Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Write Club - Writing Characters

Hey y'all!

Now, as I was writing my The Princess and the Frog review, I really wanted to write an exercise on what makes a good villain. However, that would be skipping a step: what makes a good character in the first place?

The first thing to remember is, even though we're dealing in the realm of fiction, the characters must be real. You can fake the setting, fake the science, and even fake natural abilities, but you cannot fake a soul -- a person's mind, will, and emotions. These are what a reader relates to, what ties an audience to your story. People hate fake characters who act unnaturally or make weird contradictory decisions. You must craft interesting, realistic people, so that no matter what weird nonsense your environment brings to them, your readers are on board.

So, first let's do the easy part. Character building! This is what makes your story work: characters. If you have boring or otherwise flawed ones, or just forget about them alltogether for the sake of your plot or your philosophical rantings, then that's bad. Fleshing out these characters and treating them as real people lend an extra dimension to your work that allows you to create a better work of fiction.

How do you create a character? There's really no concrete way of doing it. Mostly it falls under how you are inspired. Let's start off with looks.

So you're walking around one day, doing something (I personally find being at work surprisingly inspiring) and you get this image of a person in your head. This person is not a person that exists already, but is someone who intruigues you as a writer and inspires you to start typing away at the computer. What does this person look like? Skinny? Big? Dark-skinned? Light-skinned? That one shade of biracial that looks like so many ethnicities you can't guess which one it really is? Are there any distinguishing flaws that make this person unique? Long arms? Ugly nose?

There's a lot to consider in the looks department, and it's a good lead off into personality. Usually being inspired for looks only happens with your main characters, those you want to base your story on. Trouble is, you're not always going to have inspiration come so easily, and there's going to be times when you need to just quickly write up a character for your plot. That brings us to the second starting point: purpose.
For example, your lead female character has to go to a cafe and meet with a friend so that you can set her up to meet your lead male. So in this case the inspiring factor is the purpose of the character to your plot. You come up with these characters when you want to get something done. Like, you want your lead to be more guided, so you create a wise character. Or if you want people to sympathize with your main group, you create some redshirts.

In the case of the lead female going to the cafe, you have to arrange it so that she has the desire and/or obligation to meet with this character. Is this someone she works with or just knows? Is it a guy or a girl? Is this meeting for some important reason, just hanging out, or plain coincidence? Does the lead really want to meet with them? By determining how you want to answer these questions, you determine how this side character is fleshed out. It can be a coworker that they always gossip with, or maybe a creepy guy trying to sell them tupperware. Whatever best serves your purpose.

Purpose also exists for your lead character, but since the lead character's purpose is to carry out the story, side characters generally require more thought when it comes to the topic of purpose.

The next thing that can inspire you is environment. Say you're reading a book or watching TV, and you see there a place you really want to write about: maybe the desert, the rainforest, a specific city, etc. Or maybe you've imagined in your head a new fantasy or science fiction world that doesn't follow natural physics or politics. Either way, at some point you're going to have to ask yourself what kind of people live there and how exactly they live. Nobody in the desert grows cranberries, and nobody in Ireland uses chopsticks, so reality is the biggest checkpoint here, even in a fake world. Let's say your world has flying cars. In this world, nobody would string out their laundry to dry, and someone would invent rooftop or flying gas stations. These are just natural results of having flying cars, and you have to treat each environmental aspect keeping the environmental potential in mind.

So how do these affect characters? There's plenty of difference between someone from a city and someone from a farm, so you must realize the natural results of city living or country living, or Bangkok living or Ireland living. Someone from the city would be more accustomed to regular shopping, for example. Someone in a city of flying cars would be more impatient and want to get to a destination faster than someone who lives in 1883 and only travels in carriages. One of my managers at work grew up on a farm and became very accustomed to animals, and she even owned a pair of killer ferrets that actually killed a guy that broke into her house (I am so not making that up).

Mostly this comes into play when you're trying to create background characters, like when your lead is jumping into a new environment. However, don't underestimate the need for this in a main character. Too many people forget that the lead too is a person from a given environment, making him more able or less able to handle new things and new people. This kind of writing flaw easily results in a generic, boring lead that is pretty much a carbon copy of the author in question. In the realm of fanfiction, we call such a character a Mary-Sue.

