86 Things I’ve Said on Twitter, Part 8

This is the eighth post in a series. You can read the entire series by going through the ‘86 Things‘ tag on the blog. For the curious, there’s only one more part to go. I know, it’s been a long read, but I appreciate you doing it.

Let’s get right to it.

I swear on your choice of holy object, you really don’t want to use the passive voice 8 times out of 10. (exceptions possible) 

The problem with the passive voice is that it makes the action unclear. “Had been cooking” dilutes the idea that someone was cooking, just as “was thinking” separates us from the notion that thought occurred.

Now yes, there are times when you need to frame a verb passively, because the sentence won’t make sense without it:

“I was cleaning when the phone rang.” 

But the focus of the sentence, the item we’re looking for when we read is the action of the sentence — what’s going on in this string of words, and how can I mentally translate into images so that I may continue to enjoy this creation? So why then would you make the action unclear?

Conveying action effectively both helps paint the picture you’re intending AND moves us further along the page and deeper into the story. Which is what you want. In case you weren’t sure. The stronger verbs (not the word choice this time, but the conjugation of the verb) are clearer.

“I ran.”
“We danced.”
“They bowled.”

All three are clear, strong and direct. They’re feasible when you’re trying to paint a declarative picture.

“My legs had carried me far when the dog stopped chasing me.”
“We had danced before, but never like this.”
“Bowling had been fun.”

Yes, those three are accurate sentences. They’re grammatically correct. Each has their place in writing. But their place is NOT THE SAME PLACE as the first three examples.

Knowing when to go passive and when to be active is critical for engaging the reader and keeping them hooked throughout all the twists, turns, ups and downs of you work. Building that push/pull relationship is part of what connects readers to a writer’s style and helps generate a fan base that persists across multiple books, series or projects.

Let the story develop at the pace that works best for it. Micro-managing leads to disaster and stalled projects. Let it be. 

I worked on a disaster of a project once — 15 writers (or was it 18), our budget was literally whatever we had in our wallets, and it was not a fun three-month process. And no, I’m not entirely proud of the work, because although it was a “learning experience” (I cannot make air-quotes big enough for that), it broke every rule I believe in: no contract, no pay, no contingency plans, shoddy equipment, no consistent schedule, etc).

It was also the first time I was ever truly micro-managed to the point of wanting to throw things. I am not a guy who deals well with that style of management: the constant hovering and checking-in, the lack of freedom to really be myself and feel like I’m a valued contributor, the lack of respect paid to who each of us are and what we bring to this project in terms of expertise and previous work. I swore off that sort of project when it was done, and I swore off ever working in that way ever again. Yeah, it was THAT bad (if you see me at a convention this summer, you’ll have to ask me for details).

The problem was that managing the creation of the project so rigidly did not create the product it was supposed to. I can think of four occasions where people were told “Do it this way”, even if their sensibility or their talent suggested another way worked better. This was usually said by people who had never managed something like that before, who had no real practical experience trusting themselves, or who were they themselves products of a rigid system.

Creative projects are at their heart, organic. They grow, in whatever direction you let them. This doesn’t mean they should grow without boundaries or borders or limits or some sort of structure, but this does mean you shouldn’t try to shoe-horn a story together when it clearly becomes something else as you create it.

Yeah, some parts of your story are going to come you more naturally or more excitedly than other parts. Some parts will be read faster than others. Placing a stranglehold on your own ideas and screaming “Work this way!” is a lot like yelling at your plant in the window for not growing like the picture on the packet of seeds (which is something I’ve seen happen).

Trust yourself to be able to let the story go in whatever direction it needs to go in order to be told. Don’t force it down some path, don’t break it in order to fit that vision you had way back on Day 1. Stories change and grow just as authors do. Let them.

Queries should get to the damned point. Breezy queries lead to thick slush. 

I am wordy. I am long-winded. This is both because I love the sound of my own voice (not even close to true) and because I love talking (totally true). And when I write, I tend to over-write, mixing a blend of casual we’re-just-hanging-out with this-is-how-you-do-things. I mean, really, have you seen my blog posts? Some of them go on for days.

But that’s all because I have the luxury of time and space. I can afford to say what I want for as long as I want, because I’m given wide open space here on the blog and because I run my own workshops.

Query letters though do not have such luxury. You get a page. ONE page. At absolute most 250 words, and every word counts. Each word works with the words to the left and right, above and below for the purpose of making the manuscript they’re attached to appealing to the reader.

If your query doesn’t entice the would-be reader to pick up the manuscript, then your path to publication (in one model of publishing) ends there. And even if you aren’t pursuing that route to publication, the skill of writing a tight, seductive query letter is a good one, like for when you have to write business proposals or letters explaining why you can’t attend boring family functions.

One page. Seriously. You can do it. It can be taught. You can learn how to do it. (Note: I also teach how to do it, you know, if you’re interested.)

No, don’t send them your first draft. Send them the best polished draft. Do it right if you’re going to do it at all. 

If you want to get published, and you’re taking a route that puts your work into the hands of an agent and a big publisher, the work you send them has to be in the best possible and most complete shape. That means the story has to be completely written, shouldn’t have spelling and grammatical mistakes and should have all the parts in it that it needs to in order to make sense.

Just like you wouldn’t play a full-contact sport against pros without training or preparation, so too can you ill-afford to just dive into publication by sending off incomplete, error-laden work.

How can you ensure that your best work goes out? GET AN EDITOR. Don’t know any? Here’s one. And another. And another. And another. And another.

It’s our job to help you take your work and get it into the best shape possible so that you can do whatever you want with it and so that it may be enjoyed by readers.

Yeah, I know, you’ve been told that once you sign that contract, there will be an editor assigned to your work. Or that your agent is your editor. Or that editing is something that comes AFTER you say yes to the deal. And yeah, sometimes, that’s all true.

But if the goal is to get your work published, and you want someone to say yes to your work, wouldn’t you want it in the best shape possible, so that it’s easier for them to say yes?

Make the job easier, not harder. Put your best foot/work forward. Ask an editor for help. (The ones I mentioned are the best I’ve ever worked with.)

When sending out queries, do your homework. Make sure the query receiver actually TAKES what you’re submitting (check their site!) 

Okay, not every agent or publisher publishes everything. Just because they’re called a “publisher” doesn’t mean that anytime someone sends them a manuscript they run off to the press in their basement and churn out page upon page with gleams of satisfaction in their eyes.

Publishers are allowed to publish whatever they want, even if that means saying “No.” to one type of manuscript. Just like authors, who may prefer to write in one style or genre over another. See how that works outs?

So when you’ve written a particular story, find a publisher who publishes that kind of story.

It’s not hard. It does take some digging. Either in the Writer’s Market, or more accurately, by doing some investigative Google searches for submission guidelines. Yes, you can find a publisher for nearly every genre and type of story, if you look hard enough. (And if you’re going to email me and say you can’t find a publisher, then either you need to broaden your search or improve your story so that it can be more easily classified).

Make the job of publication easier on everyone involved. It makes a huge difference.

Not all your ideas are unpolished gemstones. Sometimes they’re just ideas that you can tweak/cut/hack to make other gems shinier.

I’m sitting in my office right now, and if you look to the left of the chair, on a small re-purposed nightstand, you’ll see a whole stack of legal pads and steno pads. These are my idea books. You may also have seen me carry a smaller version in my back pocket when at conventions.

When some idea explodes in my brain, I write it down. Sometimes those ideas are really clear — “a mechanical system that divides an eight-sided die into the 8 types of affirmative action” or they’re vague — “spy apparat“. All the same, they get written down.

