Monday, 1 July 2013

Better Storytelling Part Two



In the first part of this series I discussed the need for a strong purpose behind a character’s goals. In this post I will be talking about competition and rivalry.

There are stories where characters are isolated or are in competition with themselves. These kinds of stories are hard to write and can easily come across as self-important and self-indulgent. Everything’s about him, nobody else counts, he has to do it all by himself.

That’s usually not the intention, but it’s hard not to come over like that if every sentence starts with the same subject.

However, once you bring in a rival to your main character, things not only become more dynamic, they also help the reader see the main character more clearly.

This rival can be the main bad guy, but it can also be secondary characters. The detective may be chasing after the killer, but he might also have to contend with the other cops, the ex-wife's new husband, the pushy journalist, the last victims sister.

If you give these supporting characters a reason to want the MC to fail, then they can force the story off the nice, simple, direct route to the solution it naturally wants to take. And at the same time, it will help reveal aspects of the MC's character.

It is a basic truth of human existence that we compare and contrast ourselves with others. Even though we know it can be unhealthy and turn people into insecure wrecks, we can’t help it.

Consider when you’re walking along the street and you trip over an uneven flagstone. How do you feel if there’s no one around to see you? How do you feel when there is? Hell, as Jean Paul Sartre said, is other people. It is only in the perceived judgement of others that we judge ourselves (and usually find ourselves wanting).

The fun really starts when you take into consideration how the rival feels. He too will react to having someone trying to reach the same goal or making him look bad (by being successful).

In the last post we left Timmy Timkins on the side of a mountain, determined to reach the top for some deep seated reason (Daddy issues, I would guess). What if instead of just man against mountain we introduced another climber. This one is also determined to reach the top.

Now the struggle against the forces of nature are intensified with a race against another human being. The story takes on an added dimension.

But wait. It’s all very interesting having two rivals playing the game fair and square, but what if the other guy is determined to win by any means necessary? If Timmy is dodging falling rocks that appear to be suspiciously well aimed, relying on grit and good luck isn’t going to be enough. He’s going to have to come up with a different approach.

Make the rival dastardly and you immediately shift sympathy to the main character. Have the cheating go unpunished, even more sympathy. And as the fight becomes more and more unfair, the more intriguing it becomeshow will the hero succeed?

Will the hero stoop to the same level? Complain to the authorities? Pick up his ball and go home? Whatever the reaction, it will be a reflection of who your main character is as a person. It will show the reader what they’re made of.

Antagonists, whether pure evil or just driven by their own reasons, work best when they are not only reaching for the same goal as the MC, but when they actively try to throw spanners in his works and banana peels in his way.

This can be a matter of physical conflict, but it can also be more sneaky. Spread a little malicious gossip about seeing the MC coming out of an STD clinic, and maybe the girl will think twice about who to go with to the prom.

It’s not that conflict can’t rise out of a  character’s battle with himself and his personal demons, it’s just that other people are so much better at making life difficult.

A rival should be there to provide a challenge, and the more proactive you make them, the more the hero will be forced to think on their feet and use their ingenuity to get the job done.

The next part of this series will be how to make a more entertaining story using Consequences and Repercussions. 
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15 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Personal demons can be revealed in the main character's interaction and competition with other characters.

Sarah Foster said...

I love how it just takes that one dastardly deed to turn an antagonist into a villain. It's also fun to have the protagonist descend into wrongdoing, then have to deal with the aftermath. Are they evil? Maybe, or they may just have to learn from the experience.

mooderino said...

@Alex - when it comes out sideways (not directly) it can be more satisfying to see it emerge, i think.

@Sarah - I think there's a lot of scope for layers of relationship rather than good guy vs bad guy.

cleemckenziebooks said...

Good versus evil is always a grabber, but when you kind of want to hug the bad guy then things become complicated. Great post as always.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

This reminds me of a discussion I had with my brother regarding the German word "schadenfreude."

mooderino said...

@C. Lee - Good guys aren't all good either, I think.

@Mike - It's also the satisfaction of someone getting what they deserve, which we get far too little of in real life.

Lexa Cain said...

I love the idea of the mc having a rival. I have two rival sisters in my new WIP. But knowing they're rivals and showing that rivalry are two different things. :P

Al Diaz said...

I've already got a whole sack of banana peels for my villain. Point for the dragon. :)

Sarah Allen said...

I have such a hard time with villains because I just end up liking them so much more than my heroes, so they don't really end up as villains. I just have to hope that the scenarios I throw my characters into are chaotic enough to make the story interesting.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

mooderino said...

@Lexa - I think a lot of writers assume it will be as obvious to readers as it is in their heads.

@Al Diaz - I never knew dragons ate bananas.

@Sarah - nothing wrong with a likeable villain. Certainly better than a goody two shoes hero.

Damyanti said...

Sound advice, as usual.

Kimberly said...

Fantastic post and it really makes you think about how the bad guys do affect your characters.

Rachna Chhabria said...

In my last book I gave a few supporting characters enough reason to make the MC fail.
Great advice, Moody.

Donna Hole said...

LOL; I saw this movie! It starred Sylvester Stallone, and was titled Cliff Hanger. Yeah, I love it when the bad guy is as deviously intelligent as the good guy, and the outcome - though you know it has to be in the good guy favor - is not just cut and dried good vs evil.

Bad guys are not always just evil, and good guys have flaws and demons to fight.

.........dhole

mooderino said...

@Damyanti - thanks.

@Kimberly - and the not so bad guys too.

@Rachna - cheers.

@Donna - nothing like someone else's plans to put a wrench in yours.

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