The Four Throughines in To Kill A Mockingbird

There are four throughlines that must be explored in every story for it to feel to readers or audience that the underlying issues have been fully explored and the message fully supported.

Throughline 1: The Objective Story

The Objective Story is the big picture – the situations and activities in which all the characters are involved.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Objective Story Throughline explores opinions in a small 1930s southern town where Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white girl . Though he is being brought to trial, many of the town folk think this case should never see trial and the defendant should just be lynched. Defending Tom Robinson is Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie version).  The father of the ostensibly-raped girl, Bob Ewell, leads a mob to murder Tom Robinson, but Atticus stands firm against them.  Enraged, Ewell seeks to hurt Atticus children in revenge.  This makes Atticus the protagonist of the story and Bob Ewell the Antagonist.

Throughline 2: The Main Character

The Main Character is the one we identify with, the one whom the story seems to be about at a personal level.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus’ young daughter, Scout in the Main Character, and her throughline describes her personal experiences in this story.  We see this story of prejudice through her eyes, a child’s eyes, as she watches her father stand up against the town and Bob Ewell.  It is because we stand in her shoes, that makes her the Main Character.  Though the story is about the trial and about prejudice, it feels like it revolves around her impressions of it.  But Scout has many issues of her own as well, not the least of which is Boo Radley, the monstrous child-killing boogey man who is locked in the basement of his family’s home on Scout’s street.

Throughline 3: The Influence Character

The Influence Character is not the antagonist but the character who most influences the Main Characters outlook and feelings.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Boo Radley is the Influence Character, the reclusive and much talked about and dangerous crazy man living down the street from Scout. The rumors surrounding this man, fueled by the town’s ignorance and fear, makes scout concerned for her safety and along with anyone else, tends to hold him in derision.

Throughline 4: The Subjective Story

The Subjective Story is the tale of how the Influence Character and Main Character change each other over the course of the story.  One will be forced by their interactions to grow in their steadfast outlook.  The other will be affected by that steadfastness to ultimately change to adopt the outlook of the other.  This is the heart of a story’s message.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Subjective Story centers on the relationship between Scout and Boo Radley. This throughline explores Scout’s prejudice against Boo’s solely by virtue of heresay. Boo has been constantly active in Scout’s life, protecting her from the background, ultimately saving her and her brother from Bob Ewell. When Scout finally realizes this she changes in her feelings toward him, thereby strongly supporting the story’s message that it is very easy to fall into prejudice for anyone, if we judge people by what we hear, rather than what we have determined from our own first-hand experience.

To further illustrate how these four throughlines work together to create and support a story’s message, watch the following video clip recorded at one of my seminars on story structure:

Melanie Anne Phillips

Want to know more?  Check out my books on story development, my StoryWeaver software for building your story’s world, and our Dramatica software for structuring your story.

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Your Influence Character is the Heart of Your Story

What is an Influence Character?  It is the one who has an opposite philosophy, morality, or personal code to that of the Main Character.  Over the course of a story, the Influence Character continually pressures the Main Character’s core beliefs, eventually bringing them to a point they must confront the possibility that their beliefs may be wrong.

Ultimately, the Main Character either changes his or her view to adopt the Influence Character’s outlook or holds steadfast in his or her view, believing that is the only way to resolve their personal problems.  This war over opposing moralities is the heart of your story’s message and the arguments and interactions between the Main Character and the Influence Character provide the spine to your story’s heart line.

To get a better feel for the Influence Character, let’s look at how they are employed in some well-known stories.

Example 1

In A Christmas Carol, the ghosts (collectively) carry the message of that moral philosophy opposite to that of Scrooge.  Like runners in a relay race, Marley’s ghost, followed by Past, Present, and Future, advance the argument that scrooge must change.  By the end of the story, he is convinced and his very nature is altered.

Without the ghosts the story would just be about Scrooge learning on his own that maybe there’s a better way, but much of the passion of the story and the power of the message would be lost.

Message in A Christmas Carol:

Have compassion and generosity for the less fortunate.

Example 2

In the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV), the Influence Character is Obi Wan who pressures Luke to reach his potential and eventually brings Luke to a point of change and trust in his new-found abilities with the force.

Obi Wan’s Influence is very subtle and gradual and culminates with his disembodied voice saying to Luke just before Luke turns off the targeting computer, “Use the force, Luke.  Let go.”  And Luke is able to destroy the death star only because he turns off the targeting computer and relies on his new Jedi skills.

Message in Star Wars (Episode IV):

Trust in yourself.