Most of those ideas won’t go anywhere. But sometimes, when someone calls me or emails me and we start talking about doing a project together, I can say to them, “Oh yeah, I think I have a mechanic or a plot or an idea that can help us out here.” It’s an immense time saver, but also a huge boost to the future creativity because I already have a jumping-off point.

Because I keep a stack of ideas around, I’m able to draw on them when I need to. (I should point out that behind me I have a filing cabinet labeled “Things to do to characters” and another labeled “Feelings”). A lot of the folders in those cabinets have one or two articles in them, or a page or two of notes that I might never go through until I have to empty the cabinet out. But having that resource on hand helps me to feel more creative and feel more successful about being creative. (And yes, I do have giant binders labeled “Poison” “Gunshot” “Fire” “Stabbing”, because information is a good thing to collect, right? Like Pokemon?)

Hey people who want “realistic” characters in your writing: Are they eating regularly? How about the last time they brushed their teeth?

I love realism in my films, where the world the characters inhabit, and what happens to them feels like my world, so that I can leave the theater or walk out my door and maybe have the possibility of running into them on the street. Or something. You know, like if the Doctor showed up for lunch, I’d totally be down for that.

There’s a downside to realism though, at least when it’s misinterpreted. Don’t confuse realism (obeying practical constraints and limitations, physics, science, technology and social climate) for over-saturation of facts.

An action thriller about people unraveling a conspiracy in the post office is going to be slightly marred and slowed down by the half-page you wrote telling the audience about how someone flosses. The love story that takes place only during summers over the course of ten years can get bogged down when you detail the tuna salad someone eats on page eight.

Details do not make realism. Realism comes from the context and application of those details — what you do about the details makes things real or not.

The blending of details (small or large) with their application is what makes the scene feel more lived in, and the world more natural.

Building your own world is great. Want to make that world feel real? Give the sandbox some borders. What can’t it do?

On the flip side of the realism coin, there’s nothing wrong with making your own world. The downside here is in the freedom. You can make anything from a city in the clouds, to an ice planet with caves, to I don’t know, a planet made entirely of string cheese and crackers.

But while you’re showing the reader all about what the world can do, to give some context and make the reader (and presumably the main character, who may be a fish out of water) feel like they can handle the scope of the creation, show the limitations of the world. Yeah your created world might be a technocracy or an oligarchy of fish people, but how does it fit into the greater picture? Is it one fiefdom in a country, one state in a union, one continent on a planet, one planet in a solar system, one galaxy in all of existence?

Showing the borders is not showing weakness, it’s showing strength. By defining how big the sandbox is, we can instead focus on all the detail within the borders. It draws our attention back to what’s important and lets the real work shine.

Thriller writers – Tweaking word choice + sentence length will do wonders for your pacing.

Here’s how you build tension: you vary your sentence length. Pick strong words. Fragment. Hype. Explore the power of words. Push the scene with longer sentences. Speed up with shorter ones. Push. Pull.

(see what I did there?)

Romance writers – No, there really aren’t that many world-weary young women. For serious.

I don’t normally dive into romance novels. They’re not aimed at me, I don’t normally encounter them in the development process, and in general, I don’t walk past those aisles at the bookstore. But I am aware of the tropes, in particular the one about your female protagonist who’s young but somehow already weary and an old soul.

I get it, writers, that’s you. You’re that character, only transplanted into a younger body, but still possessing your mature mind. This gives you a chance to escape a little, indulge some fantasy and play “what-if”, which is central to the genre.

But how many times are we going to tread this ground?

There’s nothing wrong with writing a not-world-weary character. It might be a little more work, it might be hard to resist the temptation to make her snark and spurn the advances and situations she find herself in, but it is possible – and you do have the talent to pull it off.

Tell your best story, and no you don’t have to cover the same ground as everyone else. Honest.

The final part of this series will go up Monday. Happy writing. Enjoy your weekend. 

The Super-Protagonist

I meant to write this post weeks earlier, when I first saw The Hunger Games. While this is not a movie review, I have two points to make, the second being the topic I want to discuss today.

I. Shaky cam does not equal action or intensity. Now maybe this is a sign that I’m getting older, or proof that I spent too many afternoons too close to speakers cranked up too high and it screwed with my inner ear, but movies lately make me dizzy. When did people take every opportunity to jiggle, wobble and rattle the camera around during even the most benign scenes to give the audience a sense of “hey something’s going on and you should pay attention!”  The problem is, when the camera’s having a seizure, it’s hard to pay attention.

Maybe it’s those damn kids, and their attention spans being smashed down to fractions of a second, maybe it’s because we all secretly enjoy a good jostle now and then, I have no idea….but I look at a lot of older action films (even stuff from 5 years ago) and the camera doesn’t look like it’s being held by a monkey going through meth withdrawal.

It’s hard to convey intensity and “grr” when the camera bobs drunkenly along. If the action is supposed to rivet our eyes, why not lock in on it? If we’re to invest in the anguish of a character, why not get us in a tight close-up?

And while that aggravates me, it’s not why I started writing this post.

II. The Super-Protagonist is not as compelling as you think. What’s a Super-Protagonist? That’s a protagonist that isn’t challenged by the situation they’re in, but they say they are, and you sort of have to take their word for it.

Wait, John, are you saying Katniss Everdeen isn’t challenged by the situation she’s in? In the book, she totally says she is. And in the movie, it totally looks like she is. 

If I say I have trouble opening a soda, but you see me drinking a soda, how much trouble did I really experience? You took my word for it. I told you rather than showed you that I had a problem.

Yes, it’s the old show-versus-tell problem again, this time in a new minty flavor. Let’s break this down.

What defines a Super-Protagonist?
Main characters are supposed to experience trouble and difficulty along their path through the plot. It’s supposed to be a challenge to them, to inspire/force/require them to change states from however they were at the beginning of the story to however they’re meant to be at the end. A Super-Protagonist coasts through the challenge, sure they get a scrape or a bruise here or there to prove their humanity or mortality or their toughness, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s a scrape versus being beaten and bedraggled and really limping toward the finish line.

And that’s Katniss?

But does that mean you expect or want all characters to just barely scrape by?
No. I don’t want all characters to just barely scrape by. I’m not asking for the global difficulty level of books to get jacked up to ‘Hardcore’ or ‘Insane’ mode, I’m just asking that the challenges be modulated for the character. Big, strong, smart, capable character? Then break out the big, powerful, brilliant, creative problems.

But…Katniss is a YA heroine and a model for girls, etc etc? Is this a sexist thing?
This has NOTHING to do with the gender of the character or the range of the readability of the book or the genre or anything like that. This has to do with the core ends of storytelling, and the ability of an author to imperil their characters appropriately, whoever they might be.

So the idea that Katniss has to leave her home, kill others and survive isn’t dangerous?
Um, no. It’s not.

Well you see, Katniss is a hunter (or as I identified her, a 1st-level Ranger). So outdoor survival isn’t a new skill for her. And it’s not that she’s set up to be a killer, she’s far more interested in self-preservation than in an active killing spree (besides, that’s for the badguys to do to prove that they’re bad, because, like, murder is totes bad), so she’s not really out of her element.

But she sacrifices herself to save her sister….
It’s only sacrifice if she dies. Else she risks herself, and as I just said, sticking her in the woods, where she’s far more comfortable than when she’s ever anywhere else (this is really clubbed over our head in the movie), that’s not a risk. It’s sort of like asking me to risk myself by going and sitting in my house with a stack of books, my Xbox and an internet connection.

But it’s noble…..
No it’s not. She’s a great character, she’s driven, talented, capable and powerful, but we can’t see the full breadth of her potential because she’s not out of her natural element. She’s not challenged by the environment or the situation once the Game starts…her challenge came before she reached the woods, when she was back in the City and had to deal with the Game set up. But the book wasn’t about Katniss-in-the-City, this was about Katniss-being-Katniss, doing-Katniss-things-that-just-happen-to-be-the-things-she’s-good-at-already. Ho hum.

