(Non)Sympathetic Characters, Revisited

So when you’ve got a protagonist who suddenly stops being, well, the pro- type of tagonist and moseys on over to the an- side of life, in media that you’re consuming you can basically do one of two things. You can give up in disgust, or you can hate-read/hate-watch it to see if they will get what’s coming to them.

As a writer, you want to have written the character well enough that the audience will choose the latter.

It is pretty risky to set out writing a non-sympathetic character in the first place. Sometimes villains are so bad, with only enough traces of humanity for us to recognize ourselves in them, that we ferociously cheer for their demises, and reading a good villain death can be quite cathartic. But your main character can, should be, different. After all, that character is the one the audience is supposed to identify with.

It’s kind of annoying to read about a jerk who just wanders around getting himself and other people into trouble.

Now, a sympathetic character who turns into a jerk? Again, if done well, with careful attention to the character arc, that can be a successful story that keeps the reader hooked. You can spin it as a tragedy, or as a slip in the road before the character becomes kinder/stronger/et cetera. Most of all, it has to be plausible.

The thing is, you have to be paying attention to your characters. If that development for the worse is on purpose, then you have to show the gradual — or sudden — progression of that descent. There has to be a reason behind it. If your heart-of-gold protagonist suddenly tortures a baddie into giving crucial information, I don’t care if it’s your character or not. You either have a solid reason for why, or you get jettisoned by the reader’s disbelief. Acting out of character (or OOC, as the fandom circles term it) is the number one way to lose your audience.

Creating a Character, pt 3

Pt 1 | Pt 2

So you need a Problem to stick your character with, and you need realistic ways for the character to respond to the Problem in order to flesh out who the character is. But how the heck do you come up with the idea for the character in the first place?

I myself have two ways of going about it. Other people have different ways of creating character concepts, that work best for them. As usual with Advice On Writing, your mileage may vary.

Route 1: I’m reading, or watching, some other piece of media and one of the characters strikes a chord with me. So I pick up the character, examine what makes him appealing to me, I dust off a few of the character traits and add some from other sources, and voilà. Frankencharacter. I’ve also heard this called “filing off the serial numbers”, though I’m pretty sure that filing off the serial numbers applies to taking one specific character instead of creating an amalgamation.

So for example — and this is a character that’s rumbling around in my head, though you won’t see him for another few years, I think — take the emotional rigidity and stubbornness and sarcasm of Javert, and the weird mix of brashness and gentleness of Oblek from the Oracle Betrayed trilogy, and throw in a Tragic Past, and there you go! Put him in a new environment, and dress him up in different clothes, and if you know those characters already, I hope you’ll be able to recognize the influences — but he’ll still be his own entity, separate from the original bits and bobs.

I should note, at this point, that I might have an idea of what the amalgam character looks like, but probably no set image.

Route 2: comes at this from the opposite direction. There’s an actor just doing their own thing, and I think to myself, “self, I want to have this actor play a character based on one of my books.” It’s pure self indulgence, but it’s fun, and that’s why it works for me.

And hey, if Cornelia Funke did it with her Inkheart books, then so can I.

Sometimes I can’t figure out the character beyond the basic archetype, and that’s when I go to my friend and toss over a picture of the artist, and we have a brainstorming session — what sort of villain is he? What world would he fit in? And usually while we’re puzzling out the answers to those questions, Inspiration bops me on the head, and then we’re off.

Now we go find a Problem to stick that character in …

Creating a Character, pt. 2

Okay, so you’ve got a capital P Problem to stick your character in. Excellent! Now what?

Here’s another stepping stone that I’ve tripped up on before: the problem can’t create the character by itself.

It’s a trap that I fell into because, from a beginner’s point of view, it sort of makes sense. You create this amazing, complex Problem, that requires heroism and deviousness and courage and politicking and all sorts of things! Brilliant! Surely this excellent Problem will show forth the excellence of the character! And then you stick the character in the middle of the Problem and you wait to see what she does … and then you make the plot move the character around, because that’s how the Problem gets solved based on the map in your head … but the character herself isn’t really reacting to it. She’s just kind of sitting there like a lump.

Because when you put a character in the middle of a Problem, you kind of have to have an idea of how she’s going to react beyond “anger!”. In my last post I said that characters can surprise you with their reactions, and that can definitely be true. But you still have to do most of the heavy lifting. It’s your head they’re living in, after all.

So that character is angry. So what? How does she get angry? Well, she swears revenge. Okay, what kind of revenge? Political revenge! Alright, does she have the means to carry out that revenge? Who taught her how to politick? How is she going to bring other people over to her cause? Et cetera. The basic reaction is only the shallowest level. Even if a lot of the underlying reasons never make it into the final draft, you still have to unpack everything that goes into that character.

