Archive for December 4th, 2007

Dec 04 2007

Characterization

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

I hate little writing guides. I read one this morning that offered only ~300 words on writing characters, all of which could be summarized as “write authentic characters,” which was incidentally the chapter heading. Write authentic characters. Thanks!

Hopefully, this article will prove more useful to you. As you craft and introduce a character, you have many tools at your disposal. I’ll offer some tips for the following aspects and tools of character creation.

  1. Character genesis: what kind of character do you need?
  2. Introducing your character
  3. Making your characters memorable/sticky
  4. Three dimensional characters
  5. Character problems

Character Genesis: what kind of character do you need?

Virtually every well-designed character has each of the following:

  1. Purpose
    1. This is the role he plays in your story. If your character does not play a unique and useful role in the plot, you need to rewrite or remove him. Characters are unique if their role can’t be performed by the story’s other characters. A character is useful he cannot be removed without dramatically weakening the story. That’s subjective, but often your beta readers agree which characters are productive and/or interesting and which aren’t. If you have beta readers, ask questions like “what role did John play in this chapter?” or “which character contributed the least?”—those are pretty direct ways of getting reader impressions on the material. If you don’t have beta readers, go to http://www.critters.org; it’s a very professional and free online writing workshop.
    2. Purpose comes first because everything else you put into your character hinges on the role you need him to play. Purpose should drive development. For example, if you want a character to add comic quips, he should be witty. Readers will notice if a supposedly slow character is verbally quick.
    3. Your audience and world often reach the same conclusions about a character. But, if you intend your readers not to agree with what your characters think about another character, make it clear why there’s a distinction. (Failing to do so will make your characters feel flat or unbelievable). NOTE: this should be done as sparingly as possible. Discrepancies tend to disconnect readers from the story.
  1. Goals
    1. Real people have goals. Your characters should, too! Goals add plot coherence. If your plot moves from one characters attempting to achieve his goal to another thwarting him by pursuing his own agenda and then back to the first character trying again, it tends to flow nicely.
    2. Goals make characters deep and believable. Did Neville Longbottom go to Hogwarts just so Snape could pound on him? Hell no! He wants to be a man, which drives him to (hilariously) confront Harry Potter towards the end of the first book. Goals are essential to making your characters more than just props. Even your minor characters should have them.
  2. Problems
    1. Real people have problems, too. Problems are a great way to develop your characters. In fact, sometimes the problems are more memorable than the characters themselves (how long could you talk about Luke Skywalker before saying “Darth Vader?”)
    2. Sometimes you reach for your goal and fail. Failure adds drama! Someone who succeeds the first time, every time is not really interesting. The higher the barriers are, the more your readers will enjoy watching the leap. Failure also helps develop characters. Adversity brings out resourcefulness, ingenuity and strength.
    3. Problems also help you mix up the plot. If your character tries shouldering open a locked door but fails, it wouldn’t be very dramatic if he just kept hitting it until it opened. This gives you an opportunity to show that your character is able to do more than solve all of his problems one way—action writers often tend to focus on violent or confrontational solutions. If you feel you have that problem, try mixing it up by placing your hero in a position where he’s hopelessly outpowered, ideally in a social setting. You can’t punch your boss…
    4. Are you using a broad set of problems? Here are a few to consider. 1) Nature/natural phenomena 2)Violent antagonists 3) Iagos (diplomatically savvy antagonists) 4) The hero’s shortcomings 5) The hero’s goals conflict 6) Conflicting heroes
  3. Flaws
    1. Authors sometimes mistakenly confuse problems with flaws. Problems are obstacles or failures. Flaws are attributes that the audience won’t find endearing.
    2. Many authors tend to subconsciously write characters as reflections of themselves. That’s fine, as long as you don’t idealize yourself. Realistic characters virtually require flaws. “But I want my audience to sympathize with my hero!” That’s a good point, but keep in mind that flaws can accentuate positive traits. For example, an idealistic character might be depressed because the world doesn’t meet his expectations. His depression will remind us that he lives by his ideals.
    3. On the other hand, villains often have too many flaws. Sympathetic villains—with agendas we can relate to, even if we don’t want them to succeed— are often the most memorable and feel the most realistic (Darth Vader).
    4. Flaws tend to be more memorable. For example, in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Temeraire has an interesting set of characteristics. Let’s see… he’s a dragon, enthusiastic about geometry, he is very affectionate towards his Captain/partner, is strongly anti-slavery and wants sweeping reforms to make British society more dragon-friendly (like tearing up London buildings to make the streets widers). But what is most salient about Temeraire—and characterizes him the best—is that he’s politically radical and doesn’t care about what society deems acceptable.
    5. Flaws tend to add plot coherence. Temeraire [SPOILER] goes rogue and refuses to carry out a plot to poison French dragons. [/SPOILER] That flows naturally from his deeply held views about the dignity of dragons. It doesn’t feel like the author randomly decided to have Temeraire rebel to spice the plot up. Plots driven by flaws tend to be more coherent and feel less arbitrary, partially because flaw-driven foreshadowing is more noticeable and memorable.

