A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 2: Objective and Obstacle

 

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/10197830/The-worlds-most-dangerous-mountains.html)

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

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A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 1.

(http://shakespeareslines.tumblr.com/)

Everyone who teaches creative writing will tell you that it’s important to have realistic characters. They must be people the reader can relate to — even like — and the reader must be concerned for the protagonist. This is good advice. After all, it’s characters that make the story interesting.

As a teacher, it’s often my job to get students interested in a particular film or book or, God help me, poem. But kids these days seem more interested in action than people. I tell them that all the chases and gunfights in the world won’t make a story interesting if the audience isn’t interested what happens to the people involved in the chase or fight.

“Ah, but, ” they say, thinking it’s possible to outwit a teacher (innocent lambs!), “what about giant robots? What about aliens? We get concerned for the robots in Transformers. We get worried for Chewbacca in Star Wars if he’s in a fight. And they aren’t human.”

I calmly explain that the reason we’re concerned for them is that they may be giant robots or aliens, but they have human emotions. The reason we think Optimus Prime is one cool dude is because he behaves like one. He doesn’t behave like a robot, he thinks and feels like a human being.

It’s not only convenient that we personify aliens with human emotions so that the reader can relate to them. Human emotions are the only ones we can give them. We don’t know how an alien would emote or think. Chewbacca acts like a human because from our limited anthropocentric perspective that’s the only way we can imagine him acting.

So we think Chewie is a cool dude too.

So we need to give our characters emotions that will get the reader concerned for their welfare. If we don’t care what happens to the character, the writer has failed. It’s the same with the bad guys, too. Every protagonist needs a good antagonist. I’ll write about antagonists later, but for the moment I’ll stick with our protagonists and getting the most out of them.

The problem for the writer is, how do we create different characters? How do we distinguish one from the other? Hollywood is full of actors who only play one character or type of character, usually someone very similar to themselves. I won’t mention any names for fear of getting burned at the stake, but as a professional actor I can definitely say that some other professional actors (some big names too) are the same person in every single movie.

For the writer it’s the same problem. We run the risk of writing the same person over and over because that’s who we are, or who someone we know is, and it’s easy to put them down on paper. But in order to give variety, and above all realism, to our characters we need to bring them life, to make them colourful and vivacious.

So I’m going to propose a way of doing this similar to how actors do it. It’s pretty easy but does take a bit of practice and a lot of self-awareness.

I’ll go into more detail in the next blog, but I’ll leave you with a classic example (literally, an example from a classic).

Hamlet.

andre_skull_tennant_800

(http://andretchaikowsky.com/miscellaneous/skull.htm)

One of the most complex characters ever written, from what is arguably the most famous play of all time, at least in the English language, Hamlet is not just one person. He presents as someone different in every scene. This makes him hard to act, but fascinating to watch, as he runs through a plethora of totally different character types in the course of the play.

When we first meet Hamlet in Act One Scene Two, he presents as a depressed and rather lazy university student. However, he quickly moves on to fearful ghost hunter, determined criminal investigator, pretend lunatic, ruthless psychological manipulator, angry ex-lover, suicidal wreck, whining mummy’s-boy, wanted criminal, pious Christian, fierce warrior, resigned fatalist, murderous avenger and repentant tragic hero.

Phew!

english-what-shakespeare

(https://www.englishclub.com/english-language-history.htm)

That’s what makes Hamlet one of the greatest fictional characters of all time. We never know what to expect from him. That’s also why he’s so hard to act, as the performer has to justify each of these Hamlets to the audience in a way that stitches together seamlessly.

It’s possible to write characters like that, obviously. Shakespeare did. But Shakespeare was pretty darn good, so what hope do we less gifted hacks have?

That’s what I intend to do in the next few blogs, to show you how an actor creates a character. The same techniques can be used in writing. Stay tuned for more.

“Rafen” – Y. K. Willemse

It’s my pleasure today to interview a fellow writer and all round decent human being Yvette Kate Willemse, otherwise known as Y. K. Willemse, who has just released the first of a new fantasy series titled Rafen – The Fledgling Account Book 1 out now from Permuted Press.

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(Y. K. Willemse in typical New Zealand weather.)

Yvette hails from New Zealand, and is a talented writer who has written a different and challenging epic fantasy series. A seven book series is no mean feat, and as you’ll learn from the interview below Yvette takes her writing – and her beliefs – seriously.

I am proud to recommend her fantasy series to you and I hope she earns the success she deserves.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Y. K. Willemse?

Yvette Kate Willemse is a kid who was fortunate enough to be saved by God. Most everything I do is an expression of that – I kind of can’t help myself, to be honest. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an author, ever since my Mum put a pencil in my hand and taught me to write my name. There’ve been many times when I thought that there was no point in treading such a hard road, and I was close to giving up or actually did give up. It never lasted long, however. Not writing is a form of mental agony with me. For me, writing is a type of prayer – a liberation, therapy, and immense relief, because I seldom express myself properly in speech. Making music gives me the same high, but to a lesser degree.

