Writing Excuses 10.8: Q&A on Character
Questions and Answers:
Q: How do you have a character grow in power or expertise without making the villain ridiculous trying to compete with them?
A: Reverse engineer it. Start the character at a lower level, and let them grow.
Q: How do you give a flawed character a growth arc without fundamentally changing what made them likable in the first place?
A: Beware of making a character unlikable to start. Also watch for giving the character multiple flaws. Let the character retain some of their flaw, just get better at managing it. Use different growth.
Q: When you have a first-person POV character, how do you convey the character arcs and emotional complexity of supporting characters since you can’t see their thoughts and they have lives offscreen?
A: You live a first-person life, and yet you know your friends have emotional complexity and arcs. You are aware of other’s lives — convey that! Show your character’s reaction to them. Make sure everything is not about the main character. Let your main character learn something they never knew about the side characters.
Q: How do you create an interesting and engaging story with a main character who is not the protagonist?
A: Main character, protagonist, action character, hero — think of different roles. Think about Watson. Beware of making the character just an observer. Make sure they have agency and motivation.
Q: How can a novice or beginning writer tell when a plot is driving his character instead of the other way around, and how can you prevent this?
A: Best way to spot this is readers. Keep in mind what the character wants.
Q: How do you write a character with offensive views or attributes without offending or alienating your audience? Basically, how do you divide a character’s views from your author views?
A: Have other characters point it out. Have the character catch themselves. Let other character model other behavior, and responses. Expose inconsistencies by having two or more groups argue about it. Show repercussions to the reader, even if the characters don’t notice.
Q: How do you write believable characters that have, for example, a different religion or age or gender than you?
A: Forums! See what people really say. Make their arguments, not strawman ones. Get alpha readers from that group. Research and checking with people.
Q: What are some tips and tricks for writing a sympathetic antagonist?
A: A puppy. Rational argument for their beliefs, and make sure they want something plausible.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode Eight.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Character.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I can’t wait to find out what questions they have for us.
[Brandon] Once again, we are at the Writing Excuses retreat.
[Brandon] Now we are letting wonderful folks model for you how to ask questions of us, just like last month we had them do. Next month, we will be going to you, our listeners, to give us questions about story structure. So be thinking of them already. You can post them on our forum. You can send them to us via the email, and we will put out a call for them.
[Mary] Or you can wait until we have actually posted the things, so if you want to ask something specific about one of those, then you can.
[Brandon] Yes. The next time we record, we will be recording and asking for questions right then after the other two episodes have gone live. So, right now, we want to have these wonderful folks ask us questions about character.
[Nicholas] How do you have a power… A character grow in power or expertise without making the villain ridiculous trying to compete with them?
[Mary] Well, sometimes you have to reverse engineer this. Which means that you have to start your character at a slightly lower level than you had planned, so that they have someplace to go.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s the main thing I would say is often when the story’s being told, the villain has arrived at their moment of power, and the protagonist has to rise up to compete with them. This doesn’t just happen in fantasy books, though. You can look at the Rocky films in this sort of way. Several of them are about “I am out of shape and I have to beat this guy.” We now must spend a movie getting me in shape to beat this guy.
[Howard] So what you’re saying is montage.
[Brandon] Montage. Yes. I suppose you could just say the Wheel of Time was then a 14 book montage?
[Howard] Oh, man.
[Mary] Okay. Stacy?
[Howard] What’s the music it’s set to? Stacy.
[Stacy] How do you give a flawed character a growth arc without fundamentally changing what made them likable in the first place?
[Dan] That’s cool.
[Brandon] That’s an excellent question. I think there are two parts to this question, actually, that I’m going to drill down into. One is the how… The kind of reverse of this. A lot of new writers want to start a character with an arc, so they make them thoroughly unlikable at the beginning to have them grow into likability. So how do you tell a story like that? The second is also this idea, if they’re going to grow out of their quirks or whatever, the tragic flaw, the thing that is stopping them, and may have made them interesting at the beginning, how do you maintain interest in this character?
