Fire Your Protagonist

Many authors start with a Protagonist and then build a cast of characters around him or her. But as a story develops, it may turn out that one of the other characters becomes more suited for that role. Sticking with the original Protagonist causes the story to become mis-centered, and it fails to take on a life of its own.

To see if this has happened to your story, try the following:

Take each of your characters, one by one, and try them out as the Protagonist. Give each a job interview. You ask them, “What would the story’s goal be if you were the Protagonist? What would you be working toward? What would you hope to achieve? How would you rally the other characters around your efforts?”

More than likely, you will find one character who seems just a little more driven – a character whose goal seems far more important to him or her than any of the others’ goals, and one that not only affects this character but all the other principal characters as well. That character should be your Protagonist, and it may not be the character you originally cast in that role. If it isn’t, fire your Protagonist and hire the new one!

Sure, you’ve become attached to the original character, but if he or she is no longer right for the job, well, business is business. You have to think about what is best for the entire company of players in your story without playing favorites.

Of course, with a new Protagonist, you’ll need to re-center your story and possibly to change the nature of the previously stated goal. But in so doing, your story will gain a renewed sense of purpose as this new character takes the helm.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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The Main Character Element of the Hero Stereotype

Of all four attributes of the hero, his role as the Main Character is perhaps the most intriguing. As described in an earlier writing tip, the Main Character represents the audience position in the story, and is the character with whom the audience most empathizes, the one whom the story seems to be about.

In the Story Mind, the Main Character represents our sense of self, the ego or identity of the story as a whole. So, always writing about heroic characters who are both Main Character and Protagonist is a lot like telling a story about football from only the Quarterback’s point of view and never from that of any of the other players.

In real life we are always the Main Character in our personal story, but we are not always the Prime Mover out of every one we know. Rather, we are usually supporting characters in the larger Goal, such as in a business, club, or church group, only occasionally being the driving force, leader, or initiator who others follow.

When we assign the attribute of Protagonist to one of the characters in our story but the role of Main Character to another, we open up a wealth of variations that better reflect the audience’s real life experiences. Such arrangements seem far less stereotypical and far more personal.

A Good example of this can be found in both the book and movie version of the classic story, To Kill A Mockingbird. This story is about Atticus, an open-minded lawyer in a small Southern town in the 1930s and his young daughter, Scout, who is trying to understand what is going on around her.

Atticus is the Protagonist as he tries to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl.

Scout is the Main Character because we see this story about prejudice through her eyes – a child’s eyes.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Creating Characters: The Villain

A villain is the dramatic antithesis of a hero, and therefore has the following four attributes:

  • He is the Antagonist
  • He is the Influence Character
  • He is second in prominence to the Central Character
  • He is a Bad Guy

By our definitions for this article: The Antagonist is the Principal Impediment in the plot – the chief obstacle to the achievement of the story’s overall goal.

The Influence Character is the most persuasive character – the one who argues the devil’s advocate position regarding the personal or moral issue the story seems to be about.

The Second Most Prominent Character is the one who stands out most strongly among the players, save for the hero.

The Bad Guy is the standard bearer of immorality – the character whose intent is to do the wrong thing.

Putting it all together then, a villain tries to prevent the goal from being achieved, represents the counterpoint to the audience position in the story, it the second most prominent character, and seeks to do the wrong thing. Now we can see that when we created a hero who was a bad guy and another who was an antagonist, we were actually borrowing attributes from the villain. In the same manner, the villain can borrow attributes from the hero. For example, we might fashion a character with the following four attributes:

  • Antagonist
  • Influence Character
  • Second Most Prominent
  • Good Guy

Such a character might be a friend of an anti-hero (who is a hero that is a Bad Guy), trying to prevent him from making a terrible mistake. Imagine that the anti-hero is trying to achieve a goal, represents the audience position, is most prominent, but has ill intent. The Good Guy variation on the villain would have good intent and would therefore try to thwart the anti-hero’s evil plan (antagonist), change his mind (impact character) and would be the second most prominent player next to the anti-hero.

Another variation on the typical villain might be:

  • Protagonist
  • Influence Character
  • Second Most Prominent
  • Bad Guy

In fact, it is this combination that is used most often in action/adventure stories. This character gets the ball rolling by instigating an evil scheme (protagonist/bad guy), tries to lure the “hero” to the evil side (influence character), but is second to the “hero” only in prominence.

As we can see, swapping attributes between the hero and villain opens up a world of opportunities for creating more interesting and less typical characters. But, these are not the only ways to swap attributes. For example, just because the hero is a Good Guy doesn’t mean the villain has to be a Bad Guy.

