As a New Zealander, I have a longterm interest in Katherine Mansfield. I’m coming late to American Willa Cather, but the first thing I notice is that she was writing short stories in the same era as Mansfield. Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather wrote novels as well as short stories. Cather lived a full life, to the age of 73. Mansfield died of tuberculosis age 34. Many have wondered if Mansfield would have eventually written novels had she lived longer, but I feel this wondering is afflicted by the belief that novels are somehow a ‘graduation’ of the short story. Short stories are an art form in their own right. Many successful novelists find short stories impossible.
When asked to write something about setting, for an essay or an exam, what exactly are we being asked to describe?
When I was in high school my English teachers advised us all against writing the exam essay on setting. So I did. But I wouldn’t advise the same thing. Setting essays provide plenty of opportunity for demonstrating knowledge and understanding of a work.
At about junior high school level, setting comprises two things: TIME and PLACE.
But a more sophisticated breakdown of the concept of setting involves different aspects to include:
- PERIOD – a story’s place in time. This can actually be broken down further into ‘author period‘ (the time when the author originally created or published the work, and ‘narrator period‘, which is the time when the narrator of a work supposedly narrates the story. (Reader period. Counterpoint this against when the reader reads the work, if this is useful.)
- DURATION – a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours. Some people call this the temporal setting.
- LOCATION – a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
- MANMADE SPACES – towns, cities, parks. Manmade places tend to symbolise the conscious, tamed part of our minds.
- NATURAL SETTINGS – forests (which usually border a town in fairytales) tend to represent the subconscious. Forests are especially interesting, but we also have rivers and mountains.
- TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – in a fantasy it might be a system of magic in lieu of technology. In speculative fiction this will be at the forefront. Even in non-SF work, the tech of the time is relevant to setting.
- LEVEL OF CONFLICT – the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.
If applied to Breaking Bad:
- PERIOD – The first season aired 2008, and the story is set in either that year or very close to that year.
- DURATION – Although the series has taken 6 years to watch due to the time it takes to produce a series, the duration of the story is 2 years.
- LOCATION – Albuquerque, New Mexico; Mexico; in the homes of Walt, Jesse, Hank; in factories and small local businesses
- MANMADE SPACES – the houses, the factories, the high school, the streets, the hotel (depending on the episode, there are many)
- NATURAL SETTINGS – the Albuquerque desert, which can also kill you if you’re not careful
- TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – equipment to produce methamphetamine, later in its purest form
- LEVEL OF CONFLICT – At a time when teachers aren’t paid enough to support a family, when health care is unaffordable to those working in the caring professions, when methamphetamine use is causing criminal harm and much victimization
If applied to Courage the Cowardly Dog:
- PERIOD – The style of house, the dress of the characters suggest contemporary late 1990s.
- DURATION – Each episode seems to ‘reset’ back to the beginning as if nothing happened before and nothing was learned. As evidence, Courage is never, ever believed when he raises the alarm about intruders. If this was a story which built upon itself, you’d expect Muriel to take him seriously after a while, because he’s never wrong.
- LOCATION – The fiction town of ‘Nowhere’ represents any Midwest rural town in America — anywhere flat, where it’s possible to live miles from anyone else.
- MANMADE SPACES – the house, the retail outlets, the nearby factories and experimental labs.
- NATURAL SETTINGS – the Midwest plains
- TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – Opponents bring their own technology to each episode and use whatever they’ve got to try and defeat Courage. Courage has only a PC at his disposal, which is anthropomorphised and talks to him. It doesn’t give Courage the information he wants. This represents an early form of search engines, and comments on to a time when people were just starting to use the Internet. The Internet was much smaller then, and results were much fewer.
- LEVEL OF CONFLICT – Some have hypothesised that the setting of the farmhouse in Nowhere represents a dog’s experience rather than a real place — that Courage’s experiences are those of any dog who is housebound, not taken out for regular walks, and who sees every visitor as an opponent no matter their intention. The entire series could be considered a metaphor for what goes on inside a dog’s head, presented as understandable to human viewers, using familiar human tropes.
SETTING AS CHARACTER
Then there’s the ultimate in sophisticated essays about setting. This is where you write about how setting is basically one of the characters.
What do people mean when they talk about setting as character? Continue reading “How can setting be a character?”
When creating characters, storytellers draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.
- Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
- Essence is the (one) true self.
The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.
