Saturday, June 15, 2013


The character arc is fairly simple.

The character is morally deficient in some way, is “needful”, that is, needs something that will fill the gap. The character may well be unaware of his/her lack, or desperate to hide it.

The character WANTS something. This goal is not the same as his/her need. In fact the real story lies in the friction between what the character WANTS and what, for the purposes of growth, happiness, equilibrium etc, he/she NEEDS to fill his/her deficiency.

Between the Character and what he/she wants is the obstacle. If there was no obstacle, there is no story. In simple terms the obstacle is the opponent and on the bald face of it defeating the opponent and gaining the object of the hero/heroine's desire is the end of the story.

Ah, but...

It's not so simple.

Because the goal and the need are different, it is possible (nay, probable, in a properly constructed story) that obtaining the goal is the WORST POSSIBLE outcome for the character, morally. His/her heart's desire will be his/her undoing...or rather, his/her moral flaw will undo him/her if he/she hasn't filled the moral hole at his/her core, and obtaining what he/she wants without obtaining what he/she NEEDS is, from a story point of view, fatal. Consider Citizen Cane, for instance.

Very often, in the pursuit of the hero or heroine's heart's desire, the moral compass is lost and the “good guy” starts to behave like the “bad guy”. Pretty soon James Bond is impossible to distinguish from SMERSH, and you get Smiley vs Karla instead.

Another way to look at it is that the story is the universe testing the character flaw to destruction. Change or die, if not actually, then certainly metaphorically. Stories are all extended metaphors designed to explore one aspect of the human condition.

Anyway, the character arc.

So we have our hero or heroine wanting something but encountering an obstacle. So now he/she needs a plan. He/she needs to act. And as the universe in the form of his/her opponent reacts, we have the struggle. The plan and then the battle. The war, even.

And at some stage the hero or heroine has to realise the truth about him/herself. The central, undeniable, black and unpalatable truth.

Then it is time for that last moral decision. It comes down to this:

Gain your heart's desire. Win. Achieve your goal...but sell your soul to do it;


Give up the thing you have hungered for, turn your back on it, and retain/regain your self respect.

Quite often the hero or heroine giving up what they want leads to actually gaining it, if not in exactly the form he or she imagined it.

That's it.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Okay. Currently reading The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus and I’ve had a bit of a lightbulb moment.
We already know, if we are sad writers seeking a blueprint, a template or even a toolbox, that stories are about characters, those characters want something (goals) and those goals are frustrated (conflict). We understand also that the conflict should escalate, that the stakes should get higher (for the character), things should look very bleak just before the end  and ultimately success depends upon a final decision by the character.
We have also come across the idea that the character has got two actual goals…what he (or she) WANTS and what (s)he NEEDS.
Thrown in there somewhere also are the ideas that the story has a theme, and is really about that theme rather than the stated story goal. So that a rags to riches story has to show that the hero/heroine deserves his/her rewards by the end. That’s where the moral viewpoint of the writer (and reader?) comes into play.
So here’s the lightbulb moment.
The conflict of the story is ultimately the conflict between the character’s WANT and the character’s NEED. Not just the conflict, but the theme too.
Mr Vorhaus points out that the default setting for the need is “Love”. And that’s what got me thinking.
In the Seven Basic Plots, Booker makes a strong case for stories all following that template where the main character has to negotiate the worldly traps that might turn him/her into a monster/miser/dragon whatever. And the secret ingredient is the Ego and The Self (Jungian version). In layman’s terms, selfishness (Ego) will win you earthly rewards but leave you lonely and bitter in old age. Selflessness might bring you less immediate reward but might save your soul. All a bit religious and fairy tale but convincing nonetheless.
More later…

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Character arcs and plot points

Warning: none of this earth shaking revelation, just stuff I've been sorting out in my head.

You have probably read about character arc, if you've done any delving around the craft of writing at all, and you've also (I trust) stumbled upon the concept of milestones, or plot points, which are associated with screenplays as much (or more) than novels.

