Bad guys are people too

Hello internet,

I’ve been on a bit of a Star Wars binge recently

Neeeeerd

Yes, yes, we established that two weeks ago. Keep up.

Anyway, it’s probably just because of the new trailers coming out for The Force Awakens and Battlefront – but I’m hyped. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 2003, when I was ten years old and the original Clone Wars cartoon (not the CGI series) was airing in five-minute shorts between other shows on Cartoon Network. At the time, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was produced by Genndy Tartakovksy, who also produced Samurai Jack, and it had the same pacing style and the same gorgeous animation. Minimalist but seamlessly functional, with as little exposition as possible, focusing on sharp bursts of action broken up by long periods of quiet suspense, with casual acts of badassery thrown in, and interjections of funny dialogue. Looking back, it was probably a big influence on my writing style. Except I need to learn to be a bit more economical with my exposition.

I can highly recommend watching it. It’s all on YouTube, and it puts the CGI follow-up series to shame. (And it is, so far, the only media from the Star Wars universe to feature high-velocity speeder bike jousting.)

But this post wasn’t supposed to be about Clone Wars. I watched the series again this week, as well as playing through some of my old favourite Star Wars video games and watching the original film trilogy, and I enjoyed them as much as ever.

I’ve harboured secret desires to be a Jedi ever since I first saw Obi Wan Kenobi leaping off that speeder bike, but one of the things that’s always fascinated me about the Star Wars universe is the minor characters. Particularly, in the original movies, the officers and starship crews of the Imperial Navy. Maybe it’s just superb acting from one or two minor actors, but I’ve always found them to be quite tragic characters, in their own way. I’m thinking mainly of Admiral Piett and Commander Jerjerrod. You remember Commander Jerjerrod?

Jerjerrod

In their minds, they’re serving their emperor, bringing order and justice to a galaxy which is full of “scum and villainy” even by the appraisal of Master Kenobi, who’s apparently the most philosophically enlightened being in the entire universe, given his power to become one with the living force and appear as a glowy blue ghost. The opening scrawl of Episode IV denounces the Galactic Empire categorically as “evil”, but it probably doesn’t seem like an evil organisation to the men who work for it. The Old Republic was more democratic, but it was also more corrupt: corruption which has been swept away by the New Order. Under the empire, does the galaxy still have the problem of huge militarised corporations laying siege to planets which won’t agree to exploitative trading rights, while the politicians – many of them with Trade Federation credits in their pockets – bicker over an appropriate response? Is slavery still common practice on the outer rim worlds? It doesn’t seem like it, from what we see in the original trilogy.

I’m not trying to make the case that the empire are the good guys (even though I do always play as the empire on Battlefront 2 and Empire at War). They did, after all, perpetuate genocide on a planetary scale. And more importantly, they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s their function in the story. But what I like is that not every servant of the Galactic Empire actually seems like a ‘bad guy’. Palpatine’s supposed to be maleficence given form, and I’m prepared to believe that he has a core group of supporters and agents whose motivations are wholly evil. But the wider empire must be held together by billions of front-line officers who think that they’re the good guys, or else they wouldn’t get out of bed every morning, pull on their jackboots, and report for duty. For people like Piett and Jerjerrod, the empire probably seems like a breath of fresh air, and Palpatine probably seems like a hero: a reformer who finally made sure that the galactic government had the ability to end corruption and exercise real power to end slavery and other shady practices on the outer rim worlds.

My point – and yes, I do actually have one – is that as writers of any genre, it’s important (and often very rewarding) to make sure that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t uniformly evil. Even if they’re the ones wearing evil uniforms. A multifaceted presentation of any large group is always better than a flat, uniform depiction, but that’s particularly true when you’re dealing with a large organisation or empire that serves as the antagonist in your story. I get bored very quickly if the “good guys” in a story are all morally upstanding paragons of virtue – in Star Wars, we have figures like Han Solo to prevent that from happening – but I get disinterested even more quickly if the “bad guys” are carbon-copy evil scumbags from the emperor of the galaxy all the way down to the lowliest stormtrooper. Shades of grey are always more believable, and more entertaining. Misplaced loyalty from fundamentally honourable characters can be very compelling. Particularly if those characters start to suspect that they might be on the wrong side of history.

This is what I like about Piett and Jerjerrod, and to a lesser extent the regular officers on the command bridge of Darth Vader’s star destroyer, who look up from their stations in terror whenever he billows past. Not only do they seem like semi-decent human beings (or, at least, we never see them do anything outright evil without it seeming like they’re conflicted about it), but when we see them come into close contact with the leaders of the empire – Darth Vader, and the Emperor himself – we see that their loyalties begin to waver. They begin to wonder whether they want to be on the same side as people who are willing to commit such foul acts. In any story that depicts people fighting for a cause that they believe in, I’m always interested to see people stop and question their loyalties.