2. Where do you get your writing ideas from?

This is the ultimate question! I’m a true novelist: I only have a few good ideas, which I stretch into books or a series of books. I pray for my ideas. But the best ones come completely unbidden, like a strike of lightning. They feel like a tangible pressure point on my brain until I get them out.

3. What inspired you to write in the first place?

Rafen inspired me to write. I’ve known my main character since I was five or six. Having a story to tell propelled me onwards. Without the story, I wouldn’t be an author.

4. Who are your favourite writers/influences on your writing?

I love Scripture, particularly the Psalms. I’m also a huge fan of Thomas Hardy and Katherine Mansfield – depressing authors, surely, but so exquisite. The blood and grit of authors like Stephen R. Lawhead and Matthew Lawrence have influenced me as well. J. K. Rowling has made a profound impact on me, and her critic Jim Adam (author of Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series) has forced me to become more conscientious about my character development.

5. What are you working on now?

I’m working on The Fledgling Account, bouncing back and forth between different books. I’ve just finished editing book three with my editor, and I’m working on book five, preparing to submit that for publication at some point. I’ve also worked hard on book six this year, and put together some notes for book seven. A seven-book series is complicated!

Rafen_eBookCover

(Cover of Rafen – Book One of The Fledgling Account)

6. Do you think readers are after book series these days, or is there still a place for the one-off novel?

A series is hard work for a reader to stick with. It’s effort to keep getting the books and pushing through them. However, I think people enjoy them because once they’ve found an author they like, they can keep going back for what first pushed their buttons. Nevertheless, there have been some one-off successes, so I still reckon there’s a place for them. However, depending on how commercial the author and their publishing company is, these one-off hits might become a series! Even Harper Lee wrote a sequel in the end.

7. Are you working on anything else besides The Fledgling Account? What else can your readers expect?

I have a trilogy I’m desperate to work on after this series. But I may have to wait for a while, as a seven-book series is such a job. The Window Trilogy is true children’s literature, with a boy protagonist who is intent on making as much mischief as possible. The only problem is, “every bad child has a window”, which appears beneath the culprit’s washing line and opens up to reveal a band of kidnapping monsters. Jerry’s trouble-making might not last long…

8. What do you like about fantasy stories?

I adore fantasy because it simplifies the world around us, enabling us to see patterns and reasons behind things. At the same time, it exaggerates particular sufferings and desires, painting a vivid picture that speaks to our souls. I like to think of fantasy as a metaphor that helps make better sense of the world around us. For me, the genre is a lens that distils reality.

9. What are your pet hates about fantasy, if any?

For a start, I can’t stand commonly used fantasy names like “Freya”. I just can’t. I also think there are too many female protagonists these days, and there are way too many vampires. In some cases, it’s almost like particular YA authors decide that because they can’t write a sex scene, they can pen the next best thing to it: the exchanging of blood! Such sensuality can never replace a good story. Also, I hate it when people write in the present tense. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too fussy, but it drives me nuts.

10. What are the necessary qualities for a fiction hero/heroine?

I think one of the most important things is that they have a goal or desire to fulfil, and they actively work toward it. I also love it when they are genuinely good – when they inspire you to do better. Nobody likes a moralizing character, but I think there’s still a place for the hero that tries hard to overcome their shortcomings.

11. Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I honestly don’t know. I really hope it’s London! I’d love to have successfully finished my Fledgling Account series by that time, and to have done a good job on it. I also like to think that it will have gathered a readership that appreciates it. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur regarding fame. I’d be happy just to have a handful of loyals.

Oldschoolmaplookvladimier

(Part of Yvette’s fantasy world of Mio Pilamur)

12. Music plays a big part in your life. Does it influence your writing?

Yes! So much! As a singing teacher and piano teacher, I love instructing my students to “tell the story” with their music making. I literally cannot write or edit without music. When I run out, my mind goes blank and I have to find a new CD to listen to. Music lifts me above drudgery and transports me to where I need to be to write effectively. Life would be very bleak without music, I think.

13. What would be your top three favourite books and why?

The Bible, because I can’t live without it. It’s totally changed my life. Then I love John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, because it’s probably the most incredible example of descriptive writing and character development that I have ever read. The dialogue is incredible. And J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is another essential for my bookshelf. I learned so much about setting up a series from reading this book.

14. What are your top three favourite films and why?

I’m going to be really uncreative here and just say The Lord of the Rings trilogy forms my favourite three. I’ve just never seen any other films that move me so much and that speak to my heart in this way. They’re not too idealistic either. I felt like the Harry Potter series was a bit idealistic – at the end, in the books, Harry’s not torn up by everything that he’s seen. He’s not struggling to go back to normal life or to heal. He’s thinking about Kreacher bringing him a sandwich, and in the background, Peeves the ghost is singing. Such a let down at the end of an epic series. Frodo’s state of mind, after all his travails, was much more realistic, even comforting. The idea that feeling old scars isn’t a sin was very reassuring.

***

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(A sample of the script invented for the series.)

So there you have it. Yvette’s novel Rafen, the first book of “The Fledgling Account” is now available from various places around this turgid little planet. Here are the links:

Amazon

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Wheelers

Fishpond

I had the privilege of reading Rafen before publication and I can definitely recommend it. Something different in the world of fantasy.

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com