Our guest today is Jeanne Cavelos, creator of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization devoted to helping developing writers of fantastic fiction improve their work.
A writer, editor, scientist, and teacher, Jeanne began her professional life as an astrophysicist, working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, but her love of love of science fiction led her to earn her MFA in creative writing. She moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she created and launched the Abyss imprint of innovative horror and the Cutting Edge imprint of noir literary fiction. She also ran the science fiction/fantasy publishing program and edited a wide range of fiction and nonfiction; in her eight years in New York publishing, she edited numerous award-winning and best-selling authors and gained a reputation for discovering and nurturing new writers. Jeanne won the World Fantasy Award for her editing.
She left New York to find a balance that would allow her to do her own writing and work in a more in-depth way with writers. She has had seven books published; her last novel Invoking Darkness, the third volume in her best-selling trilogy The Passing Of The Techno-Mages (Del Rey), set in the Babylon 5 universe. The Sci-Fi Channel called the trilogy “A revelation for Babylon 5 fans. . . . Not ‘television episodic’ in look and feel. They are truly novels in their own right.” Her book The Science Of Star Wars (St. Martin’s) was chosen by the New York Public Library for its recommended reading list. The Science Of The X-Files (Berkley) was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. Jeanne has published short fiction and nonfiction in magazines and anthologies, and she is currently writing a near-future science thriller about genetic manipulation, titled Fatal Spiral.
Jeanne loves working with developing writers, which led her to create the Odyssey Writing Workshop, the only major workshop of its kind run by an editor. Jeanne designed the workshop to combine an advanced curriculum that allows writers to improve their craft with detailed, in-depth feedback on their work. In 2010, she launched Odyssey Online Classes; Jeanne oversees the courses offered and teaches one online course per year. She is also an English lecturer at Saint Anselm College where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing.
Of her post today, Jeanne says, “I am constantly trying to learn more about writing, both to improve my own work and to make myself a better teacher and mentor to other writers. I was very excited last spring when I came across the writing book mentioned in my article. The more I think about the character types discussed in the book, the more insights I have about how these types can be used to strengthen stories. I haven’t seen these ideas about how to link plot, character, and emotion discussed anywhere before, so I thought they might be helpful to your readers.”
Tying Character Types to Plot, Suspense, and Emotion
Create a protagonist. Add an antagonist. Toss in a sidekick or minion, or if you’re writing a novel, perhaps a whole array of characters. But then what do you do with them? How do you incorporate each character into the story so he has a powerful impact on plot, raises intense suspense, and generates strong emotions?
One very useful tool to help you maximize the impact of each character on the story is to consider each character’s type. The book The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories by Will Dunne introduces different character types, such as the close powerful ally, the close weak ally, the distant powerful ally, the distant weak ally, the close powerful adversary, the distant powerful adversary, the close weak adversary, and the distant weak adversary. While Dunne identifies other fascinating types, we’ll focus on these in this article.
At first, these categories may seem fairly obvious. But as I thought about them, I realized how much power they could bring to a story if one considers what type of character would best serve the story at a particular point. For example, if your protagonist starts out weak, like Harry Potter, then a close powerful adversary should quickly destroy him, if your story is to be believable. Instead, Harry needs a close weak adversary that he has at least a chance of beating, such as Draco Malfoy, so we feel suspense and concern. If Harry has nearby allies, then they should be close weak allies. If they are strong, they’d just end up saving him over and over, which would minimize suspense and leave Harry with nothing to do, making him a very weak protagonist we don’t care much about. Harry might also have distant powerful allies, such as Sirius Black, who’d like to help him but aren’t available to do so. Such characters can create great suspense as the protagonist struggles to reach the distant ally–can he reach help in time?—or the ally tries to reach him.
That last example reveals the power of changing one or both of the key variables we’re discussing here: distance and level of power. The powerful ally can become weak. The nearby ally can be taken to a distant place or killed. The powerful, distant adversary can approach. The weak adversary can grow stronger. In the Harry Potter books, Voldemort grows closer and more powerful over the series, increasing suspense and raising the stakes of the plot. In the Star Trek (original series) episode “The Deadly Years,” Kirk and his powerful allies Spock and McCoy all undergo premature, rapid aging, making them all grow weaker and weaker as Romulan adversaries approach, making us more and more concerned. You can even think of some objects as characters. The U.S.S. Enterprise is Kirk’s most powerful ally. In fact, it is so powerful, writers found they often had to send the ship halfway across the galaxy so Kirk, left on the planet, could be in jeopardy. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise is crippled by Khan, not only reducing Kirk’s chance of success as this powerful ally becomes weak, but preventing Kirk from warping away from trouble, trapping the protagonist and antagonist in close contact. All of these changes can carry great suspense and emotion.[pullquote]The most powerful moments in a story can occur with changes in the third variable, when an ally becomes an adversary, or an adversary becomes an ally.[/pullquote]
The most powerful moments in a story can occur with changes in the third variable, when an ally becomes an adversary, or an adversary becomes an ally. A very emotional moment in Braveheart occurs when the protagonist, William Wallace, discovers the ally he believed would be the savior of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, has become an adversary and betrayed him and Scotland. In Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader turns from adversary to ally, killing the emperor and sacrificing himself to save Luke Skywalker. The recent film The Imitation Game creates a great, uplifting moment when protagonist Alan Turing’s subordinates, who have all been his adversaries, turn to allies and commit to quitting their jobs if Alan is fired. When done well, such developments create exciting turning points in the plot and pack a strong emotional punch.
So if you find yourself uncertain about how to make the most of a particular character in your story, consider what type he is and whether changes in any of the three variables might help create a stronger plot, greater suspense, and more intense emotion. A dynamic, engaging story involves more than an interesting cast of characters; it involves characters who serve the needs of the story and who change in ways that significantly alter the plot’s possibilities and threats. Such changes make us thrill at Luke Skywalker’s breakthrough in power as he fires the critical shot to destroy the Death Star; they make us despair in A Game of Thrones at Ned Stark’s loss of power when he resigns his post as Hand of the King and again when the king dies. And such changes can lead us to breathlessly turn the pages as your protagonist races to reach those distant allies before the increasing threat overtakes her.
What are ways that you create characters that have a powerful impact on plot, raise intense suspense, and generate strong emotions?