So I have a writing challenge for you, this week. Go and read whatever story you’re writing, or one you’ve already written. Look at the “bad guys”, whoever they are, whether they’re an evil interplanetary empire or just one person who serves as your book’s primary antagonist. Remain conscious of their motivations, and ask yourself whether they’re certain of what they’re doing. Is certainty realistic? Look at the good guys as well. Could you improve your story by making them more doubtful of their actions? I’d love to hear what you think, in the comments!

Swamped

You can’t even watch a good torture when you’re this swamped.
You can’t even watch a good torture when you’re this swamped.

If you’ll remember from my last post, this semester I made the wonderful decision to take two graduate-level English courses on top of my usual 9-5 job. This is apparently a very bad idea for someone who likes sleep, needs to write creatively in order to keep sane, and also happens to be an extroverted leech who gets her energy by draining the life-force of all of her introverted friends.

So, I thought I’d provide y’all with a list of how I feed my starving creative soul when, a) I’m dead tired and can’t bring up the mental brainpower to work on any of my serious creative writing projects, and, b) I’ll go mad if I don’t interact with people who aren’t my coworkers or some wandering freshmen looking for directions.


  1. Do Something Else Creative

    Okay, so depending on what you define as “creative,” this one won’t necessarily involve interacting with other people. For instance, I’ve recently discovered that for some reason, rearranging songs on my playlists satisfies that creative itch.

    This may be because I’m weird. When my roommate makes a playlist, she’ll take a bunch of songs she likes—let’s take animated musicals, for example—and simply group them according to content: The Lion King’s “Be Prepared” goes next to Anastasia’s “In the Dark of the Night,” on her mix.

    Caution: Do not fall asleep while creating these playlists. Most likely you will wake up in a random room with no memory of how you got there.
    Caution: Do not fall asleep while creating these playlists. Most likely you will wake up in a random room with no memory of how you got there.

    I, on the other hand, largely order my playlist according to ear (does one song flow nicely into the next?) and according to whether or not the list of songs I’ve gathered from a bunch of different sources can be pieced together into an entirely new story.

    Of course, you could also go to the local West Coast Swing night in order to get your creative juices flowing. That way you’ll also interact with other people.

  2. Go to a Writer’s Group

    Going to a writer’s group easily fulfills my extroverted requirements, while also helping me expel that suppressed creative energy. I get to be social and interact with a bunch of people (okay, maybe like 10) who like crafting stories just about as much as I do, and as an added bonus, I’m also able to get some much-needed feedback on my work.

    Win-win, in my opinion.

    Writer’s groups are awesome in general, really. If you’re serious about writing, it’s important that you find a community of writers that can give you feedback and help keep you accountable. A new set of eyes can see things that you’ve missed, or present a new avenue to explore in your work. They can also help you shake off that pesky writer’s block, too.

  3. Play Dungeons & Dragons

    My former roommate posted this on her Facebook, and I very much wanted to say “I understood that reference!”
    My former roommate posted this on her Facebook, and I very much wanted to shout out loud “I understood that reference!”

    I’ll be honest, for the longest time, I associated Dungeons & Dragons with the uber-nerds and the cultists. Let me just say this now, though: it’s freaking awesome. So far, our campaign has only spanned three sessions (of which I was only able to attend two), but from what I can tell, it’s going to be just as fun and rewarding as going to a writer’s group.

    I guess it depends on how much the members of your campaign actually get into the story aspect of the game, but D&D feels a lot like an Elder Scrolls video game to me, except you’re actually interacting with real-life people instead of NPCs (albeit real people role-playing fake characters). Sure, you roll dice to determine the outcome of just about every chance-based action, but you also interact with the unique creations of the other members of your campaign.

    I get that social aspect that I’m craving at the end of a long work day, and I get to play out a story. Don’t believe me yet? Try it out! It can make for some of the most entertaining couple of hours of your day.


So, now that I’ve rambled on about my weird playlist habits and my venture over to the “dark side” of D&D, what do you all do to keep sane when you’re swamped with work?

A Quick Guide to Monomania

You may have heard before someone describe the basic formula for writing fiction. It goes something like this: “desire plus obstacle equals conflict.” In other words, when you take a character, give them a motivation or goal to work toward, and then put challenges in their way, then you’ve got the makings of a story.

Of course there are many more elements that go into fiction, but this formula gets pretty close to the core essentials. Overall, plots are (or should be) driven by characters and their desires or goals. This is true in most stories, but it’s even truer whenever a character has monomania.

