How to Write a Multi-Dimensional Lead Character

Characters, like flesh-and-blood people, should be made of more than a single dimension. Lead characters, in particular, need a personal life, a family life, a professional life, and a spiritual life. Not all of these levels should be given the same level of attention, but they should all be present.

The lead character should change in some way during the course of the story in at least one of those areas. He should become a better father, for example. Or make wiser career choices or make changes in his personal life. Whatever the change, it should be something that makes the journey worthwhile for the character. Unless you’re writing a tragedy, the change should always be for the better overall, even if parts of it are bittersweet.

In many cases, a character will experience changes on more than one level. Changes in one level often lead inevitably to changes on another level. One of those levels will always be primary to the story, but that doesn’t mean it must be the only change.

Take, for example, what Dr. Stanley Williams refers to as the Moment of Grace in his book, The Moral Premise. The moment of grace, according to Dr. Williams, is that moment when the character learns that the way he’s been doing things isn’t working and he needs to change his methods.

In his book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, James Scott Bell refers to this as a Mirror Moment—that point in the story at which the character takes a long hard look at the person he is or has become.

In both instances, the character learns something that requires a decision. They don’t have to make the decision right then, but they should become aware of the decision. In many cases, what they decide and how they come to the decision is what propels the rest of the story.

How to Write a Multi-Dimensional Lead Character

The First Moment of Realization

This decision is likely to happen primarily at one level first, but it has the potential to affect all four areas to some degree.

Lets say the moment happens in the lead character’s personal life, first. He or she suddenly becomes aware of the type of person they’ve become. He or she sees two clear choices before them. Change with the hope that things will improve, or remain the same and continue down the current path, for better or worse.

That moment of awareness—the moment of grace or mirror moment—leads to the realization that change needs to happen on a professional level as well.

Those two changes are likely to affect the character’s family life.

Or maybe the moment happens first on the spiritual level. A change at this level is very likely to affect changes at all the other levels, depending on the type of life the character has been living up to that point.

Change on All Levels

Wherever the first realization occurs—family, personal, professional or spiritual—it should produce changes at other levels, as mentioned above.

If it doesn’t, you run the risk of writing a one-dimensional character; a character who confronts himself on one level but compartmentalizes that confrontation so it doesn’t affect any other part of life.

Yes, there are people who do that.

And, yes, you can write a good book about such a character if the confrontation is significant enough to carry the full weight of the book.

But fiction is a lot like real life in that no part of life is completely isolated from the other parts. The various levels of our lives are interdependent. The various levels of your character’s life should also be interdependent.

It doesn’t matter where the initial realization happens first. That will vary from story to story and character to character.

But if you want to write a multi-dimensional character who is involved in a story that keeps readers turning pages to the end, the first change the character makes—or refuses to make—should lead to further changes and further challenges.

Take a look at your work in progress.

Does your lead character have a clear character arc? Can you identify the part of his or her life in which the change happens first? Can the character and/or story line be improved by reflecting that change in the other parts of the character’s life?

Take Away Value

The most memorable and compelling stories are stories of change. If you want to write powerful stories, a strong character arc is a must.

The best path to a strong character arc includes strong moments of internal confrontations and changes on multiple levels.

Write Your Novel From the Middle

The last two posts I’ve written have been centered around my rediscovery of writing. A search that actually began months ago, even before my encounter with creative silence. I won’t bore you with all of the history again, since I’ve written about all of it (including the creative silence) elsewhere on this blog. Read When You Find Yourself Becalmed and How to Get in Writing Shape After a Long Absence.

Part of my search happened to be reading two books on writing by James Scott Bell. Both have intrigued me since I first heard about them. Only lately, however, have I had the opportunity to read them.

The first is called The Art of War for Writers. Who wouldn’t wonder what a book like that is about? As it turns out, it’s not about writing war scenes. It’s a book of short tips, suggestions, and encouragements based on The Art of War, written by ancient Chinese General Sun Tsu. Most of the entries are less than two pages long. Some aren’t even a page long. But it’s a helpful and encouraging book and I urge you to get a copy if you don’t already have one.

