Day 3: Janet Lane on Free Range Characters

This talk wasn’t just about characterization, but how proper characterization can become indistinguishable from plot.

Janet suggests plotting stories using Inner and Outer story questions, advice most of us should be familiar with by now, but we’ll go over it using the plot from Avatar because everyone’s seen it by now. Right?

The Outer story question is a specific, tangible action-oriented goal and the character must strive for (or against) it. In Avatar, the Outer Story question is: Will greed destroy Pandora?

The Inner Story Question must be stated as a question, involves the character’s need, each character has his or her own inner question that is resolved in yes/no fashion by the story’s end with a resolution that is satisfying to the protagonist. The inner story question DRIVES the Outer Story.

Avatar’s Inner Story question: Will Jake sell his soul and betray Neytiri and the Navi to walk again?

Now, how free are your characters? What are their turning points?

It’s only a turning point if someone acts. Most turning points are at the beginning of Act I and 2. (Sometimes there’s one in the middle to act as a buttress to your story arc.) Who drives the characters’ decisions?

In Avatar, the first Turning Point for Jake is when he abandons the scientists and the NAVI and joins the Colonel and the “Greed” team. He is motivated by his desire to walk again. The second Turning Point is when he defies the Colonel and the team and fights for the NAVI. He is motivated for a variety of reasons including love, revenge for the Colonel’s lies and the death of the NAVI, their spiritual center and the death of Sigourney Weaver’s character.

What are your story’s Turning Points and what are the character’s motivations for turning? In other words, who is driving the story? Are external events doing it, or are the changes brought about by your character’s decisions and motivations? Who is in charge of your character arc?

Another way of looking at motivations, is to examine what the character wants, why he/she wants it and why they can’t get it, their worst fear (which should probably revolve around the inciting incident) and how they accept the call to action.

See how this works for Jake: He wants to be accepted, believes “he’s just another dumb drunk”, he cannot get what he wants because he hasn’t yet claimed his life, his worst fear is that his naysayers are right and that he’ll never be more than a broken ex-marine, but then his twin brother dies, giving him an opportunity to fit in again. He accepts the opportunity and travels to Pandora. Do you see how most of that happens off screen?

Many thanks to Janet Lane and her exceptional handout sheets. I would never have been able to reproduce this for you without them. Make sure you check out Janet’s site as she was able to post on the part of the conference I arrived too late to see. This is my last blog on the Crested Butte Writers Conference. Thanks for joining me; we will now return to our regularly scheduled programming. ;D




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8 Responses to “Day 3: Janet Lane on Free Range Characters”

  1. Janet Johnson says:

    Great example! I'm just going through my mind to see how my characterization works.

    Thanks for sharing all you learned at the conference. 🙂

  2. Margo Berendsen says:

    Wow, I did some plot analysis on Avatar a few months ago, but this sheds a whole new light on character motivations. Avatar is a great example, isn't it? Thanks – I'm linking to this one!

  3. Victoria Dixon says:

    You're very welcome, Janet. I confess, I'm a little scared of going through MTC with this. I'm so darn tired of editing and rewriting that book – I don't want to do any more and I know I'll have to. At the very least, any editor/agent is sure to want changes.

    Thanks for the comment and the visit, Margo! Avatar was nice in that it's pretty straight forward plotting. I've got one friend whose novel is so full of character twists and turns, I'm not sure who to cheer for sometimes.

  4. Rachna Chhabria says:

    Thanks Victoria for sharing this wonderful post. Its so timely for me as I am currently working on my character motivation (both inner and outer ones.)

  5. Victoria Dixon says:

    You're welcome! I really enjoyed the way you detailed your creation process, Rachna. It has given me a new way to think on the next WIP. 🙂

  6. Cat Woods says:

    Great reminder on internal and external conflict and development. It's also important to remember that the characters must make choices that impact the story. Every conflict cannot come from the environment alone.

    Thanks so much for this!

  7. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Cat!

  8. SP Sipal says:

    This is a wonderful analysis. Love the examples. Thanks for sharing all this!

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