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.
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