Writing Excuses 9.10: Engaging Characters

Nancy Fulda joins us for a discussion of engaging characters. We begin by explaining how engaging characters don’t need to be sympathetic, but certainly can be, and then we head into why we find particular characters engaging. We also talk about how this plays into the villain problem, where the villain is more interesting than the hero is.


Put a character in a difficult situation, and then throw away your first three ideas for how they’re going to get out of that situation.

Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn, narrated by Marc Thompson. Note also the free excerpt of the “Behind the Scenes” recording, featuring Timothy Zahn and his editor, Betsy Mitchell.

24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.10: Engaging Characters”

  1. I’ve heard the argument about blank slate characters a lot, and I honestly find the suggestion nauseating. The entire basis of this argument is built around a single type of reader – the self-inserters. (I’m sorry, no matter how you twist that it will still come out wrong – some of the less formal things discussing this have spent paragraphs (or several minutes of dialogue) trying and failing to avoid the imagery.) And some people are like that. The success of blank-slate romance stories (Twilight, for instance, if you include monstrophilia) suggests that many people are like that. And maybe if you’re motivated by profit, you like the idea of catering to the whims of this subset of society. However, I’d argue that you’d be wrong to do so, even on the purely economic level. Since the blank slate story provides the same core experience (like the hero’s tale monomyth, but worse), the people you’re trying to cater to are not going to be the avid readers who will latch on to every scrap of paper you wrote on with the desperation of a drowning man reaching for driftwood. They’re going to find something that scratches the itch every once in a while, and move on. Or they’re going to receive steady, measured dosages of 1 hour, once a week, in TV format where you’re going to be massively overworked and underpaid and thus shouldn’t be doing that for economic reasons anyway.

    The aforementioned driftwood is the interesting, the bizarre, the unique, the disturbing…the new. It may have some degree of self insertion appeal (Did anyone reading Vin’s first time using steel and iron to fly around the city _not_ immediately wish they had that exact ability?), they also have things that are decidedly less appealing (Would you still want that ability if people who were better at it than you, stronger in every way imaginable than you and somehow had the ability to survive having giant iron spikes stabbed through their eyes and out the back of their heads were going to make it their mission in life to see you destroyed?…and that’s hardly the worst Vin gets to go through). I tend to despise young adult books. Harry Potter is simplistic; Hunger Games is bland, Eragon is largely derivative….Alkatraz is absolutely hilarious. He’s not some boiled down mockery of the average teenager in an atrocious attempt to be me, nor is he a bundle of beaten down angst and hatred and viciousness…he’s an absolute lunatic. And therefore, he’s brilliant.

    (Sorry to pick Brandon’s books so preferentially, but Epic Fantasy is my core genre.)

    If blank slate was good, then why do people like Song of Ice and Fire. Sure he has characters who you might want to see yourself as for a while…they just have a rather remarkable tendency to die. (Spoilers including Dance with Dragons: Ned’s the one decent person in the corrupt political center of the world, and he sticks to his ideals at a critical moment, ends up being beaten down, severely wounded, locked up in a cell with no light for months, then gets beheaded, possibly while knowing his own daughter is in the crowd of onlookers (I can’t remember if he manages to point Arya out to Yoren in the book or if that’s just the show). Robb is the great underdog. Brilliant campaigner, wins every battle, marries for love despite what the world demands of him…attends his uncles wedding and gets his entire army, himself, his mother and his new wife included, butchered by his hosts. John successfully infiltrates the Wildlings, establishes a rapport with them sufficient to eventually ally the Nights Watch with the Wildlings against the Others…and gets what’s possibly the most genuine relationship in the whole series despite his vows, but just before becoming Lord Commander of the combined forces of the Wildlings and the Nights’ Watch, he gets knifed by traditionalists in the Watch. (presumed dead – Martin has shown a bit of mercy, but not much).
    Or you could have Dany’s roller coaster of a life…marrying big brutal barbarian warlord at 13…except he turns out to be a really decent guy…except he dies of an infected wound and the healing ritual she attempts kills her unborn child and makes her infertile…up down, up down….

    And I dare someone to pick out 1 mortal character in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen who you’d like to be. (A couple of gods get a pretty decent run of things, but none of the mortals do.)

