Monday, July 02, 2012

Rules of Storytelling, Part One

Last month, one of Pixar’s storyboard artists posted her 22 Rules of Storytelling. There is SO MUCH good stuff here. I posted the link a few weeks ago, and now I’ve had some time to digest some of the information. I’m going to take a few of these ‘rules’ at a time and talk about them over the next few weeks.

Today’s topic: Characters.

A good, strong, solid character is what transforms a story from good to amazing. A few of the ‘rules’ capture the essence of what character should be, but I want to expand on that a bit. I’ll take them one rule at a time.

Rule #1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
Yes!! I can’t count how many books I’ve read where the main character gives up before even trying because he comes to the conclusion that the task is impossible. When I was growing up, my mother always used to tell me “you never know unless you try.” That’s what I always want to scream at these characters. If the task is impossible one way, then try a different way. Or don’t do everything at once. Or, do something else completely! But characters need to DO something. I would rather see characters try and fail than give up before anything has happened.

Rule #6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
This is instrumental in showing the reader what kind of person the main character is. As the saying goes, you see a person’s true character when he is under stress. I can’t think of a stress greater than being completely out of your element. How does the character react? What personality flaws surface? How do these flaws affect those around him?

Rule #13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.
Most definitely. Everyone has opinions. Even the most easy-going people have opinions. Those who don’t have opinions just aren’t interesting, so why would we want to read about them? Your character doesn’t need to spout his opinions to anyone who will sit still long enough to listen. In fact, he might be very reserved about expressing opinions. But the reader needs to know these opinions because it forms a bond between the two. Actually, if the character doesn’t share opinions with other people in the story, but the reader gets to hear them, it makes that bond even stronger because the reader feels like he’s getting privileged information.

Rule #15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
This gets into the blurry line between the author and the characters. All characters are manifestations of the author, albeit some more obvious than others. Hence, the author needs to know what he would do in any given situation. Then, he needs to figure out what the characters would do. Which brings me to the next rule...

Rule #18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
For storytelling to be at its most effective, the author needs to imagine situations where he has no idea what he would do in a particular situation, so he must make his best guess. Honest guess, that is—the author may not like the answer, but honesty will bring authenticity to the story.

Rule #21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?
This is taking the above rule and switching it around. If the character needs to go to a certain, horrible place, what would it take for him to get there? Honestly and truly? Take that answer and run with it.

Next week, I’m going to delve into the more plot-related ‘rules,’ so, if that interests you, be sure to stop by!


Katja Weinert said...

Thanks for sharing, definitely food for thought.
On another note, I got all excited about watching "Brave" and when I checked showing times it turns out that the UK is only screening it in August...jaw drops...usually we're like half a day behind the US. So frustrating.

Unknown said...

I like #6 and 21. Especially #21. Your character's motivation needs to be strong for it to happen.

Kelly Hashway said...

All great points, Tabitha. I love presenting my characters with the exact opposite of what they're good at. It makes things interesting for me and the reader. (Oh my poor characters and the things I do to them.)

Tabitha said...

Katja - oh no, what a bummer!! I'm going to take my kids to see Brave, hopefully this weekend. August will get here soon and then you all can see it too.

Stina - yep, sure does. Without motivation, the reader ends up scratching his head and wondering why the character is doing what he's doing.

Kelly - fictional characters are the most tortured beings on the planet, aren't they? :)

Unknown said...

Great post Tabitha. I think sometime writers let a great plot take over a story and forget that the readers are invested in the outcome only as far as it affects the characters.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! I especially like #6. When I feel stuck in a story, that helps get things moving again. It may not stay but it will always turn up something.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

These are great. I printed them to check on the characters in my wip and see what they need.


Ruth Donnelly said...

I'm struck by rule #6, too. It's related to the question: why is this particular character right (or wrong!) for this particular challenge. I love all the interesting possibilities this suggests.