Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.8: Making Characters Distinctive

Your Hosts: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, and Howard

What do we do to make our characters distinctive? Often we categorize the distinctions as flaws or quirks, and in this discussion we use those as our starting points.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Who are the five people you know best? Make a list of their distinctions, as if they were characters in a story you’re writing.

Thing of the week: Ink and Ashes, by Valynne E. Maetani.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you make your characters flawed? Start with the characteristics you expect, the stereotypical stuff, for your protagonist or character. Flaws, or quirks, come from things that don’t match that. Think about the character’s situation, how does that affect their dialogue, actions, and thinking. Give your characters something to get in their way, and add texture. Look for try-fail cycles where the protagonist fails because their competency is not what they need to succeed. What flaw can they have that is important to the story? Do you use a tragic flaw, that causes the character’s downfall, or just weird flaws that the character is constantly fighting? Tragic flaws are good when you want things to go horribly wrong. Think about flaws that can go either way. Use an ensemble cast to practice and play with flaws. Distinctions are not necessarily flaws. Look at Sanderson’s second law of magic, what a character can’t do is more interesting than what they can do. When you are creating distinctive characters, the flaws help! Sometimes flaws are what make characters lovable. How do you avoid just stapling a quirk to a character? Look for the things that are important to that character. Look at what’s behind that quirk, what’s the explanation for it. Find things in the environment or setting that differentiate this person from everyone else.

[Mary] Season 13, Episode Eight.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Making Characters Distinctive.
[Valynne] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Valynne] I’m Valynne.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] All right. Distinctive characters. We should have no problem with this, since we are all such a lively, quirky bunch.
[Brandon] We’re going to be talking about character flaws and character quirks today. So let’s start the first half of the podcast on character flaws. How do you, and I’m actually going to pitch this at Valynne, because…
[Valynne] Okay.
[Brandon] They’ve heard from us on this. Of course, we will opine because we are us. But I want to hear from you first. How do you make your characters flawed? What does that mean to you, and how do you approach putting it into books?
[Valynne] I think making characters flawed is… We have an idea of what characteristics we want for our protagonist. Some of those characteristics might be stereotypical characteristics of what we think of when we think of a protagonist. I think that the flaws sometimes, or quirks, come from those things that really are not stereotypical, that are maybe weird things that you can get, I think, from anywhere. I like to go into the person’s situation and consider where they live and what they look like in their family situation and how those things might temper their dialogue and the things that they might say and give insight without actually putting it on the paper, sometimes of resentments that they might have, or just ways that a reader can start to understand how these characters are imperfect just like the rest of us.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Dan] I feel like, for me, character flaws are not something I really understood until several books into my career and realized that a lot of my protagonists just felt the same. I’m like, well, here I’m writing yet another person who does all of the same things and has all of the same goals of saving the world or solving the problem or whatever and I need to screw them up somehow. I need to give them something that is going to get in their way and will add some texture to their story, because they’re not just trying to save the world, they’re also trying to do this other dumb thing that we disagree with.
[Howard] In formulaic terms, I think a lot in terms of try-fail cycles. Because I’m working in comics, and the try-fail cycle is a delightful opportunity for pacing the explosions. The failures usually make good pictures.
[Howard] If a try-fail cycle, if the protagonist is failing in their area of competence because they’re not good enough yet, that’s very different than if the protagonist is failing because their competency is not what they need in order to solve the problem. That second piece is where, when I am designing a character flaw, that’s what I aim for. Is there something about this character that can be flawed that will be important to the story? I… If I were working in prose, I would be a lot… I would have a lot more… I don’t want to say luxury, but I’m going to say it anyway. I would have the luxury of creating many, many more of these flaws because I have so many more words to work with. The pictures don’t necessarily dictate that there is all these quirks of personality that Valynne has described. So, in my medium, I have to be very, very precise about which attributes I’m going to call out as story important.

