Archive for the 'Character Development' Category

Jun 24 2009

Key traits of interesting jobs

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.

Many, perhaps most, real life jobs have a fairly narrow and specialized focus. For example, most people of a company’s employees work for a particular department and newspaper reports usually focus on stories related to their section of the paper. In general, I’d recommend giving your heroes jobs that are more flexible because it gives more opportunity to entangle the character in the plot and add new developments.

Here are some aspects that can make a job more flexible and plot-friendly.

1. Get the character out of his office. Offices are mostly bland, forgettable, comfortable and safe. As far as readers and interesting stories are concerned, they are Kryptonite. I’d recommend giving your character a lot of work outside the office because the real world is harder to predict and gives you more opportunities to work in new scenes, danger, seedy characters, etc.

2. Please avoid making the character the boss. Usually, the boss has the least interesting job in the building. Privates and flunkies usually have more at stake than a general or a business magnate does. In addition, low-level work is generally more interesting. I’d much rather read about a platoon patrolling hostile streets or a corporate flack trying to steal corporate secrets than about the men that decided to send the patrols or steal the secrets.

3. As much as possible, I’d recommend having the hero spend his time working in situations that are high stakes and/or heavy on conflict. E.g. if the character is the CEO, it’d probably be easier to create interesting situations if most of his problems can’t be resolved just by telling people what to do (like unreliable employees, dissension in the ranks, embezzlement, corporate sabotage, labor unrest, whatever). If the relationships within a company are usually tidy and well-controlled, it might help to have the characters interact with outsiders. For example, if a police officer has to convince a reluctant witness to testify, that’s a better opportunity to show how impressive he is. In contrast, if the cop could just order the witness to testify because it’s the law, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or impressive. (Technically, a cop probably could order a witness to testify, but persuasion may be necessary (e.g. if the case is dangerous, the witness is wary of police, the witness has a good relationship with the defendant or a bad one with the victim, and/or would be creating major problems for himself by admitting that he was there).

4. I’d recommend making the hero accountable to a tough boss. Characters like JJ Jameson tend to add a lot more dramatic potential than friendly bosses like Perry White. They create more of an obstacle for the heroes and usually make the heroes seem more likable.

29 responses so far

Jun 22 2009

How to Interest Publishers In Your Characters: Avoid Irrelevant Details

When you’re making a pitch to publishers (or explaining your story to prospective readers), I’d strongly recommend focusing on crucial details like major personality traits, unusual decisions, major goals/motivations, and anything else which has a major effect on the plot. In contrast, these demographic details tend to be irrelevant and forgettable: 

  • Hair color
  • Eye color
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Age, unless perhaps it creates an important contrast with other characters or is critical to understanding the plot. For example, if I were doing a synopsis of Scott Pilgrim, I’d probably mention that the main character is a 23 year old trying to get over a crushing breakup by dating a high school student.
  • What the character wears, unless it does an exceptional job of developing the character and/or establishing interesting personality traits. Note: Being rich or poor is neither a personality trait nor inherently interesting.
  • Nationalities. Okay, this could be useful, particularly to point out an unexpected setting, but generally I wouldn’t recommend mentioning this unless it’s hard to understand the plot without knowing who’s Canadian and who’s Russian.  (Rule of thumb: If you’re listing nationalities mainly so that we know how diverse your cast is, it probably doesn’t matter).
  • Birthplace–unless, say, we need to know that a character is from another town, country or planet.
  • Educational background–unless it is relevant to the plot and/or suggests an important trait or skill.  (For non-students, the character’s job usually covers this better, however).
  • Blood type, horoscopes, or birthday (Japanese publishers may care; Western ones definitely do not).

 

However, some demographic information could be relevant because it affects the book’s audience appeal and how the book will be marketed.

  • Race–if the protagonist’s race is critical to understanding the plot and/or audience appeal.
  • Gender–usually relevant (on at least the grounds of audience appeal) but usually it’s unnecessary to explicitly tell us who’s a lady and who’s a guy. You can cover that with gendered pronouns (e.g. he vs. she).
  • Anything else that is particularly important to the plot.  Some examples may include jobs, species (for nonhuman characters), major illnesses, mental disorders, etc.
  • Anything that affects major character decisions or goals.  For example, if the character’s main goal is to get over some past trauma, it would probably be worthwhile to briefly discuss the trauma.

