Characters: What’s In A Name?

What’s in a name?  Choosing names for your characters can be perfunctory or can provide your readers or audience with insight into your characters’ natures, add humor or surprise, or even at the very least break out of ordinary monikers into the realm of the unusual.

To illustrate  how to leverage character names in your story, we’ve excerpted this story development step from our StoryWeaver Story Development Software:

What’s in a Name?

INTRODUCTION

So far, we’ve been dealing with characters primarily by their jobs, vocations or roles since we derived them from your plot. Now it’s time to start building some personality into your characters to see if they really have potential for your story, and we’ll begin by giving them names.

Few people (other than performers, artists, and writers) get to choose their own names. But as a writer, you have the power to choose the names of all your characters. And with this power comes the opportunity to say something to your readers or audience about a character’s inclinations, accomplishments, or outlook.

A name could convey military service, religious affiliation, or status. A nick-name might illuminate a major character trait, some event in a character’s past, or the way other characters feel about him or her. Names can add to comic value, hint at danger, or flirt with with mystery.

In this step, add a name to each of your characters that doesn’t already have one and reconsider the names of those characters who do.

TELL ME MORE

In this step, you’ll start interviewing all the folks that showed up for your casting call so you can learn a bit more about them in order to decide who to hire to be in your story.

The first step in any interview is to get to get the character’s name. You probably already have names for several of your potential cast members, but there are likely to be some whose names you don’t yet know.

For the nameless ones, it’s time to give them a moniker. Names give us our first impression of a character. In most stories you’ll want to keep most of your characters’ names normal and simple. But if they are too normal or if everyone has an ordinary name, you’re just boring your readers.

However, if your story requires typical names, try to pick ones that don’t sound like one another or your readers may become confused as to which one you are talking about. Personally, I’ve always had trouble remembering which one is Sauron and which is Sarumon, but that’s just me. Nonetheless, try to stay away from character combos like Jeanne and Jenny, Sonny and Sammy, Bart And Bret and – well, you get the idea.

If your story might benefit from giving some of your characters more unusual names, consider nicknames. Nicknames are wonderful dramatic devices because they can work with the character’s apparent nature, against it for humiliating or comedic effect, play into the plot by telegraphing the activities in which the character will engage, create irony, or provide mystery by hinting at information or a backstory for the character that led to its nickname but has not yet been divulged to the readers.

Keep in mind these are just temporary names for identification. You’ll have the chance to change them later. So for now, just add a name to every character in your potential cast list.

TIPS

What’s in a name? Not a name like “Joe” or “Sally” but something that opens the door to further development like “Muttering Murdock” or “Susan the Stilt.” Often coming up with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call another is a great way to establish a character’s heart.

What can we say about Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for that matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread and then ask questions. So, for ol’ Muttering Murdock, the name is the loose end just hanging out there for us to pull. We might ask, “Why does Murdock Mutter?” (That’s obvious, of course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human being? Is Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What attributes describe Murdock’s physical traits? How smart is Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so on….

We don’t need to know the answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.

Why Does Murdock Mutter?

  1. Because he has a physical deformity for the lips.
  2. Because he talks to himself, lost in his own world due to the untimely death of his parents, right in front of his eyes
  3. Because he feels he can’t hold his own with anyone face to face, so he makes all his comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word in his own mind.
  4. Because he is lost in thought about truly deep and complex issues, so he is merely talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is a genius because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.

You get the idea. You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that’s the key. If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well good luck. But if you pick an arbitrary name, it can’t help but generate a number of questions. If you aren’t trying to come up with the one perfect answer to each question, you can let your Muse roam far and wide. Without constraints, you’ll be amazed at the odd variety of potential answers she brings back!

EXAMPLE

In our sample story, we’ve added names to all our characters with a good mix of the ordinary and the odd, including proper names and nick names. Some names just came to mind. Others are alterations of names of characters I’ve seen in television shows and movies. Some are based on sound-alike first and last names. In other words, names aren’t hard to come by, and mixing them up a bit just livens the party.