But how do the two overlap? You can have a good novel where not much happens and you can have a cracking story where the characters are simple as plasticine.

Character. I think it was Forster who came up with the concept of rounded and flat characters. I think we can define those two better. There is possibly three types of character, in fact.

The character who appears in the present, the character with a backstory and the third character type who changes during the story.

Let's label them something useful so I can refer to them.

The first type we meet and hear their voices, see what they look like, even smell them, note their idiosyncrasies, laugh at them or run from them or just buy a newspaper from them. They don’t change or have a backstory to motivate them, they just ARE. Dickens had hundreds of these little cameos, characters that spring out of the page and are gone, or reappear later fleetingly, just as alive but as comic as they are anything else. Let’s call them But they could be regulars in the cast too, a gang member with a set of characteristics and no backstory, say. Like Sleepy or Sneezy of the seven dwarves, defined by their names. In fact all the dwarves have no real backstory, and unless you define Grumpy’s conversion as some sort of character arcthey don’t change much either. Let’s call these people the CAST, because they are more than extras but they are not PLAYERS.

The PLAYERS have a backstory. One we find out. Motivation. A cruel childhood, or bitter divorce. Abandonment issues. Whatever you want to invent. We find out what makes them tick. They might even get some sort of resolution by learning to live with who they are. In a weak rom-com the we might have two players as the stars and there is minimal change, just resolution of a misunderstanding.

What separates a good rom-com from a bad rom-com (script-wise at least) is that in a good one the external misunderstanding or problem is resolved only when the hero and heroine overcome the character flaws that kept them apart.  This is true of all genres (and non-genres) too. This is the HERO (or the HEROINE, but please take that as read). The Hero has a flaw that needs resolving, and it is always resolved by self-sacrifice - unless of course the flaw is that he/she never thinks of themselves and must say NO and be a bit selfish, but let’s not overcomplicate this).

So we have the CAST, PLAYERS and HEROES.

Let’s concentrate on the opening of a story and talk a bit of screenplay language.

What happens in a story is we have an “inciting incident” and the first plot point. From a character point of view these are not the same thing.


Well in simple terms we are saying SOMETHING HAPPENS and then SOMEBODY REACTS.

The “something happens” can be anything at all from zombie invasion, death of a pet or just a low mark in a test. It triggers the story in that it changes the status quo.

But what is important, and where character comes in, is how the character reacts. What he/she does next. Whatever the decision it has consequences, they can’t turn back (or won’t), it is uniquely their decision and it a character reaction to a plot point.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

The One that I Want

If the story "form" is Want, Obstacle, Action, Resolution and the ingredients are Emotion and "show" (Jerry Cleaver), then we can pontificate some more about the nature of story.

The first thing is that if prerequisites are WANT and EMOTION, then the "want" that drives your story had better matter a lot, otherwise nobody, least of all your protagonist, is going to maintain interest. So the want might well loom up into the nature of obsession, a la Ahab and the whale.

But "WANT" isn't the same as "NEED" and that gives us another clue as to the nature of story. And the satisfying nature of the more complex version where what a character WANTS is not the same as WHAT IS GOOD FOR HIM or, perhaps, no hero can win until he has shown he deserves it. Or she, naturally.

But I digress.

Let's consider Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella.

They begin in poverty (and in the universal fairytale condition of either orphaned or down to one impoverished parent).

In the case of Jack the Beanstalk want and need arrive hand in hand, and Jack makes the (on the face of it) disastrous decision to trust some glib traveller and swap the last thing he and his mum have for some magic beans. But ultimately his decision is exonerated as the beans grow into the beanstalk and he climbs it, steals the golden goose and slays the giant. All it lacks is a Princess to marry and the throne of the Kingdom, but you get the gist.

But right at the start of the story we have two drivers...the change, impoverishment, and the action, going off to market to sell the cow and opting for magic beans. He appears to have been duped, but the beans really are magic.

