Make Every Character Count

When creating characters for a story, whether it’s a novel, short story, screenplay, play, etc., remember that every character you introduce must serve a purpose in the story.  It’s pointless and a waste of time for you and your audience to have to deal with characters that have no reason for existing within the context of the story being presented.

Yes, there are different types of characters in a story that serves a multitude of purposes.  But even Henchman #3 has a reason to be in the story. If he’s just there doing nothing and has no purpose in fighting the main character or helping to escalate the obstacles for the main character than they should be removed ASAP.

Your main character is surrounded by supporting characters.  Those characters exist to help the main character, to support the main character, to give exposition and context to the main character and their world. They, in essence, ground the main character in the reality of the story. 

The antagonist exists to upend the world of the main character, and the characters associated with them are there to cause chaos for the protagonist as well.  They serve a purpose in the story: to help drive the action and conflict of the narrative and create obstacles for the main character.

Utility characters are those that the main character interacts with that often help the main character in some basic way: a cab driver; a cop; a barista; a witness who heard something.  They help propel the story forward but they aren’t integral to the main character’s overall growth over the course of the narrative.  On TV shows, these are also usually the random characters that pop up in an episode only to be killed off so the main cast can stay in-tact.

If you are taking the time to create and write about a character, they must serve a purpose that serves the main character on their journey.  Don’t spend hours creating a random character who appears in one chapter who is fascinating and clever, only for them to never be seen again.  If this does happen when you’re writing, maybe save that character for another story or integrate them more into what you’ve written.

It’s okay to have crowd of people in a story, but don’t get too focused in on who they are as individuals unless the ones you select to describe more have a purpose later on.  For example, if you have a group of protesters, you can give us an idea of what they look like and what they are doing/protesting, but naming them and giving them backstories is only worth your time and the audience’s time if we will see those particular characters later.

The most important characters are your main character and the antagonist.  Everyone else exists to serve them or oppose them over the course of the story.

How do you make sure you are keeping your story focused and on track?  We’ll talk about that topic on Monday!

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part Three

As writers, much like actors, we are given the unique opportunity to live as many different lives as we can imagine and create.  It’s a power that enables us to explore new lands, create jaw-dropping scenarios, and live vicariously through the senses of those whom we could never be in real life.

And that’s why as a writer you should embrace your antagonist 100%.

This is your chance to live in the skin of someone who can do and say things you wouldn’t do and say.  This is your chance to cause chaos and in a peaceful world.  This is your chance to disrupt your main character’s normal life and give them a reason to fight for their return to normalcy. 

Think about your favorite movie, TV, or book antagonists. Someone had to create them, and someone definitely had fun writing them.  This is your chance to have the same level of fun.  It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with or condone the character’s actions, but you can explore what it would be like to engage in those actions and see the resulting chaos that ensues.

This is why it’s important to enjoy what you write and enjoy the characters that you write. 

In that rough draft, don’t be afraid to “go there” with your characters.  You can make your antagonist as heartless, as nasty, as evil, and as morally reprehensible as you want.  Then, if you feel it’s too much, scale it back when you revise the story.  Never edit or second-guess yourself as you write a rough draft. 

Allow your creative mind to take that journey into darkness with your antagonist.

In doing this, you will help mold and shape a stronger force for your main character to challenge and battle as the climax of the story nears.  You want your audience to believe that the main character has truly met their match, and that there may be no way to defeat this opposing force no matter how strong the protagonist appears to be. 

Give us a reason to doubt that the protagonist will win in the end.  This creates a sense of tension and suspense in the audience’s mind, which draws them even deeper into the story.

Whether it’s a story about a pie baking contest or one with world-ending stakes, the main character needs a strong, dimensional, and intriguing antagonist to compete against in order to create strong conflict and dramatic tension. 

Embrace your antagonist as much as you do your protagonist and your story will be all the better for it.

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part Two

Should you like your antagonist?  Short answer: Yes.  Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to agree with their actions, their ideas, or their lack of moral clarity, but as a writer you need to be able to live inside the character’s head and give their actions as much meaning and importance as the main character. 

Another reason to like your antagonist: you will be living with them for a while, especially if you are writing a script or novel, so you have to be able to “work with them” in order to create an effective story. If you have created a character that you find so morally repugnant and repulsive that you can’t write scenes or chapters with them, then maybe it’s time to change the character or scale back what you don’t like about them. 

If they are in your story, they deserve your time and attention. 

Also remember that the antagonist feels that they are in the right on their side of the story.  They feel that what they are doing is necessary and just as important as whatever the main character is up to.  If they didn’t feel this way they wouldn’t be so strongly opposed to the main character getting what they want. 

All stories are a matter of perspective.

And while you have created a compelling and dimensional main character for us to follow over the course of the story, your antagonist should also be compelling and dimensional.  When you begin to develop this character, ask yourself:

  • What was their life like before the story began? 
  • How did they get to this point in their life?
  • What motivates them?  What are their hopes, dreams, fears, likes and dislikes, etc.?
  • What do they want in the story, and why?
  • Why do they oppose the main character’s goal?
  • What happens if the antagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Using these questions as a starting point, you can start to create a more realized and fully formed antagonist for your main character to deal with.  There is always a story behind why a character has evolved into who they are at this point in time when your story begins.  It’s your job as a writer to understand that story and use it to create a stronger antagonist.

On Friday we will continue or exploration of antagonists.

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part One

Antagonists.  At the very base level they are the character that prevents your main character from reaching their desired target, which results in the dramatic conflict the propels the protagonist – and in turn, the story – forward.  It is for this reason that this character needs to be given some attention by you, the writer, in order to make sure that your main character doesn’t have an easy time achieving their intended goal.

