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Slytherins Aren’t Ambitious

With definitions from dictionary.com

[am-bishuh n]

noun

1.an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment

2. the object, state, or result desired or sought after

3. desire for work or activity; energy

verb (used with object)

4. to seek after earnestly; aspire to.

 

Although Ambition has a somewhat tainted original meaning (that is: a negative meaning back in the 14th century) there is nothing technically negative about the modern definition. Originally to be ambitious was to be “going around to canvass for office,” – from 14th century Latin, ambitiosus. It was only in early use that Ambition was grouped with Pride and Vainglory. (For the record, the latter of those two is a 12th century word and is now practically archaic.)

Whatever its origins, ambition now means an earnest desire for achievement or distinction and willingness to strive for it or to aspire to something. In other words: ambitious people know what they want to achieve in life and go after it. Which, when you stop and think about it, actually means that most characters labelled as ambitious are nothing of the sort.

House Slytherin of the Harry Potter Franchise is a very good example of a group of characters who are labelled as “ambitious” but never actually are. All of those old, noble houses (Malfoy, Black, etc)? They cannot be ambitious because they already have what the ambitious person seeks: they already are (in)famous, powerful, and wealthy. True, “honour” – the other major ambition the dictionary lists – is something they might lack, but they aren’t shown seeking honour either. As for most of the Slytherin students shown in the books? They seem quite sure they already have everything, that they don’t need to better themselves, and that they are just going to keep doing what their family does. In other words: unless the Sorting Hat was sorting one-fourth of the students on opposite-day rules, Salazar Slytherin (and JKR) did not actually understand what ambition is. Wanting to follow in the family business is a very rare ambition. Most truly ambitious people would rather strike out on their own and make a name for themselves. See, “achievements” and “distinctions” – the two things which ambition is to desire – are personal goals. They are not group or family oriented. Ambitious people do not want to be “hey, aren’t you part of the X family?” they want to be “OMG YOU’RE [AMBITIOUS PERSON’S NAME]!”

Okay, so what about Voldemort? Obviously he’s ambitious, right? He wants to take over the world? Yeah, but does he? Sure that’s what he says he wants, but throughout the main story his only dedicated goal is “Kill Harry Potter”. If he was truly ambitious and his goal was “take over the world” he wouldn’t waste so much time and so many convoluted plots on something which should have been secondary. You might argue that it was because he was trying to stay alive. However, either his goal was take over the world or it was become immortal, but not both. Ambitious people, when the cards are down, have their desires ranked. This means that something they’d also like will, if they have to make the choice, be put aside if getting it means making their main goal harder to reach. Thus “piss a lot of people off by taking over the world” and “live forever” should be diametrically opposite goals. Oh, and here’s the other thing: goals aren’t the same as ambitions. “Lose weight” is a goal, but it’s not an ambition. “Be a movie star” is more an ambition than a goal (goals are also more specific).

Lastly, not everyone who tries to take over the world is ambitious. This goes back to what I said earlier about how ambition is a personal goal. Some people who try to take over the world – or just a country – are not doing it for themselves. In fact, most of the people who give enough shits to actually bother trying for any sort of conquest are doing it because they care about other people. Unless they’re like Alexander the Great – glory-hounds who run from place to place conquering, leave other people to run things, and whose conquests fall from their grasp almost as soon as they leave because they have no long term plans (which, again, would rule out their being ambitious because ambitious is all about having long term plans) – chances are they’re taking over because they think the state of things must be fixed “for the greater good”. Augustus Caesar is often viewed negatively for abolishing democracy and starting the Roman Empire (untrue, he did place his autocracy over – veto right – the senate, but he never disbanded them) but he took power from the senate and took control because the senate was a completely corrupt career-politician hotbed of wasted taxpayer money, vice, petty squabbles and aristocratic arrogance that couldn’t figure out how to lead a horse, let alone get it to water. Augustus took over because the people who were supposed to be ruling weren’t. They were enjoying the wealth and power that came from having the ruler-ship position, but they weren’t actually ruling. Caesar Augustus did not take power for himself, and thus was not ambitious, and was a good ruler – while the emperors who followed him, and who inherited the position rather than having to strive for it (again, thus not ambitious) thought about their own pleasures and couldn’t rule for shit (with a few exceptions *cough*Marcus Aurelius*cough*).  So even if “Take over the world” was Voldemort’s primary goal, it is not by definition an ambition. Of course, Voldemort is not like Augustus Caesar. Voldemort has more in common with Hitler and his fictional analogue Grindelwald – who believed in his slogan “For The Greater Good” and who was therefore not ambitious. Which makes the question “Did Voldemort believe his blood-purity hype?” because if he did: he wasn’t ambitious.

 

And this begs the question: If Slytherins – the pop-cultural go-to example for ambitious people – aren’t ambitious, then who is?

 

Disney Princesses.

I kid you not. Let’s take a look at that definition again.

[am-bish-uh n]

noun

  1. an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment
  2. the object, state, or result desired or sought after
  3. desire for work or activity; energy

verb (used with object)

  1. to seek after earnestly; aspire to.

“As power, honor, fame, or wealth” is just a list of examples, not a complete list of forms ambition can take. Wanting to be loved and wanting to be happy are also ambitions. Ambition can be “the desire for work or activity” – which sounds distinctly Hufflepuff – and have you ever heard of a Disney Princess who wasn’t painfully “earnest”? Moreover, as ambition can thus be “to aspire to honour” have you ever heard of a non-heroic character who strove for that? Honour (however you want to spell it) is a hero-trait in fiction.

So why Disney Princesses? Let’s go over them one by one, shall we?

 

Snow White: Main songs? I’m Wishing and Someday My Prince Will Come. Snow’s been treated like a servant all her life and no one – not even the nobility who ought to be up in arms about it, nor the royalty of whichever kingdom her mother’s family rule – has done anything about it. But does Snow just sing about finding someone to love? No. She sings about waiting for her Prince. Snow is in rags and has no reason to believe her born social status counts for shit anymore, she’s been run out of her kingdom and being recognised is a death sentence, but she damn well refuses to give up on the “Prince” part of her life-plans. Furthermore, before she meets her prince she isn’t shown doing much to achieve her ambitions, except singing into a wishing well – which is a silly and childish thing to do. Except for two things: as a fourteen year old she was totally still a child and she clearly believed that it would really work. Which, given that her true love immediately appeared, which is way too much of a coincidence to have been an accident (seriously, foreign prince rides right by local capital castle, which the royal family is currently inhabiting, and no one fucking notices?) it’s entirely possible that Snow was 100% right about that wishing well, in which case she was going after her desires. That’s Ambition.

