THE ART OF STORYTELLING – PART 2
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Welcome to my Trilogy of Storytelling Articles.
You’re reading Part 2 of 3. If you missed Part 1, it’s all about the ‘Big Picture’ of stories. I highly recommend you check that out before you jam onto this. Not doing so could leave you bewildered and feeling kinda ‘dumb’. So check it out now.
Feel free to jump to the other articles:
Part 1 – Big Picture Overview of Stories.
If you’re new here, these videos are for Visionaries. The dictionary defines a Visionary as a person who ‘thinks about or plans the future with imagination or wisdom”.
I define a Visionary as anyone whose ideas can educate and entertain others, and ultimately changes the way society thinks. A Visionary can be an artist, entertainer, educator, entrepreneur, author, speaker, or coach. The list goes on.
If you dream up cool stuff then actually take action to create it, you must know the art of storytelling. It’ll improve everything you create and help you connect with your Audience in a more impactful way.
In this article we’re going to talk about the two main reasons to tell a story: Audience and Character.
Your Audience is going to hear the story, so if you’re not thinking about them you will fail from the start. This is because you must always think about the Audience Experience. Your Audience wants to feel you care about them. You do this by telling them a story you believe they want to hear. You also give them a character (a Protagonist, the main character of your story) who they can cheer for and empathize with.
The Audience can’t relate to your story if they don’t empathize with your Character.
Empathy is when someone understands, or relates to, someone else’s feelings.
As defined in the dictionary: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
If you don’t create a character your Audience can empathize with, they won’t be interested in your Story. You can create characters that are seemingly un-relatable, like the famous Pixar Lamp…it’s a lamp!
But because the writers gave the lamp the characteristics of a parent (something we can all relate to…not necessarily because we’ve been parents but we’ve all known or experienced parental figures). Empathy can make any character, even a serial killer like Hannibal Lecter relatable for the Audience.
Now let’s talk about Audience.
The entire point of telling a story is to entertain the Audience. In order for an Audience to be entertained, they first need to be interested in the story. If you study marketing, you know that the prospective buyer will only listen to your marketing message if you answer the question they’re thinking, “What’s in it for me?”
Here’s a great quote from John Steinbeck:
“If a story is not about the hearer they will not listen . . . A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting–only the deeply personal and familiar.”
That means a great storyteller must understand who their Audience is.
Let me give you an example:
If you were going to tell a story to highly religious people you’d want to keep it G rated. Having raunchy comedy and sex jokes probably wouldn’t go over too well. Similarly, if you’re making an animated film for small children you’d be best to avoid exceptionally frightening or vulgar material.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
The easiest way to tell your Audience the story they want to hear is to understand them. What are they interested in? What gets them excited? What are their values? Who are their enemies, and what are their fears, phobias, dreams and desires?
In my Visionary Planner trainings I show you how to use free data you can find online to get a better understanding on what your Audience wants. This info really lets you ‘get to know them’ so you can entertain them. Remember that when they’re entertained, they’re emotionally engaged. And when they’re emotionally engaged they’re paying attention to your story.
Here are eight common questions you must be able to answer before you start mapping out your story.
1) HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU HAVE?
Do you have 30 seconds to convey your story to someone?
If so, it must hook them and then get right to the point. If you have 2 hours (like a movie) then you’ll tell a much more nuanced tale. Knowing your time parameters will tell you how long your story can be. Conversely, if your story is too big for your allocated time, then you may have to trim it down or create an entirely new story to fit that limited time.
2) HOW BIG IS YOUR AUDIENCE?
Are you sharing your story with one person (like an investor who could fund your dream project) or millions of people (like an international audience who loves superhero movies)?
Knowing the size of your Audience is integral to designing an experience that includes them.
3) WHAT COMMON THING EXCITES THEM?
You have to know what gets your Audience fired up. This is your job as a storyteller. If you’re creating a story for adolescent boys then having tons of action, boobs and potty humor will probably give you a massive hit! But it would certainly not excite teenage girls. If you don’t think about what your Audience wants then you risk alienating, or worse, boring your Audience.
Every group of people gets excited about specific things. If we use the example of you pitching your ‘story’ to an investor, then making a profit is what will excite that Audience member. Therefore, your story would want to include elements that speak to the potential financial reward of investing in you.
4) WHAT ASPIRATIONAL MESSAGES EXCITE THEM?
Life can suck sometimes.
We can get our morale beaten down and often feel useless and want to give up. Or we can feel alone and unheard. For these reasons you should know what messages really motivate your Audience. What can you say to them to activate them to be their best?
One of the reasons Star Wars is so damn popular is because George Lucas layered the idea of religion into the script. Star Wars told of an ordinary farm boy who discovers he can be unique and special when he uses his force. This concept spoke to millions of people and let them know that if they, just like Luke, believe in themselves they can also accomplish the impossible.
5) WHAT COMMON THINGS TURN THEM OFF?
