Main characters don’t have to change to grow. They can grow in their resolve.
It is a common misconception among authors that the main character in a story must change in order to grow. Certainly, that is one kind of story, as in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge alters his way of looking at the world and his role in it. But other stories are about characters overcoming pressures put upon them to change their view point and holding on to their beliefs, such as in Field of Dreams where main character Ray Kinsella builds a baseball stadium in his corn field believing the old time players (and eventually even his father) will come to play. In the end, he is not dissuaded from what appears to be an quixotic plan of a misguided mind, and his steadfastness results in the achievement of his dreams.
It is essential in any novel or movie for the readers/audience to understand whether or not the main character ultimately changes to adopt a new point of view or holds on to his beliefs. Only then can the story provide a message that a particular point of view is (in the author’s opinion) the right or wrong way of thinking to achieve success and personal fulfillment.
But not all stories have happy endings. Sometimes, the main character changes when he should have stuck with his guns in regard to his beliefs and becomes corrupted or diminished or fails to achieve his goals A good example of this is in the movie The Mist (based on a Stephen King novel) in which the main character finally decides to give up on trying to find safety from monsters and shoots his son and surrogate family to save them from a horrible death only to have rescuers show up a moment later.
Other times, holding onto a belief system leads to tragic endings as well, as in Moby Dick in which the main character, Captain Ahab (Ishmael is the narrator), holds onto his quest for revenge until it leads to the death of himself and the destruction of his ship and the death of all his crew, save Ismael who lived to tell the tale.
Though writing is an organic endeavor, when you make specific decisions such as whether your main character will change or remain steadfast and what outcome that will bring about, you strengthen your message and provide a clear purpose to your storytelling that results in a strong spine in your novel or screenplay.
Whether your main character changes or remains steadfast is one of the questions we ask about your story in our Dramatica story structure software. You can try it risk-free for 90 days and return it for a full refund if it isn’t a good fit for your writing style.
Here is a writing prompt picture I posted recently and the amazingly creative response by writer Bill Williams
Bill Williams –
This is actually pretty easy to explain.
The cats in the front are feline overlords. They were testing a new human control virus on the people in the so-called “party” (Humans got a fake invitation to a pseudo-party where the drinks were spiked with FeCV (Feline Control Virus)).
Anyway, the cats in the front of the photo are contorting themselves to see if they can get the humans to do the same thing; the humans, forced to attempt to comply, are trying their best even though it’s causing some of them great pain (clearly). The female in the back of the photo with her hand on her head has just come in and hasn’t had a drink yet. She is clearly astonished at what she sees. Of course the infected humans not dancing are controlled to pretend nothing unusual is happening …
*sips coffee, brushes intruding pet cat off the chair*
I saw this once before. I believe it was 1962, San Diego CA. There were no … HUMAN survivors. (No cats were found either, but we all know just how crafty the little bastards are.)
So far their experiments have not been successful – in fact I thought they had given up on it. The photo you have presented is clear evidence they haven’t stopped trying.
My coffee tastes funny … I wonder if – DAMN CAT! OK, that’s it, I’m going national with th-
I have been instructed to tell you it is a photoshopped collage of people and animals. Nothing usual in the slightest ever happened. Please disregard what were clearly insane ramblings.
Yes, Sammie, I’ll get your cat food right now, baby. On my way!!!
One of the writers I coach recently wrote to me about getting drowned in a sea of ideas for his story, unable to organize his material, make choices, or more forward.
Here is the note I wrote him in response that might have some value for y’all:
I noticed in our previous work together that you often came up with multiple potential plot lines for your story, all equally good, but mutually exclusive. In other words, you have a lot of creativity and keep coming up with a fountain of ideas but they are incompatible with each other if they were placed in a single story, and you have trouble choosing the ones that work together and rejecting the others.
You are not alone in this. Another creative writer I have as a client has the same problem as you. He created a whole universe – a wondrous fantasy world with the potential to be another Harry Potter success but this time in a fantasy land focusing on a young girl – so inventive, so imaginative. But, every time he came up with another great idea, it would shatter the storyline he was working on and break it into pieces like shattered glass. He couldn’t put the pieces back together again and so he came up with a whole new storyline in that world in which the fragmented pieces could be sprinkled.
The sad thing was, each of his storylines was wonderful, but he rejected each because of new ideas he couldn’t fit into them. I believe that is the same problem you have. Basically, you are so durn creative that you pour out wonderful new ideas all the time. But because they are inspirations, they don’t necessarily fit into what you’ve already written.
Now for most writers who aren’t as inventive as you and my other client, selecting a single plot and a single story is the way to go, simply because they don’t have bushel baskets of other ideas about their story’s world. But for you and my other client, the answer is something else. And it is actually very simple. And, in fact, I’ve already given the secret to both of you, but neither of you has used it, and for the life of me I haven’t figured out why yet.
I’m thinking that your answer is not to reject any of the wonderful ideas but to create a series of books, each of which opens a whole new aspect of what we learned in the previous book. In fact, each new book may completely change what we, the reader, thought was going on in the last book we read, because now a whole new perspective has been created that throws everything into a different context and creates a different meaning.
You just pick the story you want to tell first – make that choice – then pull together all the creative ideas that work around that storyline and put all the other ideas into a sack to be used in later books in the series. That way, no idea is ever rejected, it is just earmarked for down-the-line.
So, with my other creative client, we worked out a master story arc of five books, each of which revealed a different aspect of his story’s world until all his creative ideas were included. And that’s also what you and I did – working out multiple stories that would eventually be able to use all your different storylines and situations.
But, to my surprise, neither of you actually got past that point. I don’t know if the desire to “get it all in one book” is too strong to consider a series or if, perhaps, the idea of the potential tedium of a whole series which requires sticking with a particular story world for a long time is a motivation killer.
In the case of my other client, as soon as he saw he had so many ideas it would take several books to express them all, he dumped his whole story world of fantasy and started a whole new story set in the New York world of high-competition design.