Cinderella: Here’s an interesting line from Cinderella’s song So This is Love “The key to all heaven is mine”. Ambitious people about themselves firstly – I want, I have, etc – which makes this line rather telling. She’s not in heaven, the key to heaven is hers. Now, you might argue this can’t be true because Cinderella is not selfish – she is kind and giving and helpful – but selfishness and kindness are not mutually exclusive. Likewise, ruthlessness and selfishness are not mutually inclusive. Ambition is a selfish thing, in that it puts the self first, but ambitious people are not automatically unkind, or unhelpful. In fact, people who are determined to achieve their dreams (ahem, “Whatever you wish for, you keep/Have faith in your dreams and someday/Your rainbow will come smiling through”) are more likely to help others to achieve theirs because they know how much that would mean to them. And because most of the time ambitious people aren’t idiots. Ever heard the term “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”? Well, apart from the fact that real vinegar catches more flies than real honey, what the metaphor means is that – generally speaking – stomping all over people doesn’t get you as far as being nice to them. Furthermore, wanting and going after nice things or achievements for yourself in no way obliges you to turn on everyone else. Ambitious people only view others as a problem when those others are standing between them and their goal. Cinderella, who has grown up in an abusive household and likely doesn’t have the emotional ability to save herself by walking out the door, is kind to those around her and it works in her benefit. Sure, she goes to tears after her dress and dreams are torn to shreds, but that doesn’t indicate a lack of ambition. Someone who didn’t have goals or ambition wouldn’t have been anywhere near as distressed to have their dream crushed right when they thought they were going to make it. Cinderella could not have achieved her happy ending on her own, but nowhere in the definition of ambition is that a requirement. She tried, earnestly, to go after her dreams. That’s ambition.

Sleeping Beauty: Okay, I got nothing. But in fairness, she does spend most of the movie named after her ASLEEP.

Ariel: Do I really need to spell this one out? Mer-girl wants to achieve being human (she met Eric AFTER becoming obsessed with humanity, remember?).  Mer-girl sings entire song about how damn much she wants to be human – to be Part of Your World – and Mer-girl signs deal with first person to make that an option for her, after being explicitly forbidden to keep thinking about humans by the autocratic ruler of her country. That’s ambition. Sure, mer-girl absolutely fails at guile, but guile and ambition are not mutually inclusive.

Belle: Ambition and the desire for adventure (or bravery or courage or whatever you want to call it) are not mutually exclusive, no matter what Harry Potter might have implied. Belle’s introductory song – which is also the first time we see her – is about how she wants to get out of this “poor, provincial town” (and how the townsfolk think she’s weird). Allow me to repeat that with clarity: within moments of being introduced to her, Belle complains that the town she lives in is “poor” (ambition for wealth) and “provincial” (ambition for social standing). And if you need further proof of that, here’s a bit from the reprise of That Belle: “Not me, no way/I guarantee it/ I want much more than this provincial life! I want adventure in the great wide somewhere! I want it more than I can tell. And for once it might be grand/To have someone understand/ I want so much more than they’ve got planned…” Ambition is all about “I want”. And sure, you might say that Belle gives up her ambitions for her father – but Belle’s an avid reader: she, of all people, would know that being offered the chance to switch places with a prisoner in an enchanted castle is a standard beginning for adventures. You know, the thing she wants? That’s ambition.

Jasmine: Well, she wants to see the world beyond the palace and sneaks out in order to do it, but that’s not really all that ambitious. Of course, that’s because Jasmine – like Sleeping Beauty – isn’t really the main character of Aladdin. Aladdin himself though? Well, the whole wishing to become a prince thing really says it all. Why? Because it would have been far easier – no need to pretend to not be a street rat – if Aladdin had wished for the Genie to change the laws so that he could win the princess’ hand as himself. Aladdin immediately viewed his social status as what needed to be changed. Not to mention the cut song Proud of Your Boy, which was all about how he wanted to make his mother proud – her pride was the achievement he earnestly sought.

Mulan: Although it becomes secondary to the goal of keeping her father from going to war and dying, Mulan starts off with the ambition to meet the social standards of her era so that she can make her family proud. Or, rather, she starts with the ambition to make her family proud and goes about it by trying – and failing – to meet social standards, which turns out to have been the wrong way to go about it. The distinction she earnestly seeks – and then sings about being unable to fulfil – is to be “the perfect daughter”. That’s ambitious. Also, ambitious people are not, by definition, only ambitious if they go about seeking their aspirations the right way. Sometimes they think they’re doing it right and aren’t.

Pocahontas: Has a whole song about not being sure what she wants out of life. Pass. Not ambitious. Sure, there’s “prevent a war” but that’s more a goal than an ambition. Ambitions – desire to achieve – are by definition construction (make something new, attain something new) not destructive or neutralising (prevent war – which preserves an existent status quo).

Tiana: Do I really have to explain this one? Miss Works-Herself-To-The-Bone-Even-When-Turned-Into-A-Frog-To-Get-The-Restaurant-She’s-Wanted-Since-She-Was-a-Toddler basically oozes ambition. (Especially if you look at what she imagines for her restaurant – it’s at least five-star – that girl doesn’t just want to have a restaurant, she wants a rich restaurant for fashionable people. She wants to move up in social class/wealth and fame and she wants to prove to the world how good she is at what she does.) Here’s where Potter fans tend to confuse truly ambitious people with the idea that ambition (Slytherin) and hard work (Hufflepuff) are mutually exclusive. But here’s the thing: by definition ambitious people are willing to EARNESTLY GO AFTER WHAT THEY WANT. Earnest, incidentally, means “serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous” as well as “showing depth and sincerity of feeling” and “seriously important; demanding or receiving serious attention”. If you are ambitious you are BY DEFINITION hard working …in order to get what you want. This means, by the way, that all the “ambitious” characters in fiction who will ruthlessly cheat, steal, and lie to get to the top? …Aren’t really ambitious. Why? Because they aren’t earnestly going after their aspirations. Hufflepuffs are more ambitious than Slytherins.

Rapunzel: Is probably more goal-oriented than ambition-oriented, given that “see the lights” is more of a one-time information gathering quest than a self-improvement-based aspiration. Unless her ambition is “happiness” in which case she might count. Nevertheless, the girls songs are primarily about feeling unfulfilled that she hasn’t achieved anything (When Will My Life Begin) and what she wants out of life (I Have A Dream). So while she’s not as ambitious as some in this list, she still counts.

Merida: Wants the power to make her own life choices. She also wants her mother to understand her, but that’s not an ambition, it’s a desire or goal.

