Tag Archives: protagonist

Good Girl Gone Bad or Shades of Gray?

How good is your hero? How bad is your villain? Discussing character development recently with a group of writer friends, I expressed my dislike for protagonists who are too good and antagonists who are too evil. Main characters must have flaws; otherwise they could never surmount the serious challenges that pay off in transformative change.

Most writers get this, but there is a different kind of protagonist, embodied in film by Michael Corleone and, more recently, by Walter White. These are characters that start out virtuous and sympathetic but, as Walter’s series title sums it up, break bad. Michael Corleone was the good son in The Godfather. He was the one who enlisted and fought in the war. He was the one who Don Corleone wanted to keep out of the family business. Circumstances forced Michael to make a choice. He rationalized his killings by reasoning he was going to get the Corleone family out of organized crime. At one point, after deciding to go into the casino business in Las Vegas, he states that in ten years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate. It surprised nobody when that didn’t happen.

Similarly Walter White embarks on a life in the drug trade with the best intentions. Given a terminal cancer diagnosis, the high school chemistry teacher and soon to be dad starts cooking meth to leave a nest egg to his family. Walter fools himself into believing he can get out any time he wants. Not only can he not exit the drug culture, he makes a series of decisions that plunge him deeper into the world of corruption. When he commits murder for the first time, he rationalizes it by convincing himself the man he killed was going to murder his family. And that might have been the case, but soon he is killing for less clear reasons. He evolves from a character who is protecting his family from danger to a person who boasts, “I am the danger.”

A good example from literature is Scarlett O’Hara. At first blush, she comes off as a domineering, self centered harlot, but as the Civil War rages on and her family and community are in danger, she almost singlehandedly protects her loved ones from mortal danger, including her nemesis, Melanie Wilkes. In the end, I had mixed feelings about Scarlett. Was she a hero? She was a tragic figure, too blinded by her love for someone she couldn’t have that she failed to see how much Rhett Butler really loved her.

I like my heroes to have flaws, that is, to be human. And I like my villains to have redeeming qualities. In fact have you noticed a trend in films and television series of drawing heroes who are loaded with flaws and demons? Ultimately complexity in characterization is a good thing.

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Scene and Sequel: The Yin and Yang of Fiction

Author K.M. Weiland just completed a 12-part series on her blog (which I highly recommend) focusing on story structure. She spent a lot of time explaining the relationship between the scene and the sequel in fiction writing. When she spoke of the sequel, she was not referring to a series of books, but rather the reaction part of a scene.

Breaking it down to its simplest terms, the scene is where the action takes place. The sequel is where the reaction happens. The scene’s elements are goal/conflict/disaster, while the sequel’s elements are reaction/dilemma/decision, Weiland wrote. “This is where introspective moments, quiet conversations and character development happens,” she wrote.
Sequels must work on an emotional level. While the scene is action-oriented, non-stop action without a breather to give the reader a chance to reflect and the writer the opportunity to explore the character’s emotional depth through her reaction results in a story with poor pacing or no context. Or as Weiland put it, “Scenes drive the action forward; sequels allow characters and readers alike to absorb and react to what’s happened.”

I’d never viewed scenes this way, so this was a valuable revelation. I’ve always approached scenes with one of two goals: to advance the story by introducing new elements of conflict (or expanding existing ones) or to provide perspective through inner monologue or other reflective means. What I was really doing was what Weiland advocated on her blog: writing scenes and sequels. However, my scenes have rarely been focused as strictly action/reaction, and I’ve always been partial to writers like Anne Tyler, who dive deeply into the psychology of the characters (what Weiland describes as the sequel). Some of my work might follow this structure: scene/sequel /sequel/scene/scene/sequel. The sequel doesn’t have to be lengthy.

The sequel is flexible. “Although the sequel possesses three basic and unavoidable parts, just like the scene, it is much more flexible in execution,” she wrote. “The three parts may take place within a single sentence—or be stretched out over many chapters. Sometimes one or the other of the parts may be implied; sometimes they may appear to be intermixed with the pieces of the scene.”

This concept was first advanced by Jack Bickham in his book, Scene and Structure.

The concept of scene and sequel may not be right for every writer. Writers cherish the freedom to craft their stories in the way that works best for them. However, writers who are looking for a sound way to approach the crafting of scenes should give the scene and sequel method a try.

What structure do you use to craft your scenes?

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Book Review: “Wired for Story,” by Lisa Cron

I never was much of a student in science. That was one of the reasons I became a journalism major and a writer. If you’re like me in that respect, don’t be turned off by the title of Lisa Cron’s outstanding craft of fiction book, “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.”

