Archive for the 'Character Development' Category

Feb 21 2016

Inactive Protagonists

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.

Are there any circumstances under which a highly inactive protagonist would be more promising dramatically than a more active protagonist? E.g. a main character that is weakly unenthusiastic about participating in the plot*, or opts to do nothing in situations where almost every protagonist in the genre would have taken some sort of move (like a superhero story about someone that develops superpowers but doesn’t want to be a superhero/villain or otherwise interact with superhero activity).

 

*Weakly unenthusiastic: not all that promising. In contrast, I think someone who’s being coerced into doing something but actively rebelling/sabotaging is helluva more promising.

9 responses so far

Dec 07 2012

Writing Experiment: Merge Two Extremely Counterintuitive Characters

Which two of your characters would be hardest to merge into a single character? How would you go about doing it?

Some possibilities which come to mind:

  • Can you use one character’s motivations (why he/she wants to do something) to add something to the other character’s goals (what he/she wants to do)? Sometimes a really counterintuitive motivation can open up fresh plotting possibilities. For example, if Character 1 is a cop trying out for SWAT because he’s suicidally brave and Character 2 became a forensic accountant because it was a safe career path might be merged into a cop trying out for SWAT because… he wants to stay safe. What convinced the cop that SWAT was his safest option? For example, maybe an unknown person or people on his unit are trying to get him killed–it’s probably more interesting than someone deciding to join SWAT for a more standard reason.
  • Do one character’s personality traits interact with the other character’s personality traits and/or goals in an interesting way? For example, applying Batman’s isolation and/or dearth of empathy to Superman might make Superman feel like more of an actual alien rather than essentially a human with superpowers.
  • Which elements of the characters’ background would you change for the merged character? What would you keep?

If you need help coming up with characters to merge, here are some possibilities…

Continue Reading »

16 responses so far

Nov 17 2012

What Makes a Hero?

In Skyfall, M remarks offhandedly that “orphans always make the best recruits” as secret agents. She doesn’t explain, but I would infer that she means that commitment matters more than anything else in her line of work, and that a person with a family won’t be as fully committed because they somewhere to leave to and may have been raised with more inhibitions than someone with a harder upbringing.

 

In your story, are there any traits or demographic characteristics which are unusually important for your heroes (or villains)? In particular, if you have a team of heroes, what are they looking for when they choose members? (For example, what should a superhero team be looking for besides superpowers? If a team takes random people off the street on life-or-death missions because they happen to have superpowers, does that strike anybody involved as desperate and/or crazy? If not, why not?) If you have a main hero, does he/she have the trait in question? If not, how does he/she get around that?

11 responses so far

Nov 10 2012

Tips for Writing Superhero Ensembles and Superhero Teams

1. I think the most important aspect is to develop your characters beyond one-dimensional cliches. Generally speaking, a few interesting characters will excite readers much more than many not-so-interesting characters would. Unless you’re doing children’s television, I’d recommend against a Power-Rangers-style setup where the members on a team have a single trait. For example, if your team consists of characters who have nothing going on besides a single trait/archetype (e.g. a hothead, a curious scientist, and an immature joker in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), it’s probably less promising than it could be. In contrast, Tony Stark had all of those traits and I think it both made him a deeper and more interesting character while enhancing his dramatic possibilities with other characters (especially in Avengers). For example, Tony Stark’s curiosity combines with his lack of restraint when he decides to cattle-prod Bruce Banner to see if Banner has the Hulk situation under control. Batman’s preparation and paranoia come together in Justice League when he pulls out Kryptonite against a enemy and cryptically says he had it on hand as an “insurance policy.” In contrast, I think there are only two types of scenes between Raphael the hothead and Leonardo the hardass leader (scenes where they hate each other and scenes where they don’t). There’s only so many ways you can have characters act out a single trait with each other.

 

 

2. Another problem I’ve seen occasionally is where large superhero teams cut the roles too fine. I’ve seen 3-page synopses for stories which have (say) 8+ characters and half of the characters only get a line of description along the lines of “Avatar has fire powers and defends the base” or “Gridley is incredibly intelligent and is the team’s hacker” or whatever. I would recommend making your characters more versatile than that. For example, pretty much any superhero can defend the base–if base-defense is plot-relevant, just rotate that task among the notable characters or delegate it to a faceless extra that won’t take much space, but please don’t just randomly insert a character that will take space without actually getting to be interesting (or at least develop more interesting characters).

For example, let’s say a team has a scientist, a hacker, a soldier, an explosives expert, an outdoorsman/hunter, a negotiator, and a criminal. I think the most intuitive (though not necessarily best) approach would be to merge some of the characters (e.g. a scientist/hacker, a soldier with a background in wilderness recon and explosives, and a silver-tongued criminal). However, you can mix and match pretty much any of these archetypes into more promising combinations. For example, you could have a criminal scientist, a USAF hacker, a survivalist that knows far more about bombs than he can admit to, and a negotiator that enjoys coercion and/or blackmail far too much. Or a scientist that’s fascinated by explosions, a military hostage-negotiator (or a special forces operative with really good people skills), and a frightfully competent hunter/poacher who’s been coerced by the authorities into helping them catch the antagonist, etc.  Hell, if you wanted to, you could probably combine most of all of those characters into 1-2 characters (e.g. a spy with both electronic and physical skills whose main job is tracking down a target and either convincing him to defect or eliminating him).