Elsa and Anna: Elsa’s not an ambitious character. Her desire to get her powers under control is motivated by fear and necessity. Anna’s ambitions, on the other hand, drive much of the story. The love of her sister is the achievement she mostly seeks – which might not seem like much of an achievement, until you realise that she spent her childhood talking to a closed door out of the desire to be noticed by the one she loved. She also spent much of her time completely isolated, which makes her aim a sort of narrow form of ambition for fame – the desire for fame, after all, is the desire to be notices and acknowledged as special …which is exactly what Anna is trying to get out of the people whose opinions she actually cares about. To be loved is, in a way, to be famous to a single person. Fame is the love – in a shallower form – of the distant people.

 

In closing: Ambition is not mutually exclusive with kindness, hard work, generosity, and honesty. Ambitious people do not have to be, by definition, guileful, liars, ruthless, or selfish to the detriment of others. The desire to take over the world is only ambition if done for the sake of the self rather than in order to make the world a better place – which is the more common reason people try, whether or not their beliefs ultimately prove destructive when viewed from outside. The only things ambition is mutually exclusive with are aimlessness and laziness. People who cheat their way to the top are not ambitious because they do not go after their aspirations earnestly. There is nothing inherently evil about knowing what you want out of life and going for it.

So. There you have it. Disney Princesses are more ambitious than Slytherins.

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Posted by on December 25, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Methods of Character Building

I apologise for how long it has taken for me to get this one written and up. I’ve been – and for about a month will continue to be – extremely busy with other things (such as editing the writing/characterisation advice book which I hope to publish soon).

 

This is not about fleshing out a character or building them up along the way as you write. Those are things you do when you already have created a character and need to make them more than they currently are. This is not that. This is also not about making yourself a better person.

This is about finding starting points for when you have a cool idea for something other than a character and don’t know where to start in creating a character for it. It is about different types of starting point. This is for when you, say, have a cool idea for a world where extrasensory advertising is a thing, but can’t turn it into a story because you can’t tell a story with no characters and you don’t know where to start because you have no ideas for them. For the natural storyteller, this can be a common occurrence – although whether the inspired idea which cannot tell a story on its own is an item or a gimmick (or image, or character, or map, etc) varies. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put the idea away – in a file, mental or physical – and come back to it a later point (such as when you’ve had a great idea for a character but no idea what to put around them). Sometimes it’s just a bad idea and the lack of auto-expanding inspiration stemming from it will indicate that. But sometimes it is worth going over the idea to figure out if you can create a character from it and, if so, then you can potentially write a very good story. The following are methods, as divided by starting point, of building a basic character (which will later need to be properly fleshed out) for those occasions when you’ve essentially painted a mental picture in detail and bright colours, but lack of inspiration left you with a vague character-shaped silhouette where you need a person (or, at least, a proper profile).

 

Character from Image: If you have a visually-attuned imagination, you may find yourself in the position of having the image of a cool character – like a drawing or a snapshot – but no idea how to turn that into a story because you have no context (you know what they look like, but not who they are, or when or what the heck is going on). Now, if you are a painter or other type of visual artist, this isn’t a problem, but primarily visual imaginations are not limited to those who work in visual mediums. Many natural storytellers who have primarily visual imaginations and no ability to translate what they see in their minds eye into physical images (i.e. can’t draw for shit) will write extremely evocative descriptions into their work or go into film (especially directing) and theatre (where scripts must have some visual elements).

But I digress. Trying to create a basis for a character – and thus story, setting, and plot – is essentially the art of analysing the implications of everything your mind’s eye shows you and extrapolating upon it.  Some images are easy to analysis and extrapolate on – if you see someone locked in battle you can quickly start making suppositions on who they are fighting and why, and if you’re imagining someone say, with distinctly elfin features you can quickly narrow down the situation to some form of fantasy. In other situations there are no obvious tells and the author may have a great deal more difficulty figuring out who this “person” their mind is showing them is. In both cases, however, the key to creating a character from an image is to analyse all the data the image gives you first and then to extrapolate from it. You want, after all, to create a coherent character, rather than a character that has traits (left over from the original image) which do not fit the rest of their stated nature and their setting. This method of character building is pretty straightforward. First you analyse your mental image and write down everything you can see (facts only – that someone’s stance gives them the appearance of being prideful is a fact, whereas that they are prideful is a supposition from that fact, likewise you can say from an image that someone is wearing well-to-do clothing, but not that they are well-to-do). This list should contain everything from what they’re wearing, to what environment they’re in, as well as what their physical position is like, what expression they have, and what they look like. Next go over each item on the list and check out when, where, and why that would exist (clothes belong to specific eras and places or are inspired by them and would have to come from similar cultures in similar eras, different patterns of calluses on hands mean different things and subtle dents on either side of the bridge of the nose indicate that the nose’s owner habitually wears glasses, etc). Use this list to narrow down what sort of era and location, as well as lifestyle, the person could conceivably have – that is: what fits all of the data and the constraints the facts of that data (could only have lived in a time after glasses were invented, clearly does a great deal of work with their hands, etc) reveal. Now there should be a strong frame of what is possible, and from there the writer can extrapolate – deciding which of the options made available by the data’s constraints is the one which suits the character they are building, and so on. Eventually this leads to questions like “Why” – as in “why does this imaginary person have callused hands if they are wearing well-to-do clothing and have obviously expensive glasses?”. Perhaps they are rich and have a hobby which involves a lot of hands on work, or perhaps they are poor and have stolen the outfit in order to pull off a con. At this point it becomes a question of what answers please the author – one is likely to speak to them more than the others –and from there they merely need to keep analysing and extrapolating based on the new information and restraints that are brought with each answered question.

Character from Item: This is what you get when you have a really cool idea for a thing (say, for instance, a longsword that allows the user to fly or a phone which allows the user to time travel) only to discover afterward that, without a character or plot, that cool thing alone does not a story make. From this starting point (a cool thing) you can start to build a character by asking a simple series of questions, they are as follows. Who would make something like that? (Someone capable of making it.) Who would want something like that? (Someone whose motives it would suit to use above other similar items.) Are they the same person? If not, which is more inspiring to write about? Now, these might seem like impossible questions to answer, but they aren’t about who the person is as a whole, but rather what their motivation was. In other words: the potential uses of the object and what would be required to make it must be analysed and from there you can begin to figure out what sort of person would make it, want it, or both.

