Tag Archives: character design

Story Genius: Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder

As many of you know, I’m a rabid old-movie buff. This week was exciting because I showed my students a 1957 courtroom thriller called WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Based on a play by Agatha Christie, the idea was subsequently translated to the screen by genius writer/director/producer Billy Wilder. Christie supplied the plot and the dynamite twists; Wilder fleshed out her characters. (I think I read somewhere that Christie was paid about $450,000 for the film rights. Not bad in 1950s-era money! Even today’s money would do.)

Over the years, whenever I have coached students wanting to write a courtroom drama, nine times out of ten they make the same mistake:  they establish the defendant as their protagonist. In theory, this should work. After all, the protagonist is supposed to have the most at stake and be at the heart of the story.

Well, the defendant has the most at stake, but otherwise is stuck passively in a jail cell, unable to drive the story action. Therefore, the defendant can not be an effective protagonist.

In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the protagonist is Sir Wilfrid, an experienced and wily defense barrister considered to be the best in the Old Bailey, but he is recovering from a serious heart attack and his health remains uncertain. His doctors have forbidden him to conduct any more defense trials, yet he cannot resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole who has been accused of murder on circumstantial evidence.

Wilder, directing the film, is smart enough to take his time. We don’t meet the accused, Vole, right away. Instead, Sir Wilfrid is introduced first and shown pitted against his nurse who is determined to make him follow doctor’s orders to take it easy, get plenty of rest, and avoid cigars and brandy. Their conflict starts in the first movie frame and continues to arc over the entire duration of the movie. And that arc about whether Sir Wilfrid will achieve his goal of resuming his trial career is the spine of the story. The primary subplot centers on the trial itself and attempts to gather sufficient evidence to exonerate Sir Wilfrid’s client. And although the trial is gripping–not to mention twisty, thanks to the devious imagination of Dame Agatha–it is the characters that make this film stand out.

Therefore, it is these characters that I use as classroom examples of design, introduction, and revelation of true nature. They have vivid and distinctive entry actions, usually in plot conflict or in dramatic contradiction to audience expectation. They wave numerous distinctive tags–e.g. the nurse Miss Plimsoll in her uniform, carrying her small medical bag, wielding her syringe for Sir Wilfrid’s calcium injections; and Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, his wig, his thermos of coco, his pills, and his cigars. Each of them with possibly the exception of the murder victim is designed with complexity. True nature is revealed and concealed in various ways. At first we think of Sir Wilfrid as a sick old man long past his prime, even a bit of a mischievous buffoon who is rude and unnecessarily gruff, but then we learn how intelligent, how clever, how determined to save his client, how wily, and how caring he is. The characters’ clashing goals and motivations bring all of them to life.

Although several characters are introduced through characteristic entry action, some are brought in differently. One such alternative method is through discussion, whereby two characters are talking about a third character about to appear in the story for the first time. The introduction of the defendant’s wife is done through character discussion. Sir Wilfrid, before meeting her, makes an assumption about her that proves to be entirely erroneous the moment she first appears. His mistake emphasizes our dominant impression of her vividly and unforgettably.

The mystery clues are planted through dialogue and character behavior. In watching the film for the first time, you sense something is off and yet you find yourself doubting your judgment. Is it the actor’s performance? Is the character lying? What’s wrong? As Sir Wilfrid says in frustration, “It’s too symmetrical. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it!”

I love how the plot is put together. There is comedy and broad exaggeration. There is audience manipulation. There is the buildup of anticipation and the creation of suspense. The two ticking clocks–Sir Wilfrid’s worsening health and the trial’s verdict–keep your attention hooked to the finale. Even the flashback–always a risk to pacing–works beautifully in planting more clues and pointing to motivations.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. I don’t care, because every time I am struck anew with how well-written it is, how well-plotted and paced it is, how well-acted it is, and how well-directed it is without any reliance on fancy-schmancy special effects. The sets are limited and very tight–reflecting its origins as a play. I’ve read a modern-day review that pokes a hole in the storyline, criticizing it for allowing Vole to exclaim and interrupt during the trial, but I don’t know enough about British courtroom procedures in the 1950s to understand if this is a valid criticism or not. All I perceive as a writer is that Vole’s comments serve a specific plot purpose, and from that restricted perspective they work.