Knowing what not to put into your story is just as important as knowing what to include.
It’s best to understand what topics, words or images will really piss off your Audience. Showing graphic nudity in a family film will most likely not get you any fans.
6) WHAT OBJECTIONS WILL THEY HAVE TO YOU?
This question usually only applies to business stories, such as marketing messages or pitches. If you’re going to be trying to sell tires, for example, then a big objection might be ‘I don’t own a car!’
Understanding how your Audience will interpret your story, and possibly object to it is important. You need to be one step ahead at all times.
In a movie, the Audience’s objections would have to do with gaps of logic. For example, if you need your main character to speak 30 languages (so they can go on a globetrotting adventure) then you must explain how they came to learn those 30 languages. If you don’t address this obvious objection (because most people do not speak 30 languages) the Audience won’t be fully engaged with your tale. They’ll instead be thinking ‘this story is totally unbelievable’ instead of enjoying what you’ve created.
7) WHAT DO THEY ALREADY KNOW ABOUT YOU OR YOUR STORY?
Your Audience isn’t stupid.
By knowing them you’d have a solid understanding of what information they already know before you start telling your story. Let’s say you’re making a movie about American Football. American sports fans would know the rules of the game, whereas non-sports fans, or anyone internationally based, would not.
If your story was meant for non-sports fans, or an international Audience, then you’d want to make sure the rules of the sport were clear so the Audience could follow along with the story. Conversely, if your story was solely for football fans then you’d bore them to death by explaining the game’s rules.
Knowing what your Audience knows allows you to respect their intelligence.
8) WHAT WISH CAN YOUR STORY FULFILL?
If you’re ever in a story meeting at a big Hollywood studio you’ll hear some executive talk incessantly about ‘wish fulfillment’.
Just what the heck does this mean?
Let’s agree that most of us don’t know the perfect thing to say, have unlimited amounts of wealth, know everything there is to know about anything and have magical super powers.
That means that all people, no matter who they are, always wish for common things. Remembering that we’re pack animals, these wishes usually fall into 3 categories. The first is basic survival. Having things like food, clothing and a roof over our head are important. The second is being able to ‘fit in’.
We all wish we could be cooler. If we’re better looking, smarter and richer we’ll most likely be more popular. If we’re popular then we sit at the top of the social structure, and in theory, have fewer problems. We get invited to the best parties, get higher paying jobs and can attract the best looking mates.
The third is the wish of experiencing something supernatural or magical.
For this reason, all people want basic wishes granted.
Ever wonder why most Hollywood blockbusters grant the main character a wish? The Audience then gets to live vicariously through this character.
Let me explain…
In 2015 the top five highest grossing films internationally (the stories that appealed to the masses) were:
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
- Jurassic World
- Furious 7
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
Let’s talk about the wishes these film ‘grant’ the Audience.
- Star Wars grants us two big wishes. One is to go on a space-age adventure. The second is that we get to have superpowers (by living vicariously through the main heroine).
- Jurassic World grants the wish of seeing extinct dinosaurs (I call this magical)
- Furious 7 grants the wish of being able to kick ass, travel the globe and race fast cars (without worrying about those pesky speeding tickets)
- Avengers 2 lets us experience having superpowers and saving the world
- Minions grants little kids the wish of getting to be silly in an adult world (and grants their parents the gift of 90 minutes of quiet time as the kids watch the DVD for the 100th time)
Wish fulfillment is the secret dream that all humans have. Let me give you a few more examples:
We all dream of flying. Superman can fly.
We all wish he could be recognized as special. Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are special and we can live through them.
Most guys wish they could be badass and go on adventures. James Bond fulfills this wish.
Most teen girls wish they could be fought over by two high status men. Twilight explains why so many young ladies tolerated this story!
When you fulfill your Audience’s wishes, they will love your story (and you!) If you’re creating a Brand, or a product for your Brand, then your marketing needs to showcase the wish your product and Brand fulfill. The best products solve a problem and make us the promise of living a better life after we use it. A great example of a product that fulfilled a lot of wishes was the automobile. Henry Ford became filthy rich because he fulfilled the world’s dreams of easily being able to travel around the world.
All Audiences want to escape from their stressful lives. A great story is like going to a spa for your imagination.
What whips up imagination? Usually spectacle!
They want to experience things they never have before. The biggest box office hits create a spectacle that is unique to anything the Audience has seen before.
Snow White was a huge hit in 1937 because Audiences had never seen a full length animated film. The great Visionary, Disney, instinctively knew that Audience’s desired this.
More recently, Avatar was a huge hit because no one had created the lush 3D world that James Cameron did. He designed the film from the ground up for 3D viewing. This approach was opposite to the cheesy red and blue glasses Audiences in the 1950’s knew as a gimmick.
If we once again look at the top five films of 2015, we can see that all five of those films included a heavy dose of escapism.
AUDIENCES WANT TO HAVE FUN!
