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

16.38: Deep Dive into “Character”

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, C.L. PolkCharlotte Forfieh, and Mary Robinette Kowal

Our fourth M.I.C.E. Quotient episode explores the “Character” element, and how these angsty, navel-gazing voyages of self-examination can serve either as complete stories or as elements in other stories. Also, we talk about how to do this in ways that don’t result in readers complaining about “navel-gazing” or “angsty.”

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: You’ve figured it out by now, right? Use the same fairy tale as last week (and the week before, and the week before that) and strip out every element that is not Character.

Thing of the week: Popisho (US) This One Sky Day (UK), by Leone Ross.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Character stories are driven by character’s self-doubt, angst, internal conflicts. A problem with themselves. They begin with “Who am I?” and end with, “This is who I am.” Often paired with an external catalyst to cause the moment of self-doubt. An exploration of self-discovery. Wanting to change, to be somebody different. Character stories do not require a deeply flawed character. Struggles with priorities, struggles with expectations. Obstacles are when each self-revelation opens up new problems with self-identity. Complications are when the self-revelation opens up different problems not related to identity. Coming-of-age stories are often character stories, trying on different identities, coupled with event stories, changes in the external status quo. In try-fail cycles in character stories, the character is either clinging to an old self-definition or trying on a new one, asking, “Is this who I am?” Many stories have an outer character frame, because it provides a satisfying emotional payoff at the end of the story. How do you avoid navel gazing? Multiple threads, stakes, or… make sure you externalize the internal changes!

[Season 16, Episode 38]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. Deep Dive into Character.

[C.L.] 15 minutes long.

[Charlotte] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mary Robinette] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[C.L.] I’m C. L.

[Charlotte] I’m Charlotte.

[Mary Robinette] And I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] We are continuing our really wonderful M. I. C. E. Quotient class taught by Mary Robinette Kowal. Thank you so much. And thank you to C. L. and Charlotte for being here. Today we get a talk about character in nice juicy details. So, take it away.

[Mary Robinette] All right. So. To recap, in the M. I. C. E. Quotient, character stories are basically stories that are driven by the characters’ self-doubt. Angst. They are very much about internal conflicts. They are about a problem that the character has with themselves. They began when your character basically asks, “Who am I?” and they end when they say, “This is who I am.” Most of the time, when you see a character story told in the wild, it is paired with something else, and there is a catalyst, an external catalyst, that causes that moment of self-doubt. That moment does… Can… Doesn’t have to be a major driver of the story. So if your character is plagued with self-doubt because… It’s like I thought that I was a charming philanthropist, and someone is like, “No, actually, I find you very much an asshole.” They don’t need to necessarily try to fix that person’s opinion of them. But that can be the moment that causes them to have the self-doubt, and they’re like, “Am I? Am I? I thought I was charming?” Then kicks off this exploration of self-discovery. It also can be something that they are trying to fix. So in a romance, that relationship that misin… That probably completely accurate impression is something that they would be trying to fix, because they wanted to have a relationship with the person. But they don’t have to. So, in a classic one, it is just about the character being sad about who they are and wanting to be somebody different. I’m also going to say…

[Charlotte] So in my…

[Mary Robinette] Oh. Yes. Go, Charlotte.

[Charlotte] Sorry, Mary Robinette. I just completely spoke over you. But I think while it’s true that an event can help kick off a character story, also, the reverse is true? So the novel that I’m currently grappling with, it’s the character and their flaw who makes a mistake, and then that kicks off an event that upsets the status quo. So you can play around with which order these things happen in.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Absolutely. One of the challenges sometimes with this is that the urge when you’re doing a character story is to make the character deeply flawed so that they can come to some magical realization and become a better person. The fact is you don’t have to make someone deeply flawed to have a character story happen. It can be just two pieces of themselves warring about which… What they’re going to prioritize. Do they prioritize work or family? This is a thing that we often have to struggle with. That is enough to be a character story.

[Dan] Yeah. A great example that came to mind is It’s a Wonderful Life. Which is a character story about a really, really good person. Who, kind of his problem is he’s got big ambitions and big dreams that he keeps giving up because he’s too nice. He gives all his money and all his time to other people. That does eventually lead him to a suicide attempt, so there’s definitely flaws at work. But in general, it’s a character story about a very good person rather than about a very flawed one.

