Character Building: How Story Forges, Refines, and Defines Characters
I put in a lot of work and study when it comes to honing my writing skills. This means I’m always searching for ways to become a stronger author and craft teacher. Want to get better at anything? Look to those who are the best at what they do and pay close attention.
This said, wanting to deepen my understanding of drama, I enrolled in David Mamet’s on-line course for Dramatic Writing (which has been superlative). In one of the lessons, Mamet said something that challenged my thinking regarding characters.
I won’t directly relay what his assertion was because it’s very much a class worth taking, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone. Regardless, his commentary regarding character creation made me extremely uncomfortable.
At first, I balked. Big time. Challenging ideas do that.
I thought, Yes, well Mamet’s referring to stage and screen. With written fiction we have narrative. Actors don’t possess this.
Which IS true, yet Mamet’s unconventional opinion stopped me long enough to give his angle some serious consideration. Did his assessment relate to our sort of fiction?
Written form stories hold some major advantages, the largest of those being internal narration. The audience knows what’s going on in the head of the character (or can believe they know).
On stage or screen, it’s up to the actors’ abilities to accurately portray the internal, which is a tough order. It’s also why if a book is made into a movie, watch the movie first.
This largely has nothing to do with the quality (or lack thereof) regarding the play/film. Internal narrative allows for a far more intimate psychic distance that is ONLY possible in the written form.
The medium is different and thus should be judged differently…though we still gripe the book was WAY better.
Stage and film rely on the screenplay which is very BASIC. It’s all dialogue and up to the director’s vision and the actors’ talent. Character creation for stage and screen cannot help but differ from written form, yet by how much? What can we learn from our sister mediums?
****Other than Sister Mediums is a way better reality show concept than Sister Wives? #SquirrelMoment
I thought back over works I’d edited, earlier stories of my own and had a moment of revelation. Why were some characters so flat? As interesting as some form-molded widget popped off on an assembly line?
Conversely, what made other characters almost come ALIVE?
What was the X-factor?
Now that I’ve noodled this, I’ve revised some of my thinking. Multi-dimensional characters are not something writers can directly create. Rather, these lifelike people are forged from the crucible of story.
Dramatic writing uses a core problem (fire). The core problem generates escalating problems (the hammer). The trials (increasing heat/hammering) reveal, refine, define, and ultimately transform the narrative actors into characters.
Story alone holds the power to bestow resonance.
Sure, we can do all the activities of filling out a character profile. But, these character sheets alone are about as telling as a ‘fill-in-the fields-profile’ on a dating site. Height, weight, build, nationality, attractiveness, education level, how many kids, previously married, hobbies, etc.
Dating profiles also provide blank spaces for additional ‘deep, character-revealing statements’ such as: I’m not a game-player, love Mexican food, and my favorite activities are crossfit and hiking.
FYI: ALL of that is likely a lie (other than enjoying Mexican food). Anyone who starts with I am not a game-player is almost guaranteed to be a game-player. It’s Shakespeare’s Rules of Romance. Or, as I call it, ‘The Lady/Dude Doth Protest Too Much’ litmus.
No School Like Old School
Do I create character profiles? Sure. I also put a lot of thought and research into what ‘people’ I want to cast in a given story. It’s a great activity, but be careful. We can’t camp there. Activity and productivity are not synonymous.
Ultimately, fictional characters reflect the real human experience in a distilled and intensified form. This, however, doesn’t give an automatic pass on authenticity.
Aristotle might be Old School, but his observations regarding drama resonate even into the 21st century. In Aristotle’s Poetics he asserts:
Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. ~Aristotle
This gives three schools: Polygnotus (more noble), Pauson (less noble), and Dionysius (real life).
Even today these three schools of story thought are alive and well. Marvel’s Captain America movies proffer the larger-than-life hero, the man better than real men (Polygnotus).
Westworld and Game of Thrones provide a vast assortment of villains who are worse-than-life, an exaggeration of evil (Pauson).
Then, movies like Training Day or Glengarry Glen Ross show men as they really are…flawed. They’re not entirely noble or ignoble (Dionysis).
Granted, this is a vast simplification, but we can see novels fall into these schools as well. Genre dictates a lot of this. Harry Potter, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and A Man Called Ove could reasonably be placed in each category.
Talk is Cheap
Why do I mention these ‘schools’ of story? Depending on genre, readers will have expectations when it comes to what they’ll find entertaining. As writers, our primary job is to entertain. This said, stories are for the audience. This means we need to either serve them what they enjoy, or serve them what they don’t yet know they will enjoy 😉 .
As a general ‘rule,’ readers who gravitate to stories like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy are fundamentally different than readers who prefer stories like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. What readers are looking for—regarding story and characters—will be specific to the genres they gravitate to.
It’s critical to define what kind/flavor of story we want to tell, because an idea can be delivered any number of ways (parodies prove this).