This is the curse of the overly creative mind. It has nothing to do with talent or manner of expression or intelligence. It is just that in some folks the Muse is ramped up so high that the new ideas drown their ability to complete – they are constantly drawn to the next truly wonderful idea and cannot help but lose interest in the idea they ostensibly are supposed to be working on. Once it becomes work, the new ideas are far more interesting because, beneath it all, there is more to being a writer than being creative. It also requires an innate ability of self-discipline – to nail oneself to a chair and write, day in and day out and even when it is deadly boring, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and mind-numbing. That’s how books get written, whereas overly creative minds with equal ability in word play will get nowhere because there is too much to lure them from the drudgery.
That’s the best advice I can muster about why this happens and what to do about it.
One other answer I suggested to my other client was to write his work as a series of short stories. Don’t go for a book-length plot, even if you are aware of every step in that plot. Just write a series of short episodes, each informed by the overall plot line, but each as a stand-alone that doesn’t require the others to be read and enjoyed. In this manner you can muster enough self-discipline to complete something in short form before being dragged away, and eventually can bundle all those short tales in your story world into a single book or series of books.
Other than that, however, unless you can bring yourself to pick one storyline and put in the focus to stick with it until it is done, putting all new ideas into a sack for later, I imagine you’ll continue to be frustrated.
So you really have a choice to keep on going as you are or to create a series of books for all your ideas and new ideas but stick with the first one to get it done, or to go to the short story method and then bundle them into books when you reach a “critical mass.”
Someone once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.” The choice is really up to you.
Archetypes are the spine of any story, whether you use them in a monolithic manner or sculpt them into more complex variations. Understanding archetypes will help you to ensure your structure is human and complete.
In part 1 of this series we defined what archetypes are. In part 2, we discovered where archetypes come from and why they showed up in story structure. Here in part 3, we’ll define a specific cast of archetypal characters and outline how to employ them to strengthen your story.
How many archetypes are there? I have my own answer to that question but to see what else is out there I did a quick search and found scores of lists of archetypes, each with its own collection. One of them promised (and actually provided) more than three hundred different archetypes!
In looking through that group, I discovered something interesting: There was no consistency to what they considered to be an archetype. Some were defined by their profession, such as “Chef.” Now, I suppose if I really twisted my head around, I could see a “Chef” archetype as being a character who goes through life with recipes, trying to bring things together into a finished whatever, though it seems a bit of a stretch.
Another archetype was “Builder,” but how is that much different from a Chef? The Builder probably has plans (a recipe) that he uses in life to try and make things (like a meal, or a perfect marriage or, again, whatever).
And then there were archetypes put forth by Jung: the Mother, the Trickster, and the Hero, for example. The Mother is a relationship by birth, the Trickster is defined by what he (or she) tries to do to others, and the Hero is a Hero because of his stout heart, I imagine, or perhaps because of heroic acts. You can see these kinds of folks in real life, but what is the consistency that defines them or the underlying concept that binds them all together?
The farther I read through this extensive list, the more confusing it became trying to understand what made an archetype an archetype – be they con man, coward, or crone. And worse, it gave me no idea how a Coward might interact with a Chef, or a Trickster with a Crone.
Honestly, it’s kind of a mess out there in archetype-land. And that’s what my partner Chris and I discovered some thirty years ago when we first began work on what was to become our own theory of story structure, including our own list of archetypes.
If you’ve read in the first two articles in this series, you know that we came to believe that archetypes – true archetypes – represent the most fundamental human attributes that we all share such as Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, and Faith.
When we are trying to understand what’s happening in our lives and chart a course forward, we bring all of these attributes to bear on the problem so we can see the issues from all angles by using all the mental tools we have to make the best decisions.
That’s how we do it as individuals. However, when we gather together in groups such as a team or a company or even a family, and we agree to work toward a common cause or purpose, the group automatically self-organizes so that one person emerges as the voice of Reason for the group at large, and other becomes the resident Skeptic. Least ways, that’s our theory.
In other words, we each take on roles representing one of the fundamental approaches we take to solving problems for ourselves. And in this way, the group benefits from having a number of specialists on the job, rather than a collection of general practitioners, all trying to do the same thing. It is kind of a natural progression of social evolution when humans bond together.
So, in stories (which try to represent the human issues of real life), every character uses all these traits to solve their personal problems in the tale, but take on the role of representing just one of these traits when working with the group. And those roles ultimately became embedded in the conventions of story structure as archetypes.
Now our theory of story structure is a lot more detailed and complex than that, but you get the idea. And based on that idea, here is our list of archetypes associated with the human qualities they represent.
There are four primary or Driver archetypes and four secondary or Back Seat Driver archetypes that influence the primary ones. First I’ll list them by the human attributes they represent, and then I’ll list them again with their archetypal names as they appear in story structure.
Initiative / Reticence
Intellect / Passion
Conscience / Temptation
Confidence / Doubt
As you can see by the primary attributes listed, the driver archetypes directly try to grapple with the problem whereas the passenger archetypes think about consequences and put the problem in context. It is just the way the human mind works when it fashions narratives to get a grip on the situation.
Now here are those same attributes again with their archetypal names.
Initiative (Protagonist) / Reticence (Antagonist)
Intellect (Reason) / Passion (Emotion)
Conscience (Guardian) / Temptation (Contagonist)
Confidence (Sidekick) / Doubt (Skeptic)
Let’s take the archetypes one by one just to get a sense of how each human attribute shows up in a story.
First up, the Protagonist. The Protagonist is the character that keeps on plugging away at the goal, no matter what. That’s the human quality of Initiative – the motivation to affect change, get up and go, make something happen, shake things up, and so on.
Next, the Antagonist. The Antagonist is the character that wants to prevent the goal from being accomplished, no matter what. That’s the human quality of Reticence (reticence to change) – the motivation to keep things as they are, put them back the way they were, quash the fires of rebellion, and so on.
Side note: In James Bond films, it is the villain who takes the first strike and Bond who thwarts him, so from an archetypal standpoint, the villain is the Protagonist and Bond is the Antagonist, just by the human attributes they represent in structure. Just think about that for a moment. It is one reason why Bond seems like a different kind of hero. There’s a lot more about this kind of thing in our theory, but its a bit off-the-point for now, so lets look at the next pair of archetypes.
