Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Theme-Archetype Integration Part 3 - Showing Character Without Telling

Clayton Moore - The Lone Ranger
Theme-Archetype Integration Part 3 - Showing Character Without Telling

Previous parts in this theme-Archetype Integration series

Part 1

Part 2

And now part 3 - about how to convince readers (especially editors) that your novel is about "strong characters." 

We've discussed the requirement for "strong characters" previously, in some detail.


In summation, a fictional character is considered "strong" not because he has muscles or is stupid enough to run into danger instead of away from it -- but because he or she has the will to adhere to the "values" or a code of ethics. 

Juvenile fiction is about "building character" -- character is not a trait humans are born with (though Aliens might be).  It is an acquired trait -- but not one that can be 'taught' as in a course in school.

In trying to define "strong character" we have to consider "gender" and "gender roles."  There was a recent article titled WHY TV NEEDS 'WEAK FEMALE CHARACTERS' in


Put another way, what distinguishes this run of TV tragicomedies isn’t their heroines’ unlikeability, but rather, their vulnerability, that is, the frankness with which they disclose feelings and experiences women have long been encouraged to suppress. It is no coincidence that so many of the programs mentioned make deliberate (and much-derided) use of nudity. Like the shots of unmade-up faces that fill Transparent’s third season premiere, the images of Hannah Horvarth sans culottes are a sign not of the shows’ prurience, but of their politics: their insistence on giving women the license, and space, to be exposed. In contrast to the “strong female characters” that have dominated popular culture in recent decades—and that, as Carina Chocano argued in The New York Times, are often distinguished by their lack of gendered behavior—these comparably “weak” characters undermine the conflation of complexity with an implicitly masculine code of values. Too often, to be “strong,” in Chocano’s phrase, is to be “tough, cold, terse, taciturn, and prone to not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.” Instead, these shows take the bold step of assigning to their lead characters some of the most disparaged of “female” traits.

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Read the whole article at:


There are a lot of thoughts there about current tastes in female characters characterization, particularly the popularization of the female face with makeup smeared and dripping with tears.
Strength of Character comes through "growing pains" -- the school of hard knocks -- from failing and getting your comeuppance, from being excruciatingly embarrassed, from doing things you are ashamed of later (often much later) because you finally see why that deed was 'wrong.'

There was a 1968 TV Series IT TAKES A THIEF  (the fictional one, not the reality series)

And more recently, the TV Series White Collar

Regency Romance has thousands of examples of honorable crooks -- outlaws who adhere to a strict Code of Honor.

The contents of that Code of Honor -- or the Honor Among Thieves -- is largely irrelevant to determining whether a Character is "strong" or not.

The strength of a character is measured by how much pain, suffering, loss, expense, and pure grief the character will suffer in order to avoid violating his/her OWN code of honor, sense of ethics, and values.

The Lone Ranger's Creed is a prime example we've discussed. 


And here are blogs where we've examined this aspect of Character creation.



Does your main character have a Creed?  Ideals that he/she lives by? 

Now think again.  Once you thrust a "creed" or Ten Commandments up front at the reader, the expectation is that the plot will test the Character, usually to destruction.  The expectation is that this novel is about forcing this "strong" character to BREAK his Oath, his Creed, his Beliefs, to violate the core around which the Character is built.

And that is, indeed good plotting.  It is true in life that whenever we say, "I would never ..." some time later we find ourselves doing exactly that.

So if you create a Strong Character, then right up front tell rather than show that the character has a STRICT CREED by which he lives, you are telegraphing to the reader that this book is about destroying a Good Character to reveal that all "good" people are really rotten at the core.

That's a theme: "No human is really Good."  But if you state that on page 1, the expectation is that the novel is about that singular oddity - a Good Human who is really Good, who is actually a Strong Character.

Rotten core means the Character is not strong on the inside -- though might have a brittle facade.  Such a character is not a Hero.  Such a character might not be a Villain, but he is not hero material (until or unless the rotten core is revealed, cleaned out, and rebuilt).

