My Hero – Unmasking Your Main Character

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Every author has a hero – that one special character their story revolves around.  But who is this guy (or gal, or thing or ?)  Why he’s your main character, that’s who.  And he’s also your protagonist.  And he’s your central character.  And he’s a good guy (unless he’s an anti-hero, in which case he might be a bad guy, a troubled guy in a story of redemption or, as Jessica Rabbit said in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

But in a practical sense, what do we really know about your hero, his attributes, and how he functions in your story structurally?  To find out, let’s look at each of htese different facets of your hero one at a time.

Based on our list above:

1. Your Hero is the Protagonist

2. Your Hero is the Main Character

3. Hour Hero is the Central Character

4. Your Hero is a Good Guy

The Protagonist is the Prime Mover in the plot – the chief driver toward the story’s overall goal.

The Main Character is the most empathetic character – the one with whom the reader or audience most closely identifies: the character the story seems to be about.

The Central Character is the most prominent one – the player who stands out above all the others and steals the show.

The Good Guy is the moral standard bearer – the character whose intent is to do the right thing.

Putting it all together then, a typical hero drives the story forward, represents the audience position in the story, is the most prominent character, and tries to do the right thing.

A list of typical heroes includes Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen and, of course, Superman.  Anti-heroes (and those in stories of redemption) include Scrooge, Captain Jack Sparrow, Deadpool, and Gru in Despicable Me.

Now, let’s unmask your hero….

The four heroic attributes we delineated above aren’t necessarily tied together into one person. In fact, they can be swapped for other attributes, distributed among several characters and put together in different ways!

For example, suppose we change one attribute of the stereotypical hero to create a character with the following four qualities:

1. Protagonist

2. Main Character

3. Central Character

4. Bad Guy

Now we have the typical anti-hero (in the popular vernacular). Such a character would drive the plot forward, represent the audience position in the story, be the most prominent, but represent a negative moral outlook or ill intent.

Let’s try a differnt combination:

1. Antagonist

2. Main Character

3. Central Character

4. Good Guy

In this case, we have a character who is trying to prevent the story’s goal, represents the audience position in the story, is the most prominent, and tries to do the right thing.

James Bond is such a character. He did not instigate change; he is responding to an effort begun by the villain! In almost every Bond story, the villain is actually the driver of the plot – the proactive one – the Protagonist by definition, though clearly a bad guy, while James Bond is perpetually trying to put an end to the evil scheme.

As you can see, though typical heroes are just fine, if  mix them up a bit, you create all kinds of opportunities to develop far more interesting characters who are just as viable in your story’s structure, but is unexpected fresh ways.

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Writing Characters of the Opposite Sex

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Perhaps the most fundamental error made by authors, whether novice or experienced, is that all their characters, male and female, tend to reflect the gender of the author. This is hardly surprising, since recent research clearly indicates that men and women use their brains in different ways. So how can an author overcome this gap to write characters of the opposite sex that are both accurate and believable to both genders?

To find out, let’s briefly explore the nature of male and female minds and provide techniques for crafting characters that ring true.

At first, it might seem that being male or female is an easily definable thing, and therefore easy to convey in one’s writing. But as we all know, the differences between the sexes have historically been a mysterious quality, easily felt, but in fact quite hard to define. This is largely because what makes a mind male or female is not just one thing, but also several.

First, let’s consider that gender itself has four principal components:

Anatomical Sex

Sexual Preference

Gender Identity

Mental Sex

Anatomical sex describes the physicality of a character – male or female. Now, we all know that people actually fall in a range – more or less hairy, wider or narrower hips, deeper or higher voice, and so on. So although there is a fairly clear dividing line between male and female anatomically, secondary sexual characteristics actually create a range of physicality between the two. Intentionally choosing these attributes for your characters can make them far less stereotypical as men and women.

Sexual Preferences may be for the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or neither. Although people usually define themselves as being straight, gay, bi, or disinterested, this is also not a fixed quality. Statistics shows, for example, that 1/3 of all men have a same-sex encounter at least once in their lives.

Although it often stirs up controversy to say so, in truth most people have at least the occasional passing attraction to the same sex, be it a very pretty boy or a “butch” woman.  This isn’t necessarily a physical response, but could be just an elevated sense of interest.

