Must Fictional Heroes Be Likeable?

Short answer: Main characters don’t have to be likeable. But they do need to be interesting.

I enjoy certain friends who aren’t necessarily “nice” people, because they’re like characters in a book who reliably make any scene they’re in more interesting.

Tim Kreider, Your Life Is Not A Story

First, some ideas from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Lena Dunham has noted that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:

“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.

People are used to seeing females portrayed as one of two mutually exclusive stereotypes.   They want a sweet, down-to-earth protagonist pitted against a conveniently evil, bitchy foil. That way they know which one they’re supposed to “identify with.”

Suzanne Riveca at The Short Form

Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods:

If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.

But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’

Continue reading “Must Fictional Heroes Be Likeable?”

What we mean when we talk about theme

The concept of theme means different things in different settings. In high school literature class we are told that ‘theme’ is a word — a sort of abstract noun like ‘love’ or ‘independence’. This is okay — this gets most students passing year 11 English, but if you go on to study literature, or if you’re a writer, the single word example of theme isn’t enough.

THEME AS USED IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH

“Well, the theme of today’s meeting was definitely muffins.”

In everyday usage, ‘theme’ can refer to any collection of ideas which are somehow connected.

DEFINITION FOR WRITERS

A theme is a sentence, not a single word.

Theme is a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.

theme is not a word

WAR is not a theme. War is a setting.

LOVE is not a theme. Love is a genre (Romance, love story)

TEEN DRUG ABUSE is not a theme. Teen drug abuse is subject matter.

THEME AND SCREENWRITING

Screenwriters are tasked with the job of coming up with a great hook and logline — even more so than novel writers because of the big budgets involved and because the traditional movie-going audience are looking for high concept stories. Accordingly, screenwriters think of ‘theme’ a little differently. They like to attach their own words to the concept. (The skeptic in me thinks that’s partly so they can package their own brands… But in the end we should pick the version that makes sense to us.)

Well-known screenwriting guru Robert McKee prefers the phrase ‘Controlling Idea’, because ‘theme’ is now used widely in colloquial language and doesn’t mean what he wants it to mean. McKee says the theme (controlling idea) exists to tell the emotional lesson of a story. This sounds a little like math class but if your brain works like this:

The Controlling Idea = Value changed by Cause

Value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.

Cause refers to the primary reason that the life or world of the protagonist has tuned to its positive or negative value.

e.g. Justice (VALUE) triumphs (the change) because the hero is smarter than the villain (CAUSE).

Another screenwriting guru, John Truby, thinks in terms of ‘moral argument’ and ‘symbol web’. According to Truby,  theme exists to show “The writer’s view of the proper way to act in the world.”

THEME IN YOUR OWN STORIES

The best way to get a handle on the concept of theme is to write sentences summing up your own stories. Then do the same for your favourite stories by other writers. I used McKee’s formula to write the controlling ideas (after the fact).

The theme of The Artifacts: Hope (VALUE) is restored (CHANGE) because a boy realises the value of knowledge and abstract joys over the amassing of material wealth (CAUSE).

The theme of Midnight Feast: Adult-like awareness of poverty (VALUE) is gained (CHANGE) when a girl stays up late one night and sees the poverty right outside her home (CAUSE).

The theme of Hilda Bewildered: A young princess learns to deal with performance anxiety (CHANGE) when she learns the power of visualisation (VALUE) on the night of her first speech (CAUSE).

The theme of Diary of a Goth Girl: It is only after the grim reaper comes for a pessimistic try-hard goth (CAUSE)  that she learns (CHANGE) the value of human kindness (VALUE).

 

Theme might also be expressed like this, embracing the didactic (moralistic) aspect of the story. This is often done for children’s stories.

The Artifacts: It’s better to collect knowledge and experiences than material wealth.

Midnight Feast: It’s fairly easy to ignore poverty even when it’s right outside your own window.

Hilda Bewildered: Difficult real life situations become surmountable once harnessing the power of visualisation.

Children’s literature seems to have a higher tolerance for didacticism (though the trend is against it), so you’ll often find themes written like that somewhere in the advertising copy.

 

 

Conflict and Storytelling

Common writing advice: Stories need conflict. Every scene needs conflict. Without conflict your story will feel flat.

I’ve seen that writing advice taken to its extreme. Conflict and more conflict is actually pretty flat (at best), irritating at worst.

