Characters Are Not Webcams

funny-pictures-cat-does-science

Actual photo of me.

Brace yourself. I’m about to drop some serious science on you.

Are you ready?

Okay, I’ll wait.

How about now?

Fuck, put that helmet down, what do you think science is?

All right. Ready now?

Good. Here it is: there are five senses*.

Ground-breaking? Not really. But you’d never know that by reading some books.

Characters in these books look, see, observe, stare, and glance, but they don’t often smell. Or taste. They hear, because dialogue is important, but they don’t feel. Well, except for emotional feels.

Now I get that sight is important, but it’s sure as hell not everything. I’m far more likely to have a visceral reaction to a scent than a sight. The smell of a perfume I used to wear in high school makes me nostalgic; the unique smell of a hospital emergency room–disinfectant, panic-sweat, blood, and stale coffee from the vending machine–makes me tense.

Then there’s sounds: a song you used to love, back when you were a different person; the whine of a plane’s propeller as you left; the slow, wet swish of a mop removing blood from a tile floor.

And let’s not forget the things we touch: the weight of your favourite leather jacket, perfectly worn; the stiffness of new jeans; the coolness of a metal pen as you sign that contract.

Did any of those descriptions make you smile? Did any of them make you uncomfortable? Good. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Without them, the characters might as well be dispassionate webcam observers, seeing and talking but never touching, never smelling, never tasting.

That’s boring as shit, and as writers we can do better.

*At least. The scientific community is divided on whether things like spatial awareness, etc, should be considered separate senses or uses of the five commonly accepted ones. But for this post, let’s just concentrate on the five we all agree on.

The Point of No Return

REPENT

Found this carved above the toilet in a public restroom. Even the can judges my writing choices.

A question today, for all you writers and readers: how far down the dark road can a character go before they’re completely irredeemable?

It comes up because I’m doing some rewrites, and, man, some of them involve a particular character going to a bad place. I think it’s necessary, but this character, who is already not a great person, is going to do some stuff which might make them irredeemable to readers.

Which could be a problem, since I intend to redeem them. Eventually. You know, after they’ve suffered for a bit.

Writers really are such assholes.

Note that being irredeemable is not the same as not liking a character. I might dislike a character for plenty of reasons, including but not limited to whining, passivity, entitlement, meaningless brooding, and just being a little shit. For a character to cross into irreversible damnation, they have to commit a pretty big sin, and most of the characters I dislike don’t think that big.

My line, such as it is, is fairly simple: in order for a character to be morally dead to me, they have to punch down. In other words, they have to choose to hurt someone who is weaker than them or unable to strike back and know it. Strike the helpless, abuse an animal, verbally cut someone you know is already hurting just because you can…choose to do those things when you damn well know better and you are on thin ice, friend. Do it twice and you are on thin ice while wearing a seal costume with a big hungry polar bearheading your way.

These metaphors got really Canadian all of a sudden.

Where’s your line, dear reader? What thing can a character do to make them just the worst? Or do you think everyone, from the most minor sinner to the Darkest of Dark Lords, can come back to the side of the angels? Tell me your thoughts.

In the meantime, I’m going to go ruin this character’s life. Again.

Strange Bedfellows: Good and Evil in Storytelling

Least spoiler-y image I could find.

Along with what seems like every person on my Twitter feed, I’ve been watching Daredevil the last two weekends.* I’m not done yet, so keep your spoilers to yourself, lest ye be fried by high orbit laser.

Without spoiling anything, one thing the show does better than most anything else I’ve seen is show the relationship between good and evil. Not just the struggle, though obviously that’s a part of it, but the uneasy closeness of those two sometimes. How they lie only a hair’s breadth apart under certain circumstances, and look remarkably alike.

I’m a fan of saying that I love a good bad guy, but what I really love is characters with conflict, good or bad.

The least spoiler-y image out there for this show.Characters need nuance. They need depth. Every bad guy needs the puppy he rescued from a flooding river, every good guy needs the person she beat out for the perfect job. No one is universally loved or hated, and showing that is part of how you make interesting characters. The ones that you hope for and feel for and worry about, whatever side they happen to be on.

