Ask A Writer: Building A Better Character

As always, if you want to ask a question that may be featured in this very space, go sally forth to the:

Ask page at the Terribleminds Tumblr.

Today, then, a focus on character, in which I field two questions that came winging into my inbox (not a sexual reference, but you can have it if you like it). Those questions are, drum roll please:

mstrimmer asks:

If you are aiming to make a character as three dimensional as possible, what is the best starting point for that exercise?

Kefirah asks:

Hey Chuck Love your blogs and tweets, and I have got scads of good advice from you over the year or so I’ve been following, but I don’t think I’ve seen a blog on how to describe characters/people in stories. Is there any big, massively effective way of doing this? Would you consider doing a blog about it? Thanks and love and all that Cath/ aka Kefirah

As with All-Things-Writing, I’d love to alight upon your shoulder like a weirdly-bearded bird and whisper in your ear the SECRET RULES TO WRITING GOOD CHARACTER, but in truth, no such rules exist. Writing works when it works, and sucks when it sucks, and what works for Mary Lou Monkeyballs doesn’t work at all for Big Danny Doucheballoon. Writing advice is only as good as the words you get from it.

Still, I can ramble and slur my way through some thoughts on how to build — and then describe — good character. And you’ll stay and watch because, hey, who doesn’t like it when I blog my way into a corner?

Also, I have you duct-taped to those lawn chairs. So, there’s that.

With character, we don’t have a blinky red button we can hit that Auto-Generates personas on the 3D printer we all have sitting to the right of our computer monitors (right?). Creating three-dimension in a character is an act of fortune and patience and heaps and buckets of thought.

But, I can give you a couple tips.

Use ‘em, ignore ‘em, blow ‘em up with M80s. Your call.

First, ask yourself a handful of questions regarding the character.

What does she want, and why can’t she have it?

What is she afraid of and why is she afraid of it?

What made her who she is today?

Why the fuck do we care?

The first two questions are easy and form the scoliosis backbone of storytelling (scoliosis because it’s bent and wavy, not a straight line): every story is about status quo and the interruption of that status quo. Or, put differently, every story is a flat line heading in one direction until something changes, modifies, or halts that direction. The character generally is the one on that flat line, riding it the way Slim Pickens rides the missile in Dr. Strangelove. Except here the straightness and direction of the line is by no means inevitable.

Put differently again and this time with a refocus on character: every story is about a character who wants something and can’t have it. The “can’t have it” is the conflict of the story — the character is stopped from achieving his goals or fleeing his fears, and the story part of the story is about him finding a way to overcome. Or, in some more cynical modes, not finding a way.

Wants and fears and conflicts can change over the course of a story, of course. But we’re talking initiating factors here, and even when elements do shift through the course of the tale told, you can just go back to answering the same set of questions for each new “phase shift.” Or whatever you want to call it. (Just don’t call it late for dinner HAR HAR HAR *gun in mouth*)

Further, you can establish multiple wants and fears, though the “rule of three” here is good — going beyond three driving motivations for the character is just you muddying up the soup with too many ingredients. After awhile, it’s all just gross and brown. (You know what, here I’m going to be the bigger man and not engage in some kind of diarrhea-based humor. You owe me. You owe me.)

John McClane in Die Hard wants to be with his wife — with her in the smaller and larger sense. And of course, he has a number of things blocking him: the distance between NY and CA, the distance between he and his wife’s ideals and careers, and oh, right, A SQUADRON OF EUROTRASH TERRORISTS.

Onto the third question: what makes the character who she is at the inception of the tale?

A character is technically born out of nothing — but it can’t read like that on the page. They are who they are, just as we are who we are, because external events (abandoned by parents! attacked by robots! pooped pants during elementary school talent show!) and internal choices (addiction to a bad drug! loved the wrong person! betrayed one’s planet to the alien fungus!) conspire to create a quilt of who we are. And who we are equals the decisions we make — and the decisions we make further change who we are.

So: it helps to know where a character comes from. Suss out those external events and internal choices that lead to the character we see on the page or the screen. That doesn’t mean the audience needs to see all those events and choices laid bare — because, for real, fuck origin stories right in the ear — as a lot of story exists off the page and off the screen. A lot of story lives only in your head (and ideally, your notes). Again, to go back to the non-diarrhea soup metaphor: just because we can’t see an ingredient (say: salt) doesn’t mean we can’t taste it. It’s in there even if we cannot identify it by sight. Characters are like that. A whole bunch of invisible story is woven into the narrative DNA of each character.