Life comes in sections or epochs -- lives have a shape, child, teen, college age, marriage age, (re-marriage age!), parenting age, retiring age, old age.  Each stage of life has its own business, its own lessons to be internalized.  Some of those lessons build the core stronger, some erode the strength.

By creating your character's biography, not at random, not choosing "interesting" things that happened to the character, but rather by "filling in" (as with a coloring book, or sewing a dress), the details from an Archetype, you can show rather than tell what kind of person your character is.

Hero and Villain are archetypes.  The Lone Ranger is built from the Hero archetype, given only one other trait, (being last survivor, keeping that secret).  The "last survivor" trait is a show-don't-tell illustration of the basic Hero Archetype.

Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise made that point a few times -- the Captain of a ship far from home port, the final decision maker, must maintain a social and emotional distance from the Crew while at the same time being open, approachable and friendly.

The Hero who has a partner, a sidekick, a bosom buddy, makes the best kind of lead character for a novel, especially a Romance novel.

The love interest might be the sidekick or use the sidekick as access to the Hero.

Think about the TV Series Zoro. (not the recent movies, the very old TV Series)


Now consider how many remakes, rewrites, renewals, that series had.  Wouldn't you like your Science Fiction Romance series to get that kind of longevity?

Now think about Superman -- and eventually the TV Series Lois and Clark:


The Lone Ranger never got a love interest (neither did the Cisco Kid (also of early TV fame)).  But we knew both of these Hero Characters by the Creed they lived by -- never articulated on air, but rather woven deep inside the plots. 

So, if you are going to write a "weak" character, you tell the reader right up front, what this character (pridefully) refuses to do, or definitively insists on doing.

If you are going to write a "strong" character, you show the reader right up front, how the character (unconsciously, and without actually intending or exerting any effort of will) simply adheres to his personal code of ethics, his/her values and creed.

How do you do that?  What do you choose to include in a first page of a novel to indicate what kind of a person this Character is?

We have discussed how the opening lines of a story or novel delineate the first meeting of the Lead Character (the one whose story you are telling) with the opposing force that will be overcome on the final page.

That is the Conflict -- Lead Character vs. Opposing Force

The Middle is where the Lead Character is defeated and vanquished by the Opposing Force.

The Ending is where the Lead Character vanquishes the Opposing Force.

The Hero wins by Strength of Character followed by Strength of mind/body/will. 

The Villain loses for lack of Strength of Character - no matter how much strength of mind/body/will the Villain may have.  Physical strength, cunning, wealth, power -- none of these can stand against Strength of Character.

So if Hero and Villain have the same strength of mind/body/will and the same Strength of Character -- then you have a conflict between their respective Creeds -- their values, ethics, morals. 

That sort of Plot Conflict using the content of Creed is a setup for the perfect Love Triangle novel.

The Main Viewpoint Character is the one who must choose a mate.  One man and two women -- or one woman and two men (or variants on this pattern). 

You might open where the two men of the triangle are interacting, and the woman sees this. 

The Hero says something most readers in your target readership would find neutral or innocuous, and the Villain retorts, "That is offensive!"  The verbal combat goes on, and the Villain uses some sort of Power (financial, social, perhaps the threat job loss or disgrace) to force the Hero to apologize. 

Within this exchange, you can code a large amount of worldbuilding detail, sketch the relationship among the three, and their life stories, current status and relationships, etc. But the scene focus is sharp on the issue of taking offense and counter-attacking the offender. 

It should seem to the reader that the objection to the offending utterance is rational, reasonable, and righteous.  Of course that statement was utterly offensive, so naturally any Good Man would take offense and obtain an apology -- either knowing or not-knowing the Woman is watching.

A modern twist of this Situation would be if a friend of the Woman in Question is recording a video of the exchange to send to the Woman in Question (as proof of the Character or lack thereof, illustrated by each man's behavior.)

For an Alien Romance, the Woman In Question might be the Alien sent to judge humanity, perhaps for entry into the Galactic Civilization -- or maybe for worthiness of being defended against some Galactic Invading armada bent on taking over this whole planet.

