May 16, 2014

Character Cheat Code

            Up up, down down, left right, left right—novel.
            If only it was that easy…
            I haven’t blathered on about characters in a while.  Well, not strictly about characters.  Characters are the heart of storytelling, so really I’m always blathering on about characters.  And I saw something great a few weeks ago that got me thinking.
            Anyone here watch Game of Thrones?  I wanted to talk about a bit at the start of this season.  No, don’t worry, no spoilers
            On the off chance you don’t watch, Arya Stark is the tomboy daughter of a noble family.  She’s on the run after a good chunk of said family’s been killed.  The Hound is a giant, mercenary brute who’s served as bodyguard, champion, and enforcer for the king, depending on what the moment calls for.   He snatched Arya up thinking he might get a reward for saving her, and they’ve formed sort of an uneasy alliance since then.  In the bit I mentioned, Arya and the Hound are riding doubled-up through the forest and she’s complaining about their lack of food and her lack of horse.  She berates the Hound for not stealing any gold from the King before he fled the city.
            “I’m not a thief,” he growls.
            Arya, who’s had some unpleasant encounters with the Hound in the past, glares at him and says “So killing an unarmed eight year old boy is fine, but you won’t steal?”
            The Hound looks past her, shrugs, and says “A man’s got to have a code.”
            My friends and I all chuckled at that.  The truth is, I think the Hound went up a few notches in everyone’s opinion right there.  He became a better character.
            We like people who have a code.  It doesn’t need to be something spoken aloud or written down or sworn to in an oath.  It doesn’t mean they have to give up their possessions or disavow their former lives or change their name.  It just means these people are true to their beliefs.  True to themselves.  They say this is who they are and what they do, and they’re being honest.  The Hound.  Leon the Professional.  Dexter.  Barney Stinson.  Hannibal Lecter.  The Terminator.  All of these characters should be villains, or loathsome at best, but we like them because they all have a certain code they follow, and they won’t change that for just anything.  Awful as it may sound, we all like the fact that the Hound can kill a child without question, yet be insulted at the thought he’d pocket a few coins he wasn’t entitled to.
            From a writer’s point of view, a code is good because it means my audience can get a clear definition of my character.  It gives me a bit of background and development, because I can now explain or hint at why this person has said code.  It also provides me with an immediate source of conflict, because I now know there are things my character won’t be willing to do (and because a character who can do anything gets boring fast).
            The downside, of course, is that once I establish a character has some form of personal code, it’s tough to have them go back on it.  Y’see, Timmy, people don’t base their lives around an idea and then just change their minds on a whim.  These beliefs are an integral part of the character, so altering them is a major thing.  If someone tosses their vows or beliefs aside over something minor, it makes them look like very weak. 
            Which, by extension, doesn’t make me look too good as a writer.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about compression.
            Until then, go write.
October 11, 2012 / 2 Comments