[Brandon] Let me ask you this, then. You prompted something in my mind. In all my English classes back in the day, they had this idea of the tragic flaw. Right? This classic Greek idea that the character would have one major flaw that would cause their downfall. Modern storytelling has kept this, in general, but has made the story about overcoming that flaw, turning the stories into comedies instead of tragedies. Do you differentiate, in your mind, between tragic flaw, this is a major thing that is either going to cause the character’s downfall or they’re going to work on the entire story and overcome, versus just this is a weird flaw that the character has that they’re just never going to overcome?
[Dan] I actually use the tragic flaw all the time in my outlining, for when I want things to go horribly wrong. When I want to get to a fail cycle, like he said, or just a straight up all is lost moment, I will try to build it around something that is intrinsic to the character. So that when we get to that point, we know they’re going to do the wrong thing or make the bad decision. Because that is their… That’s their flaw throughout the book. Then we get to the point where that thing ruins everything for everybody, and then we have to recover from it. They don’t necessarily redeem themselves from that flaw. They have to win in spite of it.
[Brandon] Okay. Okay.
[Valynne] One of the things that I like to see is having flaws that can go either way, depending on where the story is, and sometimes it hurts them and sometimes it helps them. I think one of the stories that I love is, if you guys ever saw the show Monk. He has OCD and he’s a detective. There’s some times where that is a real detriment to what he’s doing, and there are other times where it really helps him find details that other people might not find. The reason why I like some flaws that can go either way is, to me, that is a lot more realistic in situations. Where we might have someone who is introverted, and while some think that is something this character or person needs to overcome, there are things that that… That make that introverted person… It’s a strength in some ways. There’s things that that character can see. So I like having aspects that can go either way, because it sort of gives us a chance as people, based on what we want to do with our own personality traits.
[Howard] It also sets up dramatic tension, because the reader can figure out pretty quickly, in my work, that this problem of this character is something that is going to impact the story directly, and it is almost certainly going to be negative, just because of the formula. Whereas, what you’re describing, there’s a lot more tension. I can tell that this character has a neurosis, and I don’t know if that’s going to be a heroic thing or if it’s going to be a failing or if it’s going to be both. I just know I need to pay attention to it.
[Dan] So, I think flaws frighten a lot of aspiring authors, because they worry that a flaw is going to break their character or break their story or warp it too much around this one idea. So what I like to recommend is that if you build an ensemble cast, that is a great way to practice and play with flaws. Because you can have your main character who is supposed to do everything, but then she has three or four friends who each are fundamentally broken in some way. Then you can really play with well, what if we have someone who is constantly fighting authority figures to the point that it becomes a problem. What if we have someone who’s doing some other thing to the point that it becomes a problem?

[Howard] That brings us back to the salient point here, which is that, the topic of this episode, the title of this episode, is characters distinctive, not characters flawed. Valynne, what you described is distinctions. They’re not necessarily flaws. They are things that might be helpful, but they are distinctive. Yeah, an ensemble cast is one of the best ways to experiment.
[Brandon] I have an essay about this. It’s one of my laws of magic. Sanderson’s second law, which says that what a character can’t do is more interesting than what they can. Generally, in storytelling… In that, I differentiate for me between a handicap and a flaw. There’s a spectrum there, right? Some characters have a… Like if your character is born with one arm, like, I prefer… It’s like a handicap, right? There are certain things that are going to be harder for them. But is it a flaw? Like, to me, flaw means something you can fix and you often choose not to. That tragic flaw is I have this thing that I know is wrong with me, or I refuse to acknowledge, but a piece of me knows and the reader knows, and I refuse to overcome this. And it causes big problems. Or I eventually do, and it causes a big cheering moment. Where a handicap, kind of like what Monk has, is can I learn to take my makeup, which is individual and distinctive, and apply it in a way that’s going to help me overcome my problems. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes it just is going to cause problems.
[Howard] There is a show called Canada’s Worst Driver.
[Howard] One of the drivers in this show is blind in one eye, and has won as Canada’s Worst Driver. Not because he is blind in one eye, but because he refuses to accept the fact that he can’t see half the world without moving his head. So he won’t accept driving instruction to turn his head and to take care to see things. I think that’s the difference between a handicap, which is what he’s born with, and a flaw, which is what…
[Dan] It’s a dumb choice he makes.
[Howard] Boy, he just shouldn’t have a drivers license for that flaw.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Which is Ink And Ashes. Which we have done before in the podcast. But I want you, Valynne, to tell us about it.
[Valynne] Ink And Ashes is a mystery thriller about a Japanese-American teenage girl who grows up in Utah. She… At the beginning of the book, her biological father has passed away and her mother has remarried. She’s pretty much just grown up with a stepdad. She ends up finding a letter written from her biological father to her stepfather, and she never knew that they even knew each other. As she begins to dig, to find out why her parents would keep this hidden from her, she also unearths a lot of problems, and ends up finding out why this was kept a secret.
[Brandon] It reads like a spy thriller. Very, very tense. Very fun. As a lot of distinctive characters in it.