 

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68 responses so far

Aug 09 2012

Character Questionnaire: How Would Your Characters Handle These Situations?

Shannah McGill has a character questionnaire based on character actions rather than character traits.

 

I would add the following situations:

  • The character’s lover or trusted friend does something which raises questions of fidelity. The Incredibles, for example.
  • The character’s main goal is irrevocably lost. See the first ten minutes of Up, for example.
  • The character is badly failed by the legal system and/or is involved in a situation where the legal system badly fails another character. See Gone Baby Gone and The Incredibles, for example.
  • The character is in a situation where his preferred approach is totally unworkable. For example, if someone like The Hulk were facing a hostage situation with multiple gunmen, running in will get a lot of civilians killed.
  • A movie or reality TV series is made about the character.
  • The National Enquirer publishes wild (and perhaps mostly-accurate) stories about the character.
  • A disgruntled ex goes public. Bonus points if the ex was driven away by a major decision of the main character (or vice versa), rather than the ex just being generically crazy and/or vengeful.
  • The character is forced to deal with two extremely urgent problems at the same time.  Bonus points if he deals first with the problem that most readers wouldn’t.
  • A competition begins with a much more competent rival.
  • The character is abducted by Canadians and/or aliens.
  • For social and/or career reasons, the character has to fake enthusiasm and/or knowledge during a high-stakes situation. (For example, the character is excited when ESPN offers him a commentating gig, but it’s an ESPN2 program on melon-tossing, synchronized shuffleboard, or soccer).
  • The character sees three police cruisers parked outside of his house. Or a tank.  Bonus points if his/her response is not to immediately turn around.
  • The character has to offer advice in a field where he/she is extremely unqualified. For example, helping a child with homework in long-forgotten subjects or providing life advice in an area where the character has been unusually unsuccessful. “Don’t get cocky, kid.”  Bonus points if the character does not immediately realize he is in over his head.
  • The character faces opposition from a totally unfamiliar sphere. For example, someone like Spider-Man facing off against a super-commando or someone like Wolverine facing off against a journalist.
  • A parent commits adultery. (Hat tip: CW in the comments).
  • Finding out that the true enemy is someone that has been relatively close. (Hat tip: CW).
  • The character is hunted by a supernatural police group. (Hat tip: CW).  Alternately, perhaps the character gets involved in the supernatural equivalent of a lawsuit, a custody case, marital/family counseling, conscription/drafting, the Inquisition, a court-martial, a divorce, an election or caucus, a citizenship/immigration issue, jury duty, a neighborhood spat that starts with something random like dog droppings and gets really heated, a predatorial lender trying to collect on loans or library late fees, a strike, bounty-hunting/subpoena-serving, or the mother of all speeding tickets. (The space police and/or Bureau of Dragon Licensing can ticket me all they want, but they have to catch me first–giddyup, Smaug).
  • The character needs to remove himself/herself from consideration for a promotion or assignment without damaging his/her position at the company.
  • The character does not know why (and preferably has trouble figuring out why), but a really respected and/or feared person has suddenly turned on him/her in a major way. This is one way of fleshing out unforeseen consequences to the main characters’ decisions–they might antagonize characters for whatever reason (e.g. arresting one minor villain might anger superheroes working a much bigger case against an elite villain). Bonus points if the decision was intelligent when it was made.
  • The character has a burning desire to accomplish a goal tragically and/or hilariously at odds with his background, like a rat dreaming of being a 4-star chef, a deaf-dumb-and-blind kid ravaging the pinball scene, or Dan “Potatoe” Quayle/”Mojo Slow Joe” Biden running for President. Bonus points if the character’s limitations are depicted in at least a semi-realistic way–the character’s triumphs and defeats will be more satisfying the more we see him/her struggle.
  • The character needs to leave a company or organization without nuking bridges there, but the company is very concerned about loose ends. What does the character need to do to reassure them? Does the company put any restrictions in place (e.g. the supernatural equivalent of a non-compete clause)?  Does the organization have methods other than killing and/or threatening to kill anybody that wants to leave?
  • The character used to be great at something, but is declining (preferably in a long-term situation not easily undone). For example, it is exceedingly rare to see superhero stories seriously deal with aging*–For one alternative, I really like Batman Beyond’s take. (Alternately, perhaps the characters aren’t notably old, but their capabilities fade. “House of M,” for example). *99% of superheroes embody youth and stamina–it’s part of the fantasy appeal.

25 responses so far

Jun 23 2012

Writing Highly Intelligent Characters and Points-of-View

Published by under Character Development

1. By itself, intelligence is not a personality. One barometer of whether characters have enough of a personality is whether they make choices most other protagonists wouldn’t make in the same situation. Giving your characters room to do unusual things will help make them memorable. For example, notable social skills (or the lack of social skills) help flesh out brilliant characters like Tony Stark (charming and uninhibited), Sherlock Holmes (cold and unorthodox), Dr. House (abrasive and aggressive), and Bruce Wayne (charming, but generally emotionally reserved to the point of sociopathy).

