Day Two: What are the properties of Stories? What makes for a good story? Character & characterization. Who are some memorable characters? Why are they memorable? 


Another View of Story (lecture & discussion): 45 minutes.

Three-dimensional view of story: Plot, Character, Setting. 

But these three are not really independent dimensions. 

Levels of Conflict:  Intra-psychic, inter-personal, with larger forces: society, nature. 

Character is deep; revealed by choices under pressure. 

Characterization are surface features.


Characters are more interesting when their surface features play off against their character. James Bond is actually a patriot willing to “go to the end of the line” for his country — even though on the surface, he seems like a superficial playboy. Shawn Spencer in Psych is a complete charlatan posing as a psychic. But through his shenanigans and charades, he uncovers the truth and puts away the bad guys. Lady “screw your courage to the sticking point” MacBeth is hard as nails on the outside, but goes insane with guilt. 

Characters must have weaknesses, not just strengths. What three weaknesses does Superman have? What about other heroes or superheroes? What about ordinary protagonists? 


Characters often have a lie. This is basically an overgeneralization that they have made on the basis of a traumatic event. “Our father/mother left the family; men/women are not to be trusted!” In order to find love, the protagonist must learn to overcome this and “grow” to a more nuanced view. This lie, at least initially, is often unconscious. They may not know they have it. If they do know, they initially do not see it as an overgeneralization at all; they are simply being “realistic.” 

Characters often have a secret. While the lie may be unconscious, the character is quite aware of their secret. They are ashamed of something and try to keep others from finding out about it. Neither the Lone Ranger, nor Zorro, nor Superman wants others to know their “true” identity. Other secrets might be about their upbringing, a love child, a rape, a crime, etc. 

Characters we care about, are active, not passive. They don’t just have vague inarticulate desires (in the most common case of an ArchPlot) – they want to achieve or gain something quite specific. Frodo needs to destroy the “One Ring.” Harry Potter needs to destroy Voldemort (or “convert” him). And, both these heroes will do anything to reach their goals. We don’t really want heroes whose approach is: “Well, while I’m visiting Mordor, if I get a chance, I might drop by Mount Doom and destroy the ring.” Even in user stories about products or services, have your use really care about the outcome. Cf. “Joe wants to get to downtown San Diego as soon as possible” vs. “Joe’s wife fell and hit her head; he needs to get his wife to the emergency room as soon as possible to avoid permanent brain damage.” 


Exercise: Improving a story. Each small group of 3-4 people takes a story and improves it. People work in turn improving character, plot, and setting. Put emphasis on character.  45 minutes. 

For each story, have the author pass out copies. Before reading the story, the author should say if there is anything in particular they want feedback on. 

After reading the story, one of the other members of the group acts as a shepherd. The shepherd, invites the author to listen to feedback. They should make a small group and have the author turn their back on the group, but be very close and listen to what is said. The author should be quiet, listen, and take notes. 

Each person, in turn, says one thing that they particularly like about the story in terms of plot, character, or setting. If anyone else in the group agrees, they simply say “ditto.” 

After each person, including the shepherd, has a had a chance to mention something they like, each one should offer a suggestion for improvement. Be as actionable and specific as possible in giving your feedback. If you agree with someone else’s suggestion for improvement, simply say, “ditto.” Rather than disagree, focus on giving your own positive suggestion when it’s your turn. It is not time to get into a debate about whether or not a suggestion is a good one or a bad one. Just give feedback to the author about the story and let them take it all in. 

When everyone has given feedback about the story, the shepherd invites the author back into the circle and then tells a short unrelated joke or anecdote.  

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Move on to another story and another as time permits and try to get through everyone’s story. 

Class Discussion: What did you learn from the exercise? What surprised you? 25 minutes. 

Summary Recap:  5 minutes. 

Exercise for next class: Consider the feedback you obtained from the group and improve your story. Bring it in to the next class. 


Author page on Amazon.