Beyond my enjoyment of the movie’s skillfully employed techniques, I love the reactions of my students. At first they’re delighted to watch a movie in class instead of sitting through a dull lecture. But then they realize it’s an old movie. Even worse, it’s in black and white. They’ve never heard of any of the actors–Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester–and the cars are weird, the clothes are weird, the setting is a London from an era they don’t recognize so it’s also weird. I watch them stiffen in their seats, rolling their eyes and sighing a little. The movie starts with the comedic bit they find cheesy. I can feel them wishing they could ditch class and check their text messages. I know they’re wondering how long this torture will take.

(This time, one brash young man actually asked me if we were going to watch the whole movie. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “You have to stay with it to the end.”)

And then, as always, there comes that moment when I sense a change in the room. The silent intensity in the class tells me they’re absorbed. I know the movie has grabbed my young students by their throats. They are captured by the story question. They want to know what will happen and how it will turn out. And that capture has nothing to do with technicolor, a soaring soundtrack, special effects, wild stunts, exploding buildings, or CGI. It has everything to do with plot and characters–with story.

And that is what writing should be about.

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Fire and Passion

You come across a book by two authors you’ve never read before. You read the first one, and it’s like finding treasure. The characters spring to life on every page. The action is exciting. The suspense is hair-raising. You can’t bear the anticipation of reaching the story climax and yet you can’t stop turning pages. And when you reach the ending, you’re both exhilarated and sad that it’s over. You click online to see if this book is part of a series because you want more.

Then you read the second book you purchased. Your reaction is meh. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. You find yourself trying to like the characters, but they’re merely okay. You can’t love them. You’re struggling to care about whether they’ll succeed. The story moves competently through its paces, and when you finish you’re mostly relieved that it’s over. Definitely you won’t seek any more of this author’s work.

Besides allowing for a reader’s personal taste, what’s the difference? Two authors with equal numbers of publications. Two authors with equal amounts of professional experience. Why is one writing copy that’s alive and one writing copy that’s flat?

Are their ideas that unequal?

Probably not. Very likely the difference lies not in the story premise but in their approach to their material. Writer One put her heart into her book. She wrote it because she had a passion for the story and her characters. She lived and breathed the emotions. Writer Two wrote because she had a contractual deadline to meet. She outlined a story in a competent way. She designed characters because they either fit a publisher’s guidelines or because she’s found certain characteristics sell better than others. She put her her characters into challenging situations, and then chose appropriate words to convey their emotional reactions.

One writer wrote with her heart. The other writer wrote with her mind.

Now in certain genres, such as hard science fiction or puzzle mysteries, the mind is what’s most needed. These books are focused on the story problem to be solved. They are not relying on intense character internalization and growth.

But for most genres, the heart is vital. Emotion in characters brings them alive. The writer must care about the character and the issue first. If the writer cares, then the character involved will care. If the character cares, then the reader will care. Investing emotion into a situation means stronger motivation, stronger attempts, stronger conflict, stronger confrontations, stronger reactions, and stronger determination to prevail from the story people.

Sure, writers have to think about their plots and work through the development of outlines, but once that foundation is laid, writers must then write the story from inside the protagonist’s viewpoint. That is what’s made to appear to drive the story forward.

But if a writer attempts to write fiction from the outside, the character will always seem flat and the authorial hand will sometimes be too evident in moving a puppet character here and there.

 

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Finding Your Story

Writing fiction involves a variety of elements:  knowledge of the craft, story sense, intuition, preparation, flexibility, focus, and trust. Some writers can only manage to juggle a few of them. For example, a writer may cling to writing technique so rigidly that he or she is unwilling to receive constructive criticism, reluctant to revise a single word, and resistant to deviating from the initial story outline. Other writers may rely so completely on inspiration or the muse that they can’t stay focused from start to finish, and the very suggestion of planning or outlining makes them break out in a panicky rash.

Those are the extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum, of course, but they illustrate accurately the issues that some writers suffer in trying to get stories on the page.