And unpacking the character — or rather, allowing the reader to see the character’s development — means then that the character is the one driving the story. Which is more interesting than parading a puppet around a stage, anyway. The best plot in the world still leaves the readers going “meh” if the characters are inert, but a mediocre plot with well developed characters can, and does, win over the readers. Take a dip in the fandom pond — any fandom will do — and you’ll see what I mean.

Creating a Character

Eating pizza at my desk during the lunch break while the telephone keeps ringing. Glamorous. Tiny parts of life that make the rest just a little bit more believable.

People — I say people, but I really mean “aspiring writers” — try to do the same thing by filling out character sheets and questionnaires. Checklists containing likes and dislikes and favorite foods/songs/crayon colors — frankly I think they are ridiculous. Mostly because they fill in the minutia of daily life, but ONLY the minutia of daily life, and not the important bits.

It’s definitely fun to take a character and say, “I bet he likes ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ by ZZ Top and sings it at the karaoke bar every Tuesday.” I get it. But while a couple bits of trivia scattered through the story help to convince us that they’re people, a load of trivia (with no backstory, but more importantly no bearing on the plot) doesn’t do diddly squat. So that character likes ZZ Top — so what? What’s the point?

Now, if another character steals his song on karaoke night and he swears bloody vengeance, then it matters.

If that song reminds him of his dad, who was his role model during the horrible zombie attack ten years ago, then it matters.

Until then it’s just a fun thing to think about.

The reason I mention this is because I used to fall prey to it. Questionnaires and charts and checklists abound on Blogs On Writing, and it’s the same kind of mindless fun to fill them out as it is to scroll through Facebook. Spends time, doesn’t accomplish much. And yet they’re touted as this excellent resource for the beginning writer. It makes your characters so realistic!

Hmmm ….. don’t think so.

Because what the reader is actually going to care about, at the end of the day, is what kind of person your character is. And favorite soda or type of pet has very little to do with that. All the trivia in the world won’t matter if they don’t know whether your hero will find someone to help or run headfirst into danger himself.

So how do you figure out what kind of character he is? The same way anyone in real life does — put him in the middle of a capital P Problem, and watch what he does.

Maybe he’ll even surprise you.

Characters in Real Life

Sometimes people you meet are really good at being antagonists, even if they don’t know it. Sometimes people you meet are wise mentors. You find a cliché, and you can probably find someone you’ve known who will fit the basic requirements. After all, those clichés and stereotypes have to come from somewhere, right?

It’s a little more complicated, a little more interesting than that. Of course it is. Real people are all sorts of tangled contradictions — and characters in books should be complicated too, unless you’re writing a ten-page picture book. So you can take certain aspects from people you know and put them in your characters. And even if you’re not writing new characters, you can still recognize aspects of old friends in new ones, the same mannerism between two people who probably have never and will never meet, or find that two people in two completely different situations irritate you in almost exactly the same way. Or, even if they have absolutely nothing else in common, sometimes a new person you meet will look almost exactly like someone you already know. (It’s weird. It’s uncanny. It’s cheating when you put it in fiction, I’m afraid, because coincidence tends not to exist in fiction, where the world actually makes sense.)

What sort of people do you meet again and again? Antagonists, friends, mentors, that weird person in the corner? What kind of stories would those types of people be suited for? Tell me in the comments!

Frankenstein’s Monster and the Phantom

He was born ugly, and people abused him because he was ugly, so he went on a murder spree. Which character does this describe?

Err … both. Okay.

What about their motivations? The Creature was abandoned hours after his creation, left to fend for himself. He just wanted someone to talk to, right? He was lonely because he was the only person in the world like himself, and even his own reflection frightened him. He learned three different languages to talk to people in, only to hear them screaming at him in three different languages. Even a small child thought he was repulsive. So … he killed the child. Solid logic there, buddy. The next step is obviously to frame an innocent woman for the murder.

And the Phantom, who was stuck in a zoo as a child and grew up being poked and prodded at, who had to wear a mask to get people to stop screaming at him. So escape to the bowels of a theater, blackmail the managers into giving you oodles of money (which you do … what with? do you go out? do you, heaven forbid, buy some company? nope) — and then take advantage of a teenager’s grief at the death of her father to manipulate her into being your student. Yep, sounds good. And when she decides to marry some other dude and escape your clutches, logically the next thing to do is to murder a few people.

Of course, all of this is massive oversimplification. They’re both fascinating stories with really well-developed antagonists. And Frankenstein especially doesn’t have a single handy dandy moral to apply; Frankenstein the character isn’t a good guy either. And you should see all the people who howl that Christine should have picked the Phantom over Raoul. It seems pretty clear-cut that they’re victims … except for the fact that, you know, being lonely and maligned doesn’t exactly excuse the fact that they murder people.

