have boundless curiosity paired with sticky fingers and that can land them in hot water.
Since Kenders place no material value on anything, stealing to them is more…”borrowing.” Also, they have no social filters and say whatever they’re thinking. One of their strongest powers in a fight is “the taunt.” They can get the enemy so riled, bad guys don’t think clearly and make mistakes. They are a chaotic good character, emphasis on the chaotic.
Now pair this Kender with Hubby who is a Lawful Good Paladin. BOOM!
Hey, I only “borrowed” his sword. Was totally going to give it back *rolls eyes*.
But what was interesting about our first game with the other party members, is that they all groaned and wanted roasted Kender. Apparently a Kender played poorly is simply a pain in the a$$. Like any D&D character, it is up to the person playing the role to breathe in life and to dig below the surface and harness strengths and weaknesses. By the end of the game, everyone (including the barbarian) was yelling to the Kender for help.
***My name is Idgy Thistletuft—or IT for short 😀 .
Case In Point
For instance, Kenders are fearless in regards to their own lives. Instead of staying with the party, I decided to run off and climb a tree. Very popular move when everyone was “strategizing.” Ah, but once up in the tree, I spotted enemies over the rise. I used the powers of taunting to draw the orcs and goblins all to the base of said shiny tree and then FOCUS their anger on me…then the party had an easier time defeating them.
Also, Hubby being a Paladin added even more conflict. Our mage put the goblins to sleep, but a Paladin will never kill an enemy (even an orc) who is helpless and will actively stop others from doing harm to a helpless foe. It isn’t “noble”…so we used me to distract Hubby while others whacked sleeping orcs.
But the game was FAR more fun, since now the conflict was being generated within the party itself.Each character is guided by a code, a background and a personality. When those conflict? Fun times!
Why do I mention D&D? Because I believe Dungeons & Dragons ™ offers a litmus that is HIGHLY useful in creating great characters.
When I used to run writing groups, I would challenge participants to explore their character’s alignment which is basically a way to categorize a character’s moral and ethical perspectives in relation to the greater societal framework. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. TSR, Inc. breaks down character alignments into the following:
Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil
These nine classifications are used to help determine how a character will act (or react) in any given circumstance.
***And, yes, my fellow nerds, I know they have since whittled this list to five, but the original classification system, I feel, is more useful for crafting characters. So delete your e-mail correcting me :). Or add some wisdom in the comments.
We as writers are tasked with creating characters that can easily be mistaken for living breathing people. In order to do this, we have to develop “people” who act in ways consistent with their backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. In other words, we must assign “alignment.”
Also, most of our conflict will not come from the core antagonist, rather it will come from allies and those closest. Anyone who’s ever been to a family reunion or been forced to do a group project knows I’m correct.
In our novel? If too many allies are agreeing? Something is wrong.
Back to Dungeons and Dragons
Each D&D alignment is associated with an archetype which we see reflected in literary examples.
“Saintly” or “Crusader” alignment. A Lawful Good character typically acts with compassion, and always with honor and a sense of duty. Lawful Good characters, especially paladins (knights), may sometimes find themselves faced with the dilemma of whether to obey law or good when the two conflict – for example, upholding a sworn oath when it would lead innocents to come to harm – or conflicts between two orders, such as between their religious law and the law of the local ruler.
Literary Examples—Superman, Joan of Arc, Olivia from Law & Order.
Neutral Good is known as the “Benefactor” alignment. A Neutral Good character is guided by his conscience and typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against Lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A Neutral Good character has no problems with co-operating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a Lawful Good character would. A doctor who treats soldiers from both sides in a war could be considered Neutral Good.
Literary Examples—Zorro, Spiderman, Elliot from Law and Order.
Chaotic Good is known as the “Beatific,” “Rebel,” or “Cynic” alignment. A Chaotic Good character favors change for a greater good, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. They always intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of alignment with the rest of society. They have no use for those who would try to push them around and tell them what to do.
While they do not have evil intentions, they often do bad things (even if they do not necessarily enjoy doing these things) to people who are, in their opinion, bad people if it benefits their goal of achieving a greater good.
Literary Examples—Starbuckfrom Battlestar Galactica , Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, and Robin Hood
Lawful Neutral is called the “Judge” or “Disciplined” alignment. A Lawful Neutral character typically believes strongly in Lawful concepts such as honor, order, rules and tradition, and often follows a personal code. A Lawful Neutral society would typically enforce strict laws to maintain social order, and place a high value on traditions and historical precedent. Examples of Lawful Neutral characters might include a soldier who always follows orders, a judge or enforcer who adheres mercilessly to the word of the law, a disciplined monk, or a cowardly commoner.
