Category Archives: Character

What’s in a name?

Directed by: Philippa Lowthorpe
Written by: Andrea Gibb and Arthur Ransome (based on the book by)


We took the kids to see Swallows and Amazons a few days ago and we all enjoyed the film. It is a fairly slight story, even with added spies, but was a perfect, nostalgia-ridden family-film to spend an afternoon with – the sort of film we, perhaps, don’t see enough of these days?

Something that intrigued me about the film was the re-naming of one of the characters. Titty from the book, became Tatty for the film. The reasons for that change are obvious; a little sad that it was felt necessary but a sign of the times perhaps? The family were certainly not happy. I don’t want to debate the merits of the name change but what it did make me think about was how we go about choosing names for the characters in our screenplays.

Everyone loves a great character name and, most importantly, remembers them. But how are they generated? How do writers come up with some of these gems? And do they spend hours considering the meaning behind those names and how they can be cleverly linked to the theme of their stories and the nature of their characters?

There are also lots of examples of clever names in films; names that are used to enhance the viewers experience. Take Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007) for example – could you get a more descriptive name for a character who sees the world in black and white? Or Louis Cypher from Angel Heart (1987)?

It is incredibly easy to look up the meaning of any name via the wonders of the interweb, using sites such as Behind the Name or Ancestry. There are too many sites to mention, but certainly enough to be able to check names from any corner of the globe and in any language.

I have, in the past, spent a very long time considering the names of some of my characters, thinking there needs to be some deeper meaning behind them. This can often be a very painful process, trying to find just the right name to fit the right personality, only to find two sites that describe the meaning of the name differently; hopefully fairly closely but I have found some that have provided almost opposite meanings to each other.

A screenplay I am currently working on has Chinese characters who are storytellers, so I wanted something that reflected that in my protagonist’s name. Chen Ming was the name I chose in the end, where the surname Chen can mean “exhibit, narrate or arrange”. This fits well with storytelling and the puppetry that features in the story. Ming means “bright”, reflecting both the lights used in their puppetry, but also the nature of a smart lead character. My antagonist is named Lie, which means “fierce” and Ming also meets characters such as Shu (kind or gentle) and Ho (goodness). I spend a long time getting to those names, and I am very happy with them as they do reflect the nature of their characters. However, ultimately, does it really matter? Will it mean much to the majority of people who may make up the audience? Or does it just sound authentic? Won’t most of the audience just want to watch great characters, whatever their names?

As my writing has progressed, I have tried to shy away from obsessing too much over names. I am sure that, while there is always something to be said for smart naming, the deeds, actions and traits of your character are far more important than their name. You could have the greatest name anyone has ever heard of but, put that into a dull, weak story with lifeless characters, and that is all the audience will remember – and not for the right reasons.

So is the creation/use of a name in a script THAT important? Titty/Tatty is a difficult example, actually, as the name refers to a real-life person but, ultimately, does the name matter, or is it the deeds of the heroine in the story that define her more?

What do you think?

Do you painstakingly create clever, meaningful names for your characters?

Or do you think that is all just too much like hard work, when I could, in fact, be writing?

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Screenwriting Books (sort of) – Stephen King: On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft

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Amazon UK (as before, there are other sellers)

ISBN-10: 1444723251
ISBN-13: 978-144723250


It has been a while since I wrote anything about the screenwriting books that I have enjoyed. Partly because I went for a period without reading any and partly because I had other things to write about. However, I felt the need to return to this semi-regular series of posts having read Stephen King’s “On Writing” this weekend, a book I have been meaning to read for a long time, but only just got around to doing so.

Before we go any further, you may well have noticed the “sort of” that I added to the title. This isn’t a screenwriting book per se, but it is a book aimed at writers; which we all are or hope to be. So, while King’s references and examples are largely taken from novels, a lot of the advice rings true, reflects and reiterates that which is offered by screenwriters.

