Q is for Question.
There is one question you must ask yourself when you create a character. Every decision he makes in the course of the narrative will hinge on the answer.
What does this person want?
Goals and wants are not necessarily the same thing. Your character can have goals, be they professional or personal, and they could be miles away from what he truly desires. Different people want different things, and the goals they set will help them achieve them (or possibly not).
Circumstances may tear a character away from what she wants most. In Eric Knight’s classic novel Lassie Come Home (1940), our heroine is sold to the Duke of Rudling and taken far away from Joe, the boy she loves. She misses him so much that when she escapes, she sets off on a dangerous and harrowing journey from Scotland all the way to Yorkshire, and home. I absolutely adored this book as a child and freaked when I managed to find a copy.
A character’s wants can also blind him to his moral path. Twisted desires are the focus of many a tale. Consider Boromir from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. He’s the jock hero of Gondor, its most decorated warrior, and the favorite of his father Denethor.
Boromir’s desire to save the struggling kingdom of Gondor colors all his thoughts. He wants to save his people. The Ring senses this and tries to exploit it, knowing how close Gondor is to Mordor and from there, to the hand of Sauron.
The closer the company comes to actually carrying out the purpose of the Quest, the deeper becomes Boromir’s torment as he tries to justify to himself actually taking the Ring from Frodo. At Amon Hen, he finally gives way to his desire, breaking the Fellowship.
The Ring used Boromir’s wants against him. But in a way, Sauron’s desire to possess the Ring of Power (and his failure to realize that a tiny hobbit held the key to his doom, not the mighty armies of his enemies) blinded him to the other characters’ purpose in destroying it.
While some characters want things to change, others want them to stay the same. Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock Holmes’s landlady, would probably like a quiet house and a tidy tenant. Instead, she gets someone who plays the violin (screech?), does smelly, messy experiments, and has all manner of people traipsing in and out at all hours of the day and night.
Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit also wants a nice quiet life, but Gandalf drags him into the Quest of Erebor and he ends up quite a different person from who he was when he started. You might start out with your character pushing toward his desires at the beginning of your narrative, but as in life, the paths of the best stories wind and twist and rarely go anywhere in a straight line.
Ask your character this question. Listen to what he has to say. You might be surprised by the answer.
P is for Potency.
I was going to write about perception, but I realized that I’d already touched on that in a couple of other posts in this series. And I was exhausted yesterday, so I trashed my P post and went to bed. Now that I’m awake and infused with British culinary delights from the city’s best food truck, I shall tackle yesterday’s and today’s posts.
Potency is a noun meaning efficacy, effectiveness, or strength. We spoke about kryptonite, or weakness. Every character has to have something he is better at than anyone else. And you can use this ability or talent in the story in unexpected ways.
Think about your favorite characters. What’s the one thing they can do that no one else can, or the thing other characters always seek from them? What about them makes them able to achieve their goals despite incredible odds?
Thought not a magical genius like Hermione Granger, Harry Potter is quite an excellent wizard, practically speaking. He managed to cast a Patronus charm well before any of his classmates could (in fact, he taught them to do it in Order of the Phoenix). He isn’t the best student; but since someone is always trying to do him in, that’s understandable. He still got decent grades despite all the craziness. His flying and dueling skills are top-notch.
But the thing he is most potent in, his most important quality, is his strength of character. Harry will protect anyone he cares about to the death if necessary. He’s absolutely without guile, and he always seems to know the right thing to do.
No wonder Voldemort couldn’t defeat him. In order to vanquish one’s enemy, one has to understand that enemy. Harry was a mystery to the dark wizard, who couldn’t understand friendship or love or loyalty. People gave their lives to protect Harry because they loved him. Voldemort’s followers mostly feared him.
Combine potency with kryptonite and your protagonist might find himself in the throes of a conflict from which it will take him most of a book to disentangle himself. A person who always sees the good in others might lean too far toward giving them the benefit of the doubt. Before she knows it, she could be:
- Ensnared in her evil boss’s evil shenanigans
- Married to an evil man who cheats on her and cleans out her bank account
- Married to an evil woman who does the same thing
- Doing all her evil coworkers’ tasks because she can’t see that they’re taking advantage
When you assign your character potency, be careful you don’t give him too much power. It could get out of control and become a weakness. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and even a good person can become overconfident in his own abilities to the point of disaster. Of course, this could make a really good story even better.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of magical realism and author of the exquisitely complicated novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, has died at 87. Rest in peace, sir.
