D for Distance

Create a chain of events

First comes the study of your characters. They start existing, walking, speaking, lighting a cigarette, or chewing a pack of gum. You started talking to them and now they answer you back, so you’re ready to write their story. You must have a plot already in your head, but without a good study of your character, your story will result in something flat.

So now you need to adjust the idea you have with the characters you created. Let’s imagine you wrote a book about Alan, a drug addict that wants his family back but doesn’t want to stop using drugs. He must have a mum, dad, brothers, or sisters, right? His family, what they look like, what they want from him? Why he’s so obsessed with their love and cannot leave them behind? Maybe he’s using drugs because of them, because of something that happened?

Create a chain of events.

Many questions can come when you think about your characters’ purposes and desires. However, if it was a simple desire- response, we would probably be speaking about Pavlov and his experiments with poor dogs. In a story, we’re talking about a chain; the longer this chain is between the characters and their desire- objective, the better for the reader.

Let’s take Mr. Bean as an example. The scene starts and we know he needs to accomplish an effortless task: buying a pair of shoes or washing his hands, it doesn’t matter. We start exclaiming something like “oh, come on, don’t do that” or “watch out”, but deep inside, we want him to fail. Not at the end, no. We want him to buy is pair of shoes or wash his hands. We’re not cruel. But we really want to be entertained, and without him passing through every ring of the chain of events before reaching his final goal, we won’t. As simple as that.

So, that’s Distance. Create a character obsessed with reaching a lake, put him in between a mountain with a bear hunting him, and make him allergic to bees. The Desire will push over his limits; his background will make the reader glued to the book, avid to read more of the adventures. The distance will ultimately make the story what it is: a long chain of events.

And soon, the third D, Denial.

D as in Desire

What is desire and why is it so important?

You probably listened to a song called Freed from desire. The idea is obviously not that new, as desire seems to enslave us. We need to know how to control that desire and, as writers, how to fully understand it. We have mentioned before 4 Ds, let’s start with the first one, desire.

In Stanislavsky’s philosophy, desire is a super objective; obstacles and conflicts are vital for a story to develop. What you must ask yourself now is: how can I create impediments to my characters if I don’t know them yet and how could I think of knowing someone if not starting from his personal goals?

Desire, definition.

So, let’s try to find your characters’ desires. First, associate it with an action verb since this is what a story is about: action. An example to avoid is to imagine a desire like this:

“A man wants to be a better person.”

Maybe our character Alan told us he wanted to be a better man when we interviewed him; this isn’t a desire we can use in a story if we want it to develop. His desire has to be specific and better if it is double, as in:

“Alan wants his family to trust his choices.”

The character would think in this way:

“I lied to my family all my life. It’s time for me to stop using drugs and let them trust me again.”

In short, it’s an action plan followed by the primary goal of the character. Creating a double and specific desire, we could later decide to “attack” our character from two sides.

Alan wants to be trusted by his family, but his nature is against it. So, trying to adjust his life, he’s probably going to replicate the same pattern repeatedly. When finally, Alan seems to have found a balance, it’s maybe too late and his family doesn’t want to speak to him anymore. How would he react to this change of events? Now that Alan is alone in the world, would he return to his bad habits, or would he change completely no matter what? What does it mean to trust him now that he is alone from his family’s point of view? How would his family react to his changes?

The more specific the desire, the less “egocentric” it would be from the reader’s perspective. A story based on “He did this, then he did that” is quite boring, to say the least. What makes a nice story is a desire that goes in two ways; Alan depends on his family as much as they rely on him. This creates several possibilities for the writer, for you and me, to discover new plots. Remember that the desire has to follow your character’s attributes. Imagine if Alan thought about his desire in this way:

“I lied to my family all my life. It’s time for me to find a way to cover the fact that I use drugs, so they will trust me again.”

See how twisted the story is now? Alan doesn’t want to be a better person but just a better liar.

Now ask yourself: what would happen if my character failed to achieve his goal? What are the consequences for him and for the rest of the characters involved? It’s better if the reader always knows what it’s at stake and what the risks are for the main character. Without risks, there’s no reader, as simple as that.

Sometimes a character can have a desire on the surface, manifest to everyone, plus another one that only the reader knows or think to know. It’s you, the writer that has to work with these two levels, making the reader curious about how it is going to end. The desire has to be clear if you want the readers to be really engaged, asking themselves, “how is it going to end for him? Is Alan going to lie successfully to his family, or he’s going to be discovered? Will they trust him again? In any case, achieving or not the primary goal has to leave a closure for the reader, an answer to all the questions raised.

So, this was the first D, next time, we’ll inspect our second D, for Distance.

The 4Ds

And none of them is Daniele, pity

We imagined our characters, maybe watching a colleague closely for years or just having a glimpse of an old woman on the way back home in the metro. Whatever the case, we have the first idea of our characters and a vague idea of the plot. Now, we decided to tide up our characters (or nicely invite them to a tea party), and we started questioning them. We saw how comfortable it is to ask easy questions and how uncomfortable it makes us ask some more profound, strictly personal questions. 

It’s totally fine. But it’s still not enough. With your characters, you need to ask questions about their past, their dark secrets, and their manias. Think about how challenging it is for you to ask any question to a complete stranger, even where to find the closest pharmacy. And now consider how challenging is to answer a question since it’s still you speaking through your character.

