Very Young Writers: What Characters Do

Hello again, VYWs (and all other writers)!

This is totally unrelated, but  do you remember Ship’s Log by Brandis, that little Alen’s War fanfic I wrote (except it’s canon because I wrote it and I’m the author)? Well, school is done, and I finally wrote part two on Figment. Go check it out.

Now, let’s talk for a minute about characters. You probably know by now that I like ranting about what makes a good or bad character, but writers rarely talk about the basics. However, the question is worth asking: what jobs should characters do in a story?

That depends on many things. Characterization has a lot of sub-categories and requirements, and not every character adheres to every one of those requirements (after all, sometimes we break the rules).  There is so much more to writing characters than I can put down here… but it can be simplified. You can find a few components in almost every single character ever written, and those components just depend on what role the character plays in the story. For now, let’s look at the two most basic roles: the protagonist and the antagonist.

The Protagonist (usually, the good guy)

The protagonist is the main character (who is probably also the hero and your viewpoint character). A protagonist should do three things:

  1. Be likeable
  2. Work to reach a goal
  3. Have a “eureka!” moment where they discover the truth

Now for some explanation. Being likeable just means that readers have to like the character; otherwise, they won’t stick around to see what happens to him. A good example is Gru from Despicable Me (who isn’t actually a good guy!). He may be a cruel, mastermind-y sort, but he’s likeable because he wants to prove himself to his mom and, later, to his little girls. That’s something with which we can all identify.

Having a goal means that the protagonist doesn’t sit around and do nothing, but stands up and tries to get the thing that she wants. For example, Heidi (of Heidi fame, obviously) has one goal: to make people’s lives better, and she works toward it no matter where she is. She makes friends of the goatherd Peter, encourages Clara to learn to walk, and brings her grandfather back to God. As a reward for working toward her goal, Heidi ends up with a group of lifelong friends.

The “eureka” moment is a scene that happens somewhere between the middle and the ending of the story, when the protagonist has to realize the truth she has been missing all this time. Rapunzel from Tangled is a good example. She thinks her dream was to discover what the real world is like, but at last she realizes that she was really searching for her true family all along. And she finds it, with the king and queen and with Flynn/Eugene.

Antagonist (usually, the bad guy)

An antagonist, usually a villain, has a few different requirements:

  1. Be understandable
  2. Cause trouble for the protagonist
  3. Be a different version of the protagonist

Being understandable means that while we don’t necessarily have to like the bad guy (although likeable bad guys are fun too), we should understand why he does what he does. For example, nobody actually likes the Elvenking from The Hobbit book. He’s generally nasty and not very helpful to Thorin and Company. But we do understand why the Elvenking wants Thorin’s gold: he thinks that the dwarves of the Mountain had stolen some gems from him, and he wants them back.

Causing trouble means that the antagonist’s goal is totally opposed to the protagonist’s. For example, in the movie Brave, Queen Elinor (who is an antagonist, but not really a bad guy) wants Merida to marry into one of the clans to preserve peace. That’s opposite to what Merida wants, namely, to stay single and let her hair flow in the wind as she rides through the glen firing arrows into the sunset. (Did you see what I did there??) Neither of those goals is absolutely wrong or absolutely right, but they are completely opposite to each other. This is what causes the conflict.

Being a different version of the protagonist means that the antagonist should be like the hero in some way, only gone wrong. This is a little harder to do, but it adds depth to a story. Star Wars is a spectacular example. Luke and Anakin both have the chance to be the Chosen One, the one who would restore balance to the Force. They both save the galaxy multiple times, they both train as Jedi with Obi-Wan/Ben Kenobi… they even use the same lightsaber. But Anakin chooses the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader, while Luke chooses to do the right thing. Same character type, different decisions- like two sides of a coin.

So that sums it up.

There are many more ways to characterize the protagonist and antagonist (like backstory ghosts, character moments, and quirks) and many more kinds of characters (like antiheroes, impact characters, and love interests), and obviously I can’t list them all here. But the protagonist and antagonist are a good start. Characterization is complex, but it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately, your characters should seem real enough for the reader to go on the journey with them, and if these lists of three components help you do that, awesome.