Example 3

In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is the Influence Character who forces Clarice Starling to confront her personal demons (the slaughtering of the spring lambs) that led her to try and save others with a job in law enforcement – “Tell me, Clarice, are the lambs still screaming?”  Clarice does not change for she cannot let go of her pain –  “You know I can’t do that doctor Lecter” and so she remains steadfast in her belief system.

Lecter is the Influence Character but the Antagonist is Jamie Gumm – the man who kidnaps the women including the senator’s daughter whom Clarice is trying to save.   And so, we can see that the philosophic argument is independent of the effort to achieve the story’s goal.

Message in The Silence of the Lambs: Let it go, or be forever driven by pain.

Example 4

In The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones (Federal Marshall Gerard) is the Influence Character, and does not care if his target is guilty or innocent: Kimble: “I didn’t kill my wife!”  Gerard: “I don’t care!”  But Kimble does care.  In fact, he endangers himself and risks his freedom to help others whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In the end, it is Kimble’s steadfastness that convinces Gerard that Kimble is innocent.  And in the process, Gerard (the Influence Character) is changed.  This is a great example that in the war of belief systems between the Main Character and the Influence character, one will ultimately change to adopt the view of the other.  If the Main Character changes, it is because the Influence Character remained steadfast, and if the Influence Character changes, it is because the Main Character remained steadfast.  Which way the Main Character goes, and how it turns out for them is the essence of the story’s message.

Message in The Fugitive: No matter what the risk, continue to help others.

So, as you can see, without an Influence Character there will be no story-long passionate argument regarding which way of seeing the world is the better way, and therefore there is no clear message to the reader or audience.

As we have seen with Hannibal Lecter, the Influence Character is not necessarily the Antagonist.  The Antagonist is trying to prevent the Protagonist from achieving his or her goal.  The Influence Character is trying to convince the Main Character to change his or her world view, belief system, or outlook.

Similarly, the Protagonist is not necessarily the Main Character.  The Protagonist is trying to achieve the goal.  The Main Character is trying to grapple with a personal issue, and is also the character through whose eyes the reader or audience sees the story – in short, we identify with him or her.

Often, the Main Character is the same “person” in a story who is also the Protagonist.  In this case, we create a stereotypical hero in which the reader/audience position is with the same character who is leading the charge to achieve the goal.

There is nothing wrong with that combination, but it is like always making the story about the quarterback in a game of football but never telling the story of one of the linemen or the water boy or the coach or the quarterback’s wife.  So, if you want a typical hero, make your Protagonist also your Main Character.  But if you want to tell a story where the Main Character is allowing us to look at the Protagonist from the outside and to observe him, then you enable a story such as To Kill A Mockingbird in which Atticus is the Protagonist  who is trying to defend the black man wrongly accused of rape in a 1930s town in the South but the Main Character is his young daughter Scout, who gives us a child’s-eye view of prejudice.

If you have a hero who is both Protagonist and Main Character, it can be dangerous to have your Antagonist be the Influence Character because then both the philosophic argument and the struggle over the goal is between the same two characters, mixing the conflicts together and muddying the message for your readers or audience.

In addition, as an author, you can get so wrapped up in the combined passionate lines between these two characters that you don’t fully connect the story points of either argument, leaving gaps that will be seen (or at least felt) by your readers or audience as holes in your story.  If those gaps aren’t filled, you essentially have a melodrama in which you don’t make either argument completely yet profess your message at the end as if you did.

Often, authors avoid this problem by creating a dramatic triangle in which one of those two stereotypes (hero and villain) is split into the two parts and the other one remains combined.

For example, in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford, he plays the Protagonist – a cop trying to protect the only witness to a murder: the young son of an Amish Woman, played by Kelly McGillis, who is the Main Character.

So here, the Protagonist and the Main Character are two different people.  Ford (as Protagonist) strives to protect the boy against the crooked cop who wants the boy killed (the Antagonist).  That’s the Goal.

McGillis (as Main Character) shows us the story through her eyes – the most passionate view – as she grapples with a personal decision to remain with her people (the Amish) or to move away with her son for a new life out “among the English” in the big city.  That’s the message argument.

Initially, McGillis is determined to stay, but as Ford remains in her community, showing his human side and participating in activities such as barn raising, she begins to fall in love with him and is tempted to change her mind and make a life with him on the outside.  Ford, therefore, is the Influence character as well as the Protagonist, as it is his influence that  draws her to a point of decision about leaving.

And so, a dramatic triangle is created by making Ford both Protagonist and Influence Character with the other two points of the triangle being the Main Character of Kelly McGillis, and the Antagonist who is trying to kill the boy.

