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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If you fear plot spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, and yes there is quite a plot to spoil, begone.

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Life Story? Meh

"He is NOT Judge Judy and Executioner!" -Nick Frost

“He is NOT Judge Judy and Executioner!” -Nick Frost

Are origin stories necessary?

A number of critics have been asking this question after the recent movie, The Amazing Spider-Man. I absolutely appreciate how much different this origin story was from the last. But there were still the tedious elements they felt they had to addressed. 

I’m going to skip the long debate and reach for the nuclear device. Episodes I thru III of the Star Wars trilogy. It’s true. Pretty much the first three movies revolve around the origin of the Empire (which was interesting) and the origin of Darth Vader. And while the third movie was a bit redemptive, it was still not a pleasing experience.

Origin stories often followed a similar pattern: A tragic incident, usually involving one’s parents, “drives the hero to good”. It’s been done with Spider-Man, Daredevil, a bit of it was touched upon in Hulk. As much as I love his work, it was reused in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

It’s also kind of why the origin of Iron Man was so mentionable different than most. Forget the cliched “reason for being a super hero”, Stark had his reason when someone stuck a gun in his face and put shrapnel in his heart. When one becomes a victim of their own carelessness, a dawning sense of responsibility can sometimes take over. Both Iron Man movies were more about Stark cleaning up the results, both indirect and not, of his actions.

Why am I bringing this up? Probably because of the upcoming Dredd movie, a reboot of the terrible Judge Dredd from 1995. According to many critics who have already viewed it, the movie is not an origin story. And so far, their reviews have been pretty good. Another example to chew on is The Dark Knight. Not only did we know nothing of the Joker’s origin, but we were likely fed lies.

You mean, you can make a great comicbook movie without addressing where the hero came from? This concept can be explained through a very simple analogy. Imagine if a stranger came up to you and introduced themself with, “Hello! I’m John Smith.”

Chances are, you’ll forget his name in no time.

Now suppose you see the guy do something more interesting before he introduces himself. Say, he stops a mugger from stealing a lady’s purse. Or he does something impossible, like web slinging his way across the city or turning into a giant green monsters. All of a sudden, the whole question of “Who is this guy?” is way more interesting.

Trust me. Strike up a conversation with a stranger, but don’t tell them your name. If you hit it off, then they’ll be way more interested in knowing who you are.

That’s why there’s a strange, lasting appeal about Judge Dredd. In the comics, he never takes his helmet off, maintaining a mystique about him. They broke that rule in 1995 with Stallone and that didn’t work well for them. But my understanding is that they DON’T break that rule with this upcoming movie.

Imagine that! A movie where you never see the hero’s face. Ever. I have to give Karl Urban kudos for his willingness to stay true to the character. I’d also imagine that, if Peter Jackson ever got the green light for the Halo movie, there would have been Hollywood executives pressuring him to have the Master Chief remove his helmet.  

“The hero needs to be sexy!” Some of these guys claim. It’s high time we start asking, “Why? Why do we always need origin stories? Why does the hero have to be sexy?”

And after decades of story writing, comics and development, I’d say time and history are on our side. Maybe it’s time to challenge the status quo a bit. Maybe they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

I’ll be seeing The Dark Knight Rises tomorrow… looking incredibly forward to it.

Origins, Origins…

So I just watched the first (and thus far only released) episode of Awake. The premise is simple if a bit strange; a detective, his wife and his son were involved in a car accident. The detective then isn’t sure if he’s awake or dreaming, when he goes to sleep, he visits two worlds. In one, his son survived but his wife didn’t. In the other, vice versa. And somehow, the details of his cases in one world reflect the other, despite the fact that (thus far) the crimes are different, but committed by the same person.

After finishing the episode, the sneak peek of the next episode immediately brings up hints about how and why this detective, played by Jason Isaacs, is experiencing these two alternate worlds. Desperate to keep their baby alive, the show’s producers put the detective’s son on the line in the next episode, hoping that a snap of drama and the possibility of finding out the origin of this psychological phenomenon will keep audiences hooked.

In the next episode, stuff might happen. But does it? Stay tuned...

In the next episode, stuff might happen. But does it? Stay tuned...

I have to say that this kind of bugs me. For some reason, it feels like American audiences (or at least our television and movie producers) have an obsessive need to clarify the origins of everything unusual. While the origins of a problem need to be clarified in order to diagnose the solution (as House would be quick to remind us), does every situation or every character need a completely fleshed out background story?

Why?

To understand the nature of my complaint, take a look at the past three Conan the Barbarian movies. In the first with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the rebooted third with Jason Momoa, the developers felt they needed to explain Conan’s childhood and origins.

