Month: December 2017

One More Vector On Character In Story

Let’s suppose we’re playing chess on a lovely morning at my favorite beach spot in the whole world and the scene is everything great that I love: we’ve got nice drinks, we’re comfortably dressed, it’s warm but not hot, the ocean is literally right the hell over there, and we have no care in the world except we’re playing chess.

You move first. Say you advance the queen’s pawn two spaces. I do the same on my side. You move a knight, and again I do the same. You move the queen, so I move my queen. How long do you think we can keep copying each other before we either have no choice but to stop dancing around the fact that chess is about trying to take each other’s king or that we’re just going to go around and around until one of us gets sick of the game and walks away?

There’s a mathematical answer to that, but it’s not important right now. What is important, in fact the whole point of the chess story is that how we approach our pieces and the moves we make affects the board. Not structurally, but contextually, because while the board’s always going to have that many squares and we’ll always have 2 rooks and we’ll always know that the pieces operate in specific ways, how we move them changes how the next thing in the game can go. You move a bishop and all of a sudden, I can find myself cut off from a third of the board. I put you in check and now instead of pressing me with a knight, you’re on the defensive.

Chess is a great metaphor for storytelling because it is itself a story. The pieces are characters, their actions and goals and possibilities map to storycraft incredibly well. And like in chess, we need to see the whole board, and see the relationship between moves made, moves happening at the time, and moves in the future, along with whatever possibly responses they’ll get.

Today we’re going to look at characters by looking at the whole board. It’s time to dive into some character typing.

Everyone’s Got A Type, Right?

Character typing is the name for how we label characters both individually and collectively. Yes this is how we get ‘protagonist’, ‘antagonist’, ‘love interest’, but also ‘crazy cat lady’, ‘hyper sensitive complaint monkey’, or ‘dudebro’. That term “typecasting” comes out of this idea – that the same actor often gets put into the same role or type from one project to the next.

Let’s look at our chessboard. Whenever we label anything, we use that name, that word, as a way to distinguish it from the other material around it. On the chessboards we call pawns “pawns” because they’re not called “queens.” Each distinct kind piece has its own name, even if the population of them varies on that side of the board. Yes, we have more pawns than we do kings, and that gives the impression that the king is more rare and special.

Coming back to storycraft, this is the benefit of rarity – we don’t call every character operating on one side of the conflict “the protagonist” because, well, some just end up being pawns not kings. This is where big giant ensemble casts where there’s some forced egalitarian structure in place (bonus points if this was a learned-in-school-bullshit thing about power structures), because storytelling is meritocratic – the utility of the piece and how it acts in concert and reference to the other pieces in play makes it important as part of the greater strategy to succeed at the conflict of the story.

But before we can talk utility, we have to talk about both sides of the board, the big picture. See how each king has a pawn in front of it? We’d call those pawns “corresponding.” In story term’s this is where the same role is fulfilled on each side of the conflict. In Disney fare, this is making sure both the good guys and badguys have a sarcastic character, or in a soap opera that each side has the passive aggressive mother-in-law that I’m sure someone will “Yass queen” over (what does that mean, anyway? Can anyone explain it?).

Corresponding Characters

Simplest terms: What’s on one side exists in equal measure on the other side, and their utility or capacity to function in the story is equal too. In chess, both sides get pawns, and it’s agreed upon in advance and understood that all pawns are going to operate in the same way. In a story, the nerdy sidekicks stay in their expected ranges of actions and functions. When all of a sudden you give the nerdy sidekick the chance to be the badass, the moment in the story feels out of place – often played for comedy or played for tension. When we deviate from that norm, we get an heightened emotional response.

Here comes the first red flag with corresponding characters. You can pretty quickly bloat the story structure. Look how many pawns we have on the chessboard. If we do that in a story, that’s a lot of moving parts with a lot of overlap, because we don’t need the same number of characters on both sides to tell a complete story. Are we really gaining anything substantial if you add two more snarky best friends to your rom-com? A lot of these characters can get merged/collapsed into each other to make the amalgam character stronger for both the story and the audience’s benefit.

Don’t believe me – Tell me about Johnny’s Kobra Kai buddies in The Karate Kid. Yeah, I know that one kid who looks like Mark Hamill who is way down for putting Daniel-san in a bodybag, but can you tell me about the other ones? Yeah, there are other ones.

 

 

Yeah, I do think he looks like Mark Hamill a little.