 

Obviously, these are just guidelines.  If the character’s height or weight or eye color are particularly important to the plot and/or provide a major obstacle, then mention them. However, in most cases, they are not.

 

 

Many beginning authors start out by doing lists of their characters’ demographic traits.  If that information is for your eyes only, I don’t think it’s an issue.  However, when you’re presenting your book to professionals, I would recommend a smoother approach that spends less time on extraneous details and more time on why your characters matter to the plot.   A particular detail might be relevant for some characters but not all characters.  For example, if one of your characters is an alien or elf, it’d probably be worthwhile to mention that (assuming it’s plot-relevant), but you probably don’t need to explicitly tell us which characters are humans because we can infer/assume that on our own.

 

 

Good luck!

12 responses so far

Jun 18 2009

What Makes a Character Likable?

Here are some of the things that can make a character likable.

  • A distinct personality, even if it’s sinister or abrasive. This is one of the reasons that Sylar (a serial killer) and Dr. House (a curmudgeonly asshat) are fan favorites.
  • Relationships. These are particularly important if the character is unrelatable.  If the character has a thought process that is really unusual to readers, we’ll probably get to know him through how he interacts with other people.  If an unusual character isn’t interacting with other people, readers probably won’t find him very interesting because they don’t know enough about him.
  • Competence. This is especially important for villains.  Readers usually love the villains that scare them, and competent villains are scary.   See Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.
  • Relatability. For example, in young adult fiction, the hero is usually a few years older than the readers (young enough to be relatable but old enough to be impressive).  Having an everyday job (or having once had an everyday job) can also help here.
  • Style. Most stylish characters are competent, a bit clever and witty.
  • A sense of humor. Obviously, not every story is a comedy, but even a bit of humor can make a character more likable.   For example, Han Solo only got a few lines like “we’re all fine here now, thank you,” but they were enough to establish his personality.
  • Flaws. Often, the flaws make a character more likable than his assets do.  Flaws are more unique and they tend to stand out more.  There are thousands of brave heroes, but what people remember about Captain Kirk and James Bond is that they’re recklessly brave.
  • Limit the complaining! Brooding, moping, crying and angst usually make the character sound whiny.  It’s really hard to like a character that whines, no matter how seriously awful his life is.
  • Proactivity. This is what distinguishes Sylar (a character dealing with a seriously hard life) from someone that complains about how hard his life is.  Readers would much rather see a character try to solve his problems than talk/complain about them.  This is one of the (many) reasons that Han and Luke are more likable than C3P0.
  • Good intentions for the villains. This is a useful way to add depth to the antagonists.
  • Variety. This is particularly important for the hero.  Give him opportunities to try different solutions and improvise.
  • Stark characterization. Please don’t make your characters “kind of an ass” or “sort of brave” or whatever.  Go big!  It’ll be more distinctive and interesting than a hero that just sort of does whatever is most convenient for the plot.  Also, it will raise the stakes and make the conflicts sharper.
  • Growth. Stagnant heroes are usually a bit boring.  If the hero’s quest doesn’t change him in some way, what’s the point?
  • Vulnerable. This is particularly important for the hero.  Ideally, he’s a bit less powerful than the villain and might actually lose.   That will force him to be intelligent and will leave readers on the edge of their seats.
  • Lone superheroes often benefit from interesting alternate identities. The alternate identity helps establish what’s at stake and makes the character feel real by giving him something to do besides beating people up.  Alter-egos are more challenging for superhero teams because there’s less time available for each character.
  • Context/justification. Some traits that might otherwise raise a lot of eyebrows might be forgivable or even endearing in the right context (e.g. extreme paranoia and being hyper-violent might be an issue in a police story but probably not in a zombie apocalypse or a DC fundraiser).

There are many more, I’m sure.  What am I missing?

55 responses so far

Jun 15 2009

Please Do Not Make Generically Nice Characters

Generic niceness is a dangerous trait to give a character–particularly the protagonist. First, it’s probably not very interesting if the character is always agreeable and only does things that the audience is meant to sympathize with. That reduces the potential for conflict.  In practice, a character that’s 100% nice is usually boring and/or a Mary Sue.  Here are some traits that suggest that the character may have issues with generic niceness.

