character development

One More Vector On Character In Story

Let’s suppose we’re playing chess on a lovely morning at my favorite beach spot in the whole world and the scene is everything great that I love: we’ve got nice drinks, we’re comfortably dressed, it’s warm but not hot, the ocean is literally right the hell over there, and we have no care in the world except we’re playing chess.

You move first. Say you advance the queen’s pawn two spaces. I do the same on my side. You move a knight, and again I do the same. You move the queen, so I move my queen. How long do you think we can keep copying each other before we either have no choice but to stop dancing around the fact that chess is about trying to take each other’s king or that we’re just going to go around and around until one of us gets sick of the game and walks away?

There’s a mathematical answer to that, but it’s not important right now. What is important, in fact the whole point of the chess story is that how we approach our pieces and the moves we make affects the board. Not structurally, but contextually, because while the board’s always going to have that many squares and we’ll always have 2 rooks and we’ll always know that the pieces operate in specific ways, how we move them changes how the next thing in the game can go. You move a bishop and all of a sudden, I can find myself cut off from a third of the board. I put you in check and now instead of pressing me with a knight, you’re on the defensive.

Chess is a great metaphor for storytelling because it is itself a story. The pieces are characters, their actions and goals and possibilities map to storycraft incredibly well. And like in chess, we need to see the whole board, and see the relationship between moves made, moves happening at the time, and moves in the future, along with whatever possibly responses they’ll get.

Today we’re going to look at characters by looking at the whole board. It’s time to dive into some character typing.

Everyone’s Got A Type, Right?

Character typing is the name for how we label characters both individually and collectively. Yes this is how we get ‘protagonist’, ‘antagonist’, ‘love interest’, but also ‘crazy cat lady’, ‘hyper sensitive complaint monkey’, or ‘dudebro’. That term “typecasting” comes out of this idea – that the same actor often gets put into the same role or type from one project to the next.

Let’s look at our chessboard. Whenever we label anything, we use that name, that word, as a way to distinguish it from the other material around it. On the chessboards we call pawns “pawns” because they’re not called “queens.” Each distinct kind piece has its own name, even if the population of them varies on that side of the board. Yes, we have more pawns than we do kings, and that gives the impression that the king is more rare and special.

Coming back to storycraft, this is the benefit of rarity – we don’t call every character operating on one side of the conflict “the protagonist” because, well, some just end up being pawns not kings. This is where big giant ensemble casts where there’s some forced egalitarian structure in place (bonus points if this was a learned-in-school-bullshit thing about power structures), because storytelling is meritocratic – the utility of the piece and how it acts in concert and reference to the other pieces in play makes it important as part of the greater strategy to succeed at the conflict of the story.

But before we can talk utility, we have to talk about both sides of the board, the big picture. See how each king has a pawn in front of it? We’d call those pawns “corresponding.” In story term’s this is where the same role is fulfilled on each side of the conflict. In Disney fare, this is making sure both the good guys and badguys have a sarcastic character, or in a soap opera that each side has the passive aggressive mother-in-law that I’m sure someone will “Yass queen” over (what does that mean, anyway? Can anyone explain it?).

Corresponding Characters

Simplest terms: What’s on one side exists in equal measure on the other side, and their utility or capacity to function in the story is equal too. In chess, both sides get pawns, and it’s agreed upon in advance and understood that all pawns are going to operate in the same way. In a story, the nerdy sidekicks stay in their expected ranges of actions and functions. When all of a sudden you give the nerdy sidekick the chance to be the badass, the moment in the story feels out of place – often played for comedy or played for tension. When we deviate from that norm, we get an heightened emotional response.

Here comes the first red flag with corresponding characters. You can pretty quickly bloat the story structure. Look how many pawns we have on the chessboard. If we do that in a story, that’s a lot of moving parts with a lot of overlap, because we don’t need the same number of characters on both sides to tell a complete story. Are we really gaining anything substantial if you add two more snarky best friends to your rom-com? A lot of these characters can get merged/collapsed into each other to make the amalgam character stronger for both the story and the audience’s benefit.

Don’t believe me – Tell me about Johnny’s Kobra Kai buddies in The Karate Kid. Yeah, I know that one kid who looks like Mark Hamill who is way down for putting Daniel-san in a bodybag, but can you tell me about the other ones? Yeah, there are other ones.

 

 

Yeah, I do think he looks like Mark Hamill a little.

Corresponding characters work better in tighter stories with smaller casts, where there’s less necessity of having all the corresponding pairs face-off. It’s because of their utility to story that they become important – they set up what other characters do and it doesn’t matter if there’s one across the field from them, they do what they do for their side and then they get out of the way. It’s worth challenging yourself to see if you actually need equity between sides in the story. The metaphoric scales don’t have to (And shouldn’t often) balance nearly as much or as often as you think they might.

Maybe you’re asking, “So what about in comics and movies where you have two characters that are sort of the same but not exactly the same, do they correspond?

No, they’re the next thing we’re going to talk about.

Reflected Characters

Flash and Anti-Flash. Green Lantern and Sinestro. Rockford and Marcus Hayes.

Reflected characters are pairings where the members of the pairs aren’t exactly the same, but even given their changes, they’ve got the same utility. Looking back to our chessboard, we’ve got two bishops per side, but one can only move along white squares and the other black, though both move along the diagonal.

Reflected characters are built to be complimentary but not necessarily to the degree where they cancel each other out. It’s part of their inherent tension that they exist for the other to have something to bounce off of, and it gives the audience something to have an emotional connection to and a stake in. If this character controls water, and this other one controls fire, who’s gonna get the upper hand in a certain situation? Guess they’ll have to read and find out.

The downside and potential hazard of reflected characters is nullification, where they do cancel each other out in terms of story utility and scene consequences. Okay, Fire Lady meets Water Lady, and neither gets the upper hand, so what, they just sort of circle each other a few times and then walk away, or worse, they’re going to go back and forth until some other character steps in and actually does something in the scene?

Did you really think this wasn’t getting used?

How is that going to give the audience something to care about, especially if their possible confrontation gets a lot of hype in advance?

The solution for reflected characters is in the context and the situation where they clash. Yes, in blank space, the two will cancel each other out (and I know I’ve framed this as superheroes, but this is also true for two lawyers or two siblings or two rival chicken farmers or whatever), but characters don’t live in blank spaces. The world around them reacts and encourages them to react and because each character (no matter how reflected) is their own character with a different moral code, skill set, belief structure, or fear and goal, the world around them and their choices provides them opportunities so that they don’t end up like that chess match at the beginning of the blogpost where we’re just copying each other and not really playing one another.

Two more to go, but we can put away the chessboard.

Analogues

Analogous characters are pairings of characters and tropes or other representations that share similar backgrounds or thematic material. Analogues work best when you know the tropes and the templates that founded the particulars of the character in question. What do I mean?

Philip Marlowe, Jim Rockford, Matlock, Black Panther, Rocky … they’re all noble heroes in a world often sloped or staged against them. If you understand the formulae in and around the noble hero, you can essentially hot-swap the hero and the hero’s story around to create an overall different but somehow familiar story. This combined familiarity-difference helps the audience relate to the new material by having existing material as a home base.

