The Ins and Outs of Writing Character

‘Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.’

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I raised the issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in my earlier post ‘A Conspiracy of Coincidences’.  But what exactly does this mean?

In everyday speech, we would usually describe somebody as being ‘out of character’ if they do something we don’t expect. But, I hear you say, the whole point of my novel is that my character doesn’t do what everyone expects. And what about character nuance and complexity? Surely, my hero is allowed to be contradictory, or change his mind without being considered ‘out of character’?

In fiction, as in real life, the key to being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character depends on other people’s expectations. So the key to keeping your character ‘in character’ is to manage your reader’s expectations. Your character can change his mind and be as contradictory as often as he likes to all the other characters in the story, as long as it is clear to the reader that this unpredictability and contradiction are part of his essential nature, and not something tacked on by the author to get him out of a rather too deep and awkwardly constrictive plot hole.

If your story turns on the fact that your character is going to face his demons and do something he has never done before, you need to prepare your readers in advance.

 Take Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, for example. His employer’s post-Ghost behaviour is so out of character for him that poor Bob Cratchit assumes the man has lost his wits entirely. So why are readers so willing to accept the curmudgeonly miser’s complete change of heart and personality?

Because Dickens has set up the hope of redemption at a plot and character level from the start of the book: Jacob Marley’s ghost is a last chance warning to change before it is too late, and the Ghost of Christmas Past shows us a kinder, more innocent Ebenezer Scrooge just waiting to surface underneath all that miserly cynicism. Bob may not expect Scrooge’s redemption, but we readers do, and all is well.

So don’t wait until your hero has his back firmly against the inescapable wall of whatever jeopardy you have in store for him before he discovers his hidden depths of character and abilities. Your readers won’t thank you for pulling convenient and hitherto unknown character traits from nowhere like rabbits appearing from a magician’s hat, but they will appreciate a carefully structured pay-off for all their emotional investment in a character.

Character and Plot 4: A Conspiracy of Coincidences

The subject of coincidence in plotting is a thorny one. Many years ago, a TV development executive told me that one of the key plot flaws they asked their script readers to look out for in a sample script was coincidence. If the story hinged on it or there was a pattern of rather-too-convenient events or coincidences, then more than likely the script would get the thumbs down. A little harsh, perhaps, but their view was that the presence of coincidences in a story would invariably lead to two killer audience complaints: ‘the plot was contrived’ or ‘the characters weren’t believable‘.

Before the outcry begins, let me be clear that we’re not talking about the merely fantastical or serendipitous here: we’re talking about the type of plot coincidence in which it is clear that an author has essentially attempted to ram a square character into a round plot hole or vice versa.

Unit Objectives 

Take our two characters from ‘The Terrible Twos’: in the last post we left Character A battling her spontaneous combustion demons and trying to prevent Character B from being on stage—two interesting dilemmas (and obstacles to Character A’s objectives) keeping the audience engaged. So how do you think the members of the audience will feel if any or all of the following happens?

 

(1)    Character A states that she has been suddenly and miraculously cured of her fear of bursting into flames and sits down; or

(2)    She sits on the chair, and the whole ‘spontaneous combustion’ thing is conveniently ignored; and/ or

(3)    A letter arrives from Character B telling us that she’s decided to move permanently to the Caribbean and won’t be coming back.

Fair enough, these ‘coincidences’ may seem a little too obvious, but the fact is that the more complex the story, the easier it can be to fall into the coincidence trap. You know you need a character to be at a certain place at a certain point in the story, and you just keep hammering away until you get them there, ignoring the instinct that is telling you loudly and clearly that something is just not quite right. We’ve all done it, and hitting that kind of plotting block can be hugely frustrating for a writer.

One of best ways of sorting out these structural blips is to play the objective: this time not just the super-objective which drives the overall emotional arc of the story, but the small scene or unit objectives we spoke about earlier.

So how do we get at these ‘unit objectives’ and how can they help with plotting our story?

 

Essentially unit objectives derive from those other all-important dramatic building blocks: character and character choice. Each move, each action should involve your character in a choice. Whether the impetus behind it is conscious or sub-conscious is immaterial, but it should come from the character asking her or himself: what do I want to achieve and how do I make it happen?

