Category Archives: character

Plot, character, piledrivers

So I’ve been talking about how pro wrestling is a great space for communicating character and story through action – but talk is cheap. What does that actually mean? How do you use ten minutes of sweaty grappling and backflips to define a character, and what kind of stories can you tell through that platform?

The answer is – more than you might think.

I was going to wrap up this series of pro wrestling posts tonight and get back to beating myself up for my lack of productivity, but I kept finding new stuff to write about (and distracted by other stuff, which is why this Monday night post is going up on Friday night) – so let’s assume this is (at least) a two-part post and use part one to set some foundations, with a look at something everyone already knows about – World Wrestling Entertainment/WWE (and also NXT) – and what lessons might be learned.

WWE-logoEven if you’ve never seen a match in your life, you know about WWE; they’re a multi-billion dollar company, the single biggest wrestling organisation in the world. They have two big weekly shows (Raw and Smackdown) on regular TV, monthly pay-per-view events (even bigger shows) and their own $10-a-month wrasslin’ Netflix with more shows than I care to contemplate. The WWE Network is also the home of NXT, their ‘developmental’ offshoot where new performers build their skills/discipline before graduating to the main roster; just as importantly, it’s where they build an audience so that anyone cares about that graduation.

Tonal change is hard

03A lot of folks I follow on Twitter, or who make podcasts I enjoy, are really into the current WWE promotion, or more directly into NXT, and that background interest is probably what drew me back to the sport after a decade away. It’s kind of sad, then, that I find their current product, well… kind of boring. Compared to the flash, speed and silliness of the Attitude Era (late 90s-early 00s), or even the mid-2000s, the current WWE/NXT style of wrestling is more low-key and PG-rated. The focus is on mat-based wrestling, with a mix of technical grappling and strength/power moves – there’s very little aerial wrestling, use of weapons/tools or straight-up brawling. In many ways it’s a ‘purer’ form of wrestling, but I can’t help but miss table/ladder/chair matches. (Lesson: when you set a tone early on, it’s more difficult to bring that tone down and retain readers than it is to raise the stakes and escalate.)

Risk aversion is sensible but boring

The other big change is in the attitude of the corporation, which has come to really emphasise the ‘professional’ in pro wrestling. WWE is a  big, big business, and they don’t want to jeopardise that business by relying on unpredictable, idiosyncratic wrestlers with their own style or ideas about things are meant to work. The result, to my biased eye, is a growing homogeneity among the wrestlers, who are all drawing from the same set of moves and character concepts – moves and concepts largely chosen by an external group of coaches, managers and marketers – rather than bringing their own individual style and flair. And I get that, because you want a reliable and commercially viable product, and for your staff to be safe from injury due to unpredictable circumstances, but it makes it hard for me to tell many of them apart, or to care which one of them wins the day. (Lesson: you don’t have to play it safe, and you can depict any kind of character doing any kind of thing. SO DO THAT. Leave the homogeneity for the real world.)

Stick to the schtick

A lot of character development in WWE comes through visual flags – a wrestler always dresses a certain way, has a specific entrance, uses identifiable gestures. Similarly, every wrestler has signature moves and catchphrases that they’ll use in almost every match and promo – things that reinforce the character in your mind, that make them memorable even if you can’t connect that memory to a specific action or event. That’s a technique that’s very powerful in visual media, but can also be tapped in prose storytelling. (Lesson: set out simple, short signifiers for a character like a piece of clothing, a phrase or even a radical haircut, something you can describe in five words, and drop them into scenes so that readers get that instant bit of connection.)

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Use all your tools – but use them properly

WWE make heavy use of promos, vignettes, backstage skits, brief interviews and other non-match showcases to build character, but their in-ring character development is a bit lacking; the current product doesn’t do much to showcase agendas, motivations or unique traits once the bell rings to start the fight. Almost all of that comes before and after, which is maybe the main reason I find their stuff a bit dull right now. Still, all of that developmental material works in building character nuance and substance. What doesn’t work is when the announce team just tell you a character is awesome, even when you can see that they’re a bit shit. WWE have been doing that for years, and if anything it’s even more distancing and annoying now that the video quality is so good and you can see mediocre characters underwhelm you in HD. (Lesson: character can come from lots of interactions and presentations, big or small – but keep the focus on what characters do, and don’t forget about ‘show, don’t tell’, okay?)

We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more

WWE’s storylines used to have a few weird and strange elements, but that’s largely been excised these days. Modern storylines revolve around professional rivalries for belts and prime roster positions, which bring larger paycheques and more merch opportunities. In other words, they’re wrestling stories about wrestling; the business is about the business. That has potential for metatextual shenanigans, but they’re rarely explored, and the end result is a storytelling environment that leaves me kind of cold. At the same time, the rare inclusion of a new element – a personal grudge, a lapsed friendship, a reflection of external factors – is just enough to stand out and get my interest, even if it’s never anything as over-the-top as the Undertaker fighting Kane in the fires of Hell. (Lesson: it’s good to set a baseline of realism, but staying there is kind of boring; look for ways to make stories be about more than their own immediate, sensible and predictable contexts.)

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Good pacing makes up for many sins

The thing that WWE really understands these days, after decades of experimentation, is the rhythm of action storytelling – the pacing skeleton that supports all manner of wrestling meat. A standard WWE feud starts just after a pay-per-view, with hostilities rising between two wrestlers; at the next PPV they either settle things (short arc) or the situations escalates (medium arc). There’s a consistent, engaging build with peaks and troughs, highs and lows – something that gets you pumped and then lets you cool off. Matches are the same; the rise and fall of energy and spotlight in a WWE show is so crisp you could graph it. (Well, usually; I hear the recent SummerSlam PPV was 6 hours long, peaked too soon and burned the audience out by the halfway mark.) (Lesson: knowing the rhythm and flow of fights and stories is more than half the battle of conveying both effectively.)

I signed up for a free month of the WWE Network; that subscription renewed today, and that’s fine, but that’ll do. That gives me time to watch some of the ancillary shows (Breaking Ground is intriguing) and the Cruiserweight Classic, which is my kind of flippy-skippy wrestling, and maybe to take a few more notes on Raw and Smackdown. After that, I think I’ll be happy enough to let it lie. WWE have their own thing, and it works very well for their audience, but I’m okay with not marking out for them any more.

Who do I mark out for? And plunder for storytelling ideas?

Let’s find out next time.

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 2)

Last week I started talking about Guild Wars 2, not because it’s a fun game (it is) but because it’s an interesting object lesson in the use of storytelling techniques. I wrote about 1300 words about that, and I can only assume that I stunned all of you into silence with my brilliance ‘cos no-one offered even a single comment on it.

Well, prepared to be driven permanently mute as I continue to write even more on the topic of story, character and high-level armour drops!

(Also, this was meant to be finished and posted on Sunday night, but the Comedy Festival is chewing up my time and spitting out minutes and limbs.)

(And they’re not even my limbs. Not sure where they come from. Damned creepy, really.)

Choices matter

Throughout your personal story in GW2 you get called on to choose between two or three courses of action, which dictate what the next chunk of narrative will be. That’s excellent game design because it actively engages the player, making them feel that they’re an active participant in the story – even though some choices are weighted pretty heavily towards one more interesting option. (“Well, you could disguise yourself as a minotaur or do LAH LAH LAH NOT LISTENING HAND ME THE HORNS AND SUPERGLUE.”) In fiction you get that engagement by presenting the main character – the reader’s window into the story – with choices to make. Make your main character an active participant in their own story and the reader will follow suit.

…even when they don’t

On the other hand, choices need to be meaningful, and the ones in GW2 aren’t. Sure, they determine which mission you tackle next, but the end point of that mission lines you up to the pre-determined outcome and next stage the same as the alternative would. The game has a path, and your choices just determine which bits of scenery you set fire to along the way. In a story, choices need to be genuine decision points that shape outcomes and have permanent consequences, or else there’s no point writing about them. And as part of that, some of the most interesting decisions are the bad ones, the ones that don’t work out and push the story further into conflict. Go crazy with those.

Voice defines character

A key element of GW2 is that your character speaks, generally in conversational cut scenes – and the most important part of that is that your character develops a distinct voice. No, not voice acting, but a style and tone all their own, from the patient Sylvari to the belligerent Charr to the egotistical Norn. Each character expresses personality through their words as well as their deeds, and that’s vital for any kind of fiction as well. It’s also something you notice when it falls away, as it does in GW2 as multiple plot directions collapse into one, taking with them your character’s distinct voice – so don’t do that. Maintain character voice, even when the plot takes the character in a new direction.

At this point, I feel I should show you my character. His name is Cadmus and he is a Sylvari Guardian and he is level 80 and he fights with a sword and torch and he made all his own armour and he is very awesome and okay I’ll shut up now PS he is boss.

