Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How to Write: Developing Characters is Really Hard

Hey there, Internet. You may have noticed that last week I promised a Super Special Saturday Bonus Post and then, come Saturday, there was no Super Special Saturday Bonus Post there for your general consumption and for that I am very sorry. Seriously, what is it with me and missing deadlines recently? Six months on time almost every week then BOOM! Three missed deadlines in the same four weeks. This is just not my summer, I guess. The reason I missed this weekend was because of a suddenly-announced trip to Louisiana wherin I was occupied for pretty much the entire time, but at the end of the day, I really only have myself to blame. If it makes you feel any better, I'm currently suffering from some kind of bacterial sickness and my bedroom feels about three times hotter than it normally does (which is pretty hot), so I take that as punishment.

Thank you, NPH, for giving me the inspiration to continue busting out content like a mad boss, despite my illness. You are a saint and also a gay man so maybe not so much a saint. A really cool guy for sure though.
On the bright side I can promise that I don't have any unexpected visits to other states so the SSSBP WILL happen this weekend, I super double-dog pinky promise. For reals.

Before we begin, let me just say it's been far too long since I've done anything on Narrative and that's a darn shame. Maybe I'll try to squeeze some more in there, somehow.

Also before we begin, let me direct you to a related couple of videos by the folks at Extra Creditz who did a two-part series on game mechanics as metaphor. It's a good way to spend about 12 minutes if you've got any interest in storytelling or game design. You can find the first one here and the second one here.

Now then, on to our business.

How to Write:
Developing Characters is Really Hard

So I love to edit stuff. Like seriously love love. When my friends come to me whining about some essay or creative writing project they have to do I jump on them like a hyena on an inexplicable steak dinner; "Can I edit it? Can I? Can I? Come on, just a look! I'll fix soooo many problems! I know--look at me--I know all this stuff that could help you!"

Why I get so excited about this is a mystery but I'm evenly split between my deep-seeded obsession to prove everyone around me wrong and the fact that it's one of the few things I am very good at and only very rarely get to show it off. Either way, I love doing it, I'm good at it, and, by consequence, I'm also good at writing. So here we are. 

Great post, guys, see you next week.
A big part of what I look at is other people's fiction. Usually the "This is my first try but I think it's pretty good, wanna read it?" sort of stuff. As an editor, it's generally irresponsible to tell someone what they've written is, without qualification, just bad, especially if it's an inexperienced writer so I'll just say this instead; these people are great practice for editing. In no other group of writers will you find so many basic, but easy to make mistakes, made in such a perfectly exemplified manner. Sometimes it seems like these people are excerpts from a textbook, trying to teach you from some hypothetical person's error. 

That being said; don't be discouraged. I make it a point to not say anything's bad outright for a reason; to just up and label a work, any work, as bad is to imply "This is trash that should be abandoned for something better" which generally just isn't true, not to mention it being a total demoralization to anyone who hears it. Even in the bad stories, there's usually something worth rooting through the rest to save; a scene or line or, most valuable of all, a character. 

Characters are tricky business and when you find a good one, you hang on to it like you've got nothing else to hang on to until you find a use for them. They're a nearly indispensable asset to any story; they're what moves the narrative forward and keeps it interesting, but most of all; they're really hard to come up with in any sort of quality.

When you create a character, you're essentially building a facade of a human being; someone with all the moving parts and attributes but who isn't actually a person. The thing about people is that we're really really good at telling when people aren't actually people and the closer we get to people without actually getting there, the harder the little inconsistencies get scrutinized. That's why you'll find that a great number of hugely popular characters often have major chunks missing out of their lives and personalities or are otherwise just so completely basic; because the audience filling in the gaps by themselves is infinitely more effective than you trying to fill in those spaces for them. Hell, that's the part of the leading theory on why Hello Kitty is so popular.  Make no mistake, this is an art as much as a science and it's one that people--even people with bestsellers--often struggle with via a smorgasbord of pitfalls, traps, and clever Dunning-Krugers in the disguise of touching developments. All that on the table now, this article absolutely will not teach you how to write the best, most evocative and chord-striking characters ever. I can't even promise this article will make you good at anything, certainly not better. What it will do is outline some of the very basic mistakes I see get made time and time again by new writers who haven't learned any better yet in hopes that maybe a couple of them can skip that step and move a little faster into the fun part of writing. 

