Running Review 4: Story Engineering, Part 4
In Part 3 (chapters 8 through 15) of Story Engineering, Larry Brooks continues to deliver on his promise to expose the nitty-gritty and give would-be authors guidance they can actually work with. In this section, though, there's no need to read, reread and reformulate. It's pretty well cut and dried, perhaps not least because, as Brooks points out more than once, most fiction writing guides focus very heavily, if not exclusively, on the topic of this section--character. The topic has been thoroughly plumbed before.
Calling assertions that character is plot and plot is character "grad school pyschobabble", Brooks picks this element apart in its own right (thereby allowing the other three elements--concept, theme and structure--their own rights). As with idea, concept and premise in Part 2, he breaks it right down and gets very specific. It's a revelation if you're like me and eat concept and theme for breakfast but can't seem to make your dentition put much of a dent in character.
Brooks says there are seven key characterization variables (or realms), to whit:
- Surface affectations and personality
- Character arc
- Inner demons and conflicts
- World view
- Goals and motivations
- Decisions, actions and behaviors (sic)
Most of which disperse among three dimensions of character:
- First dimension: surface traits, quirks and habits
- Second dimension: backstory and inner demons
- Third dimension: action, behavior (sic) and worldview
There are some inconsistencies in Brook's discussion of variables and dimensions (at one point he suggests they form something like a 3-by-7 grid when, as you can see, most of the variables are subcategories of the dimensions) and I found myself reshaping and renaming a bit to make the guidance suit my needs, but the discerning reader will find much to apply to future stories.
However you understand and internalize this part of the book, it definitely makes character a concrete and manageable aspect of storytelling. I realized while pondering what I'd read that I can scheme and dream about character pretty much as I do about concept, theme and structure. I can isolate a character and let my subconscious tell me things I would never have bothered with when I tried to write stories straight from imagination to page. And I can ask my subconscious the kinds of questions that lead to powerful and useful aha moments. In the end, I'll have characters who seem to have wandered into a possibility and brought their own possibilities with them--instead of characters who seem to be built for a set of events.
"How do my characters get from breath to breath?" is the question I was asking myself on the way home from work this evening. "What makes them want to live?" For me, this is a tectonic shift in narrative geography. I thank Larry Brooks for making the shift look like something I could arrange.