“She’s My What?!”: Discovering Character Relationships

Yeah, you know where this is going.
Yeah, you know where this is going.

Character dynamics are a tricky business. I was working on my novel earlier, and I had two characters, who hadn’t previously interacted, about to meet. As I wrote the lead-in, there was something…off about the character whose point of view I was writing from. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but beneath his annoyed scowl and general irreverent attitude towards the situation he was currently in, something strange was going on. Rather than try to figure it out, I decided to keep writing and just see what happened. The scene progressed, the door opened, the two characters came face-to-face, and my narrator took in his first impressions of her, and then I suddenly tuned back in at the moment he was thinking “…because she’s my sister.”

Wait, what?

Nothing has ever stopped me dead in my tracks during a writing spree as much as that little revelation did. Were it not for the fact that I never wrote any sexual tension into their relationship, I am certain that my stupefaction would have rivaled that of George Lucas when he suddenly realized 3/4 of the way through filming The Empire Strikes Back that the male and female leads were siblings.

“Really, guys?” I grumbled in an attractively sulky manner while still maintaining an air of authoritative pique. “You couldn’t have told me this earlier?”

Both of them shrugged, smirked, and told me it was on a need-to-know basis and I didn’t need to know until they officially met on the page. Brats.

Stop smirking, guys.
Stop smirking, guys.

Anyways, the point is that not knowing every detail of your characters’ relationships with each other isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I visualized both of these characters, they had a strictly businesslike interaction based on their duties and social interactions within their caste. The moment they met on paper, though, the relationship changed and there’s now some really interesting tension that adds depth to both of them…and, as I realized while I was working on the next chapter, not only fixes a plot problem I’d been worrying over, but also, through their interactions, revealed a great deal more about the social hierarchies and history of the society than even I was aware of, and I’d been working on world-building for months at that point. As weird or annoying as it may be when you randomly discover such important information as family or relationship connections that far into writing (I’d hit just over 10,000 words at that point), and even if it turns some of your plot ideas upside down (which it did for me), letting some of your character relationships develop naturally and reveal themselves to you on their own can be both fun and beneficial for your story. Since this incident, I’ve had one more surprise familial connection jump up out of nowhere between to highly unlikely characters, but again, it’s solved more problems than it’s caused, and it’s been quite an adventure  figuring out all the political, social, and interpersonal ramifications of this new relationship. If you have any stories of similar discoveries, I’d love to hear about them! In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how my main characters are going to react to this latest tabloidesque revelation.

Major Life Changes: Balancing Packing and Writing

mapTo say that the last few days have been a whirlwind of insanity would be an understatement. Last Monday, I was contacted about an interview for a job I really wanted. Less than 24 hours later, I was being interviewed for that job and was given a tentative offer; 42 hours beyond that, and I was offered a position as an Instructor of English with Berlitz in Poznań, Poland, starting at the beginning of October. “Did you accept?” you may very well ask, at which point I will stare at you incredulously, because of course I took the job. It would be ridiculously stupid of me not to. Anyway, factoring in the time I’d need to get settled and start my job training, it became clear that I have a little under 5 weeks to prepare, pack, and relocate. Everything since Thursday has thus been a hectic mess of logistics and suitcase-wrangling.

The sad and unintended side-effect of this major life change has been that I don’t have time to write. I finished another chapter of my novel about a week and a half ago, and I was working at full steam on the next one when the world turned upside down and and inside out (albeit in the best possible way). When I do have a few moments to sit down and not work on a list or comb through paperwork, I’m too mentally tired to actually get any of my creative writing done. My characters are currently complaining that I’m never around, but one day they’ll understand that I’m doing this for them so that they can have better opportunities and maybe a European castle some day. Anyways, I just cannot brain enough to work on my novel, but I can’t just stop writing while I’m relocating. So I’ve developed a system to keep myself consistently in the writing game (and, incidentally, keep me from stressing out too much). I have to take at least 15 minutes a day to write on *something,* whatever that may be. I started a travel blog that I’m currently updating daily, I write my posts for The Art of Writing, and occasionally I will write out one of my famous rants about something nerd-related (usually Doctor Who, to be honest, but you all probably knew that). The point is, despite all the insanity around me, I’m still making myself write. And when I’m flying from the Arizona desert to Poland next month, maybe I will have the time and energy to get back to my novel and my poor neglected characters. But for now, it’s a start.