 

2. Please come up with some ways to show that the character is intelligent besides just:

  • Chess.
  • Having other characters tell him how smart he is. (For example, search your manuscript for the words “brilliant” and “genius”—double-check those lines to make sure that they sound somewhat believable).  Another issue is whether you’re sufficiently showing the character’s traits. Intelligence should not be a coconut power!  Please give us something so that we can conclude whether the character is smart rather than just telling us what other characters think. One potentially serious problem I occasionally see here is when characters are purported to have certain traits but rarely actually show them.  (For example, in Watchmen, the purportedly brilliant villain commits felony idiocy at least four times).  Unless there’s some reason for this discrepancy, it would probably make the characterization weaker than it could be.
  • Scientific mumbo-jumbo. This isn’t a huge problem by itself (especially in hard sci-fi), but an intelligent major character would probably feel pretty empty if this were the only way his intelligence manifested. Please see #2.1.
  • IQ scores and other standardized tests. This is the most blatant way to turn intelligence into a coconut power.

2.1. Not sure how to make an intelligent character come across as intelligent? Here are some ideas.

  • Heightened perception of opportunities and/or threats.
  • A better appreciation of possible motives.
  • An ability to reason through double-speak and lies.
  • Resourcefulness.
  • Unusual social skills (e.g. figuring out which levers to pull in each situation).
  • An unusually clear understanding of what’s going on (e.g. the ability to detect a physical or social trap or figure out why someone is behaving uncharacteristically).
  • Extensive background knowledge (e.g. the ability to use relevant scientific, historical, cultural and/or miscellaneous knowledge to help solve problems).  Sherlock Holmes is perennially solid here. I’d also recommend checking out Batman Begins’ Dr. Crane, especially the scene where he’s discussing a patient diagnosis with a DA that suspects him of working for the mob–it comes across as very believable that judges would respect his psychiatric evaluations, even though it turns out he’s corrupt and mentally unhinged. 
  • The ability to set up plausible plans several steps in advance.
  • The ability to predict and prepare for various contingencies.
  • The ability to coax and/or manipulate others.
  • A character intelligent in one way might commit blunders of overconfidence. For example, a capable attorney from one country might see it as a sign of weakness to hire an attorney if he gets sued in another country. “Anyone who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

 

3. A character’s intelligence might show up when the character narrates a chapter and/or is used as a point-of-view. The most obvious example of this would be vocabulary and word choice—I think the most common hazard there is using advanced vocabulary so often that the character comes across more as a caricature than someone that is actually intelligent. I’d recommend checking out how Stark, Wayne and Holmes do this—first, most of their lines don’t use vocabulary much more advanced than other lines in the work. Second, they very rarely use terms that are so advanced that most readers would have to check a dictionary (e.g. “sesquipedalian,” “cryokinesis,” or anything which might plausibly show up on a GRE vocabulary list). Another possibility would be working in interesting details and connections. For example, I think something like the connection between superheroics and marital infidelity in The Incredibles could be used to establish that a character is clever/intelligent and/or has an unusual perspective. Another possibility would be showing a keen attention to details and/or a grasp of which details are most important.

22 responses so far

Mar 26 2012

How to Write Interesting Characters

Creative Writing Resources for English Class

Feel free to use this printout for your creative writing classes or whatever else you have in mind.

Below, I’ve included a text version, mainly to help Google “read” this.

Continue Reading »

10 responses so far

Mar 02 2012

How to Give a Character a Personality

One English teacher asked for an SN poster for his classroom.  Here’s a poster I made out of a much longer article on how to make boring characters interesting. As always, please feel free to give advice/feedback/creative insults.  Feel free to use it if you’d like.

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18 responses so far

Feb 18 2012

Five Reasons It’s Less Dramatic That Greedo Shot First

In 1997, George Lucas re-released Star Wars.  Among the changes were a half-second tweak to the cantina scene where Han shoots Greedo.  In the original version, Han preemptively shoots the bounty-hunter that has come to kill him.  In the revised version, Han lets Greedo shoot first.  Greedo’s shot misses and Han shoots Greedo.

 

So… why does it matter?

 

1. It’s implausible and contrived that Greedo misses his shot.  Greedo has his gun aimed at Han Solo.  Neither Greedo nor Han is moving.  The two are roughly five feet away from each other.  Everybody—even drunken Ewoks tripping on LSD—could easily hit this shot.

 

2. It reduces Han Solo from a competent hero into an idiot that got lucky.  Given the choice between shooting first or waiting until Greedo shoots first, only an idiot would wait because (as above) Greedo is virtually guaranteed to hit.  The new scene also reduces Greedo into an idiot that is apparently the worst shot in the galaxy.  The original scene was a fight between two competent shooters that was resolved by craftiness and guile.  The new scene is a fight between two idiots that is resolved by a contrivance.  If you absolutely need to incorporate contrivances into your story, I would generally recommend having luck play against the protagonists.  It’s more dramatically satisfying when protagonists overcome bad breaks rather than ease through obstacles just because they got lucky.