Let’s take the flying sword as an example. Who would want to have or make a flying sword? Someone who wants to use a sword and be able to fly, possibly at the same time, and doesn’t want to carry around two separate items – this means they must be in need of as much mobility as possible (doesn’t want to carry extras), expects to do close-range battle (what use is a sword, even if it can make you fly, against: arrows, bullets, and bombs?), and who expects to need to get off the ground during combat. So we’re probably looking at someone who lives in a pre-gun world, who travels a lot, and who is expecting to fight something which is much taller than they are (such as a three storey high monster). From this we can reasonably say that we’re looking at some form of knight errant in a world with lots of monsters (possibly dragons, given the whole flying aspect) to slay. If we also decide that they are the same person who made the sword that allows the wielder to fly, we can also argue that they are (given comparisons to how similar historical societies worked) probably a younger son of some gentry or minor lord who has the education to create enchantments on a weapon (an unusually learned man, thus, as many historical lords and noblemen would not have bothered to learn about the sciences and studies of monks, here replaced by apparently workable magic). Now, this is by no means a complete character and much still remains to be worked out, but from the example and analysis it would be a reasonable basis to say that the world is one with magic that can be studied scientifically, and thus is not uncommon, and that the character is a well-educated – and probably with an interest in the practical applications of intellectual pursuits – knight errant from an upper class background or lower nobility who is out to travel the world and slay dragons in aerial hand to claw combat. It’s not a complete or well fleshed out character by any means, but it is a workable starting point.

Character from Location: I differentiate this from setting for one key reason; setting is not by definition a location description as it can also include things like worlds with strange physics as their gimmick. Such worlds will be discussed later. Character from location is the best method for creating basic characters (to later be fleshed out) when you are starting from either a world map you’ve invented or you have, say, a beautiful city or an awesome jungle with a hidden temple in your imagination. Now, depending on the type of location (structure/settlement in use, structure/settlement abandoned, natural location unsettled, etc) you have to start with different questions. When you are starting from a structure or settlement which is in use you have to start by asking yourself why someone would want to live, or work, there – as well as who is in charge there. Now different places will get different answers (if the location is a creepy curio shop with an apartment over it: the answer is probably that they own a curio shop and therefore they are in charge, if the location is a beautiful seaside city: the answers are likely lots of fishermen and someone dedicated to the upkeep of their city, etc). But the key is to answer each question, often with multiple options, and then follow that on to its own question (and in the case of options to choose the one that is most inspiring: that gives you the most next-step questions – in the fishing city example that’s more likely the ruler than the fishermen).

In the curio shop example we can actually build out fairly easily: a shop of curiosities is not going to be found in a town or village; so it is owned by a city-dweller and in an era and location of enough prosperity to support such a business. What’s more: curio is a word from the 1850s, and while there is no reason to believe it couldn’t be found earlier in an alternate world, it is reasonable to assume that curiosities would not have been an overly profitable business before that era’s technological level made middle classes with spare money and longer distance travel common, into normal things. Now being a curio shop owner suggests a middling social class, with some literacy and a curious – likely intellectual – mind given the fact that the shop sells (and thus probably buys and evaluates) curiosities. It is possible that the owner has inherited the shop, but if they were not inclined to curiosities or minded the creepy atmosphere it is likely that they would have switched products or sold the location to pursue a different career at the first opportunity. Further, we can reasonably presume that the owner of the shop is either unable to travel themselves due to financial or medical reasons or simply prefers to learn about the strange things in the world from the comfort of home. The curio shop may be creepy due to the content or due to the upkeep of the actual building and that will determine whether the character has a very macabre set of curiosities or if they merely are not diligent in (or, less likely, unconcerned by) the maintenance of their store. That’s a lot of potential explanations for a character, so for the end of this example I’ll pick those traits I’m most interested by, and conclude from the starting point of “creepy curio shop” that the character is an intellectual, middle class shop owner in a prosperous and post-industrial revolution city, who has macabre interests and is prevented from caring for their storefront and travelling by poor health. That’s not a fully fledged character, but it’s pretty good for building off a three word starting point.

Comparatively, when you’re dealing with an abandoned or unsettled location, you have to ask yourself why someone would go there (and in the case of abandonment: why was it abandoned). Someone who lives somewhere may simply have been born there and never moved away – it takes far more effort and motivation for someone to choose to go travelling (implied in this form of location to character building) than to simply stay where they are. Motivation is a key player here: someone who goes to an abandoned temple in a jungle because they got lost probably isn’t going to be sticking around out of curiosity – but they also must have been trying to get somewhere else – and someone who is out adventuring or exploring (curiosity, excitement, funding from somewhere) is going to be a very different person than the one who comes to that place because they are looking for somewhere to settle (and different again from someone returning to a location they had abandoned!). To give brief examples: the person who got lost and found the temple city may have been travelling through the jungle after being forced off course from some other adventure (this could be anything) and may be on a time limit, whereas the explorer might be an archaeologist or a merchant trying to find a better trade route. Likewise, the settler may well be the leader of an exiled group who pushed into deep jungle territory after recently losing a war, and the person returning to the place they abandoned might have realised that in their rush to leave they forgot something important or be seeking closure. Now, after the slightly divergent first questions (why would someone want to live there versus why would someone want to travel/explore/return there) the process is essentially the same, and I won’t bore you by building out more characters when you’ve already seen it done a paragraph ago. But the main difference to keep in mind is that if you are building a character from a location they are already at it is the location which is the shaping force upon the character, whereas if you are building a character from a location they are travelling through it is the motivation of the character to travel which is the deciding force.  Character from location they’re already in is straightforward, but character from location they’re travelling to is much more a case of character from plot …which leads us to…

Character from Plot: Right off the bat, different genres and plot lines call for different kinds of characters. A detective has to have an inquiring mind or they just aren’t going to bother trying to solve the mystery, let alone actually solve it. Erotica just isn’t going to feature an asexual main character having loads of sex (unless it is purely sexualist discrimination in the form of corrective rape fantasies which objectify and misrepresent an entire orientation). An action hero needs to be a physically inclined sort of person, else they’d be a guile hero and in a very different sort of story. For a story to hinge on a big misunderstanding, one person has to be really bad at talking about anything and the other has to be mildly paranoid, stubborn, and inclined to jump to conclusions – with two straightforward or practical people, it just wouldn’t work.

When people have a great idea for a plot or incident within the plot and have no ideas for characters to run that plot, the most common mistake in attempting to build those characters from that starting point is to ask what sort of person would do that. Yes, I know, it seems counter-intuitive to say that’s not a good plan, but it’s not a good plan. Trying to define a person by asking what sort of person would be in a sort of plot is just setting yourself up for an endless stream of tautologies and clichés. What sort of person would go on an adventure? An adventurous one.  What sort of person would be the hero on the quest to save the world? The reluctant hero. Who are the protagonists in the grand romance? People seeking romance. What kind of person would try to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse? Someone who wants to live. These descriptions ultimately tell you nothing of use.