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Fuck lore

I blame Bioware for the trend of emphasising the rich, detailed backstory of their game worlds by littering their games with infodumps and books/scrolls/datapads that you find and reach and squint at instead of actually playing the game. GW2 has plenty of backstory, but rarely stops to tell you about it – it shows you, usually by sending you on missions where history pops up, says hello and stabs you in the face. Short on exposition and long on action/character, GW2’s history leeches into you by osmosis rather than study, and that is a fine lesson to bring to your fiction. Stay focused in the here and now, let your characters discover history organically, and throw out just enough to provide context before moving on.

Genre is a big tent

If you’re looking for purist, traditional fantasy, GW2 is not for you. This is a world featuring giant Vikings, inquisitive plant-people, horned cat-folk undergoing an industrial revolution and a race of freckled gnomish mad scientists with robots and lasers. Add to that pistols, aqualungs, airships, battle armour, dozens of sentient races (most of them bad), anachronisms aplenty and wide swathes of horror and you get a take on fantasy that is anything but traditional. And that’s a good thing. Genre is vast, it contains multitudes, and purity is past its use-by date. Never feel hemmed in by what a genre is ‘supposed’ to contain – put in the things you want to include and the genre will swell to fit.

A consistent tone? What’s that?

Mind you, the problem with a big tent is that you might fill it with boxes, open them all at once and find that they don’t play well together. GW2 tries to present a series, often tragic tone within its main storyline, especially in the third act, but then destabilises that by getting you to enter an 8-bit computer game or fight the terrible Marxist-Leninist mole people in various pun-based locations. It’s hard to have feels when giggles are just a few minutes behind, and hard to maintain a tone of desperate urgency when you can just wander off and ignore the plot for a week while you gather armour bits. Any idea can be serious or silly, calm or critical depending on how you treat it, so long as you pick a tone early on and stick with it. If you’re going to be a purist anywhere in your own work, it should be tone – find your level ASAP and stay there to the end.

Pictures are worth a thousand etcetera

The visual world of GW2 is both rich and very carefully crafted, so that whenever you look around you know where you are. Every location has its own feel, from the sedate human kingdoms to the once-drowned-now-risen wastelands of Orr. Architecture is similarly distinct – you instantly know the cubic, gravity-defying ziggurats of the Asura from the dark satanic mills of the Charr and the re-purposed shipwreck-buildings of Lion’s Arch. Making everything distinct means that everything has instantly-identifiable flavour, embedding players in the world. Writers don’t get to play with visuals (well, most of us don’t), but we have other tools – word choices, prose rhythm, dialect, adjectives and more. Just as you give every character a voice, try to give every location and scene its own voice too; it makes the stories within them all the richer.

Exploration isn’t necessarily story

That said, if all you’re doing is looking at the scenery or exploring the intricacies of how the Shamu-Shamu people make purple whaleskin booties, your story isn’t going anywhere. GW2 encourages exploration with various tools, including the thrill of discovery and the lure of XP and treasure drops, but the story gets put on hold while you check out the landscape. Do you want to put your story on hold while people are actually, you know, reading your story? I thought not. As with lore, position the rich tapestry of your world front and centre by making characters run right through it, showing its colours and complexity for a second and then getting on with things. Story is movement. Always keep moving.

I could probably come up with half-a-dozen more object lessons, but it’s late and this essay is already long enough.

Let’s close by saying this. There was a time where prose was the Only Important Way of telling stories. That time is the distant past. These days there are lots of ways of getting a story into the reader’s head and heart, from games to graphic novels to epic poetry to multi-part interactive fiction experiments on Twitter. I’ve been talking about Guild Wars 2, but I could have drawn similar lessons from pretty much game, any movie, any (mostly) well-crafted piece of storytelling.

Everything you take in can teach you how to tell stories, whether by example or as a don’t-do-this object lesson. Keep your eyes peeled and your mind open, and you can learn from any of them. All of them. And make your stories better in the process.

Also, I’m patrickoduffy.3067 on Jade Quarry server, looking for groups to tackle the lower-level dungeons and maybe a guild to join. Send me a tell. I’ve got your back.

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 1)

Look, I make excuse after excuse about why Raven’s Blood is taking longer than expected, and many of those are more-or-less true, but here’s the real reason – I’ve been playing the shit out of Guild Wars 2 for like the last four months.

I have an addictive personality, and MMOs scratch that itch harder than Wolverine with shingles. Which is a terrible metaphor, I know.

Anyway, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on exploring Tyria, fighting elder dragons and experimenting with various ingredient combinations to level up my cooking skills. And something that’s become clear to me is that GW2 is a game based heavily around story, character and exploration, and that it uses some interesting techniques to get those elements across while still delivering lots of action and fights. So, much like I did with Batman: Arkham City last year, I’d like to look at how Guild Wars 2 uses the tools in the storytelling chest to make something that’s more than just whacking digital pinatas for imaginary gold – and how sometimes it uses those tools well and sometimes not.

See, it wasn’t just four months of wasted time; it was research.

Arc after arc, raise after raise

The structure of GW2 is a classic zero-to-hero tale, but one that’s remarkably coherent and well-structured. The core storyline is broken in regular chapters, each of which reaches a natural end point that segues neatly into the next arc, and each of which raises the overall stakes. You start off as just another adventurer, fighting bandits or in a rivalry with mad scientists, and by the end you’re spearheading the battle against the great dragons and their unending army of the undead in order to save the world. And that progression is largely smooth and unbroken; you can always look back and think that it makes sense that you wound up where you are. The pattern of establish a status quo / upend it / fix it / establish a new status quo where the stakes are higher / repeat is the meat and drink of storytelling; it’s always worth considering as your main course.

But keep those doggies moving 

The thing about that arc-to-arc movement is that it doesn’t give you much room to breathe between arcs, or else you lose momentum and don’t make the transition smoothly. Time elapsing in the narrative is fine; time elapsing for the audience is problematic. GW2 does the usual keying of  events to levels and places, and most of the time you gain the requisite experience for the next mission in the process of getting to the location – but not always. A number of times I found myself coming up short and needing to potter around someplace else to gain a level or two, which bled away a lot of the urgency of the storyline.  In your storytelling, don’t give characters unnecessary downtime between arcs – if time has to pass, it’s better to start the next chapter with ‘Six months later’ than to blow a whole chapter describing how nothing important happens for a while.

Character is at the heart of story

It doesn’t matter how rich the backstory and environment of your world is if there’s no-one for us to experience it through. GW2 does a great job of basing everything that happens around your character and their actions. All the plot-important events are instanced, so you don’t see all the other players doing exactly the same mission, and fully-voiced cutscenes bookend each event so that your character is actually interacting with NPCs and shaping the narrative rather than just being given a checklist of objectives. Over the course of 80 levels, I became not just invested in my character’s XP and bitchin’ armour choices but in his personality – a great achievement for an MMO, and the primary thing you want to achieve in your fiction. Do it the same way – build the story around your character and then let personality emerge from action and dialogue.

But your POV might be from the story’s kidney

GW2 positions your character as central, but not as the primary plot-driver; that role is taken up by various characters in the story arcs, with you as their lieutenant/assistant/main legbreaker. Doing so is understandable – you need NPCs to give you missions to drive play – but it still ends up with you being secondary in someone else’s stories. While it’s possible to make this work in a story (such as in the first few of Glen Cook’s Black Company novels), it’s more likely to leave readers feeling that they’re missing out on the story or reading about a less-interesting character. So if you’re going to place your main character outside the absolute centre of your story, make sure that their own story is at least as interesting that what’s going on front and centre.

Situations create narrative

GW2 largely eschews the traditional quest-journal approach of most MMOs in favour of a network of events that are married to locations and situations. Some are static; you enter an area and there are problems that are immediate and obvious (eel-men preying on wrecked ships, unexploded bombs in an orchard, uppity polar bears etc); just by wandering around and interacting with the environment you complete the event. Others are dynamic, suddenly starting up and bringing change into the scene – and some of those are links in a chain of events that change with consequences. If bandits attack a water pipe, you can try to fight them off; if you fail, the pipe is blown up and now you have to help repair it. This gives everything a feeling of import and weight; the world changes with you, even if only for a little while, and other players will be affected by your deeds. This is the kind of feeling you want to impart to events in your fiction. The best stories are not  just handed down from on high; they emerge naturally from reactions to a situation, they shape the actions of characters and are shaped in turn, and the consequences that follow the event meaningfully changes the narrative.