And then one day, much much later, you get to write badly, but well, and that is about the most fun you will ever have writing. 
That was a big, scary wall of text with a lot of links, punctuated by some sort of space monster in drag. I can understand if you're a little wary at this point, so let's cut to the chase. There is, I would argue, at least one single, cardinal rule which applies not only to character development, but also writing in general. If you skip the entire rest of this post but only read this section and adhere to it religiously, you may just end up with a halfway-decent story. That rule is this: show, don't tell. What this means is do everything you can to avoid just flat-out telling the audience what's going on in the narration. Instead, use the actions of the characters and events in the world to make whatever information you're trying to get across self-evident. Why? Because the narrator is like your loud-mouthed cousin who keeps exaggerating in hopes that it'll impress you; you might let a few tall tales slide but unless he starts offering up some hard evidence, you're just going to ignore him. This rules comes in another version; actions speak louder than words.

It's one thing to tell me that your female protagonist is a strong, independent woman with a checkered past and you know what? Maybe she is. I don't know that though; I only know what you've told me and I'm not sure I trust you yet. I'm gonna need to see some proof of this; maybe she comes down with a bout of "Not giving a shit" when someone tries to get in her face for having a vagina or suddenly displays uncharacteristic knowledge about something due to her aforementioned game board-esque past. It isn't until something interesting like that happens that your character gets some depth to them. Because I'm nothing if not a walking bag of metaphors, consider your character as a hole in the ground. If you just tell someone "Hey, there's a bigass hole over there! Watch out!" what will they do? People are stupidly curious, so they'll go check out the hole and try to step into it to test for depth because they probably don't know you. You're just some random hole-signifying guy and what if you're lying? What if the hole is actually full of candy? Dude, that NEEDS to be checked out because like I said; stupidly curious. If, however, you grab them by the lapels and toss them down the hole, they don't need to check because you already showed them. 

How you get them down there is up to you, as a writer, but you'll find some techniques to be more fun than others.
Vaguely murderous as it sounds, that's basically what you want to do when developing a personality; show the audience things which reinforce the character's nature to make sure everyone's on the same page about who's who and why they're there. If your readers/viewers/players/whatever are allowed to conjure up a concrete image about what's happening, then whatever you're trying to get across is now infinitely more effective than any sort of exposition you could give. 

So now you've thrown someone down a metaphorical hole, what next? Make sure all the messages you're showing your audience are consistent in every detail. This one can be a little tricky because it's as much temptation as it is honest mistake; it's a very easy jump to make your character do something completely unsuited to them, physically or emotionally, if you've somehow written yourself into a corner. I've seen heroes double-back on their "No killing" rule, heroines suddenly represent a lot less than the womanly empowerment they had been championing before, and villains create a glaring (and often unexploited) hole in their master plan all because it was more convenient to the immediate plot problems than it was to their complete character arc. In general, sending mixed signals is a no-no. It confuses your reader and causes them to distance themselves from what is often supposed to be the characters they're supposed to identify the most closely with. 

Details matter. They matter a whole hell of a lot and with every new one you add about any given character you need to be asking yourself "How does this fit in with my character? How does it change them? Does it give a new context to their actions?" Every action your character makes should, besides fulfilling the immediate goal, either reinforce existing character traits or uncover new ones and if that's the case then for the love of God, they'd better make sense. Not to say that conflicting traits shouldn't be used and aren't interesting, quite the opposite. All I'm saying is that serial killers who reconcile their Catholic faith to continue killing bad guys is a great use of conflicting traits while those same characters suddenly ditching their convictions, tested in the blood of loved ones, to become isolationist hermit sheep herders not only doesn't make sense, but is even a little infuriating. 

And no, you are not Rocco; you never will be. And yes, we can all tell how hard you're trying. 
 An offhand example of how this works is Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, or the movie if you don't have the time to read the whole graphic novel (which you should because it's excellent, cough cough). The arguable protagonist, V, starts out doing things which seem strange, confusing, and dangerous to the audience at first. When you meet him, the first two things he does are kill some dirty cops and blow up a federal building to the percussive tune of the 1812 Overture so clearly this guy has something against the government and maybe is also a little crazy. As the story goes on however and you begin to see a pattern established both in the story's present day and character's flash backs, you get a clear, unfettered context on which to base all of his actions, cutting through large swaths of the insanity before the end of the story where his character is made clear as it'll ever be and you're given your satisfying ending. 

To return briefly to the hole metaphor, if you tell someone there's a really deep hole, make sure the hole is actually deep before you throw them down into it. If it looks like a hundred feet but turns out to be only two, they're probably going to be pretty upset at all the mixed signals you're giving them (and also that you threw them into a pothole) and will probably climb out of the hole to start hitting you. Make sure they can never climb out of the hole. Never. 

This man digs some pretty deep holes if you know what I'm saying.
Okay, I think we're done with the hole-based murder metaphors now. I promise. I think. 

So now you know that a character is only interesting if traits about them are shown with details, not told with exposition and that those details need to all jive together to the extent that writing up a new character is as much solving an equation as it is telling a story and that's great. With those two together you're relatively well-armed to start experimenting with character building and see what does and doesn't work. There's one more nasty tripwire waiting for you though and, in its own way, it's even more devious than what we've covered so far. 