You’ll note that in several names, such as those of the posse, the gang, the businessmen, and the shopkeepers, I’ve given them organizational names such as The Gazpacho Enforcers. In so doing, I’ve given the town our example story the name of Gazpacho, so always be aware of opportunities to extend other parts of your story than the one you are currently working on. I’ll put the town name of Gazpacho in the Notes window to make sure I can refer to it later.

Also note that I’ve added an all new group character at the end of the list – a charitable organization: the Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society. The name just fell into my mind when I was naming all the Gazpacho groups and it struck me as to how ridiculous and pompous they sounded. Again, be on the lookout for random creative ideas: they can pop out of the shadows at any time!

Jedediah Farnsworth – The Old Sheriff

James Vestibule – The New Sheriff

The Hole in the Head Gang – Gang of Cutthroats

Armoire Vestibule Gang Leader (The sheriff’s wife)

The Gazpacho Enforcers – A posse

Stiff-Leg Sam – Deputy

Shandy Stilton – Mayor

J.W. Blinkers – Banker

The Gazpacho Consortium – Businessmen

The Gazpacho Retail Trade Association – Shopkeepers

Nell Goodtime – saloon girl

Slick Nick – bartender

Hugo Laughter – blacksmith

Bart Costello – rancher

Brother Bob – preacher

Nancy Lacy – schoolmarm

The Tumbling Troubadours – A troupe of traveling acrobats

Ulysses S. Grant – President of the United States

Percy Prancy – A bird watcher

Ghost of Julius Caesar – Annoying Spirit

The Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society – Charitable organization

*******

This article was excerpted from StoryWeaver

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Change is Good (or maybe bad)

At the core of a story’s message is a very simple issue – whether the author is telling us it is better to be like the main character or not.  This is usually thought of as the moral of the story and is proven to the readers or audience by how the main character fares after making a choice or taking a leap of faith at the climax.

For characters like Scrooge in  A Christmas Carol, the message is that it is better to change one’s attitude toward others and adopt a new way of thinking.  If you do, things will work out better.  But for other characters, such as in Field of Dreams or Rocky, the message is to stick by your beliefs because that’s the only way to solve your problems.

Sometimes change is good, as with Scrooge.  But imagine if Ray had given up on building the ball field or Rocky Balboa had determined there was no way to win and he shouldn’t continue to try.

Stories can be written about characters who change or about characters who don’t.  That’s the first part of the message.  The second part is what happens to the character in the end as a result of their choice to change or not.

This results in four possibilities:

  1. The main character changes and things work out for the better.
  2. The main character changes and things work out for the worse.
  3. The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the better.
  4. The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the worse.

Each of the four combinations provides a different kind of message about changing or sticking to your beliefs.  So far, so good.  But now you need to get that message across to your readers or audience.

The first part of conveying your message is to be clear about the nature of the human quality or thought pattern that your moral is about.  That aspect of your main character that defines him, just as Scrooge’s lack of concern for his fellow man is the issue at the heart of him.  How you do this can be subtle or straight out, but by the time the moment of choice is upon your main character, your audience or reader needs to absolutely and with total clarity know what that issue is or your message will be unclear.

The second part of conveying your message is to show that as a result of his or her choice, your main character is better off or worse off than they were.  This element of your message has two components:

  1. Did they achieve the goal?
  2. Are they in an emotionally better place than they were.

For example, suppose you have a story in which a character changes his beliefs, achieves the goal, and is elated.  That’s fine, and the message is that whatever his issue was, it was good he changed his point of view.  But change is not always good, so in another story a character might change his beliefs, still achieve the goal, but be miserable in the end because he hadn’t resolved his anguish or he had to take on an emotional burden to accomplish his quest.  For example, in Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos has to kill the person he loves the most to accomplish his goal, and this leaves him logistically satisfied yet emotionally devastated.

