Tag Archives: characterization

A writer writes — where do characters come from?

“Yes I am writing you into my book! You're gruesomely butchered on page 76. You're welcome!”
“Yes I am writing you into my book! You’re gruesomely butchered on page 76. You’re welcome!”
I have written more than once about my annoyance with an oft-used trope when portraying writers as characters in movies, TV shows, on the like: specifically, that the only reason a particular novel or series of novels has so enraptured the readers is because the author has secretly based the story on real life and real characters. My annoyance with that is multi-fold, not the least because I truly believe the old adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. You can’t tell a compelling story by slavishly recreating something that you experienced in real life. You weave an illusion that feels real from a combination of observation, interpellation, and omission. For example, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk—we omit parts that don’t move the story forward, or don’t flow easily off the tongue, or that will confuse the reader without the context of nonverbal cues.

Which is not to say that characters we put in our stories aren’t or shouldn’t be based on real people. Many characters are amalgams of many people that the author has encountered throughout their life. Quite often the author can’t name all of the sources of a character because many were people we encountered without getting to know well, plus half assembling of the personality quirks happened in the writer’s subconscious. Other times, we knew exactly who we got a particular mannerism or figure of speech from. And sometimes it’s a lot more than one or two things.

I made a conscious decision with one of my novels to (in most cases) loosely base characters on specific people or characters from other works. It started out as just a whim, and for a while was kind of a fun game, and then it became something I did without thinking. I’d need a new supporting character for a particular scene or subplot, and start writing them, only to realize many paragraphs into the first scene that I was basing some aspects of the character on that person.

Some people don’t want to do that, at all. And I’m sure that you can find someone out there who will adamantly insist you should never base a character on a real person that you know. They will list off several good reasons for this advice. One of the things those annoying shows I mentioned earlier do get right is that if friends and acquaintances guess or suspect a particular character is based on them, and that character if portrayed in a less-than-flattering way, that can cause a bit of resentment in your real life.

My counter argument is that certain people in your life will, when they read something you wrote, sometimes think that you have based a character upon them whether you consciously did so or not. And if they take offense, whether you meant to base the character on them or not isn’t going to matter. You can attempt to explain the way every character in fiction is, to an extent, a pastiche built from your imagination as well as observation of real people, but it may not convince them.

One of my favorite villains in my current WIP is a character named Mother Bedlam. Parts of her personality, mannerisms, and relationships are based on at least three real people I have known in life, all of whom have since passed away. Other parts of her come from a variety of crass, conniving, and criminally depraved characters and historical figures. She’s intended to be a comedic villain, despite also doing some vile and violent things and propelling serious plot points along. Many of her traits are exaggerations for comedic effect. If any of the people I have consciously based her on were to read my stories (which they never will, because they’re all dead) and recognize themselves in her, I might have an awkward situation to sort out.

As it is, one time when I read one of her scenes to my writers’ group, another member of the group who had laughed a lot during that scene, told me later that if he didn’t know better, he would have been convinced I had somehow spied on his childhood and one particular despised teacher he had in grade school. At subsequent appearances of the character he would bring that up again. One time another person’s critique of some new scenes was that Mother Bedlam had been over the top—that no person would really treat one of their underlings that day. The other guy jumped in to say that his teacher had done almost exactly the same thing to one of the children in her care.

There are at least two lessons to take from this example. First, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, there are only actually a few people in the world, we just meet many of them again and again. The other is that this illustrates why some character you think of as wholly original to you might make someone you know insist that the character is based upon them.

And I know I am hardly the only writer who has ever based a minor character whose only purpose is to die brutally to further the plot on a real person who gave us some sort of trouble at some point in our lives. My most vicious middle school bully has leant his name and or personality to a number of characters who have met such brutal deaths. Then there is one person who caused so much trouble for both myself and several people I know, that I made him into a character who is brutally killed in one book, brought back as an undead creature, and variously maimed, burned, re-killed, and so forth a few times in subsequent books.

Some people call it petty. I call it do-it-yourself-therapy.

Little things can make or break your story

“The best writing is re-writing.” — e.b. white
“The best writing is re-writing.” — e.b. white

The other night I assembled an Aviation cocktail for the first time. It’s a drink my friend, Jared, likes, so I texted him a picture of my first attempt. It’s made with gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette and lemon juice. I’d followed a recipe out of a bar book. When I commented that it didn’t taste as good as I remembered, he suggested his own recipe, which differed from the book very slightly. Specifically, he suggested 1/2 an ounce of lemon juice rather than 3/4 as the book. That was the only difference.

I tried it, and that tiny change made a major difference in the taste. And not in the way I had expected. The drink tasted slightly less sweet with a bit less lemon. Two of the ingredients are very sweet, whereas lemon juice is generally more tart, so I don’t know if it was just a contrast change in the mix or what, but the tiny adjustment made a big improvement.

I’ve been struggling with the revision of my novel, The Trickster Apocalypse for a while. After working on the first draft for a long time, regularly reading chapters to my monthly Writers’ group, I had revised and assembled the whole thing, and gotten three people to agree to read it all the way through. There had been some common comments from all of them regarding some frustration with the protagonists or inconsistencies in their characterization.

