Saturday, March 24, 2018

POP QUIZ: How Have You Learned To Write Good Characters?

Last night one of our good friends told me, "you know what would help the pulp rev peeps? A how to write characters workshop/book recommendation/blog series." That sounded like a good idea but it also sounded like a lot of work, so I called on our frontier barn-raising spirit and shotgunned a question on that to a bunch of different writers in my Discord DMs.

How have you learned to write good characters?

Good characters come from understanding good dialogue. Find authors that handle that exceptionally well, like Raymond Chandler, and read whatever you can from them. Find the greats that inspire you and study them. Study Comedy. Nine-tenths of stand-up comedy is crafting a persona and telling stories in a unique way through dialogue.

When I'm at the early stages of something, I'll write a scene between two characters that is nothing but dialogue. No narration beyond basic identification of characters at the beginning. The goal is to write an entire scene that way and still have the dialogue flow clearly while keeping both characters identifiable. Then I'll start adding narration expanding on whatever action is being commented on.

Without consulting any of the pros, I'd start with authenticity.

Even if your character has superpowers, there has to be a reason we care about him or her. What matters more than anything to your character? (Even a minor character.)

Picking people from real life and pillaging their personal traits is my #1 favorite method. Oddly, most people will not see what you've done. "Our Town" writer Thornton Wilder said the people he modeled his characters after did not recognize themselves.  Pulitzer-winning play, based on normal daily activities in a small New Hampshire town, no exploding helicopters, no paranormal events, no alien invaders, just people, ordinary, real-life people. And he wins the Pulitzer.

Does this mean we should find meaning in the banal? To me, it means we should look to our neighbors, co-workers, parents, friends, and offspring for material. Listen to them. Yesterday I started reading a novel set in the south, and I gave up on it when Granny showed up with "What in tarnations is you all up to now," and "git on outta here," and the excess of phonetic spellings. When it comes to dialect, LESS is MORE. Hint at it.

Do you really hear people talk the way your characters talk?  The trick of fiction is to make the dialogue read like real conversations, when in fact, real conversations would make terrible dialogue. We trim out the filler words, the extraneous details. My dad used to be explosive, shouting and using dramatic inflections: "I told you NOT to go there, so you GO there, because YOU know more than I do, and the car is RUINED now, and YOU are...."

But, workshoppers tell me, KILL the all caps, and the italics. Trust the reader to get it. But in real life, not many people shout and vociferate like my dad does.

So, how do you bring your characters to life? Another novel I read this week annoyed me because the characters were cliches. The heroine is a science geek - cool - and has a collection of Marvel action figures. And I like her comments on this stuff. Then her mom shows up, spouting one cliche after another. Totally two-dimensional.

The hero is a billionaire playboy with six-pack abs and a bad habit of cheating on girlfriends.
But, hey, his mom neglected him. And his dad died. And he's under a lot of pressure. So, ok, let's forgive him and believe he can be faithful now, because his eyes are so blue, his smile is so sunny, and he's a Greek god even in a business suit.

And the dialogue? All he says is SWEET and endearing. He's so attentive. A good listener. A gentleman. (And a cheating cad.) Come on, women's fiction readers, do you really want these fantasy figures passed off as "real" characters in your fiction? I don't. But I'm not the average reader.

You can use tropes and cliches and get away with it, if you flesh them out with personal traits (pillaged from your real life friends and enemies.)

Should I shut up now?

King uses name brands in his fiction. Why say "candy bar" if "Baby Ruths" are the guy's favorite?
Why say he opened a can of soda if Pepsi is his favorite? Some writers swear by a character using certain identifying phrases. On Friends, Joey's "How YOU doin'", or Ross's "We were on a break!"
"Meat Head" - we all know that as Archie Bunker. "Up all your noses with rubber hoses" - Vinnie Barbarino, Welcome Back, Kotter. The Fonz: Aaaaaayyy. Dy-no-MITE!

In military fiction, we meet a team of soldiers, and each one is identifiable and memorable, and one by one, they all die.

Characters must be memorable. The trick is to take a sample of the best and worst traits of humanity, amplify them, and make these traits shine through your character's words and deeds. Then give the character something unique about him. A boxer character can't be a mere pugilist: he must have an exotic fighting style, he must dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee, he must have a granite chin and an iron will, he must have something that no one else in the story has. Personality-wise, he could be a humble and unassuming man who donates his time and money regularly to charity; he could be an obnoxious showman who talks smack about his opponent pre-fights and gets into brawls outside the ring. Whatever traits and skills he has, they should be displayed consistently throughout the story,  in a way unique to him. This is doubly important for protagonists, who is almost always under the reader's eye. Jim Butcher recommends giving characters three good traits and two bad ones, and I find that marvelous advice.