O is for Outcast.
I could caution about writing a character like this. A true outcast is one for a reason. He isn’t going to suddenly become all warm and fuzzy because someone takes him in. He may be an outcast because he’s an intolerable ass, a dangerous psychopath, or severely antisocial.
An outcast probably has something wrong with him. You could get into his head, but I would suggest not making him too sympathetic, because warm fuzzies don’t work with someone nobody wants to be around.
You could also explore how someone otherwise okay becomes an outcast. Take Carol Peletier in The Walking Dead—she suffered huge changes and losses. Over time, she became so concerned with survival that she SPOILER: 1) began giving the children in the prison knife lessons, and 2) murdered other survivors to keep illness from spreading, thus shocking Rick to the point where he banished her. Interestingly, Rick then had to kill survivors to protect Daryl, Carl, and Michonne in Season 4, something he was trying desperately not to do. END SPOILER
Things to think about when writing an outcast:
- Does the reason he’s an outcast make sense? Meaning, if he kills baby puppies, yes, but if he drinks the last of the milk, no. Wait….let me rethink that last one.
- Where will he live if he’s not with other people?
- If he is, will they be polite to him, or will they throw things at him when he appears, either literally or figuratively?
- How will he survive if the story is not set in modern times?
- If a modern outcast, will he be one everywhere or just in a certain circle (everywhere could be interesting, especially if you involve Internet stuff like doxing)?
All this assumes your outcast is a bad guy. What about anti-heroes?
An anti-hero is a different kind of outcast. Though he lacks the qualities that make a typical hero (bravery, selflessness, nobility, etc.), we end up rooting for him anyway. He could be someone like Hannibal Lecter, who is irredeemably damaged but who we love because he’s just so incredibly unique (and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next). His motives for doing the right thing despite himself can be incredibly complicated or devastatingly simple. Either way, he’s not going to be the most popular kid in school.
If you’re going to write one of these characters, you’ll have to work hard to make him sympathetic (if he’s your protagonist) and not make him a caricature (if he’s your villain). It’s harder than it looks to give someone noble motives and still ensure that readers don’t like him.
Have a favorite literary outcast? Share in the comments.
N is for Negativity.
So many people tell you to think positive and positive things will come your way. A bright-eyed view of the world helps some folks cope with adversity. Not everyone believes this, and everyone knows a relentlessly positive person who, like Pollyanna, always believes the best of people and situations no matter what.
A negative character (we’ll call him Mr. Neg) will affect everyone around him. Other characters will probably get tired of listening to him whine. You’ll have to consider the reactions he elicits and whether it’s appropriate to your protagonist or POV (point-of-view) character.
In this article at tinybuddha.com, Lori Deschene writes, “When you think negative thoughts, it comes out in your body language.” She’s right. Mr. Neg, accustomed to resisting efforts to cheer him up or help in any way, may exhibit mannerisms that smack of No. Examples:
- Crossing his arms (defensive or protective posture)
- Holding anything in front of him (book, papers, etc.)
- Narrowing his eyes, as though he is suspicious
- Not making eye contact. In certain situations, this may simply indicate discomfort or shyness (or that you’re minding your own business), but it can also be incredibly dismissive.
- Rude behavior, like flicking a hand at someone or walking off.
Negativity is often accompanied by (and a symptom of) depression, so some of Mr. Neg’s actions may indicate this as well. Signs include sleeping too much or insomnia, lack of interest in sex, eating too much or barely doing so, and withdrawing from activities he previously enjoyed.
It’s very difficult for someone like Mr. Neg to snap out of his pattern of bleah. Believe me, I know from personal experience, though lately several things have combined to make it better. While it’s possible to have a huge sea change like Scrooge, for some people, even the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future wouldn’t be enough. A story about how a negative character affects everyone might be interesting, but if you’re looking for a happy ending, you might not find it with him.
You could use Mr. Neg to challenge your protagonist, rather than make him the focus of your narrative. If your main character is more like Pollyanna than Scrooge, he could work as an adversary. He could even drag her down to a dark place from which she has to fight her way back up. The journey could be worth writing (and reading) about.
M is for Mannerisms.
Think about all the little things people do, their habits and their quirks. These are mannerisms. They encompass both speech and gesture, and the combination makes for interesting characters.