A word of caution here- don’t fall down the I-need-to-know-everything-about-the-trope-before-I-can-write-it-hole. The INTKEATTBICWI hole is huge and jagged and it’s a fast track to paralyzing production. You don’t need to know everything up front, and you don’t even need everything by the time you’re done. Just like writing is a process of stratification, so too is developing and researching the ideas that will inform what goes on those pages. Research enough to give you a starting point, then start writing and let what you’ve written along with what you already know to let you know what to research and write next. Keep your story on track and your research relevant, and you’ll run into fewer instances of getting stuck.

Analogues work great when you put the focus on the story being told, not who’s in the story. This isn’t to say the characters are disposable, but good analogue use means that any and all characters are machine-crafted to fit into a larger puzzle that deserves focus, no matter how cool they are as a singular component. And because they’re rooted in tropes, you never have to go too far to see what boundaries or functionality a character is supposed to have. The Barfly is always going to supply information to the Detective more than they’d make threats (that’s the Goon’s job), and the Wise Mentor is always going to have more experience than any Fish Out Of Water (because then they wouldn’t be very wise, nor would the fish be out of water).

Knowing these things give us a box to operate in, and whenever we’re lost, a set of basal instructions for how a  character is going to default as well as how we can subvert expectation within and around the trope to add a little spark to a flat moment in development.

Okay, last one.

Variants

We know these. These are the Spocks-with-Goatees, the alternate universe versions of the bookworm who’s a party girl, the version of the hero twisted by tragedy.

A variant the same hero with some moderate to significant changes due to changes in backstory. In our version, the character made that left at Albuquerque, but the variant sees them going right. Or we take the character and go a bit farther out on the limb, but whatever, we can pass it off as something cool and special that can swim in some what-if waters for our story.

 

Yes, sometimes this does go too far.

 

The advantage of offering a variant within a story or series goes beyond the character being cooler or different (in hacky cases, this basically makes you a new character you can do-over, but I think we’re all trying to be better than that), because it drives to the audience how important choices and outcomes were. Yes, at the time it was a big emotional deal for the character, and we can later underscore that by calling it back by showing the variant what-could-have-happened if they didn’t make that choice.

This is Jimmy Stewart having never been born. Or Michael Caine being visited by 3 Muppets. It’s fun when it has a purpose, but it can often go beyond fan service and just sort of drag everything to a halt just so it can get its few moments of attention. Also, it’s worth pointing out that depending on build-up, the actual thing will often fall short compared to how it could have been.

I love you, but there’s a lot that could have gone differently. At some point I think we should deconstruct you …

 

Conclusion

So why bring this all up? Because seeing the whole chessboard, seeing the big picture and being about to discuss the components as though they’re distinct and parts of a whole is a critical skill. It comes up when you’re interviewed or when you’re talking to an editor or agent about the story. Seeing the parts and understanding its flow means you’re able to participate in its betterment in a greater way than just looking at text for proper grammar and punctuation.

Add this stuff to your writer’s toolbox, and next week, we’ll add some more.

 

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in by request, character stuff, revisiting an idea, 0 comments

Character Dead-Ends

Good morning, welcome to Friday. The weekend is looking pretty awesome, so let’s start it with a discussion of characters, because okay that’s a terrible segue, but it’ll all be okay because you don’t check this blog out for my recommendations on drinks (PS anything with rum was my jam) you’re here for the breakdown of story elements.

Off we go. Buckle in.

Earlier this week, we talked plots, and now we’re going to look at character. To me, there’s nothing more integral to the story, no matter the plot or genre, than the characters, because we follow them, and ideally, care about them.

We’ve talked a lot about character building, about how they need a philosophy, about how they need to exist larger than the plot, and one day we’re gonna talk about how characters need to setup their own success, but right now we’re gonna look at characters who go all sad trombone flaccid and seem to blend into the background just when the action they’re supposed to be doing is sometimes the biggest part of the story.

Characters need a reason to do stuff. And they have at least one reason, which we’ll call plot-reason. Plot-reason is the “because the plot says so” answer to the “why is the character doing that” question. Plot-reason matters most within the sphere of the plot (it’s really gonna suck for Boise Idaho if Boise Idaho is reduced to ash thanks to a neutrino dragon from the alternate dimension), and provides a limited reason for the characters to take action (if they’re a Boise resident, they don’t want to be dragon snacks).

A writer will buttress the plot-reason with a really shallow personal agenda, or often a romantic subplot that develops because of plot-reason (like the anti-dragon warrior falls in love with the mayor of Boise while trying to save her AND Boise, but we’re led to see that because she’s the top-billed actress in this movie, we’re supposed to believe the leading man is just going to love her … because plot-reasons).

Doing that makes two things very clear: the writer thinks a thin coating of character development is “good enough”, and that a subplot’s job is to be the plot’s sidekick. Neither of those things are true, because of the character(s) involved.

Character development is what we’re expecting to experience over the course of the story. No, not all development is positive, I mean we can watch the psychopath get more psychopathic and feel satisfied because the character stayed on target like an X-Wing pilot. Development just means a change so that we know the actions that prompted that change matter. You know how you talk to someone and they tell you they want to see real change in your behavior, and if you go right back to do the thing that prompted the conversation in the first place, you’re basically showing them that you aren’t capable of change? Yeah, it’s like that.

Likewise, if you use a subplot to support the primary plot, you’re saying the subplot itself isn’t worth developing outside the main plot, which is kinda like calling it parasitic or vestigial. Subplot is its own plot, separate and profound. It’s not the main plot, because the main plot is just where the writer is putting attention.

Characters intersect with the plot, they’re not always and only working in parallel. The plot is ONE THING that helps develop them, and it might be a BIG ONE THING but it is still just one thing. That fact that it’s where this stack of pages and words is wrapped is (and I believe should be) secondary.

A character isn’t going to feel realized if they’re just around to do plot-reasons. A character that you’re devoting story and page-space to isn’t a character you should be able to easily unplug and replace like it’s a weird off-brand USB device that you can never seem to eject normally. And yes, you want them to feel realized, especially if you’re going to take these characters and this world to series or at least a sequel.

So what’s beyond plot-reason? Personal reason. This is usually where that romantic subplot shows up, because romance is personal, and that’s good enough right? NO. Giant flaming neon NO. It’s not about good enough. If it were all about good enough, I’d still be considering a career as a pharmacy technician or convenience store clerk. We can all do better than good enough when it comes to our characters.

How do we do better? We ask a child’s favorite question: “Why” Why is the character doing whatever they’re doing? If it’s because plot, find a better reason.Find a bigger reason, find a reason that resonates with a core value of the character and really do more than just explore it on some superficial level, like “he’s a cop so its his job to do the right thing.”

Because the superficial is obvious and it has the footprints of so many people who have walked that ground before. Go deeper. Dig into the story-earth. Maybe there’s a character backstory (that you’re going to do better than share with the reader than via flashback or dream sequence, right?)