On the opposite side, a character might remain steadfast in his beliefs, fail in the goal but find personal salvation or true happiness in the end.  Or a character might remain steadfast, succeed in the goal but be left personally raw.  An example of this last combination can be seen in Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling is successful in saving the senator’s daughter, but could not let go of the screaming lambs in her memory, as pointed out in the end by Hannibal Lecter (“Tell me, Clarice,” are the lambs still screaming?”)  This is why the ending music over her graduation ceremony is so somber – she achieved the goal but could not let go of her angst.

And, of course, you can have the quintessential tragedy in which a change or a steadfast character fails and the goal and is miserable in the end, such as in Hamlet, or the penultimate feel good story in which a change or steadfast character both succeeds in the goal and find (or holds onto) great happiness, true love, etc., as in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV)

The point here is that change, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad until you see the results of that change.  And also, a character does not have to change to grow, but can grow in his or her resolve.

And finally, the ramifications don’t have to be cut and dried: all good or all bad.  Rather, by treating the goal and the emotional outcome separately, you have the opportunity to temper your message with bitter sweet and sweet bitter endings as well, thereby creating a more complex message for your readers or viewers.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, StoryWeaver
Creator, Dramatica

The concepts in this article
are from StoryWeaver

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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.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

The concepts in this article
are from StoryWeaver

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Story Structure Seen As War

Imagine a story’s structure as a war and the Main Character as a soldier making his way across the field of battle.  In your mind’s eye, you likely see they whole scene spread out in front of you, as if you were a general on a hill watching the conflict unfold.

That all-seeing “God’s eye view” is a perspective not available to the Main Character, but only the author and audience (as he chooses to reveal it, here and there, casting light on that dark understanding of what is really going on or keeping the readers in the dark.

But there is a second point of view implied in this war of words – that of the Main Character himself.  The Main Character has no idea what lies over the next hill, or what troubles may be lurking in the bushes.  Like all of us, he must rely on our experience in trying to make it through alive.

The view through the eyes of the Main Character puts your readers in his shoes, experiencing the pressures first hand, feeling the power of the moment.  In a sense, this most perspective connects the Main Character’s tribulations (both logistic and emotional) to those we all grapple with in real life.  It draws us in, makes us personally involved, and also causes us to see the message or moral of the story as being applicable to our own journey.

Many authors establish both the overall story and the Main Character’s glimpse of it and stop there, believing they have covered all the angles.  After all, the Main Character can’t see the big picture and that overview can’t portray the immediacy of the struggle on the ground.  All bases covered, right?

In fact, no.  Suddenly, through the smoke of dramatic explosions the Main Character spies a murky figure standing right in his path. In this fog of war, he cannot tell if this other soldier is a friend or foe. Either way, he is blocking the road.

As the Main Character approaches, this other soldier starts waving his arms and shouts, “Change course – get off this road!” Convinced he is on the best path, the Main Character yells back, “Get out of my way!” Again the figure shouts, “Change course!” Again the Main Character replies, “Let me pass!”

The Main Character has no way of knowing if his opposite is a comrade trying to prevent him from walking into a mine field or an enemy fifth column combatant trying to lure him into an ambush. But if he stops on the road, he remains exposed with danger all around.  And so, he continues on, following the plan that still seems best to him.

Eventually, the two soldiers converge, and when they do it becomes a moment of truth in which one will win out. Either the Main Character will alter course or his steadfastness will cause the other soldier to step aside.

This other soldier is called the Influence character, and though you may not have heard of him, this other soldier is essential to describing the pressures that bring the Main Character to a point of decision.

In our own minds we are often confronted by issues that question our approach, attitude, or the value of our hard-gained experience. But we don’t simply adopt a new point of view when our old methods have served us so well for so long. Rather, we consider how things might go if we adopted this new system of thinking right up to the moment we have to make a choice.

It is a long hard thing within us to reach a point of change, and so too is it a difficult feat for the Main Character. In fact, it takes the whole story to reach that point of climax where the Main Character must choose to stay on course or to step off into the darkness, hoping they’ve made the right choice – the classic “Leap of Faith.”