[Mary] I say, one of the things that I see people doing is that when they want to have tragically flawed characters that they will give them multiple flaws which makes them annoying. It also makes it hard to change them, because then you are trying to change them along multiple axes. So I think that if you pick one tragic character flaw to work on… The other thing is that the process of growing out of a character flaw. No one ever grows all the way out of their character flaw. They just become better at managing it.
[Brandon] That’s a very good point. I think again of those three sliding scales that I talked about, since these are character things. The character of House, which was a very popular television show character for many years. This is a great example of a competent character who’s not very likable. Right? You can’t have him grow out of his curmudgeonliness because part of the fun of that show is the tension between competence and unlikability. So if you give this character an arc where they suddenly are getting over all of this, then you’re not going to enjoy them anymore. My Fair Lady is basically the same thing. Very competent, very unlikable. This character does have an arc, however.
[Dan] Those are both examples of a character who has an arc and is growing, but is not overcoming that particular flaw. John Cleaver is the same way. He has a flaw, but he’s growing in other areas.
[Mary] The other thing about these characters is that they have someone who is fond of them. Someone who loves them because of their flaw, and that helps us, the reader, understand that that is possible.
[Howard] At risk of foreshadowing the story structure stuff, if your character… Well, look at House. House cannot overcome his curmudgeonliness because ongoing television series. But Eliza Doolittle can overcome some of her unlikableness.
[Mary] That’s funny because I was thinking…
[Brandon] I was thinking of the professor.
[Howard] Either of them. Their character arcs can run a full course, and we can reach the end of the story, and stop.
[Mary] Right. Neil.
[Neil] When you have a first-person POV character, how do you convey the character arcs and emotional complexity of supporting characters since you can’t see their thoughts and they have lives offscreen?
[Mary] It’s… I mean…
[Dan] It’s hard.
[Mary] It’s hard, but you know your friends, and you know they’re the ones that have character flaws, and you know the ones that you have to filter. You are living your life as a first-person character. So when you’re writing a first-person character, they are interacting and judging their friends in the same ways. So one of the ways you can show this arc and show the growth is showing your character’s reaction to them. So like, I can examine Howard’s dislike of mint in his chocolate, a serious character flaw, because he expresses it to me verbally, he refuses to eat it, and if he at some point is convinced that that is wrong and eats a piece of chocolate with mint in it and declares it yummy, I would recognize that and respond to it.
[Howard] You could also see me… She could observe me sneaking up behind her during her mirror scene.
[Howard] Maybe not.
[Brandon] The thing we said last week about making sure that everything is not about the main character is an excellent way to approach this. You get this problem… This is the whole problem with the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test is the idea that… This woman came up with a test she gives to movies. Were there two women in the movie? Number one, and did they ever have a conversation together? If they did, was it not about a man? The idea being that a lot of people… Males, particularly, are making films where there are lots of guy characters, but there’s only one woman. And if there is another woman, then they’re talking about the guy characters, which again, is everything’s focused on the protagonist. That makes these people not seem to have lives at all. In your first-person narrative, everything about your life is in your head about you, but you see so much going on externally that is not. That gives you an awareness of other people. You need to convey that.
[Howard] There is a… That I just thought up now. There is a version of the Bechdel test you could perform in a first-person manuscript. Does your first-person character ever observe side characters talking about something other than…
[Brandon] The main character.
[Howard] The first-person narrator.
[Brandon] Is that Bechdel as I’m saying…
[Howard] Bechdel is the way I’ve heard it said.
[Dan] Having your main character learn something they never knew about the side characters is kind of an easy way to peek behind that curtain and realize that there’s something back there, that they have their own life.
[Brandon] All right. Gamma, let’s do your question.
[Gamma] How do you create an interesting and engaging story with a main character who is not the protagonist?