Next is personality - how a character thinks, feels, believes, and reacts according to new situations. Now, while environment is a big factor in a person's personality, the spirit within a person is greater still. If you don't believe me, look at siblings. They grew up in the same environment, but are they the same? No. So is this person domineering? Reclusive? Optimistic? Self-pitying? An exercise freak? Really, this category is the most obvious, fluid, and easy to screw up of all the determining factors. It's obvious because everyone knows that your character is going to have to have a personality, it's fluid because personality can go in any direction, and it's easy to screw up for any number of reasons. I'll get more into that later. Being inspired by a certain personality is also something that happens for the more important characters.

And then there's overall tone. This is a harder starting point, as it refers to your book rather than the character itself. So, you're staring at your computer because you want to write a book that gives off a certain aura or tells certain themes. Think of the movie Chicago. The best way to describe the overall tone is sarcastic and tragic -- it's a story of the supposedly corrupted justice system told in extravagant broadway style. If you were the author settling down to write a story like this, you would have to take the premise and tone to create relevant characters. In Chicago's case, relevant characters are people like Roxy, the lead character who would do anything, even murder, to get famous. Since the tone of this movie is very dark and ironic, they obviously have to make it so that the bad guy, namely Roxy, wins her murder case even though she is guilty, while the innocent Polish girl is condemned to death. Therefore one must make Roxy to be a determined, selfish starlet, and the Polish girl must be innocent, kind, and Catholic.

Think about this for your story. Are you trying to write a happy book? Are you trying to create a book with a sense of bitter victory? A sense of horror? If so, you must pick characters that will accentuate the emotions you want to create in the fiction. For example, you can't put a jolly, singing baker into Chicago. That would just not work or have any relevance to the plot.

Going by tone is a very difficult way to start your story, particularly for newer authors. Unless you have the overall plot fleshed out very well, it's generally better to start with a character and let that character decide the tone, not the other way around. If you can do it and create a good fiction, that's good and well. Just start wherever inspiration comes and work from there.

Lastly, you have employment. While this is relevant for all characters, you'll probably think of it more when it comes to side characters who are more defined by their jobs. Let's say your main character comes to a bakery. If the baker in charge is relevant to the plot, then you have to think of how being a baker affects that person. Maybe they're more picky about the quality of grains that they eat, or maybe they always tells stories about making the perfect torte. You must consider not only how that job changes a person, but why that person would want to take that job in the first place.

Let's look a character who was badly executed: Martha Jones from Doctor Who. Notedly, I did not like this character, and it's very easy to tell that the character's true flaws didn't so much come from actress Freema Agryeman, but from the writers. Let me explain.

Okay, so we are introduced to this character in the episode Smith and Jones, in which the space police (space rhinos with lasers) teleport Martha's hospital to the moon. Martha is in fact a doctor in training at her hospital, and the Doctor immediately notices her because she is the most intelligent and steady-minded of the hospital's occupants. Martha makes a great first impression in this episode, but summarily becomes a shallow rip-off of previous companion Rose.

What's particularly relevant to the failures of the Martha character is the fact that Dr. Who's writers never considered how being a doctor affected Martha. Now, being a doctor is not something you can just randomly do. It takes a lot of things: patience to get through the extra school, an ability to cope with potentially terrifying wounds, a desire to help people, and possibly an urge to make good money. None of these factors ever seemed to apply to Martha, other than some patience. She's easily disgusted, inspired more by adventure or the doctor himself rather than helping others, and she has no particular concern for money. In fact, the last shot we see of her is running around with husband Mickey and huge guns fighting off Sontarans. A doctor with huge guns? While not mutually exclusive, these two characteristics are awkward paired together, especially with a chick lacking in unnecessary machismo. She had cool hair though.

After the first episode I was really expecting her to become a really smart medical doctor because she becomes exposed to alien life and alien scientific advances, but the writer(s) forget all about that plot. It's as if she had never been a doctor at all. Other writer problems resulted in Martha being the worst companion on the show I've seen (I haven't seen that many of them, to be fair). I might get more into that later, but the lesson here is to remember that personalities determine jobs and jobs affect people.

And speaking of "PEOPLE", here's a handy acronym for ya:
Personality - a character's mind, will, and emotions. Their soul, essentially.
Environment - the natural and technological surroundings that affect a character.
Overall tone - the feelings that you want your book to give off.
Purpose - what your character is supposed to do for the sake of the plot.
Looks - the appearance of the character and how it affects them.
Employment - what a character chooses to do and how it affects them.

