Posts Tagged ‘45 master characters’

Quite recently, a writer friend who comes to me for advice told me that he is glad I have standards. I laughed, but denied that the standards were necessarily mine. They’re not, in fact, but the culmination of millennia of oral tradition and tales of heroes. Good stories hit on touchpoints, on lows and highs as they run their characters through the wringers of conflict, and games of emotional tug-of-war.

Stories that are stories have a basic skeleton, or hangar upon which they hang. I can liken this to fashion design. At the minimum, stories consist of words strung into sentences, piled into paragraphs. Think of the words/paragraphs as the fabric. If you are making a dress, for example, you have to follow a certain format—essentially a long garment that covers some fraction of the torso with some type of bodice or halter, of varying lengths of beyond-the-ankles to just covering the crotch.1 That statement itself implies that even though there is a basic structure, the format can encompass many shapes subject only to the designer’s imagination.2 Fashion designers learn the basics of dress construction and then learn how to play with the rules and create bizarre monstrosities only appealing to Lady Gaga… but it’s still a dress. irisvanherpencapriole-0780-682x1024[1].jpg

The writer is no different. He must know the rules and know them well before he can break them.

What is the framework, or hangar, for a story? Well, they have to have beginnings, middles and ends. All good stories have them. But just having these does not a story make. I can tell you about my day, which begins with me waking up, brushing my teeth, continues to the middle where I have lunch (sometimes by myself and sometimes I go out with my co-workers), or the end where I brush my teeth and go to bed. Is that a story? Not really. Nothing exciting happens, nothing that would make anyone feel that their time wasn’t wasted by me relating nothing more than a series of events.

So what else does it need? I hinted at it already—something exciting. Let’s say that instead of waking up and continuing my routine as normal, I had to stop at the bank and on that very day, the bank was robbed while I was in it. That’s exciting, sure (not that I ever want that to happen while I am at the bank, although I couldn’t tell you the last time I was actually in one). But okay, there was a bank robbery and I was there.

The story needs something else. It needs something unexpected to happen. That element, if nothing else, can become the whole reason the story exists, the single point on which the whole story hangs. Let’s keep the above scenario and set it up. Say I am someone of strict routine, who is never late and never varies from that safe, comfortable routine. Only this morning I realized I forgot to deposit the paycheck in the bank and I wrote a check for the mortgage and mailed it yesterday, so if I don’t get funds in the account it will mess everything up. So I am irritated, because I’ve got to stop at the bank (which further messes up my routine and ticks me off even more), and then the customer in front of me is taking a while and leaning in to talk to a distraught-looking teller, and I just have to get moving, and when I vent my frustration uncharacteristically, the customer in front of me turns around just enough to show me his gun, and instead of running or screaming like a frightened little social justice snowflake at the sight of a firearm, I pick up the teller’s ten pound marble nameplate, whack the guy on the head and step over his unconscious body so I can deposit my check with the flabbergasted teller and get on my way.

Where does a story like that get started? It could start with the routine, to establish that I am a creature of habit who is likely to fly off the handle and do odd things when I experience disruptions, reiterating that the routine is tantamount to my happiness, and therefore the desire is to remain in it.3 It could start with my discovery of that item that changes the direction of my day. It has a middle where the tension builds as I come across the bank robber, which also lends itself to a hint at what the twist will be like—something going on with the money in the bank. It ends when I’ve dealt with him and taken steps to repair the normalcy I crave.

Plenty of writers and those who teach creative writing will tell me I am wrong, or I haven’t covered all of the criteria. That’s okay, we all have different ways of seeing the same thing. I will recommend several of these learned individuals who have published good frameworks for stories. They are:

  • Joseph Campbell’s works. Must-reads, all of them, for any writer.campbell-joseph-the-hero-with-a-thousand-faces[1].jpg
  • Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters. Not so much for the characters, but the priceless section in the second half of the book on the Masculine (based heavily on Campbell) and Feminine Journeys.thN6LAS0EA.jpg
  • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Yes, it’s a book on screenwriting, but a quick, fun and informative read.save-the-cat[1].jpg

The last two especially have been priceless tools for me. I don’t necessarily write to their format, but when I’ve hit a slump or something feels like it’s missing in my story, I will hold up the scenes to their framework and I usually see that they are skewed to one end or the other (or both!) and ask myself if the “stages” they spell out lend any ideas to new scenes that would help tie the bookends together. I’ve never come away not having a new scene or two that move the story more coherently. Next time you write or read a story (or watch a movie) that seems to drag, or be too talky, or seems incoherent, it could be because it’s missing something from the framework that helps to make it a true story and not just a series of loosely-related or random events.

