Monthly Archives: September 2009

Part 7: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


Today brings the 7th and concluding post in our series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization”

Part 7: A Sum in Excess of the Parts  

One of the reasons writers get confused about these separate elements of storytelling is that, at the end of the day within a story that works – and let’s be honest, that’s what we, as consumers, spend our time reading – the lines between them blur.

Rest assured, the creator of that work reached clarity through one of two processes: they understood the elements and separate processes of development, and knew how to blend them… or, they either got lucky or they’re intuitive enough to make them work without knowing how.  Good luck with that.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to leave my storytelling, or my career, to luck.  And while I’m often intuitive as hell, I sleep a lot better knowing there’s a structure, a process and a paradigm for storytelling that – contrary to the belief of some pantsers – doesn’t remotely compromise the creative process.

I am often asked to clarify the difference between concept and plot, between concept and theme, and between character arc and story structure.  There are plenty of posts here on Storyfix that directly address those issues, but I’d like to offer a powerful mental model for the last one: the melding of character arc and story structure.

When done right, they mirror each other.

Earlier we’ve discussed story architecture as a 4-part structure, with significant milestones within and between each part.  All of that remains true: Part 1 is the set-up… Part 2 is the hero’s response to their new quest… Part 3 is the hero’s proactive attack on the obstacles that stand in their way… and Part 4 is the resolution in which the hero applies what they’ve learned and overcome (which is character arc, pure and simple) toward the solving of problems, the slaying of dragons and the out-witting of the bad guys to create an ending that satisifies on multiple levels.

Endings don’t have to be perfect.  But they should be perfectly satisfying.

All this remains gospel truth.  Don’t mess with it.  But you can swap out some words and view it through a character-focused lens and see that this sequence is nothing other than character arc applied to a series of story points.

So rather than think of structure as Parts 1 through 4, think of the four sequential “realms” of your story as discreet segments of character status, presence and growth, which become the mission of those four segments/parts/realms as they relate to the storyline. 

Now, with this new perspective, each part has two congruant missions.  Which is plenty of guidance for you, the storyteller.  The plot-driven approach to structure – parts 1 through 4 – has four seperate  missions in place, as does character-driven structure, thus allowing the writer to understand the critical context of what goes into them… what scenes need to appear within those sections, and how they are written contextually, now from two seperate perspectives.

Let’s see how this looks.  Remember, this is story structure with a new coat of paint, one that focuses on character context as well as plot-exposition. 

Part 1 becomes the Orphan stage.

We have defined Part 1 as the set-up, wherein we meet our hero and see what she or he is doing, what she/he is pursing in their life, before the introduction of the primary conflict-driven quest unleashed at Plot Point 1.

Think of this as the hero being detached – or orphaned – from their old life in the face of the task they are about to be given.  What is ahead for them will be a shift, a change, a new life, propelling them toward a new home, a new existence, a new life.  In Part 1 they are loose and unconnected to the forthcoming story, orphaned from their destiny.

Part 2 is the Wanderer stage.

After Plot Point 1 falls from the sky to end Part 1, the hero now faces a whole new set of problems, objectives, obstacles and needs.  A new quest.  During this stage, per our  plot-driven definition of Part 2, they are responding to this new situation, reacting to it, running from it, investigating it, challenging it, disbelieving it… but not really attacking the problem yet, at least in an informed manner.

It could be said that the hero is wandering here, disconnected and unsure.  This is where their old patterns and inner demons – the starting point of their character arc – bite them in the butt.  They learn that what they’ve been doing won’t work anymore, at least not in a way that is sufficient to meet the need at hand.

Something needs to change, and quickly, or they’ll fail.  In many stories, they might even die.

Part 3 is the Warrior stage.

What changes in Part 3 is that they evolve from a wanderer into a warrior.  Which blends perfectly with the plot-driven context of Part 3, which is to become a proactive attacker of the obstacles that block their path.

Ever seen a warrior who is not ready and willing to attack?  Didn’t think so.

Here again their inner demons may hinder them, but because they are now being proactive — frankly, they’re just plain smarter now — they begin to recognize what it was about their old ways that haven’t been working so well.  Realization kicks in – they need to change, to step it up, to be better than they were.  This is where they learn, which is the essence of character arc.

Part 4 is the Martyr stage.

So now, here in the concluding context of Part 4, the hero is better equipped to square off with the antagonist and its inherent obstacles, because they’ve learned their lessons.  They’ve changed, grown, evolved.  They have courage where once they were cowardly.  They engage where once they were isolated.  They’ve conquered inner demons that had tempted and haunted and filled them with doubt and dread, and now they’re prepared to apply that learning toward the implementation of heroic decisions and acts – even to the point of martyrdom – to save the day.