“Monomania” is a fancy literary term that refers to an extreme, overarching obsession that a character has. “Mono” means one and “mania” is a craze or obsession, meaning that any character with monomania is crazed or obsessed about just one thing, just one goal. These characters will go to extreme lengths and do whatever it takes to reach this goal–or die trying. While perceptions can differ from one author to another, monomania is often portrayed as a negative thing. The idea is that having such an all-consuming obsession is unhealthy and can lead to disastrous consequences for that character or others.

Moby-DickIn classic literature, the term is often used in reference to Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick. In fact, the book’s narrator frequently and directly refers to Captain Ahab’s unrelenting pursuit of the whale as monomaniacal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary of Melville’s, also uses monomania in several of his stories, from Hollingsworth’s well-intentioned but misguided plan for social reform in The Blithedale Romance, to several short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and more) featuring obsessed scientists who place their mad experiments above even human life. One of the last papers I wrote in grad school argued that this same monomania also appeared in the lesser-known novel Wieland, where the main character’s twisted religious fervor leads him to commit horrendous acts. In hindsight, I might also be able to argue that one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, reflects monomania in the protagonist’s quest for the woman he loves and perfect life he has always dreamed of (but I’d better not get started on Gatsby now or I could probably go on and on).

Walter WhiteThis theme of unhealthy, unrelenting obsession shows up in pop culture, too. Think of the recent television masterpiece Breaking Bad. Walt’s goal to provide financially for his family is initially a noble one, but over time his obsession and determination in his goal lead him to make a number of moral compromises and horrible choices that end disastrously for both him and the ones he loves.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics and superheroes, and I’ve even seen monomania show up in a number of different ways there. With the cyclical, ongoing nature of comics, writers have to shake things up once in a while to keep the characters interesting. Therefore, even among the main heroes or “good guys,” there have been several instances of a driven, obsessed hero taking a good goal too far and becoming (at least temporarily) a morally ambiguous antihero. For example:

  • Civil_War_7In the Civil War story arc (soon to be a major motion picture), Iron Man seeks peace and order through government registration of superhumans, but he has to turn on his allies and make hard decisions in order to carry out his goal.
  • Cyclops has long fought for equal rights for mutants, but in Avengers vs. X-Men and subsequent stories, he becomes an extremist for this goal, much like his former enemy Magneto.
  • In World War Hulk, the Hulk threatened the entire world in misguided revenge on allies who had exiled him into space.
  • Recently in New Avengers, Mr. Fantastic has been leading a covert team whose mission is to save the Earth–by destroying other alternate Earths that threaten our own existence.
  • Daredevil tried to protect his city with force by taking control of a clan of ninja assassins, but he reaped the consequences in the Shadowland story and crossed a line he never had before.
  • In Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Man‘s body was possessed by Doctor Octopus‘s brain (yeah, I know comics are weird. You just have to roll with it sometimes). The result was an ambiguous antihero who also tried to protect New York, but with extreme brutal force and by any means necessary.

Hopefully now you get the idea of monomania and obsession in fiction, the kind that makes ordinary characters into fascinating and compelling (if sometimes misguided and evil) ones who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

But what does all this mean for us as writers?

It means that you now have an excellent formula for creating an intriguing story! Yes, it’s true that desire plus obstacle equals conflict. But what happens when you increase that desire a hundredfold to make it a driving, all-consuming obsession? You get a monomaniacal character who, despite any deep character flaws they may have, has an unbreakable will that can drive the story forward past any obstacles that you as the writer throw in their way.

So why don’t you try it out? Create a new character and give them a goal. Have them want nothing else in the world more badly than they want that one goal. Now write a story where things get in the way of that goal and see how your character deals with it. What will they do? How will things turn out? What kind of toll will it take on your character? What will be the cost of their obsessive actions? You may be surprised at the developments that come and at the epic conflicts that result.

Dear Lone Wolf

Note: Song of Ice and Fire, Sword Art Online spoilers. Also Die Hard, but if you haven’t seen it by now, that’s your problem.


 

Dear Mr. Critical,
I wander around the world by myself, taking out vast armies on my own and walking away from explosions. Because no one looks at their own explosions. That’s just not cool.

I wear sunglasses at all hours, rarely talk, but when I do, I’m cool. Like an iceberg. Because those are cool.