    Or Firefly? Seriously, I think Inara has the best deal of the whole lot, and given her profession (yeah, Companions get a bit more protection than most ‘ladies of the night’, but still) and (backstory spoiler:) her indeterminate terminal illness, that’s saying a fair bit.

    Go through your favorite stories. The stories that bring you back time and time again – the ones that hit a chord with you, that do something special. Consider actually having to be one of the characters in those stories. You don’t get any prescience to save you and alter events, just picture yourself in all the situations that character was in, having to do all the stuff that character did. Do you still want to be that person?

    Didn’t think so.

  2. Finally, WE – or at least Howard – discovers Breaking Bad. Welcome aboard! (“the fanship”)

    One thing I love about today’s episode is Howards admission that “creating engaging characters” is but a side effect of his thought process for creating a great story.

    More often than not I find characters engaging only in the context of their stories. I have no sympathy whatsoever for psycho/sociopaths, cannibals or serial killers – present company excluded, of course – and would not consider Dr. Hannibal Lector as engaging in any way, except in the context of his interaction with Clarice Starling.

    Examples from TV: None of the characters in The Big Bang Theory could engage me just by her/himself; it’s the interaction between this characters that makes each of them wonderful. And even if most of the NCIS team are interesting on their own, the interaction is still crucially important for drawing viewers in.

    Example from novels (the Master and Commander series): Dr. Maturin is definitely an interesting person, but when he is at sea, literally as well as figuratively, he is at his best.

    Yeah, storytelling,yo, bxxxx, yo

  3. I’m currently writing my 1st novel and I find my main character bland (maybe I’m just too insecure and/or close to the work). But the problem I see in fiction is that if the main character does anything but the most logical thing to do to solve the problem, then the story fails.

    Like the opposite in horror movies, the victim always runs upstairs to avoid being killed. We always say “don’t go upstairs!” when there’s almost always a more logical way of avoiding the villain.

    I find it very disengaging when a main character “runs upstairs” because I feel like the author is dumbing the character down in order to create another try/fail cycle.

  4. @ D Cornell
    >> anything but the most logical thing to do to solve the problem

    In real life, we all do things that in hindsight make problems worse instead of solving them. Sometimes we lack knowledge, skills or insight, sometimes we don’t have or do not take the time to think it over, sometimes we are too emotional … The most logical thing may go against our preconceived notions, may offend our sensibilities … We may be bound by policies, rules, customs to react in ways that are conterproductive …

    More general, many real life problems don’t have a solution that doesn’t make some things worse for someone. So it’s often a trade-off. Whether or not we do something really bad to achieve something very important is less a matter of logic than of value jugdement.

    Would you run upstairs instead of outside if you knew that your daughter is playing in the garden?

  5. What Timothy said. I could add more words and lots of examples but THIS THIS THIS.

    Oh, and if there really is only ONE logical, sensible course of action to a given set of circumstances, then unless we’re in a Man vs. Nature story, “IT’S A TRAP!” (–A. Ackbar, RotJ)

  6. The link to the free excerpt of the “Behind the Scenes” recording gets a ‘audio book is not available” page. Just a heads up.

  7. One thing about the run-up-the-stairs cliche: when we’re running on instinctive run-and-hide mode, going up is always the goal. Picture yourself as a stone age hunter gatherer fleeing a predator. You’re not going to outpace it – even a big, bulky slow predator like a lion or bear is significantly better at running than we are. So you need to outmaneuver it. Bipeds are pretty good at dodging left and right, reversing direction, etc., but on the 2D playing field, at best you’ve got a very long endurance match of anticipating and dodging attacks where a single mistake costs you your life. Not such a good survival strategy. Most predators (bears being the most noteworthy exception, though canines aren’t great at it either) are *really* good at pouncing on things below them, so going down isn’t an option. So, you go up. In archaic terms, you’re climbing a tree, and have your biggest weapons – your legs – in prime position to stomp the damned thing if it follows you up. No guarantees, true, but it’s better than playing tag on the ground all day. Going back even further, we’re monkeys (we’ve just forgotten how to climb), so of course up is the safe place to be.