Sometimes that narrative is a bit dull

When a situation calls for a variety of actions – combat, puzzle solving, interaction, chopping down trees or whatever – then it’s engaging on several levels. When it just involves attacking an indeterminate number of monsters using the same two weapons for ten minutes… not so much. GW2’s static and dynamic events are a mix of the inspired (especially when you end up putting on disguises and changing form), the serviceable and the just-hit-enough-things-until-it’s-over, which is as quotidian as it gets for a video game. Over in the writing world, you should probably try to avoid the quotidian, because those are situations that don’t have tension, conflict or emotional resonance, and the narratives and consequences that emerge from them just aren’t interesting. Of course, ‘quotidian’ isn’t the same as ‘ordinary’; lots of normal human interactions are charged with conflict and meaning, and can give rise to powerful stories. But situations that only allow for limited character actions, that don’t matter in the overall storyline, that don’t present more than cosmetic consequences… it doesn’t matter if your story’s set in Melbourne, Metropolis or Moria, that bit of it’s going to be dull. Skip it.

Okay, we’re well over 1000 words at this stage, this post is two days late and I’m only half-finished, so I’m breaking this in half. Come back next weekend for part two, which will be at least as exciting and educational as this one.

Plus I’ll add some screenshots of my character. He looks boss.

Five things I’ve learned about dialogue

I’m not good at dialogue.

There, I said it. Although not as well as other authors would.

Anyway, I’ve struggled with dialogue ever since I started writing, and because of that I keep writing it, because if I leave it alone I’ll never get better at it.  I’m still not great with it, but I have learned something from my mistakes, and in the spirit of sharing, education and group hugging, I’ve got a list of five lessons here for your edification.

Lesson Zero, of course, is never to use the word ‘edification’ in your dialogue. Ahem.

Realistic dialogue isn’t interesting; interesting dialogue isn’t realistic

You know how normal people speak? We errm and ahh and mumble, we pause for breathe at inconvenient times, we repeat ourselves, we start every sentence with ‘Um, actually’, we repeat ourselves… all of these things are genuine and realistic ways of portraying human speech. And they are boring as shit to read. Worse than boring, they’re irritating; they’re like little clusters of birdshit clogging up the page and stopping the reader getting to the part of the dialogue that’s actually entertaining or that carries the story.

My big sin here was starting most of Kendall’s dialogue in The Obituarist with ‘Well,’. I had reasons – sometimes it showed that he’s thinking up what he says as he says it, sometimes it let me negate or undercut what someone else had said, but mostly I did it because that’s how people speak. Okay, that’s how I speak. Fortunately, my editor pulled me up on that and made me take it out, and the book is the stronger for it.

The dialogue that sticks in your memory or powerfully depicts character isn’t the realistic stuff, it’s the dialogue that you wish actual human beings would speak. No-one swears like Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black or gibbers like Hunter S. Thompson’s Doctor Gonzo, but those characters (and other like them) have a voice that stays with the reader and draws them into the story. Their artificiality is engaging; they remind us that we’re reading fiction and are allowed to stretch our imaginations. Even realistic, character-based narratives benefit from interestingly unrealistic dialogue, because you can use the conceit of the voice as a counterpoint to the groundedness of the characters and story.

So cut out the umms and skip the tonal padding; crazy moon-talk puts bums on seats.

Small talk equals bore talk

The other thing real people do is talk about things that don’t matter that much – the weather, what we did on the weekend, the proud/shameful acts of Local Sports Team #7 and so on. This is normal and it serves a purpose; it’s a way of setting up a shared space in which we can then be comfortable talking about more important things. Small talk is a social safety net.

But small talk in a narrative needs to be bludgeoned to death and thrown in a lime pit; it’s boring, and worse than that it doesn’t move the plot along. I’m not saying every single word in your story needs to be 100% vital, but it should play some purpose for the reader; small talk only plays a purpose for the characters, and they don’t need to feel safe because they’re not real. I made this mistake in some of my early Hunter RPG writing, which was presented as in-character material like tape recordings. I used small talk and chit-chat to give context, but the material didn’t need it; again, my editor removed the worst excesses and set me straight.

Along these lines, the best point to come into a dialogue scene is after it’s started, not just after the chit-chat but just as/after someone said the most vital/heinous/meaningful thing. The best place to leave the scene is as soon as possible, just after the important stuff’s been said and people have started reacting to it and someone somewhere is going to throw a punch or have a baby or both at the same time. Jump right in, jump right out, hit it and split it – because you grab the reader at the height of their engagement in what’s happening and then transfer that energy to the next phase of the story. Make them do the work for once. Lazy buggers.

Dialogue isn’t action

When you jump in late and out early from a dialogue scene, you bookend the talking with action – and this is important, because talking isn’t action. And I don’t just mean it’s not a fist fight or a car chase, I mean it’s not an avenue by which things happen; dialogue is not the place where things change. It often comes just before that change, of course, and might be the impetus for that change – but the change is still what characters do, not what they say, even in the most internally-focused story.

There are two parts to this lesson. The obvious one is not to make dialogue the resolution of a story or plotline; don’t end the scene with people just talking and then move on. That leaves the reader hanging and wondering what actually happens next, and not in a good way; it’s all windup and no payoff. Even if the aftermath of dialogue is just a person walking out of the room, that can still pack a punch; the words have an effect and the situation/person has changed.  So long as the action is tethered to the dialogue in a meaningful way, the transition will be satisfying.

The second part is that, since dialogue isn’t action, you may want to include some action in the scene to keep the energy levels up. Two people sitting and talking can be riveting on stage, but in print it’s just line after line of he said/she said, and visual monotony can creep in. To avoid that, have characters move around and do things – drink wine, kick chairs, shoot ninjas, whatever. You can reinforce talk and action by having them be different aspects of the same thing; alternatively, you can have people do one thing while saying another, arguing about custody rights while operating killer drones on a cyber-battlefield. That contrast builds a dissonant tension if you do it right, and maybe lets you sneak in metaphorical parallels if you’re one of those writers who is smarter than me.

Dialogue is sorta kinda like action

Okay, I lied. There is one way that dialogue is like action, and that’s pacing. Just as an action scene can catch the reader and propel them breathless through the chapter, so too can quick back-and-forth banter. Hell, you don’t even need that; any dialogue that’s reasonably snappy will speed readers through a scene, if only because there are fewer words on the page. That’s the mechanistic element that’s easy to forget; dialogue reads fast, and talking chews up pagecount more than description.

On the flip side, if you want to slow the pace down, you can do that with dialogue too. A slow, thoughtful conversation where characters speak in paragraphs rather than sentences can take up more mental space for the reader than anything else, because we’re less likely to skip through dialogue looking for pertinent information, which we’ll often do with description. That said, this is tricky, because slow, thoughtful conversations are often kind of boring. So maybe don’t do this too often; better to intersperse dialogue with description or (yet again) action for a speed-up-slow-down-push-me-pull-you rhythm.

This also means that if you write a book with no dialogue, minimal dialogue, or that gets away from the quotation mark style of speech to something more abstract – which is what I did with Hotel Flamingo – you lose a major pacing mechanism from your writer’s toolbox. If you’re a good writer, you can make do without it – but be aware of what you’re giving up before you start, lest you get halfway through and realise you need it after all.

Give major characters a distinctive voice, but not an accent, because accents are bullshit

Some advice manuals say to give every character a distinct voice, but I say that’s not necessary. Sometimes it’s okay for a minor character to sound like another minor character, as long as they’re in separate scenes. Making everyone unique is a) hard, b) unnecessary, c) potentially overwhelming for the reader who has to juggle all these voices in their head.

But for major or recurring characters, it’s really good to give them a signature of some kind, a mannerism or style that tags them in the reader’s memory and reinforces personality. I used a few of these in The Obituarist, such as Samosa’s habit of saying ‘bro’ or Grayson’s snarky politeness, and I think I pulled those off pretty well. A specific inflection, a occasionally-used phrase, a tendency to inflect every statement like a question; little things say a lot and make them memorable.

A little goes a long way, mind you. D-Block’s vocal mannerisms in The Obituarist go too far, and looking back I wish I’d cut them down by about 50%. That would still have given him a unique voice, been less wearying to read, and might have said more about his character by implying that it was a deliberate affectation, rather than just being ‘street’.

Accents, though, are the work of Satan; they are the leavings of Mephistopheles’ slush pile. Unless you are Irvine Welsh and plan to your whole novel in dialect – and if you are Irvine Welsh, mate, thanks a lot for Trainspotting – then accents are just trying too fucking hard and making your character vomit unreadable chains of gibberletters onto the page that the reader has to decipher every damn time until eventually they give up and go back to the TV, where at least the accents might have subtitles.

Comics are so very, very bad for this. We’ve suffered through like thirty years of Chris Claremont sticking an indeterminate Southern accent on Rogue, whose drawl has stretched so far that it’s hard to tell whether she’s just a Foghorn Leghorn caricature of a real Mississippian or whether the poor girl has an acquired brain injury from all those times she got punched in the head by the Juggernaut.

