“No”

One of the great pleasures in fiction is coming across characters who are focused, determined, and know exactly what they want in life, and if you’re a writer, you’ve probably looked into creating such a character yourself. Like most writers, you’ve probably read about how you’re supposed to ask what your characters want to learn more about who they are. While it’s sound, timeless advice, there’s a deeper, more meaningful aspect to it that’s rarely discussed.

First, though let’s take a look at some famous villains and what they want:

1. Sauron wants to conquer Middle-Earth, and he has the strength, the military might, and the intelligence to pull it off; all he needs is his ring, and he will stop at nothing to retrieve it.

2. The Deacon from Waterworld wants to find and pillage Dryland, and he never gives up, no matter what obstacles are in his way, including the incompetence of his underlings.

3. Disney wants to buy every corporation, media franchise, and nation on Earth, and they won’t let pesky things like laws, common sense, or an outraged public stop them.

Now, let’s look at some famous heroes and what they want:

1. Gandalf will stop at nothing to prevent Sauron from taking over Middle-Earth, but while he puts his allies and assets in harms way, he doesn’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way as well.

2. Luke Skywalker will redeem his father from the Dark Side and refuses to give up, no matter the odds, even when he has to turn himself over to the Empire and stand before the most powerful and evil being in the galaxy.

3. Jack Dawson may be a scrappy beggar with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back and sketches of naked French prostitutes, but he’s not going to let anything get in his way from saving Rose aboard the Titanic.

All these heroes and villains have simple, identifiable goals, but have you noticed that there’s a common thread among them?

None of them will take ‘no’ for an answer.

This is the deeper meaning behind ‘what do your characters want?’ What do they want so badly that they will refuse to give up, no matter the odds, no matter how many people say, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ or even if they lose everything dear to them? Combine this determination with the classic advice and we get a new, richer version:

‘What do your characters want so much that they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer?’

Answer this question and you’re already halfway there to creating a determined, focused character. Even better, combining an antagonist who refuses to accept ‘no,’ and a protagonist who refuses to accept ‘no,’ results in guaranteed conflict, the lifeblood of any story. Better yet, make both sides morally ambiguous and the conflict becomes even richer:

1. A soldier has to maintain a quarantine on a city infected with zombies and knows that if any break out, his family will eventually be attacked and turned into zombies themselves. But while guarding a vulnerable section of a wall, a desperate survivor with her little boy comes up to escape. Problem is, her boy has been bitten and will inevitably turn and spread the virus. Her mother is aware of this, but is determined to find a cure and is willing to kill to get her son out of the city.

2. Two battlefleets sail towards each other: one is from an empire that is on the verge of total victory in the galaxy, and only needs to conquer one last planet to obtain complete control over the galaxy so they can use every world’s resources to build a fleet to combat an even bigger, more dangerous alien fleet that’s heading their way. But the fleet from the last planet will stop at nothing to protect their people from a lifetime of slavery, even if it means deploying planet-destroying weapons and wiping themselves out to defeat their enemies.

3. A terrorist organization sneaks into a city to plant a nuclear bomb and blow it up to kill an evil and corrupt president and his cabinet who have turned their once-democratic country into a third-world dictatorship; wipe them all out with one bomb, and the country has a chance to recover. The city’s police officers – who have dedicated themselves to protecting the innocent – set out to stop the terrorists no matter what the cost, even if some innocents are caught in the crossfire.

It’s easy to come up with ‘my character wants to save the world/get rich/win the baking competition/stop the Disney corporation from taking over the world,’ motivations when developing our characters, but if we take the time to ask what they want so badly that they will sacrifice everything to get, we will get to know them better, and make them even more compelling for our audiences to follow.

Try A Roadside Chat

Has the following ever happened to you? You’re outlining your next masterpiece, the script/book that will take the country by storm and cement your legacy as one of the finest writers of all time. You know how the plot will unfold and fit together, and how it will end in a way that will leave your readers and viewers in awe at your command of the written word.

Then you start to work on your characters, and realize that you have no idea who these people are.