Blend and Stir, Cook Until Done

Like a great recipe, all the parts reside as separate as they sit on the kitchen counter awaiting the attention of the cook and the heat of the oven.  The person preparing the meal has the latitude to change and add nuance, all within their responsibility to observe the major principles of the meal at hand.  

Certain rules still apply: you can’t serve the meat raw if it’s not sushi, and if that’s your creative choice, then I hope you enjoy eating alone.

At the end of the storyteling day, all the arguments about character begin to sound the same.  Story is plot.  Plot is character.  Character is theme.  Story is structure.

Yes, yes, yes and yes. Because the heat of your story melds theme into one seamless narrative.

Just don’t think for a moment that the cook had no clue how this would happen.  A real cook beholds all the ingredients set out before them… and where the masses see a bunch of groceries and raw food, she or he envisions a glorious, multi-faceted feast.

Bon appetit.

Image credit: Country Boy Shane

(Click HERE for an incredible reader review of this site, and of my 101 Tips ebook.)


Filed under Characterization Series

Part 6: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


(Click HERE for an incredible reader review of this site, and of my 101 Tips ebook.)

Today’s post is the 6th in a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization” 

Part 6: Crafting an All-important Character Arc

Last time we introduced the notion of inner versus outer conflict, the inherent demons of personality and psychology that affect the hero and prevent her or him from doing what must be done, squaring off against what is blocking their path toward accomplishing the mission at hand.

What are those inner demons?  Cowardice, selfishness, addiction, fear, conceit, arrogance, hatred, bias, lack of confidence, heritage, poverty, ignorance, a lack of honesty, naiveté, a spotty moral compass, sexual deviance… in general, any aspect of humanity that isn’t in line with the expectations of others or the requirements of success within the boundaries of this story.

Great heroes have one or more these.  They aren’t perfect.  If they were, they’d be boring.

Character arc is the process of conquering those inner demons.  Pure and simple.  Of learning.  Of gaining strength and insight.  Of acquiring that which is lacking.  Of shedding that which is hindering.  Of making a better decision when it counts.

For example, the thematic mission of a story is rarely about how to conquer alcoholism, but rather, how to save a marriage that is being destroyed by alcoholism.  The hero’s quest is to save the marriage.   His alcoholism is merely an obstacle in his way.  The outer conflict is that his wife has filed for divorce and is seeing someone else, so the clock is ticking.  But the inner demon — of the stuff of the real drama in a story — is the grip that alcohol has on the protagonist as he tries to win her back.

Two levels of conflict, inner and outer.  In some stories the inner journey is every bit as dramatic and powerful as the exterior journey, which is the stuff of bestsellers and smash hits.  

In the movie Top Gun, almost all of the inherent conflict in the story was in Maverick’s inner realm.  Very little else happened, which is why this particular movie is not considered a model script.  Just model box office.

In The Davinci Code, not so much… the appeal of that story was conceptual and plot-driven.   Landgon showed us very little in the way of inner conflict, and therefore, there was little inner drama or potential for character arc.  Langdon was pretty much perfect from page one. 

As you can see, commecial success doesn’t often hinge on how well you execute the basics.  If you allow that to rationalize your approach, much anxiety and pain await you.

And, it just goes to show how powerful a strong concept can be (The Sixth Sense is another example), even in the face of mediocre performance elsewhere. 

In The Cider House Rules, though, the characters move through spheres of personal challenge and growth in a way that rivets the reader every bit as much as the plot itself.

Notice that Top Gun and The Davinci Code weren’t up for any writing Oscars.  The Cider House rules won one for best adapted screeplay, based on John Irving’s #1 bestseller (note: he also wrote the screenplay).

Where inner demons come from is the role of backstory.  How they affect the story is the realm of character arc.

Conquer inner demons, and you have character arc.

Your hero should exit the story enlightened, enriched, evolved and enabled in comparison to how they entered the story.  This learning cannot occur in a vacuum, it should be result of trial and error, of action and consequence, literally of learning a lesson from the hero’s experience within the story. 

You’re familiar with the age-old principle: show, don’t tell.  Character arc is the most critical element for which you need to apply it.  We must see and feel the character bettering their weaker self, rather than simply reading the news of it or have it spring from no logical, discernable source.  They can’t just wake one day and suddenly get it.  (This is where some paranormal stories fall flat — the hero learns via a sixth sense, rather than experience.)

With hard-learned lessons well in hand, the hero will come to a place where she or he will make better decisions when it counts, which is in Part 4 of the story.  Where they – by definition – become the primary catalyst in the overcoming of the obstacles that results in the story’s conclusion.

In Top Gun, Maverick learned to work within the system, to not leave his wingman when it counts (his new wingman; he’d already killed off the first guy by being an idiot), and in doing so he got the girl, saved the day and protected America from the bad guys, all without a hair out of place.

And if that isn’t heroism, I’m not sure what is.

Image credit: Seiho

Next post: Character — A sum in excess of its parts.


Filed under Characterization Series