Within every good guy should be the struggle to be the good guy. Because being good doesn’t mean being perfect.

Within every bad guy should be something that could have been better. Because they chose to be where they are, and what they are.

Showing both of those struggles—how close good and evil can come to each other—is a powerful story. And probably the reason why so many people are watching Daredevil right now.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got four episodes left.

*I’ve had to create so many temporary filters and blocks to avoid spoilers that my feed looks like a wasteland right now. Sorry, people, I love you all, but those who spoil it for me will be mulched and fed to the sandworms. Not even close to kidding.

This Isn’t My Real Face: Writing As Someone Else

HI.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve gone back to my journalling ways*, partially as a writing aid, mostly as a brain and mental health aid. Surprise: I’ve got some faulty wiring upstairs. Who’s shocked? Anyone?

Anyway, I thought I’d share the other, less well-adjusted side to my journalling: about half the time, I journal as someone else.

This isn’t as insane as it sounds. Well, it probably is, but since I’m a writer I can get away with that shit.

Most of the time*** I write as one of my characters, in an effort to get inside their weaselly little brains and make me understanding of them more complete. This works because:

1) People write shit in their journals that they’d never tell anyone.

2) While they’re not always honest, they do present the facts as they see them. Other opinions matter less.

3) Often I can work out motivations behind the scenes that they play out on the manuscript page with more realism.

I don’t always journal as the good guys, either. Most of the really interesting ones are written from the point of view of my villains. Not that you’d know it from the journal entry, because not even the most despicable tyrant refers to themselves as the villain in their diary.

Some of this is the deep background I mentioned before, the process that goes on behind the scenes of a written work. Some of it is to get a feel for voice, action, reaction, thoughts.

Mostly, though, it’s just fun. And, if the novel gets published, it’ll make for some fun extra material to release. Assuming my paper journals survive that long and my many many backups don’t go over to Skynet before then.

So give it a try. Write as your characters. See what they have to say.

You might be surprised.

*Albeit without the Sharpie’d pentagrams and song lyrics on the covers of my notebooks that I favoured in high school. These days I prefer to let my subversive thoughts pass under the radar behind the plain black covers of a Moleskine.**

**I just realized that the current Moleskine is sitting next to my new turntable, which means I’m one case of craft beer away from bursting into full, gloriously bearded hipsterdom.

***I’ll leave you to speculate on who I write as the rest of the time.

Who Let The Philosopher Drive?: Keeping Your Ideas From Murdering Your Story

Who let the Essential Absurdity of Life drive again?

I was reading yesterday, it being Sunday and me still being trapped inside by the winter snow like a caged beast. For real, am I ever going to see the lawn again? I can barely remember if we have a lawn.

Anyway, I was reading a book that had started off well but was losing me now. Eventually I gave up on it, but being a writer, I had to figure out why I gave up. Sometimes figuring this out is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of preconceptions, expectations, and whatever bullshit I absorbed through trawling the internet lately. But this time it was pretty damn simple:

It was an idea, not a story.

There were some very interesting concepts, but they were driving, and it wasn’t a trip I wanted to take. Because in the car with me were the biggest collection of cardboard characters I’ve encountered outside a porno.* The ideas were in the driver’s seat, and no matter how fast they drove, they had no idea where they were going.

Nor should they. That’s what characters and plot do. Compelling characters and a decent plot make it a story, instead of an essay or a philosophical dialogue.

But, alas, in this story, the Ideas had taken over, and the story was dead. I felt like I was being shouted at, not being told a good tale. And who wants that?

You cannot let your ideas murder your story. Well, you can. You can do whatever you want, because I’m just a stranger on the other side of a monitor. Or possibly a voice in your head. Am I a voice? Do I sound like Bane? I hope I sound like Bane.

Anyway, you can do whatever you want, but so can your readers, and if they find out that you’ve taken them down Didacticism Lane instead of Story Road, they might get justifiably bored and bugger off to do something else. Something more interesting, probably.

