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!

Stealing from another house

It’s no secret that I’ve got a bit of a sore spot regarding certain elements in fiction: specifically, I’m frustrated by a glut of fiction featuring Tolkien’s Elves/Dwarves/Men, the standard Vampires/Werewolves civil war, the obsession with Norse and Greek mythology.

It’s not that these elements are bad– not by a long shot. But I’ve seen them so often that I’m getting sick of them.

This morning a philosopher friend of mine came over, and we talked about a whole slew of things (topics always tend to wander when he and I chat), and while we meandered onto the subject of literature, an old phrase came up:

Good writers borrow; great writers steal. 

It’s been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, TS Elliot…it’s such a good quote that nobody can keep their mitts off it. But I digress.

The philosopher framed my frustration in terms of the quote, and we wound up with this scenario

(Note: This is all metaphorical. I don’t actually endorse stealing stuff in the real world.)

Living Room - Big Couch
It’s nice, but it could use a touch more Coelho… (Photo credit: TomBorowski)

We writers are a pretty light-fingered bunch. Like I’ve said before, most of what we create is based at least partially off something else. When we see another author use something we like, we can’t help ourselves– we just have to grab it. Some people are careful about the matter; they’ll file off the serial numbers and give it a new paint job, but it’s still got the same base underneath. Some get proud of their acquisition. They proudly announce that the mirror in their front hall belonged to HP Lovecraft, and that at midnight you can see Cthulu reflected in its glass. And that couch you’re sitting on? That’s a Tolkien original, swiped straight out of the Last Homely House.

The latter are lovingly referred to as tributes, homages and allusions, and they can be pretty damn cool… but some of the coolness wears off when you start to notice all your friends have the exact same couch in their living room. After a while it starts to look a bit threadbare, and you’re pretty sure a spring is coming loose underneath the cushion.

This doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a damn comfy couch, and hell if those Elves don’t know their way around upholstery. But it’s starting to look… old. After all, even if Tolkien had some great stuff, but there’s only so much of it, and those sticky-fingered writers have rearranged it those same pieces in every configuration imaginable.

Bay Ridge McMansion 1b
Just look at all those potential plot points… (Photo credit: Whiskeygonebad)

But while Tolkien’s house has been pillaged down to the studs, there’s a whole city full of houses to rob. Hell, a few miles up the road you’ll find a veritable neighborhood full of McMansions, each full of themes and archetypes and symbols and mythical creatures, almost untapped by the kleptomaniac writing population. Maybe you’ll find a better couch for your decor in one of those. Or maybe you’ll decide to keep your classic Tolkien couch, but jazz it up with a Tale of Genji area rug and some Aztec cushions. Maybe your HP Lovecraft mirror would look better with some ancient Nubian wallpaper.

How would your medieval High Fantasy be different if, instead of Elves, one of the dominant races resembled shapeshifting Encantado?  What if your werewolves had more in common with hyenas? And moving past the superficial, what lessons and motifs can we glean from the fairytales of, say, India? There are values systems, fashions, family structures, mannerisms, superstitions, combat styles– many of them unknown and unappreciated in the mainstream.

There’s a whole world out there, my fellow thieves. I invite you to explore it all.

(Note: I fully expect somebody to call me out for encouraging cultural appropriation– namely, grabbing stuff from another culture because it’s nifty, and usually horrifically stereotyping and misrepresenting a that culture and its members as a result. First of all, this happens a lot. It’s not good, but it does. Second, just because a creature/theme/clever anecdote doesn’t belong to your native culture doesn’t mean it’s off limits. There’s such an incredible wealth of stories out there that you would be doing yourself a disservice by only skimming the surface and taking the most obvious details. I find that some of my favorite fantasy cultures/creatures/settings are ones which are not drawn wholesale from another culture, but inspired by aspects of an extant culture/myth/setting, and then advanced and reworked until they are something entirely new. And that’s something I’d love to see more of in the future.)