Consider the sexual preference of your characters not as a fixed choice of one thing or another, but as a fluid quality that may shift over time or in a particular exceptional context.

Gender Identity describes where one falls on the scale between masculine and feminine. This, of course, is also context dependent. For example, when one is in the woods, at home with one’s family, or being chewed out by the boss.

Gender Identity is not just how one feels or things of oneself, but also how one act’s, how one uses one’s voice, and how one wishes to be treated. Often, a male character may have gentle feelings but cover them up by overly masculine mannerisms. Or, a female character may be “all-business” in the workplace out of necessity, but wishes someone would treat her with softness and kindness.

Actually, Gender Identity is made up of how one acts or wishes to act, and how one is treated or wishes to be treated. How many times have we seen a character who is forced by others to play a role that is in conflict with his or her internal gender self-image? Gender Identity is where one can explore nuance in creating non-stereotypical characters.

Mental Sex is a rather new term.  It grows out of research the indicates there is, at some level, a hard-wired difference in the way the brains of men and women function.  This is far below the level of consciousness, and acts almost like a pre-bias or filter to how the world looks before the conscious mind even gets involved.

This is a complex subject, and not yet fully understood, but in narrative and in characters, it shows up in very specific ways.  Consider whether the mind of your character organizes its thinking more in a binary, linear, hierarchical manner,or in an analog, holistic, interconnected fashion.

Essentially, mental sex is the cast-in-stone foundation upon which all of our thinking and feeling are built, and it provides a subtle tilt or bias to the very fabric of our self-awareness.

Now, in creating characters of both sexes, consider that each of the four categories we just explored is not a simple choice between one thing or another, but a sliding scale (like Anatomical Sex) or a conglomerate of individual traits (like Gender Identity). Then, visualize that wherever a character falls in any one of those four categories places absolutely no limits on where he or she may fall in the other categories.

For example, you might have a character extremely representative of male anatomical sex, bi-sexual (but leaning toward a straight relationship at the moment), whose gender identity is rough and tumble (but yearns to be accepted for his sensitivity toward impressionistic paintings) who is practical all the time (except when it comes to sports cars).

Any combination goes. And that allows your characters of both sexes to avoid becoming stereotypes and opens up all kinds of opportunities to explore individual personalities,with all their quirks and and subtleties.

But there’s more.  Beyond all of these considerations is the cultural indoctrination we all receive that leads us to respond within social expectations appropriately to the role associated with our anatomical sex. These roles, while not necessarily rigid, are certainly less flexible than we are, and they include what is proper to wear, who speaks first, who opens the door or orders the wine, who has to pretend to be inept or skilled in regard to particular kinds of activities (regardless of real ability or lack there of in that area), the form of grammar one uses in constructing sentences, the words one is expected to use (“I’ll have a hamburger,” vs. “I’d like a hamburger”), and the demeanor allowable in social interaction with the same and the opposite sex, among many other qualities.

While these social expectations are in constant flux, sometimes more open and sometimes more restrictive, there is always the cultural code of the moment that gently messages each of us to function with more conformity than is reflective of our nature.  And since these social pressures change with time, one of the attributes identifying people of different ages are the gender-based roles that have set in place within them, gradually firming up into a pattern from birth until is becomes progressively second nature.

In the end, writing characters of the opposite sex requires a commitment to understand the difference among all these qualities, to identify which are inherent and those that are learned, and to accept that we are all made of the same clay, sculpted partly by ourselves and partly by an unseen hand.

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Paths of Character Growth

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Here are six ways in which your Main Character can flirt with change over the course of your story, up to the climax where they will either embrace change or reject it, as Scrooge accepts change in A Christmas Carol while William Wallace remains resolute in Braveheart.

Let’s take a look at each of these six kinds of characters, and how they respond to pressures on their belief system, morality, attitude or personal code.

1. The Steady Freddy

This kind of Main Character starts out with a fixed belief about the central personal issue of the story. Act-by-Act, Scene-by-Scene, he gathers more information that leads him to question those pre-held beliefs. His hold on the old attitude gradually weakens until, at the Moment of Truth, he simply steps over to the other side – or not. This kind of character slowly changes until he is not committed to either his original belief or the alternative. It all comes down to which way the wind is blowing when he ultimately must choose one or the other.