Let’s look at these elements more closely:

Knowledge of the craft involves knowing how to write sentences well, how to convey meaning clearly and coherently, how to spell and punctuate, how to open a story, how to build conflict, how to design characters, how to deal with viewpoint, description, rising action, pacing, and how to write an emotionally cathartic climax that resolves the story in a way satisfying to readers. Craft comes easily and instinctively to some. For others, it can be an arduous, challenging ordeal of practice and study. Either way, you must know your craft if you are to become an effective writer. Not only in terms of your readers, but also in view of how the process of putting a story together needs to be something you’re so well trained in that you no longer have to consciously think your way through scene construction, for example, but can instead put your full attention on the content of that scene and what your players need to say and do in it.

In short, knowledge of the craft frees your mind to concentrate on the actual story.

Story Sense stems from your talent and how exposed you’ve been to stories. Have you read copiously for a long time? Doing so builds and enhances your story sense. Are you a film buff, one that watches movies not to examine stage direction or camera angles but the story and emotions? Then you’re adding to your story sense.

Avid readers possess excellent story sense, and that’s why they become irate if a plot suddenly veers off course or a character reacts in a way inconsistent with her design. Think of the little boy in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, protesting when he thought his grandfather was messing up the story. That’s story sense at work.

As a writer, listen to it and let it guide you. There are times when writers hit what seems to be a dead end or they face putting together a huge and complicated story event that intimidates them. But even if they lack sufficient craft to know how to handle what lies ahead, if they will heed their inner instincts they usually come out fine.

It can be challenging to obey story sense. So often we’ll think of something for our protagonist to say or do and then we talk ourselves out of it. Later, an editor or writing coach will ask, “Why didn’t Irmentrude open the door?” and you shout, I thought of that! I was going to do that! And then … I sort of talked myself out of it.

Why?

You lacked confidence in your own story instincts.

Intuition is closely allied with story sense. Maybe it’s another term for the same quality. But it’s an emotional feeling about where you should take your story next, or about what you should write about, or about which character should be your protagonist. Intuition is your gut telling you to have your hero leap off that building, even if you aren’t sure how to ensure his survival. Intuition pushes you to take creative risks, to dare let your characters say and do things that you wouldn’t in real life. Intuition is your gateway into creating larger-than-life story people and situations.

Preparation involves thought, research, planning, plotting, testing, and outlining. Good prep saves writers time. Yes, it delays actually typing words when you’re dying to get started. But it rescues you from dead ends, mental roadblocks, plot holes, and other dangers that can force your plot off course. What’s so horrible about writing a plot outline anyway? It makes you face the soft spots in your idea. If you face them, then you can fix them. Better by far to do that than write fifteen pages that later have to be thrown away.

Some writers, especially when they’re inexperienced or still learning their craft, shy away from outlining because they don’t have many ideas and they’re afraid to over-examine what they have. In fact, they may know instinctively that their idea is weak and won’t hold up to examination.

But if your story idea is so fragile that it will crumble in an outline, it’s not worth writing. Good ideas can’t be destroyed. You can examine them, thump them, test them, play the what-if game with them, invert them, change the characters around then back again, and they will hold together. What a relief that is!

You prepare by making sure you have a central protagonist, a central antagonist in direct opposition, and a clear goal. With that triad, you can then logically and systematically create a series of events that will occur as these two opposing characters maneuver against each other to achieve what they want.

If you skip this preparation or ignore the triad, then you will be doing a lot of writing and tossing, again and again. Perhaps that’s your method and you persist until you finally find some sort of plot you can follow. But often, writers who are unprepared hit too many roadblocks and obstacles and end up confused, frustrated, and willing to abandon what might have become a very good story.

Flexibility means being willing to allow a story leeway. It means that despite the planning and outlining and careful thought, there is still elasticity in the story’s framework for a few unplanned details and incidents that will enhance and improve the plot. It also involves being willing to listen to an editor or agent when they make good suggestions for the story’s improvement. It means keeping yourself humble enough to continue learning no matter where you are in your writing career.

Focus is achieved through preparation, through knowing you have a solid plot that will go from start to finish without dumping you somewhere in the middle, and then sticking with it. Not rigidly, but following your outline without taking wild tangents or impulsively changing your protagonist’s motivation for no better reason than a dream you had the night before.

Focus is about sticking with a draft until the story is completed. It’s about pushing aside distractions and doubts and worries and fatigue, and continuing until you type “The End.”

