Story is Structure part 2 – The Inhabitants of Story
In Part 1 of this series, I highlighted key components of a well-told story as they have been recognized, studied, and used throughout storytelling history. Today I highlight the primary inhabitants of those stories.
You must have a firm grasp on each individual who populates your story, including the characteristics that make each necessary and what function they each fulfill. Extraneous characters weaken the telling.
A one-bedroom apartment can hold too many people, but there should never be an excess of characters in your tale. Strong stories are populated with the fewest characters possible to tell the story well, and each character occupies an established role to propel the story forward as only that character can.
Story roles are filled by three levels of characters: primary, secondary, and what I call walk-on.
Primary characters are the story’s drivers—they make the decisions, initiate the actions, are the reason the story exists. Without them you would be writing a totally different story.
Primary roles to fill include the hero (protagonist) and the villain (antagonist), and possibly a buddy or love interest for the hero. Buddy or Love Interest, however, are only primary characters if they are instrumental in pushing the story forward; if they serve only to reflect the hero or give the villain or hero someone to talk to, they occupy a secondary or even a walk-on role.
Important secondary characters include the villain’s primary henchman (whom Nehring named the Secondary Antagonist), the Mentor, and characters around whom the primary conflict swirls (Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator; Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol). These are the characters without whom it might be the same story but it would be told in a very different way.
Tertiary, walk-on roles provide the tapestry against which the primary characters play. Without these characters it might be the same story, told in a similar manner, but it would lack a depth or richness (Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, whose frivolousness accentuates the beauty of Elizabeth’s devotion to truth and abiding love).
A walk-on character crucial to Act 1 is the Herald. His role is to suffer injury or die in such a way that the hero (and the reader or viewer) is forced to realize the threat is real and the stakes are high. It is often the death of a herald character which convinces the hero it is time to act.
Not only are these characters present in a story, they each literally have a specific role to fill. Just as the Herald gives the trumpet call that awakens the hero, each character has a function within the story that propels the story forward at the correct time and in the correct way.
The Mentor is responsible for instructing and training the hero. In acts one and two, he informs the hero about the villain, the backstory, and the new world (Evangelist in The Pilgrim’s Progress; Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations). The training and wisdom (and often a tangible gift) give the hero what he will need to defeat the villain at story’s end. Then the Mentor dies or otherwise recedes from the storyline, which signals to the reader or audience that the hero is ready to take on the role of true hero.
The Secondary Antagonist embodies the greatest physical threat to the hero. He seems unbeatable, unstoppable (Bellatrix Lestrangein the Harry Potter series, deception in Don Quixote). In reality, though, the Secondary Antagonist has a significant chink in the armor and will sometimes actually turn against the villain. “A well-written secondary antagonist character is a treasure to any storyline” (Nehring. 133).
Of all the non-hero characters, however, the most important is the antagonistic force working against the hero. Whether a person, a situation, a machine, an alien, or an overwhelming storm, the villain causes the conflict which forces the hero into action and – most importantly – gives him the opportunity to be heroic.
The antagonist initiates the original conflict. Without the villain and the specific conflict he generates there would be no need for the hero.
This was the biggest missing piece of the puzzle for me in my storytelling. I knew the antagonist had to be super-powerful and super-smart and super-scary, but it took me a while to wrap my brain around the fact that it is the conflict initiated by the villain that forces the hero to define his morality, develop his skills, and rise to the level of Hero.
And the reason a story’s particular hero is a match for its particular villain is because they are alike. Throughout storytelling history, a set of specific traits have identified both the villain and the hero of nearly all stories. Each is
- smart. The villain, however, at first seems smarter. Who wants to read a story where there’s no doubt the hero will win?
- special. Both are gifted or talented in a way that plays directly into the storyline.
- solitary. Since both are exceptional in some way, each is separated from others within his world.
- secretive. Both prefer to depend only upon themselves and their own resources.
And both the hero and the villain are faced with a specific and vital need to change at some fundamental level. Their morality, worldview, even operating paradigms must change if the world is to return to balance.
It is at this level, at this need to grow, to move beyond what has been into what can be, that the villain and the hero are shown to be distinctly different, for the hero is capable of change, of making a decision which transforms him in some way, enables him to take a vital step forward and meet the challenges required to defeat the opposing forces.
The villain, however, is unwilling and unable to change; he stubbornly refuses to learn an important lesson or accept sage advice, and stubborn insistence on his own way leads directly to his downfall.
Though this simple list hardly begins to identify the traits of the hero and the villain, we have sufficient principles, techniques, and inhabitants of story to enable us to see how they are used to construct an entertaining storyline from an amazing and complex set of true events—next time, in Part 3.
I look forward to it, thank you, Christine!
Christine will conclude with part 3 on Thursday 29th November.
Christine Hunt is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and author of the upcoming book The Orchid Murder: Untangling a Web of Unsolved Murders and Legal Malpractice (RightLine. 2013. http://theOrchidMurder.com).
She has over 35 years of creative and commercial writing, editing, and layout design experience across a variety of fields and disciplines.
Christine taught English and creative writing for over ten years.
Right Line Editing & Design was launched April 2005 (www.RightLineEditing.com).
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