Now get back to writing!

Two Reasons I Liked Rogue One

Reminder: Don’t forget about free books!

I feel like this post doesn’t need much of a prelude. Chances are that anyone reading has already seen the newest Star Wars story and doesn’t care about reviews or spoilers, so this is basically a structured rant about a fun adventure/war film. Because I like that sort of thing.

Cinematography…

So yes, I’ve seen Rogue One! I actually watched it about a week before I went to see Doctor Strange (which of course resulted in me wondering why Kaecilius looked so familiar), because although I’m not a Star Wars fan per se, the trailers caught my interest. It didn’t seem like the traditional huge space epic, but more like a smaller and more intricate war movie, which quite honestly appealed to me.

Now you’ve probably heard all the complaining: the pacing was off, the battles were tactless, the characterization was stuffy… and I can definitely agree with most of it. But in spite of all that, I still enjoyed the film. I can’t explain my thoughts precisely in a single sentence, but the closest I can get is this: Despite its mechanical flaws, Rogue One is a genius story idea that taught me two big lessons about writing. And- you guessed it- we’re talking about those two lessons today.

Cue the “blog post proper” theme song…

Reason #1: Most epic use of a plot hole.

Or a ventilation hole, come to think of it.

Anytime I think of plot holes, I think of How it Should Have Ended. Have you heard of it? HISHE is a comedy channel on YouTube that parodies popular movies by asking the question, “Why didn’t they just do X instead of Y?” Thus, they rewrite plots and plot holes and totally change the ending of a movie, to everyone’s amusement. (Note: I didn’t provide a link because HISHE isn’t always clean, and I don’t want to be yelled at for letting little kids watch it. Sorry, kids.)

Now as a moviegoer and fan, I appreciate such parodies and laugh when they humorously point out gaping plot holes. But, as a storyteller, I have a certain fear gnawing at the back of my mind- how does any writer end up with such glaring flaws? Authors’ worst nightmares consist of two things: plot holes, and no book sales. And if we overlook our plot holes, we also get no book sales. Lose-lose.

Well, now let’s talk about the genius of Rogue One.

I imagine that the brainstorming session looked something like this. A bunch of Star Wars fans who also had a thing for storytelling looked at one of the most famous plot holes of all time: why the heck was there a hole in the Death Star that led to the core of the machine? The question had been plaguing fans for years, and these storytellers dared to answer it: The hole was there because the rebels put it there.

For those of you who don’t know, the whole concept of Rogue One is that the guy who designed the Death Star realized too late the destruction it could bring, and he built in a secret weakness with the intent that the rebels could find it and destroy the weapon. Now, the daughter of that engineer and her team of rebels are out to find the plans and bring them to the Resistance.

Thus, what used to be a gaping plot hole becomes an epic heist film.

mind blown

Yeah, that’s how to tell a story.

Lesson learned: seek out and work with the plot holes. They can help you tell a better story.

Reason #2: The bravely creative ending.

Hope.

*spoilers warning spoilers warning spoilers warning*

Let us not mince words.

Everyone dies. 

Seriously, how insane is that? Let’s just leave aside the terrifying awesomeness of Darth Vader- although that, too, was a fantastic scene that no one will ever forget. Think about it; the last twenty or so minutes of the movie is literally a series of death scenes and sequels, which, I think, is quite a fitting end to a war movie about a Resistance team. It’s probably my favorite aspect of the movie: I got to watch a group of regular, courageous people give their lives for what they believed in. It drove the theme home so hard. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

You probably won’t believe this, but at the beginning of the movie, I took a bite of popcorn and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if they all died on this mission so that the rebels could save the galaxy? -But no, that’s crazy. No way would that work.”

And then it happened! Intentionally or not, the story set up a wild idea in my mind and then fulfilled it beyond all expectations.

sherlock benedict cumberbatch sherlock approves

But I have to stop and ask myself, how did that production meeting go? We writers know how it is when we kill just one character; what about a whole cast? There’s always that one lady who despises watching characters die- death is heartwrenching! There’s the money guy who’s still holding out for a sequel- no sequels unless you have characters! And then the focus groups analyst who says that killing characters makes people angry- look what happened to The Walking Dead!