So how is she Super, exactly?
Okay I’ll spell it out:

i. Her “struggle” occurs in her native environment.
ii. It’s repeatedly made clear that she’ll have access to her preferred weapon/tool.
iii. It’s repeatedly said by other characters that she has a good/great/the best chance of surviving.
iv. Her knowledge (something unknown to other people, but something she acquired being herself) of berries sets up the conclusion. This wasn’t knowledge she learned during THIS struggle, this was knowledge she came in with.
v. Even when she is out of her element, she’s put into situations where she is clearly superior to others (she gets the Penthouse, she receives the most oohs and ahhs from the audience while interviewed, she makes the most striking impression).
vi. She says rather emphatically “she’s not scared”, when fear would be a natural reaction to oh-now-I-have-to-kill-23-teenagers-on-tv-and-not-die-trying.

But how is that a bad thing? I liked the series!
It’s not a “bad” thing. The book/thought/movie police aren’t going to come to your house and take away your ability to enjoy the experience, I’m just saying that writers need to be careful not to let themselves get drunk on the brew of their own protagonists.

Are you talking about character balance?
Partially, yes. But it goes deeper than that. This isn’t just about making sure there’s a flaw to counteract every positive you grant the character.

It’s okay, I’ve given my super-smart, strong, attractive lead character a horrific mental disorder and/or drug addiction! Problem solved, right?
No….that’s sort of exactly the problem.

Imagine a scale from -10 to +10. The character starts at 0, the center, and when you list the positive abilities or attributes, you move the character positively up the scale.

0 ———> +4 
(for example)

And every time you give your character a flaw or a drawback or a hindrance or penalize them in some way, you slide that character back negatively so the overall effect is a dramatically lower state –

-8 <——— +4 
(still with me?)

Which has the added complication of meaning you have to overcome that negative state when the story climaxes to prove the character positive overall

-8 ———> + X 
(because you want your character to succeed and end on an up-note)

Now the tendency here is say, ‘Oh but my character is so awesome, she’s no longer believable, so I’ll offset these mega bonuses with a super huge negative!’ So that your sporty, independent, intelligent, outspoken, attractive female star now has cooties, agoraphobia and….really bad cramps or something.

Look: You don’t have to swing the pendulum that far back to offset the positives. You don’t need to -7 the character just to make us like them. We’ll like the character for the SUM of the positives and negatives, but that means you have to show us both sides and trust us to make our own decisions.

Wait, what do I have to do?
You (the author) have to trust us (the readers) to make up our own minds about your character(s) after you present us the character(s).

But what if I want to hold something back from the reader for later?
If that “something” is skill or knowledge or something, be careful, it may come across as convenient (i.e. Your character knows just the right fact about a shoe print). If that “something is backstory, be careful, because it may change the way some readers respond to the character. (i.e. We finally learn the reason Character Bro is a douchebag, and it’s different than our opinions, therefore we will make hyperbolic statements on the interwebs and rage at you!!)

I’m not saying that every story needs to spell out EVERY facet of a character for the reader. You, author, can pick and choose what you want to say and how you want to say it, but I’m cautioning you that the idea of “sum to date” (what the reader knows at whatever their relative “present” moment is) is how they judge the character – and it can be unfair to ask them to wait for stories down the road to hold off on passing judgement, especially if you spend a lot of the story cementing an idea that this character is pretty much an unstoppable force in your created universe.

But, I want the readers to love this character!
Yes, we all want that. We all want readers to love our characters, but we’ll love them all the more when we see them pushed to their limits, overcome obstacles we didn’t know they could and take on bigger odds to make themselves more heroic.

If you play it safe with your character, you’re doing us a disservice as readers (we won’t get to know the character fully) and you’re doing a disservice to yourself (you’re not testing yourself as best you can as a writer). If you think your character is so original and so “out of the box”, ask yourself how big the box is. And how much of that box does the reader know about at any given time.

But I’m scared. What if I suck? Or fail or get it wrong?
That’s sort of what makes writing hard, but worthwhile. If you do it everyday, if you commit to it, you’ll get better at it. That’s about the best I can tell you without getting all ranty or raining on your parade.

What can I learn from Katniss as a character?
Well, a lot, if you like physically strong and capable female protagonists with a skillset and mindset to overcome obstacles. Slightly less if you want to use her for an intelligence study (there are characters in other books admittedly older, more experienced and smarter), and slightly less than that if you want to use her for an emotional study (there are characters who experience and demonstrate a wider swath of emotions more intensely and more visibly and more acutely). But you’ll get far more if you learn the pitfalls.

I. Risk includes taking the character out of their comfort zone. Like all the way out. Nero Wolfe left the brownstone (under protest, but he did); Sherlock Holmes (especially in the modern version) struggled more with people than casework; Captain America was a paragon in the 1940s, but lost in a sea of individualism in the modern era.

II. Your character does not need to be nearly flawless to be liked. Katniss has “a voice birds go silent to hear” and “a beauty enhanced by what’s inside”. Those are pretty high watermarks for a character. You don’t need to be the best ever just to be liked (it comes off desperate and fearful on the part of the author when you’ve made characters that are too perfect).

III. Your character does not need to be mega-super-flawed to be realistic. You don’t need to take that super skilled character and give them crippling Asperger’s. Nor do you need to make them the angstiest-girl-in-high-school-like-OMG-why-won’t-Edward-like-notice-me. Remember the number line, you don’t need the character to ‘zero’ out. You need the character just end up positive if you want a positive ending, or negative if you want a negative ending.

IV. When in doubt, SHOW us the situation and SHOW us the character’s responses and reactions, rather than tell us what they’re thinking. Let the reader draw their own conclusions (which you can’t control anyway), and stop dictating to us what ‘we’re supposed to think/feel’ even if you’re worried about us ‘getting it right’. Paint for us the picture, and we’ll ‘get it’, but yes, that means you (author) have to do some work and demonstrate your skill and your craft. Sorry, them’s the tradeoff.

Anything else?
Yeah, when you make the movie version of your book, stop shaking the damned camera.

Writing/Gaming – Roles!

So somewhere on the internet right now, a lot of people are very very upset about the loss of “roles” as a component to the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

Oh right….yeah…disclaimer time….

DISCLAIMER! This post is going to start off a little nerdy, but I promise you, it’ll get back on track shortly, just ride the dork-wave back to shore. 

Now in the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, there are these things called “roles”, which were card-based pieces of organizational material that helped players figure out what their characters could and couldn’t do. (Yes, gamers, I’m way simplifying that for the reading audience, but today’s post isn’t ALL about gaming.)

And that is a terrible idea.

Your Character Is Not A Note Card
Let’s try an experiment. Go get your favorite book and go get a note card. If you really want to, go get the HUGE note card that your grandmother used to keep track of what pies she had to make for which social event, you know, those big huge ones that are practically half a page unto themselves.

Now, label the note card with the name of the book’s protagonist, or your favorite character or the antagonist or whatever – just write down a character’s name. And then all over that note card, I want you to write down all the relevant NOT-BIOGRAPHICAL facts about the character. This isn’t a space for a history of their life, this is where you can write down a list of their attributes and qualities, write down their skills and what makes them awesome, write down any relevant story actions (like “saved a cat out of a tree” or “totally defeated the bad guy in Book 2”).

It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be a list. Here, I’ll do one too with the first thing I grab off the shelf — The Complete Third Season of Night Court (what, you guys don’t have DVDs on a shelf in your office?) And from that cast of characters (which I own strictly for research purposes, I swear), let’s look at Harry Anderson’s character of Judge Harry Stone.