Desperate, you try a few exercises: you write out incredibly detailed backstories that detail your character’s childhoods, their outlook on life, and their favorite flavor of chicken nuggets. When that fails, you try writing out an interview with your characters to know them better. You imagine that they’re a minute away from being eaten by a giant lobster, and find what it is they regret the most from their lives, and what they’re the most proud of.

Yet, nothing works. Your characters remain elusive; they’re shadowy forms within the ether of your imagination, blobs that are just out of sight. What do you do?

How about talking to them in the middle of the forest?

Lately, I watched an episode of Jim Henson’s ‘The Storyteller,’ where a princess’ brothers are turned into ravens by a wicked witch, and the only thing that can change them back is if she doesn’t speak a word for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. While living in the woods, she eventually meets a handsome prince traveling through, who spends some time talking with her and introducing himself. In a little under thirty seconds, we learn that he’s a prince, and that despite only knowing her for a few minutes, he’s madly in love (are we sure this isn’t a Disney story?), and that their love is true.

There’s more to the story, like how the princess keeps popping out babies despite having them get swiped away within a day, how she’s almost burned as a witch herself, and how one of her brothers becomes a half-raven, half-human mutant, but I was ruminating about how the prince had introduced himself. Not because it was a beautifully written scene or featured lovely acting, but because it was an interesting idea for writing:

If you want to figure out what the core of a character is, pretend that you only just met them besides a forest path while they’re on a journey. Have lunch with them, during which time they introduce themselves to you, explain who they are, and where they’re going before they resume their quest.

Think about this: If you’re having lunch with a stranger, the two of you likely aren’t going to stay together for long before going your separate ways. No matter how riveting you find each other, you’re not going to spend your brief time together giving each other your life’s story, your dreams, or how many Pokemon you’ve caught in the forest while playing Pokemon Go. You’re going to stick with the big stuff: your names, your professions, where you’re going, and what you hope to accomplish. Let’s try a few examples:

“I’m Roger, junior deputy from the nearby town of Windy Willow. A prisoner escaped on my watch and ran through here recently; since this is my first assignment, I need to catch him before he escapes into the wilds, because if he gets away I’ll be fired and have no way to feed my family.”

“My name is Ser Galbadon, royal knight of his Majesty King Arthur. A fearsome dragon has taken up residence in a nearby mountain; as his Majesty’s most experienced knight, I am on my way to slay the foul beast, even though I’m old and not as strong as I once was. Still, I shall see my task through to the end; would you care to join me? Our country and our king needs you!”

“Look, I’m Sarah and I’m in sort of a rush; a meteor is racing towards Earth and I have to get my family into my underground bunker. Problem is, they’re fifty miles away, and I only have a day to get to them! No, I can’t help you capture Pikachu! I’m sorry you and your folks are going to die, but there’s nothing I can do to help you. Now, I have to go! Good day!”

In less than a paragraph, we learn what each character wants, the obstacles in their way, and what will happen if they fail, far more useful information than what their childhood was like, their hobbies, and the like. Those are extras, bonuses that can revealed during the story; what you have here is the core of them, the thing that drives them, and that can be invaluable when it comes to learning who your characters are.

The next time you’re stuck trying to figure out who your characters are, try chatting with them during a break in their journey; you never know what new things you might learn about them!

Great Quotes About Writing: Survivors Aren’t Fearless

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

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‘Sigourney Weaver is such a great actress. I love how unlike some “women” (I used quotes because they don’t really seem that human , just “perfect”) in film, you really believe her terror but at the same time really see her in that adrenaline rush and just doing everything she can to survive. Those are my favorite types of characters in horror/thriller films in general. Their not made of stone with no sense of fear, but they also don’t sit around weeping and waiting for the killer to get them. These characters are terrified and can barely think or move, but they dig as deep as they can into their primal survival instincts and they just do what they need to do to survive.’

David Ganderson, commenting on Ellen Ripley’s escape from the Nostromo in ‘Alien’ (emphasis mine)

Not much to add here: This is one of the best summaries of survivor characters I’ve ever come across, and a reminder that even a character who is brave and works to save themselves can still be scared out of their minds.