2. The Griever

A Griever Main Character is also confronted with building evidence that his original belief may have been in error. But unlike Steady Freddy, this character suffers a growing internal conflict that starts to tear him apart. The Griever feels honor-bound or morally obligated to stick with his old loyalties, yet becomes more and more compelled to jump ship and adopt the new. At the end of the story, he must make a Leap of Faith, choosing either the old or the new, and with such a balance created, there is not even a hint as to which way would ultimately be better.

3. The Weaver

The Weaver Main Character starts out with one belief system, then shifts to adopt the alternative, then shifts back again, and again, and again…. Like a sine wave, he weaves back and forth every time he confronts information that indicates he is currently in error in his point of view. The intensity of these swings depends upon the magnitude of each bit of new information and the resoluteness of the character.

4. The Waffler

Unlike the Weaver, the Waffler jumps quickly from one point of view to the other, depending on the situation of the moment. He may be sincere but overly pragmatic, or he may be opportunistic and not hold either view with any real conviction.  Still, in the end, he must come down on one side of the fence or the other.

There are also two kinds of characters who change, but not really.

5. The Exception Maker

This character reaches the critical point of the story and decides that although he will retain his original beliefs, he will make an exception “in this case.” This character would be a Change character if the story is about whether or not he will budge on the particular issue, especially since he has never made an exception before. But, if the story is about whether he has permanently altered his nature, then he would be seen as steadfast, because we know he will never make an exception again. With the Exception Maker, you must be very careful to let the audience know against what standard it should evaluate Change.

6. The Backslider

Similar to the Exception Maker, the Backslider changes at the critical moment, but then reverses himself and goes right back to his old belief system. In such a story, the character must be said to change, because it is the belief system itself that is being judged by the audience, once the moment of truth is past and the results of picking that system are seen in the denoument. In effect, the Backslider changes within the confines of the story structure, but then reverts to his old nature AFTER the structure in the closing storyTELLING.

An example of this occurs in the James Bond film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” This is the only Bond film in which 007 actually changes. Here, he has finally found love which has filled the hole in his heart that previously drove him. He resigns the force and gets married. End of structure. Then, in additional storytelling, his wife is killed by the villain, and his angst is restored so good ol’ James Bond can return just as he was in the next sequel.

Variations….

Each of these kinds of characters may be aware that he or she is flirting with change or may not. They may simply grieve over their situations, or just breeze through them, not considering how they might be affected. Each of these characters may arrive at a Leap of Faith where they must make a conscious decision to do things the same way or a different way, or each may arrive at a Non-Leap of Faith story conclusion, where they never even realize they have been changed, though they have been, gradually. The important thing is that the readers or audience must know if the Main Character has changed or not. Otherwise, they cannot make sense of the story’s message.

There are many ways to Change or Not to Change. If you avoid a linear path and a binary choice, your characters will come across as much more human and much more interesting.

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Psychoanalyze Your Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Does your story suffer from “Multiple Personality Disorder”?

In psychology, Multiple Personality Disorder describes a person who has more than one complete personality. Typically, only one of those personalities will be active at any given time. This is because they usually share attributes, and so only one can have that attribute at any particular moment.

Stories can also suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder if more than one character represents a single attribute. In such a case, both should not be able to appear in the story at the same time. If they do, the audience feels that the story is fragmented, or more simply put, the story has developed a split-personality.

Most writers have been taught that characters, plot, theme, and genre are people, doing things, illustrating value standards, in an overall setting and mood. In contrast, we can think of a story as having a mind of its own in which characters, plot, theme, and genre are different facets that give each story its unique personality.

Characters are the “drives” of this Story Mind, which often conflict as they do in real people. Plot describes the methods used by the Story Mind in an attempt to find a solution to its central problem. Theme represents the Story Mind’s conflicting value standards, which must be played out one against another to determine the best way of evaluating the problem. Genre describes the Story Mind’s overall psychology.