 

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13 responses so far

Jan 02 2012

How to Make a Boring Character Interesting

Here are some possibilities for making boring characters interesting–feel free to mix and match.

 

Problem 1: The character doesn’t have a distinct personality.

 

A) Make sure the character has distinct traits.  Can you name 3-4 adjectives that fit your character really well but not most other protagonists in your genre?  If not, please see this list of character traits for some possibilities and this article about how to use traits to develop characters.

 

B) Give him at least one flaw, a trait that makes it harder for him to achieve his goals and preferably leads to some conflict with sympathetic characters.   Some authors back into rarely-interesting “flaws” like being overly modest or “caring too much.”  If you can use those flaw(s) to create conflict or obstacles, that’s fine.  For example, maybe he wants to succeed in a job where modesty is an obstacle (e.g. marketing, sales or politics).  If you can’t use the flaw to create conflict, I’d recommend trying a different flaw instead or possibly rewriting the plot to accommodate the character.  For example, if you were really dead-set on a character whose signature flaw was his total inability to play the didgeridoo, maybe he’s growing up in a culture where mastering the didgeridoo is a critical rite of passage and/or the main way to pick up ladies.  For more on flaws and challenging characters, please see this article.

 

C) If all else fails, play up traits to the extreme.  Anything is better than having your character do and say “whatever the author feels like today,” and unfortunately I see many WTAFLT characters.  It’s generally easier to rewrite a character whose traits are too strong than one whose traits are too bland/unclear.

 

D) Make sure your plot gives your protagonists chances to make unusual choices. If 99% of protagonists from your genre would act the same way if they were in your plot, you’re not giving your protagonist a chance to distinguish himself.  If there’s a goal, a principle or a possession your character values much more than most other protagonists would, your character might make an unusual decision to protect/advance it.  For example, the fugitive protagonist of Point of Impact breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue to reclaim and properly bury his dead dog. It’s a memorable scene because the character is putting himself on the line for a goal that wouldn’t matter to most action protagonists–almost every protagonist would just skip to getting revenge or clearing his name.

 

E) Flesh out his perspective–what are some things he would notice or comment on that most other people wouldn’t?  What are some things he would draw connections between that most people wouldn’t?  For example, in a superhero-style world where people like Lois Lane or Mary Jane get kidnapped repeatedly, a veteran superhero (or investigator) might guess that anyone that’s been kidnapped by a supervillain for no readily obvious reason is probably very close to a superhero.

 

F) Force your main character to do or say at least one thing per page that he would do but you wouldn’t.  Don’t let your character get hemmed in by what you would do–most authors aren’t interesting or honest/circumspect enough to make an autobiography work.  Also, if at all possible, please force your main character(s) to do/say at least one thing per page that your other characters wouldn’t.  That will really help the main character feel distinct.  If that’s not possible, I would recommend reevaluating whether the character has distinct traits and whether the plot is giving him opportunities to show those traits.

 

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43 responses so far

Nov 06 2011

Ideas About How to Name a Superhero

First, I’d like to reiterate that superhero names generally don’t matter very much and probably won’t mean the difference between getting published and getting rejected. That said, if you can’t come up with a superhero name or a team name, here are some possible sources of inspiration.

 

1. Something thematically and/or symbolically appropriate. For example, “Captain America” is more interesting than “Shield Throwing Man,” because the America and military angles matter more to his story than the details of his superpowers. Alternately, Oracle can’t actually predict the future, but her name sort of makes sense because her main role is providing information and assistance. There are also a bevy of characters named after mythological or literary references (e.g. Ozymandias is acutely aware of human limitations/mortality, which also happens to be the main theme of the poem Ozymandias). Please note that you can either gloss over the symbolism or skip over it — e.g. Watchmen and Breaking Bad spent less than a minute discussing where “Ozymandias” and “Heisenberg” came from.

2. An emotional impression. Some characters have names that evoke the right emotions, but aren’t related to the characters’ powers. Some heroic examples include Wonder Woman and the Martian Manhunter, as opposed to villainous examples like Venom and Carnage.

 

3. Something in the character’s origin story. For example, Green Lantern is named after the source of his powers (and his organization). Batman is named after a bat even though his powers aren’t actually bat-related. (Unless bats are secretly master ninja-scientist-detectives. That’d go a long way to explaining how the bats trapped in my attic have survived this long, actually).

 

4. The character’s goal. This is more common in team names (e.g. the Avengers or any name with Guardians in it), but names like The Punisher or The Question make it pretty clear what the characters want to accomplish.   Continue Reading »

751 responses so far

Oct 27 2011

Hero Brainstorming Forum

Do you have any questions about how to write a hero for your story?

37 responses so far

Sep 22 2011

Superpowers Will Not Make a Boring Character Interesting

Here are two common problems I’ve seen with submissions:

  • Characters are developed mainly in terms of their superpowers (e.g. listing out the characters and their superpowers).
  • The novel starts with a superhero-to-be that is not interesting before getting superpowers. (If a character is not interesting before getting superpowers, he/she probably won’t be interesting afterwards, either).