[Charlotte] I’m also thinking about the kind of character story where someone is trying really, really hard to be who they think they are supposed to be, and that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with character flaws at all. That the process of their character story is to question all of these things that they are supposed to be, and discover who they actually are. So, in a way, it’s actually a story about rebellion.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. Very much so. Which actually leads me to talk a little bit about the obstacles versus complications in this form. So, obstacles in… When you’re looking at a character story, is that each self revelation, each time they discover something new, it opens up additional problems with their self identity. So if they’re like, “Well, this is who I’m supposed to be, this is how everybody sees me.” When they’re going through that, and then they realize, “Oh, but this doesn’t actually fit me.” That shows them… This one piece of how everybody sees me doesn’t fit me, and if I try to shift that, it shows this problem with this other piece of me. So you can have this cascading sense of problems with self identity. But complications are when self revelation opens up a different problem that is not related specifically to their identity. So this would be things like where… That… Imposter syndrome makes them decide that they aren’t going to turn in… That they aren’t going to turn in the manuscript, say. And they aren’t going to communicate to their editor about this. I’m not speaking to anyone in our audience at all.


[Mary Robinette] That’s all being motivated by this sense of self, but what it kicks off is this whole cascade of event problems, where everything has to move around because the manuscript hasn’t been turned in. It could eventually lead to a status quo change, where they are… They have to return the advance. To be clear, just for anyone who’s afraid of this, it is totally okay to be late with your manuscript as long as you communicate clearly with your editor.


[Mary Robinette] I say… And I am late with my manuscript.


[Dan] I have a question, but before we get to it, I’d love to hear about the book of the week. So, Charlotte, you’re the one who has our book of the week this time.

[Charlotte] That’s right. It’s me on book of the week. So, my book of the week is Popisho. P. O. P. I. S. H. O. In the US, or This One Sky Day in the UK, by Leone Ross. It is full of amazing, magical characters. It’s a super sensual novel. It conjures a world where magic is everywhere, food is fate, politics are broken, and love awaits. It just brims and blisters with life and love and grief and magic. The overarching, I guess, thread is character, because it’s also a love story.

[Mary Robinette] I think I need to read this, a lot.

[Charlotte] You do. Everybody should read it. Popisho…

[Mary Robinette] Popisho or This One Sky Day.

[Charlotte] This one… That’s it!

[Mary Robinette] Dan, what was your thing?

[Dan] Okay. So I am wondering about coming-of-age novels. Coming-of-age stories. Something like Little Women or Huckleberry Finn. Are those character stories?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] I’m asking mostly because I can’t think of where else they fit.

[Mary Robinette] They are. I mean, so, coming-of-age often is coupled with event, because they are experiencing a change in external status quo. Not always. But frequently. But really, what it is is that the character is trying on different identities, a lot of times, as part of the coming-of-age. This is something that we all go through when we are teens, and sometimes it continues on. The thing to understand about character stories is the try-fail cycles. So in try-fail cycles, your character is basically clinging to their old self-definition or they are trying on a new one. It’s basically, it’s this… The idea is that we… Our self-definition is super precious to us, and shifting it is terrifying. Because it completely redefines who we are. So every time you have a try-fail cycles, what your character is doing is like, “Is this who I am?” is the question that they’re asking. If they’re trying to break out of a role, it’s like it’s someone that they don’t want to be. If they’re trying to take on a new role, this is… They’re experimenting. So, “Is this who I am?” is the question that they’re asking. When they fail, the answer is no, this is not who I am. That leads them to their next level, because they have to try something else at that point. So, that’s… That is basically what’s going on with the try-fail cycle. In the coming-of-age stories, it’s… They’re… They are doing two things, frequently, when it’s a kid growing up. They are trying to cling to the safe things of childhood, and they’re also trying to reach to the adulthood. So frequently what you’ve got is they’re doing both. They are trying to cling to their old self-definition and they are trying to try on the new ones at the same time.

[Dan] Yeah. It occurs to me as well that character might be the most common. As we talk about nesting these things, character might be that the most common outer frame. You look at something like Shawshank Redemption, which is clearly a milieu story overall, but it doesn’t really end until the character Red learns to hope again. Which is how we started the movie. There’s this thin shell of character development around it. There’s countless examples that we don’t necessarily have to go through. But whatever story you’re telling, there’s this character frame around it, because that’s kind of that really satisfying emotional button on the end of the story.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah, as you were saying that, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. This is… Reluctant hero is the same…” That’s the… Like, “Am I a hero? No.” Then you get to the end of the story. “I am a hero.”

