Thursday, October 1, 2020

2020 October - Character Tags & Traits


Part 10 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Last month's blog was about psycholinguistics — how names resonate as positive, negative, or neutral and how that benefits a story. 

As you learned last month, imagery is tightly tied to the look and sound of a name. Writers should strive for an archetype name for their major story characters because, on a subconscious level, the archetype name triggers deep-seated recognition of tags and traits that go with that particular name.

But you may be wondering: What is a tag? What is a trait? 

They are defined as— 

TAGS are a descriptive detail, a label, repeated almost every time a character enters the story and which serves to identify and characterize him or her. Tags are concrete actions of cracking knuckles, drumming fingers on a table, biting nails, tapping a toe, etc.  Tags are "externals"— they are what can be witnessed, seen, heard, etc. Tags are concrete, specific, and credible (believable).

Now, a character's name is the most important TAG of all because it is THE TAG OF IDENTIFICATION. 

Names, particularly archetype names, come loaded with meaning and even character traits.

However, some tags label traits.  Such tags are physical clues to traits.

TRAITS are a character's characteristic habits, patterns of behavior, and mannerisms. The dominant impression is the trait that stands out the most and which should be shown to the reader from the get-go. Traits include: Is the character an optimist or pessimist? How does the character instinctively react when angry, happy, sad, etc.?

Traits are "internals" and abstracts— they involve the mind-set and personality of a character.  But here's a tip: Traits come in pairs: one is admirable and one is despicable (thus they are opposites, which helps balance out the character). For instance, at their best a character can be down-to-earth pragmatic but at their worst they can be very self-centered.

Traits come in the form of:

a verbal tic (they repeat a common phrase, which peppers their dialogue passages. For instance, in the TV series, Detective Columbo often says,  Just one more thing.

a particular way of speaking, like with an accent or dialect. For example Yoda of Star Wars' If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are . . . a different game you should play.

a physical mannerism or a repeating behavior (they smoke when nervous or chew on a toothpick, they bite their nails when anxious, they crack their knuckles, or they may even fiddle with something (a lock of hair, a token, a coin, etc.)

a way of carrying themselves, which can be their brisk stride, keeping a ram-rod straight spine, a mutinous set to their jaw, the meek hunching their shoulders, and so on.

a scent (their cologne, perfume, bath soap, or after shave, even their body odor from uncleanliness, fear, sweating, etc.)

Even if you love your protagonist and hate the antagonist, keep in mind that nobody is 100% good or 100% evil. It is the balance, or out-of-balance, personality traits that make a character "human," realistic, and believable to the reader.

If you need help with traits, google "Images of Character Traits." Or check out the book, A WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS by Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D. 

One way to get to know a character is to journal in the voice of the character: 

to learn how they talk, speak, think

to get a look into their philosophies on life and death, right and wrong, and what's their moral compass

to learn about their education, job or sports experiences, etc.

to learn about their social-economic upbringing and heritage

to discover weaknesses and strengths of their character and what events in their life molded those

However, journaling is time consuming. Journaling also requires going back through what was written to locate tags and traits and sort them into which seem to dominate (likely three will for the story). And, of course, in the end, only 10% of what was in the journal is needed for the actual story. 

A quicker way to get to know a character is to use a "cheat sheet" called a Character Worksheet or a Character Questionnaire, which may include lists of tags and traits that the writer has collected over time or from various sources. In other words, as the writer goes down the lists they've developed, the subconscious will likely trigger a "ta-dah" or other positive response. Then the writer can look at the traits and tags and which fit will dominate.

Do remember that the only characters who warrant such journaling or character questionnaires are the story's major characters—Protagonist, Antagonist, and possibly the Second Major Character.

Which brings me to—   

Next month we'll look at Character Worksheets and Questionnaires. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

2020 - September - Naming Characters


Part 9 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Your choice of monikers for heroes, heroines, and heavies often sets the tone for everything that follows, shaping audience perceptions of the characters before your people have a chance to hit their stride.  - Author Michael Newton 

Few writers know about psycholinguistics. The definition is mind-boggling in and of itself so let me give you the simplified definition: sounds affect the way we behave and act or react in the world. 

For instance, hear the hiss of a snake and our primordial conditioning that vipers can kill us has us instantly on alert and afraid — or terrified, or panicked to the point of immobility. On the other hand, if we hear a baby giggling, we have this feeling of contentment, that all is right with the world.