 

If you’ve encountered either of the above issues, these questions should help.

1. What is the character’s personality like? What are his key traits?

 

2. What are the character’s goals/motivations like?  How do those tie into the character’s personality and background?  (I guess it’s possible that there’s a not-particularly-bright athlete out there whose burning life goal is to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but trying to make the varsity squad would probably be more intuitive).

 

3. What sort of unusual decisions does the character make that other superheroes (or superheroes-to-be) wouldn’t?  In particular, why does the character choose to become a superhero?  Is there anything in the character’s personality or background that influences this decision?  (I’d look at that especially hard if the character wasn’t notably brave or violent before getting superpowers).

 

4.  How is the character different from other superheroes-to-be?  

 

5.  How is the character different from other characters in the story, particularly other superheroes (if applicable).  

 

6.  Are there any ways this character’s background, personality and/or skills make him a good (and/or bad) fit for the plot?  Either could create drama.

  • Sherlock Holmes is a good fit against a villain like Professor Moriarty because Moriarty is so dangerous that only someone as competent as Holmes could stop him.  That raises the stakes and makes it easier to challenge Holmes.  (Challenging protagonists is key to generating drama–if the protagonist easily outmatches his obstacles, it probably won’t be as interesting as it could be).
  • If a character is a bad fit, he’d have to work harder to overcome obstacles.  For example, Chuck, Bad Company and The Taxman Must Die are about relatively normal people thrust into super-dangerous spy jobs.  The characters’ lack of preparation and personalities help create tension/conflict with teammates and helps writers wring drama out of obstacles that might have been mundane/forgettable for a spy with years of experience.
  • It’s possible to do both.  For example, Dexter is a serial killer that works as a police crime scene analyst.  On one hand, he’s less likely to get caught because he knows what they’re looking for and can sabotage the investigation.  On the other hand, they’re unusually close to him and have started to ask questions about why he misses so much work.

11 responses so far

Aug 27 2011

Red Flags for Female Characters Written By Men

1. If something would be boring and/or undramatic for a male character, it would probably be boring and/or undramatic for a female character.  If you’re writing a female character (particularly in a major role), I’d recommend thinking about whether you’d want to read about a male character in that situation or with that trait.  If not, then you’re probably boring your readers.

 

2. The character is useless.  Have you made a main character more or less helpless for most of the story? Does she watch as the story happens around her?  Does she get repeatedly saved by other characters when the going gets rough? Please think back to #1.  You’d probably be bored reading about a more or less helpless guy, right?  Your readers will be just as bored by a helpless female.

 

3. The character’s only defining trait is being hyper-smart or (more rarely) a total ditz.  That’s fine for one character among several, but if she’s your only significant female character, it’ll raise questions about your ability to handle female characters at a more relatable level of intelligence.  If you’re having trouble with more relatable female characters, I’d recommend checking out some Meg Cabot books, Mean Girls and/or Pride and Prejudice.

 

3.1. The character is totally pure.  A character that always does the right thing and has no motivations besides being friendly/agreeable/nice is probably pretty boring.  100% pure characters strain the suspension of disbelief, are less relatable and usually less dramatic.  For whatever reason, these types of boring characters are almost always women.

 

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137 responses so far

Aug 27 2011

Ladies, What Would Hint a Female Character Is Written By a Male?

Published by under Character Development

What are some giveaways that would suggest to you that a female character is written by a male author?  I’m writing an article on female characters for male authors and would really appreciate your help here.

10 responses so far

Aug 18 2011

Tips on Self-Destructive Protagonists

Self-destructive protagonists have become well-known and easily recognizable stock characters, particularly in noir fiction. While this isn’t a problem on its own, the amount of characters that fit this basic archetype have cluttered the field and made it a challenge to create unique ones.

 

If you’re writing a similar character, to keep your story interesting and hard to predict, you should treat your character with care and a particularly open mindset.

 

What Is Afflicting Your Character?

Don’t just make your character a shadow of another character that uses the same device. That doesn’t mean you can’t use afflictions that have already been used, like drugs or alcohol, it just means you need to be sure that the affliction you are using is the best fit for your story.

 

First, did your character acquire the affliction voluntarily?  Drugs, alcohol and gambling debts are voluntary. But Alzheimer’s—which I consider to be an affliction that can lead to self-destructive characters—is not. For example, Joshua Hale Fialkov used a brain tumor in the aptly-named graphic novel Tumor.

 

The next part of creating interesting self-destructive characters is to have an open mind while indulging in the creative process. All stories and characters are prone to change, and in analyzing your character’s affliction you should question whether or not the affliction you have chosen is the best one for your character and/or story. Please use the most suitable device rather than just the first one that comes to mind.

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2 responses so far

Aug 18 2011

How to Make a Serious Character Likable

From my email: “What Makes a Character Likable? was helpful, but what if the character is serious and a bit of a hardass?”  Here are some ideas that come to mind.

