Category Archives: Characterization Series

A Deeper Look at Character

 I know this guy.  Everybody in our circle of friends knows him.  They go back years (not me, I’m the newbie in the group, which makes me analogous to the reader of a story… I just sit back and watch the pages unfold).  Everybody, in context to this group dynamic, seems to like him.

But do they really

Sometimes the more you know about a person, the harder they are to like.  This fellow, for example, has been cheating on his wife off and on for decades.  Everybody in the room knows it – except, perhaps, his wife. 

Who, incidentally, everybody not only likes, but also empathizes with.  And the only person in the room who doesn’t realize that is the cheating bastard himself.

The guy is funny and often charming, the first one with an amusing story and an entertaining way to tell it.  He’s warm, he hides his agenda well.  Doesn’t want to ruffle feathers.  Let’s just have a good time, get this evening over with without incident.

Such is the stuff of our stories. 

Because our characters have secrets to hide, stories to tell, facades and illusions to maintain.  But in our stories, it’s not that simple to walk away from at the end of the evening.

Because unlike reality, our readers are distanced from a childhood investment that allows for forgiveness.  Readers have only one criteria for sticking around, and it’s simple – are they hooked?

If not, they’ll walk for good.

And it takes more than a smokin’ & jokin’ good time protagonist to hook a reader.

So what does hook a reader in terms of character? 

Certainly, our heroes and villains, even our bit-players, should be complex and imperfect.   But in fiction, the art of crafting a compelling character isn’t their likeability.   Not even close. 

Whoever told you that was probably your high school creative writing teacher.  We need to like our protagonist echoes through halls of time, often distorting what the evolved writer needs to really understand.

Maybe we like them, maybe we don’t.  That’s not the issue.

Because when it comes to a protagonist, we must root for them.  Remember, the essence of storytelling holds that we have placed that character on a path, with something at stake, with something to do, to achieve, to learn and to change.  And we have placed obstacles – some external, some from within their deepest psyches – to make the journey interesting.

Not so much for them, but for us – the readers.

 The trick, then, becomes the balancing of character imperfections that might otherwise put us off with the empathy we need to muster for our hero as they proceed on their quest.

Here’s the key to doing that: readers love a vulnerable hero who realizes her or his own weaknesses and temptations, and conquers them in favor of a higher calling.  They come to realize that they’re sorry, they repent, they heed a  more noble calling, at least in the context of the story at hand.

That, we can empathize with.  We can get behind such a hero, root for her or him, even if it’s temporary.  Because we’ve all been there, we’re all human.

It is the writer’s manipulation of reader empathy, rather than the nature of faults and gold stars, that results in effective character dynamics that infuse the story with stakes and vicarious emotion. 

Which are absolutely required to get it published.

If your hero thinks nobody else in the room knows about his wandering ways, or worse, if they know he’ll back cruising the bars the next night in the naïve assumption that nobody knows, or worse, that nobody minds… that’s the antithesis of a hero.

Even if we seem to like him over a beer or two.   That’s real life, perhaps, but it’s not enough to make your story work.  In fiction, the term hero needs to be taken literally.

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

CH7

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.)

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