The personal reasons not just tie to this current plot, but also possible future plots (what’s up series writers), so long as each future plot seed is distinct within the logic of the world and story you’re telling. What I mean is this: If you’re telling the story of a space gigolo looking for love across the galaxy, it would make sense for the character to have a running theme of not finding meaningful love on the regular. It would not however make sense that this space gigolo is always embroiled in galactic space politics, even if his preferred clientele are space congresspeople. (Sort of like how the latter Die Hard movies have John McClane happening to the them, rather than McClane being the receiver of the movie). It’s important because when the character is bigger than the plot, you lose the element of risk for that character. Risk for a character gives them challenge, and feeds into the risk they’re also facing thanks to the plot.

Lastly, characters can’t stop being themselves when the plot is over. Okay, fine, if you kill the character off and don’t have any supernatural elements in your story, the character isn’t themselves anymore, but barring a catastrophic face-first meeting with a flamethrower and paper shredder, a character can live past the plot. Ideally, they do this having been changed by the plot in more than just big picture ways (yeah, if you blow up Boise it’s gonna be hard to live there, but also the trauma of having Boise blown up should persist). It’s the little ways change can be shown that give the writer the most space to show off their craft.

Just because the plot is over doesn’t mean the character’s life is.

Stop making dead-ends by connecting the character to deeper feelings and plans and goals than just what the plot needs. Not easy, but worth it.

See you guys Monday. Happy writing.

 

 

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, living the dream, 0 comments

BonusInbox – Writing & Focus

Good morning. We’re going to deviate from what I had planned for today’s blogpost (you’ll see that on Monday), because I wanted to bring you an extra question and answer from the inbox. It’s an important question, and honestly, I think it’s got elements that need to be discussed more often, so I’m going to do that along with my answer.

Today’s question comes from PJ:

This is a difficult question to ask because like the problem itself, it’s rather complex. I have an issue with over plotting and too many characters. I get to the middle or even the end of a first draft and realize I’ve packed way too much into one story. Which seems a simple enough issue to deal with; just edit it down. My real problem is the thought process I go through that leads me to these messes.
I think the writing itself is okay and that makes it even more frustrating. I have stories to share but it’s like I can’t settle my brain down enough to get one finished. My mind wanders, my attention span is a tad bit short and I’m on a few different medications that make me a little foggy. So with all that and the desire to just get a well-written story out there I get extremely overwhelmed.
Now I’ve written with & without outlines. Both methods fly off course, just one a little less than the other. So I guess my question is should I just admit to myself that being a writer just isn’t going to work? Is it possible to have the skills to tell a story with a mind that is incapable of keeping it on track? Or is there a way to settle myself down and salvage these stories?
On a personal level I’ve lived with a lot of health issues both physical and mental throughout my life and it’s sad to say but I’ve gotten used to wanting to do something but either my body or mind won’t let me. I was hoping this wasn’t one of those and I really don’t want to quit. I just don’t know what to do or when someone in this situation should just throw in the towel.

There’s a lot to unpack here PJ, so let’s go a chunk at a time.

“Too Much”
There’s always caution to be taken when we start tossing around “too” when we’re getting creative. Because the more “too” we spread around, the more judgmental we’re being of our work, and by extension, ourselves. Granted, there’s some wisdom in seeing that you’ve put too much in, so other people may agree with you once they read  it, but there’s still that risk that maybe you’re being overcritical and there isn’t actually too much. Holding yourself back, overthinking the process is a great way to breed frustration about the process, which can lead you to doing less and less of it over time.

Did you write too much, PJ? I don’t know. But your frustration is palpable in the question you wrote. My answer there is get someone to read it. A beta reader, someone who isn’t going to be biased in your favor, someone who you haven’t said, “Hey I think there’s too much in this story, give it a read?” and have instead said, “Could you read this for me?”

Over-plotting, Too Many Characters
Let’s suppose we have a popular television show. Let’s call it “Contest of Chairs.” And on our show we have, oh I don’t know, 180 characters. Sure, we’ll kill off a third of them, leaving us 120. Since we can’t have too many plots, let’s find a nice divisible number for 120, like 5. With 5 plots, that’s 24 characters to a plot.

Wait, you say, this television show is serial, so we can split these five plots over, I don’t know, 50 episodes. So let’s do some math.

50 episodes * 60 minutes to an hour = 3000 minutes
3000 minutes / 5 plots = 600 minutes per each of 5 plots

600 minutes / 24 characters per plot = 25 minutes per character per plot

So over the course of 6 seasons, each character per plot gets 24 minutes of narrative focus, according to my crude math. That’s about 4 minutes per plot per character per season.

Conclusion: Too many characters. Too little time spent focusing on them diffuses the story arc, making it hard for an audience member to do anything other than stay on top the show. The onus is on them to do whatever possible not to skip or miss an airing, and not be confused, because this story train is a-running, and we got not time to be slowly down.

Don’t confuse complexity of plot or character quantity for any mark of quality. Some of the movies collectively loved and appreciated don’t have many featured characters. Do you know why? Because too many characters makes it hard to follow along. And when you get into trying to distinguish Sal from Salvatore from Sally from Sal Jr, you’re doing yourself no great service as a writer.

You don’t need more characters, you need to focus more on the characters you do have.

As for plot? As we learned in FiYoShiMo, plot is a conflict that the character(s) effort to change, and as a result, change themselves. The more complex it is, the more you’re requiring the reader to follow along, and making it harder for them to do so.

I get it, you don’t want to be boring. You don’t want to be like all the other books on the shelf. You want to stand out. Let the quality of what you do be the thing that puts a spotlight on your work. How well you tell a plot, even if it’s “simple”, says way more about your craft than whatever the plot is.

What this tells me PJ, is way more about you as a writer than the specifics of your writing. Whether it’s fantasy or sci fi or Regency romance or who knows what, what your question tells me is that there’s an element of frustration and self-doubt floating around. I don’t know if you’ve asked yourself why you have to make things so big and twisty, and maybe you’ve often chalked it up to, “That’s just how I think of these things…”, but before you answer, this is going to segue us to our next section.

Schedule and Focus
Let me draw back the magic writer curtain. No matter what author you want to talk about, no matter the era they live in, no matter the genre they produce, the single greatest unifying trait, the strand that ties all writers together is that they write. Whether that’s foolscap and ink, typewriter, Macbook Air, dictation to a secretary, or even interpretative dance, a writer writes. And looks for opportunities to keep writing.

You’re on the right track with outlines, and good for you for trying them out, but the downside to an outline is that they can be just as complex as the MS they support.

But PJ, there’s no magic bullet. There’s no one solution to put in place so that all anyone needs to do is outline in this one particular way, and then write paragraphs of a certain length, then draft a certain number of times. There just isn’t.

In that space though, you have freedom, and I think it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, you can go about creating this MS in a dozen billion million different ways, but that can also be paralyzing. Like looking at a closet and not knowing what to wear, but knowing you need to put on something. Like looking at an open fridge and not knowing what you want to eat, but knowing that if you don’t eat, a tiny muse will appear in your office and insist you eat because otherwise you get grumpy and then you’re way less fun to talk to (I may have said too much there, PJ).

