ENTRY THREE: The Exterior Elements of Character

by | April 15, 2013 | General | 8 comments

Several terms used here are from the previous post “ENTRY TWO The Elements of Short Story Structure”


In this entry, the first of two parts, I propose to present:

The Exterior Elements of Character Presentation as:
The Character World
The Character Web made of
The Deciding Character
The Ally
The Opponent
The Fake Ally
The Fake Opponent

A lot of what I will be pontificating on here comes from John Truby’s book “The Anatomy of Story”.  Truby was writing mainly for wanna-be screen writers of formula genre movies, but a lot of what he says is universal to popular plotted fiction in general, as well as astonishingly insightful.  Once you become familiar with his way of thinking you start to see it in practice in all your favorite movies.

As before I should offer up a note of caution here.  Writer’s have different ways of approaching new material.  Seat-of-the-Pantsers write the way people imagine writers of the Bible wrote, by divine dictation.  They start with a blank screen and start typing straight through until they reach the words “The End”. That was how my heroes Ray Bradbury and Robert E Howard wrote.  If you’re so gifted everything I’m saying applies not to that spontaneous ejaculation of sticky passion but to the rewriting which must absolutely follow.  (Rewriting will make you free to write badly. Rewriting is your friend.  Do not hate rewriting  Do not skip rewriting.) Others, notably Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe, calculated every detail, every note and event, the form of presentation, everything beforehand, so that by the time they dipped that first quill they were just scribbling what they’d already written out in their heads.  Paper and ink were more expensive in those days. If you’re that person, this stuff may help you plan better before you start typing.  If you do crits, it’ll help you do crits.

The Character World

The world of the story is the arena, the magic circle you’ve drawn where everything takes place.  In the best stories the story world is itself a kind of supporting character from which the Deciding Character emerges.  It shapes and interacts with him/her and gives them the ground of their unique identity.  Again – the Premise is the basic seed of the story, the Designing Principle is the unifying theme expressed in a single statement that makes your story unique from others in that genre.  There is a relationship between the interior space of the Deciding Character’s mental world and the exterior space and pacing of time he moves within.  This world grows organically from the Premise of the story as it interacts with the storyline and the Deciding Character’s governing characteristic.   Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was written to have Coriolanus lead an ancient Roman Army and then run for office, and in modern versions he leads a modern Nazi army, but his character can never exist outside the exterior world of war and interior world of self-destructive hubris. He is always a man of insatiable pride seeking glory in valor and violence to impress his mother whether you put him in Roman armor, a Nazi uniform or a gorilla suit.

For a personal example, I offer my plotted vampire story “The Lady and the Unicorn.”  The Premise is – a vampire girl sets out to retrieve her mortal lover who has fled from her.  The Designing Principle is – she will track him to a Gospel tent revival during which she accepts salvation and hopes but is not really sure that she has been miraculously healed of vampirism but still seeks to confront her lover and win him back.  So the Character World is the world of the night spent in a tent revival and the forest around it.  This is the world, unique to the story’s premise and designing principle, within which Nixie experiences the outcomes of the moral decisions she feels compelled to make as well as the catastrophic mistakes.  The feeling, if well written and presented, is that this story could not happen in any other place but this one.

The Character Web

The Deciding Character
Again – the Deciding Character, or protagonist, is the one who makes the decisions and whose character arc drives the action of the story.  She doesn’t have to be the narrator, she doesn’t have to be likable,  but she is the one who carries the energy of the story and the geometry of the narrative arc turns on her decisions.  As a general rule she should be active rather than passive.  She should be acting more than simply acted upon.  Motives are more important than traits, so she should be in pursuit of something and the decisions she makes to meet the obstacles on the way are influenced by a governing characteristic.  The governing characteristic is not the thing she is pursuing, it is a fundamental element of her character that defines her in her pursuit, like Coriolanus and his male vanity, or Nixie and her sense of exile from humanity.  Captain Ahab chases Moby Dick the white whale, not because he likes to kill whales, but because he is angry at God.  In literary erotica, the act of sex is exterior, sometimes it’s not even there.  Eroticism is an expression of the governing characteristic; eroticism is the mystery and the soul of what drives us to physical intimacy in all of its forms.  Eroticism is what we’re talking about.  How do you find a Deciding Character’s governing characteristic?

Consider this dialogue between Hannibal Lechter and Clarisse Starling in Thomas Harris’ “The Silence of the Lambs”:

“Read Marcus Aurelius.  The emperor counsels simplicity.  First principles.  Of each particular thing ask:  What is it in itself, in its own constitution?  What is its causal nature?”

