Tag Archives: craft

Classifying characters

I have a strong fascination with systems for classifying characters, like my born great/achieve greatness/have greatness thrust upon them post from some years back. I don’t really use them that much when I’m writing, but they still interest me. So here are a few.

The original DC Comics RPG from about 30 years ago broke down heroic motivations into five categories.  They uphold good (Superman). They fight evil (Batman and Spectre). They’re burdened with unwanted power (Cyborg. The Doom Patrol. The X-Men). A sense of duty (Green Lantern). The thrill of adventure (Green Arrow. Warlord)

My friend Gray Rinehart posted a list on his blog (I don’t have the exact link) of how characters respond to outer and inner expectations:

  • Upholders struggle to live up to what other people expect of them, and their own standards.
  • Obligers meet other people’s expectations, but resist setting internal, personal standards.
  • Questioners follow their own code, but resist outer expectations.
  • Rebels push against other people’s rules, and against their own standards.

John Rogers discusses levels of corruption on his blog Kung Fu Monkey in relation to his TV show Leverage but I think it’s also useful as an assessment of how bad a character (or a real person) is.

1)You discover your business has done something bad and harmful (your new product has harmful side effects say). You put a stop to it, make restitution and acknowledge the error. Or on a personal level, you do something — cheat on your spouse, say — but you stop, confess, don’t do it again and don’t dig yourself in deeper defending yourself. Overall, you’re a good person (subject to just how bad your actions were); you sinned, but instead of excusing it, you’ve done your best to atone and resume walking the walk. For example, William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama who resigns his post when he fails to live up to his own standards.

2)You did something wrong but you don’t admit to it. However you also don’t repeat your error. So (again depending what you did) you’re still a decent human being.

3)You don’t admit it, and you also don’t try to control it. For example, you know if your old lover shows up, you’re going to sleep with them, but you don’t take any steps to avoid being alone with them.

4)You actively doing stuff — selling tainted products, sleeping with strangers on trips out of town, cutting corners on regulations — while holding yourself as a respectable person. The higher the risk of harm, the worse you are: if you hide a 10 percent risk your nuclear plant will cause cancer in the neigbhorhood, that’s bad but it’s not as bad as if there’s a 60 percent risk.

Rogers does a much more entertaining breakdown, so check it out.

Foz Meadows and I use a similar classification scheme for Bad Boys (hers) and Bad Girls (mine). The ones who makes a good romantic lead, “the rebel – is defiant, confident, anarchic; a counteragent to the conformity, he breaks rules, laws and established social mores alike, both on principle and for the joy of it.” They push the protagonist to rebel too, against everything that’s strangling them in their lives. Next come the ones who see the protagonist mostly as a possession or a source of sexual satisfaction, but don’t care about them much beyond that (see either of the original posts for examples). And then the ones who are abusive, manipulative, treat you like shit or talk you into murdering or stealing for them. And that goes even if they’re charming and/or beautiful and/or the sex is incredible; that may explain why the protagonist can’t quit them but it disqualifies the for the happy ending.

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Sherlock Holmes: You see, but you do not observe

So Holmes informed Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia (“Don’t just see: observe” on my Holmes mug makes the same point). Holmes doesn’t just see people, he notices them. The placement of their callouses, the stains on their clothes, whether they’ve dressed carefully or rapidly, the wear and tear on their possessions. From all of which he can learn much.

It’s a good rule for writers too, I think. Observe our characters. Don’t just see them, observe specific, telling, or at least colorful details. Is the calendar on their computer blocked up with non-stop meetings instead of productive work? Does the female lead dress loud and flamboyant or with crisp understated elegance? Does the handsome dude swagger over to the woman he wants to ask out or politely try to strike up a casual conversation first?

A lot of details don’t tell us anything and aren’t colorful. Countless actor profiles I’ve read over the years make a point to mention the brand of cigarette they cigarette they smoke, which tells us nothing about them. Nor is it a vivid, colorful detail — I assume the reason for the reference is just product placement. Designer labels may tell us something — a character really dresses in the best fashion, or they contrast character A from the character wearing off the rack or shopping at thrift stores — or nothing. As Georgia O’Keefe says, it’s only by selecting details carefully we get at the meaning of things.

Reading my latest chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer to my writing group reminded me of the flip side: don’t offer so many observations that you drown  the reader’s awareness. The third chapter has KC coping with the second angel to show up that day, talking about it with her cop buddy Skeeter, then waiting at home to see if the angel returns, while talking on the phone with first her BFF Sarah and then her potential friends-with-benefits Matt. The consensus was that I just hit the reader with more stuff that they could take in.

Some of that is because it’s been a while since the first two chapters so they didn’t remember things that had already been established (not their fault, I have the same problem when other people read chapters of their novels stretched out over a few months). Part of it is the perennial problem of first drafts (and this is my first using KC as first-person narrator) squeezing in lots of info up front instead of spacing it out. I’m not info-dumping but I probably am I overdoing it, as I’m not sure yet what’s essential to know or when I’ll be able to work it in.

And part of it is that I just overdo detail. I’ve had this complaint before: I throw in so much detail about the world or the setting that the readers aren’t sure what’s important or who’s important. I have a very hard time writing a crowd scene as just a crowd; I want to throw in a few distinctive individuals even if they don’t play a role in the story. Which I think is good in moderation but it appears I do it to the point readers get overwhelmed.

I shall keep this in mind as I go forward with KC’s story.

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Yes, and …

While I wasn’t a fan of the Kamandi Challenge round-robin limited series, one or two of the text page discussions stuck with me. Most notably Greg Pak discussing the old improv phrase, “yes, and.”


The point of the phrase is that in improv, you don’t reject whatever weirdness the other performers throw at you, you accept it, then build on it. Say yes, then add “and …” That forces you to go up, instead of down. My Mum made a similar point about theater (she was an awesome community theater director): if one actor’s going so big they overshadow the rest of the cast, you don’t want to damp them down, you want everyone else to go up and match them.

I think that’s good advice for writing too. Don’t just stop at “well, that’s a good idea.” Where does it lead us? What does it lead us to? What could it lead to?

For an example, there’s the Chip and Dales Rescue Rangers episode, A Case of Stage Blight. Sewernose de Bergerac is an alligator who lives in the sewers under an opera house. Growing up there after his owner flushed him down a toilet, he’s fascinated by show biz and dreams of performing on stage. The Rescue Rangers run up against him when he kidnaps the lead in the current production to take his place.

Which is weird, in a good way. But they don’t stop there. Sewernose also has two hand puppets, Euripedes and Voltaire, who alternate between giving him pep talks and critiquing his performance. It takes a wild idea and makes it several times wilder.

As does the H. Rider Haggard/Andrew Lang The World’s Desire. We start with Odysseus hunting Helen of Troy in Egypt, then the authors pile on a reincarnate love triangle and the Ten Plagues of Egypt taking place in the background. It creates a truly wild result.

Or Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run, which just piles weirdness on weirdness.

Of course, improv is a lot more forgiving if “yes and” leads us to the wrong place than readers will be. But unlike improv, we can go back and rewrite when that happens. So what’s to lose?

#SFWApro. Image by Jack Kirby (top), covers by Vincent diFate (middle) and Mike Sekowsky. All rights remain with current holders.

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