Of course she hooked up with Gambit. It’s like duelling diphthongs down at the Crossroads.

Accents drown out the meaning and the tone of dialogue, overwhelming the flavour like rancid cheese oozing all over a subtle lemon sorbet. They’re cheap, they’re stupid, they’re distracting and they’re clumsy. And if you’re using them to communicate a character’s cultural or ethnic background, well, then they may even be kinda racist. Or not even kinda.

So don’t use ’em, bro.

Folks, this has been a collection of five things I’ve learned as a reader and a writer. I hope you found them useful. If you did, please say so – if enough people enjoyed this I may do another set on a different topic in future. And if you disagree on any point, possibly because you are Chris Claremont – and if so, Chris, what was up with putting all the female X-characters in bondage outfits time after time? – then you should also leave a comment and say so.

We could start a dialogue OH SNAP YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE

Character goals – a COMPilation of elements

‘Strong characters need strong goals’

This is one of those truisms of writing that sounds sensible and useful until you actually scratch at it a bit, and realise that it doesn’t actually tell you what a strong goal is or how to come up with one that makes sense for your character.

(Things that are true are not always useful; things that are useful are not always true.)

But I was thinking this week about characters and goals (mostly ‘cos I was thinking about World of Darkness roleplaying, but it applies to writing as well), and I’ve maybe come up with a trio of idea that combine to making a powerful goal for a character, one that can drive stories and inspire authors.

So what, then, makes for a good character goal? Well, I call it my compilation of elements, because all three start with ‘comp’. Cheesy, yes, but easy to remember!

Compelling

The goal must be something urgent, something that compels the character to work towards it actively and right away. Part of this is having the goal be something that emotionally yanks at the character, so that ignoring it to do something else is unthinkable. Revenge is a good example of this, as is a burning need to seek justice (they’re not quite the same thing). But the time element is also important; a good goal can’t be shelved indefinitely. Perhaps it has to be completed before the opportunity is lost  (the murderer must be caught before he escapes the country), or perhaps the goal just won’t mean anything to the character if it’s not achieved right away. There’s room for a goal that can be put aside for a brief period – particularly if the delay gives the character a much-needed advantage, such as an ally or information – but it has to draw the character back even harder after the break.

Complicated

A goal that is easy to achieve is a boring one, and one that doesn’t drive a narrative. A good goal takes work to achieve, and not simple work at that. There needs to be obstacles in the way, conflicts to overcome, multiple stages that need to be achieved. All of this complication requires the character to work hard at things and to approach things from multiple angles – a goal that is difficult, but is achieved simply by killing lots and lots and lots of dudes, is a goal that won’t keep readers’ interest. (The best narrative video games understand this – they stretch player skill in multiple areas at different times to progress towards the end.) Complications allow you to bring in other story elements, like additional characters and plotlines – and most importantly, complications give you lots of ways to introduce different kinds of conflict. Because, as we all know, stories run on conflict.

You can kill dudes, Ezio, but now you must BAKE!

Completable

And in the end, the goal has to be something the character can achieve – they can get to a point where they think ‘yes, I’ve done it, I can stop now.’ (That doesn’t mean that they have to achieve the goal – tragedy and anticlimax are wonderful things – but it has to be something they could have achieved if things hadn’t gone wrong.) There need to be milestones along the way to keep the character’s momentum going, and there needs to be a concrete, definable end state. Vague, open-ended goals like ‘gain power and wealth’ don’t keep propelling the narrative and maintain reader attention; eventually they lose momentum and peter out. Similarly, the emotional power behind a compelling goal slowly evaporates if the goal isn’t achievable; it loses meaning, and the ability to care goes with it. Paint a target on your story, point your character at it, and let it explode when he/she hits the bullseye.

(Many thanks to Jeb Darsh for suggesting ‘completable’ rather than ‘concrete’ when I was trialling these ideas on Twitter.)

Now, you may look at that list and think ‘well, hang on, I can think of some strong characters that aren’t driven by goals that match that.’

Well, of course you can, because this list ain’t the perfect be-all end-all ULTIMATE SECRET of writing; if I could come up with that, I’d be injecting liquid money into my eye sockets rather than writing blog posts. There are certainly other ways to come up with good character goals; this is one pattern, but every writer finds their own way.

It’s also important to remember, though, that not every strong character needs a strong goal. Goals are important in stories that are driven by character choices and actions, but that’s only one kind of story. Event-driven stories often feature reactive characters, who respond to external needs rather than internal forces, and those stories are just as interesting and powerful. Characters with weaker, vaguer goals are also better suited to open-ended narratives, such as ongoing serials. Comics are a great example; Batman has a goal (to avenge his parent’s deaths and fight crime in Gotham), but it’s not an achievable one or one that must utterly consume him, if only because he has to stop every now and then to help the Justice League fight Starro or something.

But even in these narratives, you can include smaller subgoals, and in turn give the reactive character a more active role for a time. ‘Fight crime’ is too vague and too unachievable; ‘uncover and defeat the Court of Owls’ is a lot more solid and puts Batman into the driver’s seat of a specific storyline. And again, including all three elements – compelling, complicated, completable – makes that subgoal engaging and exciting for the period in which it drives the larger narrative.

So that’s my guide to the basics of a strong character-goal. Work out those three elements at the start of your story and you should have enough steam in the engine to power you all the way to the end.

Do you have a different approach? Let’s talk about it in the comments! Come on, people, let’s share.

Faster than a speeding narrative

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and specifically thinking about how to write Superman stories.

Which, let me be clear, is not something I tend to do very often. I am Batman-man, after all, and while I’ve always been perfectly happy that Superman exists I’ve rarely been all that interested in reading about him. Good character, but not my favourite.

But the last few years have seen Superman appear in many stories that get the character very wrong, and these things irritate me when I read them. Worse, those wrongheaded approaches get enshrined into continuity as ‘definitive’ stories and interpretations, and the stories that follow take their cues from these flawed sources.

And now we have a belligerent, ‘edgy’ Superman who is alienated from humanity, quick to lash out in anger and willing to dismember and decapitate his enemies. Yes, that actually happened in the new Justice League title, because what we’d always wanted to see was the world’s greatest hero tear aliens into bloody shreds. Kids love it!

Everything about this is terrible. EVERYTHING.

So I feel the urge to pontificate on how to write Superman. Which is not difficult, despite what people say – hell, it’s so simple that even a schmuck who has no comics writing experience whatsoever can see it. Because there is an elemental purity to Superman, the first and most important superhero, and that purity shines through like yellow sunlight through green fog.

Many of the changes seem to come from the oft-repeated ‘conventional wisdom’ that Superman is a hard character to write, or to relate to, for two reasons:

  1. His enormous physical power makes it difficult to challenge him
  2. His morality is simplistic and makes him emotionally uninteresting

The interesting thing about these arguments is that they are both stupid – or, more precisely, both backwards. They position the two greatest opportunities in writing the character as problems. They are Bizarro reasons that am make perfect sense me am love eating ground glass.

Here’s the thing about ‘challenging’ characters – that’s not how writing a story works. Writers don’t ‘challenge’ characters, because the setup and the outcome of the story (or scene) are determined by the writer in the first place. There’s no challenge, there’s no uncertainty, there’s no rolling dice to see if the hero or villain win this month. Instead, you need to approach things in terms of conflict.

What are the stakes? What are the conditions? What does the character want? What can/will they do to achieve it? What do they need to overcome? What are the consequences of success and/or failure? These are the fundamental questions a writer needs to consider, and they are the questions that shape stories – and that determine what kind of stories work for a character.

So when someone talks about Superman being ‘too powerful’, that speaks to a problem with the stakes and conditions, not the character itself. A story about Superman catching a car thief isn’t going to work because the stakes and the consequences don’t match the character, not because he’s ‘too powerful’. And anyway, we’ve seen that story before, right?

Instead of a problem, think of Superman’s abilities as an opportunity. Superman’s physical power does not exist to let him overcome conflicts, it exists to allow him to engage in conflicts – the more amazing and over-the-top the better. His power level allows you to open up immense conceptual space and come up with magnificently impossible situations. Suns should be exploding, continents should be liquefying  dimensions should be tearing asunder. You have a chance to make up something amazing when you write Superman – do that, rather than, I dunno, have him walk slowly across America while lecturing poor people about how they shouldn’t commit crimes.

The other thing about going balls-out in the imagination stakes is that it means creating antagonists who can also operate on that level. Again, this is something some writers see as a constraint (they really wanted to make that car thief the bad guy) and I see as an opportunity, because it means the power levels cancel out and put the focus on personality. When that playing field is leavened – or, more correctly, equally heightened – what carries the day is not physical power but courage, determination and humanity. Superman doesn’t win because he is strong; he wins because he is brave, kind, inspirational and selfless. He wins because of that simplistic morality that is the other major complaint about the character, because the heart is the most powerful muscle of all. 

