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character-woundThe hero in every story must face many obstacles before reaching his ultimate goal. Maybe a prince wants to save a princess from a fire-breathing dragon. Saving the princess is the external conflict. Once the external conflict is resolved, the story is over.

In the best stories, the obstacle within the hero (internal conflict) is the one he finds most difficult to face. The internal conflict has to do with the character’s belief system, which keeps him from reaching his external goal. Typically, the protagonist is tormented by a wound from his past, and this wound is something that happens before the story begins.  The protagonist usually doesn’t realize this wound is influencing his behavior. Maybe a prince watched his family burn in a fire when he was a child, but he needs to overcome his fear of fire to defeat the fire-breathing dragon and save the princess.

Using a Prologue to Introduce the Wound

Writers may wonder the best way to introduce a character’s wound. One way (not the best) to introduce a character’s wound is with a prologue. In the movie Twister, Helen Hunt plays the role of Dr. Jo Harding, who is a storm chaser. The movie begins with Harding watching her father being swept away by a tornado when she was a child. However, most movies don’t use a prologue to show a character’s wound. The wound is part of the character’s backstory. I often advise writers not to use a prologue to introduce a character’s wound. While a prologue is a convenient way for the writer to inform readers about a character’s past, most of the time, a prologue is not the best way to elicit an emotional response from a reader or viewer.

If I happen to watch or read a news report about a bus hitting someone I don’t know, it doesn’t matter in the same way that it would if that news report was about a bus hitting a neighbor or a friend. That’s why many writers opt to introduce a character and get the reader to care about that character before showing his wound. I recently critiqued a manuscript that began with a prologue wherein a child was struggling to save himself after a canoe overturned and his parents drowned. Of course, the child turned out to be the hero in the story. While I was reading the prologue, I kept thinking how much more effective the story could be if the writer would wait and add the backstory later. Sure, it’s always sad when a child is involved in a boating accident. However, it’s always easier to feel the pain of someone you know. It’s hard for writers to keep important information about their main characters to themselves, but nevertheless, wise writers play a waiting game before they skillfully let the story thunder rumble. They weave in the pieces of backstory in small bits. Imagine if the movie Silence of the Lambs had begun with a prologue showing what had happened to Clarice Starling as a child. It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective or exciting as Hannibal Lecter coaxing the information out of her.

Using a Flashback to Introduce the Wound

Flashbacks are another method writers sometimes choose to introduce a character’s wound. Story guru Michael Hauge admits in an interview with Film Courage that he’s “not really fond of flashbacks as a rule, especially to reveal wounds.” One movie that Hauge feels is an exception is Hitch. He explains:

But in that movie, it works I think because it’s such a funny flashback as well as touching, and it establishes such an important quality for the character of Hitch. Because we see when he was in college, he had his heart broken and that’s when he acquired the belief that if I fall in love with anybody, it’s going to lead to a broken heart. Which leads to his identity, his I’ll help everyone else fall in love but I don’t do that; that’s not for me.

Screenwriters and novelists pay Michael Hauge lots of money (hundreds of dollars an hour) for his advice, and I have no doubt that it’s worth every penny. The man knows how to tell a story. I would advise any writer to seek out his books, interviews, workshops, and blog posts. Hauge is clear in his assertion that in most cases, the writer does not want to announce a character’s wound at the beginning. There are always exceptions, but it’s more common not to reveal the wound until well into the story. Hauge notes that the movie Good Will Hunting is half over before the viewer learns about the abuse Will suffered as a child.

Using Dialogue to Introduce the Wound

So, how does a good writer reveal a character’s wound? Michael Hauge offers writers this advice in the interview with Film Courage:

One of the most effective ways to reveal the wound is through dialogue. It’s oftentimes more powerful to hear about a wound that a character suffered than to watch it on a screen.

In the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, the viewer learns that Christian Grey was horribly abused as a child when he confesses his past to Anastasia during an intimate moment, well into the movie. It would’ve been a nauseating experience for movie viewers to have to watch a child being abused onscreen. It’s a much more moving experience for the viewer to piece things together as information is slowly revealed through dialogue. Writers are often told to show rather than tell, and this is good advice much of the time. However, readers and viewers of most types of fiction take no joy out of reading about or watching children suffer. However, it’s always satisfying when, in an emotional moment, a character confides in another character about his past.

