Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Writing/Gaming: Making Your Characters Not Awful

I don't know if you've been outside lately, but it's the worst time of year. Everything is gray and soggy and looks like Mordor. Also, it's the only time of year I get sick. So do please imagine this blog post punctuated with sniffles and occasional sneezes and coughs.

Let's get to it.

For today's lesson, you're going to need a piece of paper and a pen. It's much easier to do this by hand than in something like Word or Google Docs, since there's time spent/lost in making the formatting work, rather than just getting to heart of the issue. Of course, I'll always tell you to use a legal pad, because it's got the real estate to spare and because they're pretty cheap in bulk. So go get something to write on (and write with), and we'll proceed.

There are loads of ways to develop characters, I teach three or four different methods in workshops and seminars, depending on my audience. And those methods can get complex and even a little deep (there is a difference), but more and more I get feedback saying that people want a faster plunge into rich development.

Now part of that is laziness on their part - expecting and wanting a formula that will spit out masterfully crafted characters so that they can just put the pieces into play. And part of that is because for all the teaching I can provide, the truest and most natural 'spark' of life comes not from the recipe of creation, but from what the author invests in each character.

Said another way: I can teach you how to build characters, but YOU breathe life into them. Without that investiture of imagination and passion, all I'm giving you is a new way to sort words on paper. And while they may be very awesome words, if your goal is to make those words mean something and stick into the heads and hearts of readers/consumers/game players/humans/etc, then you're going to need to pour out a little mind-juice into these stacks of words and concepts to make them zip along.

What I'm showing you here today is another level, a deeper level, of creation. Being deeper, it does require a base of something. You're going to need to have done some manner of development already for this to work for you. It doesn't matter what you've done - hell it could just be a name and a description, but the goal here is to add depth and velcro to your creation, so they fit into the composite of the world you've built.

Note: My next series will be Character 101, exploring different foundational elements in characters and how to craft good ones. Consider this your glimpse towards new territory.

Our goal today is make your characters better, so today, here's what we do.

1. Divide the paper into quarters.
2. Label them: Occupation, Possession, Name, Intention

Into these boxes you're going to write down sentences, phrases and words that describe, detail and develop what the particular quadrant is about. (Game people may recognize some of these things as 'Aspects', Novel people will see 'traits'). But this is NOT just a simple laundry list, this is designed to get you thinking about the arc your character is on when readers/players/people meet them, and how that arc progresses over the course of whatever material you're creating.

Let's look at each box in detail and I think you'll see what I mean.

I. Occupation - This is what the character does. In it's most basic form, it's a job title, but you can extrapolate out to describe why or how it gets done (the specifics of "why" go into Intention - you can be broad in box 1) Since no one else is going to see this, feel free to make heavy use of cliches and tropes if they help paint the picture. 2) This is the realistic side of the coin, so if this box is a little on the dry side, you're on the right track.

II. Possession - These are the things the character has that helps make the character who and what they are (in box 1). (If you didn't qualify it, this would just be inventory) We want specificity here, as possessions define and give context to a character (Batman's utility belt, Lone Ranger's mask, Superman's S on his chest). Yes, socialists, buddhists and hippies, we are totally shaped by the stuff we own. And while I really want to spiral us off into a discussion about how we leave as large an impression on what we own as it leaves on us, this isn't the place for that. Ideally in this box you've listed not just the item, but what it stands for or how it specifically aids the character's nature/skill/abilities/presence. (Batman's utility belt provides him access to supplies that make him prepared. The Doctor's sonic screwdriver is the physical surrogate for his intellect, etc)

Note: Yes, you can prioritize the items in Box 2 by frequency of use or importance or whatever figure you like, but it's not critical. It is, however, a great idea.

III. Name - This is not so much a rote entry of Dr/Mr/Mrs NAME HERE, this is how the character wants/has their name viewed by their peers. Optionally, divide this box in half and do half friends and half foes. For 'friends' this is how the character wants the specific other person (NPC, secondary character, love interest, etc) to view them. For 'foes' this is how the character sees the foe. 

Yes you can work this backwards and do a whole sheet (2 columns, friend and foe) of how these other people view the character, and we may well explore that exercise later this week.#notsosubtlehint

Intention - This is WHY the character does whatever they do, and only that. The specifics of how got answered up in Occupation, so here we effort to ascribe a reason to the action. And I cannot stress the importance of individual clarity enough. Boil it down as core as you like, concentrate it (tether it to a backstory event for maximum jaw droppage) but this intention is a tint on ALL things the character has done and will do.  

This should in theory start earlier than Page 1, but the audience/people/players is only meeting this at Page 1...which may or may not early in this Intention's existence. That's up to you, authors, to figure out how time relates to intention (here's a hint - more time equals more opportunity for intention)

If you find that some boxes are more packed with material than others, or that you've entirely neglected some facets of creation in light of others, I strongly encourage you to figure out why. Ask yourself why you didn't think in these terms at some point and why you've possibly resisted doing it. (Maybe you're still resisting it...)

Sort through the feast and famine first before you tackle the material in terms of 'boring' or 'I don't agree with it anymore, I'm changing it'. Remember, writing is the act of making decisions, and if you're unhappy with what you wrote, decide to do something different.

The goal here is to expand your character-icebergs so that they'll sink (astound) reader-Titanics. I use icebergs here deliberately, as there should be so much beneath the surface, so much unseen but felt/feared/craved/desired that we're propelled forward into inescapable collision and beyond (minus any freezing DiCaprio we have laying around)

Some notes of interest:

1. Yes I'm aware that in the most recent episode of Leverage, this was a prominent story concept.
2. Yes I'm aware that I talk a lot about characters, because characters make plot matter.
3. Yes I realize you can do this chart for any character (a villain) perhaps, and reverse-engineer a way for a hero to undo the badguy.
4. Yes, some characters won't warrant this detail - but I tend now to say that if you can do this for even a minor character (and not use it) then the characters where this is important become all the more spectacular

Okay, I'm going to get some lunch, then take a nap. If you're looking for me, find me on Twitter today.

Last minute addition - A lot of you have emailed me asking about my rates, and more specifically why they're not posted on this blog. There are a few reasons:

a) I'm not sure where I'd host the pdf.
b) My rates aren't as simple as a single list of tasks with numbers - they're not a wine list.
c) I have a whole multi-page kit of rates and explanations that don't format well here in this blog space.

So, if you want the pdf, email me or find me online (here or here or here) and let me know.

Happy writing.