Both the plot line toward the goal and the heart line toward the message are separate and easily followed, yet both hinge on Ford, making him the most central character, even though he isn’t the Main Character.

And so the message is made:

Sometimes it is better to stay in the safety of your extended family than to leave to explore the larger world, no matter how tempting it is.

In summary, without an influence character your story will lose the entire passionate argument leading up to the point of choice in which your story’s message should be made.  Without an argument, any perspective you are trying to convey will come across as moralizing that is tagged on rather than integral to the growth of your Main Character.

So how do you add an Influence character and message to your story?  Here are a few quick steps:

1. Write down a single sentence that describes the moral or message you want your story to convey.

2.  Describe the two sides of that issue such as “Greed vs. Generosity” or “Campassion vs. Self-Interest.”

3.  Outline how your Main Character is locked into a viewpoint on one side of that issue.

4.  If you already have an Influence character, outline how it is locked into the opposing viewpoint.

5.  If you don’t yet have an Influence character but have other characters in mind, briefly describe the core belief system of each.

6.  If one of your characters is in direct philosophic opposition to your Main Character, select it as your Influence Character.

7.  If none of your existing characters fits the bill, you’ll either need to choose one who can be reworked to represent the opposing point of view to that of the Main Character or you will need to develop a new character specifically for that job.

8. Once you have your Influence Character, Find as many places in your plot as you can to smoothly bring your Main and Influence Characters into conflict over their opposed philosophies, whether it be as advice from one to the other, as an argument, or just by example – having the Main Character see the Influence Character act in a different manner than he or she would in that situation.

9.  Over the course of your story, bring your Main Character to a point where he or she must choose either to stick by their guns and hold to their original outlook, believing that their troubles will be resolved if they just remain steadfast long enough,  or choose the Influence Character’s alternative view, believing that it holds a better chance to resolve the Main Character’s personal issue.

10.  In the end, your Main Character may grow in their resolve to remain steadfast or grow to a point of change.  But regardless of how they go, their choice may be right or wrong for resolving their personal issue.  This provides you with many ways to prove your message:
Change is good, Change is bad, Steadfast is Good, Steadfast is Bad.  Any of these are legitimate; it just depends on the flavor of the message you are trying to send.

11.  Don’t forget that if your Main Character Changes, your Influence Character will remain Steadfast, and vice versa.  The idea is that one philosophy will trump the other so that both character will, in the end, share the same philosophy.  And then you show your readers or audience if that’s was the right choice by showing how it all turns out at a personal level.

12.  Keep in mind that whether or not the goal is achieved in a story has no bearing on whether of not the Main Character resolves his or her personal issue.  So, you can have a happy ending in which success is matched with happiness, a tragedy in which failure is matched with personal anguish, or a bitter-sweet ending in which success is achieved but with personal anguish or failure is the result of the effort to achieve the goal but with the Main Character finding peace or joy in the end.

Now you know the nuts and bolts of the role and function of the Influence Character, but what does that feel like in a actual stories?  To provide some insight into how it all plays out, here’s a video clip to illustrate the nature of Influence Character and its relationship to the Main Character in regard to the message issue:

I hope you have found this article useful and, if so, that you might try the StoryWeaver story development software I created or the Dramatica story structuring software I co-created.  Try them risk-free.

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Characters: Cogs in the Machine?

From a structural standpoint, characters are just cogs in the machine.  They have a job to do in the story as a protagonist, antagonist or any one of the functional roles that must be filled for the story to make sense and move forward.

But characters are much more than that! They also need to be real people with their own lives, fears and desires or the readers or audience won’t be able to identify with them. So characters have two jobs to do in every story – one professional and the other personal.

To illustrate characters’ professional lives,  first imagine that you stepped back from your story far enough that you could no longer identify your characters by their personalities, but just by the dramatic role they are playing in the structure of the story.

Like a general on a hill watching a battle, you could only see each character by its function in the battle:  There’s the guy leading the charge – that’s the Protagonist. His opponent is the Antagonist. There’s the strategist, working out the battle plan – he’s the Reason archetype. One soldier is shouting mindlessly at the pathos and carnage – he’s the Emotion archetype.

The structure of stories deals with this big picture in which characters are no more than cogs in the machine of story.  But at that level of appreciation, your readers or audience can’t invest emotionally in your characters, nor can they identify with them.

To overcome this, each character must be fully developed as a complete human being in their personal lives.  When developing characters at this level, you need to stand in their shoes, see what they see, think what they think, feel what they feel.  You need to make them real, and express them passionately through each of their individual personal points of view.