Let the Reader Make Inferences About the Wound

In some stories, the wound is never clearly stated. After all, it’s most important for the writer to know what the character’s wound is. The writer has to know the backstory for the hero well enough to understand what wounded him in the past that made him the way he is in the present. Although it may be tempting to use prologues and flashbacks to introduce character wounds,  it’s almost always better to wait and introduce the wound through dialogue.

What do you think? Feel free to let me know in the comments below. Comments are moderated in order to maintain the spam-free,  family atmosphere.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne


QUESTION: Why are writers told not to use mirrors to provide character descriptions?

ANSWER: Many writers use mirrors as a way to sneak character description into their stories with minimal effort. Seasoned writers avoid this method, because it’s considered lazy writing. In fact, the use of mirrors as a way to provide the description of a character has been done so often that it’s considered a cliché.

How to Describe the Viewpoint Character

The reason writers tend to use mirrors (or reflections) is that the protagonist is often the viewpoint character. Writers don’t want to commit point-of-view errors, and mirrors are a convenient way to allow the viewpoint character to see and describe herself. Fortunately, there are ways to provide character descriptions without resorting to mirrors. One method is to use other characters to give a description through dialogue. Another method is to have the viewpoint character look at another character and compare that character’s physical appearance or clothing to her own. It’s also possible to drop subtle hints. For example, if the character is a petite cheerleader named Joan, one could write something like:

Joan didn’t get along with Molly, the head cheerleader, but Molly needed her for the top of the pyramid.

Then readers will have a reasonable idea about Joan’s size.

Breaking the Rule

Most of the time, it’s best to come up with a way to describe a character without using reflections or mirrors. Of course, there are successful authors who break this rule. The Moonlit Garden, by Corinna Bomann (translated by Alison Layland), begins with a character looking into a mirror. The opening line is simple: “Helen Carter gazed in bewilderment at her reflection in the mirror.” A description of the character’s cheeks, eyes, and makeup ensues. At the time of this writing, this book has 3,279 reviews on that average four stars. The book also begins with a prologue, but that’s a topic for another day.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

small-protagonist-wantedIn well-written commercial fiction, the hero (protagonist) needs to have both a goal and obstacles. The goal needs to be unambiguous, meaning that all readers will know when he’s achieved that particular goal. For example, suppose the hero is a skater. It wouldn’t be a specific enough goal for him to simply want to become a great skater, because opinions about what constitutes a great skater may differ. On the other hand, if he wants to win an Olympic gold medal at the upcoming Winter Olympics, that’s a tangible goal that readers can envision.

Reader Emotions Spring From Conflict

A story wouldn’t be too interesting if the protagonist achieved his goal without any roadblocks along the way. The emotions a reader experiences spring from conflict. A writer’s job is to create obstacles for the hero that get progressively bigger and closer together as the plot unfolds. The more overwhelming the obstacles seem, the more the reader will become emotionally invested in the story.

Link Obstacles to the Hero’s Desire

One mistake beginning writers make is creating random obstacles for the hero. The obstacles should relate to the hero’s desire. For example, if the protagonist loses his car keys on the way to the grocery store, this wouldn’t interfere with his ability to win an Olympic gold medal. However, if he suffers some sort of injury that prevents him from practicing, this could adversely affect his chances of winning a gold medal. Use obstacles that have something to do with the hero’s specific goal to keep the plot from meandering.

Give the Hero Plenty of Obstacles

Some writers may wonder how many story obstacles are required.  Hint: it’s probably more than most people would expect. Consider The Cutting Edge,  the first screenplay written by Tony Gilroy, who also wrote all the films in the Jason Bourne series. The film is about a skater, Doug Dorsey, who can no longer play ice hockey due to an eye injury at the Olympics in Calgary (1988). He accepts a challenge to train as a pairs  figure skater with Kate Moseley, a prima donna skater with a reputation for being difficult. If Doug can help Kate get a gold medal in the Winter Olympics (1992), her wealthy father agrees to pay him handsomely. There are many obstacles that lead to the climax of the film. In the end, Doug gets the girl and the gold, but he works hard for the victory.

