Last time we talked about paradigms, and how paradigms are what make the difference between a flat one-dimensional character background and a fully dimensional creation. The paradigm is the meaning of the background, the character’s interpretation of their own experiences.
We all know there is an inherent X factor to humans. Theologians, scientists, geneticists, sociologists, psychiatrists and self-help gurus have all been trying to unravel that X factor probably since humans had enough free time to get existential. The nature-nurture argument is still alive and well with no clear answers.
The paradigm represents this X factor.
One person gets mugged and becomes agoraphobic. Another becomes a black belt. And yet another brushes it off and is just more careful and maybe carries pepper spray. Humans are all vastly different, and this provides the wide pallet of color from which the skilled writer can then create.
In the last post, we referred to the paradigm as a set of lenses. Experience, birth order, genetics, etc. all serve to grind the lenses the character wears. As also mentioned in the last post, the protagonist wears these lenses but only we—Author God—know these lenses are flawed and in need of replacing.
The protagonist believes he is seeing clearly. The plot problem is what eventually shows how wrong the protagonist is.
Now when we simply look at the protagonist—because it is HER story—we know the core plot problem we create must be directly related to shattering HER particular paradigm. If the plot doesn’t do this? It’s going to fizzle, because there simply won’t be any conflict. The paradigm reveals the pain point, the critical node and perfect place for us to strike.
If the character is family-centered, we go after the family. Job-centered? Go for the job. Relationship-centered? A break-up is on the horizon.
Y’all get the gist.
We need to smash what the protagonist believes is important and reveal what really is important. Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how this works. I’m going to use different genres so you guys get a better feel for what I am talking about.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Frodo is achievement-centered. He believes The Shire is holding him back. It is too prosaic, too mundane. No, he is called to adventure and wants to see the world and experience dragons and orcs and look for treasure. He has a romanticized notion that what is outside The Shire is far more important than The Shire.
This means we need to give him a plot problem that 1) gets him out of The Shire (give him what he believes he wants) 2) exposes that all this adventure he has been dreaming about is seriously NOT as wonderful as he’d imagined 3) place The Shire and all he took for granted in genuine danger of being lost for good.
In the beginning of our tale, Frodo cannot wait to leave The Shire. In the middle (Book Two) all he wants to do is return to The Shire and by the end (Book Three) he is willing to die to save the very place he took for granted. His lenses of All Outside the Shire is Super Awesome have been shattered and replaced.
The Minority Report
John Anderton not only heads Pre-Crime, he is a bonafide acolyte of a system that uses the Pre-Cogs to see a crime before it ever happens. With Pre-Crime the murder rate in D.C. has dropped to almost zero, and with less-than-subtle encouragement from his mentor? John firmly believes that Pre-Crime is the answer to human sin, that if it had only been around a few years earlier, he would never have lost his son.
John drinks the Pre-Crime Kool-Aid.
He honestly believes there really is no such thing as free will, that humans don’t have the ability to choose. That what the Pre-Cogs see is set. He is all about the job, because his job is changing the world and making it “safe.”
John is job-centered. His entire identity is wrapped up in Pre-Crime.
So, knowing this, the screenwriters (tasked with adapting the Philip K. Dick version for film) understood precisely where to strike. They knew to hit John Anderton right in the job, right in his belief in the infallibility of Pre-Crime. How did they do this?
They red-balled him (a red-ball is a warning of premeditated murder).
John believes that the Pre-Cogs are infallible. But how is he supposed to murder a man he has never even met? By the end of our tale, the man who believed enough in Pre-Crime to lead the charge to take it national, is now the one who destroys it. By the end he can finally see the wreckage of his life.
Before, when he had the job-centered lenses, he was driven by the career, fueled by drugs and haunted by his guilt. In all of this he’d pushed away his wife, destroyed his marriage and haloed countless potentially innocent people who very well might have made a different decision in the seconds before…just as he had.
With new lenses, he can finally SEE his flawed world and set it right. Tear down Pre-Crime, free those jailed under it, let go and mourn his son, and reunite with his estranged wife.
Big, Little Lies
I touched on Liane Moriatry’s Big, Little Lies last time. The story actually blends the threads of three major characters but for the sake of brevity? We will continue to pick on Madeline. As I mentioned last time, Madeline has a family-centered paradigm. Her entire worth and how she sees herself and her world is caught up in her ability to be a mother.
More accurately, how much her daughters need her.
In the beginning of the story we get that Madeline is losing her grip. Her youngest daughter Chloe is finally in grade school and is becoming more and more independent. To make matters worse, Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan, who abandoned her and the older daughter Abigail years before is back with a new (and far younger) wife, Bonnie. He also has a new daughter Skye, who’s enrolled in the same school (and same class) as Chloe.