Taken together these two jobs create the complex juxtaposition of dramatics that make stories so appealing and provide an appreciation of characters that matches what we all experience in real life.  We are a part of a company at work, or of a club or a class.  But we are also individuals with a unique combination of likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, dreams and goals.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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SECRETS if the Protagonist…

The Protagonist is one of the most misunderstood characters in a story’s structure.  It is often assumed that this character is a typical “Hero” who is a good guy, the central character in the story, and the Main Character (the one through with whom the reader identifies).

In fact, the Protagonist is not any of these things, though all of these attributes may be added to what the Protagonist really is.  By definition, the Protagonist is nothing more than the Prime Mover or Driver of the effort to achieve the goal.  That’s it.  He or she is just the archetypal character who keeps pushing for the goal – that and nothing more.

So, sometimes the Protagonist is not a story’s Central character (the most memorable or charismatic character in the story).  Being the Central character simply means he or is is the most prominent to the reader.  For example, Fagin in “Oliver Twist” is perhaps the most prominent, but he is certainly not the Protagonist.  And Darth Maul is an extremely charismatic character in Star Wars, but was not at all the Protagonist.  Clearly, the actual Protagonist may in fact be less interesting than than the Central character, and may even be almost a background character if achieving the goal is not really the focus of the story but just the reason for the chase.

Similarly, the Protagonist is often not the Main Character of the story either.  The Main character is the one the reader identifies with – the character we are most connected to emotionally – the one whom the passionate outcome of the story revolves around.  It is the Main character who grapples with some personal issue they will ultimately try to overcome by the end of the story by making a choice in a leap of faith.

For an example of a story in which the Protagonist is NOT the Main character consider To Kill A Mockingbird, in which we experience the story through young Scout’s eyes, and yet, it is her father (lawyer, Atticus Finch) who is the protagonist, trying to defend a  young black man wrongly accused of rape.

As you can see, while there are many attributes often given to the character who is the Protagonist, these don’t really have to be bundled together unless you are trying to create a stereotypical hero.

Just as in our own lives, we are the Main Character, but may not be the Protagonist on every single project or job in which we are involved, nor are we always the most prominent member of our team, department, or social group.

While it is fun to read books and go to movies in which we identify with heroes, stories that recognize all of those traits don’t have to be given to just one character help us to learn how to be heroic in our own lives.

So in developing your Protagonist, give the guy a break and see if you can’t distribute some of those other jobs to other characters to make them more interesting and your Protagonist more reflective of real life.

This tip was excerpted from StoryWeaver

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Protagonist & Antagonist – Who ARE These Guys?

The protagonist and antagonist may not be who you think they are.  For one thing, a protagonist is not necessarily the hero of a story.  Structurally speaking, the protagonist is the one who shakes up the status quo – that’s the “pro” part, while the antagonist is the one who tries to stop that effort or put it back the way it was.

In a James Bond film, for example, it is often the bad guy who begins an evil process that James Bond is called upon to thwart.  This makes the bad guy the protagonist even though he is the villain, and James the antagonist even though he is the hero.

In practice, a true hero is a protagonist who is also the main character (we identify with him) and is also a good guy.  A villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character (he has an opposing life philosophy or morality to that of the main character) and is also a bad guy.

But these traits can be mixed and matched between the two characters creating, for example, anti heroes and sympathetic villains.

The main point here is to stop thinking of protagonist and antagonist as hero and villain but as structural functions – to begin a quest or to try and stop a quest.  Then, you can have some fun as an author determining which of these is the good guy and bad guy and with which one you wish your readers or audience to identify.

This video was excerpted from:

dramatica-unplugged-jpeg

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Get Into Your Characters’ Heads

One of the most powerful opportunities of the novel format is the ability to describe what a character is thinking. In movies or stage plays (with exceptions) you must show what the character is thinking through action and/or dialog. But in a novel, you can just come out and say it.

For example, in a movie, you might say:

John walks slowly to the window and looks out at the park bench where he last saw Sally. His eyes fill with tears. He bows his head and slowly closes the blinds.

But in a novel you might write:

John walked slowly to the window, letting his gaze drift toward the park bench where he last saw Sally. Why did I let her go, he thought. I wanted so much to ask her to stay. Saddened, he reflected on happier times with her – days of more contentment than he ever imagined he could feel.

The previous paragraph uses two forms of expressing a character’s thoughts. One, is the direct quote of the thought, as if it were dialog spoken internally to oneself. The other is a summary and paraphrase of what was going on in the character’s head.