Some examples include:
- Always has a cup of tea at exactly the same time every day
- Sticking her hands in her pockets and rocking back and forth on heels when bored
- Reading the newspaper in a certain order every time, and even re-ordering it if it isn’t the way they want (John the serial killer does this in Rose’s Hostage)
- Pulling at an earlobe or his bottom lip when thinking
- Mindlessly playing with glasses or hair
- How Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix politely coughs when she wants someone’s attention (“Ahem, ahem.”)
Speech patterns are mannerisms too. When the character speaks, does he talk a lot, like stream-of-consciousness dialogue? Maybe he thinks best by doing it aloud, or maybe he just likes to hear himself. Back to Literary Sherlock Holmes—boy, does he love to explain how he figured something out. Poor Watson can hardly get a word in edgewise.
Others don’t talk much or use very short sentences when they do. Speech to them is a way to convey important information. They don’t have time to babble on, so you’ll get the straight answer from them, and it might even be rather blunt. Cursing can also be a mannerism. So can constantly interrupting people.
Some people bite their fingernails when they’re nervous. They may exhibit habits like sniffing (allergies?) or knuckle cracking. The Smoking Man character in The X-Files had a very distinctive (and smelly) mannerism. The way people walk, sit, and even stand tells you something about them. Think of Hannibal Lecter in the film The Silence of the Lambs when you first see him, standing very still while he waits for Clarice Starling. He’s a predator, like a cat at a mousehole.
Remember that we often adjust our behavior in different situations. Your character might like to take a bit of snuff, but he probably won’t do it when he meets the Queen. Of course, some people, like Jack Sparrow, are the same no matter where they are.
Mannerisms are important in crime fiction, too. Investigators who track serial offenders look for what they call signature behaviors. These are things the perpetrator does that are over and above what they need to do to commit the crime. Though they can be deliberate (the Wet Bandits in Home Alone leaving the water on), they may do them unconsciously or out of compulsion. A killer can change his M.O, or modus operandi. He may come in a window one time and pick a door lock another time, but his signature will always be the same.
The victims he chooses are often a part of that signature. For example, serial killer Theodore Robert “Ted” Bundy often chose victims who had long, dark straight hair that was parted in the middle. Supposedly, they reminded him of a former girlfriend who had rejected him.
A criminology instructor I had once told our class about a perpetrator they called “the Ether Burglar” who broke into women’s occupied homes and sedated them with a chemical substance. They caught him after one of his would-be victims put a hole in his guts with a shotgun (he survived). They never found out what he did after he knocked the women out—nothing was missing, they couldn’t find evidence of any sexual activity, etc.
My instructor said he even approached the suspect’s lawyer offering a freebie—if he told them, they wouldn’t use the conversation in court (there’s a legal term for this, but I can’t remember what it is). She said no. We told him if he ever found out he had to tell us. I think we’ll all go to our graves not knowing, although we all agreed he probably did get nasty somehow.
Mannerisms should make sense—a confident politician will walk proudly, head up, not stare at his feet like a mopey teenager. (By the way—don’t do that when you walk; you’ll get mugged.) A cool secret agent type probably wouldn’t nervously tap his foot. Choose them carefully for your character, and you just might wind up with someone unforgettable.
Today is April 14, the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. (I know; technically, it sank on April 15, but hitting the iceberg started the whole thing.) I don’t have a commemorative post this year, but you can refer to this post if you want to do something in memoriam. I will most likely watch the film tonight.
L is for Looks.
You might not think looks are important. We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we’re told. But in truth, the first thing people notice about other people is how they look.
After all, we are mostly visual creatures. Our brains process a huge amount of information from our eyes, which are our primary sensory organs.
If you’re writing a character who is handsome, he will be treated differently by other people than if he were ugly. I had to think about this for Rose’s Hostage. I made bank robber Joshua Rose handsome because 1) it disarms Libby, his hostage, and 2) it bothers the serial killer (once they find out who he is). If I wrote him as ugly, it would have been a completely different book.
In addition to that, it complicates things. Joshua even says it himself:
“You are hot.” She blushed as she said it, and warmth spread through him.
“Thanks, beauty. I’m glad you think so.” He was teasing and she got it, grinning at him. “But people look at me the same way they would if I were deformed.” He saw her mouth open in protest and continued, talking over her objection. “See, they’re responding to something unusual about the way I look. I’m not above using it to get my way. In my line of work, it’s dangerous because people remember my face, especially women. Makes it hard to hide.”
Think about all the ways we judge by looks. Good-looking people are often treated as if they are better than they are and may become spoiled as a result. Some of them hate it; they feel their skills and ability aren’t taken seriously because of their looks. Average-looking people may resent the beautiful ones, especially if they think the person is coasting on his or her physical attributes. And they may be jealous.