Trust was perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned in my training–other than the actual craft itself. Because once you know how to construct a story and how to put the triad in place and how to line up goals, conflict, motivations, and reactions, you have to trust the process. Even with an outline, I find myself in the fog partway through a novel. I’m human. I’m a writer with a big imagination. I can conjure up fears and self-doubt as well as anyone. I can grow weary of my characters. I can be so tired I can’t hear my story sense sometimes. And yet, I have to trust that what I’ve set in motion will keep going. I know that if I line up certain pieces of any story properly, it will move successfully to the finish. And I have learned to trust that, whether I can see light at the end of the tunnel or not.

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Wobbly Characters

A few weeks ago, I launched the first of an intended series of posts about breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Then a deadline happened.

With apologies for the one or two of you who might possibly have been waiting on the edge of your seats for the next installment, I am now, at last, continuing.

Although one of the most prevalent reasons readers are bumped from the story are writer errors, inconsistent characters can wreak havoc with suspension of disbelief, too.

Readers come to your story, willing to play, anxious to accept your plotline, eager to enter your story world, and ready to meet your characters.

In fact, they want desperately to like your protagonist. This character is going to become their new bestie — even if for a short duration — and it’s up to you the writer to supply them with a character that’s appealing, likable, pro-active, clever, resourceful, admirable, and capable of heroism.

That seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it?

But I think writers hit trouble with characters for two primary reasons:

1) they try to create complexity the wrong way

2) they aren’t paying attention to their own story people

Let’s deal with #2 first.

How, you may be wondering, can a writer lose track of his character? Isn’t the character his creation? His baby?

But a sloppily designed character–one that’s thinly constructed with next-to-no background, few if any physical attributes, no tags other than a name chosen at random, and entirely lacking in motivation for whatever its writer intends for it to do–is quite easy to forget.

What happens when you can’t choose the right name for your character? You realize the importance of connotation in names, but you just can’t find it. Nothing seems right. Nothing really fits. So, with the pressure of a looming deadline upon you–or possibly just impatience to get started–you slap a temporary moniker on the character and proceed.

BOO! Wrong idea.

Sticking a temporary name on your elf is like trying to use one of those modern, stretchy-fabric Band-Aids that are supposed to be ouchless, but instead just fall off.

You call the elf Bob, promising yourself that you’ll find the right name later. But because Bob doesn’t work as the character’s name, you will probably forget it in the heat of writing your battle scene between the elves and the swamp lizards. So somewhere amidst the flying arrows and slashing swords, Bob becomes George. Or Jerry. Or Bill. Or XX.

Yeah, you know. You intend to fix it. But once the battle scene is over, you may be struggling with its problems that distract you away from your nameless elf, who isn’t really working as a character anyway.

If you can’t find the right name, you haven’t met your character properly. You don’t know him. And until you do, you can’t possibly write his dialogue or story actions with any degree of plausibility.

Not knowing your character means you will be hesitant when it comes to what he says and does. This tentative effect weakens the character. It’s easy to forget how he reacted in Scene 1 so that in Scene 7–when Nameless Elf needs to respond in a similar manner to whatever’s happening–you can’t remember what he did before, or you can’t remember his position, stance, or opinion–so you write his reaction differently.

Result? An inconsistent character that no reader will believe in.

Take your character and determine exactly what he looks like. Write a description that’s specific, not vague. Overflowing the sleek Porsche’s back seat, a drooling St. Bernard gusted hot breath on the nape of Joan’s neck is much more vivid than The big brown dog sat panting in the car behind Joan.

When you know what your character looks like–how tall is your elf? Are his pointed ears delicate and small, or huge like Dobby’s in the Harry Potter books? Are his eyes large and protruding? Does he have warts? Is his skin green or as pale as milk?–then you can think about what makes him tick.

If he lived with you, for example, in the here and now, who would he favor in the next presidential election? What’s his favorite food–snail eggs or chocolate chip cookies?

What’s his personality? Is he meek and mild-tempered? Is he rash and impetuous? Does he blurt out comments before he thinks? Is he incapable of lying? Or is he incapable of honesty? What are his best traits? What are his flaws?

Why is he in your story? Maybe you only intend him to appear in two scenes, complaining about your housecat’s forays into his garden, but however minor his role he should be vividly portrayed and matter to the story.

What is his goal? Why does he want that goal? If he fails to achieve his desire, what effect will that failure have on him?