Most novels are greatly enhanced by stepping away from a purely objective narrative perspective, and drawing the reader into the minds of the character’s themselves.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Letting Go of Characters

Over the course of the story, your reader/audience has come to know your characters and to feel for them. The story doesn’t end when your characters and their relationships reach a climax. Rather, the reader/audience will want to know the aftermath – how it turned out for each character and each relationship. In addition, the audience needs a little time to say goodbye – to let the character walk off into the sunset or to mourn for them before the story ends.

This is in effect the conclusion, the wrap-up. After everything has happened to your characters, after the final showdown with their respective demons, what are they like? How have they changed? If a character began the story as a skeptic, does it now have faith? If they began the story full of hatred for a mother that abandoned them, have they now made revelations to the effect that she was forced to do this, and now they no longer hate? This is what you have to tell the audience, how their journeys changed them, have the resolved their problems, or not?

And in the end, this constitutes a large part of your story’s message. It is not enough to know if a story ends in success or failure, but also if the characters are better off emotionally or plagued with even greater demons, regardless of whether or not the goal was achieved.

You can show what happens to your characters directly, through a conversation by others about them, or even in a post-script on each that appears after the story is over or in the ending credits of a movie.

How you do this is limited only by your creative inspiration, but make sure you review each character and each relationship and provide at least a minimal dismissal for each.

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Excuses, Excuses…

When a child comes up with a false reason for some small transgression, we know he is just making an excuse to avoid punishment or to side-step a negative emotional response. Adults continue to make excuses; they just do it in a far more sophisticated way.  What’s more, we often make excuses to ourselves, convincing ourselves that a particular course of action is best, even though deep down we know it really isn’t.

So how and why do we play these mental games?  How exactly does this work in our own minds, and how should it work in the minds of our characters if their motivations are to come off as those of real people?

The answers to these questions lie in in a mental process called justification.  Justification describes the internal mechanisms we use to shift the truth of a situation in order to create a more favorable interpretation.  This can cover up a mistake, but it can also help us find a way around restrictions that really aren’t absolute.

The tale of the Gordian Knot is a good illustration how justification can uncover a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.  In the story, Alexander the Great encounters an intricately tied knot where the ends are worked inside so there is no apparent way to part the two ropes.  Legend foretold that whomever could part the ropes was destined to become the emperor of all Asia.  After examining the knot, Alexander simply drew his sword and cut the knot in half, thereby separating the two ropes, since there were no stated restrictions on exactly how the ropes needed to be parted.

Today, we call this “thinking outside the box,” meaning that we put aside the context normally used to frame an idea and look at it from a whole new perspective.  But how does this work in stories?  This exact same technique was employed in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the assassin comes at Indy with a sword and our hero just pulls his gun and shoots him.

The point here is that while justification can be used to make excuses, it can also open one’s mind to new solutions to previously unsolvable problems.  But not all justifications are just about shifting perspective about a current situation.  These same techniques can be employed when considering how a situation may change in time.

For example, of the three little pigs, the who built his house of brick put in a lot more work than was needed for any current problem, but considered what might be needed for an unknown problem in the future.  Every squirrel that buries nuts for the winter, rather than eating them all now is justifying, and the story of the Grasshopper and the Ant (google it) illustrated the folly of paying attention only to the here and how.

In real life, every retirement fund or medical insurance policy is a justification that actually creates difficulties in the present by limiting resources in expectation of a future need that may never actually materialize.

Of course not all justifications are of such life-changing import.  Imagine, for example, a person, we’ll call him Joe,  who has a friend come to visit for the weekend.  Joe has a great time with the visit but in the morning when he goes to water his plants, he discovers his friend has parked in such a way to block easy access and he must walk around the long way to do the job.

Joe’s first reaction is mild anger at his friend for the inconvenience.  Almost instantly, he regrets feeling that way as he knows his friend was unaware of the issue.  So, he is able to dissipate some of his negative feelings by re-contexualizing the issue spatially with the notion that he would rather have his friend visit and have the problem than have his friend not visit.

But, this only balances the emotional inequity by saying the benefits outweigh the costs.  So, Joe is still left with negative feelings due to the emotional value of his friend’s visit that is now being lessened by deducting the emotional cost of the inconvenience.  Then Joe, while watering, tries a another justification by considering that he is a little out of shape and the extra exertion will do him good in the long run.

This shift in context is based in truth, so Joe now feels good about the extra walk and along with his first justification that salved his feelings, he has finally fully eliminated his negative emotions and now has an overall positive cost-free perspective of both his friend’s visit and of the inconvenience.

But, there’s still a problem of a different sort remaining.  Since the emotional inequity has now been eliminated, so too has the potential for further motivation also been removed.  The end result is that Joe will not now consider buying a new hose to avoid the long walk around, which would have solved the problem once and for all for every visitor he receives in the future.