Madeline already feels her identity grip slipping in the beginning, so what did Moriarty do? She stomped on Madeline’s fingers and dropped her off the ledge. If her entire being rests on her children needing her, what will she do when Abigail bonds with her “replacement” Bonnie? When her daughter decides to leave the mother who stood by her for the man who abandoned them both?
The story problem forces Madeline to learn the old adage, If you love something, let it go and trust that her daughter will return. Trust is not Madeline’s strong suit for obvious reasons (namely abandonment). But Madeline is going to have to learn to forgive and to trust in order to be reunited with her older daughter.
She needs to lose the family-centered glasses and realize she is a person in her own right and that her identity cannot rest on her children’s need because that has led to control and not love.
I am hoping you are seeing the depth that the paradigm offers as well as how it is almost a witching stick for finding the perfect story for your character. By adding the paradigm, plot almost magically reveals itself. Next time we are going to take the idea of paradigms even further to show how this is going to generate page-turning conflict throughout and keep your readers up so late they will curse your name but secretly love you for all that missed sleep.
What are your thoughts? Can you use this idea of paradigms to see your favorite books and movies in a whole new light?
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Wow–I was glad to see this article today, because it’s a great way of looking at making characters more. Sometimes a world needs to be destroyed to make something better, more whole, and if that world is a character, I can see why the stories resonate with readers.
I haven’t read minority report yet (and haven’t seen the movie), but I’ve got the short story collection with it in there, and I’m going to be looking hard at the differences and similarities. Dick is tricky to read sometimes, because he just drops you in the world and makes you find your way around in it. But by the end of the weekend I’ll definitely get through it (hee hee). He brings up interesting questions and changes (i watched The Prophets of Science Fiction episode with him in it, and wow–he was messed up!)
Great breakdown of how to look at characters. I’ll keep this in mind.
Well, in this one I am pulling apart the movie. The adaptation might work better for studying using MY example because elements were added by the screenwriters for the depth necessary for a feature length film (I.e. him having a son and a wife).
Hey Kristin! I feel like my time on WordPress is such a benefit due tot he kindness of people with experience like yourself who are willing to pass along their knowledge. I get that the character must seem real and be sufficiently troubled or there is no story. As I think about the movies and books I love that comes true.
I am brainstorming a new novel and can already see the influences you highlighted among others that are making me think much more critically and strategically about what plot issues they must face to make the story work. Thanks for your commitment to pay it back to us still trying to crack the code.
This is so good. I’m going to have to reference back to it a lot. Can’t thank you enough!
Thank you so much for this post. It’s exactly what I needed to read. Not only for my fiction, but in my personal life, where it’s a much needed reminder.
Kristin, good information that clarified my protagonist’s paradigm. Hadn’t thought about that aspect even though I’m on target. Lucky! Thanks for all your informative posts! I read all of them! Happy Friday! ? Christine
I’m going to add some notes to my living documents.PS: Still had to fill out the entire form.
Okay I un-clicked another box. If I am not eaten by a swarm of spam bots this might just work…
This is good stuff! When do you think you’ll be doing a class on characters? I know you did one recently, but I wasn’t able to attend. 🙂
Great information tucked into my hat. Characters are like the real estate mantra, location, location, location, except, insert character.
I’ve learned while sweating and rewriting my novel, I needed to break away from Miss Perfect finds Mr. Perfect. Yes, that is how I started.
Miss Perfect has become a felon-to-be on the run. Besides her felonious acts, her biggest vice is control. Mr. Perfect is a wounded warrior and detective. His vice is control. Not mean, just funny, in the ha-ha way while they chase a murderer. Each character owns their own speech pattern, their own ‘tells,’ and as you mentioned, world view.
Then I add horrific twists. Since I developed a crush on my love-interest, gut-wrenching scenes for my protagonist, I had to twist the knife in bite-sized pieces to bring emotion to the surface.
This is how sweating blood (OK, and tears–pass the tissues)over the characters created my favorite novel I’ve written thus far.
This is the HEA comedy … but by changing their personalities, changing the HEA end to HEA for now, my readers gave me diamond-worthy phrases, such as, “I will be thinking about these two for a long time.”
Isn’t that what we want? Branding our work as memorable, and you have imparted the best wisdom in this article. Our characters create the story, no matter the plot.
I look forward to sending you my query. My hopes (I may have missed in the past)are to see ‘how to write a query worthy of reading.’ Why? Writing queries, cover letters, proposals, synopses … make me crazy.