“You’d think killing people will make them like you, but it doesn’t … it just makes them dead.”

The conclusion? Hats off to Leroux and Shelley, because these books are considered “classics” but are actually readable without choking on a torrent of pretension and condescension. I mean, The Phantom of the Opera was so popular it got turned into an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, with a sequel. And Frankenstein has been turned into so many movies, including my favorite, the parody Young Frankenstein. Is it possible that a parody can be truer to the book than the zillion other “serious” movies? Maybe so. How delightful. In any case, these stories really are classics in the sense that after all this time, they still make us think.

Moral Ambiguity in Antagonists

One of the first things you read in any book on writing, aside from the fact that adverbs are the Devil’s handiwork, is that characters need to be three-dimensional. Our hero needs to have a few flaws in addition to his many sterling qualities; and our villain needs to have some traits aside from a penchant for sinisterly twirling his mustache and drowning kittens. I think when it comes to heroes, or at least protagonists, they need to be relatable above all else. If the hero is pure of heart, a gallant warrior, etc etc, that’s great — but if he cusses a blue streak when he stubs his toe, well then! He’s human! And I am much more interested in him as a character.

But villains seem to be a trickier business. To wit:

There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist. (“Wonderful” – Stephen Schwartz)

We say that we want three-dimensional villains, and then we protest that the genocidal maniac was just brainwashed into committing genocide (cough Loki from the Avengers movie cough). We say that we want interesting bad guys and nuanced good guys, and then we claim that the brainwashed victim was actually the villain (cough Bucky Barnes cough). Show me an antagonist who laughs when he murders people and then has tea with his daughter, and I’ll show you a slew of people who say that he’s just misunderstood. Or alternately, show me a protagonist who does his best in a horrible situation to protect his family, and I’ll show you a crowd who howls for his head.

It’s black-and-white thinking. The same stuff that says “anyone who isn’t perfectly pure and good-hearted is an evil sonovasomethingorother and deserves to roast on a spit.” Sorry? Last time I checked, people were humans, and humans make mistakes. It’s kind of built into the programming.

And our main characters should be the same way — making mistakes, I mean. Big goof-ups that make the plot twist and tangle, little goof-ups that make you laugh, and goof-ups all in between. Which means that bad guys need the chance to occasionally do something good, too.

Yeah, it’ll make us as readers uncomfortable to think that such a bad person can care about family or a stamp collection or gardening. But it reminds us that bad people are people, just like us. And more importantly, that it doesn’t stop them from being bad.

Fiction doesn’t have to be haughty literary stuff in order to tell uncomfortable truths.

Fantastic Species: Elves

When it comes to fantasy creatures, elves and dwarves are pretty much the go-to nonhuman species for populating a world. (Aside from all the cattle-munching dragons, that is.) And as per the Tolkien world that shadows everything we do in the genre, elves are graceful and wise and as old as time, usually archers and amazing dancers; and dwarves are basically humans but with a rustic Viking aesthetic and a penchant for anvils. Elves can never be wrong, but dwarves are usually about as wrong or right as the rest of us plebes.

Which is interesting, because in the original Lord of the Rings books, Gimli the dwarf is a smooth-talking, graceful diplomat; and Legolas the elf is a big cheerful lug with a bow. And in The Silmarillion, the slim volume that’s packed with more murder and mayhem than A Song of Ice and Fire (if less graphically put), elves are just as likely to mess up catastrophically as humans are.

This begs the question: where did that stereotype of Ancient Wise Elves and Surly Dwarves come from? And the answer is: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Cate Blanchett is amazing, but when you know that Galadriel took part in the slaughter at Alqualondë, it’s a little harder to see the Queen of Lothlorien as always right about everything.

(Caveat: I have never played a single Bioware Dragon Age game, so I can’t speak for the elves in those stories. If elves are treated differently there, I’d love to discuss the difference!)

So once we know that the Ancient Wise Elf is a stereotype, what is the literary utility of a character like that? Someone who has lived through every age, who scorns mortals for their brief lives, who is never wrong about anything — what function does a character like that have in a story? If you need an elder to impart advice to your young hero, sure, that makes sense. But it makes even more sense for your elder to be wrong about something. (Cf. Dumbledore and Old Ben Kenobi.) And it might just be me, but if some fantastically beautiful person told me my life was as brief as an insect and they knew the answer to all of my problems … well, that sounds awfully condescending, doesn’t it?

When it comes to know-it-all characters, for me the satisfaction mostly comes in showing that character that they actually don’t know everything. And when it comes to immortal characters, there’s even more satisfaction in showing that they can be surprised by something. So that’s it, really: the role of the stereotype, at least in my view, is to break it.