  • Polite
  • Compassionate
  • Agreeable
  • Kind
  • Personable
  • Friendly
  • Social
  • Helpful
  • Pleasant
  • Nice, of course.
  • A complete lack of flaws besides ones that nobody would hold against him (e.g. “he tries too hard,” unless that leads him to make decisions that most readers will disagree with)

 

If your protagonist has traits like these, I’d recommend taking them in a direction that they might create some problems for the characters.  For example, perhaps the character is so social that he tries to negotiate even when the audience knows that action is necessary.  A character that is too polite might be stiff or reluctant to speak her mind. A character that is too helpful might try to help even when it’s unwise for her to do so.  Alternately, perhaps the character’s traits lead him into conflict with non-antagonists*.  For example, being agreeable and trusting is generally desirable, but if you were a prison guard, your coworkers would be on your case all the time.

 

*I think non-antagonists would probably work better here because an antagonist conflicting with a hero for being too nice would probably be one-dimensionally unsympathetic.  A conflict with a relatively sympathetic character would probably develop the protagonist more and be more emotionally interesting.  For further details here, please see #5 in How to Fix Mary Sues.

10 responses so far

May 11 2009

How to Do Multiple Narrators and POVs with Style

1.  Make it clear who’s narrating which chapter. The biggest problem with multiple narrators is that it’s hard to keep track of who is narrating a given chapter.  One way you can fix this problem is by placing the character’s name below the chapter heading.  Or you can use blatant demographic cues.  (For example, someone that starts a chapter by saying “Damn, I hate high-heels!” is probably not a male).  Some publishers even sign off on a tiny picture of the character below the chapter heading.  Do whatever it takes.

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52 responses so far

Apr 10 2009

“How can I write a character that’s smarter than I am?”

Here are some tips to help you write a super-intelligent character even if you are pretty ordinary yourself.

1.  Try not to focus on him talking intelligently– what can he do that’s intelligent? When you’re thinking about this character’s actions, he should be able to come up with cunning plans and brilliant moves.  Try to keep these as simple as possible.  After the hero carries out his plan, ideally your readers will say “damn, why didn’t I think of that?”

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23 responses so far

Apr 05 2009

Superhero Soldiers

In my list of common day jobs for superheroes, I forgot soldiers.  Ack!  How did I miss that?  Anyway, I just added them.  What sort of tips would you recommend for an author writing a story about a superhero soldier?

9 responses so far

Jan 22 2009

Death to Scrappy!

We’ve already done a general article on the dangers of using children as side-characters, but this article will discuss only the most dangerous kind of child character: The Scrappy.

Generally, a Scrappy is a character that is hated by readers, usually because he’s exaggeratedly inept in a way that is meant to be funny.  For example, instead of having a slight speech impediment, he’ll be Jar-Jar Binks.  Instead of being a bit younger than the other characters, he’ll be Scrappy Doo.  This character usually distracts from the more competent characters, often so much that he becomes a hate figure.

Here are some common misconceptions that lead authors to use Scrappies…

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36 responses so far

Jan 13 2009

Don’t let minor characters steal the show

Sometimes a minor character will “steal” the scene from the main character, taking so much of the spotlight that the main character just seems to disappear.  Here are several scenarios that often to lead to scene-stealing.

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16 responses so far

Jan 12 2009

An eccentric bit of writing advice: don’t backtrack with your characters!

“Keep the change, ya filthy animal.”  Indeed!  If your character changes in some way , it’s usually a good idea to “keep the change” rather than undo the change later on.  Backtracking often makes the characterization feel unsatisfying and usually suggests that there was no reason to make the change in the first place.  If the hero moves from psychopathic to mostly sane, it probably won’t feel right if he suddenly jerks back to psychopathic two episodes later.  (I’m looking at you, Sylar!)

In a novel or comic book, backtracking is best-handled as a major failure for the main character.  For example, it might be a decisive event that sets up the climactic struggle.  As an immature kid, Simba runs away when his father gets killed.  That sets up his return to fight Scar in the climax, establishing that he has finally become responsible.  Alternately, the hero backtracks because the hero loses at the end.  For example, if The Lion King were a dystopian tragedy about Simba failing to become mature, Simba gets hunted down and eaten by the hyenas shortly after fleeing to the desert.  That’ll teach you to try to run away from your problems!

