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

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.

Male Fantasy Action Heroines, or Gender Writing by the Opposite Gender

It’s a great scene in the movie Alien. Ellen Ripley is the last surviving member of the crew of the mining ship Nostromo, who have been wiped out by a marauding alien monster. In a desperate bid to reach the lifeboat before the self-destruct timer reaches zero, she grabs a flamethrower, rolls up her sleeves and does a great Sylvester Stallone impression as she fights the evil critter and avoids becoming dessert.

alien-ripley-flamethrower

(Screenshot from Alien, 1979, Brandywine Productions and 20th Century Fox).

In fact, she’s acting just like a man would in the same situation. Later, of course, there is the even more famous scene where she strips down to her underwear and still manages to defeat the alien (admittedly by clambering into a space suit first, but we all knew she was still in her undies inside it). What a woman! Not only can she defeat a giant killer xenomorph, but she can do it in her cotton socks!

There are countless examples of this trope in cinema and books. I call them “male fantasy” action heroines because basically they are designed to appeal to the following things male viewers/readers like to see in such a character:

(a) knowledge of how to use weapons, mainly ones that go “bang” and fire endless rounds of ammunition without the inconvenience of needing reloading;

(b) being good-looking, preferably in clothing that is as tight as possible, or else clothing that has been torn and shredded by past encounters with the antagonist (or, like Ripley, in as little clothing as possible);

(c) the propensity to swear, drink and/or spit, combined with an ability to level an opponent with one punch or with a well-placed high kick while suspended in mid-air (I’m looking at you, Trinity). Preferably all of these at the same time.

I’ve never met a woman like that in my life. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to, but I never have. Maybe I don’t get out enough.

The question I ask is, can a male writer write effective, believable female characters, particularly main characters? Can a female writer write effective, believable male protagonists?

It’s hard writing the opposite sex, particularly from that character’s POV. There have been some howling errors in the past, and some authors have eschewed writing opposite gender characters at all in order to avoid the issue. Even the greats have faced this problem. Isaac Asimov, for instance. I doubt many readers would say he wasn’t a certified genius in the science-fiction field. He was even a feminist. But his list of strong, story-important female characters is terrifyingly small.

Now of course, it’s easy to say that male dominated science-fiction and fantasy books at the time Asimov was writing were the norm. Even Tolkien had few female characters. It was also true of other genres where action scenes were expected, like James Bond. Of course women weren’t seen in those times as action heroes or even necessarily important for a story other than as “peril monkeys” that needed rescuing by the athletic male lead.

But times have changed. Unfortunately, it means that a lot of writers now think women have to be just like men in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women writers think the same thing.

So, what do we do? Well, what I do with my stories is have strong female protagonists who act like women. All my books so far have featured female leads. The guys are there, and taking major roles, but the lead protagonist role is female. And I’m a guy. So writing from a female POV is tough. (Especially in my book Plato’s Cave, in which I write as a female in first person POV. My mother didn’t understand it at all.) But what I’m not trying to do by this practice is have female characters that act and sound like men. Women have better things to do with their time than be just like guys.

And they can be far more effective as characters  by not doing so.

Sure, it’s tough. When I was a teenager and writing lots of books (none of which saw the light of day of course) all of my female characters acted like teenage boys. Fair enough, I was a teenage boy myself at the time and didn’t really have enough writing skill to create more realistic characters. But the trick is to avoid that mistake now.

So female writers should try to write strong male parts. Male writers should try to write strong female parts. Just don’t make them reflections of how you want them to be. Make them how they are. And if that means getting a second opinion and maybe doing some research, then that’s what it takes. But don’t shy away from the idea.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for writing strong female leads (especially if you are a guy):

1) Get a woman to read what you’ve written. Someone you can trust to give constructive feedback. Ask her if the character behaves as she (the reader) expected.

2) Before a female character does something, stop and think. Is this cliché? Would a guy do this? But be careful to avoid going too far the other way. A female character who makes sure her lipstick is right and checks her hair before going into battle is going to get you just as many howls from your readers as making her too “butch”. Maybe even more so.

3) Is there some way the character can solve a problem without resorting to immediate violence? Can she think or talk her way out of the situation? What are her priorities? Immediate personal survival? Protecting others? She might be able to side-step around the issue and approach the problem from a different angle.

4) Show the reader how the character is feeling as much as what she is doing. Women tend (please, don’t get mad – I send tend) to focus more on emotional response and be more aware of their emotions than guys. If you can’t emote with your characters and show the reader how they are feeling at any given point there are two problems: (a) you aren’t used to expressing your own emotions in the real world; or (b) you’re an emotionless robot.

Female action heroines can be girls as well. Give them the chance to do so. I love Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley. I really do. But the story could just as well  have been about Edward Ripley without any change to the plot*.

Russell Proctor www.russellproctor.com

* I do admit that in the later movies of the Alien franchise, and Alien3, Ripley does act more nurturing and caring.