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Cal's Soapbox #3

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Sat Sep 08, 2007 7:23 am
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Caligula's Launderette says...

Cal's Hyde Park Corner Soapbox

The Characters

1. Dynamics

So, here’s the lowdown on group dynamics: each person added to the group changes the dynamic.

A conversation between people changes when another arrives, and not in just what they are conversing about. Their reactions change, their body language changes.

You are going to have to ask yourself these questions:

How do the characters relate to one another?
How well do you they know each other?
What was their last interaction/conversation life?
How much do they know on the subject of the conversation?
How confident are they?
What are they doing?
Where are they in relation to the other characters?
How formal is the situation?
How perceptive is each character? Some will be more observant than others. Some will notice things, some won’t, and some will pretend to not notice.
How much emotional baggage does each character have in conjunction with the others? Meaning: have they had bad or good relations with each other, is there a hate - indifferent - scared shitless sort of triangle between two characters? How do they feel about each other?

STICKY-NOTE #1: Different aspects of your characters worldview will determine reactions and provocations. Take this to heart, young Padawan.

Take all these things into consideration when writing a scene, as it helps avoid things like talking heads, character monologue, and character turning each other into statues and extraneous furniture.

Here is an example from Guttersnipe, Henry and Archie are good friends who are sharing a lively conversation, but when Henry’s uncle Mr. Temple arrives, they go quiet, and even with Archie, meek.

“Henry, what brings you here?”

The smile vanished from Henry’s face, “He’s not here is he?”

A crooked smile passed over Archie’s face, “No.”

Henry sighed, “Capital. I wish you wouldn’t scare me like that.”

Archie smirked leaning up against a bookcase, “So, why are you here?”

“Oh,” the man took a drag from his cigar, “I was in the neighbourhood,” and as if he had forgotten Regan was there he turned towards her, “My lady, I believe Mr. Gant has been remiss—we have not been acquainted yet, Lord Roseden at your service.”

“Regan Ware.”

“Forgive Archie’s poor hospitality Miss Ware.”

A stiff voice cut off Regan’s reply, “It is my nephew’s poor manners that you must forgive,” and all three turned towards the origin.

A portly, elderly-looking man hobbled in, leaning on his cane heavily. His silver hair was drawn back into a queue, his fur lined coat draped over his shoulders. Regan noticed how the others stiffened visibly on seeing him.

Archie –the man she had talked to about the job- went forward after his initial vacillation, and was the first to speak, “Can I get you anything Mister Temple?”

The man eyed him, with a crooked smile, “A new knee would be nice.”

The young man’s face was clouded with uncertainty. “Sir?”

“Oh, come now, Archibald, can’t you take a joke?” When the young man did not answer, he let out a breath, “Oh, never mind.”

Then he wheeled on Henry who was still seated, frozen, at the desk.

“Henry, my tolerance for you smoking my cigars is wearing thin. Don’t test me further. Though I imagine you’re quite thrilled about this business.” He made a gesture towards his knee.

His castigation broke Henry out of his stupor, and within seconds he had put out the cigar, and evacuated his position. Regan bit her lip to keep from laughing as the change in his demeanour.

On perceptions of your fellow characters - false ones are often more fun than true ones. Why assume that everyone is telling the truth, or that everyone is lying? Why assume one is right, while the other is wrong. Messing with your characters can spice up a boring ol’ plot, and adding in some suspicion can be a lot of fun.

Some people feel that to do this would make things more complicated, and it makes things too hard to get straight. But that is not necessarily true.

As Doctor House says, “Everybody lies.” Well, not to break your bubble or anything, but so do your characters. And yes, even to you.

People tell different things to different people, so don’t assume that one knows all about another or that all their info is correct.

Often people hear just what they want to hear, no matter if it is correct or not. I mean who cares about the truth, when lies are better.

It also gives characters good reasons to react they way they do, especially in anger. Often I read characters who get angry over flimsy reasons, why not have them hate the other what was actually said? If two characters have tempers, there is a built in conflict right there, as the character will happily hate each other without you guiding them along.

Characters, just like people, have biases; they discriminate and are judgmental. Just because they are in a group with other people doesn’t mean they have to play nice. Often you don’t need to be blatant with prejudices, and often prejudices come out in body movement, tension in the body, or in dialogue. A character might turn their body unconsciously away from another because of fear, one might make a derogatory comment about women who are not housewives, or one might unconsciously open their body posture when a friend appears.

