Character

A good character is key to your book. If you have poor characters there is nothing to rescue the book.

These tips come from a writing course and I’m hopeful will be useful in improving your characters.

“Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.”

(The principles of screenwriting by Robert McKee) Bookfinder 

McKee

Character ‘Dimension’

A quote from p.p.  377-8 of the above book:

‘Dimension’  is the least understood concept in character…Some years ago a producer pitched me what he believed to be a ^three-dimensional’ protagonist in these terms:   ‘Jesse just got out of prison, but while he was in the slammer he boned up on finance and investment,  so he’s a expert on stocks, bonds, and securities. He can also break dance. He’s got a black belt in karate and plays a mean jazz saxophone.’ His Vesse’ was a flat as a desktop – a cluster of traits stuck on a name. Decorating a protagonist with quirks does not open his character and draw empathy. Rather, eccentricities may close him off and keep us at a distance.

A favourite academic tenet argues that, instead,  fine characters are marked by one dominant trait. Macbeth’s ambition is frequently cited. Overwhelming ambition, it’s claimed, makes Macbeth great. This theory is dead wrong.  If Macbeth were merely ambitious, there’d be no play. He’d simply defeat the English and rule Scotland. Macbeth is a brilliantly realized character because of the contradiction between his ambition on the one hand and his guilt on the other. From this profound inner contradiction springs his passion, his complexity, his poetry.

Dimension means contradiction:  either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent.  It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout the film, then in one scene have him kick a cat…

Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behaviour rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on the star role.  If not, the Centre of Good decanters; the fictional universe flies apart; the audience loses balance.”

Plot and Character

A Plot led structure

If your story is about the robbing of the bank – you still need to care about why the character is robbing it.

Plot led structures are found in crime, thriller, horror and where there is suspense in action.

A Character led structure

Character led structures are found in romance, family drama and anywhere suspense is found in the character’s internal struggles.

You may not know what structure you’ve got until you’ve written your first draft. (Outlining in sufficient detail may help).

Plot Structure

  • Give your character a huge problem to resolve.
  • In the process throw loads of obstacles at them.
  • Your character needs to come up with a solution and redeem themselves.

What is your characters main dilemma?

What is the most exciting action line or crisis or major discovery?

Does this serve to highlight your character’s dilemma?

Is your character’s dilemma rooted in their personality?

Character

Normally there is one main protagonist.

This is the character whose story you are telling.

Aim to create a struggle within your character. Struggle reminds us that we are human.

Create a dimensional, real, character with their own wants and needs.

The outer goal is what they want recognisably to achieve.

The Inner goal is why they want or need to achieve those goals.

What is at stake if the character fails to achieve their goals?

What is stopping the character from reaching their goal?

The inner and outer goal should be linked. This is the basis for the reader’s engagement.

During the story the character “finds themselves” and this is the resolution.

Levels of conflict

Relationships – other characters, family, friends, antagonists

Societal – organisations, murder, rules

Nature – forces of nature, disaster,

Supernatural – monsters, God, aliens, ghosts

Character Building

There is a good questionnaire for this here https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/interviewing-your-characters/

  1. Where does your character live?
  2. Where is your character from?
  3. How old is your character?
  4. What is your character called?
  5. What does your character look like?
  6. What kind of childhood did he or she have?
  7. What does your character do for a living?
  8. How does your character deal with conflict and change?
  9. Who else is in your character’s life?
  10. What is your character’s goal or motivation in this story or scene?

You should really know your character.

This is a slow process building up from small details.

Gradually build up the intimacy between them and the reader.

Take time to allow them to get to know one another, time to care about what happens to the character, time to allow the reader to root for them to achieve their goal.

 

I was set a task of exploring a character and came up with the following which I hope you enjoy:

Story

Cigarettes, how he hated getting the cigarettes.  Here he was in the “sad bastards” ten items or less queue at Tesco’s.  Everything in the basket evidence of his vegetarian “live healthier” lifestyle and then Gary has to ask for cigarettes.

Of course he could never say no to him.  One inkling of that cheeky smile and the lights went on inside.  He felt like some school girl giggly and shy.

If only the eczema would give up he might try to know him a bit more – hand cream it was a euphemism really.  Try “whole body cream” and you would be closer to the truth. The red-scaly patches could rage up at any time and cause him wakeful nights; his flagging will-power all he had to stop the damn scratching.

