Journal: on writing characters
This is pretty random. Just thinking aloud.
People are made up of opposites.
A good character, you get to be able to predict their reaction (Ed stands up for himself against anybody, no matter how imposing. He shouts at cops, throws punches at huge bouncers). Then you figure out what their opposite character trait is (Ed cannot say no to little kids. They trample him daily. He spends all his pocket money buying them ice cream).
Here’s another thing to consider: Ed is in danger of being a stereotype. Which one? The Gentle Giant. You know that one. Or if he’s smally built, he’s the juvenile delinquent who talks tough but has a soft heart. Yeah yeah. We all know those guys.
So let’s throw some wrenches in the works. Yes, Ed is brave and scrappy. Yes, Ed loves kids. Ed is also SUPER NERDY. Tiny asthmatic with an inhaler. Angry little asthmatic. An angry little asthmatic who loves death metal and babies. He gets so angry when people mistreat him it’ll spur an asthma attack, and after the fight he’ll gnaw his inhaler. The plastic end is gnawed to hell. It looks like rats got ahold of it. This is not a stereotype. It’s way too weird. And that’s what makes Ed interesting.
You can spend the rest of your spare time trying to explain why he is the way he is, giving him a backstory. Maybe he was bullied. Maybe he is the oldest of ten siblings. I don’t know.
Let’s try making another character.
Gina is a hippie. She enjoys gardening. She never mows her lawn, it’s full of tall weeds and wildflowers and snakes. She calls it wildlife habitat. Her HOA hates her and she’s always having to defend herself. She is severely freckled and never wears makeup.
Gina is also a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She could take anybody down. But she’s never been in a fight.
Gina is also a tech whiz. She is fluent in several computer languages and spends her workday creating webpages.
Gina has three disparate fields in her life. None of them seem to hang naturally together. But they do. I heavily based Gina’s character on a real person. (Yes, you can do that too. It’s called cheating. Just kidding.)
These hobbies are all opposites, so she’s already way out of danger of being a stereotype or cliche. But it’s not enough. What can we do with this character?
Gina needs some kind of inner conflict. We need to know about her insides.
Let’s say… she has very poor health and high anxiety. She needs her garden as a happy place but the HOA fights are giving her a stress ulcer. She needs her job for the insurance but the job makes her want to go postal. She needs her Tae Kwon Do to make her feel strong and confident, but her body is always giving out on her.
Now she’s finally getting interesting. I’ve inserted conflict into all areas of her life. Poor kid. Being one of my characters isn’t easy.
Now she needs some kind of a crisis to pull her into a character arc.
Every character has to go through an arc. They can win, or lose, learn something, or even learn nothing. But they have to face something, and near a breaking point.
There are plots which are wholly driven by character arcs. The story can be as big (e.g. dealing with the death of a loved one) or as little (e.g. worrying about the bee in the back yard) as you please. As long or short as you please. Ain’t writing grand? As Bob Ross would say, this is your world.
As an example of a character driven story, let’s try writing the small story, the bee story:
Gina sat in the chair on her porch, watching the bees pollinate the wildflowers in her overgrown lawn. She kept it tall just for them.
One of the bees appeared to be a little slower, a little heavier than the others. It landed near her, and she noticed its wing was deformed. It sat still in the sun, resting quietly.
What a sad thing. How did anything make it to adulthood in the wild with such a disadvantage?
It’s a social insect after all. Social creatures can afford to rely on their fellows to share the burden.
Gina shifted uncomfortably in her chair to take the weight off of her bad hip. Tae Kwon Do was getting harder these days. Where was her social support network? She considered, once again, quitting work. She could get by on disability.
The bee twitched, buzzed, and took off with visible effort, buzzing back into overgrowth. It landed on a purple nettle and explored the pockets for pollen.
Then again… even the bee was working.
If the bee could make it, she could. It was only four more years to retirement. Until then, she would have to content herself with only weekends in the garden. In four years, she could spend all her time here.
I don’t know, that was just a draft. But you see how pretty much nothing happened? She stared at a bee. But in her head, she made a decision about her life, and chose her pride over her health. That was her character arc.
It’s entirely possible to have a plot driven story instead. This is the kind of story where stuff happens. But it might be a bit hollow if unaccompanied by a character arc. Let’s try writing a story with no character arc.
Gina sat on her porch drinking tea when a van pulled up. She knew this neighbor. It was an HOA representative.
“Miss,” the man said, all beer belly and suspenders. “We’re gonna have to ask you to cut your lawn. It’s overgrown by two feet!”
Gina sipped her tea. “This lawn is a miniature nature reserve. I will not cut it.”
He grabbed his suspenders and stuck his belly out. “It’s attracting snakes and vermin!”
Her tone even, she replied, “It’s attracting endangered bees, harmless garter snakes, and monarch butterflies. It’s providing a place for native prairie plants to flourish.”
The man hiked up his pants before forming his next argument. He was turning pink with frustration. “It’s against the homeowners association code!”
Gina leaned back in her rocking chair and met the man’s eye. “If you examine the bylaws from when I moved in, there was no lawn restriction. I never signed any documentation agreeing to conform to this.”
The man huffed extravagantly and waddled back to his van, outraged but out of arguments. For now. He pulled into her driveway to turn around, squishing one corner of her grass to do it. She was sure he did it on purpose.
Gina sipped her tea. What a silly goatee. He would have looked better with a full beard.
Okay, so that was hard. I had to make the universe arc around her. It kind of killed me not to make her react, get angry, even smile. A smile would have denoted smugness, victory. I had to get rid of all those character flaws we just painstakingly created. It might actually be harder to not have a character arc than I’d thought.
Anyway, this story, in the end, seemed like either a bad joke (everything Gina likes is hairy) or some kind of weird morality tale (environmentalists are heroes and always right and if you’re a good person don’t cut your lawn ever).
(Side thought: fairy tales, folk tales, parables, and morality tales rarely have character arcs. These have very consistent characters, which each act in accordance to their established rules. It’s more like they’re outlining the outcome of having a specific character trait than they are telling a story.)
Now if we can blend a character arc with a plot arc, well, then you’ve got something. You go do it yourself though. Feel free to use my characters (share if you do!).
I’ve learned lots. I’m going to bed.