Characters of this alignment are neutral with regard to good and evil. This does not mean that Lawful Neutral characters are amoral or immoral, or do not have a moral compass; but simply that their moral considerations come a distant second to what their code, tradition or law dictates. They typically have a strong ethical code, but it is primarily guided by their system of belief, not by a commitment to good or evil.
Literary Examples—James Bond & Odysseus.
Neutral alignment, also referred to as True Neutral or Neutral Neutral, is called the “Undecided” or “Nature’s” alignment. This alignment represents Neutral on both axes, and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment. A farmer whose primary overriding concern is to feed his family is of this alignment. Most animals, lacking the capacity for moral judgment, are of this alignment. Many roguish characters who play all sides to suit themselves are also of this alignment.
Some Neutral characters, rather than feeling undecided, are committed to a balance between the alignments. They may see good, evil, law and chaos as simply prejudices and dangerous extremes.
Literary Examples—Lara Croft & Han Solo.
Chaotic Neutral is called the “Anarchist” or “Free Spirit” alignment. A character of this alignment is an individualist who follows his or her own heart, and generally shirks rules and traditions. Good and Evil come a distant second to their need for personal freedom, and the only reliable thing about them is how totally unreliable they are.
They typically act out of self-interest, but do not specifically enjoy seeing others suffer. Many free-spirited adventurers are of this alignment. Alternatively there are madmen whose actions are chaotic, but are not themselves inclined towards evil.
An unusual subset of Chaotic Neutral is “strongly Chaotic Neutral”, describing a character who behaves chaotically to the point of appearing insane. Characters of this type may regularly change their appearance and attitudes for the sake of change, and intentionally disrupt organizations for the sole reason of disrupting a lawful construct.
Literary Examples—Jack Sparrow Pirates of the Caribbean. Al Swearingen, Deadwood
Lawful Evil is referred to as the “Dominator” or “Diabolic” alignment. Characters of this alignment see a well-ordered system as being easier to exploit, and show a combination of desirable and undesirable traits; while they usually obey their superiors and keep their word, they care nothing for the rights and freedoms of other individuals. Examples of this alignment include tyrants, devils, undiscriminating mercenary types who have a strict code of conduct, and loyal soldiers who enjoy the act of killing.
Literary Examples—Boba Fett Star Wars & X-Men’s Magneto
Neutral Evil is called the “Malefactor” alignment. Characters of this alignment are typically selfish and have no qualms about turning on their allies-of-the-moment. They have no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit to it. They abide by laws for only as long as it is convenient for them. A villain of this alignment can be more dangerous than either Lawful or Chaotic Evil characters, since he is neither bound by any sort of honor or tradition nor disorganized and pointlessly violent.
Examples are an assassin who has little regard for formal laws but does not needlessly kill, a henchman who plots behind his superior’s back, or a mercenary who switches sides if made a better offer.
Literary Examples—X-Men’s Mystique. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV Series).
Chaotic Evil is referred to as the “Destroyer” or “Demonic” alignment. Characters of this alignment tend to have no respect for rules, other peoples’ lives, or anything but their own desires, which are typically selfish and cruel. They set a high value on personal freedom, but do not have any regard for the lives or freedom of other people. They do not work well in a group, as they resent being given orders, and usually only behave themselves out of fear of punishment.
It is not compulsory for a Chaotic Evil character to be constantly performing sadistic acts just for the sake of being evil, or constantly disobeying orders just for the sake of causing chaos. They do however enjoy the suffering of others, and view honor and self-discipline as weaknesses. Serial killers and monsters of limited intelligence are typically Chaotic Evil.
Literary Examples—Joker from The Dark Knight. Stargher’s evil half in movie The Cell (2000).
An author’s task is not easy, but it can be simplified. Alignment is just one of those tools that can help us get a better idea of who each of our characters are. Once we “know” them, it then becomes far easier to craft scenes, because we know how each will act/react in any given situation and within any stipulated context.
Once we understand their moral compasses (or lack thereof), we can then plot their courses accordingly. Alignment is also valuable for understanding character arc, goals, and motivations and priceless for crafting conflict that will test and fire their mettle.
What are your thoughts? Other than yes, we can all argue what alignment certain characters are (I.e. Batman). But it really is that tension in the “not knowing” that is fabulous for CONFLICT. Think of the characters above and how they not only interacted with their respective antagonist, but also how they interacted with allies and you’ll see that casting our novel is a HUGE deal. And BIG THANKS to Wikipedia for the help. also a HUGE thanks for people with enough free time to create such AWESOME memes.