Couple that with whatever anxiety, shame, frustration, and anger you’re feeling about being foggy and having some expectation of success (see next section), and it’s little surprise to me that you’re often discouraged. It’s entirely possible for you to write, and write well, with whatever meds and attention span you have. It’s gonna require some discipline and you’re gonna have to challenge yourself, but you can do it.

Smaller successes queue just as nicely as larger ones, although we seem to value them less. We prize getting a promotion at work as being “better” than being able to walk up and down a flight of stairs. We tout qualifying for a mortgage over the sheer fact that last Wednesday you got out of bed. Just because we don’t put it in a Facebook status update or a tweet doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating (says the guy who shuffles when he walks and occasionally feels like there’s a conga line of blue whales on his chest). Give yourself credit for the small stuff as well as the large stuff. It’s not small or large, it’s just stuff.

So when you sit down to work, work in small chunks, as your attention span allows. Is that five minutes an hour? 3 minutes a day? Two words at a time? 46 minutes straight? Whatever your attention span, make the most of it. And then, give yourself a fucking break. You just put words on the page, stop judging them, and be proud that you did it. You can hash out if they stay or go when you finish writing and start revising. Play to your strengths.

Expectations
PJ, a big part of your question seems to be about expectations. That you need X Y and Z elements to happen in certain ways in order to be successful, and if you don’t write this, or do that, or submit here, or whatever then … what exactly? Does the world end? Are you going to smash your keyboard on the cliffs? Rigidity in expectation can be a killer.

If your goal is to get published traditionally, so long as someone signs you and the terms are amenable, are you going to quibble over the name on the letterhead? If your goal is to sell a certain number of books, are you going to be upset if it takes more than a week? Especially if the number is large and has a comma in it?

There are many ways to skin the success cat, but holding on too tightly to the idea that there’s only ONE way to have “success” (I’m making airquotes because I mean success in a broad sense), is a great way to never be satisfied and keep those fires of self-doubt and not-good-enoughness burning.

This is also a great way to keep blaming yourself and feeling bad for having attention issues and being on meds for them. I don’t know if that’s what you’re doing, but if you are, I gotta say, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make you less of a person or a creator if you gotta go take a pill for something. You’re not a bad person for needing meds. I’m sorry they make you foggy, but you’re still capable, so long as you play to strengths and don’t give up.

Find your goal. Boil it way the hell down. Is it to be a published author? Is it to just have a complete story that someone will buy?

And then start questioning it. Would you feel like less of a writer if you serialized the story? Or if you recorded it as audio? Or paired with, I dunno, a theater troupe to perform the first four paragraphs?

How you measure that success is going to often provoke the frustration. Don’t live up to some standard or bar that you’ve set, and you can easily drive yourself to feeling like you should quit. But you shouldn’t. Because you didn’t “fail.” You did something, you wrote, you produced something on a given day, and sometimes it’s just gotta be good enough, because you’re always good enough, whether you wrote 1 word or 10,000.

So What Do You Do?
Start small. Way small. Set tiny goals that you can demolish. Set goals that you can demolish where you can accomplish multiple goals then reward yourself.

When you map out the story, don’t limit yourself to just an outline. Try note cards. Try audio notes. Try visual diagrams.

And keep it small. Write out your characters. Read about plot. Go slow, stay organized.

Maybe this video will help.

BUT DO NOT GIVE UP.

THERE IS NO NEED TO GIVE UP PJ.

FIGHT BACK. KEEP WRITING. DISCIPLINE AND SUCCESS. MEASURABLE PROGRESS AND GIVING YOURSELF SOME CREDIT.

Keep going.

*

I’ll see you guys Monday. It looks to be a good weekend here at Castle Adamus. There are things to read and new shows to feast upon. Have a great time doing what and whoever it is you do.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, believe in yourself, living the dream, 0 comments

FiYoShiMo Day 12 Secondary Characters

Today’s the final day of character development on FiYoShiMo, and honestly, the topic today almost didn’t make the cut. When I started mapping out the ideas you’ve been reading about for the last twelve days, I was worried that several of the days weren’t as strong as other days – that the topics weren’t as exciting, they weren’t as well developed. I’ve tried not to worry about it, but today was a particularly tough topic, because there are a lot of examples, but not a lot of definitions behind them. I hope what I’ve presented below helps clarify something I think we all take for granted.

Have you ever noticed the number of “and”s when we look at characters? Batman AND Robin. The Lone Ranger AND Tonto. Riggs AND Murtaugh. Tango AND Cash.

‘And’ is a potent word, when you think about it, because it creates a relationship. We don’t always know what kind of relationship, whether it’s as equals (see Riggs and Murtaugh) or superior-subordinate (Batman and Robin), but there’s a relationship to consider. We have to find out which relationship is present in the story, and adjust our expectations accordingly. It’s not bad that it works out that way, but setting expectations in power dynamics between characters is critical, because as a reader, we want to follow the most compelling character, even if they’re lower on the hierarchy than another character.

Power dynamics sit at the heart of today’s FiYoShiMo, because we’re talking about secondary characters. A secondary character is any character in a story who isn’t the main character, who contributes something to the story, and who isn’t a cameo. Steve the barista isn’t a secondary character if he makes one appearance to pour our weary protag some macchiato. That’s a cameo. Steve the barista becomes a secondary character when the story becomes about people hiding in the coffee shop because aliens have landed and are shooting humans under orders from their leader Donald Trump. (Topical!)

A power dynamic is how a relationship gets expressed between characters. For binary relationships, there are two:

a) A Superior/Subordinate relationship, where the subordinate is reduced in role and is often portrayed as younger, less knowledgeable, or to some degree lesser than the superior. Often the subordinate is a “sidekick”, which comes from pickpocket slang, as a kick is a pocket safest from theft, and a side-kick is the inseparable companion to the kick.

b) A Partner relationship, also called a “two-hander”, where each partner often typifies a particular archetype or mindset or approach and while they’re at odds with each other, they work together well.

These hinge on the idea that you’ve got two characters coordinated together. Manipulating that power dynamic is often a source of story tension, as you can lead the subordinate to chafe against the superior (see Robin against Batman, becoming Nightwing), or split the partners up only to get them back together (see any buddy cop movie).

But what about where you have way more than two characters you need to focus on? Then we get into what are called secondary role characters, where each character has a function to serve or aid the protagonist (or antagonist, but I’m going to use the protagonist, since I have better examples). There are plenty of secondary role characters:

The knowledge proxy (or sage character) is the character who supplies the protagonist with information or items the protagonist could not easily get themselves. This is Q from James Bond, or the old wise man in town who gives the knight the magic item to use at a later time. They know something relevant to the story, and they share that knowledge so the protagonist can go do stuff. There’s an assumption here that the secondary character couldn’t do what the protagonist could do, and an agreement that the knowledge proxy fills their role and nothing more.

The comedic secondary character is the character who brings levity to the story, often at their own expense, or within a subplot. This is Ralph Malph and Potsie from the early Happy Days seasons, this is the wise-cracking character who is there to lighten the mood, usually has the funnier lines, and when the plot requires it, is often put in danger to highlight that they’re still a contributing member of the team, even when their technical role is unclear (I’m looking at you CBS shows).

