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“There Are Two Kinds Of Men,” A Study In Foils From Doctor Zhivago

foil

Whenever there is a novel-based movie in the theatres, someone will say, “The book was better.” Almost always it is, but there are always exceptions. David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago is at least as good as Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel by the same name.

There is one scene I enjoy in the movie not in the book, so the credit goes to screenplay writer, Robert Bolt. Larisa Volokhonsky has just introduced her fiancé Pasha Antipov to her mother’s “advisor” Viktor Komarovsky, with whom she had been having an affair. Afterward, Komarovsky expresses his disapproval of the marriage because it’s basically a mismatch.

He says, “There are two kinds of men,” and Antipov is the first kind. “He is pure. He’s the kind of man the world pretends to look up to, and in fact despises. he’s the kind of man that breeds unhappiness particularly in women.” He follows this with the second kind of man, which he insists is “not pure, but alive.”

Two Kinds Of Men

Antipov and Komarovsky are two ends of a pole, the prig and the libertine. In literature this is called a foil. This serves as an example for those of us who are Creative Writers. We can learn how to further develop our characters with the use of foils. It is common to foil the protagonist against the antagonist, but that is really the low hanging fruit of authorship. This model is more exciting and provides more options for us.

While there are many opposites that can be foiled, the prig and the libertine may be the most common and the easiest to attempt. Antipov is a revolutionary committed to ending the rule of the czars and bringing about a worker’s state. He is the high-minded idealist. Komarovsky is a rich lawyer who likes to drink, gamble, and eat at fancy restaurants. He has political opinions, but they don’t move him as his appetite. Pasternak, as well as Lean, show us two kids of men as dissimilar as they can be.

Two Kinds Of Women

After Komarovsky tells Larisa about the two kinds of men, he says, “there are also two kinds of women, and you as well both well know are not the first kind.” He follows that with, “you are a slut.” She may not this depraved, but she is far from being the prig. She is indeed alive and willing to experience life. A woman of the first kind would be Tonya Gromyko. She is not as snobby as one thinks a prig to be, be she is rich and proper and fits the bill of the idealized woman.

The main character, Doctor Yuri Zhivago, marries Tonya, but has an affair with Larisa. This is after her husband, Antipov, has left her to fight in the revolution. While Tonya and Larisa might not be as severe as a prig and a libertine, they do foil each other as Antipov and Komarovsky do, just not as extreme.

What About Yuri?

So what kind of man is our main character, Doctor Zhivago himself? Neither, or more to the point, both. That is why I feel that we as Creative Writers can use foils in major character who surround our main character, and not have the two foils be the protagonist and the antagonist.

Zhivago has the best qualities of both men without their excesses. This helps put his affair in a literary context. As both kinds of men, Yuri despises both Antipov and Komarovsky, but he loves both Tonya and Larisa because just one type of woman would not do. Zhivago has ideas and is ideal, he knows life and how to live, he is simultaneously the doctor and the poet.

The challenge to us authors is to learn how to use foils, and maybe even form a foil triangle of sorts as both Pasternak and Lean did. These are the sorts of things that make our texts more full and our characters more developed.

 

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Animal Group Names & A Collection of Characters: Part II – Land Mammals

lions

In my last article, we looked at the idea of group names for animals as metaphors in fiction. It is such a long list, so we began with groups names of birds. For example, we have all heard of a murder of crows. You can refer to group of characters, let’s say – assassins, as a murder of crows.

We are on land today. There are many mammals who roam the earth, and their collective names are just as varied and interesting as those of the birds. Think of the phrase, “a pride of lions.” If you have a collection of characters who are particularly arrogant, this would fit marvelously. So here is the list.

  • A shrewdness of apes
  • A cauldron of bats
  • A sleuth of bears
  • An obstinacy of buffalo
  • A pace of donkeys
  • A parade of elephants
  • A gang of elk
  • A business of ferrets
  • A tower of giraffes
  • A tribe of goats
  • A band of gorillas
  • A thunder of hippopotamuses
  • A cackle of hyenas
  • A shadow of jaguar
  • A mob of kangaroo
  • A conspiracy of lemurs
  • A leap of leopards
  • A barrel of monkeys
  • A romp of otters
  • A passel of pigs
  • A prickle of porcupines
  • A warren of rabbits
  • A crash of rhinoceroses
  • A streak of tigers

I find this list wonderful. I’ve already used one of the collective terms of birds in my work in progress, a scold of jaybirds. Using these group names of animals as metaphors for your groups of characters will add a layer of flavor and color to your prose, and you’ll be glad you did it.