You can be inspired by any of these things, but the point is you'll have to decide all of them, subconciously if nothing else, if you want to create a good character. The best way to do this is to remember that your character is a real person. Treat them as if they are more or less rational people capable of choosing their circumstances on their own.

There are a lot of common problems that go along with noob writers. Don't feel too bad if you do these things, because no one starts off perfect, but at the same time learn from whatever you can. Let's name some problems.
Dull characters.
These are the absolute worst. Notedly, this problem is an indirect problem, meaning that you as the writer start off with someone in your head who interests you very much. There's no reason in the world a reader can't do the same, except that you for whatever reason have trouble making this character look as interesting as you picture them. Here's some good ways to spice up your characters.

- don't overdescribe them. I absolutely hate it when an author is forever describing their character. It's like they're trying to convince you that their character is interesting. When you introduce them, describe their looks, but don't feel the need to redescribe them every chance you get. This applies to personality traits too. In one book I read, the author kept on describing how one chick, Val, was tough. He did it at every mention of her, without even bothering to refer to any of her other personality traits. That book was a dull pile of sludge, and tough chicks are very stereotypical in the first place.

- give them interesting dialogue. Let them talk like people. If you have to, react to a situation the way you normally would, then think about how the character does. Like if you would go "that's interesting" because someone is talking about boring stuff, what would your character do? If they're more open about their opinions, they might go "you're boring" or change the subject, or even walk away. Just let them do things that are natural. Don't feel like you have to make them sound extra intelligent or clever at the risk of being dull.

A very common error is the contradictory character. I hate them so much. Okay, so if your character is a real person, they are going to do things that you might not agree with. Commonly you'll want your character to do something, but you'll realize that your character would never do that. Like say, if your character is a bona fide cosmopolitan city girl, she'll likely have a huge problem with going to the poorer parts of China. The poorer parts of China, while awesome in my eyes, are annoying and frightening to a girl who would be scared even to go to Iowa.

Gah. I seriously hope that people from New York City aren't as narrow-minded and culturally stunted as Hollywood makes them look these days. Honestly, in the movie Have You Heard about the Hendersons? it makes the two leads look just about as ignorant and self-superior as a coddled teenager. The movie is about this NYC couple that goes out into a midwestern state because they witnessed a murder. They end up staying with the sherriff, and as they pick up the sherriff's wife after she buys a rifle, the yankee woman exclaims, "oh my God, it's Sarah Palin!"

One, Sarah Palin is by no means scary. Two, owning a rifle is not scary. Getting raped because you didn't have a rifle is. I really need to meet some NYC folk just so I can get that retarded stereotype out of my head. I've met upstate New Yorkers, and they're pretty cool. I friggin' hate Hollywood.

Okay, okay, there's a point to all of this. Basically I'm saying that steer very clear from Hollywood stereotypes. Hollywood thinks that all yankees are glitzy and self-righteous, all people outside of cities are hicks, and all Americans are ignorant unless they're rebelling against something, most likely the law (which in turn is always incompetent). Stereotypes limit your story and cause the audience to disconnect with your story. It's really best for your story to disregard all stereotypes, unless some of your characters happen to follow them. Don't make any of your characters generic. Let the readers see their hearts and motivations, then even if they seem close to a stereotype, your audience will never notice. No one in real life is a stereotype, so don't force fake ones into them either.

Oh, I almost missed the point I was trying to make in the first place. If your character needs to do something out of character, give them a legitimate reason. Don't just have them go, "I hate the country" and then pack up and move to Leadville, Colorado. Perhaps you can make it so a family member is dying, and they need to go, or perhaps the company they work for wants to scout out some land for a business. Maybe your character gets a new boyfriend who wants to drag her out of the city to go ride horses or somesuch. Or maybe your character goes through a deep experience that just plain changes her heart. Make it legitmate, y'all.

Another character I sometimes have a problem with is the lead character that doesn't have an arc. An arc is change - at the beginning of the story the character is one way, and at the end they are another because of all the changes they've gone through. This isn't always a problem, particularly for side characters, but it's pretty much a requirement for the characters you want your reader to get to know. There was this one fantasy book I tried to read, but it was so terrible that I couldn't finish. The male lead was a self-righteous, arrogant bastard, so much so that I couldn't get past the first chapter. I skipped to the end just for the heck of it, and he was still arrogant and self-centered. It really was a piece of trash. Oh, and that brings me to another point: don't make characters that your readers hate. Love to hate is one thing, but straight out hate is too much.