Writing About Virtue

shadows-lingerI’ve written before about the lack (or at least the perceived lack) of truly good characters in modern fiction. All the rage is for troubled characters, flawed heroes, broken protagonists, and this is because it is much easier to write an interesting flawed character than it is to write an interesting good guy. Nice guys finish last (or at least that’s how the saying goes) because in fiction and in life they tend to be fairly boring. Of course, they don’t have to be boring (for instance, Superman wasn’t boring, Faramir wasn’t boring, Captain America wasn’t boring, etc). Further, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about the virtues lately, and thinking about the virtues always leads to thinking about the vices. There are few writers who I’ve seen handle the development of a vicious character into a virtuous character well, and one that always comes to mind is Glen Cook.

I’ve written about the development of Marron Shed before, and that isn’t the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to talk about how we write about courage. A lot of the time we tend to think of courage as simply the absence of fear, or perhaps those who have considered it a bit more deeply think of courage as pursuing something worth doing in spite of fear. However, I’m not convinced that either of these is really a proper view of courage. Courage is, to my mind, intrinsically linked with faith. We fear things because we don’t have faith in being able to control them. For instance: I am not afraid of the bowl of cereal in my hands right now. Why? Because it is entirely within my control. Similarly, I am not afraid of a caged lion. Why? because I have faith in the ability of the cage to control it (which involves faith in the manufacturers of the steel the cage is made from, faith in those who installed it, faith in the zoo to properly maintain it, etc). However, if you convince me that those steel bars are actually made of paper, then suddenly the lion isn’t really controlled and my fear springs forth.

3527267190_9b1686d648_bNow, there are some things that we can control (such as my bowl of cereal), and some things that we can never control (such as the weather). We generally aren’t afraid of those things that are obviously within our control or of those things which are obviously impossible to control (though there are extremes on either end). For instance, I don’t spend much time being terrified of my pants, nor do I spend much time being terrified that a solar flare will consume the planet, or that a nearby star will supernova, or that a pulsar with vaporize everything. However, we do spend a lot of time being afraid of those things that we don’t control, but think that we can or should control. Such as poisonous spiders, car accidents, or someone breaking into our homes.

Plato argued that courage was the knowledge of what should be feared and what should not be feared, and I think that he’s on the right track here. However, I think that there is a better answer, at least for a theist. Courage, I will argue, is the faith that all things are controlled by a beneficent power, and thus that those ‘bad’ things that happen to me or to others are actually part of a larger plan. Further, I think that courage is generally faith in something (either our own ability to control the situation, a trusted superior or counterpart, technology, etc), even if that something isn’t a deity.

imagesSo, I think the question that we come to here is: how do we write this? And I think the answer is that you write good courage (or any virtue) in the same way that you write good religion. It’s easy to write a character who has no doubts, never makes a mistake, always does the right thing, and wins in the end. The critics are right, that character is boring. Real people, even good people, have doubts. They have temptations, desires, fears, and struggles. The difference between a virtuous character and a flawed hero is that the flawed hero is, at least in part, defined by his doubts, temptations, desires, fears, and struggles. They rule him like The Great Leader ruled North Korea, and the result is no prettier. Virtuous characters aren’t defined by their vices. They aren’t ruled by their vices. They struggle, and as a writer you need to get inside their heads, understand that struggle, and make it real to the reader, but however much they struggle, when it comes down to it: they do the right thing anyway.

The virtuous character rules his fears, temptations, doubts, struggles, and desires, and he forces them to serve him instead of the other way around, and that character can be very interesting to read about. The key here is to make the struggle real without defining the character by it. This is not an easy thing to do, because we often don’t allow our characters to become real people. We want the characters to serve the story, which means that we need easy, simply definitions for them. This is why its so much easier to write flawed characters: its easier to define them. However, when we let our characters grow out of our definitions of them before we start the story, I have a feeling that we might wind up with better stories.