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Animal Group Names & a Collection of Characters: Part I – Birds

birds

As authors, we make sure our characters are as individualistic and unique as possible. That having been said, all of us will at times use a group of characters to do something. This group could be big or small, a few people of an entire village. You can say something about the group my metaphorically comparing your group to a collection of animals and use the name of that animal group. We all know that comparing the group to the animals is easy enough, but the name of the group adds another level.

For example, we all know that a group of lions is called a pride. You can refer to a group of people as a pride of lions is they have the nature of a lion or if they exhibit pride. The sentence “The Professors milled about like a pride of lions,” is more colorful with the metaphor than without, and it tells us something about the Professors.

We refer to birds as a flock, but each kind of bird has its own group name. I’m sure we have all heard of a murder of crows. That is what I’m talking about, the group names for specific birds. We will consider other animals in the next few weeks.

  • A bellowing of bullfinches
  • A clutch of chickens
  • A gulp of cormorants
  • A flight of doves
  • A paddling of ducks
  • A convocation of eagles
  • A cast of falcons
  • A charm of finches
  • A flamboyance of flamingoes
  • A skein of geese (in flight)
  • A charm of goldfinches
  • A rasp of guineafowls
  • A kettle of hawks
  • A brood of hens
  • A siege of herons
  • A scold of jays
  • An exaltation of larks
  • A congregation of magpies
  • A richness of martens
  • A watch of nightingales
  • A parliament of owls
  • A pandemonium of parrots
  • An ostentation of peacocks
  • A pod of pelicans
  • A convent of penguins
  • A bouquet of pheasants
  • A drift of quail
  • An unkindness of ravens
  • A fling of sandpipers
  • A host of sparrows
  • A chattering of starlings
  • A phalanx of storks
  • A gulp of swallows
  • A lamentation of swans
  • A pitying of turtle doves
  • A descent of woodpeckers

You can add color and flair to your manuscript by comparing groups of characters to groups of animals. Here are a lsit of the names of the groups of individual bird kinds. We’ll have more lists coming soon.

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The Secret To Tremendous Character Development

map

I have always defined fiction as interesting people doing interesting things. This brings together the two great elements of story crafting, character development and plot development. Between the two I have always found character development to be the most difficult and the most rewarding. I have done many things to add layers to my characters. I have given then all the Briggs-Myers Personality Exam and I have given them associated mental disorders. I have divided them by the anneagramic personalities and by the major segments of types of dreams. But from my experience, the secret to tremendous character development is to explore the relationships between my characters.

Readers Relate To Relationships
Let’s face it, no man is an island. We all have relationships with other people, both those close to us and those on the fringe of our associations. These relationships can be good or bad, but we all have them. So when we read of a character who struggles with a relationship with someone, we can put ourselves in their shoes. Likewise, when boy meets girl and boy agonizes over how to get her to notice him, we all shake our head and empathize along.

Readers want to relate to characters, but readers will relate to relationships because they are so universal. The more prickliness you put in the relationship between any two characters, the more readers are invested because they want everything to work out well. The more you conceal but let you readers know that something is concealed the more they will read on to see what you’ve got hidden on the next page for them.

“Into Me I See”
I once heard a relationship expert define intimacy as “into me I see.” In other words, the level of intimacy between any two people shows us more about those two people than we would have known about them singularly and without the relationship. Think of your own life. How do you relate to your spouse or your parent? The level and type of intimacy a man has with his wife or his father shows us more about him than we could have known of if there never were a reference to these other people.

If this is true for you and me, then it’s true for our readers. Likewise, it will follow with all of our characters. When you demonstrate relationships that are rich and complex, so becomes our understanding of these people. If I wish to describe interesting people doing interesting things, that means some people will work together or sometimes other characters will try to undermine certain characters. The bonds between all of these people are demonstrative as to who they really are. You can give wonderful personalities to your characters and make them as unique and individual as possible. But when you show how all these people get along, you have found the hidden treasure of more interesting characters, which cannot help but make for better stories.

