Are Your Characters Running On Empty?

Steven Amsterdam quote

You have seen this cycle before. You’re writing a novel or screenplay. You have a great idea, so great that you dream it will become the next bestseller or award-winning film. You spend days outlining and writing the first few pages. Then… you lose steam. It becomes harder to write. The momentum goes down. Writer’s block sets in. You lose excitement. You tell yourself, “I should work on a different story because this doesn’t work.”

The problem is not you

Most of the time, the problem isn’t with the story, but with the characters. How can you move the story forward if your characters are running on empty? How can you tell exciting discoveries about your characters if they’re stereotypes? Did you think about how these characters will react to those plot points you put them into?

The characters’ reactions should drive the story forward, not the plot points. A character doesn’t need to get into a burning house because you want him or her there. The character gets into that burning house because it’s in his/her nature to do so.

Archetypes

Archetypes are blueprints for building well-defined characters. It defines protagonists, antagonists, antiheroes, or supporting characters. 16 personality types based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are good archetypes . Each type defines a role and a strategy on how their type of character act on things.

THE ANALYSTS

  • The Architect (INTJ – Introversion-iNtuition-Thinking-Judging)
  • The Logician (INTP – Introversion-iNtuition-Thinking-Perceiving)
  • The Commander (ENTJ – Extraversion-iNtuition-Thinking-Judging)
  • The Debater (ENTP – Extraversion-iNtuition-Thinking-Perceiving)

THE DIPLOMATS

  • The Advocate (INFJ – Introversion-iNtuition-Feeling-Judging)
  • The Mediator (INFP – Introversion-iNtuition-Feeling-Perceiving)
  • The Protagonist (ENFJ – Extraversion-iNtuition-Feeling-Judging)
  • The Campaigner (ENFP – Extraversion-iNtuition-Feeling-Perceiving)

THE SENTINELS

  • The Logistician (ISTJ – Introversion-Sensing-Thinking-Judging)
  • The Defender (ISFJ – Introversion-Sensing-Feeling-Judging)
  • The Executive (ESTJ – Extraversion-Sensing-Thinking-Judging)
  • The Consul (ESFJ – Extraversion-Sensing-Feeling-Judging)

THE EXPLORERS

  • The Virtuoso (ISTP- Introversion-Sensing-Thinking-Perceiving)
  • The Adventurer (ISFP – Introversion-Sensing-Feeling-Perceiving)
  • The Entrepreneur (ESTP – Extraversion-Sensing-Thinking-Judging)
  • The Entertainer (ESFP – Extraversion-Sensing-Feeling-Perceiving)

I use these 16 personality archetypes as an invaluable tool. Their essences give me a general idea of who they are but still force me to delve deeper into the characters. I don’t see them as Character 1 or “the policeman” but as a person who responds to a conflict in a specific way.

As a writer, I’m guilty of creating characters who act like me. Archetypes will help us avoid this. Each personality has its own set of motivations, fears, and cares that move him/her as the plot forward.

After selecting an archetype, other details follow. The details will shape how the character expresses that essence. Details like the physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of a character shapes their actions in the story.

Most memorable characters in books and in film are not bland and one-dimensional. They invoke strong emotions in us that either we want to be like them or completely the opposite. What makes them memorable is not the story they’re into but the depth of their characters. They are not perfect, they have flaws, own defense mechanisms, and a dark side that make them human, complex, and interesting.

A character arc shows the changes he/she goes through during the story. The character needs to emerge at the end as a new person who has learned something from the journey. It’s the archetype that inspires the discoveries and details that make it interesting.

Stereotypes vs. Archetypes

But beware of stereotypes, which are the complete opposite. Stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations about people usually stemming from one person’s prejudice. Archetypes stemmed from the entire human race’s experience of people and psychological studies.

Describing a character as a “typical librarian” makes you assume that all librarians are quiet spinsters and shows the writer’s sloppy characterization. Stereotypes may be used to describe an archetype but a stereotype is only a shallow imitation.


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