Looking at Character

Looking at Character: He, She, or People? Characterization and Gender Identification

Hey there folks!

As I wait for the Amazon and Smashwords engines to chug forward in publishing my latest book, it would be a good time to get back in the swing of things and get a new Looking at Character article out.  This is one I’d been meaning to do for weeks now, inspired by some strangely coincidental input I’d received from multiple sources, all within a day or two of each other.  Let’s talk about characterization in light of gender, which is a way of asking ‘Is gender an elemental part of characterization?’

Maybe I should explain better.  Some people believe that a character should be identifiable as a gender simply through characterization.  A woman, for instance, should be recognizable as such without direct gender tags simply by how her actions and personality.  Others believe that this isn’t necessarily the case.  While a character might have identifiable gender traits outside of direct description, it isn’t always the case, the argument being that people are, at their core, people regardless of gender.  One could even expand these two opposing arguments to include ethnicity, sexuality, and other ‘intrinsic’ characteristics.

Which is right and which is wrong?

Gender politics aside (one could make a very strong case that the ‘gender is a base personality trait’ is sexist to both genders), I think the best approach to finding the answer is to talk to people.  Ask a man if he thinks that being a ‘man’ is more important than being a ‘human’ and the same with women.  I can tell you what I have discovered from asking everyone I know over the past few weeks.

No one wants to be stereotyped by their gender.  Well, most people don’t, at any rate.  Most people believe that who they are, their personality, is more important to their identity than their gender.  If that’s the case, why treat the characters in your writing any differently?

Obviously, there WILL be times when gender is important to plot and characterization.  There are gender issues, political, social, and physical, that can play a role in things and, yes, sometimes even be vital to a character’s overall personality.  However, these are not the norm and shouldn’t form a baseline of personality traits to add on to.  A person is a person first, then a man or woman.

I can’t claim to be an authority on this.  However, from both my writing instinct and my moral compass, treating a man or a woman as a person is simply the right way to characterize them.

This might be a divisive topic but I would also love to hear other takes on this.  Whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your comments as long as you keep your tone and arguments civil and rational.

Until I can make an official post on my book publication or the next Starving Review, good luck and good writing!

Looking at Character: Bring on the Bad Guys!

Being a writer isn’t easy.  The biggest obstacle to writing something people accept as ‘good’ is, well, the readers themselves.  Everything is subjective to that audience and they are the ones you need to get to invest in the world, the characters and the story you have to tell.  That means we, as authors, can’t skimp on any part of creation because any lapses could trigger an onset of disengagement that will make the readers turn away.  Which leads, meanderingly, to today’s Looking at Character article, which is devoted to the bad guys, the antagonists, in literature, more specifically in making your villains something the reader will want to invest in.

Much like your protagonists, your antagonists need to have a ‘real person’ at their core, at least in most cases.  They need to have understandable motivations for doing what they are doing.  If you don’t bother with providing your bad guys with reasons for doing what they are doing, they become something more akin to a hurricane or thunderstorm, threatening but impersonal.  The reason to use actual people as villains is to explored that characterization so you better bother to actually do it!

Closely related to this ‘why’ of the antagonists, you should closely consider the ‘who’.  Who are they?  What are their origins?  What are their capabilities?  What do they look like?  These are all components of the greater ‘who’ of the antagonists and is their core characterization, something vital to all your major characters and important to the minor ones as well.  It’s all about building a realness, something the readers can understand, even if the antagonists themselves are inhuman.

Once you’ve put some thought into the ‘why’ and ‘who’ of your antagonists, it may be smart to consider the ‘how’.  How do the antagonists fit into and help move the plot along?  How are your antagonists threatening to the protagonists?  How can they be overcome?  These, and others, are vital questions to consider, as the lack of an answer to any of them can cause you to paint yourself into a corner in your writing.

If you don’t know exactly how the antagonists move the plot forward, they may feel ‘tacked on’ to the actual story.  If you don’t know how they threaten the protagonists, they will be seen as ineffectual at worst or nebulous at best.  If you don’t know how they can be overcome, any victory you write for the protagonists will seem like sudden or cheap, as you haven’t established the means to that victory before hand.  All of these things press hard against the suspension of disbelief and threaten to break it and, as we all know, once that is broken, the entire story tends to collapse.