What you actually need to ask yourself is what each action (each moment in the plot) actually is. What word describes the action of going to investigate a mysterious happening? Inquisitive. Active. Curious. Probably not satisfied with whatever answer everyone else has accepted. What does going on a quest to save the world mean? It means a genuine belief that the world is in danger, degree of self-confidence that they alone can fix the problem – arguably arrogance, active inclination. Party goer at a grand gala meets a beautiful stranger and asks them out? Impulsive. Arguably, they’re more interested in external beauty than internal beauty – lust driven, not love. Also: wealth and possible enjoyment of the festivities. The thing here is that you have to ask yourself to describe the specifics in the plot – rather than just genre – and work from there. From every point in the plot – even if it’s just a vague idea of a plot with some genre attached – you should be able to pull one or two, minimum, adverbs (descriptions of what that action is: cautious, reckless, etc) and from there apply those to the beginnings of a person. These then can be interconnected so that they all make sense together and expanded upon until a basic character has been built.

Character from Setting: Given that I’ve already done location separately, this one might seem a little strange, but it is a distinct starting point. Setting is not merely a location, but also how that particular universe works. One could arguably call this character from gimmick instead, but that has a negative connotation. The best way to find character from setting is to start by asking yourself what the normal of that universe is and then extrapolating on that to figure out what ways a person could differ from the norm. A person who is slightly out of the ordinary is often a good primary character – although, writer beware: most of the first conclusions of who would be out of the ordinary are nothing more than clichés (such as the princess who doesn’t want to wear dresses, the reluctant hero, and the person from a society with some norm we would find alien or repulsive who just so happen to be exactly like us, despite how unlikely that would be). However, you do not have to choose to build a character who does not match their society’s norms if you do not wish to – just so long as you actually have the normal by their standards character behave normally by their standards and are willing to portray them as an ordinary person.

To give you an example or two: let’s say we have a world with two distinct differences from our own – the first is that air and water are essentially bound by the same rules, so all fish fly, and the second is that everyone, upon reaching sexual maturity, is magically bound by a red string of fate which connects them to their soulmate (offensive premise much?). If we accept these as the norm in that world we have to ask what the results of such things would be. Drowning wouldn’t be a thing, obviously, so it’s likely that lifeguards wouldn’t exist. Likewise, fishing might well involve standing on top of hills and shooting arrows with nets attached into the open sky. Arranged marriages probably never became a thing, politically speaking, and the obsessive search for love and romance which suffocates the modern world probably doesn’t exist either. Meanwhile, you have to ask if this red string affects people who aren’t romantically or sexually inclined (given that it comes upon reaching the age when you can start procreating) and how people who are string-free are treated by society. And just like that we have moved from asking what normal in that world is to asking what abnormal in that world is, because defining the one automatically means you have to start defining the other. In such a world, if you wanted a normal person as your character, you could ask what milestones and niches would appear (that is, extrapolate off the first question: what is normal). You might find that given all fish can fly, that sharks can also fly and that your normal protagonist is a shark-falconer: a person whose profession it is to shoot sharks out of the sky before they can swim in and swoop down on populated areas. You might write about the everyday struggle of a young person who just got their red string and was deeply perturbed to find they must go on a long journey to find the other end – or that they know and dislike the person they’re tied to. Meanwhile, if you wanted abnormal people, you might find yourself writing about a fisherman who has started using aeroboats to do his fishing, in defiance of all traditional methods, or explore the ramifications of being asexual in a world where everyone is expected to find their true love the moment they become adults. This means, ultimately, that you start defining the character by comparing them to what normal is.

 

…I think that’s everything? Comment if you think I should have mentioned another method or starting point to begin building characters from, or if you’d like me to extrapolate on something I’ve said – I’d love to hear from you.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in On Writing

 

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False Flaws and Further Frequent Fictional Fuck-Ups

Sometimes when I read fiction I get the feeling that the only genre where authors believe in characterisation is drama – stories which hinge entirely on human flaws and interactions. All of the others (romance, humour, sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, mystery, even historical fiction; which really should know better, etc) come across as more interested in black and white good/evil characterisation and things which go BOOM. Flaws never inconvenience characters and all inter-relational problems are caused by someone doing something wrong or evil (or a big misunderstanding that even a toddler could clear up, looking at you romance and comedy) rather than actual human interaction – and the problem only gets worse in fanfiction. Real human interaction is full of minor flaws and arguments wherein no one is the bad/wrong/evil person who needs to be “cured” of their flaws, but no one is truly right either. Humans are social animals. That means we drive each other batshit for no reason and if we aren’t something is really wrong.

 

1) Not all flaws are created equal. There is an important difference between Learned Flaws, Physical Flaws, and Fundamental Flaws. That might seem fairly inexplicable, but it’s actually quite straightforward: authors typically are aware that characters should have flaws (as this is often toted writing advice) but all too often amateur and not-so-amateur authors think that “have flaws” means “one or two non intrinsic and easily fixed flaws which will never affect the characterisation or plot” and dutifully apply one or two as loosely as children’s stickers and then tick off that box as if the problem has actually been solved. Spoiler alert: it hasn’t. They key problem here is that authors tend to favour physical and learned flaws so that they can be fixed later and their character doesn’t have to be messy and imperfect. This is a problem because a character cannot be 3D or interesting unless they are messy and imperfect. There’s nothing wrong with giving a character learned and/or physical flaws, when portrayed realistically, but they are not as useful to characterisation and plot as fundamental flaws.

Physical Flaws: This category differs from the other two categories as it is to do with a character’s body, rather than their mind/soul/heart/personality/whatever you want to call it. Clumsiness is a physical flaw and the most commonly tacked on flaw in fiction. It’s also a dirty useless cheat because it is always there to “prove” that the character has flaws (no, no they don’t because that’s SINGULAR: one flaw, damn it) and has absolutely no affect on the plot or characterisation. It’s just there to tick a box and look cute. Ultimately, it doesn’t actually count as a flaw. Then there are other physical flaws which (sometimes) turn up in fiction… The character has glasses, OMG, so they’ll get contacts by the end that work just like laser surgery instead of like contacts. The character snores, but no one minds or looses sleep because it’s “cute” (it’s not). The character has, gasp, freckles – but good looking ones. The character is “tall and lanky” and then that turns out to mean “conventionally attractive”. But there are some other physical flaws that get used – like being in a wheelchair or missing a limb until that gets cured (that’s not a character flaw, by the way, that’s the author being an ableist, over-privileged bleep-wad). What I’m saying here is that physical flaws do not actually work for the tick box of “character has flaws” because they have nothing to do with the nature of the character and everything to do with the appearance.

