Character Creation: Face Blindness

Since I started doing author panels at conventions, I’ve gotten one question thrown at me a few times: “How do you come up with characters?”

And inevitably, my process is just a little bit different from the other authors at those panels, because mine plays a lot into my face blindness.

For those unaware, face blindness (or prosopagnosia) is a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. If I see you at a convention and I introduce myself to you twice, that’s why: I remember having talked to you, but I can’t keep in my mind what you actually look like. Like a lot of people with the disorder, I tend to compensate with other details– if you’re wearing a particular costume, for example, or if you’ve got a visible tattoo.

man person clouds apple
Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

I once had a pair of coworkers who would often be on shifts with me together. They were both blonde, both in their early twenties, and both fairly petite and thin. In my first few weeks on the job, I could be looking at one and standing next to the other, and I would have absolutely no idea which one I was talking to unless I looked at the nametag; sometimes I would continue a conversation I’d started with one coworker but speak to the other one, not realizing that these were two different people. After several weeks of working there, I got to know them well enough that I learned to recognize them– and at that point, I realized that aside from their hair and body type, they really looked nothing alike. In the first few weeks, I also had a bad habit of giving sales pitches to my coworkers as they were walking back from the bathroom, because I couldn’t recognize that they were the same people that had been hanging out with me a few minutes before. It was only when they visibly recognized me that I was able to say “wait, they know me? Oh, that’s actually my manager”.

That tends to come across in my writing.

“Believe it or not, age/race/hair/eyes really didn’t make a person much easier to identify. I was more interested in details that made him stand out: a hyena-like walk that was somehow both a sulk and a swagger; a penchant for bad spray tans and expensive hair gel; a tendency to wear designer clothes and colognes, usually with no regard to whether they actually suited him.” — Urban Dragon Book 3: Dance with the Devil

When I create a character, I tend to start with the role they have in the story, and from there I default to the way I would remember them if I were to meet them: what impression would they leave behind?

With Arkay, even before she was a dragon I knew she was overly energetic, mischievous, and overprotective, that she liked to pick fights, and that she was physically so small that people always underestimated her (which she found hilarious). The over-protectiveness developed into a dragon’s territorial nature; the fact that she was an Asiatic dragon informed her ethnicity, etc.

With Rosario, the first things I knew were that she was homeless because she found Arkay under a bridge, and that she was incredibly brave and kind– because you kind of have to be, to nurse a forty-foot dragon back to health. Details like her sexuality, her body type, and her ethnicity are all informed by the research I did based around those two details. Her gender was actually the last thing I chose for her.

Raimo was meant to be an overly friendly viking; the Contessa is an anachronistic embodiment of Medici wealth, power, and style, where stilettos are both the shoes she wears and the weapon she prefers.

Details like race and gender are often among the last details I choose for my characters, unless they’re intrinsically tied to some detail in that character. With both Arkay and Raimo, I couldn’t picture either of them as anything but Japanese and Scandanavian, respectively, because that was already built into those foundational details of the character.

That’s not to say they’re not incredibly important– the race and gender do so very much to inform a person’s experiences as they move through life and is a defining part of who they are, and they can radically alter the kind of tropes that play out with those characters– but they’re not the first places my mind goes when I’m creating those characters.

But if you’re ever wondering why I describe my characters the way I do– or, rather, why I don’t describe my characters with the kind of details other authors might– that’s why.

On Questionnaires

list
This is meant to be tiny and unreadable so you get an idea of how long this list is. Please don’t strain your eyes.

I’ve been on the writing corner of the internet for a while now, and I’ve got a long, involved history with questionnaires.

 

Whether you’re crafting a single roleplaying OC or an entire world, you’ll find thousands of lists full of all sorts of questions.

Those lists can be super short and to the point (“What does your character want? What are they willing to do to get it?”) or they can be enormous and inane (“Does your character prefer smooth peanut butter or chunky? Does your character dream in color? If your character was an animal, what kind of tree would they climb?”)

For the past several days, I’ve been compiling a list of worldbuilding questions that I ambivalently look forward to applying to most of the countries in my upcoming world. I’m daunted because this is gonna be a ton of work, and I’ll have to repeat the process over and over and over again. At the same time, I’m excited because this kind of thing can create a much more intricate and interesting world.

I have a piece of advice for you, though, if you chose to use questionnaires:

Easily 90% of the answers to those questions– maybe even 99%– will not and should not ever actually make it into the story you tell.

The specific answers to each question don’t matter as much as what they tell you about the bigger picture. Nobody cares what three items your character would bring to a deserted island, they care about what it says about that character– whether they would go for something practical, or something suited to a hobby or interest, or so on. Nobody cares what a country’s tax code looks like, so much as they care about the way the people respond to that tax code, whether with squeezing their employees harder or tax evasion or what have you.