Really, this is a topic that could be an entire book in and of itself.  Still, I hope that this basic look at the creation of good antagonists will be a big help to all of your writers out there.  If you want to add more do’s and don’t’s, add them in the comments!

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Looking at Character: It Takes More Than a White Hat – The Heel/Face Turn

Hey folks!  Yes, it’s been a few days and I’m usually stickler for daily posts but the Muse has struck hard for the finale of Incorruptible.  Still, I have broken away from writing and taking care of myself to get a new edition of Looking at Character out for you loyal readers.  In today’s article, we’re going to look at something that comes up from time to time in writing, especially when writing dynamic characters in a piece, and that is the Heel/Face Turn (or it’s evil twin, the Face/Heel Turn).  To explain, the terminology comes from the professional wrestling world, where ‘Heels’ are villains and ‘Faces’ are the heroes.  A ‘turn’ can then be inferred, correctly, as a change in status.  The Turn is when a protagonist becomes an antagonist or an antagonist becomes a protagonist.

The thing that is vital about wanting to incorporate such a shift in a major or minor character is to remember to properly characterize such a big shift in a character’s motivation and (often) morality.  In all things, the characterization that you provide as the writer is king.  Sure, you can make a character’s attitudes flip like a coin with no explanation, but you risk breaking (say it with me, everyone) suspension of disbelief when you do so.  Once you lose that, well, you lose the war and you lose the reader.

So, with that in mind, how can you make a villain a hero realistically?  Well, it’s easier than you might think.  If you’ve already been trying to create fully realized characters with relatable personalities, you probably have all the tools you need.  However they act, be it antagonist or protagonist, you’ve given them motivation and reasons to do so.  All it often takes is for that motivation or reason to be altered or to change in the course of the story.  It might be even easier, depending on those motivations, if all it takes is for some important fact to come to light to alter the perceptions of the character in question.

Let’s take a very basic case.  The noble bandit (like a Robin Hood type) is the protagonist and one of his antagonists is the chief of police.  His/her motivation for opposing the bandit is his/her dedication to the law.  Simple.  What if the noble bandit is fighting a hidden corruption by being an outlaw?  Again, pretty classic Robin Hood.  If, in the course of the tale, the chief of police is opened to the corruption hiding in the midst of things, you could logically write a Heel/Face Turn for him/her, drawing on the motivation of dedication to the law causing him/her to join forces with the noble bandit to clean out the corruption.

Basically, it’s as a simple as going ‘Does this make sense in regards to the character, their motivations, and the actions depicted in the story?’.  If the answer is yes, go with it.  If the answer is no, you need to drop the idea or look at why it doesn’t work to fix the story elements to continue with the Turn.  That question, by the way, is probably the best litmus test to use for many decisions about what to do with characters in general.

So, if you want good guys to be bad guys or bad guys to grab a white hat, make sure you have relatable fleshed-out characters so that their choices are understandable, then make sure to properly show the process and the choices that the character makes for their Turn.  I hope that helped and, until next time, good luck and good writing!

Looking at Character: Everyone Can Be A Hero!

I wanted to step away from some of the more politically and emotionally charged articles and reblogs I’ve been doing lately, vital as they are, to touch on some lighter writing topics.  With that in mind, in today’s Looking at Character, we are going to examine the ups and downs of a favorite character archetype: the Everyman Hero.  Few kinds of protagonists can score higher in the reader relatability department than the Everyman, because at the heart of it, he/she is a normal citizen, just like most of us.

That very fact makes the Everyman Hero both easy and hard to write for.  Obviously, most authors know very much what it is like to be an everyday person so there are fewer chances to make mistakes at the base character level.  You know what a normal person is capable of, you have an idea of just how varied their background and personality can be, and you have a good idea of how they might react when faced with unusual situations.  It sounds like an ease to add to your story.

The thing is, all of those things can also lead to complications.  Especially if your story deals with fantastic elements, you may have difficulty coming up with realistic reasons for the Everyman Hero to be involved in the larger plot or to justify his/her ability to not to participate in the plot, but to even survive it.  This can tie into the overall need for character agency in our protagonists and the possibility of the Everyman Hero to mutate into the Load, something that can be very jarring when said of a major protagonist.  It could also lead to issues of straining the suspension of disbelief (‘How did that toll booth worker fight off two werewolves with a roll of silver dollars?  She should be torn to pieces!’) when you have the Everyman Hero triumph in situations that would stymie even an archetypical action hero.