The romantic secondary character is the character who provides sexual or emotional tension to the story by giving the protagonist a possible love interest or relationship. This is the character the protag will eventually end up with as a couple, either for good or ill, either successfully or not. This often comes up on television when you need an emotional cliffhanger, or when you’re trying to stress a will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic.

The mentor secondary character is the character who provides the protagonist guidance through previous experience or teaching. Obi Wan Kenobi. Old Bruce Wayne to Terry McGinnis. There comes a point in this mentor relationship where the protag and mentor have to part company for one reason or another, and not doing so can lock the characters in a permanent superior/subordinate relationship. When this happens for Batman, they find a new Robin. Or the Doctor finds a new Companion.

The ingenue is the character that allows the protagonist to be a mentor. This is character is new to the experiences of the story, often it’s their first day on the job, or the first case. It’s the rookie, and while it’s common to make this character a protagonist on their own (so that the audience gets maximum exposure to the world, see Harry Potter), when the ingenue is a secondary character, you get a chance to see more of the protag’s philosophy and motivations, in addition to their actions, as in Arrow when Oliver adds Roy Harper to the retinue.

The oppositional secondary character is a character that opposes the protagonist but does not prevent them from taking action, because plot. This is your angry chief of police in any cop movie, or Malfoy for Harry Potter. They’re not exactly the antagonist, but they don’t make the protagonist’s life easier, which is probably why so many cops are loose cannons in 80s movies and why Malfoy shows up intersectionally with whatever the hell Harry is doing.

All these secondary characters provide the protagonist either conflict to work against, or aid while working through conflict. That aid isn’t always direct (sometimes the comedic secondary just makes a joke before the scene ends), but it’s present. And that’s because the secondary character, regardless of type, exists in the story for their role above all else. Ages ago, these characters were called “service” characters, though now the only one of those older titles that exist is “fan service”. A secondary character performs a role and gets out of the way. And when you need filler, you take a secondary character and give them a subplot. The highest level of story production a secondary character can accomplish is subplot. If a secondary character affects primary plot, they’re a protagonist. (We’ll talk subplots on Day 16)

I want to stress these roles aren’t story permanent. You can promote or demote a character as story evolves. The possible red flag there is that doing it too quickly or doing it too frequently will make it difficult for the reader to invest in the character, and possibly make it harder to follow along in the story. Wait, they’ll ask, is this character a big deal or not? Am I supposed to care about this? You see this sometimes in two places with television shows – early on, when the show is still finding its footing, so a character changes and then locks into that change (like Fonzie becoming more central in Happy Days) or later on in a show, where in order to advance an arc, or provide an arc, an established character makes a huge and unclear change in their nature (like Parker in Leverage going from a crazy fun character to a sort of level-headed leader after a few rounds of dialogue, a change in wardrobe and a change in setting).

You also run the risk of invalidating your primary protagonist by adding more protagonists through promotion. It doesn’t make sense to suddenly make Q and M extra worried about Spectre, they’re already worried about Spectre, and it makes Bond less Bond if he needs to call in allies to handle opposition that he’s supposed to be capable of defeating. Secondary characters are already invested in the protagonist’s efforts, you don’t need to double down.

Do you need secondary characters? No. You can do perfectly fine telling a story of without a lot of extra pieces (see the movie Phone Booth). They do serve a purpose, they can broaden possibilities in story, they can give you extra room to stretch and new risks to take. But they’re not critical the way the protagonist is. You can tell a Batman story without Robin (in fact, some of the better ones, do).

To build a secondary character, look at their function. Ask what purpose they accomplish in the story. Then build outward from the purpose to see where you can plug it into the larger story. The arms dealer in chapter 6 is interesting, but he’s there just to give out explosives. When he shows up later, it’s for more explosions, not to opine about his mother’s failing gallbladder. The sudden reveal of his mother is more strange than appealing, and it doesn’t help endear us to the character.

The purpose of the secondary character is to serve the story, not appease the audience. Story always comes first, and secondary characters are personified routes of advancement.

Tomorrow, we start looking at plot. Write your plot down somewhere and have it ready to go.

See you then.

 

Posted by johnadamus in dissect writing, fiyoshimo, 0 comments

FiYoShiMo Day 10 – Character Goals

Hello! Welcome back to FiYoShiMo. Today’s Day 10, and it’s the last day we spend on character development. The next two days of character stuff we’ll focus on types of characters based on the information of the last four days.

Having covered all the whats and hows so far, we can look at the whys of a character. The tricky part here is that the character’s goal overlaps too closely with their motivations.

A goal is what the character wants to specifically accomplish, earn, receive or have at the end of the scene, story, arc, or series. A motivation is a driving force that puts momentum and a vector under their efforts.

There are goals to every unit of storytelling. In a beat, scene, or chapter, every involved character has a goal. In a book, every character has a goal. In a series, every character has a goal. And sometimes those goals are shared by other characters, and sometimes the goals parallel other elements of storytelling (a goal within a series may mirror the goal within a beat, but on a larger scale, for instance)

If you’ve got unclear goals, then the moment in the story isn’t going to fit in with the other moments around it. Two people have been arguing all day in other scenes, so it makes sense for them to continue arguing if they’re not near resolving anything. It would not make sense for them to suddenly be all chummy when they get to the frozen food aisle of the grocery store.

To help distinguish the goal from the motivation, you need to look at where the element of storytelling is taking you next. So we have these two arguing characters, they argue when they wake up, they argue over breakfast, they argue after breakfast, they argue in the grocery store. Looking at their activities, we’ve got them starting their day together and needing to go shopping.

Each character’s motivation doesn’t determine whether or not they go to the store, it determines the reasons for the arguing. They’re going to the store because the plot needs them to be shopping. It’s the arguing that’s the variable here, so here we have motivations informing their actions so they can get their goal – each character wants to be right, each character wants to be heard, each character wants to “win” this argument.

Where this gets tricky is when we start to see the plot tree branch away from the main storyline (the villain is going to strike again!) and give us subplots and character arcs (the villain is going to strike again, but we’re over here bitching about cauliflower). When we write, we are aware that we can get off track. We can get distracted while we’re putting the words on the page, as well as within the story as we’re building our worlds and telling our stories. Those deviations from plan affect us in many ways. We start to feel like we’re bad writers, we start to lose readers when story meanders. So we buckle down and we overcompensate. The story gets streamlined and we lose some of the secondary stuff because we didn’t want to risk losing anything.

This gets done a lot. Like your friend’s mom. And like your friend’s mom, it’s not always a good time.

What’s the fix? Clarity.

Yes, the writer has a goal of finishing the story and getting it published or read. Or to make a living as a writer. Those larger goals are important, for sure, but they’re not what we’re talking about here. We’re just cover to cover here, so we have agree that we as humans have that bigger goal, and it’ll get talked about later.