Suppose we have the following two characters:

Typical Hero:

  • Protagonist
  • Main Character
  • Central Character
  • Good Guy

Atypical Villain:

  • Antagonist
  • Influence Character
  • Second Most Prominent
  • Good Guy

Here we have a story about two people, one trying to accomplish something, the other trying to prevent it. One representing the audience position in the story, the other being the most influential with an opposing message argument. One is the most prominent; the other second in audience interest, but both believe they are doing the right thing.

These two characters are dramatically opposed. They are in conflict, both externally and internally. Yet each is driven to do what he believes is right. So who is right? Well, in fact, that is what a story built around these characters would be all about!

Indeed, the author’s message would center on convincing the audience that one of these characters was misguided and the other properly grounded. Such a story would provide an excellent opportunity to explore a moral issue that doesn’t easily fall into black and white clarity. It would stand a good chance to come across as deep, thoughtful, and provocative – and all by simply having two Good Guys duke it out.

At this point, it should be pretty clear that if you’ve only been writing with heroes and villains, you haven’t been doing anything wrong, but you have been limiting your creative opportunities. And yet, we have barely begun to explore the ways in which characters can swap attributes to create more variety and interest.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Creating Characters: “My Hero!”

We’ve all heard the phrase, “the hero’s journey.” Much has been written about the steps in this journey and the nature of the hero himself. What is usually assumed is that the “hero” is an elemental character who possesses certain essential attributes. In fact, there are four truly essential attributes of the stereotypical hero…

1. He is the Protagonist

2. He is the Main Character

3. He is the Central Character

4. He is a Good Guy

Traditional writing theory uses these terms more or less interchangeably. But we are using them as descriptors of completely different attributes that make up the stereotypical “Hero.”

It really isn’t important what we names we use. What is important is that there are four distinct qualities that are combined to create a hero. So, if you use any of these terms in a different way, that’s fine. For our purposes, we need to (at least temporarily) agree on a common vocabulary so we can efficiently discuss the attributes themselves.

So, throughout this article we shall assume that the following definitions hold true:

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

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

The Central Character is the most prominent character – the one who stands out most strongly among the players.

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

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

Typical heroes include Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, Harry Potter, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, and Erin Brockavich.

Many writers are taught that they need to have a hero. Problem is, heroes in stories should be just about as rare as they are in real life. They do occur; they just aren’t the only option.

Now for the fun part…

These four heroic attributes aren’t necessarily tied together. In fact, they can be swapped for other attributes, distributed among several characters and even put together in different ways!

For example, suppose we change one attribute and create a character with the following four qualities:

1. Protagonist

2. Main Character

3. Central Character

4. Bad Guy

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

Let’s try one more combination:

1. Antagonist

2. Main Character

3. Central Character

4. Good Guy

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

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

In a future tip we’ll take apart the stereotypical “Villain” and see what he is made of!

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Narrative Structure and the I Ching

A career psychotherapist recently wrote me about a method he is developing to employ theater in the therapy process, including an association with the I Ching.

Many years ago he had encountered our Dramatica Theory of Narrative and noted a similarity between the elements of Dramatica and the I Ching and wished to discuss the issue.

Here is my reply:

Many years ago, a couple of folks noticed a correlation between Dramatica and the I Ching, and they independently prepared two articles about their findings.

Here’s a link to the first article, which focuses on an I Ching perspective of the 8 Dramatica archetypes:

http://storymind.com/dramatica/noas_archetypes.htm

Here is a link to the second article, which breaks down the elements of the archetypes into specific trigrams:

http://storymind.com/dramatica/i_ching/chris_lofting/chris_lofting_1.htm

I, myself, did a small amount of passing research into the Pristine Y King, which is ostensibly an early unpoliticized version of the the I Ching, and found that our chart of the 64 elements matched up by nature almost perfectly with the 8 x 8 chart of the I Ching hexagrams.

My conclusion was that the I Ching and Dramatica are both looking at the same natural phenomenon and simply describing it in two different but similar ways.

I think casting the I Ching is simply chaos, like choosing one of the arrangement of dramatic elements as a storyform in Dramatica.  It is an arbitrary arrangement from the un-biased set, the same was as words are arbitrary arrangements of the same alphabet.

But where did this set come from in the first place, and what is the natural phenomenon it seeks to describe?

To that end, in the later years of my active career as a narrative theorist, I discovered a process of group psychology that I believe explains how and why that set of elements has come to be.

Here is a link to that article:

http://storymind.com/blog/narrative-psychology-to-know-oneself/

So, a model of narrative is tantamount to a model of the mind itself including both a documentation of the process of individual coping and problem solving and also of one’s interactions and roles as part of multiple groups and multiple narratives.  Internal and external narratives – that is the key and that is the driving force and nature of the elements of Dramatica and those of the I Ching.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Character Development Tricks!

As trite as it might seem, ask yourself “What would a story be without characters?” The answer can help you get a grip on exactly what characters really do in a story, and therefore how to build them effectively.