Learned Flaws: This is the category of things like; addictions, sexism, and racism. These are flaws which are not physical, but not inborn either. Typically, these are used to show that a character is either a) not perfect because they have some socially unacceptable view which will be fixed by the end of the story, turning them into a perfect cardboard cut-out, or b) evil. Madness in all most varieties belongs here (as with the exception of those forms of madness which a child is born with – those few caused by chemical imbalance and not psychological damage – which count as disabilities, not flaws). For example: people can be born with an inclination to be more easily affected by alcoholism, but no one is born alcoholic. Sometimes it is too late to change, but it is not naturally unchangeable. A person can be more or less inclined to question the beliefs they are a raised with, but no one is born racist, or sexualist, or sexist, or ableist. In all of these cases the flaw is something negative that a person has integrated into their character over the course of their life, rather than an unchangeable facet of who they were born and will always be. This type of flaw can, if used correctly, flesh out a character significantly, but if it’s only there to be cured or fixed in the end then it is worse than having no flaws whatsoever.

Fundamental Flaws: This is the best type of flaw for a character to have, yet for some reason (probably because it makes right and wrong into a murky grey area and renders characters realistic rather than perfect) most authors seem to shy away from it. When this type of flaw is used it is almost inevitably one of: a) selfishness, which is a ridiculous flaw because no one is selfish all the time and everyone is selfish sometimes, b) a quick temper, which somehow never seems to get the character into trouble or go off when not justified or useful, or c) being “too kind”, which likewise never has its real life negative effects like being brutally used by everyone around them and basically being little better than a doormat. Fundamental flaws are an intrinsic part of a character’s personality: they do not come from some event or incident in the character’s past (being cynical is often portrayed thus even though it shouldn’t be) and it cannot be changed or fixed. A person may become aware of their flaws and seek to mitigate them, but they cannot be expunged and the moment a person is put under pressure, the minor amount of control they have over their fundamental flaws will be the first thing to go. What’s more, mitigate does not mean change or remove – a person whose chief fundamental flaw is being rude as in short with people may spend their life mentally reminding themselves to not go so fast and be a little less blunt, but they won’t always manage and when they get stressed they will stop checking themselves for rudeness. Rudeness, inability to admit to being wrong, nitpicking, refusal to stop helping when asked because “helping!”, inclination to assume the worst of people, generalising when specificity is called for, these and so many more are the type of fundamental – inborn – flaws which actually make characters 3D and INTERESTING.

 

2) Normal people have dozens of minor and major flaws. In fiction dozens of flaws may well be too many to show without making a completely unlikable character, but that still doesn’t mean that the opposite – none to two and tacked on false flaws at that – is appropriate either. If you’re writing a novel length work and are dealing with a main character, you have enough room for about ten flaws – which is both a good number for simulating the dozens that real people have and comfortably shown, provided that you don’t try to have a character arc or “fix-it” moment for each (or any) of them. It also actually works better in a longer piece to have multiple (non-contradictory) character flaws because it means that not every argument or plot problem has to come from one, thus overstrained, issue. Which of the following seems more realistic? Mary; who is “too kind” [1]and has a “short temper”[2] but is never inconvenienced by them and is otherwise completely flawless beyond being slightly clumsy [3]. Or Sue; who is viewed as a miser [1] because she stopped giving money to charities after scammers took advantage of her kindness one too many times [2&3 due to implicit gullibility as well as being “too kind”], who snaps at people easily [4]and therefore strains her relationships (causing her to be nervous and wary [5] in social situations and more likely to snap), does her best to keep her pedantic comments to herself at work [6], who often misses deadlines [7] because she’s over critical of her work [8], but who always makes times for her friends (even when she cannot afford to [9]) and is never outright cruel, despite an unfortunate clumsiness [10] which puts her in even more awkward social situations? More importantly: who’s more interesting? Who’s memorable? Sue is – because there are ten billion “flawed” heroines like Mary, in all genres, who have that same trio of flaws “too kind”, “short temper”, and “clumsy”.

 

3) Fundamental Flaws drive characterisation and plot. Here’s another good question: of Mary and Sue, from the above example, which one is it easier to create characterisation and plot for? Plot first. Whenever the author needs a plot device they could have Mary be kind to the wrong person (if they’re willing to let her, gasp, make a mistake) or have a temper tantrum (they’ll never call it that) at the wrong time, resulting in a big fight/misunderstanding with the love interest in order to stretch the plot another three hundred pages, or have her clumsily drop or break something important. But in all of those cases it’s fairly obvious deus ex machina at work and it’s utterly generic. ANY plot can be advanced by shoehorning one of those in. Sue, on the other hand, has more specific plot opportunities, but they’re also more unique and will ring truer than those shoehorned in. If Sue doesn’t like being viewed as a miser she might decide to do something about that or lose out on something because of it (plots!), she might struggle to learn to trust again and stop being gullible (plot!), or start a fight by snapping at the wrong person at the wrong time (plot advancement!). She might be struggling to make a major project by a deadline and may or may not fail to do so if she makes time for her friends when she shouldn’t (plot complications!). Sue’s plots are both more specific and more sensible for her character – they’re harder to slap onto any random character the way Mary’s options are.

So what about characterisation? Well, here’s the thing; plot is best run by characterisation. If you have deep characters you don’t need to further the plot when it stalls by throwing in random fights or EXPLOSIONS. If your plot is running on the power of realistic people you don’t need big misunderstandings to stretch it out or to toss in stray threads to keep interest up. I’ve often heard people say that writing about emotions and interpersonal drama just “isn’t interesting” because it’s “just people sitting around talking”, but the thing is: any well done interpersonal drama can be more riveting than “OMGOSH R they gonna save the world” take 938,934,579,253,283.4. Characterisation is a subtle beast and, when done right, should be infused into everything – the words the character uses, the way they react to people, the way they look (neat, messy, clothing choices, etc, not hair/eye colour or bust-to-waist-ratio!), what they do, how they move, the job they do and hobbies they have, the choices they make, the way the prose describes them, the way other people describe them, EVERYTHING.

The description of Mary shows us that she’s …pretty much identical to thousands of other fictional heroines out there and nothing else, not even an age-range. There is so little characterisation going on there that she’s essentially a list of traits without a character. Then there’s Sue. We know Sue’s an adult (has a job) who often misses her deadlines (so job has deadlines but either they aren’t overly important or Sue is going to be struggling to keep from being fired soon, which narrows down the fields somewhat, plus it’s implied that she has money to spare to be cheated out of and then hoard, so it’s well-paying). Everything we know about Sue points to her being somewhat embittered (viewed as a miser and having lost trust after being too kind and gullible and getting used for her trouble). She’s nervous and short-tempered around people because she’s clumsy and aware of her pedantic , snappish temperament, which tells us that she actually cares quite a bit what people think of her and is likely very sensitive to other people’s opinions. She’s not cruel and she has friends, so she’s not a total social outcast, unless she’s still gullible and those “friends” are just taking advantage of her. If we narrow that down to a briefer description we can say from her flaws that Sue is a generous, kind, distrustful, socially awkward, woman who is reasonably successful in a well-paying profession and probably has an eye for specifics and precision (pedants tend to have this). Furthermore, all of those descriptions bring to mind physical motions (won’t look people in the eye, rushing with stacks of paper, rare but brilliant smiles, cringing at the looks given to her when something pedantic slips out) and tonal clues (“snapped”, obviously, but also “pointed out” and “ostentatiously”) That’s WAY more than we got out of Mary. That’s practically a complete person. That’s interesting.