Inside the story, everything has two goals – to keep the reader engaged and to do whatever storycentric thing it has to. Here the tricky part is not inducing panic that any misstep will immediately send the reader running away, because they won’t. Yes, too many mistakes will send them away, but your reader would have to be a complete ((word deleted because while it is one of my favorite words to use, it makes people upset, and probably not because it rhymes with “stunt”)) in order to look at an unclear sentence and declare your work awful.

And frankly, if your reader is that difficult, I don’t think you’d mind seeing them next Tuesday.

Every sentence is a brushstroke in the painting of the mural of your story in the mind of your reader. Whether that sentence is part of a beat, or the closing of a chapter, or a piece of dialogue, or whatever it is, the sentence has to deliver the reader some information. It has to connect the previous one to the one that comes after it. It has to all cohere in a way that makes sense when expressed both individually as as the greater whole.

That’s why we place a premium on structure. That’s why you label your beats, why you map so many facets to your characters, that’s why your characters have something to do. The goal of a character is as big or as small as it needs to be within the confines of the pages, but to that character, it’s a big deal. If it’s not a big deal, why hasn’t it been accomplished yet?

For instance, it’s really important to me that I communicate clearly. It makes my job easier, it makes my relationships with the world easier, it makes good things possible for me. It’s how I get nachos, cocoa, time to play video games, clients, whatever. Wherever you live, my communicative skills aren’t as big a deal to you. You have whatever you have in life. My ability to describe my headspace isn’t going to pay your mortgage or keep your kids from complaining about how grandma smells, or get your boss off your back after you said that you’d handle the Johnson account last week. But if we’re looking at my story, then communication becomes a big deal. If we’re looking at your story, my goal is minor, if not negligible. If we’re looking at our story, my goal has to split time with yours, assuming we’re both protagonists. Seriously though, you said you’d handle the Johnson account. Go do that.

Here comes push-pull again as we move the characters nearer to and then away from their goal. That dynamism is what keeps the reader engaged. Will they accomplish their goal? How hard will it be? What will happen next?

You have to adjust the path of the character to their goal. Keep it too easy, too linear, you’re removing the doubt they could accomplish it, even if you challenge all their weaknesses. Even with objects of weakness, you’d still have to find a way to shoehorn it into the story (how many times does kryptonite just show up because Superman has to have a page of difficulty in a comic?), and that still doesn’t mean the character won’t come out ahead.

Make it too hard, or slow the character’s progress towards the goal, and you’re not making the accomplishment “more worth it”, you’re actually devaluing it. We have a fundamental understanding that the amount of hard work is proportionate to the accomplishment. A doctor performs a difficult surgery to save a life. A cop goes all over the city to catch the criminal. The harder something is, the more satisfying the payoff is.

When we build up a goal and then too quickly pay it off (like in those moments where we realize we’ve written 20K and just now get around to putting in an action scene), that payoff feels out of place, unless you’re going for comedy – all this guy’s hard work, and he just wants a Coke.

In role-playing games, there’s often a difficulty assigned to a goal. Want to get that treasure chest? You need to roll a die and get a certain value or higher. This is a really elementary solution to the problem, but it requires there be a scale for any difficulty a character encounters. How would you compare picking that chest’s lock to finally working out their relationship to their dying parent? Not everything can be made mechanically comparable and still hold impact.

A goal should not only have a reward, but it should carry some element of necessary change to it. Sure, the cop can catch the killer, but along the way they’re going to learn to be okay with their new partner. Yes, the defense attorney can finally find time for love, but she’ll learn this moment while in court, right at the peak of her toughest case. A goal that doesn’t require effort and change to accomplish is not a goal that tests a character.

I have a weak heart, and it’s tough for me to be as active as other people. (Forget for a minute that I’m not supposed to be that active in the first place) I have to do a lot of sitting and breath-catching in the course of anything that isn’t sitting and typing (although lengthy bouts of typing do exhaust me). This stress makes what I say and how I blog it important, a premium over the simple text messages that I send or notes to myself about needing bread on the grocery list. So when I go write 1565-ish words, that’s a big deal to me. The amount of satisfaction I feel is relative to the hard work I had to do. It’s important to see though that the character is the arbiter of the work-satisfaction relationship, not the reader. Too many books make the reader handle the judgment about what is and isn’t good enough, and that leads to softer weak characters and weak actions.

Take the reader along for the ride by demonstrating over the course of the story what the character wants and what they’re doing about it. Be clear and expressive about it. Use the best sentences you can muster. The reader will buy in, and doesn’t need to (or want to) be the boss of your story’s decisions.

What are your character’s goals? How do their motivations and philosophies influence their approach? How do their skills and weaknesses make that goal easier or harder to accomplish?

Tomorrow on Day 11, we’re going to look at what it means to be a Protagonist and an Antagonist. See you then.

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FiYoShiMo Day 9 – Character Weaknesses

Welcome to FiYoShiMo Day 9. We’re still working with characters, and whereas yesterday we talked about their skills, today we’re looking at their weaknesses.

Not every character is supposed to be, or even can be, good at everything. Are you good at everything? I’m not either.

When we talk about weaknesses in people, it’s easy to become judgmental or critical, assigning some power dynamic or superiority to one person or the other, so that the weakness is some shackle or proof of the not-fun-kind of bondage.

As my many therapists and caregivers point out to me on the regular, weaknesses are only limitations if you let them be so. They are not the bars on your prison cell, they are just activities you do where you don’t do them as well as other things you do. I like that definition, even when I struggle with any associated inadequacy.

So let’s be objective about weaknesses. Let’s not fall into the spiral of whose weaknesses are worse or which weaknesses aren’t really weak, and let’s break down the types of weaknesses characters have.

Yes, there are types of weaknesses. When I first heard about it, I never really thought about it, I thought weaknesses were just one group of sucky things. But in finding out there are classifications, I also found that weaknesses in fiction characters need to be there, so that the good parts of characters can stand out in contrast. Contrast is critical in building relatable characters.

Should we define what a weakness is? A character weakness is a reduced capacity or inability to perform or function due to belief, skill, existence, or environment. This definition is clinical, but it also sets up the classifications for weaknesses.

Wait, let’s pause here to talk about why flaws aren’t weaknesses. A character flaw is a defect of some size that may or may not impact the rest of the character. A character might be blind, but they can still be a spouse. A character might fear aging, but they can still be a bus driver. Flaws are not weaknesses because flaws don’t stop a character from taking action. Weaknesses are where there’s a reason a character can’t do something. Flaws are the things that keep a character from doing something perfectly.

A weakness of belief is where a character thinks they can’t do a thing, so they can’t do it. It’s Neo unable to jump across the rooftop. These weaknesses are all about perceptions, how the character views the moment and views themselves in that moment. These are often the most emotional of weaknesses, and they’re great fodder for emotional beats.

A weakness of skill is where a character can’t do a thing because they don’t know how. It’s the character on the first day of a new job, it’s Crocodile Dundee not understanding bidets. When you use this for comedy, this is where we get fish out of water situations. When you use this for drama, you’re often highlighting how serious the action needs to be, and you’re showing the character as brave or gritty or strong for trying to do it.