By the time you answer all these questions, you will know that his name is Delfwin, for example. He has come alive to you. You now know him well.

And whether he’s important or minor to the story, your elf will be consistent and plausible each time he appears on the page.

As for reason #1 why story people fail to work, this occurs through a writer’s efforts to deepen character.

Perhaps a writing coach has told you that your character is too one-dimensional and needs to have more depth and complexity.

So you think, aha! I’ll come up with a more elaborate backstory for my shy, orphaned girl that’s backward for her age.

Accordingly, you weave a larger and more convoluted past for the character, making her an orphan raised by wolves from the age of one until she was five, at which time a forest ranger found her and brought her home for his wife to housebreak. Since learning to speak and eat cooked foods, Sheila Wolfbane has grown up wary of people, inclined to snap and lose her temper. But because her biological parents were concert musicians who died tragically in a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness, Sheila has considerable talent and plays the piano, violin, clarinet, and harmonica adeptly. She plans to attend Harvard and study environmental law.

Wow! Isn’t she now an amazing character? In draft one, Sheila was just an ordinary backwoods girl, but now … look at her!

I’d rather not, thanks.

Sheila isn’t any more complex in version two than she was in version one. The writer has invented a plethora of extra details about her, but that’s just more sequins glued to her shirt.

She won’t become complex until she has inner conflict. Let’s say that she acts meek and demure, avoiding eye contact and pretending to be shy, when in fact she hates Ranger Rick and Mrs. Rick for taking her away from her true family, her pack, and she’s planning to murder the Ricks so she can run back to the woods where she belongs.

Now when she snarls and snaps, she immediately shuts down her temper and apologizes, but inside she isn’t sorry. She wishes she could bite them and tear out their soft throats.

She’s psychotic, but she’s also more complex than before.

Too far out for your taste? Then perhaps Sheila survived the plane crash in the woods and lived on her own for several weeks until she was found. Trauma has rendered her mute. As she grows to young womanhood, she yearns to speak, wonders what the world is like beyond the forest, but is afraid to leave her home with the Ricks despite the fact that Ranger Rick is getting old and must retire soon. Sheila is terrified of change, yet curious of what she might see and learn. The young, handsome ranger taking Rick’s position is attracted to her. Sheila could live with him, and remain in the woods that are her refuge, yet a part of her wonders if she really loves this man or is just using him as a way to avoid facing her fears.

If a writer doesn’t understand how complexity is achieved, the piling on of more and more detail will at some point become implausible, even silly, and readers can no longer comfortably remain with the story.

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Plot It Simple

From the time that I was a grasshopper sitting at the feet of my writing master, trying to learn the craft, I was given the same advice over and over:  Keep it simple.

But being someone with a Byzantine mind, an overactive imagination, and enough stubbornness to hold up a stone wall–I blew past such sage wisdom for a very long time.

Some things take me forever to learn. But here’s what I now know:

Make your characters complex.

Keep your plot simple.

Let’s consider these one at a time.

COMPLEX CHARACTERS

Complexity doesn’t stem from a vast heaping of detail. You can bury your protagonist in a variety of hobbies and interests, load her up with sixteen siblings and two step-moms, make her an ex-Marine CPA that plays a mean jazz saxophone, and let her be a rescuer of stray cats. None of that will make her compelling or complex.

A complex character is someone that appears to be one thing or behaves in a certain way, yet in reality is far different from what she seems on the surface.

Complexity comes from the clash of what seems to be and what actually is.

Therefore, let’s consider an elderly woman who lives with two cats, has crocheted doilies protecting her furniture, and embroiders homilies such as “A penny saved is a penny earned” that she then hangs on her walls. But in her youth, she ran one of the most successful brothels in the city and in her heart she remains a tough-as-nails madam and business owner.

Dean Koontz presented such a character in his novel Whispers.

Complexity comes from a person who is torn inside between conflicting responsibilities, or someone whose conscience is at war with his duty.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest is not complex.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be a cowardly, cheap, lying phony is complex.

SIMPLE PLOT

A simple plot is clear, direct, and easy to follow. In Holly Black’s children’s book, Doll Bones, a group of children decide that their antique bone china doll is haunted by the spirit of a dead child and they set out to take the doll back to where it was made and bury it in a cemetery.

This premise is certainly creepy, but it is easy to understand. It’s not convoluted, over-wrought, or burdened by an excessive load of subplots.