Such reactions to sounds happen instinctively, down on the subconscious level. But some name-sounds can also elicit a conscious reaction, like laughter at a person's named Katz Meow, or Iona Bra, which, by the way, are actual names of real people.

Another factor about sounds is reading words, i.e., seeing a name. When reading a name and in the process of looking at the letters in that name there is both a conscious and subconscious emotional reaction to those letters and the word they form. 

This is especially so when listening to the pronunciation by syllables of a name. Pronunciation affects the interpretation and sorts the name into a feeling that the name-word is positive, negative, or neutral. Here's a tip, the easier it is to see and sound out the name of the story's main characters, the more enjoyable the story becomes for the reader and writer. We're not talking Dick and Jane simple. We're talking James Bond versus Mister Mxyzptlk (of Superman fame).

Here's a secret to ensure a better story— heroes need positive names, villains need negative names, and all other characters in a story who have a name fall under the neutral name classification. This is another reason why having a Master Word List or Style Sheet for a story is important (refer to August's post about word lists or look at examples here.

Yet, far too many writers feel they can "make up a name" for their characters. The truth is that millions of names already exist. And do consider that every person has been exposed to thousands of names from the womb to school, on the job, at leisure, and in being exposed to hours of video, TV, movies, musicians, and print media (books, magazines, and newspapers). Such names are filed deep in the subconscious along with a reference to the name, or filed with the characteristics (archetype) of a person with such a name. 

Of course, there are name generators you can find online, but again, what is the psycholinguistics of such made-up names? Keep in mind that whether it's a person's name, an animal's, a place's, a thing's, a gizmo's, a weapon's, etc., all those names solicit (consciously or subconsciously) a reaction (a feeling) that will be positive, negative, or neutral. 

The most enduring of people names (those passed down through the generations) have imagery and characteristic associations (tags and traits), which makes them archetype names. For instance, these are powerful archetype hero/heroine names: James, Sarah, Jacob, Adam, Michael, Jillian.

Let me stress that it's not about stereotype but archetype.

Archetype names better resonate with readers. For instance, Margaret Mitchell first thought of calling Scarlet O'Hara of Gone With the Wind Pansy O'Hara. I'll bet when you saw Pansy, you envisioned a Milquetoast personality. But Scarlet? Didn't you see the fire and flare that goes with the resonance of the noise of her name?

Mitchell wasn't the only one who changed the name of their lead characters. How about— Sherringford Holmes changed to Sherlock Holmes and Luke Starkiller to Luke Skywalker? Which means, a writer should not entirely trust the source of a name, be the source their own subconscious or their conscious effort to invent a name. Every major character's name needs to be checked before writing the draft. That's right, before writing a draft. That will save hours of edits and rewriting to change the name. 

As a matter of fact, the appropriateness of all names used in a story should be analyzed — be it a machine, a street, an animal, a weapon, etc.  Ask: how does the "name" look? How is it spelled? How easy is it to sound out? Does the name come with tags and traits that make the character easily identifiable? Does the name have a positive, negative, or neutral vibe? 

Next Month  —October - Character Tags and Traits

Saturday, August 1, 2020

2020 - August - Named Minor Character - Prop People

Part 8 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Let's look at some minor story characters - Tertiary Characters, Symbolic Characters, and Prop People. 

The term given for the Third Ranking Character in a story is Tertiary. Writers often lump all "other characters" in a story into the tertiary category. However, I like to simplify things and so I split that category into those who are— 

Named Minor Characters
Symbolic Characters
Prop People (who are not given a name)  

Characters that have a name are important enough to the story that they must be given a name, but not a Point of View-Viewpoint. Often those named characters are familiar with either the Protagonist or the Antagonist, like being part of either's entourage.

On occasions, one of those named characters might be considered a Symbolic Character. A Symbolic Character is any major or minor character whose very existence represents some major idea or aspect of society. For example, in Lord of the Flies, Piggy is a symbol of both the rationality and physical weakness of modern civilization.

Now as to— 


Like the furniture that decorates a setting, these necessary story folks are a kind of stage dressing. They bring realism to the setting and world of the Protagonist and Antagonist. Examples are the bar tender at the Protagonist's favorite watering hole, the taxi or Uber driver, the blacksmith, the farmer's wife, the brewmaster, the crewman who mans a communications or work station, a landscaping crew or other crews including ones led by the Protagonist's or Antagonist's second in command, and so forth. Although such characters may appear regularly in the story, the reader doesn't get to know them, their life story, or even their POV-Viewpoint about what's going on in the story. 

