On Writing: Character

This morning I had to take my mom to a doctor appointment for some sort of glandular issue. The doctor then ordered some lab work. It was a long, somewhat stressful day. But we had a very interesting conversation while we waited for this and that. We talked about one of the characters in my novel.

Even before she finished her read-through, my mom announced she seriously disliked one of the male characters. Said he wasn’t a man. Used another interesting word I’m not going to repeat on here. It left me puzzled. I liked him fine. Maybe he wasn’t my favorite, but that’s okay. We all have our most favorite and least favorite. (Parents, you know what I’m talking about.) After she finished reading my manuscript, she held firm in her opinion of this guy. I didn’t get it. He was an honest, honorable, sensitive guy. Handsome and brave and all that. Today, while we sat in the waiting room, my mom added that she much preferred one of the other guys.  Well, that didn’t surprise me too much. (My mom recently confessed a major girl-crush on the Rock. But only when he’s behaving “Rock-like.”) She likes men of action. Men of ass-kickery. Men of strong muscles and stronger jaws/brows/eyes. Sensitivity and in touch with his feminine side is a bit further down her list of likes.

We talked about the differences between the two characters, compared them to characters on other shows (Person of InterestArrow, Revenge). She expressed extreme disappointment in my guy over the trajectory of his character development. It created conflict in one of his relationships, and that bothered her. At which point, I explained that conflict is important, not just for story progression but for character progression. Anyone who’s read Campbell or McKee or Egri knows this: conflict creates story, conflict builds character. It’s the engine of change for both. I also explained to my mom that it was okay to dislike/hate a character. (Though yes, I know sometimes we can hate in a bad way. Lori/Andrea from The Walking Dead, anyone?) We hate a really great villain. (Joffrey!!!) We can even hate a really entertaining hero. (Spike–or Angel, in my mom’s case.)

As I’ve said before, characters that don’t evolve will stagnate. (God, I wish I could think of a different, better word than stagnate!) Conflict is the best, most compelling, most believable way to motivate that evolution. Success can do it, but success without conflict feels just a little emptier, a little too easy. Failure works better, in fiction and in real life. Because we learn from failure, and so do our characters.

And I happen to think it’s great if a reader/viewer has different feelings for different characters. Because I think it’s great if our characters are different from each other. I mentioned this before, too, but if you have two or three or more characters who seem eerily similar to each other and seem to meet similar needs in your story, why do you have them? Merge them into one, and make that one character really shine.

I want to add something for writers who are working on a multi-volume story, because I feel like there are some differences between that sort of piece and a one-shot sort of thing. In the one-shot (movies, mostly, that aren’t part of a series of movies), you need to start and end in that one story. Makes sense, right? Your narrative must have some sort of satisfactory resolution. Your character must have arrived at some sort of destination, physically, emotionally, or thematically. In a multi-volume work (movie franchises and almost every TV show out there), story and character are stretched over the course of the project. NashvilleSons of Anarchy, even the Law & Orders introduce characters who grow over years. The same is true in literature. (I’m still working on broadening my palette, or I’d mention several examples here outside of sci-fi/fantasy.) Your character should grow, but he/she/it doesn’t necessarily have to reach his/her/its “final” metamorphosis in this installment of the story. But they do have to go somewhere. And that’s what I ended with, when my mom and I were discussing her least favorite character. This guy had a ways to go, for the reader and for me. (Yes, I admit. Even I’m not sure where I’m taking this guy.)

I take the conversation as a sign of success, though. Sort of. We all know it’s better to write a character that people hate, than a character that people sit back and think “meh” about. I really, really hate Clay from SoA, but I love to see him do his thing onscreen. But I just plain hate Rayna from Nashville. I even hated her more than Oliver Hudson’s character, Jeff Fordham. (I know some of you may disagree and love Rayna. And bless your heart for it.) Because she bores me. I don’t sympathize with her. And I really just want to see her go offscreen and not come back. 🙂 On Person of Interest, John used to be my favorite character. He reminded so much of Jack Bauer, and well… haha… I’m gonna gush in a minute. Anyway. But John’s development on PoI has taken a slight turn (or maybe hasn’t turned much at all?), and I’m starting to wonder if I really like him as much as I used to. (Go Team Shaw!)

Here’s the bottom line, though. Love your characters, even when you hate them.


what a difference a day makes

This may be a short one. I’m having a definite off-week.

I haven’t been sleeping well. Apparently, staying up all night is for the young buck. When I was an undergrad, I remember staying up until 5 or 6 in the morning, getting no more than four or five hours. That doesn’t work anymore.

Sleep is great. But I also think it’s boring. I like to spend most of my time working out story stuff in my head, and I don’t remember anything useful about my dreams. I definitely can’t write when I’m asleep. So I stay up late, either trying to write or doing something that gets my mind in a storytelling sort of mood.

I mentioned this in a previous post, but writers need to make a schedule. This isn’t just to make sure you do write, it’s to make sure writing doesn’t turn the rest of your life upside-down. Some people find structure too restrictive. They prefer to go with the flow, not make plans, see what happens. Some people go the other way with it. I lean toward that direction a little. Structure is great. But I have trouble applying it where it’s needed most. Having a daily schedule isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t have to be treated like scripture. It’s a guide, and it has as much control over our lives as we’re willing to give it. Like everything else. But I think it’s okay to say that breakfast is best in the morning, sleep is best at night, and exercise is best somewhere between those times.

For some strange reason (it may involve a problem with discipline), I’ve never liked fitting my writing efforts into one fixed time of the day. In film school, I learned that about four hours a day was a good amount of time to work on scripts and papers. It sounds like a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the day.

My problem was being consistent in choosing a specific time of day and sticking to it. Despite my preference for structure, I love flexibility. (I also loved eating out, but that’s a separate issue.) I’m not an expert at scheduling, but I think they work best when your list of daily responsibilities isn’t just floating around on the day planner.

Damn. I’m tired. But I’d like to put this in now before I forget it later.

Structure is pretty good in storytelling, too. We’re all familiar with the three act structure (beginning, middle, end). Most of us have probably even heard of Campbell’s description of the “hero’s journey.” (I used to know it really well, but I’m too wiped right now to recall everything.) His point was that there are patterns of storytelling that cross cultures and centuries. As writers, we could think of them as elements of structure. There’s a hero, there’s an antagonist. There’s a challenge, there’s some kind of resolution. Maybe it’s weak sauce. I know it’s not groundbreaking.

Of course, there are plenty of stories that don’t follow convention. Some are successful, others aren’t. I think this is where arguments about “formula” come into it. Hollywood’s notorious for producing formula films, stories where we can accurately predict the outcome of a narrative, the course of a character’s evolution, even the themes that emerge. Some audiences love it, and that’s fine. They appreciate and enjoy that sense of predictability. But there are others (myself included) that would prefer to be surprised–and challenged.

I don’t like being confused, though. (I’m looking at you Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! God, this week’s episode was frustrating. How many twists and turns does it take until you turn a TV episode into a really expensive pretzel?) There’s a fine line, to be sure.

I gotta admit, though. S.H.I.E.L.D. was confusing, but at least it was bold about it.