Convincing Characters

It’s late Sunday evening and the time change has me less tired than I ought to be. So I’m sitting awake late with not quite enough time to do another adult review and I lack the motivation to get into serious relationship stuff this late. So we’re going to do something new tonight and we’re going to be doing something bookish. Yeah that’s right, it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a book related topic on the blog and those got me some of my earliest followers. So this is for you guys, cuz we’re getting into fiction.

Hey Henry, how the heck does this have anything to do with relationships? Well it don’t really, I mean I could connect those dots longways and say better, more convincing characters from today’s creators are better books for tomorrows children, but let’s not get too into that sort of pretension, this is just a fun diversion I got to thinking about when I was extolling the virtues of the character writing in Wakfu. So without further ado, some tips on creating convincing characters in fiction.

Show Me.

This is a good tip for veterans and newbies alike. When you want me to believe your character is capable of doing a thing, I need to be shown that thing. Trying to convince me your antagonist, protagonist, or support characters are awesome by having ‘extras’ talk about it through exposition or some similarly because-I-say-so literary device is yawn inducing and not credible. I’m going after some heavy hitters here with my examples, no one is too famous or too high budget to avoid this mistake as a matter of course. It’s something you need to be thinking about. A fair few of these examples will involve television or cinema. Remember that screenplays and TV/Movie characters are written too. We’ll go through some direct this/not that at the end of this section just to drive it home anyway.

One of the most popular examples of getting this wrong I can think of is Voldemort. Yeah we’re going there. To be fair, in the latter half of the series Rowling corrects this, but for the first entire half of the series we’re supposed to respect the danger of a person whom many believe to be dead, is nonetheless severely crippled, and had his magic death abra kadabra bullets reflected back on him via something as common as a mother’s love for her infant. Seriously, I’m not sure what sort of household Rowling grew up in, but the idea that sort of love is uncommon enough in the wizarding world that Lord Voldemort was able to amass a large army, take over the government, and start a genocide in earnest before he encountered it is awful concerning, and it wasn’t something that impressed me a bit as a consumer of the greater fantasy genre. The only guide we have at this point in the series that he’s anything to fear at all is exposition and here-say. Total yawn villain. Wakfu’s Nox is far more frightening and it’s entirely because he does stuff on screen. In fact, in the Wakfu world, no one really knows who Nox is when he shows up. He’s not famous, he’s not wizard Hitler, and he’s got no fan club spitting exposition at the cast about how dangerous he is. Seriously, go watch it if you have trouble writing convincing villains.

On the protagonist side of awful we have Doctor Who, particularly during the reign of Matt Smith’s doctor and on. I know I know, a lot of you love the goofball but the difference between what he was shown doing on screen and how other people in the universe described him was immersion breaking at best. There’s a scene that really grinds my gears where he meets Amy again for the first time in one of the season openers and he’s being accosted by some eyeball spaceship that he ultimately gets to go away by telling it a speech about how awesome he is because of all this stuff he did off screen(this is an annoyingly common threat resolution technique in new-who in general). This is not how you diffuse tension. It’s certainly more camp, and we really didn’t seem to know how to run a TV show back then, but the show writers for the old series, and particularly for the run of the fourth, really knew how to show The Doctor’s competence on screen and he was a much more convincing character for it.

In what is probably the most under-appreciated scenes in movie history, we have one of the best damn examples ever of introducing a new villain by showing what he can do to the old villain. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture we are treated to an opening shot of three Klingon battle-cruisers shot from a dominant low angle making a slow approach to a new threat. Three battle-cruisers by the way are the unwinnable scenario in the very next movie. Extra care is taken to make the models look extra threatening(this is pre-CGI in case you forgot—or never knew). As they approach one of the battle-cruisers prepares to open fire, and the front of the ship opens up in a marvelous red hue that looks and sounds like some sort of space volcano. These guys mean fucking business and the entire scene lends credence to it. Then they get absolutely annihilated. The Klingons are given new threatening theme music just for this film, their character makeup is completely redesigned to be more threatening, but none of that would have really made you care about their casual destruction like their history in the show to that point. They planted bombs, enslaved worlds, kicked space butt, and were always taken seriously, and always on screen. To treat that sort of one-up-manship with the care it deserved the scene takes five glorious minutes to unfold.

