Souls For The Soulless: Advice On Characters In Fiction

Snap, snap. Hey. You. Codpiece Johnson demands your attention.

Earlier, I wrote a post about how (not!) to write characters. In such posts I aim for The Funny, but also hope to loosely circumnavigate some actual advice. Imagine that I’m trying to define truth through white space: smearing my feces on all of the wall except those spaces that comprise the face of a human shape, or a meadow with a happy bunny ever-hopping.

The idea of creating strong characters is one on which I continue to noodle. In my estimation, there exists a certain hierarchy of importance when it comes to good storytelling. You’re building with bricks. The upper bricks won’t matter without the lower bricks, and without any bricks at all you won’t have a roof. I’m not suggesting that the roof isn’t important. It is. Rain? Pigeon poo? Rogue satellites tumbling from their distant trajectories? The roof is key, but the roof won’t stand without a house beneath it.

And so it is with writing. At the very base of the foundation, I think you have the actual writing itself — the technical construction of the tale. For me, a good story told through genuinely bad writing doesn’t matter. Lovely roof, but no bricks to hold it up, in other words.

Above the foundation of good writing comes… I dunno, let’s call it The Floor. This is the layer of characters. A similar thought process plays here, too: with bad (“bad” meaning, dull, contrived, trite, hollow, stereotypical) characters, a good story doesn’t matter one whit. (I’d further argue that with really good writing and great characters, a bad story is still bad, but can be ignored in favor of the other awesomeness.)

See, characters are our vehicles through the story. We are like the Loa, possessing these intangible avatars. It’s through them that we experience all aspects of the story. Yes, omnipotent narrators fill in details, but the characters are still the ones affected. It’s them we see hurt and vengeful and triumphant. If they’re just gutted scarecrows, what’s the point?

As such, this seems a good time to talk about a few ways you might bolster your characters both before they step into the story and during its exectution.

Wants, Fears

As David Lee Roth once sang, “Everybody Wants Some.”

And he wants some, too.

Of course, how you define “some” in that song is what matters. Some what? Some cake? Some respect? Some freedom to engage in pornographic Giraffe Play with other consenting Furry adults?

You want things. I want things.

Your characters want things.

We are all a complex web of desires. Drill down into the nitty-gritty, each of our genes is competing for dominance, resulting in a murky, turbid stew of often competing desires. You’re free to get that deep with your characters, but I don’t know that it’s necessary. We’re trying to chip away enough of the character to know them, to get a feel for them, but we don’t need to live in their skin. We’ll discover things about them as we go — while you as author remains firmly in control, a character’s context within the story will tease out new interesting elements, with curious facets revealed.

So, define one to three wants for your character. These can be simple or complex. They can be broad ranging or laser-point particular. Janice wants love. Roderick wants the love of his one-armed secretary, Rwanda. Captain Steamtrousers wants justice in the world for all, while his sidekick, The Orangutan Kid, really wants to protect orphans from abuse (or being made into sausages by their nemesis, The Scrapplemancer).

If you define more than one want, how do these wants interact or compete? Boris wants to lose weight and fall in love, but he also has an unnatural lust for buttercream icing. The first two play together, the latter opposes the former. And, in opposing the former, we move into…

Fears. Just as you and I want things, you and I also fear things. I fear these things. As for what you fear, well, I dunno. That’s your bag, not mine.

Your characters are similarly not without fears. In fact, their fears should interact with or oppose their wants. From this clash is born conflict, and fiction thrives on conflict the way crotchfungus thrives on moist thighflesh. Boris fears staying a corpulent beast and possessing no love, and further, his fear is that he’ll give into his forbidden desire to bathe nightly in buttercream. The Orangutan Kid wants to save orphans, but fears the evil sorcerer who harmed him as a child and continues to turn orphans into delicious sausage.

I, as a writer, want your approval, but fear your rejection.

Wants and fears do not need to interact. I’d argue that you achieve a natural symbiosis within the story when you do, but they can exist on separate axes. A good trick is to have them traveling separate paths until some point within the story, when circumstances force them to cross and oppose: Roderick wants the love of the secretary, but he fears iguanas. He finally asks out Rwanda, she’s into him, they build to a second and third date, he goes over her place… and discovers that she lives on an Iguana Farm in the Everglades. HOLY SHIT.

Or something like that.

The Arc

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

I think characters are more interesting when they change, rather than when they change only the world around them. The iconic hero doesn’t change; the dramatic hero changes. (Robin Laws speaks on this frequently, and is worth reading.) Your mileage may vary, but for purposes of this writing advice, assume that you want your characters to change in some way, whether mentally, emotionally, or physically.

Plot those changes early, before you begin the story.

Start with a loose description of the character in the beginning (Point A). Keep it simple, keep it short: “Wayward Youth,” or “Protective Mother,” or “Naive Meat-Based Sorcerer.”

Do the same, but for the character at the end of the piece (Point B). Simple, short: “Responsible Adult,” or “Drunk Grandmother,” or “The Villainous Scrapplemancer.”

You can chart more points on this arc, but you threaten to muddy the simplicity of the bowed line.

Why do this? Because as you write, you’re going to be aware of it. You’ll allow the character to do things that steer them toward Point B, turning points and character shifts.

Three Traits

Again, it’s important to, before writing the story, imagine those things about your character that are most important. It’s an arbitrary number, but three is a good place to start. No, your character is not the sum total of only three traits — these, however, are the most biggest importantest things about the character throughout this particular story.