The second book is Write Your Novel From the Middle. Yes, it’s another book on designing story, but it’s not just another book on designing story. It delves into basic story structure, but only to lay the foundation for the real meat of the book, which is uncovering your lead character’s arc. Or, as Bell puts it, discovering what your story is really all about.

Write Your Novel From The MiddleIn The Middle of Things

…Virtually all books on the [writing] craft approach it as another “plot” point. Something external happens that changes the course of the story. But what I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.

Ordinarily, I don’t read books about how to write while I’m writing. It’s counterproductive.

But I did this time because I’d hit a wall with the story I was working on. I knew how I wanted the plot to unfold, but could not for the life of me figure out how to write the first act. Nothing was working. It was as simple as that.

In the process of thinking through the problem, I came across Write Your Novel From the Middle and thought, I need to read that book. I set aside one afternoon and read it cover to cover in about four hours—including taking notes. As I read, a door gradually creaked open. Through that widening crack, I could see not only the problem with the current work-in-progress but with a story I’ve finished a dozen times over the last twenty years but have never been happy with.

It’s All About What Happens to the Lead Character

In a character-driven story, [the character] looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act 2, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome himself? Or how will he have to change in order to battle successfully?

The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be professional, physical, or psychological.

These two basic thoughts are not mutually exclusive. For example, an action story may be given added heft by incorporating the first kind of reflection into the narrative. This happens in Lethal Weapon when Riggs bares his soul to Murtaugh, admitting that killing people is “the only thing I was ever good at.”

Rather than thinking of the turning point in the middle of the story as the second major turning point (which is what I usually do), Bell was telling me to look at it as a moment of truth, what he calls a Look in the Mirror Moment, for the lead character. It’s the moment at which the character is forced to look at himself in a mirror. What he sees has the potential to change the direction of the story.

More importantly, what he sees and his response to it is what the story is about.

Once you know what your character sees when he looks into the mirror, you can work backward to set up the circumstances and backstory that create the original condition. You can also work forward to the end of the story, when your character either changes or refuses to change. Those three points—the pre-story condition, the Mirror Moment, and the post story condition of the lead character—make up the Golden Triangle.

The real beauty of understanding how this character arc works is that you can use it at any stage in the writing process. That story in progress of mine? It’s at the perfect point to figure out the lead character’s Golden Triangle.

The same is also true for that twenty-year-old story or for the next story I work on.

It also works for every type of writer. Planner, pantser, or tweener. It doesn’t matter how you write or how little or much of your story you’ve written.

After reading the book, I sent an email to Mr. Bell thanking him for the book and asking for a guest post or permission to excerpt the book. He instead granted permission to glean a few gems from his original post on Write Your Novel From the Middle, which appeared at The Kill Zone in July 2013. You now know the gems I gleaned. Read the full post here. You won’t regret it.

Nor will your work in progress!

Journaling and Basic Story Structure

 

A car whipped by with outdated license tabs. The sheriff’s deputy hit the lights and pulled the little ’90’s-something Toyota Camry over to the shoulder. A young couple sat inside. Teens, early twenties.

The deputy radioed in his stop, then paused before getting out of the patrol car. “See that massive collection of air fresheners hangin’ from the rear-view mirror?”

I nodded.

“They’ve been smokin’ drugs. They’re tryin’ to mask the smell.”

I cocked my head like a dog. He could tell that from air fresheners?

The deputy got out of the car. Glanced at me. Locked the doors.

 

JournalSounds like an excerpt from my latest novel, right?

Nope. That’s a snippet out of my journal. My first sheriff’s ride-along.

I heard it said once, a long time ago, that good writers should keep a journal. Didn’t have a clue why, but since I was already keeping a journal, I just kept on keeping a journal.

In hindsight, I can now recognize a whole slew of reasons why I’m glad I’ve kept a journal. One of them is that journaling taught me to recognize basic story structure in real-life scenarios and how to use that structure effectively.

