Research and Oddness

A body by a stove

The last few weeks have got me thinking about character development. I can’t go into the details too much, but it’s been intense and strange. I think one thing I’ve been reflecting on is how people don’t react to stress consistently. One time someone might be a rock solid person, and the other time goes to pieces (this isn’t one of those times and things are good with me, just intense).

It’s also interesting to note how not all stress is the result of bad things in life. Sometimes something really good can cause a lot of stress as well. Just because it is a cause for celebration doesn’t mean it comes without stress and panic. We tend to think of stress as being the result of negatives, but imagine getting a dream job – for most people that would involve a great deal more responsibility and hard work… there are many things like this in life, and it’s hard to know which ones they are.

I like to test my characters, to try and break them, but one of my books actually has a character come into a great deal of money, and it almost kills him. It’s not the main stressor of the book, but it’s a big one.

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What Marvel Understands About Stories That DC Doesn’t

Riot officer with tear gas gun

There are spoilers for The Justice League. If for some reason you care about that, probably stop reading. Don’t care about that, it’s not worth it, the movie isn’t very good.

I think it’s obvious that Marvel has figured out something about making movies that DC has missed. There are a lot of clues showing that. The biggest one is that people actually seem to like Marvel movies, and for the most part, they don’t like DC movies.

Because I’m a huge nerd this is something I’ve given far more thought than I should. So, the biggest thing is personality. Yes, DC heroes do have personalities, but not really. Batman is grimdark. Superman is conflicted by dutiful. Wonder Woman has some layers, some depth, a bit of a sense of fun. Interestingly her solo movie is the best received DC movie to date. Even the new characters have a bit of this issue. The Flash is actually a fun character, but he’s badly misused. He is, however, entertaining. I wanted to like Aquaman, but they made him too 90’s edgy, which makes sense since 90’s edgy is kind of where Zach Snyder is emotionally. Cyborg had no real personality. He was just… there. They substituted the old “Am I still human?” angst for actual character development.

So, basically, nobody in the DCEU has a personality at all.

Now, let’s look at Marvel. Tony Stark is brash, arrogant, brilliant, caring, likeable, a bit paranoid, kind-hearted, he isn’t just a cliche trying to be a personality. There are layers, and sometimes he acts in ways that are internally inconsistent, almost like a person. Thor is adventurous, larger than life, dedicated, glory seeking, vain, kind of dumb. He’s not a deep person, but his characterization has depth. He plays a big dumb nice guy extremely well. Black Widow has all kinds of depth. She’s like sixteen people in one, and her backstory justifies that. She’s also always looking for redemption. Even Captain America, theoretically the most wooden boyscout of all possible characters ends up being an interesting person.

Okay, they didn’t give Hawkeye depth until Age of Ultron, but when they did he went from being the least interesting Avenger to actually having a personality, actually being someone people cared about.

When we watch a Marvel movie we know what we are getting, but we want that. When we watch a DC movie we hope to get something different. We hope to get people we can care about.

I used to think it was stakes that made the difference, but then I realised, no, the stakes in Marvel movies actually sometimes work against them. They are too big, too bombastic. I don’t take the threat to earth seriously, but when it looked like Tony Stark was going to die, I took that seriously. I have a reason to care about the characters in Marvel movies, there just isn’t enough person to care about in DC movies.

Mind you, in Justice League, it never even felt like there was a threat. Steppenwolf never felt like he actually had a chance against the team. It felt like if they just let Flash use his powers he would destroy Steppenwolf. Add in Superman and it was more of a question of why the rest of the team was even there. I guess to save that nice Russian family.

So, DC has no characters (okay, two – Wonder Woman and The Flash qualify). Marvel makes sure that even the most minor of its heroes who will never get a solo film end up being fully fleshed out characters that we care about.

Character beats spectacle every time.

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Horrible Villains

Lots of Turtles

I wrote the most horrifying character I’ve ever created recently. It’s a demon who is truly awful. I managed to disturb myself with this character.

The funny thing is she’s a minor character in my current WIP, and a minor character in the next novel and the next 4 planned novels.

She’s a thing of beauty. A villain who completely and totally embodies disgust. There’s a strong element of body horror, aberrant sexuality, degradation. It’s funny, because for the most part I have always favoured beautiful villains, but this character plays on the idea of beauty, the idea of sexuality. She’s someone I have a strong image of in my head. I know exactly what she looks like, how she sounds when she talks, what her home looks like… she’s a mix of imagery and personality from many people I have met in my life, many places I’ve been. No one person embodies all the traits she has, and I actually quite like some of the people who have contributed to her (hell, I’m one of them), but she’s got little tiny pieces that are negative traits, or even positive traits exaggerated to the point where they become negative.