Bottom line – justification is neither good nor bad, except in context.  It may eliminate emotional negatives, but it can also eliminate motivation.  By understanding the mental mechanisms by which justifications are created, we can provide insight into our characters, furnish them with believable balanced motivations, and offer valuable understanding for our readers/audience through the voice of the Wise Author.

And, by turning this understanding upon ourselves, we can learn to recognize these mental patterns within ourselves as they happen, allowing us to make a conscious decision as to the best context for our purposes, rather than subconsciously falling into habitual patterns  of justification, regardless of their effectiveness in the current situation and circumstances.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Characters: The Attributes of Age

Some writers tend to create characters that are more or less the same age as themselves. Other writers populate their stories with characters of all ages but have them all act as if they are the same age as the author.  On the one hand, this follows the old adage that one should write about what one knows.  But on the other hand, while such characters may function well enough, somehow they don’t ring true.

In real life, we encounter people of all ages in most situations.  And while every individual is unique, there are certain attributes common to broad age groups that need to be built into your characters if they are come across as real people.

In this writing tip we’re going to uncover a variety of traits that bear on an accurate portrayal of age, and even offer the opportunity to explore seldom-depicted human issues associated with age, be it young or old.

Introduction

People in general, and writers in particular, tend to stereotype the attributes of age more than just about any other character trait. These broad stroke qualities include the physical aspects of age, ranging from size, smoothness of skin, strength and mobility to the various ailments associated with our progress through life as well as the mental and emotional qualities that we expect to find at various junctures.

While these may be accurate in general, they are all rather superficial.  In reality, the process of aging involves quite a number of subtle components that need to be woven into a character’s tapestry for them to take on the human quality of the people we know and love (or hate) in our own lives.

Anatomical vs. Chronological age

Before examining any specific age-related traits, it is important to note the difference between anatomical and chronological age. Anatomical age is the condition of your body whereas chronological age is the actual number of years you’ve been around. For example, if you are thirty years old, but all worn out and genetically biased to age prematurely, you might look more akin to what people would expect of a fifty year old. Nonetheless, you wouldn’t have the same interests in music or direct knowledge of the popular culture as someone who was actually fifty years old.

When describing a character, you might choose to play off your readers’ expectations by letting them assume the physical condition, based on your description of age. Or, you might wish to create some additional interest in your character by describing him as “A middle-aged man so fit and healthy, he was still “carded” whenever he vacationed in Vegas.” Such a description adds an element of interest and immediately sets your character out at an individual.

Jargon

Far too often, characters speak in the same generic conversational language we hear on television.  In other words, characters speak as if they all think alike, even if they were brought up in completely different eras. But aging is an ongoing evolution of culture, rooting the individual into thought patterns of his or her formative hears, and tempered (to some degree) by the ongoing cultural indoctrination of a social lifestyle.

For example, my grandmother was born in 1902 and lived to see the coming of electricity in her home, the first airplanes and cars, the first radio programs, two world wars, suffrage, prohibition, home computers, man on the moon, and color TV.  Society changed, culture changed; science, industry, medicine, politics, and entertainment changed.  An though my grandmother still had roots to her childhood, all these innovations and alterations were part of her essence as well.

Characters, therefore, tend to pick up a basic vocabulary reflective of both their early identity AND their current world. For example, a black man who fought for civil rights along side Dr. Martin Luther King, would not be using the exact same jargon ad a black man advancing the cause of rights today. And neither of these would use the same vocabulary as a young black man in the center city, trying to find his way out through education.   And yet, some of what they say will be nearly identical in content and even in terms of buzz words, as it is the current topic, but the context, perspective, references and specific jargon cannot help but be tempered by their eras of their lives.

Sure, we all learn to drop some of the more dated terms and expletives of our youth in order to appear “hip” or “with it,” but in the end we either sound silly trying to use the new ones, or avoid them altogether, leaving us bland and un-passionate in our conversation. Both of these approaches can be depicted in your characters as well, and can provide a great deal of information about the kind of mind your character possesses.

Outlook

Speaking of characters’ minds, we all have a culturally created filter that focuses our attention on some things, and blinds us to (or diminishes) others. Sometimes, this is built into the language itself. When it is hot, the Spanish say, “hace calor” (it makes heat). This phrasing is due to the underlying beliefs of the people who developed that language that see every object, even those that are inanimate, as possessing a spirit. So, when it is hot, this is not a mindless state of affairs due to meteorological conditions, but rather to the intent of the spirit of the weather. Of course, if you were to ask a modern Spanish speaking person if they believed in such a thing, you would likely receive a negative reply. And yet, because this concept permeates the language (such making everyday items masculine or feminine), it cannot help but alter the way native speakers of the language will frame their thoughts.

