This week I thought it might be fun to throw out a challenge to my readers and author friends. When I was earning my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, we were given various writing exercises, of course. To demonstrate an interesting way to develop a character, one of many, by creating a character from the characteristics of an inanimate object. It might sound strange, but honestly I can remember having a lot of fun with this particular exercise. The object I was assigned was a butter knife.
First, we were ask to do a free write about the object, associating it with characteristics which came to mind. Next, we were asked to create a character who possessed some or all ofthose characteristics, using a Proust questionaire, which is a really good tool, but any means of creating a character profile so that you really know your character would work. As always, the more you know about your character, the easier it is to write them in a scene or a story, or maybe even a series. Lastly, we were asked to write a scene that introduces the character.
You’ll find the scene that resulted from this exercise back in 2013, and I’d love to see the results of any of you who would like to accept my challenge and create their own character and scene. I had a lot of fun with this exercise and I think you will, too. My inanimate object was assigned, but you can pick one from the following list or choose one of your own: butter knife, salad bowl, spoon, fork, spatula, plate, frying pan, wine glass, corkscrew, turkey baster, tea cup, coffee pot, dish towel, broom, feather duster, brillo pad. I chose a bar scene for my introduction, but yours can take place anywhere you like. Explore the possibilities for setting as you work through this exercise in character development.
If you are up to the challenge, pick an object and do a free write about it. Then, create a character and get to know them well. You can even make your own questionaire. What are your character’s favorites: food, color, song, etc…? What do they do for fun? Occupation? You get the idea.
Then write a scene that introduces your character and send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to tell me what your object was. If I like it, I may ask for permission to share it here. Yours doesn’t have to be as long as mine, just keep it to a single scene that tells us who your character is.
My Introduction to Betty Lou (Butter Knife)
“Come on. Don’t be such a stick in the mud!” Christa said, urging her friend to live it up a little. “One drink is not going to kill you. I swear.”
Betty Lou sat on the bar stool with her legs crossed, hands folded in her lap. Her back was as straight and upright as if she were practicing the principles outlined in Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners, with a book perched atop her head. “Oh, all right,” she said. “But, just one. You’re sure it won’t make me look foolish?”
“I’m sure,” Christa said, waving the bartender over. As he approached them, she said, “Two long island iced teas, please.”
“Iced tea?” Betty Lou asked, with a discernible sigh, thinking anything with iced tea couldn’t be too bad.
The bartender placed two tall glasses of tea colored liquid on the bar in front of them. Christa placed some bills in his hand and picked up her glass. “Come on. Drink up,” she said, talking a long swallow.
Betty Lou picked up her glass, sniffing the pungent aroma of liquor in the glass. “It doesn’t smell like iced tea,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“You said one drink,” said Christa, placing a hand on top of Betty Lou’s, gently pushing up toward her lips, “Now drink up. Go on.”
Betty Lou took a small sip.
“No…, drink,” urged Christa, tilting her friend’s hand up with her own, gently forcing her to take more of the liquor in her mouth.
Betty Lou choked down a swallow, making her eyes water. “That sure doesn’t taste like iced tea,” she said when she had regained her composure. “Yuck!”
“You get used to it,” said Christa, working on her own drink. “Oh good, the band’s getting ready to start.”
Betty Lou took another small sip, wrinkling her nose once more. She doubted Christa’s statement. How could anyone get used to the taste? She watched attentively as the band members came out onto the stage and began tuning instruments. “Remember,” she said, turning to her friend, who perched a cigarette on her lips and was lighting it, “I’m only staying until ten o’clock.”
“Loosen up,” said Christa, offering her a smoke from her pack. “Tonight could be a whole new beginning for you. Relax and finish your drink.”
“Couldn’t I just have a seven-up?” Betty Lou asked, plucking the offered cigarette from the pack. “I just had a rocky ending. I don’t think I’m ready for another beginning.”