The Reason archetype is the character who tries to solve every issue by figuring it out. They apply logic to the matter, and if it doesn’t make sense, they are against it (rather ignoring the humanity of the situation).
The Emotion archetype is the character who wants everyone to follow their heart – be yourself, if it feels right do it (as we used to say in the 60’s). Of course, now I’m actually in my 60’s but that’s another story….
Now before we move on to the passengers, consider how these archetypes always travel in pairs. Protagonist / Antagonist and Reason / Emotion. Every archetype has a counter part, and the conflict between the characters in each pair mirrors the conflicts in our own minds as we duke it out between two different ways of deciding what to do so we can have confidence in the last one standing as the approach to take.
In other words, our initiative is weight or pitted against our reticence – should we do something or let sleeping dogs lie? Which is better? Well, that all depends on the situation, and that’s what stories are all about: The author is telling us that in this particular situation, it is better to take initiative, or that it is better to try and maintain the status quo. But the primary decision we have in the world is to act or not to act, and that’s why Protagonist and Antagonist have at each other as the problem-solving effort of the story progresses – to provide evidence for the author’s message about which is the better approach in this specific case that the story explores.
It is the same with Reason and Emotion. But it is also different in a big way. Initiative and Reticence are diametrically opposed. Intellect and Passion can be opposed, but don’t have to be. Sometimes they can actually agree. Sometimes what makes the most sense also feels the best. Sometimes what makes sense feels so-so. And sometimes it feels like a horrible thing to do. Both Reason and Emotion might also agree that something is rotten – it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t feel right either.
As you can see, with these two pairs of archetypes we’ve discovered two different kinds of character relationships. And when you build a story around each of these characters, you’ll see all of these pop up as it unfolds.
Now, let’s take a look at the passengers to get a better grip on those archetypes…
The Guardian looks out for consequences as in, “Where’s this all going to lead to?” or “Fine, but what price might we have to pay later.” These are the functions of the human quality of conscience.
When you think about it, if you strip away all the moral associations, Conscience is really about thinking about the ramifications and Temptation is going for the immediate benefit (we’ll get around the consequences later.. somehow….)
And so, Guardian and Contagonist are partly about the long term gain vs. the short term gain. You see folks who lean more to one or the other in real life, but we all have both of those two traits – even a sociopath weighs the immediate benefit vs. the eventual risk.
And finally we have the Sidekick and the Skeptic. In stories, think of the Sidekick as the faithful supporter and the Skeptic as the doubting opposer. These two archetypes are rather like cheerleaders – one representing our confidence in finding a solution and the other representing self-doubt.
Of course in stories, the overall plot is about the group, so these attributes show up like they do in real-life organizations: Confidence says, “Go team! I know we can do it!” where Doubt is more like Eeyore or the Cowardly Lion, “I think we’d better give up on this because we haven’t got a chance.”
Now I could go on and on about these archetypes and, in fact, I actually have! Here’s a link to a free online version of the book we wrote about our theory of story structure.
You might also be interested in the software we created based on the theory. You can try it risk-free for 90 days! Check it out…
Though this concludes our brief introduction to archetypes, in future articles, we’ll break the archetypes into smaller dramatic elements and show how you can rearrange those to create more complex and deeper characters that will fulfill all necessary structural roles.
In my previous article, A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 1, I defined what an archetype is, and what it is not. Here in Part 2, we’re going to expand on that understanding by revealing where archetypes come from and how they came to be.
Let us consider then the origin or archetypes…
Each of us has within us, regardless of age, gender, race, culture, or language, certain fundamental human attributes such as reason, passion, skepticism, belief, conscience, and temptation.
The qualities are not so much traits and processes our minds employ to try and understand our world and ourselves, to identify problems and seek solutions, and to chart a course forward to maximize the good in our lives and minimize the bad.
When we put a box around some aspect of our lives, such as our relationship to our spouse, our position at work, or our membership in a club or organization, we call it a narrative. That’s all narrative is, really, is to box in a part of our existence to understand it independently of the rest of our life experience.
Of course, these personal narratives are not really closed systems since what happens in one part of our lives certainly affects the others. But our lives as a whole are so complex that we need to parse them into smaller, more easily considered pieces And each of of these is a personal narrative.
And, as we are all aware, we don’t only create narratives about ourselves and the people in our lives, but we also build them around larger issues, such as whether or not we believe in Global Warming, why we believe that, and what (if anything) we think should be done about it. In short, every opinion we have is a narrative, large or small.
When we consider any of these personal narratives all of our human attributes come into play to try and choose the best path, e.g., reason, skepticism, and temptation.
But when we gather together in groups to explore a common issue or toward a common purpose, very quickly someone will emerge as the voice of reason for the group, another as the resident skeptic, and one other group member will represent the temptation to take the immediately expedient course (even if ill-advised in the long-term).
These roles that form within a group narrative are the basis of archetypes. It happens automatically as the group self-organizes. How this happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but should you care to dig deeper you may find the social dynamics behind it quite intriguing.
Now that we know how archetypes form, how did they get into story structure? Well, to answer that we really need to define story structure. Fortunately, the explanation isn’t all that complex.
To begin with, story structure isn’t artificial and it isn’t imposed on stories arbitrarily from the outside to cram dramatics into some sort of rigid form. On the contrary, story structure gradually emerged in stories as early storytellers sought to understand the human animal as individuals and also how they interacted together.
Imagine, then, that we all have these fundamental attributes we employ in our personal narratives and that the same attributes rise up as archetypes in our group narratives. These seminal storytellers would note that the problems we face every day occur when one of our personal narratives is in conflict with someone else’s and also that problems occur when our personal narrative is in conflict with our role in a group narrative.
Simply put – we conflict with others who have different agendas and we also feel pressure when our chosen course is in conflict with our part in the big machine.