And here’s the thing about ‘simplistic morality’ – fuck your cynicism, human goodness is real.

Yes, we are flawed, but we can work to overcome those flaws, and we do so every day. I see people striving to help others every day, in whatever way they can – and for most of us those are small ways, sure, but we still try. We can be terrible to each other, but we don’t have to be. And in Superman – in the lightning that Siegel and Shuster captured in 1938 – we can imagine what simple human goodness could do if given the ability to act. Superman does not refute the notion that power corrupts; he refutes the notion that power must corrupt.

Some people think that’s old-fashioned. I think it’s beautiful.

Certainly there is room for that moral strength to be tested – that, in the end, is the most exciting part of any conflict involving Superman, because exploding suns are all well and good but we need something human to connect to. The point is, though, that there’s a difference between it being questioned and being subverted or mocked; between it being a source of conflict or a source of failure. Stories where Superman wonders whether torture can be justified (the animated feature Superman vs the Elite), where Jonathan Kent hires a branding consultant to design the S-shield (Superman: Earth One) or where his power alienates him from humanity and makes him feel superior (Kill Bill, of all things) utterly miss the point of the character. Superman gives us something utterly human to aspire to; he tells us that goodness can come from our genes, our upbringing or our innate character. That humanity is not something to be overcome, despite what Nietzsche said.

Alright, enough of my ranting and italics. Where does this get us?

Well, if we work from these principles, we can see that Superman stories should embrace the impossible, putting him at the start into situations no normal person could survive or perhaps even understand. He’s not blase or jaded by the situation, but nor is he cowed. His powers let him engage with those impossible situations, while his moral strength allows him to overcome the conflict facing him – the alchemical wedding of Super and Man.

For my money, the perfect Superman story that illustrates all of this is not All-Star Superman, although that is one of the finest Superman stories ever told; it gets everything right, but puts too much of its focus on other characters and situations. Instead, I’d like to nominate another Grant Morrison piece, Superman Beyond, a tie-in to the unfairly maligned Final Crisis.

In it, Superman is recruited by the interdimensional Monitors of Nil to battle a threat that could end the entire multiverse. But the Monitors’ bleedship crashes in Limbo, a wasteland between realities populated by forgotten superheroes, a place where stories go to die. When Mandrakk, the Dark Monitor, comes to tear Limbo apart and destroy all realities, Superman rallies the forgotten heroes to fight back while he travels outside reality to the Monitors’ home. There he takes control of a giant thought-robot to fight Mandrakk, unleashing the conceptual power of his own story to overcome the metatextual erasure of reality, finally casting the vampire Monitor into the Overvoid before flying back to his own reality with a single drop of infinite energy in his mouth that he uses to save Lois Lane’s life.

That probably all sounds a bit crazy put like that, and it must be said that coherency is not a hallmark of Final Crisis, but the majestic inventiveness and scale of the story make it wonderful. It’s a story where Superman must battle threats not just to humanity or one universe but to the very concept of universes, where he has to accept the idea that his life and everything he knows is on some level fictional but still worth fighting for, where he needs to place faith in alternate universe versions of himself (even in the evil one), and where in the end he is motivated to give it everything he has by his love for his wife.

Also, parts of the story were in 3D, special glasses and all.

Fuck. Yeah.

That’s how you write Superman,

Look, I’ve been talking in the specific about Superman here, but in the end this all applies to any powerful or competent character. Actually, strike that – it applies to any character, at least one interesting enough to write about. Because it’s always important to ask the right questions when writing about conflicts, and it’s always important to let the character’s personality be involved in how that conflict plays out. It’s just that it’s easier to expound at length (great, great length) on those points when I have a blue-and-red example to attach to them.

So take three axioms from this:

  1. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the parameters of a conflict.
  2. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the outcome of a conflict.
  3. You can (and probably should) use completely different traits to shape parameters and outcome.

And those apply to heat vision, intellect, juggling skill or just particularly tight pants.

Or indeed no pants. Let’s see Superman fight that.

Arkham City – the writing dos and donts

I don’t think anyone will be terribly surprised to hear that I spent most of the last two weeks playing Arkham City, rather than Christmas shopping, writing or spending quality time with my wife. I mean, come on, it’s a video game about Batman; the only way to make that more attractive to me as a package is have it dispense a shot of bourbon from the controller every time you get an achievement.

But as of yesterday I have finished the game (both the core plotline and the host of side missions) and having done so I think there’s a lot to consider from a writing POV about the way the game handles its stories and characters. Arkham City does some things right and some things wrong – more the latter than the former, to be honest – and a lot of that is pretty directly applicable to writing fiction. So let’s step away from the fact that the game is a lot of fun and features my favourite character and see what else we can learn from it.

(No, this isn’t a transparent attempt to justify the hours I’ve spent beating the crap out of bad guys on the TV. Honest. Cross my heart.)

Also, warning: if you haven’t finished the game yet, there’ll be some spoilers here. They might ruin your enjoyment. Or they might not.

Plot from premise

For a start, let’s talk about plot. Although promoted as being sandboxy and ‘open-world’, AC has in fact a very central plotline. More specifically, it has two central plotlines. First up, Hugo Strange has turned half of Gotham City into a giant prison, full of psychopaths and lowlifes, and Batman has to find out what Strange is really up to. On top of that, the Joker has infected Batman and a lot of hospital blood supplies with a deadly disease, so Batman has to determine and find the cure before he (and hundreds of others) die.

This is classic stuff – you have an A-plot and a B-plot, you move the spotlight between the two as the story progresses, and you use developments in one to modify the other. It’s very much the approach I’m taking with The Obituarist, for example. By having two main plotlines, you can build tension in one and then move to the other to maintain suspense, or pull the trigger in one to ramp things up in the other. Having just one core plotline in a long-form work doesn’t give you the same richness or as many tools, and you run the risk of pushing that plot too hard and boring your readers.

In addition, AC has about a dozen side plots and missions, plus a parallel storyline about Catwoman. Most of these link strongly to the strong central premise of the game – Gotham City is now a prison that causes far more problems than it solves. As I’ve said before, a strong premise is a constant story generator; you can bring an simple idea to it, put it through the premise/machine and some kind of plotline will come out. Video games tend to be premise-driven, of course, but AC‘s a good (not exceptional, but good) example of how it can work.

Bait, switch, drive a truck through the holes

But while AC has a central plot, that’s not to say it’s a strong plot. Or a coherent one. Or one that makes a goddamn lick of sense in some cases.

So yes, Hugo Strange is doing something bad. But you spend most of the game ignoring that, despite the fact that it’s the A-plot that’s central to the premise and plastered all over the blurb of the CD case. Instead, the Joker-infection plot takes over the core of the game and drives it forward, forcing you to ignore the increasing urgency of prison developments while you look for a cure. Which requires you to fight ninjas in an abandoned subterranean steampunk cult temple.

…yup.

You’ll go on a vision quest. You’ll punch a giant shark and a pair of one-armed former Siamese twins. Solomon Grundy throws electrified balls at your head. And a bunch of other stuff that floats in and out of the story for no really comprehensible reason. Finally you’ll get a cure, only for it to be stolen and the Joker to target Batman. At which point the A-plot comes back and Strange gets the legal right to kill everyone in the prison (!), and you rush to stop him while the Joker allies with the ninjas. Except that’s all bait-and-switch too, and brings with it a couple of plot holes that left me staring slackjawed at the TV, wondering how no-one on the writing team stopped and said ‘wait, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s just fucking stupid’.

The main reason why these plot turns and events are problematic (apart from the huge holes) is that they’re divorced from the central premise discussed above. Playing a shellgame with plotlines can be interesting if done well, but are frustrating when bungled, and when your story wanders too far afield from the concept that got the reader interested in the first place. Similarly, while some side plots emerge fairly naturally from the central plotline and core premise, others come out of nowhere and feel completely tacked on (especially the one involving Azrael, which is either utterly pointless or an extended teaser for the next game in the series). Fun in and of themselves, their stories don’t satisfy, just as a disconnected subplot in a novel leaves the reader feeling distanced from the main story because of the apparently-pointless detour.

Oh, and the game finishes before you get a chance to cure the hundreds of infected patients in wider Gotham. Apparently there’s a post-credit epilogue that deals with that. But here’s a free tip for writers – if 80% of your novel has focused on a race towards a vital goal that must be achieved, forgetting about it and leaving it to be resolved off-screen and mentioned after the novel wraps up is bad fucking writing.

