1/27/09

My Writing Process Part IV: Characters That Make You Give a Damn

Back again! Last week I talked at length about producing "The Perfect Pitch." Prior to that, I shared my view that "Research is Key" to good writing, and explained how it all starts with the "The Great Idea." But this week, the focus is on probably the most important aspect of storytelling. So let's get right to it.

IV. Characters That Make You Give A Damn

Creating characters that your readers will care about is the hardest task you have as a writer. And for good reason. Think about what you're asking of the reader for a moment. Whether you're writing a comedy, a drama, an action story or suspense thriller, at some point you're going to try to evoke some emotion from your reader. You want to make them care.

Think about that. How many times have you listened to a real friend tell you about real problems and thought to yourself "Borrrrrrrring," or "So what?" Of course, you never voiced your feelings and probably feigned interest and empathy. That's what friends are for, right? But truthfully, you weren't that interested. And these were REAL PEOPLE. With REAL PROBLEMS. As a writer, your goal is to make readers empathize with your characters, who are MAKE-BELIEVE PEOPLE, with MAKE-BELIEVE PROBLEMS. You have your work cut out for you.

So, how do we do this? How do we go about creating characters that will elicit the emotional responses we want from our readers? First, just acknowledge that there are no guarantees. Not all of your characters are going to resonate with everyone. But there are some things you can do to increase the chances, and make your characters stand out.

I'm going to borrow copiously from Scott McCloud for a moment, as I think he laid things out exceptionally well in his book Making Comics. According to Scott (and ME!) a good comic book character contains the following traits:

  1. An Inner Life
  2. Visual Distinction
  3. Expressive Traits
Let's take a look at each one of these traits, and apply them to arguably Marvel's most popular and ubiquitous character over the past 20 years, Wolverine.

1. An Inner Life- By an inner life, McCloud (and ME!) mean that your character must have a unique life history that has shaped the character's world view, determines his desires, and colors her actions. And inner life is more than just "personality." It's not enough to say your protagonist is a "tough guy" or "the girl next door." There needs to be a unifying purpose behind your character. You need to create factors or events in your characters' lives that give reason for everything they do. This will help you predict how your character will respond to conflicts and action, and is how they'll start "writing themselves." The best way to flesh out an inner life is to ask and answer a whole lot of questions about your characters. Who were their parents? Where were they born? What's the best and worst thing that's ever happened to them? What secrets do they hold? The more questions you can answer about your character, the more real they'll become.

Does Wolverine aka Logan have an inner life? Bet your ass he does. Behind his rough exterior hides a man with so rich a secret past, even he doesn't know it all. Wolverine is a mutant who possesses animal-keen senses, enhanced physical abilities, retracting bone claws and a healing factor that allows him to recover from any wound (I believe he was tossed into the sun at one point and barely ended up with a sunburn.) He was used by a government program Weapon X, where an indestructable metal was bonded to his skeleton and claws and he was made into a supersoldier. As a parting gift, they also wiped his memory.

That's just scratching the surface of Wolverine's 30+ year history in comics, tv, and film, but there is a character with an inner life. And it pays off in the story telling. Tyra Banks' closet couldn't fit all the skeletons Logan has in his, and his history often comes into play in his adventures. Abuse at the hands of a shady government organization makes Wolverine especially protective of mutant children who are being used and abused. A strong inner life makes Wolverine a character that we can empathize with, and root for when the claws come out.

2. Visual Distinction -
In movies, visual distinction is important, but not as much as in comics. Sure, Jack Sparrow wouldn't be half as fun if Johnny Depp and the costume design team didn't go full on Keith Richards Pirate with him. But there are plenty of movies where all you need is an unshaven Bruce Willis' scowling mug or Jessica Alba in tights to draw a crowd. But in comics, you're not casting A-list actors who have a history with their audience. You're creating something new. Comics is a visual medium, and your characters NEED to stand out. On the practical, you need to give your characters a unique look so that they stand out from each other. There are plenty of excellent artists working today whose male protagonists all look the same, and if it wasn't for costume or color, we'd be clueless who was who. Don't make that mistake. When designing a character, pay attention to their weight and build and their fashion sense. It also helps if their attire or costume is a visual reminder of their personality. Throw a "Got MILF?" t-shirt on a character in your comic, and it'll be pretty easy for your audience to recognize, "Hey, that must be the comic relief, Stiffler-guy."

