Friday, July 18, 2008

Writing Lessons: No Cardboard Characters

Let's go over the "Character Chart Explained" doc. (You might want to print it for reference.) Now, obviously, I didn't talk to the original author about what he meant by the story, The Wizard of Oz. I went by the movie, since almost everyone has seen the thing sometime in his or her lives.

Let's start in the upper left corner, where it says Name, Adjective, Job. We are talking about one character here, Dorothy. Naming characters is a whole 'nother topic, so we'll just go with the fact that the author chose that name.

"Lost" is a fair adjective for her, since she has no clue where she is other than the name of the land, Oz. All she has is the order, "follow the yellow brick road." Not a lot to go on, there. Only a kid would obey such a blanket order, but that's unimportant. Choose a good adjective for your character. Don't get lazy and say words like, "lonely", "arrogant," or "angst-ridden." Those are no-brainer words. You're writing a story where the characters are supposed to be lonely and angst-ridden, or this wouldn't be a romance. Your hero is supposed to be arrogant. Choose words that are descriptive like "angry," "by the book," "secretive," or "rebellious."

Job Description can be more mundane. Dorothy doesn't have a job per se, but she could also be described as "farm girl." I chose "teenager" to remind me of all the hormone-driven angst teens go through. This reflects her inner conflict slightly.

Put them together and you have a few words that describe your character, suitable for later use in a short blurb or logline. "By the book cop" describes Lucynda Storey's character Case Roberts, in Simply Irresistible. "Vanilla schoolteacher" describes her heroine, Maggie. Six little words, and you can see already some of the character issues.

Let's go straight down that same column and look at those next three categories: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. This is the meat of the famous GMC chart by Ms. Dixon. It's not as complicated as you might think.

A goal is simply what it says. The objective to be achieved. Even if the character never openly states their goal (and they really should!) it must be clear to the reader. "I want to go home!" is a very clear goal. In The Princess Bride, a character states his goal often. "You killed my parents. Prepare to die!" is his constant refrain. Clearly, his goal is to find the person responsible for his parents' death and kill them.

Motivation is simply why they want that goal. It can be one word. Montoya's goal in Princess Bride comes down to one word: revenge. Their reasons don't have to make sense, in all truthfulness, except to them. Sometimes our reasons for wanting to do a thing are dumb, let's be realistic. "I want to be thin because that will make me beautiful, and then the whole world will be my apple." (Yeah, right, sweetie. Keep believing that.) Wrongheaded reasons can make good characters. Most people want love and acceptance in their lives. How they go about it can be wrong, but that's what makes us human. So, give your character a "Why." Right or Wrong.

Conflict is the why not. Why can't they achieve their goal? What's standing in their way? This is the author's goal. Give them the obstacles that cause them heartache, challenge them, and make them into better people. It can be a villain, a character flaw, or something inherent to the story like the very geography or climate. Make it a good one, or even more than one.

It is my firm belief that it is the author's job not to make things easy on the characters, but rather to make things difficult. Rip their hearts out and dissect them until they are bleeding almost beyond repair. Make them fight, struggle, and challenge them until they have no choice but to grow.

Even your villain(s) should have these three things. Surprise! Your job is the same for them. Make them work for it, rip their hearts out so the reader sees why, and understands --perhaps even sympathizes-- with the villain. They don't have to agree with the villain, but if his/her motivations are clear, then the reader will have that understanding. Never create cardboard villains. Give them reasons for their existence.

If you have done your job well, your readers will cry with your characters, rage with them, and cheer when they win in the end. They want to close that book with a satisfied sigh, feeling as if they themselves have walked with your characters through their journey and won with them.

I don't care if you use this chart or not. Think about this. Your characters will love you, you will love them, and so will your readers.


Linda Banche said...

Nice writing articles. I've bookmarked your blog so I'll have to have them for reference.

Lena Austin said...

Thank you, Linda. I hope to continue the party for a long time.

Tanya said...

I am C & P'ing as you post, printing off the material as it comes. Fantastic stuff here. Keep it coming.

Lena Austin said...

What a compliment! Thank you, Tanya. All I ask is that when I give credit to someone else, you keep that credit.

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