It was easier to stay awake – a bit more coffee, a chunk of Bourneville and a late night weepy.  He hoped the checkout assistant wouldn’t stare again – the patches on his cheeks were bad today – if only he could send out for shopping.

Still it was his only activity outside his self-imposed prison.  Exercise was the rowing machine and work was always by email and by telephone.

Hopefully the Soya would be enough for the lactose intolerance.  The doctor had said IBS – then he had said that in his opinion IBS was “all in the mind”.  Well he’d try the Soya and avoid the bloody doctor.

How could anyone fancy him like this, especially Gary?  He tried not to think of it, best not to cry just as he was handing over his clubcard.

 

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Book Planning Pt. 2

I am quite taken with plans on the theme of hell and this is one of those.

Sadly the plot questions and other aspects highlighted in the last post have been lost such that I just have the beginnings of a plan.

I still find myself quite fascinated by this idea so perhaps at one stage I’ll evolve it out and see what happens with it.

In the meantime I hope that you enjoy it.

This follows on from the first entry on book planning https://magic-phil.co.uk/2018/02/08/book-planning/

It turns out that I have further book plans which were prepared (presumably with the aim of expanding them into books) and which got no further.

Start of the Plot

James is an ordinary auditor. He likes to be well turned out; takes his time in Marks and Spencer; likes suits for the fuller figured man, even though he might make a waif look over-fed. James likes to spend time in Clarks examining shoes. These are always size 12 (even though he might be considered to be an 11), wide fitting, and lacking any high shine. James selects his ties from John Lewis and always opts for something muted in a diamond pattern or occasionally a pale stripe.

James is diligent in his work, each day carefully noting the time that he has taken and striving the very next day to better his performance. He ticks off each stage in the audit that he has completed and reports his progress weekly to a demotivated boss in a tired and dusty office.

He departs each evening on the 06.35pm bus and sits an exact 3 seats from the rear on the right hand side. In 25 years no one has yet felt the need to sit near to him. He scans the headlines of the day’s Guardian newspaper in silence before alighting 20 minutes’ walk from his uPVC front door.

James in fact is perennially dull. From his mousey-brown hair, the washed out ash-coloured eyes to the greying pallor of his skin there is nothing remarkable about him.

He arrives home each night at an unremarkable 7.07 pm. He takes out the tin of whiskers, today the tuna; tomorrow the chicken. He strokes the cat a regulation 5 times before turning to the freezer for something in the Tesco-finest range.

James turns to the BBC and watches the weather before turning in each evening at 9.30pm without variance. He reads a chapter of his book on audit and governance – the latest from the institute before extinguishing the light.

People like James; he is invisible. He listens carefully to what they have to say, nods appreciatively in the moments where it is expected and then passes on. Whilst they like James, they do not remember him. James in fact has no friends, no companions and no one has seen the inside of his house since he took up residence 25 years ago.

People who James audits find themselves confessing all the aspects of their working lives they should conceal from auditors. They tell him where the frauds are committed, who isn’t monitoring their budgets, where the money is wasted. In fact James is very effective at his job.

There is no sign at all in fact that James is a demon.

Of course James is completely unaware of this. He is unaware that 25 years ago he emerged into the world fully-formed, already moulded into the perfect auditor. He received a house at an impossible price from a distracted estate agent. He walked into a job at the local bank without interview, job description or Curriculum Vitae. James is as ignorant as his down beaten manager.

James in fact is not a demon that one would wish to have conduct audits, travel on the bus with one, or shop in one’s store for tins of Whiskas.

If his true self were to be revealed it is unlikely that the lady at number 22 would talk to James about the weather, smile in a distracted way or return inside (forgetting completely that she has ever spoken to anyone).

It is likely in fact that the lady at number 22 would be screaming in rank hysteria. Thankfully for her briefly as the experience would be almost instantaneously fatal.

James in fact is a career demon, member of the high council, noted for his abilities in the infliction of pain and the manipulation of terror.

In any other circumstance James would be wandering the corridors of horror. He would monitor the efforts of minor demons to make the suffering of the damned more intolerable. He would administer random acts of cruelty just to keep his hand in.

It is in fact fortunate that when walking out of hell 25 years previously James managed to excise all memories of his former existence. Fortunate for everyone else that is.