These aren’t impossible problems to overcome.  The most obvious means to deal with this is to make the Everyman status a beginning point and allow the protagonist to progress along and grow as strange things happen around them, getting by first by luck and talent and eventually becoming something greater than how he/she started.  A more subtle approach is to simply remain thoughtful and open-minded as you approach strange situations involving the character.  Everyman doesn’t mean dumb and everyman doesn’t mean incompetent.  All it means is the character is relatively ‘normal’.  Human beings are capable of some pretty impressive feats, so an Everyman Hero can do the same things when needed.

However you want to work it in, the Everyman Hero can be an excellent character type to use in a variety of situations, most especially if you need a highly relatable character to provide your readers a viewpoint into an otherwise arcane or complicated setting or plot.

If you have any suggestions, ideas, or critiques, feel free to put them in the comments below!

Looking at Character: Punching Out Cardboard Characters

In today’s Looking at Character, I thought it would be fun to think about how we writers handle minor and secondary characters.  Even if you have a large troupe of main characters to work with, it is quite likely you’ll still have to include an assortment of minor characters to flesh out the world you are writing about.  With so much already on a writer’s plate, it’s rather tempting to deal with all of these background characters as, well, background.

Now, here’s the thing: you can do this to some degree and it won’t hurt your writing.  The truth is that, for the most part, people often only notice the majority of the masses around them as a general mass, only picking out general information about them.  So, yes, in a large metropolis or crowded arena, you can get away with general brushstrokes about those background characters.  The problem can come into play with a minor character when they are called to have more than a bit part in your story, especially when called into a ‘speaking role’, interacting with your main characters.

Obviously, you can’t make these secondary characters as featureless as your background characters.  Unfortunately, quite commonly, the author simply ‘punches them out’ of the background and presents them in an equally flat manner: the archetypical Cardboard Character.  Their personality, if it’s distinguishable at all, is usually a one note emotion or, often as not, their job or role, like ‘cop’ or ‘innkeeper’.  These Cardboard cutouts are little more than semi-sentient tools to attempt to breathe life to the world outside of the main characters.

This usually goes wrong quickly, even faster if a Cardboard Character is more than a one-note or one-scene wonder.  The reality is that such blatant lifeless stereotypes don’t exist in the real world.  Real people, from the lowest beggar to the most powerful corporate executive, are complex creatures, with various needs, fears, and other personality traits.  Do all of these need to come out with a minor character?  No, of course not, but some of them should.  Even a few little traits can add a lot of life to an otherwise Cardboard Character and also let you, the author, have some influence on how the reader looks at that minor character, making them more memorable than they would be.

Let’s not even consider the possibilities that fleshing out a few minor characters can have for your plot and main characterizations.  Let’s face it: you can ‘show’ much more about your characters, your world, and your plot when your main characters can interact with characters that have depth, even if it’s not the full depth of a main character?  It can open up wonders for your stories.

So remember, when you want to punch out some more Cardboard Characters for your plot, take some time to at least give them some extra dimensions and a fresh coat of paint.  The deeper they are, the better your stories will be.  If you have any comments, questions, or insights, feel free to add them below!

Plot and Motivation: Keeping Pace

As you may have noticed, I’ve opened up a review section for indie authors like myself and completed my first review for that.  It was during my read of Rule-Set  that certain thoughts about the pacing of books came to me and, after a day or two of crystallization, it has become the topic of today’s Plot and Motivation article.  The realization I came to, which I suppose I’ve always known, is that pacing is not necessarily tied to or proportional to the degree of action in a piece.

Certainly, it is easiest to grasp the idea of the pace of the novel being connected solely to the action within it.  The rub is that not all conflict and not all dramatic tension is tied to the standard realm of physical action and danger.  The most obvious way to see this in action is in any good mystery.  A well-written mystery’s pacing isn’t driven by physical action so much as intellectual action.  The dramatic tension isn’t caused by physical conflict; it’s caused by the conflict of investigator vs. criminal with one side trying to unravel the clues as the other tries to further obfuscate their trail.