Don’t explain everything. This is probably the 50-bazillionth time I’ve uttered this phrase, but some things just needs to be uttered loudly. In already established groups there will be inside jokes, and things that only those members will know. A new addition will be oblivious to these, and that is perfectly fine. You don’t need a five page dream sequence or flashback to explain something, just the mentioning of it and demonstrating the understanding between the characters will do just fine. Just because you have characters intersecting doesn’t mean you have to explain whole live stories. The past should stay in the past, it doesn’t need to be brought fully into the present. Just the flickers of it is fine.

2. Love and respect, hatred and fear; the world goes ‘round but feeling is not universal.

Just because a character is loved by others, does not mean they are respected. A character may be loved because he/she knows how to handle the thieves but has never bothered learning guild law. A character may be loved but not respected because he/she spends all their time whoring around and not ruling. A character may be hated because he has killed in cold blood, but his children worship him because he is a good father. Remember the feeling in entirely in conjecture with who is doing the loving. I find myself cringe when I read “everyone loves” or “everyone hates”, there has to be some exception to the rule. Try to steer clear of absolutes when dealing with your characters.

3. Limited

Limitations on your characters are built in. You can only go so far outside your world view, and in this case your characters world view. Take for instance the scene from The Birdcage where Armand is trying to teach Albert how act straight. He tries his best to teach Albert mannerisms et al., he even gives him the image of John Wayne to try to emulate. But in the end it doesn’t happen, and leaves Armand saying “That was perfect, I just didn’t know John Wayne walked that way”.

There are many ways limitations play a part in your characters. When you are considering limitations on your characters you must remember that there will be things that your character will never be able to accomplish, not matter how much they wish or you wish. Sometimes these things are physical, sometimes emotional, some of these limitations comes from status in life, and others are limitations of disposition.

The first two questions you want to ask yourself about your characters is: “What can they do?”, and “What they cannot do?”

Also, not all characters will understand everything; as everyone’s intelligence is different. So ask yourself, “What will my character understand, what will they not?” Some might never understand certain things, some may grow to over time.

Not everyone’s a freakin’ genius. Take the freak from FREAK for example. She has been mentally and emotionally abused all of her life due to her status. She had not been given a formal education. But, she does grow and learn over time. Does this hamper the story? Not a bit. It actually adds to it. Who wants to read about a character who is the smartest, always excelling at everything? Not I. Wait isn’t that part of the definition of a Mary Sue?

For example of a psychical limitation, your protagonist may want to be a knight, but even with all the wishing, and pursuing of that goal, he is not strong enough to heft a sword or his eyesight is so bad that he can see next to nothing making him a liability during a fight; thus being a knight is an impossibility for this character . Or perhaps your character is a cripple, he is not going to running off up a mountain to duel a dragon and save the princess in the very tallest tower, any time soon, is he?

4. Negative reactions do exist.

Not everyone is going to agree with your character, and just because they don’t agree doesn’t me they are stubborn or stupid. Other characters can disagree without being controlling, or evil, or racist, feminist or chauvinist. And even if your character is right, it doesn’t mean that they their reasons are wrong or bad ones.

It is even possible for your character to be wrong, and make mistakes, because of their limitations. And that is perfectly okay.

Also, there is no need for the characters on the opposite side as your protagonist to have a personal vendetta against him/her. They don’t have to personally want the protagonist dead, to be glad that she dies. She can piss them off, just because she is there, and on the other side. After all people believe passionately in their own ideals and are willing to kill for them. Look, at all the religious wars that has happened, the Crusades, for example.

And if your character makes mistakes? Negative reactions are bound to happen.

Well dealing with protagonists sure they are the center of the story, but what they are not is the center of the universe.

Not everyone will like them, and that’s okay.

5. Where’s the fun in being an island?

In Meditation XVII, John Donne writes “No man is an island, entire of itself…”. Well, no one character is an island all to themselves either.

This happens a lot in fantasy, as many fantasy protagonists are lone mavericks because their pain is so much worse than everyone else’s, and no one can possibly understand their pain. Or because of their abilities, destiny, they angst about how the top is just so lonely. Or they are unsung heroes. Rarely do these “heroes” reach out, or consider other people as actual people, with actual gifts, faults, feelings, wants, desires, needs, et al. Because god forbid in their angst they believe that those people can’t protect themselves from the big bad evil, and oh noes, if they are close to the “hero” they will die.

