Character Design Writing Advice

vitruvian-manAt almost any given time, a writer can find submission windows for “character driven” works of fiction. And even stories that are plot-driven are almost infinitely better with a good dose of personal development. For some writers, character development is very instinctive. Those folks may get some ideas from this post. However, this advice maybe invaluable to the other variety, who concoct great plots but have trouble creating characters who “stick” with their readers and fail to deliver the emotional power of personal growth and maturity.

Before I begin the blog post, I would preface that this is simply an approach to development. There is no “one size fits all” methodology for design and authors should always be encouraged to try new techniques to prevent stagnation. Think of the advice in this post as a tool, to be used when and where your instincts say it is appropriate.

Pragmatism isn’t without virtue. Use what’s useful, ignore what isn’t, and always strive to do more.

Is a Character’s Personal History Necessary?

One of the most important questions an author should ask themselves when creating a tale is whether or not a character necessarily needs a background, at least at first.

From a franchise focus, character biographies are incredibly valuable. They offer depth and intrigue and can be a source of great stories in and of themselves thanks to something called the Zeigarnik Effect. They also help keep your characters more consistent, which is a must for longer, on-going arcs. Some story-featured video games even go so far as to have backstories constitute large portions (sometimes half) their material, such as Mass Effect 2 and Shadowrun Hong Kong.

Jess-Jones-PosterBackstories can intrigue readers but they often need to feel compelled to curiosity. Why does Professor Snape have it in for Harry Potter? What happened between Cobb and Mal in Inception that kept him from being able to go home to America? And the recent Jessica Jones on Netflix is an excellent example of why it can pay to hide a superhero’s background for a while, as opposed to revealing the origin story immediately.

But if the goal is to write a short story around a totally fresh character, it may actually pay not to flesh out the personal history yet, or at least avoid exploring it in the current yarn. If a stranger tries to give us his/her life’s story at a bar, we’re usually not interested. But if we get to know them for a while, we might be inclined to ask how they became so funny or morose. Where they got that scar or what made them arrive in this town or city.

Likewise, it’s incredibly easy for a character’s history to devour more than its fair share from the precious word count. Tack on a greater plot arc and/or world building elements and it could easily become impossible to tell the story in fewer than 8,000 words.

Finally, it’s possible that the character in question could just stand on his/her own. Sometimes the audience can like a character for no other reason than the fact that they keep their issues to themselves and never become a distraction. Or maybe they have a great personality, or rather are a force of nature in someway. The latter might be called an “Unapologetic Hero.”

A character’s past is, more often than not, worth developing and discussing. But if you’re struggling to fit a 12,000 word tale into two-thirds that size, consider if the person’s history can be saved for exploration later. Or is needed at all– sometimes the mystery is better than the truth!


Homework Assignment: Think back on all the books, movies, games and television you’ve enjoyed. Pick out three to five characters you liked whose backgrounds are never explored. Try to discern why you were so impressed with them.


 

Put Philosophy & History Atop the Design Hierarchy

Philosophy, noun
  1. the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.
  2. any of the three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysical philosophy, that are accepted as composing this study.
  3. a particular system of thought based on such study or investigation
  4. the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, especially with a view to improving or reconstituting them

Admittedly, philosophy is a very large field of study to explain, especially for a blog post. Yet on the flip side, the subject is the source of many plot-driving elements. Politics, morality, personal discovery, ethics and growth, all are subsets of philosophy. When one sees political pundits arguing, they’re usually debating with thought-branches derived from fascinating roots of justification and rationale. Whether or not they express that critical thinking well is another matter…

RorschachDeveloping a philosophy for a character is nothing less than 50% of that person. By creating guiding principles for characters, authors may find that their casts’ actions and reactions are a foregone conclusion. For example, Alan Moore realized the fate of Rorschach many, many issues before the conclusion of Watchmen, but not when first beginning to write the series. 

That is not to say that philosophy is the beginning and end of character design however. Much like the debate as to the origin of fear, philosophy can be constructed from experience, but may also overcome and learn from the past as well. History is very often the other half of a character. Nor is a person’s philosophy necessarily defined from the beginning, rather they may discover things about themselves when confronted with unforeseen situations. Marvel’s Daredevil addressed this very well. Try developing a character both ways; writing the philosophy first and then the history, and then vice versa. Then try it piece by piece.