I “grew up” (not literally) with Stephen King, first reading Christine and Carrie and was instantly drawn to his style of writing. It may not be “the most artful” style in the world but, most importantly, it drew this (soon to be Constant) reader into his world, filling my imagination in ways other books just didn’t. This style is repeated here. We may be in the world of memoir/text-book (?) as opposed to novel, but the words on the page feel familiar and inviting to anyone who has ever read King; it is certainly nowhere near as “stuffy” as some other writing texts I have read.

The first third of the book is reserved for a whirlwind tour through King’s childhood and development as a writer, while the rest of the book is dedicated to his views on what writing is and how it all works. He also explores the tools at your disposal as a writer and how they can help you do the best you possibly can. It is not presented as the be-all-and-end-all for writing or as a one-stop solution to writing a bestseller (as you may find in other works) but it is a review of King’s techniques and experiences, what works for him. His output from this system obviously speaks for itself!

Again, I don’t want this to become a review or detailed critique of the book, but I just wanted to highlight some of the gems I found inside that resonated with me. This is a fairly random selection – I didn’t to spoil everything!

So here goes…

Stephen King on writing:

On lessons learned from early writing:
…the realisation that stopping a piece of work just because it is hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

As Scott Myers can often be heard saying, “The only way out is through.”

On dedication:
…it’s writing damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.

On vocabulary:
…use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful; and

…omit needless words, in action.

The second of these is vital advice… and advice I need to take as I can tend to be a little verbose at times.

On description:
Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. the trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.

For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.

and I particularly liked:

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

On ideas:
A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what-if question…

King talks about how he develops ideas and stories, not necessarily focusing on PLOT, but exploring situations and how whole stories can explode from a simple situational set-up.

On character:
I think the best stories always end up being about people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.

On the Protagonist:
…no one is the ‘bad guy’ or the ‘best friend’ or the ‘whore with a heart of gold’ in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.

This is a great way to look at characters and to help you understand their motivations. The Antagonist Perspective

On what to write:
Try any goddam thing you like , no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it.

Really, just get it down!

On finishing the first draft:
My advice is that you take a couple of days off – go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle – and then go off an work on something else. How long you let your book rest …. is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of 6 weeks.

So, yeah, let it ferment for a while…

And that’s just a few, there are plenty more and the book is, for want of a better word, riddled with great insight on the process of writing – and we haven’t even touched on grammar or dialogue!

What struck me as particularly interesting was the similarities to many other sources of inspiration, especially the Pixar Rules I have talked about in the past. I’m not going to list all the similarities, but if you have a look through those rules, you will spot them yourselves. The fact that so many of these “rules” (yeah, I know, ‘tools not rules’) apply equally to King’s works of Horror novels and Pixar’s family-oriented cinema output speaks volumes to the importance of story regardless of what medium you use to convey it. King reiterates this throughout the book – the story is king (no pun intended) – so utilising the tools that he offers up means you are, at least, going to be heading in the right direction when you start writing your masterpiece, whether a short-story, novel, play, TV Series or screenplay.

Finally, I also found the book to be a massive inspiration to get writing again myself and try out some new ideas. It can be difficult to maintain the momentum sometimes, with everything that life can throw at you but, as King says, if you don’t get on and write you will never be a writer.

It has even reminded me how much I used to enjoy being a Constant Reader, so I am going back to fill the gaps in King’s works and, perhaps, re-read a few old favourites. With a Dark Tower film on the way, I feel the need to revisit Roland and his Ka-Tet.

I guess this has (sort of) turned into a review, but I do feel that “On Writing” is one of the best books on writing I have read. For its friendly, welcoming style, to the no nonsense advice from King, it is a book I would recommend to any fellow writer without hesitation.

Character Change

Michael Corleone by cal.almonds, on Flickr
Michael Corleone” (CC BY 2.0) by  cal.almonds 


While at work a few days ago (don’t tell the Boss) I was daydreaming about a script re-write I am working on when I came across the following tweet by Lucy V Hay highlighting advice from writer Julian Fellowes:

(the full post is available HERE)

What caught my eye was Tip #7 which dismisses the expectation that all good characters must change over the course of their journey. Fellowes was more of the opinion that it is just as important to ensure the audience has empathy with your characters. This was timely as I am currently working on a script where the protagonist does not necessarily change that much during her story; she perhaps acts more as a catalyst for change among other characters. She changes a little, but not as drastically as many other movie characters who learn great lessons through the course of their arcs.