Now, as storytellers began to note that the same human qualities (such as reason and skepticsm) kept cropping up in every story that felt complete, they began to include them in every story. So, a Reason archetype became a required character in every story, as did a Skeptic. The Protagonist and Antagonist showed up as well.
As more archetypes were identified, they embedded in the conventions of storytelling. Through trial and error, all the of these “primary colors” of the human heart and mind were noted, made their way into those conventions, and eventually solidified into what we know as story structure today.
It should be noted that story structure is flexible, rather like a Rubik’s cube. The building blocks are always the same but they can be arranged in a myriad of patterns, as long as they don’t violate the way people really interact. Just as a Rubik’s cube is always a cube, a story structure is always a narrative. That’s what gives it form.
Now the archetypes are just part of story structure. Plot elements such as goal, requirements, and consequences as well as sequential movements like acts, sequences, and beats, describe the different ways folks strive to move a narrative forward to the conclusion they seek. Thematic items, such as thematic issue, thematic conflict, and message look into our value standards and belief systems, pitting one against another to illustrate the best ways of dealing with different kinds of problems. And even genre has underlying human qualities represented in the structure which tend to provide perspective and context for the narrative, giving it richness and and overall organic feeling.
All of what leaves us where? Well, it leaves us with a general understanding of the origin of Archetypes and how they made their way into story structure.
And that is where we close in Part 2 of A Brief Introduction to Archetypes an anticipate Part 3 in which we will specifically list the archetypes, show how to employ them in your story, and then bust them apart into their component elements to illustrate how you can move beyond archetypes to create far more complex and human characters without violating the truth of structure.
Author’s Note: The concepts in this article are drawn from the Dramatica Theory of Narrative I co-created with my partner, Chris Huntley. All of this and much more made its way into our Dramatica Story Structure Software, which you can try risk-free for 90 days. Give it whirl!
Writers and narrative theorists often speak of Archetypes. When they do, Jung and Campbell and the Hero’s Journey quickly come to mind. And yet, if pressed, most writers would admit they don’t really have a solid grip on what an archetype is, where they come from, and how they can or should be used in a story.
So, here’s a little exploration into the nature and function of archetypes in narrative to give you something a little more definitive…
First of all, archetypes are structural characters. That means that a Protagonist is a Protagonist whether they are man, woman, creature, or humanized force of nature. And it doesn’t matter how old they are, what their goal is, or what personality traits they have.
If you strip away all those storytelling elements, Hamlet is the same as Homer Simpson as Protagonists.
So what is this dramatic function that defines a Protagonist and makes them all the same? By definition, a Protagonist is the character who will not stop trying to achieve the overall story goal until they succeed or die trying.
Okay, but that is very plot-oriented. What about stories that focus on a troubled character who has to grapple with all kinds of life issues and perhaps make a decision or take a leap of faith in order to resolve them?
Well, the character in story who dealing with an inner demon or has a point of view (like Scrooge) that really needs changing is called the Main Character. The Main Character in a story is the one you root for – it is the character you want to find peace and/or happiness. And all the emotional ups and downs along the way seem to revolve around them.
Often, a Main Character is the same person as the Protagonist. In this case, you have a Hero – the guy leading the effort to achieve the goal is also the guy who is grappling with an inner issue. And in the end, they will either succeed or not in the goal, and they will either resolve their personal issue or not.
The goal and the personal issue aren’t really tied together, so you can have four kinds of endings:
A Happy Ending in which the Hero succeeds and resolves his angst, as in Kingsman, Frozen, or Wizard of Oz.
A Tragic Endings in which the Hero fails to achieve the goal and does not resolve his angst as in Doctor Zhivago, Hamlet, or Brokeback Mountain.
A Personal Triumph in which the Hero fails to achieve the goal but manages to resolve his angst anyway as in Rocky, How to Train Your Dragon, or The Devil Wears Prada.
A Personal Tragedy in which the Hero succeeds in achieving the goal but does not resolve his angst as in Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs, or The Dark Knight.
Getting back to archetypes, we can see why a Hero isn’t a true archetype but more of a stereotype who is created by making the same person in a story both the Protagonist and the Main Character.
Of course, the Protagonist is not always the Main Character. Consider both the book and movie versions of To Kill A Mockingbird. In the story, it is Atticus, the righteous lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie) who is the Protagonist. He has the goal of trying to get an acquittal for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in a small southern town in the 1930s. He fails to do so, and after the conviction the man is killed trying to escape.
But Atticus is not the Main Character of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Main Character is Atticus’ young daughter Scout. We see the story through her eyes. And scout is the one with a personal issue to resolve: She believes that Boo Radley, the emotional challenged man who is kept in a basement down the street by his family, is a monster – a boogeyman who would kill children if he ever got hold of them.
Yet Scout has never seen Boo but has only bought into the rumors about him. In the course of the story, Boo secretly protects Scout and her brother from the wrath of the white girl’s father who seeks to harm them because of Atticus defending the black man.
In the end, Scout relalizes that it is Boo who has always looked after them from the shadows. She had him all wrong, and she now smiles and accepts him for the caring man he really is.
And so, the message of To Kill A Mockingbird is that we (even innocent children) can be prejudice whenever we prejudge someone based on hearsay and rumor, rather than by our own experience.
Imagine if Atticus were the Main Character instead. Then the reader/audience would come out of the story feeling all self-righteous by standing in Atticus’ shoes. Atticus never wavers in his belief in fair justice, so he has nothing to grapple with. But by making Scout the Main Character, the message strikes home to the reader/audience at an almost subconscious level – deep enough to possibly make us all reconsider our preconceptions about others.
As you can see, a Protagonist is an archetype defined simply by being the character who will never stop pursuing the story goal. And in this regard, Hamlet is no different than Homer Simpson.
The Main Character is not an archetype but a perspective – a character with whom the reader/audience can identify to provide a first person experience in regard to the story and an opportunity for the author to send a message about a particular outlook, such as with Scrooge.
At the end of part one of our introduction to archetypes we can sum up a few things:
An archetype is a structural character
An archetype is define by their dramatic function, not their personality
A Main Character provide the first person position in a story to the reader/audience
A Main Character grapples with an inner issue.
