Who? What, when where and why to follow…..

Plotting is delicate stuff for a would-be pantster like me, but there does need to be some sort of structure underlying writing, however much we would like to avoid the idea. And populating our stories demands a little thought.

In a mini-series, I thought it might be an idea to follow those old chestnut questions of the journalists: who, what, when where and why? How? might pop up too, but we’ll see how we get on. Today we tackle ‘Who?’

‘Who ‘ relates to our characters, those who populate our stories and novels. Each person must have a role to play, a reason to exist within our pages. If there is no reason for them to be there, they must follow the fate of all rubbish: into the bin with them – in our case, via the delete key.

It’s sometimes useful to use the Archetypes, those you find in mythology, in fairy tales, even in modern films. Even if this is not your usual method of choosing characters, some you will recognise straight off: people you know from Star Wars or Tolkein or C.S. Lewis.

We start with the obvious:

The hero or protagonist. Male or female, this is the driving force of our tale, the person who will shape the narrative and grow throughout. He must learn something or acquire something along the road. It can be something concrete, like treasure, or something more abstract, such as wisdom, but he must get that elusive something by the end, or achieve something greater than he thought he wanted in the beginning.

Opposite him, the antagonist or shadow creature. He may be the villain of the piece, but could also be the dark side of the hero, expressing the hidden or unacknowledged aspects of his character. Usually, the antagonist will be the opponent who will end up bringing out the best in the hero.

But beware of making your hero all good and your baddie so very bad. Round them out, so that each possesses some traits which we can identify as desirable, and those which are definitely not. A baddie who has no good side, and no reason to be bad, is just a cardboard cut-out and will not pass the reader’s critical eye.

Often our hero will have at least one buddy or Mentor. In tales of sword and sorcery, this will be the sage or wise old man, or some ancient old crone wielding magi. He might be a tin man alongside a lion if you’re reading the Wizard of Oz. Typically, a mentor will offer our hero magic or words of wisdom or some precious gift only after he has earned it by showing his commitment or passing a test.

As the tale begins, we may meet the Herald. This might be the mentor, the antagonist or some other character, who signals a change to the hero and demands he take on the adventure. His job is to jog the hero’s elbow or conscience and provide him with the motivation to get the adventure underway. He might also pop up again later to signal some change of direction in the story.

The Child or the Damsel in Distress. Often included in fairy tales, the object to be found/discovered/rescued would fit in here, though it may not be an obvious archetype. Abandoned, innocent, endangered, orphaned, wounded, magical – all these can sum up the Child of your story. You might also find there is a MacGuffin here. Not strictly a character of itself, that wonderful word describes some unique thing (which could be anything at all: Sword of Destiny, Lost Ark of the Covenant, or a special cup that held a chocolate milkshake!) which our hero seeks as part of his journey. It is simply a plot device that motivates both villain and hero into embarking upon the adventure. But sometimes the damsel/child is really a MacGuffin. Just something to get the plot underway.

Closely connected to the Herald is the Threshold Guardian. His job is to make sure that the hero is prepared, is worthy to set out on his quest. He might set tests or demand payment before the hero can begin. Sometimes this guardian may be the mentor, possibly disguised a helpless old man, who pushes off his dark cloak and offers a sword or some such weapon, once the hero has shown mercy or given food or whatever was demanded. There may be no threshold guardians at all, or there may be several, each occurring at a crucial moment, demanding a new set of skills or beliefs to progress through the narrative.

Is there a Clown or a Trickster in your tale? He might be the hero’s nutty sidekick. His job is to effect change, without being changed himself. The catalyst, the guy that manages to upset the apple cart, sometimes without really trying, sometimes deliberately. He may be the comic relief or may serve to cut your hero down to size just when he seems to be getting to big for his light sabre.

Then there might be a Shapeshifter. This elusive character can transform from good to bad, from Mentor to Herald, from Trickster to Villain. His job is to confuse or to lie, to delay; to make you ask ‘just whose side is he on?’ He is unreliable, but through his changing appearance, mood or side, he brings tension into our tale. He may be were-wolf or vampire or femme fatale or some such person. He will switch allegiance to further his or her own ends, possibly as part of a sub-plot. Beware the Shapeshifter! He has his own agenda.

So these will probably be the main ‘who’ of your story. There may be more than one of each, particularly if your story progresses Hobbit-like, with different mentors and tricksters coming in along the road. There will be walk-on parts for minor characters – un-named and kept to a minimum – and people who pop up as part of crowd scenes to fade away as need arises.

But these people you must cast carefully. They are the bones upon which your plot will hang.

Are you into archetypes? Do you choose your characters in your stories based on them? Or have you never come across them before in your life? Do tell!


23 responses to “Who? What, when where and why to follow…..

  1. A great way to look at characters. Never thought about it that way before. I have though hit the delete button a few times when I introduced a character that was totally unnecessary.