Digressing, you could argue that the story is an allegory for those who raise herds to move over to raising crops. In a way all seeds are magic, even if they don't grow over night. But back to the point.

So having made the decision to trust the person, or thing, that sold him the beans, Jack is equally bold in his actions thereafter. He climbs the beanstalk. He makes an ally of the Giant's missis (that's a bit odd, ain't it?), but I suppose that's only one version of the story. Wasn't there also one where she is short-sighted? Anyway, in all versions he steals the goose that lays golden eggs and hares it, pursued by Giant, and chops down the beanstalk quick enough so the giant falls to his death.

Now the giant is obviously both cannibalistic and doesn't like Englishmen, but has he done anything else in the story to deserve this fate? In some ways he plays exactly the same role in the story as the Dragon who guards the hoard of gold and is slain by the Knight or whoever. It is just an obstacle to be overcome, whether by riddle, by magic sword, slingshot, subterfuge or maybe even tamed, it's just there to be gotten past to get the gold.

And we come to the want and the need. He needs to eat, but he gets untold riches. The WANT appears the moment he sets eyes on the Golden Goose. Another Mcguffin. He now wants the magic money machine and must slay or otherwise cheat its owner to get it.

Now I'm not sure how the Giant got to own the Golden Goose but Jack doesn't have any claim to it, except that he stole it. Now historically speaking the guy in the castle on the hill owned everything and everybody and going to steal his money would have got you killed. But you could always have married the Squire's daughter. But that might be a digression too.

The point is that Jack started with a need and then it became a want and then he gets everything. And the only things remotely deserving that he does to get them are

  • he trusts the magical tradesman or woman of fairy with the magic beans (faith or gullibility?)
  • he is bold

Now Cinderella begins with a need...she's not exactly hungry (although Jack doesn't seem too hungry in his story either, most of the time), but she is downtrodden and badly treated. There's something about the spirit of her mum in a tree there somewhere, turned into a fairy godmother in other versions. But she wants to go to the Ball (not really a need) but she needs to be rescued.

She has to earn Prince Charming and as far as I can see she earns his love by:

  • Being beautiful when decked out by the fairy godmother
  • Not being cruel
  • the shoe fits her; and
  • possibly by leaving the party at the stroke of midnight as ordered

Now that last one is a bit contentious, but if you think about it, she leaves at midnight as ordered and by doing so she appears to have lost the Prince, when staying might have seemed the best decision. You could argue what the story is really getting at is she withheld her virginity from him, and thus earned his later proposal as a properly modest bride. But more likely, we have the more storylike motivation that he is fascinated by the one he can't have (absence makes his heart grow fonder). By leaving she appears to herself to have lost her heart's desire, but actually she becomes his WANT (obsession?), and he starts the shoe trying on search.

Okay these are simple stories but the wants and needs are already getting a wee bit complex (like fight and flight it's only when you look closer that you realise how complex motivations can be).

The thing about stories is that very often a WANT is as likely to destroy a character as save him or her, and very often a character needs to give up what they want to get it. This is especially true in love stories. The character has to see that the thing they wanted is an illusion, or delusion, and it won't bring them happiness. Only when the scales fall from the eyes and the truth is clear can happiness be found ...and they may or may not be what the character wanted in the first place.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Freedom is about deciding what you want and giving up everything else. A alcoholic has given up his (or her) freedom...or maybe decided that only alcohol matters and slowly gives up everything else, family, friends, books...the things he chooses to "enjoy" come with a licensed bar, and soon he is not too bothered about the things so much as the bar.

I know this too well.

So. Magic. A long time ago when I was younger
(so much younger than today)
I read some books about magic and ritual, and also read some philosophy. Nietzsche was one of my favourites, mad as he was.