Now, change is a cornerstone of story-telling techniques as it informs the character arc, another common aspect of screenwriting teaching. Wikipedia describes it as:

“A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person, and during the story, things happen which gradually transforms him or her into a different sort of person.”
Character arc – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

and even more “respected” sources describe the importance of change:

“The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”
Robert MCkee, “Story” (1999, p104).

“In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis of not only good storytelling but also of the world’s best known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start.”
Blake Snyder, “Save the Cat” (2005, p136).

Which is exactly right –  change makes for good-storytelling and fulfilling stories . The change in Michael Corleone in the Godfather (1972) is a perfect example of how a character can change. It might not be the most positive change, but he does change, and the audience is fascinated by this growth and how it affects the character and others around him. Want something more light-hearted? How about Lightning McQueen from Cars (2006)? He starts off pretty self-centred and selfish, but ends up changing through the course of the film, learning to slow down and be more considerate to those around him. Clearly more change. Indeed, grab a stone and throw it at the IMDB and you are very likely to hit a story that features interesting characters developed through change.

Despite this change, Michael and Lightning are two very different characters who also have something else in common; empathy. Regardless of what change they go through, audiences empathise with the characters. Even where that change is negative. We do so with Michael in the Godfather as he avenges his father and protects his family – a primal desire/urge within the vast majority of us.

However, what is also interesting about Cars is that Lightning’s change is catalysed by the characters around him. He gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs and their lifestyle and they affect him, helping him change. The characters around him don’t particularly change themselves (maybe Doc Hudson softens a little) but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less interesting. They all have a story and personality that creates empathy with the audience without the change that is considered vital.

So what’s going on here?

Well, perhaps characters DON’T have to go through change to lead an interesting story, as Julian Fellowes suggests. Perhaps interesting, empathetic characters are just as important, and they don’t have to change to generate an emotional connection with the audience. Put a character in a story that has conflict, that gives them a goal and a purpose that the audience can empathise with and you can still end up with an enjoyable and popular film.

Don’t believe me?

What about:

to name a few examples. The characters in these films don’t undergo any substantial change during their stories, but they are highly regarded and well-loved films. Why? Because of good characterisation, great conflict and drama, etc etc. Ripley doesn’t change during the film (apart from learning about xenomorphs VERY quickly) and starts and ends the story as a kick-ass, Nostromo crew member. When does James Bond EVER learn anything or change? Dumb and Dumber says it all – no learning here… move along please.

Interestingly, Forrest Gump is similar to the supporting cast in CARS in that the protagonist, Forrest, doesn’t change, but he does influence the people he touches throughout his life, helping them grow and change – think of Captain Dan!

This is a great revelation and another chance to “clarify” a screenwriting rule. While “change” is an important aspect of many films, it is just another Tool in our writing kit-bag, not the absolute Rule that many of us (myself included) learn about early in our careers and think we have to stick to. Characters can (and do) change, it’s a fact, we see it all the time. BUT, they don’t HAVE to change, there is just as much evidence for that. The common denominator, however, on both sides of the argument is strong, compelling and empathetic characters that an audience will get behind and root for.

So that gives us something to aim for.

How do you feel about character change as a Screenwriting Rule?

Have you ever written a story in which a character doesn’t change?

 

Further Reading:

 

 

The Antagonist Perspective

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Maleficent (2014)
Directed by: Robert Stromberg   Screenplay by: Linda Woolverton


I caught up with a viewing of Maleficent a week or so ago. It is a film I had wanted to see with the kids, but we hadn’t got around to it. I don’t know whether it was a subconscious reaction to some mixed reviews or just forgetting but, when it appeared on NETFLIX, I thought it was time to give it a whirl.

And we all enjoyed it. I love a good fairy tale and this was based around one of the best; Sleeping Beauty… but with a slight twist.