Any fellow D&D nerds players who might have another perspective or additional insight? Never heard of D&D? Or maybe you’ve heard of D&D and now are unsure we can be friends because I told you I play D&D?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.
July 19th is myFirst Five Pages Class and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.
Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on July 26th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.
So you want to be a writer. Okay. I’ll be blunt because that’s my superpower. Check your conscience at the door keyboard. Writers are not civilized humans. In fact, we are the opposite. We are the reptilian brain to the power of a million. We probe and prod and poke the weak places. Great storytellers are nothing short of sadists. We take a perfectly empathetic/likable person, toss their life in a Vita-Mix and blend, churning that mixture from Level 1-1000.
That is called conflict.
Stories are about people with problems to be solved. Everything else is a travel brochure.
One of the reasons I LOVE teaching craft is I get to see the work/stories of other writers. Recently, I held my First Five Pages class and could hear the collective groans when I said, “NO FLASHBACKS. EVER.” But I am a benevolent dictator and instructed those submitting pages, that if they believed they positively-absolutely-must-have the flashback and had no idea how to extract it? Send it anyway.
I was really happy I did, because I noticed something I’d never before been able to articulate. Sure, flashbacks make the writing jaunty. We get going forward and then we (readers) have to reorient to a new timeline, then to another. But, there was a hidden evil lurking that I’d never so clearly spotted until I received a SUPERB sample from one of my students. Her writing was AWESOME…and that was the problem.
If you read my earlier post, I talked about how to hook readers. It doesn’t have to be a bomb, a car chase, a murder. In fact, some of the best tension is in the everyday and it is even more intense because regular people can relate. Most of us can’t relate to a bomb ticking down but two words—Family Reunion. One word—WEDDING.
This writer’s story began with a poor wedding planner trying to herd badly hungover bridesmaids to a wedding (in Mexico). She is trying to repair dresses, cater to a prima donna maid of honor, and placate a bride who is passive and used to others walking over her.
Between trying to get enough outlets in a hundred-year-old church, bridesmaids barfing on their shoes, and a meddling mother of the bride, we have the perfect STEW of DRAMA and a FANTASTIC HOOK! Perfect understanding of in medias res.
We feel compassion for the poor wedding planner and worry if she will get these sick-half-drunk girls to the wedding without using a stun-gun on someone.
I was RIVETED…and then the author went back and explained how the wedding came to be held in Mexico.
NO, I WANT TO SEE A BRIDESMAID PUKE IN THE FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS!
This sample of writing was fantastic, but she did two things that undermined her piece.
NOTHING Should Work
When the wedding planner gives the bridesmaids Pepto, it makes them feel better. Okay, I will go with that. But to enhance this? It makes them feel better…moments before at least one of them (or ALL of them) barfs pink all over the wedding planner’s bag, or the bride’s veil, or the bouquet. Now, the problem isn’t only the sickly maids and bride, but how the heck can the wedding planner get out of THIS?
Character is demonstrated by solving (or not solving) problems. Since wedding planner is the protagonist, maybe she has been through this before and just as the bride is about to have a breakdown because her veil is ruined? Wedding planner pulls out a spare. She always orders two after that wedding she put together in Oklahoma where the chain-smoking bride set fire to her own veil (showing she is calm and resourceful).
So when you put your characters in any scenario, ask, “Can I make it WORSE?” Then make it worse. Then ask that question again and again until you can’t make it worse without making it weird (I.e. sudden alien abduction in a Women’s Fiction).
Part of becoming a writer is to train out any human sensitivity. When we make life easier on our characters, we are doing it because WE feel tension and are seeking to alleviate that. Ah, but TENSION is the fuel of fiction, so do the opposite of what civilized humans would do and MAKE IT WORSE.
I could tell this writer was doing a SUPERB job of winding our nerves tighter than a Hollywood facelift. How? She backed off to explain…
How many of you have jerk friends, family or acquaintances? Or all of the above? Or maybe you’ve had a moment where you’ve shown your butt? I have all of the above. What do we do to ease others? To make them relax?
Sorry about my Mom. She’s not been the same since my father died.
Ok, so we leave out the part that Dad died 15 years ago. It works. It makes others give grace to Mom for acting like a horse’s behind.
I apologize for blowing up like that. I had a flat tire, migraine, no sleep, allergy medicine overdose, etc.
EXPLAINING is what civilized humans do to break the tension. STOP IT! CUT! CUT! CUT!