However, things will become confusing to a reader if there are too many characters with names, especially among the minor characters. To avoid confusion, most writers set up a Master Word List or what's also called a Style Sheet. This form (*see note below) can be used before (or during) drafting to keep track of names. It doesn't matter if it's a short story, a novel, or a saga, on that Master Word List go ALL NAMES— character, place, and named animals as well as named weapons, streets, or special props (like Ethan Allen or other designer furniture). Doing so uncovers repetition of names and repeated spellings of either whole or partial names. For instance a character called Beth and one called Elizabeth. Word Lists can also bring to light Freudian slips, faux pas, kazoo-sounds, or the rhyme or rhythm of consonants, vowels, and syllables (which isn't good).

A Word List can also reveal if too many characters or names are being created. Again, the reader will get confused if there are too many names to keep track of. So, here's a word to the wise— instead of creating another character who has a minor role, ask yourself if one of the other minor characters can do the same job or get or reveal the needed information.

If you've never done a word list, I have added a free PDF of the three most commonly used types of word lists (style sheets) at my Writers Cheat Sheet. The direct link to the page is HERE

RE: * FORMS — 
      The Internet abounds with countless forms for writers to use for developing a story. Trouble is, forms do you no good unless they work for you and the way you tell a story. So, consider looking at and reviewing lots of forms, then create your own unique ones which allow you to discover the personalities, tags, and traits of your main characters. You can also develop forms or worksheets that help define your story's plot. 

Next Month — September - Naming Characters

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

2020 - July - The Antagonist's Entourage and Henchpersons

Part 7 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

     Although serving a certain dramatic purpose, 
secondary characters have to rise above their roles
 to avoid cliche. — David Corbett The Art of Character

Antagonists tend to be loners. However, now and then, or by their desire, they have others help them achieve their goals. 

As you learned in this blog's March post, the Protagonist has an entourage. Well, an Antagonist could also have followers, like—  

* Friends — be they a man or a woman, that friendship isn't a binding one because as soon as the friend's usefulness ends, or their inability to be manipulated by the Antagonist ends, that character becomes expendable. It's also inevitable or likely that such a friend may die at the hands of the Protagonist. But if the Antagonist's goal warrants, the Antagonist won't have qualms about sacrificing their friend, cohort, or Head Henchperson or any lesser henchpersons.

* Toadies, Monster-beings, Servants, Minions, etc. — these characters come across as unquestionably loyal. They endeavor to please and appease the Antagonist. Often they fail and incur the Antagonist's wrath, which leads to punishment and suffering, if not their violent death. Some Antagonist have volatile tempers and violent reactions to mistakes.

* A Mentor — often in their youth, an Antagonist will learn from a master or a mentor. However, at some point, the Antagonist concludes they are superior to or more powerful than the Mentor. The result is a termination of the relationship. Often a Mentor has a showdown with their Antagonist student and loses. That loss might severely cripple the Mentor or rob them of their magical or superior powers, or kill them. If the Mentor survives, they are so weakened they usually pose no worthwhile threat to the Antagonist.

* Family (parents, siblings, other relatives) — Depending on how functional or dysfunctional the family is, family members may help or hinder the Antagonist achieving his or her goals.

* Professionals (gangsters, crooks, thieves, killers for hire, security enforcers, and others procure things, obey orders, and carry out the Antagonist's plans and orders, and protect the Antagonist. Often these professionals are paid (money, items of value like gemstones, etc.) for their loyalty and service. Trouble is, true loyalty cannot be bought, so how can the Antagonist truly trust them?

Of course, either from orders from the Antagonist or by chance, one of the Antagonist's entourage members may interact or collaborate with the Protagonist. Such interaction, when not sanctioned by the Antagonist, will lead to a calamity. That event can enrage the Antagonist enough to kill the collaborator. That event may even force the Antagonist to change their original plans or devise a way to turn the incident to their advantage.

Although most of the Antagonist's entourage fall into the category of Minor Named Characters or are Prop People, neither group gets a POV-Viewpoint. 

However, in the longer novels, there may be that rare individual of the Antagonist's entourage that merits being a Second Major Character with a limited POV-Viewpoint. That Second Major Character that's on the side of the Antagonist is, of course, the Antagonist's second-in-command— the Head Henchperson.