Corresponding characters work better in tighter stories with smaller casts, where there’s less necessity of having all the corresponding pairs face-off. It’s because of their utility to story that they become important – they set up what other characters do and it doesn’t matter if there’s one across the field from them, they do what they do for their side and then they get out of the way. It’s worth challenging yourself to see if you actually need equity between sides in the story. The metaphoric scales don’t have to (And shouldn’t often) balance nearly as much or as often as you think they might.

Maybe you’re asking, “So what about in comics and movies where you have two characters that are sort of the same but not exactly the same, do they correspond?

No, they’re the next thing we’re going to talk about.

Reflected Characters

Flash and Anti-Flash. Green Lantern and Sinestro. Rockford and Marcus Hayes.

Reflected characters are pairings where the members of the pairs aren’t exactly the same, but even given their changes, they’ve got the same utility. Looking back to our chessboard, we’ve got two bishops per side, but one can only move along white squares and the other black, though both move along the diagonal.

Reflected characters are built to be complimentary but not necessarily to the degree where they cancel each other out. It’s part of their inherent tension that they exist for the other to have something to bounce off of, and it gives the audience something to have an emotional connection to and a stake in. If this character controls water, and this other one controls fire, who’s gonna get the upper hand in a certain situation? Guess they’ll have to read and find out.

The downside and potential hazard of reflected characters is nullification, where they do cancel each other out in terms of story utility and scene consequences. Okay, Fire Lady meets Water Lady, and neither gets the upper hand, so what, they just sort of circle each other a few times and then walk away, or worse, they’re going to go back and forth until some other character steps in and actually does something in the scene?

Did you really think this wasn’t getting used?

How is that going to give the audience something to care about, especially if their possible confrontation gets a lot of hype in advance?

The solution for reflected characters is in the context and the situation where they clash. Yes, in blank space, the two will cancel each other out (and I know I’ve framed this as superheroes, but this is also true for two lawyers or two siblings or two rival chicken farmers or whatever), but characters don’t live in blank spaces. The world around them reacts and encourages them to react and because each character (no matter how reflected) is their own character with a different moral code, skill set, belief structure, or fear and goal, the world around them and their choices provides them opportunities so that they don’t end up like that chess match at the beginning of the blogpost where we’re just copying each other and not really playing one another.

Two more to go, but we can put away the chessboard.

Analogues

Analogous characters are pairings of characters and tropes or other representations that share similar backgrounds or thematic material. Analogues work best when you know the tropes and the templates that founded the particulars of the character in question. What do I mean?

Philip Marlowe, Jim Rockford, Matlock, Black Panther, Rocky … they’re all noble heroes in a world often sloped or staged against them. If you understand the formulae in and around the noble hero, you can essentially hot-swap the hero and the hero’s story around to create an overall different but somehow familiar story. This combined familiarity-difference helps the audience relate to the new material by having existing material as a home base.

A word of caution here- don’t fall down the I-need-to-know-everything-about-the-trope-before-I-can-write-it-hole. The INTKEATTBICWI hole is huge and jagged and it’s a fast track to paralyzing production. You don’t need to know everything up front, and you don’t even need everything by the time you’re done. Just like writing is a process of stratification, so too is developing and researching the ideas that will inform what goes on those pages. Research enough to give you a starting point, then start writing and let what you’ve written along with what you already know to let you know what to research and write next. Keep your story on track and your research relevant, and you’ll run into fewer instances of getting stuck.

Analogues work great when you put the focus on the story being told, not who’s in the story. This isn’t to say the characters are disposable, but good analogue use means that any and all characters are machine-crafted to fit into a larger puzzle that deserves focus, no matter how cool they are as a singular component. And because they’re rooted in tropes, you never have to go too far to see what boundaries or functionality a character is supposed to have. The Barfly is always going to supply information to the Detective more than they’d make threats (that’s the Goon’s job), and the Wise Mentor is always going to have more experience than any Fish Out Of Water (because then they wouldn’t be very wise, nor would the fish be out of water).

Knowing these things give us a box to operate in, and whenever we’re lost, a set of basal instructions for how a  character is going to default as well as how we can subvert expectation within and around the trope to add a little spark to a flat moment in development.

Okay, last one.

Variants

We know these. These are the Spocks-with-Goatees, the alternate universe versions of the bookworm who’s a party girl, the version of the hero twisted by tragedy.

A variant the same hero with some moderate to significant changes due to changes in backstory. In our version, the character made that left at Albuquerque, but the variant sees them going right. Or we take the character and go a bit farther out on the limb, but whatever, we can pass it off as something cool and special that can swim in some what-if waters for our story.

 

Yes, sometimes this does go too far.