“No way,” Christa said, offering her a light. “You agreed to live it up a little, remember? No taking the straight and narrow tonight. Besides, you know every time one door closes… ”
Betty Lou bent slightly to light her cigarette as Christa flicked her Bic. “Okay. Okay,” Betty Lou said. “But, only until ten. I have to debug a new program tomorrow. I want to be alert. I need a good night’s sleep.”
“Finish that drink and you’ll sleep good, I promise,” Christa said with a wink.
A man stepped onto the stage to introduce the band, as the house lights lowered. He was short and stocky, with shoulder length hair pulled back in a ponytail. The black leather pants and vest that he wore made him look like a throwback from a seventies biker gang.
“Good evening ladies and gentleman,” he said. “Thank you all for coming out.” Whistles drifted up from the audience, as he addressed them from the stage. “We have a great show for you tonight. Please allow me to introduce to you, The Ripe Melons!”
As the band began to play, Christa downed the last of her drink and signaled the bartender for another. She began to sway on her bar stool to the beat of Lynard Skynard’s, Gimme Three Steps, which The Ripe Melons managed to do a fairly good job of cranking out. Wisps of bleach blond hair fell over her eyes and she absently brushed them away.
Betty Lou took another careful sip. Maybe Christa was right. It didn’t seem so bad now. She could feel the vibrations from the music in the floor beneath her. “Do they have to play so loud?” she asked, raising her voice to be heard over the music.
Christa smiled at Betty Lou and shook her head. “Lighten up, girl,” she said. “Let your hair down.” She reached up behind her friend and yanked a pin from the tight bun on top of her head.
“Hey!” said Betty Lou, as her bun unwound and her long black ponytail unrolled and hung straight down her back.
“Come on,” Christa said. “You look so uptight.” She reached up behind her friend and pulled the hair tie out, letting her onyx hair fall loosely, softening her high cheekbones and angular jaw. “There,” she said. “Now you don’t look like you’re waiting for your last rites. You have pretty features when you just ease up a bit. You always pull your hair back tight from your face and it makes you look like your spring is wound a bit tight.”
Betty Lou was stunned by her friend’s boldness. Would she be undressing her next? She took another sip of her drink and smiled just a little, as the image of Christa reaching over and unbuttoning the top buttons of her blouse flitted through her head.
But, Christa’s hands stayed to herself as she downed her second drink and crushed out her cigarette in the ashtray. “Let’s dance,” she said, sliding down from her barstool.
Betty Lou shook her head adamantly. “No, you go ahead,” she said. “I’ll wait here and finish my drink.” She looked down at it, noticing to her own surprise, that it was almost half gone.
“Oh, come on!” said Christa, grabbing ahold of Betty Lou’s hand. “You need to get laid. Let yourself go a little.”
It took effort to stay upright on the barstool with Christa pulling on her like that, but she managed to pull her hand away. “No, really, I’m fine,” said Betty Lou. “I’ll just watch you.” She took a rather large swig from her glass as if that might convince her friend to go without her.
“Suit yourself,” said Christa, heading for the dance floor.
Sipping her drink, Betty Lou watched Christa as she approached a handsome guy with blonde, feathered hair, sitting in the second row of tables. She bent down and said something to him, then he stood and walked out onto the dance floor with her. Betty Lou couldn’t believe how bold Christa was. She could never be that forward. Even when she’d been with Matt, Betty Lou had always let him take the initiative. She had always followed his lead. They had been the perfect pair. That seemed like another life now.
A hand on her shoulder startled her out of her reverie. She turned to find herself face to face with the most gorgeous man she had ever seen. He was tall, maybe even taller than her own 6’3’’, with a muscular build that said he didn’t sit behind a desk all day. His brown hair matched the brown eyes that she found herself staring into.
“Would you like to dance?” he asked, smiling a smile that would melt any girl’s heart.