As another example, the Japanese population of world war two was indoctrinated in the culture of honor, duty, and putting the needs of society above those of the individual. Although most countries foster this view, in war-time Japan, it was carried to the extreme, resulting in an effective Kamikaze force, and also in whole units that chose a suicidal charge against oncoming forces, rather than to be humiliated by defeat or capture.

Corporate Japan was built around these Samurai ideals, and workers commonly perceived themselves as existing to serve their companies with loyalty and unquestioning obedience. But when the economy faltered, those who expected to remain with their companies for life were laid off, or even permanently fired. This led to a disillusionment of the “group first” mentality, especially among the young, who had not yet become settled in their beliefs. So, today, there is still a gap between the old-guard corporate executives, and the millions of teenagers to whom they market. Age, in this case, creates a significant difference in the way the world looks.

Continuing with the notion of generation gaps, I grew up when the rallying cry was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Of course, now we’re all in our  sixties, so we are forced to admit that we, ourselves, have in fact become “the Establishment.”

But that is what is visible and obvious to us. The real difference between my generation and the post Yuppie, post GenX, GenY, Gen? Millennial Generation is far more foundational. In conversations with my daughter some years ago, I discovered that while I see myself on the other side of the generation gap, she does not perceive a gap at all! This is due to in part to the plethora of high-quality recorded programs, which capture so many fine performances and presentations from decades ago when the artists and great thinkers were in their prime. We live in a TV Land universe in which no great works ever die; they are just reborn in streaming media.

To my daughter’s generation, it is only important whether or not you have something worth saying. How old you are has nothing to do with your importance or relevance. In short, the difference between my generation and the younger generation is that we perceive a difference between the generations and they don’t!

In summary then, the age in which you establish your worldview will determine how you perceive current events for the rest of your life. When creating characters of any particular age, you would do well to consider the cultural landscape that was prevalent when each character was indoctrinated.

Comfort Symbols

We all share the same human emotional needs. And we each experience moments that fulfill those needs. Those experiences become fond memories, and many of the trappings of those experiences become comfort symbols. In later life, we seek out those symbols to trigger the re-experiencing of the cherished moments. Perhaps your family served a particular food in your childhood that you associate with warmth and love. For example, my mother grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Her family was often short of food. So, as a snack, they would give her a piece of bread spread with lard and mustard! Now the thought very nearly sickens me, but she often yearned for that flavor again, as it reminded her of the love she received as a child.

Once we have locked into symbols that we can use to trigger emotional experiences, we seldom need to replace them. They are our comfort symbols upon which we can always rely. This has two effects as we age: One, we latch on to performers and music, as an example, that age along with us. We recall them at their prime when we first encountered them, and also have spent years aging along with them. This leads us to suddenly wake up one day and realize we no longer know who they are referring to in popular culture magazines and entertainment reporting televisions shows. In other words, the popular culture has passed us by. Two, we see many of our symbols (favorite advertising campaigns, a restaurant where we went on our first date, etc.) vanish as they are replaced with new and current concerns. So, the world around us seems less relevant, less familiar, and less comfortable, just as we seem to the world at large.

When creating characters, take into account the potential ongoing and growing sense of loss, sadness, and connection between characters and their environment. And don’t think this is a problem only for the elderly. My  son laments that there are kids growing up today who never knew a world without personal computers! He says it makes him feel old.

Physical Attributes

Babies have a soft spot on their heads that doesn’t harden up for quite a while after birth. Cartilage wears out. Teens in puberty have raging hormones. Young kids grow so fast that they don’t have a chance to get used to the size and strength of their bodies before they have changed again, not unlike trying to drive a new and different car every day. I can’t remember the last time I ran full-tilt. I’m not sure it would be safe, today! Point is, our bodies are always changing. Sometimes the state we are in has positive and/or negative qualities – other times the changing itself is positive or negative.

When creating characters, give some thought to the physical attributes and detriments of any given age, and consider how they not only affect the abilities and mannerisms of your characters, but their mental and emotional baselines as well.

Conclusion?

Sure, we could go on and on exploring specifics of age and aging, but since it is an omnipresent human condition, it touches virtually every human experience and endeavor. The point here is not to completely cover the subject, but to encourage you to consider it when creating each of your characters. It isn’t enough to simply describe a character as “a middle-aged man,” or “a perky 8 year old girl.” You owe it to your characters and to your readers or audience to incorporate the aging experience into your characters’ development, for it is inexorably integrated into our own.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Also by Melanie Anne Phillips…

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The Hero Breaks Down

Groucho Marx once said, “You’re headed for a nervous breakdown. Why don’t you pull yourself to pieces?” That, in fact, is what we’re going to do to our hero.

