A few weeks ago, I provided some tips on how to create and develop the role of storyworld characters. As writers, characters deserve our full attention as they are the active agents that drive a story’s plot forward. They can function as either a ‘character- focalizer’ (a narrative participant) or as a ‘narrator-focalizer’ (an outside observer who knows everything about the characters) (Culler 1997, p. 90).
Whatever their role, characters give us a front row seat for all the action. If we are reading a short story or novel, the characters provide us with an intimate view into their thoughts and feelings via their ‘streams of consciousness’.
We have also learned some of the basic techniques for creating the storyworld’s most important characters – the hero and the villain. This week we will be exploring secondary characters and their narrative function. And I will deliver some tips on how to create a dynamic character profile for a False Hero.
The function of secondary characters.
As we ready know, stories are usually centered around the hero, so the secondary characters function as an extension of the hero’s universe. The villain opposes the hero. The secondary characters provide help for the hero. But not always! If you are writing a comedy screenplay, chances are you might have a bumbling chaos-causing side-kick character who causes more problems for the hero than helping him.
In filmmaking, the sidekick can sometimes be turned into a worthy helpmate towards the end of the film. So this kind of character is well worth considering. Can you think of any books or films with this kind of character profile?
All of these rules about writing and story-world character creation may come across as being rigid and not allowing room for unbridled creativity. You may be thinking – creativity is all about letting your mind run wild and free, isn’t? Why can’t I just sit at my notepad, computer, or iPad and just for go for it?
Yes, absolutely you can do all these things! But the writing mantra has always been – once you know the literary rules that govern the story-world, then you can be brave and break them! An example of breaking the rules would be to turn the hero’s helper into a character who causes more trouble for the hero. Remember the bumbling, chaos-causing side-kicks in Seinfeld – George or Kramer.
I believe that if you learn these basic rules, then you are on your way to becoming a better writer. I also encourage you to explore the world of narratology as much as possible. Especially if you want to take your writing to the professional level. Learn from the experts such as: Robert McKee, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell…
And become a reader too. Reading will expand your imagination, teach you about the beauty of language – and help you grow as a writer. My purpose at Creative is to help you develop as a storyteller. I am on a creative journey too and there is always something new to learn.
So let us start exploring our secondary characters a little more.
Seven archetypal characters.
In a previous blog, I mentioned that the story-world consists of seven archetypal characters as outlined by the Russian folklorist, Vladimir Propp. Here are Propp’s conclusions:
1. Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale.
2. The number of functions known to the fairy-tale is limited.
3. The sequence of functions is always identical.
4. All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure. *
* (Propp in Turner 1988, p. 69)
It is also important to remember that for modern-day storytellers these character types continue to remain stable and constant regardless of the setting or time period. But not all of these characters will be present in a narrative. And although all of these archetypal characters have distinctive functions, some of these roles can be played by more than one character such as the False Hero.
Here are the seven archetypes as identified by Propp:
The false hero
The donor (or provider)
The princess (or sought after person) (sometimes accompanied by her father)
The dispatcher (the person who sends the hero on his journey)
As we have already directed the spotlight onto our primary story characters, the Hero and the Villain, they can just hang out in the ‘green room’ for now.
Here are the archetypes we will be concentrating on over the next couple of weeks:
1. The donor
2. The helper
3. The princess (the sought after person)
4. The dispatcher – the person who sends the hero on his journey.
5. The false hero.
You have probably noticed that I have been using the mediums of filmmaking and television to predominately draw my story examples from. Of course, there are many great examples in literature, but I think both filmmaking and television have a greater potential for a global story saturation. And most of us are familiar with film and television references.
So now I am going to use the Star Wars saga to flesh out these characters in a modern setting.
The hero – Luke Skywalker
The false hero – Darth Vader
The donor – Obiwan Kenobi
The helper – Han Solo
The princess – Princess Leia
The dispatcher – R2D2
The villain – Darth Vader
This week I have chosen ‘The false hero’ for our secondary character profile.
From the Star Wars franchise, we have seen the development of the Darth Vader character, from the conflicted and misguided ‘false hero’ Anakin Skywalker, to his evolution as the villain. As a little boy, he was innocent and sweet and had a tragic life, and we felt for him, and we looked forward to his bright future as a light saber extraordinaire – the Jedi Knight. But alas, we were very much mistaken, or at least some of us tried to be shocked and dismayed at Anakin’s descent into darkness – after the considerable gap between the films. But Anakin was the false hero and it was his son, Luke, who would be the real hero. What is your view here? Do you think it is possible to have two heroes?
Another example of a false hero is the well known classic story that has also made a billion dollar crossover to a film franchise – The Lord of the Rings. Who is the false hero in this narrative? You may not agree, but I reckon it is Gollum. Before he became the wretched and ring-obsessed pathetic creature, Gollum, he was just a normal hobbit who had discovered a magic ring, not dissimilar to Bilbo and Frodo. But once the ring had consumed him with evil, he became a false hero, and in some ways a villain as well. Of course, he could have been the hero of the story, like Frodo, but his choice relegated him to the role of the false hero.
Just like the real hero, the false hero will have a journey to take and a choice to make. But he will falter in his journey, therefore allowing the real hero to step up.
Sometimes the false hero is used as a ‘red herring’ or as a clever narrative device to misguide the reader or viewer and to keep them guessing.
So we can see from this brief character portrait that although these character functions “serve as stable, constant elements in a tale” (Propp in Turner 1988, p. 60), some of these fictional characters can develop a dual/split personality, so to speak. For information on Propp’s archetypal characters see Graeme Turner: Film as Social Practice – available on Amazon Books.
Next Week: We are going to talk about the role of the ‘princess’ or love interest. This will be an interesting character to explore as the ‘princess’ in traditional storytelling, especially in the fairy tale, has been presented as a passive observer of the action, and more often than not – the passive receiver of the action. But this role has changed. Many thanks to Sigourney Weaver from Aliens, and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.
Culler, Jonathan 1997, Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford. New York: Oxford University Press.
Turner, Graeme 1988 ‘Film Narrative’, Film as Social Practice, Routledge, London.