Examples of Obstacles in The Cutting Edge

Watch The Cutting Edge (Ebert’s synopsis here), and try to identify the obstacles. Notice how they get bigger and closer together toward the end. Here’s a list:

  1. When Doug meets Kate, their personalities seem mismatched. She’s a pampered princess with her own skating rink. Doug comes from a modest background. She’s sheltered, and he’s experienced with women. He’s enthusiastic and friendly, and she finds fault with everything he does.
  2. Doug is a great skater, but he knows nothing about figure skating/toe picks and must study ballet to develop the gracefulness needed for the sport.
  3. Doug challenges Kate to play ice hockey with him, and she hits the puck into his face, requiring a trip to the ER.
  4. Doug gives Kate his prized possession (Bobby Hull sweater) for Christmas (a sign of his growing feelings for her), but she doesn’t understand its importance.
  5. Kate has a boyfriend (Hale, with an MBA from Harvard). Doug meets him at a New Year’s Eve party, and they spar.
  6. Kate and Doug have an awkward almost-kiss moment at midnight at the party.
  7. Before the Nationals, Hale proposes to Kate and she accepts, but she tries to get him to delay making an announcement about it, knowing the news will hurt Doug. Hale refuses.
  8. Doug claims her large engagement ring cuts into him, and he asks her not to wear it when they practice.
  9. Doug goes home to visit family, and his practical brother tells him that he’ll never make it as a figure skater. His brother warns that he’ll end up wearing a Snoopy costume at the ice capades.
  10. Doug doesn’t want to wear the frilly costume Kate picks out for the Nationals, and he wants to use modern music she doesn’t like.
  11. Kate breaks up with Hale at the Nationals, but Doug is nervous before the short program and starts throwing up. They end up in third place after the short program, surprising everyone, but only two pairs get to go to the Olympics.
  12. Doug gives Kate flowers after the short program. He compares waiting to skate in the long program to foreplay, and she tells him she needs sleep.
  13. They skate beautifully in the long program but score lower than Kate’s old skating partner, Brian, and his new partner, Lorie. The judges are tough, and it looks like Kate and Doug will end up in third place (the “all is lost” moment). An error by another pair puts them into the top two pairs (which means they go to the Olympics).
  14. Kate and Doug celebrate. She doesn’t normally drink but decides to do shots with him and gets drunk. When he takes her to her room and she tries to seduce him, he angers her when he doesn’t respond to her sexual advances. She throws him out of her room.
  15. Doug is drunk, and Lorie Peckarovski (Brian’s partner), goes to his room and seduces him. Kate knocks on his door in the morning to apologize, and Lorie answers the door in a towel.
  16. Kate seems less interested in preparing for the Olympics. Their coach, Anton Pamchenko, gives them a new move to work on that’s very difficult and dangerous to perform, but he thinks they need to use the move to beat a tough Russian pair expected to be at the Olympics.
  17. Kate feels unloved and laments to her father that she doesn’t know why she is skating and worries that the glass case he bought to display her Olympic medal will remain empty.
  18. When they arrive at the Olympics, the Russian pair creates a huge stir before the competition. Kate has to face Lorie again.
  19. Kate fights with Doug before the short program, because he refuses to button his top shirt button. Their scores suffer.
  20. Kate tells Doug that she refuses to do the difficult move in the long program, because she thinks it’s too dangerous. Coach warns that they can’t win without the move.
  21. Kate’s father blames Doug for the fight about the shirt button, and Doug announces that Kate is the reason that she and Brian lost at the Olympics in Calgary. Kate admits that Doug is right.
  22. Before the long program at the Olympics, Kate tells Doug that she is planning to retire afterward (the “dark night of the soul” moment).
  23. The Russian pair skates beautifully in their long program. Things don’t look good.
  24. Doug confesses to Kate that he loves her before the long program, and she tells him she wants to put the difficult move back in the program.  Then he argues that it’s too dangerous. (Anything missing from this list? Comment below.)

Of course, they end up doing the difficult move. They win, and Kate tells Doug she loves him, leading to a big movie-ending kiss. It’s hard to watch the movie and not feel a pang of emotion when the skating couple finally gets their act together after the constant tug-of-war throughout the film.

Novel writers can use this same method of throwing obstacle after obstacle in the protagonist’s path to create a satisfying reading experience. While there is no rule specifying how many obstacles are needed, the conflict must escalate throughout the story. It’s much more cathartic to the reader if the hero has to work hard and risk everything to get the prize. Readers want to feel something at the end of a book. Writers who can give the reader a worthwhile emotional experience will create a lasting impression.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne


QUESTION: Should the protagonist be introduced on the first page?

