December 17, 2009 / 4 Comments
December 3, 2009
I’d love to say there’s more to this pop-culture reference than just the number three, but I’d be lying.
So, it struck me a while back that I haven’t really prattled on about characters in quite a while. I’ve brought them up as kind of a sideline thing while talking about other story elements, but I haven’t focused on characters specifically. So I started thinking about them and why some come across so well on the page while others leave a reader cringing.
That got me thinking about Bob. To be honest, first it got me thinking about Yakko Warner, my usual example, but Yakko’s a pretty well-established character already. So I ended up with Bob, and wondering what could make him a good leading man for my action-adventure story about cyber-ninjas from the future.
If we want to make Bob the best character he can be, I think there are three key traits he needs to have.
First and foremost, a good character has to be believable. It doesn’t matter if said character is man, woman, child, cocker spaniel, Thark warrior, or protocol droid. If the reader or audience can’t believe in them within the established setting, the story’s facing an almost impossible challenge right from page one.
Bob has to have natural dialogue. It can’t be stilted or forced, and it can’t feel like he’s just the author’s mouthpiece, spouting out opinions or political views or whatever. The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words this person would use. I saw a story once where one high school jock said in amazement to another “You broke up with her via text?” Via? Is that even remotely the type of word or phrasing that would come out of a teenage football player’s mouth?
On a similar note, the same goes for Bob’s motives and actions. There has to be a believable reason he does the things he does. A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know (or will come to know) about him. It’s immediately apparent, just like with dialogue, when a character’s motivations are really just a veiled version of the writer’s.
Also, please note 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 tossed out a few thoughts here about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it’s where many would-be writers stumble. They think because the amazing story they’re telling about Bob is true, it’s somehow valid. He really did this, therefore the reader must accept it. Alas, it just doesn’t work that way. Remember, there is no such thing as an “unbelievable true story,” only an unbelievable story.
Second, tied very closely to the first, is that a good character needs to be relatable. As readers, we get absorbed in a character’s life when we can tie it to elements of our own lives. We like to see similarities between them and us, so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we’d like to happen in our lives. Luke Skywalker is a boy from a small town with big dreams (just like me) who goes off to join a sacred order of super powered knights (still waiting for that–but it might happen). There’s a reason so many novels and movies revolve around the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations. Heck, Stephen King has made a pretty sizeable fortune off that basic premise.
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 Bob is a billionaire alien with cosmic-level consciousness who sees all of time and space at once and only speaks backwards in metaphor… how the heck does anyone identify with that?
Oh, but wait! I see a hand shooting up in the back. Watchmen has the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan, doesn’t it? Ahhhh, but y’see Timmy, one of the primary character traits we remember about him isn’t his omnipotence. It’s his awkward fumbling when he tries to interact with the people in his life. He’s the ultimate social outcast–trying to fit into a clique (humanity) he’s grown out of, and aware that every day he’s a little less a part of that group. He even acknowledges that losing his girlfriend–his last real connection with the clique–means he probably won’t even try to fit in anymore. If that’s not universally relatable, what is?
If readers can’t identify with Bob, they can’t be affected by what happens to him. Which brings us to our final point…
Third, a good character needs to be likeable. As readers and/or audience members, we have to want to follow this character through the story. Just as there needs to be some elements to Bob we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit. If he’s morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one’s going to want to go through a few hundred pages of his exploits… or lack thereof.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person. The lead character of The Count of Monte Cristo is an escaped prisoner driven all-but-mad with thoughts of revenge who spends most of the book destroying the lives of several men and their loved ones. In Pitch Black, Riddick is a convicted mass-murderer who likes mocking all the people around him. Hannibal Lecter is a compelling, fascinating character on page and on the screen, but no one would ever mistake him for a role model. Yet in all 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 secondary characters. Often they’re also stereotypes, too. The creepy neighbor, the gruff boss, the funny best friend, the scheming villain. They don’t need all three traits– three dimensions, if you will–because they aren’t the focus of our attention. They’re the bit players, so to speak, and a good writer isn’t going to waste his or her time pouring tons of energy into a minor character who has no real bearing on the story.
Yeah, up top when I said I was lying about the 3-D thing, I was lying. I do that.
So there you have it. Three steps to stronger, three-dimensional characters.
Next time… well, I’m running short of ideas again, so unless someone suggests a good topic, next week might be a bit of a cop-out.
Before I forget, a quick shout out to Brave Blue Mice, a fun little fiction ‘zine which asked to publish the RSS feed for the ranty blog on their site. For the record, no, I didn’t know what that meant when they asked, but Greg explained it to me in simple terms even a caveman could understand. Go visit, read some stories, and send him a few of your own.
And go write.
October 8, 2009 / 1 Comment
My sincerest apologies for being late with the ranty blog. Again. It’s not that I don’t care about the baker’s dozen of you who read this collection of nonsense. It’s just that I care more about keeping a roof over my head. It’s nothing personal. Plus, I had a very old friend visit from the east coast, and I care more about her, too.