 

1. The character has a sympathetic goal that calls for seriousness. For example, the protagonist in Silence of the Lambs is an FBI agent pursuing an unusually vicious serial killer and nobody else knows what’s going on besides a serial cannibal. Under these circumstances, it would probably be hard to like the FBI agent if she weren’t serious.

 

1.1. The character is hard, but has a good reason to be. If a surgeon snaps at a nurse for getting something 95% right, I think readers could probably be persuaded to sympathize with the surgeon because a 95% competent nurse might get somebody killed. It’d be harder to sympathize with a teacher snapping at a student that got a problem 95% right–unless he’s teaching Bomb Defusal 101. I think bigger stakes and stressful situations make it easier to like a hardass.

 

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5 responses so far

Jul 05 2011

How to Introduce Major Characters

1.  If at all possible, give the new character something interesting to do that ties into a plot element that has been major.  For example, maybe the new character has some obvious connection to a major goal or obstacle for the main character.  For example, maybe a wizard or superhero can only graduate from her academy if she passes telepathy, but there’s only one telepathic teacher’s assistant and he has a reputation for singing about himself in the third person while scrawling lewd graffiti in the cafeteria.  (Sigh, telepaths).  The more you connect the new characters to things we already care about, the easier it will be for us to care about them.

 

2.  Please use only interesting visuals that help develop the character.  Red flag: The story spends more time on the colors of the character’s eyes, hair, skin and sometimes clothes than on visual details that would help develop interesting and/or important information about the character and/or his role in the plot.

 

  • UNACCEPTABLE: “Damon the necromancer was wearing black robes that clashed with his smoky blue eyes.”
  • BETTER:  “Good God, Damon, is that rabbit’s blood on you?  You’re soaked in it!”  Damon sipped his coffee.  “It was him or me, ma’am.”

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91 responses so far

Jul 05 2011

Which love interests have been most effective/memorable? Discuss!

Feel free to discuss anything related to love interests.  For example, which love interests have you found most interesting?  What do you think distinguishes interesting love interests from forgettable ones?  If you’re familiar with a few superhero stories, how do you think their romantic love interests stack up against love interests in other types of stories? 

25 responses so far

Jan 26 2011

How to Save Mary Sues (Insufficiently Challenged Heroes)

Some tips for fixing a Mary Sue, a protagonist that is insufficiently challenged by his or her story.

1. Give the character flaws, ideally one he’s accountable for. Most unchallenged characters have a bevy of strengths but few well-developed flaws.  One approach is to play up the character’s strengths so much they sometimes become liabilities.  For example, in Point of Impact, Nick Memphis is unfailingly loyal, even though it ruins his career.  Virtually any strength taken to an extreme could create obstacles for the character.  For example…

  • Being too smart could create social obstacles for the character (see Flowers for Algernon or House), impatience with less intelligent people, overconfidence, a willingness to jump to erroneous conclusions on too little information, etc.
  • Being too nice could lead to gullibility/naivete, a reluctance to confront someone even when a confrontation is necessary, or a handicap against tougher (and maybe more brutal) foes.
  • Being too honorable could result in situations where the character loses because he/she refuses to take the most effective course of action available.  At its most cliche, perhaps a superhero stops chasing a gang of villains so that he can defuse a bomb or free a hostage from a deathtrap.  But that only affects a scene.  More significantly, a villain can manipulate a hero’s sense of honor so that he/she does something that shapes the plot.  For example, Cassius draws Brutus into the assassination plot in Julius Caesar by exploiting Brutus’ honor.
  • Being too brave could result in reckless mistakes.  The character’s overconfidence might get him hurt, and possibly bystanders as well.  For example, if a superhero tries to rush a hostage-taker without any sort of plan, hostages will probably get shot.
  • Being too committed to one’s goals (even honorable goals) could result in obsession and/or a willingness to sacrifice friends, morals, bystanders, and anything else to achieve the goals.

2.  Have the character make some decisions the audience won’t approve of. If the character is so purely heroic that readers will probably approve of every decision he makes, he probably doesn’t have much moral complexity.  Usually, that’s not as believable or interesting as giving the characters some human edges.

3.  Have the character make difficult decisions. Difficult decisions distinguish the character.  If the character is just making banal decisions that 90%+ of the genre’s protagonists would make in the same situation, the plot probably isn’t giving the hero enough room to distinguish himself.  Let your hero show how different he/she is with some decisions that most other heroes wouldn’t make.  For example, the protagonist in Point of Impact, Bob Swagger, is on the run after he’s been framed for an assassination attempt on the President.  The people framing him planted incriminating evidence in his house, but they had to kill his dog to sneak inside. Almost every action protagonist in this situation would probably have started by trying to take down the conspiracy.  Swagger starts by breaking into the FBI-occupied morgue where the dog’s body is being held as evidence so that he can properly bury it.  It really helps develop his character: the dog is the closest thing he had to a friend and he feels honor-bound to return its loyalty.  It also gives the villains reason to panic and ratchets up the tension.  If this guy is suicidal enough that he’d risk a high-speed chase with the FBI over his dog, his dead dog at that, what’s he gonna do to them?