Do Your Morals Fit Your Story?

dragonfallWall1280x720I am, in general, a fan of dark, gritty fiction. This includes books like Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, television shows like the new Daredevil series, movies like Bladerunner, and video games like Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun Dragonfall. However, I recently came across a complaint that I think is somewhat fair when it comes to this kind of material. It is easy for writers to slip in more or less subtle prods towards their own moral opinions. Sometimes, as in Erikson’s series, this is consistently well done and the moral stances that the characters take generally fit with their overall beliefs and behaviors. However, Shadowrun Dragonfall, some players have complained, suffers from a case of dissonance.

For those of you who are not players, the Shadowrun world is a cyberpunk fantasy setting–that is to say that it is set in the relatively near future, includes some advanced technology (such as a living internet where hackers port their consciousness into the internet via avatars and, in bad circumstances, can even be killed by computer programs) along with elves, orcs, trolls, dragons, and various kinds of magic. The world of Shadowrun is not a nice place. Much of it is run by massive corporations that tend to view people as replaceable parts of a machine. Most people eek out a living totally beholden to such corporations, but there is some question as to whether the corporations are entirely evil or simply doing what it takes to take care of their own. Enter the shadowrunners, for whom the table-top game, book series, and video games are named. These are highly specialized experts in covert operations who sell their services to various governments, corporations, or private interests to perform a wide variety of black ops missions ranging from guarding valuable shipments, infiltration and espionage, assassination, etc. So, for all intents and purposes the shadowrunners are high-end criminals who steal and kill for a living. This raises the question: was that security guard you shot really a bad guy? Or was he just an everyday guy who was trying to earn enough money to feed his family? Maybe the corporation you stole that chemical formula from was going to use it for nefarious purposes, but are the employers for whom you stole it really going to do anything better with it?

shadowrun_cropHowever, in the storyline of Dragonfall the main characters are essentially presented as a group of do-gooders or something close. They may run the occasional mission that requires them to murder a few civilians, plant a bomb, or steal the plans for a new chemical weapon and hand it over to a terrorist group, but they are mostly interested in fighting the raging war against racism, poverty, and corporate greed. Now, it should be noted that in the game you do have the choice to avoid missions that will clearly involve acts like killing civilians or supporting terrorist groups, and even on those missions where there is some risk of this, you generally have the option of avoiding violence as much as possible. So, you can actually play as the Robin Hood of a small neighborhood of Berlin, investing your actions into making the neighborhood a safer, better place to live–which perhaps makes the criticism of this particular game less valid. However, this still raises the question: can we really believe that a bunch of professional criminals are devoting their time to protecting a small neighborhood and ending poverty, racism, etc? Would someone who wanted to pursue these goals become a professional criminal in the first place? Its kind of like saying that someone would join the mob to help drug addicts.

So, the background of your characters, their careers, skills, etc will inevitably influence their moral perspectives. A professional sniper is unlikely to be a pacifist, and a professional prostitute is unlikely to have strong sexual ethics. However, there are ways around this. For instance, a professional sniper who, after shooting a child, went through a significant moral conflict and decided that his former perspective was entirely wrong is a complicated, but realistic character. Similarly, a prostitute who works to support her mother and sisters, and has no other skills or opportunities, but still holds strongly to religious beliefs and thus considers herself morally defiled is also a complicated, but realistic character. The key is the character’s reasoning.

Shadowrun_MoronsWe generally don’t do things, especially not things like devoting ourselves to strong principled goals or acting against our firmly held beliefs, just because. So, we cannot simply say that a character who has been a career criminal can’t be devoted to ending poverty or racism. Instead, we must ask why the character is so committed and how the character reconciles his/her criminal acts with his/her humanitarian efforts. So, perhaps my team of career criminals in Dragonfall used to be in it for the money, but each of them had some epiphany that gave them cause to examine and reconsider the paths of their lives. Perhaps each then decided to find a way to use the skills nurtured by a life of crime to instead give something back to the community. I’m not going to make the argument that Dragonfall specifically does this well. Instead, I am simply making that argument that it can be done well, and that it is something that you should consider. As I tell my students, make sure to ask the ‘why’ questions. Why does your character say/thing/act in this particular way? What past events and line of reasoning explains this? Remember that complicated characters are a good thing. Characters that have made mistakes and learned from them are certainly a boon to a good story, but there needs to be a clear reasoning behind the complications.