I am sure we all know the traditional story of the Princess, especially as told by Disney; cursed by the wicked fairy to prick her finger on her 16th birthday and fall into a death-like sleep until awoken by true-love’s kiss. In Disney’s 1959 classic, the wicked fairy Maleficent curses the baby Aurora after she is left off the party-invitations to celebrate the royal birth.

We all know the rest.

Maleficent cleverly expands on this and explores the reasons why Maleficent was so… well, Malevolent. This time we get to hear what happened from the perspective of the “wicked” Fairy Maleficent. The film starts with a view of her childhood, her relationship with the boy who will, eventually, become King, betray her and father the Princess. In essence, we see everything from her perspective, her reasons for being, feeling and behaving the way she does.

Sleeping Beauty told from the perspective of the bad guy… or at least the character perceived as the Antagonist in the original story.

This is a fantastic way to look at stories and to think about how to create audience empathy for your characters. Nobody has to like any of your characters but, if you can get an audience to empathise with them, you can get them to care. Hannibal Lecter is one of the prime examples of this being done well; an antagonist who is, essentially, pretty evil but, despite this, the audience identifies with his simple desire for a window. Regardless of everything else he has done (or will do) there is that smallest of chinks in the armour that make him human.

And Maleficent generates that same empathy. We know, before the film has even started, that she has done bad things (or will DO bad things); or, at least, “bad” from Aurora’s and the Royal Family’s perspective. Flip this over to view the story from Maleficent’s perspective and we see the “truth” (or at least another truth) of how the “bad” stuff happens to her, acting as the catalyst for her actions. All of her decisions are right, as far as she is concerned, in the same way that the King probably thinks his actions are the right ones – regardless of whether the audience agree or not. As long as the audience can understand WHY a character does something, they can generate empathy and find themselves caring.

So try to see your story from both your protagonist and antagonist’s position and you will understand them more; their motivations, their needs and wants. Everyone in the story thinks THEY are right, much like real life, and by exploring this in our stories we can develop believable characters in even the most unbelievable situations. I have read how some writers produce two versions of their stories to see it clearly from both perspectives. I haven’t tried this myself, but can see the attraction for the creative process. As soon as you understand that your Antagonist thinks they are just as right as your Protagonist, their actions and decisions will make more sense to you and your audience and the dynamic between the characters will soar.

 

Do you explore your stories from both perspectives?

 

Feel free to comment below and let me know if you have ever written two versions of the same story and how you got on.

Further Discussion

Ex Machina (2015) and the Importance of Character

Ex Machina (2015)
Written and Directed by: Alex Garland


The Transit of Mercury didn’t pan out quite as I had hoped on Monday, with pretty much the entire World’s quota of fluffy grey clouds hovering over my house for most of the day. So, with some spare time, we chose to watch Ex Machina instead; another disc that has been sitting, waiting for a long time.

It was certainly worth the wait.

Ex Machina is a mesmerising exploration of the consequences of advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and, to my non-scientific mind, felt like a glimpse into a possible future where the smartest person in the room is also the artificial one. As Dr Malcolm might suggest, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

The story follows Caleb, the lucky employee of Nathan, a technological genius who has chosen Caleb to apply the Turing Test to his lifelike AI Android Ava. Rather, a slightly twisted take on the Turing Test where the tester knows they are sat opposite a computer but are testing their capacity to believe that what they know is a collection of nuts and bolts could actually be human.

And that’s all I will say about the plot as it is a fantastic film, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Sci-Fi. I am sure that those with more knowledge of this area would be able to find holes in it, much like they did with the Garland-penned Sunshine, but that is not why I choose to watch movies – I want to be transported to a world that is believeable, not necessarily realistic. Although I think Ex Machina does both extremely well.

However, what really struck me with Ex Machina was the characters. The three main characters are very different. Caleb comes across as a fairly strait-laced IT geek, very much in contrast to Nathan’s heavy-drinking, aggressive Alpha-Male. In between is Ava; inquisitive and almost child-like. Each character is different, but they are so well written, you find yourself empathising with them all. There is no clear “good or bad guy” in this movie, each of the characters have their own agendas and each could be considered a Protagonist and Antagonist in their own right.