This other character provides a third perspective to a story’s structure – that of an opposing belief system that the Main Character is pressured to consider.  What would the original Star Wars have been without Obi Wan Kenobi continually urging Luke to “Trust the force?”  How about A Christmas Carol without Marley’s ghost, as well as the ghosts of Past, Present, and Future?

Without an Influence character, there is no reason for the Main Character to question his beliefs.   But just having an opposing perspective isn’t all that an Influence Character brings to a story.

A convincing theme or message is not built just by establishing an alternative world view to that of the Main Character.  That would come off as simply moralizing since it presents the two sides as cut and dried, in black and white.  Few life-changing decisions in life are as simple as that.

Rather, the two views must also be played against each other in many scenarios so the Main Character (who represents us all) can begin to connect the dots and ultimately choose the tried and true approach that isn’t working or the new approach that has never been tried.  In other words, at the moment of conflict, both courses are evenly balanced which is why, no matter which side the Main Character comes down on, it is a leap of faith.

It is that repeated questioning of the Main Character’s closely held beliefs that comprises the fourth perspective of our story when seen as a war – the personal story between the Main Character and the Influence Character in which the author’s message is argued.

This fourth point of view elevates a structure from being a simple tale that states “here is how it is,” to a fully developed story that makes the case for “here’s why it is as it is.”  Such stories feel far more complete, even though they may still work well-enough to be successful without it.

For example, in the movie, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington, King of Halloween Town, is dissatisfied with his lot in life and decides to take over Christmas by kidnapping Santa Claus.

The kidnapping and all that follows in the plot is that Overall perspective of the general on the hill.

Jack is the Main Character, trying to improve his life through altering his situation, embodying perspective number two.

Jack’s girlfriend, Sally, is the Influence Character, providing the third perspective: an alternative belief system.  As Wikipedia puts it: “Sally is the only one to have doubts about Jack’s Christmas plan.”  Essentially, he tell Jack that Halloween and Christmas should not be mixed and he should be satisfied with who he is.

But that fourth perspective is missing – the thematic argument between those two conflicting points of view that would have provided a strong and organic message to the story.  Sally states her opposition, but she and Jack never pit one way of looking at the world against the other, not through discussions, nor argument, nor even through a series of scenes illustrating the value of one over the other.

Think back to A Christmas Carol.  How many times is Scrooge’s world view contrasted against that of the ghosts in a whole series of scenarios?  But in Nightmare, the opposing world view is stated but never argued, leaving the story, though incredibly inventive and exciting, somehow less satisfying in a way the audience can’t quite identify.

All four of these perspectives are needed for a story structure to be as powerful as it can be.  In developing your own stories, consider our analogy of story structure as war to ensure that each of them is present, and your story will be far stronger for it.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

This article is drawn from concepts in our

Dramatica Story Structure Software

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Throughlines – And How to Use Them!

Some time ago I wrote an article that described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:

You spin a tale, but you weave a story.

The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.

A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.

Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.

A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.

In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual throughline cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.

You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I used the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.

Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.

Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.

Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.

Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.

An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.

In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.

By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.

For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.

By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.

Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.

Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.

There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.

How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.

Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.

Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.

Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

This technique is from Dramatica

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Creating Characters from Plot

Introduction

If you already have a story idea, it is a simple matter to create a whole cast of characters that will grow out of your plot. In this lesson we’re going to lay out a method of developing characters from a thumbnail sketch of what your story is about.Thumbnail Sketch

The most concise way to describe the key elements of a story is with a “Thumbnail Sketch.” This is simply a short line or two, less than a paragraph, that gets right to the heart of the matter. You see them all the time in TV Guide listings and in the short descriptions that show up on cable or satellite television program information.

A thumbnail sketch of The Matrix, for example, might read, “A computer hacker discovers that the world we know is really just a huge computer program. He is freed from the program by a group of rebels intent on destroying the system, and ultimately joins them as their most powerful cyber warrior.”

