Tag: character (page 1 of 4)

What Characters Say

Courtesy The CW
“Supernatural” has some great exchanges.

There are many people who come to mind that prefer dialog in prose to description. Even peers of mine find it much easier to write dialog than long narrative passages. The difficulty in writing dialog well is twofold: Making conversations clear, and making them feel natural. Both of these challenges, however, are entirely surmountable, and it might not be as hard as you think.

Clear conversation can be a problem because once you get on a roll, you may lose track of who’s saying what yourself. In rough drafts especially, our old friend “said” can help with that. Yes, I remember old English lessons trying to tell me that “said is dead.” Catchy as the mnemonic might be, it’s not necessarily true. Said can hold up the structure of a conversation long enough to get yourself through it, and when you’re drafting or rewriting and a deadline is looming and you have to write something but nothing is coming to mind… “said” can help. You can always take it back out later.

You don’t have to replace every instance, mind you. But descriptors of emotion definitely help keep the story interesting and inform the reader of the state the characters are in. Action immediately before or after a line of dialog helps, as well. There’s no hard line between speaking and motion in real life; why should there be one in your writing? Imagine one of your characters having a conversation with another one while making breakfast. The cooking doesn’t just stop when they talk. The character at the stove is frying bacon, flipping eggs, putting toast in, and so on. Is the character at the table taking notes? Drinking coffee? Loading a gun? Use these actions to both keep the conversation clear and flesh out these two folks for your reader.

The other challenge of dialog is keeping it natural. Some characters may have reasons for not being natural, but I’ll go into more detail about that on Thursday. In the example above, if you’re setting up a future scene at breakfast, the temptation might be to fill out the conversation with pure exposition. People, however, rarely just pass expository facts back and forth in conversation. They ask questions, they interject thoughts, they go off on tangents. Banter is something that’s tempting to emulate, but first and foremost is doing your best to make your characters talk like real people.

I would recommend spending some time on public transit.

Seriously, moreso than television or films or theater, sitting on a bus or train listening to people talk can really help you nail down some ways and means to keep your dialog lively and organic. Too much exposition or straightforward emoting (“I am feeling sad because of X”) can make dialog feel stiff and clunky, even if it’s clear. The more dialog you hear outside of constructed fiction, the better your own dialog will be. That said, you can always go out and engage in a little conversation yourself! Listen to how people talk, and note your own reactions and speech.

I wouldn’t recommend taking notes right in front of someone, though. That strikes me as kind of creepy.

The Special Cases

Courtesy BBC

In my experience, no character is or should be completely without flaws, issues, or fault. The characters we create emulate the people in our lives, and since those people are imperfect, so to should our characters be. The more flawed or abnormal the character, the more compelling the story, right? Well… sort of. Within limits.

Your characters should be more than the sum of their parts. Incidental side characters may be an amusing bundle of neuroses, tics, and habits, but you can’t build an entire narrative around someone like that. There needs to be more there than a list of long condition names from the DSM IV. If a character does operate with or suffer from a mental disorder of some kind, and it’s simply a part of the character rather than their entire being, you need to consider how that disorder is portrayed.

Take Sherlock Holmes, for example. From the beginning, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective has been single-minded, selfish, insufferably arrogant, difficult to work with, and at times nearly impossible to access on an emotional level. His modern BBC incarnation self-identifies as “a high-functioning sociopath.” Yet this is not the only aspect of his character. There are people he cares about and will go to great lengths to protect, and as intolerable as his behavior can be, he really does believe he is helping people more often than not. His disorder is not portrayed with the sole purpose of being laughed at, nor is he held up as anything towards which we should aspire.

John Green often challenges us to “imagine the other complexly.” We need to see beyond what could be considered stereotypical behavior and bring across the hidden depths of a character. Sherlock Holmes or Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or Miriam Black would be what doctors would consider ‘special cases’, people so wrapped up in their complex issues that it can be hard to get to the person that lays underneath. And there is a person in there, beyond all of the neuroses; and like all people, they have feelings, aspirations, doubts, and vulnerabilities. Part of the reason I have trouble enjoying Big Bang is that I often feel that Sheldon is not being complexly imagined; rather I feel that his neuroses are simply being played for laughs, and that we are encouraged to laugh at him, rather than with him. There should be more to him than a haughty superiority complex and a bundle of nerd culture references, and things beyond those facets seem difficult to find. But, that’s just me.

What I’m driving at is this: imagine your characters complexly. No matter how special their case may be, they have wants and needs to which readers should be able to relate. The deeper your characters, the more they will enhance your narrative, and the better your story will be.

Rogers’ Rules

Courtesy Wired

Meet John Rogers. You may know him as the writer for projects like Leverage. He’s also a stand-up comic, video gamer, and dissector of storytelling. In playing Fiasco with Wil Wheaton, he’s conveyed three of the best rules for storytelling I’ve heard since I’ve tried to memorize most if not all of the advice distributed by Chuck Wendig. I’m going to run down these three very simple but very potent questions.

Who wants what?

