Tag Archives: character

The Internal Conflict Games

No person is truly static. No matter how much we try, we still change. The person you were yesterday is different from the person you are today. The person of tomorrow may become someone yesterday’s self would never approve of. That which mattered more than anything a year ago may be utterly pointless next Tuesday.

Time, however, is not our only form of movement. We care – in an abstract sort of way – about the state of the world and what is best for everyone. We care – in a far more definite way – about the state of our loved ones and what is best for us. We do these things simultaneously. We expect the heroic character to, of course, sacrifice their comforts or take a third option for the sake of “the people” – that is; for US. It could be argued that human virtue – in the form of the desire to help others – is an entirely selfish construct.

This is supposed to be a post on writing. Somehow, it has become philosophy. Perhaps, that is, because philosophy (of ethics, of politics, even of metaphysics) is the nebulous ghost of theory, which is then put to the test in the thought experiment we call fiction. After all, “right” and “wrong” sounds all well and good in theory, but the entire concept tends to crash and burn when we attempt to put it into practise.

If there was a true answer out there, we wouldn’t have spent the entire history of the human species fighting over it.

Justice, right, wrong, good, evil, duty, worth, bacon, necktie, these are all social constructs. They are not universal truths. The general agreement in society is that good people try to help as many other people as possible – that the Good Guys are there to help the masses – and the general population will always support stories of this fashion, because it encourages others to protect them in times of crisis. In other words: the common view of right and wrong is inherently biased in favour of personal gain.

Apart from not upsetting your readers, there is no reason you have to hold to this point of view in your writing. If you write a protagonist who believes that people aren’t worth saving, but who saves them anyway, you are complying with this social construct. If you do not comply with this heavily enforced and entirely arbitrary ruling on what “Right” is, your character will be labelled as a villain and you yourself may gain a similar label.

So, what do you do? Do you do what is easy or do you do what is … well, it isn’t “right” is it? It’s just what you believe is right. Do you take the path of least resistance or do you do what you believe in?

Here’s the funny thing about that: it doesn’t matter.

Oh, it’ll certainly matter to you – if you even view the above dilemma as a dilemma at all. What matters in reality is: what you can live with (most people wouldn’t call it a dilemma because they stand to gain from the status quo of what “heroic” means, while I don’t view it as a dilemma because I’m fed up with the status quo telling me to sacrifice myself for others who will never return the favour – and often view it as something I owe them, not that I’ve ever done any hero-ing, but from the philosophical standpoint).

What matters in fiction is the existence of the dilemma itself.

We call this internal conflict. The backbone of character-focused works. The bloody, beating heart of a deep and rounded character. The thing that inevitably spawns dozens of alternative character interpretations and fan arguments about who was “right” – even if the work explicitly says that no such thing as “right” exists.

Internal conflict can be very subtle. What we believe about one thing may clash with what we believe about another – and we may go on believing both until something, from outside or inside, puts them visibly at loggerheads.

It does not have to be as showy as “who do I save” (maybe quit and go have pizza, instead? They’ll both be goners by the time you’ve decided anyway) or “who do I side with?” (again, maybe just go have pizza). It does not exist when a Hero is clearly The Good Guy and the Temptation by The Bad Guy is painfully obvious and the Hero would never do that anyway because he’s on the side of Good.

Internal conflict is subtle. It is murky. It is that grey area where right and wrong are entirely arbitrary ideals which the protagonist is creating, altering, and eventually judging all on their own. If which choice is “the right thing to do” is obvious, there can be no conflict because the answer is, again, OBVIOUS.

What is right? What is wrong? Is there right? Is there wrong? What do I want to do? What do I think I should do? Is what society thinks I should do right? What the heck would society know about it anyway?

Internal conflict – or, as Martin paraphrasing Faulkner put it “the human heart in conflict with itself” – is philosophy. Specifically, it is all those bright, clear theories mercilessly taken away from their loving academics and dropped into a giant, gruesome test simulator by the world’s authors. Because academic philosophy is all nice in theory, but it really doesn’t understand or know how to cope with humanity and reality.

Or, if you want to think of it that way, internal conflict is The Hunger Games for ideologies. Which, let’s be honest, makes it pretty bloody interesting.

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Posted by on October 18, 2017 in On Writing


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Fantastically Disturbing Implications

This is more musing on my part than an educational – or ranting – essay.


Fantasy, as a genre, has become a tree of many different sub-genres and trends – all sprouting, according to most, from Tolkien’s magnum opus. Tolkien, however, based his work heavily on myths, epics, and sagas of real world cultures. In this way, it was inevitable that the genre would have a long history and a deep fascination with heroes and royals and, eventually, knights.

The strange thing, however, is that while most of fantasy has adapted to new, modern, ideas – which has given us all sorts of modern settings – fantasy in general has not parted with the morality to which that focus on heroes, royalty and knights belongs. In this way, we have “modern” stories set in medieval worlds where the female protagonists display cliché, shallow, and period inappropriate feminist ideas, but she almost always turns out to be a princess. That, however, is just one of many, many, examples of residual classism and racism in fantasy.

But the funny thing is, it’s more often the fans than the authors whose ideas display a backwards, classist, belief – one which, I suspect, they don’t even realise they are favouring. Here’re some examples.

In the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fandom, the most popular type of theory is the Character X is secretly a House/Noble Character Z. And that’s the thing, it’s always that they have secret noble (or nobler, in terms of going from one house to another) blood.

The High Sparrow – commoner leading a commoner anti-nobility religious movement? Must secretly be Lord Howland Reed advancing his liege lord’s family’s political goals. He can’t possibly be a lower-class person taking up arms because he’s sick of the nobility butchering the lower classes while they fight over a stupid pointy chair. No way.

