Just the Facts, Ma’am: Tips on creating characters with emotional relevance

by E. M. Youman

Sniff, sniff. Why am I dabbing my eyes, you ask? I just finished watching season three of Once Upon a Time. I think it’s rife with great storytelling tips for beginning writers. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t been watching this awesome show, stop reading. Go fire up Netflix and then come back and read this article. I’ll be talking about some pivotal scenes from the show.

What is Once Upon a Time? I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not Trix. This show is for all ages. It takes fairy tales, myths and your favorite Disney movies and gives them a dark modern twist. The story is about an adopted boy who runs away from home in search of his biological mother. The mother just happens to be descended from royalty. But not just any royalty. She’s the daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White. When mother and son reunite he convinces her to go home with him to Storybrooke, because all the fairy tale characters are under a spell where they have forgotten who they are. The boy believes his biological mother is the savior, the only one who can break the curse over the town. The mother takes the boy home and the plot twisting roller coaster begins.

So now that you know about the show, let’s get back to why I was dabbing my eyes as I began to write this article. In season three Rumpelstiltskin dies. Rumpelstiltskin is the most hated character on the show. He’s a coward, a murderer and the worst loan shark you never want to know. But when he died it made me sad, because he was my favorite character on the show. That’s the first lesson of Once Upon a Time.

  1. Evil characters are sympathetic.

That’s rule numero uno for writers. We hear all the time that readers want to read about characters that they can either relate to or feel empathy for. So how did the writers make this murderer sympathetic?

They gave their back stories a universal human element.

Everyone in Storybrooke has a story and it all breaks down to two simple denominators the desire to love or be loved. Each character in Storybrooke has made one bad choice that defined them for the rest of their lives. Unless you’re perfect, you probably have a mistake or two you wished you could get a do-over.

Rumplestiltskin   Rumpelstiltskin

For Rumpelstiltskin, he was the quintessential provider. He wanted to be a father to his son. He put his love for his son above everything, even the chance at love. But his desire didn’t always match his actions. Because he was a coward he lost the one thing that he loved most in the world, his son. For three seasons he dedicated years and a century to be reunited with his son. He made evil deals, so that he could cross realms to find his son. And once he had, this evil man who had destroyed lives was not killed by a hero, he died being a hero.

Now that’s a lot of backstory to weave into a one hour show. So how do they do it?

Lesson number two.

  1. Get to the point

One day I was watching the show with my Dad and he said, “You know what I like about this show? They get to the point.” If you watch season three you’ll see that the story lines were built fast and then cut as they went for the big finish. They can do this because they established their foundation early on.

I didn’t have to wait three seasons to find out that Rumpelstiltskin’s ruthlessness stemmed from his desire to be reunited with his son. The writers revealed Rumpelstiltskin’s motivation in the first season. I think that’s a lesson we can all put in our tool boxes. Sometimes I think story lines have to be secretive about the villain’s motivations so they can have that big surprise at the end, but after seeing how quickly I fell in love with the murderer I think I’ll be changing my position on that.

What about you? Do you think it’s best to hide the antagonist’s motivations or reveal them upfront?

About the Author

Once upon a time there was a girl who dreamed of a genie that took her on magical journeys, many of which may have included scenes from the Nancy Drew series (shh!!). Then one day she discovered Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy and became obsessed with heart wrenching romances. When she’s not watching tearjerkers, she’s usually writing them.

E.M. Youman is a freelance writer from Oakland, CA. Some of her short stories have been published by The Bowman’s Inn, Black Cat Press, S/tick Magazine and IFF. When she’s not writing fiction, E.M. Youman, works at an independent record label and runs a music blog. She has a B.A. and Master in Communication and is currently working on her first romance novel.

Her short stories can be found on Amazon

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Follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100007125225450

Or Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/emyouman

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