For example, JK Rowling has set up Harry Potter as this type of hero. She has set him up to be the only one who can defeat Voldemort, just him, no other. But, I have to give her props for she has established bonds, and even though Harry might think he is the Lone Ranger he is not. After all for every Kimosabe, there is a Tonto. For every Frodo, there is a Samwise. Do you think Frodo would ever have made it to Mt. Doom with out Sam, I’d bet my eternal kitten-eating soul, he would not have.

And no matter what you think, things are impossible without those certain peoples.

Characters can’t accomplish everything on their own, they need friends, lovers, parents, spouses, superiors, commanders, rules, children, comrades, underlings, acquaintances, advisors, people who will help them, or hinder them.

And true to life, characters won’t have perfect bonds with everyone. Some will blow up in their faces, some will be nothing more than the mere knowledge of a name, others will be impossible to explain even to the characters affected, some will be so deep that nothing can break them, others will be already severed.

To quote Limyaael, “You know. Kind of like life.”

6. Life is for living.

One thing I find disconcerting is the trend in protagonist wasting their time not living. Something horrible happens to them, and they never grow from that. They set aside their life, until they are forced against all odds to do something.

As I said in #5, no character is an island, and when they are not islands real living becomes possible because they aren’t THE ONLY anything, they get by with a little help from their friends; it doesn’t become one of those stories when the character‘s psychology is unchanged, and they are only jolted out of it when they need to save the world.

Just because something horrible happens, it doesn’t mean your character has to wallow in grief and angst for pages on end; just because the protagonist has lost a son, or a wife, or a lover, doesn’t mean he can’t grow from that incident, and I dunno live.

On another tangent, every event doesn’t need to be a life changing incident. It doesn’t even have to be very character building either. It can be just a simple scene, where the character is reading, or on a leisurely walk, something of that nature.

To paraphrase both Snoink and Sam: “It's okay to be boring. Boring is good.”

7. Setting interacting with your characters.

The setting does not have to completely disconnected from your characters. Often when I read the prose about a setting, it sticks out, and doesn’t mesh with everything else. Here are some tips:

Show how characters adapt to extremes in the weather.
Show how the geography and the climate effect building projects, and architecture.
Show effects of time on the setting; weathering of stone. The effects of drought, flood, fire.
Use body-centered writing; describe touch, taste, and smell, not only sight and sound. Know the direction someone faces, and how it effects what they see. After all natural, neutral factors interfere in action. Mud, unstable slate or rocks does not care whose is trying to ride over it, protagonist, villain, or just one of the random cast members; nature does not take sides, and it is entirely possible to trip up one horse as it is the other.
Utilize natural disasters that DO NOT happen because of gods, dark beings, etc. Things like plague, famine, drought, flood, earthquake, tornado, extreme tidal waves. It’s fine if your people believe they were caused by the supernatural, as long as you don’t confirm it. If you do confirm a supernatural your setting becomes the odd man out again.
Show people and their dependences on animals, plants, planets. One of my pet peeves is that horses, especially in fantasy and historical fiction are treated like machines, and not actually like horses. Also use herbs and plants, are the used in remedies, are they poisonous?
Describe the local food, this is great especially when you are trying to show cultural differences. I mean not everyone eats the same thing, now.
Have the characters use the setting to their advantage.
Don’t explain the setting all at once, we don’t want lumpy exposition. Have your description weaved in, parts here, parts there.

8. Shadow puppets can so much more fun.

[Enter Character]

Character: So, I’m on stage, now. Look at me! Did you know that I have eight siblings, three sisters and five brothers? Or that I am the third eldest, and that I hate my youngest sister more than anything else in the world. Did you know that my hair is the same color as my uncles, and that my face is similar to my mothers, or that my eyes are a mix of my grandmother on my mother’s side and my grandfather on my fathers side? Oh, and all my family are weavers, we have been for six generations on both sides. I speak three different language, and I speak four dialects of -Blah- that are spoken in -Blah-, though mostly in the county of -Blah-, and it originated in the town of -Blah-. Oh, yeah I like rocking-horses, and love rhubarb-strawberry pie. I detest cows and milk, though mostly cows.

[Character Exit]

Uggg, teh fuxor. Why? I’d like to put a stop to this idea that everything about a character has to be explained at their first entrance. And when for the love of your deity of choice does this actually happen in real life. There may be a sentence or two of introduction, like “I’m Hayden’s sister Faith.” or, “Look, sonny, I’m the devil; get with the program.”

People don’t go on and on about every last detail of their lives. For example if you asked Forge: "Forge, what was your mother like?" Forge would respond like this: "..." *stares daggers. snarls.* I mean it’s not like Forge would sit down with you and talk about ponies, and rainbows, and gab about American Idol. He would much rather find ways to permanently shut you up, or remove you.

