Guest blogger Kitti Bernetti looks to Hollywood for a bit of advice.
I’m not a huge reader of ‘how to’ books. I’ve met too many writers who are writing the breakout novel but never seem to finish it because they spend so much time reading ‘how to.’ That said, I am a fan of Michael Hague and Chris Vogler, story consultants for Hollywood - and let’s face it, Tinseltown knows how to craft a story that sells.
What Michael Hague and Chris Vogler say makes perfect sense for those of us who want to write popular fiction. They believe that successful stories often feature both an outer journey and an inner journey for the hero/heroine. The outer journey is an adventure to achieve a visible quest; there has to be a visible finish line. The inner journey Michael Hague sees as moving from being defined by others to being defined by oneself.
I often find myself watching films or reading books (and Messrs Hague and Vogler can help with both) and seeing whether their advice applies. Recently I saw ‘The Hunger Games,’ just out here in the UK. Those reading this in the States will probably have seen it some time ago. It’s an enjoyable yarn and well worth the price of admission. Playing my new game of seeing whether the story consultants’ advice applies, I see that one of the reasons the book and the film are so successful is that they do indeed pass the Hague/Vogler test.
Let’s examine this in more detail. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, heroine Catniss Everdene (hey, it’s science fiction folks so they have to have weird names) is definitely on a quest. Catniss lives in a dystopian world in the future where she is chosen to fight for her life against other contestants in a survival game. This fight to the death is played out across wild terrain and televised for the delectation of others. So Catniss definitely has an outer goal: to win the game and save her life. She also has an inner goal. Propelled to fame she is bound to be defined by others. However, being a resourceful and feisty heroine, she sets out to define herself. One scene where she is required to demonstrate her archery skills illustrates this perfectly. The rich sponsors she must impress are too busy eating, drinking and chatting to pay much attention. So, with her expert archery, she shoots her arrow into their midst, deftly spearing an apple. She forces them to notice the girl from the backwoods.
Hague and Vogler are clear on the importance of character in a book. Any fiction writer should also be convinced of this. Whether you are writing romance such as in another hugely successful film, ‘Titanic’, or crime as in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ character is nine tenths of success. It is easy to see why we root for Rose, the Titanic character played by Kate Winslet. She’s young, beautiful and about to be forced into marriage with a hateful man to fulfill the wishes of her family. But, in ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ why should we root for the cold, dysfunctional Lisbeth? Here we can look at Hague/Vogler’s recipe for coming up with a compelling central character. Their thesis is that the viewer or reader has to identify with the hero/heroine – becoming that character. One of the ways to do this is to make the character sympathetic. Steig Larsson makes us sympathetic to Lisbeth because she is such a loner. What’s more, there are very good reasons for that, which are unpeeled like the layers of an onion as the story develops. Her mother is in an institution due to the cruelty of her father and Lisbeth is at the mercy of a thoroughly unpleasant state-appointed guardian. By putting her in jeopardy, the author ensures we care about her.
The same applies to Catniss Everdene. The moment she is in danger, we care. This is partly because in the very early scenes in the film, we see Catniss shielding and nurturing her younger sister. We know she’s the sort of person we would want on our side. Lisbeth is a different heroine altogether. She doesn’t fit in, has no family and apparently no softness to her. She wears gothic black clothes, is a tech geek, and refuses to be bullied. However, we still find her fascinating. This is because Hague/Vogler tell us you can make a character someone we root for is because they are an expert. If they are good at their job, we have a sneaking respect for them. Lisbeth is an IT expert, she knows things. Similarly Catniss is a pretty mean shot with a bow and arrow. Like a young goddess Diana the huntress, she feeds herself and her family – if we were hungry we’d want her on our side.
Aside from being a sci-fi adventure, ‘The Hunger Games’ is primarily a romance. All romances need a hero and Catniss’s love interest is Peeta Mellark. Although a less prominent character, Peeta displays another characteristic which Hague/Vogler cite as being a winning one – he is likeable. As Hague/Vogler point out, Tom Hanks has built a career on such characters.
So, to conclude:
• Goals - Give your central characters an external and an internal goal to sustain them throughout your story
• Characterisation – make your central characters people we can root for – put them in jeopardy. Make them people we would want to be on our side, make them experts. They may only be experts in chopping wood or using a bow and arrow, but make them the best at what they do and they will be intriguing. Or make them likeable, people we’d be happy to be stuck in a lift with and you have a hero people will root for.
These are just a few ways you can create characters and a story which pull the reader in and which sustain your plot to provide a satisfying read. Next time you see a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s fun to see how often they conform to these simple guidelines.
Kitti Bernetti has published dozens of short stories and novellas in a variety of genres of erotica including sci-fi, historical, crime and contemporary. Her latest, ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ is in the unique Secret Library range from Xcite. This range has discreet velvet covers hiding tales of feisty heroines, alpha males and strong romance. They are also available as e-books. She also publishes romance novellas and short stories under a different pen name. She can be reached through her website.