My problem is sometimes I struggle to fit in with groups. They think I’m too cool for them, or something, and so they won’t let me play with them. Can you please advise?
Sincerely,
L. Wolf

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bbmexplorer/5304428242/in/photolist-95JzHm-82sf8k-nyRQqz-eLn8Bz-6MLLns-7FzWv9-7Fw2y2-a8Vp7V-adBq28-7dEhtQ-8UZng8-7FzWAm-7AMiY7-adDgdC-aDPnrG-advNnb-advkAU-adv1ou-ads9Tc-aduEgW-aduvG9-advFB3-adsjmt-adrRm8-aduvjG-advLRE-adrHdF-advmwL-advowU-advmVE-adsydn-adsHkt-adrTE6-advcFU-adv9x9-advAn1-advycY-aduUQS-advsiA-adsDpP-advhjS-adrVLP-aduBiA-adsrnt-advEoS-adv6sL-adrJ4i-advC2S-adsbVk-advdVS
The Lone Wolf

Dear L. Wolf,
Good news! You’re more salvageable than Mary Sue. Why? Because you’re a character we can sometimes relate to, you have mystery as well as purpose, and there are a dozen different uses for your archetype.

Oberyn Martell, from Song of Ice and Fire, may be one of my favorites that currently comes to mind. You have Cloud, from Final Fantasy VII. There’s John McClane of Die Hard. Or any other Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood flick before 2000. The Lone Wolf is a beloved character, so don’t worry too much.

First, embrace the fact others don’t like you. Your advantages are numerous. If you need to travel, you just go. This is excellent for adventure or sojourner stories. You are also generally an outsider. Every culture looks unique to you, giving you the ability to see it for what it is, for what the reader would see it as. Think Gulliver’s Travels.

If the story is going to have a revolving door cast, this is perfect. You hop in and out of numerous lives, showing snapshots of the world. This can happen even if you know the culture. Sword Art Online does this form of storytelling, where Kirito moves around the game meeting new people and helping them, but never sticking around with the same folks more than an episode or two. Aside from Asuna, but those two need to make babies.

There is also a beautiful opportunity for character growth. Looking back at SAO, we were able to watch Kirito. While many saw him as a jerk, we were able to see the kind and caring spirit that went into all his interactions. His apathy and feigned malignance towards others was just an attempt to keep from watching others die.

McClane didn’t really change. I mean, does a man as perfect as Bruce Willis require changing? In Song of Ice and Fire, Oberyn’s inability to change his course is what led to his demise, where his character flaw, not being rectified, led him to make poor life choices. If we are allowed to see through the eyes of the Lone Wolf, we are able to see someone who is usually going through intense personal struggles. You can show this through keen observers with a lot of empathy as well.

The potential for you to be a fully rounded, fascinating, more than sexy and mysterious character is unlimited. But there are pitfalls, friend, and they are as riddled as Swiss cheese.

What people have a tendency of doing is making you a caricature. I know, it hurts to read that, but I’m giving it to you straight, LW. They make it so you don’t care about people, you do what you want, and every now and then you steal candy from a baby. Why did you steal the candy from a baby? I’m sure you’re wondering that. It doesn’t jive with who you are, there was no reason, and what happened is your writer just wanted to make you seem like a maverick.

Other times you just don’t talk. You grunt a few times, as if an orc with his tongue cut out, but you don’t say anything. Even Michonne of The Walking Dead talks when she likes someone. Yes, Michonne is a Lone Wolf, she’s a little towards the caricature side, but just short. I mean really just short. But she’s awesome with her zombie mules, so we forgive her. You can make up some ground by being that epic.

In short, rejoice in your loneliness. It is your fault. Embrace your pain. The self-inflicted misery is what makes us like you. Your attempts to get beyond it and find love in any of its forms is why we love you. So if you have no friends and you’re well written, just keep in mind, you have our hearts. If you have no friends because you’re pointlessly stealing candy from babies, kick your writer and buy them a book on how to create good characters.
Almost sincerely,
Mr. Critical

 

Character Challenge: A Fresh New Spin

Adaptations and retellings of stories have been around for probably almost as long as storytelling itself. Sometimes we think it’s a relatively new phenomenon, given how much of Hollywood’s output these consists of reboots, remakes, and sequels these days, and how little of it is comprised of original ideas. But really, with ancient epics and legends being passed down orally from one generation to the next, with classics from the Greek myths to Shakespeare’s plays drawing large influences from stories that were already well-known in their cultures, the practice has been a major tradition for a long time.

Sure, all the retelling and rebooting can certainly be overdone, and not every new story that comes out of it is a winner. But still, there’s a reason why retellings and adaptations hold a certain appeal, both for audiences and for writers. It allows the opportunity to take something that people already like and look at it in a new way, or for a new writer to put his or her own personal spin on it. The oral storyteller can elaborate or expand on the story the previous generation told him by using his own unique storytelling style. A new director can take a superhero or cultural icon who’s been around for decades and try to make the character fresh and original for a new audience. While we sometimes praise original ideas more simply because of their originality, there’s still a certain appeal to taking something that already exists and making it new, or making it our own.

