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…

The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 1: PLOT

You may be familiar with this basic outline of what a plot graph looks like, and it is nice for writing a basic outline for a story.

Basic Plot

However, this is just a skeleton and we should add some layers to give it some flesh and bone.

What Plot Stands For:

People
Location
Objective
Tenacity

Just like The Four Pillars of Fiction, these are The Four Pillars of Plot that uphold the structure. You need people in a location with an objective to tell a story, along with some tenacity to make that story worth telling.

Fundamentally, you need characters to exist in a physical space in which to act out their drama, and drama only unfolds because these characters have conflicting goals and motivations that prevent each other from getting what they want.

Objective

They may either deliberately want to prevent each other from achieving their goals–as is the case with the simple black and white, good guy vs bad guy stories–or they may even be of the same alliance with differing opinions and preferences that get in the way of them finding unity.

When it comes to your plot’s objective, what kind of message do you want to convey about the world? Is there an aspect of reality you want to capture and illustrate? Is there an ideal version of the world and human behaviour you want to propose? What is it that you want to say about our state as a species?

That is your Objective.

Creators of art, whether they’re conscious of it or not, will always end up injecting their personal philosophy into their work and use it as a tool to convey the different angles in which they perceive people and the world at lage.

There’s no way around it, characters will always have an objective, whether miniscule or grand, they want to accomplish something. Even a story about a guy who just lies around his apartment all day has the objective of…wanting to do nothing and there are some deep rooted reasons beyond “because he just wants to.”

Maybe he’s depressed and doesn’t want to go out, or he’s been out too much and he needs time to himself? Objective in stories are inescapable.

So to add that layer to our basic plot graph skeleton, it should look like this:

Plot With Objective

Tenacity

But that’s still not enough. A story needs Tenacity. Some high (or sometimes low) stakes to keep you at the edge of your seat, biting your nails, waiting to see what happens next.

The rule in life applies to fiction as well: no risk, no reward. The characters need to be at risk of losing something or we won’t be interested in them striving for anything. Surely, there are stories that are risk and conflict free, but with risk comes curiousity. Without risk and conflict, there really is nothing to be gained from it.

We want to be wondering how characters will survive dire situations because we consume fiction to not only root for these portrayals of the human ideal, but also to live vicariously through them. It’s through stories where we can safely experience what it’s like for someone to commit to their Objective and have the Tenacity to achieve it.

Compare these two stories:

“I went to work, did my job because I wanted to make money, and then I came home.”

vs. “I went to work hungover, it was very busy, I could have called in sick, but I need to make rent so I can lie around my apartment all day.”

What’s the fundamental difference between these stories? They both have goals and motivations, but the second one has conflict that requires some overcoming. That’s what we relate to when we experience stories.

This is what a true plot graph would look like with my full PLOT system in place:Plot With Tenacity

I’ll let the graph speak for itself, for there’s much much more to cover in the next three entries.

Let me know if you would like for me to elaborate on any of the additions made in this chart, and I’ll gladly save the exploration of them in a future post.

Stay tuned for The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 2: Characters…

 

The Progress Journal

Have you ever been so consumed by a project that you can’t stop yourself from writing? It’s one of the greatest feelings a writer can have, knowing that you’re tapping into your potential and expressing yourself in the fullest. It mostly happens when you’ve found something you’re passionate about and it’s so important that you need to get it all out of your head and all on the page or it’ll keep you up at night.

medium_Writers_Block_ComicThen comes the point where the dreaded Writer’s Block stumps your motivation and creativity. It happens to the best of us. We all lose steam and start slowing down how many words we can write in a minute, and even drop in our daily word count goals. (If you don’t already have a word count goal, you should, and I’ll make a case for its importance in a later post.)

Following in one of the principles taught in The Free Fall Journal, the Progress Journal is the same in that you set a timer for 10-30 minutes and write as much as you can without stopping until the timer is up. The vast difference is a Progress Journal is project specific. So that means focusing on nothing but the project you’re stuck on and why.

If it has been days since you wrote a single word, or you pre-emptively feel a slow down coming on, set 10-30 minutes for free writing about your current project. Even if the first sentence consists of, “I don’t want to write,I don’t want to write, I don’t want to write…” Of course you do, you just need to take the time to explore why you’re not writing.

The purpose of this exercise is to get you into the groove of writing so that when you open up your project, you’ll feel more confident in continuing it. It has been my experience that thanks to keeping a Progress Journal, I have accomplished the following:

  • Planned the next chapter when I thought I had no idea what had to happen next or why
  • Discovered the intellectual or emotional reasons why I didn’t want to continue
  • Got back on track after a TWO MONTH long break from writing
  • Doubled and sometimes tripled my daily word count
  • Considered more plot points and character developments for later

I would suggest that the longer the break you’ve taken, or the more doubt you feel, the longer you should set the timer. It doesn’t have to be a full 30 minutes, but set the timer to 30 minutes and keep writing until you feel compelled to hop right onto your project. If you don’t, that’s okay too because as long as you’ve actually written about your project–making plans and obtaining insights on it–you’ll always have the Progress Journal entry to keep vibing off of until you are compelled to continue.

Even if you’re already writing everyday, a 10 minute Progress Journal entry is a sure way to connect with yourself and your project, keeping Writer’s Block at bay for yet another day.