You may dislike Nathan because of the way he treats Caleb and Ava, but that doesn’t mean you can’t identify or empathise with his situation, his genius or what he is trying to achieve. And, I suspect, we will all be able to identify with the relationship that develops between Caleb and Ava and the reasons for that relationship. It is this empathy that helps draw us into the story and the twists and turns that come our way by the end of the film, and it helps us understand and rationalise the choices each character makes on that journey. It also makes us question those choices after the credits roll.

In a recent post I talked about the importance of dialogue and how that is not the be all and end all of a good script. Ex Machina is almost the polar opposite of Mad Max in that it is much more dialogue heavy. And it is great dialogue, the exchanges between Caleb and Nathan are tech-heavy, philosophical discussions and work in superb contrast to the more innocent, awkward and sometimes flirty conversations between Caleb and Ava. There is no doubting that there is great dialogue.

But I don’t remember much of it.

What I do remember are the characters, their motivations, actions and emotions, and that is what drives this film and reinforces, to me, the importance of great characters and how they will elevate your story beyond mere words on a page.

Ex Machina is a stunning piece of film-making and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it, who likes good sci-fi, to give it a go. Actually, even if you don’t like sci-fi, give it a go anyway, you might just be surprised.

If you have see Ex Machina, why not let me know what you thought of it below… in a non-spoilery kind of way!

Focus on Rewriting


 

Having taken a bit of a step back from my work and embarking on a “new” rewrite, my mind is now full of how I can rewrite the script I am currently focusing on and what, exactly, is rewriting?

I touched on the importance of taking a step back last week and how, if I don’t, my rewrites tend to be nothing more than a tidy up of dialogue and descriptive text; perhaps saving me a few lines here and there but not, effectively, altering or improving the story. If I am not careful, I just end up editing my work – or at least doing to it what I would consider editing. The work will read better, and flow more pleasantly, but the story, the characters, the plot, themes and emotions will be identical. It can be easy to do this a few times and think you have improved your story, but any reader worth their salt will be able to see through this in an instant. A patchy narrative or a weak plot, is still just that, regardless of how good your editing skills are.

To rewrite effectively, I think you need to have a plan. Stories live or die on their plots, themes and, often most importantly, characters. You need to focus on what you are aiming for with your story, its strengths, weakness and its characters. You need to be able to delve more deeply into the story, to explore the underlying structure, themes and motivations so you don’t just scratch the surface or, more accurately, polish the surface!

But how to focus and plan?

If I have taken enough time away from a project, I can come back to it with fresh eyes. My current project did surprise me in a couple of ways as there were aspects of it that I did not remember writing. By coming back to it fresh, I can come back at it in a more objective way. After reading it through once, I then go through it again and think about the characters, the scenes, sequences, themes, twists and turns. Does it all work, are the characters believeable, is there enough conflict, what are the components that need work?

As I start to make notes, I will come up with a plan for the various components. For example, for each character, noting how they should develop, how I can make their voices clearer in the narrative and how I can make them more believeable. I will take notes from my peers (if I have them) and see how certain plot elements could be changed and adapted and how that could effect the whole work. I start to make myself a rewriting “to-do” list that focused my attention on these various components.

And this is where, for me, things differ from simple editing.

For editing, my to-do list might just be:

  • Dialogue
  • Action
  • Spelling
  • Grammar;

a combination of editing and proof-reading, a broad and unfocused overview. My rewrite checklist, on the other hand, will be a lot more detailed:

  • BOB needs to be more aggressive in his scenes with PAM
  • The dog needs to be foreshadowed much earlier in the script
  • Incident with the artichokes needs to come much earlier in the script and before PAM finds out about the butler’s misdemeanour
  • How will the aftermath of PAM’s discovery affect the revelation in ACT II?