A weakness of existence is where a character can’t do a thing because they’re physically unable. Like a toddler can’t slam dunk or reach the gas pedal in the car while sitting behind the wheel. Sure, some people are going to get all screamy about privilege here, or that any character should be able to do whatever they want, because they’re not defined by what they can’t do … and yes, that’s true, but we need the character to not do these things, so that when they try and succeed, we celebrate. Their inability (not their disability) is why we invest in their story.

A weakness of environment is where a character can’t do a thing because of something external. This is Superman and Kryptonite, or Indiana Jones and snakes. Some element of the story, often an object, is inhibiting the character’s success. When the element is a thing, it’s an “object of weakness”, when the element is a circumstance (like the guy who books two dates at the same restaurant at the same time, and tries to keep the two people from catching on), it’s a “situation of weakness”, because it affects the power dynamic and control of a scene (we’re going to talk more about that starting on Day 13, when we talk plots).

The above list isn’t comprehensive, there are other classifications for weaknesses or other names for the classifications, but there’s enough here to get you started.

Write out your character’s weaknesses. Then see if you can apply these types to them. No, a character doesn’t need one from each type, and chances are your character is only going to have one or two of these weaknesses at best, when we talk about their best skills or strongest personality traits.

So far, we’ve mapped out a character’s motivations, philosophies, skills, and now their weaknesses. We’ve looked at what they do, how they do it, how well they do it, and how they don’t do it. So what’s next?

Tomorrow, we talk about why they do it, when we talk about character goals. See you then.

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FiYoShiMo Day 8 – Character Skills

Welcome back to FiYoShiMo, this is what, week 2? Hello! I really hope you’ve enjoyed this so far, and I hope you continue to do so.

Today, we’re digging into character-stuff, so you’ll need your protagonist front and center. If you’ve got more than one of those, that’s fine, just pick one, we’ll start there.

Everyone is good at something, even if that something isn’t a particularly nice thing. I’m very good at avoiding serious relationships with people out of a fear that they’ll realize my worthlessness, for instance (I may have said too much there), and maybe you make a really great margarita. Loads of people don’t recognize what their best skill is, no matter how many times people bring it up in conversation. They dismiss their best skill as something ordinary, because they’re always looking to compare to other people. You might be a great driver, but loads of people drive, so there has to be someone somewhere who’s better, right? Sometimes they do that so they can claim to be “humble” or “hungry”, so that they don’t get too full of themselves or forget why they’re working so hard. I think it’s more so that they don’t have to grapple with feeling so good about themselves, since we might not know what to do once we find out how cool we are. I know I have no damned clue what I’d do if I accepted the fact that I’m not a bad guy. There would probably be snacks though.

This same sort of stuff is true about your characters too. Yeah, sure, they’re made up, but they’re still people. Or animals. Or space robots. Or whatevers. Our protagonists, whomever they might be, need to connect to the audience, so the audience knows how to invest in them, and so the audience can build a rapport with them. One of the things that often dooms fantasy and science fiction is that these fantastic creatures aren’t humanized in some way, so it’s hard for the audience to figure out if we need to treat Glaptorp IX the same way we treat our toaster or not.

When I say “humanized” I don’t mean made to be human like they’re a biped and have primate features (looking at you Star Trek), I mean having some qualities like people we know. Humanization is one of the functions of giving characters skills. We make our rogue with a heart of gold a pilot, because we can picture people flying spaceships. We make our heroine a mechanic because we’ve all seen a screwdriver.

The danger here is that we make the character only a conduit for the skill(s) the plot needs. Our protagonist is a cop willing to break the rules? I bet the plot is going to take her outside the legal system. Protagonist is a hostage negotiator? Sounds like he’s going to have to talk his way out of something. This sort of pat convenience renders the rest of the character immaterial — we only know them because of what they can do.

People grasp this idea pretty quickly and we can all name characters who we know more for their skill than any other trait they have. When writers go to compensate for this, they try too hard to tack on some character depth, and for some reason this seems to usually be an eventful past where people are seeking redemption or restoration. And then people go one step beyond that and relay this information, usually, in a big wall of dialog, because it’s infinitely easier to tell us things rather than show us, and it’s faster, so that presumably, the reader can just coast over the fact that the writer has built a fairly translucent character with minimal points of interest.

Yawn. Snooze.

Don’t think that mining cliches will patch mistakes. Hollow characters don’t have to be hollow. No not every character needs to be so well-defined that they could immediately become the protagonist with a few clicks of the Find-Replace function, but the characters you want the reader to focus on should be more than what they do.

A character is the sum of their skills, weakness, ambitions, goals, plans, efforts, and failings (among other things). When we think about a character’s identity in the story, their reason for being in there, it should extend past “they’re the main character, they have to be there”. And likewise, whatever skills they have should also be numerous than those required for the plot.

There’s no quantity of skills that a character is supposed to have – this isn’t a video game. It’s not like a character has two skills at 99% awesome and three skills at 82%, a character has skills all over the place. They’re supposed to. We root for these characters to succeed because they’re placed into situations outside their skillset. We don’t know how Tom Hanks is going to survive on that island, because he’s a FedEx employee, not a Navy SEAL or survivalist. We root for him to make fire and build a raft, because he’s working outside the skills he has. We care what happens to him. That’s the inherent drama.

Contrast that with Superman. Any Superman, from radio to cartoon to movies. Doesn’t matter. Let’s consider what makes us worry about Superman. He can get shot at. He can get lasered. He can get thrown through a building. We only start to worry about him when kryptonite shows up. Why? Because he’s Superman, and his chief skill is invulnerability. Compared to Tom Hanks on that island, Superman’s drama is nearly a non-starter. (Aside from the fact that Superman could fly away, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.)

A protagonist should not be good at everything. A protagonist good at everything is not interesting. No one is good at everything. I’m not. You’re not. That lady over there isn’t. Given a limited scope, people may seem to be good at many things, but not everything. I’m good with words, I can cook, I can wear the shit out of a bathrobe, but I can’t slam dunk a basketball, and you really don’t want me making any military decisions. It’s in our less-than-perfectness that we are made relatable.

We invest in the awkward character and we cheer when they finally ask their officemate out on a date. We care about the lady trying to make her marriage work because we have spent two hundred pages with her in therapy.

Go look at your protagonist. List their skills. Any order, doesn’t matter. Just list them. Try to put one skill to a line. See if you can get more than 2 and less than 20.

Have your list? Good job. Now, circle all the skills that your character uses over the course of the story.

Did you just circle all of them? How many did you circle?

Before we go look at that, look for any skills which neutralize the plot. You can’t strand Superman on an island, he can fly. You don’t give Macgyver a tool box and a headstart, he’s Macgyver. If you have any skills like that, put a star by them. How many stars are on the page?

Skills that neutralize plot are storykillers. Superman’s ability to fly off the island, when Tom Hanks can’t, is a killer. And even if they don’t kill the story, in order to make sure their shadow doesn’t stain the story, there’s often a terrible (and cliche) reason for the skill not getting used. The old standby used to be amnesia, or barring that, some kind of short-term physical disability, often blindness. The talented doctor can’t see to perform surgery, or can’t remember that he’s a surgeon in the first place. The plot is a defiance of his best skill, and that’s supposed to be compelling to read.