If a story isn’t fun, then no one will care. Have you ever listened to a story that had no element of fun? It probably made you uncomfortable because it was too serious.
Audiences require a healthy dose of fun to keep things engaging. Shakespeare was a master of this. He would always include a comic relief character to keep things somewhat light. The most famous tragedy of all, Romeo and Juliet, features a number of ‘comic relief’ characters. They always seem to pop up and do something funny, or say something witty, immediately after a horribly tragic moment.
One of my favorite suspense films is the original Halloween by John Carpenter. He studied Hitchcock and took his lesson of suspense to heart. His film teases the audience to keep them having fun and engaged. There are a number of close calls in the film that feel more like a thrill ride and less like a slasher film. He even has tons of silly teenage jokes to make you smile along with the characters. This humor contrasts the horror elements of the story so the horror never becomes too unbearable.
If you aren’t having fun telling your story then your Audience won’t be having fun listening.
Long story short…make it fun!
Now that you fully understand the importance of knowing your Audience, we need to focus on why characters are so important. This is because it’s through the characters that your Audience will experience the Story.
As Stephen King (another master of suspense) says:
“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.”
If we once again think of a story like a roller coaster, you’ll remember that the protagonist (or main character whom the Audience will follow throughout the story) is the ‘Rider’ who is strapped into the ‘train’ that moves along the ‘track’.
In real life the Audience is the Rider. They’re experiencing the thrills and chills of the ride. But because a movie can’t (at least not yet) put you physically inside the world of the story we need a surrogate for the Rider.
This is where the Protagonist comes in.
A great Protagonist is a character the Audience can empathize with. Remember that empathy is when we relate to someone else’s feelings.
Once the Audience empathizes with a character, they will place themselves in their shoes. They will experience what the character is experiencing. If the character is in a tense situation, the Audience gets tense. If the character is experiencing something astonishing, the Audience feels astonished.
The phrase “emotional contagion” is the idea that humans will synchronize their personal emotions with the emotions expressed by those around them. It’s just like a tuning fork. Audiences tune into the emotions within the story consciously and unconsciously. This means that an emotion conveyed by the Protagonist will become ‘contagious’ to the Audience.
The best Storytellers are able to make sure the Audience fully relates to the Protagonist during Act 1 so they’re able to care enough to continue to be engaged in the story for Acts 2 and 3.
Let me ask you a question…
Have you ever sat on the edge of your seat worrying if a character will survive? I remember feeling claustrophobic while watching Gravity.
Or ever sobbed your eyes out when a character died on screen? To this day I bawl my eyes out at the end of E.T.
The reason you feel these strong emotions is because the storytellers made sure you related to the Protagonist and other characters. Their emotional journey is your emotional journey. These storytellers literally create an emotional roller coaster where you merge with the Protagonist as they travel along their journey.
When stories, especially movies, haven’t written characters you empathize with, they have to resort to spectacle.
Explosions, boobs and extraneous special effects are a tell-tale sign that the storytellers have no control over their story.
Conversely some of the best stories are devoid of any of these elements and still manage to get their Audience’s to fall in love. A recent example of this is the amazing film ‘Room’. It’s a drama about a mother and son trapped inside one room. But because we so deeply empathize with the characters we’re able to sit engaged for two hours.
There is a scientific basis behind what I’m telling you. Empathy happens due to a thing called ‘mirror neurons’. These little buggers live in our brains and fire off in a ‘mirror effect’ of what our senses are picking up. I’ve previously talked about how our emotions are like a tuning fork. We can tune into the emotions of others. This phenomena is the ‘mirror neurons’ working their magic in your head.
Humans, who are pack animals, developed these neurons as a way for us to survive. In order to survive we needed to group together into packs. What kept us from fighting each other was our ability to empathize with the pack’s emotions. As a storyteller you can leverage this aspect of human psychology to make your Audience experience the same emotions as your characters. Therefore, the more drama you place your character into, the more of an emotional journey your Audience gets to safely experience. I say ‘safely’ because it’s fun to watch Jurassic Park and see dinosaurs from the safety of our living rooms.
So how do you create characters that the Audience will empathize with, and cheer for?
The first thing you need is to pick each Character’s Archetype.
Just what is an Archetype?
It’s an odd sounding word so it must be Greek!
If you were to build a time machine and go back a long time ago, before the internet… Before TV. Before the printing press. Before cultures could so easily mingle… You’d realize that all cultures have similar characters in their stories.
They all have dashing heroes, beautiful damsels, tricksters, wise old mentors and evil tyrants.
Greek philosopher Plato was the first to hypothesize about Archetypes. Then psychologist Carl Jung elaborated on them. Both dudes felt that all human cultures subconsciously are aware of these ‘roles’. Think of an archetype as a ‘shorthand code’ for easily categorizing a character. For example, when you see a tall strong warrior about to save a village you instantly label him ‘hero’. When you see a sniveling man dressed all in black and twirling his mustache you think ‘villain’.
