Out of My Head 8: Character and Transformation

1. Character

Remember story movement: it’s your characters who drive the plot.

To build a strong, dynamic character–be it hero or villain–start with the core quality that best fits your story’s central problem and layer outward from there. Ask yourself: “Who is this guy?”

In Freudian psychology, the human psyche is divided into three equal but distinct aspects:
• Id – emotional and instinctual desires.
• Superego – rules and intellectual conventions.
• Ego – balance that reconciles id and superego.

There’s that word again. Balance. A finely crafted story or character is all about balance.

All are present in the psychic whole, with some presenting more dramatically than others. (Your mileage may vary.) When each of the three is assigned to a separate character in the same story, it’s collectively known as a “power trio.”

A hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others. At its very heart, the idea of the hero is connected to self-sacrifice. The connection to something greater than the self.

At the heart of every story is a confrontation with death. The death of the body, the death of a relationship, the death of a dream or goal. It’s the fear of loss. If the hero doesn’t face literal death, then there must be the threat of death or a symbolic death.

What your characters are afraid of is a choice. You choose to be afraid. Or not. FEAR. False Evidence that Appears Real, or Fuck Everything and Run. We have no control over the things that happen to us, but we do choose how we deal with them. We decide what the consequences are going to be. So too with our characters.

The hero must end the story different than what he was when he began it. The hero archetype represents the ego’s search for wholeness. It’s the process of becoming a more complete human being.

In shorter fiction, you don’t have the luxury of exploring your hero’s id, ego, and superego. You may only have room for one. Choose what best serves the needs of the story. Which one is most closely suited to the address the central problem? Or for an interesting reversal, which one is least suited? You might try that one to facilitate–dare I say it– the transformation.

2. Transformation

Transformation is a shift in being, the reinvention of the self by the self. It occurs the hero has exhausted every alternative in trying to solve the problem. There is no other way out. It’s the story’s psychological turning point. It’s the climax. Afterwards the mood of the story changes significantly, because the hero now has a different sense of urgency and direction.

In mainstream literature, the transformation of the hero is a personal, inner event. In genre fiction, the transformation can apply to the world as well. The hero becomes an elemental force of change (sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally) and the world itself is remade. This is often referred to as a Traveling Angel story. The hero enters a closed off, stifled, or joyless environment, changes it for the better, then moves on.

Transformation is the reason you’re telling the story.

3. Crises and Challenges

Crisis – a problem you didn’t choose but demands immediate attention. It has to be solved now.

Challenge – a situation you create for yourself because you are excited by the possibility.

Each problem creates a different kind of story. A crisis demands action. The clock is running. This creates enormous tension for the reader and propels the narrative forward. (Try-fail cycle.)

A challenge, however, is a task that a character has freely chosen. He’s not required to accept the challenge but he does so anyway. And because it’s a conscious choice, the relationship with the task is a much more personal expression of who the hero is and what he is committed to.

Some of the best stories combine elements of both crisis and challenge. The character takes on a challenge only to have it grow out of control and become a crisis. Example: Apollo 13, Frankenstein, The Lord of the Rings.

A character who has to overcome both kinds of problems is much more interesting. How he deals with crises and challenges reveals who he really is.