If you found this material useful, please share it on your social media channels. Maybe you know of another writer would could benefit from this information. And if you have any Comments, be sure and leave them in the section below.
And one more thing: Merry Christmas!

 

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How To Greet The Godfather And What That Has To Do With Your Characters

gfthr

You can learn about a character by watching his actions. But you can also learn of a character by seeing how other characters interact with him. A perfect example of this is the opening scene of the movie The Godfather. It is Vito Corleone’s daughter’s wedding day. Vito is asked a favor by five different people. They way they go about it tells us something about how they see the Godfather.

Amerigo Bonasera

Amerigo came to America seeking his fortune, and he found it serving as an undertaker. He lived in Vito’s neighborhood, but was afraid to seek out his friendship. When Amerigo’s daughter was beaten and disfigured, Amerigo thought the courts would give him justice. When the judge suspended the sentence, he decided to see the Godfather.

Vito chides Amerigo for being afraid of his friendship and seeking justice in the courts first. Moreover, he scolds him for his plea for the Godfather to have these two men murdered, a service for which Amerigo would pay the Godfather. Vito refuses because it is not justice since her daughter still lives, and he does not do murder for hire services in the first place.

Vito’s greatest offense is that Amerigo did not ask with respect and friendship. When he does, Vito says he will take care of it, but not for money. The Godfather may ask him for a favor in return someday. This favor is asked when Vito’s eldest son is ambushed at a tollstop on a Long Beach Causeway, and he needs the corpse to look its best for the funeral.

Luca Brasi

Luca was bigger and tougher than anyone, but mostly, he was not afraid to die. He threw his newborn son in a furnace because he did not want his bloodline to continue. The same night he took and overdose of pills and turned himself in to the police, hoping to die in prison.

He didn’t die, but the pills gave him brain damage mostly affecting his speech. The Godfather had him released and made him his own weapon. Luca was devoted to Vito, even avoiding being seen with him in public to spare the Godfather’s reputation.

So Luca was truly surprised when he was invited to the wedding. He waited to tell Vito briefly of his gratitude, wished his daughter’s first child be a masculine child, and gave the most generous tribute offered that day for her bridal purse.

Nazorine Pitelli

Nazorine grew up Vito’s neighborhood and ran a patisserie. He knew how generous the Godfather was and honored him all his life with friendship and respect. Nazorine was also grateful that the Godfather intervened once in a welched deposit owed him by a furniture company. Nazorine took a Sicilian prisoner of war named Enzo Aguello to work in the bakery. Enzo and Nazorine’s daughter fall in love, but when the war ended, the government wanted to expatriate Enzo back to Sicily.

Nazorine shows great respect when asking Vito to help keep Enzo in the country. Vito is glad to help. As Nazorine leaves, he brags about the size of the wedding cake he made for Vito’s daughter.

Johnny Fontane

Johnny was a singer, and he was also Vito’s godson. Vito once helped Johnny get out of a service contract to a bandleader who wished to keep him from going out on his own. Johnny ended up divorcing his wife and neglecting his kids, which angered Vito, and their relationship was strained.

Johnny’s voice grew week so he turned to acting. There was a part he wanted that could make him a big star, but the producer refused him the part for petty reasons. Johnny asks for Vito’s help, which he promises, but only after smacking Johnny around and yelling at him to act like a man, which he truly deserved.

Genco Abbandando

Even though a Sicilian cannot refuse a request made to him on his daughter’s wedding day, there is one thing asked of Vito he refuses, with complete understanding why. This offer comes from Vito’s oldest friend, Genco. After coming to America, Genco’s family takes him in, even offering him work in the family grocery.

Eventually, Vito goes into business for himself, but names it after his friend, Genco Pura, which imported olive oil. Genco served as Vito’s right hand man until the day of the wedding. Genco had cancer and was about to die. He asked Vito to scare off the Grim Reaper, which Vito says he cannot do. Genco dies with his best friend beside him in the hospital.

