Sunday, August 1, 2010

HOW TO WRITE A STORY: A Character-First Understanding

Story comes from character. Not the other way around. This is a golden concept every writer must learn if he or she ever wishes to create stories that connect with their audiences.

There seems to be two approaches to the Hollywood screenplay: those where the storyteller begins with a character and then creates a story around that character's needs, and those which someone first comes up with a “cool concept” and then later dumps in a bunch of people to carry it out. The stories invented in the latter concept-first, outside-in manner invariably wind up with characters who are flat, stereotypical, and emotionally superficial. This is because these characters are wholly defined by the function they play in relation to an already-constructed plot, rather than the internal needs, emotions, and impulses that make them distinctively human. “Concept-first” characters are little more than warm bodies used to connect the story’s dots. This is why most of them cannot help but become – to one degree or another – stereotypes. Quite often these human beings are defined solely by their occupation. How many movies have we seen with a police officer as the protagonist, even though the movie it is not a police drama? How many scientists have we seen in movies that have nothing to do with science? How many generic reporters, lawyers, and businessmen have we seen littered through the thousands upon thousands average-to-subpar movies throughout the years?

A true story begins with the creation of a character-

 -a character with a strong INTERNAL NEED.

The “internal need” is something important missing from the character’s life- whether the character realizes it or not. It is the thing that keeps the protagonist from being a complete, emotionally satisfied human being. It could be a need for self-worth (Rocky), a need to grow up and learn your place in the universe (Luke in Star Wars), a need to recognize and appreciate the value of family and home (Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz). This need could be anything- as long as it is 1. authentically human, and 2. strong enough to influence the character's behavior. The storyteller performs his/her craft by first inventing a character with this need... and then placing the character into a dramatic situation where he or she is FORCED to pursue that need.

Robert McKee presents a concept from Renaissance philosophy in his seminal book “STORY” known as of the “Mind Worm.”
“Suppose a creature had the power to burrow into the brain and come to know an individual completely – dreams, fears, strengths, weaknesses. Suppose that this Mind Worm also had the power to cause events in the world. It could create a specific happening geared to the unique nature of that person that would trigger a one of a kind adventure, a quest that would force him to the limit, to live his deepest and fullest. Whether a tragedy or fulfillment, this quest would reveal his humanity absolutely.”
It would be hard to find a better way to describe the creation of a character-centered story then the Mind Worm. However, I am going to give it a shot.

I prefer to think of the storyteller as the god of his or her story's world. The storyteller has absolute control, absolute power, and absolute knowledge over every single thing within that world. As the creator of the protagonist, the storyteller knows him or her down the smallest detail; the storyteller-god knows the character's strengths, and more importantly, knows his or her weaknesses. The storyteller-god is a benevolent god. He or she wishes the character to rise above his or her flaws and become a better, happier person. The storyteller-god knows exactly what the character needs in order to do this. However, the storyteller must be malevolent, even cruel in the methods he or she uses to bring this change about. After all, this great personal need cannot be simply given to the character. It must be earned. So, like the Olympian gods of mythology, the storyteller inflicts a drastic change upon the protagonist’s world. Conflicts and overwhelming problems rise up to meet the character. This is all a test, one designed specifically for the purpose of giving the protagonist exactly what he or she needs through struggle and conflict. This way, the adventure causes the character to grow into a fuller, better person. However, though the protagonist did not chose to go on this adventure, the success of failure is in the protagonist's hands. The protagonist can either gain the need and find victory, or refuse the need and meet ignominious defeat.

A character's struggle for his or her internal need must not to be confused with the Story Spine. The Story Spine is made up of the physical actions we literally see the protagonist take on screen. The Story Spine follows character's struggle against an external conflict through physical action after a tangible goal. The Story Spine represents the storyteller-god's test. The character's pursuit of his or her inner need is an internal struggle- a non-literal journey of change from a flawed, incomplete human being to a better, more complete person at the story's end. This secondary journey is known as the CHARACTER ARC. 

The Story Spine and Character Arc are not two separate, divided lines of action. They are instead simultaneous journeys that not only interconnect and influence each other, but are dependent on each other for success.