She straightened her back. Her heel began tapping on the rung of the barstool, making her knees bounce. “Uh—me?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” he replied, glancing to either side of her. “You’re the only pretty girl I see in the immediate vicinity.”
“Um…, I couldn’t,” she stammered, “I mean, um, well…”
“You don’t dance?” he asked.
“No,” she said, feeling her face flush. “At least,… not very well.”
“May I buy you a drink then?” he asked, raising a brow.
“Oh,… thank you, but I have one,” she said, holding out her glass, only to realize that it was empty.
He smiled at her again. “Looks like you need another,” he said. “May I?”
How could she refuse? “Uh,… sure,” she replied. How wishy-washy that sounded. She did her best to save face, adding, “That would be nice.” At least, it didn’t sound quite as lame as her stammering all over herself, like a school girl who’s never talked to a good looking man before.
He flagged the waitress over and ordered them each another round. Betty Lou was surprised at how at ease she felt as she sipped her new drink while they talked. Normally, when talking to members of the opposite sex, especially good looking ones, she could feel the tension build inside of her, materializing on the outside as sweaty palms and stiffened muscles through her back and neck, but she felt none of those things now. It must be the alcohol. Up until tonight, the strongest thing she’d had to drink was a wine cooler. She wasn’t used to the strong effects of hard liquor, even in a mixed drink.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to dance?” Kyle, which is what his name had turned out to be, said. “You can step all over my toes, if you like. I walk on them all day anyway.”
Betty Lou started to decline once more, but then his corny joke registered and she burst out laughing instead, the most recent sip of her drink spraying out over his pants. “Oh, fiddlesticks! I’m so sorry,” she said, grabbing her cocktail napkin off the table and dabbing at his pant leg. “This is not a good beginning, is it?”
Kyle chuckled and took it all good naturedly. “It’s okay,” he said, taking her hand in his own and looking into her eyes. “But, now you have to dance with me, even if you have two left feet.”
feltBetty Lou gazed into those big brown eyes of his, noticing a few flecks of gold in them. She’d never seen eyes like that before and now, she never wanted to look away. He offered her his hand, and she took it, letting him lead her out onto the dance floor. He pulled her in close to him and held her there as they began to sway to music. Betty Lou laid her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes, allowing him to lead her. It felt good to be held against him so firm, heat flushing through her body, as she felt his stiffened member pressed against her leg. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad beginning after all.
When Donald Trump ran for election the first time, in 2016, he was heard saying that he got his start when he borrowed a half million dollars from his father to start a business. He went on to say that he created a successful business and paid back that loan in something like six months. He was very proud of this feat and used it as an example of what good business sense he has, which he claimed qualified him to run the country. My response to his claim was to think to myself, ‘Yeah, if someone loaned me a half million dollars, I bet I could create a successful business, too.’
Everything I have ever done in my life, I have done on my own. There has never been anyone who would extend me a loan, or support me in my efforts. I’ve had a lot of failures, like the landscaping business I tried to start and got taken to the cleaners by my very first customer, leaving me in debt on the endeavor, but I picked myself up and tried again. Now, I have created a small independent press and I offer author services through WordCrafter. It’s small and I do it all online, out of my home. To me, that is more of an achivement than former President Trump’s multi-million dollar corporation, because I didn’t have any help in getting where I am today. I struggled to overcome all obstacle that stood in my way, and I built my business a little at a time, without loans or other help from anyone. To me there is no real story in what Trump did, but the road to success for me has been paved with obstacles and setbacks to overcome. He may be a lot richer than I am, but my story is ever so much more interesting.
Several years ago, one of the nurses that I worked with came up to me and told me how happy she was to learn that I had continued writing after my son died. She said that it meant that I was healing. The truth was, after Mike died, I had to write. I had so much grief boiling inside me that my only recourse was to write and let it all flow out. After Mike died, writing was what helped me keep my sanity. I wrote poetry. I wrote stories about Mike. I wrote and delivered his eulogy. More than likely none of it will ever be published, but the stuff I wrote during that time was powerful. If I read it now, it still brings tears to my eyes.
