The Lion and the Antelope

Image by Frank Vincentz via Wikimedia Commons

I was trawling through SMBC Comics, and I found one in particular that caught my attention.

It may not be the most hilarious page Mr. Wiener* has ever penned, but it makes a lovely point about conflict.

(*Yes, that is his name.)

One person’s bad day is another person’s best day ever– and in a lot of cases, you can’t have one without the other. Take, for example, a lion and an antelope: either the lion and her cubs risk starvation and the antelope gets to live another day, or the lion gets to eat while the antelope dies a horrible death. Neither can win except at the expense of the other.

Often the people involved have no idea what’s going on, which creates room for all kinds of tragedy. A sweet moment between father and daughter becomes horrifying when it’s colored with the extinction of an unknown society. Hamlet’s single-minded investigation into his father’s murder takes a sickening turn when he unwittingly drives Ophelia to madness and suicide. Edmund’s fondness for that lovely woman in white and her Turkish Delights inadvertently gets Aslan killed.

Of course, when characters do know the whole story, it creates a whole different kind of conflict: suddenly you’ve got questions like “which of us deserves to come out on top?” and “is what I have to gain worth what they have to lose?”– the answers to which can speak volumes about that person’s character.

For the most part I’ve been dealing with pretty large-scale conflicts, but not every struggle needs to be life-and-death. Often you’ll find out as much– or even more– about your character by the way they handle small disputes.

Voicing Opinions

Opinionated
There are more subtle ways of sharing your characters’ opinions. (Photo credit: iceman9294)

Whenever I meet a new volunteer at the bookstore, I introduce myself as Loudmouthed and Opinionated (seriously, my rants are pretty much legendary). But you don’t need to be able to go on hour-long rants to have an opinion. In fact, most opinions don’t need to be stated outright, because often they’re so ingrained in your worldview and belief system that it bleeds through into your everyday language.

This is also true about characters. And hopefully, those characters don’t spend nearly as much time as I do ranting their opinions to anybody who wants to avoid doing work for the day.

An important part of narration (especially first person narration) is finding the character’s voice. A lot of people accomplish this by making the character off-beat, sarcastic, funny, or just plain weird– but that doesn’t always mesh with the personality of your chosen narrator. A great way of bringing out that personality and adding color to that voice is to let the narrator’s opinions take forefront. The way they see the world will inform huge swaths of their perceptions of the world around them.

Consider the following sentence:

I walked into a large building that stood on a wide lawn.

That’s bland. It’s unimaginative. It’s boring. Now let’s add in some personality. A few made-up-on-the-spot characters and their opinion of the same building:

  • The longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in E...
    The longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Architect: I hurried between an arrangement of Roman columns, glancing up at a vaulted ceiling so high I had to crane my neck to take in its full scope.

  • Agoraphobe: The building was a lousy shelter from the overwhelming expanse of the lawn; the pillars felt like some giant monster’s fangs, open wide to swallow me whole. 
  • Guerrilla: The openness of the green space was unnerving. The inside of the building wasn’t much better, but at least I could take some cover behind the columns.
  • Gorilla: Finally I find some trees– but there’s something wrong with these. They’re cold and hard and have no branches. This place smells wrong, like lemon and leopard piss.

For each of these, that one sentence (or couple of sentences) might very well be the only time the building is ever described, and none of these are particularly time-consuming descriptions. But each of these sets the stage with a setting, a mood, and an insight into the mind of the narrator.  The end result is often prose that is dynamic, compact and (hopefully!) just plain interesting.

Story vs. Soul

http://blip.tv/nostalgiacritic/nc-the-last-airbender-6637022

I was watching this episode of the Nostalgia Critic, in which he analyzes M. Night Shyamalan’s travesty The Last Airbender and compares it to Avatar: The Last Airbender, upon which it was based. I recommend you check it out, too– you won’t be disappointed.

He made one point in particular, though, that stuck with me:

“You have a great set-up for an emotional moment. Aang is seeing all his past lives. The power and weight of who he is should hit him at this very point. But instead, what do they do? Try to explain more exposition… And that is the problem. Whether you’re aware of the show, or you’re not aware of the show, the movie is all explanation with no humanity. Why do you think they waited twenty minutes to ask [the protagonist] his name? Because that wasn’t what was most important to Shyamalan. The identity? Who gives a shit. It can’t be nearly as important as explaining and explaining and explaining and explaining.

I DON’T FUCKING CARE!