To explain: in any given story, a character's personal traits influence how that character reacts to the situations presented by the Story Spine. A character's negative traits (lack of self-esteem, a bad attitude, an inability to connect with others, etc) will have a limiting effect on the character's success. As long as the character continues to have such traits, all of the story's obstacles cannot be overcome and the character will never reach his or her final goal. However, as the protagonist struggles against the Story Spine’s conflicts, these events cause a gradual and cumulative force that encourages the character to change internally. External conflict forces the protagonist to rise to the occasion and improve their flawed selves. As a character begins to change, he or she becomes better equipped to handle the conflicts he or she faces. Now new and improved, the protagonist gains the ability to overcome all obstacles, reach the story's goal, and complete the Story Spine.

To understand this better, it is necessary to look further into just where the “internal need” comes from, and how story events force character change to occur.

If we look at any protagonist, we will find that all characters possess two types of personality traits: CONSTANT traits, and traits that undergo CHANGE.

CONSTANT traits are traits a character possesses at the beginning of the story and maintain through the story's end. These traits are usually positive or neutral in nature, many of which are found beneficial to the character’s struggle. Examples would be James Bond's cool confidence in the face of danger, John McClane's sarcastic sense of irony, or Rick's strong silent nature in Casablanca. These traits make up the items in the character's personal toolbox – they are how the character has gotten what he or she needs in the past and how he or she will continue get what he or she needs in the future. These traits help define a character from your average, nondescript stranger, and will not change, simply because there is no need for them to change.

Then we have traits that undergo CHANGE. This is the stuff character arcs are made of. At the beginning of most stories (I should say all stories, but there will always be exceptions to every rule) the protagonist owns a collection of negative traits – traits that create adverse effects on the person's life. These negative traits are usually related, a bundle of traits that originate from a single, psychological FATAL FLAW. For example, if a character is flawed deep down by an unwillingness to connect with other people, this flaw will manifest itself as a collection of observable traits such as reclusiveness, loneliness, bitterness, or coarse and unfriendly behaviors toward others. If character's fatal flaw is a fear of taking chances in life, this will result in timidness, indecisiveness, or a hard time dealing with people who see him as dull, weak, or cowardly.

A character’s fatal flaw blocks the way to his or her internal need. To become happy and healthy, the character must learn to abandon the flaw and become its opposite. Once this happens, all the negative traits that impede the character's life will reverse one by one and the door will open to success and a greater well-being.

However, there is the most important thing to be realized about character change: the character's fatal flaw is always his or her OWN DAMN FAULT. Unlike a character's constant traits, negative traits are not the result of the real, physical world as it exists around the the character – but rather the result of the character's flawed PERCEPTION of the world.

Most therapists will agree that a majority of the emotional problems they see every day come not from their patients' actual reality, but from a false perception the patient has created of reality. Negative past experiences cause human beings to develop false sets of beliefs about their world, which in turn have negative effects on their behavior. A depressed person may in reality have plenty of friends, yet for whatever reason he honestly believes everyone hates him. A person suffering suffering a nervous breakdown may feel that her world is filled with insurmountable problems, yet in objective reality, this is not true.

In story, a character's fatal flaw comes from a deficiency in the way they view their world and their place within in. Casablanca's Rick (Humphrey Bogart) treats everyone with a cold, self-centered detachment because he has been led to believe that if he allows himself to care about someone, he will get hurt. The Matrix's Neo (Keanu Reeves) is reluctant to become humanity’s savior because he honestly believes he is an insignificant person. Goodfellas's Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) digs himself deeper and deeper into the world of organized crime because he refuses to see the truth about a life that can only end in violence and betrayal. But all of these problems are just in the character's heads.

So, here is how Character Arc works:

At the beginning of a story, a character's ability is limited by a defective view of themselves and/or the world around them. When that character comes face-to-face with a Story Problem and the conflict that comes with it, that character is FORCED to reevaluate this view. Pressured by the conflict, the character chooses to CHANGE. He or she then conforms to a more positive, truthful perception of his or her universe. Through this change, the character is able to overcome the Story Problem and bring the story to an end.

The whole of “plotting” - and by extension, the whole of “storytelling” - is simply finding a course of events that causes this change to happen.

Story comes from character.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a fabulous description of how to write a short story or novel! Without realistic characters, plot is meaningless.