The negative emotions- grief, sadness, hate, anger – are all powerful emotions and to write a story that stirs those emotions is to draw your reader into the story and make them care. The positive emotions like love or triumph are powerful, as well, but they are made more powerful if the character has to struggle to achieve them. If the character is happy when the story begins, and remains happy throughout, then it’s really no big deal when he is happy at the end. But, if the character has longed for happiness, struggled to overcome the obstacles that prevent him from being happy, and the reader has been right there feeling his frustration and sorrow along the way, then the reader will be elated when, at the end, the character accomplishes his goal and achieves the ever sought after happiness. The negative emotions are what makes the positive ones that much stronger. In life, happiness is fleeting, easily forgotten as we move on to the next goal, but the negative emotions are always there, just below the surface, waiting to be called forth. They don’t go away. I miss my son now just as much as I did the day he died, and all I have to do is think about him for the tears to start to flow, even eleven years later. The negative emotions don’t fade away, like the positive seem to.
Adversity creates conflict, and conflict is why we keep reading. We have to see how the character is going to overcome whatever obstacles are placed in his way. We must read on to find out who wins the battle, to learn if our character will be triumphant, or if he will be ruined for life. Adversity, or conflict, is the key to writing a good story. Going through the characters struggles with them makes their revenge sweeter, their triumphs more elating, and their love so much stronger. Adversity is what makes us care about the characters.
So, make things hard for your characters no matter what genre you write. Beat them up, make them walk over hot coals, climb mountains, jump out of airplanes, or dive to the ocean’s depths to get the girl, find the treasure, win the race, or achieve self-discoveries. And just when they are at the lowest point they have ever been at, and it seems that there is no way to come out ahead, throw a burning building in their path, raise the stakes, throw in a ticking time bomb. Don’t make it easy for them. If a good looking guy walks into the bar and sweeps the girl off her feet without even blinking and there is no one to object, no one will care if they live happily ever after or not. When the reader is aware of the price that has been paid to achieve the goal, then your readers will care so much more. Give your characters conflict and adversity. They’ll thank you for it later, and so will your readers.
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The 2021 Wordcrafter New Beginnings Virtual Writing Conference did not turn out as well as I had hoped, by any means. This year, we had a two-day event with a pre-event promotional and social day on Facebook to launch it. If you happened to attend any part of the event, I want to thank you for your support. For those of you who did not attend, and that is probably most of you as attendence was way down from the 2020 conference. I’m sure the pandemic had a lot to do with both last year’s and this year’s turn-outs.
Whatever the reason for the poor turn-out in 2021, I think we all still had fun just getting together and talking about the craft. We had a great group of authors, who jumped in and carried on without me when I experienced an internet outage, causing me to miss one full day of the conference. Let me tell you, as the host, that was really frustrating, because I didn’t know if things had continued on without me, or simply fallen apart, and I had no way to find out until I moved to another location where I knew I would have internet access for Day 2. But most of this great group of authors just picked up the ball and ran with it, even without their host to guide them. I guess it’s true that the show must go on.
It would be a shame to let all the hard work that myself and all of the wonderful authors who were kind enough to volunteer their time to present this conference go to waste. So, I made the keynote address by horror author, Paul Kane, available from the Conference Page, here on Writing to be Read or on WordCrafter’s YouTube page, immediately following the conference, and although the editing of the conference recordings has been slow, they will all eventually be released, as well.
The first of these has recently been posted to YouTube and can be accessed both there and on the Conference Page, as well as through the link below. It is the Character Development Panel Discussion, with authors Jim Nesbitt, Ellie Raine, Paul Kane, Chris Barili, and Mario Acevedo. It’s an interesting discussion, one that you’ll want to be sure and sit in on. You can even weigh in with your own thoughts on character development in the comments. And the best part is, it’s free!
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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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