Posts Tagged The Edge

The Difference Between “Flawed” Characters and “Too Dumb to Live”

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Which is more important? Plot or character? Though an interesting discussion—sort of like, Could Ronda Rousey take a Klingon with only her bare hands?—it isn’t really a useful discussion for anything other than fun. To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY”.

If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.

Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.

New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension. This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama. 

If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.

Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.

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Of course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and don’t want to upset ant DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).

After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”

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I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that returned asphalt back to a plasma state (Yay, Texas summers!).

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. That and I SO had to blog about something that let me share THIS! *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*

Okay, I’m back *giggles*.

Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay. When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.

When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.

If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.

Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw

When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.

For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.

This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.

The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.

A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.

What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?

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When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic. What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.

The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.

Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the bloody fabric. Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of an newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.

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But all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never HAD to use this type of information in a real-world way) and also the two photographers who are City People and don’t have the sense to know 1) NOT to drag a knife towards the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators.

These men are used to the “civilized world” and at the beginning, have failed to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain is NOT static.

Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances

Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.

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A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world. To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.

They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs and don’t have the experience base to realize that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon to the enemy.

Bad Decisions Can Be Birthed From The Wound

From the movie "Thelma & Louise"

From the movie “Thelma & Louise”

We have talked about The Wound before. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life. Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.

Louise was raped and no one was there for her. She’s been a victim and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.

But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We are immersed in their worlds and thus empathize with the bad decisions.

The bad decisions are forgivable because unless we live in the Alaskan wilderness? We can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if we were stranded, too. We (the audience) have “been” to the Shire and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. We appreciate they are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.

In Thelma & Louise we can understand how damaged people make poor decisions because, unless we’ve been living under a rock, we’ve made similar choices, and suffered consequences created from fear not reason.

What this means is that, while ALL of these characters made really wrong decisions, they are necessary and pardonable decisions that serve to drive the character arc and thus the plot’s momentum.

That is the final note on characters making bad decisions. Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?

Or, do we have a character playing marionette? Characters are making a mistakes because we NEED them to. The tension has fizzled, so let’s just let them do something epically stupid (and random)?

Audiences can tell the difference between mistakes that are organic and flow from deeper emotional waters versus something contrived. And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing. Even I have to go back and ask the tough question…WHY is this character doing this?

For more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am finally back teaching and offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.

I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form :D .

What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? Did you hate Gilligan, too? Do you think Ronda Rousey could take on a Klingon with her bare hands?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Man Against Nature–How to Make it Work

Happy Monday, my peeps. Today we are going to talk some more about the antagonist. The antagonist is THE most critical element of our fiction. Yes, even more important than the protagonist. Blasphemy! No, I’m serious. Our protagonist cannot become a hero (heroine) without the antagonist. No opposition and no story.

Yet, every time I blog about the antagonist, I get the same comments:

But what if nature is the antagonist?

But what if a belief system is the antagonist?

But what if my protagonist and antagonist are the same person?

Most of the time, questions like this alert me that you have slept since high school or college English. Do not feel badly about not knowing this stuff. The English we are taught in school is not meant as preparation for a career in commercial fiction. I struggled with this stuff, too, which is why I am using this blog to help part the fog of confusion.

Today we are going to talk about Man Against Nature, since many new writers believe that bad weather, a hungry bear or a Shark-Clown can be the antagonist (or the BBT if you read last week’s post). Yes, they can, but uh, not really. If we want our story to have more depth than a Hollywood B movie, we need to really understand this Man Against Nature thing and how to make it work.

But First, Man Against Man

Man Against Man is fairly straight-forward. This is probably the simplest form of story antagonism to see and understand. In simple Man Against Man, we have an antagonist who has a goal that conflicts with the protagonist’s goal.

In the Chronicles of Riddick, Lord Marshall wants Riddick dead because Riddick is the last Furian male, and a Furian male is prophesied to bring Lord Marshall’s end. Riddick, however, wants Lord Marshall dead because Lord Marshall wiped out Riddick’s planet trying to kill all the Furian males so that he could stop the prophesy.

A smidge of irony there.

So here the conflict is pretty clear. Lord Marshall wants Riddick dead and Riddick wants Lord Marshall dead. Only one of them can be dead at the end of the story, lest this become a French film and be hailed as genius at the Cannes Film Festival.

Everybody died, even the houseplants! It was brilliant!

Thus, all of Lord Marshall’s actions are to capture and kill Riddick. All of Riddick’s actions are to avoid capture but press closer to take out Lord Marshall. It is this tug-of-war that creates the story tension.

Ah, But What About Man Against Nature?