Judge Harry Stone
He’s a Judge
Likes magic
Only child, broken family
Unlucky in love

That list has left my indie-gaming-senses tingling, because from that list (which I know is totally incomplete), I can generate a lot of Aspects (FATE), points (GUMSHOE) and verbs (Technoir).

But by no means did that list of seven lines sum up the character that is Harry Stone. And at no time should anyone think that a well-defined character can be completed summarized by half a note card. Yes, sure, we can do our best to find the right words that cover the most real estate of who the character is and what they stand for, but at some point, we cross a threshold of who they are and what they do.

You Are Not Your Khaki Pants
One of my great peeves in writing and gaming is that people have characters and define them by what they do. “Oh, he’s a wizard, so he’s some sort of Gandalf clone with a great sagely beard and staff.” or “He’s a detective, so he has to be a boozy, plodding womanizer.”

This is where roles are more harm than good.

There’s nothing wrong in summing up what a character CAN do in a few words or sentences – it’s nice and helps other characters know how best to coordinate and collaborate. But there is a difference between “can” and “only”.

If you’ve got a character with one particular skill, let’s say they’re the best chef in the county, are you only going to put them in situations where cooking is what gives them an edge? How many times are you going to imperil them with a mega-dangerous chili cook-off?

Just because a character has a go-to skill, it doesn’t mean they have ONLY that skill. Come back a minute to the best chef in the county. Sure, they make a mean lunch, but cooking also means they know how to boil water, work a knife and prepare lots of different dishes. “Cooking” is a broad term for a whole suite of skills.

So too must the role of the character be bigger than their best or strongest skill and attribute. It’s that fixed thinking that they’re all one-trick ponies that developed the great cliches and tropes of our time:

Barbarians are stupid, fur-wearing, berserker thugs.
Blondes are stupid.
Women are secondary citizens, good only for birthing babies
Librarians are dotty old ladies.
No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.
Clerics are just walking first aid kits.
All detectives need to have a drinking problem
Brown-skinned people are property and inferior.
Every cop is either on the take, or they’re the only good cop in a world gone bad.
Wearing a hoodie makes you a criminal.
To work in a cafeteria, you must have at least three moles with hair on them.
Bad guys will always tell you their plan just before leaving you cornered in an easily-escaped trap

When crafting a character, it is paramount that you get away from these thoughts and craft a character that exists OUTSIDE of these structures, not in defiance of them (because a defiance-built character is just a one-trick pony in the opposite direction).

So What Is My Role?
Gamers, your role is to participate at the table. Gamers, your character’s role is to make the game enjoyable for the people to your left and right.

Writers, your role is to produce the best story possible and practice your craft to the best of your ability.

That’s it. No pigeon-holing. No limitations. No restrictions based on personality, preference, or philosophy.

Gamers: Don’t let your characters be pigeon-holed by anyone, anything or any arbitrary or capricious sentiment. Note: This is NOT permission to act bat-squeak insane all the time, but this is a permission slip and big thumbs-up to acting how the character would, based on philosophy, desires and interests.

Writers: Don’t let the characters lapse from your creations into the commonplace templates of your literary forebears. Let them stand out, in their own ways, as you intended.

And with that definition of ‘role’ in use, that can never be taken out of a game. (Just like it never should have been adjudicated in the first place.)

Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Plot, Choice, & Characters

Over the weekend, I read a rather disappointing book about how to plot stories (I’m always looking for new theory and new ideas to incorporate into meetings, workshops, seminars and client opportunities), which I’m about to go give a one-star review to on Amazon, because not only did it take three chapters for the book to actually talk about HOW to plot something, but it’s basic premise is one I completely disagree with:

Plot is how the events in a story directly impact the main character.”
Danger Will Robinson, danger. This way lies madness. Don’t buy it. 

Here’s what Plot is:
Plot is conflict.
Plot is the problem that causes the character to change (positively or negatively). 
Plot is the evolution of a premise (and premise is the thing that brought people to the story in the first place)

Here’s what Plot isn’t:
Plot IS NOT a series of impacts on a single character. (Plot has consequences far and wide, even if you’re writing about a single character adrift in space)
Plot IS NOT the result of events happening (Plot is far too contiguous, interconnected and interdependent to just be a hodge-podge of “Oh by the way this happened”)
Plot IS NOT passive. (Plot is a very active response to a changing (or possibly changing) environment)

What Plot boils down to is a choice in the face of a test. 

Plot answers the question — “When this problem (we’ll call it X) occurs in a created world, how does the world respond, in ways large and small?”

To this thinking, plot could be on the small scale: the bully in the classroom or it could go large scale: the appearance of malevolent aliens coming to enslave mankind through smartphone apps….or something.

But there’s a problem, and like the song says, yo, I’ll solve it. The “I” in this case are the characters, not just the singular (or possibly titular) protagonist but the whole cast of characters – everyone from the sidekick to the doubters to the assistants to the random people who inject realism in flavor-text paragraphs.

Gamers, I’m looking at you here – Plot is why you’ve got people around your table. What are they doing? How will they respond? Why are they compelled to act in this way or that? How loosely or closely you play potentiality, that is to say how much leeway you give your players, directly ties to the strength of your plot and the potential of that plot.

If it’s a closed loop, or you’re working on a small scale, then the plot’s pretty linear — the party assembles and puts a righteous hurting on the badguy of the week. A wider view shows the problem isn’t just held to one instance of a certain badguy, or that taking out this baddie reveals a power vacuum that other nasties will rush to fill. The point here is — think of the plot’s consequences, both good and bad, and then see if the plot needs tweaks. And try for narrative options, rather than narrative solutions — the players should be the ones patching the holes, not the NPCs.

Writers, this one’s for you — The resolution of the plot WILL/CAN/SHOULD change characters, for better of worse. The problem might be one of internal struggle, or physical injury or whatever (I am loathe to name options here, lest I suggest there can only be certain kinds of plots).

Yes the above quote that started this rant has implications that suggest we’re going to find out what the consequences of decisions are, but that’s not the plot. The plot is a freight train that intersects all the paths of all the characters – the injuries and damage of collisions isn’t the plot, that’s the consequence of plot.

The plot IS the decision AND the reactions, not just the impact. The proverbial explosion had to get there somehow, and that’s part of the story.

When in doubt, give the characters/players/actors/participants choice, and trust their decisions (which is made easier if you’ve given them a core philosophy) to let them show you how they’re responding (yes, it’s an active process) to the challenge of the plot.

Note: I feel like this post got away from me, I may revisit this idea later in the week.

Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 6 – The Relationships

This is Part 6 of the Character 101 Series. The previous parts can be found here.