(By the way, years ago I ran my tied-for-first favorite movie of all time,4 The Road Warrior, through Schmidt’s/Campbell’s Masculine Journey and the story rocks it, dead on. Can’t get any better than that.)

1Originally I wanted to say that reached to the thighs but modern fashions have shortened the dress to some fairly revealing lengths… or not to length, as the case would be.

2I have to wonder from where some of their imaginations spring…

3For the record, I am not OCD. At least not most of the time. My closet is about the only place where I have standards. No wire hangers. Nothing but black hangers, all the same shape and size. Call me ‘hangerist’ if you like.

4What’s the other? Fury Road, of course. George Miller is a master director, and a lot can be learned about storytelling from him.

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There are other movies out there revolving around post-apocalypse beyond Mad Max and the Road Warrior. Not all of them are good, however.

Alright, maybe it isn’t fair to use The Road Warrior as a Litmus test for these kinds of movies. After all, it is extremely difficult to maintain that kind of brilliance. And George Miller may have set the bar far too high for everyone else, but let’s overlook that, for the moment, and focus on the basic story. If anyone else has looked into the background of George Miller’s film, they will know that he, like a lot of other directors/writers found their influence in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (not to be confused with the James Cagney film Man of a Thousand Faces) which speaks of the internal journey of the main hero, what he must go through mentally as he goes through the motions physically. Sure, who doesn’t like a good smash ’em up, shoot ’em up film? However, in order for there to be a great story the audience needs to connect and (gasp!) maybe actually learn something about the hero and about themselves in the process. Great writers do this to our subconscious, planting a seed in our brain early on in the story that allows us to connect with the protoganist and carry us on the same journey. At its very basic level, “Mad” Max Rockatansky follows the formula point-for-point.* Miller succeeds in bringing us the real change this guy goes through because he slathers decadent layers of chase scenes and punches-up and all the gooey goodness of action flicks over the character change instead of force-feeding us what the writer wants us to believe through clunky exposition (anyone who’s ever taken a writing class would recall, “show, don’t tell”).

With that groundwork, let’s look at some other movies in the genre. World Gone Wild is a movie I am ashamed to say that I owned from back in the VHS days. I recall being at the mall and I came across this movie about a post-nuclear wasteland featuring Adam Ant. Young girl that I was, smitten by the british pop star at the time and having my pockets full of paper-route money, I found the tape in the bargain bin a little difficult to pass up.

In retrospect, I wish that I’d have walked away. Just walked away.

WGW seems to want to be The Road Warrior meets Star Wars with a septagenarian Harry Potter-esque ridiculous character thrown in for bad measure. The dialogue and situations induce riotous laughter (surely what the movie-makers intended, right?) and remove you as far from the desperate situation most of us would find us in after a nuclear conflict. Good for a laugh, not so good for a story.

At any rate, you’d have to see for yourself how laughable it is. Don’t forget to watch out for lethal hubcaps.

More movie reviews to come…

*outlined in Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s great book on the subject, 45 Master Characters. The book is must-have for anyone wanting to be a writer and to understand what character personality and motives are. Also, for anyone interested, I did a “schedule” style breakdown of the movie when I sat an analyzed it for my own amusement. Sometimes I like to subscribe to the “analyze-it-and-the-magic-disappears” school of thought, but in the case of The Road Warrior, it only enhanced it.

LATE COMMENT:  There’s a character named “Max Rockatansky” in House of God, which is a novel regarding the life of an intern during his residency at the eponymously named hospital.  George Miller went to medical school.  Although Wiki cites a reference to the last name of a procedural pioneer, I believe he read the book and unconsciously (or consciously) filed the name away.  I report, you decide for yourself.

(Originally Published 5 AUG 2009)