So, anyway… if you know the second part of that title (many thanks to Paula Abdul), you’re already way ahead of the pack…
I left off in mid-rant having talked about linear structure. Your characters and your action need to have a logical order to them–even if they’re not presented to your audience in that order. Which brings us to the second thing I wanted to talk about, and that’s dramatic structure. While linear structure is experienced within your story (but still perceived by the reader) dramatic structure is experienced by the reader (yet your characters are still aware of many of its elements).
All stories need some level of drama. Drama comes from conflict, and that comes from challenges the characters have to face. They can be action challenges, emotional, intellectual, almost anything. Having to blow up the Death Star before it destroys the Rebel base is dramatic. So is having to face the love of your life who abandoned you in Paris. And so is having to deduce why someone would hire a red-headed man just to copy the encyclopedia.
Now, one challenge all by itself is not a story. If all I have to do is beat the monster and I win, that’s not much of a story, is it? It’s just a step. Readers and audiences don’t want to see someone do X and win. That’s boring, no matter if we’re talking about action, emotion, or pure cleverness. They want to see the hero do A, B,C, X, Y, Z, and win by the skin of his or her teeth. So a good story has a series of challenges for the hero to face, and this is where dramatic structure comes in.
For this next bit, it’d help if you pictured a wave diagram. Just one of those nice up and down ones, perhaps with the zero-level line drawn across the horizon.
(this graphic, by the way, sent today’s ranty blog almost two hundred thousand dollars over budget. Just saying…)
A good story is like a series of waves, each one representing different challenges your characters encounter. The troughs are setbacks they suffer between, or perhaps because of, each success. For example, Indy finds the Ark of the Covenant, but then he gets sealed alive in the Well of Souls with a few thousand Egyptian asps. If your characters never suffer any setbacks (and you’d be amazed how many stories and scripts I’ve seen with this problem) you don’t have waves, you have a line. Likewise, if your story is nothing but an ongoing string of defeats and failures (which tends to go with “artistic” writing), that’s just another line, too. And let’s face it, lines are flat and boring. It’s the same thing as having nothing but “cool” dialogue. It’s just monotonous.
Which brings us to the second part of good dramatic structure. As the story progresses, the waves should be getting taller, every one a little more than the last. The troughs between them should get deeper and deeper. The height of the waves is a good measure of the tension level the characters are facing. The troughs is the level of failure or setback they’re encountering. If you have a kayak or a surfboard, the journey’s pretty smooth near the shore as you’re starting out. You can coast over those little waves without even noticing them. As you get further out, though, closer to where you want to be, the waves get bigger and there can be some serious drops between them. Then you’re at the point where staying down too long means that next wave will just crush you…
To go back to our very expensive graph, there’s a reason for this ever-increasing structure. If the story’s waves are always five up and five down, they cancel each other out and we’re back at that very dull, monotonous line. The all winning/ all losing lines are boring, yes, but you really don’t want that line to be at zero. Each victory should lift the hero (and the reader) a little higher, just as each setback should send them reeling a little harder.
Let’s take a minute to look at Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once we get past that wonderful opening sequence and into the main story, the first few challenges are almost imperceptible. Indy tries to keep his students’ attention, worries about why government agents want to talk to him, and is excited to hear they’ve enlisted him to search for the Ark. He saves Marion from the Nazis only to have her die in an exploding truck. He learns the secret of the medallion and the location of the Ark, but Sallah’s grabbed before he can escape the Map Room. He finds the Ark, but the Nazi leave him buried alive in the Well of Souls. There’s always a “but” in there, all the way up to Indy infiltrating the secret Nazi island and getting Belloq in the sights of an RPG, but Belloq calls his bluff and Indy is finally captured by the Nazis. After all these increasing ups and downs, the big, terrifying up the film ends on is God himself coming down to stomp the bad guys.
Try to beat that.
Now, a few things to watch for as you consider waves, the expensive graph, and your own story.
One is you shouldn’t have two waves which are the same height. If this challenge is equal to that challenge, one of them either doesn’t need to be there or needs to be lessened/increased a bit. Again, when things are the same, it’s monotonous.
Two is these should be valid challenges and they really should be bigger. Don’t fabricate a wave just so your character has a challenge and then try to convince the readers its a vital, integral part of the story. A ninja attack is cool. A ninja who attacks out of the blue just to create an action sequence is not. You don’t want to be the literary equivalent of the surfer who insists the waves in Lake Michigan are just as big as the ones at Venice Beach.
Three is something I touched on above. Dramatic structure is separate from linear structure, because it’s more what the audience is experiencing. Your story can be structured like this…
Ghijkl abcdef mnopqrs wxyz tuv
…but the dramatic challenges still need to go from smallest to biggest. The waves always have to increase with the narrative, not with the actual order of the story. In this example, abcdef should be a bigger wave than ghijkl, even though abcdef happened to the characters first. If it doesn’t increase drama to have it at this point in the narrative, why is it here? This is one of the biggest problems non-linear stories have–there’s no dramatic reason for them to be out of order. I saw one film that was a non-linear mish-mash, but it accomplished nothing except to confuse the audience.