She’s also the smartest character I’ve ever written. She might seem like she’s not all that bright on the surface, but everything this character does is calculated, planned, decades, maybe centuries in advance (she’s a demon remember? They live a damned long time).

I think she’s my favourite. Prior to inventing her, my favourite character was probably Mona from A Long Walk, but Maisie is much, much darker, and much more complex. Picturing her makes me feel a little bit nauseous, which just proves that I have a very clear image of her, that she feels real to me, solid, I know exactly what she is.

I can’t wait to introduce her to the world.

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Self Delusion is a Universal Constant

Gunman in Sillouhette.

I used to know someone who believed they were much more fit than I was. They believed that without working for it at all they were stronger, faster, more flexible. It was bizarre since I was able to run further, lift more, I stretched every day and was able to throw kicks above my own head (at the time I was doing a lot of Taekwondo) while they couldn’t kick above my shoulder. We were stretching one day and some mutual friends were observing. This person asked who was stretching further. Our friends said it was me, by a very large margin.

I was much, much more fit. Not a little, a huge amount.

This sounds very much like I’m picking on this person, but I’m not. It’s simply one of the best examples of what I want to talk about that I have available to me. I also want to talk about how to make this work in narrative, and how I’ve used it in things I’ve written.

So, I’m completely certain that I also have areas where I’m on the other side of this coin. Where I think I’m brilliant at something, much better than someone else, and I actually suck at it. Of course, I don’t know what these things are, because I’m inside my own head, so I can’t see it. I will never see it because that’s how this works. We are not able to see those things about ourselves. We also all have them, every single person.

In A Long Walk, I have two examples of it that I can think of. One is the villain, and it’s obvious when it happens. It’s near the end, you discover a huge gap between how he sees himself and how he appears to the outside. He’s descended into madness, he’s fallen apart completely and totally, but he still sees himself as he was before the world collapsed; when he was still a person who was together and reasonable. I think people see that in the story and see exactly what’s going on, and it feels real because they all know people like that.

The other time I use it is very subtle. My MC is actually a victim of this mindset. He insists on doing the hunting himself, he insists on taking shots that matter by himself. He’s a really terrible shot. Like, completely atrocious. He’s good at hand to hand, good with a sword, but he thinks that translates into being good with a gun or a bow. It doesn’t, he doesn’t have the time or the practice, and as a result, he blows it every time he tries to use that skill set.

I never actually draw attention to the fact that this is the case in the book, I never state that he has this belief about himself, I just have him be the one to try and take the shot.

To me, that’s a huge part of building character. I don’t mean the old saw about give characters contradictory motivations, that’s very basic and elementary stuff, I mean exploring their self-image and the impact that self-image has on the story. Remember, neither of my two examples above is ever challenged let alone overturned. We, the readers, get to see how wrong it is, but the characters never get to understand it. They are incapable of seeing it, at least where they are in their lives. Maybe over time, Jasper will discover that he’s a crap shot, and then maybe he will put in the time to get better. Robert is far, far too crazy to ever realise where he’s really at of course.

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Faux Morality and Character Development

A Hotel in Barcelona

I’ve been watching two of the three new superhero shows. Runaways and The Gifted. Both have interesting takes on morality, and one of them has made a fairly major misstep in that regard, while the other one has done a far better job.

So, Runaways. The morality is quite complex, the main characters are all the children of wealth and privilege. They are, for the most part, good people. Maybe a little bit entitled, but decent human beings. They discover that their parents are literally supervillains. Well, they haven’t hit the super bit yet, but still, they have discovered that their parents are murdering teenagers for some reason.

The characters are completely freaked out, trying to make excuses, find reasons, find ways to reconcile their inner morality, their preconceptions about their parents, and their new information. It’s really well done, even if some elements are… well, it’s a Hulu original. The budget reflects that.

The Gifted clearly has a larger budget. More sets, bigger name actors, hell, more actors. It’s clearly been made with a different process. It has a lot going for it, but it has some glaring failures. The episode I just watched had one of the biggest ones.

The show centres around The Mutant Underground. They are freedom fighters trying to overcome their government. There is a huge element of grey morality, the whole one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist deal. There is a lot around how you create enemies, on both sides (both sides make some serious missteps and set the other side more clearly in their stance).