[Valynne] It does. I… One of the things that I… One of the reasons I wrote the book in the first place was because I am Japanese-American. Growing up, I only got to see myself in historical fiction and internment camps or war settings. I really wanted a book that could show that someone who looked like me could also be a hero. So, I think that in terms of distinctive characters, especially, I’m going to add, especially when you’re writing diverse characters, I think that a lot of writers are really afraid to give these diverse characters flaws, and major flaws, because they don’t want to look racist. I think that is one of the worst things you can do, because it just doesn’t come off as realistic. So, I think that when you’re creating distinctive characters, the flaws are one of the things that make them very distinctive. I think that, for me, it was important to separate these characters out, to figure out how their background as being Japanese-American, but growing up in Utah, might affect the things that they say or the things that they think that others around them might not ever realize. But then also just showing how other… How they interact with the people around them. Showing those relationships as well.
[Howard] One of the things that we’ve talked about in other casts a lot, writing the other, and the challenges involved in that. One of the things that you’ve just shared with us, growing up Japanese-American, you never saw yourself portrayed in fiction except as someone in internment camps. That is a distinctive character attribute where if you are writing a Japanese-American person into a book, their experience with media is different than the experience the other characters have. It has little to do with being Asian, looking Asian, having family from Asia, and everything to do with my people have been left out of the narrative.
[Dan] Now, I want to go back, really quick, to something else that Valynne said that I thought was really [inaudible gung ho?] And I’ll just push it just a little further. You said that flaws are what make characters distinctive. I’m going to go as far as saying that in many cases, flaws are what makes characters lovable.
[Valynne] [garbled I would agree]
[Dan] You look, for example, at the original cast of Star Trek. Bones, we love him because he is crotchety and cranky and impatient. We love Spock because he is always kind of chastising everybody else for not being as good as him.
[Valynne] And a little emotionless.
[Dan] All of these flaws that make them stand out, that make them memorable, are also why we love them.
[Valynne] I agree.

[Brandon] Let’s talk about character quirks, then. Shifting this conversation toward how do you make character quirky, without making them just feel like “Oh, look at me, I’m so random.”
[Brandon] Right? How do you make a… Like, I’ve run into this. Let me explain why I say this. I’ve run into this, where I’m like, early in my career, and I still think they’re fine characters, but I would add a quirk to a character by saying, “Well, how does… What does people expect this character to be? I’m going to add some weird random thing that they love that just does not fit who they are at all. That’s going to be part of my definition of them.” The more I’ve written, the more I’ve become concerned about just kind of stapling on a quirk to make a character distinctive. Right? Wanted to go further than that, but the question is, how do you go further than that? What’s a quirk that’s not just stapled onto a character?
[Howard] The eponymous Sergeant Schlock from Schlock Mercenary. Two of the quirks that kind of define him are appetite… Oral fixation… He wants to eat it. And he loves weapons. Those are things that he loves. I aired a strip recently where a new captain, trying to curry favor with him, offers him a thing. “Can I change your mind? Can I make you a little happier by giving you something?” He looks at what she’s handing him and says, “A food bribe should look more like food.” “It’s not food, this is the remote control for the fancy new armor suit I’m giving you.” He holds it and has tears in his eyes. What has happened there is the character knows… Sorry, the reader knows one of his weaknesses, quirks, whatever, is food, and the other is guns. I played off of both of them, and they are central to who he is. They’re important. There have also been times when I just had him randomly decide to eat something. That is funny, and it is in support of a punchline, but the story doesn’t need it.
[Valynne] I think that when you’re looking at quirkiness, I think that, for me, I always delve into the psychological aspects behind it, and wonder, for example, if someone bites their nails down to the quick, they’re dealing with some form of anxiety. Going back into the minds of these characters and trying to figure out what that anxiety is, or why would they have this… Is there an explanation for this quirk? I think that is different than a phobia. A phobia is a phobia because we can’t really explain why it happens. But quirks, we can. So I think that if there’s a way for you to go into that character’s head and figure out what is behind that quirk, then it won’t look like it’s just stapled on. It will actually lend more to that character and to the story. I think phobias can be used, as long as, once again, it is integral to the story line.
[Brandon] You’re very good at this, Dan. How do you do it?
[Dan] Well, the example I’m thinking of is actually not me. A lot of quirks, I think, can come out of the setting. So the example I was thinking of, one of my favorite TV shows right now is on Amazon original called The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is about a woman in the 50s who becomes a standup comedian. What is fascinating about her, like her weird quirk, is that she loves being a 50s housewife. You would expect this very feminist show to have her fighting against the strictures placed on women in the 50s, to be perfect and the June Cleaver kind of stereotype. She loves that. The fact that she loves that changes the way she interacts with everyone else in the story and in the world, and it gives a very different flavor to it. So I try to do that when I am writing. To find things in the environment or in the setting to pull out and say, “Well, this is their quirk.” When I wrote a cyberpunk, I wanted to make sure that I had at least one character who is very different online versus in person. Because that’s something that we all experience. There is the person that we met maybe on Facebook or whatever, and then finally we meet them in person and they’re totally different in real life. So finding aspects of the environment. In a cyberpunk, that was obviously far more exaggerated. To say, well, here’s what differentiates this person from everybody else.

[Brandon] We are out of time. This is been a great discussion. Howard has our homework.
[Howard] Okay. We are talking about distinctive, distinctiveness, failings, quirky, whatever. Make a shortlist of five of the people you know best. They can be family members, they can be friends. Include yourself in that list. Imagine them as characters in a story. Then, next to their name, start writing the attributes that make them distinct from each other. The things that might be failings, the things that might be quirky, the things that might be weird. Include the things about yourself. Don’t show this list to anybody else, because they’ll find it highly offensive. You now need to keep this a secret for the rest of your life.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.