A Hero is a stereotype in which the person who is the Protagonist is also the Main Character.
As the final thought for part one, any of the archetypes might be made the Main Character so, for example, we might see the story through the eyes of the Antagonist, rather than the Protagonist, and it would be the Antagonist who is also the person struggling with a personal issue. In this example, we have created one of the forms of an Anti-Hero.
Are there other kinds of Anti-Heroes? Yes! Who are they, and who are the other archetypes, and where do archetypes come from, and how can an author best put them to work?
These and many other questions will we answered in A Brief Introduction to Archetypes ~ Part 2 -coming soon….
Author’s note: Most of these concepts come from the Dramatica theory of narrative structure I developed along with my writing partner, Chris Huntley. They became the basis for our Dramatica Story Structuring Software. Click the link to try it risk-free.
Here are a few of my best tricks for creating characters from scratch and for developing characters you’ve already created.
Coming up with characters is as simple as looking to our subject matter and asking ourselves who might be expected to be involved. But that only creates the expected characters – predictable and uninteresting. Making these characters intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. But first things first, let us look to our subject matter and see what characters suggest themselves. (If you like, try this with you own story as we go.)Example:
Suppose all we know about our story is that we want to write an adventure about some jungle ruins and a curse. What characters immediately suggest themselves?
Jungle Guide, Head Porter, Archaeologist, Bush Pilot, Treasure Hunter
What other characters might seem consistent with the subject?
Missionary, Native Shaman, Local Military Governor, Rebel Leader, Mercenary
How about other characters that would not seem overly out of place?
Night Club Singer, Tourist, Plantation Owner
And perhaps some less likely characters?
Performers in a Traveling Circus (Trapeze Artist, Juggler, Acrobat, Clown)
We could, of course, go on and on. The point is, we can come up with a whole population of characters just by picking the vocations of those we might expect or at least accept as not inconsistent with the subject matter. Now these characters might seem quite ordinary at first glance, but that is only because we know nothing about them. I promised you a trick to use that would make ordinary characters intriguing, and now is the time to try it.
Of course, we probably don’t need that many characters in our story, so for this example let’s pick only one character from each of the four groups above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.
First we’ll assign a gender to each. Let’s have two male and two female characters. Well pick the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary as male and the Night Club Singer and the Clown as female.
Now, picture these characters in your mind: a male Bush Pilot, a male Mercenary, a female Night Club Singer, and a female Clown. Since we all have our own life experiences and expectations, you should be able to visualize each character in your mind in at least some initial ways.
The Bush Pilot might be scruffy, the Mercenary bare-armed and muscular. The Night Club Singer well worn but done up glamorously, and the Clown a mousy thing.
Now that we have these typical images of these typical characters in our minds, let’s shake things up a bit to make them less ordinary. We’ll make the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary female and the Night Club Singer and Clown male.
What does this do to our mental images? How does it change how we feel about these characters? The Bush Pilot could still be scruffy, but a scruffy woman looks a lot different than a scruffy man. Or is she scruffy? Perhaps she is quite prim in contrast to the land in which she practices her profession. Since female bush pilots are more rare, we might begin to ask ourselves how she came to have this job. And, of course, this would start to develop her back-story.
How about the female Mercenary? Still muscular, or more the brainy type? What’s her back story? The Night Club Singer might be something of a lounge lizard type in a polyester leisure suit. And the male Clown could be sad like Emit Kelly, sleazy like Crusty the Clown, or evil like Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It.”
The key to this trick is that our own preconceptions add far more material to our mental images than the actual information we are given – so far only vocation and gender.
Due to this subconscious initiative, our characters are starting to get a little more intriguing, just by adding and mixing genders. What happens if we throw another variable into the mix, say, age? Let’s pick four ages arbitrarily: 35, 53, 82, and 7. Now let’s assign them to the characters.
We have a female Bush Pilot (35), a female Mercenary (53), a male Night Club Singer (82), and a male Clown (7). How does the addition of age change your mental images?
What if we mix it up again? Let’s make the Bush Pilot 7 years old, the Mercenary 82, the Night Club Singer 53, and the Clown 35. What do you picture now?
It would be hard for a writer not to find something interesting to say about a seven-year-old female Bush Pilot or an eighty-two year old female Mercenary.
What we’ve just discovered is that the best way to break out of your own mind and its cliché creations is to simply mix and match a few attributes. Suddenly your characters take on a life of their own and suggest all kinds of interesting back-stories, attitudes, and mannerisms.
Now consider that we have only been playing with three attributes. In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of attributes from which we might select. These might include educational level, race, disabilities, exceptional abilities, special skills, hobbies, religious affiliation, family ties, prejudices, unusual eating habits, sexual preference, and on and on. And each of these can be initially assigned in typical fashion, then mixed and matched. Using this simple technique, anyone can create truly intriguing and memorable characters.
So, imagine…. What would this story be like if we chose the seven-year-old female Bush Pilot as the Hero. How about the eighty-two year old female Mercenary? Can you picture the 53-year-old male Night Club Singer as Hero, or the thirty-five year old male Clown?
Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that we have become so wrapped up in these fascinating people that we have completely forgotten about structure! In fact, we don’t even know who is the Hero, Protagonist, or Main Character!
Many authors come to a story with a main character in mind and can use this technique to break out of developing a stereotypical one. Other authors are more interested in the events or setting of their stories and discover their characters (including the main character) in the process of working out the plot. In that case, using this technique provides them with a whole cast of intriguing characters from which to choose the Hero.
The bottom line is that whether you have some or all of your characters in mind from the get-go or start with a story concept and create your characters along the way, these character development tricks will help you come up with the people you need to populate your story and ensure they are both fresh and real.
Perhaps the most fundamental error made by authors, whether novice or experienced, is that all their characters, male and female, tend to reflect the gender of the author. This is hardly surprising, since recent research indicates that men and women use their brains in different ways. So how can an author overcome this gap to write characters of the opposite sex that are both accurate and believable to their own gender?