When I plan my characters, I think about the skills they need to prevail in a story, their personalities and temperaments, and how they express their skills and themselves. The skills and personalities must be an organic outgrowth of their history, not just a random bunch of traits and perks slapped together, for this is how people grow in our world. A useful trick is to have contrasting characters constantly interact with each other, consistently reinforcing their differences and revealing their innermost selves. In my Covenanter Chronicles series, the protagonist Luke Landon is an ultra-competent black ops martial artist prone to bouts of introspection and moodiness, and undergoes a crisis of faith to underscore the series' exploration of religion. Thus, I made his partner, Peter Hanson, a cheerful extrovert who constantly needles everyone around him, making everyone loosen up in his own way, while also making him a deadly gunman and a competent combat hacker. Eve, the series heroine, is comfortable with her faith, in contrast to Luke, and speaks with an educated register that stands out against Luke's curt contradictions and Pete's boisterous informalities. Further, she suffers from increasingly-violent mood swings, a trait no one else suffers from - but Luke can sympathise with her struggles, as he wrestles with his own inner demons.

Of course, it always pays to study masters of the craft. Off the top of my head, I can recommend Barry Eisler, Daniel Silva, Larry Correia's Grimnoir chronicles, Walter Mosley's Leonid McGill series, Michael Connelly, Jeffrey Deaver, Poul Anderson, Jim Butcher and Simon R Green's Nightside series. These writers are excellent at effortlessly creating memorable characters. Beyond the written word, My Hero Academia, Full Metal Alchemist, Samurai X, Vagabond, Dimension W and Road to Perdition are excellent examples of how to create memorable characters with economy of dialogue, action and visual design, the last being another important way to distinguish characters. Movies and TV series with a strong element of drama are also useful guides to study body language, clothing, slang, jargon, personalities, and dialogue; and how characters exemplify themes and ideas. I'd recommend A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hardboiled, the Rocky series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, The Unit, Flashpoint, Cowboy Bebop. Finally, also look at story- and drama-heavy games like Trails in the Sky, Trails of Cold Steel, Final Fantasy, Sleeping Dogs, LA Noire, the Witcher series, Heavy Rain, the Fallout series, Mass Effect (1-3) and the Max Payne series. You may not like them all, some stories are spotty, but the characters will stick with you.

How I learned how to write good characters? When beginning the alpha stages of outlining my stories, I write up a small list of characters who are important to the plot. Just a thing or two about them would suffice at that point. Once the outlining is done, I return back to the characters and flesh them out, giving them interesting personalities, quirks, and how they’d talk to every other character. I do leave out certain bits to be filled out on the fly. Taka (from my Star Being series) for example, is an orphaned girl who fights honorably with her father’s blade, but has a vendetta against those who killed her family and village. She’s also quite cold, but quickly arms up to someone who gives her even a small glance of kindness. Those are her main points about her. I’ve also written some small tidbits about her to help flesh her out. For example, she wakes up extraordinarily early, loves to train with her sword, and she is a pescetarian. 

Where I get ideas for making good characters is from the ether. There is no concrete way I really learned to write good characters. From television? Books? Movies? People I know in real life? Could be from all four, but they aren’t the prime targets from where I do fish for personalities. I simply make up how I create good characters, leaving enough room for some details that could alter how the characters really are, or how they tic. Again, we’ll go back to Taka. She has no qualms about any random person she first meets for the first time. However, she is very much racist against robots, for her village was slaughtered by them. If she sees a robot, expect her pleasant personality to turn sour.
Some visual parts are inspired from characters of other mediums. For example, the major character from my Star Being series, Hedgestar, has a visor on his mask similar to Meta Knight from the Kirby series. Calculo, a main villain from said series, has a head very similar to the computer from The Brave Little Toaster. Of course, the character’s physical appearances aren’t the main concern for the majority of the time.

How I learned to write good characters? I write the story first while writing up some character ideas. Once the story is more well-formed, I go back to the characters and fit them nearly in to place. Their physical traits don’t matter much to me until the very end of the outlining stage. Some would say that having no guide isn’t smart. To me, that could be the case. I see it as an opportunity for what hasn’t been marked by others.