Clearly, there is a lot more to the finished movie than that, but the thumbnail sketch provides enough information to get a good feel for what the story is about. Generally, such a description contains information about the plot, since the audience will choose what they want to watch on the kind of things they expect to happen in a story. If it is an action story, there may be no mention of characters at all as in, “A giant meteor threatens to demolish the earth.” If it is a love story, there may be little plot but several characters, as in, “A young Amish girl falls in love with a traveling salesman. Her father and his chosen match for her oppose the romance, but her free-minded mother and exiled aunt encourage her.”

Whether or not characters are specifically mentioned in a thumbnail sketch, they are always at least inferred. For your own story, then, the first step is to come up with a short description like those used as illustrations above. For the purposes of this lesson, we’ll propose the following hypothetical story to use as an example:

Suppose our story is described as the tribulations of a town Marshall trying to fend off a gang of outlaws who bleed the town dry.

The Expected Characters

The only explicitly called for characters are the Marshall and the gang. So, we’ll list them as required characters of the story. Certainly you could tell a story with just those characters, but it might seem a little under-populated. Realistically, you’d expect the gang to have a leader and the town to have a mayor. The Marshall might have a deputy. And, if the town is being bled dry, then some businessmen and shopkeepers would be in order as well. So the second stage of the process is to step a bit beyond what is actually written and to slightly enlarge the dramatic world described to include secondary and support characters too.
The Usual Characters

Range a little wider now, and list some characters that aren’t necessarily expected, but wouldn’t seem particularly out of place in such a story.

Example:

A saloon girl, a bartender, blacksmith, rancher, preacher, school teacher, etc.Unusual Characters

Now, let yourself go a bit and list a number of characters that would seem somewhat out of place, but still explainable, in such a story.

Example:

A troupe of traveling acrobats, Ulysses S. Grant, a Prussian Duke, a bird watcher.

Adding one or two somewhat unexpected characters to a story can liven up the cast and make it seem original, rather than predictable.Outlandish Characters

Finally, pull out all the stops and list some completely inappropriate characters that would take a heap of explaining to your reader/audience if they showed up in your story.

Example:

Richard Nixon, Martians, the Ghost of Julius Caesar

Although you’ll likely discard most of these characters, just the process of coming up with them can lead to new ideas and directions for your story.

For example, the town Marshall might become more interesting if he was a history buff, specifically reading about the Roman Empire. In his first run-in with the gang, he is knocked out cold with a concussion. For the rest of the story, he keeps imagining the Ghost of Julius Caesar, giving him unwanted advice.Casting Call

Now, you assemble all the characters you have proposed for your story so far, be they Expected, Usual, Unusual, or Outlandish.

The task at hand is to weed out of this list of prospective characters all the ones we are sure we don’t want in our story. At first blush, this might seem easy, but before you make hasty decisions, keep in mind the use we came up with for Caesar’s Ghost. Consider: How might traveling acrobats be employed dramatically? As a place for the marshal to hide in greasepaint when the gang temporarily takes over the town? Or how about if the school teacher befriends them, and then employs their aid in busting the deputy out of jail when he falls under the gang’s control?

How about Ulysses S. Grant showing up on his way to a meeting with the governor, and the gang members must impersonate honest town’s folk until he and his armed cavalry escort have departed? Could make for a very tense or a very funny scene, depending on how you play it.

Try to put each of these characters in juxtaposition with each of the others, at least as a mental exercise, to see if any kind of chemistry boils up between them. In this way, you may find that some of the least likely characters on your initial consideration turn out to be almost indispensable to the development of your story!A Word About Plot…

You may not have noticed, but a lot of what we have just done with characters has had the added benefit of developing whole sequences of events, series of interactions, and additional plot lines. In fact, working with characters in this way often does as much for your story’s plot as it does in the creation of characters themselves.