The plot problem in the opening conflict is very much the same as in a Detective Mystery, where a Colombo Character has to tell the guilty from the innocent. Which is the Good Guy and which is the Bad Guy?  Which will the Woman In Question choose to marry?  The one who offends?  Or the one who takes offense?  Strong Characters never take offense.  Though they may form a low opinion of the offending person, Strong Characters will not let their opinion show.  It is not in the Creed. 

Guilt is the feeling driving characters who know they have violated their own creed.

Innocence is the feeling of those who know they have not violated their own creed.

Offense is the feeling telegraphed by Characters who are convinced their own Creed is the only acceptable Creed, and all humans must be forced to obey that one Creed. 

The difference between a Hero and a Villain is in how and when they will use Force to make others behave.

In other words, the difference between hero and villain is inside the content of their Creed.

A Hero is never offended by what others say or do, because he/she is secure in the knowledge that they have followed their own Creed well enough.  A Hero can be put into a physically (or socially, or economically) humiliating position and still be cloaked in dignity. 

A Villain is easily offended by what others say and do because he/she needs the behavior of others to conform to his/her Creed in order to feel secure in the virtue of that Creed.

In other words, Villains evolve to villainous behavior because of the content of their Creed.  Not all humans with a Creed of dubious content will become Villains (in fact, few do).  But would Aliens trying to evaluate us know that?

As a Romance writer, you can take a valiant Hero adhering to a Virtuous Creed and break him, break the Character, make them violate their Creed. 

One famous series that does that, with an admirable expertise in human psychology, is Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake Series (Vampire Romance -- gorgeous work, especially the intricate worldbuilding).

Anita Blake starts out with searing Pride in her Creed -- things she WILL NOT DO -- which, novel by novel, she actually does, hates herself for, gets used to, accepts, and rebuilds her character around new, situationally appropriate, Values.  But as her character grows and strengthens, it is no longer founded on her over-weaning pride.  She regards her younger self as innocent, naive.

The pride exhibited in Book I
telegraphs the character-arc to come -- the Creed she lives by may be good, but she will not be able to maintain her integrity.

And she does not.  And she suffers the consequences.  Really suffers.

When it all settles, she is not a Strong Character, but she is not a Villain either.  She's just "one of us" -- an ordinary person coping haphazardly and expediently with impossible situations.

Well, her impossible situations include Vampire politics, shape-shifters, accidental acquisition of power over others, deep involvement with professional hit man, ruining the life and career of a very nice, mild mannered High School teacher, and so on.

The series is the story of a Character whose Creed is honorable, but whose grip on that Creed is shattered.  She can't live by it, anymore and comes to regard the Creed itself as naive.

So what appeared to be the theme at the beginning of the series is revealed to be a red herring.  The actual theme of the series might be stated, "Humans can't adhere to a Righteous Creed."  But how could a human born with the Power to raise the dead adhere to a Righteous Creed?  Isn't that a naive idea? 

So this (very popular) series is an example of how all Weak Characters are not Villains.  Anita Blake is no Villain -- but she's no Hero, either.  She's a Survivor -- and that may be an Archetype, too, one related to the Lone Ranger.

In the Anita Blake series, we see a Character who articulates her Creed right up front, so you know she will break it.

In the Lone Ranger (old Radio or B&W TV version) we see a Character who lives a Creed without any real pride in that fact.  He has a Creed.  He lives that Creed.

The whole pursuit of the Cavendish Gang is not revenge, but simple justice and responsibility, simply Being Prepared, physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.  He never says that in so many words.  He just does it -- and very likely does not know he does it.  It is simply right.

Anita Blake knows her Creed and takes inordinate pride in forcing herself to behave according to her creed, head high,  -- in spite of yearning to do otherwise.

The Lone Ranger doesn't know his Creed, but does not yearn to do otherwise.

Anita Blake is not a Villain -- but she is the material out of which Villains are made.

The Lone Ranger is a Hero, pure and simple.

One is a Fantasy Character -- the other Reality. 

Which is which, and why?  Answer that and you will have a dynamite theme for an Alien Romance Series.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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