Also, telling a story audiences don’t yet know they will love must work with the boundaries of preference. Take the boundaries and push them or deliver them in a new, fresh way.
J.K. Rowling didn’t completely ignore reader expectations and preferences for YA fantasy. She merely delivered her stories in a brand new way. She cast a boy (Harry Potter) as her lead protagonist.
At the time, the YA fantasy world was dominated by female protagonists. The genre’s audience expected one approach, but only because they didn’t yet realize they’d LOVE something else. An unwanted boy living under the stairs, unaware he’s a wizard destined for greatness.
Talk the Talk & Walk the Walk
Earlier, I mentioned character backgrounds. These are a good start, but they’re only that. A start. Characters aren’t who we (the writer) say they are. Characters are composed of what they do or don’t do.
Go back to my analogy of an on-line dating profile. Someone can talk a great game on some dating site. Yet, it won’t be until that first awkward meet at a coffee shop—in person—that this profile is put to any real test.
Sure, he might say he’s a nice guy and have loads of pics of him with puppies and kids. But, how does he respond when the barista knocks a scorching hot venti Americano all over his best shirt? Does he laugh it off and try to calm the hysterical barista? Or, does he throw a fit, demand the barista be fired, and threaten to sue?
She might claim she longs for friendship and intimacy in her profile. But, at coffee, how often is she checking her phone? Her Facebook? Does she engage and listen, or does she have the attention span of a goldfish with severe ADD…who just smoked some crack?
Same in Stories
We can tell the reader a character is a certain way, but how that character acts matters more. For instance, I did an edit not too long ago and the writer said the female protagonist was a strong alpha female. Problem was, the MC didn’t act like one. I called the writer on the lack of continuity.
This is part of what we (editors) mean when we use the phrase, ‘Show, don’t tell.’
The writer can TELL me (the reader) all she wants how this character is an alpha take-no-prisoners gal, which the writer did in the set-up. Fair enough. But three pages later, when this alleged ‘alpha female’ is essentially begging for a chance at contract? I called FOUL. If she’s an alpha personality, then she needs to act like it. Actions speak louder than words.
We can TELL readers a character is anything, yet how that character acts is all that matters.
Talk is cheap and, adding to that…
Humans Are Liars
We’re all liars. We might lie to others (to one degree or another). Mostly, though, we lie to ourselves. Wow, the dryer really shrank my pants!
No judgement. Goes with being human.
We all want to believe if something horrific happened, we’d act heroically. Maybe we would. But, perhaps not. We all want to believe we’d NEVER do X (kill, run, hide), but there’s only one way to know for certain.
Trial by fire.
Problem is, what we believe about our own character (integrity or lack thereof) is all theory until we’re faced with some crisis that puts that belief to the test. Only a test can reveal our belief as truth, half-truth, or a lie (self-delusion). Crises show us what we are made of (or not).
The hero-in-his-own-mind may, when faced with an actual trial, turn out to be a complete coward. Conversely, the person who wholly believes she could never be heroic might, in reality, be the most heroic of all.
It’s the same with characters in a story.
Structure (story) acts as the crucible and how we put the story together is what steadily turns up the heat on all parties involved. Next time we’ll focus in on the components of story, the scene and the sequel. But here’s a preview and how it relates to character.
The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, an invaluable resource which I recommend every writer buy and study).
- Statement of the goal
- Introduction and development of conflict
- Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster
Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster
The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.
Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action
Notice how the scene presents the problem, which then provides a way we (readers) can witness how a character acts/responds externally.
The sequel permits audience access to the internal. We can peer into the thoughts of that character. This is where we’ll witness how a character evolves/or devolves over time. For bonus points, internal narrative—in scene and the sequel—is a fantastic way to mess with readers’ heads (I.e. the unreliable narrator).
In the End
Everyone has his or her version of the truth, but we as writers must tangibly demonstrate this. This means, when we strengthen the story, this automatically can strengthen the characters.
Everything in dramatic writing is and should be intentional. No extra screws or bits. Granted, practice will make us all better at this, but in great stories there are NO free rides. Period. No thought, setback, bit of setting, snippet of dialogue is there to simply take up space.
It ALL serves a vital/integral purpose.
And, if any character’s actions do not line up with who we (the writer) says he is? It better be intentional 😉 .
For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .
Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!
I also am offering The Art of Character (March 22nd 7-9 EST). Advanced material, lots of FUN! Who better to teach character THAN a character? LOL.
I’m also offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 29th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. Both are advanced-level material to take your writing to another level.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Is the saying, ‘Show, don’t tell‘ making a bit more sense? Can you see how problems are the ONLY way to really deliver character? How actions can be used in all sorts of ways, even as a way of misleading the audience for WHAMMO twist endings?
Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.
I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?
I love hearing from you!
And am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of March, for 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).
***February’s winner is Gabriella L. Garlock. Please send your 5,000 word Word document in a doc.x file, double-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font, one-inch margins to kristen @wana intl dot com. Congrats!
By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.