Writer as Casting Director

The next couple of Story Grid Bonuses are about how to best approach creating your global Story’s cast of characters.

How do you convey the three dimensionality of your lead character? How do you move them from cruel to loving? From reserved to demonstrative? From weak to strong?

Active choices under stress are what reveal character. Stress is the result of conflict. And conflict drives story events.

In order to actively show readers how your lead character is moving from one core character pole to another, use the Story’s secondary and tertiary players to apply pressure.

Create a story cast that will challenge your protagonist.

So how do you draw up a cast list?

Begin with the global Genre to find the archetypical figures and obligatory characters necessary to abide the genre’s conventions.

For example, the Love Story requires two lovers, and at least one third party to get in between them.  In The Philadelphia Story you have Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and in the third role Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart).  In Brokeback Mountain you have Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the two women they marry, Alma (Michelle Williams) and Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) as the ones in the way.

To discover the archetypical figures and obligatory characters for your particular genre, you have to do the work. I plan on diving deeply into as many genres as I can over the remaining years of my life and will share everything I learn, but please don’t wait for me.  There are about 300 people on The Story Grid Forum which my friend Joel Canfield so kindly set up for us. You can sign up on the right hand side column.  These 300 Story Spartans are helping each other with all of this important work right now.

Once you have your core three to five characters you must then look at each of your supporting players and map out how you might play them off of your lead character’s contradictions.  This is how you’ll nudge and ultimately upend your protagonist into change.

That is, your should think of your cast in general terms as players to which your lead character can act out the realities and contradictions of his deepest being.

If you’re writing a thriller, obviously the most important secondary character you’ll need is the villain/antagonist.

The purpose of the villain is to push your hero to the limits of human experience, to make the most difficult choice of his life. To drive him to such a monumental crisis that he must consciously choose to sacrifice his own life in order to save another. To offer himself as sacrifice for the rest of humanity.

When I say that your audience is so thoroughly versed in compelling stories, especially thrillers, just take the central story of Christian theology as a case in point.  What follows is strictly story analysis and is in no way a religious criticism.

It is no small task to construct a Story as compelling and heartbreaking as the life of Jesus Christ. And obviously, the inspiration for the hero in Western civilization is the Jesus Christ story. Talk about someone who lived life to the limits of human experience!

You may say to yourself, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, pure goodness, how can I look at my character through that lens?” That debate will last until the end of time, but let’s not forget that Jesus was flesh and blood too. And his ultimate antagonist was an internal one.

As a human presence, Jesus was full of contradictions. This is a huge part of what makes him such an everlasting figure in our world. He loved being human and alive. He enjoyed the world around him and sometimes he let his emotional side get the better of him too. He got angry and had fits of rage…(kicking out the money changers at the temple). He had his feelings hurt. He was flippant and cavalier one moment and deeply serious the next.

He had internal doubts.

What is so wonderful about Jesus is that he was so perfectly human and so artfully portrayed by so many different writers and storytellers that we understand just what a sacrifice he made.

What rips my heart out is his last temptation.

In my mind, after a lifelong exposure to his Story, Jesus debated whether or not he should stay on earth, put aside his duties as the son of God, and live the beautiful and true life of a craftsman/artist/carpenter and settle down and raise a family.  That life is a service to God too, no?  Wouldn’t that be okay?

Can you hear the voice of Resistance?

It was this temptation and his strength to not only give up that beautiful life, but to suffer the indignities of his choice.  To be spat upon.  To be told he was a fraud, a heretic, a Flim-Flam man.  And, there’s no getting around this, to withstand the worst of human cruelty on that brutal trek on the Via Dolorosa, transporting the very materials of his own physical destruction.

The Jesus story is intense and incredibly powerful. And it is very instructive about what it exactly means to live life to the limits. Jesus came to accept the truth about himself and chose to live in that truth no matter the consequences.

In a thriller and every other single Archplot story structure, you must place your lead character in this sort of dilemma—do I run away from who I am or do I embrace my role on earth?—and let his true being actively come to light.

If you have no last temptation scene or you have no compelling secondary characters to sway your lead protagonist one way or another, you will disappoint your reader/audience. Your story will fall flat.  It won’t last.

If you have no Mary, no Joseph, no Mary Magdalene, no Matthew, no Mark, no Luke, no John, no Pharisees, no Pontius Pilot, no Judas, no King Herod, no Barrabas etc….no viscerally demanding cast of supporting characters, you will not be able to tell the Jesus story well.

Jesus gave us so many gifts.  As writers, we must unwrap his Story (and the Stories of the other icons of Religious experience) and learn how to adapt and apply the lessons his narrative entails.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts The Story Grid Bonus Material posts and Storygridding The Tipping Point posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.



8 comments on “Writer as Casting Director

  1. Joel D Canfield says:

    Ultimately, every story I read becomes that question: will they choose or reject their authentic self?

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    And what gains and losses will come with that choice to accept or reject the authentic self? As always, Shawn, thanks!

  3. Petrina says:

    Thank you for pointing out the absolute essentials to good storytelling with such simplicity and clarity.

  4. Justin Fike says:

    This strikes me as a very courageous post, given the potentially volatile nature of your core example, but it’s spot on and very helpful. Thanks for the reminder to keep pushing the limits of our characters until they’ve reached this kind of gobal/cosmic significance. Hard work, but worthwhile.

  5. Tina Goodman says:

    In Brokeback Mountain I think it was Society that stood in the way. Society is also what dictated that the men get married to women.

  6. Christine says:

    After wading through the analyses of Silence of the Lambs and its horrifying sequels, this is the last place I thought I would find mortar to hold together my scattered bricks of Faith. Thank you for your Biblical insights. And thank you for recognizing that the Bible, like scriptures from other religious traditions, is Literature — far more powerful, far more meaningful, than rote literal “fact”.

  7. Patricia Wilson says:

    Shawn, I’ve finally completed the Story Grid, yet still feeling unsure of my ability to follow its guidelines, though an education for sure. Reading your follow-up posts have helped to clarify many of my questions. Certainly it must be because we fledgling writers don’t even know which questions to ask, until you answer them, and we learn example by example. Truly, thank you.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Patricia,
      You can’t solve problems if you can’t identify them. It is incredibly daunting to think about all this stuff, but if you don’t you’ll never get better.
      All the best,

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