I don't know if I write good characters yet. :)  But usually what I try and do is come up with maybe two good, strong virtues for a protagonist plus one negative trait. And then I invert that for the villain. I give each significant character a tag... something I use to describe them when they come on the scene. And then for the main protagonist(s) and villain, I pick a "superpower." It could literally be a superpower, or it could simply be some skill that they are better at than almost anyone else (in the story).

So, in my novel Blood Creek Witch, you have Jack. His positive traits are that he's self-sacrificing in the cause of doing good, and he's adventurous. Negative - he  won't lie (bonus traits: He's also a bit naive, and honesty is good except to that fault).   Tag: His John Deere hat.  Superpower: He's resistant to magic.

Val Hull:
I honestly believe that a good character can not be static. You can't determine their every trait and quality beforehand and then consult your notes whenever you're not sure what a character would do or say in any particular situation.

What I think works best is to figure out a general idea for a character, outline them with a few broad strokes and start writing. The goal is to set up a scenario, put the pieces on the board so to speak, and then let your imagination run wild. As a result, your characters will often surprise you, act in a variety of unpredictable ways. They'll become more nuanced with each passing scene.

And sure, this means that your story starts with characters that may be lacking some depth. But this is where editing comes in handy. After the story is finished, your characters have overcome all sorts of trouble and you know all about them, you can then easily go back and adjust the early parts to match the later ones.

Oh yeah, just hit me, if there's enough space to fit it in, two quick rules: 1) Never base a character on yourself - it makes it impossible to look at a character objectively. 2) Never base a character on someone you know - it's rude and inconsiderate.

Starting out? Doing the Mary Sue thing and writing a wish fulfillment/self-insert avatar that has no conflict, no weaknesses, etc. because you're writing a boring character. I ran into that problem. For some (like me) going back and re-reading the stuff that inspired us will show how to avoid that trap; E.R. Burroughs did this by overwhelming his protagonists with problems he can't put off, getting separated from key support and having to do without or struggle to get back to, and - and this is truly under-appreciated - having smarter villains as antagonists who do their best to read the hero and exploit those weaknesses. After re-reading, then comes assimilation and that means application; re-write old stuff to punch it up and fix problems, and also carry forward to new stuff.

What this means is that you're wise to define your hero character before you get going. Knowing what he can, can't, will, and won't do (and why) means that you'll be able to display his weaknesses when they become relevant for plot or characterization reasons.

As you do with the hero, so with the villain and the key support character. (Traditionally, Hero, Villain and Love Interest.)

I have no idea, I just like hyper-focused on that and hyper-focused on watching/reading things that were super-character focused like Babylon 5 / Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga.

I've always been a character writer. Dialogue springs to my head more readily than action or setting or scale, and I find the intricacies of social interaction to be more fascinating than almost anything else. I don't think I can call myself a good writer, not yet, but seeing as I focus on character more than anything else, I figure I can explain how I got mired in this lovely swamp. 

In my view, there are three components to effective characters: voice, presence, and inner self. I'd love to cover all three, but since I was asked to provide three paragraphs and not twenty, I'll restrict myself to voice. Voice is the most important aspect, as barring special cases it is the author's sole means of communicating the essence of his character. In certain cases, where first-person narration is used exclusively, a certain character's voice comes to filter the entire fictional world, changing its hue and shape - one of the most famous and effective examples is Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, who transubstantiates the entire horrid story with his irresistible eloquence.

I eavesdrop a lot - I'm blessed with musical ears , and they're sensitive enough to pick up most conversations, even on crowded trains. When I listen in on people's conversations (discreetly, of course), I'm not interested in knowing what they're talking about - gossip bores me to death. The only thing I want to know is how they're talking, and what they might be implying underneath. People tend to talk at cross-purposes with what they want to say, and if you can harness that ambiguity of language, many powerful and subtle moments open themselves up to you. 

Talking and saying are two different things. It's in the gray area between them that compelling dialogue lurks, like perfume on a dreary breeze. And with voice comes character, and with character, story.

Great advice! Hopefully you can glean something that helps your character-building and character-writing. If some of this advice seems like it disagrees or even contradicts itself, remember:
All Writers Are Different.
Be sure to leave a comment below! How have YOU learned to write good characters? What question would you like me to shotgun to a different set of writers next week? All thoughts are appreciated.