Genre And Masks
The Love Genre
This distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting, they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing. Continue reading “Masks In Storytelling”
If there was a single moment that signaled the new TV reality, it came only a handful of weeks after The Sopranos debuted. By that time, audiences had already begun to feel affection for this new, unusual hero. True, they had seen him involved in beating a man up; plotting insurance fraud, extortion, and arson; and committing adultery. On the other hand, he seemed to come by such behaviour honestly, what with the crazy mother.
— Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin
It is more difficult to write an antihero than to write a hero. Before creating Tony Soprano, David Chase served his apprenticeship writing a large number of likeable characters, such as amicably divorced Norman Foley from Almost Grown and 1950s Southern lawyer Forrest Bedford in I’ll Fly Away. He graduated to the antihero from there.
If you’re writing an antihero you must use every trick in the book to get your audience to empathise with them early on.
Interestingly, the Sopranos writers weren’t initially brave enough to attempt an empathetic antihero and a murdering one at that, all in the pilot episode. But the show failed to garner interest with show runners. It was only when the writers had someone murdered that The Sopranos was picked up. The subsequent popularity of this show taught writers something — it’s possible to write an empathetic antihero from the very start, even when we show that character at their very worst.
The key is ’empathetic’, not ‘sympathetic’. We have to understand why a character does what they do, but in the case of criminals, gangsters and murderers, we won’t agree with their goals. The best place to find empathetic antiheroes is TV. For the length of a movie we might stick by a less empathetic antihero because we don’t have to be in their company for so long. It’s said that the age of the TV antihero began with Tony Soprano, who has been strongly influential in many dramas that have emerged since then, paving the way for characters such as Walter White. The writers of the Breaking Bad pilot used all the tricks listed here.
What tricks are those? How did The Sopranos writers ensure audiences would want to stick around Tony for six seasons? Here they are. And for an ordered list, see How To Write An Unlikeable Main Character.
No Country For Old Men is a 2007 Coen Brothers film which sticks pretty closely to Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. This is a transcendent example of a crime story, reckoning with the nature of humans, the nihilistic worldview you can get after a lifetime of crime fighting, and an upended take on the crime genre in general — bad people don’t always get what’s coming to them.
Business Insider ranked the Coen Brothers’ movies from one to seventeen and No Country For Old Men comes in at number three. (Did you know the Coens had written quite this many movies? I didn’t.)
HUMOUR AND IRONY
It is said in that same article that No Country For Old Men is without irony:
Many say “No Country for Old Men” is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. “No Country” earned them their first Oscars for best director and best picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn’t feel like any Coen brothers film ever made. It is dead serious and unironic. The lively soundtrack has been replaced with dead silence, creating an absolutely brilliant sense of dread.
But is that really true? I go by the idea that all stories are inherently ironic. To use Matt Bird’s definition of irony, in every story there’s a gap between story outcome and audience expectation. It’s certainly true that this Coen Brothers movie is significantly different in tone. But there is indeed irony: Continue reading “No Country For Old Men Film Study”
A lesson we must all learn at some point: ‘nice’ person does not equal ‘good’ person. I use these words as shorthand for ‘outwardly amenable’ and ‘morally generous’. Defining morality is a mammoth task in its own right and a nihilist might argue there’s no such thing as morality. I take the view that there is a shared cultural view of morality. Stories for children conform to that shared view. Banned books are usually at the vanguard of social change, which is why they are banned in the first place. Most banned books are tomorrow’s classics, their authors upheld as yesterday’s soothsayers.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE NICE?
Classic fairytales explore the difference between niceness and goodness, though with problems: In fairytales, if a character was good-looking they were also unquestionably good. However, they did get into duplicitous behaviour, and the way people conceal their true motivations by acting in a friendly way. In classic fairytales the characters are archetypes, so there is no possibility of starting out nasty and later becoming nice.
In Snow White, the wicked stepmother dresses as a door-to-door pedlar woman. She is ‘nice’ to Snow White, offering to sell her a shiny, red apple. Snow White falls for the niceness. The audience learns she should have looked harder. Significantly, in most versions the step mother is illustrated as an ugly old woman with missing teeth and a face of wrinkles. This is her ‘true nature’, using the visual fairytale shortcut that ugliness equals bad character. The stepmother is most ugly at the moment her ugliness comes out.
The field of psychology doesn’t find ‘nice’ useful as a concept, and breaks different behaviours into two main types:
‘Nice’ can define various personality traits that are linked to specific areas of the brain, like agreeableness, politeness, and compassion.
One who is a good citizen is called nice, and another is nice when he or she is empathetic or has good manners.
One type of nice refers to a person’s agreeableness.
Another refers to politeness.
Then there’s compassion, which is different again.
Fun fact: Nice once meant foolish.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GOOD?
