#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

Featured

Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.

This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)

Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanist is calling for western speculative flash fiction:

Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)

As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.

That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.

So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.

(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)

Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.

Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!

Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.

More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.

Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.

Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.

“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”

Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.

Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.

“Triangle at Rhodes”

Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.

And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.

When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.

The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly rouƩ, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.

Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball”

Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.

Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:

Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.

Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.

“The Cornish Mystery”

It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?

Ah. That is why the reader reads on.

So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessons Learned from #GarthEnnis, @DarickR, and #TheBoys: not all #heroes want to seek redemption.

When we read stories of good vs. evil, we often see a clear demarcation between heroes and villains. One aspires to protect and save, the other to destroy and waste.

Then there’s stories like The Boys that come along and shatter that demarcation into nothing.

Now I’ve discussed this series in a few other posts about character: about inserting trauma into backstory, providing a moment of vulnerability so readers see layers, and making characters face Monsters readers know all too well.

But now it’s time to define the, well, indefinable. The hero who’s beyond all redemption.

The antihero.

Billy Butcher is the leader of The Boys, a government-backed group created to keep the corporate-backed super-heroes from taking over the world. Butcher meets all the marks of a tragic hero. His wife Becky was raped by Homelander, the most powerful of all the superheroes (aka “supes”), and died when his unborn baby tore its way out of her stomach. The baby nearly killed Butcher with laser vision, forcing Butcher to beat this baby to death while his wife bleeds out in front of him.

Tragic backstory doesn’t get much darker than that.

From a writer’s standpoint, it’s shocking that we learn this much about Butcher by the sixth issue of the series–six out of seventy-two.

Why do we get this monumental information so early? Isn’t this the sort of thing that’s dropped further on down the plot, when reader engagement is high and they want to know more about where the characters come from? After all, we don’t get the backstories of M.M., Frenchie, or The Female until Issue 35.

Frenchie, Mother’s Milk (M.M.), Wee Hughie, Butcher. The Female’s sitting in front.

First, Butcher’s using the information to motivate Hughie, the protagonist readers follow through this series, to join The Boys. Hughie himself lost his girlfriend when the hero A-Train crushed her against a wall during his fight with a villain. Mutual loss bonds the two characters.

Loss isn’t all that drives Butcher. There’s a reasoning–a philosophy, if you will, or a code. It takes me back back to the stories of the “lawless” West, or even the classic Robin Hood; just because a man is lawless doesn’t mean he’s rule-less. It only means his rules and society’s laws don’t sync up. Now whether his rules benefit others outside himself could be up for debate, I’d say–Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name comes to mind. He’s clearly out for personal gain in For a Fistful of Dollars. Sure, he helps a kidnapped woman and her family escape, but that’s only to screw around with two warring families whom he’s scamming for all they’re worth.

Butcher, too, has his own set of rules, and he doesn’t care if they jive with anyone else. He tells the CIA director in Issue 1:

Superpower’s the most dangerous power on Earth. There’s more an’more of’em all the time, an’ sooner or later they’re gonna wise up. If you can dodge bullets or outrun tachyons or swim across the sun, you’ve better things to do with your life than save the world for the two hundredth time. One day, you might twig what you’re really invulnerable to is your humanity. An’ then God help us all.

Butcher to Dir. Rayner, “The Name of the Game” Part 1

A lot happens to prove Butcher right. The Boys fight a huge number of supes who rape and kill for fun, their atrocities almost always covered up by the Vought Corporation. The public goes right on devouring the stories told in Vought’s comic books like they’re the truth of the world. One by one, Butcher marks The Boys’ targets and plans how to take that team of supes down.

Everything he does or says serves whatever it is he got planned. He don’t waste nothing’–not time, not words, not effort. Not even a goddamn smile, Hughie.

Mother’s Milk to Hughie, “Get Some” Part 2

The Boys maim and kill a number of supes, be they street teams or a Nazi disguised as a Norse god. So long as they’re just killing bad guys justice won’t touch, then everything’s okay, right?

Right?

This is what we tell ourselves. As readers, we escape into stories to see comeuppance served because so often the justice served in reality is unsatisfactory. In fiction, the detectives catch the bad guy. The villain’s plot to take over the world is thwarted. The bad guys, the really bad guys, pay for the crimes.

