It doesn't matter if your writing style is planned, spontaneous, or somewhere in between--it's the character and conflict that sells! Character and conflict hook in studio execs, hold an editor’s attention, and draw in readers, compelling them to turn the page. So what is the secret sauce? How can you hack into believable and compelling characters? By using a tried and true psychological principle adapted for writers by Melinda Curtis, an award-winning, USA Today bestseller of over 35 books and novellas.
In this book, you’ll find the basics of character and conflict, along with a multi-faceted psychological principle that can be used to create characters who need to grow and change. Inside are numerous tips to create and deepen character and conflict from the beginning of your story to the end. You’ll discover hacks to give your characters depth and provide them with behavioral bumpers so they act consistently throughout your story, until they grow and change in an emotionally satisfying finale. As an added bonus, there are over 100 examples from movies and television that illustrate how to use each principle. That means adding this book to your writing toolbox will help you sell to editors and studio execs, and create compelling reads that bring audiences back for more.
Frankly My Dear: Creating Unforgettable Characters
Abandonment/ Instability Schema
“Wherever you will go, I will let you down.” Sarah Dessen, This Lullaby.
In the movie Moonstruck, widow Loretta Castorini (Cher) announces to her parents that she’s going to marry Johnny Cammareri. When asked by her mother if she loves Johnny, Loretta says no. If Loretta doesn’t love him, why would she choose to get married again? Because she’s lonely. But it’s too painful for Loretta to risk the heartache of loving and losing again. Great conflict is created from Loretta meeting Johnny’s brother, Ronny, a man she has an unwanted attraction to. Let’s break Loretta’s story down to its parts.
Backstory: Loretta was deeply in love with her husband and he died.
Wound: Heartbreak over being widowed (abandoned).
Belief: If I love, I will get hurt.
Coping Mechanism: Avoid falling in love/ choose to marry a man I don’t love.
External Conflict: Make peace with Johnny’s brother, Ronny, so she and Johnny can marry.
Internal Conflict: She falls for her fiancé’s brother, but tries to avoid loving him.
Character Growth: She accepts love and all its risks when Ronny proposes
What is the Abandonment/ Instability Schema?
Imagine being abandoned abruptly or let down repeatedly by someone close to you, someone you’re supposed to be able to rely on. This painful, unexpected loss and/ or repeated instability creates an expectation that relationships will be unreliable or end badly.
Here are some examples of how this Schema may have developed:
- A parent, role model or significant other left them/ their family for someone else.
- A parent, caregiver or significant other was an erratic presence in their life (frequently absent for no reason, didn’t live up to responsibility, erratic emotional outbursts for no reason, etc.).
- They were injured or put in danger because someone wasn’t there when they should have been.
- A parent, significant other or role model died an untimely, unexpected death.
This Schema is often seen in romances and action-adventures where the death of a partner in the backstory creates a “lone wolf.”
Characters with this Schema look through a mental viewfinder that is tinged with the belief that they can’t rely on others for emotional support, a close connection, or protection. They often watch for signs that someone they have a relationship with is about to leave–a partner/ friend/ family member could become sick and die, unpredictably disappear, or leave them for someone else. They may believe they are safe with friends or significant others if they keep their guard up and their feelings locked away. They may not even realize they’re doing this. These characters may feel anxiety or sadness about the possibility of losing people, depression when there is a loss (real or perceived), and/ or anger at the people who left them. This belief is outer directed–Nothing is wrong with me, but people will let me down. Challenge their beliefs to create conflict and character growth.
- Think of Becca (Anna Kendrick) in Pitch Perfect and how she keeps everyone at arm’s length after her parents’ divorce.
For any Schema, there are three types of coping mechanisms that may be used to protect the wound: over-compensation (fight), avoidance (flight), surrender (freeze). Only one may be chosen. Coping Mechanisms specific to the Abandonment/ Instability Schema are:
- Over-compensation: clings to or smothers those they are in relationships with.
- “Marlin” voiced by Albert Brooks in Finding Nemo. Note: this character has two Schemas to deal with. See: Vulnerability to Harm or Illness Schema.
- Avoidance: steers clear of intimate relationships.
- “Mickey” played by Amy Adams in Trouble with the Curve.
- “Rick” played by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
- “Carl” voiced by Ed Asner in Up.
- Surrender: settles for or selects partners/ friends who can’t make a commitment.
- “Loretta” played by Cher in Moonstruck.