“That doesn’t mean anything to me.’

“What does he do, this man you seek?”

“He kills women – “

“No!  That is incidental.  What is the first and principal thing he does, what need does he serve by killing?”

“Anger, social resentment, sexual frus – “


“What then?”

“He covets.  In fact, he covets the very thing you are.  It’s his nature to covet.”

When you are rewriting or defining a character to yourself, or if a character isn’t working imagine Dr. Lechter next to you saying “What does he do, your character?  What is his causal nature?”

“He’s a dom who ties up women – “

“No!  That is incidental. What need does he serve by tying them up?”

– and so on. Just don’t turn your back on him.

The Ally
The ally is the Deciding Character’s friend, often a sounding board for the Deciding Character’s big problem or the desire he’s chasing or the weakness that holds him back.  Usually their goals and desires are similar.  Their expositiory dialogues inform the reader of how the current situation came about and what needs to be done, the most extreme example being daytime soap operas where lover’s are constantly drowning themselves in expository dialogue to catch up the viewer on the story’s tangled events.

When the Deciding Character is dislikeable or difficult to connect with, an ally is sometimes used as the reader’s gateway to understanding them, typically in buddy stories where the ally is often chastising the Deciding Character for some offense.  A buddy can serve a double role as the Deciding Characters opponent and friend, speaking honestly and explaining things, in which case his or her personality will often be the opposite of the Deciding Character, such as the level headed servant Sancho Panza to his deranged and idealistic master Don Quixote, or the compassionate Dr. Watson to the coldly intellectual Sherlock Holmes.

The Opponent
The opponent, or the antagonist, is not necessarily the enemy.  In a love story the opponent can be the pursued lover.  Or it can be an idea or a situation the protagonist is up against.   The most compelling opponents tend to be active enemies of the hero.  An effective villain can’t be just a mustache twirler.  A good antagonist is as important as a good protagonist.  She should be a fully dimensional character with a governing characteristic of her own that mirrors the hero.  Think of the Joker and Batman.  Both wear disguises, personas that are born out of some past trauma.  They are fighting the same demons which they wear like personal totems.

A good villian should:

  • mirror the heroes’ governing characteristic with a twist
  • Should be pursuing the same object, or confronting the same problem as the hero
  • Has a necessary presence, not just tacked on.
  • Attacks or illuminates the weakness of the hero and forces a moral change.
  • The Villain thinks she/he is right in what they do.  Villains have moral values in contrast to the heroes’ moral values, but they have reasons that make sense to them.
  • Generally the opponent does not experience a moral change in the character arc, but some of the most memorable villains (Darth Vader, Dr. Octopus) do.

Supporting characters are a way of introducing us to the main character but also of casting a bright light on them through allowing us to see them through their eyes.  These include the Fake Opponent and the Fake Ally.

The Fake Opponent
A fake opponent is someone who at first appears to be an enemy, but later surprises us by helping the heroine.  The best example I know of is Hannibal Lechter again.  In his first meeting with agent Starling he ruthlessly dissects her personality, then humiliates her to tears because she has said something that insulted his intelligence.  He cannot stand disrespect, a governing characteristic that provokes him to homicidal violence.  When Starling is insulted by another inmate throwing semen on her, he calls her back and becomes her unofficial mentor.

And who is Clarisse Starling?  How are we introduced to her character and governing characteristic so that we can emotionally connect with her?  Indirectly through a supporting character – Lechter.  That’s what supporting characters are so very good at.  Think how much more powerful that is than the usual expository narration, probably droning in the opening paragraph that goes: “Clarisse Starling had joined the FBI as the fulfillment of her life’s dream and as a way of getting out of the poverty of West Virginia and making something of herself.”   Nonononono.

In the beginning of the movie we know nothing of agent Starling but its Dr. Lechter in his fit of insulted vanity, who explains her character to us:

“You’re so ambitious, aren’t you?  You know what you look like to me with your good bag and your cheap shoes?  You look like a rube.   A well scrubbed hustling rube.  With a little taste.  Good nutrition’s given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash.  Are you Agent Starling?  And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed, pure West Virginia.  Who’s your father, dear, is he a coal miner?  Does he stink of the lamp?  And oh how quickly the boys found you.  All those tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars, while you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, getting all the way to the FBI.”

Lechter says it so much better than a page of narrative ever could.  When you introduce your protagonist to us see if someone else, maybe the villain, can do the job for you.