So, what failed? There is a minor character, the handsome young rogue love interest of the teenage female lead. He’s discovered to have a checkered past. What kind of checkered past? Well, this young man who is currently a member of a terrorist organization, who is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars, just like every other character in this group, if he’s ever found… well, he used to be a con man. Not a huge one, just some minor stuff. People freak out about this, he is at risk of losing his place in their (terrorist) organization. It’s completely unrealistic. Hell, there are characters committing much worse crimes in the episode. It’s like someone dumped a script from Seventh Heaven in the middle of this gritty, fairly realistic drama.

Not to say morality is wrong to include in your story. As I said, Runaways actually uses morals a lot. When the characters in Runaways find out about the misdeeds of their parents they freak out completely, but that makes sense. Morality has to make sense in the story, and it has to fit the story.

Actually, The Gifted has another example of morality just failing. A character makes a deal with a drug cartel, his assistance in exchange for information. The information is to free his girlfriend from prison. He does, then he goes to work for the cartel. His girlfriend finds out and freaks out. This doesn’t work for the characters or make any sense. Why would he not just say “Yeah, I have to do a bit of enforcer work for getting you out of prison?” to his girlfriend? It’s pretty clear she’d be mostly okay with it, having more of an issue with the fact that his ex runs the cartel than anything else.

Anyway, yeah, morality. Make it consistent for your characters, and make it make sense in world. People can tell if it’s tacked on.

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Being Young and Certain

Picnic Table in Costa Rica

I heard a song a few minutes ago and it made me feel old. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand it, it’s because I did. It’s a song I would have listened to in my youth, even one I would have felt a kinship to.

The song is You Don’t Know by Kobra and the Lotus. It’s a good song. They have a good sound, hard and fast. It’s very epic metal, operatic vocals over pounding drums, screaming guitars. The thing is, it’s the lead singer going on about how the person she’s addressing doesn’t know what it’s like to be her.

Why did this make me feel old?

I remember when I thought this mattered. When I thought that the person not knowing my perspective mattered. Now I have a very weird perspective on this.

Nobody really knows anyone else’s perspective, nobody knows what the other person has been through, and nobody knows what their truth looks like. To tell the truth, it doesn’t matter. Two people can’t see each others truth, without some sort of external reference, and even then, probably not.

Also, you aren’t right. That’s okay, neither am I. Both of us have gotten details wrong, both at the time and, even more, in our memory.

I have far, far too much confirmation of this fact, so much that it makes me uncomfortable all the time.

It’s not just that the world isn’t what I think, or what you think, it’s that what we think we saw isn’t what happened. That’s a good starting point, assume that you just don’t know, that the other person probably saw something other than what you did, and that what they are reacting to is that thing.

This can be a problem though. If you are the only one taking this tack, and the people you are reacting to are acting with certainty, those people will railroad you, every time, and if you aren’t okay with being railroaded it becomes a challenge.

It gets even worse when you realise that every single argument has the same criteria. The least reasonable person wins.

So, what does this have to do with writing? A lot. If you want realism you have to realise these rules, and not make people bow to rational arguments, not make everyone remember the events as they happened. On the other hand, it can be so satisfying to have the protagonist be objectively right, and to have others (eventually) realise it. Sometimes it’s okay to do that, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen an emotional argument get settled that way.

For me, I try to write my characters as being as right as they can, but often that’s not all that right.

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NaNoWriMo Day 7 – Missed a day

Close up of grass

I missed my target yesterday. I missed my target by a huge margin. Around a hundred and fifty words total.

On the other hand, I was sick for three days straight.

I will make up the time over the next few weeks. Or today, not sure… I might try for 5K, I’m not sure.

My deep dive into character has been continuing. It’s hard to write someone who is so different, someone who is not at all like me. I know, I keep talking about that, but it’s still true.

The character, in this case, is a twenty-one-year-old politically correct bisexual girl. I’m a forty-something straight male who tends to offend people a lot. It’s a stretch.

I have been reading a lot of stuff from people in the characters demographic, and watch a lot of youtube videos from people like that. I think the reading probably gives me a truer voice, but the flavour probably comes across better in the videos.

Anyway, that’s all I have for today. A longer post is coming tomorrow.

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Todays update is late NaNoWriMo day 4

Too Dark Park

So, I missed my target. I only made 1700 words.

Bad writer, no cookie.

Even worse, I didn’t write this post until just now (two thirty in the afternoon on day 5).

It’s a terrible thing.