Here’s a brief summary:

  • Characters exist within a world that defines possibilities and suggest challenges
  • Characters have a set of abilities that distinguish them within the world and makes the reader want to inject themselves into the story
  • Characters are on a path that leads them through more than the book-plot.
  • Characters are more than a physical description, they also have mental and emotional attributes worth depiction.
  • Characters have a defined morality and philosophy that influences actions and decision-making, in more than just the plot. 
Today, we could end Character 101 with this post. And it may end, if the recent traffic is any indication (either what I wrote was too deep or too boring), but let’s give today a fair shake. 
The last element of Character 101 can be expressed like this:
The character has relationships of varying depths, complexities and degrees so that the reader can see the created-person in a more complete context, and can sympathize/empathize.
It’s a little appropriate that it’s Valentine’s Day as I write this bit about relationships. Today is the day for making mention of your relationships, even though I am of the part of the population that believes that if you’re happy with your relationship, every day is/can be Valentine’s Day in a new and different way, and that to commercialize love is the lowest form of obnoxious sales tactics and money hungry manipulation. But that’s coming from me, so consider your sources……
Characters don’t exist in a vacuum, they aren’t adrift in some Void-space, they aren’t just blobs of ink on the page. (Even if you did hurtle your character into the Void, it’s likely you’d still make them think or feel stuff, so there would be some kind of bridge built to other characters). It’s about those bridges that I want to focus today.
I am notorious for burning bridges and salting the earth. In the last few weeks, I’ve been launching an aggressive program to clean that up, because a lot of it comes from this horrifically insecure place and it’s all misdirected anger and fear blah blah blah…..but it’s really made me take a look at my relationships to other people and see just how I built those connections. (Yes, I did make a chart, shut up. They help).
Some of those connections are great, and I do not want to burn them. Some of these connections are awful, and I should do all that I can to put the past behind me and get some Grand Canyons between me and them.  I say this not to bitch about my personal life, but to point out that through these relationships, you can get a sense of who I am and/or what I do and how I do it. 
Characters are no different. You can look at their relationships and get a sense of who and what they are. Go get a legal pad, let’s make a chart.
The Character Relationship Chart
note: Yes, you can do this more visually in a web, but I’m just blogging here, so I’ll work linearly
1. At the top of the page, put the character’s name (we’ll call him A)
2. Write the name of the other character in the relationship (we’ll call him B)with them (then in parentheses, write down the type of relationship next to the name)
3. List then a few phrases, adjectives, quotes or ideas that demonstrate how the character (A) feels about the other. (B)
Skip a line and repeat steps 2 and 3 until you have the character’s relationships mapped out. Here’s an example:
Character: Gordon Jeremiah Nevins
Bryan Alfred Nevins (brother)
* “What the hell trouble has he gotten himself into this time?”
* “Stupid dumb naive kid, but he’s all I got.”
* Begrudingly over-protective
* Only acts tired of the relationship.
Wynona (woman he sleeps with)
* Loves her, can’t commit to her
* Would take a bullet for her, but wouldn’t tell her that, in case someone has a gun handy
* “You look good” = “I love you”
By mapping out the relationships characters have with each other, you’re able to also test their philosophies and see their paths play out over the course of the work. If your characters’ relationships don’t undergo growth from beginning to end (at least ONE of the parties involved has to change a little, otherwise readers are going to feel like they’ve wasted time and effort getting invested), then the sandbox they play in isn’t testing them sufficiently. 
Here’s an example from my life:
When I was feeling very down, disputatious and grumpy I treated other people poorly, and gave many others the impression that I was in fact, a melo-dramatic asshole with delusions of grandeur. (Or something, I don’t know, but it wasn’t good). After a few rather intense conversations with people who actually gave a damn about me (rather than just giving a damn about the work I could do, or the benefits I could give them), I started to rehab my image and after some rather big-deal admissions of apology and truth, quite a few people came around. So, because I had a particular philosophy, the world I inhabited tested me a certain way, which lead me down a particular path, that brought me to certain experiences and plots. Only when I made an effort to change, to push myself and change my thinking, did I discover and occupy a new path, that led me to new experiences and plots. 
It is through your characters’ relationships that readers/players/consumers/others are able to draw a complete picture of the character. Just giving them a description and abilities is nice, but very bland and generic. Even if you throw in a moral code and a path, it’s amorphous without a set of relationships to see it explored and strengthened/altered.
The point I’m making here is that all the elements of Character 101 are INTER-RELATED. To make those strong characters for people to gravitate towards, you need lay out all the pieces and get your Frankenstein on (put.the.candle.back.) 
There’s no doubt in mind that if you take care to go through each step in Character 101, your characters, big and small will exponentially intensify and be far more satisfying to both create and use. 
Enjoy your Valentine’s Day. Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 5 – The Path

Good afternoon everyone, I hope you’re enjoying the post-Super Bowl glut of breakdowns of commercials and the halftime show. And for the record, I don’t know why they did that thing with the thing on that commercial. Yeah, it was unbelievable.

Shall we do some writing today? We’re continuing Character 101, you can catch up with Part 4 here.
This is more a “Writing” post. The “Gaming” version will go up later, I’m still putting it together.

Today we’re going to look at “The Path”, which is the course for the character is on before, during, and after this particular plot of this particular book.

The rule can be expressed like this:

A path, that when started, will lead through the designated plot and result in change (either positive or negative) from his starting state

Characters need to do things. Without actions, characters are formless humps, full of potential, but without the ambition, focus or interest to do anything. Often, people draw up wonderful concepts of characters and fail to deliver on that potential, chiefly because they either set the bar too high (making the character into a superhero, without elevating the plot) or they ignore the plot’s linear motion in an effort to show just how flawed the character is.

There has to be a progression for these characters that starts either on page 1 or even before page 1, and lead them until the last word on the last page, or even beyond. (You can imply or infer that people either began or will continue something when appropriate). I am not suggesting you place the character “on rails”, narrowly limiting the scope of the character growth to a particular strain – a character that only grows through the specific actions you shows is boring, no matter what those actions are, and is also unrealistic.

This path is NOT the plot, as in; it is NOT ONLY the specific actions of the plot (it’s not about ONLY defusing the bomb, saving the woman from the burning building or discovering that he loves babies) but the path of the character must at times join with the plot.

Key words there? “AT TIMES”.

If you rigidly and inflexibly adhere to the plot as the only tool that gives a character growth, then your book is going to be lean, because if you only need a main plot, then absent are the character arcs (which are the native tool for growth) and the sub or secondary plots (which are the native tool for connection between characters and the world). Also, without any deviation or wiggle-room, this main plot better be absolutely riveting, and can NEVER let me go. That’s a great deal of pressure to put on one set of actions. Don’t do it.

Characters in any story are not only limited to the plot, we (the reader) are only meeting/seeing/interacting with the character when they MEET this plot. It’s a snapshot of their life, and we get to tag along for however long or crazy this ride is. This idea that a character is on a particular path greater than the plot is critical for firming up the idea that the character is INDEPENDENT of the plot, and exists, fully-formed in dimension and detail large and small.

Where the character and plot intersect, there has to be an impact, like two items colliding. The plot has to have an effect on the character; otherwise the character has no reason to be invested in it (and neither will the audience). The plot, for all the twists and turns and new scenes it brings to the character is going to change the character. And maybe yes, the plot is going to change that already-started path (redemption is good for this, for example) but for the most part, the plot and this particular book is just a slice or section of the character’s overall path.

Now, to speak more pointedly of the plot, the plot has to matter to the character, because the two form a cycle:

Character Acts to Impact the Plot –>> The Plot Evolves and Presents New Challenges –>> And the Character Acts to Impact the Plot Anew 

And the character has to matter to the plot, because if the plot is beyond the scope of the character, then there can be no investment or hope to make a difference. Without the help of the plot, remember, it is just a snapshot of the overall growth, then the character’s growth is stunted.

The path is never fixed, and no end result is guaranteed. But the path contains the plot, and a limitless number of similar conflicts (in terms of emotional or psychological weight, not necessarily the physical events – how many times can terrorists threaten the globe?) If we were to chart it, it would be this:

|| Character at start of the story >> Actions that define who/what the character is based on experiences seen and unseen to date >> Plots that challenge and expand definition >> Continued maturity and resolution of problems >> Character Conclusion ||

The acts that define the character are not necessarily those given at an early age, or through flashback. This is where the developed philosophy of the character is interwoven with the character description and the boundaries of the world to create a character-in-context.  Events transpire some large (like the possible plot of this story) and some small (plot of another story) that lead to the evolution of the character in philosophy, action and description. Eventually, the character reaches a point of maturity, having been presented with all manner of challenge and overcome all level of odds. It is at this point, the writer may move on from the character, retiring or killing it off as warranted.