What makes this strange is that Robert E. Howard never actually clarified Conan’s origins. The only crucial detail* Howard ever gave was that his father was a blacksmith, and that Conan had a wandering foot. The two origin stories where Conan was taken by slavers and the other where his father was slain by a power hungry madman were never part of the original Conan tales.

I remember reading (though I can’t recall where, probably IGN) about the new and rebooted Spider Man movie coming out. The author suggested that Marvel skip the whole origins story. I couldn’t agree more. It’s been done, we get it, we don’t need to hear it again. Not only do I recall it from the first movie, I have seen it retold in no less than two animated series.

Do heroes and villains always need origin stories? Heather Ledger’s Joker didn’t in The Dark Knight. Look how unforgettable he was.

I guess I ask all this because of my own writing. I would say about two thirds of my tales have addressed origin tales for both heroes and villains. Yes, even villains who die off at the end of the story get origins and reasoning, an explanation for their dastardly deeds. They hurt people because it is worth their time too. And probably because they enjoy it.

I guess it worries me because one of the heroes of my stories does not get a background. There is a story of course, about all the other supporting characters and the villain but not for the hero himself. Or perhaps I’m going about this wrong. Maybe he isn’t the hero, but an element that just happened to be there to help the main characters. Man, am I glad the story is only in draft form.

* – There are details I missed/forgot in my first draft, but Howard did keep Conan’s origins fairly vague. Thanks to Al Harron for this tip and correction.

In the Beginning…

Chain swords cure everything.

Chain swords cure everything.

Started a new blog. I considered using Rots Your Brain for my writings as well, but I defined the scope of that as being for movies and television. To change its focus would be undesirable given its focus for mainstream appeal. Warhammer 40k isn’t mainstream, at least not yet… the attention that Space Marine is getting could really begin to change all that. Still, I hope the attention doesn’t go to the creator’s heads. It’s the hardcore fan base who will always be loyal, long after the more fickle fans have gotten over whatever caused the surge in popularity in the first place.

Anyway, I started this blog to keep my writing flowing. Many of the other Boltholers do the same, Pyro, Narry, Shadowhawk. But I need a spot where I can vent to myself the musings of the day, random thoughts and reactions to developing events within and about the 40k universe.

Recently, the submissions window closed after I had pitched three short stories and a novel submission. Of them, I’d say two of the short stories are decent. The last short story was surprisingly intensive, and I honestly have doubts that I could fit the full context of the story in less than 8,000 words. But then again, I think about what The Dark Knight was like or Memento, and recognize that there is a lot of story going on there as well (I am also biased as a huge Christopher Nolan fan). Then again, so did Spider Man 3. Still, I would venture to say that it is better to have too much story than too little, because no one would want to read a snooze fest.

Almost immediately after the contest ended, I went on a reading binge. I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and posted a comparison of it against Gav Thorpe’s The Last Chancers. I completed reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DeFoe (not to be confused with William).  I slayed Zombieslayer by Nathan Long and am working my way through Nemesis by James Swallow. I’m trying to mix up my fiction with non-fiction, and also mix some more classic reading on top of that. Part of me is trying to avoid becoming an easily satisfied reader, when simply finishing a book automatically makes it worth reading in my opinion. That’s not always the case. Not every book is amazing, and adding another notch to my book shelf is nothing to be proud of.

My hero.

My hero. ❤

But reading the classics like Robinson Crusoe and A Clockwork Orange has the benefit of allowing me to identify and craft stronger themes into my work. It’s… easy to get lost and simply write what some call “warnography”, when the writing is produced simply to satisfy a person’s craving for action. An excellent story should do that and much more. Still, I suppose as long as the reader is entertained, the job is done.

Who inspires me? In the Black Library crew, my favorite authors are Nathan Long, Gav Thorpe and C.L. Werner. What’s amusing is that these three have veered more towards the Warhammer Fantasy than the 40k universe, but Nathan Long’s plot crafting skills are second to none. CL Werner’s enthusiasm for Robert Howard draws me to him every time. And Gav Thorpe’s story telling… The Last Chancers remains my favorite work in the Black Library despite how old it is. Outside of the Black Library, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky influence what I want to see. George Orwell, William H. Keith Jr and Robert Howard the other works.

I like to think that reading non-fiction can improve your fiction. When you understand the functions of political-economic structures, I feel you can construct more elaborate worlds within the 40k universe. Dan Abnett does so beautifully when he devises the structure of a hive-city’s political scene. It’s a talent that makes the world more complete, more realistic than the predictable black and white, evil vs good concepts that have little more to offer than the physical struggle against the other half.

Besides, it’s not like there’s any side I would call “good” in the 40k universe. To quote Darth Helmet, “So, Lone Star, now you see that evil will always triumph because good… is dumb. “