ANSWER: Experienced writers often introduce the protagonist on the first page. To create empathy for the hero, get readers interested in him as close to the beginning of the story as possible. There are exceptions. Some writers choose to introduce the antagonist first. Although it’s less common, minor characters can appear in prologues and framing devices.

There are disadvantages to delaying the protagonist’s introduction. Readers like to experience a story through the eyes of one character and go on an emotional journey with that character. If the first character the reader meets is not the protagonist, the reader might feel disoriented and stop reading. It’s important to show a clear connection between the first character introduced and the protagonist in cases when the story opens with a character other than the protagonist.

In The Terminator, the nemesis (a cyborg from the future) appears first. This technique works because a powerful antagonist creates anticipation and concern for the protagonist (a waitress named Sarah Connor). While this example is from film, writers of thrillers often begin novels in a similar fashion.

Still, one of the chief reasons agents pass on manuscripts is a lack of empathy for the protagonist. To prevent this problem, show what makes the main character tick pronto. Convey the protagonist’s essence. A good opening scene sums up who the character is at his core using actions. The protagonist should show his defining qualities (admirable traits, serious flaws) through his behavior. While there are exceptions to nearly all writing guidelines, new writers benefit from using proven methods. Authors rarely go wrong by introducing the protagonist first.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

I Want a Hero

December 13, 2016 — Leave a comment


“I want a hero,” Lord Byron declares in the first line of his mock epic poem Don Juan. That anyone would propose the legendary womanizer, Don Juan, as a hero is amusing, but good writers know that all stories need a protagonist. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is an underdog, an average guy, a lost soul, or a superstar. Regrettably, this principle seems to escape many writers. Some don’t understand what a protagonist is. Others fail to introduce the reader to the protagonist. After critiquing a myriad of manuscript openings that suffered from this malady, I decided to share what I’ve learned on my writing journey.


The Protagonist

Simply put, the protagonist is the main character in a novel. He’s the hero of the story, and it’s important that readers empathize with him. He should be pursuing some goal or desire, and that goal should seem unattainable. In fact, the protagonist should have to risk everything for it. Best-selling author and story coach, Michael Hauge, explains this in a short clip here.

The protagonist should have a well-defined goal in order for the reader to visualize it. It’s insufficient for the protagonist to want more of something he already has. It wouldn’t be enough of a goal for a rich man to want more money. The goal needs to be specific (i.e. the rich guy wants to acquire a certain piece of land for his business, but there is some obstacle standing in his way.)

Hauge also recommends that in order to create the character’s arc (transformation), “you must give that hero some fear to be confronted and overcome.” The hero should be really stuck in some way. In order for the hero to have a full transformation, Hauge favors making the hero “an extreme version of someone with that fear and that identity.” For example, at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is a miserable, selfish man. At the end, he’s kind, generous, and filled with joy.

Introducing the Protagonist

The premier task of a fiction writer is to show what makes the protagonist tick in an engaging way that will make the reader curious about what happens to that character. Competition screenplay reader, Monica Partridge, laments in her blog: “I just read a pile of scripts and only one of the writers bothered to introduce me to his protagonist. Name, age, job and clothes are just not enough.” She offers some wise suggestions on the correct way to introduce a protagonist.

John Truby, best-selling author, cautions in an interview that giving the protagonist a long list of superficial traits is the wrong way to make people care. He proposes that the two primary considerations are the weakness/need of the hero and the goal of the hero. The idea is to create a goal for the hero that will force him to deal with his weakness.

Barbara Kyle, author and writing coach, offers advice for introducing a protagonist from an actor’s perspective in “Making an Entrance.” One of the things that attracts an A-list actor to a particular role is the opening scene where the protagonist’s entrance shows his essence in action. Barbara’s article gives some excellent illustrations from literature.

J. Gideon Sarantinos compares introducing the main character to a first date. In “Introducing the Main Character,” he writes: “Did you know that people make their decisions about the potential success of a first date within the first 30-60 seconds? That is similar to the time it takes for your audience to decide if they’re going to root for  your main character.” That’s why it’s imperative to get it right.