Sadly, today James will not be catching the 7.24 and purchasing the Guardian from a kiosk on his way to work. The lady in Accounts, who had revealed that the budget for Christmas entertainment was completely unmonitored, need not fear the arrival of a report from James pointing out her error.

It was easy, too easy in fact, Moloch had no need of sleep and wandering the flame lashed world he had plenty of distractions. There was always new tortures to devise, new accounts to be kept, level of suffering expressed, depth of despair that sort of thing. Moloch of course rarely sullied his hands with those details now. He had been in the business so many millennia that he had only to think a request and leagues of minor demons would hurry to do his bidding. Encouraged no doubt by memories of what happened when they were less willing.

Moloch in fact was bored; it had been 50 centuries at least since he had really enjoyed what he was doing. This morning for instance he had a man repeatedly impaled with red hot pokers. There was the screaming of course, the pointless pleading, the whimpering, but what was it all for? He began to wonder what was the meaning of it all, what was the purpose in his existence?

If tomorrow he simply had to cause the suffering of another few million lost souls, why was he even here? Surely there were demons equally qualified, perhaps better qualified to do the same thing. Moloch sighed.

Moloch had thought often in the last few hundred years of his lack of mortality, often he had wished that it was possible to die. It wasn’t the constant pain; Satan knows that he had grown used to that, many centuries ago. No amount of extra torture could really make things any worse for him. No, Moloch had developed that most self-defeating of needs, unique so far in the demon race. The need for a purpose in his existence; Moloch wanted to know why he was here; he wanted it all to mean something.

The need had been growing in him. Growing like the cancers that he sometimes grew on the damned for the amusement of it – what little amusement could be had nowadays.

It had started as a small seed of discontent; a feeling that perhaps he was not as good at the job as previously he had believed himself to be. Each day brought many thousands to him, several really adept at the task. Encouraged by pain it was often moments before the mild started to behave like psychopaths with a penchant for mutilation.

Moloch was not immune. He had gained the job himself by demonstrating the inefficacy of his predecessor.  His predecessor was now welded to the walls using his own flesh.

In fact the discontent brought him closer each day towards an ever more intolerable eternity. As the years progressed, it was apparent to Moloch that he could not bring himself to care.

He began to experiment with doing less, with being absent more. At intervals he took to daydreaming and not about new methods to terrorise the inmates.

The vast libraries of hell were accessible to him. He began to research items that were not in his job description and that he couldn’t have accounted for if anyone could be bothered to check

Moloch saw to it that self-monitoring regimes were instituted. Failure to perform was rewarded with disproportionate acts of cruelty. These regimes ran completely without his interference. In fact, he realised that if the methods were available he could absent himself entirely for lengthy periods and no one would regard it as strange.

During his researches he began to read of the human act of suicide. It was something he had a passing familiarity with already. Several of the inmates had arrived via that route. Amongst their pleas for mercy would bemoan the act that brought them there, sometimes in great detail.

Eventually Moloch began to seek out those who had chosen this way of ending their life. He encouraged them in some quite inventive ways (even though he said so himself) to relate what had happened, when and why.

Nine centuries passed in which Moloch could be said to have taken an interest in anything but his work. He occasionally looked in to ensure that the full meaning of hell was being explained to those in his care, but these visits grew less and less common.

Eventually Moloch came across Michael; Michael had been a suicide, a soul with the misfortune to come into contact with Moloch. When Moloch explained to him the nature of his researches Michael was very willing to explain his whole life story in a very detailed and helpful manner. He would do this often in high screams or deep despairing sobs. These were the communications that Moloch was used to and they suited him.

Michael it appeared had been an auditor, a man with no friends and a deeply obsessive personality. Moloch liked that. Indeed as he discovered the nature of Michael’s former life he determined that he liked it a great deal. Michael it appeared was empowered to make everyone’s life miserable. He had no friends and was disregarded by the world. Michael lived alone with a small carnivore. This carnivore liked to torture even smaller mammals despite Michael’s best efforts to persuade it otherwise. Moloch liked that too.

Michael had become disenchanted with an auditor’s life. He failed to see any point in his existence, in which he was basically invisible, in which no one remembered to send him a Christmas card. No one could remember his name.

For the first time in his existence Moloch began to draw comparisons with his own experience. The years spent engaged in pointless activity, the lack of any options, the inability to escape. All of these rang true for him, Moloch was so enraptured with the tale he almost forgot to drop Michael into a vat of boiling oil.