So what is basic story structure? It’s really simple. You’ll have this memorized in a heartbeat:

Characters find themselves in a conflict which reaches a climax before arriving at a resolution.

Every story ever told is built on that uber-simple story structure: Characters, conflict, climax, resolution. And interestingly, every event in your life is also built on that same story structure. Whether that event spans an hour or a lifetime.

The beauty of journaling is that you can break out the story structure again and again and again and practice writing it effectively–without having to create a story from scratch every time.

  • The above excerpt from my journal introduces the conflict (and implies the characters): A sheriff’s deputy pulls over a couple of people who may be in possession of controlled substances … and guns.
  • The story built toward the climax as the deputy questioned the driver, then searched the car with his drug dog.
  • The story climaxed when the deputy and his backup uncovered the drugs inside the car.
  • It reached a resolution when they placed the occupants of the car under arrest.

In this real-life scenario, there were no guns, and the suspects gave in pretty easily when the handcuffs came out. In a story context, we may well decide to up the ante. But that doesn’t change my point: The four basic elements of a story were all present and accounted for.

Keep a journal long enough, and you’ll realize that almost every event in life fits into that basic story structure: characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.

Keep a journal long enough, and you’ll get good at writing it, too.

There are numerous other ways in which journaling has benefited me as a writer, but I’ll save that for another time.

Do you keep a journal? Do you think it’s helped you become a better writer? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Clinics in This Series:

Check out the Journaling Book!

Journaling to Become a Better Writer by Danielle Hanna

If you like this blog post series, you might like the book, too. What do your novel-in-progress and your journal have in common? Maybe more than you think. Your life, after all, is a story. The tools you need to take your craft to the next level may be hiding right under your nose.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Kobo | Blio | Smashwords

 

 

 

 

IPT Writing Clinic – Turning Points – Chicken Run

Over the course of this Indie Plot Twist Writing Clinic on turning points, we’ve focused on novels, but story structure and turning points apply to all categories of fiction. Including the movies.

To prove it, I’m diagramming a movie for this bonus clinic.

To prove there are no exceptions (or very few), I’m going to diagram an unlikely movie. Chicken Run.

Despite the fact that the lead characters are chickens, Chicken Run is a movie with a serious message. It also is very serious storytelling. Consequently, there are strong turning points–major and minor–in the story structure.

Act 1A
The story opens with an escape attempt by the lead character, a hen named Ginger. Ginger is captured and thrown into solitary. The entire scene takes five minutes or less to unfold.

Act 1A Turning Point (minor): Moment of Opportunity Rejected
The first minor turning point, otherwise known as a moment of opportunity rejected or thwarted, is often the most difficult to pinpoint. Since the movie is 84 minutes long and since the first minor turning point generally happens about halfway through the first act (about 21 minutes long), the first minor turning point should occur about 10 or 11 minutes into the movie.

At Minute 12? One of the hens is taken to the chopping block. Literally. This moment serves several purposes.

  • The stakes are clearly explained: escape or die
  • Ginger’s resolve to escape is firmed despite the hopelessness of her situation and the loss of a friend and compatriot
  • The entire flock is set up for what happens next

Act 1B
Deliverance comes sailing over the fence in the form of a Rock Island Red rooster. Though Rocky’s landing is less than graceful and he ends up injured, all Ginger can see is deliverance.

The problem is that Rocky is a loner. No ties. No responsibilities.

No wish to help anyone for any reason.

But he’s escaping his own prison and when Ginger finds out, she uses that knowledge and his wish for deliverance to force his promise of assistance. “Help us and we’ll help you.”

Act 1B Turning Point: First Door of No Return
Rocky refuses until his nemesis arrives. Then, all of a sudden, Rocky needs to hide desperately enough to accept Ginger’s terms. The die is cast and the flock moves into the crux of the story.

By the way, this agreement is reached at Minute 32. Just a little bit past the one-quarter mark in the story.

