Making It Worse: Why Awkward Characters Are The Best

So, is this a good time to tell you that your scabbard is in a REALLY awkward place?

Awkward characters are the most fun to write.*

Here’s why: you’ve got a situation. Because you’re a writer, it’s probably bad. Some shit’s about to go down and everything stands on the brink of disaster. One false move, one inappropriate word, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Having an awkward character there is like having a match when you’re standing knee-deep in gunpowder.

It’s all about potential. Awkward characters—and by that I mean characters who say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time, just like real people—are endless sources of complication, hilarity, tragedy, and things going completely pear-shaped. They’re like machines designed to make chaos.

Which, as a writer, is fucking great.

See, the best thing about awkward characters is that you never have to look outside for sources of conflict. They make their own, which is far more compelling than anything I can impose on them. Comets falling from the sky and invasions of Mole-Things from under the earth are way less interesting than a rookie fighter who, because of some broken wiring, can’t stop herself from mouthing off to the biggest, baddest necromancer around.

This isn’t to say external conflict isn’t good and, sometimes, necessary. It can also be fun. But if you’re looking to create tension, most readers instinctively cringe when a protagonist does something stupid. Because we know what it’s like. We’ve done that. Okay, maybe not giving the finger to the five-storey-tall rampaging mech, but we’ve definitely said the wrong thing to our boss, or our partner, or a cop. We’ve done stupid shit and had to reap the consequences.

And knowing that a character can do something awkward is a great source of tension: “Oh, god, Jimmy’s stuck in the middle of the horde of Bob the Bleak-Hearted, he should just give up, give up, Jimmy, don’t start talking again, every time you talk it goes bad.”

Whether or not Jimmy says what’s on his mind to Bob, the tension is there. People will read just to see how bad he fucks it up. He might not fuck it up, especially if this is the Last Great Confrontation and Jimmy has to get his shit together or destroy time and space. But the potential for fuck-uppery permeates the scene, winching ever tighter around the heart of the reader, until the sheer tension makes them want to throw up.

Writers: we’re bastards. Get used to it.

*Though, for me, not always to read. When I’m reading I love those knife-edged, grey area bastards like Harlequin in Myke Cole’s Control Point.

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Welcome To The Old Apartment: Creating Settings That Don’t Suck

This is the cafe. It's Jasper's Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That's Snowman at the table.

This is the cafe. It’s Jasper’s Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That’s Snowman at the table.

Your setting is more than just a geometric surface for the characters to stand on. And occasionally have sex on. Done right, a good setting can almost become a character in its own right. Look at Hogwarts. The worst part* of the seventh book for me is that Hogwarts isn’t much of a part of it. It’s like missing a great supporting character that you’ve grown to know over the years. Or how about Serenity from Firefly? It was a more than a mode of transportation/place for people to argue.

However, not every setting is a magical castle or a spaceship. And they don’t have to be in order to be awesome. 221B Baker Street; Gotham City; Castle Rock, Maine; Hardy’s Wessex County: all of these could–and in some instances, do–exist in our world. But they all have those little touches that made them more that just a stage on which the plot reveals itself.

A trick for making good settings? Frankenstein them together out of places in real life.

Whenever I go on vacation, I take pictures of interesting places. Most of them will sooner or later be reincarnated into a story. That coffee shop that had a back seating area between two buildings, a little alley barely three feet wide crammed with tables. The bar set up in an empty lot out of pallets, oil drums, and a shipping container. A friend’s strangely laid out apartment with the weird staircase to nowhere.

You don’t have to go on vacation, of course. Maybe your main character lives in a house with the same floorplan as your childhood home. Or they hang out at your favourite beach or restaurant. Or they go to your gym, with the grunting steroid-heads in the corner and the stack of strangely greasy magazines that you always regret touching. The trick is to find what is special about each of those places, and bring that to the fore.

Just like taking character traits from real people, you can take settings from real life locations. Change the name, change the details, but keep whatever drew you to the damn thing in the first place. The view. The proportions. The location. The barista who only speaks Esperanto.

Keep a list, somewhere. Document it with pictures if you can, or floorplans and sketches if you can’t.

And see what happens in those places.

*Fine. Second worst.

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Muffin Basket From The Evil Queen: Creating Characters With Depth

Go ahead. Try one.

In most stories, there are good guys and bad guys, and you can tell who is who. The difference might be fine–you might be choosing between two kinds of asshole*–but you can usually tell who you should be going for. Good versus evil.

But good and evil aren’t that far apart, especially when it comes to people.

I prefer to think of good and evil as a progression. A sort of line with nauseatingly good angels on one side and mindlessly boring devils on the other. Where your characters sit on this line is largely due to their actions, but, and this is important, their position is not static.

Fact: good characters do evil things. For all kinds of reasons. Maybe they think they’re doing the right thing. Maybe they think the ends justify the means. Maybe the good thing is just so hard, so they slip and take the easy way out. Real people do this all the time, so why wouldn’t characters?

Likewise, evil characters do good things. Sometimes it’s to maintain an image. Sometimes it’s to fool someone. But sometimes they do a good thing because they want to.

