FiYoShiMo Day 7: Character Philosophies

Welcome to Day 7 of FiYoShiMo, and welcome to the end of the first week! How’s it going for you? Ready for this?

Today you’ll need your protagonist and antagonist in mind, although later you’re going to apply this to all the major characters, we’re just starting with the primaries. If you don’t know, a major character is a character that interacts with other characters AND the plot through both dialogue and action. So this isn’t the story of guy filling the gas tank on the police chief’s cruiser, just because he has a name and he pumps gas in chapter two. We’re looking at bigger characters than that. People who matter to the story. Sorry gas station guy, you don’t really cut it (but we’ll see you again on Day 12, I promise).

We can sum up today’s lesson with this image:

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and I could just stop there, but you know I won’t.

I want you to stop thinking about your characters based on their labels. Forget protagonist and antagonist for a second, consider them as characters in your story. They’ve got plans, based on their goals (we talked about that yesterday with motivations), and now we’re going to marry those plans, motivations and their personal philosophy together.

If their plan is what they’re going to do, their motivation is why they’re going to do it, and the philosophy informs how they’re going to do it.

A person’s code is developed based on both their experiences as well as their ambitions and interests. I have a distrust of lawyers, stemming from a number of bad relationships and experiences, so I believe that the law, on the whole, does more to pervert honesty than preserve it. You may believe that everyone should own six attack dogs and have a room full of munitions, based on whatever your experience and beliefs are. These ideas form the core of who we are, and they help determine what we’re going to do or not do, or how we react to events and other people.

It’s no different for characters. Just because you label a character as an antagonist doesn’t mean they have to go be the most evil of evil characters doing only evil things to earn evil points they can trade in at the evil prize booth. A label on a character only exists so that characters can be compared to other characters. Over time we’ve let that label stretch out so we have a set of expectations to go along with it, but there’s no reason you can’t muddy the waters and subvert expectations.

I don’t always think there should be a clear line between protagonist and antagonist. Yes, I admit to having a deep love for the “we’re not so different you and I” moment in stories, but as I’ve gotten older and been working with more writers, the stories with really clear white-hat/black-hat distinctions are boring. We live in a world with a whole lot of grays. (If you ever want examples, listen to a conversation between family members about hot-button issues. Once you get past the intensity of belief, there’s tons of nuance there)

To blur those lines for the reader, you as a writer need to have crystal clear blueprints. The reader will never see them, but the sharper your image of the character, the easier it will be to present a smudged projection of the character. So let’s build a blueprint.

I’m going to assume we’ve already got the character physically described. Height, weight, race, sex, all the visual elements. That’s the easy stuff. Now we’re going to look at the interior elements, the stuff not seen directly, but the stuff that’s expressed directly … sometimes.

See, a character can express their philosophy directly, like this:
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That’s actually a line in the comics, and I think in the first movie. (The one where Superman doesn’t snap a dude’s neck). That line gives the reader/audience TONS of information about what the character believes in and sets up the expectation for how they’re going to act (or not act). The visuals (or in text, the description) help sell that idea. He appears strong, credible and honest. Wholesome.

There’s a fine line between clearly stating the philosophy and jumping all over the place with it. Here’s another example:
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I’ll wait here, you go tell me the character’s belief system. See, if you say “anarchy”, or “he doesn’t have one” I’m going to tell you to look again. Every iteration of the Joker has some kind of philosophy. You can’t have a not-flat character and not have a philosophy. And no, psychopathy is not a philosophy, it’s an influencer on philosophy. Everyone believes in something, even the nihilists and solipsists.

This comes down to making decisions. You’re going to build a box and put the character in it. The four walls of this box reflect the character’s limitations, regardless of whether they’re self-imposed or not.

Here’s today’s project:

1. For every major character you have, draw a box. Put the character’s name in the box. (This box is gonna be big, so plan accordingly)

2. On the left side of the box, that’s the hopeless boundary. That’s what it would take for a character to lose all hope regardless of opportunity. Would they have to be rejected romantically? Would they have to lose their family and income? Would they need to be accused of a crime? What makes the character lose hope?

3. On the right side of the box, that’s the hostile boundary. How far is “too far” for this character? Will they kill? Will they kill a child to prove a point? Will they blow up a city to get one person? Will they torture? They might be comfortable going pretty far, but even the most ardent killer has a limitation in terms of environment, interest or external factor (time, attention, that it might slow her from her agenda, etc)

4. The top side of the box, that’s the success boundary. What does success look like for this character? No, not just in terms of this plot, but what’s their relationship to success? Do they say they want to succeed, but if they ever did, they wouldn’t know how to handle it? Do they know they’re capable of getting an A, but the pressure scares them so they manage to do straight B+ work? Do they think they will always succeed? Do they reject all notions of success?

5. The bottom side of the box, that’s the failure boundary. What does failure look like for this character? How do they handle it? Sulking? Do they go have a burrito, watch a lot of porn and then cry while playing video games? Do they swear vengeance and then go push old ladies down stairs? Do they expect failure no matter what?

A character and their philosophy exists larger than the plot. The plot is just the snapshot during which we encounter them.

Box out your characters. When they’re all done, see if you have characters whose boxes share a boundary (if they share more than one, I challenge you as to whether or not you can’t collapse the characters down, so pick one), and then put their boxes next to each other, redrawing them if you need to.

When I say “Share a boundary” I mean where one person has a hopeless boundary, that’s practically another character’s hostility boundary. Or someone’s success boundary is someone else’s failure boundary.  There’s no rule that says you can’t rotate these boxes to see how character philosophies conflict or connect.

And it’s through those conflicts and connections that you have reasons for tension in your story. Two cops, one who follows the rules while the other hates Jews:

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Nailed it

brings inherent tension that can extrapolated across the story as an arc unto itself. We’ll talk arcs on Day 13.

Tomorrow, we’re going to look at character skills. Go draw some boxes.

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