Remember: The path does not have to be positive. Negative traits are as compelling as positive traits (or moreso) depending on how they’re told.

Remember: The path is NOT ONLY the plot.

Remember: All elements of Character 101 work together and regularly intersect. So yes, the Path can be shaped by Morality, Abilities, Description and the character’s Sandbox.

How have you found your experience with Character 101 to be? I’d love to hear about it. Leave me a comment or find me online. 
Happy writing. 

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 4 – Morality

Good morning everyone. We’re continuing Character 101 today, so if you need to catch up on the previous posts, go here and here and here.

Today’s a little crunchy, so you might want to get a glass of water and read this a few times.

We’ve so far looked at what can best be described as external qualities. We’ve talked about the world, some character description and some character abilities. Let’s get into this though, let’s be serious about our craft and our characters and make these creations live and breathe. I mean, you don’t have to, but I think it’ll help you out.

Today’s Character 101 rule can be expressed like this:

A clear and distinct morality, set of principles and philosophy that an audience can see tested and explained throughout the story


  • clear and distinct morality
  • set of principles and philosophy
  • audience sees it tested and explained THROUGHOUT the story

When I was a young writer, I was mentored and taught by a great man, fiercely brilliant, absolutely not governed at all by anything other than his own rules and one of the most encouraging teachers I’ve ever experienced. He’s long dead now, but this lesson, and most of Character 101 is my homage to him.

We start with a quote of his.
Characters have beliefs; even if they are not expressed by the author or conceived of in great detail there exists within each character a philosophy, even if that character is built with a single purpose or for a single instance.

What I didn’t understand about that quote, where the magic trick is in that quote is the idea that characters have beliefs even if I (the guy who wrote the character) didn’t flesh them out.

Hearing that as a punk kid, that sounded stupid. Characters are things I made up, right? They occupy the spaces I give them, do what I tell them? Sure, they can do that. They can be puppets who follow scripts and linear actions like stiff automatons. And when you’re a bit of a control freak, or scared to do anything other than express control, that’s great for characters.

Move your chess pieces. Watch them dance on your strings.

Over time, with practice, with experience, with heartache, with passion, you don’t have to control them. They’re more than just extensions of a single part of your personality or just creations who follow some simple program. They are partly fueled by your imagination, and when you take that off the leash, you’ll be amazed by what you can discover characters do.

I didn’t get that when I younger. It sounded florid and spacy and I probably said it was “kinda gay”. And then I grew up and learned that there’s more to writing than sitting in place and typing for six hours, but also that there’s nothing less than that too.

That quote clicked for me when I was reading a comic book. I was upset, I was alone, I was pissed off, and I was reading Batman. And for whatever reason, perhaps because it was a visual medium, there was more said in a look between characters than you can ever do in a block of text.

It was like the story was occurring even when I wasn’t reading the comics. Like the characters had things happening while I was reading Superman, watching TV or wishing I was anywhere other than where I was.

Big click.

When that quote says“explained” it certainly does NOT mean that the simple statement of beliefs is given in exposition, although there are times when it can be advantageous, depending on style or nuance — But you don’t have to have some big block of text saying “THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE IN” because you’re supposed to be better than that.

Leave it for dialogue; leave it for the emotions and subtext. Making it too clear, too visible, when the story by nature does not support it, cheapens it. It turns characters, who you create to be as close or better than humans you co-exist with, into caricatures and parody. And in gaming for example, it makes you sound like one of those bad RPGs where people only can say things like “It is nice day here yes in City?” and other Engrish.

No genre is spared the necessity of characters with morals. Not even in the most lowbrow crude comedy is there a character devoid of ambition based on a belief, even if that belief is something as small and finite as “I’m going to lose my virginity before the end of the school year.”

Everyone believes in something. Figure out what, and you’ll also discover how to express that belief to the audience.

So, the question then becomes, how do you create that morality? How do we develop philosophies for characters?

Here are two methods, described below:

Actions -> Reasons for Actions -> Philosophy
(What)      (Why Do The What)      (What Gets Believed)


Stated belief > Action in defense of position
(Say It)             (Do Something About It)

First we have an action-oriented approach, something that works best for characters of  small purpose or minimal import. By looking at their actions, we can develop reasons for the actions, and from those reasons, create a philosophy.

The guy/NPC/background mook who cheers on the heroes during a fight, does it because it shows that the heroes have support. The random person who tells the detective something in passing that resonates seven chapters later. That’s an action provoked by a reason that in turn becomes a philosophy. 

This is a clear, causal relationship that we can understand especially when not all characters have more than one or two things to do or say.

However, as we add complexity and depth to the characters and situations those characters find themselves in, we must shift from the clear A to B progression and try the reverse: that a stated belief leads to an action.

While this is more complex in a writing capacity, it is more intuitive as people, because we interact with people based on their statements and pursuant to their actions.

You go out with the guy because he makes you laugh because he does what he says he does. You married your spouse because she made you feel something positive on a consistent basis. You hang out with those people because you all share a hobby or believe in the same principles. You think that librarian is great because they helped you when no one else would even give you ten seconds of attention.

You decide what you believe in, then you go do something about it. (Here again, we see Rule #1 – Writing Is The Act of Making Decisions) If you do it, the character(s) can do it.

To reach these decisions, you must BE the character, giving them full faculties and capabilities independent of the story and the context of the story. Yes, you can argue that it is the story that shapes them, therefore you must put them into context, HOWEVER you must divorce the character from the story and the plot when you create the character. The proximity to the current story, and the temptation to use current-story material is too great a risk for the writer: how easily our characters become malleable when viewed only in the current plot.

Because our characters are our reflections, shadows and desires put into text, we must make all efforts to see them as living breathing beings that only happen to exist in our minds. I am not advocating schizophrenia, but rather a full-fledged imaginative experience, creating an idea so complex and rich with detail that it exists for more reasons than a single plot warrants.

Remember: This is a cooperative process, a great contract you’ve entered into with your reader, so please, do your part and make your end as interesting and exciting as possible.

Gamers embody this in the most obvious of ways, assuming to even ACT as the characters to drive the interactions. I do think writers would be well-served to try a little role-play now and then…and if not, at least go talk to people who excite you about whatever you love. It’s a lot easier to do this when you’re fired up than when you’re dreading it.

So what can you do about it? Have you ever tried writing down what you believe in? Get that legal pad, get to writing. Do the same thing for the big characters. Try to do it for the small characters, even if it’s just one line (the politician wants to win the election at all costs, the grocer wants to retire happy) related to the plot. The more you can list, the richer that character becomes and the less ‘like a character’ they are.

I end today with another quote (Sid had great quotes)

Characters, John, are what we have when we’re not thinking about what WE can do but what WE want to make happen.”

Happy writing. Enjoy your weekends.

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 3: Abilities

We continue our look at Characters today. If you need to catch up – Part 1 and Part 2.

So far we’ve built a world with challenges for our characters, and we’ve given our characters some descriptive elements and attributes. Today we’re going to start diving into the meat of characters. Today’s component usually comes later in the series, but I’ve moved it ahead because it’s a nice springboard into the more detail material.

Component 3 of Character 101 is Abilities, and can be expressed like this:

Ability or abilities that differ from audience experience, such that an audience will desire to be like (or against) the hero.

Put more simply, this means distinguishing themselves from “the crowd” by doing different things than “the crowd”.

For superheroes, the answer is obvious – they can fly around and lift buildings. For detectives, they solve crimes. Every character, has some trait marking them as unique…even if that uniqueness is unto themselves. Generally, if you’re going to name a character, they’ve got something worth knowing about. Maybe not on that first page we see them, maybe not even in this plot, but somewhere, you had a thought that a particular character had something to offer.