The whole reason the show Gotham exists is because someone decided to elaborate on a supporting character's backstory. And it's been pretty good so far!
The whole reason the show Gotham exists is because someone decided to elaborate on a supporting character’s backstory. And it’s been pretty good so far!

Of course, there are countless examples in our culture, but the one that got me thinking about this concept recently was exodus-posterExodus: Gods and Kings. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I want to, despite whatever surrounding controversy there may be from various groups. But in the wake of recent films such as Exodus and Noah, I wrote a post on my blog about the next biblical adaptations I’d like to see if this trend continues. And that got me thinking of how, sometimes, a well-developed adaptation with very complex and human characters can be fleshed out based on very little. While the Exodus is a fairly significant portion of the Old Testament’s narrative, Noah’s story is confined to only a few chapters in Genesis, and yet a full-length movie was made about him. The same can be said of Jonah, one of the other suggestions I made in my post. A whole full-length film could potentially be made out of the Bible’s short account and relatively sparse descriptions of character development.

Based on this trend in books, movies, and more, your challenge is to take a pre-existing character–from literature, film, history, religion, or whatever you want–and flesh them out more or add on to their story. You may want to choose a minor or more obscure character so you’ll have more liberty to be creative and more ground to cover that hasn’t already been taken by the main character. If you don’t know much about your character yet, then figure it out or make it up based on what little you do know. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What is this characters’ motivation? What are his or her goals or desires?
  • Why does the character want this goal? Is there anything that happened in their life to set them on this path? (Remember, drawn-out origin stories are all the rage these days.)
  • What will your character do to meet his or her or goals? What lengths will they go to?
  • Are there any conflicting desires or interal struggles? If so, why, and how will your character deal with them?
  • How does this character see others? What are their relationships like with other people? (You can use characters from the work you’ve already chosen, or, if not many are available, then make up some significant relationships of your own.)
  • Are there any other quirks or interesting personality traits that your character might reasonably have?

Of course, there are plenty of other aspects of character you can flesh out and explore, but these are a few that might be especially helpful in elaborating on a lesser-known character who someone else has already created.

Once you feel like you know your character fairly well, write a short scene (or, if you’re up for it, maybe the beginnings of a longer project) focusing on this character. Are they going about their normal daily life, or maybe beginning a grand adventure that will define them in the long term? You decide! Use what you know about the character and follow their activities with your writing. Make sure to be creative along the way!

Writing Worldview Well

Here’s a question that every serious writer should wrestle with at some point: How do you write worldview well? How should you incorporate a message about what you believe into your writing? Or should you at all? Since our contemporary culture values authenticity while still striving to say something meaningful, there’s a lot of talk these days about how to convey important ideas without being preachy, over-the-top, or too in-your-face.

Personally, I’m most familiar with this discussion in the context of the evangelical Christian subculture that I’m part of. While still holding their theological and moral beliefs in high esteem, many younger Christians are shying away from art and fiction that is specifically labeled as “Christian” art, on the basis that it tends to be inauthentic, un-subtle, and overly didactic, and that many secular writers or artists put forth content that is just as “Christian” while being less overt about it.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

A class I’m taking this semester, focused on the relationship between Christianity and the arts, wrestles with this same issue of whether fiction should be labeled as “Christian.” Writings from many influential Christian thinkers, including Jacques Maritain, Flannery O’Connor, and Francis Schaeffer seem to uphold the idea that has become the consensus among many thinking Christians today: namely, that fiction and art don’t need to be overtly Christian, and writers shouldn’t try to write Christian fiction, but rather that writers (of any worldview) will automatically and naturally write their worldviews into any honest work they produce.

Overall, I tend to agree with this approach. I realize that much (though I wouldn’t say all) of today’s Christian art and fiction suffers from being too clean-cut and preachy without being authentic and aesthetically good. I also believe that almost any work of art is, to some extent, a reflection of the author’s worldview; what you believe and value will come through in what you say and write, whether you intend it or not. But if that’s the case, then I don’t think it always necessarily follows that writers should just let this happen “automatically” or “naturally” as if it was merely an unconscious impulse. Maybe this works well for some writers, but as I’ve touched on in my last few posts, I’m the type who needs to think and plan in advance and be conscious of the messages I’m sending. And, if our worldview is going to come forth one way or the other, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t be intentional about it and try to make it come through in the best way possible.

That being said, here are some principles I’ve tried to use for consciously conveying a worldview in my writing without being too obvious about it.