Audiences instinctively place all characters into a category. Since Audiences do this it’s your job to leverage it! You don’t need to explain that heroes do their best to save the day. The Audience already knows this. That lets you move on with things and tell a great story.
If an Audience is not clear on what archetype your character is then they emotionally distance themselves from the character. It’s the same thing we do if we don’t understand something. We simply have no interest in and move onto something that will engage our attention.
My wife can look at makeup tips all day on Pinterest, and no matter how much she wants me to be interested I am not. This is because I don’t ‘get it’. The same way an Audience will stop being engaged if they don’t ‘get’ the archetype of your character.
So what are some typical archetypes?
- Hero – Luke Skywalker, Ulysses, Ironman
- Love Interest – Princess Leia, Marion Ravenwood (Indiana Jones)
- Mentor – Gandalf, Dumbledore, Yoda
- Trickster – Captain Jack Sparrow, Gollum
- Comic Relief – R2D2 & C3PO, Ron Weasley
- Dedicated Servant – Alfred (Batman), Dobie (the House Elf from Harry Potter)
- Bumbling Bureaucrat – The Mayor (Nightmare Before Christmas), Mayor (Jaws)
- Horny Guy or Girl – Samantha from Sex & The City, Sam Malone (from Cheers)
- Loyal Henchman – The Minions, Stormtroopers, Death Eaters
- Villain – Darth Vader, Voldemort, Sid (Toy Story 1)
We see these ‘categories’ of characters all the time. Decade after decade.
Once you know your character’s Archetype, it’s time to engineer making them likable.
3 INGREDIENTS TO A GREAT CHARACTER
The most beloved characters of all time follow two basic ingredients.
The first is ‘Likability’. This is where you design your character to have traits that you know your Audience will like.
The second is ‘Contradiction’. As Storytellers we always want to engage our Audience’s curiosity. The best way to do this is ask questions and set up ‘puzzles’ that they have to figure out. For a character, you can set up contradictions that make the Audience curious about the character. A classic example of this is Indiana Jones. He’s a swashbuckling adventurer by night, but a nerdy College Professor by day. These two character traits are polar opposites of each other thus making Audiences wanting to figure out what makes Indy tick.
The third is ‘Character Arc’. This is when the Protagonist learns something over the course of the story. Just like real life people, characters in a story need to make mistakes and learn from them.
A big thing to remember before we talk about these three ‘ingredients’ is that Audience will relate to characters that look and sound like them. If you’re making films for children, then your main characters should have childlike appearances or personalities. If you’re making a film for country-western fans then making your Protagonist look a little country will only benefit your Audience’s experience of the story.
Psychologists have broken likability into three ‘facets of attractiveness’. Think of these three ‘facets’ as the three elements that make you like someone else.
- Social Attractiveness
- Physical Attractiveness
- Task Attractiveness
Social Attractiveness is when someone is socially accepted by the ‘pack’. They get along with others and are respected. They are not the creepy perv who no one talks to and avoids like the plague. If you want your Audience to instantly like your character then you must show the character is a well meaning, member of society. They have loved ones, they help others and generally contribute value to the world as a whole. Giving your Protagonist a cast of characters who care about them (parents, kids, lover, co-workers, best friend) is also a reliable trick to show their social attractiveness.
Physical Attractiveness is when your Character takes care of their body and pride in their appearance. This is important because people who look sickly can affect us! The character doesn’t need to be sexy or perfect, but they do need to be approachable. Tom Hanks is a great example of this. He’s not a male model but he’s still ‘attractive’. Another example would be Kevin James. The dude is overweight but he seems nice and usually well groomed and in good spirits. A once attractive person who doesn’t take care of themselves is Lindsey Lohan. Adorable as a kid but now you wouldn’t want to see her in a bathroom stall on the Sunset Strip.
Task Attractiveness is when a character can ‘do cool shit’. They have ‘skills’ that we admire. This might be physical strength (like Superman), amazing compassion (like Mother Theresa), infinite wisdom (like Stephen Hawking) or making people laugh (like Robin Williams). To make an Audience really love a character you have to show that they’re good at something. But be warned! A character can’t be good at everything! Even a fantasy character like Ferris Beuller had some faults (Ferris is just a little bit manipulative).
Moral Code is when Characters should also possess a clearly defined personal moral code they always stick to. They need to have rules they live by. When the Audience is clear on what the character believes in they can then accept the character on their terms. However, if a character defines their moral code, then breaks it, it makes the Audience distrust the character.
In the movie The Godfather, the main character turns from an idealistic character to something of a tragic hero. He starts out idealistic and has to lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to save his family. Yet despite this metamorphosis we accept Michael Corleone because we understand his moral code. ‘You must honor your family’.
A likable character can’t force their moral code onto others. This would make them a bully or a tyrant. It’s no different than my kid sister during her militant ‘vegetarian’ years that would lecture for hours why you shouldn’t eat meat. A likable character must lead by example. They must stand for something. They must have a motto and stick to it.