[Mary] So this is basically the Great Gatsby.
[Brandon] Yeah. How do you… They are your protagonist, but they are not the main…
[Mary] They are not the action character.
[Brandon] Action character in the story.
[Mary] I mean, Watson…
[Dan] You know, though, really…
[Dan] It’s more accurate to call him Great Gatsby’s monster.
[Dan] No one ever reads the book.
[Brandon] So how do you do this? This is a very good question, because very rarely do you want to do this, but you certainly can, and some great stories have come out of this experience. The big danger is making this character too observational.
[Mary] Right. You still have to give them some agency so that there is some action that they can take. You also need to give them something, some desire that they want. Even if they are the support staff. Like…
[Howard] Several seasons ago, we talked about the concept that you can have a story in which the main character and protagonist and hero are three different roles carried by three different people. It’s a structure that’s very different from what a lot of people use, but there are some good examples of it in film and books. I like recognizing that those are three different roles.
[Brandon] For all its flaws, that BBC show about the Abbey… What’s it, the Downton Abbey? I watched a few episodes of that with my wife. It was pretty easy to identify who quote unquote the main character was. There isn’t one for that show, but who is the action character for that? You’ve got the struggle between like the dad and his daughter. That’s kind of what… Everyone’s fate depends on this. Very little time is actually spent on that, but it will have ramifications for the entire cast. Their passions, their stories, who they’re in love with, who they’re… Who they’re having conflict with on the staff is all their stories, but they are not the action characters.
[Brandon] Gamma, I want to actually ask you, while you’re at the microphone, will you please do our book of the week for us?
[Gamma] Okay. Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher, narrated by Kate Reading. It’s a fantasy based on Roman culture instead of the traditional medieval Europe. The main character is the only guy in the world without magic. He has to go about solving these huge problems when everyone including himself sees him as basically the least capable person in the entire world.
[Howard] Cool. Yeah. The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher, narrated by Kate Reading. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a free trial membership…
[Mary] I’m just going to…
[Howard] Kate Reading’s amazing.
[Mary] I just wanted to say, she’s a fantastic narrator.
[Howard] Oh, absolutely.
[Brandon] I’ve read this book. It is an excellent fantasy book. Jim Butcher is better known for his urban fantasies with the Dresden files, but his epic fantasy, I think, is some of the best out there. Kate Reading read the Wheel of Time books and is one of my favorite readers of all time. She also reads a little series called the Stormlight Archives. So I’m quite fond of that.
[Mary] She’s kind of good. I interrupted you as you were telling them… The…
[Howard] Oh. I was just going to tell them that this thing that we’ve been touting they can get free.
[Brandon] All right. Next question.
[Nathan] How can a novice or beginning writer tell when a plot is driving his character instead of the other way around, and how can you prevent this?
[Mary] Well, when your character has no life outside of the plot, and when all of the decisions that they’re making aren’t grounded…
[Brandon] There’s a bigger test that I’ve been able to find for new characters. It’s when they force the characters to do things that are not foreshadowed or in their personality because the plot demands it. The best way to spot this is with external readers. Because particularly as a new writer, when you’re in there, you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, this is part of their personality.” Because in the back of your head, you’ve known for chapters they need to do this certain thing in the plot. When you hand that to readers, they’re like, “Wait a minute.” This is one of the easiest things for non-writer readers to pick out. A lot of times they won’t be able to pick out what’s wrong with a story. But when a character acts out of character the picture you’ve painted for them, huge red flags and they… You will have them screaming and yelling at you is my experience.
[Dan] What I try to do with mine is always keep in mind, “What does the character want?” Other than to… Other than the book. If you can’t answer that question first of all, then your character might not be well-developed enough. If you get to a point where what your character wants is completely forgotten because they’re just pursuing your plot, then that’s a good sign.
[Brandon] All right.