So I’ve been re-reading and revising. I recently shared two new scenes and one heavily revised one with two of the readers and my group, and there was a consensus that these little revisions changed their perception of the main plot and one subplot significantly.

I’ve described the novel as “a light fantasy in an epic fantasy wrapper using anthropomorphic tropes to tell how reluctant and unlikely heroes try to avert a prophesied apocalypse.” As a light fantasy, certain things happen in the story because they’re funny. It was easy, especially when I was working on the first draft and reading it to others in a serialized fashion, to pepper in jokes throughout. People laughed when they read the scenes, so that seemed like a good thing, right?

But when someone read the whole thing in un-serialized circumstances, a couple of the jokes late in the book subverted the emotional arc of at least one of the protagonists. It’s not that I can’t have jokes late in the book, but I can’t show one character’s emotional journey from reluctant to get involved to taking a stand in a big showdown if I keep showing ways that he is trying to dodge responsibility. A scene that would have been funny and in character in chapter four doesn’t work in chapter seventeen, after the reader has watched the character start growing beyond that.

The scene is funny, which is good in a light fantasy, but any scene in a novel needs to either advance the plot, establish or resolve a conflict, illuminate a character, show how a character has changed, reveal new information to the reader, or hit an important emotional beat. It’s not that the scene has to go, but every scene, particularly jokes about the protagonist’s character need to move the things forward, not back.

I should have realized during an earlier revision phase a couple of these developments were actually throwbacks to earlier versions of the character. I didn’t in part because in a couple of cases the jokes were working so well, I wanted to keep them in. When people repeat the classic writing advice to “kill your darlings,” it isn’t because your favorite lines or sequences are always bad, it’s because that sometimes, because some bit is a favorite, it blinds us from noticing that it’s wrong for this scene or this stage of the story.

Removing a single misplaced joke can change the taste of the entire tale.

They don’t all have to be heroes, but…

ZoeHellerQuoteSo one of the new shows I’m watching this year is a very soap opera-ish murder mystery that has a season-long story arc. And despite the heavy use of flashbacks, I enjoyed the premiere, so I let my Tivo keep recording it, but I didn’t watch the next several of episodes because I was busy, and I devoted what TV time I had to other shows. But I kept reading good things about the show from people I like.

I squeezed the second episode into my schedule, and I found the characters and the story still engaging, despite some quibbles with the cases-of-the-week that were being used as a means to propel the longer story and make the show appeal to people who might be less invested in big story arcs. But I didn’t watch the other episodes already on the TiVo right away.

Suddenly there seemed to be an explosion of people raving online about how much they liked where the show was going, so the next time I had a few hours, I got caught up. The story is still very intriguing, the dialog is snappy and believable, and the characters are getting fleshed out. The problem? I hate just about every one of them.

Just a handful of episodes into the first season, they have managed to make every character that is more than a walk-on extremely self-serving, detestable, or utterly loathsome.

To be fair, for decades it’s been the practice of soap opera-style shows to give every character major personality flaws and some sort of secret. But it’s a technique originally resorted to by writers who had to create episodes about the same cast of characters five times a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for dozens of years. Which means it can be most charitably described as an act of desperation.

As soon as one raises the question of likability in literary circles, someone will present the counter-argument that characters who are perfect in every way—always cheerful, and always lovable—are unrealistic and boring. The sort of reader or viewer who wants characters to be likable is characterized as unsophisticated, vapid, or even mentally deficient. But the only mental deficiency in question here is the sort of person who thinks the only alternative to making every character wholly repulsive is for characters to be unbelievably good.

In fact there is a wide spectrum between entirely abhorrent and absolutely flawless. In other words, not every character has to be a hero, but if the spotlessly pure character is unrealistic and boring, so are the characters who lack any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone lets their worse instincts get the better of them sometimes. Everyone has some personality quirk or habit that at the very least annoys someone else. Every person has done something in their life of which they ought to be embarrassed or ashamed. I understand all of that, and I get that sometimes you want to tell a story about the things we hope people will regret later. I do.

Lord knows I love a good villain, and my protagonists are never what anyone would call perfect people, but at a minimum characters need to be relatable. I don’t want to despise, pity, or disdain every single character. Give me something to admire about at least one of the characters. Give me a hint that some of them might be redeemable.

Give me someone to root for.

Because you’re evil

The word evil and a rose.
Sometimes evil is attractive and enticing. (Cover image for “Evil” by Matt Goss.)
Most stories involve a conflict. At the beginning of the story the protagonist is confronted with a problem, an obstacle, or a riddle, which will be resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end, and which is the thread that connects everything that happens in between together. Resolving that problem usually involves a struggle with other characters or forces, and some sort of inner conflict.

Protagonist is another word for hero. Because we often think of the main character of the story as a hero, and because stories usually involve the hero in some kind of conflict, it is tempting to think that every story needs a villain, too…

Continue reading Because you’re evil