Ever so grateful for your guidance,
Great post as always. Thank you for sharing your gift for clarity in analysis/explanation with on point examples and lots of humor.
As for future posts I have a love/hate relationship with promo. With limited financial resources I wonder where my money would be best spent promoting my work?
Outstanding comments in this post. Thanks.
I like how you gave three very different examples offering something for everyone. Thanks for clarifying a concept I had only a vague (intuitive?) idea about. Articles like this help make up for the fact that I’ve never taken a class in creative writing.
Love the look of the new site! I like the examples you give…Lord of the Rings has so much great teachable stuff in it, I see it everywhere being used to illustrate what to do!
I love the characters on Trailer Park Boys! Bubbles has got to be my favorite! I can only handle about one episode at a time. Dumbs me down too much! They certainly make a great character study!
These post create a great checklist for before and after writing. Thanks!
Love this. Latest rejection said my novel was missing the “nuances of character distinction” which kept them from being truly relatable (my husband asked me what nuances of character meant. Engineers!). This post is totally going to help me solve this issue once and for all. Hey, I can dream right?
Love the new site (and that’s a great photo of you at the top). Love the advice, as always. Thanks for sharing your experience with us noobs and other more experienced writers! — As for the article above, personally I’m worried that I’m stuck in a paradigm of thinking I can write well enough to have it published. Perhaps I should go back to being a cranky old lady and continue my retirement pursuit of professionally inscribing store windows with pertinent quotes done in fluorescent lipstick.
I do believe I know you, silly girl.
Excellent insight. It made all the pieces fall into place for my current novel. THANK YOU! You have a way of always making it make sense 😉
The picture caught me and the words, X-Factor–How Character Determines Plot.
This year I will seriously begin rewriting my manuscript. There is so much to learn and your site helps a lot. I want to get back into the story to make it a great one. These ideas you share with us are superb. I thank you.
This is very much what my plot hinges on. My challenge is how to rebuild my character once her world view is finally shattered.
The first draft of my story had none of this. I’ve tried to add conflict without changing my characters and think I have done a much better job in this third draft than in the first. But it’s something I still need to work on. As a character myself, I hate conflict. :p
Wowza! That’s it. It’s in my head, but not on the page. Thanks so much. You’ve made my day.
BTW, great to have you up and running. They can’t keep a good woman down.
Thanks, Kristen. Really helpful as I start pulling things together into a first draft.
I have a question about heroes who don’t change. I don’t know if it’s a snafu to link to another page about writing, but here it is anyway. I was struggling with this idea that all protagonists need to start with a false agreement and then eventually learn how they were wrong (or refuse to learn, I suppose).
Because we seem to have good examples of heroes who do not change in this way. The example used in the link is Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon. Would you say Hiccup does change because very early on he goes from wanting to have recognition as a good ‘tough dragon killing’ Viking, and then he discovers that the Viking war on dragons is misguided? That happens very early. The bulk of the movie is all about him fighting against his society’s idea of dragons. He doesn’t waver at all once he meets Toothless. Does this qualify him as a ‘changed’ hero or does he not really change, and it’s the world around him that needs to change?
I would say his approach evolves, but I would also say that this might be a Buddy Love structure with Toothless a co-protagonist. Toothless changes quite a lot. Also there are characters who remain more or less static because they are driving forces of change. Romance can use this structure. If we look at “Titanic”, Jack stays more or less the same, he drives the arc of Rose (co-protagonist).
Great stuff Kristen,
I just finished my first novel and have started book 2 in a series. This kinda re-enforces where I want to take my story.
The only problem is, now I have a massive glaring oops in the middle of my WIP. Bother!
As always, your insights are spot on.
good blog post as usual! I make copious notes on my main characters, less on lesser characters.. but before I start a story, I may have up to 20 pgs of characterizations from physical to speech patterns and usually 2 problems that cross paths. One MS- thief becomes (backsliding) Christian while chasing a murderer. Second WIP, Christian struggles with faith/lack of because of an abortion, all while trying to defend a friend who is suspected of murder. Another, a new Christian is faced with a serial killer and a new lab tech, throwing off the ability to keep a Christian walk pure. It is pure, but the Christian in that novel is a fun noir character.
Each has a birth order (and I look that up), abnormal psychology for serial killers, etc. The antagonist has to be as complex as the MC, a worthy adversary.
I end up devoting a notebook to each novel as things change to meet my needs. Not everything, obviously, is in the novel. But I know my character, and keep the character … in character. I also write a query and try a short synopsis- amazing how a sum-up can help with plot holes.