Heyo! Welcome back to Nerd Cactus-dom. It’s C again, with you for something that’s hopefully a bit shorter than Saturday’s Shakespeare gush-fest.
You’ll note we didn’t do a silly yesterday. I apologize for that. I’m reasonably certain A’s show closed last night and it’s meant to be my responsibility to fill in on occasions like that, so I totally dropped the ball. To make up for it, here’s a funny picture that fits the theme of Shakespeare 400:
Moving on. Today, I’d like to talk about something that Shakespeare knew really, really well: characters.
I’ve mentioned that my two favorite plays are Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. My third favorite… well, not third place, but third out of three is Henry V, but I’ve a fondness for individual soliloquies and characters from other plays, as well.You all know Nerd Cactus’ collective adoration for Mercutio, enough to write an entire novel entirely for the purpose of keeping him alive.
But what is it about the characters from those plays that stands out? Well, Hamlet is a complex character study of grief and anger, tinged with (faux) insanity and tragedy. Much Ado has Beatrice and Benedick, two characters so amazing they managed to take over the entire play despite technically being a subplot. And Henry V is all dashing military hero one minute and slightly nonplussed suitor the next, all culminating in a tragically young death, the consequences of which are the subject of three sequels. But what is it these characters have in common?
They’re human. And the masters of their narrative, not the other way around.
You see, that is the key to a good character. They are the masters and not the mastered. They are not just tools in the hands of an author to be bandied about their world, twisting and turning to fit a story. An author cannot poke and prod them to fit just as a person cannot be poked and prodded to fit. People are confounding and contradictory and do things that get in the way of what we want. They are frustrating creatures. They don’t answer questions in the way you want them to. They don’t fall in love with the person you want them to. Sometimes they’re right bastards. Often, they get in their own way. In short, people are creatures of Free Will and cannot be directed like pieces on a chess board. And characters are people; they’re just people who live in our imaginations rather than on this Earth.
I cannot tell you the frustration… nay, the rage I’ve felt when I started reading what seemed like a good story and then THE PERFECT ONE comes on the scene. You know what I mean, right? The character who can do no wrong and can solve all the problems and always makes the right decision, slicing through problems and prejudice and unlikable qualities like a hot knife through butter. It’s like the creator of that character lives in a world where no harm should come to their babies or, even worse, where a good guy can have no bad qualities or they’re not good guys anymore. The weird thing is that, like, 90% of these stories are the ones that have villains who’re just misunderstood and need to be loved.
Of course, THE PERFECT ONE isn’t the only problem. The most recent episode of The Flash is a prime example of another of the more rage-inducing character problems: changing your characters because you need the plot to progress in a certain way. A group of otherwise intelligent and resourceful people sat around having tea and crumpets with a villain who’d ALREADY GIVEN UP HIS LEVERAGE. “Oh, but sir, I’ve given my word! I must keep it or I won’t be the good guy anymore! Plus, the writers really need this outcome, so I suppose we’ll all just sit back and become morons for melodrama!” THIS IS INFURIATING. DO NOT DO IT. If you need a particular outcome, you find a way to move the plot around your characters, not the other way around. Your plot is Muhammad and your characters are the mountain; the mountain doesn’t come to Muhammad.
How do you do this? How do you create mountains? Well, I’ve talked about this before, but you need to talk to your characters. Get to know them the way you know a person. First you see what they look like, how they dress, how they carry themselves as they move, how they interact with the world (without any insider knowledge to what they might be thinking — how a stranger would see them and judge them), etc. You need the way they sound, the words they use, their mannerisms as they speak. How they meet new people. You see what I mean? You start as if they’re a stranger and peel back layer after layer until they’re revealed to you. But, you know, leave some suspense and room for surprise because even the people we think we know the best can shock the hell out of us. Don’t just do character bios, though, especially for personality. Eye color? Hair? Occupation, family members, and where they went to school? Yes. Put that in a chart. But shifting things like personality and the like don’t do well in such confined and rigid circumstances. Too many writers seem determined to force their characters to stick to the bio instead of allowing them, like people, to breathe.
For this sort of thing, I recommend character sketches. No, no… not drawing. Ye gods, no. I mean short vignettes designed to investigate your characters in different circumstances, even those that don’t/won’t/can’t appear in your stories. Actually, I’ve found it’s better to stick clear of the actual narrative lest you become married to a particular version and are tempted to force it into context. One of my favorites is to kill my character off and to force them to kill someone else (a stranger, their lover, the villain, etc), especially if I don’t plan on either of those things happening in the story. Pushing characters to the brink to find out if/when they’ll break. (I’m totally a method writer.) Even if it never appears in the story, you know it and, whether you believe me or not, just the knowing colors your writing.
So… get to creating mountains, fine readers! And I’ll be back on Friday with my booze recommendation!