Building Character

What makes a good character?  What makes one leap off the page and lodge itself into a reader’s brain?  You’d think that after so many thousands of years of humans creating characters, we’d have a handle on the magic formula.  We could say, “Oh, to make a compelling character, you need X + Y + Z.”  And it’s true that some authors seem to have a knack, a secret for creating characters that stick with us.  There must be a formula, right??

But as with most tips and tricks of the storytelling trade, it isn’t so much a formula as it is some loose guidelines or starting points which don’t make any guarantees.  Writing is an art as much as it is a craft, and you can follow the steps but that won’t be sufficient to make a story sing.

There are some starting points that we like to try.  Some say a character needs to be relatable, that a reader should be able to connect with them.  (Maybe they’re in love.  Maybe they’re in mourning.)  Some suggest giving a character realistic flaws and struggles.  (Maybe they can’t work up the nerve to ask that special someone on a date.)  Others just toss a bunch of quirks onto a name and hairstyle and call it a day. (They’re obsessed with the Beatles, dye their hair fire engine red, and wear bright yellow socks all the time!)  But I don’t recommend the “a bunch of quirks” method, because unless those quirks actually stem from and reveal a more in-depth element, it’s all surface detail with no supporting structure.  It’s better as a brainstorming method than an actual character on the page.

One common trick is to plunge deep into a character’s backstory and figure out all the little details that went into shaping them as a person.  Even if those details never make it onto the page, that depth will come across unconsciously because you know those details.  They will feel deeply defined, because they are.

On the other hand, a loosely-defined background character can be just as fascinating, if their loosely defined characteristics give a reader something to latch onto.  Intriguing hooks that are not fully fleshed out or defined, can still lead a curious reader to fill in the blanks themselves.  It is the implication of depth, a sounding that implies a deep well.  (Maybe this person hasn’t spoken to their brother in years.  Why?)

A starting point I am fond of using, especially when I’m stuck, is to find at least one emotional aspect of this character that I can personally relate to, and let that be the starting point for how I understand and write them.  Even if their circumstances are wildly different than mine, usually I can find something to connect with.  So maybe they’re on the run for a crime they didn’t commit.  Well, I’ve never been in that situation, but I know they’d probably be feeling frustrated, and I can get pretty frustrated if things aren’t going well.  I know that feeling, that desire to get life back into a semblance of control.  So I can focus on that when I write them.  And usually that’s enough to clarify them in my head.  It’s enough to make them feel like a person to me.

It’s hard to find that tipping point sometimes, to get to that moment where a character suddenly feels real.  But it’s always possible.  It’s a kind of magic.  It’s a synergy that makes something greater than the sum of its parts.  Just like real people.  Just like all of us.

Tap-Dancing in a Bee Costume

One of my favorite music videos of all time is Blind Melon’s “No Rain.”  It stars a girl in thick glasses and a bee costume, joyfully tap-dancing away in a theater, only to be laughed off the stage in tears.  She drifts through a gray cityscape, performing her routine for bemused, head-scratching strangers, until at last she comes to a green field under a blue sky, so perfectly sunny and bright that it looks like a Windows wallpaper.  And there she finds a whole troupe of dancing bee people who welcome her with open arms.  It is a moment of joyful catharsis, a homecoming.  It is the moment where someone who doesn’t feel like they fit quite right finally finds their people.

I have a confession to make.  I was once a weird little girl.

Not rebellious or troubled, but definitely geeky.  As in, cover-my-walls-with-pictures-of-dragons geeky.  As in, proud-member-of-the-school’s-Library-Club geeky.  As in, Straight-A-student-with-no-fashion-sense geeky.  I had a few friends in high school, and we’d get together to play D&D and Magic: The Gathering.

Being a geek, for me, was a lot like being that tap-dancing bee girl.  It meant being enthusiastically, openly joyful about the fantastic stories and worlds that I loved, and wanting to share that joy with the world.  It also meant a lot of blank stares, conversations from well-meaning but concerned relatives, and sometimes even outright hostility from my non-geek peers.

College was a whole new ballgame.  Finding the gaming club there opened up my world immeasurably, because it was there that I discovered the joys of being part of a much larger community.  People who ‘got’ me.  People who were unabashedly enthusiastic, and even joyful, about our shared interests.  It was there that I met some of my best friends, including the man who would one day be my husband.