[Dan] Yeah. I mean, not to do another Morgan Freeman one, but Seven does the same thing. It is obviously an inquiry story, through and through. But it begins with Morgan Freeman saying, “This is a horrible place and my life is awful and I gotta get out of here.” It ends with him saying, “You know what? I can do a lot of good if I stick around here.” Again, he has learned to hope, he has grown as a person. That is the shell around the inquiry story, is this character frame.

[C.L.] That is the most optimistic reading of the ending of Seven that I have…


[C.L.] Ever heard in my life.

[Dan] Well, but it’s true, though, because the inquiry story ends horribly, but the story itself ends with him kind of getting a little bit of hope. Yeah, it’s… You gotta really dig through some mud to find any kind of optimism there, but it’s there.

[Charlotte] It’s there. Mary Robinette, and my other people in this podcast, question. Character story. How do you get it… How do you stop it from being navel gazey? How do you make it a driver, how do you keep it going? How do you make it exciting?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah, this is… That’s such a good question, because frequently people are just… They think, “Oh, if my character is dealing with this internal self-doubt, it’s all my character just going, ‘Oh, woe is me. Woe!'”

[Charlotte] Absolutely. A lot of describing of the thoughts and the feelings and the… There’s no action.


[Mary Robinette] So…

[C.L.] As… It’s… I was going to say, like, the thing about all of these elements so far that I’m seeing, especially with character, is that it needs some juice.

[Charlotte] Yes.

[C.L.] Like, we’re doing an escape from this place because… We are answering these questions because… We are examining ourselves and changing because…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. This is, again, why you almost never see them solo, because they can be super dull. You need the juice that another thread gives you. Or the stakes, what… Why does it matter to the character. The… For me, the thing that I think about is that while you have an internal conflict, you have to externalize it to make it visible. So, again, I come out of theater, and so what you’re looking… One of the things that we say is, “Acting is reacting.” That the character… It’s not just the character sitting there and having feelings inside themselves, it is them reacting to their environment and moving through it and taking action. But the actions that you take and the reactions that you have change from person to person. What happens in a character story is that a character is becoming a different person as they go through the story. So the actions, the externalization of that change means that they are making different concrete choices in the physical world, based on the internal changes that are happening to them. So making… Figuring out why… What are the… What does the way their mind is built, what does that do to affect the way they move through the world? Then you make… You frequently windup presenting them with increments of the same choice and that they respond to that choice in slightly different ways each time they come upon it. It doesn’t mean that it has to be exactly the same beats, but it’s the same kind of thematic choice. Like, do I kick the puppy this time or do I not kick the puppy?


[Dan] The question we all must ask ourselves.


[Mary Robinette] I may have just revealed too much about myself there.

[Dan] Awesome. So what homework do we have for character?

[Mary Robinette] Shockingly, we’re taking our fairytale and we are converting it straight to being just a character story. So, in our story of Goldilocks, there are four different characters and I can decide to center that story on any one of them. So if I center it on Goldilocks, Goldilocks is tired of being treated like a child. So she is going to prove that she’s not a child by going out and having adventures. Then realizes the adventures are too frightening for her, and that maybe she’s better off being a little girl after all. Or, it can be Mama Bear desperately wants to be a great porridge artist. But no one appreciates her porridge. Her family doesn’t. She’s disconsolate. Her family takes her out to try to cheer her up. She attempts to pack a picnic to fit into the mold that they want her to fit into. She’s just so unhappy making sandwiches. Sandwiches are for a different kind of bear. She returns home nearly broken and discovers that someone has eaten her porridge and loved it. She has found her audience. A little blonde girl. So you can do this in any way you want. Now, obviously, there is in my very dramatic Mama Bear telling, there is an event that happens in there that’s the catalyst, which is someone comes and eats her porridge. But what we’re looking at there is her attempting to fit herself into the mold that people are expecting her to be in, and her sadness that she is not appreciated for who she truly is. A great porridge artist. So…

[Dan] Well, now I want to read that version of the story.


[Mary Robinette] All right. So your job is to take whatever you’re working on and try to strip it down to being just character. Good luck.

[Dan] Excellent. You are out of excuses. Now go write.