  1. Troy Tang - well said! "Voice is the most important aspect"- I agree. "...a certain character's voice comes to filter the entire fictional world, changing its hue and shape - one of the most famous and effective examples is Nabokov's Humbert Humbert ("Lolita") - and this. This!
    "I eavesdrop a lot ...even on crowded trains... (discreetly, of course).. **how they're talking, and what they might be implying underneath** - yes. Word shoices. Inflections. Tone of voice. What is said, and what is not said.
    (Wishing I had taken time to write something thoughtful instead of spouting off random comments, not realizing I might be quoted verbatim--oops! Then again, that's me.)

  2. Val Hull, you scare me:
    **1) Never base a character on yourself - it makes it impossible to look at a character objectively. 2) Never base a character on someone you know - it's rude and inconsiderate.**
    You're kidding, right? Right??
    All characters, even villains, spring from some part of ourselves. (So I've heard, and so I believe.)
    And the people we meet in real life **will** manifest in our fiction, however unconsciously the writer might channel the voice, the mannerisms, the behaviors... right???
    I've never believed the disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction; any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental."
    The people we know are like kaleidoscope pieces, and we pool them together, create amalgams, then pretend like it's pure fiction.
    (Thinking I need a pen name, and fast...)

  3. I both agree and disagree, Carol.

    At some level, every single character you write is a reflection of yourself, at the very least a manifestation of some idea you're playing around with. However, when it comes to character traits, behavior, likeness - that, I believe, should come from inside. Basing actual characters on some childhood friend prone to making bad decisions, or working some situation from real life into a fantastical setting and calling it a day is a big no-no for me.

    I feel like it's a betrayal of some implicit trust people place onto you, and dangerously close to spying. The omnipresent social media does a great job of that without our help. It's like the golden rule. I would hate to see myself being a part of someone's story, doesn't matter if the comparisons are favorable. As such, I avoid subjecting others to such treatment.

    But hey, this is what I love about this post - it offers almost diametrically opposing viewpoints. We all have our own personal brands of crazy.

  4. Val, I'm not thinking of taking someone's personal story and personality to plunder and pillage in a sensational novel. We have ambulance chasing lawyers; we have people profiting from scandal by writing memoirs; we don't need novelists stealing our stories, although Joyce Carol Oates did a good job of it in "Black Water," clearly a fictionalized version of Chappaquiddick. Then again, there is the minister who lived 17 miles away from until a few months ago, and he is allegedly the guy who murdered my sister. For almost 3 years I tried to break through the police cover-ups in a now 42-year-old cold case. I've decided the truth will only get told via fiction, and even then, we may never know what is true. Innocent people, I wouldn't "steal" their stories, e.g., the mother who backed out of the driveway, running over and killing her toddler. That is so not a story I'd steal for a novel. But the small town minister who got away with murder? Minister as Killer is as cliche now a priest/pedophile, but someone trusted and loved by the community posing as a good guy - that was John Gacey's m.o., and Ted Bundy fooling so many women with his nice guy routine.

    1. I see where you're coming from but here's the thing - a writer using real people as characters is essentially them admitting that at all times they're watching and judging everyone around them. While I've no doubts that pretty much everyone does that, the thought is a deeply unsettling one to me.

      Of course, I'm a strong proponent of doing what works for you. For me, though, characters come second to the story. I don't start with a character and build a story around them. First comes an idea, then the story, and then I try to figure out what kinds of characters would fit it best.

      While in your case, I can definitely see why you'd do the opposite. Still, like you're saying, the priest is more of a concept now. It's your idea. It gives you the freedom to explore and alter it however you see fit.

    2. It's not like we can actually understand another human being deeply enough to perfectly copy them on the page, even if we spend our lives following theirs. We understand other people largely through the models, the simulations, of them we run in our own imaginations, and those are just as fictional as (if much more useful than) our characters.

      Writing characters from people we know is, to me, drawing from life. We do watch and judge people, mostly wildly inaccurately, and those inaccuracies can make for exciting and vibrant characters.

      For the record, I am absolutely fine with people basing characters off of me. I'd be flattered. You're going to get it wrong, of course, but so would I.

  5. Writing a Mary Sue works if you're a six foot six three hundred pound gun enthusiast accountant. Those are kind of interesting because they are rare. Otherwise not so much.