The Anatomy of a Human Action

I don’t know about you, but in my writing I tend to draw ideas and inspiration from all kinds of sources. These include other fiction authors, history, psychology, theology, philosophy, occult studies, the hard sciences, etc. There are all kinds of ways to approach thinking about the world and the wide variety of things that it contains. Some of these approaches are more useful for my writing than others, but I’ve found that anything that gives me a new perspective on the way the world works is something that can potentially be helpful in understanding my characters and their world more deeply, and thus in writing them more effectively. Something that I’ve recently stumbled across is Thomas Aquinas’ anatomy of a human action, and I see some value in this kind of approach.

So, the first thing to understand is that, for Aquinas, only deliberate (or voluntary) actions count as ‘human’ actions, and thus only deliberate actions can be morally right or wrong (i.e. if I legitimately don’t know that stabbing someone with a sword will kill someone, then I can’t actually be held responsible for killing the person – now, it is certainly arguable as to whether a person could legitimately not know that stabbing someone with a sword is going to kill the person, because if I illigemiately don’t know this [i.e. through negligence or willful ignorance] then I am still responsible). Aquinas sets forth five powers (or faculties) of the soul: the vegitative power (or that which allows one to maintain and reproduce one’s life), the locomotive power (or that which allows one to interact with the physical world), the sensible power (or that which allows one to collect information about the world and thus have desires), the appetitive or volitional power (or that which allows one to make choices), and the intellectual power (or that which allows one to store information in the memory and reason from given premises to correct conclusions). Of these five powers, three of them take part in creating a human action – the sensible, the volitional, and the intellectual. The locomotive or vegitative powers may take part in performing an action, but they don’t take part in creating that action in the first place.

So, how does this work? Well, Aquinas divides the reason into two parts: 1) the higher reason that considers ultimate things and 2) the lower reason which considers practical things. So, for a human action to take place first the senses must detect a variety of potential goals that could be moved towards (for instance, spiritual health, physical well-being, the accumulation of wealth or power, breathing in outer space, unaided flight, etc). However, the goals which the senses detect may be either possible goals (i.e. physical well-being) or impossible goals (i.e. breathing in outer space). However, the senses cannot determine whether a goal is possible. Instead the higher reason determines that the potential goals are possible and proper ultimate goals (and it may do so well or poorly, thus one man might see spiritual wealth or world domination as a proper ultimate goal while another might see walking in a straight line as a proper ultimate goal). However, the higher reason only has the information that the senses can provide to work with. Thus, for instance, if I have never heard of this strange thing you call ‘money’ or ‘property’ then I cannot actually make the accumulation of wealth my ultimate goal precisely because I don’t know what wealth is, so I can’t register it as a possible goal. Similarly, belief also plays a part here – for instance, I may have heard of this being you call God, but if I don’t believe that he exists, then I can’t make knowing him my ultimate goal. It would be insane to make something I don’t believe is real the ultimate goal of my life.

Thus, once the higher reason has selected a set of possible and proper ultimate goals, it presents these to the will, and the will chooses one of these ultimate goals as the most good or most desirable of those goals (Aquinas argues that the good and the desirable are the same, and argues for a distinction between what is truly good or desirable and what merely seems good or desirable at the moment). However, in making this decision the will may be influenced by the affections and aversions (i.e. desires to obtain and desires to avoid) of the sensible part (I’m using Humean or Edwardian language because it fits what Aquinas is trying to say here and is probably easier to understand than Aquinas’ own language) – further, it is important to note that this ultimate goal can change over the course of an individual’s life, sometimes many times. This decision, once made by the will, is not set in stone and must be made again and again. Once the will (properly or improperly influenced by the senses) has made this decision, it bounces the chosen desire back to the lower part of the reason, the job of which is to develop a scheme for obtaining or achieving this desire. This scheme is then bounced back to the will which then chooses whether to enact it through the means of the locomotive and/or generative powers.