Rising tension

The advancement model of most video games is well-established by now, and AC does not do anything all that different. You start off fighting small groups of weak opponents, mooks and thugs who do their best to fuck you up but fail because you put your boot through their faces. You fight a few more groups, encounter a boss who has to be fought using different tactics, gain a new gadget or skill, and after a scene advancing the plot you’re back on the streets – except now the groups of thugs are a little bigger, a little tougher and using new weapons/tactics that you have to adapt to with your new powerups.

This is so far from radical it’s practically voting for Malcolm Fraser, but AC does it very well indeed. As the inmates form into massive gangs and get access to guns, shields, body armour and other toys, you never get the chance to feel complacent, even though you’ve also gained new advantages. There’s a constant pressure there to counterbalance but not negate your sense of achievement and to push you to do better, to give you the feeling that the stakes are continually rising.

As in games, so too in prose. This kind of rise / plateau / fall back to a slightly-elevated status quo / rise again pattern occurs over and over again in novels, and that’s because it works. It’s a slow dance of action, consequence, elevated stakes and into action again that gives a story an engaging pace and a reason to keep reading, if only to find out how the protagonist deals with this new turn of events. And it works for both action-packed page-turners and more introspective works; the raised stakes may be bruised emotions rather than 20 dudes with knives and tasers trying to slice your nipples off, but it’s an elevation nonetheless.

Too many c(r)ooks

The premise of AC gives a lot of room for including distinctive characters, as does Batman’s massive rogue’s gallery, almost all of whom have enough depth and history to be a convincing central threat as a core antagonist. What we get instead is a lumpy mishmash of unclear roles and pointless cameos, where characters that deserve substantial development time instead get five minutes of focus before tagging in a replacement to handle the next blip of plot. Within the main plotlines alone there’s a confusing blur of characters, from Mister Freeze to Two-Face to R’as al-Ghul to the Penguin, and they fall over each other in the race to take centre stage and justify their existence.

The side quests are even more rife with these additional characters, such as Mr Zsasz, Mad Hatter, the aforementioned Azrael and (sigh) Hush. In addition, riddles and clues about the whereabouts of more villains are all through the game, in such volume that they become overwhelming. When you find Calendar Man, of all people, sitting talking to himself in a glass-walled cell under a building, not contributing anything to any plotline in any way, it doesn’t make you feel that you’re glimpsing a wider world, it makes you feel like DC is throwing every bit of their IP against the wall in the hope you’ll go on to buy the action figures. Or inaction figure, in this case.

More is not always better, and a massive dramatis personae doesn’t automatically make your setting feel vast and varied; if you stick them all into your story at once, it makes it feel cramped and cluttered. It’s better to use a small number of characters and give them multiple story roles, so that they have recurring reasons to take focus, undergo development and then organically move that focus to another character with an overlapping remit.

Also, don’t put characters behind glass. They might suffocate.

The perfect antagonist

But for all that there are too many characters, there’s one that stands out above all the others as an incredibly engaging and fascinating opponent.

No, not the Joker or Two-Face, and certainly not the barely sketched Hugo Strange. No, it’s the Riddler. Who can kiss my entire arse.

The Riddler’s shtick is that he’s littered Gotham with riddles and trophies, which you obtain by solving puzzles, some of which are simple, some of which are just goddamn bullshit. You could ignore them, but he has hostages, and to free them you need to solve the puzzles, unlocking the locations of deathtraps as you go. And all the while he’s alternately mocking you for your stupidity and accusing you of cheating when you work out the combination of tricks and gadgets required to save a hostage.

It took me a week to finish the core plot. I spent the second week collecting trophies and solving ridiculously complicated puzzles because it was personal – because everything about this plotline was the Riddler saying that I, the player, was not smart enough to figure out his shit. So when I finally found him, pulled him through a set of weak floorboards and punched the question marks off of his hat, the triumph wasn’t just Batman’s, it was mine.

Now, as a writer, you can’t make the reader solve puzzles to turn the page – not unless you’re doing some very interestingly ergodic sort of stuff – but you can target the reader directly through a character’s portrayal and development. If you can make the reader take a character’s actions personally, whether thanks to identification with the protagonist or pushing emotional buttons directly (which is tricky, but kudos if you can pull it off), you give the reader a big reason to care what happens next. Don’t just leave them wanting the protagonist to succeed – leave them wanting the antagonist to fail. Do that and they’re yours.

Action is character

I’ve harped on this in the past, and I’ll probably harp on it again in the future, but action – stuff actually happening, onstage, front and centre – engages the reader and defines character far more than description. And like most video games, AC is action-adventure focused, and you’re constantly doing stuff. Well, more precisely, Batman is constantly doing stuff, and that’s a meaningful distinction. You’re more like a director than an actor or author in this game, guiding and making decisions for Batman rather than micromanaging him. He knows what he’s doing, and his actions show it – he fights hard, he always knows what gadget to pull out, he moves confidently from hiding place to hiding place, pausing only to silently smother a goon or electrify Mister Freeze’s armour. And outside the fights, it’s action – confrontation with villains, working out puzzles, infiltrating hideouts – that advances the story (albeit unevenly at times). There are cut scenes and conversations, yes, but those are still focused around conflicts and the actions required to resolve them.

The upshot of this is that the story never stalls, because there’s always something happening – even if, yes, that story and those actions don’t always make sense or connect properly. And because of this, we never have to be told that Batman is a man of action, that he’s prepared to do whatever it takes, that he thinks on his feet and refuses to lay down even when weakened near to death by the Joker’s disease – because we see him doing those things, and because we help and guide him as he does those things. There are dozens of backstory snippets that you can collect as the game goes along, but you lose nothing by ignoring them, because the story and character development doesn’t take place there – it takes place in the now, in the action, and in the immediacy of the moment. Just as it does in a novel.

Action is character, even when you don’t want it to be

The flip side to the above, of course, is that when a character says one thing and does another, it’s the action that presents the character to the reader.

And what AC presents is a Batman that talks a lot about never killing and doing the right thing (he even makes a little speech about it at one point), but his actions say something else. No, he never kills anyone, but he’s fine with letting people die through inaction. The game is rife with instances where you stand by and let the body count rise because you’re too concerned with other priorities. For example, a plotline with Deadshot has Batman waiting for the assassin to pick off targets so that he can pick up clues afterwards, rather than working from day one to prevent the killings. And that’s not even touching on the ending, where Batman slowly and reluctantly gets himself organised while Strange’s men deliberately massacre a third of the inmates, or where he carefully knocks out and incapacitates half-a-dozen armed gunman and leaves them littered around Strange’s HQ, only to abandon them to die when the joint explodes. These actions reveal him as either callous or incompetent, no matter his stated plans and sensibilities.

Ditto the thuggishness of his brutal interrogation of captured henchmen – bad guys or no, you can’t help but feel a moment of sympathy for them when Batman first terrifies them and then smashes their heads into brick walls or drops them off ledges once they spill the beans. I get that Rocksteady’s vision of Batman is darker and grimier than the traditional DC version – although it’s a pretty good fit for the less-well-written depictions in the new DC continuity that’s deliberately targeting the age-18-35-male demographic – but they’re still trying to describe the character as heroic within the game, and his actions belie that, leaving their protagonist more like an easily-distracted bully.

As I’ve said before, actions speak louder than words, especially in prose – which is weird, given that it’s all words, but you know what I mean. It’s all show not tell once again, and if you show your character doing the opposite of what you tell the audience he’s doing, they’ll think he’s a hypocrite and that you’re confused about your work. Make sure it all lines up, and remember that what happens on the page is what the reader will take in above all else.

See, folks, that’s all it takes to get me to write 2500+ words – Batman. If only he popped up in Arcadia I’d have finished the book months ago.

Next week, some flash fiction (plus visual stimulus!) for your Christmas reading. Just the thing for warming your heart after you have your pudding.

Character (part 3) – Action!

And so at last we come to the end of my essays/diatribes/polemics on character. And there was much rejoicing!

Well, actually I received a number of kind words about the last instalment, so the self-deprecating thing is probably a bit silly. I’ll try to cut back on that.

But yes, this is the last thought that occurred to me way back at Continuum when talking about storytelling and roleplaying. And I think it’s the most important thought, the one that (for me) sums up the core notion of how characters operate in narrative, how they can be used to communicate that narrative to the reader, and what makes a character engaging and interesting rather than just flat and dull. It’s not an original thought, it’s one I’ve seen said many times before, so this is me joining the chorus rather than dropping some knowledge on you out of a clear blue sky – but still, it’s a notion that bears repeating and discussing many times over in different groups.

Here it comes. You ready?

Character is action.

Whew. Glad I finally got that off my chest.

Character is not what you are, what you look like, how you dress or what you think – character (in the sense of fictional characters within a narrative) is what you do. Character is not about nouns, and it’s sure as hell not about adjectives. It’s about verbs.

