Relationship Is Character

In order to truly test a character, one must put them in external situations that reflect inward; all characters who relate to the protagonist must in some way push them forward.

Toy Story again becomes a good example when Buzz directly represents what Woody had and lost: Andy’s Love (which in this case is represented by Andy’s Preference; Woody does not understand love and has confused it for Status, for the most attention). Ham, Slinky, Rex, Mr Potato Head, Bo Peep and many others then serve the collective function of endowing the status Woody craves. They look up to him and reflect what Woody sees in himself, but when Buzz comes in, everything they say or do pokes at Woody’s fears or insecurities. They assume Woody is up on the bed (where the favourite toy is located) and then represent his fear and concern when they ask “Woody, what are you doing under the bed?” “Have you been replaced??” When Woody is jealous of Buzz, they provoke him simply by being more interested in Buzz than Woody and encouraging Buzz’s delusions of being a space ranger “laser envy” anytime Woody attempts to shoot him down. Even Bo Peep, who is indicated as Woody’s love interest, reacts to Buzz’s skills with the phrase “I found my moving buddy”. On the one time she attempts to reassure Woody, “I know Andy is excited about Buzz, but you know, he’ll always have a special place for you” the writers then use it as a line to set up Mr Potato Head’s retort “Yeah, like the attic” and the all of Woody’s fears end up reassured instead. In this way, by the time Woody knocks Buzz out of the window and has to return him, he has not learnt his lesson yet, and so what keeps the stakes and conflict permanent is that he “Can’t show {his} face in that room without Buzz” because he has lost favour with not only Andy but with everyone.

Buzz then has the biggest job of all as a character; the story almost has two antagonists, but Buzz mirrors Woody and Sid mirrors Andy. While Sid represents the ultimate doom for toys, Andy represents the ultimate love. Andy is everything Woody wants, Sid is everything Woody fears. Goal and stakes, represented through relationships. Buzz however, mirrors what Woody wants to be and resents. Woody has a delusion around being the best toy, Buzz has a delusion around not being a toy at all. Note then, that this keeps them in conflict for the entire story; the side characters reactions to Woody’s actions maintain the stakes, conflict and goal “I can’t show my face in that room without Buzz” and they then mirror once more by their simultaneous downfall when Buzz says “Andy’s house, Sids house, whats the difference? Why would Andy want me?” and Woody confesses he is jealous “What chance does a toy like me have against a buzz lightyear action figure?” and it is only when Woody accepts that he doesn’t need status and Buzz reflect on Woody’s and come to the conclusion that being a toy is okay do they reach a mutual conclusion “Over in that house is a kid who needs us”, and only then does Buzz attempt to rescue Woody and then Woody attempt to rescue Buzz. They challenge each other, with the background characters provoking them and edging them along, until they hit a revelation and they either sacrifice their goal or achieve “we’re not aiming for the truck” “oh great you found them”, and that creates character arc.

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Character IS Plot

In order to have a story play out, you need a main character. No matter what a story focuses on, the question always remains “Whose story is being told?”
To use Toy Story as an example, it would seem to misleading to say “its about toys who come to life” because that describes setting and not the story that occurs within the idea. Toy Story, truly, is about a sentient toy cowboy who faces the possibility of being replaced and abandoned. Note: In this description, it makes it clear who the plot is about and how it directly affects them.

A character, minimally, is defined by four qualities:

Want – the thing they imagine being or having if they could choose their own Happy Ending. (Example: Woody wants to be the most popular toy)

Fear – What is it above all that the character believes would sabotage this so called Happy Ending? (For Woody, it is being replaced)

Inner Struggle – what is it about the character that makes them feel incomplete? What is it about the character that trips them up? (For Woody, he is arrogant and selfish)

P.O.V – what is it the character perceives about themselves or others that cause the character to act this way? (For Woody, he believes that Andy loves him above all and that anything short of that makes him worthless)

Whether then the character happens to the plot or the plot happens to the character, something shakes up the characters world enough that these four qualities can be reverted outwards as the character goes on a journey thus:

Want = Goal – How does the character think they can get their Happy Ending? This is what causes the character to take action in order to win. (For Woody, he must regain his popularity – first with Andy by eliminating Buzz, but then with his friends by retrieving Buzz)

Fear = Stakes – How is the character punished for their failures. or their success? (For Woody, this involves being Lost, hated by his friends, and stuck with the very competition he despises)

Inner Struggle = Conflict – How does what the character is going through get in the way? Woody can’t quite regain his status until he drops his selfishness and rescues Buzz. (This can also be external but they all have the purpose of amplifying and challenging Woody’s inner struggle: Buzz is preferred to Woody, Sid treats toys as worthless)

