Categories
character writing

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.

Categories
character story superheroes

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.

Categories
character games story superheroes writing

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.

Categories
character writing

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.

Categories
character writing

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.

Categories
character writing

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.

Categories
character story writing

Never tell me the odds… er, backstory

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that fictional characters are most interesting when they’re doing something.

And yet, there is a school of thought that says that a character needs backstory and background, and that a character who’s already done something is more interesting.

This school is wrong. This school is teaching that the Earth is flat, that 2 + 2 = ham and that Blade Trinity was a better film than Blade 2. (For god’s sake, people, Blade 2 had Ron Perlman and Blade Trinity had Triple-fucking-H. What are you huffing?) This school needs its teaching license revoked, and then the school buildings razed to the ground.

Entirely made of awesome
Entirely made of dicks

Ahem.

Anyway, having talked a bit about why backstory is bad for narrative, I’d like to move on to why it’s bad for characters in general. This comes, in part, from the Continuum panel on roleplaying and storytelling that I was on last month, where I ended talking a lot about how character influences play and shapes story, and about how the actions of characters in play is what drives a game. That left me thinking afterwards about character and how to portray it, and I’m going to write about that next weekend. This post is a bridge, taking us from the negativity of last week to the positivity of next week over the broad river of moderately-negative-but-not-that-much-honest. Well, okay, it’s pretty negative, but that’s just because I like writing the word ‘fuck’.

There are two reasons why backstory is poisonous for characters. First, it’s because backstory exists outside the narrative, as I ranted about last time. Events that happen before the current narrative can’t be experienced by the reader as part of that narrative – you either summarise them, which is boring (‘That was the week I saved the President and was awarded the Medal of Honour for a fourth time, Ginger!’), or you set up a second narrative stream to play them out, which pulls the reader from the narrative they actually want to explore (‘Before we defuse the bomb, let’s have a flashback to how I graduated from bomb defusing college!’). Both of these are tell-not-show errors, because you’re not demonstrating character within the narrative, you’re writing directly at the reader and dumping the information in their heads. And that’s boring.

The second reason, which is subtler, is that backstories don’t have conflict, and conflict – the need to meet and overcome obstacles to reach goals – is what drives stories. Backstories shunt conflict offstage so that those obstacles have already been overcome (or failed, I guess, though that’s vanishingly rare) before the narrative starts. And perhaps that’s one of the main reasons why gamers love backstory so much – it’s a way of setting up interesting conflicts for your character, with none of the uncertainty of whether they’ll actually have to work to overcome those problems. Same for writers, I think – working through a conflict can be hard and demands a strong development of character and story. It’s much easier to have them worked out ahead of time and present them to the reader, forgetting that what’s actually interesting about a conflict is the process of working through it, rather than the actual outcome. That’s why failure can make for a strong narrative, because exploring the process of that failure is way more readable than just learning about another success after the fact.

I’m not saying that every character should be a tyro, novice, farmboy or 1st-level adventurer (pick whichever description you like). Experienced characters are interesting because they carry with them the weight of authority and confidence, and can justify the skills and abilities they possess by dint of that experience. But they, like the farmboy, are starting this story at the beginning.

I'm cooler than the hero. That's my fucking backstory.

Look at one of genre’s most beloved characters, Han Solo – there’s an experienced character that shows off his skills and background from the moment he appears on screen, without the need to stop and tell us about how he learned them. When elements of his background come up, they’re story rather than backstory – he gets hunted by Jabba the Hutt and sold out by Lando Calrissian (shit, sorry, spoiler warning) within the narrative, rather than flashing back to the events or describing them in detail to other characters.  No, those conflicts got referenced briefly in story to create new conflicts that drove the current story – and then, I imagine, they got described in intricate and tedious detail in prequel novels that fans read out of duty. That’s what backstory leads to – prequel novels and fanfic. AND NO-ONE NEEDS THAT.

So how do you portray interesting, engaging, experienced characters without delving into (or ‘revealing’) backstory? Let’s talk about that next weekend.

If you agree, disagree, or want to tell me how awesome Han Solo and Hutt Girls Gone Wild was, get in there and leave a comment.

And if you want a double dose of me being opinionated out of all proportion to any intellectual authority I might possess, head on over to today’s LiveJournal post, where I talk at great and tedious length about Captain America comics, of all things.