No real science to this: play fast and loose. Simple, complex, small, large, whatever.

Esmerelda is: Addicted to Painkillers, Selfish, and Has A Death Wish.

Jubal is: In Search Of A Father Figure, Gullible As Shit, and Easily Stirred To Violence.

Codpiece Johnson is: Awesome At The Guitar, Awesome At Surfing On Top Of Muscle Cars, and Awesome At The Guitar

Why do this?

You’ll see.

The Establishing Shot

Let’s be frank. People’s attention spans are fucking shot. It’s like we all have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or something. It’s not a good thing, but it is a fairly true thing. I’m the same way. I’m an impatient and often-dissatisfied customer. If I’m reading your book and I’m not grabbed by the lapels in the first five pages, fuck you. Book’s done. It goes on a dusty pile. I’m sorry. I’m not saying that’s a good way to be, but it’s the way I am, and I know I’m not alone.

Hence, with characters, you better be fast on the trigger. You need to understand an economy of language and storytelling to emblazon your character across the reader’s mind in one fell swoop.

As an exercise, describe the character using the following:

  • A single sentence (~50 words)
  • A single paragraph (~250 words)
  • A single page (~500 words)

Play a game with yourself. Imagine that someone took one photograph of the character — a single snapshot. Imagine how that snapshot embodies the character. And I’m saying, look back over the things you’ve already established (wants, fears, the arc, the traits) and see how this particular imaginary photograph portrays that character and conveys those elements. (Remember: you control the context of the snapshot — it’s not random, it’s you choosing how to best visualize the character’s nature in a single image.)

Woman in a dirty bathrobe, bruise around her eye, hollow gaze, unwashed hair.

That tells you something. Or, rather, it suggests things, but that’s good.

She’s unkempt, maybe uncaring. She’s been abused, or gets into fights.

You can add details: an empty shotglass in front of her (alcoholic), chipped nails (she bites them, or was in a fight), a ratty Giraffe costume in the background (she engages in consensual Giraffe Play with other like-minded adults).

You don’t have time to fuck around.

Your characters initial entrance into the reader’s mind has to be a good one, a memorable one. A mix of visual description, gesture and dialogue can go a long way toward immediately allowing the reader a feel for the character. The reader may not know her intimately, but they have her in-mind, they have her in-hand.

She’s not a gray, blurry haze. She’s got shape. Definition. Best of all: texture.

Three Traits II: Revenge Of The Three Traits

Remember those three traits? Time to go back to them.

This is something I do both as I write and after I’ve finished — I go through and whenever I come across a character action, descriptor or piece of dialogue that speaks to one of those three traits, I flag it. Maybe I highlight it or put in a Word comment bubble (then hide it again so as not to distract). It’s just a note for me that I’m on the right path. Moreover, if I get to the end and I don’t have enough little flags marking off the “Has A Death Wish” character trait, it’s time to reevaluate. I either need to create more of those moments, or I need to question whether it’s actually one of the character’s primary traits after all. If not, I’ll find a new trait to fill the void and mark those instances off, as well. And if I can’t find instances of other traits? Then maybe, just maybe, I did a dickbucket job of defining the character in an interesting way.

Mark Your Pivot Points

Similar to the previous point, as I write and when I’m finished writing I like to identify those places in the story that mark a shift for the character. Whether your arc is an arc in shape or something more like an exponential curve, a geometric curve, a parabola, a sine wave, or a Methamphetamine scribble, the character should encounter parts of the narrative that either change her subtly, or urge her toward a change. These are pivot points — metaphorically, the character is turning gently (or maybe not so gently) on her heel and pointing her gaze and her gait in a new direction.

That new direction is likely the Point B plotted in your arc. If it’s not, fine — but then it’s time to consider if you need to readjust the pivot points, or change your Point B to a different end-game.

Big Sky Voila: Total Goddamn Perfection Of Character

Except, errm, not really. Listen, as I said the other day, writing is very much like horseshoes or hand grenades — you’re just trying to get close enough.

Writing can never be an act of perfection. Want a stupid metaphor? Here goes. Writing is like a cloud. It’s a bit formless and impossible to perfectly contain. You look up at a cloud, and you can see one that is aesthetically pleasing, and maybe you see several that are unmemorable or even downright ugly. But never are clouds perfect, exactly — a snowflake might be perfect, a diamond might be perfect, a mathematical expression might be perfect, but clouds and writing have borders too hazy, margins too uncertain, to gain perfection.

Not to say you aren’t trying to shape that cloud into an appealing and interesting shape. You are. But we as writers possess no real metric for perfection, so don’t even waste your time. Try to be good, try to be great, don’t try to be perfect. Same goes with your characters. If you nail them, you may not know it. Only the readers can know that (and this speaks to why you always better have people read your stuff and give you notes). But, you can use the tools — like those described here — of the writer to get close enough so that the character is a complete vision, with a soul inside that once-hollow scarecrow.

Will these elements change? Yes. On our film script, we went ahead and found reason to change two of the character’s arcs and traits — but it was an easy change to make, because we knew the characters so well already. It was not a dramatic shift; it was an easy turn, a small but potent manipulation.

But that’s okay. Anyway. Hope this stuff helped. It helps me, at least. If it doesn’t help you, well, I mean, I dunno. Suck it!

*shakes fist*