It’s been a long time since I was a kid, feeling awkward and strange in the world, but I know that finding my community changed my life for the better.

I still get that vibe when I go to conventions and shows.  Suddenly, the world opens up and I’m surrounded by fellow enthusiasts of wonder.  It’s a feeling of opening the iron gate and finding a whole group of people dancing joyfully in bee costumes.  It’s a feeling of coming home.  It’s like that.

They’re out there, waiting for you.  Find your people.  Be weird with them.

Finding Jack

Last week I mentioned the liminal quality of fantasies like I Kill Giants.  But that’s one of several reasons why I have a particular fondness for that graphic novel.  Another reason is that Jack the Giant-Killer is one of my favorite fairy tale heroes.  So I like seeing stories that play on that character and that story.  I’m not particularly fond of the violence (though the original Giant-Killer stories are quite unrepentantly bloody).  No, I love them because they are stories of vastly under-qualified heroes (or heroines) facing down a foe that is viscerally far more powerful and so much bigger than themselves.  The giant is always stronger.  The giant is capable of squashing them underfoot like a bug.  But the Jack character, through cleverness or guileless determination, is able to win out.

(One could argue that knights fighting dragons fall under a similar trope, but I love dragons and so stories about them getting run through aren’t typically in my wheel-house.  I’d always rather be riding a dragon than slaying one.)

Jack is an everyperson hero; he is neither king nor knight, he’s not the chosen one, and maybe he earns a magic gift or two along the way but in the end, it all comes down to him.  There’s something pretty amazing about that.  And there’s so many ways to explore this character:  Jack shows up in stories all the time, because that’s the nature of the everyperson hero.  Anyone can be Jack.  Is he a guileless fool who wins through sheer earnestness?  Is he a clever trickster who fools his enemies into getting hoist by their own petard?  Is he riding on that fine line where you’re never quite sure?

Once you understand the archetype, it’s pretty fun to try to spot Jack characters.  I mean, there’s the obvious plays on the fairy tale: Crazy Jack by Donna Jo Napoli, or Jack Horner in the Fables graphic novel series, or Jack from the musical Into the Woods (my personal favorite).  But what about Homer Simpson, or Captain Jack Harkness, or Bilbo Baggins?  Are these Jack characters?  And how can we stretch and play with our definition of “everyperson hero”?  Finding Jack in our stories soon becomes the world’s biggest game of Where’s Waldo.  Just look for the befuddled would-be hero thrown into circumstances so much bigger than they expected.  Look for the clever twinkle in their eyes, or their earnest bravery in the face of the unknown.  Look for the person armed with almost nothing except their heart and their mind, who is nonetheless able to overcome giants.

Living with the Questions

The trailer for “I Kill Giants” dropped last week.  I am instantly hype for it.  It’s based on one of my favorite graphic novels of the same name, written by Joe Kelly and drawn by J. M. Ken Niimura, which you should definitely check out if that’s in your wheelhouse.  Or even if it isn’t normally in your wheelhouse!  It’s good to try different sorts of stories once in a while.

“I Kill Giants” is a great example of a liminal fantasy:  much of the conflict/mystery is on whether or not the magical elements are actually happening.  It’s a great approach to fantasy, though it takes a deft touch to pull it off well.

Here’s a thought exercise:  was Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who was Calvin’s constant companion, actually capable of transforming, or was it all in Calvin’s imagination?  Watterson left it deliberately unclear which was “truer,” letting the story rest in that uncertain tension.

Fantasy can do that.  One could argue that this is what fantasy is:  it lives in the tension between what is real and what is not.  We know that dragons aren’t real, but for the duration of a story, we can hold that idea in our heads:  we can accept that the dragons, in this story, are real, and that is enough.  Or, at the very least, we can live with the question that the dragons MIGHT be real.

That’s one of the many things I enjoy about fantasy:  the magic can be as bombastic as a fireball to the face, or it can be subtle and numinous as a soft scent you think you detect on the breeze but aren’t really sure if it’s there or where it’s coming from.  Fantasy is incredibly flexible, a vast field of seemingly endless variety. And there are some great stories out there where the fantasy is as subtle as a smudged fingerprint on a screen, or a light seen out of the corner of your eye.

Happy Endings

Let me talk in praise of the ridiculously happy ending.