And you know why? Because I never once heard anyone in this movie say ‘I feel this’ or ‘I like this’ or ‘I wonder this’. There are no emotions being addressed. Traditionally storytelling is setting up a character, sending them on a journey, and  learning more about them through the journey. Last Airbender is just chess piece storytelling. Character goes here. character goes there. Characters says this. Pawn to King Four. So in this scene, which should have been the emotional pinnacle of our main star, it’s just more explaining about what happened, rather than why it happened.”

We’ve all heard the standard “Show, Don’t Tell,” but I got something a bit deeper out of Doug Walker’s commentary: don’t let a work’s story usurp its soul

What does that even mean?

Shyamalan’s problem with The Last Airbender was that he tried to include all the mythos and backstory of a three-season television series in a two-hour movie, and he does it at the expense of the characters emotions and interactions. I’ve noticed that I have the same problem in my own writing. I get so caught up in the backstory and worldbuilding that I forget that the characters are supposed to be taking center stage in this story. It’s what Walker calls “the most essential element of telling any story; if the character can never express any emotion, why should the audience ever express any emotion?”

The same holds true whether you’re trying to tell a character-driven story or a plot-driven story. The characters are our way of connecting to the events going on. If we can’t relate to them on some level, the story becomes little more than a textbook.

Like I’ve said, I’m still working on this myself. But here’s some fixes that I’ve been experimenting with:

  • If the backstory is more interesting than the protagonist’s story, try telling that one instead.
  • If a subplot is taking up needless space but isn’t strong enough to be swapped for the A plot, consider cutting it entirely.
  • If the reader doesn’t receive this particular piece of exposition/explanation, will they be utterly incapable of grasping the plot from this point on? If the answer is no, you’re probably safe to cut it.

Notice that all of these are a variety of “snip that sucker”? It’s not a coincidence. 

That isn’t to say a deep and well-thought-out world and backstory is a bad thing. In fact, it can become fuel for the sorts of significant details that make a world feel lifelike, creates more well-rounded and interesting characters, and can add subtext to dialogue. But in all three of these cases, the effect is strongest when that backstory is omnipresent, rather than being described every thirty seconds. After all, you don’t need an advanced degree in physics to feel the effects of gravity. Just by seeing it acting around us, we have a pretty strong grasp of what it does.

Going back to the Potato Room: the power of places

The Potato Room

I like to think of  myself as a casual gamer, more interested in stories than actual shoot-em-up action– which is why Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a big favorite of mine (even if I can’t fix the stupid elevator). While playing Amnesia’s shorter tangent, Justine, I wound up in what I fondly like to think of as the Potato Room. (Starts at 8:00)

(Note: works best when watched full-screen in a dark room).

Part of the gameplay of Amnesia is the utter helplessness of the main character. Trapped in a castle full of monsters, you have no hit points and no way to fight them. Your only hope is to run and pray they don’t catch up, or hide until they pass you by. Unless you’re in the Potato Room, apparently, where a monster circles endlessly through a room, and you have to sneak past it unnoticed.

I didn’t know this the first time I got to this area. So when I heard the monster coming, I hid in the corner, behind a bookshelf, and waited. My lights ran out, and my character quickly lost her sanity in the dark. The screen pulsed in and out of focus to the sound of her frantic heartbeat, and she repeatedly lost consciousness and fell sideways, in what I’m guessing is a fetal position on the floor. For (I kid you not) twenty minutes of real time, I sat and waited, straining my ears for snarls and growls, unable to look at the monster without my character passing out again.

Then I had a friend look up a walkthrough, and I felt rather silly for trying to wait out the monster instead of sneaking past.

Not too long after, my husband initiated a conversation he and I very much needed to have. I no longer remember what it was about, but it was one of those things that I very much needed to do, and very much didn’t want to. The cornered, desperate feeling started me on a slight anxiety attack. My heart was racing, my breath was shallow… and when I shut my eyes, I could see the Potato Room: the darkness, the shadows crawling in the distance, the pulsing screen, the sounds of the monster shuffling closer by the second. Since then, the Potato Room has essentially become the place my mind goes when I get anxious and frightened.

The power of Potatoes

This isn’t unique. Into The Free opens with Millie hiding under her porch and witnessing a mother dog killing and burying her litter of newborn pups– which is referenced again almost every time we see child abuse throughout the book (and dear lordy, there’s a lot of it). In Going Bovine, Cameron begins his story by retelling the day he almost died on a ride at Disney World– a bittersweet experience which he describes as the happiest day of his life.  But while the technique isn’t unique, it’s often unique to that book. The sorts of experiences strong enough to become a character’s Potato Room are often mundane (unlike, for example, a first date or first day of school, which are usually considered noteworthy), but they’re weighted with a particular emotion that makes the place leap out every time that emotion resurfaces. They’re a great way of really delving into the depths of a character and giving them a detail that is purely his or her own.