Yet, despite all the craziness surrounding it, the production team went for it. And am I ever glad they did.

It’s the bravest endings that stick with us. Resolutions needn’t always be bleak, nor even tragic, but they should always be a fitting close to the tale we’re telling. And sometimes that means asking questions that sound insane:

What if the Greeks built a giant wooden horse?

What if Romeo and Juliet actually kill themselves?

What if the whole team dies on the planet?

Lesson learned: Ask the crazy questions; go for the extreme endings. They may turn out to be the most memorable stories. 

Well, here we are. No matter if you liked Rogue One or not, I think we can all take a lesson or two from the imaginations behind it, as well as learn from its failures. That’s the thing about movies- there has never been a film that can’t teach us something about writing. And now, thanks to one particular Star Wars Story, I’m inspired to be a braver writer than before.

Why That Movie Wasn’t a Failure

I’ve been confused for some time about the complaints of Star Wars fans of The Force Awakens. You have probably heard them…

“That’s not a story; that’s a pitiful fraction of a story.”

“There wasn’t enough character development!”

“How can I understand this story? The movie raised more questions than it answered.”

http://forums.anandtech.com/showthread.php?page=2&t=2139356

But the people who say these things really mean them. These are die-hard Star Wars geeks who were anticipating another good movie, but somehow J.J. Abrams didn’t meet their expectations. They aren’t trolls; they are disappointed fans.

I knew from day one that these arguments had some underlying logical problem, but I could not pinpoint what that problem was, nor why people seemed to think their complaints were legitimate. And the dichotomy wasn’t limited to Star Wars. People might well have blurted the same things about The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit trilogies, but that wouldn’t have made sense, either. Somehow I knew that the “half-story” arguments were true for some trilogies and not for others. But why?

Then it struck me: there are two kinds of trilogies, with completely different functions and rules. I call them the triplet and the triad.

The Triplet: Three Stories in Three Parts

In music, a triplet is three notes in a row, one after another. They are all equal in that each gets a third of a beat, but otherwise they are distinct notes. They might have different tones, they might vary in loudness, or some might be played staccato and the others legato; they all give off a different sound. They are three separate notes. Yes, actually, I am a part-time music teacher. How did you know?

Some trilogies are like triplets. They are all linked together somehow- maybe having the same characters, setting, or theme- but each movie or book in the triplet is a complete story by itself. Often these trilogies begin with one wildly successful story that inspires the author to make more.

The first Star Wars trilogy is a good example of a triplet. A New Hope was originally intended to be a stand-alone film, but its monstrous success led to two sequels (and, unfortunately, three prequels). In keeping with the first film, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi were both written so that they could also be stand-alones. Each film has the same characters, but each one tells a different story about those characters.

The Chronicles of Narnia is another example of a triplet- or septuplet, in this case. The first book written was, in fact, the second in the series: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis wanted to write stories for the children who came to stay with him during the Luftwaffe raids on London, so he drew inspiration from history, mythology, and his own childhood games. Each book centers on the world of Narnia, but aside from that, every book has a different story.

The Triad: One Story in Three Parts

In music, a triad is three notes played at the same time. We sometimes call it a “chord.” Each of these notes has a different tone, but they work together to form a single sound. If you take even one of the notes away, the triad is no longer a complete triad.

Triads are like the other kind of trilogies. Each movie or book in the triad tells only a fraction of the story, and when you take each part together, you get one complete story. Granted, in some triads, each story might possibly be able to stand on its own (like An Unexpected Journey in The Hobbit trilogy), but this is not usually the case. Most of the time, each part gets only one act, which doesn’t make a whole story. Its job is to set up the story and conflict, introduce characters, ask questions, and draw people in for Act II. You can usually tell triads apart from triplets by looking for a climatic moment followed by a resolution that answers every question. If the big showdown has not happened and nobody has won for good, then the story isn’t over yet.

This is the case with The Force Awakens. We are introduced to a new problem- the First Order and Kylo Ren- and a set of new characters. We learn to ask questions: Does Rey get trained as a Jedi? What will become of Finn now? Where did they both come from? Can Kylo Ren ever turn good? The storytellers can drop as many hints as they like, but it isn’t time to answer the questions yet. Thus, folks like me have no choice but to be hopelessly interested in the story.