Studying philosophy is best performed by forcing one to try and discover the rational arguments that maybe counter to one’s personal beliefs. If one is conservative, read more liberal news sources. If one is progressive, seek out counter viewpoints from the opposition’s own outlets. No matter how annoying or disgusting they may initially be, try not to block or mute friends and family whose political views mortify you. Try to learn the basis of their thinking and if nothing else, take a sharp look at history (personal or political) for the answer.

An estimate is better than a complete guess, and both are better than flat, uninspired stereotypes.


Homework Assignment: For fellow writers, take your character(s) and have them undergo a few basic ethics litmus tests, such as whether or not a person deserves less (or any) jail time for stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family. Try to find points of difference between your own views, to gauge whether or not you potentially have a Mary Sue. 


 

Don’t Fear Hypocrites But Call Them Out

“A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.”

–J.P.Morgan

If there was one consistent, perfect philosophy, would it wipe all others out like the correct answer to a math problem? Something proven true beyond the shadow of doubt, an approach to law and morality that everyone instinctively deems fair and reasonable? An approach to thinking that is always unlocking new knowledge and wisdom? A manner of reasoning that is so often “correct” that the philosophy itself is all but factually true?

Obviously, that has never happened. Well, maybe in the fairly utopian Federation of Star Trek, and that worked because the show’s conflict usually revolved around cultural friction between alien relations and galactic emergencies.

BioshockFor the rest of us though, conflicts and hypocrisy abound in both real life and fiction. Hypocrisy, as a thematic element in storytelling, is an awesome source of intrigue. Many readers are strangely sympathetic to characters who do rotten, even heinous acts, provided either they know it’s wrong or figure some justification that leads to understanding of their decision. But it’s also something they cannot stand if improperly executed. 

Dexter is a possible example of this very thing, while more critically acclaimed works include The Scarlet Letter, Andrew Ryan from Bioshock and the self-delusions of the lead characters of AMC’s Breaking Bad.

Strangely enough, even children shows can have surprisingly well performed moral-turns. In the episode “The Ultimate Doom” from the first television series of Transformers, paragon of justice Optimus Prime is convinced by the villainous Megatron to effectively betray the Earth. With their home planet suffering from an energy-famine, Prime feels forced to activate a device that summons Cybertron into our planet’s orbit. The gravity shift causes myriad environmental disasters. (If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because it was reused in the movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon.) For the previous episodes, it was easy to put a fellow like Optimus Prime on a pedestal for his benevolent behavior. But this particular episode was a shocking twist that made complete sense. 

If poorly written however, it can be seen as a kind of violation of the writer’s contract with the reader at best, and a plot hole at worst. No one enjoys betrayal without explanation or at least some justification. Likewise, because hypocrisy can easily be intertwined with a person’s history, dealing with a moral twist effectively can greatly ramp up the needed word count to finish a story, so authors should be advised to factor the added pages when devising a manuscript.


Homework Assignment: What’s the fine line between hypocrisy and a change of opinion or growth? Do your characters answer that question the same way?


 

For Villains, Are They Unapologetic or Justified?

ChigurhVillains. Gods, we love our villains.

There’s a psychological trick at play when it comes to understanding why audiences love a strong villain, possibly because the role itself makes almost anything permissible. We can admire and respect them with sympathy, or we can despise and hate them with the most intense loathing and rancor… and neither is wrong.

Villains can be anything except boring.

As characters, the bad guys are primarily divided into two general categories. The justified types are often heroes of the other side, where the actual role and title of “villain” is debatable. Sometimes, authors deliberately cloud the definitions to let the readers define the heroes from the villains. Heroes on the wrong side of the story if you will. Justified villains may include…

  • Roy Batty, from Blade Runner, who attempted to extend the lifespan for both he and his colleagues, who were effectively genetically engineered slaves who live a mere four years.
  • The Operative, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, in Serenity. Admittedly, the incident that the Operative was trying to cover up was terrible. However, it’s worth pointing out that keeping a lid on it also prevents others from using the same technology for horrific ends.
  • Doctor Octopus of Spider-Man 2. The accident that pushed him over the edge was really just that, an accident. Meanwhile, the work he was doing could have greatly revolutionized energy production.
  • Julie Marsden of Jezebel, whose vanity costs her engagement to Preston Dillard. Her antics were a threat to her former fiance’s marriage and later his life. She does however, somewhat prove her genuine love for him by offering to treat his yellow fever in place of his wife.
  • A few of the major characters of Watchmen, who will not be mentioned as to protect the reader from spoilers.

JoffBut there are also the unapologetic types. True forces of nature, these types are motivated either by forces we may not (and perhaps never will) comprehend, or by understandable but primal forces or desires.