No one likes to be preached at. That’s not to say that you can’t present points of view that you feel strongly about; you should, because if you don’t feel strongly about something then you probably aren’t writing. But be a little subtle about it. And don’t ruin the story in service to an idea.

The ideas should serve the story, not the other way around. If you find your ideas are what you’re really interested in, maybe switch to essay writing. Because no one wants to pick up what they thought was a novel only to find that it was a sermon.

*Inside a porno, at least it’s stiff cardboard, AM I RIGHT?

Boring Things Are Boring: Getting Stuck And Getting Past It

FIRE THE PROBLEM CANNONS.

Raise your digital hand if you’ve done this:

You’re writing, and you hit the point you just don’t want to write. You don’t know why, but getting through this part is a fucking slog. It’s like trying to climb a mountain wearing lead boots and cement underpants.

You’re just not interested in writing this part. It’s necessary—you can’t just flip from the intro to the big EXPLOSION at the end*—but, damn it, you’re bored writing it. So you do other stuff—hello, Twitter—and complain and generally go slower and slower.

Well, here’s a thought:

Maybe you’re bored because it’s fucking boring.

It’s an unfortunate thing to say about your own writing, but think about it: if you’re bored writing it, how interesting is is going to be for a reader? I was writing a section recently that I had avoided for ages, because it bored me. Eventually, I just cut it altogether and you know what? No one noticed.

The middles of books are tricky. You’ve introduced most everyone, you’ve got the conflict going…but you’re not sure how you get from there to the end.

So the characters remain in a holding pattern, which is boring as shit.

You’re treading water, so better get out of there before the sharks turn up. Try cutting the part you don’t want to write. Does it make a difference? If not, great! Move on. If you still need it, maybe you’re being too nice. The middle of the story is a great time to fuck things up.

What would make the section less boring? A new villain? An old boyfriend? An explosion? A car accident? Basically, what shit do you not want to deal with in real life? Try that. That might be good. Tie it into the main plot somehow, load up your Problem Cannon, and let loose with both barrels. That gives the characters something to scramble around and fix—badly, usually, because that’s how authors roll—while you explain whatever it is was boring you in the first place.

But whatever you do, never settle for the boring scene, or chapter, or book. If it can’t keep your attention while you’re writing it, guaranteed it’s going to boot the writer out of your little world faster than a handsy drunk out of a strip club. It’s up to you, writer, to make it interesting enough that they stay. And that means you have to be interested, too.

*Even if it’s a FEELINGS EXPLOSION and not a regular one.

Decide or GTFO: I Hate Your Wishy-Washy Character

Which do I want? Toast? Muffin? TOAST OR MUFFIN? I WILL SPEND THE ENTIRE BOOK ON THIS DECISION!

It’s no secret that I love a good bad guy. A great villain can make a piece of fiction, just like a shitty one can make me wish I spent my time doing something else, like regrouting my bathroom or organizing photos* or conquering a neighbouring country.

The conflicted bad guy, the grey area bad guy, the downright evil bad guy…I love them all. And my love for them is matched only by my hate of another character.

No, not the good guy. It always surprises people, but I love good guys, too. From the slightly-shady Black Widows to the perfectly stand-up Captain Americas, they are their own kind of fun and I love them for it.  It doesn’t matter if they use guile or brute force to achieve their aims. Because what I like is conviction.

And what I hate is wishy-washiness.

That is the character I hate: the one who won’t commit. The one who lingers on the sidelines, wringing their hands, never getting a damn thing done.

The heroes who refuse to take a stand.

The villains who won’t take the steps needed to win.

The secondary character who could have solved all this if you had just bothered to do anything.

You all suck.

Worse: you’re all boring.

I’m not saying they can’t be conflicted. Look up the page: I love conflict. Have a hard time with a decision. But then decide.

Writers, beware: life is full of enough hesitation and half-measures. I don’t need that in my fiction. Go big or go home.

And make sure your characters get the memo.

*I still have not printed a single wedding photo AND I DON’T CARE.