Even after centuries of fairytales, we must all learn at some point that
- Looking good doesn’t mean being good
- Behaving nicely also does not mean being good.
The first is the easier lesson. The #metoo movement is highlighting the extent to which contemporary adults are still wrestling with the distinction between nice and good.
It’s hard to deal with the fact that nice people can be sexual predators or, rather, that sexual predators are most often very nice. A boss who is nice to you may be very not nice to someone else, in private. An unwillingness to believe victims when they speak out is partly an unwillingness to believe women (because abuse is gendered), but is also an unwillingness to acknowledge that we are not as good at discerning character as we previously believed. Once you learn, really learn, that nice does not equal good, that skilled people with good jobs and families of their own can be terrible, you must embark upon the lifelong work of not turning into a complete misanthropist.
In adult literature, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies does a great job of portraying an abuser who is also ‘nice’. But during promotion of the American TV adaptation, various commentators showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how abuse works by saying it was really interesting to see a successful family man also be an abuser, as if those things don’t usually go together.
But when is it developmentally appropriate for children learn this lesson? That’s another question altogether. If we teach children too early that the nice people in their lives might just as easily be terrible behind closed doors, are they able to deal with that in their vulnerable positions?
Only parents can decide. If you would prefer your children to learn this sooner rather than later, there are children’s books which touch on big issues in a gentle way.
NICE DOES NOT EQUAL GOOD: HOW TO WRITE IT
CREATE NICE BUT NASTY CHARACTERS AND CONTRAST USING ‘SHADOW IN THE HERO’
Terry Pratchett writes for an adult/YA crossover audience. His Tiffany Aching series (starting with Wee Free Men) features elves who are beautiful and magical and give children candy, but they are incapable of compassion or caring. The witches who watch over the people are petty, argumentative, difficult and always have a sharp word on the tip of their tongue. However, they do what’s right even when it’s the harder choice. Pratchett uses various ways of approaching this message, but overall, Tiffany isn’t learning to be nice. She’s learning to do what’s right. Via the viewpoint of Tiffany, the reader is also asked to consider appearance vs morality.
Different in voice but similar in theme we have The Girl Who Drank The Moon. The characters are complex and our understanding of them evolves as the story progresses, with the character initially perceived to be evil/not nice (Witch) ultimately being revealed as good, while the character initially perceived as good/nice (Grand Elder) is ultimately revealed to be evil. Perception and deception are emphasised. Superficial judgements may not accurately reflect true character. This makes it a more modern fairytale — in traditional tales, nice and nasty are inherent, immutable traits.
CREATE A MAIN CHARACTER WHO IS ASKED TO DO THE RIGHT THING EVEN IF IT MEANS SACRIFICING SOCIAL CAPITAL
Joyce Carol Oates creates such a character in her YA novel Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. ‘Ugly’ refers to the way the heroine is seen, and how people in general (particularly girls?) are perceived by others whenever they stand up for what’s right. There’s no way of standing against the status quo without facing criticism from peers who are too afraid to stand up themselves.
I suspect female characters are more commonly used in these types of stories. We’re moving through a social period in which girls — for the first time ever — are properly taught to respect their own feelings and to reject social conditioning which teaches female people to prioritise others’ feelings over their own.
Similarly, witches have been used in many ways throughout the history of storytelling but the witch has turned — modern fictional witches may look nasty but their warts and hooked noses belie upright morals. Who’s in a better position to recognise injustice than witches, after all?
See also Gregory Maguire’s reimagining of the Wicked Witch Of The West in his novel Wicked.
CREATE A FAKE-OPPONENT WHO TURNS OUT TO BE AN ALLY
J.K. Rowling used this trick in her characterisation of Snape. The message? Teachers who are the most scary are sometimes also the most ‘good’. Appearances can be deceptive. Not just how someone looks, but their lack of social graces or unwillingness to ingratiate.
It’s impossible to give further examples of this technique without also spoiling stories, because the true intent of the ‘villain ally’ is utilised as a major reveal.
In any case, this ‘villain who’s actually an ally’ plot encourages readers to reconsider who are the real opponents and who are the real allies in their own life. At their best, these stories ask readers not to judge others too soon.
The inverse ideology would be: Trust your gut about people. This is also an ideology worth exploring.
Most of us writing about story pick one of the following terms and stick with it:
- Main character — shortened to MC
- Hero(ine) — the feminine form has pretty much died, though we still often say ‘actress’
- Protagonist — which these days means ‘main character’
On this blog I use these terms at random, though I’ve started to drift away from ‘hero’ in favour of ‘main character’. When I learned that technically ‘protagonist’ means ‘the character who starts the action’, I dropped it completely, because it bothers me to use a word ‘incorrectly’ even though language does change.