It's a very common meme among writers that in everything you produce, a little bit of you goes into it and I'll agree that this is patently true; if you're any good at writing you write what you know and doing that for any length means that at least a little bit of your life, experience, or mindset is going to end up in that story no matter what you do. That truth has a darker side to it though; occasionaloftenly it's taken as license to cast yourself as the main character and that usually leads to...mixed results at best. I'll be honest; I'm actually hard-pressed to come up with many good examples for this because it's really mostly only the kind of thing you see in writing as they're almost always one man shows and so more prone to ego tripping and I go out of my way to avoid that bullshit. If you're interested, aparently Glenn Beck did that and you could also make a case that Ayn Rand did so as well though her stories are really more paper-thin parables for her philosiphies than paper-thin romanticizing of herself. Insofar as movies, Tommy Wiseau's The Room is a film written, produced, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau and is, by all accounts, a complete crazy mess of a story to accommodate one man's gigantic head. 

Which we then ironically celebrated by giving him an actual big head. The internet's funny like that.
This mistake stands out above the other two; while you can take the former points and, with some skill, turn them into expectation-defying experiences, this one is pretty much all bad and I've yet to find a way to save it. I think the difference comes from perceived motivation; if you're not creating enough in-story action or giving mixed signals, then you can be forgiven for being a novice; you're making honest mistakes and it's clear you still have a story to tell which may actually be very good once refined. If you've gone and made yourself the protagonist then you clearly only have one story to tell and that's the story of how awesome you are. When you're telling that story, suddenly no one cares because if there's one thing that everyone hates it's some asshole making them pay to hear them brag about themselves. The moment people figure this out, your narrative has an audience of you because you're effectively masturbating with your own story. If anyone really wanted that, they'd buy an autobiography. At least in that book everyone's aware that the author is probably lying about themselves. 

Still, I can see the temptation because it's a thing I've done on multiple occasions and still occasionally see myself doing now and again. Writing is almost as much about the fantasy as reading is with an added element of God Complex. You're creating this world, giving it interesting places, you're populating it with interesting characters to go to those interesting places and make them do interesting things like a puppet master with many strings but the moment you try to step into the scene, the entire thing starts degrading. In the end, you want to write what you know and you know yourself better than anything on Earth so why not write about that? 

This might hurt, Internet.

I really want to to sit down for this one.

You're probably not very interesting.

There is one final requirement for an interesting character; flaws. I won't talk about it too much here because we already gave a pretty good example in the Batman post of how important, and potent, flaws were in a character, plus how to effectively flaw your character is a big enough topic that I might save it for a whole 'nother post, so I'll give the summary. Every character; good, bad, or in between, needs flaws. Like all these other details that make up your character, the flaws need to make sense in the context of their arc and often can be the driving force for the characters actions because in addition to hindering their capabilities in interesting ways, they also create that all-important internal conflict which motivates the character behind their own eyes. To swing back to Batman, Bruce Wayne's inability to accept his parent's deaths as out of his hands is what spurs him to become Batman in the first place. If he had been a normal kid who accepted his grief, moved on, and grew up, he may have actually become the successful millionaire playboy philanthropist he pretends to be and therefore horribly, horribly boring. 

A common example for how to mess this up is Superman. It's one I generally disagree with, but I've also got to admit it's got some solid ground to stand on. Superman is a character who is seemingly as strong as he needs to be, as fast as he needs to be, has perfect hearing and vision in addition to going through a period where he literally had any crazy power he needed and tops it all off with idealistic American Values™. It's easy to argue that Superman is a boring character; physically, there's hardly anything out of his reach. He has to put real effort into very little to the point where they had to create a monster basically made out of knives to kill him and even that took like five issues. If you did a survey of Americans, I can almost promise you that Batman, the borderline psychopath with abandonment issues, is overall favored over Superman. More than that, I'd be willing to bet money that the Joker, a walking bag of flaws, is more popular than Batman.

Without flaws, we lack that identifiable conflict, that bit where the story gets interesting and, most importantly, the satisfying payoff when the protagonist is able to overcome those flaws and succeed, despite the odds. 

In the end, and this may be the most confusing thing I say the whole post, any character you create must be a puzzle. If you tell the audience the answer, they won't care. If you don't tell them the answer, they'll care a lot more. If there is no answer and you leave the audience to interpret and reinterpret as far as their imaginations can take them, you may be on to an icon there. 

Thank you, Goodnight.


  1. Tom this is very well written, but unfortunately it seems to be full of holes.

  2. I don't know who you are, anonymous commenter, and that's probably for the best, but you just made my day.

  3. This looks like it's been written by a saint, it is very holy!