Hence, it is never too early to work with characters. As soon as you have an initial story idea, no matter how lacking in detail or thinly developed it may be, it can pay to work with your characters as a means of adding to your plot!Study Exercises: Squeezing Characters out of the Thumbnail Sketch

1. Open a TV Listing Guide or view some descriptions on your cable or satellite guide.

2. Pick 3 descriptions from movies you know and list the explicitly called for characters.

3. Base on your knowledge of each story, list the usual characters, unusual characters, and outlandish characters (if any).

4. Pick 3 descriptions from movies you don’t know and list the explicitly called for characters.

5. Use your imagination to devise usual characters, unusual characters, and outlandish characters for each story.

6. Watch each of the three movies you hadn’t seen and see how your proposed characters compare to what was actually done.

7. Consider that you might write your own story based on the description with the characters you created and have it be so different from the actual movie that it has become your own story! (This is also a handy trick for coming up with your own original story ideas based on the hundreds of descriptions available each week. More than likely, your creative concepts will be nothing like the movie the description was portraying!)Writing Exercises: Creating Characters

1. Write a thumbnail sketch for a story you wish to develop.

2. List the explicitly described characters.

3. Come up with some additional supporting “usual” characters.

4. Be a bit creative and propose some unusual characters.

5. Let yourself loose and devise some outlandish characters.

6. Imagine each of the characters interacting with each of the others and determine which characters to employ in your story.

7. Use the scenarios created by your character interactions to expand your story’s plot.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

This technique is from StoryWeaver

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Writing from a Character’s Point of View

Perhaps the best way to instill real feelings in a character is to stand in his or her shoes and write from the character’s point of view. Unfortunately, this method also holds the greatest danger of undermining the meaning of a story.

As an example, suppose we have two characters, Joe and Tom, who are business competitors. Joe hates Tom and Tom hates Joe. We sit down to write an argument between them. First, we stand in Joe’s shoes and speak vehemently of Tom’s transgressions. Then, we stand in Tom’s shoes and pontificate on Joe’s aggressions. By adopting the character point of view, we have constructed an exchange of honest and powerful emotions. We have also undermined the meaning of our story because Joe and Tom have come across as being virtually the same.

A story might have a Protagonist and an Antagonist, but between Joe and Tom, who is who? Each sees himself as the Protagonist and the other as the Antagonist. If we simply write the argument from each point of view, the audience has no idea which is REALLY which.

The opposite problem occurs if you stand back from your characters and assign roles as Protagonist and Antagonist without considering the characters’ points of view. In such a case, the character clearly establish the story’s meaning, but they seem to be “walking through” the story, hitting the marks, and never really expressing themselves as actual human beings.

The solution, of course, is to explore both approaches. You need to know what role each character is to play in the story’s overall meaning – the big picture. But, you also must stand in their shoes and write with passion to make them human.

Melanie Anne Phillips

This article was drawn from StoryWeaver

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Blowing the Story Bubble

Remember blowing bubbles with that solution in the little bottles and the plastic wand? The craft of writing is a bit like blowing bubbles (life is like a box of chocolates!) This holds true not only for your dramatic approach, but also for the characters in your story as well.

The study of real bubbles is actually a science which combines physics, geometry, and even calculus! And, as with most natural phenomena, the dynamics that drive them have a parallel in psychology as well. For example, the math that describes a Black Hole in space can equally be applied to describing a prejudice in the mind.

So, by observing bubbles we can more easily grasp some otherwise intangible concepts about the psychology of stories and of the characters in them.

Turning our attention to stories, let’s look at several dramatic endeavors that can benefit by applying the qualities of bubbles. Bubbles burst. Sometimes you want them too, other times you don’t. The larger a bubble gets, the more impressive it is, but the more fragile as well. Until a bubble bursts the tension along its surface (surface tension) increases. But once it has burst, all the tension is gone. So the key is to blow the bubble as large as you can without exceeding the maximum sustainable tension. To do this, you need to know when to stop blowing, seal it off, and let it float on it’s own. In addition, you need to consider how hard to blow, how fast to blow, and to master the art of pulling away the wand to allow that magic moment when a bubble with a hole in it seals itself to become a perfect sphere.