The more I reflect on this terminology, the more obvious the need for some clarity. We have entered an era in which it’s no longer acceptable to write the same stories about the same few kinds of people. It’s time we move past tokenism. Our main characters need to be as diverse as they are in real life.
But how do you say who is the ‘main character’ in a story? Any story? This isn’t as clear cut as it seems. John Truby has a pretty good method which works most of the time: Who changes the most?
Pair this with guidelines shared by John August back in 2005: What’s The Difference Between Hero, Main Character and Protagonist? In 2016, the Draft Zero guys discussed John August’s post in relation to Mad Max, Star Trek and a couple of other films.
I’m particularly interested in how these ‘functions’ of character can be useful when critiquing a story in terms of diversity. We’re never going to progress beyond faux-representation in narrative unless we start thinking en masse in terms of what John August calls ‘character function’. Continue reading “Main Characters and Diversity In Storytelling”
In a previous post I wrote about how to make a character likeable. Here’s how to write an unlikeable main character. This is harder to do. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! Unlikeable characters can be the very best!
A few quick thoughts on “unlikeable characters”. Often I’ll hear people saying they got feedback their character was unlikeable, so they try to make him/her (usually a her) “nicer.” You do NOT need to make your “unlikeable” character nice! You *might* want to make them more relatable/sympathetic. Important difference. If a character is mean as a snake but has sympathetic backstory &/or relatable motivation, readers will invest in them. (Ex: Snape!) Layering an “unlikeable” character’s interiority to show vulnerability can also help us relate. Some “unlikeable” characters are merely determined/motivated in a way/place society deems inappropriate. (Ie strong girls.) In which case… My advice is usually: don’t compromise a strong girl character *just* to make her “nice” for readers. Those aren’t your readers anyway. But if your strong girl character feels unrelatable (different from “not nice!”) think about adding vulnerability or sympathetic motivation.
Ways to make “unlikeable” characters more relatable:
NOT by making them “nicer”
“Nice” characters typically annoy and/or bore me anyway as a reader. I want motivated! I want determined! Not nice. At least not in fiction.
We do need to know how to write likeable characters before we can write unlikeable ones. All the writers who’ve written super popular antiheroes spent years writing likeable characters first. It’s like how you can’t be a good cartoonist until you’ve mastered life drawing.
Surround unlikeable characters with characters who love them.
A classic example of this is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, who for some reason, hasn’t driven everyone away. If the other characters don’t mind her, we think as readers, she must be all right deep down, and we persevere through the story.
If the hero is unlikeable, at least make them super competent.
A main character’s unlike-ability is almost completely cancelled out if they are very good at what they do.
Unfortunately for women in real life, this doesn’t apply to female characters quite so much. Compare and contrast Skyler and Walter White. Both are super good at what they do, but one of these characters was vilified by a bulk of the audience. The other was celebrated. I even got talking about TV in a doctor’s waiting room with a man who earnestly and passionately argued his case that Walt should’ve murdered Skyler to get rid of her early on. To him that would’ve made a better, more satisfying TV show.
From Steve Jobs, who was a petulant, entitled asshole who bullied employees and nearly destroyed his own company because of his immaturity…from his father he was taught that even the back of the cabinets – the parts people never saw – still mattered. Being a craftsman means caring about every part of what you do, not just the visible or superficial parts.
Make sure the audience understands motivation.
Okay, backtracking a little, first they have to be motivated. They have to be active, not passive. They have to have a solid desire and plan to get it. Same as all good characters.
Even heroes who are totally likeable in the beginning often begins to act immorally—to do unlikable things—as they begin to lose to the opponent. What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything they do.
This is another way of saying, make sure your audience empathises (but not sympathises) with your antihero.
When the audience understands a character’s reason for doing bad stuff, we’ll put up with a helluva lot.
Generate Twice As Much Empathy For An Antihero As For A Hero.
The pilot of Breaking Bad is a master class in how to generate empathy for a character who will soon turn out to be an antihero.
The pilot of The Sopranos works in a very similar fashion — both Tony and Walt have wives who are depicted as really annoying and unreasonable. In Tony’s case we see an awful mother and a criminal father — how could Tony have turned out any other way? We see his soft side (kind of) with the psychologist. We see him look after The Family.
The audience will share in their frustrations and anguish. The audience won’t share their hates.
Show the audience their hopes, dreams and fears. The audience won’t share their goals.
Since everyone feels misunderstood at times, showing other characters misunderstand them is a great way to generate empathy for unlikeable characters.