I’ve circumvented this issue with Regan, my protagonist in Guttersnipe. She has retrograde amnesia, thus those chunky blocks of -this is where I spew about myself- doesn’t happen.

So all these irrelevant things need to go, because hey if we already know everything what is left to explore about them?

Most of all, every character has their secrets. Treat them as you would treat your own. You can allude, tease, hint at what they are without out right blabbing them. Maybe the character doesn’t share their whole life because they are embarrassed, ashamed, or only just thinks about it sometimes. I these secrets don’t need to be life changing events, they can be small things. Like an embarrassing situation where your character tripped on a sidewalk, or had a prank pulled on them.

STICK-NOTE #2: This is for fantasy and sci-fi, just because you have a land called Aea, there is no reason to write out an extensive history of it, that takes over ten pages, when you don’t visit it for another fifteen chapters.

Remember your characters had lives before the story began, and using shadows can create the illusion of depth, as well as the promise of something more.

9. Superfluous, unearned suffering. How to suffer properly.

A best friend and I have this joke, well it really isn’t a joke with our characters, but it is for us: you can tell which are our favorite characters due to how much shit we put them through.

It seems the more we love them, the more crap they have to, or get to deal with.

STICKY NOTE #3, On Abused Protagonists: Remember, no matter how long ago the abuse happened, or how severe it was, or what kind it was, or who committed it, the protagonist will still be as traumatized as the day it happened.

STICKY NOTE #4: Not to burst any bubbles here, but writing angst and abuse is easy. I mean insert some abuse and immediately that makes the protagonist the BRAVE HERO, BRAVE HEROINE.

So what is unearned suffering? This is when someone is on the receiving end of pain from someone they have never done anything to. Well, to an extent this is okay, say the protagonist has not done anything knowingly to the villain, but the villain has used that incident to fuel his obsession. That can be done well. But, when you have it where everyone else in the entire story turns on the protagonist for no apparent reason. That is unearned suffering. A please, write it out.

Good things can cause suffering. Characters will keep things to themselves think that it, actually harms relationship between them and other characters.

Having a conscience does not mean a character has to do good. Just because they a “moral good” doesn’t mean they are going to do the right thing. True, to the best of their intentions they may strive, but that doesn’t mean good things are going to come of it.

Oh, look, it’s example time. I am going to borrow Fand and her work Feather and Stone. Quinn, the protagonist, falls in love with Sir Godfrey. Now, she believes he returns her affections, but she is taken out of the story because of *SPOLIERS* and you get my drift. Her brother Bryn, who cares for her very much, learns of Sir Godfrey’s marriage to another, but he wants to keep that information from Quinn because he thinks it will cause her too much hurt. When he does tell her though she does not take it well.

Also, same frame, Bryn is having trouble coping with something that happened magical between Quinn and him. So he does not stay near to her during *SPOLIERS*, because of this. This causes Quinn no amount of stress, confusion and pain at her brothers actions. Even though he was doing this for her own good, it ended up not being so.

In this case, Fand pulls off the suffering of both Quinn and Bryn superbly.

As I said in my last oration, characters need rest. You can’t push them to the brink and expect them to bounce right back. They often say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or alternatively drives you insane. Oh, well, that last part I added, but the first is parable. But it’s true character may break or fissure under certain pressures, and you don’t just immediately bind back together, whole again. There needs to be a healing time, if the character can be healed. Sometimes they can’t.

This example includes *SPOILERS*

In Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn, Herald Trainee Lendel’s twin brother is murdered. Lendel is had a deep magical twin bond with his brother and feels the full effect of the murder. Lendel in turn, after recovering, is obsessed with killing, no eradicating the people that killed his brother. His brother’s murder has changed him, and for the worse. As well as being obsessed with killing, he become irritable, and sharp with even his lover. It leads to his abuse of his powers, severe endangerment of his lover, and the repudiation of his Companion (a familiar in Lackey’s Valdemar), and Lendel’s eventual death. Even before his death, it seemed impossible for Lendel to change back to the impish, fun person he was.

Despite whatever else anyone has said, the environment does impact a person. A character may be susceptible to certain weather, or in certain conditions they may be happier, more irritable. Or they work better in the forest, than near water.

Suffering doesn’t just solely affect the hero, but everyday life as well. If fields are burned in scored earth policy because an invading army is coming, how is everyone going to be feed, without famine spreading?