This isn’t to say that you must avoid complicated plots, but in the hands of an inexperienced writer, a plot woven with numerous plots, a huge cast of characters, multiple settings, and action, action, action may well be an indication of an uncertain writer unable as yet to adequately handle her material.

In fact, the simpler the plot the deeper a writer can delve into the characters.

Let’s take the example of the classic 1948 film, Key Largo, staring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore.

If you’ve seen this movie, good for you! If you haven’t, then spoiler alert! Go see it and then read the rest of this post.

The plot is very simple and straightforward. The characters are complex. The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is steamy. As writers, we can’t create the latter magic, but we can certainly reach for the rest.

In the story, a WWII veteran travels to Florida to visit the father and widow of a GI that served in his company. The dead soldier had talked often about his home in the Florida keys, his father, and his wife. As a courtesy, and from a wish to connect with these good people briefly, the protagonist Frank drops in to meet the family and talk to them about how their soldier died and where he’s buried in Italy.

The old man and his daughter-in-law Nora run a small hotel that’s closed for the season. But they’ve taken in a group of guests who offered more money than they can refuse. These guests include Rocco, a gangster so bad the U.S. deported him before the war, his alcoholic mistress, and his hoodlums. Rocco has sneaked back into the U.S. just long enough to make a deal for counterfeit money which he intends to launder in Cuba.

A hurricane blows in, trapping these people together in the hotel. Frank and Nora fall in love. Once the storm calms down, Rocco forces Frank to pilot the boat to Cuba, but Frank prevails and defeats the gangsters.

Because the plot is so clear and direct, the writer had ample room to develop this cast of characters. They are what powers this story.

Let’s consider them and what makes them complex:

Frank the hero seems to be a calm, competent, kind man who just wants to give comfort to an old man who’s lost his son. He’s courteous and mild-mannered. But Frank is also unable to settle back into civilian life. He’s rootless and restless. He has no family to return to after the war, and he’s held several jobs already, moving from city to city. He remembers the soldier in his company who was always talking about the keys and his family. Frank, needing somewhere to belong, finally turns up and becomes embroiled in the family’s problems. On the surface, Frank doesn’t seem to be a very successful civilian, but in a crisis he is the hero to have on your side. Perhaps the best display of his true nature is when he defies Rocco to give Gaye the drink she so desperately needs.

Rocco the villain seems to be a cut above his thugs at first. On the surface, he acts confident, successful, and in control. But soon we learn that he’s a washed up has-been trying to make a comeback. He’s reunited a few of his gang and sought out his former mistress. He talks big, but in reality he’s a frightened, petty, cruel little man that’s afraid of storms.

Rocco’s mistress Gaye–brilliantly portrayed by Claire Trevor–seems at first to be simply empty-headed eye-candy with a bit too much to drink. Since Rocco’s deportation, she’s been unable to regain her singing career. She makes a half-hearted pretense at first to maintain appearances. But Rocco’s disgust with her, and his cruelty, gives her the strength to betray him. She may be an alcoholic on the skids, but she is no fool. Her conscience and inner decency as a person finally shine through despite the slurred voice and craving for a drink.

Even the minor characters–however stereotypical they may appear to modern audiences–exhibit some complexity in their genial talk and jokes that are masks for the violence they’re capable of.

Often, discussion of this film becomes limited to the romance and that famous Bogart and Bacall chemistry, but I suggest that you study the characters to see how the story’s plot is designed to make them shine–just as jewels are displayed on black velvet cloth.

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Shortcuts to Character Design

For those of us who don’t arise with the morning lark with a full-blown character in mind, courtesy of a dream, character design can sometimes be intimidating.

After all, there are so many details to consider — from what this fellow looks like, to how many siblings he grew up with, to his years of military service, to his self-concept, etc. In previous posts, I’ve delved into numerous aspects of design to consider. (And in my forthcoming book, THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA, there are a staggering number of questions that can help writers shape complex story people.) For the unwary writer, however, character design can become a tar pit of procrastination equally as dangerous as setting research.

After all, what if you don’t want to write a multi-volume epic? What if you’re intending instead to tackle a short story or novella?

Do you really want to be sidetracked into generating an elaborate, thousand-word background dossier for the protagonist of a two-thousand-word story?