In my defence, I’m quite ill. The meds are just kicking in now, but my sinuses feel like they have been pumped completely full. I’m so sick.

Still, no excuse. The word count must word count and all that. I just wish I felt a little bit less like death warmed over in the microwave. Anyway, will be making my word count today, no matter what.

I have been thinking a lot about character. One of the two mains in my current WIP is very much a social justice warrior. It’s a mindset that is foreign to me. I’m kind of curmudgeonly. Politically leftist, but not given to offence culture or joining causes. It has taken a lot for me to get into the right mindset for her. Oh yeah, she’s also female… so hopefully I don’t screw that up (especially since she’s the main viewpoint character).

As a result, I’ve been watching a lot of social justice videos on youtube so I can get the lingo right, make sure I’m not saying things she wouldn’t say.

It’s a challenge, but it’s working out alright.

Also, I’m trying out this new format, where I blog a little bit about NaNoWriMo, and then a more regular blog post. Tomorrow will about an idea I have for a story because there is something very, very wrong with me. Stay tuned!

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Revealing Character through Action

In my current WIP, my main character is a mystery character. She’s revealed via the Miranda, the narrator. Her personality isn’t instantly clear because it isn’t to Miranda. That means I have to reveal her as Miranda experiences her, we don’t get to see inside her head at all. Her thoughts are never something we can access.

So, how can I establish who she is?

I test her. I present her with situations, and she reacts to them, and Miranda sees those actions. From those, we can figure out that she’s brave, intelligent, selfless, but also arrogant, conflicted, that she keeps her emotions at bay, that she is intensely and deeply private.

It’s in some ways harder to reveal a character this way. For small characters it doesn’t matter all that much because there isn’t that much about them, we need to know, but Jenny is my MC. I have to test her over and over again; I have to make sure her dialog supports the facets of her personality I want to show.

In my past novels, I’ve had multiple viewpoint characters, or my MC has been the viewpoint character. This time the book is presented in the first person with the first person not being the MC. That provides a challenge I haven’t faced before.

It’s a great exercise, forcing me into a lot more show and a lot less tell, one of the things I struggle with is show don’t tell. I use exposition far too much.

I kind of wish I’d tried writing something long form like this years ago. On the other hand, I have a newfound respect for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Doing Justice to Characters

Cloudy Mountain

The narrator of my current WIP is a bit different than I am.

She’s a bisexual med student in her early twenties. I’m a heterosexual male from an IT background in my forties.

I have to give her a voice, especially since she is the narrator (she’s not the actual protagonist, not really) and that means I have to capture who she is so that it feels real, so that she doesn’t come across as fake.

That has involved a lot of research. I picked a bunch of people and read what they wrote, watched videos they created, immersed myself in them and what they thought, what they said.

I made playlists based on this character, what she listens to, what she enjoys.

I decided on foods she liked, and then I ate them.

This is not a small amount of work. There’s a lot to getting into the head of a character.

In this case, it’s also a bit strange because the character I’m getting into is basically Watson to my stories. A sidekick who acts as an entry to my world, while my MC is a different Character. My MC is someone I can identify with in many ways. Other than being female I have a decent grasp on her, she’s easier for me (much less given to emotional displays, fairly restrained, even emotionally stilted, uses her talents and charisma instead of being open and genuine…).

I’ve had to do this with most of my characters (except for Jasper from A Long Walk – he’s very, very heavily based on me, not because I wanted to do a self-insert, but because it was my first novel and I figured it would make the process easier for me).

Of course I can only do it for some characters, usually, the MC or viewpoint characters from a novel. There’s a character named Jordan in A Long Walk. He’s a character that matters, his actions are important to the plot, but he’s not fleshed out the same way. I kind of know a bit of his backstory, but not a lot. I don’t need to. He doesn’t get enough time in the spotlight for him to merit that kind of time. Any character that’s less important than Jordan doesn’t get that kind of background.

Now for one great thing about writing a series: I don’t have to do that research again for the characters I already covered. Miranda from The Strange Tales of Jenny Dark is established now. As she grows, it’s this character I know so well growing. I don’t have to devote hours and hours to figuring out her base personality. I have her down. Same with someone like Naomi from World of the Dead. She’s already had one book to establish her voice, her personality. I know how she thinks, I know how she talks, I know the little contradictions that make up her personality to such a large extent. Chad Lee from Resource Economies is the same, I know him deeply. As I work on his stories I’m working on how he changes from what he already is. I don’t have to research that, I have to write it.

So long as I know my characters well enough, it flows naturally.

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