In this article, we’ll explore the nature of male and female minds and provide techniques for crafting characters that are true to their gender.
At first, it might seem that being male or female is an easily definable thing, and therefore easy to convey in one’s writing. But as we all know, the differences between the sexes have historically been a mysterious quality, easily felt, but in fact quite hard to define. This is because what makes a mind male or female is not just one thing, but also several.
First, let’s consider that gender has four principal components:
Anatomical sex describes the physicality of a character – male or female. Now, we all know that people actually fall in a range – more or less hairy, wider or narrower hips, deeper or higher voice, and so on. So although there is a fairly clear dividing line between male and female anatomically, secondary sexual characteristics actually create a range of physicality between the two. Intentionally choosing these attributes for your characters can make them far less stereotypical as men and women.
Sexual Preferences may be for the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or neither (or self). Although people usually define themselves as being straight, gay, bi, or celibate, this is also not a fixed quality. Statistics shows, for example, that 1/3 of all men have a homosexual encounter at least once in their lives.
Although it often stirs up controversy to say so, in truth most people have passing attractions to the same sex, be it a very pretty boy or a “butch” woman.
Consider the sexual preference of your characters not as a fixed choice of one thing or another, but as a fluid quality that may shift over time or in a particular exceptional context.
Gender Identity describes where one falls on the scale between masculine and feminine. This, of course, is also context dependent. For example, when one is in the woods, at home with one’s family, or being chewed out by the boss.
Gender Identity is not just how one feels or things of oneself, but also how one act’s, how one uses one’s voice, and how one wishes to be treated. Often, a male character may have gentle feelings but cover them up by overly masculine mannerisms. Or, a female character may be “all-business” in the workplace out of necessity, but wishes someone would treat her with softness and kindness.
Actually, Gender Identity is made up of how one acts or wishes to act, and how one is treated or wishes to be treated. How many times have we seen a character who is forced by others to play a role that is in conflict with his or her internal gender self-image? Gender Identity is where one can explore the greatest nuance in creating non-stereotypical characters.
Finally, Mental Sex describes where one falls on the scale from practical, binary, linear, logistic, goal-oriented thinking to passionate, flexible, emotional, process-oriented thinking. In fact, every human being engages in ALL of these approaches to life, just at different times and in different ways.
Now, in creating characters, consider that each of the four categories we just explored is not a simple choice between one thing or another, but a sliding scale (like Anatomical Sex) or a conglomerate of individual traits (like Gender Identity). Then, visualize that wherever a character falls in any one of those four categories places absolutely no limits on where he or she may fall in the other categories.
For example, you might have a character extremely toward male anatomical sex, bi-sexual (but leaning toward a straight relationship at the moment), whose gender identity is rough and tumble (but yearns to be accepted for his secret sensitivity toward impressionistic paintings) who is practical all the time (except when it comes to sports cars).
Any combination goes. But when it comes to Mental Sex itself, there are four sub-categories within that area alone which tend to define the different personality types we encounter:Memory relies on our training to organize our considerations in a give situation toward components or processes. And every character always has a Conscious choice to focus on the components or processes at any given moment. In other words, in a given situation, at each level of Mental Sex does a character center on the way things are or the way things are going? At each level is the character more interested in getting his or her ducks in a row or in a pond?
In brief, each of these “levels” or “attributes” of the mind can lean toward seeing the world in definable or experiential terms. Pre-conscious is a tendency to perceive the world in components or as processes that is determined before birth. It is the foundation of leaning toward the tradition “male” or “female” personality traits. Subconscious determines the tendencies we have to be attracted or repelled from component or process rewards.
Finally, beyond all of these considerations is the cultural indoctrination we all receive that leads us to respond within social expectations appropriately to the role associated with our anatomical sex. These roles are fairly rigid and include what is proper to wear, who speaks first, who opens the door or order the wine, who has to pretend to be inept where and skilled where else (regardless of real ability or lack there of in that area), the form of grammar one uses in constructing sentences, the words one is expected to use (“I’ll take a hamburger,” vs. “I’d like a salad”), and the demeanor allowable in social interaction with the same and the opposite sex, among many other qualities.
In the end, writing characters of the opposite sex requires a commitment to understand the difference between those qualities, which are inherent and those, which are learned, and to accept that we are all made of the same clay, and merely sculpt it in different ways.
This article was originally written as part of an early draft of our book on the Dramatica theory of narrative which but was never included. It seeks to describe how characters come to misunderstand each other, and how this can lead to conflict.
I’m reprinting it here due to the really useful concepts it brings to light, but bear in mind that many of the terms have evolved since then and many of the notions have been significantly refined over the years.
Here’s the gist, and then the article:
All of our understandings of each other are based on the narratives we create to get a grip on what someone’s intent is, and what their future behavior is likely to be. Basically, we want to know what they mean by what they say, and what they are likely to do.
But trying to grasp someone else’s meaning is an interpretive art. And in addition, we all have our own blinders on – our own expectations based on a history of interactions, both with the specific individual with whom we are communicating and with other people, both similar and no so much, gathered over the course of our lives.
In the article that follows, I use the word “justification” to describe how those past experiences add up to expectations, pre-judgments and even blind spots that keep us from seeing what’s really going on or even warp it to convince us things are quite different – even opposite – of what someone really intended or intended to do.
Here is the original text:
What is Justification? Justification is a state of mind wherein the Subjective view differs from the Objective view. Okay, fine. But how about in plain English!!!! Very well, when someone sees things differently than they are, they are Justifying. This can happen either because the mind draws a wrong conclusion or assumes, or because things actually change in a way that is no longer consistent with a held view.
All of this comes down to cause and effect. For example, suppose you have a family with a husband, wife and young son. Here is a sample backstory of how the little boy might develop a justification that could plague him in later life….
The husband works at a produce stand. Every Friday he gets paid. Also every Friday a new shipment of fresh beets comes in. So, every Friday night, he comes home with the beets and the paycheck. The paycheck is never quite enough to cover the bills and this is eating the wife alive. Still, she knows her husband works hard, so she tries to keep her feelings to herself and devotes her attention to cooking the beets.