Gamers, this is where mechanics can tie in – those things characters do, those things that make them unique – there should be mechanics to support them. Even if the mechanics are story telling opportunities or narrative concepts, there should be SOME kind of mechanics making it possible for the players to do it too (because, if you’ve not figured this out, the players want THEIR characters to be in the spotlight the way a novel’s characters are)

When we write these abilities, since we’re writing characters that are going to do something, and likely that’s something other people won’t have a chance to do (otherwise you wouldn’t be singling out this character for this story, would you?) the audience has to have a little envy – it adds to appeal.

We read about wizards because we are not wizards. We read about the genius billionaire crime fighter because we don’t have a cave and a secret identity. While these characters are like us, they aren’t exactly us – their deviance from our norm is what makes them memorable and attractive.

The same can said for villains. The reason we dislike the evil criminal is because he acts in a way we don’t and more specifically a way that evokes a reaction from us.

You want to create abilities that evoke reaction from the audience. Ideally, you’ve also expressed HOW those abilities operate and given good context to express any “rules” for them. (Does flying require sprouting wings? Does the detective use technology to solve his crime? Does the wizard have to shout in a foreign language when obliterating his opponents?).

Sometimes the plot and character will do something and elicit from the audience a strong response. Sometimes it’s celebratory (Yay, he blew up the Death Star) sometimes though it’s shock (What do you mean he killed himself to save his friends?). When you’re able to create a character that evokes that type of response, you know the character is strong in the minds of the reader/audience.

We don’t always want to root for the hero. We want the hero to win, we want to be along for the ride, but we need not agree with them every step of the way – and I would go so far as to say we shouldn’t always agree.

Just like in television and movies when you yell at the screen, “Of course he’s not the father, Maury!” or “Don’t go out into the barn to have sex you anonymous attractive teenagers, the killer is out there!” the act of disagreeing with the actions of the hero (on more than a this-is-just-crappy-writing level) shows that the audience is invested.

Gamers, you create investment by offering options. This is not to say you need to offer then a bazillion options, or even the same options as your more successful competitor, but you do need to make the player aware that they can do….stuff. And it’s not always the amount of stuff that’s important, but more the impact of those options. Anyone can roll a die or move a miniature, but the player who feels that what they do and can do matters to the world they participate in, is invested. That’s your goal.

So when crafting the experiences of your readers, players and consumers, look at what the characters do that empowers them to be different and distinguishing. And put the spotlight on it. Everyone will thank you for it.

Later in the week we dive into the much deeper waters of character philosophy (and I’ll even talk about alignment for my gaming friends).

Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 Part 2 – Character Description

This is part two of the Character 101 series. The first part is available here.

Earlier this week, we talked about the importance of defining a world and having limitations within that world so that a particular character can be tested, and hopefully overcome those challenges.

While that’s great advice, I’m sure many of you have said (and judging by my inbox, some did) “That’s great but what about the character? How can the first step in character building be about anything other than characters?

I point here, as I did to those who asked that for better defined characters, their world is as much a part of them as their clothes or eye color. Batman has Gotham and the Batcave. Superman has Metropolis and Krypton, Harry Dresden has Chicago, Coburn has his apocalypse.

If you can find me a well-crafted character where their world is not a part of them in an intrinsic way, please let me know, I’m curious.

Today, we look at something very concrete and very directly tethered to character.

The rule for part 2 can be summarized like this:

A description that contains audience-relatable elements of either a physical or emotional/mental nature

Your keywords here:

  • audience-relatable
  • physical
  • emotional
  • mental
We have all read poor character descriptions. I don’t mean descriptions that are intentionally undone (where the author chooses not to give details so that the audience can paint their own pictures), I mean descriptions where they give all the components poorly.
Like here:
Terry worked long hours at the dock. He was a blond, although dirty in both hair and skin. He was tall, but no bigger than the others he worked with. He was strong but not weighed down with muscle.
Yes, I made those sentences up, and yes, they’re really bad, but they’re bad on purpose. Notice how the description starts with Terry’s occupation…an all too-common notion is that if we (readers) know what a person does, we can pigeonhole them. (We make blanket statements that someone of X job looks a certain way, or that by describing someone by their profession, we eliminate a lot of other allegedly relevant descriptors — and by extension, when you mash a profession onto a set of descriptors that seems inappropriate, you create dissonance and a disconnect for readers)
From there, we move into a messy attempt at double-meanings, trying to tie ‘dirty blonde’ with dirty-from-work. We end with two ruinous sentences where the respective second halves cancel out the first halves. If a character is no taller than others, then they’re not tall. ‘Tall’ is only capable if you have something not-‘Tall’ for comparison.
When describing something, the majority of the words used can create perspective. And the use of that word creates a proposition that an opposite concept also occurs. (You cannot understand up if you don’t know down, or wet without dry). The character doesn’t need to exist in both states, but they do need to exist in whatever states you say they do, and consistency is key. If Terry is tall, then he’s tall compared to something-to-be-named-later that is “short”. Don’t trust that the reader will intuit their own perspectives (I’m talking to you game people — there are mechanics and dice to resolve these issues) and come to the same ideas you have. 
If you want the character to be a certain way, be decisive and clear about it. Game people, if you want the players to act a certain way, then you need to be a little obvious that the particular situation you’re putting players into has clear options (even if there are many many options, make that clear).
Returning to the specifics of description, readers look for 3 types of description. These don’t need to be successive, they’re not hierarchical and you don’t need to do them all at once, but you do need to do them at some point before you get too far into your work.
I. Physical – This is everything tangible and directly observable about the character. The goal is not to drown the reader in  broad information too quickly (then statements get lost and it detracts from importance) but rather provide for them multiple concepts for them to attach to (this is a variation of Velcro theory – you supply them concrete details that they affix their edduced aspirations onto).
II. Emotional – This is a subcutaneous level of description, wherein you describe how the character feels at whatever moment they’re being witnessed. If we’re on page 30, and the character has just discovered their best friend’s wife murdered (hours after sleeping with her), then you can provide us the sum total of emotions up to and including page 30. Yes, this whole story might be resolved by page 340, but here on page 30, we can only work with what we have to date. 
Gamers, do not overlook this level of detail – as your NPC emotions are most often impacted by interaction with PCs and all manner of circumstances around pre-existing agendas. (The megalomaniac going to blow up the city is going to have an emotional reaction to the players diffusing his bomb, for example)
III. Mental – This is a harder nut to crack, unless you’re writing in the first-person and can use your exposition to develop this. Mental description is a sense of how more than what specifically a character is thinking. Yes, in the immediate sense, the what should be apparent (it’s relevant to the scene/moment), but because sometimes characters aren’t actually powered with cogs and drive-belts, you only get a secondhand sense of “gears turning”. 
Mental description is a chance to see the character’s planning skills, their intelligence and their understanding of motivations and consequences in action. This is commonly expressed in mysteries as the moment when the sleuth gathers all the suspects together and explains who the killer is. Or the final moments of a heist when the mastermind reveals the plot has been on-going since page one, sentence one. 
The composite of these three factors builds a full character. To get you started, here are some questions to fire up your character forges:
I. Physical
  1. Aside from the obvious details of what the character looks like, what traits are they proud of? Ashamed of? Effort to hide? Effort to show off? 
  2. What things would this character change about their appearance if the circumstances allowed it?
  3. How important to the character are the aspects of his physical description? Does he value his height? Does he identify himself by his physique? Does she draw pride from her eyes?
II. Emotional
  1. What gets this character out of bed in the morning? What would send them running back beneath the blankets for a do-over?
  2. Can you identify your character’s three most frequent emotional states? What causes each one?
  3. Imagine a fight between this character and their nemesis. What buttons are getting pressed, and whose doing the pressing? Now imagine this same fight between this character and someone they loved.
III. Mental
  1. Is this the sort of character others go to for help and guidance, or is this a character who seeks out others? (Or are they only seeking others out for approval of their own plans?)
  2. How far ahead does this character plan? Does that plan include contingencies? If you had to sum up the character’s planning ability in a word, what word would you use?
  3. Does this character overthink? Does this character fly by the seat of their pants?
I hope these questions help you, I have others if you’re curious. 
Next week we’ll add more to characters, and I’ll revisit our sample character Timmy. Enjoy your weekend.
Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming: Character 101 – Part 1: Overview & ‘The Sandbox’

Good morning. On this particularly sleety and craptastic morning (the ground and the sky are the same color. I’m not sure if that counts as a Lovecraft moment or not), I want to start the new series on this blog, Character 101.