Now: final question, and the hardest of them all.

Why the fuck do we care?

Critical question — because, if you can’t give the audience reason enough to care, we’re out. Character is everything in story (everything), and if we can’t muster a single squirmy fuck about the character in question, the eject button is within easy reach. Meaning, we turn off the DVD player, put down the Kindle, or banish the storytelling nano-cloud that delivers the tale to our neo-cortex with sharp spikes of narrative lightning (hey, whatever, just trying to stay future proof over here).

Asking why we care demands then we ask how we make the audience care.

Again, no easy answer, but why not try to stumble-bumble through out? Journey with me!

The audience wants to relate to the character. Meaning, they want to see some aspect of their own stories reflected in the story of the character. We need common experience shared. And here you’re (correctly) balking, saying, “Well, how can I ever tell a story different from the audience’s? Hell, how do I even know what the audience’s story is? The audience comprises a theoretical infinity of individual stories and interests and, and and–” Here your head goes BLOOSH. Wet goop everywhere. Delicious.

The point is to realize that the character on the page has his own unique story components, but those components speak to larger, more universal human elements of the human condition. The struggle of son versus father, the fear of death, altruism versus selfishness, whatever. No, we’ve never been a Jedi or a mob boss or a zombie hunter, but those struggles are emblems for other things.

The other way you make an audience care about a character is just by making her fascinating to watch. The character should be interesting. Not a dull everywoman with all the flavor of chalk dust but rather, someone who is fun, or funny, or weird, or ass-kickery, or some characteristic that makes us root for them and want to watch them for two hours or 300 pages. In short: fuck boring. Boredom is the enemy of story.

There exist other exercises, too, wherein you dig deeper into character and get to the heart of these questions: you might consider just opening a Word document and cracking open your brain with a metaphorical ice-hammer and blubbering into the word processor until you start seeing flecks of gold in all that muck. Which you then mine, discarding the rest as worthless dross.

You might also take the character for a ride on a narrative test drive: write a scene, a piece of flash fiction, a chapter from an imaginary book. All featuring that character, front and center. Doesn’t have to be something you’ll ever use or even show — but it just helps you walk around in that character’s skin for a while. It’ll be uncomfortable and itchy at first (and will chafe at the armpits and crotch), but over time, you’ll start to find the comfort there. You’ll start to know the character intimately (this is where I do my artsy writing teacher thing where I sweep my arms in a dramatic fashion and say loudly, You must learn to MAKE LOVE to your characters, you must lap at their love-puddles, you must spelunk into their darkest, moistest grottos.)

Final note on creating a fully-formed character?

The three-beat arc.

This doesn’t have to be a thing you stick to — as with any story-prep, no plan survives contact with the enemy — but it’s a thing that will help you get your head around the character and the journey she walks.

Establish three beats/traits/adjectives that mark the character’s journey.

A –> B –> C.

Selfish cowardly prick –> Goes to war; is tested –> Selfless heroic soldier. Or:

Angry –> Pushed to brink –> Finds tense peace. Or:

Robot –> Lives with new family –> Learns how to be human. Or:

Angry racist –> Jailed –> Reformed outsider (aka, American History X). Or:

Consider how the character of Coburn in Double Dead goes from Predator –> Protector –> Penitent. And three of the four sections of the book mark that journey quite plainly. There’s actually a fourth step in there (“Prey”), and that’s another thing to note: you needn’t be limited to three steps or stages. Insert as many as you need to map a journey.

Ultimately, this pairs well with expected and mythic character arcs, right?

Whether we’re talking childhood –> adulthood –> old age or its mythic counterpart, maiden –> mother –> crone (or prince –> king –> emperor), we’re charting and tracking change, whether that change is positive or negative growth. You can literally draw shapes from this.

Hell, at the end of the day, you might argue that character arcs like this always add up to:

Thesis –> Antithesis –> Synthesis.

Our lives work that way, don’t they? We feel a certain way during youth and adolescence, then adulthood tempers our expectations with quite a bit of pushback, then we move into our golden years as a summary of our experiences both positive and negative.