The Lord of the Rings is also a triad. The Fellowship of the Ring only contains the first act of the story, and though it leaves us crying as Frodo and Sam make the tough decision to simply walk into Mordor, yet we are still left with questions. So we are drawn into the theater each December to find out what happens in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Now hopefully you can see why the “underdeveloped story” arguments about the newest Star Wars film don’t make sense from a storytelling perspective. Expecting a full story from The Force Awakens is like me watching The Fellowship of the Ring and then refusing to watch the next two movies because not all of my questions were answered. Well, of course Frodo didn’t get to Mordor, and of course Aragorn didn’t save Minas Tirith; those things don’t happen until Act III in The Return of the King. And I haven’t even met some prominent characters like Gollum, Eowyn, and Faramir. If I really want to have my questions answered, I should stick around until the final act.

So why don’t people recognize this fundamental difference at once? I think it’s because the The Force Awakens was dangerously close to being a carbon copy of the original Star Wars movie. The original was a whole story; naturally, fans had a subconscious expectation that the new movie would be the same, and they were disappointed to get only one act. For me it was different. Not being around for Star Wars in the seventies and eighties, I was blessed to go see this movie without those expectations.

All in all, I learned two things from the Star Wars trilogy discussion. One, fans ought to keep their trilogy categories straight, because mixing them up is unfair to the writers; and two, writers must not try to copy a different kind of trilogy, because that is unfair to the fans. If J.J. Abrams and all other Star Wars fans had kept triplets and triads separate, more people might have enjoyed The Force Awakens for what it was: one piece of a larger story.

And, after this discussion, I hope that you will learn to enjoy your favorite triplets and triads even more.

Have you ever heard of the differences between the two kinds of trilogies? What are your favorite triplets and triads? 

Also, I’ll be doing a Q&A series on self-publishing soon, but first I need your questions! If you wonder about any aspect of indie publishing, comment and ask me.

Swords, Soapboxes, and Why Rey Never Gave a Fig

I’ve been thinking lately.

And all the people said “Oh no.”

This time, I have been thinking mostly about Rey from The Force Awakens. She is by no means a typical character (ie archetype) for the big screen these days, but that does not necessarily mean she is a good character. Originality does not guarantee excellence; just take a look at the uniqueness of the junk on television every day. Then again, originality is not necessarily bad; if Rey is so different from the majority of characters on screen, chances are that she and I have a lot in common.

But… to determine if anyone fits a definition, we need to know what that definition is. So here is my claim: a strong character needs neither a sword nor a soapbox to be a well-rounded, dynamic role model in a story. Get it? Got it? Good.

Let us begin with “well-rounded.” Well… yes, Rey is well-rounded. In fact, of all the characters in the movie, Rey is the most developed. For all you Myers-Briggs enthusiasts, my guess is that she’s an INFJ. She is hard-working (competent at her job of scavenging) and she is loyal and organized (keeping a record on her wall). At the same time, she has a sentimental side; don’t tell me you didn’t see the little flower on her kitchen table and the old doll on her shelf.

Still of Kiran Shah and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)

Hey! Did you know that the alien is played by Kiran Shah? (image credit)

Further into the movie, Rey proves that she can be tough without losing her gentleness. She can scare off a freaky-little-alien-thing riding a freaky-big-alien-thing with her staff, but she does it to rescue poor BB8 from being scrapped. She attacks Finn, but only because BB8 accuses Finn of killing his friend Poe. She isn’t afraid to cry when her friends are killed or injured. And I dare anyone not to chuckle when her face lights up and she says proudly, “I bypassed the compressor!” Yes, I’d say she has depth to her character.

Secondly, Rey is a dynamic character. She isn’t turned into another flat soapbox like Tauriel the redheaded activist (ugh), but she grows in her feminine confidence without turning feminist. More tangibly, at the beginning of the story, Rey refuses to take Finn’s hand, claiming that she can run by herself. Well, duh. It’s the old boys-opening-doors-for-girls problem. Maybe we are feeling a little bit insecure about ourselves, Rey?