You can make them morally reprehensible but don’t make them annoying.
Reason being, no one wants to hang around the length of a book or a movie with an annoying character. But morally terrible people on the other hand? Well at least those people are interesting. When characters cross the line we get to see where our own lines are. That’s what these characters are for. Would we do the same in their situation? How could they have handled things differently?
Children’s literature is at the vanguard of change; ‘children are the future’ and all that. For children, ‘popular’ means something different.
A NEW DEFINITION OF POPULAR
My daughter is a Sims fan. As I ambled past the PC she announced that she’d discovered how to become popular on Sims 3. Since she’s a little too young to be playing Sims without occasional parental input, I ask, “What does that mean?”
“Well, it means you get to do things like change the names of shops and you can fire people and stuff like that.”
For more on what popular means in the Sims world, it’s all on their Wiki:
Sims with the Popularity Aspiration desire flocks of friends and killer parties, so if they aren’t on the phone, practicing politics, or dancin’ the night away, they probably should be. Their Aspiration Meters will fill with every friend, fair-weather or not, and allow them to live long and famous lives.
“Hmm,” I say. “Sounds like popular people are not nice people.” (See what I did there?)
“Yeah,” she agreed.
Before walking off, I asked my nine-year-old to tell me what she thinks ‘popular’ means. She thought for a moment and gave me a great, denotative definition: “Lots of people know you.” Given the state of politics right now, and who has been elected to make big decisions, I’d say this definition is the better one.
I mean in contrast with the Google definition: ‘liked or admired by many people or by a particular person or group.’ Young people know — partly through the stories we tell them, I’m sure — that ‘popular’ has nothing to do with being liked or admired. The warm connotations of nice and good and admired have been lost, and the dictionaries are yet to catch up.
In children’s stories, the opposite message is by far more common: Popular people are horrible. Again and again, the popular kids are depicted as:
- unaware of their privilege
These attributes are in line with the Mean Girls definition of popularity.
THE FUNCTION OF POPULAR KIDS IN A CHARACTER WEB
In the character web of a high school story, the popular group are most often pitted against the geeky group. It is rare to get a story from the point of view of someone inside the popular group, though in the case of Mean Girls we do have someone coming in briefly from the outside, soon to leave. Most stories with popular cliques are commenting on them from the outside. However, we do have very popular (haha) series about cliques of popular girls, most notably the Gossip Girl series and Pretty Little Liars. Even the titles (gossip and liars) clue readers in on how we should feel about these characters. They are great for fiction however, as they are interesting.
‘Feeling like an outsider’ is so common in coming-of-age stories, it can probably be considered a universal emotion of adolescence. The existence of the popular group serves another good function, apart from one of pure opposition — the very existence of a Popular Group makes all of us feel like we will never really fit in, because of who we inherently are.
The morals of the popular group are frowned upon, which also offers opportunity to everyone else to evaluate where their own morals are.
Fictional popular kids are therefore stock characters — to be feared, yes, but also to be laughed at.
(In real life, the genuinely popular kids have completely different attributes. They are friendly, easy to get along with, co-operative and socially mature for their age.)
There are various words to describe the event from a main character’s past which holds them back in the present: the fatal flaw, the psychic wound, the ghost. I’ve even heard ‘scars’.
A character becomes their scars. That’s not to say they’re defined by them, but their responses to them are.
Fatal flaws aren’t always fatal and suggest they tend to be inborn. Fatal flaw refers to what I prefer to call the psychological weakness, and the ghost is a bit different.
‘Psychic wound’ is good, but other people use the word ‘ghost’. (John Truby, Karl Iglesias.) This is even better because I can visualise this thing as an alter-character following the main character around, actively getting in the way of their goals. However, ghosts refer to supernatural creatures, so let’s stick with ‘psychic wound’.
Most often, the Ghost involves traumas such as abandonment, betrayal, or a tragic accident which leaves the character permanently injured or disfigured, or causes guilt if the character feels he has caused another’s death. It can also be the death of a loved one. Basically, any traumatic incident that created a sense of loss, or a psychological emotional wound. […] The difference between Backstory and Ghost is that the first molds the character’s personalty, whereas the latter is still an open wound which haunts the character in your story and affects his inner need. Both, if interesting, can add emotional complexity and fascination to your character.
— Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias
Notice Iglesias mentions injuries and disfigurements. A disfigured character is a trope of yore, and modern writers need to be careful about that one. In these more enlightened times we know that a disfigurement or injury or missing right hand does not actually say anything about that person at all, but earlier stories conflated physical wounds with evil and mal-intent.