So what do we learn form this? From Amerigo we learn that those who know about the Godfather but didn’t really know him were afraid of him. From Luca, we learn that Vito is generous to those who are loyal to him. From Nazorine we learn that he knows how to be a friend to those who show respect. From Johnny we learn that Vito will always forgive those who come back to him, but you might have to suffer some tough love first. And from Genco we learn that Vito is only human. His abilities had human limitations but his care had human universality. Vito’s personae is enhanced by these relationships. As writers, we can write about character’s actions, but also interactions, and this will add depth to our stories.

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Writing Elemental Characters

elements

The Ancients believed that everything was made of four basic elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. These Elements were symbolic of the whole of human life and everything in society. With that in mind, Creative Writers have a template of character forms they could use to create four fully developed characters, who themselves compose a quartet of a perfect slice of humanity.

These same Ancients also believed in a fifth element that was a combination of all of the other four known as the Quintessence. So if you wish to use the four symbolic Elements in forming four characters, a good addition would be to add a fifth character – the Quintessential character.

Qualities Of The Elements

There are plenty of places to research the Four Elementals, but allow me to provide a quick rundown of what these Elements represent.

  • Air – thought, reason, the higher functions of the brain.
  • Earth – intuition, gut feelings, emotional responses to other things.
  • Water – sentiment, nature, interconnectivity.
  • Fire – impulse, pleasure, chaos.

There is certainly more that could be said, but this will suffice to get the basic points across. Like I said, there is more available to study if you so wish. But even this scant amount is sufficient for the Creative Writer who wishes to use this to form characters.

One Example

I have used this form before in more than one novel, but one work in particular structures the five main couples on this pattern. This comes from my novella, Firmament. The five main couples are Jonathan and Florida Gameret, Juan and Mariposa Tierra, Ian and Lilly Dotian, Johnny and Bryony Rivers, and Ivan and Iolanta Nyebov.

Rivers clearly refers to water, and Tierra has to do with the earth. Dotian is an old Celtic word for fire and Nyebov is from the Russian word for sky. This would imply that the Gamerets are the Quintessential couple. There surname has a different meaning (taken from Parzival). All of the men’s names are forms of the Quintessential male’s name, Jonathan. And as Florida refers to flowers, Mariposa, Lilly, Bryony, and Iolanta are all names of flowers. It also implies fertility, which is only made possible in the Quintessential couple.

The novella Firmament deals with love and strife as the two creative elements in life. This story is how all of these couple fall in love, but eventually deal with death. How one or both died again harkens back to their Elemental nature. The Tierras crash over a blown bridge on a train to the gorge floor below. Ian Dotian is blown up by a grenade. Bryony Rivers drowns in a car the goes over a bridge into a river. And Ivan Nyebov’s Russian bomber is blown out of they sky by a German fighter plane.

And of course, these characters share the qualities associated with their Element. Juan Tierra is very emotional, even to a fault. Ian Dotian was given to a chaotic life, and his wife Lilly is definitely impulsive, if not impatient. Johnny Rivers was quite sentimental about his mother. And Ivan Nyebov demonstrates great logical skills and his tendency toward deep thinking, particularly discussing politics with the tail gunner while they are on their first bombing raid.

There are a lot of forms available for developing characters in groups. I depends on how many you wish to put together and what the story demands. All good Creative Writers should appreciate the skills that go in to proper character development and take any opportunity to add to their folio anything they can. These can help us become the Quintessential Creative Writer.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you did, please hit the Like button. And if you of other authors who could use this material, please share this post with them.

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What The Release Of My Novel Siciliana Reminded Me About Creative Writing: Part Three – Incidental Action & Personality

siciliana

You can have best plot, but if you don’t have interesting people doing all of these interesting things, your plot goes plop. There are a lot of ways to create characters that are unique and individually specific (the key to interesting). One of my favorite means is to give my characters some physically unique feature that ends up being a description of that person. For example, in my novel Prince my antagonist had gout. It symbolized his rigidness and stubbornness. Also, in my soon to be released fifth novel Pietas, my antagonist is short. Throughout the manuscript it demonstrates how underdeveloped he is a person. He is as diminutive in his humanity as he is his stature.

Snodatu

In Siciliana, my protagonist Giuseppe Albanese is double-jointed. He is called Snodatu by his brother-in-law because snodatu is the Sicilian word for double-jointed.” This feature comes in handy in getting himself out of a jam where he can save his life, as well as his brother-in-law.