 

The advantage of offering a variant within a story or series goes beyond the character being cooler or different (in hacky cases, this basically makes you a new character you can do-over, but I think we’re all trying to be better than that), because it drives to the audience how important choices and outcomes were. Yes, at the time it was a big emotional deal for the character, and we can later underscore that by calling it back by showing the variant what-could-have-happened if they didn’t make that choice.

This is Jimmy Stewart having never been born. Or Michael Caine being visited by 3 Muppets. It’s fun when it has a purpose, but it can often go beyond fan service and just sort of drag everything to a halt just so it can get its few moments of attention. Also, it’s worth pointing out that depending on build-up, the actual thing will often fall short compared to how it could have been.

I love you, but there’s a lot that could have gone differently. At some point I think we should deconstruct you …

 

Conclusion

So why bring this all up? Because seeing the whole chessboard, seeing the big picture and being about to discuss the components as though they’re distinct and parts of a whole is a critical skill. It comes up when you’re interviewed or when you’re talking to an editor or agent about the story. Seeing the parts and understanding its flow means you’re able to participate in its betterment in a greater way than just looking at text for proper grammar and punctuation.

Add this stuff to your writer’s toolbox, and next week, we’ll add some more.

 

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in by request, character stuff, revisiting an idea, 0 comments

Plot Triangles and Circles

This all started because as I was cleaning up the office, I found a portable hard drive with a copy of Trapped In The Closet on it. Say what you like about how absurd the story and the videos are, but there’s a plot there. As for whether or not it’s a “good” plot we can debate, but I’m going to tell you that I’m gonna side with the guy who made remix of Ignition fresh and hot out his kitchen more often than not – it’s entertaining while being vaguely in the ballpark of coherent, which is what we ask out of a plot.

The original draft of this post was a rundown of the Trapped In The Closet beat structure, but over time I started seeing that it wouldn’t do any good to bring up the midget and being deep in the streets without first making sure we’e talking the same language in plot.

What Is A Plot?

A plot is a series of events and actions that occur in an order that help resolve a question, conflict or challenge. If that conflict has to do with character, it’s a character plot. If it has to do with the main crux of the story, it’s called story plot.

All Plot Has A Structure

Plot ideally escalates and resolves according to divisions in stories we recognize as Acts. And in school, we most often see two different kind of Act structures: 3-Act and 5-Act.

Got this straight out of a textbook

 

Notice any similarities?

Look at both of these, they each deal with what’s called the Triangle or in some cases the Mountain, where the middle of the story is filled with the plot’s escalation, climax and resolution. The degree to which we delineate the start, rise, and resolution helps determine if we’re talking 3 or 5 Acts, but there’s no real way past the Triangle, or is there?

Here Comes the Circle

There’s this thing called the monomyth, the hero’s journey, Campbell’s structure … it’s all the same thing. It’s the progression of a hero through their story. It can be represented as a circle.

There’s a prettier version in color, but I like this version too.

The Triangle is gone. So are the clear markers about where the Acts start and end.  It’s a visual representation of progress more than it’s a sense of scale (the triangle has a high point that’s the tallest thing in the image, so that must correlate to the climax).

So Which Is Better?

Stop that. Stop thinking one is better, or that if you use one or the other you’re making some kind of profound statement as to what sort of writer you are, or how literary or whatever tilted bullshit is circulating in the writing media you consume. There is no better. They each have their uses. Each has situations where one will produce a more linear plot with fewer creative difficulties, so at best you can say one is situationally better than another, but no, there’s no Plot Thunderdome or Quickening to determine the best kind of plot.

And if you’re asking, yes there are other models of plot, and the one I teach clients will be up on Patreon starting this week.

These are just tools, and tools are only as potent as the person using them, no matter what they’re using them for.

I’ve set all this out so that we can get on the same page. This is going to be our common language for what we’re talking about today.

Plot Fuel, Plot Momentum, Plot Roadblocks

If you’ve ever said or thought, “I suck at plotting.” I will tell you that you don’t. You think you do, but that’s because you’re defining plot like it’s built out of something other than the rest of the storystuff – decisions and intention.

What you choose based on what you intend is the fuel that drives plot. All plots. Characters. Stories. Series. All of it.

Let’s nip the “my characters don’t follow my plot” idea in the bud – You made your characters. You made the plot. You make all the decisions as to what happens or what doesn’t happen. If one train of thought isn’t working out, you have the full ability to change part(s) of it until it does work out. Being uncomfortable with the responsibility for your creation is something you should come to terms with before proceeding down any creative path.