  • Show a variety of worldviews. One crime that Christian fiction is often accused of is making the world too nice and neat so as not to offend readers. Ie., almost everyone in the story seems Christian. Beliefs and lifestyles that fall outside of a respectable churchgoing attitude are either covered up so that Christian readers don’t have to see any offensive content, or they’re vilified so that it’s painfully obvious what the writer thinks of worldviews outside of his own.
    • But that clear dichotomy of worldviews is a good example of what not to do, no matter what perspective you’re writing from. If you want to write honestly and authentically, then be respectable and fair-minded to beliefs and value systems outside of your own. Feature characters from a number of backgrounds and worldviews, even (or especially) if they disagree with each other, and treat them as real people rather than just stereotypical cardboard cutouts. This will help show that you as the author acknowledge the realistic complexity of the world and the beliefs that are out there. Then, if your own worldview does happen to show up among this diverse group, it won’t be as obvious to the reader and it won’t feel as much like you’re bashing them over the head with it.
  • Give your heroes flaws. This goes hand-in-hand with the last point. When you do have characters who espouse
    Image from Walking Dead #84. Art by Charlie Adlard. Taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
    Image from Walking Dead #84. Art by Charlie Adlard. Taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

    your worldview, who would be the “good guys” from your perspective, make sure they’re not flat, distant, and flawless paragons of virtue. No, they should be real characters as well, with at least a few bad habits to balance out their good ones and make the reader realize that they have problems and struggles just like the rest of us do. As mentioned above, Flannery O’Connor‘s work demonstrates this principle excellently; while she was a Catholic and openly admitted to writing from that viewpoint, she wrote moral flaws and philosophical blindspots into all of her characters and their worldviews, Christian and atheist alike. In fact, as harshly as she criticized the hypocrisy in Southern Christian culture, the Christian characters in her works sometimes seem even more flawed than the non-Christian ones. I once quoted O’Connor in a review I wrote of the Walking Dead comic books, emphasizing how writer Robert Kirkman also portrays both good and bad traits in all his characters, from prisoners to priests. The point here is to avoid making characters of your worldview completely good while everyone else is bad. Make sure your heroes, villains, and everyone in between are real and complex, because this will also help you be honest about the world and the state of humanity.

  • Use a character as your “voice” in the story. While it is important to be fair-minded and honest to various worldviews in your writing, that doesn’t mean you have to completely hide what you believe or what you want to convey to the reader. You can have one character who acts as your voice, your ideal, and who lives out a principle you want to get across. Of course, it may take some thinking on the reader’s part to figure out which character (if any) this is and what you as the author are actually saying, but that’s a good thing; if your writing doesn’t require thinking from the reader, then you’re probably being too obvious.
    • I tried to follow this principle in the superhero story I wrote. I have an ensemble cast of about seven protagonists, ranging from idealistic do-gooders to vengeful vigilantes to selfish or detached metahumans. But in the midst of this flawed and diverse cast of characters is one who I intended as the voice of my worldview: a heroic symbol of hope called the White Knight, embodying my beliefs and values of heroism just as Superman and Captain America are the moral standards of their own respective universes. Admittedly, having one character act as a paragon does somewhat seem to contradict the necessity of flawed characters, and the White Knight was the one character in this story who I tried not to give too many flaws to. But, with one idealistic character in the midst of several realistically flawed ones, I think it works for my purposes. The reader can see a diversity of worldviews, attitudes, and lifestyles in my characters, even in my team of “good guys,” but they can also see the type of character and behavior that I esteem above all the rest.

Have you ever been frustrated by heavyhanded worldviews in your own reading or writing? Do you have any tips for how to include your values in a good and effective way? Sound off below!

Plot Challenge of the Week

This week’s plot challenge is actually going to be a character challenge. I promised more variety, and I intend to deliver. So, for today’s post you have to work up a basic character sketch based on each of the pictures below. Feel free to use these characters for a story, or to design a setting around, but remember that the goal is to build the characters.

This piece is done by RogierB, whose work is available here.
This piece is done by RogierB, whose work is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This beautiful piece was found on Zillion Arts.
This beautiful piece was found on Zillion Arts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This piece was done by Anthony Scroggins. His work can be found here.
This piece was done by Anthony Scroggins. His work can be found here.

 

 

Confessions of a Crazy Writer, Part 2: More than 3’s a Crowd

wimbledon_tuesday
Imagine trying to thoroughly develop all these people in ONE post.

Last week, I talked about how much I dislike world building. This week, I’m going to talk about my problems with the dramatis personae of my writing, or, more specifically, why I have difficulty writing stories with a large cast of characters, and hence why I  hate writing more than about three characters.