Obviously, these are just made up but you get the picture. They are more specific and measurable changes to the work, to make it more interesting to read and more dramatic, or faster-paced and action-packed. All of it is designed to make it a better story, not just make it look nice on paper. It is certainly more focused.

And these changes don’t all have to be done in one go or in one pass of the script from start to finish. In fact, it is possibly better not to do that. A single scene might not require much work, but if I wanted to up the ante on PAM and BOB’s relationship, then perhaps I would need to go through the script and pull out all of Pam and Bob’s scenes to focus on them away from the work as a whole. Just working from FADE IN to FADE OUT might not be enough to elevate your process from simple editing to effective rewriting. You need to focus on the areas that require work and fight to make them better. (Have a look at the link below on The Surgical Drape Technique for another perspective on this.)

If that sounds like a lot of work well… it is. And it has to be. You need to be prepared to break your script down in order to build it up. Rewriting is hard and it is probably one aspect of writing that many of us are most afraid of. That might be the reason why rewrites in my early life as a writer involved a simple editorial polish, rather than a full rewrite; I was too scared to get really stuck in and mess with what I thought was a perfect draft.

Now, I understand the importance of rewriting and how invaluable it is to the creative process. We have all heard someone say that “Writing is Rewriting” and we often spend longer doing the rewriting than putting the original draft together. This can put us off rewriting as it appears to take us away from what we really want to be doing – writing and creating. But Rewriting is also Writing (whether you like it or not), so it doesn’t remove you from your creative process, it actually puts you in the thick of it and can only make you a better writer in the long run.

So, get stuck in, focus on your rewriting and enjoy the creative process!

 

How do you approach re-writing?

Are you guilty of polishing, rather than rewriting?

Feel free to comment below and share your thoughts on the process of rewriting.

(And bonus points for anyone who came here via Twitter and can name the device in the picture and what it is for – the theme of this post is a clue.)

 

Additional Reading:

Screenwriting Books – The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler

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Amazon UK (as always, other booksellers are available)

ISBN-10: 193290736X ISBN-13: 978-1932907360

In this semi-regular exploration of some of the texts I have read over the last few years, I thought it was about time to give Vogler a mention. The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers takes a slightly different look at structure by moving away from the more rigid rules spelled out by Field and McKee, for example, to explore the very essence of stories, what they are and where they have come from.  Vogler builds on Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces to describe the Hero’s Journey template that can be found in so many favourite stories and, of course, favourite films. While it still adheres to a structure of sorts, it is a fascinating introduction to the concepts behind the components of effective story-telling.

The volume is largely split into two main books that explore the characters you might find on the hero’s journey and the stages of that voyage.

In Book One: Mapping the Journey, Vogler explores character archetypes that we have all probably come across in one form or another:

  • The Hero
  • The Mentor: Wise Old Woman or Man
  • Threshold Guardian
  • Herald
  • Shapeshifter
  • Shadow
  • Ally
  • Trickster

The shadow, for example, closely mirrors the character we may already know as the Antagonist, or Nemesis. They don’t necessarily have to be villains, but Vogler discusses how they are are odds with the Hero and will act as one of the main barriers to our Hero reaching her goal. The book discusses the purpose of each character and provides examples of how they may change in relation to the story being told.

In Book Two: Stages of the Journey, Vogler sets out each stage of the journey that the Hero may take, meeting many of the archetypes described in Book One. The 12 stage journey is as follows:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the First Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave
  • The Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • The Resurrection
  • Return with the Elixir

The journey is cyclical, involving an outward quest, looking for the answers/elixir/MacGuffin, the challenges and transformations associated with this quest and the journey home with the spoils. As Bilbo might describe it, “There and back again….”

2000px-Heroesjourney.svg

I don’t have space to discuss each of these stages here but, if you have been studying screenwriting and have read even just one or two books, you will start to see similarities with other structures and paradigms such as Save the Cat, where the Call to Adventure in Vogler’s work relates to Snyder’s Inciting Incident. Others may call it the Catalyst or perhaps the Trigger, but you will start to recognise the stages as Vogler decribes them.