4. Challenge the character! Raise obstacles high enough that it will be interesting for the character to overcome them.  For example, if your character is the most powerful superbeing in your story, the potential for interesting straight-up action is probably pretty low because he’s more powerful than his opponents.  For example, The Watchmen couldn’t have done much with a straight-up duel between invulnerable hero Dr. Manhattan and semi-powered villain Ozymandias.  Instead, Ozymandias challenged the heroes with his stealth and subterfuge, buying time so that he could make his survival so valuable to the heroes that they wouldn’t dare to kill him.   Another approach would be to try challenging the character in a sphere where his superpowers aren’t very useful.  For example, in a superhero romance, a guy that’s used to solving his problems with violence would have to try a very different tack to wooing the girl of his dreams.

5. Have the character face some morally gray obstacles. I would really recommend against making everyone that opposes the hero a straight-up bad person. For example, maybe the character’s friends aren’t 100% supportive of everything he does, maybe his coworkers/bosses have reasonable disputes with the character, or maybe there’s an antagonist whose intentions are pretty pure, etc.  If there’s no approach for a character to disagree with the hero without coming off as a bad person, the hero is probably not morally complex enough to feel fully believable.  (Hey, even Gandhi and MLK took some flack over their pragmatism).

59 responses so far

Nov 06 2010

Discussion: Can characters be inherently uninteresting?

Published by under Character Development

I read this on a discussion board today: “There are no bad or uninteresting characters, only characters that are written badly or uninterestingly.” What do you think?

24 responses so far

Sep 18 2010

Please Don’t Flood Readers with Mundane Visual Details

1. Everything in your story should advance the plot and/or develop something important about a character. Please don’t stall the story with irrelevant details.

 

2. 99% of the time, it doesn’t really matter whether a character’s eyes are blue or green or whether her hair is brown or blonde. However, such details could be used to create an impression that does affect the plot and/or characterization. For example, if you wanted to suggest that a character looked mysterious and perhaps a bit dangerous, maybe you’d say that her eyes were a smoky blue, whereas the villain’s eyes might be a sickly or poisonous green. Or you could use some aspect of a character’s appearance to create a mood for a particular scene.  In such cases, I would recommend introducing these details only as soon as they contribute something and not because you think readers are wondering what color the character’s eyes are. (Trust me, they aren’t*).

*Of all the hundreds or thousands of characters you’ve ever read about, how many have eye colors you can remember? Any?

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41 responses so far

Aug 17 2010

15 Interesting Motivations for Villains and Heroes

1. Romance. Villains frequently have ulterior motives (like marrying Aunt May to steal the nuclear power plant she inherited?) and improper means (such as sabotaging rivals). True romances are rare for villains and can make them deeper and more interesting. Mr. Freeze’s romance with his wife Nora in Heart of Ice turned him from a corny ice-themed punchline into an Emmy winner. (He later devolved into a corny ice-themed punchline after being played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but some things can’t be helped).

 

2. Revenge. This might be heroic if the crime is particularly heinous and/or the regular authorities are not willing or able to resolve the situation. It might be villainous if the character is overreacting or not being careful enough about hitting only the people responsible.  When working with revenge plots, I think it’s usually more interesting if the revenge develops into something more than just killing/stopping people A, B and C.  For example, in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, the villain is getting back at the love interest that rejected him, which introduces relationship issues that present their own challenges to a protagonist trying to get over a long-dead relationship of his own.

 

3. To distinguish oneself. It depends on why the character wants to distinguish himself. A hero whose main goal is fame/status will probably gain a more substantial goal over the course of the story. (For example, Booster Gold). I think it’s seen as a superficial, temporary goal. In contrast, “be true to yourself” is more purely heroic… Unless being true to yourself involves psychically decapitating people and sucking out their brains.

 

4. To fit in/gain acceptance. A lot of heroes seek to gain the respect of their peers (see any story about “the new guy,” particularly students). However, gaining acceptance might be more sinister based on who the protagonist wants to impress and/or what will impress them. For example, 1984 ends with Winston Smith rather unhappily gaining acceptance by betraying his innocent girlfriend: “…he had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

 

5. Justice. This is like revenge, but usually less lethal and targeted more carefully against the perpetrators. Nonetheless, justice can sometimes be villainous. For example, the main goal of the robot antagonists in the I, Robot movie is to prevent humans from getting hurt, and they think that putting human under house arrest is the most logical way to do so.

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106 responses so far

Apr 25 2010

How to Introduce an Interesting Character

1. Please establish the voice and personality early. One possibility is having the character and/or narrator make an unusual observation about something important to the story or giving some unusual personality trait about the character. For example, “It was a pleasure to burn” (Fahrenheit 451) or “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter” (Huckleberry Finn).

2. Another option is having the character start with an action that is typical to him, but NOT typical to most other protagonists. This is why opening a book with the character waking up is usually ineffective. It rarely launches into the unique/interesting aspects of the character and the story quickly enough. You didn’t write a story about this character to show him waking up, so just skip to the part that we WILL care about.

