Creating Character with the F-H System

The F-H system, if you’re just tuning in, is a system for creating popular fiction.  It was made in the 40’s by a writing instructon named Foster-Harris.  Some of the instruction is geared to an older style of writing, but much of it is still valuable.  It’s overlooked and out of print, but I’ll be going through it thoroughly on this blog.  See that? — Free writing course.

The F-H  standard appears to be the minimum necessary requirement for a work to qualify as a story.  And it seems that, if you follow this system, you will reliably create a story.  Might not be a good one, but it won’t be something else masquerading as a story.  That’s what the F-H system is about — getting the minimum requirements.

Conflict Creates Character

We create character in the F-H system the same way we create plot:  through conflict.  The emotional conflict which generates the story must live in the central character, and make the big decision seemingly impossible.  The more conflicted the character is, the more real he seems to the audience.

F-H doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s clear that the decision the character faces relates to the character’s function in the plot:  The love interest can’t decide whether to give it up; the hero can’t decide who he should kill; the villian could decide not to cause trouble, but instead he goes through with it.  In every case, the more the character is caught between two strongly opposing emotional forces, the less clearly they know what to do, and the more they struggle over the decision, the more interesting a character we find them.

The nature of a character’s conflict must be a local version of the same emotional conflict that generates the plot.  That means that all the secondary characters are going through different versions of the emotional conflict that the main character is going through.  (Because the main character is the one feeling the central emotional conflict of the plot.)

So, let’s say we have a western where the central conflict is honor vs. approval.  Now I warn you, this story is meant to meet the minimum standards, and to adhere strictly to the F-H system:  it will be pulp.  The important thing here is to see how pulp stories work, and the emotional logic behind them.

The hero (honor + approval = ?) gets word that the villian is coming, and he’d better get out of town, or he’ll have to have a gunfight which he’ll surely lose.  Everyone tells him he should leave:  this is the choice society would approve of, and the easy choice, and therefore the wrong choice.  His sense of honor tells him he should stay and fight, which is the hard choice, the heroic choice, the self-sacrificing choice, and therefore the right choice.  The hero, against his nature, starts to prepare to leave town.

The sherrif (honor + approval = ?), who is his best friend, or like a father to him, or something, tells him he had better get out of town, and if he stays to cause trouble, he’ll have to arrest him.  The sherrif has pressures of his own, to keep the town quiet, and so he also starts on the wrong track.

The sweetheart (honor + approval = ?), who is devoutly Christian, tells him he mustn’t kill people and it’s better to run away.  And, if he does revert to his old killing ways, she’ll leave him.

Now, neither the sherrif nor the sweetheart mean trouble for the hero, and both think they’re doing the right thing.  The sweetheart doesn’t want to leave him and the sherrif doesn’t want to arrest him:  so they are each conflicted.  They’ll be less conflicted than the hero, because the story isn’t about them:  the more conflicted they are, the more interesting they become, and the more prominence they take on the stage.

The villian (honor – approval = ?) has a grudge he’s working out.  The hero shot his brother and stole his farm, he thinks.  But, the hero has a talk with him and proves he didn’t shoot his brother — he has an alabi the villian reluctantly accepts — and he didn’t steal his farm; he just found some livestock that had run wild and when nobody claimed them sold them at auction.  And he offers to pay the villian the selling price.  But the villian rejects that deal and says, boy, at high noon tomorrow, I’ll find you and kill you.

While the villian initially seemed to be operating out of a sense of honor, now he just can’t let it be said he backed down.  So in fact he has made his decision, and he chooses a kind of approval over honor.

We all see where this goes — the hero will be suddenly caught in a bind — the villian abducts the sweetheart or something — he frees her — while trying to get out of enemy territory, the sweetheart sees the villian about to kill the hero and cries a warning that allows the hero to kill him (or she throws him his gun, or she kills him herself).  The sherrif arrives on the scene and says, I guess it was self-defense, so I’m not going to arrest you.

The more the character conflicts are genuine — the more the sherrif really believes in law and order, the more devout the sweetheart’s religion, the more the villian grieves over his dead brother — the more interesting these characters will be.

The Hero Is 49% Evil

This is straight out of the Star Trek episode with Evil Kirk.  The argument is that conflict is interesting, and that internally-generated conflict is more interesting than externally-generated conflict.  So, in order to maximize the hero’s conflict, the hero must be as evil as he could possibly be without tipping the balance and becoming an evil person overall.

Likewise, the villian is 49% good.  (“We’re not so different, you and I!”)  The other characters are also divided, although none so sharply down the middle as the villian and hero.

Enriching the System

There are a lot of ways you can make this more interesting.  For one thing, notice that conflicts between similar emotions are more interesting than those between very different emotions — honor vs. approval is more interesting than honor vs. fear, or fear vs. approval.  That’s because honor and approval are related through the concept of heroism, so an emotional discussion of the two can easily become a discussion of what heroism really is.

Now, there are a lot of ways we could bring that out.  What if, rather than the standard F-H story above, we reversed a few things?  Let’s say our hero is the better gunfighter; let’s say he knows the villian would die in a fight.  Further, let’s say he understands the villian thinks he killed the villian’s brother (did he?) and in order to avoid killing the villian, he intends to flee town.  And the sherrif and his sweetheart want him to stick around and whack this guy when he shows up.  And furthermore, the villian is a thief and a scoundrel, but he doesn’t deserve to get killed; and to some extent he was forced into a life of crime because of the death of his older brother, who had been taking care of him.

What’s the heroic thing to do?  I don’t know, but I know it isn’t to kill this guy.  And because I don’t know, it’s a western I’d like to see.  And you can elaborate the central problematic — What is honor?  What approval matters?  — and follow up with minor characters who have fallen for counterfeits of heroism, or passed themselves off as heros, or fallen into hero-worship of bad men, or successfully controlled others by telling them what heroism is.  You can talk about the groupthink that happens when everyone is worried about what everyone else would approve of, and no one will make a stand against it — the opposite of heroism.

This elaborated version is still an F-H story, but it’s a more interesting F-H story, because the conflict is stronger and more genuine, and because the emotional structure is more varied.  F-H stories don’t need to be pulp.

You can elaborate a F-H story with the realization that many emotions are not symmetric.  You can’t have love without a beloved, and the beloved may respond to being loved in many different ways.  So look at all of the roles, and put characters into roles that conflict.

Next Up

That’s how you construct character in the F-H system.  Next we’ll look at how to portray character.

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Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. […] the F-H System to Convey Character In the previous post, we saw that to make characters with the F-H system, we need to show characters undergoing a […]

  2. […] the F-H System We’ve considered the F-H system of characterization, with one blog post on theory and strategies, and one on techniques and implementation.  The goal now will be to re-work these techniques for […]


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