Okay, to start. How many NYT best-belling novels have we seen where the protagonist is fighting bad weather for 400 pages? And how can a protagonist ever really win against the weather? It isn’t something we can control, so is the weather really the BBT (Big Boss Trouble-Maker)?

Yes, and no.

Often Man Against Nature will also generate a Man Against Man and a Man Against Himself story.

Huh?

I know. It’s okay. Breathe in a paper bag and trust me. First, understand that even if a storm or a shark-clown is the BBT, we need a corporeal antagonist to generate much of the conflict.

Humans don’t do so great with existentialism.

Thus, your story likely will lend itself more to a character battle. What is it about your protagonist that will change when pitted against nature or the worst parts of himself? There will often be a flesh and blood representation of that ugly nature.

The Perfect Storm

The Wolfgang Peterson film The Perfect Storm is a great example. Was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely a catalyst that brought forth the real BBT…pride and greed (Man Against Himself).

George Clooney plays Captain Billy Tyne who is desperate for money. Tyne convinces the crew of the Andrea Gail to go fishing during a dangerous time of year to preserve his business and his pride (and frankly, the men agree because they are desperate, broke and trying to preserve their manhood).

The crew presses out beyond their normal fishing grounds, leaving a nasty developing thunderstorm behind. Their luck seems to improve when they hit the Flemish Gap. The men bring in the haul of a lifetime…but then ice machine breaks.

Of course it does!

There are but two choices—go through the storm of the century to get home before the fish rot OR go around the storm but lose the haul and their dignity. A fight breaks out among the crew (Man Against Man). Some want to take on the storm. Others know it’s a fool’s errand and no money is worth dying for.

Ultimately, it is the captain who makes the final decision to risk his men for the fish. He is the physical proxy of greed and pride. He (mistakenly) believes believes that their skill will be able to triumph over the perfect storm, and he is wrong and everyone dies…which is probably why I really didn’t care for the book or the movie, but that is just me.

But, notice how the storm doesn’t directly generate the story problem. The captain is broke. He is staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. The men are broke. They are fighting with loved ones over bills.

It is pride and greed that propel the men out into the ocean during the most dangerous time of year. Pride and greed drive them beyond their normal fishing area. And, in the end, pride and greed lands them at the bottom of the ocean.

It is the captain who leads the way, and that is why HE is the proxy of the BBT. It is his decision to go fishing during a dangerous time of year that changes everything. If Tyne had declared bankruptcy and taken on selling hand-painted garden gnomes, there would be no story and the men would have lived.

Yes, this can be a mind-bender, but practice this enough and it gets easy.

Man Against Hungry Critters

Another great example of Man Against Nature is the 1997 survival story The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays braniac billionaire Charles Morse who becomes stranded in the wilds of North America  when the small prop plane he’s traveling in crashes. Charles is not alone. Though the pilot is killed, two photographers–Bob and Stephen–survive with Charles.

If this were a simple Man Against Nature story it would still be good, but what makes it great is the story doesn’t stop there.

Man Against Munchies Man

Charles is aware that photographer Bob is having an affair with Charles’s wife (a supermodel). He also suspects that Bob deliberately invited him out into the wilds to kill him. This agenda is, of course, put on the back burner due to the fact that Bob is a total city boy and he needs Charles’s photographic memory if he hopes to survive.

***Charles loves reading survival books and Bob is in a pickle without that information running around Charles’s noggin.

Man Against Himself

Charles is a billionaire, a man with the Midas touch. His mind is what has helped him amass a fortune, but he’s never really had to get his hands dirty. When he crash-lands in the wilderness with a man he knows wants him dead, can he do what it takes to come out alive? Nature is what will test this.

See, Nature becomes the catalyst–the brutal weather and sparse food of the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and add in a hungry man-eating bear and now we have the perfect test for Charles, to see what he is really made of.

This movie isn’t scene after scene of fighting off a bear and keeping warm–though there is a lot of that. The fighting the weather and evading the bear really drive the Man Against Man story. Charles vs. Bob. Only one man can walk out alive.

Thus, I hope you can see that Man Against Nature is doable. Mother Nature is a viable choice for a BBT, but she does need help for our story to have any depth. In The Edge, screenwriter David Mamet could have written a script where characters outran a bear for 90 minutes…but he didn’t, and THAT is why the movie rocks.

Next week we will explore some more unconventional antagonists. Did this help? Are your brains now the consistency of scrambled eggs? Any questions? What are some questions or troubles you have with the antagonist?

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April/May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April/May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note–My plane got in late and I didn’t get to bed until midnight. Will announce the winner either Wednesday of Friday. Thanks :D.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.


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