One example of a great character introduction from film is the opening scene of Erin Brokovich. The viewer is drawn to the unemployed, single mother immediately. Erin Brokovich is beautiful, but she isn’t dressed the way most people would dress for a job interview. Her short skirt and revealing top don’t impress the doctor who is questioning her. In spite of the fact that she is unqualified for the position, Erin tries to convince the doctor she deserves the job. When it becomes clear she’s facing rejection, it’s hard for viewers not to feel sorry for her and worry what happens to her. Writers often love their protagonists so much that they don’t want to hurt them, but letting readers feel the protagonist’s pain is one of the best ways to connect with readers (or viewers, when film is the medium). After the opening scene of Erin Brokovich, viewers wonder if Erin will be able to rise above people’s low expectations and gain self-respect. That’s the dramatic question. (Answer: Yes, and through gaining her own self-respect, she is able to allow herself to love someone.)

Techniques to Create Empathy

There are various kinds of protagonists, but the writer’s job is always the same: to make the reader care enough to go on a journey the length of a book. There are a number of the ways a writer can make readers empathize with the hero. Here are a few techniques to consider (not all apply to every story, though many do):

  1. Put the character in jeopardy. (It will make the reader worry.)
  2. Make the character a victim of undeserved hardship or misfortune.
  3. Give the character a sense of humor.
  4. Give the character a special talent or skill.
  5. Give the character quirks, mannerisms, and flaws to humanize him.
  6. Give the character a secret.
  7. Make the character an underdog.
  8. Give the character an attitude (morals, values, beliefs).
  9. Give the character a fear or phobia.
  10. Give the character a need for redemption or forgiveness.
  11. Give the character a wound or blind spot.
  12. Give the character grief over the death of a loved one.
  13. Give the character an addiction.
  14. Give the character a contradiction (i.e. a nun who writes erotic stories).
  15. Make the character resourceful.
  16. Give the character family/close friends who care about him.
  17. Make the character good with children or animals.
  18. Make the character a willful being. Readers don’t bond easily with whiny, wimpy, or lazy characters. The protagonist should be good/capable at something.
  19. Give the character stakes (i.e. something to lose if he fails).
  20. Give the character an impossible deadline (and then shorten it).
  21. Give the character a nemesis or other obstacles to getting what he wants.
  22. Give the character courage.

One helpful exercise is to pull out a stack of favorite books and read the openings. Make note of how each author gets the reader to connect with the protagonist. Of course, not all protagonists are nice people, and it’s more difficult to get readers to care what happens to an amoral protagonist. Sometimes it helps to show how the character lost his moral compass or why the character might feel morally justified to do wrong.

Name the Protagonist

Readers need to know the protagonist’s full name from the start. I’ve read countless openings where the protagonist is identified by a characteristic (i.e. “the dark-haired man”) rather than a name. Even if the protagonist wants to keep his identity hidden from another character (i.e. Joe Fox doesn’t want to identify himself to Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail), the readers still need to know the protagonist’s name, as Michael Hauge explains here.

Avoid Introducing the Protagonist in a Crowd

Also, when the protagonist is introduced in a setting with a large group of people, it can be frustrating for the reader. Michael Hauge calls this a story misdemeanor. Recall the classroom scenario where a teacher asks each person to stand up and introduce himself to the group. It’s difficult to remember a multitude of names and details given at the same time. Readers don’t like to be overwhelmed. Present the protagonist in a  setting with a limited number of characters to minimize confusion.

Begin With the Protagonist in Action

According to an article by Kristin Nelson (literary agent) and Angie Hodapp (Director of Royalties & Literary Development at Nelson Literary Agency), it’s a bad idea (most of the time) to begin a novel with “your main character alone somewhere thinking.” Consider the opening of Erin Brokovich. It wouldn’t have been as interesting to see Erin alone at home pondering her job situation. There are many ways to introduce a protagonist, but writers should seek the best way. A passive situation is rarely a good choice.

I’ll close with a final tip. According to The Script Lab, “When creating an interesting protagonist, it’s essential that your audience cares about the character, hoping the character will do the right thing, but constantly fearing that the character will make another bad decision. It’s this yin and yang of hope and fear that connects the audience, hooking them deeper, making them want to watch.”

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to share them here. (Comments are moderated.)

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne