Today's a little crunchy, so you might want to get a glass of water and read this a few times.
We've so far looked at what can best be described as external qualities. We've talked about the world, some character description and some character abilities. Let's get into this though, let's be serious about our craft and our characters and make these creations live and breathe. I mean, you don't have to, but I think it'll help you out.
Today's Character 101 rule can be expressed like this:
A clear and distinct morality, set of principles and philosophy that an audience can see tested and explained throughout the story
- clear and distinct morality
- set of principles and philosophy
- audience sees it tested and explained THROUGHOUT the story
When I was a young writer, I was mentored and taught by a great man, fiercely brilliant, absolutely not governed at all by anything other than his own rules and one of the most encouraging teachers I've ever experienced. He's long dead now, but this lesson, and most of Character 101 is my homage to him.
We start with a quote of his.
"Characters have beliefs; even if they are not expressed by the author or conceived of in great detail there exists within each character a philosophy, even if that character is built with a single purpose or for a single instance. "
What I didn't understand about that quote, where the magic trick is in that quote is the idea that characters have beliefs even if I (the guy who wrote the character) didn't flesh them out.
Hearing that as a punk kid, that sounded stupid. Characters are things I made up, right? They occupy the spaces I give them, do what I tell them? Sure, they can do that. They can be puppets who follow scripts and linear actions like stiff automatons. And when you're a bit of a control freak, or scared to do anything other than express control, that's great for characters.
Move your chess pieces. Watch them dance on your strings.
Over time, with practice, with experience, with heartache, with passion, you don't have to control them. They're more than just extensions of a single part of your personality or just creations who follow some simple program. They are partly fueled by your imagination, and when you take that off the leash, you'll be amazed by what you can discover characters do.
I didn't get that when I younger. It sounded florid and spacy and I probably said it was "kinda gay". And then I grew up and learned that there's more to writing than sitting in place and typing for six hours, but also that there's nothing less than that too.
That quote clicked for me when I was reading a comic book. I was upset, I was alone, I was pissed off, and I was reading Batman. And for whatever reason, perhaps because it was a visual medium, there was more said in a look between characters than you can ever do in a block of text.
It was like the story was occurring even when I wasn't reading the comics. Like the characters had things happening while I was reading Superman, watching TV or wishing I was anywhere other than where I was.
When that quote says“explained” it certainly does NOT mean that the simple statement of beliefs is given in exposition, although there are times when it can be advantageous, depending on style or nuance -- But you don't have to have some big block of text saying "THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE IN" because you're supposed to be better than that.
Leave it for dialogue; leave it for the emotions and subtext. Making it too clear, too visible, when the story by nature does not support it, cheapens it. It turns characters, who you create to be as close or better than humans you co-exist with, into caricatures and parody. And in gaming for example, it makes you sound like one of those bad RPGs where people only can say things like "It is nice day here yes in City?" and other Engrish.
No genre is spared the necessity of characters with morals. Not even in the most lowbrow crude comedy is there a character devoid of ambition based on a belief, even if that belief is something as small and finite as “I’m going to lose my virginity before the end of the school year.”
Everyone believes in something. Figure out what, and you'll also discover how to express that belief to the audience.
So, the question then becomes, how do you create that morality? How do we develop philosophies for characters?
Here are two methods, described below:
Actions -> Reasons for Actions -> Philosophy
(What) (Why Do The What) (What Gets Believed)
Stated belief > Action in defense of position
(Say It) (Do Something About It)
First we have an action-oriented approach, something that works best for characters of small purpose or minimal import. By looking at their actions, we can develop reasons for the actions, and from those reasons, create a philosophy.
The guy/NPC/background mook who cheers on the heroes during a fight, does it because it shows that the heroes have support. The random person who tells the detective something in passing that resonates seven chapters later. That's an action provoked by a reason that in turn becomes a philosophy.
This is a clear, causal relationship that we can understand especially when not all characters have more than one or two things to do or say.
However, as we add complexity and depth to the characters and situations those characters find themselves in, we must shift from the clear A to B progression and try the reverse: that a stated belief leads to an action.
While this is more complex in a writing capacity, it is more intuitive as people, because we interact with people based on their statements and pursuant to their actions.
You go out with the guy because he makes you laugh because he does what he says he does. You married your spouse because she made you feel something positive on a consistent basis. You hang out with those people because you all share a hobby or believe in the same principles. You think that librarian is great because they helped you when no one else would even give you ten seconds of attention.
You decide what you believe in, then you go do something about it. (Here again, we see Rule #1 - Writing Is The Act of Making Decisions) If you do it, the character(s) can do it.
To reach these decisions, you must BE the character, giving them full faculties and capabilities independent of the story and the context of the story. Yes, you can argue that it is the story that shapes them, therefore you must put them into context, HOWEVER you must divorce the character from the story and the plot when you create the character. The proximity to the current story, and the temptation to use current-story material is too great a risk for the writer: how easily our characters become malleable when viewed only in the current plot.
Because our characters are our reflections, shadows and desires put into text, we must make all efforts to see them as living breathing beings that only happen to exist in our minds. I am not advocating schizophrenia, but rather a full-fledged imaginative experience, creating an idea so complex and rich with detail that it exists for more reasons than a single plot warrants.
Remember: This is a cooperative process, a great contract you’ve entered into with your reader, so please, do your part and make your end as interesting and exciting as possible.
Gamers embody this in the most obvious of ways, assuming to even ACT as the characters to drive the interactions. I do think writers would be well-served to try a little role-play now and then...and if not, at least go talk to people who excite you about whatever you love. It's a lot easier to do this when you're fired up than when you're dreading it.
So what can you do about it? Have you ever tried writing down what you believe in? Get that legal pad, get to writing. Do the same thing for the big characters. Try to do it for the small characters, even if it's just one line (the politician wants to win the election at all costs, the grocer wants to retire happy) related to the plot. The more you can list, the richer that character becomes and the less 'like a character' they are.
I end today with another quote (Sid had great quotes)
"Characters, John, are what we have when we're not thinking about what WE can do but what WE want to make happen."
Happy writing. Enjoy your weekends.