Let’s assume Character A above has reached crisis point: she needs to get rid of her ‘spontaneous combustion’ fear in order to achieve her super-objective. Perhaps hypnosis is the answer? But how to get Character A and a hypnotist together at this juncture? If she leaves the building, Character B will take her seat and A’s super-objective is finished. We can’t have our hypnotist simply turn up in a ‘here’s-one-I-called-earlier’ sort of way—that really would be a coincidence! But what if A could persuade someone to fetch one for her? What if she could somehow even manage to persuade Character B to fetch the hypnotist, thereby unwittingly causing B’s own downfall? Now that would be a psychologically interesting scenario. So next question, what strategy should Character A use to persuade Character B: seduction, bribery, brute force or all of the above? And what to do if Character B doesn’t take the bait?

 

As you can see, each choice a character makes leads to another question and another choice. It also clearly pinpoints the intersection of character and plot because Character A’s answer to each question posed and each strategy choice will be determined by what type of person she is. We’ll look at the whole issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that as long as A remains within character, then the action will push forward naturally and organically and accusations of authorial manipulation or contrivance can be avoided.

Lastly, you shouldn’t forget that in building a story, you are not only dealing with one character’s objectives. Other characters, even minor ones, have objectives too, and their objectives can provide useful obstacles or assistance to help you weave what Sir Walter Scott called a ‘tangled web’ to keep your main characters under pressure (it’s that emotional arc again) and your readers turning the pages.

Happy plotting!

 

Character and Plot 3: Spontaneous Combustion and other Objects of Desire

What I’ve tried to show in previous posts are what I consider to be the vital ‘building blocks’ of dramatic conflict: objective and obstacle. Somebody sets out to do something and finds an obstacle in their way, often in the guise of another character with conflicting objectives. Crime procedurals are excellent examples of this: the detective wants to catch the bad guy; the killer wants to escape capture. Two objectives or wants at odds from the start and a good place to begin a dramatic journey. However, the other thing to bear in mind is that obstacles to achieving a character’s objectives are not necessarily external. They could well be internal: a fear, a phobia or a character flaw which a character has to battle in order to achieve their goal.

Let’s return to our long-suffering Character A: in ‘The Terrible Twos’ we left her desperately trying to prevent Character B from sitting on the stage (because her objective is to be the only person seated on stage). But what if, even if she solves the Character B problem, she can’t sit in the chair? Or at least, she can physically, but something is stopping her psychologically, say, she’s convinced that she and the chair will spontaneously combust the moment she actually sits on it? This immediately ups the ante for the character: now she not only has to battle Character B, she has to battle herself as well. Of course, even with the intriguing, albeit macabre, possibility of poor Character A spontaneously combusting, wanting to sit on a chair is perhaps not the most exciting objective for a character. But what if the chair isn’t just a chair? What if it is a throne or a seat of power and the ‘stage’ is a country, kingdom or an empire? A throne is still physically a chair, but, clearly, it has significance and meaning over and beyond its practical use or function. Combining a far-reaching emotional or spiritual want or objective with a physical object in a character’s super-objective allows a writer to form a strong backbone for a story, whether it is genre or literary fiction. Thus Chekov’s Three Sisters and their yearning to return to Moscow: a physical journey which never takes place and which becomes a metaphor for their unfulfilled emotional wants and desires. Or George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones which is basically a whole bunch of people striving to sit on a chair called the Iron Throne and gain the personal power over the Seven Kingdoms that comes with it.

Which brings us back to our character’s emotional arc: to raise the emotional pressure we need to keep the stakes high for the character. When deciding on an objective to carry your character emotionally and physically through the length of a novel, the most important question to ask is: what does the character have to lose? The more they can lose by failing to achieve their objective, the better the drama.

Character and Plot 2: The Terrible Twos

Picture a toddler in the middle of the Terrible Twos: you tell them specifically not to do something, they either do it immediately or spend the next few hours determinedly trying to find a way around whatever obstacle or hindrance you’ve put in their way to prevent them from carrying out the forbidden task. The Germans have a word for it: ‘Trotzkind’, literally, ‘a defiance child’, with all the connotations of defiance for defiance’s sake. And what Trotzkinder and Terrible Twos toddlers have that your characters need is that overwhelming sense of purpose and desire to achieve a set objective, ‘trotzt’ or despite the odds.

