Monday, June 30, 2014

Introducing Your Characters in Act 1

Some stories introduce characters as people and then let the reader/audience discover their roles and relationships afterward. This tends to help an audience identify with the characters.
Other stories put roles first, so that we know about the person by their function and/or job, then get closer to them as the act progresses. This tends to make the reader/audience pigeon-hole the characters by stereotype, and then draw them into learning more about the actual people behind the masks.
Finally, there are stories that introduce character relationships, either situational, structural, or emotional, at the beginning. This causes the audience to see the problems among the characters but not take sides as strongly until they can learn about the people on each side of the relationship, and the roles that constrain them.
Of course, you do not have to treat these introductions equally for all characters and relationships. For example, you might introduce on character as a person, then introduce their relationship with another character, then divulge the constraints the other character is under due to role, then revel the other character as a person.
This approach would initially cast sympathy (or derision) at the first character, temper it by showing a relationship with which he or she must contend, then temper that relationship by showing the constraints of the other character, and finally humanize that other character so a true objective balance can be formed by the reader/audience.
Don’t forget that first impressions stick in our minds, and it is much easier to judge someone initially than to change that judgment later. Use this trait of audiences to quickly identify important characters up front, or to put their complete situations later, thereby forcing the reader/audience to reconsider its attitudes, and thereby learn and grow.
No matter what approach you take, you have the opportunity to weave a complex experience for your reader/audience, blending factual, logistic information about your characters with the reader/audience emotional experience in discovering this information.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Character Dismissals

Over the course of the story, your reader/audience has come to know your characters and to feel for them. The story doesn’t end when your characters and their relationships reach a climax. Rather, the reader/audience will want to know the aftermath – how it turned out for each character and each relationship. In addition, the audience needs a little time to say goodbye – to let the character walk off into the sunset or to mourn for them before the story ends.
This is in effect the conclusion, the wrap-up. After everything has happened to your characters, after the final showdown with their respective demons, what are they like? How have they changed? If a character began the story as a skeptic, does it now have faith? If they began the story full of hatred for a mother that abandoned them, have they now made revelations to the effect that she was forced to do this, and now they no longer hate? This is what you have to tell the audience, how their journeys changed them, have the resolved their problems, or not?
And in the end, this constitutes a large part of your story’s message. It is not enough to know if a story ends in success or failure, but also if the characters are better off emotionally or plagued with even greater demons, regardless of whether or not the goal was achieved.
You can show what happens to your characters directly, through a conversation by others about them, or even in a post-script on each that appears after the story is over or in the ending credits of a movie.
How you do this is limited only by your creative inspiration, but make sure you review each character and each relationship and provide at least a minimal dismissal for each.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

How to Create Great Characters!

Strangely enough, what makes a character “Great” has little to do with what makes a character dramatically sound. This is easy enough to see if you consider the differences between the characters Austin Powers and James Bond. Both could be seen as Protagonists, and both could even be seen as heroes, and yet their personalities, mannerisms, interests, and attitudes are quite dissimilar. What makes them the same is their dramatic function; what makes them different are their personalities.

Dramatic function is part of a story’s logistic structure. Without a function, a character is little more than window dressing. Yet, even the most strongly drawn structural character is quite forgettable without a charismatic personality. Stucturalist writers tend to start with the function (Antagonist, Protagonist, etc.) then build a personality on that foundation. Intuitive writers usually want to get to know their characters first as individuals, then determine what function they should play in the structure.

No matter which kind of writer you are, you will eventually need to develop your characters’ personalities. So, here’s a great trick to brainstorm your characters and perhaps even learn something about your plot along the way.

I call this method, “Mix and Match.”

More than likely, you remember a childhood toy that was a book with pictures of faces, each cut into three pieces: top, middle, and bottom. The top section of each face had the hair, the middle section covered the eyes and nose, and the bottom section displayed the mouth. By flipping parts of each page, you could create all kinds of different people, swapping the hair of one with the eyes of another and the mouth of a third.

We can apply a similar concept to character attributes and physical traits to create dynamic personalities.