It can be, but it can also serve to highlight that if you take away the character’s best skill, they may lose their value. When that’s the case (you can test this by looking at your circled skills and seeing if your character is still the same without them), you may be placing too great an emphasis on what the character does and how well they do it, rather than who the character is.

A character is just not the vessel that carries out skills. Possession of skill, being able to do a thing, is not a boundary. Likewise, not being able to do a thing, is not always a limitation. Sure, in the context of basketball, my inability to slam dunk means my play is affected, but it doesn’t stop me from being able to blog.

Let your characters fail, let them be not good. Make what they can do and can’t do matter by giving the character more reason to be in the story than just performing tasks.

Think it over, and tomorrow, we’ll talk character weaknesses.

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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:

200_s

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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FiYoShiMo: Day 6: Character Motivations

Welcome to Day 6 of FiYoShiMo, and today we start looking at your characters. Before we go anywhere, go get a piece of paper and a pen. You’ve got some work to do as we talk character motivations.

I always start character building with their motivations, because they’re going to be one of the strongest parts of who or what the character is.

To figure out motivations, ask the following questions:

1. What drives this character to take risks?
2. What drives this character to take action?
3. What drives this character away from taking action?
4. What inspires or motivates or haunts this character?
5. How does the character feel about themselves, and do they want to change that?
6. Is there anything this character is putting off doing? Why?
7. Has the character lost anyone or anything significant? Do they want to change that?
8. What’s your character’s relationship to money, fame, power, or authority?
9. How trusting is your character?
10. What’s your character’s nightmare scenario? If they were in their worst situation possible, surrounded by the worst people, facing the worst outcomes, what does that look like? How do they react? How urgently? How aggressively (Yeah I know, that’s a whole bunch of questions all by itself, sorry)
11. What can’t this character stand or tolerate?
12. What traits in other people does this character despise?
13. What traits in other people does this character feel threatened or made inadequate by?
14. Is your character a planner?
15. How patient is your character?
16. How does your character handle pressure?
17. How does this character respond to threats?
18. What does a situation have to have in order for the character to see it as a threat?
19. Does your character ever give up?
20. Does your character think of themselves as a failure?

Got that piece of paper? Answer those questions about your protagonist. And no, you don’t get to skip any. And if you can’t think of any answer because it’s not in your story, write the answer, put a star by it, and then really REALLY think about putting it in your story (which is code for “it’s very likely in your best interest to have this stuff in there”).

I’ll wait right here.

Good to go? Alright then, onward.

A character without clear motivations is a character that a reader cannot relate to. And in the absence of clear motivation, characters often default to what’s called a “role completer” which is someone who just does a task. Like the barista who pours coffee but isn’t involved in the story beyond that. Or the landscaper you vaguely reference because your protag hears a lawn mower one morning.

A “character of substance” is a character with motivations that converge and diverge with the plot. Meaning they aren’t just there to info-dump knowledge like some sage you’re consulting about three hours into a quest, or they’re not Google. Characters exist larger than the plot in the story you’re telling, and it’s essential that the plot be something they do, not the only thing they do.

More work for you now: Ask your antagonist the same questions. Then pick any other character in your MS and answer the questions a third time.

Let me stress again that skipping a question because it’s not relevant is a great way to get me to saying something you’re not going to like hearing – like you’re afraid to write a deep character, your storycraft needs some big time development. Or maybe I’ll just get extra grumpy and tell you that your story won’t engage past the first beat if your characters have less crunch than the Cheerios you left sitting in the milk for the last six minutes. Don’t skip questions, and don’t settle for brush-off answers.

Tomorrow, we’re going to look at how today’s work feeds into character philosophies. See you then.

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The Folly of Sameness

Good … well it will be Monday when you’re reading this, though I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon while my fantasy football team prepares to lock up its hold on last place. And rather than lament how injuries decimate my team and now my bench players, let’s talk a little writing.

Have you ever read a story where some of the characters are hard to distinguish? And I don’t mean like they’re all dudes or they’re all Gloop-gloop aliens, I mean where character A isn’t different enough to have you (as a reader) tell them apart from character B.

This happens a lot. It sucks a lot. Let’s talk about how to fix it.

There are a lot of reasons as to why writers do this. I’m going to highlight a few, and give fixes. These aren’t in order of priority, they’re just what I’ve seen lately.

  1. Each character is talented, and all at the same things. An example? You’re writing about a squad of soldiers and while they all have separate roles (the gunner, the sniper, the grenadier, the leader, etc), they all move easily through the actions of each role. Yes, you can make a really technical point that soldiers receive a lot of common training, but I refute that with the idea that even with common training, are they all going to be as good as the sniper? The danger is that if all characters are equal in skill (and that skill is specific and better than average), then if you’re having multiple characters all do the same things, why have multiple characters?

    Part of distinguishing characters is by diversifying their proficiency as well as their skills. Sure, a bunch of soldiers can shoot guns at the badguys, but who does it better? Who does it worst? What, if any, is the scale between characters? (Hint: Consider building a scale on a skill-by-skill basis)

  2. Each character is narrowly defined by their skillset, and when same-skilled characters end up in the same scene, it slows story pacing and the beats don’t land easily. I call this the CBS problem. You know those episodes of CSI:Wherever where one established character visits the new show, and we get a few scenes introducing the actors? There’s always the gruff guy, the funny guy, the nerdy one, the techie, the serious one, etc etc, right? And invariably for sweeps week when groups have to merge and all the nerdy ones get together and all the funny ones try to out-quip each other? Dullsville.

    Ask: there’s more to this character than just what they do, right? They’re not just here to perform a plot-advancing action, right? (Quick, go to Hacker Lady so she can jargon for a few seconds then we can go blow something up) You might think, “John, how is that a problem?” Because, reader, when you have people task-defined, and then have multiple people at the skill position (there’s the football analogy of “how many left tackles do you need on your roster?”), why have the redundancy?

  3. The twin beat. Twins are tricky things in stories. They have some pretty standard flavors:
    a) The Odd Couple, where you give them opposing traits (tough guy vs kind one, neat vs messy, etc)
    b) Unified, where they’re at their best when working together, often due to cooperative or sympathetic abilities
    c) Magic-Sparkle, where they share something rare and special, like magic or telepathy, expressly because they’re twins
    d) Comedy, where the twinness is only relevant normally as a joke, but when plot demands it, it becomes super important.

    Twins like Fred and George Weasley skew towards Comedy, whereas Tomax and Xamot from GI Joe slant towards Magic-Sparkle or Unified (they often overlap). We’ll talk cliches and dull beats some other time, today I’m challenging why the twins needs to be there. Can they be merged into one character? Would anyone miss them? Would it be radical to divide the characters significantly?

I see a lot of manuscripts bloated by having extra characters that overlap in terms of everything short of small description. The issue there is that in order to distinguish them you have to keep referencing them by those descriptive elements when you’re not able to name-check. How many times are we going to describe Tom as a “gentlemanly blonde”?

Challenge yourself to keep your cast lean, it will help you keep the story moving smoother.

Let’s talk more this week. Happy writing.

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