Traditional story theory states that each character must be a complete person to be believable to an audience. But because characters represent the independent drives of a single Story Mind, each is not really a complete person but is rather a facet of a complete mind. In fact, if you make each character complete, they will all be overlapping, and will give your story a split-personality.

It is in the story TELLING stage where characters take on the trappings of a complete person, not in the story STRUCTURE. Each character needs to be given traits and interests, which round out the character’s “presence,” making it feel like a real human being. But these trappings and traits are not part of the dramatic structure. They are just window dressing – clothes for the facets to wear so the audience can better relate to them on a personal level.

Think about the characters you have seen in successful stories. They might represent Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, or function as the Protagonist or Antagonist, for example. Each of these kinds of characters is an “archetype” because it contains a whole family of drives in one character. For example, a Protagonist may contain the drive to “pursue,” and also the drive to be a self-starter, “pro-action.” Because these drives work together in harmony, the character becomes archetypal.

The individual drives don’t have to be bundled in an archetype, however. In fact, each single drive might be assigned to a different character, creating a multitude of simple characters. Or, characters might get several drives but conflicting ones. These characters are more “complex” because their internal make-up is not completely consistent.

Regardless of how the drives (also called character “elements”) are assigned, each drive should appear in one and only one character. If not, your story may develop Multiple Personality Disorder and leave your audience unable to relate to the story as a whole.

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Main Character Growth

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Your main character doesn’t have to change in order to grow; they can grow in their resolve not to change.  Some characters, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Rick in Casablanca , do change, while others, like Rocky in Rocky or William Wallace in Braveheart, hold onto their beliefs.

Either way, your main character will face increasing pressure to alter his or her belief system, moral outlook, or manner of thinking as the story progresses.  At the climax, they may stick to their guns and hold on to their beliefs, having faith that in the end this will resolve their personal problems because those beliefs have always worked before.  Or, they may become convinced they have it wrong, at least in this particular situation, and they abandon their previous beliefs to embrace an alternative way of thinking and/or feeling about the situation.

For the character, there is no way to tell which way of choosing will lead to a positive outcome and which will lead to personal disaster.  That is why such a choice is referred to as a “leap of faith.”

Yet not all stories require the character to make a conscious choice to change or not at the climax.  Sometimes, a character’s belief system is changed gradually over the course of the story, and they may not even realize it has happened.  It is only at the climax that the readers or audience may see that the main character responds differently than they previously had, showing that the story-long experience has finally reached a point at which the character simply tips the other way.

In fact, the character may never realize they have changed.  But, the readers or audience need to know or there really is no message for the story.  The message is made by the author showing, after the climax, whether it was the right path for the character to have changed or to have remained steadfast.

In summary, if you want a strong message for your story, you need to be clear as to whether or not your main character has changed and also whether that led  to a better or worse personal situation in the end.

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The Dramatic Triangle

By Melanie Anne Phillips

There are two story lines in every complete story, and you can either run them in parallel or you can hinge them together to form a dramatic triangle.

The first story line is the overall story that follows the effort of the protagonist to achieve a goal in which all the characters are involved.

The second story line is the personal story that follows the struggles of the main character to deal with a personal issue.

When you keep these two story lines separate and parallel, each advances on their own, and yet they still reflect each other.

For example, in the classic book (and the movie adaptation) of To Kill a Mockingbird, the overall story is about Atticus (the lawyer trying to get a black man a fair trial in the 1930s South) who is the protagonist.

But in the personal story we see things through the eyes of Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, who is personally dealing with her fear of the local boogeyman, “Boo” Radley – a mentally challenged member of a family down the street who is never seen and only known by rumor.

In the end, we learn about prejudice externally through what Atticus does, and we learn about prejudice personally through Scout’s prejudgment about Boo, until she is forced to change her mind about him when she comes to know him for who he really is – a caring protector who has actually saved her from others who would do her harm.

If Atticus were the main character, we would simply stand in the shoes of the fellow battling prejudice and feel righteous.  But by standing in Scout’s shoes, we buy into her belief in the rumors about Boo, and learn how easy it is to be prejudiced whenever we base our opinions on what we hear, not what we see for ourselves.