4) Flaws do not have to be “cured” or “fixed”, damn it. We want people not cardboard cut-outs. Now, one last question: if the author of Sue were to ensure that by the end of her story, all of Sue’s interesting traits – her social awkwardness, her tendency to snap and miss deadlines, her justifiable distrust of people who want things from her, her awkwardness-inducing-clumsiness, her pedantic nature, her overspending on friends, her too strong self-criticism, and all the others – and “fix” them so that they’d all been scrubbed out, would Sue still be interesting? NO. No she would not, because she would be nothing more than a cardboard cut-out of what “flawless” and “perfect” are supposed to be and no longer be a character. Why? Because all of those things were intrinsic to her personality (with the potential exception of the distrust, which is a learned flaw that comes from compensating for her fundamental flaws)! A character arc which focused on her learning to get over that distrust but still staying wise enough to no longer be gullible and easily used would be fine so long as she remained awkward, snappish, pedantic, over-critical and inclined to miss deadlines. Flaws are what make people people. People are interesting. Flat cardboard cut-outs that have “character” written on it are not.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Magic Trick Traits

So for those of you, if any, who’ve been hoping for another bestiary post; I’m sorry. I meant to write one, I even got started on it, but they take a lot of research and I’m really tired at the moment. It’s easier to write On Writing rants because I keep most of that information in my head. Also, I’m open to ideas if anyone would like a rant/would like to read my thoughts on a particular subject.

 

This week’s (weeks? Bugger I’m getting slow at this) rant is brought to you by my irritation with how often characters’ skills and traits are treated as easily switched-out accessories (the ones which flash in and out of existence like a bunny in a magician’s top hat). These “Magic Trick Traits”, for lack of a better term, are really unhealthy for a story and, frankly, they drive readers and viewers so far up the wall that they’re standing on the freaking ceiling. Frankly, I think T.V. series are probably to blame for this one, given that most shows on the telly are written by an ever changing set of writers – many of whom have never seen the show they are writing for and none of whom have time to read all the episode scripts. Given that only some shows are wise enough to have an open file for all writers that lists the basic skills and traits of each character, this is somewhat unavoidable for overworked, underpaid screenwriters in television. It’s decidedly NOT unavoidable in other forms of writing, yet it all too often turns up there anyway. So whether you’re trying to mitigate the problem or avoid it all together, please consider the following:

 

1. Skills and traits shouldn’t appear out of nowhere. Seriously – your character is not a magic trick. The audience will not applaud when something turns up out of nowhere. In fact, it’s likely to tick them off. I can’t even begin to list the number of stories, both professional works in all media and fanfics, in which characters got new traits and skills applied to them haphazardly whenever the plot needed something and working with what was already there would have required effort. Inevitably, the result was that the audience (and by that I mean that other people complained, not just me) would become irritated as they viewed the character as a whole while the writers viewed characters more by instalment. That is to say that when someone takes in a story, be it reading or watching, they accept the illusion that it is real and therefore the fiction that a character is consistent – if a character couldn’t fight off an attacker in chapter one but in chapter four is revealed to be a black belt they will cry foul. Comparatively, the author – or authors – of a work are viewing it from the technical side and therefore are less likely to cry foul at random additions because they are consciously aware that they are creating the character as they go rather than telling the story of someone who exists as a complete being (the way the viewers see it).

Here’s an example to show why it doesn’t work. Um, spoiler alert? In Star Trek: Enterprise they tried to go back to the TOS way of having the main seven cast be divided into the main three (Kirk, Spock, McCoy) and the four secondary characters (Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, Scotty) but in Enterprise the back up four (Reed, Sato, Phlox and Travis) got far less screen time than the TOS secondary quartet. In fact, Reed was the only one who really got much of a personality (and worse, the main three – Archer, T’Pol and Trip – were the main characters primarily so they could be the love triangle rather than say because they were interesting or competent). Then, in the last season, it was revealed that Reed was actually a secret agent for Section 31, or (to translate out of Trekkie) they had JAMES FREAKING BOND on the secondary cast for years and he was never one of the main three. And worse, they barely did anything with it after the reveal. There were a few episodes in which the secret agents had a complicated (and really badly put together – as in “how are these people even secret agents” bad) and other than that: nothing. Yet there were a huge number of incidents wherein being a secret agent would have, or should have, be at least hinted at before and it really screwed up a lot of the believability of the world because a Section 31 agent should have been able to solve a lot of earlier plotlines in half the time but just …didn’t. That’s how it looks to the audience when additional skills and traits are dropped on a character with no foreshadowing – it looks like the earlier story is absurd. Now, from a writer’s point of view that’s not fair because they didn’t know ahead of time their character was going to turn out to be a secret agent, but that’s the point. You NEED to know ahead of time. You NEED to build reveals like that off things that have come before, because if you don’t it won’t matter how many good reasons you have from the technical side of writing: your audience will get annoyed and assume you’re an idiot.

2. If you have to pull them out of nowhere, make sure they make sense. I’ll grant that sometimes you work with a medium – like television or comic strips – where you can’t be sure you (as the writer) know everything about a character from the start or where you’ve got a team of writers and no time to go back and research everything, so you have no choice but to pull something out of nowhere. But here’s the thing: when you have the choice you should ALWAYS choose to avoid Magic Trick Traits. So, here you are, writer for some reason unable to pull some trick or trait out from previous scenes, standing before an audience who are ready with the rotten tomatoes and desperately in need of some sort of prop – but the props department is busy – and so you pull a rabbit out of your hat. That wouldn’t be so terrible, except that you didn’t have a hat on stage with you either. The audience isn’t going to applaud you for getting a rabbit out of a hat-from-nowhere; they’re going to want to know why you didn’t pull the rabbit out of the sleeve of the coat you were wearing or, better yet, a playing card from the sleeve of your coat. That, to them, would have made sense.