Three About Three About Characters

            It’s not a pop culture reference, don’t worry…

            I haven’t talked about characters for a while, so I figured we were due.
            In my opinion, character can be broken down into two sets of three.  I talked about the first set a while back, and I’ve mentioned the individual elements on and off since then.  The second set is kind of a new idea here at the ranty blog, although you’ll probably see some connections with other things I’ve blathered on about.
            The first set is all about hard facts.  This is character sketch stuff that may or may not come up in my actual story, but it’s still important for me to know as a writer.  If I want Phoebe to be a good character, there are three traits she has to have.
            Firstand foremost, a character needs to be believable.  It doesn’t matter if said character is man, woman, child, lizard man, ninja, superhero, or supervillain.  If my reader can’t believe in the character within the established setting, my story’s got an uphill battle going right from the start. 
            Phoebe has to have natural dialogue.  It can’t be stilted or forced, and it can’t feel like she’s just spouting out my opinions or beliefs.  The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words Phoebe would use.  I’ve seen countless stories where soldiers talk like school kids or high school jocks talk like Oxford professors.
            The same goes for Phoebe’s actions and motives.  There has to be a believable reason she does the things she does.  A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know about her, or will come to know.  If a characters motivations are just there to push the plot along, my readers are going to pick up on that really quick. 
            Also, please keep in mind that just because a character is based on a real person who went through true events does not automatically make said character believable.  I’ve talked here many, many times about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it’s where many would-be writers stumble.  Remember, there is no such thing as an “unbelievable true story,” only an unbelievable story.
            The second trait, tied closely to the first, is that Phoebe needs to be relatable.  As readers, we get absorbed in a character’s life when we can tie it to elements of our own.  We enjoy seeing similarities between characters and ourselves so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we’d liketo happen (or be able to happen) in our own lives.  Taken is about a father trying to reconnect with his somewhat-estranged daughter.  The Harry Potter books are about a kid whose adoptive family dislikes him for being different.  Grimm is about an up-and coming police detective whose getting ready to propose to his girlfriend.  There’s a reason so many movies, television shows, and novels are based on the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations.
            Some of this goes back to the idea of being on the same terms as your audience and also of having a general idea of that audience’s common  knowledge.  There needs to be something they can connect with.  Many of us have been the victims of a bad break up or two.  Very, very few of us (hopefully) have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin.  The less common a character element is, the less likely it is your readers will be able to identify with it.  If your character has nothing but uncommon or rare traits, they’re unrelatable.  If Phoebe is a billionaire heiress ninja who only speaks in either Cockney rhyming slang or an obscure Croatian dialect and lives by the code of ethics set down by her druidic cult… how the heck does anyone identify with that?  And if readers can’t identify with Phoebe, how are they going to be affected by what happens to her?
            That brings us to the third point, a good character needs to be likeable.  Not necessarily pleasant or decent, but as readers we must want to follow this character through the story.  Just as there needs to be some elements to Phoebe we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit.  If she’s morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one’s going to want to go through a few hundred pages of her exploits… or lack thereof.
            Again, this doesn’t mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person.  Leon the Professional is a brutal hit man.  Cyrus V. Sinclairaspires to being a sociopath.  Barney Stinson is a shameless womanizer. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer with some horrific dietary preferences.  Yet in all of these cases, we’re still interested in them as characters and are willing to follow them through the story.
            A good character should be someone we’d like to be, at least for a little while.  That’s what great fiction is, after all.  It’s when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else’s life.  So it has to be a person–and a life– we want to sink into.
            Now, I’m sure anyone reading this can list off a few dozen examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits.  It’d be silly for me to deny this.  I think you’ll find, however, the people that don’t have all three of these traits are usually supporting characters.  They don’t need all three of these traits because they aren’t the focus of our attention.  If I’m a halfway decent writer, I’m not going to waste my time and word count on a minor character—I’m going to save them for Phoebe.
            So, that’s the first set of three.
            The second set of three is about putting all that information into my story.  Y’see, Timmy, it’s not enough just to have the above character elements.  They need to be established in the story in a natural, organic way.  
            Let’s talk about the three main ways of doing that.
            Firstis the easy one—characters establish themselves through their own words and actions.  I’ve mentioned before that how someone talks is very important, as well as what they talk about.  If all Phoebe talks about is work, that tells us something about her.  If every conversation she has leads to talking about sex, that gives us a different bit of insight.  If she speaks with precise grammar it implies something about her, just like it does if she talks like a stoned surfer, or if she rarely talks at all.  If I show Phoebe kicking an alley cat on her way home from work, this says a lot about her character.  On the other hand, if the reader sees her giving the raggedy cat a can of tuna and some attention, it says something else (depending on when it happens in the story). 
            Second is the way other characters talk about them and react to them.  If Phoebe is talking in a calm, measured voice but her employees are nervous—or even terrified—that’s a big clue in to what kind of person they know she is.  Likewise, if she’s trying to ream someone out over their poor job performance and they’re ignoring her, that also tells us something.  A lot of my characters are going to know each other better than the audience does, and their interactions are going to be a big hint to the reader as to what kind of person Phoebe is.
            And thirdis how their words and actions jibe with the reader’s personal experience.  Remember above how I mentioned Phoebe turning every conversation to sex?  Well if that’s the case, but we also see her go home alone every night, that’s telling us something insightful about her.  If she tells the guy at the bar that she loves animals but then throws something at that cat, it gives us a much better idea about who she is.  And if she absolutely assures somebody that she can be trusted after we’ve seen her screw three other people over, well…  As many folks have said, actions speak louder than words.  So when there’s a contrast or an open contradiction, this can be a great way to get across major character elements.
            Two sets of three.  Look over some of your characters and see where they match up, and with which sets.
            Next time, I’d like to step outside of the usual topics here and talk about why people I’ve slept with generally rate higher than other people.
            Until then, go write.
April 20, 2012 / 3 Comments

Why Do We Like These Guys…?

            Sorry there wasn’t a post last week.  I got the galley proofs for my new book, 14 (available in June from Permuted Press), and I spent about six days going over them line by line.