10. The double-edged trait sword.

I find a great many characters who are molded well, but somehow in the kiln they crack or break when fired. Protagonist who have faults, and opportunities for development, and growth, or stunted because the author does not take full advantage. Traits such as stubbornness, pride, elitism, are all things that fall under this category. The problem is thus, the author refuses to treat them as potentially bad, harmful things. This is one of those no, nos. A hero might be stubborn, and often stubbornness is treated as a good trait, like hey he’s stubborn, he never gives up, he refuses to yield to those that would pressure him to do so, and so on and so forth.

But this is only one side of the sword. Stubbornness can lead to consequences for the character, and becomes not such a good thing. A character who can’t keep his mouth shut, may anger the wrong person, or give away information that puts him or his family in danger. At worst, it made lead at least one of the three evil D’s, those being death, doom, and destruction. So stop treating traits as just singularly one-sided, and it will be a happier place.

11. What stimuli does your character most respond to?

Your character can respond to visual stimuli, but it doesn’t have to be visual, it can be other things. First, for a psychology lesson from Dr. Cal, people learn in different ways. There are three different learning styles: visual, audio, and kinesthetic or tactile. Although potentially people can be a combination of all three. There is usually one that you are strongest in. Because of this hierarchy of how you learn best, different things will be easier for you or not.

Visual learners remember written directions well, need to see things to learn them, are artistic, and have difficulties with just listening to directions.

Audio learners are very good at remembering what they hear, may have difficulties remembering things that they have read, also may have difficulties reading and writing. They also can find it hard to read facial and body language.

Kinesthetic learners are active learners, they learn by touch and movement. So hands on is the best learning for them. They also don‘t require instructions to assemble something, and can have difficulties if they have to remain seated for long periods of time.

But remember these are all on a scale of degrees. I personally am I kinesthetic learner first, then visual, then audio.

Take these learning styles into account with your characters.

So, characters can respond to all different stimuli, from all different senses. Maybe a character responds more to touch, the feel of their clothing against their skin. Another hearing is their strongest, they can pick out the different sounds around them. Play off their strengths and weakness in this while writing. Maybe a character talks lot about how things taste, or smell.

12. Baggage

Since, we have discussed that no man is an island, then no character is an island, then it should be fair to say everyone carries with them emotional baggage. I touched briefly on this in the beginning when I talked about group dynamics. No one is a clean slate, and you should not treat your characters this way. They will have bias, judgments, prejudices all placed in their mind, whether good or bad, and nothing sort of character upheaval will change those things. So every time a character approaches a situation or a conversation they already have A Priori, prior knowledge of things, people, etc. that will influence how they respond, react, and carry on. A person takes with them all the life they have lived, and so do characters, they did have a life before the story you know. *grins*

13. You’re flat as a cardboard cutout Mary Sue.

I know, I know. This probably should be at the beginning, but it’s not. It’s at the end, and I put it here. Because god forbid, I see another Mary Sue.

The definition of a Mary Sue is an original and overly perfect character created by the writer and often acting as their alter-egos. They often end up bedding other characters or acting as matchmakers for the intended ship; an original female character who's perfect, does it all, saves the day, and is usually martyred.

So moral of that story, all Mary Sue’s should die ugly, and painful deaths.

I, also, consider a Mary Sue when there is a character who in put through every horrible thing imaginable (See #9) and comes out unchanged.

To quote myself on my piece Dickens and Sueism:

Yeah, I suppose starving orphans are cute and all, except that this little starving orphan is inherently, unrealistically good; his values are never subverted by brutality in the orphanage or the coerced involvement into thievery. Sue—oh Sue, when will we see the death of you? Thus a potentially cute, loveable boy morphs into one of the most annoying twits the other side of the Atlantic.


*Tips the hat.*

Wasn’t that special? A whole 11 pages of special.

Laters, meine damen und herren,
Fraser: Stop stealing the blanket.
[Diefenbaker whines]
Fraser: You're an Arctic Wolf, for God's sake.
(Due South)

Hatter: Do I need a reason to help a pretty girl in a very wet dress? (Alice)

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Fri Dec 07, 2007 9:10 pm
Rydia says...

I think I'll have to take another look at this when I'm next working on new characters. Sometimes I have difficulty creating pasts for my characters and you gave some excellent tips on character interaction.
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Tue Apr 07, 2009 8:02 pm
mizz-iceberg says...

Ah this is so very helpful. Thank you!
I'm a godmother, that's a great thing to be, a godmother. She calls me god for short, that's cute, I taught her that.
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The moral of Snow White is never eat apples.
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