Backtracking is generally not well-suited for traits that aren’t particularly important, or for minor characters. Backtracking tends to take a lot of space (to clear up potential confusion), so it probably isn’t worthwhile unless the character and trait are crucial to the story.

Now I’m going back to watch Home Alone.

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Dec 02 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Twins Are Generally Unhelpful

Generally, character overlap is problematic.  If two characters are interchangeable or perform the same role in your story, removing one is probably wise.  Having a smaller cast-size tends to save space, improve characterization and facilitates tighter scenes.

Twins (and triplets and quadruplets, etc.) tend to be either indistinguishable copies or slightly modified versions of the same mold.  If they’re indistinguishable, then the second twin is heavily redundant with the first and either can be easily removed.

On the other hand, some twins have only a slight difference, usually along a single character trait.  For example, one is optimistic and the other is downcast, or quiet vs. loud/outgoing, etc.  There are a few problems with that.  First, one-dimensional differentiation is typically flimsy and shallow.  Why not just make them distinct characters?  Second, it’s generally harder for readers to keep twins apart, particularly identical ones.

12 responses so far

Nov 28 2008

Writing Tip: Give Your Characters Urgent Goals, Not Joy Rides

Giving your characters urgent goals will help make your story dramatic and interesting.  For example, let’s say John wants to go to prom, but his parents won’t let him unless he does well on a chemistry test.  Will he actually go to prom?  That’s a dramatic question.

Unfortunately, many manuscripts introduce the character without a goal, hoping that readers will trudge along until the character actually has something to do.  Don’t trap yourself into something like this.

CADET DAVIS:  In this first chapter, your hero doesn’t do very much except for walking across town and chatting with another character.  What’s the point?  What’s he trying to accomplish?

AUTHOR:  He’s introducing himself and the setting.

CADET DAVIS:  That’s what you’re trying to accomplish.  What’s his goal?  What’s at stake for this character?

AUTHOR:  Well, nothing, not yet anyway.  In a few chapters, he’ll find out that he has to realize his destiny by going on a quest to stop the villain.

CADET DAVIS:  If nothing’s at stake now, why will readers find this chapter interesting?

AUTHOR:  *silence*

Unfortunately, if publishers or readers find your manuscript’s first few pages boring, they will not keep reading.  From the earliest part of your story, your main character needs to have a goal.

So what do you do if your hero doesn’t know what his main goal is yet?  For example, at the start of Harry Potter, Harry doesn’t know that his primary goal is to “go to Hogwarts and thwart Voldemort.”  He doesn’t even know that he’s a wizard.  J.K. Rowling used temporary goals to tide us over.  For example, “read the letter that Uncle Vernon is trying to hide from you.”  Those goals made him interesting even though we didn’t know anything about his magical destiny.

What sort of temporary goals work? Anything that has high-stakes for the character.  It doesn’t have to be life or death, of course. (Harry Potter only needed to obtain a letter!)

What sort of temporary goals don’t work?  Joy rides.  If a character is trying something just for kicks, or to have a good time or just because he’s curious, the stakes are probably not high enough for him for us to care.  One main exception to the rule against joy rides is that sometimes, deep into a superhero story, you can briefly show the character trying out his new superpowers.  That will stall the plot, but that’s mostly OK because we need to know what the hero is capable of.  Also, by that point of the story, you better have convinced readers that you have a plot or you are screwed anyway.

34 responses so far

Nov 23 2008

Interactive Quiz: Is Your Hero a Homo Superior?

Homo superiors are characters that are just like humans, but better.  That usually makes them bland and two-dimensional, like Superman or Legolas.  This quiz will help you diagnose the problem and fix it.

 

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9 responses so far

Nov 22 2008

Is Your Hero a Chosen One?

A Chosen One is a hero that is passively chosen for greatness, like Eragon.  Readers typically prefer characters that make their own destiny.  This quiz will help you diagnose and fix the problem.

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51 responses so far

Nov 21 2008

Interactive Mary Sue Test

Mary Sues are characters that are overpowered and too perfect.  This test will help you diagnose and fix the problem.  It typically takes around ten minutes.

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150 responses so far

Nov 12 2008

Manuscript Killers: Immortal Characters

When I’m reading a novel manuscript, immortal characters make me roll my eyes.   

