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.

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.


Liminal Spaces

I remember the first time I crossed an ocean.  I was onboard a red-eye flight from New York City to Manchester, England.  I’ve never been able to sleep well on a plane, and certainly not this time.  Everything was new, and I was too excited for sleep.  I spent much of the flight with my face pressed to the glass, watching the Atlantic Ocean by moonlight.  The upper humps of scattered clouds passed below, bright with moonlight.  I landed on the threshold of a new day, literally.  The plane had to wait a few minutes for the runway to clear before it could land, so the pilot took us on a slow circle around the airport, giving me a 360-degree of the sunrise.

It was the first day of a semester abroad.  The details of my adventure overseas are a story for another day:  it had its ups and downs, its moments of wonder and homesickness.  But the most important thing it gave me, I think, was a better sense of the world and my ability to move through it.  I had gotten aboard a plane and arrived in a different country.  It was something that Could Be Done ™.

A threshold was crossed for me, and in crossing, a part of me never went back.

Fantasy plays a lot with this idea.  The adventure doesn’t begin until Bilbo leaves his house, or Wendy flies out the window, or Sabriel leaves her boarding school to cross the Wall into the Old Kingdom.  Or it could happen the other way:  something arrives from the other side into what is familiar, like a mysterious stranger on your doorstep.

Into the woods we go again….

But the liminal space does not even have to be literal.  And it certainly is not limited to fantasy.  It could be a decision made, or a turning point reached.  Either way, the crossed threshold represents a vital change:  a point after which there’s no going back.  You cannot un-cross a threshold.  Retreating back does not undo the fact that you crossed that point.  Even if you’re the only one who knows you crossed it.

The Adventurer returns home, but it’s never quite the same.

This is not to say one should avoid crossing thresholds.  Far from it!  Sometimes doing so is a necessary choice.  Sometimes it’s inevitable.  Certainly, growth requires it.  My only wish, my brave adventurers, is if you choose to pick up your lamp and leave your home and walk out into the unfamiliar, be brave.  Be wise.  Be kind.  Be clever.  You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

What Stories Give Us: Part 2

When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot in school.  It’s the downside of being a nerd in American culture: bullies homed in on me like book-seeking missiles.  Not having the social skills to deflect them, I stuck my head down and endured.

The stories I gleaned from TV and movies at the time didn’t help me much; aside from Lisa Simpson, girl nerds were largely absent from popular media.  The 1980s and 1990s saw a spate of movies where the awkward, ill-fitting girl is “fixed” with a makeover.  Even if her Pygmalion learns a valuable lesson by the end, respect for her and her choices is never even an option until it’s revealed she can clean up nicely.  Having that nerd girl already be a part of the group, already accepted—even appreciated—for her particular skills and interests, with nobody trying to change her, wasn’t even an option I saw on the table for me.

Books, however, were another matter.  Fantasy in particular had a rich gallery of heroines who managed to escape confining upbringings and pursue their dreams among like-minded folk.  Heroines who picked up swords and fought.  Bookish and/or clever heroines who thought their way out of problems.  Heroines who rode frikkin’ dragons!

Fantasy did (and still does) catch a lot of flak for being escapist.  But I’ve always preferred to take a somewhat Campbellian approach to it:  we go to these fantastic worlds, we grow and change, and we come back better, bearing the fruits of our adventures with us.  And all of these girl-heroes who were like me gave me strength.  They gave me hope.  Because they showed me I was not alone.

There are two points I want to make about this:

  1. There’s a lot that can be said here about the value of representation in a broader sense (it matters!). Seeing ourselves in stories tells us we’re not alone, that our beings are not some aberration of the concept of humans.  We have stories and our stories have value.  Knowing even that much can be a lifeline, a rope of light thrown to us in a dark and stormy sea.

    It was tough for me being a girl, and a nerd girl in particular.  But imagine what it must be like for those even more invisible in our stories: to be gay, or a POC, or trans, or disabled, and to not only rarely (or never) see yourself presented as the hero of a story but to be vilified or victimized most of the time.  No matter how abstract or fantastical, stories are models for how we can be.  If there are no stories that show a happy ending for us, then what hope can we find?

  2. This is just one way that stories are capable of giving us strength and hope. They show us how to carry on.  They are, after all, models for how to be.  I don’t necessarily have to be using magical powers to fight demons from the netherhells or delivering a McGuffin of pure Evil™ to a volcano or bonding with a magical animal (preferably a dragon) in order to get something out of a story.  But stories can teach me how to honor my promises, how to treat the unknown with respect, how to use power wisely and with compassion, how not to judge by appearances.  Stories can show the value of determination, or how to think critically and ask the right questions (a valuable and tragically undervalued skill!).

One of my favorite quotes rather touches on this: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” (The quote is Neil Gaiman paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton.)  I think this is true not just of fantasy, but of fiction in general and even some non-fiction stories.  You learn to pick yourself up and face the monster in your life because stories have shown you how.  Stories have shown you that it can be done.