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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Morally Nihilist (part I)

An agent of chaos.

Yesterday, I was having a debate with a few people about the concept of morality. It’s amazing how a debate about politics can quickly descend into ad hominem attacks and sny, subtle insults, but philosophy and moralty can be discussed with a rational calmness that I find enlightening.

During the conversation, I clarified my morally absolutist position against a more relative position. But the intrigue came from user ‘Mossy Toes’ whose claimed to support relativism but whose arguments sounded more in line to nihilism. I ended my point teasing, “Easy there, Joker.”
 
“Why so serious?” Mossy replied back. I turned down his offer to discuss it on the debate lounge for the time being. But I gave the manner some thought throughout the night and in the morning. Moral nihilism is difficult to discern. A kind of catch-22 of reason that is tricky to define or at least prove.
 
Why is nihilism so tricky? When you deny the concept of morality in general, there is still a cold assertion of logic that can serve as a basis of morality. Mossy Toe’s view was built around the biological juxtaposition of humans as animals, which is true. He cited a few examples of moral absolutism being undone by circumstances which challenge such values and find its believers wanting, such as a starving civilization finding the sacrifice of its children as noble, or even a moral duty.
 
You may live in the jungle and adhere to no “delusions of morality” as Ian Holm‘s character put it in the movie Alien. But that still creates a fundamental paradox, an acceptance of the survival of the fittest. Hence you have that ah ha moment, where in denying morality, you inherently accept a much simpler code of it instead.
 
As I considered that, I found myself thinking about the man who has been on everyone’s mind since 2008. Heath Ledger‘s version of the Joker was a triumph of moral nihilistic thinking, at least in his ability to challenge everyone else’s moral standings.
 
That was his raison d’être.
 
For anyone who has seen the film, which drew inspiration from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Joker’s real goal was to render away everyone’s morality. His approach was simply to create the extreme circumstances of which test our sense of what is right or wrong. Kill this man or he’ll blow up a hospital. Blow up the other boat and he’ll let you live. Take off your mask or he’ll kill someone.
 
Perhaps the Joker did bow to the “survival of the fittest” concept, but his application of nihilism was to scrub away the veneer of morality that people apply to maintain some order in their lives.
 
Moral relativists can be harder to break for that reason: They would often have an easier time accepting that the circumstances were dire and justify normally abhorrent actions. What works, works, as pragmatists would say. But sooner or later, they will get backed into a corner where they find, at the base of the flexible set of acceptable standards, a morally absolute bedrock that they will not cross. The line in the sand.
 
I would imagine that most, though not all, moral absolutists are like eggs. They might have some loftier views of ethics, but in the face of a moral test, they crack quickly. And are left with a hypocrite’s shame of being unable to live up to their own expectations.
 
But then there are those moral absolutists who hold on. Batman, with the exception of when he almost turned himself in, could be described as morally absolute. The kind of grounds we usually think of when we devise heroes and protagonists. We often mock people who publically declare their values, because we’re so used to being let down. It takes action, not words, to define one’s position. Conviction must be proven.
 
I’ve often found that people tend to have the highest respect for moral absolutism whenever we can legitimately hold onto it. When we don’t bow to the pressure compromise with our integrity.
 
And that, of course, is the hard part.