[Alan] How do you write a character with offensive views or attributes without offending or alienating your audience? Basically, how do you divide a character’s views from your author views? [Inaudible]
[Brandon] Mary, have you not just written an entire book dealing with this concept?
[Mary] Dealing with that. I’ve got two books dealing with that concept. Yeah. This is really actually kind of hard. It falls into the category of we could do a whole podcast on that.
[Howard] Yeah, I kind of want to can-of-worms it, but… Short answer?
[Mary] Short answer is there’s a couple of tools you can use. One is that you can have other characters call them on it. That helps people know that there are alternate ways of thinking about things, and that you, the author, are aware of and do not approve. You can also have the character say the thing and check themselves. Again, this helps. The other thing is that even if the other characters don’t actively call them on it, you can have someone else model different behavior and you can have characters respond to them. Even if it’s just an eye roll at something that is offensive without actually coming out and saying it. The last piece is that whatever it is that they say, you can have a character model exactly the opposite behavior. A really good example of this, Howard Andrew Jones has a series that I’ve talked about before which is kind of Arabian Nights meets Sherlock Holmes. The Watson character is… It’s 14th century Persia, and he is a man of his times. He just wants to… He wants to be kind… He’s a chauvinist. He just wants to be kind to the little ladies. They get annoyed with him. He’s like, “These women are so… So…”
[Mary] Emotional. But their behavior is such that it is absolutely clear why they are annoyed with him, and it’s because of his behavior.
[Brandon] Yeah. The Wheel of Time covered this in several places in beautiful ways I liked. The women would complain about the men gossiping, while they’re gossiping.
[Brandon] The men would complain about the women gossiping, while they’re gossiping about the women. Which was a great way, when you show both sides of this. This is just a little bit of sexism on both parts, but it kind of shows both groups are being pretty sexist at this point.
[Dan] That’s a good way to do it, when it’s not just one character, but an entire culture that espouses some kind of awful thing, whether it’s racism or whatever. Showing… You can find ways to expose their own inconsistencies with two different groups that argue about each other. You can show the repercussions of a behavior or attitude that they all accept, and yet it’s plain to the reader, through dramatic irony, that there’s something deeply flawed about it.
[Mary] One of the tricks that I use in one of the books was that I had people saying horrible racist things in front of a character who is unable to respond to them and show the character… Kept using the narration to refer to the character who… Refer to the maid who was standing there and I didn’t let any of the main characters, any of the characters who were participating… They were all ignoring her, but I kept using the narration to refer back to her. These are people who are saying things about this person.
[Brandon] I’ve seen that work very well on film, where people are being racist and a servant comes in. You could just see from her posture how she’s responding to this.
[Brandon] Let’s do the next question. Alex?
[Alex] How do you write believable characters that have, for example, a different religion or age or gender than you?
[Brandon] I’ve done a lot of this recently. My big tip is… Forums.
[Brandon] There are forums for everything out there, and if you go find one that… Don’t find the detractors’ forum. If you want to go write about Scientologists, don’t go to the anti-Scientologists forum. Granted, going there to get perspective, it’s going to be helpful to you. But you want to… Your job as a writer, I think, is to… Anytime you’re putting someone into your story who has a belief different from your own, your job is to research that belief and to make the arguments as well as they would want it to be made if they were writing that story. Other characters can make completely different arguments, and probably should. Even the narrative itself can undermine that story. Let’s say you’re doing somebody who believes in white power. But you want that voice to be the argument they would make, not the strawman that other people assume they make. Those are very different things. You get those by going to the forums and looking for the threads where they’re complaining about what people say about them.
[Howard] The other thing to bear in mind is that if the story is not necessarily about their religion or race or creed or gender that’s different from yours, if it is about something completely different, look for the ways in which these people are like you.
[Mary] There is very specifically a Tumblr, I think it’s called Diversity Check. I will make sure and give the correct URL to put in the liner notes. It is a Tumblr full of people who are… Who say, this is who I am and this is my background and I am happy to answer questions for you, writer. So that when you are representing my… Me in your book, that you are…
[Howard] Oh, that’s cool.