Do any of your characters have a place that holds particular emotional weight for them? Where is it, and what emotions are attached to it? Tell us about it in the comments!

Writing Exercise: Out of Costume

Two of your characters, who are the most bitter of enemies most of the time, unwittingly sit down and have a chat. Maybe they met up on Chat Roulette (is that even a thing anymore?), maybe they’re a superhero and supervillain who ran into each other out of costume. Whatever the case, at least one of them (perhaps both) doesn’t know who the other is.

What do they talk about? How do they treat each other? Do they broach the subject of their rivalry, or do they steer clear of it?

This sort of conversation isn’t uncommon in fiction (or in real life, for that matter), but it does make you look at this antagonistic relationship in a different light.

People Watching

People in the Bus for Public Transportation
The bus is a great place to sit back and observe. (Photo credit: epSos.de)

I was digging through some old notebooks this evening when I found a page of People Watching.

You can’t ever hear enough about this: writers, artists, filmmakers– no matter what your brand of creativity, it’s imperative that you go out and actually look at people.

I’m not talking about the standard stuff– you know, the way we usually get categorized:

  • Sex: Male/Female/Etc
  • Skin: Black/White/Brown/Beige
  • Eyes: Blue/Green/Brown
  • Hair: Long/short/bald
  • Body: Fat/Thin/Tall/Short

If you’ve ever got a spare moment– whether you’re waiting on the bus or enjoying a lunch break– take a second to look at people. Actually look at them. Listen to the way they speak. Watch the way they move and hold themselves. Observe what they look like. The features that catch your eyes. The mannerisms that make you take notice.

Even if you don’t think of it consciously, those descriptions will start to bleed into your work.

Here are a few from my list, written down while I was killing time between classes during my undergrad:

  • A small face on a small body, all mousy and pale, with radioactive pink lips glowing in the middle of her head
  • Thin, with dark hair like quills hidden under a crocheted cap
  • A Willy Wonka crooked grin (Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp), with milk chocolate skin and sugared-coffee hair
  • Long, twiggy hands
  • He had a complexion like raspberry jam, flushed and pocked and all the more sweet because of it
  • A round face like an almost-full moon, encircled by night-black hair
  • Her confidence betrays a deeper self-consciousness. She uses too many big words, struggles never to smile or look too happy. Every action underlines a single message, bolded and underlined until the print of her face runs out of ink: THIS IS IMPORTANT! TAKE ME SERIOUSLY!

(That last person was talking about her classes. You get a cookie if you guess her major.)

Have you observed any interesting people lately? How do you feel about people watching? Tell us about it in the comments!

31 Days of Blogging: What do YOU think about protagonists?

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More than a month ago, I asked people what they thought makes for a good or likable protagonist (and, on the other side of the coin, what makes a bad or unlikable one). The responses I got were pretty phenomenal. And because it’s such a subjective question, here’s the responses I found.

Do you agree or disagree with any of these answers? What do you think makes a good protagonist– or a bad one? Tell us about it in the comments!

Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy…

People talk about character motivation all the time– what’s the character’s inner yearning, the secret desire of their heart, the thing that makes them get out of bed in the morning?

I’m not here to talk about that.

Instead I want to talk about something much more basic– which means that it often gets overlooked in favor of the fancier stuff.

Not thinking clearly…

Every story hinges upon a dose of stupidity: Bilbo suffers a temporary lapse of sanity and joins a dwarven adventuring party. Luke Skywalker chases a malfunctioning droid into the desert. Voldemort decides to listen to a prophecy, instead of dismissing it as the rambling of a drunken fraud.

This sort of irrational behavior tends to be driven by that ‘inner yearning’ people keep talking about, which tend to drive the randomness of our daily decisions. We often need to have these failures in judgement in order to have a story at all.

Used too generously, though, irrational randomness makes for a weak plot and confusing characters. It’s most glaring in secondary characters, especially in ensemble adventures: “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but you’re on an adventure– I’ll join you, maybe?”

Motivation matters

Often these are people who wander around, as alone and aimless as extras on Dora the Explorer. They have no friends, family, social ties, or responsibilities that might inhibit them from picking up their belongings and traipsing off with some random protagonist they just met, often into certain death. What were these people even doing before the protagonist graced them with his/her presence?

Fully-developed characters have lives– they have homework to do, or a job to show up for; they have families and friends; even if they’re street urchins, they’ve got their own turf to keep an eye on, lest the other gangs start moving in.

I realize that some stories are meant to be ensembles– but characters still need more personal motivation to join the team than “because the author said so”.