The King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder: a wildling raised as a soldier by his people’s enemies, returned to his people to lead them to give said enemies a massive headache? Nah, he can’t possibly really be a savage/Pict wilding. He has to secretly be a white Westerosi nobleman. It can’t just be that he is one of many characters who parallel each other – which is a grand literary tradition – because that would mean the northern savages managed to get their act together and pose a real threat without a Mighty Whitey Westerosi to carry the white Westerosi man’s burden and help them. Oh, he is an almost perfect copy-paste-from-history of King Alaric of the Goths – who was once a Roman soldier – and the German national hero Arminius (who also was raised by Romans and proceeded to kick Roman arse)? And in a setting which is basically The War of the Roses + Magic + Sex? Nah, he’s still got to secretly be Prince Rhaegar or Ser Arthur of House Dayne. Otherwise the savages wildlings might not only be competent, but have elected a competent leader where all the noble blooded characters who inherit their power just keep fucking things up.

Likewise, Heroic Bastard Jon Snow can’t possibly really be a bastard. He must secretly have been legitimate (despite the legal impossibility of his father taking a second wife) or legitimised (but preferably legitimate). It’s not like real history has bastards becoming king. It’s not like people call William the Conqueror “William the Bastard” for a reason. Or like King Arthur Pendragon was the bastard of King Ulthor’s rape-by-deception of a foreign queen. Or like Martin’s own fictional history has bastard kings like the one who founded House Justman or bastards of kings who manage to incite half the realm into trying to crown them despite being bastards with legitimate half-brothers like Daemon Blackfyre. After all, he absolutely has to become king in the end, because it’s not like his entire plot line is about how the fight for the spikey chair is irrelevant or how bastards can be just as good as other people…

I think I need to turn the sarcasm off now, before we all drown in it, but I think you get the point.

And sure, you could argue that ASOIAF/GOT is focused on the nobility and has a major character revealed as secretly royalty (or, more correctly, a royal bastard) so it’s only natural that the fans would assume that everyone who has anything important to do – any real effect on the plot – must secretly have noble blood, but it’s not just ASOIAF/GOT fans.

After romance/porn, the second most common plot in Harry Potter fanfics was that Harry/Hermione/other discovers s/he’s secretly the heir of [Ancient Powerful Wizard/Family] or his mother was secretly not muggleborn/she’s adopted and that s/he’s therefore a pureblood… This, I might remind you, was a canon story where the pureblood elitists were the bad guys.

This trend – of justifying how awesome characters are by ‘revealing’ them as having some ancestry of rank and privilege – is disturbing. It’s also prevalent in just about every fantasy fandom (except the children’s fantasy of My Little Pony, where being a Princess is something you explicitly earn by being awesome at friendship).


Fantasy is the genre we run to when we want to escape from our world – where luck is a major factor in whether or not you succeed – and go to a place where the world values us based on what we think it ought to value. What does it say about us, as a society, that our escapist fantasy is not about succeeding because you are talented, or worked hard, or were kind, but where you succeed if you are born of the right – elite and wealthy – bloodline?

How is it that we, as fandoms – as a society – talk of equality and inner value, but our fantasies still support the idea that if you don’t have the right blood you aren’t really worth anything?

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Posted by on July 4, 2017 in On Folklore, 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.


Posted by on February 14, 2016 in On Writing


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Scrap Pile: Life Without Smell

At the moment I’m working on the first of my planned six books for the year (I decided I wasn’t getting enough done and challenged myself to get six first drafts ready by December 31st – sort of doing NaNoWriMo stretched over two months, six times in one year, except that I’ve beaten NaNo in five days and ten hours and have no interest in doing it again).

The book is writing advice (this is somewhat ironic given that I’m not published or making money yet) and I had a lovely metaphor running through it. Unfortunately, I had to excise some significant portions of analogous material because it was simply getting too complicated and too detailed. I wrote this section for the analogy and I didn’t want to have to lose it completely, so while it will never be in the book I decided to share it here. It was in a section on characterisation and was going to be an example in discussion of less obvious ways that character’s can have physical imperfections. It was also a really long paragraph.

 Life Without Smell:

Have you ever imagined life without a sense of smell? What about with a diminished sense of smell? Someone gives you flowers and enthusiastically mentions the odour, so you shove your nose right up into the centre and use the petals for cover as you try to school your face into an appropriate enjoying-the-smell-expression, because you have no idea what that’s actually like. You eat the same, often bland, foods all the time without getting bored of them, because you don’t really notice the taste anyway. You wear too much perfume or deodorant because you have no idea how much is enough for other people to notice. You can’t tell if the person you’re talking to has or has not bathed in a few days, so you make the wrong call on whether they’re friendly or creepy. You can’t smell pheromones (presuming they even have an effect) either, so if you’re heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual or homosexual you can (but don’t always) suffer from a distressingly decreased libido, while if you’re asexual you don’t really notice beyond being irritated by people who assume getting a sense of smell would “cure” you of your orientation (despite there being no causal relationship between anosmia and asexuality). You’re dependent on other people and use by dates with food that could have gone off but isn’t visibly so. You find it confusing when characters and people describe loving someone else’s scent (and you spend much of your life too embarrassed to ask if people really can naturally smell like vanilla and cinnamon like in all the romance scenes in stories). You write a scene set in a restaurant and describe everything but the odour lavishly – then your beta or editor complains that the whole thing seems unrealistic, either because of the lack or without explanation, and you can’t understand it because you described everything that was there …the idea that you should have described any odour at all isn’t one that occurs to you until someone else mentions that it was missing. That’s life without smell.


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Posted by on January 19, 2016 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work


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