The second ingredient to making a great character is to infuse them with contradiction. The Audience wants to believe your character is real. In order to believe someone is ‘real’ we have to witness the character doing believable human actions.
Unfortunately, humans are full of contradictions. We say one thing, then do another. We say ‘I feel fine’ when we really feel shitty. We say ‘you look thin in those jeans’ when we really think you shouldn’t be wearing those.
Real life examples of contradictions are the teacher who is a stripper by night, the dishwasher who secretly saved up millions and the ‘quiet family man’ who is secretly a serial killer.
For your characters, you absolutely must add a few contradictions so that your Audience believes your magic trick that the character is real. I say ‘magic trick’ because, unless you’re making a documentary or reality show, your characters are made up, or a synthesis of people who you know. Basically, the characters in a story aren’t real. They’re works of fiction.
If your character has no contractions they can be incredibly predictable. That makes the Audience get bored (and boredom is the death of a story).
If your character is predictable they border on becoming a cliché. If your cheerleader character is only shallow, if your CEO character is only an ice cold shark, and if your evil villain has no human reasoning for why they’re hurting others then you’ve created some predictable and boring characters. The Audience will quickly forget these characters. That means you’d be giving your Audience a low-quality emotional experience.
Here are some easy ‘hacks’ to give a character contradictions:
How the character looks is one of the easiest ways to create a contradiction.
I’d be thrilled to see a 300 pound man in a wheelchair with a slur be able to charm any lady out onto a date. Or the nerdy math geek who can kick anyone’s ass. Or the muscleman who is scared of confrontation.
By simply making the character look the opposite of how they act you’re one step closer to making a character Audience’s will find interesting.
It is very easy to make a character want two conflicting things at once. They want to save the bus full of school kids, but they also want to save their lover. They want to make a million dollars but they also want to be lazy. To do this well, just think of the #1 thing your character wants then also make them want the opposite.
The best example of this is the character Rick in Casablanca. The whole movie we think Rick wants to steal his old flame Isla away from her freedom fighting husband Victor. It’s only at the end of the movie that we see that Rick really wanted to save Victor so he could help put an end to World War 2. When the Audience realizes the contraction in Rick’s ‘want’ it creates one of the most famous movie endings of all time. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
What happens if you put a humanitarian character (who wants to save the world) inside a terrorist organization so they can ‘eliminate the bad people who are ruining the world’? This gives you a major contradiction. This character would have positive virtues, but obviously has a warped sense of morality. This contraction works best for villains.
A great villain is not evil for evil’s sake. They have to believe they are doing the right thing! Otherwise they come off as cliché and boring. Yawn!
You can easily place a character into a location that is the opposite of who they are. In the film Big, Tom Hanks wakes up to find he’s now in the adult world. The childlike character has to move to New York City and exist in an adult, corporate environment. This creates an amazing set of conflict and makes the character very interesting. Typically you can make your character a ‘fish out of water’.
Avatar is a great example of this. The character is literally placed into an entirely new location that makes their reactions to the world highly interesting.
3) CHARACTER ARC
The next ingredient to creating a likable character is to give them an ‘arc’.
Just what is a ‘character arc’?
As you’re probably well aware, no one is perfect. We all have a lot to learn at any given stage in our life.
So just like a real human being, a character (especially a Protagonist) needs to learn new things and improve their outlook on life over the course of a good story.
The hero needs to go from insecure to confident. The damsel needs to go from needing a man to only needing herself. The geek needs to go from dateless to having a great girl. The successful workaholic needs to learn to take time off.
In other words… your characters need to learn something and ‘arc’.
Let’s use our classic example of the fat virgin living in his grandmother’s basement to successful billionaire climbing onto his private jet with a trio of supermodel triplets.
What led him from struggle to success?
How did he overcome his physical and mental challenges to persevere and come out a winner?
Most likely the character started stuck in his negative ways…being his own worst enemy. Then he was forced to address bad qualities and narrow mindset in order to start getting along better with others. These new friends and allies then further taught him to face challenges and slowly improve his life. Eventually he had a breakthrough moment (something he earlier had tried but could not accomplish due to not having mastered, or even understood the necessary skills to win).
They went from point A (the ‘before’) to point B (the ‘after’). This journey involved a number of baby steps that all led up to achieving the final goal.
This is what an ‘arc’ is. It’s showing the Audience how the character goes from ‘before’ to ‘after’ in believable and incremental steps.
It would not be believable if our hypothetical overweight virgin simply stood up and was handed all the success they eventually will get. Life doesn’t work that way. And no one, even Batman, gets it that easy. We all have to try new things, fail, learn from our mistakes, then dust ourselves off and try it again.
What typically stands in the character’s way?