This is definitely true for women. We seem to take the brunt of this stereotype—if a woman is beautiful, she doesn’t need or can’t possibly have any brains. Of course, that isn’t true, but your character could fall prey to the same notion. A female character might have to work harder to prove herself than a male one in certain professional situations. Your male character’s kryptonite could be his outdated attitude toward the gorgeous colleague who saves his bacon (or the sexy villain he thinks he can outsmart).
There’s also the danger of making a character good-looking for the sake of it, as with a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Let’s face it; the vast majority of people don’t measure up to Hollywood standards. Most of us are average. A protagonist who is too good to be true loses something important for readers—they won’t relate to him/her.
Let’s talk now about unattractive characters. Unattractive girls are called dogs, or worse. It’s a tired old trope that the guy will always go for the hot girl, and if you have an ugly duckling character, she better transform herself before he takes her to the prom, because if not, that would be social suicide.
Guys suffer just as much, especially during adolescence. In our society, it’s on them to initiate most romantic encounters. How hard is that, even for a good-looking guy? Imagine your character trying to do it when he looks in the mirror and hates what he sees.
If the person has a deformity, or perceives himself to have one (like Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon), then that will change how he reacts to other people. We telegraph our inner thoughts about ourselves in subtle ways, and they treat us accordingly.
Think about how that happens. How can you show that a character has these thoughts, especially if you don’t get inside his head?
- Dialogue: You could have the character use straightforward, self-deprecating language, such as “Oh, nobody will go out with a lard-ass like me.”
- Mannerisms (next post!): Confident people move with authority, carry their heads high and shoulders back, and look people straight in the eye. Your self-hating character may shuffle, avoid eye contact, and have poor posture, as though he is trying to hide.
- Reactions of other characters: Think about someone you know who has a poor opinion of himself. How do you feel when you’re around that person? Do you get irritated with him when he makes remarks like the one above? Do you feel pity for him and overcompensate to help him out?
If you’re tempted to make your character resemble your dream man or woman, take time to consider why. Try to brainstorm—would it make your story more interesting if the character were average, or even unattractive?
Sorry yesterday was so busy. The Ent funeral is over, the tree is gone, and all is well.
Photographs: Elizabeth West
K is for Kryptonite.
Thanks to friends Michael, Jeremy, Amber, and Jane. I was going to save the topic for W (weakness), but this was a better title.
In the Superman comics, kryptonite is an element from Superman’s exploded home planet, Krypton. Kryptonite is radioactive, and it’s the only thing that can affect Superman’s powers. It makes him sick, weak, and defenseless.
A well-rounded character HAS to have a weakness. Everyone has them. EVERYONE. This isn’t a critical flaw, which the character might not even be aware of; it’s something that the character isn’t particularly strong in or has no defense against.
An astute person will seek out ways to turn a weakness into a strength, or he will acquire a helper who is strong in that area so they can complement each other. These don’t have to be practical skills; they can also be personality traits. The weakness can make the character sympathetic or not.
Think about Christian in Cyrano de Bergerac enlisting Cyrano to help him woo Roxanne. Of course, Christian doesn’t know that Cyrano loves Roxane (and Roxane thinks all this brilliance of wit and poetry is coming from the hot guy, not the guy with the funny nose).
My education has been abysmal (or I wasn’t paying attention—probably this). Though I knew the events of the play were fictional, I did not know that Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person.
We have sympathy for Cyrano because he’s doing all the work and not getting the love. He’s weak in that he can’t profess his love when he should, and Christian can but doesn’t know how to do it effectively. Christian turns his weakness into a strength and in the end tries to be honest, but it bites them both in the ass because neither ends up with Roxane.
You can make your character do this and have everything turn out fine, or you can engineer a tragic ending like this one.
Most people don’t like to make their kryptonite known. They fear someone will take advantage of it, or the worst will happen. If you want to mess with your protagonist, give the villain a way to use that weakness against him.
Your character will have to find a way to overcome his kryptonite in order to accomplish his goal (or stop the villain). If he can’t do it directly, he’ll have to find a way around it. Be careful you don’t make this process take too long, blind him to solutions he should see, or have him avoid them for really stupid reasons. You’ll frustrate your readers and lose them.
The journey of overcoming a weakness can be as interesting and engaging as the end result. A good story has internal conflict within its characters as well as a Big Bad that they must conquer.