The Fake Ally
The fake ally can be the human equivalent of another plotting device sometimes called “the hidden gun”.  It’s an old rule that if you have a loaded gun on a table in the first scene it needs to be fired at somebody before the end of the story or it shouldn’t be there at all.  Very often the gun is fired long after you’ve forgotten it, making it a surprising twist.  A fake ally is clearly someone who seems to be the protagonist’s friend until at a critical moment he suddenly turns on the protagonist, maybe betraying him.  You can’t just do that without preparing the reader for that surprise.  You have to make a creative decision as to whether or not to leave only sneaky  little clues until the crucial moment or out and out inform the reader early on of this person’s true intentions, as Shakespeare does in Othello, with the Fake Ally Iago, one of the nastiest villains in fiction.  Almost as soon as he appears, Iago faces the audience and informs us frankly of his secret hatred of Othello and how he plans to spend the rest of the story dismantling the moor’s marriage and honor – which he does.  If you inform early on rather than keeping the Fake Ally as a surprise you could try making him a sympathetic character by enabling him to struggle internally with the betrayal he knows he must commit soon.  Maybe he will change his mind at the big moment and reveal himself as a Fake Opponent. Looked at from this viewpoint, Darth Vader when regarded in his entire six episode character arc is not actually an opponent but a Fake Opponent, as his internal struggle causes him to choose his son and destroy the emperor as the last heroic act of his life, transforming him in an instant from a cruel enemy to a tragic hero.

To sum all this up, the story is about a Deciding Character, and the character web around them is to provide a unique frame within which we come to know them and see them change in an evolving character arc.  A love story or an erotic story can present two Deciding Characters in interaction with each other, showing that we don’t change alone but in communion with each other and through each other, in which case there are two distinct desire lines.  Yet one should be driving the action a little more than the other.  Just like in our own all too troubled lives.

Next month:  “ENTRY 4 The Interior Elements of Character”



  1. Donna

    I am so enjoying your series on the elements of good fiction. I've also found screenwriting advice to be extremely helpful to get me focused on my story goals and structure (Robert McKee's Story is a favorite). I'm not a seat-of-the-pantser, but I do need a period of "freedom" to let the story take shape without any conscious rules. But this sort of structural approach definitely helps to refine and make the story stronger as I write. Looking forward to the next one!

  2. Garceus

    Hi Donna!

    Thanks for reading my stuff!

    I've heard of the McKee book and Truby's is often compared to it, and I've heard people like the McKee book a little better so I need to dig it out some day.

    It's true that if a person writes spontaneously thinking about rules will probably constipate them. I think the best thing is when the rules become second nature, when they've been practiced enough that they take their own shape in the work. But that first draft, yeah, you really have to spit that out as fast and crappy as you can, like giving birth to a baby. You can always give it a bath later once its been brought into the world.


  3. Lady Flo

    I have always been against detailed planning in writing, thinking that creative writing should be spontaneous otherwise it is not so creative.
    But I realized that a novel is less sharp if I use too much spontaneity.
    A story carved by the rules is more beautiful than a form made modeling clay by hands naive.

    "the best thing is when the rules become second nature"… Thanks Grace.

  4. Alex B. Westphal

    I love how for some of the most memorable villains you name Darth Vader and Doc Ock! I know exactly what you mean by these two, and yet I never thought to look to characters like this for inspiration in my erotica writing. A larger-than-life villain who has a change of morals might have a place in my next story!

  5. Garceus

    Hi Lady Flo!

    I've had discussions with my kid aboutthis, becaue he wants to be involved in film making someday. So we talk about story vaues and when we see a movie often we break it down to see what works or what doesn't. I always tell him, master the rules and then break them. The great artists mastered the rules of their craft and knew how to break them with wisdom.


  6. Garceus

    Hi Alex!

    The odd thing is I don;t thinkI've ever written a story with a real villian in it. I think I understand them, and I know a good one when I see one, but so far I've never written one. I don;t know what that means.


  7. Lady Flo

    I'm studing your Entries as I am at school.
    This is a Copernican revolution in my mind… I hope to write soon a novel or a story following this rules step by step.

    Thank you very much for this articles.


  8. Lisabet Sarai

    Hey, Garce,

    You've explained this very well, with some amazing examples. I've never read SILENCE OF THE LAMBS but clearly I must.

    I particularly like your comments about how these concepts apply to erotic fiction. In these stories, it is often the Deciding Character's hidden desires that constitute his/her governing characteristic. Or possibly the very need to hide those desires.

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