Each character has a deep pain that affects them. Typically something awful happened to them in their youth that they then spend the rest of their lives trying to repair. I call this the ‘Character Key’ because when you pinpoint what this tragic event was that causes them to act in fear you have found the ‘key’ to what makes the character tick.
Maybe daddy didn’t praise them enough.
Or they felt mom loved their older brother more.
Or maybe Mrs. Valvasor in 3rd grade unfairly gave them an F in math class (even though they got all the answers right).
These ‘horrible events’ then cause the character to see the world in a slightly negative way.
They have a filter on that doesn’t necessarily represent how life really is.
A great story will force the character to face their greatest fear.
A cheesy example of this is Indiana Jones. He’s afraid of snakes. Why is he afraid of snakes? Because the story team (Spielberg, Lucas and Kasdan) recognized that he would not be relatable if he wasn’t scared of anything. So they jokingly made him afraid of snakes.
A more well rounded example of this is Marlin in Finding Nemo. The film opens up with Marlin and his fish wife laying a bunch of egg babies. Suddenly an eel shows up and eats Marlin’s wife and all the eggs…except one. This remaining egg becomes his son Nemo, whom Marlin is overly protective of. Marlin’s big fear is to lose those he loves. We understand his fear because we witness this tragic event happen. Therefore, through the rest of the story the Audience can completely empathize (and sympathize) with Marlin.
But Marlin’s arc is learning to not be so over-protective and controlling.
He (like all great characters with an arc) must learn to overcome this fears and phobias in order to be balanced and achieve his want. To be a great dad to Nemo.
To discover your character’s key, pinpoint what the emotional problem is that they need to overcome. This is the behavioral problem that holds them back from finding success.
This ‘key’ drives all the character’s actions and reactions.
It affects their philosophy of life.
Let me give you another example.
In Jaws the sheriff is afraid to be in the water. This fear keeps him from doing his job of having to go into the water to fight the shark. He literally has to face his greatest fear (drowning) in order to save his community and be the hero he knows he can be.
Or in Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Lord is a loner who only looks out for himself. This creates conflict because he’s an abrasive wiseass to everyone he comes across. But over the course of the story he is forced to work with others and open up. This is the only thing that allows him to save the galaxy.
An easy trick to use to determine your Protagonist’s arc is to answer this question: “What action is my protagonist willing to do in Act 3 that they were not, or could not, do in Acts 1 or 2?”
This should make it very clear on how they arc, and how you can make this arc extremely clear to your Audience.
PIXAR CHARACTER ARC SECRETS
Here is a great formula for setting up a kick-ass character arc. I learned this from a lecture by Michael Arndt. He is the screenwriter of Toy Story 3 and developed the story for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This formula will help you make sure your Audience can relate to your character.
1) First you need to figure out what the Protagonist loves more than anything else. Since we’re pack animals, this is usually to have the love or admiration of others. In Toy Story Woody loves being Andy’s favorite toy. In Harry Potter, he loves his new friends Ron and Hermoine.
2) Next you need to show how they have an unnatural fear of losing that thing. We can all relate to the fear of losing the things we love. In marketing, fear of loss (like missing out on a sale price) is a key motivator to getting customers to buy.
3) Next you must show that trouble is on the horizon but the character is totally ignorant. In Toy Story, Woody’s owner Andy is having a birthday party. The other toys are worried that Andy might get new toys and thus end up throwing some of them out. But Woody is unnaturally optimistic (hence he is destined to have his greatest fear realized…not being Andy’s favorite toy). The Audience’s curiosity is aroused because they can see trouble on the horizon, but the Protagonist is ignorant. This creates curiosity and suspense in the Audience. The key ingredients to them paying attention!
4) Then you must make them lose the thing they love. This is their greatest fear! Sure, you can make your Protagonist fear silly things, like how Indiana Jones fears snakes, but having your character face their biggest emotional fear is what really allows your Audience to fall in love with your Protagonist. In any relationship, you feel intimacy with another person when they allow you to see their vulnerability. The same holds true for the relationship between Character and Audience.
5) Next, the Protagonist has to do something ‘not so nice’ as a reaction to losing the thing they love so much. They take action in hopes they will reclaim their lost thing, but actually make things much worse. This action is what propels them, and the story, forward into Act 2.
To let you really understand this, let’s use Toy Story 1 as an example.
The film starts out where it’s clear Woody loves Andy. He loves being Andy’s favorite toy, and he won’t let the other toys do anything that might compete with him. He protects his status at all costs, but we like him because he embodies great traits…he’s funny, inspiring and a leader. On top of that, chicks dig him!
Next up we find that Andy is having a birthday (with new presents). All the toys are scared they’ll get replaced. But Woody is overly cocky and unable to conceive that there is the slightest chance that Andy would stop making him his favorite toy.
Andy then gets Buzz as his new toy and Woody is no longer Andy’s favorite. This changes the fabric of Woody’s life and social status amongst the other toys. Suddenly everyone is fascinated with Buzz and Woody feels left out.