Long-running TV dramas which air numerous times per week can often rely too much on scenes of conflict.
Long-running TV dramas which air numerous times per week seem to exhaust writers, who rely too heavily at times  on scenes of conflict with little in the way of tonal variation.

I’ve come to believe that the whole concept of conflict is unnecessary so long as you’ve mastered the art of ‘opposition’. In other words, you need a character web which includes a variety of opponents. You might have a classic villain, a friend who is secretly against you, a parent who is lovingly stopping you from reaching your goal, a monster in the woods, a helper who at first comes across as an enemy. If all these characters are in place, you won’t need to try to drum up conflict. Conflict will organically occur.

Robert McKee has a tip for pushing conflict to its limit in a story:

You take what is negative—like hate. Then you do one of two things: Either you disguise it with a lie, so it becomes hatred masquerading as love—like in great films such as Ordinary People. Or you take what is normally directed at the world and turn it inward on the character, so hatred becomes self-hate.

Those are the two techniques to take what is common, everyday antagonism and conflict and push it one step further, to the limit of things. […]

You don’t just take hate and magnify it so there’s a lot of it—a volcano of it. It changes its quality. It becomes hatred masquerading as love. It becomes self-hate.

It does magnify the power of it, but not by being more and more of it—by changing the quality.

Robert McKee in this Vice interview

Another tip involving dialogue: If you want to give the audience some backstory via dialogue it can feel too ‘on the nose’ (too obvious). But it almost always feels less obvious if your characters are arguing with each other. Since I had that pointed out to me, I’ve noticed it a lot. “Oh, great, so you can sleep around with the woman two doors down but I can’t have my own bank account?” See how we accept more specificity when dialogue is argumentative?

Stereotypes, Tropes and Archetypes

Good storytelling is about archetypes and tropes. Avoid stereotypes.

WHAT IS A STEREOTYPE?

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to the narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, non-specific generalities. […] Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel.

Story, Robert McKee
COMEDY TRICK MAKING USE OF STEREOTYPES

Like many comic writers, Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid books, makes use of our stereotypes by giving us just a few details then leaving us to fill in the rest. There’s no getting around it a lot of comic writers rely on stereotypical views of their audience.

Greg’s older brother Rodrick is set up as a fool. Like lots of stereotypes we hold about dimwits, he can’t spell and is a member of a rock band. Of course, being unable to spell and having an interest in rock music has zero correlation to overall intelligence. But we find this combination of traits funny because it reinforces everything we believe (sort of) about someone who can’t spell ‘loaded diaper’, or who thinks they’re going to become famous via their garage band. Every now and then, however, Rodrick does something amazing. His strokes of genius defy our expectations (based on stereotype) and are ironically funny for that reason.

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

WHAT IS A TROPE?

A trope is a pattern which can be seen time and again in various stories. The site TV Tropes is a good place to start for many, many examples of tropes (not just seen on TV). However, the ‘tropes’ on that site get a little too specific. Some of the most specific examples can’t really be considered tropes at all, except to the most discriminating of story consumers. In order to work, the trope has to be recognised by the audience.

WHAT IS AN ARCHETYPE?

Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person. They are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.

e.g.

Archetype is a five-dollar word for ‘pattern’, or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something — a story, let’s call it — comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again and again. You’d think that these components, these archetypes, would wear out with use the way cliche wears out, but they actually work the other way: they take on power with repetition, finding strength in numbers. … When we hear or see or read one of these instances of archetype, we feel a little frisson of recognition and utter a little satisfied ‘aha!’. And we get that chance with fair frequency, because writers keep employing them.

Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

Because they are basic to all human beings, archetypes cross cultural boundaries and have universal appeal.

The idea of an archetype comes from Jung’s psychoanalytical writings. Jung wrote about our heads, but the Canadian critic Northrop Frye took these ideas and applied them to books.

Unless you give the archetype detail, it can become a stereotype (or a cliche). A stereotype is a character who behaves in exactly the way he or she is supposed to, according to the prevailing conventions.

Always make the archetype specific and individual to your unique character.

Don’t bother looking for the originals upon which modern archetypes are based — there has probably never been a single, definite version of the archetypes.

Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.

Robert McKee

See: Fairytale Archetypes

RELATED LINKS ABOUT STEREOTYPES

  1. World map of useless stereotypes.
  2. Your Scene Sucks. Why you are just like everybody else.
  3. Stereotypes, stereotypes, everywhere from Teen Skepchick
  4. Automotive stereotypes look a bit different in Australia, so this American summary was interesting.