So, how is this useful for writing? Well, on its face this looks like a complicated explanation of how we set goals and then move towards them. However, one of the things that I find most interesting about Aquinas’ work is that it sets out how each part, including the desires or passions, is involved in making these kinds of decisions. A lot of the time we don’t really stop to think about how, or sometimes why our characters do the things that they do. Sometimes this works out fine, but often it can lead to characters taking actions that fit the story well, but that don’t fit the character well. A good example might be a story where a woman who is obsessed with her daughter’s well-fair suddenly and inexplicably chooses to sacrifice her daughter for the good of the plot. While character growth and change can, and certainly should, take place over the course of the story, the readers should be able to see how the woman went from having her daughter’s welfare as her ultimate goal to having something else as her ultimate goal. Aquinas’ anatomy of a human action can certainly help us to remember 1) how important this is, and 2) give us a means or working out the process in our own minds, though I wouldn’t suggest writing out the process as a part of the story (… though, the back and forth that the process involves could make an interesting flash fiction piece). So, there’s your thought for the day! I hope that its helpful in your writing, and I hope that it’s got you thinking about how you and your characters both make decisions.

Ethics in Writing: The Literary Applications of Moral Thought

My last post was less about writing than it was about living will. However, the more I read (both fiction and non-fiction), the more I am convinced that the two are profoundly connected. First, for those who are familiar with this thought, let me say that I do not subscribe strictly to narrative ethical thought. While I do think that fiction can and should have a powerful formative effect upon character, I do not believe that a narrative approach to moral thinking is, in itself, either necessary or sufficient. Stories are importantimpactful, and helpful in the formation of character, but they are only one tool that may be used in the process of personal or community moral development. They are not essential to character, nor are they capable for forming a persons character in and of themselves. That being said, there are many novels that have had a profound impact on my own personal development such as Lars Walker’s Year of the Warrior, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment among others. Some of these have affected me positively (i.e. shown me, led me to consider, etc traits, ideas, and qualities that I wanted to develop), others negatively (i.e. shown me ideas, traits, qualities etc that I wanted to avoid), and others have merely stimulated deeper and more thorough examination of my own beliefs, preconceptions, opinions, and beliefs. I say all of this to make a particular point, one that I have mentioned before: as authors our writing can have a significant affect on our readers.

Some works are specifically intended to have a positive effect, presenting qualities and characters to be emulated or scenes that inspire the reader to greater virtue. Others, like my own Among the Neshelim, are specifically intended to have a negative effect, presenting examples of vice and its attendant consequences to the reader. Some works, like Stranger in a Strange Land, simply lead the reader into deeper thought about their current beliefs and culture and whether they actually want to assume the beliefs that they have always held, or whether those beliefs should be subjected to serious questioning. All of these are valuable,but something that I’ve noticed is that more and more often fiction authors focus on vice. There is an idea floating around in the literary world that ‘damaged’ characters are fundamentally more interesting and thus more desirable than healthy, well-adjusted characters. I want to challenge this idea.

Certainly, and I don’t know anyone who will argue with this, damaged characters are easier to write than healthy characters. They provide their own inherent conflict, and this creates a plethora of story possibilities. They also provide obvious areas in which the character can grow and change throughout the novel/series. So, I will admit that there is some validity to the idea that damaged characters are easier than healthy characters. However, my favorite characters are individuals like Superman, Captain America, Sparhawk (who some may argue is moderately damaged), Leto Atreides, Razumikhin, Aragorn, etc. By and large my favorite characters are always the characters who I look up to. The ones who I actually do want to be like!