So there is, perhaps, nothing new in Vogler’s work if you have read other books on screenwriting and are familiar with Campbell. For me, though, what I enjoyed was a slightly more in-depth look at the characters we might see on a Hero’s Journey, as well as the stages of that journey, rather than a simple rundown of what a three-act story should look like on paper. As an introduction to the mythology of story-telling, I think it works really well.

This insight is strengthened by The Epilogue of Vogler’s book which explores the Hero’s Journey paradigm in relation to a number of classic films such as:

He also uses The Wizard of Oz as an example throughout the book when introducing the various concepts of The Writer’s Journey. This way, Vogler can help you understand how the various stages of the Journey work in practice and how the Character Archetypes found along the way interact with each other at each stage of the journey. It won’t tell you how to write a screenplay from a technical point of view, but it will give you a great understanding of story structure and potential components that will help you tell a good tale.

It helps you understand how stories work.

Like any other texts, The Writer’s Journey is not the “only book you will ever need” but, if you have an interest in crafting stories and exploring characters and their journeys, then I can heartily recommend this book.

Have you read Vogler’s work?

Did you find it useful?

Feel free to comment below and have fun if you chose to purchase this book!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Directed and written by John Hughes

Just a quick entry this week because writing time is fairly limited as I approach the last few days of NaNoWriMo and the growing concern that I might not make it to the 50,000 word target on Monday! So I thought I’d cheat a little and just post clip from one of the greatest comedies of all time and one that is perfect for Thanksgiving; Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

This superbly written comedy of errors that unfolds as two polar opposites share the titular vehicles in an attempt to get home for Thanksgiving is a wonderful example of just how important character is to a story. The two leads in this film bring the characters to life from the page and invest them with so much humanity and believable qualities that we, as an audience, are right up there on screen with them. We all know characters that are like them in some way and we have all been in a situation where someone we know or have met is annoying the hell out of us.

The scene above plays out perfectly as we are, at first, also irritated by Del and share Neal’s frustration with the situation he finds himself in. The scene twists and turns and beautifully lays their cards out on the table as Neal vents spleen and Del opens his heart about the way Neal behaves to him. We see Del’s vulnerability coming through his annoying veneer and catch a fleeting glimpse of the the warm, family man, that is lurking inside Neal. It sets the rest of the film up nicely and, although we might be able to see where it is going from this point, it is a hell of a lot of fun going on the journey.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is my wife’s favourite film and definitely one of mine. It is as funny now as it was the first time you saw it and that is largely down to excellent characters that we can all relate to.

Right, I’m off to count my NaNo words… again.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Pixar Rules of Story #21: Know your Characters (part 2)

You gotta identify with your situation/characters, you can’t just write “cool”. What would make you act in that way?

Rule #20 is pretty much a bed-fellow for Rule #15: Know your Characters (part 1) which explores how we should be careful not to think in terms of “what would I do” in that situation, but what would our characters do in that situation. To be able to do that convincingly and effectively we really need to know and understand our characters inside out.

Rule #20 has the same potential pitfall in asking you, “what would you do?” when, in fact, we don’t necessarily want to know what the author would do. While there are always going to be elements of our own psyche in the characters we write, they are also (hopefully) fully-formed people in their own right, and we need to have them reacting in ways that match emotionally and psychologically.

Another step towards this (as well as knowing how they would react in any given situation) is to develop situations around them that reflect the story theme and their emotional development. Develop situations that we can see them getting into. These may be outlandish and even absurd (depending on the plot) but also perfectly acceptable if written honestly. As Rule #15 also showed us, honesty provides credibility. If we build worlds and develop characters carefully, we can throw them into any situation as long as it “fits” with that world and character.

So a Nun winning a kick-boxing competition may seem like a ridiculous idea in the first instance, but suppose the nuns need to raise money for homeless kids, and one of the nuns shows a propensity for martial arts, we can develop a world in which this wouldn’t seem that crazy… although probably a comedy world, not a serious biopic! (Unless anyone knows any differently?)

To do that convincingly, we need to know our characters, understand their world and develop situations in which they can act believeably within the world we have set-up.

