I’ve loved John Truby’s “Anatomy of a Story” ever since I first read it. It’s filled with insights I’ve never seen in about a 100 other books on the subject. However, I’ve come to realize that one of the most important insights in the book is one you may have missed. This simple, yet incredibly effective technique for creating compelling characters can transform your story telling. If you can do it right, then you can stand to miss on a few other aspects of great character creation. Blow it and you’ll have a hard time recovering.
You’ve heard that your characters need to grow of the course of a story, but how they grow is the critical bit that most story instructors miss. What exactly does growth look like? What type of growth resonates with audiences? It’s the type of growth that you can recognize in your own life if you’re paying attention. It’s the narrative of all our lives, if we haven’t given up on our dreams. In fact, it may just be the meaning of life, which is why audiences crave seeing it again and again.
It works like this: your character starts out with an objective that is really the exact opposite of what he or she needs to be doing. It goes further. The thing your character starts out doing is ruining his life. It’s chewing into his soul, wrecking his health or his relationships or all of the above. This may not seem earth shattering at first, which is why you might have missed it even if you read the book but let’s see it in action.
A perfect example is the movie Michael Clayton. George Clooney plays a corporate “fixer,” who’s job it is to hide and clean up corporate sins. Whether his employers are stealing money or wrecking the environment, his job is to make it stay hidden. This gets the plot rolling. His job propels the first half of the story. Maybe if the sins were small, the character could continue to do this with no moral repercussions, but the writer’s job is to make it impossible to live with. You have to throw something at him that brings him to a crisis of conscious. In Michael Clayton, the hero is no longer charged with hiding some executive’s indiscretion with a hooker, or a little money that should have gone to the tax man or shareholders. Now he must hide the company’s manufacturing of a weed killer that it knows kills people. You can see that if the hero were to feel nothing about this, his character could no longer be considered a hero. This starts his inner conflict. What he really needs to do is stop covering up corporate sins, expose them and make people pay for their crimes. Yet, it’s not easy to let go of his original mission. He’s gets paid to cover things up and he’s got plenty of dirt in his own past that can be used against him. It’s never easy to turn around and live the story you were meant to live but that’s exactly what needs to happen for the story to reach it’s necessary conclusion.
For villains it works the same but in reverse. Many times we never see a villain’s whole back story. When we do, it’s usually called a tragedy, like Citizen Kane. In Kane, the man starts off as idealist, wanting to change the world but becomes a bitter and cynical old man, who cares about nothing but money. In other words, instead of following his soul’s mission, he follows the seductive path of wealth, lies and safety. Usually, however, we meet villains after they’ve become the bad guy. They’ve already made their choices. Yet if we could see their history, it would be the same as Kane’s story. As a professional writer, you’ve got to know what lead a villain to become a villain. We don’t see Karen Crowder’s back story in the movie, but it’s easy to see how it would work. Her job is to help cover up the carcinogenic weed killer and instead of realizing the firm went too far and exposing them, she makes the choice to bury the secret even deeper and compounds her own complicity by having several people killed to keep it that way. We are the choices we make and so are our characters.
You can see this in thousands of stories, even ones you wouldn’t expect. In the original Terminator movie, Linda Hamilton’s character just wants to lead a normal life and she fights against the soldier sent back in time to save her. She refuses to accept the responsibility that she is supposed to birth the hero of the resistance and teach him how to fight and survive. This path of normality will lead her to a spiritual and, because it is an action movie, a physical death, at the hands of the merciless machines. Yet as the movie progresses, she reverses course, learns to make weapons and shoot. She sleeps with the soldier and gets pregnant with John Conner. By the end she is even yelling “on your feet soldier” when her soldier protector collapses from injuries, becoming the leader she was destined to become and fulfilling her inner goals.
You can even find an example in your own life, if you’re working to become a professional writer. Being a professional means you write and sell your work. It means you make a living as a writer. It means you’ve given up defending every little thing you write as if it’s perfect as soon as it hits the page. You’ve learned to take criticism and give it. You’ve learned how to create compelling plots. You’ve learned to let go of amateur writer’s fantasies like “there are no rules.” You learn to tell a story that is equal parts your vision and what the audience wants to see, even if that means sacrificing some of your sacred original ideas. It means the story above all is paramount. It means you write consistently and put it before anything else. But if you’re like me, you struggle with doing what you were meant to do and what you are doing right now. Most writers don’t make it at a young age. That means that have another job. They make money a different way and every second they spend writing is one less second they can spend taking another class to advance their careers or making another dollar to save. But eventually every writer comes to the same crossroads as their characters. They have to continue focusing on making money at whatever they are doing now (just like a character’s original objective at the start of the story) or they take a chance and commit themselves to writing, knowing they might not succeed and probably won’t make nearly as much money.
If you are on your way to a career as a professional writer, you already know the journey your heroes will take because you’re living it. You didn’t realize you were the basis of your own heroes, but you are. The only thing is, if you can’t make the leap in your own life and dedicate yourself to becoming a professional, than you’ll never know what it takes to make that change internally and neither will your characters.