  2. I find it easier said than done to give my bad guys some likable traits, or at least redeemable traits, but it’s something I need to work on.

    • Ooh I love a really lovely bad guy. I like them to look really really nice. Stiff piece of card nice, so nice that you suddenly realise they are controlling egomaniacs and sociopaths!!! Con men too. And I’ve met a couple of those…. look so nice on the outside, but digging a little….. yuk!!!

  3. I totally agree with the very bad antagonist – they are really annoying and can seem very cardboard cut-out at times unless they have some redeeming flesh.

    I usually come across my characters in real life and when someone does something odd or funny, I think – ‘hmmm, there’s some good character fodder’ 😉

    • Yes, the real life comparisons really do stand up. And nice on the outside, bitter nasty on the inside once you have dug around a little and got to know them…. they make the best fiction characters and the worst real life ones.

  4. Yes, I teach archetypes to budding therapists and do use them as a basis for characters in stories as well. As for baddies, I love them, love writing about them much more than the goodies and I feel they make for more complex and therefore realistic characters. I need to work on making my goodies slightly less good to avoid them becoming a little bit one dimensional. But then again, the hero archetype is quite predictable – they are compelled to do the right thing whatever the personal cost. Think king Arthur. But isn’t Mordred much more fun to write….

    • I used to do a bit of acting and the bad lady was always more fun to take on that the prissy bit of fluff…. and yes, Mordred and his cronies – more fun to write every time. 🙂

  5. I tend to put more of myself in my villains than my heroes–not sure if that’s because I love slightly redeemable bad guys, or if I just have bad self esteem 😉

  6. I think you missed “the anti hero”. Not quite hero and certainly not shapeshifter, this person’s motivations are always good, even if it is not always apparent to the reader, though sometimes their methods are questionable this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case (I’m thinking Severus Snape).

    • You’re right – the anti hero is important. But I would probably disagree and include him in Shapeshifter – though it isn’t literal, you do find yourself wondering whose side he is on. And Severus Snape is a very good example. Although maybe he also a kind of Mentor?
      Maybe you’re right after all and he deserves his own anti hero category. 🙂

      • As Snape’s loyalty never changed I don’t think he qualifies as a shapeshifter. Yes, he hated Harry but his undying loyalty to Dumbledore became apparent in the end – even if it wasn’t always obvious to us, the reader. He saved Harry’s skin time and time again but could not do this in the open for the reason that he had to maintain the trust of the Deatheaters.

        I would see a Shapeshifter by your definition as being presented with, and, making a choice between good and bad. An anti-hero is firmly on the good even if their methods tread a fine line.

        As you can tell, I love anti-heroes 🙂

        • I can tell you love anti-heroes! 🙂
          Actually, I thought quite a bit about Snape’s role after reading your comment. I think I was wrong: he is not a Shapeshifter, but I think he might fill various roles in the series. His is a fascinating part and I do agree that he is ripe for the anti-hero role, but I began to wonder – is he also a Mentor?
          Mentor’s don’t always have to be obvious and they don’t have to be affable sidekicks or magical old men.
          Snape acts as an adviser even if Harry doesn’t want to take the advice he gives. He acts on behalf of Dumbledore, who is definitely a mentor figure, so maybe Snape is by extension.
          Then I also started to wonder about the Trickster catalyst role. I always have trouble with the name of this archetype: I don’t think either Trickster or Clown quite sums him up, yet he is often someone whom you question as on-side or not.
          The archetypes in the Harry Potter series have been the subject of considerable debate and there are a couple of sites which I’ve found quite interesting.
          http://voices.yahoo.com/jungian-archetypes-character-motivations-harry-433137.html?cat=38 is one and the other is at http://www.usefulcharts.com/misc/jungian-archetypes-in-movies.html.
          They do not necessarily agree with the casting of the role of Snape, but they do give food for thought.

  7. My characters are never someone in particular, but rather a composite of people I have met or of stories I have read, either fictional or not. They tend to develop as the story does, not because I am some master storyteller who has a plan in mind, but rather as a means to shape the story I am trying to tell.

    Great post. Nice to meet you.

    My name is Tim.

    • Hi Tim. Thank you for stopping by to comment. Make yourself at home. Muffins in the tin today and the kettle is on. 🙂
      I think composite are what we try to write; they make the best use of all the traits we come across in real life.
      But I bet you could analyse them down into archetypes if you’d a mind to. Not that you should!! Whatever works for you. 🙂
      I’ll pop over for a visit soon. Put the kettle on!

  8. Pingback: Why? | patwoodblogging

  9. Pingback: The New Archetypes « Sweat, Tears and Digital Ink

  10. I am so totally intimidated by this post. I have thought about publishing Vic’s Final Journey but do now have a clue how or where to start. Excellent post.

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