The most noobish thing a writer can do is make all of the characters the same. It happens so dang often...or maybe I just read too much fanfiction and not enough published work. It's very uncreative for each character to have the same kind of thinking that the others do. Two people who encounter the same pile of facts can very well come to two different conclusions. Similar, perhaps. Maybe both of them can be true conclusions, just different pieces of the truth. Or maybe they both come up with crap. The point is, people each operate under different sets of rules from others. You can't have everyone be smarmy, self-righteous spies. You can't have all of them ignoring authority. You can't have all of them accepting a given piece of news. You can't expect everyone to be as accepting as you to the same thing.

The two easiest similarities to fall into are speech and reaction. I hate it to death when everybody talks the same. For some reason when characters talk the same they sound extra smarmy, as if the writer is trying to make them sound all clever. Bah. That ain't gonna work on nobody. And make an extra effort to create characters who have different beliefs than you. Bad writers tend to make it so that only the bad guys disagree with their individual beliefs, and this is the first sign of noobish, propaganda writing.

One mistake is pretty forgivable, as long as you go back and edit. That's losing track of your characters in the plot. It's like, you want the plot to get forward, but you just get so impatient that you forget to properly develop your characters' reactions to what's going on. Sure, maybe you have an interesting plot thing, like a car chase on the edge of the grand canyon, but that's not why the audience gets excited. They get excited because they are in touch with the characters that are driving around and trying not to fall down America's most famous gulch. A car chase there is just a stunt if they don't care about the characters.

The last mistake I'm going to get into today is judgementalism. Oftentimes the writer has a group that they very much hate, and they're writing their book just to show why all the readers should hate that person/group/organization too. For example, a lot of people today hate those that are rich, never once suspecting that they are indeed being bigots. Maybe some rich guys are corrupt, but that's no reason to think that all of them are. The guy who runs Chick-fil-A, for example, is a nice guy who really wants to make a family-oriented restaurant. He sent me his autographed biography. Chick-fil-A recently helped with a local promotion for Stop Child Trafficking.org. They're always doing stuff like that.

A lot of the time people will write about how much Christians suck, though as one I am able to say that what they think Christianity is does not describe reality. They like to make mockery of the church for whatever reasons of their own, but they have no understanding of it, nor of good Christians or how much the faith has changed the world. The Western world owes much of itself to this belief system. Look, guys, if you have a question about Christianity, ask a real Christian. Ask me if you like. Don't just accept the opinions of people who are anti-Christian, or those that simply call themselves Christian but are really just super-religious kooks. Trust me, you know the difference between a real Christian and a kook.

Heck, you can even find good people in evil groups. There was this one Nazi in China trying to protect the Chinese civillians from Japanese occupiers, and he had no clue that Germany was then oppressing the Jews in an equally horrifying fashion. You can read about it in the book The Good Man of Nanking, but I don't recommend it. That book is so darn depressing. It's just the story of rape, murder, and theft without let up, and it will leave you feeling way unclean.

That's another thing I don't get. Apparently a lot of people these days don't like Jews. There's this guy, Alan Dershiwitz, who wrote The Case for Israel, and he was saying that there's a lot of Anti-Semitism going on in colleges and universities today. Look at the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Apparently all these "educated" people are saying that Israel is horrible, but it's really difficult to say this when they don't torture people, they don't freak out if someone says something dumb about Judaism, and they don't commit terrorism. The Palestinians, on the other hand, frequently attempt suicide bombings. They even rape women and then tell them that they only way to regain their family honor is to go be "martyrs".

They'll send people with aids and other diseases too, so that if a fragment of their bone gets a Jew, that person will be sick. They also stack the statistics of how many "civilians" die at Israeli hands by not allowing injured people to go to Israeli hospitals (who help anyone who comes in), and counting "martyrs" and victims of their own bomb mishaps as Israeli kills. Heck, an Arabic sheik actually made friends with Hitler, hoping to extend the "final solution" down to the Middle East if the Nazis won the war.

All of this is just to say that every person in the world is an individual. They decide whether or not they will be honorable or evil. Do not throw everyone in a pot and say they're all jerks. And even if they are evil, portray them with depth. Don't just take your own unresearched bigotry and make a public hate out of it. Not only does it damage your story and make it two dimensional, it also encourages people not to think about what they believe. Fiction is not merely the result of public notions, it's also the cause of it. Please be careful what you write, and do research before you call anybody out.

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