As I’ve mentioned multiple times, I’m a psychological writer. 98% of what I write is in first-person narrative because of my obsession with exploring the thoughts and motivations of my characters. The problem with that, of course, is that my style of narrative tends to keep me tied to one character (usually the main character, but I have written a story or two from the perspective of a minor character), which often leads to trouble when it comes to fleshing out and defining the others in my cast list. As a result, I like to keep my character set (of characters that need a lot of fleshing out and explaining, anyway) for any particular story as small as possible. It also doesn’t help that I have voices in my head, and therefore having multiple characters can get very confusing for me very quickly. Three is the optimal number for me because I can get into all of their heads and develop them as characters without getting completely overwhelmed by all of them talking over each other and trying to put their own spin on things. Any more than three and I start having issues remembering which character said what and so on and so forth. The problem is, very few stories work well with so few characters, so I often find myself in the position of having to write more characters than I would like.

If you had to deal with this inside your head all the time, you'd only write 3 characters too.
If you had to deal with this inside your head all the time, you’d only write 3 characters too.

So, how do I overcome this particular problem? Well, unlike the whole worldbuilding thing, I actually don’t mind working on this issue. It’s a daunting task, but not as boring as the other one is. I try to work through one character at a time before actually writing the story – in other words, I let each character tell me the entire story from their point of view. After that, I know which character saw which events and who said what, which makes it a little less confusing for me. It also gives each character the chance to tell their side of the story without having to clamor for attention. This approach doesn’t work if I’m writing more than about eight characters, though, because then it just drags on and I get tired of hearing the same work over and over again before I even get around to writing it down. When that happens, I try to write the story from the point of view of whichever character is narrating, and then I go back and try to develop the personalities of all the other actors individually. It doesn’t always work, but it does most of the time. Both methods are long and arduous, which is why I try to avoid them whenever necessary. Sometimes, of course, it’s not possible to take evasive action, and so I have to resort to them.

Well, there you go. Anyone else have problems writing more than 3 characters? Anyone have trouble writing 3 characters or less? What do you do to overcome these issues? Until next week, happy writing!

The Universe of You

Your characters should be varied, not all the same.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post on the problem of  “cloning” the characters in your stories. Today, we’re going to talk about a similar subject, but on a slightly different vein. It’s cloning, but on a very different level. The problem I’m going to address today is that of populating your stories with characters who are almost completely the same, not because you’ve used them before, but because they’re YOU.

Writers tend to write what they know…it’s a fact of life. Therefore, it’s only natural that certain characteristics of you or people you know find their way into your characters. It’s normal, can’t be helped, and is actually a good thing, for the most part. A problem arises, however, when all the characters in your story seem to take on a certain sameness. They all speak in similar fashions, react the same way to varying situations, use the same words, and just have a general degree of blandness. For example, James, Erica, Michael, and Lauren all converse in the exact same way, from word to choice to mannerisms to accent. A heated argument between the former to reads the same way as a debate between the latter two. Erica has an annoying habit of dropping the ending consonant from most of her words, and a closer look reveals that Lauren also has that problem. All four of them like to clench their fists and pace the dining room whenever they get angry. All of them feel like the exact same character, regardless of back story, gender, and race. That’s because in essence, they ARE the same. The main elements that make them who they are happen to be identical. They’re clones, and most often, they’re clones of you, the writer.

It's ok if one character bites her nails. It's not ok if they all do.

This problem is quite a common one for new writers. As I said earlier, writers write what they know. If you don’t know what to do with a particular character or you’re having trouble with developing him or her, the automatic tendency is to fall back on what you’re familiar with. And who are you more familiar with than yourself? Your characters start to speak the way you do, react to situations the way you would, and use your own particular mannerisms. James clenches his fist and paces the floor because that’s what you do when you’re upset. Erica drops the last consonant off of most of her words the same way you do. It’s boring when every character is the same, and you probably don’t want to read a story where everyone is you, either. Most writers don’t intend to make all their characters the same, nor do they intend to base them so heavily on themselves. It just happens, and isn’t anything to be ashamed of, and it’s not hard to fix, as long as you can recognize the symptoms of the issue.

Keep rewriting until your characters are themselves, not you.

So, how do you prevent creating a world populated only by yourself? Try some character creation exercises to start with. Practice writing different characters, ones that you might not ever use in actual stories, but will help you brush up on your techniques. Sometimes you’ll need to take the antithesis of yourself, and write that. If you speak with a lisp, make sure your characters don’t. If you bite your nails as a nervous tick, then don’t let any of your creations bite their nails. Also, give your story to a friend who will read it critically. They’re more likely to recognize you in your work than you are, and they can point such instances out to you. After you have your critics do that for you a few times, go through your work on your own and start looking for yourself in it. It’s time consuming and frustrating, but worth it in the long run. Once you’ve gone through that process several times, you’ll begin to recognize the issues for yourself. One character speaking the same way you do may not be a problem, but does another character speak the exact same way? Do two or more of your creations always walk very rapidly wherever they go? Look for elements of yourself in your characters, and then make sure that no two characters have the exact same personality trait or characteristic. Once you overcome this hurdle, it’s easy to get past that whole aspect of character cloning. No matter how interesting you are (or think you are), no one, probably not even yourself, wants to enter a universe where everyone is you.