In reaction to this, Woody tries to get rid of Buzz by knocking him behind a desk so Andy can’t find him. But ‘Murphy’s Law’ kicks in and the worst thing happens. Woody’s plan backfires and Buzz is knocked out the window. All the other toys see this and assume Woody is a psycho!
The others toys react and throw Woody out the window. They tell him he must bring Buzz back or they won’t let him back inside Andy’s room. This drives the story forward into Act 2 where Woody has a very clear goal. He’s got to retrieve Buzz and bring him back to Andy’s room. Of course it won’t be that simple…
Here’s a video by Arndt that explains all…
2 TYPES OF CHARACTERS
Now that you know how to use Likability and Contradiction to craft compelling characters, let’s examine the different types of characters you can have.
Let’s think of characters as positive or negative. A positive character is someone we can relate to and cheer for. A negative character is someone whose want and morals we can recognize as traits we are against. The school bully, the evil corporate lawyer or the war-mongering overlord would be classic examples of ‘negative’ characters.
1) “POSITIVE” CHARACTERS
For positive characters, we have a few levels. At the top is the Protagonist, or Hero. This is who the story is about. Because the story spends the majority of its time on this character, the Storyteller needs to give this character an arc, some contradictions and needs to make us like them. They need to have flaws, hopes and dreams. We’ll discuss Protagonists for works of fiction, and also for marketing (I call these marketing heroes ‘Visionary Protagonists’ because you’ll want to have your Audience see you as one of these ‘Visionary Protagonists’ if you want to make a strong connection with them. This will build their trust so they believe in your Brand (and buy your stuff)!
The next level is the side characters. They can be positive (or helpful to the Hero) or negative (also known as Henchmen or Minions)!
For a narrative story (like a novel or movie), the Protagonist can typically fall into five types.
This Protagonist is naive, possibly spoiled, and needs to learn to believe in themselves and grow up. This character is often a little selfish and jealous of others. Woody in Toy Story goes from wanting to keep his status as Andy’s favorite toy to realizing that Andy has enough love to go around.
This Protagonist thinks they have to do it on their own and typically discovers they need the help of others. The character of Rey in The Force Awakens goes from being a literal loner to becoming a hero only once she steps outside the safety of what she knew and discovers new things (like how to kick ass with a light saber!)
This Protagonist does not see themselves as a hero. They are typically forced to take action and because of their reluctant nature remain humble. Bruce Willis’ John McClane character from Die Hard 1 (not the awful sequels) is a great example of a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was forced to be a hero.
This is a hero who is proud to be a hero. They love helping those less fortunate and often sacrifice their needs (or the needs of those they love) to save the masses. Spiderman is a classic example of this. In Spiderman 1 (Sam Raimi’s version) the movie ends with Peter Parker realizing he can’t remain with his girlfriend because it could put her at risk. Therefore he’s willing to give up his own needs for others.
An anti-hero is typically someone who does not possess classic hero qualities. They may not be the most charismatic, the most popular or the most polished. In the movies, the anti-hero is usually the mysterious stranger (Mad Max) or the tough punk kid (James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause) who ultimately end up becoming heroes.
If you’re interested in telling your story for business purposes (like you’re writing your bio, or you need to create some marketing materials) then the following variations of the Visionary Protagonist will serve you best.
For a narrative story (like a novel or movie), the Protagonist can typically fall into five types.
This is a protagonist who commands attention and inspires others with their passionate vision of making an impact in the world. Walt Disney and Elon Musk are examples of this.
This protagonist seeks out knowledge despite all odds. Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin are great examples of this.
They spread the word about some truth or injustice they feel the world needs to know about. Anderson Cooper is an example of this.
They spread the word about something they love with others. Oprah is an example of this.
5) Reluctant Hero
This is the most classic Protagonist in marketing. Just like the version for a movie, the reluctant hero in marketing is someone who would prefer to not run a business, but their need to improve the lives of others outweighs this. Filmmaker Tim Burton is a great example of this. He always seems like he’d be happier sitting in his art studio rather than sharing his visions with others.
The fact that this character doesn’t possess ‘hero’ qualities but is a hero (by helping others with their product or service) makes them relatable. In marketing this character is often the rebel who is questioning the status quo and trying to right the wrongs of society. Or they could delight in being different and standing apart from the crowd.
Richard Branson is an example of this.
Now that you have a solid overview on the types of Protagonists out there (for narratives and for marketing), let’s look at all the types of characters who assist the Protagonist. These are called Side Characters.
POSITIVE SIDE CHARACTERS
The role of a side character can be massive, like the Character of Sam in Lord of the Rings, Hermoine and Ron in Harry Potter and Brain in Fast & Furious. I call these Side Characters who get a lot of story time ‘Sidekicks’. These are all characters who have major parts, and lots of screen time in each story. But they’re not the main character. They are there to support the main character and assist in helping them achieve their ‘want’ so the story can come to a climax.