4 Ds shape your characters

Suppose someone is describing a car to you:

“With a maximum top speed of 105 mph (169 km/h), a curb weight of 1993 lbs (904 kgs), the TR3 has a naturally-aspirated Inline 4 cylinder engine, Petrol motor. This engine produces a maximum power of 101 PS (100 bhp – 74 kW) at 5000 rpm and a maximum torque of 159.0 Nm (117 lb.ft) at 5000 rpm. The power is transmitted to the road by the rear wheel drive (RWD) with a 4-speed Manual gearbox. On the topic of chassis details responsible for road holding, handling behavior and ride comfort, the TR3 has Coil springs. Front suspension and Semi-elliptic leaf springs. De Dion axle. Rear suspension. The TR3 braking system includes the front and rear for stopping power. The TR3 model is a Cabrio car manufactured by Triumph, sold new from 1955. I’m going to sell my apartment to buy it.”

If you are ignorant of car matters, you’d most probably find this description ultimately futile. You have a lot of information, but you didn’t give anything useful to the general reader; no emotions mean no way for the reader to follow you into your story. Also, when that person added he would sell his apartment to buy it at the end of the description, you probably thought he was insane. Let’s imagine another person describing to you the same car in this way:

“Yesterday, an old man approached me at the market and asked me if I had ever watched La dolce vita by Federico Fellini. I’d never seen him before and found that question really odd. At any rate, I wouldn’t lose anything answering back, so I did. I told him that I’m a cinema connoisseur and mostly into old Italian movies. So he told me that he had the original car from the movie, the excellent Triumph TR3. That’s a magical, convertible, fashionable car as no one does anymore. When you accelerate, you feel the engine almost speaking to you, a roar full of stories and secrets. That’s more than a car. It’s an obsession now. I’m going to sell my apartment to buy it.”

Now, even if you’ve never heard of the car before, you probably start visualizing yourself seated in the front seat of this cult car, the engine speaking to you. You know this person is a cinema connoisseur and all the information you acquired is helpful in understanding the ultimate decision. It’s still a crazy conclusion to make, selling an apartment to buy a car, but now you know why. There’s a reason behind it.

Well, what we’ll do next time is to analyze the 4 Ds that will shape your characters and, therefore, your story:

Keep reading!

Levels

It’s time to start making some order on our story.

Levels, what are they? 

In short, it’s the same process we analyzed before, but this time we’re bound to a scheme that goes down into our character through levels.

Level A

Let’s call it level A, the most simple kind. Imagine introducing someone as in the famous scene in Bridget Jones’s diary:

“Introduce someone with thoughtful details, as in ‘Sheila, this is Daniel, Daniel this is Sheila. Sheila likes horse riding and comes from New Zealand. Daniel enjoys publishing and comes…”

Well, no. Maybe this first level should get less intimate. Visualize yourself instead as a TV quiz presenter and you want to introduce one of your contestants:

“This is Sheila. Sheila is in her mid-thirties, a respectable citizen and an excellent teacher in a school for the hearing impaired. She likes swimming and she and her wife are now moms of a wonderful boy called Josh.”

Level B

So, level A gave us a bird’s eye view of our character’s life. We know she is a middle-class mid-thirties woman, a mother, and has some hobbies. We start now wondering if this is it. We dig some information there, but is it enough to make an interesting character?

That’s why we have a B level, like in that monstrous Dubai parking where I used to get lost between ‘Parking lot F 32 12th floor or F32 11th floor’. The only difference is we need to constantly explain why we parked our characters in such a parking spot; we cannot just assume it was the best spot for us and the characters have to fit there.

Now start asking yourself and, therefore, your characters why they make some decisions. Sheila is a teacher for children and teenagers with hearing disabilities, but why she’s doing this job? Is she or her sister, her mother, or her wife deaf? 

We know she’s married to a woman. How does this fit with her character, her background, and the place she lives? What is it like to live in a small town and be a gay mother? If you decide to place her in a specific location, it’s not coincidental and never has to be.

Although sometimes during Christmas time we need to park our park in a very random parking spot far away from the mall’s entrance, that’s not an excuse. Our characters must arrive when the mall is closed and park their car in their correct spot. I hope you get the sense of this simile.

Level C

So, we raised a hairbow creating a flat, stereotypical character that a quiz presenter can introduce in a handful of seconds. Then, we raised a second hairbow to our reader by giving that quiz participant some critical information and background history.

Now it’s time to psychoanalyze the characters and take from them all resourceful details. You can ask your characters whatever you want, way more questions than the ones you asked them before.

You can ask what your Sheila would choose between a beautiful university research career in Geneva and a simple life as a teacher in a small town in the U.S. And why not? She doesn’t want to, or she’s scared? She tried already and failed? Is it related at all to any other characters?

Yes, that’s an important point to keep always in mind:

All the details you raise about your characters must be helpful in the story’s development and, therefore, for accomplishing the final goal they need to reach. The characters would eventually pass hundreds of small goals in a story, from getting out of the sofa to saving someone from being hit by a car.

Levels, graphic by Daniele Frau

But they will always have a final, super goal to accomplish. They will fulfill or not, but that’s irrelevant. The important is they reach that crescendo and arrive at that last moment ready, together with the reader.

So, to paraphrase Collins, if a woman is obsessed with money all her life, a perfect detail to put in could be her playing with a small golden ring when she’s nervous. Then, the reader would know that the second would always prevail between her personal happiness and a lot of money.

That’s all for today. Let’s go back to write something interesting. I have a couple of lovely characters to write about. And you?