No Explosions, No Gun battles, and No Multi-Million Dollar VFX budget: Writing Your Book Like It’s A TV Episode

Recently, I came across an article on io9 about the future of Star Trek films, and a comment written by was a lengthy discussion on what course a hypothetical film should take. The whole comment is a great read, but these two parts jumped out at me:

‘2) follow ST:IVs “no gunfights, no explosions” rule, and that forces the story to find ways to challenge our characters in ways that let them express their character…

6) No gunfights, no explosions. I really want to stress this, because Star Trek doesn’t generally do action well. Even when the effects are great, you have to come up with weird contrivances to explain why Kirk needs to skydive or why Picard needs to take the dune-buggy out. TWOK, arguably the most “action oriented” of original films, doesn’t have much action, and the space battles are very much in the vein of Horatio Hornblower in spaaaaaaace: they’re slow, they’re about positioning and about the crew working together, about tricks and strategy. Which isn’t what audiences really expect, so hell, for our first outing, just don’t. Sci-fi action these days is supposed to look like Marvel movies, and you aren’t making a Marvel movie. Don’t try. Minimize the action beats, to make room for character and wonder.’

Can you imagine that? Writing a science fiction movie that doesn’t rely on explosions, actions, or gunfights? Such films are so common these days that it’s sometimes hard to find ones that don’t feature them. And the longer I thought about it, the more genius the idea became.

Picture this: You’ve been chosen by a major entertainment corporation to write the screenplay for your dream story. Even better? It’s your favorite genre! You finally have the chance to tell that war story, that monster movie, or finally bring your grade school masterpiece, ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ to the big screen!

But then the studio tells you that you have a tiny budget. Like, really tiny. Think, ‘TV Budget’ tiny. Because of that, you can’t have any explosions, any gunfights, or fancy visual effects in your story (a few miniatures and matte paintings are okay, but that’s it).

Can you write your movie under those constraints?

Now, take that same principle and apply it to a novel: Can you tell your story without explosions, gunfights, or sequences that, if adapted into a television show, would cost too much to make?

Looking at our work with this mindset may seem like a disadvantage, but it can work out in our favor: We’ll have to focus on characters, their motivations, and their relationships with each other. They’ll have to use their wits to overcome the obstacles in their path. They’ll have to talk more. Any fights will be with their fists and melee weapons, and not with miniguns and plasma rifles. Battles will be limited to maybe a dozen people, and everything takes place in apartment buildings, deserts, and parks conveniently located within ten miles of the LA area.

While it’s easy and fun to write scenes that would be impossible to film, there’s just one problem with that: if your magnum opus is ever published, Hollywood might pass on turning it into the next big blockbuster movie if the price tag is going to be over $300 million. But if your magnum opus could be turned into a movie that could be made for under $50 million, they just might give it a shot.

Consider the following:

*Instead of your epic space saga about aliens destroying the universe with massive fleets that engage in battles that destroy entire solar systems with a single blast, it’s now about an unarmed scout ship trying to find a way to stop the alien fleet before it arrives.

*Your epic, alternate-universe 1940’s WW2 movie that involves giant monsters and robots is now about two soldiers sneaking behind enemy lines to escape hostile territory and only face one monster at the end (that could be portrayed by a guy in a suit on a green-screen set).

*Instead of ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ following an epic war of thousands of Unicorns slaughtering armies hired by evil corporations who want to bulldoze Sparkle Forest and turn it into a sewage refinery, it’s now about two villagers trying to find the one unicorn (who turns out to be an anthropomorphic unicorn that could be portrayed by someone in robes and a mask) who could stop the evil corporations, and have to fight their mercenaries using bows, arrows, and knives in sneak attacks at night.

These three scenarios take unfilmable movies and instead turn them into focused character studies. Any action or big events happen sporadically and briefly, and aren’t the main focus of the story, giving our characters more time to grow, interact, and endear themselves to our audiences, who will become more emotionally invested in their adventures.

For all the fun it is to write books and stories about impossibly huge armies, futuristic societies, apocalyptic scenarios, creatures that defy description, and Michael Bay explosionfests, it might be worth trying to write on a budget. Books let our readers use their imagination to bring the impossible to life, but sometimes having limits can help us narrow, focus, and zero in on what’s really important in a story, and help it reach its full potential.