This is leading into something else, and I’ve prattled on a bit too long as it is. So why don’t I stop again and next week I’ll try to finish up with a convoluted definition of narrative. And maybe some more pictures.
Until then, go write.
September 18, 2009 / 5 Comments
Looks like no one’s been reading lately. That’s okay. I’m used to people not listening to me.
And now you’re probably all at Horror Realm.
Then again, maybe I just need to rant about better topics.
Speaking of which, we were going to discuss that ever-growing backside of yours. And when I say backside, what I really mean is backstory. They’re pretty much interchangeable, because nobody wants to look at your backstory unless it is just perfect.
A few months back there was a response here from loyal follower #11 (who has since moved on to read Craig Mazin’s very informative blog, The Artful Writer) that rather than getting tighter, he often found his manuscripts growing as he did draft after draft. The characters became more nuanced, the story filled out, and the page count went up. I’ve had this happen, too. I think it was the second or third draft of The Suffering Map that introduced Theresa, the cleaning woman who overheard many things that took place at the Memory Lane antique shop. And I’ve also mentioned police detective Barroll and his partner, Lt. Cheryl Vacha.
Y’see, Timmy, a lot of stories get bulked up on backstory, because people keep introducing stuff in draft four, eight, or fifteen and assume this is essential material simply because it’s in a later draft. After all, I said a while back that by your sixth draft you should be more or less solid, yes? So by my own words, anything in the sixth draft must be essential, right?
What I eventually came to realize was that these weren’t later drafts of The Suffering Map. This was still me working on the first draft. I hadn’t figured out who these people were, what their motivation was, or why they all looked at each other nervously at a mention of Uncle Louis. What I thought was refinement and polish was still just me getting the raw materials together. The serious cutting hadn’t even begun yet.
The real problem with backstory is that it means moving back, and you want your story to go forward. Every page of character history means two pages you have to write to get the story to a new point. God help you if you decide to start with ten or twenty pages of backstory, because that means you’re in the hole on page one.
Not to mention the fact that so much backstory is completely unnecessary. At least four or five of you keep reading this collection of rants even though you have no idea what my brother’s name is, the name of the first girl I kissed, or what the first story I wrote was about. Does it keep any of you from absorbing or mocking what I say here? Not at all. It’s unnecessary.
It all comes down to what the reader needs to know. I gave the example once that no one talks about Masada at any point during Raiders of the Lost Ark because that film has nothing to do with Masada. In a similar vein, we don’t need to know how Ferris Bueller got his two-tone leather jacket, what Atticus Finch’s mother was like, where Hannibal Lecter studied for his doctorate, or which mission the Colonial Marines were on before the events of Aliens.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying that these aren’t interesting stories. In the hands of skilled writers, many of them would probably be very entertaining. The key thing here is all these stories were in the hands of skilled writers, and those writers chose not to include any of this. I was reading a film review a few weeks back and the critic, Nathan Rabin, made the very keen observation that stories like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings saga succeed despite their elaborate, epic backstories– not because of them. Backstory can be an amazing, powerful thing if it’s used at the right time and in the right quantities.
If it helps, think of being a writer like being a bodybuilder. One of the skills of being a competitive bodybuilder is to develop all of your muscle groups equally. You can’t ignore your shoulders while you do constant abdominal work, and your legs will suffer if you focus too much on your arms. More to the point, we’ve all seen the people with the unusual physiques who do these unbalanced workouts. The folks whose arms hang away from their bodies or whose shoulders always hunch forward. The ones with no neck. These people developed one muscle group so much it overpowers others and distorts the overall image. They’re phenomenal muscles, don’t get me wrong , and they could probably crush my flimsy writer hands with… well, whatever part of their anatomy you picture we’re talking about… but they fail as bodybuilders because they’ve developed things in the wrong proportion.
If Mr. Berenson the grade school teacher suddenly displays an amazing aptitude for wiping out ninjas and hijackers with nothing but a stapler and his bare hands, it might be worth mentioning he spent seven years in the Special Forces and how he ended up teaching kids the right way to use an apostrophe. However, if the PTA meeting got snowed in and they’re just sitting around waiting for a plow, telling that same story is now just a bit of excess padding.
There is a flipside to this, of course. To stick with the bodybuilder analogy, it’s when the writer doesn’t put in anything and the characters are left looking like anorexics. The readers are left wondering who all these characters are, why this action is happening, and why everyone speaks cryptically about “The Omega.”
Your characters need a backstory, believe me. It has to be there, and you as the writer should know it backward and forward. But that doesn’t mean you need to tell all of that backstory and nuance to the reader. A lot of it’s going to be irrelevant. Some of it you’re going to want to keep shrouded in mystery.
And, yes, some of it you’re going to need to tell.
Next time, it struck me that I’ve been ranting for ages about stuff that goes into stories, but I’ve never really said anything about the stories themselves. So let’s hope the deadline gods are kind to me so I can pontificate about that for a bit.
Until then, go write.