Real Life Application and the Importance of This Exercise:

Keeping a Progress Journal is not exclusive to writing. You can still make one based on any other creative endeavours you have going on like a work or school project. It will help you get your bearings on what you need to do and how to approach it. Even at the personal level, you can use a Progress Journal to keep track on the habits and thought processes that permeate your daily life. What gets tracked can be observed, and having a Progress Journal to refer to can help you determine where you’ve been stuck before and help you avoid similar mistakes by recognizing how you got past hurdles before.

Do you have other motivation maintaining tips? Feel free to comment below and share the energy!

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.

Batman, despite all his violent brutality serves as a good example for a character rooted in their principles. He’s committed to fighting injustice, but will never ever kill criminals.

He believes anybody can be redeemed and sees the possible good in others all despite of the hatred he has for his parents’ murderer (which changes depending on which reiteration of the Batman story you read, watch, or play).

I could just as easily use a character who embodies the purist level of virtue, but I think Batman serves as the best example because he’s still fundamentally flawed being so addicted to enacting violence, and only stopping short of actual murder. It’s debatable whether or not he creates more villains than he puts away, but one thing is for sure: he is committed to his perpetual passion for fighting crime as his main mission.

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?

Crafting a Character Part 1: In the Now

As I mentioned in my post about Goal, Motivation, Conflict, character is the most rudimentary ingredient in fiction.

From the writing guide Revision & Self Editing by James Scott Bell, I’ll be hand selecting three fundamental considerations for every post in my Crafting a Character series. For the purpose of self-knowledge, you could also create a character sketch of yourself and dig into the following concepts to obtain a goldmine of introspection.

 

I am More Than Just an A/S/L!

The typical character sketch would include the age, sex, language, and other physical traits of a person. If you want to run deeper than a basic police profile, consider the following.

Point of Vulnerability: 

Knowing your character’s point of vulnerability can vastly shape your entire story. Figure out what their personal pitfalls are, what triggers their frustration the most. It will be one of the greatest deciding factors in  what they will react to and how.

From Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s point of vulnerability is his sense of courage. No matter what era Marty finds himself in throughout the epic trilogy, he often walks away from a challenge until Biff Tannen (or his ancestor) asks, “what’s the matter, [are] you chicken?”

Our spunky, time traveling hero turns around and responds with “nobody calls me chicken!” This point of vulnerability causes Marty to never backdown to almost every challenge presented by this long running lineage of bullies. It often gets him into more trouble as opposed to escaping it.

At the end of the epic trilogy, Marty learns to feel secure with his integrity, thus knowing when to back down from a needless challenge. Although this test of bravery had served him well for the first half of the series, this point of vulnerability and how he deals with it is revealed for what it is; an ego trip designed to make him feel brave, while costing him progression toward his more important goals.

What’s your point of vulnerability? What kinds of challenges do you receive relevant to it, and how do you react to them? 

Physical appearance and how they feel about it: 

cat-lion-mirrorPhysical appearance only describes how a person looks, but what’s more important than this basic fact is how they feel about it.

In Skinny by Donna Cooner, an obese high school senior named Ever is tormented by the whisperings of “Skinny,” a voice in her head who constantly berates her about her weight.

When Ever breaks the chair she’s sitting on at a school assembly, she decides that enough is enough. She goes under gastral bypass surgery to help control her food intake, as well as start an exercice regimen that helps her expand her self confidence by shrinking her waistline.

Even people of average or beyond average attractiveness can have issues with their physical appearance. (For the sake of argument, let’s just say there is an objective standard for beauty, even though it’s usually in the eye of the beholder.)

For instance; Perfect by Natasha Friend features a dynamic duo of 13 year old girls that have bulimia. Since the death of her father, the protagonist Isabelle developed the habit of binging on a ton of food and purging it right out.

Isabelle joins a bulimia outreach group where she is surprised to find Ashley Barnum there, the popular and pretty girl at school. She is shocked to discover that the girl she once revered as picture perfect also has body issues, even though both girls are actually skinny. In fact, if Ever encountered these girls, she’d be repulsed by their skinniness and eating disorder.

How do you feel about your physical appearance? Have you updated your wardrobe extensively, started working out, or are you simply secure with it? What role has it played in your life?

What Others Think

The old addage, “you shouldn’t care too much about what others think,” is coupled with the cliche of “it’s easier said than done.” To some degree, we all concern ourselves with how others perceive us, whether extensively or minimally.

The Evolution of Bruno Little More by Benjamin Hale follows the story of the world’s first English speaking chimpanzee. In Bruno’s memoir, he details his struggles between civilizing himself among humanity and keeping true to his primitive roots.

The more self aware he becomes, the more he begins to worry about how others perceive him. Since a ridiculous standard is forced upon him, being the first talking chimp and all, it becomes increasingly difficult to contain his baser urges while maintaing the eloquent and intelligent personality he has developed since acquiring language.

When our self perception clashes with what others think of us, it creates a divide between staying true to ourselves or conforming to the crowd–or in some masterfully crafted instances, finding a middle ground.

How much do you concern yourself with external opinions? Has it caused you to change your behaviour or have you developed any habits that help ward off the temptation to please others?

Stick around for…

Crafting a Character Part 2:  It’s All in the Past

Crafting a Character Part 3:  A Better Tomorrow

 

 

 

 

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!