More importantly, he is constitutionally moral double jointed. This is by far his biggest flaw and gets him into the biggest pickle ever since Smalls hit his step-fathers Babe Ruth baseball over the fence into the beast’s yard (for all of you fans of the move The Sandlot). I demonstrate this indecision throughout the book so it is clearly a trait of his. When hunting pheasant with his brother-in-law, he can hit everything. But when two birds fly out together he doesn’t fire because he couldn’t decide which one to fire upon. Even dining with his uncle Snodatu cannot decide between getting the pork or the chicken. All of this feeds into a character flaw he most overcome to truly be the story’s hero.

Don Sciarpa

Snodatu’s brother-in-law is Paolu Aglieri. He becomes Don of the seaside village of Sciacca. But he sold his soul to the devil for this favor, which he soon finds out is a bad deal. Once the covenant is made, Paolu becomes bald and later he finds out the hard way he is also impotent. He changes his name to Don Sciarpa, which is the Sicilian word for scarf since he ties a scarf around the top of his head to hide his baldness.

While there is nothing wrong with a man naturally losing his hair because of age, having your hair removed from you, typically by shaving, was commonly done to slaves in ancient history. In the Bible, God describes the slavery and bondage of the Jews in Babylonian captivity as the uncovering of their head to their shame. Don Sciarpa is now the devil’s slave, and this is humiliating. To show this, the devil removes his hair, and just as with the old day Jews, it was to his public shame.

Don Sciarpa and his wife find out together that his deal with the devil made him impotent. She leaves him over this. In general, Don Sciarpa is impotent in that he is completely powerless regarding his situation. He is helpless and the remainder of the story for him is his efforts at redemption, in other words, getting out of the contract.

We all know that physical distinctness help make for individualistic characters. But if you give someone a peg leg and someone else an eye patch just for the variety of it, then you missed out on some great character colorization. Unless you write pirate stories, haphazard peg legs and eye patches make people look different, but until they demonstrate how they act differently, you’re missing out on some great character making tools.

Click here to read Part One of this series

Click here to read Part Two of the series

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What The Release Of My Novel Siciliana Reminded Me About Creative Writing: Part One – Scenic Description & Character Development

siciliana

I began the first draft of my first novel in 2002 and it took my 3 years to finish and longer to edit. I never got it published because I knew nothing of the publishing world and I wanted to learn about it before I tried to getting anything in the market. I learned publishing companies want writers to have a platform, which is one reason I started this Creative Writing blog.

Self-Publishing

I became aware of self-publishing and soon noticed it as not only a viable option, but a preferred one. So in the past year I had released three non-fiction books (The Gatsby Reader, Think Like A Writer, and My Plans For World Domination) and a novella (Firmament). I’ve written three additional novels, as well. I’ve decided to release these as self-published works as well. Last week I released my first novel, Siciliana.

As I finished polishing it up, I noticed some things I let slip, mostly the use of descriptions and details that may seem incidental but are vital to the story telling. After all, I haven’t read this in years, so it was good to be refreshed on a few things. One of the things I noticed was my use of scenic descriptions to illustrate a certain character.

The Home Of Don Albanese

Siciliana is set in during one week in October of 1909 on the Sicilian coastal town of Sciacca. It has Dons and vendettas, knives and guns, pasta and bread, and what you might imagine may be in a Sicilian novel. The descriptions of buildings, landscapes, and environments is something I usually avoid as superfluous fluff that adds nothing to the story. But a writer can use such descriptions as figures within the novel. For example take a look at the description of Don Albanese’s house:

At a parting in the fence, a sandy trail advanced towards the house. By the entrance stood a bare and barren ash tree. Two prominent branches reached up from the top of the trunk toward Heaven like two arms braced above one’s head. Nothing organic existed within the broken shade of the lifeless tree. Further up the way squatted a short quince tree. A well-dressed snake with an inexplicable knot in her tail lived amongst the branches. The serpent always smiled. Closer to the manse, a ring of pomegranate trees ascended. Countless sparrows flirted from one tree to another, singing amorous tunes in avian languages. A lonely cuckoo larger than the sparrows bounced from tree to tree, helping himself to anything he liked.