Or, to give a more applicable example, when you need to pull a new trick or trait out of your arse, made damn sure you’re applying the right sort of trait to the right sort of person. If you have a tomboyish princess, a farm hand and a jester on an adventure and suddenly need one of them to save them from an attacking beast, it makes a heck of a lot more sense for princess tomboy to know enough about proper fighting with weapons and use the wood axe or hunting bow to save them than for the farm hand to do that or for the tomboy princess to develop random magic powers and “tame” the beast or for the jester to do either of the above. This is because the tomboy princess is the most likely to have learned to fight, given that nobles did not typically allow farm hands to handle real weapons and would be more likely to cave for a princess than a peasant, while jesters are typically safer if they are “harmless” and magic powers from nowhere is always a bad idea. (If the jester pulls out a jesting trick to scare it off, that’s not even a Magic Trick Trait, that’s a trait from previously established traits and the sort of thing you want your characters doing). To compare to the metaphor from earlier; a tomboy princess who can fight is like pulling a card out of a sleeve which is already on stage – the set up is there and the item/trait fits the set up and character. Meanwhile the farmhand with secret sword skills is like pulling a rabbit out of a sleeve that was already on stage (yes there’s set up there but the item doesn’t fit) and the princess with sudden magic powers from nowhere is like pulling a rabbit out of a top hat which also wasn’t on stage (even if the rabbit fits with the hat, the hat/set up comes out of nowhere).

3. If you can; go back and foreshadow. Now, if you’re not writing something that is published in increments, like a webcomic or a television show, you have the chance to go back and foreshadow the skill from nowhere before you send your work out into the big bad world. DO THAT. If you’ve gotten most of the way through writing a book and discover you need your character to rock-climb their way to safety but have never even implied they know how to do that, go back and change a café-talking scene into a talking-while-rock-climbing-for-a-hobby scene. Or put a few rock climbing competition trophies in the description of your character’s bedroom. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it stops your audience from trying to tear YOUR hair out in frustration because they don’t appreciate random new deus ex machina being dropped in willy-nilly to save the day. Now, this also means you have to think about how having this trait will have affected your character earlier – if they got out of somewhere by other means when they could have climbed: why didn’t they climb? Or why don’t they use those other means later? Want to stick with the climb? Okay. So they climb out rather than more complicated means and therefore don’t run into the guard and …oh dear, would you look at that: the string of events has changed so much that they’re never in the original rock climbing debacle in the first place. Good. This means you were paying attention as you re-plotted and added that trait. That means you aren’t giving your characters traits that – like a magic trick – last for one scene and no longer. That’s good. Unless a trait is shown as being learned or lost (painter goes blind, to give a very blunt example) during the story, the character should be able to do it consistently the whole way through – not just when it’s convenient for the author to get help them escape from or keep them in trouble.

4. If you can’t foreshadow; pick up past plot threads and tie them in. Or take incidents and relate them to this new thing so that in hindsight it looks like the person actually was using their skill earlier or had good reason not to. Either way, once you’ve added a Magic Trick Trait you need to stabilise it – to tie it to the rest of the story so it’s not just some random puff of smoke floating by and obscuring things without ever truly affecting them. This is, again, more something which should be done in incremental fiction rather than fiction which can be edited and redrafted before publication. A book will go through many drafts before publication, a film or play many re-writes of script and a fanfic can be re-drafted even as it is published chapter by chapter. But it’s harder to do that with a webcomic and it’s impossible to do it with a television series. So sometimes the best you can do is make sure to anchor this floaty new trait to things that have come before – to take a moment to go over past events and explain how it relates to them.

For the sake of clarity, let us keep with the example of a character suddenly being revealed as a secret agent, but drop the specificity of the Star Trek example. A character is revealed suddenly, well into a story, to be a secret agent. There isn’t time for the author to give lots of spy related adventures or emotional drama of broken trust between characters before the story ends, so it does feel like it comes completely out of the blue. The unwise writer will allow this to stand, possibly making no further mention whatsoever; even in the climax when mad spy skills would be damn useful, and so the whole mess becomes an ugly Magic Trick Trait – there one minute, gone the next. The wise writer, on the other hand, throws in a few one or two line conversational moments wherein the suddenly-a-spy character reveals that some of the apparent lucky coincidences (but not plot holes – there shouldn’t be any plot holes if you’re doing your job right) were neither lucky, nor coincidences, but them working behind the scenes using spy skills. This gets around the “why didn’t you do that earlier you arsehole?!?” reaction the audience will have, although done clumsily it can seem very contrived. A simple joke by a character chapters or episodes later about whether it’s wise to tell personal problems to a spy who might have to make a report on them keeps the new trait from disappearing as if it never was, and that is important. If the spy was friendly to another character at first and then drifted away without explanation, they might mention that they were feeling them out for recruitment and decided against it and suddenly the never explained has an explanation and is no longer dangerously close to a plot hole (a plot dent?). Whatever the skill or trait, whatever character gains it, one basic rule still stands: the more unlikely the introduction of the trait (such as out-of-nowhere-ness) the more often you have to reference and use it in the rest of the plot to keep it from ruining everything like a hit-and-run incident on a quiet street.

5. If you’re willing to be inventive you don’t need to add new traits whenever you’ve written yourself into a corner. Seriously. Let’s go back to the princess, farmhand and jester example for a moment. How many of you would never have thought of having the jester scare off the danger by being a jester? I can’t see through your computer screens for a show of hands, but if that question was applied to the writing world at large the answer would have been: far, far too many. Unlike a tomboy princess or farmhand suddenly showing off never-before-mentioned fighting skills or magical powers, a jester being a jester is not a case of deus ex machina or Magic Trick Traits. It’s a case of being inventive and, frankly, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than yet another inexplicable-sword-fight or glow-y powers of authorial interference episode. When you can’t rely on just adding something new, and hoping the sparkly newness distracts from the fact that you couldn’t figure out how to rescue your own characters from the mess you got them into, you are forced to get more creative and that’s GOOD. Being creative means telling interesting stories: audiences like interesting stories. Yet another blah-blah-blah-Magic-Trick-blah-blah just means they can tune it out and return when what is supposed to be a more interesting than average moment is over. It means they can easily confuse it with the ten million other stories which did the exact same thing.

When the Apollo 13 was falling apart in space and they needed to solve enough problems to get home, mission command didn’t help figure out a solution for them by bringing in things they didn’t have in space with them – they never said “well, we can get you home but you’ll need three spare rockets, four more rolls of duct tape than you have and a cow”. They solved the problem with what they had. If an author finds themselves in the position of apparently having written themselves into a corner, the “if only I had four more rolls of duct tape and a cow” thought may be the most prominent, but that is the train of thought which leads to Magic Trick Traits (there one moment, forgotten the next) and deus ex machina. You should never get on that train of thought. Instead you should glare at the mess you’ve made and jury-rig a workable wagon of thought from what you’ve got – even if that means putting in a lot of effort and getting sweating dragging that damn wagon across the plains of thinking until you reach solution station. When you’re forced to find a solution for your characters with only what you’ve already put in the story, you get a better and far more interesting story. Yes, it takes more work. But here’s the thing: writing is work – it’s not easy and it isn’t meant to be. Put the rabbit and the top hat back on the shelf and let the story shine.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2016 in On Writing

 

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