‘The Force Awakens,’ ‘Underwater,’ and the power of Expanded Universes To Enrich Your Story

Note: This post contains spoilers for the 2020 thriller, ‘Underwater’

The year is 2015, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ I sit back in my seat, mulling over the first live-action Star Wars film in over a decade, my mind full of questions, so many questions, and few of them good:

*Where did the First Order come from? How did this group that’s supposed to be smaller than the Empire (and possessing a fraction of their resources) get more advanced ships, weapons, and a galaxy-killing planet?

*What’s the political state of the galaxy? How has it changed in the thirty years since the end of ‘The Return of the Jedi?’ Is the New Republic struggling? Has it been successful? Is it on the verge of becoming an empire itself?

*How did Maz somehow get a lightsaber that tumbled into a gas giant, ensuring that no one could possibly retrieve it?

*Why, when faced with a new fleet of space-Nazis, does the New Republic dispatch such a pitifully tiny group to fight it? What happened to all the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers we saw in ‘Return of the Jedi’? Shouldn’t a galactic government have the means to defend itself?

These questions left me frustrated because the film had no interest in answering them. Even more frustrating was that to get answers to many of these questions, I would had to buy tie-in novels, visual dictionaries, and encyclopedias to get answers that should have been in the movie in the first place.

Fast forward to 2020, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Underwater,’ an underwater horror-thriller (and the final film released by 20th Century Fox before being rebranded by Disney) in which drillers and researchers struggle to escape from the bottom of the Marianas trench while being attacked by fearsome underwater critters. While you won’t be able to remember the character’s names or any witty dialogue a week later, it’s still a satisfying and enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes. Later, I look online to satisfy my curiosity at any interesting behind-the-scenes trivia and read a few articles, including one promising a major revelation about the big monster who shows up at the end.

A few minutes later, and I’m blown away: It turns out that the big monster in ‘Underwater’ is none other than Cthulhu himself, the most famous character from HP Lovecraft’s fictional mythologies. In an instant, ‘Underwater’ goes from a generic creature flick to a movie about humanity’s first encounter with unspeakably powerful gods who could easily wipe humanity out without any effort.

Since reading that Cthulhu is the main monster of ‘Underwater,’ I’ve come to realize that the movie does one thing ‘The Force Awakens’ failed to do: use its expanded universe not to explain an incomplete story, but to enrich it.

For those who are unaware, expanded universe material is any secondary publication outside of a movie, television, book, or video game that further explores the world and characters of that story. Star Wars is the most famous example, with hundreds of novels, video games, and comics released over the decades that explores its fictional universe, but it’s now common for blockbusters and other big franchises to get expanded universe material of their own.

However, there’s one important thing to remember: Expanded Universe material is meant to enrich and enhance the franchise it’s a part of, not explain away problems that should have been addressed in the original movie, book, video game, comic, or TV show. ‘The Force Awakens,’ tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there are substantial gaps (such as the ones mentioned earlier) that require reading said dictionaries and novels to understand.

Conversely, ‘Underwater,’ is a complete, self-contained movie that uses its expanded universe material to add another layer of depth that’s not in the film. The first time you see it, ‘Underwater’ is about scientists and drillers trying to escape underwater monsters. The second time you see it, it’s a movie about scientists and drillers trying to escape from a demigod, who’s just one of hundreds who have come from a place outside of time and space, all created by an insane god who could destroy everything if it wakes up. Our protagonists live in a world where gods are real, and none of them are our friends.

Yikes.

What does that mean for writers? When we write our stories, our audiences should get all the information they need from following our works instead of having to consult a wiki to understand what’s going on. While it’s fine to leave some mysteries and teases of a larger world in our stories, it’s important that those mysteries don’t come at the expense of the main story, and when a viewer has to do research to understand a story, that story needs help.

Try looking at it another way: Your story is a gourmet dish, and the expanded material is the sauce. If your dish is missing several ingredients, the sauce can’t salvage it. But if your dish is well-made, the sauce enriches and adds onto it, elevating the dish to something truly magnificent.