Archetypes and Characterization: Writing “Contracts”

It’s another off week here at The Writer’s Arena. We’ll be bringing you four more weeks of intense authorial action starting on Monday, but this week will be filled with articles from our authors and judges. This first one comes to us from Ian C. Williams, fresh off of his victory over Danny Brophy.

When I was given a prompt to write about an alien hitman hunting a target on Earth, I became instantly aware of a bunch of clichés. Science fiction is a genre that is full of standard story-telling devices that are used and overused time and time again. These are tropes like “the ordinary hero,” “the dry, but lovable rogue,” “the mystical power that holds the universe together,” and so on.

Now, I don’t want to necessarily label these things as “bad” or as elements of poor writing, because plot devices and archetypes are all usable pieces of a story. Writers use these things because readers understand them and use them as reference points. As readers, we know things about dry, lovable rogues. We can make predictions based upon what we know of other lovable rogues. We know things about strong, independent female characters in young adult dystopian fiction, and we can make predictions based upon that as well. As for a more relevant example, we know things about hitmen and bounty hunters in science fiction and we can make predictions about these characters.

So when brainstorming how I was going to approach the prompt, I had to decide what kind of character my alien hitman was going to be. Was he a Han Solo character? Was he a Boba Fett character? Or was he like Jubal Early from Firefly? As I considered all of this, my wife and I were bouncing ideas back and forth, trying to come up with something that would set this story apart from other stories with similar elements. After a while and a lot of ideas, my wife suggests, “He should be a guy like Bill Murray.”

This was the inspiration that got the narrative moving.

We turned the idea over in our heads, “If Bill Murray were an alien hitman, what would that story be like?” This line of questioning replaced one archetype with another and I was intrigued by the result. Because the reader expects a specific catalogue of characters when they hear the term “Hitman,” the substitution of dissimilar archetype is more interesting than the initial expectation. And Bill Murray is snazzy, so why not?

I’d watch that movie.

So I embarked upon writing this narrative, taking Bill Murray’s surname primarily for my own amusement. And with this idea of an easy going hitman, I wrote the first draft of the story, a draft which proved problematic in terms of character development and consistency. As I had my wife and my workshopping buddy Caleb read over and review the story, they pointed out significant issues regarding clarity, character motivation, and believability. The character I had written worked, but he wasn’t the character that I had set out to write. He had begun falling too much into the professional hitman archetype that I was trying to avoid.

Revision is one of my least favorite things to do as a writer. I enjoy the dreaming part, the crafting part, but the honing stage where you recreate large sections of character and plot isn’t exactly comfortable for me. However, it is absolutely essential to story telling, and it’s the only reason that I can be remotely pleased with the story that I have told.

The biggest thing that I did during revision was rework Murrary’s character. When I was teaching middle school, I taught a unit on characterization, primarily how it can be direct and indirect. Direct characterization is when the author explicitly tells you who the character is and how they behave. This type of characterization is easy to write and easy to comprehend and as such it is often found in lower reading levels. “John is a bad man,” for example, is direct characterization. Indirect characterization is when the author shows you the character’s qualities through description, action, or dialogue. This is usually a better, more advanced style of characterization and is used in higher levels of writing. In this case, readers have to infer qualities about the character. For example, if we said, “John pushed an old lady into oncoming traffic,” we can then infer that John is a nasty person.

Given the nature of the narrative in “Contracts,” it was very important to use indirect characterization for Murray, which is complicated by the story’s first person perspective. There is a certain obstacle to face when you are trying to avoid having your narrator describe facets of his personality or motivation. It can work if you’re working on a long piece when a character’s perception of himself is contrasted with his actions, but in a short story, that’s a lot of information to cram into a small space. Furthermore, by using indirect characterization, you can indicate the subtle character motivations that make the biggest differences. For example, a character can feel strongly about a cause or a person, but they could be afraid of rejection – a quality most people aren’t going to admit in narration. As a writer, I find it’s a challenge, albeit an exciting one, to find the body language and the quirks that indicate these subtle qualities without having a character say, “Since I was a kid, I’ve always been afraid of being alone.”

You can do a lot better if that character who is afraid of rejection self-sabotages himself in order to justify his fears without ever admitting them to the reader.

These things are hard, and I find them to be especially difficult because I have strained people skills. I’m blessed to have a wife and friends who are better and analyzing motivations and why people do things. If you were to stumble across my prior writings, the things I wrote in high school and early college, you would see a lot of characters who describe their motivations and feelings in depth. Of course, this is because I do that a lot in my own head. It wasn’t until I realized that most of those inner-monologues are justifications for other things – they were a mental façade, if you will. I will wager that most people engage in this form of mental gymnastics, because I think that people, at least on some level, are at war with themselves.

This brings me to my final point. In college, my creative writing professor told me, “Only conflict is interesting.” And so far, I have found this to be true. This is particularly true when you look at character motivations and inner dialogue. People, and characters, will say things that are covers for other feelings. This indicates a conflict, and better still, a genuine conflict that people can relate to. We don’t really relate to the high-stakes conflicts between dueling assassins; we relate to what those assassins feel. That depth is what connects us to a story. We don’t really care that Iron Man is a superhero saving the world. We care about why he tries to save it.

Ian C. Williams is a poet and novelist often caught dabbling in other disciplines and gravitating toward coffee and tweed. His work has been published in The Gap-Toothed Madness, Yorick Magazine, and The Idiom, and he has received the Florence Kahn Memorial Award from the National Society of State Poetry SocietyHe currently resides in Fairmont, West Virginia with his wife, Bailey, and two cats, Tribble and Shenzi.

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