As an example, lets start with two ordinary, forgettable characters with only three traits each (Gender, Age, and Role) and mix and match to create more memorable characters

Character #1: Male, 38, Mercenary

Character #2: Female, 9, Shoplifter

Pretty forgettable, right? Okay, let’s mix and match:

Character #1: Female, 38, Mercenary

Charcter #2: Male, 9, Shoplifter

Now think about how these characters changed their personalities, just by swapping a single attribute from one to the other. A Male Mercenary, age 38 simply has a different “feel” than a Female Mercenary, age 38. Why? Due to our cultural indoctrination., we expect certain things of men and certain things of women. We therefore expect a Male Mercenary to have a different personality than a Female Mercenary. In other words, it would require a different personality of woman than a man to become a Mercenary in our society. So, we (as creative authors) tend to subconsciously assign those personality traits to the character, even though we have really only spelled out the character’s role and gender.

Let’s try another swap:

Character #1: Female, 9, Mercenary

Character #2: Male, 38, Shoplifter

Again, we impose our own subconscious expectations of each character’s personality upon him or her so that we have a completely different feel for each than we did before.

Let’s try one more:

Character #1: Male, 9, Mercenary

Character #2: Female, 38, Shoplifter

Once again, the personalities change.

We might find that one of these characters strikes our fancy as being interesting to develop and put into play. But more than likely, we haven’t found the “Great” character we are looking for. What we need are more traits and attributes, and more characters to swap them among.

What I usually do is list various traits and attributes on 3x5 cards, cut them up into individual items and then assemble them like the Face Book to create potential characters for my story.

For example, I might have a group off different traits/attributes in each of the following categories:

Name Age Sex Height Weight I.Q. Hair Color Hair Style Mannerisms (graceful, clumsy, abrupt, etc.) Physical Impairments Physical Enhancements (keen eyesight, etc.) Physical Quirks (i.e. twitch) Religious Affiliations Religious Beliefs (not necessarily the same as affiliations) Hobbies Skills Talents Accent Speed of Speech Place of Birth Marital Status Previous Marriages Special powers Job or Role Pets Siblings (alive and dead) Personality Traits (sourpuss, practical joker, deadpan serious, etc.) Sound of Voice (deep, high, breathy)

Well, I could go on an on with this list, but you get the idea. The best way to compile a list of categories like this is to read the newspaper, watch television, or sit in a coffee shop and look out the window.

Now, in each category, you need to come up with as many different items as you can.

For example, in the first category, Name, we might have the usual Joe, and Sally, but also Zippo, Teaser, Tweezer, and Mulch. The weirder, the better.

Let’s take our Female, 9 year old Mercenary and name her Sally. Now how does her personality change if we name her Tweezer, or Mulch instead?

In tangible reality, there is no indicated difference between Sally, the 9 year old Female Mercenary and Tweezer, the 9 year old Female Mercenary. And yet, we cannot help but feel they are different because of our cultural indoctrination.

As a brainstorming technique for creating “Great” characters, the mix and match method is the best way I’ve found to break away from the same old forgettable stereotypes.

Now most of this you’ll need to do this manually, but in fact there is a place in the Dramatica Pro software that can help take some of the drudgery out of it. From the main Dramatica Desktop, click on the Brainstorming tile. Then, select the Character Generator Tile. Here you can automatically generate characters by arbitrarily assigning them names, genders, and structural functions as archetypes or complex characters.

And speaking of structural functions, have you noticed that none of the attributes we assigned to our characters above gave any indication as to their status as a Protagonist, Antagonist, other archetype or complex functional character?

If you are a structuralist writer, you’ll first start with your Protagonist (or whatever structural function you wish to begin with) and THEN play the mix and match game on that foundation. If you are an intuitive writer, you’ll start with mix and match and then pick one character and determine what function he, she, or it should play.

Take Tweezer, our nine-year-old Mercenary. Would she be a better Protagonist or Antagonist? When you pick a structural function, it ties the character to the plot and further defines the foundation of its personality. And, because you have likely chosen a role for your character, such as Mercenary, the combination of roles among your characters can actually start to suggest the outlines of a plot!

Of course, some things will likely have to be changed to make the characters and plot more consistent. But, this refining process is just part of the ongoing development of your story. The real trick is to break free of the stodgy, ordinary character we create by falling into our well-worn mental patterns, and mixing and matching to create arbitrarily intriguing characters.