Characters with depth slide back and forth along the line of good and evil. They might be mostly one or the other, but they’re not all one or the other. The good prince strikes out in a moment of jealousy. The evil queen aids a quest because the adventurers remind her of her friends from childhood.

If you want your characters to have depth–to be believable, because there’s no one out there who makes the right choice every single fucking time–then slide them back and forth along that line. Make their choices count. Give them consequences. They can come back to their core alignment, but it should be a choice, not a given.

Because static characters are boring characters, and, in fiction, nothing is worse than boring characters.

*Which I’ve never felt is a great story. I love a good anti-hero, especially when they’re contrasted with other characters, but having everyone be a dyed-in-the-wool bastard out only for themselves is boring. And interestingly, I’ve never read the reverse: a story where all the sides have good points and you don’t want anyone to lose.

 

In Praise of Incompetence

Critical failure: it happens to everyone.

Never underestimate the value of incompetence. In characters, I mean, not in real life. Try to be good at shit in real life.

But that’s the point: we try to be good at stuff in real life. And we’re not. Not at everything. There’s some stuff you’re good at, and then there’s everything else. Some of it you’re average at, and some of it you downright suck at.

So why, in aspiring writer communities, do I end up reading about so many protagonists who are awesome at everything? It’s not only not realistic, it’s boring.

We want our protagonists to be good at stuff because we want to be good at stuff. But it’s boring to have someone succeed all the time. There’s no struggle. There’s no stakes.

They don’t have to be completely fucking incompetent, because no one wants to read about someone who has to have their ass saved by other, more competent characters all the fucking time.* But they shouldn’t be unrealistically awesome at stuff that they have no reason to be. A woman raised in a nice, normal middle-class family in suburban Canada probably doesn’t know much about handguns. A man whose only driving experience is his daily commute to the office shouldn’t be able to pull off a perfect bootlegger turn when shit goes down.

Clearly, there are exceptions, but the point of exceptions is that they are exceptional. And, yeah, it’s awesome to have exceptional characters. But, one, their exceptional-ness should make sense in some way. Maybe the lady mentioned above can tell a Glock from a Sig Sauer because her grandfather was in the army and retained a love of firearms that he passed on to her. Maybe the driver knows how to do a bootlegger turn without crashing into the trees because his wife once bought him a week-long stunt driving course for their anniversary. There’s some interesting story mileage in those scenarios, but it’s not a given. There’s a reason.

And, two, they shouldn’t be exceptional at everything. Everyone struggles. And they should, because that’s where the story is.

Besides, it’s not very interesting to have someone start out completely bad ass. It’s far more fun to watch someone become that way, through trial and failure and teeth-gritted, balls-to-the-wall effort. It means something then. If it comes too easy, it’s not a story, it’s a foregone conclusion.

Better to have them fail. And then try again. Because that’s what the rest of us do.

*Note that this is my problem with Y:The Last Man, an otherwise interesting series. Yorick is pretty fucking useless, and more interesting characters died repeatedly in order to save him. He might improve, though. I’m not done yet.

 

Guest Post–Factory Defaults: On Character Motivation

No, you’re the one being irrational!

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

The other day one of my characters said something stupid. Not stupid like ‘dude, read a book’ but stupid like ‘dude, stop systematically destroying every good thing in your life.’ Thing was, the character saying it was not a stupid man; he was in fact highly intelligent, and compassionate enough to care about hurting the person to whom he was speaking. So why did he still say something he knew would be a painful verbal blow to a man he loved?

Because, particularly in the heat of the moment, we (meaning humans) don’t act intellectually; we act reactively. And our reactions are based not on logic and reason but on habit and compulsion.

Most of us are motivated at least somewhat by noble aims and ideals we strive towards but, for my money, I say those motivations take a back seat to the things more fervently fuelling us: the wants, fears and world view that are a product of every moment of experience preceding this one. If this wasn’t true, any of us that have ever decided we’d like to get into better shape would just go to the gym, as opposed to partaking in daily internal negotiations that somehow end up with us eating nachos and watching Netflix instead. Any of us that have longed to be in a loving relationship would seek one out enthusiastically, as opposed to being too wary to ask that girl out because what if she says ‘no’ and even if she says ‘yes’ initially every moment afterward is just another opportunity to get hurt as badly as you did last time.

We are less graceful than reason. We bottle things up when we should let them out, and we lie when we should speak honestly. We snap at people we love and we drink when we swore the last one would be our last. We head down roads we know will lead to folly.

Writing believable (and interesting) characters means making them just as flawed and prone to poor choices as ourselves. But here’s the catch: They need to have reasons for making those poor choices. They can be terrible reasons, but they must make sense for your character, even if that sense falls to shit when examined anywhere outside of their psyche. A psyche that will, again, be the sum of their collected experience.

So an intelligent and compassionate character can choose to rip into his lover because, in his youth, every person he ever loved was stolen from him in an act of brutal violence. Aside from leaving him obsessed with becoming stronger (so that never happens again) the experience has, on a deeper level, left him terrified of the pain of both loss and survivor’s guilt. So when the man he loves expresses reasonable disapproval of even a minor infraction, his reaction is not to open a patient and reasonable dialogue to work towards solution, but to lash out, and declare he never cared to begin with. Because, if he can convince himself of that, maybe he won’t have to experience the pain of loss and guilt all over again.