About Don Albanese Himself

This paragraph has plenty of details and all of them are symbolic of the man who lives there. Notice what we see in this scene: a dead ash tree, a quince tree, a snake, pomegranate trees, sparrows, and a cuckoo. These details have symbolic meanings that contribute to the development of Don Albanese even before we see him. The ash tree was thought to be three wood used for the cross of Jesus in medieval times. The quince was also then thought to be the forbidden fruit in paradise where the serpent beguiled Eve. Pomegranates were ancient symbols of fertility and sexual potency. Sparrows were birds given to pleasure and cuckoos take whatever they want.

So before we meet Don Albanese, notice what we can know about him. He is a spiritually dead man who gives himself over fully to all of his temptations and vices. He is particularly given to sexual lusts and will even take what he wants (or who he wants) to satisfy his bawdy appetite.

These are the sort of details that a good Creative Writer can provide to tell us about people and circumstances within their novels. You may want to practice these things so that you can develop this technique and use it in your work, just like all of the Masters did in their books, as well.

If you got something useful from this article, Share it with other writers who could also get some good from it. And if you have any Comments, please let me know what’s on your mind.

You can purchase your copy of Siciliana now on Amazon and Kindle by clicking here. Get yours soon before the introductory price goes up soon!

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Writing Advice From Anton Chekhov: Part Two – Characters

chekhov

The Hero’s Actions

In the sphere of psy­chol­ogy, details are also the thing. God pre­serve us from common­places. Best of all is to avoid depict­ing the hero’s state of mind; you ought to try to make it clear from the hero’s actions.”

When I first studied writing, one of my professor’s constant criticisms was that I needed to give all of my characters a quirk. That is advice I still offer today, but I didn’t take to it at first because I really didn’t understand it. I recall sitting in his office complaining that he wanted this guy to have an eye patch and that guy to have a false leg and that I didn’t want to write a bunch of pirate stories. It was there I began to learn about making characters as specific and individualistic as possible.

But these physical quirks were nothing if they had nothing to do with the character. The best way to make a character truly unique is by his actions. You find his worldview and his motivation so that you can wind him up and let him play. And if you do this effectively you will never need internal monologue to tell us what the person is thinking. We will know their mindset by their action.

Good Writing

You under­stand it at once when I say, ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You under­stand it because it is clear and makes no demands on the atten­tion. On the other hand it is not eas­ily under­stood if I write, ‘A tall, narrow-chested, middle-sized man, with a red beard, sat on the green grass, already tram­pled by pedes­tri­ans, sat silently, shyly, and timidly looked about him.’ That is not imme­di­ately grasped by the mind, whereas good writ­ing should be grasped at once—in a second.”

So if we need specific details to make characters as unique as possible, then the more details, the greater the specificity of the character, right? Wrong! Too many details muddle the image. Pretty soon you have so many details that you have none.

Not only to superfluous details of a character get in the way of seeing him for who he is, but it obscures whatever action he may engage. From Chekhov’s example just listed above, the point the writer needs to get across is that the man sat on the grass. To go into an array of specifics about the man and the grass get in the way of the fact that the man sat on the grass. Good fiction writing is wrapped up in action, not physical details.

The Writer As Chemist

That the world ‘swarms with male and female scum’ is per­fectly true. Human nature is imper­fect. But to think that the task of lit­er­a­ture is to gather the pure grain from the muck heap is to reject lit­er­a­ture itself. Artis­tic lit­er­a­ture is called so because it depicts life as it really is. Its aim is truth—unconditional and hon­est. A writer is not a con­fec­tioner, not a dealer in cos­met­ics, not an enter­tainer; he is a man bound under com­pul­sion, by the real­iza­tion of his duty and by his con­science. To a chemist, noth­ing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objec­tive as a chemist.”

I lost the desire to make any character likable or unlikable quite a long time ago. When I learned to grey my characters, make neither white or back heroes and villains, I dropped the need to force them to be a certain way. Our good guy’s flatulence never smells like treacle just like our bad guy’s suffering can make us shed a tear.

So Chekhov’s notion of the writer as a chemist is a clear description of what our attitude towards our own characters should be. In the end it is not so much hero versus villain, good guy against bad guy, but protagonist and antagonist. These protagonists might do some vile things and these antagonists may seem perfectly justifiable. They are antagonists only that that they oppose the protagonist in getting what he wants.