 

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36 responses so far

Nov 05 2008

Why Secret Origins Are Usually Awful

Occasionally, an author will breathlessly offer some revelation about a character’s origin.  (Luke and Leia are siblings!  Sylar is actually a Petrelli! That mysterious old man is actually a god!)  Secret origin stories are rarely effective.  If you’re doing a secret origin, here are the biggest potential concerns.  If you can avoid these, I think the secret has promise.

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97 responses so far

Oct 22 2008

“How Can I Make a Character With Mental Disorders Work?”

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61 responses so far

Oct 22 2008

“How far in the book should I introduce my main character?”

Unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise, I’d say the start of chapter 2 at the very latest.

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19 responses so far

Oct 22 2008

Three Qualities of Interesting Villains

One of the signs that your villain doesn’t suck is that he’s interesting enough to handle a scene on his own.  No, we don’t need to hear about his pathetically traumatic family history or the byzantine machinations of his evil organization.  Readers just need some sign that your villain has the competence, style and/or ambition that mark a good villain.

 

Competence

Your villain should not be out of the hero’s league. In fact, for most of the story, the villain should probably be winning against the hero.  One common misconception is that the hero will seem less impressive or likable if the villain beats him a few times.  No!  A hero that defeats a crazy-competent villain will resonate more.  For example, the only reason anyone remembers Luke Skywalker is because he defeated Darth Vader.

 

Fortunately, you can make your villain competent fairly easily. When your hero attempts some course of action, take 15 minutes to list anything that could go wrong.  Then list anything that your villain could do to make the hero fail even more spectacularly.  Your villain only has to exploit one glaring weakness in the hero’s plan to look competent.  Does the hero’s plan require logistical support from his Batcave?  Whoops. Even if your villain can’t take down the Batcave, he could try something like an EMP or sunspots to interfere with communications signals. Is the hero unable to teleport around town?  Throwing him off with a decoy could buy the villain enough time to carry out his real plan.

 

Style
Style is harder to pin down than competence, but there are still a few discernable signs of style.  A stylish villain tends to dominate his scenes, even if he doesn’t have many lines.  For example, there were a few scenes in the first season of Heroes that Sylar dominated even though he wasn’t actually present.

 

One scene that particularly sticks out is when Parkman and his FBI partner were fumbling around one of Sylar’s icy murder-scenes.  First, there’s the horror factor.  Sylar is obviously an extremely depraved killer.  But more importantly, the gruesomeness of the murder is contrasted with the incompetence of the cops.  They have no idea what’s going on.  Sylar was more of a presence because he was obviously playing out of their league.

 

Ambition
I recommend giving your villain an overarching and genuinely sinister plan.  If your villain’s plan is only to get revenge against a few people, the stakes of your hero failing will be very low.  For example, the first Spiderman movie dropped the ball on this one.  What would the stakes of Spiderman not fighting the Green Goblin have been?  Pretty much nothing, unless you were on the board of directors of OsCorp.

 

This doesn’t mean that the villain’s plan has to endanger the world or universe.  That gets cheesy very fast.  But this goes to competence: a villain that’s only playing for small stakes (like trying to kill a few OsCorp businessmen) probably won’t seem very competent or frightening.  In contrast, Dr. Octopus’ plan was more ambitious and interesting even though it wasn’t particularly evil.  He wanted to perfect a crazy-ass scientific theory to redeem himself for killing his wife the first time.  Octopus’ plan had significantly higher stakes for Spiderman because he endangered many more innocent victims.  (Sorry, ruthless businessmen, but readers just don’t care about you).

192 responses so far

Oct 09 2008

“Yet Another Comics Blog” argues against origin stories

Yet Another Comics Blog argues that origin stories are mostly a distraction from the real action.

The origin is not the interesting story; it’s background information. If the information in the origin is important to the story you’re telling, then you can go back later and fill in for the reader. But don’t start with an issues-long origin…

Think of all the good genre movies you’ve ever seen. How many begin with a long origin sequence? Did Raiders of the Lost Ark start with 45 minutes of young Indiana Jones getting his PhD in archaeology? Did Star Wars begin with the origin of Darth Vader?