Now many writers focus on a Hero and a Villain as the primary characters in any story. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as we are about to discover, there are so many more options for creative character construction.

Take the average hero. What qualities might we expect to find in the fellow? For one thing, the traditional hero is always the Protagonist. By that we mean he or she is the Prime Mover in the effort to achieve the story goal. This doesn’t presuppose the hero is a willing leader of that effort. For all we know he might accept that charge kicking and screaming. Nonetheless, once stuck in the situation, the hero drives the push to achieve the goal.

Another quality of a stereotypical hero is that he is also the Main Character. By this we mean that the hero is constructed so that the audience stands in his shoes. In other words, the audience identifies with the hero and sees the story as centering around him.

A third quality of the most usual hero configuration is being a “Good Guy.” Simply, he intends to do the right thing. Of course, he might be misguided or inept, but he wants to do good, and he does try.

And finally, let us note that heroes are usually the Central Character, meaning that he gets more “media real estate” (pages, screen time, lines of dialog) than any other character.

Listing these four qualities we get:

1. Protagonist.

2. Main Character.

3. Good Guy.

4. Central Character

Getting right to the point, the first two items in the list are structural in nature, while the last two are storytelling. Protagonist describes the character’s function from the Objective View described earlier. Main Character positions the audience in that particular character’s spot through the Main Character View. In contrast, being a Good Guy is a matter of personality, and Central Character is determined by the attention given to that character by the author’s storytelling.

You’ve probably noticed that we’ve used common terms such as Protagonist, Main Character, and Central Character in very specific ways. In actual practice, most authors bandy these terms about more or less interchangeably. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for structural purposes it’s not very precise. That’s why you’ll see Dramatica being something of a stickler in its use of terms and their definitions: it’s the only way to be clear.

At this juncture, you may be wondering why we even bother breaking down a hero into these pieces. What’s the value in it? The answer is that these pieces don’t necessarily have to go together in this stereotypical way.

For example, in the classic story of racial prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Protagonist function and the Main Character View are separated into two different characters.

The Protagonist is Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in the movie version. Atticus is a principled Southern lawyer in the 1930s who is assigned to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. His goal is to ensure justice is done, and he is the Prime Mover in this endeavor.

But we do not stand in Atticus’ shoes, however. Rather, the story is told through the eyes of Scout, his your daughter, who observers the workings of prejudice from a child’s innocence.

Why not make Atticus a typical hero who is also the Main Character? First, Atticus sticks by his principles regardless of the dangers and pressures brought to bear. If he had represented the audience position, the audience/reader would have felt quite self-righteous throughout the story’s journey.

But there is even more advantage to splitting these qualities between two characters. The audience identifies with Scout. And we share her fear of the local boogey man known as Boo Radley – a monstrous mockery of human form who forms the stuff of local terror stories. All the kids know about Boo, and though we never see him, we hear their tales of his horrible ways.

At the end of the story, it turns out that Boo is just a gentle giant, a normal man with a kind heart but low intellect. As was the custom in that age, his parents kept him indoors, inside the basement of the house, leaving him pale and scary-looking due to the lack of sunlight. But Boo ventures out at night, leading to the false but horrible stories about him when he is occasionally sighted.

As it happens, Scout’s life is threatened by the father of the girl who was ostensibly raped in an attempt to get back at Atticus. Lo and behold, it is Boo who comes to her rescue. In fact, he has always been working behind the scenes to protect the children and is not at all the horrible monster they all presupposed.

In a moment of revelation, we, the audience, come to realize we have been cleverly manipulated by the author to share Scout’s initial prejudice against Boo. Rather than feeling self-righteous by identifying with Atticus, we have been led to realize that we are just as capable of prejudice as the obviously misguided adults we have been observing.

The message of the story is that prejudice does not have to come from meanness, but will happen within the heart of anyone who passes judgment based on hearsay rather than direct knowledge. This statement could never have been successfully made if the elements of the typical hero had all been placed in Atticus.

So, the message of our little story here is that there is nothing wrong with writing about heroes and villains, but it is limiting. By separating the components of the hero into individual qualities, we open our options to a far greater number of dramatic scenarios that are far less stereotypical.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Also by Melanie Anne Phillips…

Posted in Story Structure | Comments Off on The Hero Breaks Down