So the rising action, climax, and denouement of a mystery shouldn’t be tracked by physical thrills, but by the progression of the mystery.  Yes, physical action may be part of that, but it’s primarily that intellectual conflict that determines the pacing as tracked by the plot arc.   Naturally, this principle can and should be applied to other non-action works.  A romantic drama builds its arc on the emotional conflicts surrounding the romance.  A political thriller may involve some action but, again, its story arc is built on the intellectual and political conflicts, not on raw physical conflict.

This, again, may seem obvious to some but it can get lost sometimes during writing.  An action/adventure writer may become so focused on the physical action that he forgets he can keep his pacing on track with the occasional character-building emotional scene, for example.  In fact, it could be argued that introducing plot-advancing elements outside of the ‘core’ conflict can greatly improve the pacing of your plots and provide much appreciated variety in a long work.

The important rule of thumb when plotting an arc and setting your pacing is that every scene be relevant.  If a scene, no matter how well-written it is, doesn’t advance the plot or establish characterization (preferably both), it is a burden on the pace of your plot.  The more of these filler scenes you add, the worse it becomes until it simply becomes unreadable.  The reader will eventually be frustrated and give up after so many scenes where the plot doesn’t move.

So keep your scenes relevant and your mind open to every source of drama and conflict!  If you have an insights, comments, or questions, leave them in the comments below.

Looking at Character: Tackling Dark Matters

Tragedy and hardship are often important ingredients in the brewing of drama, conflict, and characterization.  Sometimes, it’s caused by the nature of the story’s conflict.  Sometimes, it’s an element of a character’s backstory that is revisited during their character arc.   Even in a genre or story where such things aren’t front and center, few if any people (and that means characters) go through life without experienced some kind of personality-affecting trauma, even if it’s a small and relatively inconsequential affair.

Obviously, then, we writers should learn and understand how to tackle such topics.  There are a lot of dark events that can shadow a person’s life: the deaths of loved ones, chronic illness, natural disasters, warfare, slavery, serious injury, sexual crimes, and so on.  When we introduce such things into our stories, it becomes imperative that we not only handle these things in a realistic fashion, but also in one that shows a social conscience towards readers who may have dealt with these same issues.

That isn’t to suggest that these subjects shouldn’t be tackled or that they should be glossed over to prevent triggering old wounds.  What I mean to suggest is that tragedies and horrors that crossover into the real world need to be handled with all due respect and even then with caution.  In fact, glossing over a traumatic incident in your works is probably more insulting than harming to your potential readers.  It suggests that you believe such a horrible thing should simply be pushed away and not properly explored and, be inference, that the pain of the readers who have suffered from that thing should likewise be glossed over.

Don’t even include trauma if you don’t want to explore it and treat it properly.  Don’t throw in extraneous traumatic events to a character’s backstory and never explore the meanings and repercussions of those traumas.  Giving a character a tragic history to simply drum up reader sympathy without dealing with it is a poor poor choice and will, again, insult more readers than it will possibly endear.

In the end, when you consider including such dark matters into your plots and characters, always remember that we have a social responsibility as writers and creators of media.  What we do influences others.  Always keep that in mind and remember, always do your research!

Looking at Character: You’ve Been Designated, Hero!

After recovering from the horrible experience of trying to do a coordinated midnight release (which I will talk about in another blog post), it’s time to get back on track with what most people like to see here: talking about writing!  So, for today’s Looking at Character, we’re going to look at something that can either be a serious problem or a bit of clever writing: Designated Heroes and Villains (referred to for the rest of this piece as DHVs to spare my fingers).  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, DHVs are protagonists or antagonists that share few, if any, of the classic characteristics of their classification in the story, but is treated by the story and most of the other characters in it as the opposite of their actions.

For example, a DHV that is the ‘hero’ of the piece may commit multiple crimes, act like a complete jerk to his friends, and have several ‘kick the dog’ moments, but for some strange reason, his actions are heralded as heroic and his ‘victories’ are celebrated by the masses in the world of the book.  Simply flip the script for how a DHV that is an antagonist is portrayed: no matter how moral his/her actions and how much good he seems to do, the world treats him as the villain.  On top of that, in both cases, it is obvious that the author intends the reader to feel the same way.

