What Can We Learn About Character Arc and Pacing from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY II? (Spoiler free)

Photo courtesy of Marvel.com

Months ago, my fourteen-year-old son saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy II, and insisted we see it in the theater. We all liked the original movie and the trailer looked good, so on a cloudy, not-too-promising Saturday morning, we planned it as a family outing. By the time we arrived at the theater, my son, my daughter and I were still excited, but my husband looked up at the now-clear sky and said, “If I’d known, I’d have planned a hike.” This was prescient of further differences of opinion.

The movie started out strong, with well-loved characters fighting off an enormous and seemingly invincible alien. The plot moved swiftly, with all the dashing, diving and blasting you’d expect from a science fiction blockbuster. And then, after the first plot point in the story structure was hit, things slowed down for character development. This slowdown was the source of the diverging opinions.

The first movie in franchise, fans among you know, had five beloved characters: Peter, an adventurer who lost his mother to cancer when he was young and has never known his father, Gamora, raised to be the perfect weapon by the antagonist of the first movie, Drax, who lost his entire family to that antagonist, Rocket, a genetically engineered racoon who has never known any more family than Groot, the sentient tree who is his constant companion. To these characters, GOTG II adds Gamora’s sister, Nebula, and Yondu, bandit and father-figure to Peter.

If you are not a GOTG fan, you may have found yourself skimming through that long list of characters, so imagine what happens when the script writers slow down the sci fi special effects and bad-guy bashing to explore the wounds of each of these characters. All seven. In most cases, the characters are paired off so that their wounds could be explored in duos as opposed to seven separate scenes. Still, by the second of these scenes, I leaned over to my husband to whisper, “and now we will pause for character development so that at the end of the movie, we’re satisfied everyone’s issue has been resolved.”

One interesting question is, was this the wrong thing to do? The story structure in the movie was right on target. These scenes highlighting the characters’ wounds and the ones later where they were seen to struggle with the wounds are right out of a lesson on how to build a character arc. They were “correct,” and if we fast forward to the end of the movie, my fourteen-year-old son said the movie was awesome and that he shed a tear at the climax. (If you have a fourteen-year-old son, you know this is some serious praise!) My daughter loved the movie. I thought it was good, though I’d say the character development slowed the movie down too much and was a bit too “on the nose.” My husband thought the movie was lousy. On IMDB, the rating for GOTG II was 8.1, quite high, and tied with the rating of the first movie in the series.

So what lessons should we, as storytellers, should draw from Guardians of the Galaxy II?

Well, as you can see from my title, I left this as a question and welcome discussion in the comments below. I’ll probably rewatch after the movie is out on DVD and think about it some more. But one take-away is that opinions will differ. One person’s response to a movie, like a manuscript sent to an agent or editor, is subjective. My son, daughter and I love these characters, so it would have taken worse script-writing or direction for us to dislike the movie. My husband, on the other hand, was much more swayed by the folly of being in a dark theater on a perfect Spring day.

My second take-away is that character development and character arcs are harder to do well when you have seven characters you’re trying to get an audience to care about. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it makes the job of the screenwriters and director much more difficult. This could be a warning about making your story-telling job harder with multiple point-of-view characters.

My third take-away is for my own writing. I’m in the final stage of revisions for a science fiction action story, luckily one with only two main characters. I’ve gotten feedback on a couple scenes that the flashbacks are too long and not connected to the main story. I keep saying, “but that’s the source of my main character’s wound” and trimming the offending scenes a little. So for me, this movie was really timely – the chance to see ponderous character development from the audience’s point of view. I’m going to be taking another close look at those flashbacks.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts on the character development in Guardians of the Galaxy II!  It might be fun to compare GOTG II to the character development in another blockbuster action film, Suicide Squad. Let me know what you think in the comments!

And if you ‘re interested in other Winged Pen posts on recent movies, check out Michelle Leonard’s thoughts on Everything, Everything!

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Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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MYC: A Reformed Pantser’s Guide to Character Development

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on character development with a post on supporting characters. This week, I’ll share tips on fleshing out characters using my three favorite craft books.

A lot of writers start out writing by the seat of their pants (i.e. jumping in to drafting with no prior pre-writing/planning/outlining). After the painful process of seeing just how big of a dumpster fire my first drafts are when I don’t do any pre-writing, I moved toward the planning end of the spectrum and I called in the experts (in the form of craft books).