That’s where the story is. That’s what matters. The rest is just a tool to help you flesh out those details.

Character Creation: all in the family

family tree
When is a spoiler not a spoiler? When it’s illegible and lacks any context whatsoever.

In my first sketches of this current WIP, the protagonist was one of two children born to a single mother. The family began and ended there; these three were each other’s whole world, and nothing mattered but each other.

It’s a very American family structure, which isn’t a bad thing– but it didn’t fit to the world I was building.

I’m not the kind of person who can just make up a thousand characters off the top of my head. I can’t create a family without first fitting it into some kind of structure.

That’s where the family tree comes in. I used FamilyEcho, but you can find plenty of free software online.

 

Continue reading “Character Creation: all in the family”

Denied: How you handle a ‘no’

No.

It’s such a simple word, but those two letters carry a lot of power.

It’s almost inherently rooted in conflict and contradiction, a refusal to go along with the flow, whatever that flow may be. It’s a line in the sand, and that line can be as shallow as ‘do you want a taco?’, or it can be integral to preserving your autonomy and sanity. And it can speak volumes about what you hold dear.

No.

It’s such a simple word, but those two letters carry a lot of power.

  • No, I won’t give you my phone number.
  • No, I won’t follow in your footsteps.
  • No, I won’t let you murder people.

It’s almost inherently rooted in conflict and contradiction, a refusal to go along with the flow, whatever that flow may be. It’s a line in the sand, and that line can be as shallow as ‘do you want a taco?’, or it can be integral to preserving your autonomy and sanity.

That same word can completely change its meaning depending on where it’s coming from. From a person with little power in a given relationship, it becomes self-possession and a hold on autonomy. (No, I won’t let you treat me this way.) From an entity with power, it can become a force of oppression (No, you can’t get an education.)

But let’s take a step past that analysis. How do your characters handle hearing that word? How do the people you know? How do you?

  • Do they accept it?
  • Do they try going around the obstacle? (How many kids hear ‘no’ from one adult and immediately ask another one?)
  • Do they respond with an outburst of violence?
  • Do they make their rejection of that ‘no’ the premise of a presidential campaign?
barack-obama-yes-we-can-blue-campaign-poster
This reference is so dated it comes with a year on the poster.  Source

Most people’s reaction to a ‘no’ will depend on the situation it’s presented in, but which situations matter can speak volumes about what they value. What is it that makes the difference?

  • If they perceive that they’re being denied injustly?
  • If they think they’re owed something they can’t have?
  • If they’re being denied by  a person who is an authority over them? Or somebody who they perceive to have authority over?
  • If there’s a particular set of rules they won’t break, like halaal, halakha, or the sanctity of a person’s bodily autonomy?

In Urban Dragon, Arkay is an authority unto herself, and any insistence that she can’t or shouldn’t do something is met as a challenge. Nothing is worth compromising her pride, not even at the risk of injury or death– unless she’s doing it for her best friend Rosario.

How do your characters deal with being denied? How do the people in your life? And what do you think that says about the things that matter most to them? Share it in the comments!

Characterization: What shape is your noodle?

Maybe you’ve come across those prompts that have been floating around the internet since 1998 or so: they’re massive lists of things that, supposedly, every writer should know about their character. They start out with some solid information: legal name, nicknames, appearance, where they were born, etc.

And then things get specific. Oddly specific.

Questions like “What would your character give their life for?” and “What does your character think makes a successful love life?” could be good to know, especially if they’re going to be in situations where that comes up. And then there are some questions like “What was your character’s earliest memory?” or “What is your character’s favorite shape of noodle?” that probably won’t come up at all, outside of very specific circumstances.

I don’t know about you, but unless it’s a major part of their identity, I really don’t care what a character’s favorite shape of noodle is.

I’m partial to bowtie noodles, but Boxy’s got a thing for dinosaur shapes. (image from Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of people will tell you their ideas of what every writer needs to know about their characters, so here’s mine– and instead of the typical 25/50/100, I’m going to give you an easy number to remember. Three.

  1. What do they want? This is both in the short term (I’m thirsty; I want a glass of water) and the long term (I want to become a world famous dancer.) Everybody wants something, and as a writer, you should have a clear understanding of at least the short-term desires of every person that appears in your story.
  2. What is their defining experience? A defining experience is one that shapes who you are, what kinds of things you want, and what you value. It could be a relationship with a particular person, a single moment, or an environment, but it fundamentally altered who they became. For example, Frodo Baggins was shaped by the stories of his uncle Bilbo’s adventures. They instilled in him a craving for adventure and an appreciation for humility and mercy– and those qualities set him apart from every single person he interacted with.
  3. What changes them during the story? In order to be dynamic, a character must change at some point over the course of the story. In order to do so, you must give them a second defining experience that shapes them in a different way. Staying in Tolkien’s world, I would argue that Gimli was changed when he met (and was smitten by) Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien. It didn’t make him an instant Elf Friend, but after that point he treated elves with far more respect, and was able to cement his friendship with Legolas Greenleaf– and in doing so, rise above the animosity and racism that had existed between their two families since before Smaug took Erebor.

