How Do You Get to Know those Characters You’ve Thought Up?
When I first started writing, back in the Dark Ages, I hunted up templates. They were difficult to find back in the pre-Medieval Age. Writer’s Digest magazine had one template in an issue, and I religiously used it.
Then, as life moved on, I left the template behind and tried other methods.
Psychology offered numerous methods for unlocking characters. One such method was running characters through the Myers-Briggs test. Keeping a character at the forefront while taking that test so that personal preferences don’t influence the answers is extremely difficult. That’s a great learning process for writers, getting our own minds and will and gut reactions out of the way to let the character speak.
The best method I found for discovering a character, however, wasn’t a template or the Myers-Briggs or any other test. Hands down, still to this day in a greatly adapted form, the best method for beginning to develop a character, was the 30-minute interview.
The rules are simple. 10 questions. 3 minutes per question. When you finish, pick up any idea that’s still percolating, and run with it as long as necessary.
Through the interview, you reach the heart and gut of your character more quickly than you will through any other method.
On the internet are several versions of character interviews, many of which mimic basic template questions. Those don’t delve deeply enough. Writers need to reach in and feel the heart pumping. We have to throw a punch and know how the character will take it.
You can have some basic information about your character before you start. Or you can just have the seed.
These questions will crack that seed. Growth of character and story will start. That’s impossible to start.
The ideas that bud may transform during the writing. Once in the air, the planted story will take on a life of its own. Much will affect it. Crawling insects. Nibbling mammals. Birds. Bats. The neighbor’s cat after the birds. Cold and heat, drought and deluge. Once you finish the story, you may look back at this interview and realize that you weeded out some stems that would have offered interesting subplots. Buds that you pruned to enable other flowers to flourish might have looked intriguing but offered too much distraction.
Sequels can take care of the lost subplots and intriguing flower buds that were never allowed to grow. They’re not lost. They’re over in the compost, nourishing your dirt-brain for later stories.
Because you will have later stories.
Each creative idea you develop nourishes that dirt-brain so that it can germinate more ideas for more stories.
Find the interview in the newly published Discovering Characters. Get it here
In the previous blog, I asked a seemingly simple question: If enemies oppose the protagonist, are they evil? It’s time to consider the three types of characters who are viewed as enemies.
Shapeshifter. Villain. Shadow.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”
These three characters who provide “Tests from Enemies” have strong associations with evil thoughts and evil deeds, but only one of them is truly evil. One could be but isn’t–or isn’t considered so but is. And one will be evil with the wrong choices.
Confused yet? So was Alice with Humpty.
Shifter characters take one of two forms in order to be considered enemies:
1st = seemingly allied to the protagonist but actually working for the antagonist.
2nd = seemingly supportive of the antagonist but actually not supportive.
This form has the angst. Misread, misunderstood, isolated by perception, and excluded before they open their mouths, these characters may wish to support the protagonist. Circumstances create a trap. Relationships may gag the truth they so desperately want to reveal.
Building a believable angst for the audience is difficult. Even when building a story with the omniscient viewpoint, the writer needs to select carefully which viewpoints will inform the audience. Enemies that aren’t actually enemies don’t need to be viewpoint characters.
Withholding this shapeshifter’s angst until the end creates an even more potent revelation after the antagonist’s defeat.
Snippets of body language convey this trapped situation:
The mouth opened to speak only to close with a shake of the head.
The aborted gesture to stop.
The step forward then back.
These behaviors are minor touches that express a repressed drive.
Think Sirius Black in the Harry Potter film. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
This shapeshifter form is the double agent, back-stabber, hypocrite, secret mole, and two-faced dastardly being who tricks the protagonist. First form projects total loyalty, an ally—even as s/he fulfills the antagonist’s commands.
Friendly connivers, First Form enemies are wholly trusted. Until the truth is revealed.
Think Loki in the first Thor film. Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Wyckham, antagonistic to P&P‘s Darcy.
Revelation of the true alliance occurs in the Tests stage or is held (preferably so) until the Approach to the Inmost Cave, the crucial Ordeal, or the Resurrection Stages.
Totally evil dudes. Totally enemies.
The best examples in story are the goblins and ogres and trolls of the Tolkien realm. A true villain, unlike an antagonist, will have no redeeming traits. Goblins lie and steal and kill even their comrades.
Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers created their own versions of vampires with redeeming qualities. The saturnine Louis captured hearts; Lestat reminds audiences of the vampire’s true nature. Meyer’s Twilight turned vampires “vegetarian”. I remember reading the first 50 pages or so of the first book and thinking, “Okay, yes, this is going somewhere” only to have great disappointment as the danger just dissipated.
Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs has no redeeming qualities—any help he gives is only to help himself escape and resume his evil desires.
After Silence…Lambs came out as a film, enthralled fans clamored for more Hannibal. The author then proceeded to write Hannibal as a warning of what true evil is.
Never mistake villains. They have NO redeeming qualities.
The Shadow avatar reveals the dark side of the protagonist. This is the reflection of what the protagonist can become if s/he gives in to evil.
Dark secrets, dark instincts, dark emotions: release these in the protagonist during a test to have a fall from worthiness. The protagonist must then deny, overcome, reject, or defeat these self-enemies.
Luke Skywalker has the same potential for evil as his dark father, yet he rejects it and triumphs.
In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford could be a second protagonist. (She isn’t. See below.) She gives into the dark greed of contemplating Edmund’s advance into his brother’s shoes while the true protagonist Fanny Price thinks only of helping brother Tom recover his health. It takes a while for Edmund to recognize Fanny’s sweetness, which rewards her long and steadfast love for him.
Very much antagonistic, the Shadow self struggles with negative forces intermixed with positive ones. While repressing dark for the light, the destroying aspects will ultimately control the Shadowy protagonist.
This is totally Mary Crawford. Hints of the negative forces that shaped her are explored in 2007 Mansfield Park (totally missing in the 1999 version, my favorite even as the 2007 fascinates me). She is alluring, fascinating, witty, assured, sophisticated–but the dark desire of greed compels her.
Recovering standing after collapsing into the temporary satisfaction of the dark becomes a great test for the protagonist. Unforeseen repercussions ripple outward from that cold, hard pebble.
This is truly Walter Neff in the classic Double Indemnity:
Nevertheless, the best Shadows are antagonistic foils of the protagonist: “There but for the grace of God go I,” an arrogance in itself but also a truth. See, Mary Crawford belongs here.
As a character separate from the protagonist, the Shadow needs to tempt and even call up the darkness in the hero/ine (Double Indemnity again, Barbara Stanwyck’s character. If you have never seen this film noir classic, please do). The protagonist must reject the Shadow because it treads too closely to the path that the antagonist has taken.
And the protagonist must reject the antagonistic path. S/he cannot tread the evil ways without transforming into evil.
Ally (and potentially the Love Interest)
Not all of these allies and enemies are necessary in stories. They also need not occur only in the testing stage.
A protagonist who overcomes the tests presented by these characters is more prepared for the next stage: Approach to the Inmost Cave.
The cave itself is the Dark Moment, the Ordeal. Before reaching this cataclysmic encounter with the antagonist, however, the protagonist must continue through the Approach.
And after the Ordeal? Well, it’s still not an easy downhill slide.