I disagree.  A character is usually the most human and relatable during his origin story.  Additionally, for most superheroes they also provide an irreplaceable opportunity to introduce the audience to the character.  For example, an author couldn’t explain who Spiderman is without showing why his uncle died.

Also, Star Wars did not begin with the origin of Darth Vader, but it did explain Luke’s origin at length.  Over the course of three movies we saw a farmboy grow into the savior of the universe.  It worked quite effectively.  I’d also venture that the first Matrix movie benefitted from Neo’s origin story.  If it had started with Neo after he had been released from the Matrix, it would have been horribly confusing.

The author praises Batman but criticizes Spiderman and Superman for spending too much time on origin.  But these are exceptional cases.  Usually, the audience is completely new to the backstory.  If so, then explaining the character’s origin is probably essential to introducing the audience to the world and/or the character.

14 responses so far

Oct 03 2008

A Random Name Generator

Not sure what to name your superhero’s alternate identity?  This name generator can give you hundreds of suggestions based on US census data.  Also, its names are surprisingly ethnically-diverse.

24 responses so far

Sep 30 2008

Please Don’t Base Your Characters on Friends Or Family

Generally, characters that are based on the friends and family members of the author turn out poorly.

1. These characters tend to be boring because they lack flaws. If your character is based on a friend or family member, you might feel afraid to give that person flaws because the friend might find out. PS: If you’re using someone as a model, they’re probably close enough to you that they’ll read the book eventually. (Alternately, if the character is based on someone the author hates, the character will probably have no likability or style whatsoever — that sort of character is usually a liability even as an antagonist).

 

2. It may limit the character’s development if you feel that you have to be “true” to the real-life model. Generally, it’s easiest to write when you completely own the material.

 

3. Your friend or family member might not fit into the story or a satisfying development arc. Well-constructed characters will have traits, flaws, skills, conflicts and usually growth arcs carefully tailored to the story. If the character’s details don’t work for the plot, it may detract from the reading experience. For example, Soon I Will Be Invincible inexplicably tried to fit several adult superheroes into a conflict between geeks and jocks.  If it seems strange that adults would really care about who was popular back in high school, it seems absolutely mind-blowing that a mutant tiger would.

 

4. Your friends and family are probably not quite as interesting or endearing to readers as they are to you.  No offense, but most people aren’t interesting enough to have biographies written about them. Why will we care about your friends?

 

5. If I were evaluating a novel manuscript, I’d be really concerned about whether the author had enough distance from what he was writing. 

 

6. While modeling characters on acquaintances is probably problematic, you can still use your real-life observations to make your characters or story feel more realistic. For example, you might draw on certain traits or habits from people you know rather than transplanting characters wholesale. That will help you maintain full ownership over the work and modify characters as necessary to fit the plot. If you find yourself making writing decisions based on what your friends/family would do in a particular situation, you would probably benefit from more creative control over your material.

44 responses so far

Sep 24 2008

Five adjectives that are on my mind today

If you’d like a writing exercise, try to apply one of these to a character.

  1. Surly
  2. Robust
  3. Feeble
  4. Majestic
  5. Anemic

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Sep 06 2008

Don’t Let Your Characters Walk Away from the Quest

Let’s say you’re writing a book about a candidate trying to join the Navy SEALs.  Unless there’s something holding him there, he can always walk away if it gets too hard.  That’s a lousy plot.  There’s no consequence for failure!  If failure is an acceptable option, we probably won’t care whether the character succeeds.  You can make this story more dramatic by adding personal urgency.  For example, perhaps the SEAL candidate had a brother or father that died as a SEAL and he sees it as his life’s mission to finish the job.

Here are some other suggestions to keep your characters in the story.

  1. There is nothing to return to. The Empire killed Luke’s family.  (Careful, this is a bit cliche).
  2. Too much is at stake to walk away. In The Day After Tomorrow, the protagonist doesn’t have to trek from Philadelphia to Manhattan, but it’s the only way to save his son.  Alternately, the characters in LOTR have no choice but to fight their genocidal enemies.
  3. The character physically cannot walk away. If your character is in prison, he can’t avoid the local thugs.  His only choices are submission and resistance.  Alternately, she may be trapped on a spaceship with a killer alien.