            There’s a weird trend in advertising lately.  Have you noticed that most of the people we’re supposed to be rooting for in commercials are kind of… well,  jerks?  They’re rude.  They’re smug.  They do obnoxious things that are supposed to be cute.
            Of course, unlikable characters are nothing new on television or in books.  There are hundreds of characters who are jerks to an almost criminal degree, but we still like them.  You can trace it back for decades.  Centuries, even.
            Let me give you a few examples.
            Presented for your approval is one Homer J. Simpson.  He’s an alcoholic.  He’s rock-stupid.  He’s self-centered.  He subjects his kids to physical and emotional abuse.  He’s lazy to the point that he’s endangered countless lives in his hometown of Springfield, and a fair amount while traveling abroad, too.
           Here’s another one.  Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother.  Barney’s rude, misogynistic, very manipulative, and openly cruel sometimes.  When you consider the political climate these days, it’s worth noting that Barney is also a one-percenter who’s gleefully acknowledged eliminating jobs to increase profits at the multi-national corporation he works for.
            And, lest you think I’m not taking this seriously with all the sitcom references, let’s also add in Doctor Hannibal Lecter (the version from the novels, to be clear).   He’s a monster.  No two ways about it.  He’s a murderer who’s killed people in some truly horrific ways.  He’s tortured people.  And there’s his defining trait, of course… cannibalism.
            How could anyone possibly like any of these characters?  Heck, how is it that people end up rooting for them?  We laugh when Homer throttles his son, we cheer when Barney abandons the woman he just slept with, and we approve when we realize Lecter’s tracked down the asylum director who treated him like an animal for years.  Is there something wrong with all of us?
            Not really.  If we look at all of these folks, there’s certain key traits they all share that make for great characters.  More to the point, theses are traits that are almost always missing from characters that frustrate and annoy readers and/or audience members.
            Firstand foremost is honesty.  One of the main things we love about these characters is that they’re all true to themselves.  They know who they are and they see no need to hide it.  Nobody likes a hypocrite or someone who keeps switching sides.  It’s why we all grind our teeth over politicians who say one thing on Tuesday and then say the complete opposite on their next campaign stop.
            If Barney was constantly telling us what a sweet, caring guy he was we’d find him slimy at best, reprehensible at worst.  Part of what makes his womanizing acceptable—to us and his friends—is that he doesn’t deny it in any way.  He has no problem admitting what he does and even admits it may hurt some women … but he’s not there to deal with it, so what’s the big deal?  Homer’s almost gleeful about his alcoholism and has frequently fought the idea of trying to learn anything new.  Lecter doesn’t see any moral difference between eating a person and eating an animal, so he has no problem discussing the appetizers he set out for his unexpected guests.
            One mistake I see a lot of writers make is when their characters are telling us one thing but showing us another.  Yakko says he’s taking time off and trying to get his head together, but really he’s out cruising and screwing around every day.  Dot tells us she’s loyal to her husband but sleeps with three different guys from her office.  Wakko insists that he follows the rules to the letter, but we catch him cheating a dozen times during the game.  There are times this type of thing can work, but this kind of dishonesty can turn a reader against a character very quickly if it’s not handled right. 
            A similar problem is when writers think ambivalence is a character trait.  They have characters who are constantly unsure or second-guessing themselves or their actions.  That kind of self-doubt can work in small doses, but it gets annoying real quick.
            The secondthing that makes us like these horrible folks is that, despite all their unlikable characteristics, each of them tends to be a pretty decent person at the core.  Often in each of their respective stories, we’ll see these characters do something or make a gesture that doesn’t really benefit them, but it gives us a glimpse of who they really are when they’re not trying to score points or keep up appearances.  There’s an old saying you might’ve heard that sums this up well–someone who’s nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.  In screenwriting this sort of thing is sometimes known as the “saving the cat” (thanks, Blake Snyder), and it makes us—the audience—like these characters a little more.
            When Homer gives up his dream job at Globex to make his family happy, it’s showing us that he really does try to be the best father and husband that he can.  When Barney flies cross-country to tell Lily she needs to wise up and get back together with Marshall, it lets us see what’s really important to him.  If you’ve read any of the books by Thomas Harris, it’s pretty clear that Hannibal Lecter, despite some of his more gruesome dietary preferences, is kind of a classy guy.  He’s polite.  He’s generous.  He appreciates fine art and fine music.  He has a very good relationship with his orderly, Barney, born out of professional courtesy for one another.  Just because he sometimes does awful things to people doesn’t mean he’s needlessly cruel.  In fact Lecter never kills randomly or without purpose, and there’s a fair list of people in the books he doesn’t kill who he easily could have.
            Even if you’ve only seen the films, you may remember that one of his defining traits very early on is that he despises rudeness.  Lecter makes for kind of an interesting twist on saving the cat.  When his hallmate, Miggs, is exceptionally “discourteous” to Agent Clarice Starling, Lecter kills him for it.  After the good doctor escapes, Starling’s confident he won’t come after her because “he would consider it rude.”  If he was just a cannibal, Lecter would be no different than Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It’s this underlying decency that elevates him above a schlock-paperback slasher.
            I see this get messed up a lot in books and scripts.  The writer presents an unlikable character or characters that I’m clearly supposed to like on some level, but I’m never actually given a reason to like them.   A lot of horror storiesfail because of this.  If I don’t like a character on some level…why would I care what happens to them?
            That bit a moment ago with Miggs brings me to my third and final point…wish fulfillment.  While these characters are doing unlikable things, they’re all doing things that—on one level or another—we all wish we could do.  It would be awesome to goof off at work and drink every night and never get punished for it.  We’d love to sleep around and have no emotional fallout from either our partners or ourselves.  And, much as we’d like to deny it, there are times we’d all really like to see obnoxious idiots dead for the things they’ve done to us and to the people we like.  Preferably dead in a really horrible way.  The condescending doctor.  That jackass supervisor at work.  The guy in the insane asylum who throws bodily fluids. 
            A lot of times I see people trying to do the unlikable-but-likeable thing, and the real problem is that they’ve made a character who… well, just isn’t likeable.  There’s almost no way to put a positive spin on someone who stomps puppies to death or molests schoolchildren.  Personally, I find it really hard to get behind a bigot.  There are times that even saving a whole cat shelter can’t make up for a character’s unlikable traits because too many lines have been crossed.
            Yeah, I know the cannibalism thing is a little beyond what any of us want to do, but here’s an interesting point—you barely ever see Lecter’s eating habits in the books.  We hear about them, but in the first three books there’s only one incident where we actually see Lecter eat part of a human being (and it’s at the end of the third book in the series).  So it’s a character trait that’s inexcusable, but it’s also carefully kept at arm’s length.
            And that’s some of the reasons why so many of us can’t help but like the bad boys and girls.     
            Next time, I’d like to talk about a trio of failed television shows and why they failed.  There’s a good storytelling lesson in it for all of us.  Honest.
            Until then, go write.
April 29, 2010