Things are a bit crazy today, so I will have to put off my K post until tomorrow. But no worries; I’ll get it done. Today I had to clean the house because I won’t have time to do it tomorrow. And this happened:
Yeah, I actually yelled that. Had to. Not apologizing.
The sweet gum tree was dropping those evil alien gumballs on my neighbor’s driveway (and heaving it up with the roots) so it had to go. That’s a screenshot I snipped from a video I took.
Now I have a thing with some people at a place. But I will be back tomorrow with my K post. Happy Saturday!
Sad news today. Sue Townsend, British author of the Adrian Mole book series and a delicious book about the Royal Family called The Queen and I, has died at 68, of complications from a stroke. We’ll miss you, Sue. Rest in peace.
J is for Job.
If your character were a real person, what kind of job would he have? In the U.S., we tend to define ourselves by what we do for a living. When we meet someone, one of the first getting-to-know-you questions we ask is, “What do you do?”
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when choosing a profession for your character.
Why does/did he decide to do this work?
Tunerville’s protagonist Chris owns his own landscaping business. Although he’s college-educated, he likes being outside, working with his hands, caring for his clients’ outdoor spaces. He’s no Einstein or Donald Trump. He’s just an average, everyday guy who works hard. He has expenses and lives in an inherited house. He didn’t go to school for it, but he enjoys what he does.
Though Chris is doing all right, he doesn’t make big bucks. This makes him vulnerable to a TV network’s offer to buy his ghost tuner—a few million dollars is enough to blind him to what they are actually planning to do with it. Not only that, but he loses clients over the tuner. While he no longer needs the money, it affects his reputation, and that is troubling to him. Once he can see his mistake, mitigating the damage becomes more urgent.
Your character’s job could also just be something he does to pay the bills. Whether he loves it or not can make a difference when conflict arises. If he does, he’s going to be a happier person than someone who dreads going to work.
If the conflict results in his losing the job or abandoning it, who is more likely to struggle with that—a protagonist who likes going to work, or someone who runs out of the office at five o’clock like the building is on fire?
What time of day does he go to work?
Most of us work during the day, but a whole lot of people go to bed when we’re just getting up. The night shift shows you a different perspective on the world. Though it’s not for me, I’ve done it, and it is a little weird.
Rotating shift work is hazardous to a person’s health (all that readjusting your body clock). In the dark, you can’t see the monster coming. And all the bad people like to come out at night, when there aren’t as many witnesses to their shenanigans. You can punch up a cop story just by setting your detective’s shift (or certain activities) after sunset.
This affects the kind of crimes he would investigate. Most bank robberies, for example, happen during the day when the bank is open. The detective isn’t likely to work one at 2 a.m., but he might handle vice cases and certainly will deal with murders after dark.
Does his job relate to the events of the narrative, or are they secondary to the plot?
Writers like John Grisham and Michael Palmer (also RIP, dammit) root the stories and characters of their best-selling thrillers in the worlds of their own professions (Grisham in law and Palmer in medicine). By doing this, they provide their protagonists with ready-made conflicts they can mine for dramatic effect. It’s easy to manufacture hair-raising scenarios in either job.
If a character’s job is sufficiently varied, you can set up a whole series around it. Real detective work, public and private, can be pretty mundane, though it does carry the potential for mayhem. There is a lot of uncomfortable conversation with witnesses and suspects, far less espionage and gunplay than most people think, hours spent combing through records both digital and on paper, boring surveillance, etc.
But everybody loves a baffling mystery. Add an unusual protagonist and a juicy villain or two, and you can have a series many people find tremendously exciting.
Will his job enable him to find resources on his own, or will he need to get help from someone?
The protagonist of a techno-thriller is going to have a much easier time tracking down an evil sentient computer bug if he already knows everything about computers. A character who can barely work his smartphone is going to have to find an expert. If the gap is too big between what he knows and what he doesn’t, you’ll waste a lot of story time while he tries to figure it out.
Some writers get around this by dropping experts into their character’s laps, but you shouldn’t just make them appear out of nowhere. The deus ex machina died out with classical Greek drama. There has to be some reason the protagonist would know to go to that person, and any character who tells him to do it should have a sensible reason for being there.
Try different hats on your characters. Make them more interesting with non-traditional jobs. It might require some research on your part, but that’s one of the things that makes writing fun. Switch up gender stereotypes—a male nanny, a female dock worker, etc. You can do it as a writing exercise, or use it to drive the plot of your story.