Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
I’m a big fan of color. Maybe it’s the art lover in me, but I can’t stand boring compositions. A little passionate red, cool and withdrawn blue, yellow to energize, purple to pacify. My stories are always full of color. I design them that way so I don’t get bored in the telling. Attention span of a cocker spaniel, I assure you. I figure if I’m getting bored, my readers don’t stand a chance.
In this edition of Craft and Practice, we’ll look at colorful characters. Where do they come from? How can we more easily create them? Let’s assume you find them preferable to stock characters that are functional but not especially inspired. I’m here to tell you that you don’t need much in terms of preparation. Outlines, character sheets, written histories, throw them all out for the time being. The trick here is to open yourself up, to trust your instincts and your ability to create something sort of magical and unique to your abilities, to your point of view. It’s not so much that preparation can hamper our ideas or dampen our expression of them. This is true some of the time, but not always. It’s more that the tighter we constrict our creativity―that’s constrict rather than channel; one is suppressive by nature and the other is purposefully expressive―the more likely we are to produce wooden and inflexible components.
Your characters don’t want to be inflexible. Trust me on this. They long to be unpredictable, passionate, full of life. Some writers like to work with a net. Perfectly understandable. It’s cleaner and in some sense easier. But I’d like you to consider the possibility that extra work at the conclusion of a writing project is worth more in the long run than an equivalent amount of preparation. The final product is bound to be less like everyone else’s stories and more like your own, and that’s a win in my book.
Let’s run a brief exercise to illustrate the point. Character A asks Character B for something to drink. Character A doesn’t visit other people’s homes very often, so the request doesn’t seem rude or presumptuous. Character B is a friendly sort, charitable in all the ways it matters, and if it’s possible to provide hospitality and comfort to Character A, then that’s precisely what Character B will do. Outcome: Character A gets to drink. Huzzah!
Notice that in just a few brief character descriptions, I’ve told you everything you need to know in order to enjoy the scene. Do you care what Character A’s first car was? Not unless it has direct bearing on the scene at hand. Do you care if your protagonist prefers Pizza Hut to Domino’s? Not as such, because they’re not eating right now. They’re, you know, drinking. What if childhood trauma involving fruit punch makes them thirstier than the average beverage enthusiast? I mean, that may be pertinent information. Put it in and see how it reads. In this way, story serves character, not the other way around. These imaginary folks living rent-free in your head, they might change their spots entirely by the time you’ve written THE END. In fact, we sort of need them to. It’d be damn boring if they didn’t. I’m saying the desired effect is best achieved organically. Think about your standard rising action chart
Notice the trajectory, one smooth line shot straight toward a conclusion. Don’t design your plot or your characters in this manner. Just don’t do it. Trust me, that line reads a whole lot better when it’s perforated, imbalanced, full of ups and downs, at last arriving at that ultimate destination. In real life, human beings do not proceed along a straight trajectory. Great actors know this. They understand innately to respond to moments as they come. One foot in front of the other, not all the feet all over the world all at once.
Imagine going onstage with a dozen pages of notes stapled to your forehead. This scene should be easier to perform because you have at your disposal so much background information. Right? Wrong? Yes? No? How’s your performance? Natural or constricted? I mean really, is that stuff helpful, or is it dead weight? A given scene tells me I should be afraid of snakes. The next one tells me I’m falling in love with someone who owns a lot of snakes. The core of my character remains, but the dictates of motivation, action, and reaction are all over the map. Am I in love with snakes and afraid of love? No, of course not. My name is Character A, and I’ve just been bitten by a rattler. See? No preplanning required.
Here’s another classic scenario for you to consider. You can night drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas without ever seeing further ahead than the thirty feet of illumination provided by your headlights. The road is there, it promises to deposit you at your destination, but even it has no idea what will happen along the way. Maybe you don’t end up in Vegas at all. Maybe your characters have decided they’d rather go to Reno. Are you going to tell them no? They’ve already hit the ATM and booked serviceable lodging!
Thinking of your work in terms of performance is a good habit to cultivate. Just try it. Write a simple scene for which you’ve planned nothing. It’s not important where these characters have been, how much money they have, what their likes and dislikes are. All that matters is the spontaneous influencing the spontaneous. That’s the meaty part, the gold in the gold mine.
Fluff is a chore to read. If you don’t believe me, dig out one of your first serious pieces of writing and tell me how much of it is pertinent and how much ought to be nixed. I know, painful, right? Reminds me of the first piece of honest criticism I ever received, “I only have three problems with this story. The beginning, the middle, and the end.”