He who seeketh may easily get lost himself. All isolation is wrong": so say the herd. And long didst thou belong to the herd.
The voice of the herd will still echo in thee. And when thou sayest, "I have no longer a conscience in common with you," then will it be a plaint and a pain.
Lo, that pain itself did the same conscience produce; and the last gleam of that conscience still gloweth on thine affliction.
But thou wouldst go the way of thine affliction, which is the way unto thyself? Then show me thine authority and thy strength to do so!
Art thou a new strength and a new authority? A first motion? A self- rolling wheel? Canst thou also compel stars to revolve around thee?
Alas! there is so much lusting for loftiness! There are so many convulsions of the ambitions! Show me that thou art not a lusting and ambitious one!
Alas! there are so many great thoughts that do nothing more than the bellows: they inflate, and make emptier than ever.
Free, dost thou call thyself? Thy ruling thought would I hear of, and not that thou hast escaped from a yoke.
Art thou one ENTITLED to escape from a yoke? Many a one hath cast away his final worth when he hath cast away his servitude.
Free from what? What doth that matter to Zarathustra! Clearly, however, shall thine eye show unto me: free FOR WHAT?
Canst thou give unto thyself thy bad and thy good, and set up thy will as a law over thee? Canst thou be judge for thyself, and avenger of thy law?
Terrible is aloneness with the judge and avenger of one's own law. Thus is a star projected into desert space, and into the icy breath of aloneness.

A ruling thought.

So...what makes a man free is his purpose, not a lack of purpose. And (in a slightly NLP-esque sidestep) all the things in your life should be part of your purpose (that ruling thought) or they are dead wood.

So does that mean that family and friends are dead wood? A writer should discard his or her social life and become a hermit with a keyboard as a pal and lover? The “icy breath of aloneness”?

Not for me, pal.

But purpose is about focus. Deciding what you want, how to spend your time. Making habit your friend and turning impulse into a tool.

So...what are you doing here, my friend, reading this? Haven’t you some higher purpose than hanging around here?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reader Identification

What makes us keep reading? What makes us care about what happens to a character?

I think it ties in to the idea that a story (and a character) needs an agenda. A goal.

But why would a character needing a glass of water create identification? Well, apart from the fact that we've all been thirsty, what creates the tension is not the WANT it's the obstacle. Something or someone keeping a thirsty character from that cool, refreshing drink.

But what if the character just gives up. Strolls on and thinks, I'll get a drink later?

There's two issues there, I think. First you have to UP THE STAKES. Make them desperate for water...and not just because it's been a day and a half in the dried up drought of the desert, but also, maybe, they've got a sick, thirsty child to save. Or something.

Also very important (I think) is that the character does not give up. Boldness.

I think reader identification is as much envy of characters who attempt to take control of their lives as it is about recognising and sharing goals. Wish fulfilment.

Like those Twilight books where the teeneage girl wins the love of the cold marble-chested vampire.

So...let's have characters with a goal, with a lot at stake (no pun intended, vampire lovers) and who will go for it and not give up. Who can't afford to give up after that first step. No matter what the obstacle and what shit you throw at him or her.

And it's your duty (as writer) to throw a lot of shit.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A visitor

Last night I was visited by a ghost.
"I'm lost." He was just a shadow at the foot of the bed. I could not see his face.
"Who are you?" I asked, but I knew the answer. I knew who he was.
"I'm not anybody," he said. "Not now."
"What do you want?"
"I want to be somebody again."
"Do you want to be me?"
"Are you me?"
This was strange, talking to a shadow. I am locked away in an asylum and I am mad. The shadow was not quite a shape. The voice was an echo in my skull. Whose voice?
"I used to live here," said the ghost. "I escaped."
I wanted to explain to him. What I was doing here, in his cell. Why I was calling myself...
"They put me here." I said. "They think I'm you."
"Who do they think you are?" the ghost wanted to know. Was there desperation there?
Thomas Grimes.
"They think I'm him. Jack The Ripper."
"It that what happens to me?" the ghost asked. "Do I become you? Do I become a monster?"
"I'm not a monster," I said.
"You look like one," said the ghost. "That's enough for most people."