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.)

The road goes ever on and on…

Map of Appalachian Trail
In case you’re curious, THIS is the Appalachian Trail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have yet to meet anyone who’s hiked the Appalachian Trail by accident– you swear, you just stepped outside to get the mail, but 2,000 miles later you looked up and realized you were in Maine.

That kind of hike takes preparation. You wear your most comfortable hiking boots, you check the weather, you bring supplies of food and water, you make sure you’ve got time and energy to invest in the experience. And it is an investment. Everyone I know who’s hiked the trail has spoken lovingly of the experience forever after.

In my the same way, I have yet to meet anybody who’s ever read The Lord of the Rings by accident. Everyone I know who’s finished the book did so knowing exactly what they were dealing with when they went into the experience. And that’s because, as books go, it’s not easy. I know plenty of people who tried to tackle it, but ended up giving up before they reached the end of the first chapter. To stick with the metaphor, they tackled the Appalachian Trail while expecting it to be exactly like a romp through a city park.

Often, classic novels are an endeavor. They use arcane language and styles that we’ve abandoned ages ago, they take forever and a half to get to the point. Plenty of people have complained about Tolkien’s infatuation with the scenery, or Victor Hugo’s love-hate relationship with pacing. While that doesn’t diminish from their beauty, it does make them difficult, especially if you’re more accustomed to modern authors and the conventions they use.

More than a few people would argue that the beauty of the Appalachian trail would be diminished by paved roads or street lights, though they would make it safer and easier to trek, and it would make the Trail more appealing to a lot more people. Of course, the lack of people is part adds to the quiet serenity, the untouched quality of the wilderness.

Of course, when you’re writing with the intent of being published, a lack of readers usually isn’t the end goal. Unless you run with a certain crowd, a book is no more entertaining if nobody else has read it. In fact, it could be argued that several series were greatly improved by the devotion of their fanbase. (Harry Potter is the obvious example.)

The fact of the matter is, we read classics because they’re the books that Everybody Who’s Anybody has read– they’re on school reading lists, they’re the ones that the great authors/filmmakers/visionaries have read. But if you’re a fledgling author, you probably don’t have school reading lists and “100 Greatest Books of All Time” lists to build a fanbase for you*.

When we talk about modern conventions– avoid filtering, use active voice instead of ‘was’ and ‘were’, employ dialogue tags that don’t distract from what’s being said— we’re talking about adding those features that make writing easier and more accessible to a modern audience. After all, unlike hiking trails, writing doesn’t lose its beauty as it becomes more accessible.

*If you do, I’m insanely jealous of your success and deeply flattered that you’re reading my blog!

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!