The way I see it, being able to answer those three questions will let you build vivid, dynamic characters– but that’s just my list.

What questions do you think a writer needs to be able to answer when they create a character? Let us know in the comments!

Getting from a concept to a story

The amazing thing about being a writer is that you learn to spot the ideas and ‘what if’s that other people would normally pass by. They’re everywhere, and they’re incredible. And they can also be incredibly frustrating. You can get incredibly intricate and detailed ideas in your head, but for the life of you, you can’t do anything about it. Creating a world is wonderful, but it’s just words on paper unless you have a story to take place within it.

So you’ve got an idea…

This afternoon I had a conversation this afternoon on the subject, so I’ll use that as an example: one character discovers that his friend doesn’t actually exist.

It’s a fantastic idea, and there’s a lot of directions you can go on the subject. So how do you shape that idea into a story?

Find the problem

At its core, every story is driven by some form of desire. Everyone wants something– a new bike, their crush to return their affections, the ability to live to see tomorrow, etc.

Every character is going to have a desire driving them– at least one, and often more.

  • Does the real friend want the unreal friend to find out about their non-existence?
  • Does the unreal friend feel threatened by their non-existence and want to feel more secure?
  • Does the real friend envy the unreal friend’s way of life? What about the other way around?

And so forth. There are nearly endless variations of things that your characters can want out of life.

Look for a solution

Once you figure out what each character wants, figure out how they’re going to go about pursuing that thing, and then have them pursue it. Plot is what happens when we watch them try, fail, try again, and possibly even succeed. Of course, they don’t have to succeed, and sometimes it’s for the best that they don’t. People don’t always want what’s best for them, and sometimes Character A getting what they want can have some nasty repercussions for Character B.

When that happens, or when Character A’s needs clash with Character B’s desires, that creates conflict, and that’s what the Western idea of story is built around.

Make sure the action is active

A general rule of thumb I’ve seen around: If the character can get over their internal by just sitting alone in a room and thinking really hard about it, then it wasn’t really a conflict. If a pair of characters can solve their conflict by just sitting down and having a conversation like actual adults, that wasn’t a conflict, either. Problems shouldn’t be solved by navel-gazing.

You can have issues be resolved through conversation and meditation, but the actual conflict will be whatever prevented those processes from happening in the first place.

The problem with Lawful Good


((image via Know Your Meme))

If you’re a nerd, you know a nerd, or you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you’ve probably seen some variation of the above image. It’s a chart of the standard Dungeons & Dragons character alignments, which goes by the theory that any given character can be charted a spectrum between good and evil, lawful and neutral.

And it works. Kinda. In theory.

Law and chaos aren’t that big of a discrepancy– on one side you have order and adherence to authority, and on the other you have rebellion and… well, chaos.

It’s the other spectrum that’s always given me trouble. Continue reading “The problem with Lawful Good”

The case of the mistaken love interest

They’re just hugging, I swear! (Image from Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1938, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s our protagonist’s first day at a new school. She’s frazzled and distracted, her mind heavy with plot-relevant drama– and BAM! runs headfirst into someone, sending her books flying. She and this stranger look into each other’s eyes, and the readers are given a lavish description of how good-looking he is. Their hands brush as he passes her the books, and she immediately looks away, embarrassed by the contact. They make awkward smalltalk, and he welcomes her to the school and offers to show her to her classroom, adding in a joke that helps lighten the protagonist’s tension.

Oh– wait– I’m sorry, did you think he was her love interest? Goodness, no. He’s just a minor character! He’s just really nice, and she’s just socially awkward and easily embarrassed by physical contact. Why, what did you think was going on? Continue reading “The case of the mistaken love interest”

A rose by any other name…

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_tag

One of the awkward things about writing is that we become acutely aware of some of the words we use, especially the ones we use most often. “Said” can make us physically cringe, even though readers often glaze over it. In the same way, saying the same character’s name over and over and over again can sometimes start to feel cluttered and over-saturated, and so we can be tempted to mix it up a bit.

Maybe if the protagonist’s first name is worn out, you’re tempting to switch to his whole name, or his surname. Maybe a nickname, or an identifier like “the bespectacled man”.