This series will be in up to 8 parts….(definitely 6, but there are two additional components we can bring in later). Now some of you have heard me talk about the first 6 steps when I taught this as a workshop 2 years ago – but a lot has changed since then, so update your notes. And unlike those previous workshops I’m not going to cover the whole list up front and reference it in every post. (So pay attention, and ask questions/leave comments if you get lost)

Character 101 is a series of posts aimed at ANYONE doing ANYTHING involving characters. This applies to novelists, short story writers, screenwriters, game designers, module creators…even somewhat to board and card game people, (though not all parts would apply there).

Much like my previous post about characters not being awful, this is more a walk-through on how to specifically do that – and although I don’t present the components in order of magnitude, every piece is an equal facet in making the gemstone that is your character.

Granted, if you’re only making some secondary characters or NPCs or background fluff, you don’t need to do all these steps. Maybe apply one or two. But if you want your main characters: your protagonists, antagonists, chief NPCs, mentors, sidekicks, love interests, bullies, your fan favorite characters to stand out and get some attention (like eye-popping, ‘Wow’ attention), then this whole series will benefit you.

Now, let’s go make your characters better.

Character 101 – Part 1 – The Sandbox

The Sandbox rule can be written out as follows:

A set of boundaries and a playground within those boundaries that is at times limiting or limited, causing the character to be tested.

If you had to highlight the key parts for this rule, look at the beginning and end of the sentence:

  • set of boundaries
  • a playground
  • at times limiting or limited
  • causing the character to be tested
No character should exist in a vacuum. They don’t just float aimlessly in Void-space, nor should they. They need to have some sort of area where they exist. Sometimes, this is a whole world, or on a more localized sense, this could just be the place(s) where the action occurs. 
If we’re writing the classic Oscar the Grouch novel, then we’re likely talking the trash can on Sesame Street and the surrounding areas. If you want to craft a game about masterless samurai in feudal Japan, then you’ll probably want a province, a town or two and the surrounding forests. 
Basically, the ‘playground’ I’m talking about here is the world of the character. Even if that means the whole world, don’t freak out and think that you have to create this monstrous real-time updating construct and deal with every living thing and every event on it all the time – you don’t. You only need to concern yourself with the world of the character.
If I’m the character, then right now, all you’d be writing about is me in my immediate surroundings (the office in the house), my immediate goals (to write this post then go do laundry) and maybe my plans for later in the day (go out and meet new clients). Notice that you don’t have to consider…the fate of a Sierra Leone diamond mine or the traffic in Acapulco when you’re working with me as a character. Yes those things exist, but they’re not in the scope of THIS character, and therefore not part of what you need to add to the recipe. 
Over time, you’ll discover that the playground for a particular character doesn’t have to be so large in order to be “good”. 
Note: As I’ve said elsewhere, you’re really going to do yourself a disservice the more you hang on to notions of “good” “right” “best” or “is it okay if…” as all those thoughts are subjective and contextual. Kill that doubt and move forward. If you need help, ask.
So, to build the best world for your character, think about their routine. Think about where they live. Think about what they do. Your set up here is to be concrete initially. Facts and statements are ideal right now. Those basic Who/What/When/Where questions come in handy here (we leave off Why and How for the moment) 
Yes, you can easily get a legal pad and make a chart. 
Let’s suppose I was going to make a character called….Timmy, so my chart starts like this:

Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8
  • Is currently a ‘salad technician’ at a restaurant
  • Is 18
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street
No, I didn’t prioritize those facts, I just listed the things that came to mind as I sat here. There really isn’t a best order of magnitude, as this first column is just to list some of the pieces of Timmy’s world.
So those are Timmy’s facts, and in turn they are also boundaries. Timmy is 18, so he won’t have the experiences of a 90 year old war veteran. He’s male, so he won’t know anything about the struggles of being a girl in middle school. He wakes up at 8, so he isn’t going to have the same experiences as the crackhead who sleeps all day. Facts are good, and facts are boundaries. (Without these boundaries, Timmy is essentially an omnipotent, omnipresent, limitless deity).
Because Timmy is limited we’ve now planted the seeds for desire. Think of your own life here as well, you may be reading this at a job you no longer love, you may be reading this late at night because you’re afraid what your spouse will say if you tell them you want to be a writer, you may be reading this thinking, “I could do a better job…” Whatever the reason you provide, there is a desire you can tether to the fact
Let’s go back to Timmy and see if we can find some desires for him based on the facts we gave. (If you’re making a chart, these desires are a second column)
Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8 >> Wants to sleep in longer
  • Is currently a ‘salad technician’ at a restaurant >>Wants to be a professional sculptor
  • Is 18 >> hates that people think he’s a ‘dumb kid’
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street >> wants to move into his own apartment downtown, nearer to where he’s seen college-age girls
Whenever you create limits on a character, you also plant the seed to exceed or overcome those limits. And yes, the character should want to overcome those limits (those conflicts are plot points) and the method the character goes about moving from his limitation toward his goal is essentially a plot unto itself. 
You could stop here with the chart, but you can also go one step further to see how each plot develops. (This would be a third column on your chart)

Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8 >> Wants to sleep in longer >> Starts setting his alarm later and later, angering his mother
  • Is currently a ‘salad technician’ at a restaurant >>Wants to be a professional sculptor >> Applies for a class in sculpting at night school
  • Is 18 >> hates that people think he’s a ‘dumb kid’ >> Spends all his free time reading college textbooks and trying to sound like a grad student.
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street >> wants to move into his own apartment downtown, nearer to where he’s seen college-age girls >> Intentionally gets off at the wrong subway and bus stops so he can be around girls, hoping they notice him
We’ve built Timmy up pretty quickly, and given him a lot of different qualities and possibilities for our stories, games and wherever else we want to deploy him.
The key to that third column is that the plan the character undertakes to make the second column happen SHOULD NOT BE EASY. If it were easy, the character would have done it already, and they wouldn’t be limited by it not-being-done. The challenge for the character is critical for the audience to emotionally invest in the character – we want to see him succeed (or not, if he’s an antagonist), and we will only get to do that if we see the actions taking time and being done over the course of pages/chapters/sessions/etc. 
If a character’s desire (also called a motivation) goes untested, then it isn’t important enough for us to hear about. Having said that, let me also say that you don’t need to detail EVERY motivation and develop them all before advancing your story. 
Remember Rule #1 of Writing – Writing is the act of making decisions. You decide what motivations to pursue, when, and to what degree. You decide how to express the desires and the plans and their consequences. 
The short formula for today’s lesson:
1. The world of the character is the immediate facts and desires they experience/want
2. The desires are goals they’ve not yet realized and they will have to work (change their current state) to achieve them.
3. The plan they develop and engage to sate these desires is material for plot. 
Welcome to Character 101. 
In part 2 (due out later this week) we’ll talk about character descriptions. 
Happy writing. 
(If you have questions or comments about today’s lesson, leave some comments below. I would love to hear from you.)