In this example in which Atticus is the protagonist, the antagonist is the father of the white girl the black man is accused of raping, who wants the defendant lynched without a trial.

In the personal line, Scout is the main character and Boo himself is the influence character who has been leaving gifts for scout and protecting her all along the way, providing all the clues necessary for her to ultimately re-evaluate him.

Just as the antagonist fights against the protagonist, the influence character pressures the main character to change his or her beliefs.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, keeping both story lines separate has some advantages.  For one thing, since the audience identifies with the Main Character, we aren’t standing in Atticus’ shoes feeling all self-righteous about fighting against prejudice.  Rather, we stand in Scout’s shoes and learn how easy it is to become prejudice whenever we rely on rumor and other people’s opinions, rather than learning the truth for ourselves.

But, keeping the two story lines separate is a very complex form of structure and isn’t really need for most stories.  It requires four special characters: protagonist vs. antagonist and main character vs. influence character.

A simpler alternative is to have both storylines occur between just two characters: a hero and a villain.  A hero is a protagonist who is also the main character, and a villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character.

So, a hero is not only the person trying to achieve the goal, but is also the audience position in the story and the one who is grappling with challenges to their belief system.  And, a villain is not only the person trying to prevent the goal from being achieved, but is also the person challenging the main character’s belief system.

While this sounds very efficient in concept, it is also very dangerous.  Each of these story lines needs to be fully explored with no gaps or holes if the reader or audience is to buy into it.  But, as an author, it is very easy to get so wrapped up in the action or the passion of one of the stories that you skip over parts of the other one in your eagerness to push ahead with the exciting one of the moment.

As a result, there can be significant gaps in each of the two – gaps that undermine the believability of the overall story and make the personal story seem unrealistic and contrived.

The more this happens, the more the complete story begins to feel like a melodrama, where characters jump from one frame of mind to another without motivation, and where events happen after other events without any understanding of why.

Fortunately, there is a better way to arrange the two story lines so each is clearly seen and fully developed, and yet they are tied together in a manner that strengthens the story as a whole.  That method is the Dramatic Triangle.

A Dramatica Triangle hinges both story lines together around one character and anchors the other two ends on two different characters.  The most common way to do this is to create a hero who is both protagonist and main character, with a separate antagonist and a separate influence character.

In this arrangement, the hero fights against the antagonist in the overall story, and has to defend his belief system against the influence character in the personal story.

A common example would be a hero who has a love interest, who is his influence character.  She loves him because of his moral outlook.  But, the hero is fighting against the antagonist who, seeing the love interest as a weakness of the hero, kidnaps her.

Now, the hero is torn between two things.  To free his love interest, he must adopt the immoral tactics of the antagonist.  If he does, he will save her, but lose her love.  Tough choice, and the stuff great stories are made of!

A variation of this is for the protagonist to also be the influence character, rather than the main character.  Then, he would be fighting against the antagonist in the overall story, but he would also be trying to change the beliefs of the main character, who is the third corner of the triangle.

In this arrangement, we would not be seeing things through the eyes of the protagonist, but through the eyes of the main character.  We stand in the shoes of the main character and watch the protagonist/influence character, but be personally challenged to change our beliefs by him.

This arrangement was used in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford as a police detective and Kelly McGillis as Rachel, a young Amish mother with a son who has witnessed a murder when they were traveling.

Ford is the protagonist trying to protect the child, and the murderer is the antagonist trying to kill the child.  We see the story through Rachel’s eyes, making her the main character, and Ford is the influence character as he is trying to convince Rachel to leave her Amish community and go with him into the larger world.

This still satisfies the needs of having the two story lines, but provides an unusual reader/audience position in the story at large.

But there are other ways to hinge the two stories together as well.  In one version, the antagonist might be the main character, so we see things through the eyes of the character trying to prevent the goal from being achieved.

In another, the antagonist might be the influence character so he battles against the protagonist in one storyline and tries to change the beliefs of the main character in the other.

Which form of the Dramatic Triangle you choose is up to you as the author and the kind of experience you wish to design for your readers or audience.  But any of the variations is less prone to melodrama than having both story lines between just two characters and is less complicated and easer to fashion than keeping both storylines separate between two pairs of different characters.

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