Perhaps not!

Here are four shortcuts to utilize when you want to create a character quickly, or to deepen a character you already have:

FLAW

Your character should come with a built-in drawback or something inside that needs repair. The plot of your story will exacerbate this flaw enough to bring it out into the open, where the character can’t ignore it, conceal it, or deny it anymore.

Perhaps your character can’t commit to a new relationship because of trust issues. Perhaps your character is too stubborn and won’t accept change, good or bad. Perhaps your character is trying to overcome the temptation to embezzle from the company she works for.

FEAR

What is your character’s secret worry? What is vulnerable inside your character? Maybe it’s something from your character’s past that’s been kept hidden for years. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. Or maybe — like Indiana Jones — it’s a fear of snakes.

Whatever the fear may be, the story circumstances of your plot should put the character there, facing it, by the story’s climax.

DESIRE

What does your character want most of all? This element speaks more to motivation and a psychological/emotional goal than simply being the plot’s McGuffin. Harry Potter chases after the sorcerer’s stone, but inside he really wants to belong, to have a family that loves him.

OPPONENT

Who is your character’s enemy? Who stands in your character’s way? Who is determined to thwart your character’s desire, push your character into the situation she most fears, and take advantage of your character’s flaw?

Obviously you will have to flesh out a few details beyond these four elements, but use them as a foundation. Start with them and you should find the other details — such as name, hair color, and favorite foods — falling quickly into place.

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The Dullness of Timidity

I’m seeing a trend among my writing students these days … the avoidance of a villain in the stories they write.

No villain leads to the absence of conflict …

Which causes weak scenes …

Which creates dull writing …

Which guarantees bad story.

Is this lack due to insufficient reading in young writers? Or is the current insistence of our modern society on being sensitive to others having a trickle-down effect toward villains?

In a previous decade, just the very suspicion of something so ridiculous would have had me slapping my forehead in disbelief. Today, I’m not so sure.

Are we now trying to be nice to story villains? Are we now trying to see their side of things and give them more than the benefit of the doubt? Are we now playing the relative card when it comes to situational ethics and making excuses for their behavior on the pages of our own manuscripts?

Surely not!

And yet, where are these rogues? These outlaws? These bad guys? Has Snidely Whiplash and his descendants gone the way of the dodo? Why aren’t my students coming up with antagonists?

Granted, these young writers have often experienced a soft life. They don’t always know lack or struggle. They may have been coddled throughout their young lives, praised for efforts rather than results, and shielded from the world’s unkindness. So perhaps they don’t recognize bad guys, don’t understand them, and don’t see the need for them in writing stories.

Wow. I never thought I would witness the looming extinction of fiction antagonists.

And yet … lately, I’ve been trying to explain in class exactly what antagonists are and why they’re necessary for stories to work.

It boggles the mind.

When antagonists do turn up in amateur fiction, they sometimes have a phoney, faked lack of plausibility to them. They’re weakly designed. They seem unsure of whether it’s okay to do awful things to other characters.

Let me just say that, in fiction, timidity guarantees dullness. If you’re timid with your character design or your characters’ actions, then chances are you’ll be timid when it comes to your plotting. You’ll never take creative risks. You’ll never develop flair.

Let’s look at an example:

Here’s a character named Stanley. He works as a bank teller. He lives alone in a small rented house in a medium-sized city. He drives an aging Civic that’s a fading silver gray color. On his days off, Stanley shops on eBay, sometimes takes in a movie, and mows the grass.

Stanley, declares Wanda Writer, is going to be the bad guy of my story. Stanley is going to rob the bank.

Seriously?

Why should he? This bland character is barely memorable past a few paragraphs. He couldn’t cause any trouble for the story protagonist if he tried. And if Stanley suddenly, on page 2 of Wanda’s story, pulls a revolver from his lunch kit and waves it at his coworkers, readers won’t believe the plot.

Stanley cannot work as a plausible bad guy because 1) he lacks motivation; 2) he’s not vividly designed; and 3) he’s not a villain.

Let’s address these flaws separately:

1) no motivation

Why would an ordinary guy like Stanley suddenly risk imprisonment in order to steal from his place of employment? What would drive him to such extraordinary measures?

Maybe his mother is dying of cancer because her medical insurance won’t cover the medicine and operation she needs. So Stanley is going to help her by stealing the money.

