The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 2: Characters

Your story’s objective is only as powerful as the characters that convey it.

Each member of the cast must represent opposing sides of the main argument, thus providing several different angles to perceive your story’s philosophy.

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I’ve already written a couple of other posts about characters, both of which you can check out here for more:

Crafting a Character Series

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

–but for today, let’s focus on why characters  should be as extensively explored as I have in previous posts.

Me, Myself, and Who Am I?

Fundamentally, every story’s main character is on a quest to achieve self-knowledge. This goes for both putty characters and pebble characters. Think of throwing a pebble at a wall, the physical structure of the pebble remains the same, whereas throwing a blob of putty will cause it to reform.

That’s what characters experience; being thrown against a wall, so to speak, and they either change or don’t change throughout the course of your story. Either way, their purpose remains the same; to argue for one or several sides of the objective.

I know that there’s a plethora of stories where morality is ambiguous (and that they’re usually much more interesting), but for the sake of simplicity, let’s take the basic concept of Good vs Evil to illustrate how characters argue for each side. And by argue, that could mean verbal or physical combat, or in just the way that they conduct themselves.

Generic Good Guy is a law abiding citizen, doing some good for his friends, family, and community. Everything he does in the story is for the benefit of others or for himself without hurting anybody except possibly…

The Typical Bad Guy whose sole purpose is to watch the world burn. He causes destruction everywhere he goes, expressing his preference to be evil and not care about hurting others because it’s what he intends anyway. Generic Good Guy may hurt other people unintentionally, but he usually owns up to it, while Typical Bad Guy has no remorse for the pain he causes.

In this basic story dynamic of Good vs Evil, the argument is (usually) that good triumphs over evil, all the time.

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Who Would You Be Without Adversity?

To convey this, Typical Bad Guy will have to test Generic Good Guy on the grounds of his ethics, philosophy, strength, and integrity by throwing obstacles in his way. Perhaps Generic Good Guy’s objective is to a safe and adjusted life, but TBG is getting in the way of that by hurting GGG’s social circle and disrupting his day to day life.

It is through adversity where Generic Good Guy will discover or grow into a force for good. If he’s a putty character, maybe he’s a weak underdog type who has to train in order to defeat the almight Typical Bad Guy. Or perhaps he’s a pebble character that has strength and prowess, but hasn’t had the chance to exercise any of it because he hasn’t been challenged yet.

In either case, the end result is the same. The character has developed some level of self-knowledge by fighting for what he believed in, whether he won or lost against his opposition. He now knows what strength he’s capable of, or made himself capable of it through hard work and determination.

Pouring Some Sugar in Generic Brand Oatmeal

Now, that was a very very basic example I had to keep simple in order to elaborate on a more complex concept. Stories these days have many more layers in their examination of the objective, and even more layers in their characterization.

Ultimately, characters are meant to represent several sides of an objective, and they do that by trying to express their personal preferences, only to have them attacked or dismissed by the other characters.

The key ingredient to conveying Objective is having characters disagree with each other and fight over who gets to assert their preference, or if any common ground can be met between them in less black and white type of stories.It is through disagreements between characters that we are given the opportunity to passively experience different sides of an argument–and decide for ourselves which characters we agree with, if any at all.

Stay tuned for The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 3: Setting…

Crafting a Character Part 3: A Better Tomorrow

We’ve taken a look at how our present lives are defined by our pasts, and to come full circle, we will delve into breaking the shackles of history and achieving freedom in the future.

As always, characters are driven by Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. All three keys play an important part into unlocking the potential that resides in all of us, fictional and real people alike. Here is how GMC is considered in a character profile:

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

Main Desire: 

Desires drive all action, purpose, and intention. Having a clear understanding of your desires is fundamental to understanding what steps you need to take toward leading a fulfilling life, as well as providing value to the rest of the world.

Even if your initial desire is what propels you into action, the desire may change over time or evolve to something else based on how much you want to achieve. Sometimes you do get what you want and realize you desire so much more than you ever realized.