By no means does this mean every moment of back story for every player that appears need be explained in your story. But even if not one single shred of flashback ever makes it into your pages, having the shit sorted in your head matters. Knowing your character’s past and factory defaults lends them a consistency that readers will pick up on, even if that is a consistency to be inconsistent. Believe me when I say it shows if you just lend motivations at random because it suits your plot outline.

Because here’s the thing: when you put the time into breathing complex life into your characters, not only will they act in ways they didn’t intend to, they’ll act in ways you didn’t intend them to. Their dialogue will run away from you. They’ll fight, when you expected them to run. They will walk up to a situation you have crafted for them, cross their arms, look you square in the eye and declare ‘No. This is not me. I don’t do this thing.’ And then you can ask them why and they’ll tell you all about that thing that happened in the dark basement of their brother’s pub when they were sixteen and you’ll start wondering if maybe you should create a therapist for them because that shit is fucked up, yo.

Much like you continue to learn about your friends (and enemies) the longer you know them, so it will (or should) be with your characters. Character creation is an ongoing dialogue between yourself and the imaginary people in your head.

And people wonder why writers drink.

Nomadic since the summer of 2007, Krys C is a former traveling tattooist and current aspiring pro fighter. Her wandering has thus far brought her to somewhere between 26 and 31 countries, depending on your politics. She occasionally writes things at The Road To Ithaca.

It Came From Twitter: Writers On Their Favourite Part Of Writing

Yesterday, comic writer Gail Simone* posed the following question on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 10.29.58 AM

If you take part in the Twitter—or even if you don’t; Twitter is public, as many celebrities have discovered far too late—you should go read the replies. You’ll learn that one, Twitter appears to be made up of at least 40% writers, and, two, that everyone has a different answer for this. Seriously. Fucking everyone.

Some of the answers resonated with me—characters, losing yourself in the zone—while others left me pulling a face best described as ‘bewildered’. It turns out there are people out there who enjoy world building most of all. Not that I hate it or anything, but it’s sure as hell not on the top of my list.

Fox’s favourite part is convincing people he’s Voltaire.

No, the top of my list is relationships. Characters are people, so they interact like people. Or they should, if I’m doing my job right. The relationships that develop between characters, especially ones that have known each other for a long time, are the best thing ever to me. I love writing the old friends meeting over drinks to shoot the shit. Or enemies talking at an arm’s length, every word an attempt to gain the advantage. Or the people who’ve just met, uncertain about what they think of each other.

Love, hate, contempt, admiration, uncertainty, mistrust, friendship…all these are gold to me. There’s nothing I’d rather write than relationships. And the fallout of relationships, commonly known as ‘plot’. Because that’s what gives the truest, most dynamic version of a story in my opinion: when the way people interact—they way they are—makes things happen. They’re not just reacting to a bunch of shit that happens around them. They made it happen, both the good and the bad. And now they have to decide what to do about it.

So, riddle me this, writers: what’s your favourite part of writing?

*Do you follow her on Twitter? If not, you should, if only to learn how troll from a master.

Monday Challenge: I Like My Coffee Like I Like My Stories*

I love you, too, coffee.

Back in the long ago, Krys and I used to spend boring moments—bus rides, waiting room visits, that sort of thing—discussing every possible preference of fictional characters. Favourite drink. Preferred cigarette brand, if they smoked now or ever did. Favourite leisure activity. Sexual preferences. So many things that never make it into the story, but which real people do.

The one I remember most is a classic morning question, asked in diners and unfamiliar kitchens the world over: how do they take their coffee?

Don’t scoff. Anyone who’s ever had to deal with a cup that’s over-sugared or far too bitter knows that, while it might be personal preference, it’s still kind of a big deal. And, for lactose intolerant me, having someone else dump cream into the cup pretty much ruins the experience.

And it’s not just the taste. There was one character that, after much argument, we decided took his two ways. When he was around others, he’d order it strong and black, but when he was alone, he added so much goddamn cream and sugar that it must have been like drinking dessert. Because he had decided that he wanted to be the kind of guy who took his coffee black, even if he didn’t like the taste all that much. Anyone who’s spent time around insecure teenagers pretending to like the taste of beer has seen this phenomenon in action.

So, assuming you haven’t just skipped down to the bold text, you know what today’s writing prompt will be. If you have just skipped down to the bold text: seriously? It’s less than 400 words. If I can write it on the teensy amount of sleep I got last night, you can manage to read it. God.

Monday Challenge: how does your character take their coffee? Black and bitter? Sweet? Floating in cream? Decaff? Irish? One of those coffee-milkshake things available at Starbucks? Do they not drink coffee at all because of an ulcer, or PTSD because of the incident with the carafe and the monkey? Tell me what they’re ordering because that tells me about them.

I’m going to go make another pot.

*Dark, strong, and able to keep me up all night.