All of us will feel a NEED to explain why a character is moody, angry, broken, bawdy, whatever. DON’T. Resist the urge to EXPLAIN. In fact, if readers don’t know WHY, they will want to turn pages to find out WHY.
Frankly, as writers, we are GOD, so we really don’t have to explain ourselves anyway. Let the readers suffer until the very end, when you finally allow resolution. Suffering good for readers (and book sales).
***And, like anything, I am sure someone somewhere used a flashback and it was AWESOME. Like any writing “rule” we can break this one, too. But, we have to know the rules to break the rules 😉 .***
Flashback Fodder in Real-Time Adds Mystery
When this writer flashed back to explain how the wedding ended up in Mexico instead of Mom’s choice (Napa Valley), she inadvertently missed two opportunities:
1) Increase tension.
2) Show character.
If she’d had this flashback real-time, Mom could have come in, seen the sea foam green bridesmaids (faces and dresses matching) and thrown a fit. “THIS is why I wanted to have this in Napa. It’s Montezuma’s Revenge. I told you wine country was a better choice. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”
The poor bride, who never stands up for herself is defeated and losing ground on what should be HER day. Wedding planner can come to the rescue and usher Mom out with the skill of an ambassador in a war zone (or try and fail). Either way, we LIKE her for trying.
THIS is “Show don’t tell.” Having critical information from a flashback in the current thread of time allows readers to see people act and react. It makes us wonder. It makes us tense. We want to ease the pressure and the only way to do that is to KEEP READING and HOPE it will eventually all turn out for the better.
Now y’all know why I take away your flashbacks. I am being mean, but it’s good for you. Flashbacks will ease your nerves, but is it worth losing the reader? And we often don’t recognize we are doing this. Even I have to go back through my writing and hunt for places I backed off the throttle because I was uncomfortable.
What are your thoughts? What makes you tense? Do you find you fall in love with your characters and go too easy on them?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have a FANTASTIC class coming up to help you!
CLASS COMES WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.
Understanding the Antagonist
If you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension.
Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . This is a GREAT class for streamlining a story and making it pitch-ready.
Additionally, why pay thousands for an editor or hundreds for a book doctor? This is a VERY affordable way to make sure your entire story is clear and interesting. Also, it will help you learn to plot far faster and cleaner in the future.
Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.
I’ll be running the First Five Pages again at the end of May, so stay tuned.
Last week we talked about the antagonists that drive the action thread of the story. This week, we are going to talk about a different type of scene antagonist…the antagonist that drives the inner change of a character. This will conclude this series on antagonists. To write truly great stories that will resonate long after the reader puts down our book, we are wise to consider how a character will emotionally grow and change over the course of the adventure.
All good stories have ONE core problem that must be resolved. The story’s main antagonist–what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker–is responsible for creating this problem. Our protagonist, if pitted against the BBT in Act One, would fail. Why? He or she has not grown enough to be able to survive the Big Boss Battle. Protagonists who are strong enough to win at the beginning make for boring fiction.
Most real people are not self-aware enough to realize they have problems. In fact most real people spend years in therapy to come to the realization that they might actually be responsible for their own problems. Most real people do not wake up one day and say, “Wow. You know. I think today I am going to change.” Real people need some outside event or person to create discomfort that makes us change. Nasty breakups teach us not to take our partners for granted. Family members who move onto our couch and won’t leave teach us how to set effective boundaries. Credit card fees and penalties teach us to get better at paying the bills on time.
Great fiction takes real life and removes all the dull parts….but it still must reflect something of real life or it will ring untrue to the reader. Characters that are far too self-aware and who spend page after page thinking and mulling over inner monologues seem contrived and false. At best, the victory will come without facing any genuine opposition, which equals DULL STORY. We love books because of the opposition. It is the battle, the struggle, the darkest moment when all seems lost and how can they ever survive…THAT is why we read fiction.
Too many new writers have no BBT. Thus, there is no clear story problem. Since there is no clear story problem, it is impossible to create dramatic tension. All that is left is the dross of self-indulgent melodrama. Look to all the GREAT stories, the ones that will be told for generations. Does the author keep the finish line a secret? To be revealed with a twist ending?
No. All protagonists have very clear goals.
Lord of the Rings—Drop the Ring of Power into Mount Doom before Sauron grows strong enough to cast all of Middle Earth into perpetual darkness.
Finding Nemo—Find Nemo before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday.
Silence of the Lambs—Rescue the senator’s daughter and stop Buffalo Bill from killing more girls.
Star Wars—Defeat the (Sith) Emperor.
