Friday, January 27, 2012

Writing/Gaming - Character 101 Part 2 - Character Description

This is part two of the Character 101 series. The first part is available here.

Earlier this week, we talked about the importance of defining a world and having limitations within that world so that a particular character can be tested, and hopefully overcome those challenges.

While that's great advice, I'm sure many of you have said (and judging by my inbox, some did) "That's great but what about the character? How can the first step in character building be about anything other than characters?"

I point here, as I did to those who asked that for better defined characters, their world is as much a part of them as their clothes or eye color. Batman has Gotham and the Batcave. Superman has Metropolis and Krypton, Harry Dresden has Chicago, Coburn has his apocalypse.

If you can find me a well-crafted character where their world is not a part of them in an intrinsic way, please let me know, I'm curious.

Today, we look at something very concrete and very directly tethered to character.

The rule for part 2 can be summarized like this:

A description that contains audience-relatable elements of either a physical or emotional/mental nature

Your keywords here:

  • audience-relatable
  • physical
  • emotional
  • mental
We have all read poor character descriptions. I don't mean descriptions that are intentionally undone (where the author chooses not to give details so that the audience can paint their own pictures), I mean descriptions where they give all the components poorly.

Like here:

Terry worked long hours at the dock. He was a blond, although dirty in both hair and skin. He was tall, but no bigger than the others he worked with. He was strong but not weighed down with muscle.

Yes, I made those sentences up, and yes, they're really bad, but they're bad on purpose. Notice how the description starts with Terry's occupation...an all too-common notion is that if we (readers) know what a person does, we can pigeonhole them. (We make blanket statements that someone of X job looks a certain way, or that by describing someone by their profession, we eliminate a lot of other allegedly relevant descriptors -- and by extension, when you mash a profession onto a set of descriptors that seems inappropriate, you create dissonance and a disconnect for readers)

From there, we move into a messy attempt at double-meanings, trying to tie 'dirty blonde' with dirty-from-work. We end with two ruinous sentences where the respective second halves cancel out the first halves. If a character is no taller than others, then they're not tall. 'Tall' is only capable if you have something not-'Tall' for comparison.

When describing something, the majority of the words used can create perspective. And the use of that word creates a proposition that an opposite concept also occurs. (You cannot understand up if you don't know down, or wet without dry). The character doesn't need to exist in both states, but they do need to exist in whatever states you say they do, and consistency is key. If Terry is tall, then he's tall compared to something-to-be-named-later that is "short". Don't trust that the reader will intuit their own perspectives (I'm talking to you game people -- there are mechanics and dice to resolve these issues) and come to the same ideas you have. 

If you want the character to be a certain way, be decisive and clear about it. Game people, if you want the players to act a certain way, then you need to be a little obvious that the particular situation you're putting players into has clear options (even if there are many many options, make that clear).

Returning to the specifics of description, readers look for 3 types of description. These don't need to be successive, they're not hierarchical and you don't need to do them all at once, but you do need to do them at some point before you get too far into your work.

I. Physical - This is everything tangible and directly observable about the character. The goal is not to drown the reader in  broad information too quickly (then statements get lost and it detracts from importance) but rather provide for them multiple concepts for them to attach to (this is a variation of Velcro theory - you supply them concrete details that they affix their edduced aspirations onto).

II. Emotional - This is a subcutaneous level of description, wherein you describe how the character feels at whatever moment they're being witnessed. If we're on page 30, and the character has just discovered their best friend's wife murdered (hours after sleeping with her), then you can provide us the sum total of emotions up to and including page 30. Yes, this whole story might be resolved by page 340, but here on page 30, we can only work with what we have to date. 

Gamers, do not overlook this level of detail - as your NPC emotions are most often impacted by interaction with PCs and all manner of circumstances around pre-existing agendas. (The megalomaniac going to blow up the city is going to have an emotional reaction to the players diffusing his bomb, for example)

III. Mental - This is a harder nut to crack, unless you're writing in the first-person and can use your exposition to develop this. Mental description is a sense of how more than what specifically a character is thinking. Yes, in the immediate sense, the what should be apparent (it's relevant to the scene/moment), but because sometimes characters aren't actually powered with cogs and drive-belts, you only get a secondhand sense of "gears turning". 

Mental description is a chance to see the character's planning skills, their intelligence and their understanding of motivations and consequences in action. This is commonly expressed in mysteries as the moment when the sleuth gathers all the suspects together and explains who the killer is. Or the final moments of a heist when the mastermind reveals the plot has been on-going since page one, sentence one. 

The composite of these three factors builds a full character. To get you started, here are some questions to fire up your character forges:

I. Physical
  1. Aside from the obvious details of what the character looks like, what traits are they proud of? Ashamed of? Effort to hide? Effort to show off? 
  2. What things would this character change about their appearance if the circumstances allowed it?
  3. How important to the character are the aspects of his physical description? Does he value his height? Does he identify himself by his physique? Does she draw pride from her eyes?
II. Emotional
  1. What gets this character out of bed in the morning? What would send them running back beneath the blankets for a do-over?
  2. Can you identify your character's three most frequent emotional states? What causes each one?
  3. Imagine a fight between this character and their nemesis. What buttons are getting pressed, and whose doing the pressing? Now imagine this same fight between this character and someone they loved.
III. Mental
  1. Is this the sort of character others go to for help and guidance, or is this a character who seeks out others? (Or are they only seeking others out for approval of their own plans?)
  2. How far ahead does this character plan? Does that plan include contingencies? If you had to sum up the character's planning ability in a word, what word would you use?
  3. Does this character overthink? Does this character fly by the seat of their pants?

I hope these questions help you, I have others if you're curious. 

Next week we'll add more to characters, and I'll revisit our sample character Timmy. Enjoy your weekend.

Happy writing.