Now, of course, when I talk about ‘action’, I don’t just mean dudes jumping sideways through a door in slow-motion while firing two guns at once, although goddamn I love shit like that. (Face/Off was on TV last night, and if you don’t like John Woo movies you don’t have a soul.) I mean any kind of situation where the character acts upon her external environment and attempts to change it in some way. The leadup to that action, the process of it, the fallout from it, the internal changes that cause and follow the act… that all embeds character into a narrative and into the head of a reader more than anything else a writer can do.

What’s action in this context? Well, here’s a non-exhaustive list of examples.

I like to imagine that he's shooting the director of 'The Wicker Man'

Making decisions: It can be finally mustering up the courage to hit on a girl in a bar or sacrificing yourself (or someone else) to the Balrog to let the rest of the party escape. The act of making a decision – and then following through with it – is pretty much the most fundamental unit of character-revealing action. A decision has a why and a how, a before and after; it’s the first domino from which a narrative thread cascades.

Making bad decisions: Honestly, there’s little I love more than when characters do the wrong thing, especially when they choose to do it, especially especially when they know it’s the wrong thing but they do it anyway. Our failures do at least as much to define us as our successes, and the consequences of failure usually make for a more gripping narrative.

Engaging in conflict: Decisions and actions can be made without opposition, sure, but they’re not as exciting as actions that put one character in conflict with another. At the end of the scene, someone will get what they want and someone won’t – which means you get to demonstrate what each character wants and what they’ll do (or won’t do) to get it. Win or lose, character pulses out of conflict.

Falling in love: Or falling out of love. Choosing to give a kidney to your brother – or not to. Emotional acts aren’t as obvious and flashy as fight scenes and car chases, but they’re more likely to speak to a reader’s own experiences and desires – and despite being low-key, they’re also more likely to cause direct changes to the behaviour and actions of other characters throughout the narrative. You shoot a guy, he’s out of the story, but if you break his heart he can still be there until the last chapter.

Reacting to situations: There’s a stated truism that proactive characters are better than reactive ones, and there’s a wisdom to that, but nonetheless the way characters react in situations that they don’t control communicates at least as much as the way they operate when they’re in charge. There’s an urgency to scenes where characters are in danger, where they have to act in order to get out of trouble, and perhaps have to do things that aren’t optimal or morally/emotionally comfortable. We are most ourselves when we panic.

Straight-up kicking a motherfucker in the face: And sometimes action really does mean a fight, at least in those narratives where it’s appropriate. (I might have enjoyed Jane Eyre more if it had car chases and karate, but I’m prepared to be in the minority there.) Why you fight, what you fight, how you fight, how you feel before/during/afterwards – these are all incredibly effective, visceral points of character definition. A powerfully-written single-page fight scene will communicate more about your character than ten pages of description and dialogue. This is one reason why superhero comics have endured for 70 years – because they demonstrate characters through action, conflict and cool fight scenes, and that combination can hook almost anyone.

These, on the other hand, are not examples of action:

Dialogue: Yes, talking is an action. But it’s not action that impacts the narrative, so much as it is the mechanism through which one character attempts to act upon another. Dialogue can provide a context for action, and it can accentuate character through voice and mannerism, but that doesn’t do as much to impart character as action. If a character says one thing and does another (or does nothing at all), the reader will base their impression of the character on what they do, not what they say. If you want the character to be a hypocrite, that works – but if you don’t, then actions speak louder than words.

Narration: Narrative voice is dialogue written into the fabric of reality. It’s hugely important to narrative, and it’s something I focus on a lot – but in the end, it’s the character (or the author) talking to the reader and shaping the context of the narrative. You still have to have things happen within that context to impart character, and you still have to marry the voice of the character with their actions.

Backstory: Oh christ, not this again. But I bang on about it for a reason. Actions in the story happen within the current narrative, while actions in the backstory happen outside the narrative. They’re already finished, and telling us about them is another situation where you’re talking to the reader, not demonstrating through action. If your character’s backstory is that he’s a great ninja assassin, but he never flips out in the narrative and kills people, he’s just that guy on the internet who claims to be a martial arts master but is actually a 14-year-old dressed in acne and a dirty Megadeth T-shirt.

Really boring actions: Okay, sure, choosing what to wear is a decision, and turning left rather than right in the dungeon is an action. Technically. But if the action in and of itself is not enough to interest the reader, the fact that the character makes it is unlikely to make it any more interesting, or communicate anything meaningful about the character. These kind of innocuous acts and mundane decisions are the packing foam of prose, at best, and just tedious layering of colour at worst.

Thinking, sensing, emoting or being: I got in trouble in a lit class once for saying that a David Malouf novella needed more action. I didn’t mean that it needed more tits and explosions (although that would have helped), but that the narrator spent the whole book watching, thinking, feeling emotions, and then never doing anything about what he saw/thought/felt. This is the trap that bad literary fiction falls into – that it’s all about internal states, but never pushes those internal states onto the external context of the narrative. Which is boring. If your character spends most of their time watching and thinking, but not doing anything based on that knowledge, start again. If most of your sentences use identity verbs like ‘is’ and ‘am’, rather than strong verbs that push the narrative forward, start again. If your character hurts and loves in a vacuum, let them explosively decompress and start again.

Alright. That’s enough of a checklist of dos and donts; I’m starting to feel like Robert McKee up in here.

Let us end, as usual, by referring to Batman to bring the point home.

Is this Batman?

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night.

No, it’s not. It’s half a description; it’s not even the shell of a character. You have to complete it by adding action:

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and fights crime to protect others.

The difference is plain – and so is the fact that if you keep the setup but change the action, you get an entirely different character:

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and robs banks for thrills.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and spies on women as they shower.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and pays prostitutes to poop on his chest.

(Batman, I’m really sorry about this. Please forgive me.)

He's disappointed with me. I can tell.

If character is an equation, action is the operation and the equals sign that leads to the result. If character is a Frankenstein monster, action is the lightning that turns it into a roaring monster rather than a collection of hooker parts gathering dust in the lab.

Characters move. Characters change. Characters do things. And when they’re not acting, they’re just a pile of nouns squatting on the page, waiting for a verb to make them live.

Make the nouns dance.

 

Sorry for not getting a Thursday update in this week, by the way. Stuff crept up on me and took up all my time. Hopefully this extra-long post (1800 words, for fuck’s sake) has made it up to anyone who was let down by my silence.

What shall I talk about next weekend? Not sure, to be honest. But I think it’s time to give this constant banging on about narrative and writing philosophy (and Batman) a short rest and talk about something else for a post or three. Will think it over.

As always, if you’ve got feedback, suggestions, praise, angry rebuttals or recipes for potato qorma, please go crazy in the comments. I need validation, guys.

Character (part 2) – Pick up the gun

Ah good, you’re back. Some of you, anyway. Sorry about the delay; I was held up first by post-Mexican-banquet indigestion, then by post-platelet-donation disorientation. My life, it is a carnival.

So anyway, last weekend I said that character is secondary to narrative – or, more precisely, that it’s more important that characters exist to convey narrative than it is for narratives exist to convey character.

Let’s now simultaneously reinforce and refute that statement with a linked pair of polemics, drawing once again on our two examples, Batman (the Caped Crusader) and Graeme Riley (the Feline Frottagist).

First, a further riff on last week’s ideas.

The demands of a strong narrative shape character.

Or, less obliquely, that characters can do whatever is required to make an engaging and satisfying narrative, even if it doesn’t seem at first glance to gel with what’s been established for that character so far.

A lot of authors talk about characters writing themselves, and shying away from doing things that they don’t want to do, and books needing to be rewritten to fit their needs. And I get some of that, and will sorta-kinda agree with it later in this post, but the notion that ‘characters write themselves’ is just abject silliness. Leave your manuscript alone for a couple of months, mid-scene, and when you come back to the PC/iPad/notebook, those characters will still be where you left them, no text magically appearing to tell you what they got up to.

What authors mean, of course, is that the character is so well-defined that some actions no longer feel in-character, and in order to continue writing the story, they can’t have the character do what was originally plotted/planned without going against that definition. The character is too strong, the writer too bound by what’s gone before, and the narrative must back up and be rerouted around the mighty sequoia that is the protagonist.

Yeah, I don’t agree with that.

Greg Stolze famously called the gaming version of this the Gamer Nuremberg Defence – ‘but it’s what my character would do!’ It’s a copout in gaming and it’s a copout in writing, because characters are created, not born, and any limitations or constraints on their behaviour are also creations. If your character won’t do that, what you mean is that you don’t want to write your character doing that. And okay, sure, don’t do what you don’t want to do, but don’t blame your character for your decisions – and if your refusal to write your character that way makes the story or narrative weaker, that’s on your head too.