  • The Joker, both in The Dark Knight and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, who was effectively raw chaos and randomness.
  • Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, both the book and movie. It can be said that Chigurh is little more than an avatar of death itself.
  • The shark from Jaws, as it was an animal acting entirely on instincts.
  • Likewise, the xenomorphs from the Aliens franchise, as their predatory instincts were a key factor to their reproduction.
  • Cthulu from the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft.

George RR Martin uses both varieties in A Song of Ice and Fire. For the justified, he divides his readers, causing them to cheer for various contenders for the throne, yet making the choices gray and not without cost, such as Stannis Baratheon or Daenerys Targaryen. Likewise, he uses a slew of entirely despicable types who provide no excuse for their antics, such as Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Snow.


Homework Assignment: Here’s a real tough one. Was John Doe, the villain of Se7en, a justified villain or an unapologetic one? Or was he both?


 

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A Game of Code

So code development can be remarkably like working out.

When you do it, it’s easier to keep going. The practice becomes self-sustaining, enlightening and enjoyable, making you feel better and better about yourself. But just as with exercise, a halt in your efforts can endure. It’s harder and harder to open the IDE (think studio for developing) and get in a few lines of code.

I hate to admit that I was strangely reluctant to start coding this new project. I had discussed it with Manuel and Andrew for a while, and originally envisioned a collectible card game. Because my friends live in the UK, I suggested that doing a demo on Android could make it easier to play test.

But discussion about the m300px-Demomanarket slowly changed our direction. And although we’ve only added the prefix “digital” to the collectible card game title, ipso facto… we are developing a video game.

After agreeing to it, I began to feel reluctance. Coding is exhausting, a mental strenuous practice of researching API (application programming interfaces) possibilities, reading through how-to guides, trial-and-error approaches to problem solving. There can and certainly will be days you drill down the details and exhaust all possibilities on how to solve some issue, only to arrive at frustrating dead-ends because of inexperience.

Today, I finally cracked my inhibitions and began working. Just some easy User Interface (UI) designs, I admit, but not without a few challenges and making me recognize some of the tools and approaches I will be taking to develop the game. Handling the Java-derived functionality is usually easy. And thus far, the User Interface specifications are either in the scope of my experience or just outside of it and won’t take long to crack. However I have entertained the possibilities of moving beyond the “card game” demeanor and embracing… something classic.

Part of this desire was sparked by a recent sale I’ve been conducting on eBay. I am preparing to move to Arlington, Virginia in a week, so I thought to unburden myself of old items that I no longer need. Mundane things, like clothes and unneeded kitchen goods, found their way to the local GoodWill. But books and old Playstation games were placed on sale, some of which selling quite handsomely despite being nigh twenty years of age.

As I didn’t wish to sell damaged and useless goods to my customers, I went ahead and tested my games against my old PlayStation 1. The majority of titles on sale were from SquareSoft, before its merger to Enix. In those days, Square had exceedingly good programmers and designers, their titles enjoyable and fun, a mix of traditional with the new processing power the console offered them. Some say this approach ended with the release of Final Fantasy VIII, when the focus on art and graphics shifted attention from meaningful innovation of core game play.

Recent indie titles, such as The Banner Saga, Risk of Rain and the renovated ShadowRun series, have proven to me that not only is their a market for old-school gaming, but forgotten fun to be had. And yet these titles did not require warehouses of artists either.

Now to be fair, I am aware that there is a good chance this project may never be finished. A few years back, I looked at documentation for Steam Engine projects on their wiki projects page. Many of them had great ideas but didn’t get off the ground either due to lack of technical talent, time or interest. It’s hard to invest it something like this when one is not getting paid. (Not to be cynical, but being a starving artist carries the downside of actually starving.)

Now I will set aside time once a month to discuss this project. A lot of details keep getting shifted around although we have a core idea that we’re sticking with. But we’ll see what happens next.

Being the Change We Need

Something has been bugging me lately.

Coding and technology related work is increasingly where the jobs are. This isn’t going to change, as the “world of tomorrow” has been here since the turn of the century. And as with any other economic shift, it has meant a change in the labor workforce.

One’s career is the true source of one’s independence. Besides the source of income to handle our physical needs, a great career also handles our spiritual concerns. Our need to feel that our efforts matter and we make a sincere difference in the world.

Which is why I’m concerned about the lack of women developers.

Because staring at a wall of text is boring.

Because staring at a wall of text is boring.

Various news sources and media have been talking about the forthcoming drought of women coders in the field.

Why? Depends on who you ask.