Yet I had judged her too soon. By the end of the movie, Rey is the one grabbing Finn’s hand and borrowing his jacket in a snowstorm. Don’t believe me? Look at this. And all this just makes sense; if a guy was in Rey’s place, he would be dragging his friends away from danger and accepting a coat when a blizzard starts, too. It’s not chauvinism; it’s common sense. And all this is to mirror her development as a powerful Jedi who fights evil in the galaxy (which we had better see in the next movie!). Rey learns to be confident with who she is and where she is going, and thus she becomes a stronger character.

Finally, Rey is what I generally call a “role model.” This is what most qualifies her as a strong character. Remember when Finn is getting dragged away by a really-big-freaky-alien-thing aboard Han Solo’s freighter? Of course you do. Rey figures out how to close the doors just in time to free Finn from the tentacles. Nice. The scene is intense, awesome, and undeniably original. But- did you notice what Rey said to Finn after rescuing him from imminent death? Just “That was lucky!”

In many other stories- and even at the beginning of Rey’s story- the girl might have replied with something along the lines of, “Yes, I know. I’m the one who did it, because I am a smart empowered female. I know how things work.” (Yes, I just took a shot at Tomorrowland. I’m not sorry.) That is what makes the difference in Rey’s character: she has a certain maturity, a unique sort of strength, that intensifies over the course of the story. I no longer have to squirm when my sister dresses up as Rey or chooses her for a Disney Infinity character; I know that Rey won’t be influencing her or any other girls to become self-absorbed featherheads who worry about all the wrong things.

At the end of the day, a strong female character (as well as any male one!) should be able to stand on her own feet. She shouldn’t have to stand on a soapbox to look taller, nor should she need a sword to make a point. Both puns were very much intended. If you want to write a strong female character, stop worrying about proverbial glass ceilings and start worrying about how you will write a strong character who will make all of your readers admire her and the rest of your work. Be like J.J. Abrams.

That is, unless you would rather be George Lucas.

So- is Rey a strong female character or not? Comment below and share your thoughts. 

AND I have one quick announcement: I’ll be sharing a few first-draft snippets from Alen’s War on Facebook this week. You can check that out here– and definitely do so because you won’t want to miss all these wonderful sneak peaks. 

A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Bad

“Whenever you take on playing a villain, he has to cease to be a villain to you. If you judge this man by his time, he’s doing very little wrong.” -Colin Firth

Everyone agrees that a supervillain should be antagonistic, amoral, willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want, and for the most part, these sorts of villains are easy to write. Darth Vader. The Joker. Sauron. These are terrifying characters that you never forget, but for all their scariness, they are surprisingly easy to write. Put them in a dark suit, give them an army, and strip away every quality that made them relatable, and you have the Dark Lord.

What isn’t so easy is writing a villain who is still a human.

What I love about a sympathetic villain is that he or she is still evil, but on an understandable level. With this kind of villain, we know why the baddie does such horrible things, sometimes even identifying with those motivations, and thus we are invested in a whole new facet of the story- that of the antagonist.

It’s a whole new subplot to follow. A sympathetic villain first frightens the readers, then confuses them, and at last wins their unfailing approval. All in all, a humanized villain keeps the audience’s attention and ultimately makes them think. Plus, feelz.

So here are a few ways I like to “humanize” a villain. Minor spoilers may follow…

kylo-ren

Show him to be human. Honestly, this was the element in The Force Awakens which scored the most points with me. For most of the movie, Kylo Ren is literally faceless, just like Darth Vader; as Rey says, he’s just a monster. But then this monster pulls off his helmet.

When he shows a human face underneath that unfeeling stereotype, Kylo ceases to be a robot in our minds and becomes a real person, a character like Finn and Rey. This makes him frightening in a different way from Vader. Even a normal kid like him can become bad. That’s one reason why I liked this Star Wars movie so much better than many of the others- in just five seconds we see the human side of the villain, something that six hours of Hayden Christiansen were never able to achieve for Vader.

And it doesn’t even have to be a literal mask. Captain Hook is malevolent and heartless, even toward little lost children. Forget all this Neverland Pirates business; he replaced his lost hand with a gleaming sharp hook, for crying out loud. He even kidnaps Wendy. What sort of person do you have to be to do that?

