Story Engineering, Day 2. Characterization and a summary of what I’ve learned

Today, I’ve chopped through 43% of Larry Brooks book Story Engineering, and I finished characterization.  That was an interesting way to consider how that works. In a nutshell, he says there’s the surface dimension (1st level), which is the façade (oooh, a Basque letter) you present to everyone, i.e. charming ex-CEO who smokes cigars and loves the ladies. The second level is the back story on why you are how you are: upbringing, experiences, abusive uncles, car accident where you were struck by 57 Chevy on the corner near school and it changed your life at 17 so that you were permanently broken and now you’re an addict at 63 and trying to change and you’ve always wanted to own a copy of the car that almost killed you, etc. So yeah, it’s the psychology behind the character, and that backstory needs to come out in the first act so we get a clue to the character’s deeper ideals and why they tick. Then you have the third dimension, which is the times when their true character appears, not the first level facade. We see behind the curtain to the real person.  And the third dimension moments define the character, whether they choose right or wrong, and why they choose that. (He doesn’t say this, but third dimension moments are also not usually on display, they seem to be triggered by some sort of conflict or event. Or maybe he said that in different words. I’d have to go back and reread it. That’s where the kindle isn’t nearly as fast as a dead-tree book.)

There’s a great deal more. He talks about character as structure (how the character develops throughout the story, which is, I think, the character arc). Essentially, certain things have to happen at certain times in the story, or it’ll be all fouled up. Your character needs to struggle all the way into the end of act 2, and if she overcomes that struggle before the climax, it messes up the pacing of the story because that becomes the new climax, and everything else after is anti-climactic.

I was considering this when I was reading Kate Colby‘s The Courtesan’s Avenger (Desertera #2), which, incidentally, was a great read. In it, her protagonist Dellwyn Rutt, a courtesan, has some serious flaws. And her backstory informs these flaws and the bad decisions she keeps making. She makes terrible decisions, but they make sense from the point where Dellwyn feels real and has very good reasons to make her flawed decisions. I kept yelling at the book, “Arc! Arc already!”  Of course, if she’d arced, it’d stop being interesting because then nothing would happen.  Nevertheless, it made for a good read and the character (and supporting cast) are well-characterized. They all have flaws, and this gets in the way of meaningful discourse, just like real life.

Today, I will read and attempt to embrace what Mr. Brooks has to say about Theme. I have a feeling that while I may see the words, I’ve never been one to grasp the underlying meaning very well. That’d be my character flaw. “Huh? There was a theme?” It might be my undoing as an author. Plus, there’s the aspect where I say, “why don’t we just have some nice shoot-em-up scenes.” Well-written, lovely, boring, non-thematic scenes that come out dry and meaningless, when instead I could be writing a thinly veiled polemic about the dangers of senior citizens running for president. As if that’s what the world needs, right now.

You may enrich the content of this blog with your treasured comments below. Especially if you understand theme.

4 Positive Characteristics and 1 flaw: Character Creation Writing

Efficient Uninhibited Nurturing Empathetic Vengeful

You know the drill. Create a character with the above characteristics.

To help you, use the following to flesh out the character:

  • The character’s name;
  • A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline;
  • The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?);
  • The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?);
  • The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?);
  • The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?);
  • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline.

This is the initial character creation summary from Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing page. Thus, you take the four positive characteristics and one character flaw and then create the rest using the guide above.  Is your character a protagonist or antagonist, or a side character? Is the flaw obvious or hidden? What about the positive characteristics?

4 Positive Characteristics and 1 flaw: Character Creation Writing

Perceptive Playful Whimsical Courageous Scatterbrained

Make a character with these traits.
(Might be interesting with the negative trait scatterbrained.)

To help you:

The character’s name:
A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline:
The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?):
The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?):
The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?):
The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?):
A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline:

This is the initial character creation summary from Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing page. Thus, you take the four positive characteristics and one character flaw and then create the rest using the guide above.  Is your character a protagonist or antagonist, or a side character? Is the flaw obvious or hidden? What about the positive characteristics?

Character Creation Writing: Hidden Negative Traits

I was reminded by another author’s comment about the Negative Trait Thesaurus that one help for your characters is to demonstrate subtlety. All characters have negative traits. This does not mean that they demonstrate that trait all the time, or even under normal conditions. The trait may be lost amidst a sea of goopy nice traits and only come out on full moons or when the character is stressed or pushed. You can therefore have a character who is boring and dull and predictable during the initial scenes who suddenly displays their negative trait when bad things start happening, which it will if you’re being properly mean to your characters.

For an example, take nice little old ladies who have a streak of nasty racism. One moment they’re making pies and talking about “bless your heart!” and “don’t that beat all?” and the next moment they’re muttering about how them n—–s should never have been allowed to drink out of white fountains and sit at the front of the bus. Granny doesn’t go off until she sees the people for whom she bears this enmity.

This, in turn, can trigger other negative traits in other characters, in a domino effect. A character who preaches tolerance may express hatred for the racist granny, thus demonstrating the negative trait hypocrisy. We may never know these traits exist but for granny triggering it with her racist rant.

The subtlety comes by toning things down. If granny does nasty things without ever putting a reason behind it, that leads to confusion, though in her consistency, the other characters and the reader will be able to do the math and figure out that granny is a closet racist.

Maybe making granny conflicted lends credence to the racism, so that most of the time she’s sweet and trying to do the right thing, but it turns out she’s got some history where she was dating a guy of the race she hates so much. They broke up, it was her fault, and now she hates everyone. This sort of illogic makes stunning sense, because most people don’t want to face up and of course, unrelenting racism rarely seems to stem out of circumstances such as these, but that baggage can make her more interesting if we can ever get that information out of her.

Many of the negative traits are best leavened in the loaf sprinkled in an easy way. Too much salt ruins the bread. Consider the first few traits listed:

Abrasive
Absent-minded
Absurd
Addictive
Aggressive
Airheaded
Aloof

Some of these, done to the extreme, will overwhelm the story. A character who is absent-minded to an extreme is crippled and will weigh down the story with that aspect. It becomes the central part of the story when you watch something like Flubber. [Unfortunately, I cannot unwatch that movie. So sad.] In Flubber, the scientist is brilliant but extremely absent-minded. He is able to create new life and a substance in which the laws of physics do not function. In any other character, they would use the discovery to win acclaim and accolades and funding. With our absent-minded professor, he uses his discovery to help the college basketball team win a game so he can win back his ex-fiance.

Absent-mindedness is a public aspect which becomes apparent with little exposure to the person, whereas the addictive person may be able to conceal their addiction well, and it would take more penetration into the character layers to see the patterns of addiction affecting their decisions and their life.

I think the take-away here is that the negative traits you assign to some of your characters may not ever be known by the reader. You, as the author, while making your careful character studies in which you lay out the facts and intangibles of each, will know the trait and know that it’s there, waiting, like uranium ore under the basement, making the people sick without them knowing the cause. The negative trait may even be the driving force behind the character Goal.