I was once in a fiction writing class in college.  It was a decent enough course, but one thing I noticed was that all the published short stories we read and discussed for class had one thing in common—or, should I say, one common thing missing.  There were no happy endings.  The endings were evasive, inconclusive, quietly tragic.  Not even bittersweet, just…bitter.  I couldn’t find a single story in the lot that ended well, that ended with even a suggestion of the possibility of hope.

As if the only stories worth valuing are the ones told with bleak cynicism.

I’m a sucker for a good happy ending.  And admittedly, happy endings can be a hard sell.  The pervasive perception is that they are simplistic, saccharine, and/or intended for children.  But I keep coming back to them, sucking them up like I’m some kind of story-Roomba.

Happy endings aren’t simplistic just because they’re happy.  Any sort of ending, happy or tragic, can be flat and unsatisfying if done poorly.  The question is, does the story SELL the ending?  Does the ending make sense as a natural extension of what’s come before and the overall theme it’s been communicating?  A well-earned happy ending is far from shallow; it can be a deep wellspring of renewing and revitalizing joy.  It can be transcendent.  Hope is not always an easy answer; but one can be clear-eyed and wise and still choose hope.

And sometimes a happy ending goes so over-the-top it breaks free of Earth’s gravity.  The storyteller hands out Happily Ever Afters like Oprah shouting “You get a car!  You get a car!” at a screaming TV audience.  The Power of Love and/or Friendship comes through.  The world is united and inspired by a song.  The world of the story ends up a noticeably better place because the heroes decide to Give a Damn.   And I’m sitting somewhere with a big goofy grin on my face and a knot in my throat because the story I’m experiencing is genuinely moving to me.

A world where stories always end tragically is just as misleading, I think, as a world where stories always end happily.  The truth is that life is a mix of both, and the world of Story is broad enough to encompass that.  It SHOULD be broad enough to encompass that.  Both have value to us; both comedy and tragedy have lessons to impart.  And sometimes you need to cry and sometimes you need to laugh, and sometimes you need to push through the crying to get to the laughing.

Sometimes, you just need to see some sunlight.


Yearly Writing Goals

It’s that time of year again!  Time to sit down and plan out my writing goals for the year.  I tend to be very goal-oriented as a writer; I find it helps me keep my mockingbird brain on track.

Note that these aren’t so much New Years’ resolutions as much as keeping up an ongoing progress.  Being a writer isn’t a singular goal one accomplishes in a year; it’s a series of goalposts you pass while climbing up the side of a mountain.  At least, that’s how I often picture it, so make of that what you will.

First is the obvious goal this year of writing more short stories.  I’ve sold a generous handful, so now I need to write some more so I can have something new to submit!  Overall, a good problem to have.  And I’d also like to make progress on on some novels I have in various states of completion.

Beneath the overall arc of yearly goals, I tend to break things down to weekly goals.  In my experience, life can interfere too much when it comes to daily goals, and a month is too long; when I tried monthly goals, I ended up procrastinating and condensing my efforts into the last week or so.  Weekly goals hit that sweet spot for me:  frequent enough to keep me moving, but with some wiggle room to account for, say, an unusually packed day when I can’t get to the computer, or I get waylaid by a sudden head cold.

(This is the key to good goal-making:  figuring out what works best for you, what makes you most likely to Get It Done.)

So I keep up a spreadsheet and keep track of my weekly progress.  (I should also point out that I’m a very spreadsheet-oriented person. My life is Spreadsheets and Lists!)  And really, weekly progress just comes down to making dedicated Butt-in-Chair time for my writing.  Time spent writing, editing, submitting stories, or even just doing a writing exercise or two if I’m stuck.  All of these are ways to be with my writing, to keep myself in that space.  To keep the writing muscles trained and in shape.

It’s like going to the gym on the regular.  The only way forward is through, the only progress a series of one step after another.

May 2018 be an excellent year for you, and whatever progress you’re making in the journey to the person you want to be.  I hope you continue to share this journey with me.

Happy New Year

Happy new year to all my readers!  It’s bitter cold up here in Pittsburgh, and we’re getting a lot of snow, but here’s to an exciting start to a new year.  I’ve got a lot of story ideas floating around, a lot of plans for this site, and I can’t wait to jump into them!

May the coming year bring us closer to who we want to be.

View of a snow-covered deck and partly cloudy sky.
Nothing is quite so cozy as looking out on fresh snow and not having to leave the house!