#16thingsithoughtweretrueSuch is the case for Morgan from #16Things I Thought Were True by Janet Gurtler. After her mother suffers a heart attack, Morgan gathers the courage and tenacity to ask about the biological father that was absent throughout her childhood.

At the start of the story, Morgan sets out to gain 5000 Twitter followers, while having 0 friends in the physical world because she feels alienated after having an embarassing video of her dancing in boy’s underwear going viral.

Due to certain circumstances, Morgan is forced to allow two of her co-workers, Adam and Amy, to accompany her on a road trip to seek out her biological father.

Although confronting him is her initial desire (as well as amassing a ton of Twitter followers), Morgan develops a bond with Adam and Amy; two co-workers she had barely liked or understood at a personal level before their heart warming–and sometimes gut wrenching–road trip together. Her true desire all along had been garnering connectivity, and it didn’t have to come from her long lost father.

What are your main desires? Have you achieved them only to realize there was something more meaningful out there? What steps are you taking today in order to achieve these goals in the future?

Major Strength:

Another important aspect of characterization is having strengths that contrast a character’s vulnerabilities. Many protagonists are victims of circumstance which drives us to sympathize with them, but in order for us to even want to root for them, they need to have major strengths that can help make them more appealing.

In the hit series How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby goes on a seemingly unending search for his soul mate. He starts off as a desperate lovelorn who just can’t catch a break because his desire often becomes a part of his major flaws.  Having this desire starts off as a way to avoid himself and have him develop the mentality that he is nothing without somebody to love.

However, throughout the course of this dramatic rom-com, we learn that he has a big heart and he’s deeply invested in his friends. The love that he provides for them transforms into love for himself and discovering his own value as an individual before meeting The Mother/Tracy McConnell.

Ted Mosby’s strength is his ability to love and his hopeful spirit, but it took transmuting it for himself and for what he already had in order to achieve his goal; meeting a woman who more or less resembles a combination of all his friends.

What are your major strengths? How do they play a role in helping you achieve your desires? 

Perpetual Passion and Main Mission:

The mark of a strong character is intertwining their personal desires with their major strength in order to contribute something to the world at large. People who want to make a difference in the world, or at least in their immediate world (interpersonal relationships), are always challenged by people who want to keep things the same and not improve the state of the world.

Having a mission and commiting to it is admirable because it’s the ultimate test of character to offer your gift to the world, despite of its initial reluctance to accept it–when ironically, the world may so desperately be in need of your gift.

stefavatar_400x400For this one, I’m not even going to reference fiction because I would much rather mention my favourite philosopher Stefan Molyneux. His gift to the world is to provide logic, reason, and love–true love that is founded on principle and virtue.

In a world filled with propaganda and the lack of principles, many disagree with what Stefan has to say about state of the world and personal relationships.

Although the point of philosophy is to test and reason out moral principles, Stefan’s wide variety of opposition are rather concerned with disagreeing with his character and opinions, as opposed to any of the philosophical arguments that he provides. All too often, he is confronted with people who only end up attacking him personally instead of making reasoned arguments that barely challenge him as much as he challenges the status quo.

For centuries, philosophy has been regarded as a discipline that only deals in abstraction and mental gymnastics. But the way Stefan presents philosophy in a practical and testable way is what makes his mission one of the most admirable and important passions in the world–ultimately outdoing the need for me to reference a fictional character. So agree with him or not, what’s more important is thinking critically about the world we inhabit and how we treat one another.

What are you passionate about? What’s your main mission? What mark do you want to leave in the world and why do you think it’s important?

Goal, Motivation, Conflict

One of the most important driving forces of fiction is characterization. Without character, there is no story.

The reason why many of us are drawn to the art of storytelling (be it from film, music, TV, theatre or books) is because we like to relate to the characters who have clear goals, motivations, and conflicts to help build their character arcs.

It may not be clear to them–at least not right away at the beginning of a story–but as an audience we can easily identify with these concepts because as human beings, we all have unique goals, motivations, and conflicts to be confronted with in our own lives.