    Problem is, those hardwired natural instincts don’t work well in modern situations. Going upstairs leaves you with nowhere else to go, and leaves the one way up to you just as indefensible as level terrain. (Heck, some of the people near the top of the Twin Towers on 9/11 decided to go to the roof). People fleeing an airplane that’s crashed want to run and flee, and pop their life vests immediately, when orderly lines to the exits are far more efficient (there’s plenty of doors for most scenarios that involve people actually surviving when they hit the ground), and having an inflated life vest on inside a flooded cabin just pins you to the top of the cabin (which may or may not be what you once considered the roof), making it virtually impossible to reach a door.

    So as cliche and stupid as going up the stairs is, when people are fleeing in panic it’s exactly what you should expect them to do.

    That said, if there’s no reason to seek refuge, or if there’s a competing instinct like protection of a child that overwhelms the basics, it becomes far less obvious.

  8. @Rashkavar & D Cornell
    Additionally, it’s not neccesarily instinctive run-and-hide mode, but the more general fight or flight instinct.

    Running up(stairs) is sometimes really bad for flight, but more often than not preferable for fight. You are typically looking for high ground. Unless you are Lord Wellington and like the reverse slope position. (Do not confuse with reverse cowgirl, please! )

    And the fight or flight decision is tough. Fighting the axe murderer is dangerous without full b0ody armour, but once you are running you are even more vulnerable.

    And since Breaking Bad is now on-topic: Maybe you decide to become the one who knocks!

  9. Rashkavar, I had a hard time reading what you wrote due to constant interruption of parenthesis (yes, it’s true). You load each one of your paragraphs with them (do you notice? After all, they are, of course, everywhere. Count them up, and you will find an over-abundance of parenthesis smack dab in the middle of your paragraphs), and all I want to do is skip over them so I can decipher the rest of the sentences they interrupted (I know, I hope I’m not being rude, it’s just that my eyes like to read complete sentences instead of skipping over possibly irrelevant info just to find the next half of the sentence. What you write looks intriguing, I just can’t get passed it with all the choking on parenthesis). Could you please (and, I do mean prettily (gorgeously (stunningly), in fact), if you have any desire to make your writing more natural to digest) monitor how many you add and keep them brief if you do (no insult or injury intended)? It (by “it,” I mean, taking care to spay and/or neuter your parenthesis) would be much appreciated.

    I’m hoping the absurdity of my paragraph gets you see it the way I see it. Parenthesis in moderation, my friend. Otherwise, I’d love to read through what you wrote. I may get back to it later.

    On the subject of the ‘cast, I read something about bland heroes very recently and found this to be quite the coincidence. Yes, it seems that it has something to do with fitting that leadership archetype. Leaders are almost always: brave but not courageous. Lacking courage gives me nothing to latch onto, so why do I want a brave protagonist? Leaders are almost always: good. That’s great, I like morally upright characters, personally, but I often see that quality as straight-edged and can do no wrong. Leaders are often stoic, lacking emotion in some way.

    Superman comes to mind. While his weakness is Kryptonite, I don’t like that he’s practically a Gary Stu, minus the self-insertion of the creator. He’s more the Gary Stu for the readers. You know he can’t be stopped. Frankly, Kryptonite is a cheap weakness. So, he’s physically harmed. Then what? It’s an artificial weakness. So, he’s morally upright. So, what? Unless Kryptonite is in his way, he can do no wrong, he can make no error in judgement, and that’s where I’m turned off to him as a character.

  10. Thanks for this podcast. I mean, thanks for all of them, sure, but this one in particular lit a lightbulb for me as to what went wrong in a novel I started, but abandoned at the halfway point, in sheer frustration a few years ago: my main character just wasn’t as interesting as my side characters.

    You guys rock, as always.

  11. Wanted to open a new topic that this episode made me think about…

    Also wanted to start a new support group: Villains Anonymous.

    Does anybody else sort of like it when the villain runs away with the story? Heroes, by their nature are like us–idealized versions, but like us. Their morals are conventional. Their motivations familiar.

    Villains are weird, fascinating creatures. They do things we would never do and–when they have a justifiable reason for the unreasonable or horrific–challenge our viewpoints and morals.