While Wolverine's back story and compelling inner life make him a fun character to write, he wouldn't be showing up in 20 different Marvel books every month if it wasn't for this simple fact...He's damn fun to draw, too! Whether it's the claws, or the costume, or the muscles, or the sneers, Wolverine just looks cool. And looking cool can take you a long way with a character. Not the whole way, but a long way. Just ask Hugh Jackman, whose career was launched because he bore a strong resemblance to the character and played him well.

3. Expressive Traits- This is often the hardest one to nail down. If you're a good artist, you can probably come up with a killer costume design without too much trouble. And if you're a good writer, you can dream up a fabulous inner life for a character by simply asking and answering good questions about them. But all that will be for naught if all your characters walk, talk, fight, make love, etc. JUST LIKE YOU. Sorry, but you're just not that interesting. When thinking about expressive traits, think about body language, speech patterns, key expressions, and common poses. All the great characters have them. Homer Simpson has his "D'oh!" Charlie Brown has "Good grief." Ebeneezer Scrooge has "Bah Humbug!" House has his cane and his awful bedside manner. Kramer has more expressive traits than I could post here. "Giddy up!" What are your characters' expressive traits?

How does Wolverine stack up in the expressive traits category? Pretty well. Be it calling friends and foes"Bub" or chomping on a cigar, or his trademark "SNKKKT" when the claws come out, there are plenty of ways Logan can make an impact on a scene. And that's really what it's all about. People with expressive traits STAND OUT. And they'll make your stories stand out, too.


So, now you know Scott McCloud's secret for making good characters. It's served me well, and hopefully it'll serve you well, too. One tool that I've been using lately to help me flesh out my characters is a Character Grid. What I do is make a table in MS Word or Google Docs, or even just a sheet of loose-leaf. In each row, down the first column of the table, I list important questions I should answer about my characters. Each column of the table contains the names of major characters in my story. For each character, I answer the questions to help reveal their character.

Here's an example of the types of questions I'll put in my grid, filled out with a character from my recent screenplay/graphic novel project.

CHARACTER

Skate

Full Name

Malcolm "SK8" Skaton

Role/Purpose

Comforts the protagonist, encourages him to get his life back together

Age/Sex/Race

23, M, Black

Main Goal

Wants to be a top comic artist, work for DC/Marvel

Occupation

Comic artist, Pizza Delivery Boy

Motivation

Prove to his brother and parents he can make it as an artist

Inner Need

Validation

Flaw

Lacks confidence, young and fears being taken advantage of

Backstory

Has been sketching and drawing comics since a trip to comic con at 8 years old. Met up with Felix at a con who hired him to draw his fantasy comic. Has been waiting patiently for the last 2.5 months for the script for issue 12, but Felix has been MIA. He thinks Felix is trying to replace him with another artist.

Core Trait

A fighter

Good/Bad Habits

Nice guy, but mischievous. Can fly off the handle, overly sensitive

Secret

Wishes his parents respected him as much as they respect his older brother.

Skills, Knowledge, Props

Outstanding artist with unlimited potential.

Quirks Always has art materials on him. Usually has ipod earbuds in.

Attitude

Defensive

Dialogue Style

A fast talker. Some urban slang thrown in, but educated, middle-class, New England background.

Celebrity Look alike

Bow Wow


The great thing about doing the grid, is that you can see all of your main characters together in one spot. This makes it easy to see where certain characters may be redundant, and you can make changes. Feel free to borrow my grid, and definitely add your own categories.

From this information it was fairy easy to come up with a decent character design sketch. As an artist, character design is not one of my strong suits, but I'm fairly happy with how this first stab at a design for Skate came out.


Remember, when you're creating your stories, you're creating stories FOR HUMAN BEINGS. As a result, the most important part of your stories are the characters that inhabit them. While I said that it's damn hard to create make-believe characters that your readers will identify and care about, the funny thing is, your reader WANTS TO CARE. They wouldn't be picking up a comic or popping on a movie if they didn't want a break from their own problems or the real people in their lives' petty concerns, and to see what someone make believe is dealing with.

So use that. Give them a character that'll make them give a damn.

Next: Part V. Structurally Sound

2 comments:

Lorenzo Fernando said...

well played. some days i am perplexed because i envision my character to be morally ambivalent like the dostoevsky's "underground man." or don draper. i suppose getting existential is way beyond me.

Jason B-L/ DragonFUZE said...

I love the grid, that will be really useful. Thanks!