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8 responses so far

Feb 17 2010

Bad Decisions Make Badass Stories

Whether you’re writing a thriller or a romance, an unbroken chain of victories for the hero is probably not very interesting. Come on.  Even Batman makes mistakes.  Unlike most good decisions, poor decisions and ineptly-executed plans create consequences that the character has to overcome, which lets you raise the stakes for the heroes and make the journey more difficult.

Here are some further suggestions about bad decisions.

1.  Please connect the poor decision to an aspect of the character, like a personality flaw or a fear or a defining attribute. For example, if a superhero is exceedingly self-confident, it makes sense that he’d rush into battle without figuring out whether he’s gonna get beat around the block.  In contrast, if a generally well-prepared protagonist acts uncharacteristically hasty without a good reason, you’ve inadvertently given him an idiot ball.  That’s a problem because it isn’t true to the characterization you’ve given him thus far.

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Jan 23 2010

Opinions Make the Character

Hopefully your writing sounds more interesting than this: “I called my agent for lunch.  I went to Panera.  I tried to find him there but he was late.”  This is just a bland list of facts. As a writer, it’s your job to make the story as interesting as possible by bringing in details that shake up the narrative.  One possibility is opinions.

In the above passage, the narrator doesn’t have any interesting opinions or any other thoughts about what’s going on around him.   He doesn’t have to be that invisible.

My agent was late to lunch.  Probably getting seduced by some cold-eyed harpy with a Twilight-meets-Eragon manuscript.  Sparkly dragon vampires.  He fell for bestsellers every time.

Notice that the narrator/author hasn’t said anything about himself, but he has shown much more about his personality and why he’s an interesting character.  We also learn more about the missing agent, even though it’s all just opinion.

PS:  If you can remove unnecessary details, like where they were meeting for lunch, please do so.  Alternately, find a way to make the detail useful.

4 responses so far

Nov 03 2009

How to Write Distinct Characters

Published by under Character Development

Your readers have probably read about heroes with any given positive trait, particularly if the trait is commonly associated with a protagonist in your type of book.  (For example, a detective is almost always more cunning than a barbarian).  However, this is not inherently problematic.  If you’re writing a detective story, your protagonist is probably (at least somewhat) cunning because it wouldn’t be much of a detective story if he just bumbled through it Magoo-style.  It’s not a problem that he’s cunning as long as you do something else to make sure that he feels fresh. 

1.  One way to make a character with a conventional trait (like a cunning detective) and take the trait so far it almost becomes a flaw.  For example, Captain Kirk is so brave he’s reckless, Charlie becomes so smart he’s alienated, many lawyers are so slick they’re oily, etc. 

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One response so far

Aug 24 2009

How to Beat Disbelief and Immerse Readers

1.  YOUR READERS NEED TO KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE.

  • Characters should act consistently.  It’s usually better to err on the side of a trait being too strong/consistent than too weak/half-hearted.  When characters grow and change, his change should be caused by something understandable and visible.  Don’t leave your readers wondering why this character is acting like that.
  • Powers like time-travel, memory-alteration, impersonation and sometimes resurrection can make it very difficult to understand what is going on.  (Is that memory real or imagined?  Who remembers what? Who’s dead?)  I would not recommend adding these powers lightly.  If readers are confused, they will be jarred from the story.  Don’t make the reader work to understand the basic facts of your story.
  • Don’t be coy with readers.  If the point-of-view character knows something relevant (like backstory or something he knows or can observe), the reader is entitled to know the same.  I strongly recommend against trying to create drama by having the POV hide information from the readers.  “Surprise, I was the killer all along!”  If you hide information that the reader feels entitled to, he will probably feel angry rather than satisfied when you finally reveal the truth.

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5 responses so far

Jul 08 2009

Other things about your characters that rarely matter

Published by under Character Development

1. What their eyes look like. Eyes are almost never as interesting to the reader as they are to the author.  Additionally, describing what the eyes look like suggests a level of closeness that often implies romantic intimacy.  Finally, eye-color comes up so rarely in real life that it’s weird to mention it in fiction.  Here’s a mental exercise:  take yourself, your mom, your dad, and your significant other.  How many of their eye-colors can you name with certainty?  If eye-colors are such a minor detail to you that you can’t name your mom’s eye-color, what are the odds are that your readers will care about your protagonist’s eyes?  Very, very slim.

2. What they did when they woke up. It is almost impossible to write an interesting morning routine.  If your book starts with a character waking up, the manuscript is probably dead on arrival.  Just cut to the part where they do something interesting.

3. Extra names. In most cases, I’d recommend a first name or a last name, but try to avoid switching between the two.  Middle names are almost always a waste of time.  (In contrast, secret identities are usually acceptable because they are plot-important and because readers can easily understand why the character is sometimes called Superman even though his name is Clark).

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21 responses so far

Jul 08 2009

Featured: Which female characters are the most awful and why? Who’s awesome?

Which female characters do you think are the most awful? Which are the most excellent? What separates the two? Marissa and I really appreciate your feedback; Marissa’s writing an article for us about how to do female characters well. (You can see our article on male characters here).

202 responses so far

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