Craft of fiction books come and go, but this one’s a keeper. Cron’s premise (backed by neuroscience) is that human beings are hard-wired to read and appreciate stories. She doesn’t stop with that valuable insight, though. She digs deeper to explore the significance of emotion in giving the story meaning. She then shows the reader how to develop protagonists who have deep inner goals. Then she covers story development, stressing that specific details bring a story alive.

Following the chapters about developing protagonists and stories, Cron introduces the subject of conflict, the “agent of change.” Then she covers cause-and-effect. She explains the path from the set up to the payoff and follows that with a chapter on how to weave in back story and flashbacks. The book ends with a chapter about the lengthy amount of time it takes a writer to hone writing skills before she reaches the cognitive unconscious area of the brain.

The chapters begin with a cognitive secret and a story secret that set up the subject matter to follow. For example, Chapter 3, entitled, “I’ll Feel What He’s Feeling,” begins:

Cognitive Secret-Emotion determines the meaning of everything—if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious.

Story Secret-All story is emotion-based. If we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.

Each chapter ends with a handy checklist that summarizes the major lessons.

In a July 30, 2012 interview on the popular blog Writer Unboxed, Cron discussed why the brain craves stories. “Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency, that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling, that seduces us into leaving the real world and surrendering to the world of story.”

The bottom-line is that writers should focus on story. It’s the story that will get the attention of an agent or a publisher. And story, Cron concludes, is how what happens affects the protagonists.

There are so many valuable lessons in this book that I could not begin to list them. It is written for writers at all levels, from beginner to seasoned pro. I highly recommend this book.

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Lessons from Joe Frazier

It was the stuff of novels. The relationship between heavyweight boxing icons Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was antagonistic, bitter and, at the same time, symbiotic. This week, the world said “goodbye” to Frazier, 67, who died on November 7. There was an outpouring of tributes this week at a service for Frazier in Philadelphia. Anybody who grew up in the 1970s will never forget the three epic bouts between Ali and Frazier, as well as their complicated relationship outside the ring. A would-be novelist would have a hard time in determining which one was the protagonist and which one was the antagonist, but it was a compelling and ever-changing story nonetheless.

They were polar opposites. Ali was charismatic, loud, and boastful, proclaiming, “I am the greatest!” Frazier was a quiet, humble man. Prior to their first fight in 1971, Ali demeaned Frazier, describing him as an Uncle Tom and the white man’s boxer, and worse things. Frazier quietly absorbed the verbal blows. On March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, Frazier knocked Ali to the canvass in the 14th round, eventually handing the seemingly invincible Ali his first defeat. Ali avenged that defeat on January 28, 1974 at the Garden.

It was their third fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” that fans remember the most. Eyewitnesses called the October 1, 1975 bout one of the most savage fights in history, with each boxer pummeling the other for 14 rounds. It ended when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to send his fighter out for the 15th round, over Frazier’s strenuous objections. Ali attempted to find Frazier after the fight to apologize for all the awful things he had said about him over the years. He asked Frazier’s son to relay his apology to Frazier and he publicly apologized. Frazier bristled, saying Ali should have apologized to his face.

Over the years, Frazier became bitter about the way Ali characterized him. Ali seemed genuinely sorry as he reflected on his actions.

The full picture of Frazier was of a man of decency and humility. Frazier had lobbied President Nixon in support of Ali’s reinstatement as a boxer after Ali refused to serve his country in the military. He even reportedly loaned Ali money during the period when he was barred from fighting.

When I was growing up, I was enamored of Ali. He was hip, proud and provocative. He had a way with words. His famous motto, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” became part of the American lexicon. Ali backed up his boasts with results. He was an outsized personality and his swagger captivated a nation that was reeling from Vietnam and Watergate.

Over the years, my admiration for Ali has waned somewhat and my respect for Frazier has grown.

What lessons can we draw as writers from these two legendary boxers? One is that words matter. Ali claimed at the time that he demonized Frazier to promote greater interests in their bouts. He really didn’t mean those terrible things he said. I believe him, but still, Ali’s insults hurt Frazier deeply. Whether it’s the spoken or written word, we must take great care not to hurt people. Another lesson is the way the two men grew as individuals from their heated rivalry. I believe they had made peace with each other by the time Frazier died and Ali’s glowing praise of his fallen rival is testimony to that. Finally, we’ve learned that victory comes with a price. Their dignity and their physical health suffered as a result of their rivalry.

So now one rival is gone and we bid farewell to a good man, Joe Frazier. Rest in peace, Joe.

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