5 responses so far

Sep 04 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Don’t Trade Characterization for Comedy

One of the easiest ways to create comedy is to use a double act.  You set up a comedic conflict between two characters– usually, one character is sober and the other is crazy or one is savvy and the other is clueless.  This is a very flexible setup that can handle most genres.  For example…

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Sep 01 2008

Don’t Make Your Villains Unnecessarily Evil

Many villains do gratuitously bad stuff to remind us that they’re EVIL. For example, the nerdy antagonist in Live Free or Die Hard coldly executes his hackers even though there’s surely enough money to go around (ahem… hundreds of billions of dollars). Not only was it unnecessary for him to kill the hackers, but it was also out of character (he didn’t seem otherwise psychopathic). There’s no reason he should have been that evil– it didn’t gel with his main objective, which was to show his old agency that it was wrong to cast him aside.

Authors usually write their villains as gratuitously evil to make them badass. That rarely works. Except for Dark Knight’s Joker*, superevil villains are rarely as badass as their more restrained peers (such as Darth Vader, Dr. Octopus, Naomi Novik’s Napoleon and Dr. Doom). Why are superevil villains insufficently badass? A villain that feels more evil than his plot requires is probably cartoonish. In contrast, a badass villain is almost always serious and sober.

*In case you’re interested, I argue below the jump that the DK Joker isn’t unnecessarily evil.

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102 responses so far

Aug 22 2008

An observation about Lois Lane and Clark Kent

In Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Clark Kent is written to be an idealized Red-Stater and Lois Lane is an idealized Blue-Stater. What I love about her, compared to the average damsel in distress, is that she adds something.  She completes him. Usually, fictional stories write love interests as cardboard characters designed to show that the protagonist has “arrived.”  These characters typically seem more like trophies than people.  If they are developed at all, it will be to show how desirable a trophy they are: really beautiful and super high-class! Enter Eragon, stage right.

One response so far

Aug 15 2008

Manuscript Killers: Homo Superiors

Diagnosing the Problem

Homo superiors are characters that are like humans but better in every conceivable way. How would you describe how Superman differs from a human? “Well, he can do anything a human can, but a hundred times better.” He even looks like a human. Homo superiors are usually aliens or elves, but sometimes a human with enough superpowers or enhancements.

A homo superior is usually not merely better at fighting than everyone else, but also more sophisticated and savvy. If he has a character flaw, he’s probably arrogant because he knows he’s so much better than everyone else in the story.

Why Homo Superiors Wreck Stories

Homo superiors are usually undramatic. Superman never really struggles to do anything, because he’s the best at everything. But a struggling character is what makes stories interesting. If a police officer is in a standoff with a hostage-taker, that’s dramatic because we don’t know if the police officer will succeed. The police officer will only win if he’s wittier and craftier than the criminal. Perhaps he convinces the criminal to surrender. Maybe he convinces the criminal to lower his gun and then shoots him in the face. In contrast, Superman just uses his superspeed or eye-rays and stops the criminal. That’s quite boring, especially after you’ve already seen it a few times.

Homo superiors also usually lead to overpowered characters, which can make the plot feel unbelievable. Let’s say you want to write a fantasy story with a dragon rider. But why would the dragon take a rider? What does he think he gets out of having a puny human on his back? Why is Superman willing to risk his own life for humans? I couldn’t imagine myself being so charitable to ants and, from his perspective, we must seem something like smarter ants. Why would an incredible elven-mage be willing to join a ragtag band of adventurers? Etc.

Fixing the Problem

The best way is to try to explore ways in which the character is either mediocre or inferior. Maybe that elf, normally so elegant and well-spoken, completely goes to pieces in high-stress situations like combat. Maybe the dragon thinks that having a human might be useful in certain situations.

Here are some other ways in which a character might be different and/or inferior.

  • Physical– strength, dexterity, stamina, reflexes, senses, coordination, precision, aim.
  • Mental– logic, memory, cleverness, wit, associational reasoning, rhetorical skill, investigative prowess, gullibility, curiosity, adventurousness, bravery, education, magic.
  • Social– teamwork, selflessness, diplomacy/tact, persuasion, subterfuge

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Aug 05 2008

Manuscript Killers: Mary Sues

Mary Sues are characters that are overpowerful, self-insertions of the author. This article will help you identify and fix some of the biggest problems with Mary Sues.

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