Although it is possible to write without the use of characters, it is not easy. Characters represent our drives, our essential human qualities. So a story without characters would be a story that did not describe or explore anything that might be considered a motivation. For most writers, such a story would not provide the opportunity to completely fulfill their own motivations for writing.

For example, we might consider the following poem:

Rain, rain, go away.

Come again another day.

Are there characters in this short verse? Is the rain a character?

To some readers the poem might be a simple invocation for the rain to leave. To other readers, the rain may seem to be stubborn, thoughtless, or inconsiderate. Of course we would need to read more to know for certain.

Suppose we wrote the sentence, “The rain danced on the sidewalk in celebration of being reunited with the earth.”

Now we are definitely assigning human qualities to the rain. Without doubt, the rain has become a character. Characters do not have to be people; they can also be places or things. In fact, anything that can be imbued with motivation can be a character.

So, a fantasy story might incorporate a talking book. An action story might employ a killer wolverine. And a horror story might conjure up the vengeful smoke from a log that was cut from a sentient tree and burned in a fireplace.

When we come to a story we either already have some ideas for a character or characters we would like to use, or we will likely soon find the need for some. But how can we come up with these characters, or how can we develop the rough characters we already have?

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.

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 realizing they need some sort of central character and then try to decide what kind or person he or she should be from scratch. But it is far easier to first build a cast of characters that really excite you (as we did above) and then ask yourself which one you would like to be the central character.

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?

And how would things change depending upon who we pick as the Villain or Antagonist? In fact, by choosing one of these characters as the Hero and another as Villain it will begin to suggest what might happen in the plot, just as picking the subject matter suggested our initial characters. Writer’s block never has to happen. Not when you are armed with this technique to spur your passions.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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“Things” as Characters

 A writer asks:

“My favorite creative writing book is ‘Setting’ by Jack Bickham. Use of setting as primary with characters, plot, theme, mood, etc derived from it and interacting with it seems of particular value in science fiction. Where would Deep Space 9 be without deep space and a space station! Setting is certainly the cauldron of my imagination.

So how can I best approach things this way with Dramatica? Do you have any examples where setting has been created as a character?

Can I have two antagonists, for example, one a person and the other a setting?”

My Reply:

In fact, the Antagonist in a story can be a person, place or thing – any entity that can fulfill the dramatic function of the Antagonist.

First, look at the movie “Jaws.” The Antagonist is the shark. The mayor is the Contagonist.

Next consider the 1950s movie with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner called, “The Mountain.” Tracy plays an aging mountain climber whose nemesis is the huge mountain that looms over his home and nearly killed him years ago. He hasn’t climbed since. The mountain claims new victims in a plane crash.

Tracy is the only one qualified to lead an expedition to rescue them. Wagner, his nephew, wants to rob the plane of its valuables and slyly convinces Tracy to lead the expedition on humanitarian grounds. The mountain is the Antagonist and Wagner is the Contagonist.

In the movie, “Aliens” (the second film in the series), the Aliens themselves are the “Group Antagonist” and the Contagonist is Burke, the company man.

In the movie, “The Old Man & the Sea.” Anthony Quinn is the Protagonist, the Great Fish is the Antagonist, and the Sea is the Contagonist.

In a short story called, “The Wind,” which appeared in an anthology released by Alfred Hitchcock, the wind itself it the Antagonist, having sentience and stalking down and eventually killing an explorer who accidentally stumbled upon the knowledge that the winds of the world are alive.

These examples illustrate that all of the dramatic functions (such as Protagonist, Antagonist, and Contagonist) need to be represented, but can easily be carried by a person, place, or thing. Still, there is only one Antagonist, and the other negative force is usually the Contagonist.

There are two exceptions to the “rule” that there should be only one Antagonist. One is when the Antagonist is a group, as in the “Aliens” example above, or with an angry mob or the Empire in Start Wars. The other is when the function of the Antagonist is “handed off” from one player to another when the first player dies or moves out of the plot.

A hand-off is different than a group insofar as the group is fulfilling the same dramatic function at the same time as if it were a single entity, but the hand-off characters fulfill the function in turn, each carrying forward the next part of the job like runners in a relay race.

Although the hand-off is often done with Obstacle characters (i.e. the ghosts in “A Christmas Carol or the argument about the power of the Lost Ark made to Indiana Jones in the first movie by both his boss at the university (Brody) and his companion/protector, Sulla), hand-offs are seldom done with Antagonists for reasons I’ll outline in a moment.

This is because Obstacle characters are each carrying the next part of linear argument regarding value standards and/or worldviews, but the Antagonist represents a consistent force. It is much harder for an audience to shift its feelings from one Antagonist to another, than to “listen” to one character pick up the moral argument from another.

In summary, it is best to have only one Antagonist, but that character can easily be a person, place or thing (including setting).

Melanie Anne Phillips

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