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Writing is just like anything in life, it not only requires practice to make perfect, but also preparation. You can not just run a marathon without having gone on your own runs every morning to exercise them leg muscles. Well, you could, but you would most likely not have the endurance or capacity to do so. If you do, then you are a unique super human whom I will bow down to and feed grapes to from now until the end of eternity.

To help prepare your character for the journey that lies ahead, you outline their goals, motivations, and conflicts in a chart that looks a little something like this:GMC Chart

This GMC Chart is designed to help you gain clarity in undertanding exactly what your character wants, why they want it, and the conflicts that will arise to help challenge them. Without pressure, challenge or conflict, characters cannot grow. Think about your own life for a second and all the hardships you may have faced. Can you imagine who you would be today without having had overcome them?

“Pressure makes diamonds.” – George S. Patton

Let’s take a quick look at the purpose of each section of the chart and why they’re important.

WANTS TO/GOAL: This is where the clear cut desire is stated and outlines what the character wants to achieve. At the internal level, it’s what they would like to achieve at a personal level and  how they will grow as a person. The external level describes the effect they would like to have in their immediate world, or the entire world at large depending on the size and scale of your story.

BECAUSE/MOTIVATION: Why does the character have this desire? Internally, what do they struggle with or wish to improve on within themselves? Externally, what is it about their current circumstances that drive them to action? Once a goal is set, they need to have logical (sometimes illogical) reasons why they desire these things or we won’t understand why we should root for them in the first place.

BUT/CONFLICT: The but is the meat of fiction (hehehe) where the character will face obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals. Internally, what holds them back from moving forward? Ego, lack of confidence, vanity? Externally, what are the circumstances in the empirical world that stand in their way? Could it be a family member, a friend, or a flat out foe? This is the most essential aspect of a story for the reasons I stated above. Without challenge, there is no growth.

SO: And finally, the so describes the actions the character will take in order to overcome (or attempt to overcome) their challenges and grow from them. Internally, what will be the ultimate personal growth gained from this battle of attrition? Externally, what effect will their overall actions have on their friends, family, and the other characters in their proximity?

Have they gotten what they wanted, or have their desires changed throughout the course of the  story?

Let’s take a quick look at that question in greater depth. Typically, a character should have a desire that gets fulfilled at the end of the story in a linear fashion. The internal and external goals stay the same and they receive the right challenges they need to achieve their goals.

However, sometimes the internal goals change while the external goal stays the same. For instance, a man who was bullied in school may have the external goal to become a teacher for the internal purpose of regaining his lost power. Then maybe he confronts one of the bullies from his past and that bully actually apologizes for his past behaviour. And so this character may remain a teacher, but instead of using his position for power, his internal goal transforms into being an inspiring source of education for his students.

On the flip side, sometimes the internal goal may stay the same, but the external effect will change like for a woman who’s internal goal is to help people. She may start out as a real-estate agent and fulfill her goal by helping people find afforadble housing in areas convenient to their lifestyles, but as the story goes onward, she loses interest in flipping houses. Though since she still has the yearning burning desire to help people, perhaps she becomes a self-help author and motivational speaker to inspire people on how to live instead of where to live.

How to apply this to your life: 

The GMC chart is both used for the long-term and short-term clarification for what drives a character. A GMC chart can be made for an entire story’s overall narrative, but it’s also recommended that writers chart out the GMC for each chapter so there’s logical cohesion and progression throughout the story. You can do the same for the overall trajectory of your life and help understand your own goals and motivations, and then help identify the buts that butt in your way of achieving them. If you know what prevents you from your goals, you’ll have better understanding in what you need to do to overcome those conflicts.

“Knowing is half the battle!” – GI Joe. 

 Why this exercise is important:

Like writing the narrative of a character’s life, you can take control over your own with the GMC chart by identifying what your desires are and why they are important to you. Take the time to understand what’s holding you back in terms of your own inner-critic, as well the outer-critics in your life, and you can formulate an action plan to overcome them. It may be something as large as cutting poisonous people from your life or attempting to repair and transform your relationships–or it may be something as simple as stepping out of your own way.

 

Download the: GMC Template here!