Character as story — further thoughts
Well here I am again and this time I want to talk about character. When I critique I do have a section on characterisation where I look at individual characters, the roles they play in terms of function for story and also, and crucial when looking at the concept of story, is how they develop — grow and change. This is the essence of the character arc.
In the same way a story needs conflict as its beating heart, and this is the focal point about which story forms, characters are the players that create the story and who change by being part of it. And who will play a role in changing the plot too. I like to think of it as the two pivoting around each other. You will see this as you write a first draft, one starts to define the other. But they have to work in synergy.
A story where character remain unchanged and do not learn or resolve or conquer will feel as if they’re missing a vital ingredient. Is it story or just a vignette?
While you work on the intricacies of plot and missions you need to tie this into character development.
Think of it this way:
1. Set-up the character in the early stages. Here your character is not yet fully exposed to the journey you are about to unleash on him. Here you show us the protagonist in terms of who he is, what he wants, his fears, flaws … so we start to see.
2. First Major Inciting Incident … this is where it goes awry, so now the character has been thrown a curve ball, he disconnects (says Larry Brooks) from what he wants. Now we start to see what this story has to be about.
See how what you set up in the first stages of the story is now crucial to determining his motivation to action at this point. This is how we as readers, start to think about (and worry about) how he will ‘get out of this’ and as we read on we expect the plot to throw more curve balls to make this seem more and more impossible. This is where that back story becomes integral to story — to making the hero’s journey, quest, mission credible.
3. Hero flounders, thinks, wonders, hesitates … at this point. This is where you might show reluctance initially until plot says … you have to act, the reader expects it, like it or not. The plot is in effect raising the stakes so the often reluctant hero is tipped into action, the point where he can’t go back now.
4. The hero crosses the proverbial threshold at this point, he is now thrown into the adventure and now we have the plots twists and turns where we have to see him cope, sometimes fail, the plot can be seen as the device here that keeps throwing things at him… including other characters, your antagonists! And those that act as mentors and advisers to help as well, and maybe the love interest subplot etc! But don’t make it too complex. Keep coming back to theme and what the story is really trying to say, through your characters.
5. The hero finally has his moment of glory … and conquering his fear is part of the climax and the resolution where his actions solve the plot’s major question. The homecoming parts after the resolution should tie up other loose ends with characters.
The arcs of the story are bound together, story arc steering overall direction, character arc defining change, and overlapping with the arcs of the other characters, and this can look complicated.
But see how you have to think of character as another part of story. Your story is plot told through the actions of your characters.
Character arcs can confuse, here’s one I came across, but I tend to talk more about specific characters when I critique rather than send this as it can make the creative process appear far too … mathematical?
My simple analogy works not just for stories where we have an external conquest, we follow the same thing for the internal conflict — the girl in the toilet waiting for a line to turn blue on a pregnancy test. The story set over two minutes will make no film, nothing really seems to happen, apart from someone waiting. But the inner turmoil will be the focus of the story here and the same arc will follow, but it’s all internal, we have the licence here to fully invade the character’s thoughts. The consequences of the result and flashback to get her back story, will be what plays out for the reader (and you can apply it to the steps outlined but it will have a different structure, perhaps less chronological) but we get to know the same things, who she is (young, older woman’s last chance at IVF?) and what she wants as this is vital to how we perceive the dénouement. In a nutshell is she happy or sad, but here this means what effect does that have on her life?
I hate to think of writing in terms of formulas and when Stephen Leather wrote the foreword for the Bridge House Crime After Crime collection, in this case more about the short story, he said just that … writing to a formula loses some of the magic? Here it is in an earlier post: https://wordznerd.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/feeling-confident-in-shorts/
And I wholeheartedly agree. But this approach of thinking about the nuts and bolts, as I have done these last few posts, I think serves two main functions: 1. is a great tool for teaching, and on that note I am in a school for a lunch time writer’s club today. And 2. it helps to see where you’re going wrong. When I critique I am acting as teacher and it’s not like writing a book review the author will probably never read, I don’t need in that case to tease apart what’s not working and what might make it better. But when I critique that’s exactly what I have to do. And that means I need to know what makes a story and therefore what doesn’t … or more to the point … what makes a story better.
So knowing this has to impact on what you write and being a better writer? Right. But what do you think?
I hope this has been helpful … now to applying this to my own novel before I go to school!