Nevertheless, she cannot hold out for long, and every Friday evening at some point while they eat, she and her husband get in an argument. Of course, like most people who are trying to hold back the REAL cause of her feelings, she picks on other issues, so the arguments are all different
This short description lays out a series of cause and effect relationships that establish a justification. With this potential we have wound up the spring of our dramatic mechanism. And now we are ready to begin our story to see how that tension unwinds.
The Story Begins: The young boy, now a grown adult with a wife and child of his own, sits down to dinner with his family. He begins to get belligerent and antagonistic. His wife does not know what she has done wrong. In fact, later, he himself cannot say why he was so upset. WE know it is because his wife served beets.
It is easy to see that from the young boy’s knowledge of the situation when he was a child, the only visible common element between his parent’s arguments and his environment was the serving of beets. They never argued about the money directly, and that would probably have been beyond his ken anyway.
Obviously, it is not stupidity that leads to misconceptions, but lack of information. The problem is, we have no way of knowing if we have enough information or not, for we cannot determine how much we do not know. It is a human trait, and one of the Subjective Characters as well, to see repetitive proximities between two items or between an item and a process and assume a causal relationship.
But why is this so important to story? Because that is why stories exist in the first place! Stories exist to show us a greater Objective truth that is beyond our limited Subjective view. They exist to show us that if we feel something is a certain way, even based on extensive experience, it is possible that it really is not that way at all.
For the Pivotal Character, it will be shown that the way she believed things to be really IS the way they are in spite of evidence to the contrary. The message here is that our understanding is sometimes not limited by past misconceptions, but by lack of information in the present. “Keeping the faith” describes the feeling very well. Even in the face of major contradiction, holding on to one’s views and dismissing the apparent reality as an illusion or falsehood.
For the Primary Character, it will be shown that things are really different than believed and the only solution is to alter one’s beliefs. This message is that we must update our understanding in the light of new evidence or information. “Changing one’s faith” is the issue here.
In fact, that is what stories are all about: Faith. Not just having it, but also learning if it is valid or not. That is why either Character, Pivotal or Primary, must make a Leap of faith in order to succeed. At the climax of a story, the need to make a decision between remaining steadfast in one’s faith or altering it is presented to both Pivotal and Primary Characters. EACH must make the choice. And each will succeed or fail.
The reason it is a Leap of Faith is because we are always stuck with our limited Subjective view. We cannot know for sure if the fact that evidence is mounting that change would be a better course represents the pangs of Conscience or the tugging of Temptation. We must simply decide based on our own internal beliefs.
If we decide with the best available evidence and trust our feelings we will succeed, right? Not necessarily. Success or failure is just the author’s way of saying she agrees or disagrees with the choice made. Just like real life stories we hear every day of good an noble people undeservedly dying or losing it all, a Character can make the good and noble choice and fail. This is the nature of a true Dilemma: that no matter what you do, you lose. Of course, most of us read stories not to show us that there is no fairness in the impartial Universe (which we see all too much of in real life) but to convince ourselves that if we are true to the quest and hold the “proper” faith, we will be rewarded. It really all depends on what you want to do to your audience.
A story in which the Main Character is Pivotal will have dynamics that lead the audience to expect that remaining Steadfast will solve the problem and bring success. Conversely, a story in which the Main Character is Primary will have differently dynamics that lead the audience to expect that Changing will solve the problem and bring success. However, in order to make a statement about real life outside of the story, the Author may violate this expectation for propaganda or shock purposes.
For example, if, in Star Wars, Luke had made the same choice and turned off his targeting computer (trusting in the force), dropped his bombs, and missed the target, Darth blows him up and the Death Star obliterates the rebels… how would we feel? Sure you could write it that way, but would you want to? Perhaps! Suppose you made Star Wars as a government sponsored entertainment in a fascist regime. That might very WELL be the way you would want to end it!
The point being, that to create a feeling of “completion” in an audience, if the Main Character is Pivotal, she MUST succeed by remaining Steadfast, and a Primary Main Character MUST change.
Now, let’s take this sprawling embryonic understanding of Justification and apply it specifically to story structure.
The Dramatica Model is built on the process of noting that an inequity exists, then comparing all possible elements of Mind to Universe until the actual nature of the inequity is located, then making a Leap of Faith to change approach or remain steadfast.
At the most basic level, we have Mind and we have Universe, as indicated in the introduction to this book. An inequity is not caused solely by one or the other but by the difference between the two. So, an inequity is neither in Mind nor Universe, but between them.
However, based on their past experiences (assumed causal relationships in backstory) a given Subjective Character will choose either Mind or Universe as the place to attempt to resolve the inequity. In other words, she decides that she likes one area the way it is, and would rather change the other. As soon as this decision is made, the inequity becomes a problem because it is seen in one world or the other. i.e.: “There is a problem with my situation I have to work out.” or “I have to work out a personal problem”.
Doesn’t a Character simply see that the problem is really just an inequity between Mind and Universe? Sure, but what good does that do them? It is simply not efficient to try to change both at the same time and meet halfway. Harking back to our introductory example of Jane who wanted a $300 jacket: Suppose Jane decided to try and change her mind about wanting the jacket even while going out and getting a job to earn the money to buy it. Obviously, this would be a poor plan, almost as if she were working against herself, and in effect she would be. This is because it is a binary situation: either she has a jacket or she does not, and, either she wants a jacket or she does not. If she worked both ends at the same time, she might put in all kinds of effort and end up having the jacket not wanting it. THAT would hardly do! No, to be efficient, a Character will consciously or responsively pick one area or the other in which to attempt to solve the problem, using the other area as the measuring stick of progress.
So, if a Main Character picks the Universe in which to attempt a solution, she is a “Do-er” and it is an Action oriented story. If a Main Character picks the Mind in which to attempt a solution, she is a “Be-er” and it is a Decision oriented story. Each story has both Action and Decision, for they are how we compare Mind against Universe in looking for the inequity. But an Action story has a focus on exploring the physical side and measuring progress by the mental, where as a Decision story focuses on the mental side and measures progress by the physical.