The rule also goes on to dissuade us from simply writing “cool” to come up with interesting characters. We can have cool characters, but they can go wrong easily, being cool for cool’s sake, rather than being emotionally empathetic and honest characters that audiences can relate to. They just become thin characters and stereotypes that we have seen time after time.

So, along with Rule #15, rule #20 should have us thinking about the characters we develop and the worlds we build for them. If we develop emotionally honest characters and put them in honest situations, which relate to the world in which they exist, then we will be writing believable stories regardless of how outlandish the wider premise might be.

Do you identify with your characters?

Or do you find that they are strangers when you start writing them?

And if you really want to dig into characters, go and check out Go Into the Story, Scott is all about Character!

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for the last Rule #22 – Pare it down and Build it up!

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)

Pixar Rules of Story #19: Coincidentally Speaking

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Coincidence happens all the time in real-life, it is something we are aware of and deal with every day – we might get a bit excited by a coincidence, but that soon wears off as we move on to the next thrilling occurrence in our daily-lives. Rule #19 tells us what to do about coincidence in our scripts. Like any screenwriting rule and everything we are told to never do, it is really just a guide, but we do need to be careful we don’t rely on coincidence too much and end up making lazy writing choices.

This is why coincidences are dangerous in screenwriting. They might be “fun” for a few seconds, but the novelty soon wears off and, in most instances, the audience may feel cheated that an “easy out” has been used in a given situation. As we saw in Rule #1: Characters you Admire, audiences want to watch people struggling to achieve their goals, fighting antagonistic forces and see them go through the ringer as they travel along their arc. If we set them up with a goal that appears to be impossible to obtain, but suddenly let them reach it through a coincidence, there is no fun, no empathy, no sympathy or tension as we don’t get to witness the struggle. If Batman was losing in the midst of climactic battle and suddenly found out he could fly like Superman, I think most of us would feel cheated – personally I would probably walk out of the cinema.

One “recent” example of how a coincidence annoyed me personally was Star Trek

***POSSIBLE SPOILER***

Kirk is banished from the Enterprise and ejected in a pod onto a nearby planet. He crashes, is stranded, chased by bigger and bigger creatures and, just at the point he was about to be eaten, other-Spock appears from nowhere to save his life. Now, I realise they HAD to meet for the story, there is a Starfleet base on this planet (new-Spock isn’t as heartless as we think) and other-Spock explains why he was stranded on the planet, but it feels a little contrived that they were so close and Kirk, running in blind panic, would luckily happen upon other-Spock’s cave. Now, it isn’t terrible, and I can forgive it as the rest of the film is fantastic blockbuster fare but, every time I watch it, those scenes bug me ever so slightly. (Of course, I might just be thinking about it too much….)

So try to avoid getting characters out of trouble with a coincidence. The audience may not thank you.

However, using coincidence to get characters INTO trouble is a much more acceptable way to use them. The idea of “mistaken identity” is probably a classic example of this. North by North West employs this method as Cary Grant’s character is mistaken for a secret agent in a coincidence that kicks off the rest of the film. Implemented in this way, the coincidence can be used to great effect to throw your character into the “new world” and can often be used to comical effect. However, it is much more easily forgiven and accepted at the start of a story as the rest of the film will see our protagonist reacting in a proactive, decision-making way as a result of the coincidence.

Of course there are always exceptions. We saw in Rule #13: Passive is Poison that audiences also like active characters; decisive, proactive characters that get themselves into trouble. If you frame a coincidence as arising from a series of definite characters choices, you are more likely to get away with them, as a pro-active character has put themselves in that position, rather than just being saved by providence. I suspect this is a common trait with comedy and farce.

Ultimately, your finale should not be dealt with through a lazy, obvious coincidence unless the story absolutely and utterly calls for it.

So coincidence is another tool in the writing arsenal that can help our stories. But be careful how and when you use it.

Have you used coincidence to get characters out of trouble?

How did you make it work for your story?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #20 – Deconstruction

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)

Fiona Faith Ross

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