What distracted him the most though were the things he could not understand, despite endless repetition. Moloch had been forced to skin him – purely for the sake of form of course. Michael had maintained that just prior to the end he had not cared if he lived or died. Moloch did not understand this. One morning Michael had slipped down to the platform. Instead of catching the 5.38 to Kings Cross had instead jumped in front of the express train destined for Edinburgh.

Moloch had heard many million such tales and dismissed them as the normal hubbub of souls desperate for surcease. But this time, intrigued, he began to wonder if it could be true. How could anything vested with life not care about that life? Look what happened when you didn’t care – Moloch came to visit – often.

Moloch finally had what for him was a defining epiphany. If a human could arrive in hell merely as a result of not caring whether he existed – maybe the gateway to hell could be opened in exactly that way. Of the millions of souls he had encountered not one had not cared. In fact by the time he had spent a short time with them they cared a great deal. Normally they cared about the agony they were in, how wretched they felt, about the inability to escape. In fact he could not remember one soul that simply did not care.

Then there was the act, the symbolic severing of the soul from that which they no longer cared about. For Michael it had been straightforward, any number of lethal devices lurking about on earth. Moloch reasoned that if a train hadn’t been available a large truck or even a suitably high building would no doubt suffice. People of Earth really had nothing to complain about in terms of the methods available for symbolically calling it a day.

Of course calling it a day simply caused them to change plane of existence, today an unregarded auditor tomorrow a soul in torment. Simple translocation, not much in that, the challenge was to cause it to happen in the opposite direction.

Moloch sat a long time meditating over that, deliberating and calculating, as the centuries passed he finally reasoned that he would never be able to abandon all caring, no matter how purposeless the existing had become. However there was nothing to prevent him using the experiences of Michael to his advantage.

As for the thing that would be the act, the symbolic act to end his existence in this realm? Moloch had come to that as well. To attempt to depart the gates of Hell was the daemonic version of suicide. The beings that people that pathway would render him into innumerable fragments. They would populate the passageways with his suffering. No demon had ever ventured that way and not one would ever consider it.

Moloch was ready; a simple matter to collect Michael from where he had hung him on a meat hook for safe keeping. Using a technique learned in the long years of study in the library he merged the two of them into one. Critically for Moloch, one in which the memories of the two beings remained.

Travelling to the gates would not be straightforward. The governance of Hell was absolute. No demon could wander far from his designated paths, to stray into other sectors of hell, to attract attention, this was unwise. Moloch was aided in that now he had the appearance of a soul in torment. It would be straightforward to wander if he was prepared for the many innovative tortures that they would have ready for such a soul.

Many centuries elapsed, many tortures were meted out, but Moloch had been through so many it was hard not to yawn. It intervals it became hard to show an interest. At these intervals he let Michael surface and rode along on his more expressive approach to suffering.

Finally Moloch could see the dark passages leading down to the gates and the shadowy figures that peopled them. This was it – the ‘Suicide’ he had planned. Finally he delved into the depths of Michael’s mind and pulled to the foremost the experiences of his last day. The utter hopelessness of it, the pain, the need to escape, the worthlessness the conviction that existence was not worthwhile. At the same time he wandered straight towards the largest and most brutal of the guardians of the gates.

The guardian turned, grasped him, and tore him apart in a shattering agony. Impressive in that despite the many agonies he had suffered this still got his attention. A being emerged from the fragments; striding unseen, unregarded from the steaming maw of hell.

It had worked! James now emerged into the damp and misty autumnal dawn and caught the 07.24 for his new job at Michael’s old bank. Sadly for Moloch the translocation was not complete. The shattered fragments still held nearly all his memories (and most of those of Michael). He was alive in a new plane of existence but unaware of what he had done. For a short time, this was what saved him. That lack of awareness, that empty-headedness meant that the demons that walk the earth observing, manipulating, destroying could not determine that there was anything remarkable about him. Occasionally something remarkable would happen. James could cause incidents to happen (such as house available for a month’s salary) which should not be possible. But these incidents barely rose above the normal criminal activity of the average day.

In fact James briefly had the life which he had hoped for, mundane, unimportant, with sufficient malice to make it just interesting.

That was until Wednesday…

As you can see there is just the start of the plot so far. If any of these plot ideas cause people to think they might want to read more let me know and I might put some more work into them.

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