How to Write Character-Driven Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, Part 2

by David Cathcart

David Cathcart - Christian Book Editor and Screenplay Editor

In my previous article, I introduced the idea of the character-driven vs. the plot-driven story, arguing that if the plot drives the story, that’s tantamount to the writer driving the story. And if the writer is driving the story, that means the characters aren’t. As a result, such stories feel flat, cold, and unconvincing.

As I noted, the first step toward avoiding this error is to realize that plot should always be subservient to character transformation. In other words, the events that unfold should always be a byproduct of character choices made under pressure. Characters should never a byproduct of story events.

The second step is to realize that character transformation always unfolds through a series of predictable stages. That’s because art imitates life. What we see on the page or on the screen is merely a reflection of how life actually happens. Once you have a better understanding of how this change process works—and how our natural resistance to change automatically builds tension and suspense—you’ll never write a shallow, plot-driven story again. In this article, we’ll take a look at the first stage of character transformation.

Stage 1: Disunity

Virtually every protagonist starts out with a form of “multiple personality disorder.” Like Neo in the Matrix, they are living two lives. One of them has a future, and one of the does not. The two lives a character is living can be described as his or her “inner self” and “outer self.” The question is, which is the true self? Or, more importantly, which self will prevail in the end? This is exactly the sort of question a story is designed to answer. If the false self prevails, we tend to call the story a tragedy. If the true self wins, we call the story a comedy (speaking in the classical sense of the word; it doesn’t mean the story is full of laughs).

More often than not, it’s the external self that is false. Think of it as a coping mechanism, a false identity that the character has adopted to avoid confronting his or her deepest fear. The problem is, at some point along the way he or she became confused. Rather than recognize the false self for what it is, a crutch, the character has come to accept the false self as his or her true identity. Something drastic must happen to shock them back into awareness. Otherwise everything the character values will be lost. A good story typically begins right before this terrible tragedy is about to occur.

One of my favorite examples from the movies is Indiana Jones. The filmmakers take great pains at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate Indy’s dual life. In the first eleven-minute prologue, he’s a daring adventurer who will stop at nothing to reclaim precious artifacts. Why? “Because they belong in a museum!” According to Indy, he’s doing it for the public good. (A motivation his antagonist, Belloq, questions later on.) For the moment, though, Indy is iconic, seen first in silhouette as the man in the hat and the leather jacket. Even before we hear him speak, we see him use another aspect of his persona—his whip. Indy doesn’t exactly laugh at death, but he doesn’t shrink from it, either. The only weakness we see (apart from failing to learn to speak Hovitos) is his fear of snakes. Rather than indicate a deep character flaw, this is played for laughs.

However, in the very next scene, Indy is transformed into a bumbling, nerdy professor totally flummoxed by a female student’s affections. It’s interesting to note the connection between fear of snakes and fear of the female species, because at a key moment in the film, he will find himself essentially buried alive with his two greatest fears—snakes and women. I won’t go into the mythic symbolism of snakes and women here. (We’re all familiar with the Garden of Eden story.) But I don’t think it’s an accident.

In terms of this article, though, at this point, we are confronted with a key question: Who is the real Indy?

Indiana Jones isn’t unlike other “superhero” type characters, such as Batman. The question of identity is central to such characters, particularly in Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s treatment of the Dark Knight in their trilogy of films. Which is the mask: Batman or Bruce Wayne? No matter how you answer this question, for the story to proceed, ultimately, one of them must die.

Going back to Indy, I find it rather telling that when he accepts the call to go after the Ark of the Covenant, he packs up virtually everything we have come to identify with the adventurous side of his character—his jacket, his whip and his gun—into a suitcase. Whether the filmmakers meant to say it or not, the subtext here is screaming that this side of Indy is literally baggage. It’s not his true self. It’s a persona he’s adopted to compensate for some sort of deep-seated fear. It’s something he carries with him wherever he goes. What is his greatest fear? Inadequacy. He’s constantly overcompensating for feelings of inferiority. How do we know this? Because we’ve all seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which he works out his father issues.

A further confirmation that the adventurer side of Indy is false occurs during the climax of the film. We find Indy completely helpless and tied to a post. And guess what? No hat, no jacket, no whip and no gun. In fact, he’s wearing the tattered remnants of the enemy—a Nazi uniform—yet another false self he adopted and then discarded in his quest. And now he must go face-to-face with God. The question is, will he survive?

In case you haven’t seen the film (and I can’t believe you haven’t!) I won’t ruin the ending for you. Suffice to say, though, that despite all of the high adventure in this film (my favorite of all time), when it comes right down to it, Raiders of the Lost Ark is merely about the transformation of Indiana Jones: from skeptic to believer, from immutable to vulnerable, from idealist to realist.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is only stage one of the journey: disunity. To see a character like Indiana Jones or Neo complete the journey of transformation, they need to encounter a disruption, a make-or-break moment where he or she must choose between clinging to the false identity—or certain death. I call this stage “Disruption.” We’ll look at it in my next article.

Part 1