On the surface, this looks to be just a case of very bad writing.  In some cases, it *is* just that: the DHV may be the result of a lazy writer who doesn’t want to actually portray his hero or villain as such or the author has a significantly different moral viewpoint than his readership, leading to a significant case of moral dissonance.  However, that isn’t always the case.

A good way to use the DHV can be to highlight characterization.  For instance, the ‘hero’ above may be celebrated early on because he/she hides his/her misdeeds behind good press or some legend or prophecy.  However, over the course of the piece, he/she begins to realize how horrible of a person they are and begins to rise to the expectations people place before them.   The ‘villain’ may likewise be obscured by societal expectations/bad reputation/etc. and over the course of the piece overcoming those barriers leads to an inversion of the book’s initial protagonist and antagonist.  In such a way, you can use these constructs for good dramatic and characterization effect.

Another possible way to use the DHV in an interesting fashion is in comedy and parody pieces, especially in deconstructions of older tales and themes that rely on DHVs.  I’m not a comedic writer myself, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I have seen such deconstructions and parodies be very funny and is a worthwhile use of the character construct.

So, when you write your protagonists and antagonists, make sure the consequences of their actions fits their deeds or at least be ready to explain why that isn’t the case, or you might wind up with a pack of characters designated into their roles.  If you aren’t going for comedy, you might find that your readers feel such a dissonance with the situation that they put don’t your book and don’t come back.  At the same time, don’t shy away from using DHVs if you utilize one of the dramatic or comedic structures to make them into truly interesting characters.

Feel free to comment and discuss below!

Looking at Character: Storytime with Mary and Gary!

It was inevitable that this topic would come up, as it’s one of the most common topics when it comes to characters and plot out there.  Yes, it’s time to look at Mary Sue and her Spear Counterpart, Gary Stu.  So much has been said that I don’t feel it’s necessary to recount all the details as I normally would.  I could go over all the common Mary Sue and Gary Stu markers, all the usual tell-tale signs you can find all over the internet.  Even better, I could put together yet another Mary Sue litmus test so that you can wind up doubting your characters and writing.  Instead, I’m going to go into the true problem with the ‘Mary’s and ‘Gary’s and how it extends past a simple list of characteristics.

I myself generally just read the lists and listened to the tests myself until, a few days ago, I would up reading some more in-depth analysis of the Mary/Gary character on a couple of sites that got me thinking more analytically about it.  All of that led me to this important conclusion:  A Mary Sue or Gary Stu isn’t one by their common characteristics (though those may contribute).  The real determination of what is or is not a Mary Sue or Gary Stu revolved around their effect and place in the plot of the piece.

By dint of their very existence, a Mary Sue or Gary Stu warps the plot and turns all (or a majority) of the events in a plot line to be about themselves.  The description of the character, no matter the unusual characteristics, ‘kewl’ powers, purple prose details, or exotic and tragic background, has little effect on this, other than to provide obvious markers.  The most insidious and damaging Sues/Stus are the ones that have the serial numbers filed off, so to speak, leaving the reader in an even greater sense of dismay as the totally normal and average person becomes the pivot of an entire literary world’s plot lines.

Take, for example, a perennial writing critic punching bag, the Twilight series.  I’ve actually read it, so … yeah … this isn’t coming from a misinformed viewpoint.  The main character, Bella Swan, is a Mary Sue …. really she is!  But not because of looks or talent or skills.  In fact, she has plenty of informed flaws: clumsy, supposedly plain, that sort of thing.  However, despite her ‘flaws’ and ‘normal’ stature, everything in the plot revolves around her.  She attracts admirers by the handful (including normal boys before Edward sees her), all major action turns around her, entire conflicts are fought over her, and she becomes the pivotal piece later on.  On top of that, she is revealed to have unique properties, becomes a better vampire than most every other vampire almost overnight once she’s turned, and has the unique child that becomes the plot point of the third book.  No matter how normal or plain or clumsy or average she is depicted to be, in the end, Bella becomes the center of that literary universe and nothing of import happens unless it involves her or targets her.