Character development is one of the most difficult aspects of story writing simply because it is so involved. I will spend months plotting and outlining a novel before I begin a first draft, and most of that time is working on the uniqueness of my characters. Let’s face it, the most amazing of stories turns into a snooze fest if the actions of this tale are performed by flat characters. Chekhov’s advice helps me, and I hope I does you some good, as well.

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What Criminal Minds Taught Me About Creative Writing

One of my favorite TV shows on right now is the crime drama “Criminal Minds.” It’s different from the normal cop show. Usually it’s detectives following the clues, or sometimes the forensic evidence, trying to find out who dunnit. And both we who watch and the officers on screen don‘t know until the last fifteen minutes of the show.

“Criminal Minds” is different. It’s about FBI profilers who ask “Why did he do it?” in order to narrow their search and eventually capture the killer, or the rapist, or the kidnapper. Another way this show is different is that quite often we see who the criminal is before the end, sometimes from the opening shot.

What I love about the show is more than its unique approach to the crime drama genre, but the characters are wonderfully developed. Both the good guys and the bad guys are very interesting. You may want to Boo the villain, but he is still interesting, if not altogether creepy. I think about this show and it seems to me that “Criminal Minds” has something to offer the Creative Writer, particularly when it comes to character development.

Everyone Has Motivation

Like I mentioned, the FBI agents of “Criminal Minds” ask and answer Why did he do it? to find out who in fact did it. These profilers are terribly overtaken with the motive of the criminal, and it works. You often hear the agents talk of the unsub’s (FBI-speak for unknown subject) stressers and triggers. For example, an unsub might have been abused by his mother when he was growing up. That would be the stresser. And when his mother dies, that might be the trigger that sets this criminal off.

We can’t write interesting characters who do interesting things if we don’t know their motivations. People do what they do for a reason. Before we decide what our characters do, we need to know why they do it. This is not limited to antagonists. Each one of the agents has a reason for working for the FBI as a profiler. Even our heroes need motives, too.

Bad Buys Are Crazy

Almost always the lawbreakers on “Criminal Minds” are suffering from some sort of psychological disorder. To put it plainly, they are as crazy as a pet raccoon. We are all familiar with the mad scientist, and even the evil genius is somehow a little bit off. I remember how agent Graham told Hannibal Lektor in the movie “Manhunter” that even though the doctor was a genius he had the disadvantage of being insane.

I’ve talked to other Creative Writers who don’t like to make their bad guy crazy. They feel as if it makes it too easy for the hero to overcome him. But if done carefully, it could case more difficulty for the hero. The villain does not think the same way as the hero, which could itself be an obstacle to the good guy. We don’t have to have the bad guys ready for the straight jacket and the rubber room only to live out their days drooling into a cup. But something in their mind is not right. And let’s face it, crazy people are fun to write about because they are so different. And for that reason, that are a pleasure to read.

Even Good Guys Struggle

Each of the FBI agents have difficulties in their lives, and this often lays over into their professional life. We have seen agents on the show deal with everything from drug use, poor heath, divorce, loss of family to death, failed relationships, and even the stress of another job offer. And maybe the biggest source of stress for these agents is their bureaucratic boss. She really gets on my nerves. Our main characters should have other difficulties in their lives that just the conflict of the plot. This adds layers to our writing and helps build tension throughout our stories.

Some of the most basic struggles for these people are the same ones we all deal with, the internal struggle. The cares and anxieties of life can distract us or complicate our attempts to get done what needs to get done. We see this also in the lives of the profilers on “Criminal Minds.” Without these difficulties, our characters and our stories fall flat. Consider the example of Hamlet. His external conflict is avenging his father’s death. But his internal conflict is “To be or not to be.” This might be the greater difficulty for Hamlet. And let’s face it, it often is for each one of us. If we all struggle with common difficulties and basic affairs of life, then why not our heroes? To create this tension gives our hero more to overcome and makes his triumph that much more grand, or his failure that much more pathetic.

If you regularly watch “Criminal Minds,” then you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t watch it, start now. You’ll be thoroughly entertained, and maybe like me you’ll gain some insight about Creative Writing. If you found this article of some value, please Share it with other Creative Writers. And I would love to know what you think, so leave your Comments in the section below.

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