It strikes me that I might not be the only person who feels this way. Certainly I like the character of Amet in my serial Rise of the Neshelim, than I do Chin Cao Yu in Among the Neshelim. Amet is, across the board, a better person. Yu is broken, conflicted, deeply damaged, and is subtly torn out of his already questionable view of the world and introduced to a much more deeply broken and disturbed understanding of reality. He is drawn in by the subtle promises of evil, and he pays the consequences. Amet, on the other hand, is a good person. He is worn down by life, challenged and oppressed by circumstances, and emotionally beaten by the evils of the world, but through it all he stands firm, pursues goodness, and practices humility, wisdom, and love. Honestly, to me, Amet is in every way a better and more interesting character than Yu. Both serve their purposes, but even given his immensely difficult circumstances, I actually want to be like Amet. I would never want to be like Yu.

I say this as both exhortation and encouragement. In the world of modern fiction there are relatively few characters that we can actually look up to in general. Damaged characters have an important place in fiction. They allow both stories of warning and stories of redemption. However, there is also a need for characters that are simply good people. Certainly they are harder to write, and often we can get lost in our own problems when we’re trying to write them. However, they are immensely important, and honestly I’d like to see them make more of a comeback :).

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!

Characters and their quirks

I sent out my manuscript for reading and when it returned I wept a little. I honestly debated printing it out physically just to light it on fire. I like symbolism.

One of the comments I received in the early pages was that my characters had moments of life, but then they fell flat. They merged together into one, like clay that wasn’t thrown in the kiln before putting it near other sculptures, so the clay went back together, returning to a natural form.

This led me to soul search in an attempt to figure out how to make each character unique. Obviously there is dialogue, but I’m still tackling this. At the moment, I have each character gaining some sort of pattern they repeat, whether it’s a word or phrase they say at least once a scene (“Old sport” from Jay Gatsby) or sentence structure (“…the dark side of the Force are they” from Yoda). I’m sure there are other ways to individualize dialogue better, and I’m researching currently.

However, right now I’m focusing on character quirks. Quirks are weird habits which bring the character to life. We all have quirks, even our pets have quirks. The cat that acts like a dog. The tiger that plays well with a lion and bear. The man who took a vow of silence. The woman who spits on all her plates for a final polish. I’ve created a character sheet, and below “merits” and “flaws” there is now “quirks”.

Look pretty and smell pretty? Sauron doesn't stand a chance.
Look pretty and smell pretty? Sauron doesn’t stand a chance.

Gimli and Legolas had their friendship, despite racial differences. It showed up in games, despite violent situations. In Pokemon (I know, now we’re talking some high fantasy literature) Ash cannot for the life of him think out a move. He will always take the hardest path. In Frozen, Anna is doomed to awkwardness. Kristoff is doomed to talk to himself and eat carrots from the mouth of a reindeer.

Quirks make us remember. They make us relate. If you write a character who gets chronic bloody noses, my dad and I will understand that character. After last night my bed looks like a scene from CSI. Perhaps you will relate to Kessem, my character who loathes the sound of dripping water. We can nearly all relate to the kid who refuses to listen to his parents. A few of us can relate to the kid who refuses to admit he listens, but ultimately does what he’s told in his own time and way. Perhaps it’s the way a dame in a speak easy always smokes with her left hand, though she does everything else with her right.

My challenge to you is go out of your way to find quirks people have. Discover your own. I bet you have at least five. I bleed like a faucet, play Pokemon, enjoy cartoons as a grown man, have a personal library, and make horrible puns. I’m only grazing the surface. Remember, quirks aren’t necessarily huge, they’re just things that are odd compared to the society we live in. While I surround myself with cartoon-watching, Pokemon-playing friends, it’s still rare.

Once you’ve done that, make sure to consciously tack them onto each and every character you conjure. Put a side note area for quirks and throw it in there. If you already know what it is, that’s great. It’s a character you obviously already love and have brought to life. That character is making the rest jealous. Practice equality. Give them all quirks.

Also, if you have a particular place you found good for learning dialogue tricks, please post them down below. That’s my next area to work on for the edits and I could use some aid. Might write about that next time based on what I find and what everyone helps me find.

Finally, I know it’s a day late, but for those in the states, blessed Memorial Day. For anyone in any democratic country, remember your warriors who fight and die for the rights we assume and take for granted every day. I’m not saying we’re horrible, it’s just we can’t possibly understand what it is to live in these other countries without having actually been there. So enjoy.