Mad Men

Not a reference to the show, I assure you.

So, I ranted about this a while back, but a few recent things made me want to revisit it…

If I may, I’d like to go classical for a moment and talk about Jane Eyre. Yes, the 1847 book by Charlotte Bronte a.k.a. Currer Bell, sister of Emily and Anne. Now, Jane Eyre was one of Bronte’s earlier books, so we can excuse some of the clumsiness in it (her Villette isn’t as well known, but it’s a much smoother, subtler book). There’s one thing in it we can’t forgive though, and that’s Charlotte falling back on a cop-out character to drive several huge events in her story.

I’m speaking about Bertha Rochester, the crazy wife in the attic. She gets loose every now and then from her attic prison and glares at Jane. She’ll just stand in Jane’s bedroom and stare at her while she’s sleeping. Sometimes she does it from windows when Jane is outside. It gets so disturbing it drives a wedge between Jane and her beloved Edward “Mr.” Rochester (Bertha’s husband) and sends her fleeing. We eventually discover that Bertha sets fire to Rochester Hall (off-camera, so to speak) and throws herself from the roof during the blaze, thus clearing the way for Jane and Edward to be married at the end of the novel.

Now, it’s never made clear what drove Bertha insane. We also don’t learn exactly why she feels the need to glare at sleeping Jane from high windows and the end of her bed. Never discover why she sets fire to her home or decides to kill herself. Bertha just does all this because, well… she’s insane.

Shenanigans, my friends. I call shenanigans.

If you skim through that list of keywords on the side, you’ll see several rants about characters and a few on motivation. They’re related, after all. Believable characters are what make a story come to life, and good motivations are part of what make characters come to life.

