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.

Everybody Arcs: How do you apply specifically, and to which characters?

Kristen did a fabulous post on character arcs here. Come back when you’re finished reading for further discussion.

Okay, you done?

Now, this post from me a few days ago, discussing what I found on K.M. Weiland’s ebook on characterization which can be found on her site by subscribing with an email address. Specifically, she says that character arc is about the character believing the Big Lie, and then arcing by finding out the Truth that confronts the Big Lie and either overcoming it (positive character arc) or not (negative character arc).

Back to Kristen. Her take on character arcs relates to the character traits, both negative and positive. Her application is that the example character is too trusting and innocent in the first book, and must go through a change to do something that breaks that reality and flips it on its head. I’d say that the character’s Big Lie is that the Universe is Okay, Really, and Doesn’t Want to Hurt Me (these are characters who have never been in space, obviously).  The character arc, then, are the events change the character.

Here’s my two questions for you experts:

  1. When you are plotting a book, say you’re doing cards or what have you, some sort of modular unit to organize ideas, how do you track character arc? Is it simply embedded in the event itself, say, “Remi finds out from Joe that he’s been lying to her and she tries to throw him off a cliff,” might relate to the big moment where Remi’s trust is irrevocably broken and now she must embrace a new reality. Or do you have some separate system for character arc? Or go with a vague statement, say you write up the character’s information on a nice sheet and you have their stated goal, unstated goal, and what happens to them in the story, but you throw in the character arc deal of “character believes xyz and will have that challenged in the end when they become negative xyz”?
  2. If you have a good system for doing the character arc for your protagonist, do you also do an arc for your antagonist and apply it across the entire story ? To the supporting characters? I mean, yeah, “Everybody arcs” but how many people do the work to arc every character of importance? HOW REAL IS THIS?!  I must know.  Examples, and whether you do this yourself or not.

Your thoughts, please. I need to understand this character arc once and for all so I can move on with my life. Argh! [Shakes fist at character arcs]

I found something. Character Arcs

K.M. Weiland has a very nice site entitled Helping Writers Become Authors. Like many sites that help writers, there is a certain monetization of the site with craft books available. I decided to get the free eBook on characterization (PDF). I read that thing, and it was illuminating on character arcs… because that part was unclear to me. How do you do that? “Your character changes an essential aspect of themselves through the events in the book,” say some folks.  Yeah, but how does that work, exactly?

Naturally, all you established authors know the secret, and are nodding casually. “Bout time you figured out that elephant in the room, Pontius,” you say. Such sagacity contained in an authorial body! I am humbled that you are here in my blog. Please comment below, I welcome your input. For real.

Anyway,  the rest of us are still learning this writer craft stuff, and character arc is a Big Deal. K.M. says there’s three arcs- positive arc, negative arc, and flat arc. The last arc is sort of an oxymoron, right? Can an arc be flat? These are. Some of them.

The character essentially believes the Big Lie about something in their life, and the character arc is them learning the Truth and either changing to accept it (Positive character arc) or not changing and rejecting it (negative CA). The flat arc is the character who doesn’t change either way due to the Big Lie being presented to them.

I like how she put that, and the eBook gives considerably more detail to the positive character arc (about 12 paragraphs) so you get a good understanding of the concept. Character arc drives the story. Without it, it’s like mashed potatoes without gravy, or Wagner, harmony without melody. Nobody likes that. It’s the spice that makes the novel interesting, and intertwines with Theme.

Theme is a little harder for me to grok in a meaningful way. I’ll go back and review this concept, but K.M. seems to be going with the idea that an organic unforced theme is good, and if you force it, it’ll just be like cracking an egg with too much force. Eggshell everywhere, and nobody likes your work.

I’ve found that if I regurgitate the material I just read, I can often remember it far better.

Anyway, so, what are your thoughts? How did you handle the character arc thing? And theme? (How did you plan the theme if you were adding it?)

Scrivener remains out of use for now, since I didn’t watch a useful video on plotting, but this is on my mind right now as I attempt to plot. Those index cards are looking pretty good as an option right now, Jaime– scrivener is kind of a mess.