Last week, I introduced the idea of actors using objectives to analyse plays for performance. How does this actually work? Well, let’s start simple: take an empty stage with a chair on it. Character A enters. Her objective is to sit on a chair. There is only one chair, so she sits. So far so good: not particularly dramatic, but at least the action is clear and the audience is now focussed on the character and the chair and is waiting for the next event.

 

Enter Character B. Her objective is also to sit on a chair. But wait—the chair is occupied—Character A is still sitting on it! Now the audience are watching with interest. How will Character B react? What will she do? What about Character A? How will she react?  And the key question for the audience: what will happen next? Without any long character explanations or convoluted plot twists and frenetic action, we’ve already set up an intriguing dramatic scenario.

Of course, both characters don’t have to have the same objective, as long as some conflict of purpose between them remains. Character A’s objective may well be to be the only person seated on stage—so what does she do when Character B decides to achieve her objective by going off to find another chair?

A character’s objective can change within a scene as they react to another characters’ actions.

 

For example, in the above scenario, Character A might decide that the only way of preventing Character B bringing on another chair is to block up the entrances to the stage. In that case, blocking up the entrances becomes her new unit objective (her new purpose), but the overall super-objective of being the only person seated on stage remains and dictates all her further actions and reactions.

This is the great thing about using objectives—they act as a vital point of reference to link all the action and dialogue for a character and prevent a scene, an act or, indeed, even a whole novel going merrily off on a tangent. Because if it threatens to go AWOL on you, just play the objective and bring it back. Remember the Trotzkind: what is my purpose? Why am I here and what am I trying to do?

Character and Plot 1: It’s my emotional arc and I’ll cry if I want to!

Why am I here and what am I trying to do? Two of the most important questions every actor has to ask themselves about the character they are playing, regardless of whether their character’s raison d’etre is as mundane as delivering a tea tray to the posh folks in the drawing room or as sublime as soliloquising on the meaning of life, the universe and why their mother married their uncle.

Let’s be honest, a lack of purpose is distracting for an audience: they should be concentrating on the play itself, not wondering why a particular character appears to be meandering aimlessly about the stage with all the air of an indecisive rabbit caught in headlights or stuck in the middle of a scene as though surplus to requirements. So answering those two questions is an important part of an actor’s job and actor training (via Stanislavsky) has come up with various methods to help them do so.

So what has all this got to do with emotional arcs? Apart, of course, from the fact that the same rules apply to characters in a novel or short story as to those in a play or film. Well, let’s look at the whole concept of emotional arcs to start with.

First up, what is an emotional arc? Essentially it can be defined as the emotional journey a character goes on throughout the course of a story: the growth, changes, denials and acceptances of the events and incidents they experience along the way and the emotional choices they make. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a character absolutely has to change by the end of a book—their tragedy might well be that for whatever reason(s) they choose not to grasp the opportunities for change offered to them, but from a reader’s perspective, watching them make those choices is where the emotional heart of a story lies. And to truly engage a reader, a story needs an emotional heart.

Here’s the traditional way of illustrating an emotional arc—a sort of character rainbow graph:

Emotional Arc 1

However, I like to think of it as more an emotional barometer than a graph. Don’t think of it in terms of the character feeling happy, sad, pleased or vexed—think instead of the emotional pressure being applied to a character at any given time in the story. At the height of the story, the emotional pressure should be at its most intense. And what gives us this increase in intensity as the plot develops is dealing with a character’s wants and yearnings—what Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book about writing fiction, From Where You Dream (with Janet Burroway), calls ‘the dynamics of desire’. Because the character’s yearnings, wants and desires are the driving force behind the events in the book, the momentum that will push the story forwards to its conclusion.

Which is where we return to acting. One of the ways in which an actor approaches a script for rehearsals is to break it down into ‘objectives’: ‘super-objectives’ for larger sections of the play such as Acts, or indeed the whole play itself, and ‘units’ for smaller scenes or moments of action.

By giving a character a want, goal or aim for every single moment and playing the sense of purpose generated by each objective, an actor can bring an energy and dynamism to performance which hooks an audience from the start and keeps them engaged throughout the play.

And what author wouldn’t want the same for his or her readers? So next time, I’ll look at how using objectives can help writers develop their characters and the useful knock-on effect on plot and structure.