Whether a story is Action or Decision has nothing to do with the Main Character being Pivotal or primary. As we have seen, James Bond has been both. And in the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, Indy must change from his disbelief of the power of the ark and its supernatural aspects in order to succeed by avoiding the fate that befalls the Nazis – “Close your eyes, Marian; don’t look at it!”
Action or Decision simply describes the nature of the problem solving process, not whether a character should remained steadfast or change. And regardless of which focus the story has, a Pivotal Character story has dynamics indicating that remaining steadfast is the proper course. That mean that in an Action story, a Pivotal Character will have chosen to solve the problem in the Universe and must maintain that approach in the face of all obstacles in order to succeed. In a Decision story, a Pivotal Character will have chosen to solve the problem in the Mind, and must maintain that approach to succeed. On the other hand, a Primary Character, regardless of which world she selects to solve the problem, will discover she chose the wrong one, and must change to the other to find the solution.
A simple way of looking at this is to see that a Pivotal Character must work at finding the solution, and if diligent will find it where she is looking. She simply has to work at it. In Dramatica, when a Pivotal Character is the Main Character, we call it a Work Story (which can be either Action or Decision)
A Primary Character works just as hard as the Pivotal to find the solution, but in the end discovers that the problem simply cannot be solved in the world she chose. She must now change and give up her steadfast refusal to change her “fixed” world in order to overcome the log jam and solve the problem. Dramatica calls this a Dilemma story, since it is literally impossible to solve the problem in the manner originally decided upon.
From the Subjective view, both Pivotal and Primary work at solving the problem. Also, each is confronted with evidence suggesting that they must change. This evidence is manifested in increasingly growing obstacles they both must overcome. So what makes the audience want one character to remain steadfast and the other to change?
The Objective view.
Remember, we have two views of the Story Mind. The Subjective is the limited view in which the audience, in empathy with the Main Character, simply does not have enough information to decide whether or not to change. But then, unlike the Main Character, the audience is privy to the Objective view which clearly shows (by the climax) which would be the proper choice. To create a sense of equity in the audience, if the Main Character’s Subjective Choice is in line with the Objective View, they must succeed. But if a propaganda or shock value is intended, an author may choose to have either the proper choice fail or the improper choice succeed.
This then provides a short explanation of the driving force behind the unfolding of a story, and the function of the Subjective Characters. Taken with the earlier chapters on the Objective Characters, we now have a solid basic understanding of the essential structures and dynamics that create and govern Characters.
A novel can be extremely free form. Some are simply narratives about a fictional experience. Others are a collection of several stories that may or may not be intertwined.
Jerzy N. Kosinski (the author of “Being There”) wrote another novel called “Steps.” It contains a series of story fragments. Sometimes you get the middle of a short story, but no middle or end. Sometimes, just the end, and sometimes just the middle.
Each fragment is wholly involving, and leaves you wanting to know the rest of the tale, but they are not to be found. In fact, there is not (that I could find) any connection among the stories, nor any reason they are in that particular order. And yet, they are so passionately told that it was one of the best reads I ever enjoyed.
The point is, don’t feel confined to tell a single story, straight through, beginning to end.
Rather than think of writing a novel, think about writing a book. Consider that a book can be exclusively poetry. Or, as Anne Rice often does, you can use poetry to introduce chapters or sections, or enhance a moment in a story.
You can take time to pontificate on your favorite subject, if you like. Unlike screenplays which must continue to move, you can stop the story and diverge into any are you like, as long as you can hold your reader’s interest.
For example, in the Stephen King novel, “The Tommy Knockers,” he meanders around a party, and allows a character to go on and on… and on… about the perils of nuclear power. Nuclear power has nothing to do with the story, and the conversation does not affect nor advance anything. King just wanted to say that, and did so in an interesting diatribe.
So feel free to break any form you have ever heard must be followed. The most free of all written media is the novel, and you can literally – do whatever you want.
2. 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.
3. Keep A Daily Log Of Tidbits
One of the biggest differences between a pedestrian novel and a riveting one are the clever little quips, concepts, snippets of dialog, and fresh metaphors.
But coming up with this material on the fly is a difficult chore, and sometimes next to impossible. Fortunately, you can overcome this problem simply by keeping a daily log of interesting tidbits. Each and every day, many intriguing moments cross our paths. Some are notions we come up with on our own; others we simply observe. Since a novel takes a considerable amount of time to write, you are bound to encounter a whole grab bag of tidbits by the time you finish your first draft.
Then, for the second draft, you refer to all that material and drop it in wherever you can to liven up the narrative. You may find that it makes some characters more charismatic, or gives others, who have remained largely silent, something to say. You may discover an opportunity for a sub-plot, a thematic discourse, or the opportunity to get on your soapbox.
What I do is to keep the log at the very bottom of the document for my current novel, itself. That way, since the novel is almost always open on my computer, anything that comes along get appended to the end before it fades from memory.
Also, this allows me to work some of the material into the first draft of the novel while I’m writing it. For example, here are a few tidbits at the bottom of the novel I’m developing right now:
A line of dialog:
“Are you confused yet? No? Let me continue….”
A silly comment:
“None of the victims was seriously hurt.” Yeah – they were all hurt in a very funny way.
A character name:
A new phrase:
Theorem ~ Absolute Corruption Empowers Absolutely
Corollary ~ There are no good people in positions of power
I haven’t worked these into the story yet, but I will. And it will be richer for it.
4. Don’t Hold Back
Unlike screenplays, there are no budget constraints in a book. You can write, “The entire solar system exploded, planet at a time,” as easily as you can write, “a leaf fell from the tree.”
Let you imagination run wild. You can say anything, do anything, break any law, any taboo, any rule of physics. Your audience will follow you anywhere as long as you keep their interest.
So, follow your Muse wherever it leads. No idea is too big or too small. Write about the things you are most passionate about, and it will come through your words, between the lines, and right into the hearts and souls of your readers.
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