At the root of the word, “antagonist,” is the word “antagonize,” and the dictionary definition of this root word is: “to incur or provoke the hostility of,” or “to act in opposition to.”  Either one of these works in describing the main reason for his opposing character’s existence in your story.  They are there to initiate the change that turns your main character’s world upside down. 

This doesn’t mean that this character has to be some egomaniacal supervillain, especially if you are writing a real-world story.  It just means that this particular person’s actions must be contrary to your main character’s in order for there to be conflict throughout your narrative. 

When you begin to dig deeper into your antagonist, I would suggest using the basic formula presented a couple posts ago, but placing the antagonist in the “hero” spot.  What does your antagonist want?  What is their goal in the story?  Why does the main character oppose what they are doing and what their goal is? 

By giving depth and dimension to your antagonist, you can make them and their goals feel more real to the audience.  Yes, we are supposed to be rooting for the main character, but you as a writer need to get inside the opposition’s head and find out what makes them tick, makes them want what they want, and who they were before the story began.

I feel it’s a cop-out to spend tons of time on your main character and then just toss in an opposing force that is one-dimensional with no real development as a character.  Even if you don’t dig into the antagonist’s backstory in the narrative, you still need to know for yourself why they are how and they are and why they are doing what they are doing.

Wednesday, we will continue this conversation as we explore more about developing a strong antagonist for your story.

A Closer Look: Story Antagonists

Starting this Monday, we will explore the exciting and complex world of story antagonists.  No matter what you call them in your story, they are the primary character in opposition to your main character; the one ultimately preventing your protagonist from achieving their goal.  

Until then, who or what is your favorite fictional antagonist and why?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I look forward to your responses.  

Have a great weekend!

The Basic Story Formula: An Effective Template

Most commercial films, TV series, and novels can be boiled down to one simple formula:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict, which = Drama

Let’s break this down into its respective parts.

The HERO, Heroine, or Protagonist is the main character we follow over the course of the story. Their hopes, dreams, fears, wants, needs, and desires become ours as we vicariously follow them throughout the narrative.  They are the character with which the writer wants us to identify with, empathize or sympathize with.  They become our avatar, giving us a role within the story through their eyes and experiences.

Now, that main character wants something.  They need something.  They are after something.  And that something (the GOAL) is what sets things in motion for the character, and in turn creates a series of events that the character must experience and surpass in order to reach the intended goal.

What’s preventing the HERO from achieving their GOAL?  It’s an obstacle, a unyielding force, and foe, a villain, an antagonist…OPPOSITION. Someone or something is causing them problems on their way to reaching their intended goal.  And while there may be a main antagonist for the protagonist to face and defeat, the antagonist will definitely throw plenty of obstacles and other issues the protagonist’s way as they attempt to achieve their goal.

And if you and a protagonist after something and someone or something trying to prevent them from reaching said goal, you will create CONFLICT.  It is through conflict that stories create DRAMA.  All of these elements are important in order to drive the action and events forward in your story, to create suspense, to create tension, and to give your audience a desire to see what happens next.

Pick a mainstream film genre and this formula fits.  Superhero? Yep.  Action?  Definitely. Sci-fi?  You bet.  Romantic-Comedy?  Uh-huh. Western?  Yup. 

I’ll use a recent blockbuster as an example:  Avengers: Infinity War. (SPOILER ALERT!)

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely talked about in an article that Thanos was the true hero of the film. Having that information, and knowing the basic story of the film, we can plug in the following variables:

HERO (Thanos) + GOAL (retrieve all six Infinity Stones to implement final plan) + OPPOSITION (The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy) = CONFLICT (plenty of teams of superheroes trying to stop Thanos from getting all the stones), which = DRAMA (plenty of dramatic and tragic moments befall everyone as Thanos moves toward his goal)

We are following Thanos on his journey.  It’s his character arc that is center stage, and therefore he is the main character of Avengers: Infinity War.  And, as the screenwriters state: “This is the hero’s journey for Thanos,” McFeely explained. “By the end of the hero’s journey, our main character, our protagonist — at least, in this case — gets what he wants.”

So, as you begin to construct your story, try and plug in these basic elements first as a foundation to build on.  Hey, if it works for a film that made $2,046,626,158 worldwide, it’s a safe bet it’s a tried and true formula for creating a strong story.

Writing Tip #9: Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist

You’ve created the perfect protagonist for your story.  They’re smart, funny, liked by other characters, and best of all, you love them, too!  Now it’s time for them to enter the world of your story and there’s a fear deep inside you that wants to protect them at all costs.  After all, this precious creation should travel through the ebbs and flows of the story unscathed and come out on the other end as perfect as they were when they started their journey.

This is one of the worst things you can do.  Not just as a writer, but to your audience.

Your audience – whether reading or watching your story – wants to go on a journey with your main character.  They want to experience, grow, change, and be moved by what happens to your main character. If your character doesn’t go through some metamorphosis over the course of the narrative, an audience will grow bored with what they are reading or watching.

And you definitely don’t want that!

Don’t be afraid to rough up your main character.  Put them through traumatic events.  Shake them up emotionally, psychologically, physically.  It’s through how they deal with these types of events that their character arc grows over the course of the story (which is just as important as your plot points and story arc).  You want your main character to wind up in a different place on the final page of your script or novel than they were at the beginning.

Audiences expect that.

Exercise:

Watch your favorite movie and write down what the main character is put through over the course of the story.  Where were they at the start of the film?  Where are they at the end?  Write down 5 to 7 events over the course of the film that caused them to change as a character?  Are they a stronger character because of these events?

Now that you’ve taken the time to see how it’s done, you can apply these same principles to your main character.  Don’t be afraid to take them to the limits to see how they handle stressful, dire, or deadly situations.  It’s through these events that your character becomes a more realized and dimensional being for audiences to root for.