That’s a motivation, but it doesn’t make him a villain. Let’s suspend this quandary for a bit while we examine the next problem.

2) vague design

Let’s jazz Stanley up. His real name is Artem. He came illegally to the U.S. as a child, smuggled into the country. He was put to work begging on the streets, then stealing cars, and later running drugs. Arrested and convicted as a youth, he learned computers while in juvvie. Now a skilled hacker, he left the Russian mob to work alone. He moves frequently, changing his name and identity, taking employment at banks or businesses until he figures out a way to infiltrate their accounts and clean them out. Then he’s gone, a phantom, heading for the next medium-sized city and his next opportunity to steal. When he has enough millions stashed away in an off-shore account, he plans to retire on an island where there’s no extradition treaty. There, at last, he will live the good life.

According to plan, he’s presently adopted the name of Stanley Brown. He’s renting a modest house and he’s landed a job at the local branch of a state bank. He’s driving a used Civic of no particular color because it’s harder to identify, but underneath the hood the engine is a souped-up monster that can outrun any cop car on the streets. He keeps a mistress in a nearby community, and she knows him by a different name. He refuses to make any relationships, any ties that might render him vulnerable. He’s frugal and seldom goes out for entertainment. At night and on his days off, he’s hacking, doing his best to figure out how to break the bank’s firewall of security.

3) villainy

At present, Stanley is starting to take better shape, but he’s still just a criminal and hardly a villain. It’s necessary to push Stanley over the line. Now, Wanda Writer could decide that Stanley poisons the neighborhood dogs for fun, but that’s just something crazy and doesn’t connect with the story parameters.

It’s usually helpful to think about the story protagonist and what that individual’s qualities are. The protagonist and antagonist should be tailored into foil characters — opposites of each other or characters who will stand on opposing sides of an issue. So who will stand in Stanley’s way?

Maybe, despite all of Stanley’s efforts to be a loner, a co-worker has befriended him — or tried. Let’s call this teller Nick. He’s served in Afghanistan and seen how soldiers returning home can become withdrawn loners. Nick can’t get Stanley to talk much about himself, but he’s aware of how Stanley shows evidence of possible former military training in the way he stands or watches or is alert. Or maybe Stanley acts like a guy who’s done time, yet Stanley’s background check was clean. Nick thinks Stanley is much too much on his own, and tries to draw Stanley out by inviting him over for a barbeque with the family, asking Stanley to bring his girlfriend along, etc.

Suppose Nick isn’t really a teller, but is in fact a security expert posing as a common employee. Evidence of hacking attempts have triggered alarms in the bank’s computer security system, and Nick’s on the alert for who might be trying to breach the accounts. Maybe Nick is himself ex-military. He’s suspicious of Stanley, but he can’t actually get any proof on the guy. And maybe another employee is more suspicious, so Nick is unsure of which person to watch.

As Nick closes in, and Stanley feels pressured or endangered, perhaps Stanley will retaliate against Nick’s wife or small children. Now Stanley is crossing lines. He is demonstrating — through his actions and goals — his capacity for villainy.

[I should also note here that Wanda Writer had better do some research on banks, hacking, and security systems to see if any of the above scenario is plausible.]

1) back to motivation

Remember that we suspended motivation until we knew Stanley better? Let’s now readdress this issue. How can Wanda Writer put more pressure on Stanley? Perhaps he didn’t just leave the mob. Perhaps he was made the fall guy to save his boss, and that’s how Stanley ended up in jail. For years, he’s felt resentment at such a betrayal.

Raise the stakes. Pressure on Stanley will drive him to take desperate measures. Maybe he’s just a greedy man. Maybe he’s a sociopath. Or … maybe he’s afraid to go back to prison. When Nick — a guy that Stanley perhaps likes in spite of himself — starts closing in with suspicions — and when Stanley learns that Nick, his friend, is in fact the security inside man who is trying to catch Stanley, then Stanley will feel betrayed and angry. All that anger from the past will be turned against Nick, and Stanley will retaliate.

And the stakes go up again.

This isn’t to say that a writer and readers don’t understand how villains become the way they are, but we aren’t obliged to sympathize with the bad guy, or condone bad actions, or excuse them.

So let bad guys (and gals) in fiction be bad.

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