Breaking even

In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the Dwarves are assisted by a whole slew of people: Elrond, the Eagles, Beorn, the Riverfolk. And these people all help out, according to the laws of hospitality (most of them due to favors called in by Gandalf), but they never really extend their services outside their given territory. After all, these are all important people with their own duties to take care of. They owed Gandalf, but they didn’t owe him all that much.

Han Solo
Han Solo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Star Wars, Han Solo and Chewbacca are only in it for the money (their biggest obligation being a massive debt to Jabba the Hutt), and by the time they realize what they’re getting into, they’re already in over their heads. If they’d known from the outset that they would become heroes in an intergalactic uprising, they probably would have walked away– no amount of money is worth that much trouble, and they aren’t about to pursue certain death over an elevator pitch about morality.

Most characters are intended to be decently rational. That means they aren’t going to change their routine or abandon their obligations unless the apparent benefits outweigh the foreseeable drawbacks. 

Do you have any unmotivated characters that are driving you crazy? What motivations are driving your characters to join the hero’s cause? Tell us about it in the comments!

What hats are your characters wearing?

Each of us, in our daily lives, wear a whole slew of hats. Not physical hats, mind you… though if you’re as cool as I am, then you’ve got that covered, too.

Each ‘hat’ is a role we play– and those roles change depending on where we are or what we’re doing. Each one comes with its own language, its own taboos, its own dress code, and so forth.

A few examples:

Dress Code: When I’m hanging out in the offices at Nuvo, I often wear my beloved shark hat. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, where we can have a lot of fun and be plenty silly, as long as we get everything to press by deadline. The school where I used to work was also pretty laid back, but I was often teaching students who were only a handful of years younger than I was. If I wanted to be taken seriously at all by the parents and higher-ups, I needed to dress professionally. And that means no shark hat.

Language: When I’m on Tumblr, or talking to someone who frequents Tumblr, I’ll often make cracks about all the feels. Say that to a non-tumblrite, and you’ve only got a slim chance that they have any idea what you’re talking about.

Role within a group: When I’m in a group with my friend Kya, I’m the Hermione to her Harry Potter. She has all the most creative ideas, the most thorough plans, and the natural charisma to convince people to do just about anything.  When I’m in a group with less dominant personalities, though, I’m often the one who takes charge, mostly because I’m good at pretending I know what’s going on.

Physical description: I spent a good portion of my life hanging out with my big brother and his friends, each of them megalithic in their own right. I was the itty bitty little sister. So imagine my surprise when I started hanging out with a wider variety of people, and discovered that 6′ is considered tall in most circles.

Taboo: When I’m out with school friends, I have no problem at all swearing up a storm, especially when I’m emotionally invested in a subject. When I’m in the room with a toddler, I wouldn’t dream of using that sort of language.

Even before the internet and the age of a billion TV channels, everybody had a whole mess of roles to play: The same woman could be a teacher to her students, a mother to her children, a daughter to her parents, and each of those roles typically demanded dramatically different behaviors. It’s all the same personality, but different aspects are emphasized based on who we’re with.

What sets us apart

Typically, the quality that defines a person in a given group is the quality that sets them apart: I was the short one among my brother’s friends, the teacher is the adult among children, and so forth.

Gimli from The Lord of the Rings is The Dwarf… but he wouldn’t be if he was back home, surrounded by other dwarves. He’d be Gloin’s boy, or the kid who can’t hold his liquor, or the dude who can totally take an orc’s head off in one chop. He’s only The Dwarf because he’s the only one in the Fellowship.

We see the same in the show Castle: Among the detectives of the NYPD, Rick Castle is the resident writer. At the poker nights he shares with the rest of the NYT Best Selling Authors, he’s the group’s amateur detective. To his overly responsible daughter, he’s the Cool Dad. To his flighty mother, he’s the voice of reason.

I bring up Castle specifically because it does a great job of showing characters from each of his social circles interacting– and depending on which group is driving the scene, our protagonist is wearing a different hat. When his mother is leading his daughter on a crazy adventure, for example, he assumes the role of a responsible adult to counterbalance his mom’s kookiness.

Back to writing

Like real life people, our characters also tend to run in different circles– each of which brings out a different part of their inner selves. So here’s a writing exercise for you:

Figure out what crowds your character runs in– work, family, hobbies, and so forth. What role does s/he play in each one? What behaviors and vocabulary end up sticking around even after s/he has removed that hat? What sets him/her apart from each crowd?

What circles do you run in? Which hats do you wear when you’re in those circles? And which hats are your characters wearing? Let us know in the comments!