I know it’s tempting, but please don’t– or if you absolutely must, tread with caution. Continue reading “A rose by any other name…”

The Castiel Problem

Actor Misha Collins portrays our unfortunate angel  — Image from Wikimedia Commons

(Warning: Since this is about Supernatural and its approach to plot and characterization, there’ll be unmarked spoilers all the way up to Season 9.)

While I’m posting disclaimers, I should include another biggie: I really love Supernatural. It’s a fun show, I watch it every week, and Castiel is by far my favorite character.

That said, he’s also the character I would probably change the most dramatically if I was writing the show, if not cut him out entirely. And here’s why:

Same verse, same as the first

Castiel has a bit of a cycle: He trusts the wrong person, does bad things on their behalf thinking it’s For The Greater Good, is betrayed by said person, mucks everything up, and gets redeemed by the Winchesters (usually within an episode or so of them finding out about it). Somewhere along the way, he’ll be stripped of his (pick as many of you like):

  • Powers
  • Wings
  • Memories
  • Morality
  • Autonomy
  • Life

But only for a few episodes– just enough for a quick “DUN DUN DUN” and maybe some brief scenes of him adjusting to the new status quo. But before there’s any real chance to fully explore the complications and long-term consequences of this major change, it’s fixed… just in time for him to meet the next wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s gotten so common that I’m wondering why he doesn’t introduce himself with “Hello, I’m Castiel, and you’re probably going to betray me.”

I don’t know why the show is written the way it is– clearly people are aware of this cycle, since several times the characters have pointed out that it keeps happening to the poor guy– but this blog isn’t about picking apart other works. It’s about learning from them.

What we can learn from Castiel:

A character can be too powerful

I firmly believe that one of the reasons Castiel keeps getting nerfed is because he’s simply too powerful. The guy unsank the Titanic for an episode, for Chuck’s sake. Time, space, the laws of physics– none of these actually matter to this guy when he’s at full strength. It’s pretty awesome when his opponents play by the same rules, but not so much when you’re dealing with werewolves, vampires, and other puny mortals. For an added bonus, he’s not even the protagonist, which means that the real protagonists of the show– puny mortals that they are– keep getting overshadowed by their literal Deus Ex Machina best friend unless you depower him, turn him evil, or punt him out of the picture.

Characters have to learn from their experiences in order to be dynamic

The first time Cas went through the cycle, it was gut-wrenching. He lost his faith and went on a huge drinking binge, only to learn that it didn’t actually fix anything. He had to learn how to be useful with his knowledge, his ingenuity, and with puny human weapons like shotguns and molotov cocktails. He saw his friends in pain and need, and had to deal with the anger, blame and guilt of not being able to help them when he could have before.  As a result, he had to completely re-evaluate his perspective, his loyalties, and the way he thought of himself.

Fast-forward four seasons. We’ve learned the hard way that every time he gets put in cosmic time out, he’s pulled back again. Rather than adjusting to a new way of life and learning from what happened, he gets a pat on the shoulder, an assurance that “we can fix this,” and a heaping helping of Winchester brand self-loathing. He doesn’t learn from these mistakes, because if he did, the same plot wouldn’t keep happening to him over and over again. In short, it drags character growth to a near halt. Rather than exploring the way a permanent change can affect relationship dynamics and approaches to old problems, we’re stuck in a sort of plot purgatory, reliving the same developments over and over again.

If you’re going to pull a game-changer, be willing to commit to it

I recently saw a post on Tumblr comparing the first three seasons of Supernatural to the recent seasons, calling the former a genuinely frightening horror series and the latter a “soap opera”. And as much as I recoiled from that statement when I read it, I can’t argue against it. As a viewer, it’s hard to take major developments seriously anymore. Death stops being a threat when Dean looks at his murderer and declares “When I get back, I’m gonna be pissed.” Death, possession, de-powering, even major psychotic breaks are fixed within half a season– which, while it doesn’t take away the fun of watching it happen, takes away the legitimate drama of those events and brings them into the realm of melodrama.

If you want your audience to take you seriously, you have to be willing to do the same to them. Don’t pull any punches. If we’re told that “this is going to change everything,” let it actually change everything.

Be careful of repeating yourself

One of the issue’s with Castiel’s character arc is that it keeps repeating itself so precisely. It’s one thing to repeat themes or motifs throughout a story, but if you recycle the same conflict or plot point over and over again, your audience will notice. Do it blatantly enough, and they may even get bored and move on.

If any of this is hard to remember, I can sum it all up in one simple point:

Chuck is God, the Status Quo is not

Don’t keep trying to drag the story back to its baseline. Don’t keep trying to turn a character back into who they used to be. Don’t keep tempting us with major changes and then bailing out at the last minute. Allow the story, the characters, and the situations to grow and change organically, without shoehorning them back into their old shape.

Your readers will thank you.

(Though if Supernatural is any indication, your characters might not.)