That’s character. Character lives in that space.

Now, to finalize:

How to describe.

Take your finger and thumb. Space them apart by two inches. In my mind, the character description on the page probably shouldn’t exceed that. Some authors refuse to describe characters at all, while others go hog-wild and give pages of description — I like a character to be painted in a few bold, notable strokes. What to define? Define what’s different and distinctive. Different-colored eyes. Strong nose. Ugly pants. Two penises wrestling for dominance. LASER NIPPLES. Whatever.

Again, cleave to the rule of threes if it suits you:

No more than three descriptive elements.

I go beyond this sometimes, but still: terse is good.

And you don’t need to lump all the descripty-bits into one section, either.

You can space them out throughout the first several chapters, if writing prose. (Just don’t wait until the end to tell us about the two-penis or laser-nipple thing. That’s a bit of information we should have early on.)

And that’s it.

My thoughts on character-building, in a way-longer-than-expected post.

Please to enjoy.

18 comments

  • I’m reading Blackbirds right now. Every character in that book is amazing. I love Miriam, love love love her. I see my really bad six month phase of drugs and sex and fuck-it-all in her. And I can see this whole blog post put to use in that book, and the combination of this post and that book have given me some huge insight. Character was always where I fumbled. I’d start writing and just hate the fact that my characters felt like origami people. Quit writing. How is it that you’re always the reason why I pick back up a pen and paper or open a new document?

  • Now I really want to see a book featuring Mary Lou Monkeyballs and Big Danny Doucheballon. I see it as a quirky buddy action/comedy about a couple of serial killers in search of the perfect kill.

    Of course I may have been drinking a lot of coffee this morning.

  • It’s always good having these things freshly drummed into my skull every so often. In fact, just reading your point about arcs boiling down to Thesis –> Antithesis –> Synthesis helped me clarify some major backstory skull-fudgery for one character. As sagely word-monsters go, you’re a good ‘un to have around.

  • I had been fishing around for something I could use to start a conversation about writing characters in my writer’s group this Thursday. I think I just found what I was looking for.

  • Very useful, and very timely. There are some characters in my novel that are still feeling a bit flat to me, and need fleshing out… Some of the ideas in this post seem likely to help with that. Thanks!

  • “The audience wants to relate to the character. Meaning, they want to see some aspect of their own stories reflected in the story of the character. We need common experience shared.”
    I remember watching Dexter for the first time. Since I had been reading Terribleminds forquite some time and had started thinking analytically, I sat down and did some analysing. What I arrived at was that I (and by default other people, since I am not a special snowflake) relate to Dexter because we can relate to the feeling of being different. The fact that he is a serial killer and we are at most mildly eccentric, does not matter. We relate to his feeling of being different, or constantly thinking one thing and saying another and to the feeling that we are abnormal and everyone else normal, which is turned around sometimes, like when he finds out that his colleague is actually divorced, but haven’t told anyone. That, IMO, is what make Dexter a compelling figure and someone we can relate to, even though by all logic, we shouldn’t.

  • Very useful, very cool advice. I’ve done the narrative test drive (and now I have a name for it, thanks!) by interviewing my characters. Sometimes I only get to ask one question before they barf out a whole lot of words, telling me about their past, or bitching about the present, or ranting about what they *really* think of that other character. Almost none of it makes it into the story, except as underlying currents, but it totally helps flesh ‘em out (and sometimes shocks the crap outta me, which is always fun).

  • Oh my god. I watched American History X literally… maybe a week ago.

    I am so happy that I actually get that reference.

    Anyway, enjoyed reading your post and have something of my own to (maybe) contribute.
    When I create my characters, I sometimes have a definite version of them in my mind, but the Main Character in the novel I’m currently working on, I have no clue. I don’t think there’s a word of description of her in there. I had to ask my mother, who is reading it as I get each chapter written. (Shame on me, I know, but she bugs me about it.)

    That’s where I got the description of her.

  • It was a shocking wake-up call for me as a grown-ass person who writes and teaches writing to realize that I have no idea how to write fiction. Character confounds me! I’m (agonisingly slowly) learning how to bridge the gap in my skillset between creative/autobio nonfiction and balls-to-the-wall, completely fabricated story. Thinking about John McClane is helping.

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