Now, you could argue that is the case in most pieces that center on one main character.  To a degree, you may be right:  Obviously much of a book may pivot around a single main character.  However, a non-Sue/Stu lead will not have EVERY thing in the plot be all about her/him.  Other characters retain agency and make decisions and events can alter the plot that have nothing to do with the main character.  It is keeping that sense of universal free will and character agency that truly differentiates a piece with a strong lead character versus a piece with a Sue/Stu lead character.

A final good indicator of Sue/Stuness that lies outside of character traits is a study of the character’s arc.  Does the character in question follow an identifiable characterization arc during the piece?  Do they change, grow, or regress in reaction to the events of the plot and their choices in it?  If there is a real character arc and the character changes over the course of it, the character is likely a fine one.  It is the Sues and Stus that are most often immutable.  After all, why should they change when they are, or are thought of by their authors, as in the right, or perfect, or infallible, whatever superlative you wish to use?

So, to me at least, what makes a character into a Mary Sue/Gary Stu is, in the end, their toxicity to the plot and the piece over all.  Understanding this can let you create a unique character, perhaps one very exotic for the setting of your piece, but still dodge the Mary Sue pitfalls and make that character a special and intriguing one.  Remember, you don’t have to be totally mundane to avoid Sue/Studom!

Looking at Character: Punchclock Villains a.k.a It’s Just a Job, Nothing Personal

I thought it was time once again to get back to Looking at Character and correct a deficiency in these articles so far:  lack of antagonist analysis.  We’ve talked about heroes of various permutations, but not one look at the other side of the conflict fence.  For today, then, I decided to bring up one of the most relatable villain archetypes, the Punchclock Villain.

For the Punchclock Villain, whatever morally questionable actions they perform are just part of their job.  They aren’t into crime, murder, theft, smuggling, or whatever other activities they do for personal reasons, political motivation, or mental imbalance … the Punchclock Villain is just collecting a paycheck.  Outside of work, even inside it, the Villain might be polite, professional, and seemingly a decent sort, but that won’t usually prevent him/her from completing the dirty deeds that his/her job requires.

It’s this basic dichotomy of ‘decent person’ vs. ‘villainous scum’ that makes the Punchclock Villain both refreshing and relatable as an antagonist (or even a protagonist, depending on the tale).  After all, we all have to work to make our livings and often we are forced to take jobs we don’t want to make ends meet.  We may even find we have a real talent for a line of work in which we absolutely hate.  Still, we swallow our pride and do what we must to keep a rough over our families’ heads and food in the pantry.

The Punchclock Villain takes those normal, natural actions and feelings and simply pushes them a bit further for the sake of drama.  Instead of making some small compromises to make ends meet, the Villain makes more substantial ones, but their motivations and actions still remain understandable.  The reader may even be able to sympathize to the point where he/she questions what to do if he/she were in the Villain’s place.  This can especially be driven home if the author includes situations where the Villain has to make increasingly harder choices and compromises as the conflicts in the novel escalate.

What can make a Punchclock Villain dramatically interesting, beyond the potential for interesting internal conflicts as I mentioned above, is the ability to contrast them versus more traditional types of villains.  The Punchclock Villain isn’t necessarily traditionally ‘evil’ or ‘crazy’ or the like; he/she has as much in common with the protagonists as with a archetypical megalomaniac supervillain.  That uniqueness can make for a whole new web of drama and plot points, spurred on as much by the Villain’s similarities to the protagonists as their conflicts.  It’s certainly a time-tested set-up to have a traditional ‘evil’ master villain with a Punchclock Villain serving as his/her second-in-command, letting the author explore the relationships and dramatic impact of both traditional ‘hero vs. villain’ conflicts, but the more nuanced ones between all three parties.

The potential stumbling block, of course, is balancing the sympathetic points of the Punchclock Villain versus the conflicts with the protagonist.  If you make the Villain too sympathetic and too ‘good’, you begin to stretch the suspension of disbelief of the reader.  If this guy/gal is so morally good, how can he/she continue to make such drastic compromises?  Likewise, if you make them too unsympathetic, you begin to loose the differentiation between the Punchclock Villain and a more traditional antagonist, leading to a loss of the dramatic tension you introduced that kind of villain to produce in the first place.

Have you ever used such a character in your writing?  Did you find them an interesting element to add to shake up the usual conflicts in a piece?  Do you have any advice, questions, or criticisms?  Put it in the comments below!