P.O.V = Motivation – How does what the character believes trigger certain emotions and responses that drive them to want or fear or struggle with the above? (For Woody, the movie actively starts off with showing just how much focus, love and attention Woody personally receives from Andy above all of the other toys)

All of these things prove that story structure is nothing but ‘where to put events’ when really, character and story go hand in hand – it isn’t necessarily that plot happens to character, but characters happen to themselves and the events they trigger are referred to as The Plot. These qualities ensure that characters keep the plot moving but also ensure that they are held back enough that the story is not truly over until they either come to terms with these qualities, or (in the case of a tragic ending) be permanently punished for failing to do so. It is for this reason that a lot of theories tend to resolve with “Who Am I?” but I like to think of it as “Who Do I Choose To Be Once I Have Met Myself”

Plot

Story Structure is not a one-size fits all idea. It has been around since Aristotle, when one of the earliest records of three act structure was suggested, but many variants have been suggested since then, from two / three / four act structures to specific formats like Hero’s Journey and many more.

It is created as a way for writers to organise their stories, but there is a large debate amongst the plotters or pantsers whether structure helps or hinders the creative process. Many writers will of course say that it is more fun and freeing to be a pantser because it allows creative freedom, but even improvisers (many which I have personally met and worked with) point out that they only know how to do that well in the first place because they understand the storytelling theory until they can skilfully execute them at their own leisure without losing control of their own creations.

Given that a lot of successful story franchises follow forms of plot structure very closely and yet still contain creatively different ideas and character choices, I side with plotting over pantsing. Storytelling theory gives a nervous writer with a blank page some sort of direction, a map where to put their big emotional moments so that a story keeps pace and keeps its audience interested. There is no way to pin down every tiny note and guarantee a good story, but it provides building blocks so that rewrites aren’t forced to tackle large chunks of messy unfocused writing; some movies have been scrapped entirely because starting again would take less time than moving all of the pieces around once a script or manuscript is written.

Also, since movie budgets are basically financial investments and critics are louder than ever, they risk sabotaging their own stories if they give too much funding to a story that is not up to standard.  They must be extra selective about who they sign on, which projects they agree to fund, and ensure that their money is made back lest their next production be forced to function on a much more difficult-to-use budget. Due to the heavy industry pressure around movies, the risk of a story not being picked up or even noticed is enhanced by the slightest dragging of the plot when most of the competition know how to keep their plot flowing from beginning to end without a single major bump or drag. Story structure encourages both companies and art form to keep to a high standard for the sake of their audience.

Storytelling is about giving your audience the best experience, and marketing is about pleasing your audience, so it only makes sense that story structure has risen in other areas. Video games used to be down to a sequence of tasks, but cut scenes have become regular since games have been offering complete story arcs to enhance the experience – to the point where they now obtain rights from movies and not only make a game around the franchise but create the stories within those movies (i.e. the Lego video games). Even the Aami ads use characters like Ronda and Katut to sell a romance story rather than the product, with each ad structured like a mini-episode; same with the Barbara From Bank World ads selling a relatable-yet-exaggerated sequence of bad bank experiences to entertain its bank customers.

What is becoming clear over time is that the product or concept alone is not enough – in fact if the product is good and the structure is poor, there is often a decline in the enjoyment of that product. Story structure is the spine behind the entire product; it holds it up and elevates the creative opportunities while still keeping focus.

Concept

Storytelling always begins with an idea: a What-If or a claim. Whether this claim is based on plot, character, genre, or a piece of dialog, it will always start with a single piece of information or a thought that then unravels with potential; assuming it is an inspiring thought. What exchanges a good from a bad idea is often subjective, but what shifts it into a surefire premise in most cases the strength of a concept can be determined by its level of clarity and originality. JK Rowling claims that her first idea for Harry Potter came from “What if a boy rode a train to a magical school” however we also have to admit that her story also went through 17 rejections, during which she may have heavily adapted and enhanced her story from its original intention into something that sold. In her first example, a boy riding a magical train is a fairly plain and vague thought, whereas as the more effective concept she adapted over time would have been better described as “what if a boy defeated the darkest wizard of all time as a baby and then found out they were cursed” combined with “what if this boy then goes to a magical school in which a secret object has been hidden away that may revive that dark wizard?” which immediately creates clearer characters, conflict, stakes, and a world. It doesn’t reveal everything, but reveals enough; the rest is a job for the story as it unfolds.