One thing many people have trouble with are the bad guys in their stories. We all tend to use little bits of ourselves in our characters, but of course few of us have lots of criminal experience and none of us (hopefully) have homicidal impulses. It can be tough to get inside an antagonist’s head and come up with a rationale for whatever they’re doing.

Not only that, but sometimes certain events or moments just have to happen in a story. It’s been all plotted out and we need a reason for the characters to do this so that and that can happen a bit later. The writer also knows they need an in-story motivation for these events, no matter how bizarre or unlikely they are.

Faced with these challenges, a lot of people fall back on the quickest, easiest solution they can. They say the character is insane.

Now they don’t need a motivation, right? He or she is just doing this stuff because, well… they’re insane.

This is pretty much hands-down the laziest writing someone can ever do. All characters need a solid motivation, and when a writer decides to use insanity as carte blanche for any actions or behaviors of a character, it just shows that he or she was too lazy to work out a real motivation. The plot needs to be driven forward, and there’s no logical reason for this to happen, so we’ll just say someone’s insane and relieve ourselves of the need to be logical. It’s a cheap way to hide the writer’s button-pushing.

Another common occurrence is for the insanity to be a twist, something that comes out of nowhere and takes the reader’s breath away. The flaw that usually goes alongside this is that once Wakko’s insanity is revealed, his behavior does a complete 180 and he begins to act like a lunatic. Yes, Wakko’s been calm and rational for the entire story, but now that we know the truth he’s started foaming at the mouth and grabbing for kitchen knives. You can’t have a rational villain and fall back on “he’s insane.” This is a major cop-out. Dan Brown took a perfectly passable techno- thriller, Digital Fortress, and killed it in the last fifty pages when one of his leads turned out to be insane. Had nothing to do with the main story, this guy just happened to be nuts and started twitching as soon as we found out.

Just to be clear, insanity in and of itself is not a bad thing (speaking from a character point of view, of course). Hannibal Lecter. Renfield. The Joker. Davros. All of these characters are unquestionably out of their skull and are pretty much across the board magnificent either in print or on the screen. The thing is, the writers behind these characters all realized the key point I’d like to make here.

Y’see, Timmy, insanity is not a motivation. It’s the lens the characters are seeing their motivation through.

There’s an old joke you’ve probably heard that one definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results. But let’s really consider that for a moment. The implication is that Wakko, our insaniac, is choosing to repeat a given action–say, dropping anvils from a great height–because it’s his belief that the logical outcome of this action will be a certain, predictable result (just not the one he’s getting). He isn’t just dropping anvils for the heck of it. He has a motive fueled by what he sees as logical expectations.

In my college novel, The Trinity, the villain is completely insane. Homicidal, in fact. He believes that God only wants blood sacrifice, preferably human. That’s why, in the Bible, he rewards Abel for sacrificing a sheep but turns his nose up at Cain’s much larger sacrifice of harvested fruits and grains. When Cain does spill blood later (Abel’s), God rewards him with a mark that says no man will ever be able to lay hands on him. Thus, my modern-day villain has determined God wants us all to kill as many people as possible. A very twisted interpretation, granted, but I did tell you this guy’s insane, right? He’s not killing people because he’s insane, mind you, he’s killing them because, through his insanity, he believes this is how he should follow God’s will. We can point at it and say he’s doing Y because he believes X and expects Z as a result.

The Joker believes he can prove that everyone, at heart, is ruthless and psychotic, just like him. Renfield believes eating insects and spiders means he’s eating their life-essence and extending his own. Hannibal Lecter isn’t bound by the standards and taboos of the human race, giving him a cold ruthlessness that makes the Joker almost look rational. The writers behind these characters didn’t just fall back on “they’re insane.” They all have actual motivations for their specific actions.

Now, just to be clear, there are times where mindless insanity is just fine. Want someone gibbering in the corner reciting the same numbers again and again? You need somebody chopping up nubile teens out at Camp Crystal Lake? The purposeless madman was made for these tasks.

It needs to be said, though, this only works on a certain level of storytelling, and it isn’t a very high level. The stories of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are, at their core, campfire stories. It’s that same story of the escaped madman with the hook except here he’s got a machete. And that story’s great around a bonfire (or with popcorn), but you can’t really bring any clever twists or subtle nuances into it. Which means you shouldn’t expect a larger audience to be interested in it.

That’s why Friday the 13th just gets a decent opening weekend and Silence of the Lambs gets twelve weeks in the top five and a pile of Oscars the following spring.

Next week, six years is almost up, so we need to get in one last discussion about that mysterious island.

Until then, go write.