Friday, October 18, 2013

Story Game - Getting Started With Character Structure

I have always felt there is a hidden structure in most story types that isn't often recognized: Character Structure.  I think dramatists recognize it more than fiction writers do, but even there you mostly hear about character dynamics -- specific instances in scenes.  Maybe a little acknowledgement that the plot is structured around the conflict of protagonist and antagonist, but only as a universal element.

For the most part, writers talk about character types, not roles, and we see them as separate and unrelated to the structure of a story.  We even get in huge fights over whether character or plot comes first, as if they are opposing elements!

I have long felt that this character vs. plot argument is wrong.  Character and plot are just too intertwined to be thought of separately, and that's especially true in genres related to mystery.  (A mystery is structured around suspects.)

Character Structure

The simplest character structure is Hero vs. Villain.  Very often, though, when you look closer, even that simple pattern has a structure of additional characters: 

The hero usually has a mentor and a sidekick, and maybe even an opposing sidekick.  (For example: Frodo has Gandalf and Samwise, as well as Gollum.)  The Villain might have a sidekick, minions, and sometimes a foolish boss or ally.

The point here is that these aren't always just characters.  Sometimes they are roles.  Roles come with story duties to perform.  And with many genres, these roles have less to do with the plot or filling out the story, and more to do with providing those zings of satisfaction we get when we read a story in a genre we like.

One example: The bad guy's job is not just to oppose the hero, it's also to simply be bad.  In some stories, we might enjoy this badness directly, when the villain does something we always wanted to do, like smack down an officious twit.  But the Prime Duty of this bad guy is to give us satisfaction in seeing evil defeated.

This is different from characterization, which is about the specific character, and his motivations.  We writers tend to think of characters primarily in terms of characterization.  Which, imho, is a good thing.  We're looking to bring the character to life, and make him interesting, and almost autonomous.  And if our villain character rebels and decides not to fill that role?  That's always a lot of fun, but if we're writing heroic adventure, we're going to have to come up with a new villain.  Or were going to have to change the genre.  (Of course, sometimes the character simply decides to fill the role in his very own way -- and that is often the most fun of all.)

You'll often find character structures even in literary fiction, though it might be less obvious.  For instance, a journey story will have important impact characters that the main character meets along the road.  A coming-of-age story will have various mentors and peers, as well as someone younger or weaker that the character will learn to be the adult for.

The Pantser's Outline

If you want to write a story by the seat of your pants, Character Structure can often replace an outline.  If you really know your genre well, and you know who your main characters are and what they are up to, you can just start the story and let the characters sort it out.

Although I enjoy plotting too, I generally find that the Character Structure is the key even to that part of the process.

So for the first game, I decided to forget the plot wheels, and start with Character Structure.  I decided on the sort of story I wanted to tell -- a variation of Romantic Suspense -- and created my Situation Form to nail down the motives and secrets rather than the plot points.

Woman-in-Jeopardy Romantic Suspense

I used to pick these up in late summer, after I had exhausted the library's supply of all the new books of authors I prefered.  I liked them because they combined some of my favorite elements of my two favorite genres: they had the romantic notions of swashbucklers, and the twists and intruigue of mysteries.  Some of them even did this very well.

Alas, not all did them well at all, but the one thing I could say about the bad books is that they displayed the creaking machinery of the plot for me.  After recognizing the pattern in the bad books, I could see where it was hidden in the good books too.  And that helped me understand how the good books satisfied me.

The stories I'm talking about almost always started with a nurse or graphic designer (or some other girly profession that could be done alone -- older books would, of course, have governesses) who has just moved into a new situation.  There she was drawn into some secret plot, which she had to solve to escape from.

The "Character Structure" of these stories broke down like this:

1.) Protagonist: Woman who has a flaw/secret that makes her emotionally vulnerable
2.) Hero: Suspicious person who seems like a villain.
3.) Antagonist: non-suspicious person who seems like a buddy
4.) Helper: an actual buddy
5.) Victim: may seem like any of the above up to the point of being a victim (which can happen late in the story), or could have been victimized even before the story starts.
6.) Red Herring: who can seem like any of them.

In some variations of this story, the heroine is actually the victim -- the one the bad guys are out to get from the start -- but I was never interested in those stories as much as the ones where the heroine was an innocent bystander caught up in the case

I would say that a really great mainstream story that displays this character structure would be the movie/play of Wait Until Dark.  That's not a romantic suspense story, or a mystery. We know who the bad guys are, and why they are up to what they're up to, and the story isn't driven by a romance plot.

And yet from the heroine's point of view, the story plays out exactly as a romantic suspense.

She has a weakness that both isolates her and makes her vulnerable: she's blind.  Her husband is absent, but suspicions as to whether he's up to something are prominent in the story.  The bad guys play the part of helpers and red herrings, but then one turns out to be a victim.  There's also a real helper character.

(BTW, I highly recommend you go out and get a copy of Wait Until Dark for Halloween, or any time.  It started as a play, so it is not gruelling or horror.  It's smart, charming, and very suspenseful.  Very scary.  It has one of the great scare moments in all movie history.  And it reminds us that Alan Arkin could do a heck of a lot more than the comic roles we're used to seeing him in. Here he plays the creepy hipster, Roat: one of the great movie villains.)

But back to the game....

Of course, just listing the character structure does not a story make.  That's something that applies to all stories in the genre, and a few outside of the genre.

We'll have to fill them out with randomized choices from our version of the plot wheels. We have to come up with a list of tropes of all kinds to plug into those spaces.  So we'll have to think more about those archetypes -- both the commonly used variations, and those less used, and maybe a few wildcard exceptions.

We'll get started next week, though, with "The Situation Worksheet" - where we'll fill out the Character Structure with some other elements.

See you in the funny papers.

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