When introducing a dramatic element into your story for the first time, consider how much material to work with at a single dramatic unit. Too little material tries to blow a bubble with not enough solution. It may not even make a film across the wand, and if it does, it will snap at the first breath before a bubble can form. Too much, and it drips off the wand, slobbering all over everything else, and snapping apart as well, because the sheer weight of the stuff makes the membrane too thick to flex. So, don’t work with dramatic units too large or small. Don’t focus on details too tiny or grand movements too large. Find the range and scope of your dramatic concepts that your readers or audience can hold onto while you pump it full of promise and then let it float into their hearts and minds on its own.

How hard you blow is equally important. As you may recall, blowing too hard will simply spit the solution right out of the wand and onto your parents’ carpet. (Why you chose to blow bubbles in the house even after having been told not to is no more fathomable than why you chose to be a writer, even though you knew better!)

Blow too soft, and your solution will just wiggle and vibrate in the wand, never bowing out to become a bubble at all. Eventually the solution in the wand will simply evaporate, and you’ll have spent a lot of time blowing with no bubble to show for it. Now a master storyteller can use this effect to his or her advantage. Get the right amount of solution on the wand and then just vibrate the blazes out of it with a gentle blow, tantalizing your audience, who is going to wonder if anything will every come of it. Just when it looks like the solution has almost evaporated too much to work, you pick up the airflow and form the bubble right before their eyes. Or, you might just keep it vibrating, a red herring, and simply let it dissolve out of the wand. Better be sure of your skills, though, because you want your audience to know you blew it, not to think you blew it.

And do you recall how if you blow at one intensity you get a single bubble, and if you blow with a different push you get a string of small bubbles? In fact, you can even get a series of medium bubbles if you find that narrow mid-range.

Dramatically, you can drop a lot of little bits of information, a few mid-sized bits of information, or one big bit, all with a single blow. (Killed 7 with one blow!). These are the Multi-Appreciation-Moments (M.A.M.) in which a single dramatic movement, passage, or discourse propels more than one dramatic element into the story.

Bubbles have size. The size of a bubble, in writing as in soap (or in writing “soaps”), depends primarily on the size of your wand and the huff in your blow.

Short stories are one size wand. Mini-series are another. Haiku are still one more. Each one has a maximum size of bubble it can produce, no matter how hard you blow. But size isn’t everything. There is such a thing as the beauty of perfection. Your idea is your solution, your format is your wand; try to make sure not to blow too hard for the wand/solution ratio you are using.

Surface Tension – wonderful phrase, that! Someone should use that for a title. More wonderful still is the way it works. Stories are about structure and passion. Your solution is about water and soap. Too much water and nothing happens. Too much soap and it all glops up. When you get the right mix of structure and passion, you’ve got the right raw material for a great bubble.

What holds the surface of the bubble together is the attraction among the soap and water molecules. What keeps it from collapsing is a slightly higher pressure on the inside than on the outside. A larger bubble has more tension because there is more surface. And yet, the total surface area of a collection of smaller bubbles far exceeds that of a single bubble occupying the same space. In addition, smaller bubbles are more stable, lasting far longer.

Use big bubbles for big events of singular identity with a limited life span. Use smaller bubbles collectively as a consistent foundation of longer duration.

Put your ear to the soap foam on dishwater or a hot bath, and though the mass remains largely constant, you can hear the satisfying snap, crackle, and pop of individual bubbles as they burst. Such formations can add stability to your story, even while providing an underlying level of surface tension, punctuated by hundreds of tiny eruptions. In addition, you can shape foam into all kinds of complex forms, while the shape of individual bubbles is far more limited.

While bubbles, on their own, are usually round, if you dip a bent piece of wire (such as a clothes hanger) in solution, you can create triangles, squares, and even approximations of hyper-cubes!

