Continuing on from last week…
I’ve been having people tell me my character’s are appealing, even loveable, for years. I would never begrudge those compliments. In fact, they’ve gotten me through a lot of my revisions. But, something I learned through Kas’s intensive character workshops: just because the audience loves a character or a character is potentially loveable does not mean they are a good character. I mean, we can reach at least some sort of consensus here that the individual Care Bears are not generally well-written, complex individuals. They may warm our hearts, but they will never warm our brains.
Speaking of the 80’s– is it wrong I enjoyed that segue? It’s probably wrong –I grew up reading a lot of 80’s science fiction which isn’t known for having character development as a strength. Plus, I love tropey stories, especially if they’re full of meta and referential humor and randomass deconstruction. It’s honestly easier for me to go out and write 6,000 words parodying something I don’t like than to produce even 600 words of well-thought out character development.
Adding to this, I could spend all day ragging on things I loathe. That’s more fun to me than reading or writing or even kicking idea cans around, which my roommates will attest I do with gusto. But, consider that deconstruction and snark are not great foundations for actual, you know, compelling drama.
You can parody or pastiche to your heart’s content, but your writing needs to be able to stand on its own. Otherwise, you’ve sacrificed a lot of what makes a story a story on the altar of postmodern pop culture reductionism and nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about except for you and that one person who explained it to. Now maybe that’s what you want out of your writing. That’s OK. You can have that and I might just read if your writing’s drawing from something I’m into.
There might have been a time I did kind of sort of wanted to be you, you hypothetical meta-parody-writing person. I admire that kind of work. But, that’s not where I am with my writing. I changed my mind and not just because all of my nice and my stuff got in the way: I have a novel draft that isn’t worth fixing because it’s all meta and no substance. I’m going in another direction from that trainwreck, and luckily I have Kas to guide me.
By which I mean I have worksheets and coaching and the odd frying pan upside the head.
First Thing I Learned
It’s OK to hurl your notes into the fire pit. This goes for a lot of writing situations, but for me, it was especially important for my cast. I really don’t have to write the grim-as-fuck backstory I originally had for Zephyr. Coincidentally, this also means I don’t have to take jabs at 90’s fandom and can be as nostalgic as I want about it while writing about a teenage boy biking up and down the Carolina coast with a baby on his back. A lot of other characters got more subtle updates. Some went into the fire so I could start over.
Just because you spent a long time making a mistake doesn’t mean you have to keep making it.
Second Thing I Learned
There are many forms of motivation. You should always know what a character’s general driving force is, and if you’re me you make a cheat sheet for your entire cast, but you also need to know for your mains the reasoning, or lack of, that’s going to guide them in certain situations. Say, what gets them out in bed in the morning is not the same thing that lies behind their interactions with other characters and is definitely not the same thing that would, or would not, get them out of a dangerous situation. These may all lead back to a common thread, but they’re they’re own points of information.
In Zephyr’s case again, wanting a better life for his daughter and himself is what gets him out of bed. His interactions with others are driven by a need for company– not even friendship or casual sex, but company for the moment or however long he can keep it. He’d be more cautious about potentially dangerous situations because he has a child to think about, but all bets would be off once he got into one and forget the safety of any antagonists if Pip was with him.
Do you see while writing this character as deeply impulsive was probably not my greatest moment of consistent characterization?
Third Thing I Learned
Characters are probably not cats unless you have a sapient feline of some description or pet play involved. Stating that so-and-so acts like X or is a perfect specimen of Y is only going to get you so far. Yes, it looks nice for the blurb in Newtype– which is probably where I picked up this very bad habit –but, it’s not going to save you from any tricky situations. The audience may well love your cat and your tough-as-nails drill sergeant or their quirks might redeem them to a lot of your readers. But, you’ll never know why they do what they do unless literal cats ensue in which case your characters are just plain unfathomable.
You should be able to say that a character acts like themselves if you envision them as being well-rounded. They should still be defined by their actions and they can still have all of the drives and quirks you want. But, seriously, not cats.
Fourth Thing I Learned
The things you think are important might not be. Say, unless you’re writing a smut-centric novel, your character’s specific sexual tastes are probably not going to move the plot along, or even provide development. You might be thinking that kinks can serve as excellent character building, and you know what? You are right! But, think too about the traits and scenes your previous readers have found endearing, appealing or just told you they liked.
They’re probably not composed entirely of sexual tastes. Now, it’s good to know these things and if you want to indulge in porn, plenty of plot-heavy novels do. At the least though, don’t limit yourself to character by kink if you’re writing a novel with a plot that isn’t based on sex.
Fifth Thing I Learned
No, really. They’re not. Before coaching, my tendency towards tropiness extended to picking genders, orientations and matters of specific acuity, sexual and otherwise.
It’s OK to let characters flow and develop. I remember reading a blog post by an author (alas, I do not recall the post nor the author nor the book it was ultimately about) who had started out planning a neurotypical man as his lead character. He ended up with an autistic woman as his lead. So, the question was not “why” but “why not”. This didn’t really sink in until I got my coaching, I think at least somewhat because I hold more of a ‘galley slave’ view of characters. I say more of because sometimes, they need to drive. I get to pick their role in the story, but how they perform it, that might be more up to them.
Speaking of Zephyr once again, the reason he keeps getting brought up a lot is that he’s caused a ridiculous amount of trouble, not being consistent and requiring trope reliance to express himself. He’s gotten a hell of a lot more complex nature that’s capable of more emotions (he never really got angry before) and while it’s not quite what I expected, it’s better than I hoped.
Spare Thing I Learned
Piling on angst may not be the best solution for your character’s backstory. Also, it gets boring really fast.
You may have to ask yourself much different questions than I needed to achieve your perfect characterization for your cast, but the answer is out there. I know it. You’ve been absolved and you can find it. I believe in you.
At the end of the day, rage may inspire your story, but it won’t get you through the damn thing. Only hard work and whiskey can accomplish that.