But in a conversation between Hook and Wendy, we realize why. All Hook ever wanted was the same thing that Peter wanted: a mother. It’s a very human, childish thing to do, kidnapping a girl just so she can play mom to an orphaned pirate crew, but even the smallest of children can identify with Hook. Everyone wants a mom! Even though he did just kidnap Wendy, Captain Hook seems to lose his terrible pirate mask to look more like the kind of human you meet every day.

Give him a cause. My favorite Shakespeare play is King Richard III. Even though Shakespeare supported the Tudors who had driven the real Richard from the throne, he realized even the infamous Machiavellian humpback needed a motive. People don’t just up and drown their brothers in wine-barrels every day, not without a reason. Why would Richard do such a thing?

Shakespeare decided that the unimportant Duke of Gloucester wanted to be the very best he could be, but caught as he was in a web of complex politics and superstition, his only route to greatness lay in villainy. As Richard says in the opening monologue, “Therefore, since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain.”

Again, when I watched the movie Thor (which was so bad that it deserves its own post), I found myself hoping beyond hope that Thor would die and Loki would win. Isn’t that sad? Of course Thor was flat and didn’t seem to be really doing anything to get Mjolnir back, so it wasn’t worth the effort of redeeming him. But why give a fig about his evil little brother?

After some thought I realized that Loki, and not Thor, had the one thing which drives a story: a cause. Thor was too lazy even to find out how to pick up his hammer, so he spent the film drinking coffee and bothering Jane. Loki, however, wanted to prove himself to the people of his magical star-kingdom-Asgard-thing, and what is more, he was doing everything in his power to achieve that goal. That’s a villain I can appreciate.

Give him the potential to do good. Even my mother, an unflagging non-reader of all fantasy including The Lord of the Rings, loves the little guy on the left. Gollum wasn’t always a wretched cannibal; he used to be Smeagol. He was a hobbit, good and innocent, with friends of his own. In a thematic sense, he was Frodo before the Ring came and corrupted him. Frodo himself admits that he takes care of Gollum because he has to know that someone can still be okay after carrying the Ring for so long.

And Gollum still has the potential to choose between killing and saving. He is truly capable of doing good things, which makes him seem real to us. When he promises to show Frodo and Sam the way into Mordor without being caught, he shows that he still has some of the bravery of a Halfling; when he begs for food, he seems an awful lot like a hobbit. By the end we realize that we care about him.

Image result for lady tremaine cinderella 2015

Make her afraid. Lady Tremaine (or Stepmother, as she is commonly known) starts the film as a normal and even likeable widow who has fallen in love with a wonderful guy. She can even forgive his daughter Ella for being so beautiful- “like her mother.” Yet, even before her honeymoon season is over, Lady Tremaine receives word that her new husband is dead, gone away forever, leaving her all alone in the world with no income and three girls to care for. No wonder she is afraid.

“Where will we go?” she cries. “What will we do?” Oh, but how convenient that the prince is throwing a ball and will choose himself a wife from among the young ladies there. They have a chance of security once again! Now all she must do is make sure that no other beautiful young lady stands in the way of her own daughters…

And I may as well finish with an example from my own book. *nervous laugh* I like creepy villains, and when I wrote Son of Ren, it was easy to make one of my villains, Sardar, an unethical creep without exerting too much imagination. He enjoys war (no, literally enjoys it), uses a really shady kind of sorcery, and manipulates people. Sounds unlikeable enough to me! But there was a lot more to his character that needed exploring… he just didn’t seem real enough.

I was only able to make him human when I realized that he was afraid. In his introductory scene, Sardar can play like he’s big and tough, pretending that he has the upper hand, and he’s got enough armies and magic to outwit Elkay for a little while, but in truth he’s terrified of running out of time. He might even lose what little power he already has. When people feel threatened, they are capable of just about anything.

So that’s the beginnings of a list. Every villain has a human side; we as the writers just need to learn how to bring it out. How do you “humanize” a villain? Do you have any thoughts on making bad guys seem real? Share in the comments.