Although one might argue that the film from one wire side to the next does not comprise a bubble, and the enclosed area of such a shape does not either, guided by these outside influences a shaped bubble may indeed occur within the space bounded by the wires that doesn’t directly touch the wires. One shape, for example, may create a square bubble within another bubble. So, although the larger bubble is directly connected to the wires, the inner bubble is only connected to the planar surfaces of the outer bubble.

Ah, but I wax scientific. Fact is, the “set pieces” of your story are the wires dipped into your dramatic solution. An obvious heavy-handed control technique, you can also create very specific shapes by building those second-generation bubbles within bubbles, which are not formed by direct influence of your set pieces, but rather by indirect influence from being attached to those dramatics that ARE connected to the set pieces.

It’s a great point, but not for the faint of heart.

Bubbles combine. When two bubbles encounter each other, they might just bounce off like billiard balls. But if conditions are right, they join, creating a common interface between them. They are spherical except where they are joined, which becomes a flat side. More than two bubbles can combine, and when they do, all sorts of additional, symmetrical interfaces are created.

You entire story should be like a collection of bubbles, interfaced together. Each single bubble is another dramatic element or point. Over the course of your story you have blown them one by one until your story has fully taken shape. Then, on their one, one by one they begin to pop. Some of the solution is spattered away, some is absorbed by the remaining bubbles. Due to the extra solution, the remaining bubbles pop faster and faster until all the original bubbles have burst.

Let’s close by seeing how bubble science can help describe what your characters do you in your story. Suppose Sally calls on the phone complaining to Jane about a personal issue she is facing. Jane knows just what to say, but simply saying it will be rejected and not have the comforting effect she wants. In fact, Jane is smart enough to realize that she has to start out slow and easy, and over the course of the conversation blow a bubble of comfort big enough to enclose the problem.

So, with patience, Jane continues to talk to Sally, starting by enclosing a small part of the issue, then slowly expanding her support until it hold the whole thing inside. Now if Jane is too full of herself, has the habit of “beating a dead horse,” is emotionally needy herself and has to have confirmation from Sally that her problem is completely solved, or is just inexperienced, then she won’t know when to stop blowing and will continue pumping support into the conversation until the bubble gets so large it bursts.

But, if she knows what she’s doing, Jane will recognize when the bubble is big enough and then pull away the wand and stop blowing so that the sphere can form. She can do this by changing the subject, not off-topic, but to something tangential, to something touched upon in the conversation, but instead of talking about the part of that new topic that was connected to the personal problem, she now talks about other aspects of that topic that don’t involve Sally’s original issue.

Moving sideways in topic at the right time is like pulling the wand sideways from the bubble so that it can close.

Of course, Sally might be mired in her problem and stuck to the wand. But Anne may be in the room with Jane, hear that Sally is trying to come back to the original issue, and (being a good friend and student of psychology) realize another lateral move is needed. Anne would then raise her hand to get Jane’s attention (who would ask Sally to hold for a moment). Anne offers another off-topic comment based on what she has heard of the conversation. Jane passes the comment on to Sally on Anne’s behalf, and now Sally has been doubly distracted. At this point, either the bubble is free of the wand, or Sally simply won’t let go.

If the bubble is free, then it’s effect will remain within Sally long after the conversation and will work to resolve her angst. If it is not free, the air will just whoosh right back out of the wand and the bubble will deflate as if it never was, and Sally can go on moping about her problem.

Now, you might think this is all very complex, but it is this kind of bubble interaction that makes characters seem fluid rather than built of bricks. But do real people act like that? Sure they do. In fact, the very dramatic scenario I just described happened to me two days ago. That’s how I got the idea for this writing tip.

I was “Jane,” and with “Anne’s” perceptive interjection, I was able to assuage Sally’s angst, free the bubble, and Sally has been quite happy for the last 48 hours.

Real life psychology, character psychology, story psychology… the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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