Memorable/Sticky Characters

You want your characters to be memorable, I’m sure. More precisely, your characters should be sticky—something about them needs to stick long and hard with your readers.

Readers will often miss minor details, especially one introduced only once or twice. The essence of stickiness is giving each character one or two defining characteristics that provide memory cues to everything else about the character. If you bring attention to those defining characteristics a few times, readers will gradually make a lasting impression and they will easily remember the character.

Here’s an example from my own work: one of Agent Orange’s defining characteristics is that he’s an (reptilian) alien. I assumed that readers would remember that unusual detail. WRONG! Not only had the majority forgotten that he was the alien, many more had gotten confused about the species of some human characters. To help cue my readers, I had Agent Orange say “mammals*” whenever he’s exasperated, faces a political obstacle, has to explain something about himself or is otherwise perplexed by American culture.

[1]

ORANGE: Do you smell that?

LASH: That you smell like an ashtray?

ORANGE: The squid. He’s a mile off.

LASH: How the hell could I smell a squid a mile away?

ORANGE: Mammals.

[2]

Agent BLACK: I’ll stick with the experience and Darwin factors.

Agent ORANGE: (Mammals). When Freakshow is melting your neural synapses together, let me know how much inspiration and comfort those give you.

BLACK: I will try to remember to do that, sir.

ORANGE: (Wiseass).

This recurring remark has benefits beyond reminding readers that Orange isn’t human. Sometimes I’ll ask my reviewers questions like “do you remember a passage that shows how Agent Orange (or nonhumans generally) get along with humans?” They almost always pick a “mammals” passage. I think the word “mammals” is a pretty good cue that the reader is supposed to make associations there.

Since I’ve introduced the “mammals” lines, readers have fared much better on open-ended questions like “how would you characterize human-nonhuman relationships in Superhero Nation? I’m looking for words like “awkward,” “well-intentioned,” “strange” and “friendly”—at least, that’s what I meant to convey. Before I used mammal lines, most readers had no clue and the rest mentioned discrimination. That was certainly puzzling, given that the only recurring nonhuman character is a ranking government official that’s friendly with his co-workers.

Now, I see a lot more answers that use words like “strained,” “symbiotic,” different perspectives, etc.

Big picture, “mammals” helps characterize Orange. It reminds us that he’s not a human and that his relations with humans are mostly positive but kind of outsider-looking-in (I like “symbiotic”).

*I experimented with him saying “humans” but that came off much more sinister and lacked the whimsy and exasperation I was looking for. Reviewers overwhelmingly agreed that “mammals” was friendlier. One said that “humans rings with contempt. It sounds like a slur.” Another agreed that mammals was less threatening because it paralleled racism less. By using “mammals” instead of “humans,” Orange implicitly contrasts himself as a reptile rather than a dragon. “I don’t think he’s suggesting reptiles are categorically superior to mammals, but I think using ‘humans’ does suggest a categorical assertion about the superiority of his species [dragons].”

I’m only done with part 1 of this, but it’s pretty late here. I’ll complete this later.

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