Everybody wants something. I’m not just talking in the metaphysical “what do I want out of live” sort of way. We all have needs and desires in the moment, from a cheese sandwich to a couple of Tylenol to enough money to pay our debts to that attractive person’s phone number. Any one of these can be the beginning of a story, and they’re pretty simple. Needs and wants can be even greater: nuclear launch codes, or a million dollars, or revenge for a wrongful death, or the solution to a murder. When you boil it down, any character you care to name, protagonist or antagonist, good or evil, likeable or despicable, is driven by a singular, overarching desire and a goal to go with it.

Why can’t they have it?

If everybody just got what they wanted, that’d be pretty boring. There would be no story. So something must come between our characters and what they want. Do they want a cheese sandwich? Sorry, the fridge has no cheese. A killer is going to be elusive. An escape route is going to be blocked. There has to be some sort of obstacle between the character and their goal. The obstacle’s job is to create the drama that will fuel the story and heighten the tension between your characters. As interesting as characters can be on their own, they’re all the more compelling because of their struggles.

Why should I give a shit?

The conflict and tension generated by multiple characters struggling towards what they want can be interesting in and of itself, but to be truly good at the craft, you need to make your audience care about more than the overall drama. Personal investment in characters makes their struggles more compelling, their victories more rewarding, their failures more tragic. The guy after the cheese sandwich might not have eaten all day, heartsick over losing a loved one. Do we understand why the would-be terrorist wants the launch codes? Did the murderer kill someone close to our hero, who is now more interested in revenge than justice? Is the gangster trying to escape because he needs to get to his kid, to make sure they’re safe and won’t grow up into a life of crime? Do something to make the characters motivated beyond the basic need or want you’ve established; in other words, make them people.

These are simple rules you can apply to just about any story you want to tell. “X wants Y because Z” may seem like a straightforward, almost formulaic way to establish characters and motivations, but establishing this in your story will lay the foundation for a compelling and memorable experience for the audience. The better fleshed out your characters, their desires, the obstacles that stand against them, and the drive that will push them into, over, or through those obstacles, the better your story will be.

Follow John Rogers on twitter (@jonrog1) and check out his breakdown on the process behind Leverage here Kung Fu Monkey.

Execution by Plot


If you want a surefire way to kill your story and slay any interest a potential reader will have in it, let the plot drive.

Looking back on some of the books I’ve read in my formative years, a host of franchised novels many of which I’m likely to donate to a library when I move, I realize that only a few are truly driven by character growth and conflict. A good story based around characters, like Brave (here reviewed brilliantly by Julie Summerell), many of the later Dresden novels, or Chuck Wendig’s Bad Blood (the sequel to Double Dead, short version: almost as good as the full-length novel), doesn’t need all that much of a plot. If a character is going through a change, and that change is going to be opposed for some reason, you have plenty of fuel for conflict, drama, interaction – story. The narrative will breathe without assistance. The tale will live.

If, on the other hand, your story is the product of some non-character formula or relies on contrivance, the result will not be as favorable. I’ve seen it happen in lots of stories. Usually, you can see it coming. When technobabble or new powers as the plot demands or deus ex machina moments begin to crop up more and more, it’s sign that the story has a terminal illness. The execution of the plot means the execution of the story, hooded-headsman style, as potential interest and characters put their necks on the block to feed the axe of convenience.

The story may click along without fault or pause, merrily going from one plot point to the next as if nothing’s wrong, but if there’s no characterization beyond the very basics, if the conflict isn’t rooted in our characters and what makes them who they are, the story has no life of its own. A lot of video games have this problem. Lacking character depth, they move the player from one set piece to the next with the certainty of a commuter rail line. A game like Portal can get away with this because of good writing, characterization, and unique gameplay, but something like Space Marine has to work extra hard to overcome this problem.

I guess what I’m saying is this: if you want to tell a story, your characters are your most important allies. Even if you hate some them, even if you know some are going to die horribly, spend time with them and make sure you know them before you approach your plot. Get the balance wrong, or make the characters little more than cogs in the plot’s machine, and the metaphorical headsman will be waiting.

Writer Report: Getting To Know You


I mentioned last week that there’s a notion kicking around in my head for my next project. I also mentioned that I want to ensure the story is about characters, not just the universe and any cool stuff that’s in it. As much as imaginations are captivated by things like Jedi knights, Sith lords, alien beings, and far-off worlds with radical ecosystems, if none of the characters are interesting or appealing you might as well forget trying to tell an actual story and just pitch the setting to a video game company.

You don’t just need characters. You need characters who will be the focus of the action, the ones to whom readers will relate, heroes to cheer for and villains to boo at. And they don’t just spring out of the aether fully-formed and ready to kick ass. They came from somewhere, have reasons for doing what they do, entertain doubts and hold on to dreams. These are all things you should know before you write the first word of your story.

In my case, I’m taking the time to interview my characters. I start out with some basic questions (name, profession, viewpoints on some of the galaxy’s fixtures) and get more personal from there. I’m not sure how many questions is enough – ten? Fifteen? Twenty? Any more than that seems excessive. Naturally, the most interesting part is writing the answers. It helps me nail down the voice of the character, gives me a peek into what makes them tick, and gets me excited to throw them to the wolves prowling around the plot I’m brewing.

How do you get to know your characters?

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