Fried Green Tomatoes—Stand up to abusive family.
Joy Luck Club—Go to China to meet lost twin sisters and relay the news of Mom’s death.
Coma—Find out who is responsible for killing patients and stop them.
The Road—Make it to the ocean without losing the essence of humanity.
The Hunger Games—Win the Hunger Games.
Good stories have clear finish lines. Better still, great stories have protagonists that grow and change over the course of the story. In the beginning, the protag lacks that fundamental ingredient that will allow him to triumph at the end. Thus, the trials ahead will fire out impurities and strengthen the character to make him fit for battle. Often there are allies and mentors who will serve as scene antagonists to drive the necessary change.
Remember, an antagonist is not necessarily a bad guy or villain. An antagonist merely has goals that conflict with what the protagonist wants. In the beginning, what the protagonists want are not always what is best for them. This is why allies and mentor characters are so vital.
Last week we looked at the children’s movie Finding Nemo. We studied how other incidental characters like Bruce the Great White in Recovery served to drive the story’s momentum when it came to the action thread. Today we will look at the protagonists’ inner arcs and how change is created.
What is the goal of Finding Nemo? Um, find Nemo. But the log-line might look something like this.
A neurotic fish father must swim to Sydney, Australia to rescue his son from a dentist’s fish tank before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday.
At the very beginning of the movie, we are given a few minutes of back-story. Marlin loses his wife and all their eggs (save one–Nemo) to a barracuda. This has made Marlin overprotective and overly afraid of…everything. He is smothering his son Nemo and not allowing him to mature.
Conversely, Nemo has a damaged fin from the barracuda attack. His father tells him repeatedly how this handicaps him and that is why he needs to stay safe under Dad’s control. Nemo, deep down, believes that he is handicapped, but it doesn’t stop him from resenting his father’s overprotective control.
In fact, it is this very resentment that births the story problem. Out of defiance, Nemo swims off the reef to touch the boat. This is what gets him snared in the diver’s fish net.
So in this movie, we have two story lines. Marlin’s and Nemo’s.
Marlin doesn’t trust anyone and he is a hopeless control freak. Thus, right after the inciting incident, who becomes Marlin’s ally?
Dori, the Forgetful Fish. Dori suffers short-term memory loss. She is a happy-go-lucky optimist who never gives up. She is exactly the ally Marlin needs to teach him to lighten up, let go of control, and to learn to look at the positive. Dori is Marlin’s mirror opposite. He is controlling and negative, where she is easygoing and positive. Dori is exactly the example Marlin needs to mend his ways.
Scene after scene we see how Dori serves the role of the antagonist.Heroes are not made in the comfort zone. Dori’s main role is to continually challenge Marlin and shove him repeatedly out of his comfort zone so that he grows and changes.
Marlin wants to moan and complain and give up when the one clue to finding his son drops into a deep sea trench. Dori starts singing, “Just keep swimming” and encourages Marlin to continue the adventure. Thus, we have a conflict lock. Marlin wants to give up. Dori wants to go after the clue. Only one party can have her way. If Marlin wins this battle of wills, the story is over and Nemo is doomed.
Dori continually places Marlin in a position of having to trust. She makes him overcome the greatest weakness he has….his need to control. His need to control his boy was what created the problem and is why Nemo was lost to begin with. Marlin must learn to let go of control to save his boy.
On the other side of things, Nemo awakens in a fish tank in the diver dentist’s office. It is in this tank we see the ticking clock. Nemo must get away before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday. Nemo is her intended gift and Darla’s last gift died from being shaken. Who becomes Nemo’s mentor? Gill. An angel fish with a damaged fin who won’t let Nemo make excuses.
Marlin must overcome his need to control and trust Dori to get to Sydney Harbor.
Nemo must listen to Gil and believe in himself in order to escape the dentist’s office.
Both parties must grow emotionally and overcome their greatest weakness in order to be victorious in the end. Scene antagonists are responsible for turning floundering helpless protagonists into heroes.
A good exercise is to watch movies. Try to figure out what element the protagonist needs to develop to be victorious in the Big Boss Battle. Who are the scene antagonists driving that change? How do events drive that inner change? Stories where the protag wakes up and has an ah-ha! are boring. That is lazy writing. Outside forces must challenge the protagonist to change, grow and rise to the occasion. Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.
What are your favorite stories and why? How did the protagonist change? Is it more clear who and what drove that change? Any advice? Suggestions? Questions?
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I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
Today is a holiday, so I will announce last week’s winner and the winner for May on Wednesday.
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