The good news about this craft is that there are a million and one ways to skin a cat. I’ll be back with more Craft and Practice next month. No cat-skinning required. See ya!
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
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Nothing infuses energy into a story like a good villain. If you ardently hate a villain in a book you’re reading, then you’re hooked! You’ve invested emotion in the battle between good and evil, you’re waiting for justice to be served.
These wicked characters must get under your skin. They have to arouse a visceral sense of repulsion and fear, the way spiders and snakes evoke primitive terror, the way decaying fecal ooze repels the senses. Villains are difficult to write because we instinctively recoil from the dark sides of life and the more grotesque aspects of our selves. That dark side, that shadow, is the only place from which a truly compelling villain can emerge. We can’t tear off evil like a number at the grocery meat counter.
“Number Twenty Two!”
“Here I am. Let’s see. What have you got that’s horrible and scary?”
Let us pause and consider the concept of Evil. What is it?
I’ve parsed my own definition of evil to a simple formula: Evil is the inflicting of pain to avoid pain. Evil lays its destructive spell on those in its path because someone (or some Thing) has found reliable ways to scatter pain onto others. I exclude those beings who enjoy causing pain because it’s their nature. Such creatures exist, but not for the purpose of this essay.
Evil characters have malice and they have power. Many of them are concealed behind a facade of charm or apparently benign goodwill.
Evil people are trying to wriggle out from under a burden of pain by forcing others to feel that pain.
It’s not always so simple. Each of us is a composite personality. Our inner child is really a little car filled with squabbling midgets. The steering wheel passes from hand to hand, the brakes are fought over, the car veers crazily.
A villain takes advantage of the muddle of human nature by having a clear point of focus. A fixation, an obsession, a purpose. This purpose empowers the villain at the expense of ordinary people. Bad guys know who they are and why they act. In many narratives the hero struggles with doubt and obscurity of motivation. His struggle isn’t just with the villain; it’s with his own confusion. When he sees clearly, when he knows what he wants, he obtains the weapons he needs.
All through this post I’ve been thinking of two characters: Adolph Hitler and South Park cartoon nasty Eric Cartman. Hitler annihilated millions; Cartman is a fictional character in a television show. Yet they have attributes in common.
My emotions regarding Hitler are an historical abstraction. He’s become a universal symbol of evil. Cartman, on the other hand, keeps my guts in an uproar. I HATE the fucker, I loathe him! It’s a very personal engagement.
The lessons of Cartman are numerous. All of his actions are manipulations. He is completely without sincerity. He’s a bigot. There is no minority group who escapes his ire. When he’s told that white people have become a minority group, he simply doesn’t hear the message. This may be Cartman’s greatest signifier: his inability to hear anything with which he disagrees. Intellectual and moral deafness is a widespread symptom of evil.
Cartman, and villains in general, like to blame other people for their own emotional discomfort. This profound moral choice, to blame others, is a basic step into the world of evil. When writing a villainous character, it’s useful to give him someone to blame. Give him a scapegoat.
A villain can’t be frightful without power. It may be supernatural power, political power, military power, physical power, but a villain cannot elicit fear, revulsion and anger without significant power. It’s the abuse of power that sparks the reader’s anger. Most of us see power as a privilege that entails responsibility.
We get angry when power is used for gratification of the ego and the appetites.
Cartman’s power comes from several sources. He’s clever, inventive, without moral scruple and completely selfish. His mother gives him everything he wants because it’s easier that way. Cartman is a fatherless boy. His mother always takes the lazy way out; she gives in to her son’s demands. If I take South Park as a microcosm, a model for the larger society in which we live, Cartman’s mother represents economic power. She makes him rich in comparison to the other kids.
He has all the latest toys, the best video games and a total lack of supervision.
To further amplify Cartman’s power he has a follower: Butters. This sweet but witless innocent will go along with any outrageous scheme Cartman dreams up. Cartman generates momentum. While Stan, Kyle or Kenny may have qualms about Cartman’s ideas, Butters is always there to support him. The plan, the idea, the scheme always seems to run away with itself before it can be thought through.
Its consequences are never anticipated. The only brakes on Cartman’s destructive power are the other boys’ common sense and lack of malice. In the end, Cartman always brings himself to destruction, but he will never admit defeat. In some people this is an admirable trait. In Cartman, it’s merely irritating.