Side characters can also have very small parts. A side character can be a doorman who simply smiles and opens the door for your Protagonist. The scope varies, and it all depends on how that character helps service the Protagonist’s story.
Often in first drafts of scripts there are too many side characters, or not enough. It takes some back and forth, and often combining of characters, to find the right balance. Many movies are adapted from books where the screenwriters have to leave out, or merge together, characters. This is because the new format of the story (a two hour movie versus six hours to read the novel) has different story requirements due to length.
Just like a Protagonist, your Side Characters need to be interesting. They can’t overshadow or outshine your Protagonist because that would create a less than exceptional experience for your Audience. A great storyteller knows how to find this balance.
If you are dealing with very small parts, it’s your job to make each side character memorable. An easy trick (which I learned from the great book ‘Save The Cat’) is to give these side characters an interesting behavior or gimmick to make them stand out. This could be giving the bad guy an eye patch, or the character a lisp. Anything that keeps them from being generic and forgettable.
Remember that the Sidekicks are there to support the Protagonist. So these characters, typically, don’t need an arc. They can have a minor arc, like Han Solo learning not to be selfish, but this arc can’t outshine the Protagonist.
Other Side Characters (not sidekicks) should not have arcs. It becomes too hard for the Audience to follow along with the arcs of all 19 characters in your story!
2) “NEGATIVE” CHARACTERS
Just like there are many types of positive characters, there are many types of negative characters.
Keep in mind that a character can start out as negative and turn positive (like Darth Vader).
Also keep in mind that a ‘negative’ character doesn’t mean they’re evil. It just means they represent conflict for the Protagonist. For example, I’m sure your mom is a wonderful lady. But when you were a teenager she must have caused you some grief (“clean your room, cut your hair, turn that music down!”)
At the top of the ‘negative character’ pyramid is the Antagonist. They parallel the Protagonist and create conflict for them. Shakespeare was very skilled at writing Antagonists that were the shadow of the Protagonist.
Let me give you an example of a ‘shadow’ Antagonist. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is an archeologist who breaks into tombs and steals ancient artifacts. But he’s the hero of the story because he’s going to steal the Lost Ark before the Nazis can find it. His shadow character, and the Antagonist of the film, is Belloq. Belloq is also an archeologist. But he, unlike Indy, has no problem working with the Nazis. There is a very fine line between the morals of the two characters. Indy could very easily become just like Belloq (and this is said by Belloq to Indy during the film).
When you make the antagonist the shadow of the Protagonist it becomes very interesting for the Audience. Because we all know how easy it can be to let our guard down and become that which we despise.
A great Antagonist should also be believable. The Audience won’t like them if you don’t give them contradictions (the same principles for the Protagonist apply here). The evil Queen in Snow White is a great villain. She is an ugly old crone who thinks no one will respect her without her youthful beauty so she seeks to destroy Snow White. Darth Vader is the baddest mo-fo in the galaxy. He kills everyone. But he can’t kill the son he loves. This gives him an incredible contradiction.
Finally, in the Netflix show Daredevil, the character of Kingpin is a ruthless businessman, but he desperately loves his wife. This humanizes him and keeps him from being a stereotypical ‘evil villain’. Remember that no one, even someone who is truly evil, thinks of themselves as being bad. They justify it from their point of view.
Here is a great quote from writer Shon Mehta:
“Maybe I am villain in your story, but I am hero in mine.”
A great antagonist should be able to easily destroy the antagonist. They have to so completely overpower them that the Audience becomes very concerned that the Protagonist will succeed. After all, if we know the Hero can defeat the villain then where’s the conflict? We have to always believe the Hero is the ‘underdog’ and the villain has ‘the upper hand’.
There is a great quote by Walt Disney that I can’t find, so I’ll paraphrase ‘The story is only as good as the villain’. In other words, if your Antagonist doesn’t pose a significant enough threat, and seem impossible to beat, the Audience won’t be required to root as hard as they should for your Protagonist. The more the Audience is concerned the Hero might fail, the more emotionally engaged they will be when experiencing your story. Or to use our Roller Coaster example, the Antagonist represents all the scary drops and hairpin curves on the track.
If a roller coaster doesn’t have these then all you have is a train. An Audience who wants to be thrilled (emotionally engaged) will have a lousy experience on a boring old train. So make sure your Antagonist can easily kick your Protagonist’s butt! Just like the ‘positive’ characters have Side Characters, the negative characters also have them.
Negative Side Character
So what is a negative side character?
It’s a henchman or the evil sidekick. It’s the villain’s numerous minions. It’s the spy they have working with the hero who will ultimately double cross them. It’s any character who creates conflict for your Protagonist who is not the main Antagonist.
Hopefully now you know the difference between negative and positive characters and are more confident in how you can easily create some characters Audiences will love.
Now you know that all storytellers must create compelling characters that the Audience gets emotionally invested in.
Next up, read part 3.