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I like to pre-write in a way that leaves my creativity room to change course and explore as I draft. So I spend the bulk of my pre-writing time working on character development. Because once that character starts talking to me, I know I can rely on her to tell me what needs to happen next in the story. Getting that character talking can be a challenge though. Here’s what I do…

I will admit up-front that I write character-driven stories, so you’re not going to get a lot of plot talk here. My what-if dreaming sometimes has a plot element to it, but it’s usually character-focused. Even if I start with a concept that is plot-based (for example, my work in progress right now started out as Goonies meets Hoot), the first thing I do is start thinking about who my main character is, what her interests are, how she interacts with her family and friends, and what’s going to make her the best heroine for this particular story. In this case, I knew I wanted the hero of the adventure to be a girl (don’t get me started on the problematic aspects of the girls in Goonies, that’s another blog post entirely), and not just any girl, but a tomboy who wanted, more than anything, to be an engineer so she could develop medical devices to help disabled people like her father.

At this stage I often make lists of hobbies, favorite books, what type of clothes she typically wears, what she loves, what she hates, what she’s most afraid of. I think about tropes and stereotypes and how I can turn them on their head here as I create this new person. This is where I do all the dreaming before I get down to the hard work of putting flesh and bone and soul into the character.

That hard work begins with Lisa Cron’s amazing Story Genius method. It focuses on what she calls the “Third Rail” or the combination of the character’s desire and the misbelief that keeps the character from achieving that desire. The book, and the Author Accelerator course that is based on it, takes you through the process of identifying that third rail and the pieces of the character’s backstory that led to the formation of the desire/misbelief combo. I also develop a third rail for my antagonist and any important secondary characters. [full disclosure: I work for Author Accelerator and help coach writers through Lisa’s Story Genius method, but I have also used it for my past two manuscripts. I promise, it works.]

Once I have an idea of what the character wants and what’s standing in her way, next I go back to my story structure favorite, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. My favorite thing about this book is that it ties a four-part character arc – Orphan/Wanderer/Hero/Martyr – to the four-act structure of a typical plot (click for more information on story structure). I use broad strokes to identify the main character’s mindset during each of these four acts, so that I have a very high-level view of the character arc.

All POV characters need an arc. Even if you’re writing the plottiest of plotty thrillers. I promise. A few supporting characters should have minor arcs to make the story emotionally satisfying as well. Extras (minor characters that would normally inhabit the main character’s world but who aren’t instrumental to moving the plot forward) don’t necessarily need arcs or they should be very minimal.

The next part is fun, especially if you enjoy torturing your characters. Because I then take my new character through Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. My biggest take-away from it is the idea of complicating the character’s desires and obstacles to inject more tension into the story. Coming up with ways to complicate/deepen the character is usually what helps me figure out what needs to happen in the major plot points.

So that sends me back to Story Engineering. I fill out a beat sheet with the major plot points and then I’m ready to move on next week’s topic, writing a long-form synopsis for brainstorming on plot and character. See you then!

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

MYC: Developing Supporting Characters

Master Your Craft

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll  discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we covered Developing Main Characters. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Supporting Characters.

The Supporting Characters’ Job

The purpose of a supporting character is to add depth to the protagonist by helping the reader understand how the main character interacts with others and reacts to situations. Also, supporting characters help move the plot forward.

What types of supporting characters do you need for your story? Well, that really depends on the goal that your main character must achieve.

Types of Supporting Characters

The Villian/Antagonist: Every story needs one! Often, the antagonist is a person (but it can be a disaster, technology, society, or even a main character) who fuels the conflict that the main character must solve to achieve her/his goal.

The Love Interest: This character adds tension and may be directly involved in the conflict. It also can serve some of the same functions as the antagonist and the BFF.

The Mentor: This character encourages the main character to develop the skills she/he needs to achieve her/his goal.

The BFF/Sidekick: This character may be needed to help the main character achieve her/his goal or may be around to help us understand the main character and her/his motivations.

Extras: Characters who would normally inhabit the main character’s world or who are needed to complete scenes. You may need many of these or none depending on your story.

Examples of Extras:

1) A child main character would normally have parents/a guardian.

2) In a classroom setting, there would normally be a teacher.

3) In a fight scene, there would normally be many fighters.

Often, these EXTRA characters only need minimal development and a minimal/no arc. But the other characters in your story need much development!

