Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Characters Tailor-made For the Plot

Let us begin with:
There are  
Three Essential Characters in Every Story --
      The one trying to keep things the way they are.
      Traditionally the Hero, the Protagonist with character traits designed specifically to work against the plot. 

      The ALLY 
      (Middle-man) – The close companion of one or the other.
      The Companion, the Lover, or Best Friend that adds complications and makes matters worse. Also, traditionally the viewpoint character! 

      The one causing all the trouble.
      The traditional Villain, the Antagonist that the Hero absolutely Cannot beat when the hero first enters the fray. 
      You can tell any story with ONLY these Three Characters; perhaps not with any real detail, but you could still do the entire basic plot-line.
      CHARACTER verses PLOT

      You never want characters that could handle everything with ease - that's BORING. It should be a struggle every step of the way, especially for the Hero & the Villain, but avoid tossing in too much angst. No reader can handle whiney characters.

      For the best results:ALL your characters should have traits designed to work AGAINST the plot - and against each other. One physical trait (a handicap) and one mental trait (a fear) should be working against each character at all times.

      • A Vampire's physical Handicap is normally Sunlight.
      • His Fear is normally Discovery.

      What about:  
      Predictability? Repetition? Standardization?
      Should we worry about the characters and plot being so - Structured? 
      Actually no. Hollywood uses this formula for characters in every single movie they make.

      Lets look at three very different movies:

      Miss Congeniality - Romantic Comedy
      A Hero with character traits that work AGAINST the plot.
      • Gracie Hart is a wisecracking, serious-minded and somewhat clumsy FBI agent with a serious soft spot for helping those in need. She's never worn dresses or silly girl stuff. The FBI wants her to not only enter, but Win a beauty pageant.
      A Companion to add complications and make matters worse.
      • A love interest that follows orders and never argues with his superiors.
      • A personal beauty trainer that will make her shine - in spite of herself.
      A Villain that the Hero absolutely Cannot beat when they first enter the fray.
      • The intimidating and influential owner of the pageant.

      The Matrix - Urban Fantasy
      A Hero with character traits that work AGAINST the plot.
      • Neo is a quiet computer hacker. He deals in facts, not fantasy. He's not an action kind of guy but everyone thinks he's supposed to save the world. He thinks they're wrong.
      A Companion to add complications and make matters worse.
      • Both Morpheus and Trinity believe in him - to the point that they keep risking their lives so he has to keep saving them.
      A Villain that the Hero absolutely Cannot beat when they first enter the fray.
      • The matrix is a sentient mega-verse. Mr. Smith is a replicating Virus. It takes 3 whole movies to deal with these monstrous threats.

      The Lost Boys – Vampire Classic
      A Hero with character traits that work AGAINST the plot.
      • Michael desperately wants to fit in with a motorcycle gang that rules the entire town because he likes the girl that hangs with them. Michael does not believe in Vampires.
      A Companion to add complications and make matters worse.
      • Michael has a nosy younger brother who is terrified of vampires.
      A Villain that the hero absolutely Cannot beat when they first enter the fray.
      • Michael absolutely positively cannot defeat an entire gang of Vampires.


      The Beginning Writer’s Pitfall
      MARY SUE / Gary Stue

      Your memories allow you to sympathize with your Characters and write convincingly about what they are experiencing – but the character should not be a glorified model of the author.

      A writer who identifies too closely with their character
      -- has committed the heinous crime of Mary Sue’ism.

      A Mary Sue (or Harry Stu, if you're a guy,) is a character that you refuse to let come to harm. They are so perfect in every way, that they know exactly how to deal with every situation – which makes the story fall flat on it’s face.

      How do you bring excitement back into your story?
      Take YOU Out of your character.

      By putting yourself into your characters, you end up having too much sympathy for them to ever allow them to suffer enough to make the plot really fly.

      For most writers the Mary Sue adventure is their first story. Think of all the times as a child you pretended to be a character in your favorite cartoon? That was a Mary Sue / Harry Stu adventure. This was your first exercise in figuring out the motivations, goal and drives of the cartoon characters you are Making Pretend with. "So, why does the vampire want to get me anyway?"

      Mary Sue is a good way to practice
      – but a bad way to get published.

      Detaching the Writer from their Characters.

      Goodness gracious, you have this great idea, but now you need people to play it out. If you can’t use yourself as a character--whom can you use?

      Answer: Everybody else.

      Pick an actor or fictional character from another story and use THEM as your character. The trick is to change their names and appearance enough to disguise them while leaving their base character - and dialogue - intact!

      Every single one of my characters (in all 30+ titles published) comes from somewhere else.
      Favorite characters I like to use:
      • Trinity from the Matrix
      • Keiffer Sutherland as David from the Lost Boys
      • Robert Carlyle from both Ravenous and Plunkett & McLean
      • Wolverine from the X-Men
      • Sandra Bullock no matter what movie she's in.
      • Johnny Depp as Icabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow
      When building characters always remember:
      The End Justifies the Means.