Intentions (like “I intend to tell a story about A meeting B and then doing X” or “This is a story about one woman’s struggle to find an identity as a beekeeper and office drone.”) help frame decisions, and as the story progresses you approach the subsequent with questions of “And therefore what” “And then” “Which leads to what happening and why?

These questions help build momentum in the story, because they lead you to make more new decisions in an orderly fashion rather than spraying thought shrapnel all over the place.

What does that look like? This:

Character realizes they’re trapped in a stifling job and their real passion is beekeeping.”
And then…
They try for weeks to get fired from their job, only to be promoted again and again for being ‘outside the box.'”
Therefore…
Her rival at work discovers her plan to get fired and tries to reveal it to the company
Which leads to what happening and why?
During the big merger talks, everything is exposed and…

What these questions do is help develop momentum because the later actions build off the earlier ones. It’s not a quick jamming together of disparate things that sound individually cool under the idea that if individually they’re cool, so collectively they must be double-extra-cool. You can prove this false by looking at movies that jam in extra villains hoping that more badguys make for more opportunities for awesome to happen, like in the Batman movies pre-Nolan, or comparing the plot development of the Star Wars prequels to the OG trilogy.

What you’re looking for is sequential, because that’s how you build momentum.

But now we have to talk about a roadblock.

No, not that guy.

I’m talking about the manufactured obstacles you put in the way of the story, without thinking they’re obstacles. The ideas that seem like they’d work or be cool or contribute to a better overall story.

This is the “I could have a character who…” or “What if this also happened while this other thing was happening…” additions that can come across like impulse additions or things that got included because they’re supposed to “help a book sell”

These might be great ideas when thought of as a bubble or a passing thought while you’re putting lunch in your face, but as with anything developmental, you have to ask how does this new thing work with the existing, and is it really worth it to tear apart what I’ve already got, just to add something that either doesn’t need a payoff or needs a payoff that profoundly impacts what I’ve got and where I wanted to go in first place.

I’ll offer two examples, one more serious than the other, so you can see what I mean.

Serious example: Add a love interest for Charlie Bucket into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

There isn’t a romantic subplot in the movie. And while it may sound interesting to suddenly take one of the contestant kids and make them fall in love with our protagonist Charlie, so that ultimately when it’s time for this love interest to be proven unworthy of winning (which is the heart of the movie), we feel some extra level of sting when they meets their candy-themed demise. It sounds like this should be really compelling. It would let you write scenes with dialogue, and you’d get a look at what Charlie is feeling and you could maybe even talk about loss and grief once the love interest goes out but Charlie soldiers on. Sounds like a great idea.

Until you look at what the story is built on and see that adding something no matter how cool it might be to stretch your writing chops ultimately would involve really tough third act resolution. What if the love interest makes it to the end of the story? Are they still in the contest? Would they co-win? Wouldn’t that mean you’d have to make the secondary character a primary one to justify the story’s logic? Is it ultimately important for the story about childhood kindness, empathy and goodness to have to grapple with substantial emotional topics beyond the fact that a kid just watched another kid turn into a blueberry or fall down a hole or shrink and be taken away to be stretched? Aside from being a thing for the writer to write, what would that contribute to the story’s greatest plot-message?

Less serious example: What if in addition to blowing up the Death Star, Luke also has to overcome a fear of podracing?

One of the big traps people find themselves in is thinking that their plot isn’t enough, that their characters aren’t doing enough and that every element from small to large has to tie together. Now this gets a little tricky, because people read that and think I’m somehow writing a permission slip to have wild plot holes and loose ends. I’m not. I’m saying that you don’t need to tie every element back to some other part of itself or its package like some plot Ouroboros in order for the predominant plot to make “better” sense or fit “nicer” into the big picture of all the stories and ideas you’re presenting.

In the podracign example, trying to tie a thematic nod to a series element (podracing) to the rather focused narrative (blow up the Death Star) can result in slowing down pacing and making any additions (like a new podracing scene) feel like it’s unnecessary — because it would be. To add a bell or whistle when the story stands on its own won’t help make the story better, just different.

 

The point I’m making will all this — no matter what method you use to plot, no matter what that plot shakes out to be, every element in it, has to, in some positive way, contribute to the story’s completion or its depth. Depth isn’t meant in a pretentious way, I mean it in a “this has to add something that can connect to other material in a substantial way, that enriches existing material in some may other than cosmetics or fan service.”

 

I absolutely have more to say about plotting, so look for more next week. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in plot development, plot stuff, 0 comments