Next Step

After you’ve chosen what types of characters you need, you’ll need to interview the most important ones (the ones who must move the plot forward) using a process like the one in our previous post about Building Main Characters.

It’s often useful for your secondary characters have strengths related to your main character’s flaw.

Examples:

1) Your main character may have a supportive family that they don’t appreciate. A supporting character who comes from a broken home can help the main character see the error in her/his thinking.

2) Your main character may be very popular, but has superficial friendships. A supporting character who is more introverted, but a true friend, can help the main character understand what’s missing in her/his life.

I highly recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus for fleshing out the relationships between characters. The front matter in both thesauri is extremely helpful for developing good characters that work together to make the story come alive.

 

Tips for creating good supporting characters:

  • Give each supporting character a defining characteristic. (Appearance, skill, quirk)
  • Make sure their voice is distinctive from other characters.
  • Don’t give characters similar names and avoid names starting with the same letter.
  • Main supporting characters should be layered and detailed, but do not take too much attention away from your main character.
  • Focus your writing about supporting characters on how their actions, traits, and what role she/he plays helps or hinders the main character from achieving her/his goal.
  • Limit your characters to those who are necessary to move the story forward.
  • Please give careful consideration to race/skin color when you write supporting characters. Stories with white main characters and darker-skinned support characters who do all the work (or even worse who are villians/bad guys) are not representative of the real world. Please consider every reader who might read your story and avoid stereotypes. (More on this in the post on Building a Main Character.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss using this character development to start working out plot!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Write Believable Heroes, Villains, and Emotions with The Positive/Negative Trait Thesauri and The Emotion Thesaurus

9781475004953RebeccaThe Emotion Thesaurus has had its own special place on my writing desk for so long, I had to look on Goodreads to see when I’d first read it. January 1, 2014. I’ve been using it for a while.

When I first started using the book, it opened my eyes to conveying emotions through actions. Well, okay, I used the easy ones all the time. The shrugs, nods and raised eyebrows. But the thesaurus helped me think about a more diverse range of actions humans use to convey emotion, and more subtle ones. I mean, you can only have characters’ brows furrow so many times in one story, right?

As I continued my writing journey, I started making notes on the pages. The thesaurus isn’t exhaustive; it only lists as many expressions as can fit on one page for each emotion. It also focuses on adult, mainstream characters. Where are the fist bumps for my middle graders? The face palms? I created my own mini-Emotion Thesaurus with the frequently used quirks of for my characters. I did this partly for character consistency throughout a story, but also to make sure that different characters’ expressions are distinct enough. I don’t want all my tweens biting their lip every time they get nervous.

Even with my personal Emotion Thesaurus, I still turn back to the original. When I’m stuck on how a character might convey their emotions in a scene, I like to push back from the keyboard for a second and visualize the action like a movie. What feels like the natural expression? When doing this, a scan through the appropriate page in The Emotion Thesaurus starts the ideas flowing.

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Laurel: When coming up with a new story, writers can use The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus as:

  1. Paint chips. To “shop” for character flaws and strengths. Sometimes I have a feeling about what’s going wrong for a potential character, but I can’t quite figure out what flaw or strength it is. When I read through the table of contents in either of these thesauri, my characters can try on a trait for size. My imagination doesn’t always call these traits by the same names so having a list helps me tease out what kind of character I’m writing about. Without the thesauri, you have to hold two things in your mind at once: what your character is like and what possibilities there are. I love tools that free up my imagination.
  2. A Story Trap. The Reverse Backstory Tool in the appendix of The Negative Trait Thesaurus is the perfect trap to catch the core of your story on the page. Take ten minutes to try it out and see what I mean. (Download it here.) For more, see my blog post here.
  3. A Ratchet For Conflict. The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus include a section for each trait called: “Traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict.” Let that sink in for a moment.

The Winged Pen is sending high-fives and a big “Thanks!” to Angela and Becca for these great resources. I’m sure you can imagine why we’re excited about the new tools coming out this week, The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Find out more about them here.

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. Unlike many writers, Rebecca did not write her first story at age eight…at least not fiction. She was the editor of her high school yearbook and wrote for her college newspaper. But her first fiction course scared the bejeezus out of her! Having overcome her fear of fiction, Rebecca loves see how much trouble she can get her characters into, and sometimes back out of. You can find her blog here. She’s also on Twitter.

IMG_4373HighResHeadshotLDLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for a nonexistent sense of direction, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. When she’s not lost, she can be found on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

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