Building Character: Quiet Strength


I know I said I’d be doing a post on adversarial allies next, but a few episodes of House & NCIS completely derailed that line of thinking. To me, at least, what makes for a good character is just as much what somebody doesn’t say as it is what they do say. As an example, I’d like to point towards just about any character played by David Morse.

David Morse

This guy has been all over the place. He’s played both heroes and villains. Just a year after playing the arrogant, self-centered prick of a cop who acts as a foil to the arrogant, self-centered prick of a doctor who gives House it’s name, he showed upon on the John Adams mini-series playing George Washington. Surprisingly, these characters have something in common. And it’s not Tritter’s habit of chewing nicotine gum in a way that tells you he’s angry at just about the entire world.

It’s quiet strength. There’s a restrained ferocity about most of Morse’s characters. Instead of bellowing one-liners and chewing on the scenery, Morse conveys, in just about all of his characters, a sort of insular and confident demeanor that seems to say “I’m awesome, but I’m not about to toss my weight around to prove it.” Seriously, watch a couple of the ’06-07 episodes of House, then watch the portions of John Adams featuring Washington. The similarities are uncanny.

Another example of this sort of quiet strength comes in the form of Leeroy Jethro Gibbs.

Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon gives Gibbs his trademark stare, his direct and sometimes almost sotto voce way of pushing his team and the passion he has for those he cares about, which only rarely explodes out of him. He knows how to sweat people in interrogation, without having to resort to strong-arm tactics or much shouting, though he does raise his voice from time to time. In any given episode of NCIS, you can see what I’m talking about. There are certain looks, stances and moments where no words are spoken but Harmon communicates Gibbs’ emotions much louder than any scenery-chewing could ever hope to convey.

Especially if somebody messes with Abby.

Mark & Pauly

Anyway, it’s something to aspire towards as a storyteller and an author. Just about any hack can put words in the mouth of a protagonist in an attempt to make them heroic or macho and end up having them be hammy or even ridiculous. Sometimes camp can be a good thing, but if you want to build true dramatic tension and have people craving more of a particular character, it pays to show rather than tell, to describe a character’s expression in a few words rather than have them rant for a page. This might mean you’ll write fewer words, and while this is a detriment to projects where one gets paid based on word count, in longer works the brevity of these efforts might prove invaluable.

Then again, that’s just my opinion, and considering I’ve only been published a couple times, I could be wrong.

…No, I didn’t just put Abby in another post because she brings in hits like mad, why do you ask?

Building Character: The Brain


Not too long ago I discussed some basics on how to build effective characters. I think some specific examples might be helpful to people trying to scribble out compelling fiction, and in the wake of NaNoWriMo, you might be looking back over your work wondering how to improve something. Hopefully, examinations of existing characters might help in that effort.

This week we’re taking a look at the brain.

Your Brain

No, not that brain.

The Brain

No, not that brain either.

The brain I’m referring to is the character on the story responsible for explaining the science or technology behind the problem at hand. In science fiction, this is your science officer. Procedurals tend to have the brain in a lab somewhere working on the forensics to solve the case. Television is a great example with plenty of different brains on display. CSI has spun into three separate shows all about entire teams of brains working on the crime of the week. Bones counters the babble of the brains with the earthy everyman charm of Agent Seeley Booth, who affectionately calls them ‘squints’. Most other shows just have a nameless person to appear and deliver the science.

NCIS, however, is not most other shows. NCIS has Abby.

Abby from NCIS

Few if any shows have given the individual forensics expert down in the lab the sort of characterization that Abby has received. She’s smart, produces results quickly and supports the team any way she can. She’s also a goth, constantly listens to happening music, gives hugs whenever she deems them necessary and drinks down Caf Pow like a fiend. Did I mention she sleeps in a coffin, has all sorts of interesting tattoos, uses ASL and occasionally cuddles a stuffed hippo that farts when squeezed? These are, individually, little quirks, which when put together make for one of the most unique characters in a television procedural, or any television show ever.

The point is, Abby is a brain without being overtly nerdy or socially inept. She breaks the mold of brains that have come before, and shows how a few small things can make a character that would otherwise be more of the same into something truly memorable. When you’re making a character, it can help to list the character’s quirks, along with likes, dislikes, goals and phobias. This works for heroes as well as villains, and is something I plan to explore in the weeks to come.

…No, I didn’t just to an Abby post because she brings in hits like mad, why do you ask?

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