 

Voices in My Head

This picture was done by Idol, and can be found along with the artists other work.

Today we have a post from Sabrina Hardy:

For a writer, creativity can often take strange forms. Someone I know views the story she is working on as if she is the narrator. She sees the events, places and the dramatis personae, but has no involvement in it herself, and she is unable to see what the characters are thinking because she views them as an outsider. Another one of my acquaintances is more like an architect. He starts the writing process by crafting each character, each location, and each plot point in full detail before he puts them all together to form a complete story. He’ll spend weeks on just one character, fully fleshing it out until it becomes who he wants it to be. His stories are beautifully crafted and intricate, it just takes a very long time for him to write even a 5 page short story. Some people “get inside” the head of one particular character, and then write from that character’s perspective. That character is naturally the most well-rounded (and probably the most interesting, as a result) of the cast, and the story is often written in first person. Other writers prefer the most straightforward way of scribbling a story into existence: just sitting down and writing. They get an idea, sit down, and just write. They don’t bother with figuring out plot details, fleshing out the characters, or designing anything beforehand. They just let the story take care of itself through constant revisions. Hey, whatever works, right?

J.K. Rowling, famous author of the Harry Potter novels

The way I write, on the other hand, is pretty odd (from the perspective of “normal” people, anyway). It’s not a manifestation of creativity solely attributed to me, I know several other people who write this way too. It’s just strange, and there’s not many of us who work this way. As you can probably tell from the title of this post, I have voices in my head. No, I don’t have Multiple Personality Disorder. That’s just how my creativity works: I get an idea for a story, and the whole cast of characters jumps into my mind. I didn’t consciously create them; they’re just there, fully formed. I don’t know every aspect of their personalities right away, of course. Different characteristics reveal themselves as the story goes on. The characters just randomly show up in my head, introduce themselves, and say “Hey, we want to tell you the story of our lives so you can write it down for posterity” or something along those lines. And before you start thinking that’s crazy, let me remind you that J.K. Rowling started her immensely popular novel series that way. She said that a kid with black hair and glasses popped into her head one day and said something along the lines of “Hi, I’m Harry Potter.” Not that I’m going to be the author of the next multi-million dollar series of books or anything, but you get the picture.

Ok, now that the voices have started, what next? Writing the story, of course. I talk to the characters and ask them what happened, and then they tell me the story in their own words: what they were thinking, how they were acting, where they were, even what they were wearing. It works best when I write the story in first person, because then I get the perspective of all the characters, but I only have to put it into the words of one. Having six or more different personalities in your head can be very confusing at times, otherwise. Writing in third person isn’t hard, it just takes longer. I have analyze every scene from the point of each character involved in that scene. First I have to talk to the scene’s main character, and find out what he/she was doing, saying, etc. at this particular point. Then I have to interview any other characters one by one and figure out what they were doing during the whole scene. After that, I have to match everyone’s thoughts and actions up to figure out whom was doing what at any particular second in the scene. Things have to match up, otherwise you get problems like the villain ordering the execution of the hero before he even knows that said hero exists. This is very problematic, and should be avoided at all costs.

Sometimes you just can't get along.

The issue of writer’s block can also be somewhat odd in this case. The problem with all the characters living in my head is that the protagonists and the antagonists hate each other. Since they all want the story written, you’d think they’d cooperate. No, not really. They usually end up fighting and arguing and generally not talking to me. This is how writer’s block manifests itself, for me: characters don’t get along, they squabble, they don’t communicate with me, and I have no idea what happens next in the story. When that happens, I get stuck in the middle of a war, trying to broker a peace treaty between them so I can get the story written. It’s very annoying, and sometimes leads to me contemplating destroying the entire cast of characters and just starting all over again. I haven’t gotten that far…yet.

And a Jedi Penguin, just to top things off.

Once those problems are sorted out, the story pretty much takes care of itself. The voices in my head tell me what happened, and all I do is the physical act of writing it down. I don’t have to understand what’s going on, just that something is happening and it’s important. When the characters shut up, I know I’m done, and I can go back and read the story to see what I’ve written. Keeps things interesting that way. Once the story is finished, the characters retreat to a retirement village somewhere in the back of my mind, where the rest of my characters exist. They’ll talk to me occasionally, and I can bring them out of retirement if I need them. All-in-all, things work out pretty well. Not everyone works this way, obviously, but I’ve been pretty satisfied with it. I rather like having voices in my head (in a completely non-insane way).