Characters can be antiheroes who do horrible things because they’re still heroes, if only just. We’re sure there’s something good in them, and we’re willing to wait out the horrible things in order to see that goodness come to light.

And we see Butcher with that goodness, if only just. The miniseries Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker takes readers into Billy Butcher’s past. We meet Becky. We see her and Billy Butcher fall in love, get married. We see the charming side of this antihero, and his heart.

We see Becky die, and the aftermath.

Loss rarely breeds good things. Strange, how often we look for tragedy in our heroes–the loss that drives them to fight for justice, for making things right. We forget that revenge and ambition do not always lead to bettering the world. Clint Eastwood comes to mind again, this time as Dirty Harry in the film Dirty Harry: Magnum Force. There’s a crew of cops out to take justice into their own hands, and they want Harry to join them.

It’s the Point of No Return. Harry is invited to cross it, but he refuses.

Butcher, on the other hand…well. He crossed it long, long ago.

Readers get a preview of Butcher’s true nature in Issue 14, when he sets off a genetic detonation device that kills 150 supes who did took money to help start a coup in Russia. In Issue 28 (The G-Men series I’ve written about before) Butcher is fine killing a supe team of teen boys; later, if not for Hughie, Butcher would have killed a team of mentally challenged superheroes simply for cussing in front of him. These two teams weren’t trying to overthrow any government. Heck, some were genuinely trying to help the citizens of their town.

Where is this antihero’s rules, his personal code? Butcher gives one version of his code to Hughie after the G-Men slaughter:

But we ain’t here to make things better, are we, Hughie? We’re here to stop’em from gettin’ worse.

Butcher to Hughie, “We Gotta Go Now” Conclusion

Okay, that sounds somewhat justifiable. There are many problems in the world that can’t be eradicated. Sometimes containment’s the best one can hope for.

But a flashback with Butcher’s mentor Col. Mallory sheds a brighter, nastier light on the true rule Butcher lives by no matter what the rest of the world says. When Butcher and Mallory discover a convention of supe children have all been gassed to death, Butcher doesn’t care. To Butcher, the only good supe is a dead supe.

I’ll tell you how you neutralize the potential threats: you f***in’ drop the lot o’ them. Every single arsehole in tights, you do’em…No one should be allowed to walk around with what they’ve got, it’s just too much of a risk.

Butcher to Mallory, Issue 55

As far as Butcher’s concerned, any super-human of any kind must die. It doesn’t matter what he/she did or didn’t do. It doesn’t matter who that person is, if they were born with the powers, or if Vought injected them with the DNA-altering chemical Compound V to create those powers. If a person has powers, they deserve to die. Mallory even warns Hughie to watch his back around Butcher, because for Butcher, this personal war with the supes is never going to end.

There is no one on earth who hates like that man does.

Mallory to Hughie, Issue 55

I’m not going to tell you how far Butcher will go in his personal war–I’ll let you find out via the comic series or the upcoming TV show.

(Warning: the trailer’s pretty true to form with the comic, so carnage and cussing abound. Only watch if you can handle that sort of thing.)

Antiheroes are compelling because we really, honestly, truly do not know what they’re willing to do in order to fulfill their code. There’s a level of wretchedness we expect heroes will not sink to; there’s a level of goodness we expect villains will not aspire to.

But antiheroes don’t give a shit about reader expectations or presumptions. They will do whatever it takes to reach their goal.

And readers cannot help but follow, compelled to discover what goal could be worth such a path taken through the shattered demarcation between good and evil. With every step taken readers’ feet will bleed upon the shards, and like the antihero, readers will complete the journey…but will never be the same.

~Stay Tuned Next Week!~

More interviews with authors both indie and award-winning are lined up for your enjoyment, as well as a journey with Bo and me into the mysterious North Woods where a ghost stands, lonely and waiting. On top of all that, I’ll be taking you into the Wild West for some fantasy adventure. Bullets and magic will fly…just not to the Will Smith song. Pleeeease not to the Will Smith song

Oh, and just to toot my own horn for a second, I’ve written my own batch of flawed characters with their own Points of No Return to cross…or not.

You can check out my novel here.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!