[Brandon] That’s a great resource.
[Dan] That’s really cool.
[Mary] It’s a fantastic resource.
[Dan] One of the big benefits of that kind of a resource or a forum over a book… I mean, if you want to do research in a book, hooray for you. But what you’re going to get from Internet communication is the actual voice of the person. Not somebody talking about their culture.
[Howard] Also, you’ll become a better person.
[Brandon] Alpha readers…
[Dan] But actually their voice itself.
[Brandon] Alpha readers from whichever culture or religion you’re using is very important. Even if it’s something as simple as gun nuts. Gun nuts are like a religion, I’ve found. In writing a character in the Steelheart series, he was a gun nut. In that, there are various sects within gun nuts who disagree on the proper terminology and things to do. Which is awesome. So getting different people with different perspectives. I do want to mention something I said earlier. I said your story can be designed in such a way that the story itself kind of undermines their position. Be very careful about that. It feels to me that that’s an easy way to… The example I have is…
[Dan] Turn your book into a soap opera.
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. Jasnah, a character in the Stormlight Archives, is an atheist. If I put her into a book and then show lots of gods doing things that she refuses to believe in, to say those are gods, that’s going to really undermine her viewpoint. Instead, I have to have her say… It has to be a rational argument on her part that says, “That’s not God. That’s something else.” You’ve got to work to make sure that your story isn’t undermining who your characters are. Except in special occasions.
[Mary] I’m just going to flag that everything we just talked about is for current cultures, and that when you are dealing with historical cultures or…
[Dan] I can’t go find a message board of historical characters talking to each other?
[Mary] Strangely, no. Although…
[Mangled — Dan could, Howard except…]
[Mary] Actually… You actually can, and they’re called letters.
[Mary] So looking for letters, travelogues, diaries, fiction written by pe… By the culture that you are looking at. These are all things that will help you understand. But what we’re really saying is that you have to do a lot of research and checking with people and you can’t rely completely and totally on the research.
[Brandon] Excellent. We’re going a little long this week because we have only one more question left and I want to let him get to it.
[Howard] Also because these have been amazing questions.
[Brandon] They have been.
[Howard] Next time we have these people ask questions, what we should let them do is give us episode topics.
[Marty] What are some tips and tricks for writing a sympathetic antagonist?
[Mary] Give him a puppy.
[Dan] Give them a… Like Brandon was just saying, give them a rational argument for their own belief system. Make sure that they want something plausible, and that they wanted in a plausible way.
[Brandon] [garbled — I would say number one?]
[Howard] Find the commonalities between them and the things that we identify as good. Maybe the thing that makes them the antagonist is just one piece. The puppy. The fact that they don’t like mint in their chocolate.
[Brandon] It’s actually… Characterizing the antagonist is going to be easier than you think it is, meaning making the reader dislike them is going to be easier than you think it is, because if they’re at cross purposes with people that you already like, they’re immediately going to dislike them. So working a little bit extra hard on making that sympathy side is, I think, where you want to put your effort. Thank you guys very much. This has been a fantastic session of questions, Writing Excuses Retreat. Let’s hear from you guys again.
[Brandon] You are awesome. Dan has our writing exercise.
[Dan] Okay. So this writing exercise, as always, if you haven’t been following along and you’re coming in new, you can just do this, kind of tweak it to your own purposes. But if you have been following along all month, we’ve been doing writing exercises about a scene with a dead drop in a marketplace. What your goal is now, getting ready for structure next month, is you’re going to look at that scene and then sketch out… You don’t have to write them, just sketch out what’s going to happen in the scene immediately before and immediately after that dead drop in the marketplace.
[Brandon] Yeah. Everybody’s been somewhere and is going someplace. Knowing that is the first step to creating a good structure. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.