So how do you apply this to your writing? Just remember, if you want me to believe your character can do something, show me! Don’t write me a paragraph by the narrator about how intimidating this new guy in the office is, show him successfully intimidating people he really ought not be able to, like the supervisor. Better yet, build up the supervisor first and then do it. Your office tyrant just killed the Klingons. If you’re trying your hand at a Voldemort like bad-guy who is the villain just because he’s unrelatably evil it might help you to familiarize yourself with the real evil in the world first, which will help you devise scenes where such a character convincingly executes evil atrocities. You can tell Rowling isn’t familiar with that by the way she handles the unspeakable curses. The torture curse is evil because it tortures, and we know it tortures because the book says so. Don’t do that. In fact, that gets us to our next rule.

Write What you Know.

This is just good writing advice in general. When you write about things sufficiently outside your area of expertise it will show and it will show quickly. When writing characters it helps if you focus on characters that you could convincingly role-play yourself. It will keep their motives relatable, focused, and well communicated. If you find that narrows your character breadth too much, it’s time to meet some new people, or at least read about them. Grab a historical biography of someone close to your character, an auto-biography if it’s available. Autos can be the less accurate biographies but they absolutely will show you the line of thinking, and that’s really what you’re after. This is especially important in the case of evil villains and tyrants. If you aren’t sufficiently in touch with actual evil, your villain will come across as a bit Disney. If you write a protagonist that you don’t relate with their actions and motives may not match to the point of being incomprehensible. Heck, I keep this rule in the non-fictional world of my blog. I don’t give marriage, relationship, or sexual advice to the LGBT community for instance because I have no fucking clue what that’s like and it would show awful quick. At best I’d be giving dangerously naive advice from a position of ignorance and at worst be incredibly offensive. Don’t turn that situation into a character!

Learn What a Mary Sue Is.

And then don’t do it. This goes double for fan-fiction, and wish-fulfillment writers—which is actually where the term comes from. A lot of people have tried to define exactly what a Mary Sue character is and isn’t, but everyone knows one when they see one. I’ll try to define this from a perspective that’s easy to absorb from the point of view of a writer. A Mary Sue is a character that begins the story with no room available for character development. In other words they’re already perfect and there’s no real story to tell, just a timeline of events to describe. A lot of people will correctly warn you that a Mary Sue has no character flaws, but if you just leave it at that you can lead people into a trap where they write in flaws but those flaws then turn out to only help the Mary Sue character instead of hinder them. When you plan out your characters flaws make sure that they significantly hinder the character in the story, otherwise growing out of them is meaningless. Just to flip the tables on the pattern I’ve set in this post so far, I’ll say Snape, and Neville Longbottom are a good examples of a character that isn’t a Gary Stu(that’s the male Mary Sue). Wakfu has an exemplar treatment in this regard. Ruel has to overcome his personal greed to defeat a monster that consumes gold, overcoming this flaw to accomplish this task allows him to act more selflessly when the situation calls for it. Tristepin starts the series battling an inner demon that he cannot control. It helps him out of a few pinches but always comes with a cost, and that cost ends up becoming high enough to alienate and exile him from his friends and he’s forced to do battle with his demon, with the help of his god, and win(literally). Examples of Mary Sues abound but I think some of the worst ironically come from the Star Trek series itself in Deep Space 9. Several members of the supporting cast are Mary Sues but particularly Dr. Bashir and Dax. One Gary Stu of particular interest to me is Paul Atriedes of Dune. I don’t know how he does it but Frank Herbert manages to weave genuine tension in his story despite his flawlessness. I don’t know if that’s the praise it should be or more of a backhanded compliment than it should be but that’s a truly impressive thing to do.

Competence Please.

This is going to be a short one and specifically targeted at YA writers. Please have your characters competent enough that you don’t have to turn your supporting cast into clueless morons to make your main character look good. You’ll see this all the time in media for children—hence focusing on you YA writers—where the main driver of the entire plot is “the adults are stupid”. Rowling is guilty of that one too, but I won’t tell you why this time, see if you can spot it on your own. Every Disney channel show I’ve ever seen does this too. You can run afoul of this one in adult writing just as easily though and you’ll find this most often rears its head when you’re breaking the talking outside your experience rule.

Well, that was fun, but it’s late. Hope the time change treats your sleep better than it’s treating mine. I envy the people in countries smart enough to not do this anymore. Happy writing!

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