In Hitler it cost millions of lives. If Cartman were a real adult person he would be a frightful monster. Think what Hitler and Cartman have in common. Scapegoats. Blame. Moral and intellectual deafness. Unwillingness to take responsibility for errors in judgment. A will that generates great momentum, and attracts followers who are willing to obey without question.
In the episode called “Breast Cancer Show Ever” Cartman takes a schoolyard beating by a mere girl, by Wendy Testaburger. She played the righteous avenger when Cartman mocked breast cancer and persisted in telling hurtful jokes on the subject of breasts. When she established the time for the duel, when Cartman realized that Wendy was serious, he tried to buy her off. She would have none of it. In spite of the fact that Cartman was pounded to a bloody mess, he twisted events in his mind so that he won the fight, that he was still “Cool”, or “Kewl” in the eyes of his compatriots. Kyle and Stan told Cartman “You suck, you’ve always sucked. We hate you.” Cartman can’t hear these declarations. He is still Kewl.
This amazing deafness made me want to jump through the screen and pound the fat twerp to a pulp. My emotions were completely engaged. When a writer can raise the emotional stakes to such a pitch, that writer has succeeded in creating a compelling villain.
I have used a silly villain in a silly cartoon show to highlight the power of a good villain to propel a good story. Ignore Cartman at your own risk. He’s a first class little asshole.
People ignored and dismissed Hitler as a buffoon. We know what happened to those people. Monstrous villains have arisen throughout history. We are writers; we deal in fiction. The most frightening villains in fiction draw resonance from history’s tyrants. Lazy writers may imitate these tyrants in their narratives. Good writers draw villains out through themselves, knowing that each of us is capable of monstrosity.
A Midwesterner by birth, Arthur Rosch migrated to the West Coast just in time to be a hippie but discovered that he was more connected to the Beatnik generation. He harkened back to an Old School world of jazz, poetry, painting and photography. In the Eighties he received Playboy Magazine’s Best Short Story Award for a comic view of a planet where there are six genders. The timing was not good. His life was falling apart as he struggled with addiction and depression. He experienced the reality of the streets for more than a decade. Putting himself back together was the defining experience of his life. It wasn’t easy. It did, however, nurture his literary soul. He has a passion for astronomy, photography, history, psychology and the weird puzzle of human experience. He is currently a certified Seniors Peer Counselor in Sonoma County, California. Come visit his blogs and photo sites. www.artrosch.com and http://bit.ly/2uyxZbv.
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When I was in the M.F.A. program at Western State, they emphasized the importance of really knowing your characters. They had us answering questionaires about our characters which included questions about things that were never going to come up in the story, so it didn’t seem like they really mattered. I mean, who cares what Delilah likes to eat for breakfast? Or what her favorite color is? Unless it has direct bearing on the story, I couldn’t see any reason for knowing the answers to pointless questions about my characters. But I learned that I was wrong.
In order to be true to your characters, you must know who your characters really are. Readers may not know that red is your character’s favorite color because her daddy gave her a red dress on her eighth birthday and she thought it was the prettiest thing she’d ever seen, but you should. It may affect the color of car she drives after she gets her liscense, which leads to her getting pulled over while unknowingly carrying drugs in the car that her boyfriend stashed in it, which in turn can set off a whole series of events which otherwise wouldn’t have occurred. You might put her in a yellow Volkswagon Bug, instead of the cherry red Corvette she needs to be driving for the story to unfold, and our heroine to win the big race.
If you were writing an inspirational book, or a self-help book, you wouldn’t advise your readers to do something that was totally out of character for them because it’s very likely they would never, ever do it. Likewise, your characters shouldn’t do things that are out of character for them. Unless you know why your character is doing certain things, you can’t write in the proper subtext which will clue readers in to the motives, as well. The more you know about your characters the more their actions in the story will ring true.
By knowing your characters histories, you are bringing them to life, solidifying them into someone that will feel genuine to your readers. And these days, it’s all the fashion to interview your characters, or have someone else do it. These interviewers ask questions very similar to those used by my graduate program instructors on the questionaires they had us fill out. Your characters have to have past lives and histories in order to respond to interview questions, because they may have to do with things outside of the story line.
So, pull out those questionaires, such as the Proust Questionaire, or the Character Chart for Fiction Writers, and get to really know your characters. If you don’t know the answer to one of the seemingly meaningless questions, take the time to discover what it is, even if you don’t think it will ever matter. Challenge your character to an interview if you think it might help, or if you think it might be fun. Once you’ve developed the characters, write their stories true to who they are, to who you, the author have created them to be.
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