Here’s the truth – any character can do anything, if you want them to. The genius can do something stupid. The good man can cheat and lie. The hardened criminal can reform and find a better purpose. The friendly cat who greets commuters at the train station can steal and sodomise stray laundry. The question is not ‘Will this character do this?’, because that the answer to that lies with the author, not the character – the question is ‘Will this character do this and still remain believable and convincing?’ And okay, the answer to that lies with the author too, but it’s expressed through the character.

Let me demonstrate this further using my greatest area of expertise – Batman. (Sure, I could have finished that degree in physics, but this is way more important.) As we know, Batman hates guns, never uses guns, would sooner die than pick up a gun because his parents were shot dead by a guy with a gun.

It’s ironclad logic: BATMAN = NO GUNS.

So here are some picture of Batman using guns, as published by DC Comics.

MIND = BLOWN.

If one of the longest-standing, most constantly depicted and defined characters in 20th-and-21st century fiction and pop culture can act against type to make a better narrative, your character can do the same, and so can any other character. Characters are vast, they contain multitudes, and more importantly they’re not real and they do what they’re told/written to do.

And yet.

Let’s turn that statement around and go the other way.

The demands of a strong character shape narrative.

This is the truth of characters ‘writing themselves’ – a strong, engaging character imprints and expresses themselves in everything they do. You can tell characters what to do, and they’ll do it, but the personality and flavour you’ve given will dictate how and why they do that – and, more importantly, how they change after that act and how the narrative changes with them.

Everything has fallout. Everything has consequences. And exploring the ramifications of a character going against type and changing under pressure can provide tense, powerful writing. For a character to go against type/definition does not refute that definition, it throws it into contrast – and the lengths they go to before going against type, the way they finally go about doing so, and the consequences of that action afterwards all shape and define the flow of the narrative.

(And as a callback and aside, this is one of the reasons I dislike backstory – because it can overdefine a character and make it more difficult to change and question that character as the narrative progresses.)

For me, that’s the most gripping way that character and narrative intertwine – the degree to which you can build a narrative from choices, rather than from expectations. Grant Morrison didn’t think ‘Batman hates guns, so he can’t shoot Darkseid with the god-killer bullet’; he thought ‘Batman hates guns, so when he shoots Darkseid with the god-killer bullet it will be even more significant and say even more about the character’. (Well, I’m sure he thought something like that, although he would have thought it in a Scottish accent.)

This isn’t about about ‘plot-focused’ versus ‘character-focused’, because those things are inextricably linked. It’s saying that if characters are (among other things) tools used to express narrative, then they are Swiss Army knives, not mallets; they can be used in any number of ways, rather than inflexibly pounding a narrative in only one way, one purpose, one aspect. Strong characters have power; strong characters are maybe the most important element of an engaging narrative. But strong characters are bamboo, not oak trees; they bend under pressure and then snap back, rather than standing firm in the face of story and either tearing in half or stopping the flow dead.

Characters that can change and be changed by the narrative are interesting; characters that have to be preserved, that can’t do the wrong thing, and that don’t allow the writer or reader to explore them through question and contrast are lifeless and bland.

Make your characters dance. The dance is the story; the dancer is how you tell it.

That’s what, ~1100 words on something you could sum up in a paragraph? My work here is done. Next Sunday, the last thought I have on character (for the moment).

And come back in a couple of days to chew the fat on various things and see whether I was talking utter shit when I said I was going to get back to work on Arcadia.

Character (part 1) – Why do you exist?

And we’re finally back with another polemic!

But first, I’m going to talk about my cat.

I haz a Facebook page too.

This is Graeme Riley, Ace of Cats, AKA Rockstar, AKA Station Cat. He’s about 12 years old, and we inherited him from a previous owner who was a massive douchehat. Graeme is fearless, adventurous and an absolute slut for attention and affection. He hangs out at the local train station during the morning and evening rush hours, whoring himself out for pats and snacks. He likes meat, but not as much as he likes chocolate and ice cream. When he purrs the sound gets caught in his throat and turns into a hack. Last month he took it upon himself to wander to the other side of the suburb, leading to a desperate jog during my day off to collect him from a good Samaritan before he decided to play in traffic some more. He’s the greatest cat in the world, and everyone who’s met him adores him.

He’s also a degenerate sex offender who drags towels, knitted items and underwear into the hallway at 2am and rubs his technically-neutered groin against them while yowling in either ecstasy or self-loathing. Sometimes he drags clothing items through the cat door to ravage them in the yard, or across the street, and then ditch them to be found later or lost forever. The beanie I bought last month vanished less than a week later, and I suspect it is buried in his secret fuckpit to be occasionally dug up and screamingly humped in some kind of feline recreation of The Silence of the Lambs.

I bring up this loveable knitwear-rapist because he’s something of a character, and this is the first of a three-part series about what I see as the role of character in fiction, specifically in prose. A lot of these ideas started percolating in my head during the Continuum panel on RPGs and storytelling, where I often found myself saying that strong characters were more important to the experience of play and story than things like rules or plot.

I still stand by that, but I want to mix it in with one of my weird theoretical absolutes about writing and narrative, which on the face of it contradicts what I just said.

Here’s my position statement, which is bound to raise a few hackles:

Characters should exist to serve a narrative, rather than narratives existing to serve a character.

If you’re scratching your head at that, I’m not surprised, because it’s a concept I’m struggling to articulate clearly, particularly if I don’t want to come off as decrying stuff as Bad Wrong Fun.

Let’s try it this way. Characters are a means, rather than an end, and they’re a means to reaching a strong narrative that draws the reader in. But it’s too easy to fall in love with a character, because they’re interesting and multi-faceted and have so much potential, and to forget the fact that that character needs to be part of a story, to face conflict, to be part of a narrative in order to have any point at all.

Pure logic helps us here, because narratives can exist without characters – science gives us many examples, from the creation of an ecosystem to the death of a star – but characters can’t exist without narratives. Sure, you can come up with a character concept, flesh it out with personality and traits and artwork, but without some kind of way of communicating and demonstrating that character, it doesn’t exist in anyone’s head except the creator’s – and if the only point of that communication is ‘hey, here’s this neat character’, no-one’s going to care. You need a context, you need a story, you need a reason to care; you need a what happens next?, and that comes through a narrative.

To take it back to the beginning, I think that a story about Graeme isn’t as interesting as a story involving Graeme, because one’s an anecdote about a cat, and the other is (or at least might be) a narrative about various things, with breadth and body, and a cat eating ice-cream and molesting cardigans in the centre of that narrative, helping it to move forward. I can tell you that he’s a swell cat, and the people at the train station can tell you he’s a swell cat, but until he gets involved in a story, until there’s a point to me describing his frottage-filled friendliness to you, all you’re going to hear is blah blah blah this cat’s great, and that’s fundamentally not that interesting.

This is also why I can’t generally connect with prequels, and even less with fanfic, because those stories are (almost) all about exploring the character above all else, and have a narrative centred around that, where conflict is reduced and where the circular point of reading about the character is just reading about the character. It’s a narrative that points back at the character as its reason to exist, and for me that’s pointing in the wrong direction.

At this point, anyone who knows me or anything about me is thinking: ‘Hang on, you practically worship the character of Batman, so how can you go around saying characters aren’t important?’ (Which I’m not saying, but it’s an understandable misreading.)

My biggest role model. Probably explains a lot.

Well, I could say that serial superhero comics are a different beast to straight prose, one where characters are often more important that the stories they appear in, and perhaps that’s a problem with that genre/medium mix. But that’s a copout (or at least a subject for another time). Better to say that there’s a reason why Batman’s my favourite character – he appears in a lot of stories that are just goddamn fantastic narratives, with themes and pacing and conflict, in which Batman’s successes have to be fought for and in which there’s more to read than just a dude standing on a gargoyle dressed as Dracula.

And see, here’s the thing. I’m not saying characters aren’t important – they’re vital to making a narrative engaging, maybe more vital than anything else. And that’s their function – to get the reader involved in the story, the movie, the game, to make them care about what happens, to keep them immersed in that narrative until the end. Everything else, including (especially including) being interesting for their own sake, is secondary to that. The presence of a good character doesn’t fix a bad narrative – there is no shortage of bad Batman storiesafter all – but a good narrative can be told even through a bland or under-developed character, because the writer has other tools to hook the reader in, and even to make them care about that shaky character

So really, as far as polemics go, this is pretty mild at base: have a reason for a character to be in a narrative, a reason that makes that narrative stronger and more engaging – because if the character isn’t doing that, then what the hell is she/he there for?

Other than pursuing self-gratification upon unguarded cardigans. For some people that’s an end in itself.

…that’s it for today. Come back next weekend, when I will contradict pretty much everything I just said. Honestly, that’s the plan.