    Often a hero’s objective will be to survive or help someone else survive. The villain’s objective often provides risk for the hero and is more unusual, more complex and where the true creativity of the story resides.

    One of my favorite examples is Treasure Island. Jim Hawkins=ok, i guess. Long John Silver=a book that will not die.

  12. Nice Podcast.

    To defend Brandon and what he was saying about Harry Potter being a “Blank-slate” character:

    The general argument is that a protagonist who isn’t eccentric or otherwise conspicuously different from the reader helps facilitate reader sympathy with that character. The more “ordinary” and “unremarkable” that protagonist is, the more likely a wider audience will be able to relate to or sympathize with him because he’s just like the reader. His views are similar to the reader’s views.

    A blank slate character is one whose experiences are so limited that they’re impressionable enough to be shaped by their external environment. They begin as a “template” or “archetype” who then takes shape as the story progresses.

    These characters enable the reader to learn of the world THROUGH that character, AS that character is learning it. As another commentator suggested, it enables “self-insertion,” by the reader.

    Harry Potter IS a blank-slate character. He is the “orphaned-farm-boy-turned-hero” archetype, used commonly in the epic fantasy genre, who isn’t extraordinary in any way (until he learns he’s a wizard and the “chosen” hero). Because his opinions of magic and his life experiences mirror our own we would experience his introduction to the wizarding world in the same way we would. He starts out as a blank-slate character who’s as unknowledgeable and impressionable as the reader. And this allows readers to engage with the world and Harry through our ability to sympathize and relate to him.

    So Brandon is right to reference Harry Potter.

    I don’t mean to contradict Nancy when she says Harry isn’t blank-slated because he has motivations, but she’s wrong. Harry’s motivations/goals are the same as the readers. Harry starts with the same assumptions and goals as the reader. Then he learns of the world as the reader does. He is in every way a blank-slate character whose motivations/goals/beliefs change by external factors.

    As for the Hero/Villain “Problem” Brandon mentions, where the villain is more interesting than the hero, I see that as nothing more than lack of character development. It’s the author’s failing to fall back on formulaic writing techniques/archetypes. If any character is reactionary/predictable/ordinary, then that’s because the writer didn’t take the time to give him definable motivations, backstory, and personality.

    Heroes are characters who display courage and noble traits in the face of adversity or danger. Acting nobly or courageously doesn’t immediately suggest their actions are predictable.
    One culture’s idea of “heroism” will differ from another. What is courageous to one character is cowardly to another. It all depends on the development of each individual character within the context of the story. So I just think the problem lies more in lazy writing than anything else.

  13. I find different characters engaging for different reasons. To give an example, I find anti-heroes like Dexter and John Cleaver engaging because of their dark sense of humor. For more typical heroes like Sam, I admire his sense of loyalty. Honestly, the characters that I find the least engaging are whiny or presumptuous. By the third Hunger Games book, I was tired of Katniss. I wanted to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Also, self-righteous characters never work well for me.

  14. Great episode on characters. I find that each week you keep discussing topics both rigorously and succinctly, without ballooning your goal show length. Keep up the good work! I’ll be staying tuned for next week’s episode.

  15. In response to Katie’s comment on Superman, I agree that while kryptonite is a poor weakness, that’s not the part of the character that is the most interesting. To me, Superman is a fascinating character because of his true weakness — his moral compass. He has the physical power to accomplish miracles as a routine thing, but he is ruled by his sense of right and wrong. It is part of what I admire about the character, but that moral strength could be turned to harm him more than any weapon.

    I’d love to see someone explore a character like Superman where he has to make a hard choice. Not a choice that involves flying faster or punching harder, but one where the right and moral choice also extracts a price from him or those he cares about most. How would a man who never fails deal with knowingly causing harm as a result of making all the correct decisions? To me, that would be a fascinating story!

    So I guess I’m not really disagreeing with Katie, but rather commenting on how often the poor weakness or kryptonite is used when there is such fertile ground for some true drama with the “man of steel.”

  16. I need one on how to write dialoge properly.
    I’m really bad at writing plays, I need help.
    Please and thank you.

Comments are closed.