Act 2A
Rocky isn’t serious about teaching the hens to fly. Part of the reason is his attitude and general personality. But he also harbors a secret he wants to keep secret.

So his efforts to train the hens to fly are meant to satisfy Ginger that he’s fulfilling his end of the bargain so she’ll continue to hide him. So long as the status quo is unchanged, everyone is happy. Ginger and the hens believe they’re being helped. Rocky has safety.

Act 2A Turning Point (Major)
The second major turning point is the point in the story at which something happens to change everything. There is a distinct before-and-after feel to this turning point.

At Minute 45, the known world of Ginger and her friends changes drastically with the arrival of a truck bearing a mysterious cargo. The truck is unloaded into an empty farm shed and the chickens see Mrs. Tweedy (the chief antagonist) rubbing her hands and smiling maliciously. The chickens don’t know what has changed, but they know something has. Furthermore, they know it’s not good.

What we know and what the chickens learn is that Mrs. Tweedy has just purchased a chicken-pot-pie-making machine. No longer are the chickens guaranteed life so long as they produce eggs. They have become the produce.

The status quo has changed. Dramatically.

Act 2B
The story runs along parallel tracks between this major turning point and the next one.

The farm owners assemble the chicken-pot-pie machine.

The hens ratchet up their efforts to learn how to fly.

Comic elements aside, the race is a serious one. If the chicken-pot-pie machine is finished first, the hens are finished. If the hens learn to fly first, they at least have a chance at escape and freedom.

Act 2B Turning Point (Major)
Bad gets worse. There is new information or a new obstacle or situation that causes the characters to wonder why they’re still struggling.

In Chicken Run, that moment comes when Ginger discovers the truth about Rocky. He can’t fly after all. What’s worse, he’s abandoned them. With all hope gone, they turn on each other.

All of this happens at Minute 61, just about exactly three-quarters of the way through the story. Right where it should be.

Act 3A
Ginger rallies her troops, putting an end to infighting with the realization that true deliverance has been in their midst all along.

Fowler, an former RAF mascot, knows about airplanes. He shows them a poster of The Crate (his name for the airplane). Ginger immediately sees a way they can still fly out of their prison and leave no one behind. Best of all, they can do it themselves.

All they have to do is build their Crate before the chicken-pot-pie machine is fixed.

With renewed vigor and motivation, they get busy. The two projects proceed together, independent of each other, but again on parallel courses.

Then the chicken-pot-pie machine is finished, forcing our gals to implement their plan even though it’s not quite ready. Everything looks good and then…

Act 3A Turning Point (minor): Dark Moment
Catastrophe!

At Minute 75, the hen’s plan is discovered. Their home-built “crate” is prevented from take off. Even worse, Mrs. Tweedy is there, standing between them and escape, swinging a hatchet. It looks hopeless.

Act 3B
Ginger is determined, however, and when she puts herself in danger to rescue the rest, she’s rescued from Mrs. Tweedy and certain death by Rocky’s unexpected, last-minute arrival. Our heroes engage their enemies with everything that is within them, finding courage and resourcefulness they never knew they had.

Act 3B Turning Point: The End
They win the final battle at Minute 80 and the last four minutes of the story show them in their “happily ever after.”

In Conclusion
Even though Chicken Run is an animated comedy, there is a lot of excellent storytelling skills on display. I’ve focused on the turning points, but you could do worse than studying character development, character interaction, and conflict in this movie.

Whether you watch Chicken Run or not, I highly recommend diagramming movies. You can learn a lot about story structure and other basic elements of storytelling by seeing how screenwriters do it.

Try it with a favorite movie and see what happens. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Diagram enough movies and it will become second nature. When you reach that point you’ll be more comfortable diagramming your own stories.

Clinics in This Series
Introduction: Introduction to Turning Points
Week 1: Using Turning Points to Develop a New Story
Week 2: Using Major Turning Points to Evaluate a Finished Manuscript
Week 3: Moment of Opportunity Rejected/Thwarted
Week 4: The Dark Moment
Week 5 Bonus: Chicken Run Turning Points

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