That Head Henchperson is an obedient aid, a loyal supporter, a dedicated follower, and a subordinate who is engaged in nefarious or criminal enterprises on behalf of the Antagonist. That henchperson may even be in charge of other, lesser-ranked henchpersons. The Head Henchperson may lead attacks, assign people to tasks, and thus carries out the orders of the Antagonist. 

Only because of their narcissistic or egotistical nature, the Antagonist rarely seeks advice from others but may use the Head Henchperson as a sounding board. Still, Antagonist don't trust others, even their Head Henchperson. 

The value of a henchperson or ally is to showcase the Antagonist, or to provide intel to the Antagonist, or reveal the Antagonist's character, goals, and reactions to events. As I have said in earlier posts, a good story can host only so many characters who can have POV-Viewpoint. Which means, it's unlikely that any of the Antagonist's entourage will get POV-Viewpoint, yet they provide necessary interaction with the Antagonist—and, perhaps, the Protagonist.

Bottom line— the reader wants to see the Antagonist face off with the Protagonist in the climax so it's best to put emphasis on the quality and character of the Antagonist. However, in novels or in the longest of short stories, that Antagonist may need someone to talk to or to order about or they may need an ally or a henchperson. 

Next Month August 2020 — Part 8 -  NAMED MINOR CHARACTERS

Monday, June 1, 2020

2020 --

Part 6 of 12  of Job Titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

As I wrote last month— Antagonist is an umbrella term that covers the WHO or the WHAT that will actively thwart the protagonist. Last month, we delved into what constitutes THE WHO, which is a human or being. This month we look at THE WHAT, which can be— 

Mother Nature (storms, asteroids, insect swarms, volcanoes, etc.)

Disease (natural, man-made, mutant, etc.)

An entity (vampires, deities, magical creatures, ghosts, etc.)

Aliens (intelligent life that comes from another planet, realm, dimension, or eco-system, etc.)

To achieve a believable WHAT as Antagonists means paying attention to world-building, science, and the natural world. After all, The What in the story needs to be worthy enough to successfully oppose the story's Protagonist.

Let's look closer at The What list— 

MOTHER NATURE — Devastation arises from storms (like tornadoes, flooding, blizzards, forest fires). Then there are insect swarms (beetles, locust) and even suffocating algae blooms. The list includes earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Any or all cause dire destruction, lives lost, property and land damage, infrastructure collapses (highways, power sources, etc.). At stake is survival.

DISEASE — For the past few months, we've all gotten a first-hand look at the impact of the coronavirus. The pandemic has been likened to a war with hospitals being the front lines and far too many lives lost. Then there is "shelter in place," shortages of food and protective gear, a shrinking if not stagnant economy, unemployment, businesses closing, and hardships. Again, at stake is survival of people, of mankind, and civilization isn't going to be the same again.

As to ENTITIES, the basic point of having an entity as Antagonist is that the story is more about the Protagonist realizing and dealing with some type of truth. 

Entities are also the creatures of fantasy and science fiction, so believability is paramount. Questions need to be asked before drafting a tale, like— 

How did that entity come to be? 
What powers does it posses? 
What can it control? 
What will destroy or kill it? 

A writer needs concrete answers because the story will likely fizzle out mid-way or the ending goes flat. 

As to ALIENS, there is a wide range form human-like to robotic, from Artificial Intelligence to mutants, and so on. Aliens are The What of science fiction and fantasy. Again, believability is an issue. That's why a great deal of forethought should go into the type of alien (and why that specific type), motivation (why they are a threat), their limitations, their Achilles' heel, etc. After all, at stake is the survival of the fittest, the Protagonist and what that Protagonist cares most about.

Make no mistake, readers are cynical disbelievers so it's imperative to find ways to suspend their disbelief and get them to believe in The What as the Antagonist. The secret is to give The What human characteristics or compare it (or them) to human's and the human environment.

As to disease and Mother Nature, most writers rely on facts and science to extrapolate a believable What as Antagonist. Mind you it's not about formulating some text-book tome, but providing just enough actual facts or tweaked facts that the premise is believable to the reader.

Lastly, remember a good story pits a great villain against a great Protagonist—two equal forces facing off. 

Next Month  **  2020 —July The Antagonist's Entourage and Henchpersons

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