The usual narrative has been that it’s a boy’s club. Others are more subtle about it, saying that our culture has been influencing them to stop coding, engineering and sciences.

Personally, I think it’s a load of bunk. For one thing, I suspect that many women have taken a look at what being a developer means and decided that spending the majority of their work hours staring at a computer screen isn’t for them (it does get kind of tiring…) Many women I’ve met in the field have opted for project management, business requirement analysts, team leads and human resource positions. Positions with far more human interaction and critical decisions to be made.

And if someone is going to argue that our culture is responsible for it, I would point out how often developers get stereotyped as “nerds and geeks,” belittled and degraded. Titles that are not exactly savory or chic.

Maybe women took one look at that stereotype and decided they’d rather not earn that label for themselves. So perhaps our culture is responsible, but the fault lies not on gender lines but more in how culture is casting developers as a whole.

I don’t agree with why there’s a lack of women coders. But the fact stands that there is a lack of them. That worries me because society needs more developers. And women can find themselves disadvantaged, their independence threatened, if they don’t figure out how.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to learn.

That’s why, at work, I’m putting together a few boot camps to help teach coworkers from other departments to learn some of the basics and get started with developing in Java and other useful tools, and perhaps set them down a different career path. Guys are very welcome too, but I’ve made a conscientious effort to invite women to join.

I would invite anyone else with a few years development experience to do the same to help remedy this problem in their own circles. If anyone decides to take up this invitation to help me fix this problem, leave me a comment and we’ll touch base to exchange teacher materials.

Thanks for reading, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Shut Up Brain… Wait, Don’t!

When I was younger, I had a problem. Maybe it was Attention Deficit Disorder or the like, but I kept having… ideas for stories and characters. It was bad. I had a friend or two who got frustrated with my bouncing around on our mutual creative opportunities.

As of late, that… energy, that constant inspiration, has returned. A name, a country, a single powerful word can sometimes spark an idea that becomes a character, a subplot, or even the start of an entire novel. I tried to go to bed and ended up staying awake, eyes open as an idea for a short story, a good portion of a fantasy novel and a political/crime thriller novel, in some way about India, danced in my head. No. I don’t mean one of these things, I mean three very, very distinct stories that stand out on their own despite a single, unifying theme. And yes, I do intend to write all three.

But ideas aren’t enough.

Growing up, we constantly heard this… heh. I’m sorry. This lie that a “single idea can change the world.” I’m sorry. I know better. I’m older and freshly aware how it’s not just inspiration that gets work published but solid work. Research times three times writing and sticking to it. Followed by proofing, editing and being prepared to rewrite entire swaths of work, if not the entire piece. That last point has certainly happened before and will happen again.

My fear as of late has been two fold.

The first is that the inspiration will go away. Nothing is worse than seeing the golden goose fly away of its own accord, but sometimes that happens. I know it will happen again, be driven off and return in time. While I wouldn’t call these periods without the inspiration writer’s block, it is easier with inspiration than without.

The second, and what I fear far more, is that I get bored of something. That is the worst. If I’m bored writing, then something is very wrong. And that something is going to be reflected in the writing itself. Boredom is the very antithesis of writing because if you’re bored writing it, then it will be boring to read. Which begs the question of whether it was worth writing at all.

And I’ve certainly felt that before. If it’s just a short story then there’s no harm. In the long wrong, a short story isn’t that big a deal. To have boredom strike in the middle of a one-off novel is not good, especially if there has been quite a bit of work invested in it, but I can deal with it so long as it’s not on contract.

But what if boredom strikes in the middle of a novel series?

Now that scares me. I’ve written my first novella and I’ve been drawing out the work for the sequel. And although I feel confident that the sequel will have plenty of interesting aspects going on for it, what if there finally reaches a point in writing a sequel that I get bored?

Hell, who even likes to do sequels unless it’s a story that finally gets at something one wanted to write or do in the first place? How many boring origin stories led to outstanding sequels about what we really wanted to see? But what if it goes on? What could dry one’s interest out like writing about the same characters and dealing with the unresolved plot details that I’ve held off on.

I suppose that’s something I’ll worry about when it gets to that point. But I’ve been bored before. And I have to make a promise to myself not to let my writing sag or try ridiculous, unrealistic twists just to keep in new or fresh. If I just can’t take a character or aspect further, perhaps it’s time to give it out. Keep the original stories and let others play with that intellectual property.

Sometimes, the greatest tales have come not from the people who originally invented a universe or character, but from the people who came after, took the idea like a rugby ball and ran with it.

If I ever forget, remind me.