If you’ve read Part One of this short series of writing tips, you will have seen the importance of creating interesting and realistic characters, even if they aren’t human. Your characters need real human emotions for your readers to relate to them.
There are many, many blogs and books that tell how to create such characters. My purpose here is to suggest a way of doing it that is the same as how actors prepare a character for a film or play. As a professional actor myself, I’ve used this method lots of times, and I find it works just as well for creating fictional characters in stories.
The essential difference is that actors usually prepare representations of characters that another person has already out down on paper. The playwright or screen writer has already dreamed up the character and the actor uses her art to bring them to life for an audience. A writer of prose must create the character from scratch. Also, an actor usually only has to worry about one character at a time. The writer is responsible for all the characters in the story.
That’s the one main difference. But the writer can use the same techniques as the actor to help invent the characters.
The method I propose here is, in fact, called ‘The Method’ (Great name, wish I’d thought of it). It was developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director who developed it as a rehearsal technique. Method acting, as it’s called, is one of the foremost acting methods used in the Twentieth century (and is still used today) and is particularly effective in realising consistent, realistic and natural characters.
In this part of the blog I will focus on two things that any actor – and certainly writer – needs to develop for their characters. The first is called Objective, and the second Obstacle.
Every character must have an Objective and an Obstacle.
In a story, all your characters must want something. Not just the protagonist. Each character you create, be it the hero or a walk-on extra with one line, must have something they need to achieve. An objective. The more immediate and important the objective, the better.
I’ll illustrate this with a hypothetical example. I could refer to any one of the millions of books and stories written, but because not everyone might have read the one I pick, I’m going for an imaginary story I’ll create for the purpose of this blog.
It’s the story of a man who wants to climb a mountain. Let’s called him Bob. Bob’s father was a mountaineer who tried to climb the same mountain in his youth (let’s call the mountain Mt Tain, because that’s…well…Mount Tain, get it?) Bob’s father tried to conquer Mt Tain and never made it. He died in the attempt. Bob now wants to honour his father’s memory be conquering the peak himself.
All well and good. Bob has an objective: to climb Mt Tain. But notice that it isn’t just any old objective. It’s spiritually and psychologically important to Bob that he do this. It will honour his dead father who tried to do the same thing. In a sense, Bob is climbing the mountain for both of them. When you think of your character’s objectives, go for strong action verbs. To climb is better than to attempt. To conquer is even better than to climb. “Be bloody, bold and resolute”, as a certain fictionalized Scottish king once said. Give your characters important, even desperate, objectives.
Right, so Bob has an objective, and an important one. What we need now are obstacles to his achieving his objective. Bob’s problem is he has never climbed a mountain before. This is his obstacle. Mt Tain is a known killer of climbers. That’s another obstacle. Bob wants to do it alone, like his father did. Another obstacle.
Actors don’t act. They react. They respond to events that happen around them. Another character says something and their character responds according to the personality that has been devised for them. An event occurs and they react to it. This is the heart of acting, and it should, in my opinion, be the heart of writing. Let your characters react to what is flung at them.
So Bob sets out on his mountain climbing attempt, and must face certain obstacles that you, the writer, place in his path. How will Bob react to the fact that he’s never climbed a mountain before? Will he train? Get lessons? He wants to do it alone so he doesn’t want to take a more experienced person with him. How will he react to the mountain’s reputation as a killer? Will he seek local knowledge? Will he study what previous climbers did in order to try and avoid their mistakes? And what about going alone? Is he a loner naturally, or will being alone be a new test for him? As a writer, you answer these questions as the story progresses.
Bob reacts to what happens to him in the story. He faces obstacles that prevent him from achieving his objective.
That’s what your characters should do in a story. They must overcome certain obstacles you place in their path. They may not overcome all the obstacles. Solving some may cause other obstacles to spring up. But in reacting to the obstacles, the character moves towards their objective.
One more thing today: your character should not have just one objective. Bob could have a number of objectives in the story. His main objective is to climb Mt Tain. But there can be a whole lot of sub-objectives that must first be achieved. He needs to get climbing lessons. He needs to get enough money, and perhaps even sponsors, to pay for the attempt. He needs to convince his wife to let him go on this mad enterprise. He needs to get to the base of the mountain. He needs to work out the best method of climbing, etc.
All of these are objectives that must be reached before the main objective, climbing the mountain, can be realised. And of course, each of these sub-objectives have their own obstacles. Bob may overcome some of these, and be defeated by others, but they are necessary challenges in his path.
This is what makes conflict. And it is by placing your characters in conflict that you create story. How your characters react to the obstacles is what reveals their personalities.
So: (OBJECTIVE + OBSTA CLE) = CONFLICT → CHARACTER.
Don’t stint on your obstacles. Don’t be weak with your objectives. The stronger, more dangerous choices make for more conflict, and the more your characters can bounce off the conflict the more real they are.
I said earlier that every character needs an objective and obstacle. Even the taxi driver who drives Bob to the airport when he is about to fly to the mountain needs an objective, and an obstacle. The former might be a simple as “Get this guy to the airport in time to meet his flight”. His obstacle might be that he thinks Bob, who has told him of his plans as they chat on the way, is crazy and will die. But the driver, of course, wants the fare. So he overcomes the obstacle by keeping his opinion to himself. That shows the reader something of his personality.
Determining a character’s objective and obstacle is vital for the actor in creating a part. This same technique can be used to create dynamic characters in stories and novels.
Next time I’ll move on to something called the “Magic If” and how it can be used in writing. It’s trickier than straightforward objective/obstacle, but is magic indeed when used properly.
Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com