      Exercising your experience without becoming your characters.

      Story is nothing without Good Strong Characters. And that means PAIN. But how do you write about the feelings of someone you don’t know? You Empathize – but you don’t fall in.

      The Lost Boys:
      Michael invites the girl of his dreams to go for a ride on his motorcycle. She agrees, but this other guy, on a bigger fancier bike comes out of nowhere and asks what she's doing. She ends up climbing onto another guy's motorcycle. She doesn't look happy about it, but she does it anyway.

      The other guy turns to Michael and invites him to get on his bike and come along.

      Michael knows a set-up when he hears one. He rolls his eyes and smiles sourly. "I can't beat your bike."

      The guy grins. "You don't have to beat me. You just have to keep up."
      • What is Michael feeling through all this?

      The Matrix:
      Neo has just received a Fed Ex package with a cell phone in it. He's holding the phone in his hand when it starts to ring. He answers it.

      "Neo, this is Morpheus. You have to get out of there. Now."
      • What is Neo feeling through all this?

      Michael has had one hell of a day. First there was the shooting at the train station then the crap at his hospital job. He comes home to find a really beautiful and incredibly strong girl in his apartment and then he's running for his life from things galloping on the walls and ceiling. He escapes into an elevator and the door closes.

      The elevator door opens. A guy he's never seen before in his life smiles and says: "Hello Michael." Suddenly, bullets rip into the guy right in front of him. The guy falls forward onto Michel and bites him.

      Out of nowhere the strong girl comes and drags the weird guy off of him. Only the weird guy is laughing.
      • What is Michael feeling through all this?

      No one needs to know whom you modeled your characters from; if you have enough differences in description and background they never will. They haven't guessed any of my characters yet and I have a stock set! Most characters change as you write them anyway, becoming their own entity.

      The trick is to Start with something familiar and then, go with the flow, letting your characters progress and develop as they like, becoming their own individual selves.

      Once you have a good Idea for a Character, you need to make that character YOURS. Begin by asking Three Questions*: (*Shamelessly stolen from Paperback Writer's blog.) 

      Three Questions

        1. Who am I, and what do I do?
        2. What do I want?
        3. What's the absolute worst possible thing that could happen to me?
          You need to know all three of these answers with EVERY main character you craft for every story you write. (The Hero, the Ally, AND the Villain too!)

          The "worst possible thing" gives me EACH characters' Ordeal -- their darkest moment in the story.

          Combining all THREE "Worst Possible Things" creates the "Crash and Burn" moment in the story where everything falls apart just before the story's big Climax.

          Three Questions -- In Action:

          Leon - The Professional 
          1. I am a kid and my family has just been killed.
          2. I need to destroy my enemy, before he destroys me.
          3. Find me the perfect assassin – but make him too honorable to allow a kid to kill.
          1. I am a professional assassin. I don’t kill kids or women.
          2. I want to do my jobs and remain hidden from the police.
          3. Have me take pity on a kid and hide her from her family’s killers, but make her determined to exact revenge – against the police. Oh, and make her a loud-mouth too.
          The Cop
          1. I am a crooked (and happily insane,) cop.
          2. I need to protect my secrets.
          3. Make person that knows my secrets a child – with a professional assassin for her guardian.
          Crash and Burn
          Having learned how to handle a gun from Leon, Mathilda trails the cop that murdered her family all the way to the precinct to kill him -- but she’s never actually killed anyone before. Face to face with her enemy, she bails at the last second.

          The Cop recognizes her as the only witness to his murder of a family, and trails her.

          Disappointed in her failure to avenge her family, Mathilda doesn't pay attention to the fact that the cop had spotted her, and is following her all the way back -- to Leon.

          More of this in Detail?
          Go To: High Speed Plotting

          Sample of a Character Outline:
          • Who am I? "David and I am a Vampire."
          • What do I want? “To live.”
          • The absolute worst thing that could happen to me? “Having to choose between two people I care about.”
          • Motive: Loneliness & desperation to escape his master’s control.
          • Negative Trait: Extreme practicality. Embracing his death-dealing inhumanity. “I am a killer.”
          • Positive Trait: Loyalty and protectiveness toward his small brood.
          • Inner struggle: His unconscious hatred of his dark nature shows in his attacks on Michael’s assertions of humanity, in spite of his obviously vampiric nature. “You are a killer!”
          • Secret: Being a vampire is not as wonderful as he tells everyone else it is.
          • Fatal Flaw: (Their Greatest Strength/Greatest Weakness) He's a Vampire, an unstoppable all-powerful, immortal creature -- but only after sunset.
          • Greatest Fear: He will become the true monster his master is.
          • Appearance: Maybe 21, fair and small in stature. His absolute confidence makes him larger than life.

          Morgan Hawke


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