Writing Excuses 13.25: Our Journey with Character
Key points: What about the journey you, as a writer, have made in writing about characters? When I started, I was very external conflict focused, with characters who got into a terrible disaster or big problem, and dug their way out. Now, I look more inward, toward character conflicts, internal conflicts, real character flaws. The characters are more nuanced. When you start out, they say, “Write what you know.” But you don’t know a lot, so you base your characters off friends, but they are just like you. Now, I focus on secondary characters, and how they interact with the main characters. The big change is that I’m focusing less on plot and more on exploring a really interesting person. Not creating a character who can do what I need, who can solve the problem, but just getting to know the characters. But I’ve fallen into a trap where my side characters are all the same! When I began, the characters were all simple melodies, melodic hooks. But as I explore variances in characters, as I add characters to the cast, I have discovered the underpinning, the mathematics of how characters and art and story interact. I’ve leveled up, and told the story in a new way. I have regrets, because I could have been writing symphonic scores for video games, but I love making comics.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 25.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Our Journey with Character.
[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… I’ve had such a journey. Oh, my…
[Dan] I love these episodes.
[Brandon] So, this is a weird episode. I put this one in kind of last-minute into the… This… The outline. I have no idea how it’s going to go. I wanted to ask the podcasters how their perspective on character has changed since they were a young writer. Since they first started writing. I’ll make myself go first to give them time to talk about this, so I can kind of show you what I mean. When I first started writing books back when I was a teenager and in my young 20s, I was very… I would say external conflict focused. All of my characters… If you’ve read Elantris, you’ll see this in Elantris in my characters. They were people who got into a really big problem and were kind of innately strong moral proactive people who had terrible, terrible disasters happen to them, and then spent the entire book digging their way out of it in some way or another. I wrote five or six books all this way. That was how I wrote characters. Particularly primary protagonists.
[Dan] Yeah. Like if you’ve read Elantris, that character…
[Brandon] You’ve read White Sand’s main character as well, and you’ve read just a lot of my early characters. That same thing. Dan’s just nodding his head.
[Dan] I’m thinking…
[Brandon] I guess it’s…
[Dan] I’ve read so many of those.
[Brandon] How it’s changed is the more I’ve written, I’ve very naturally looked inward with characters toward character conflicts, internal conflicts, character… Like, I had character flaws, but they’re always something very pithy and easy to say. Like in White Sand, which is my first book and my seventh book, and now you can read the graphic novel, the character flaw was he just wasn’t very good with the magic. In a world where he was supposed to… The story is about a guy, the guy who’s very weak in the magic, where everyone better than him dies and he has to take over. So his flaw is I’m the weakest guy around. That’s a handicap, really. There’s not a strong character flaw. The further I’ve written, the more I’ve had my characters look inward. But beyond that, the more I started to deal with things like… A great example is in Elantris, I have a character who has autism, but it’s very Hollywood autism. It’s very Rainman. Right? You can read that, it’s straight like Rainman sort of thing. In my latest books, there are three characters on the autism spectrum. People will read the books and be like, “Wait a minute. This character’s autistic, aren’t they?” It’s come from knowing people with autism, researching, actually reading about it. Not taking the super dramatic example is the only example of how someone who has this way of thinking exists and things like this. It’s me… I don’t want to say trying to be more nuanced, because that gives me maybe too much credit. But it’s me getting bored with doing the same thing and/or be trying to do better with… It’s like when I write a character, whatever attributes that character has, the people who share that attribute in their real life are giving me trust over that character to do it right and do it justification. If I do it poorly, and kind of the big glitz Hollywood way, what happens is, we have yet another checkmark on the one out of a thousand people who are like that and the other nine hundred and ninety-nine who share a condition with this but think wildly differently or have a wildly different life experience never end up getting represented. They’re like, “Oh, you know. You did what everyone did.”
[Howard] You’ve done them a disservice.
[Brandon] You’ve done them a disservice. I don’t want to say that, though, because that’s like saying Rainman did a disservice. There are legitimately people who have that type of autism. But it’s not the only way to express that in books.
[Howard] But the 10th movie that comes out depicting that condition the way Rainman did? After 10 movies, that qualifies as a disservice. Which is why I say it that way.
[Brandon] Exactly. So you see me looking inward at characters, doing character arcs differently, making internal conflict and dealing with flaws and handicaps in different ways. That’s been probably my biggest journey as a writer with character.
[Valynne] I think, for me, the… I think the problem is when you’re just starting out, you hear a lot, “Write what you know.” The problem is you don’t really know a lot, at all.
[Valynne] Like, for someone like me. So I decided that I would base some of the character… Characterizations off people I knew, my friends, and discovered that when I did that… The problem is that you’re friends because you have a lot in common. So you say a lot of the same phrases, and your interests are the same. That’s what kind of brought you together in the first place. So I think that it’s important to… For me, creating characters these days that are different, I focus a lot on the side characters, the secondary characters, and how… Based on those interactions or based on who those characters are, how they affect my main character. That has changed a lot. I mean, if you have a character who was raised by grandparents, it’s going to be different than a character who is raised by a single mother, but just looking at the side characters, and seeing what they’ve contributed to your main character’s life has helped me flesh out the characters so that they end up being a lot different from each other than they originally started.
[Dan] I… First of all, I just want to say I love how much you focus on relationships. Like, all the things you’ve said in all these episodes are so deeply clued into relationships and who these people are and where they come from. Which we don’t often talk about as much, which is cool. Anyway, I was just thinking about that when you were talking. So, my characters… The big change that I have gone through from my own perspective is that I am focusing less and less on plot and more and more on just exploring a really interesting person. I am now less concerned about creating a character who can do what I need them to do. I no longer worry about, “Well, this is the problem that needs to be solved. Is this person going to be able to pull that off?” Sure they will. Of course, they’re the hero. They can do it, eventually. What’s more interesting to me is just spending time with them and getting to know them. So, on the one hand, I’ve got a lot of books, a lot of my YA books all have female protagonists, teen girl protagonists. Kira is very different from Marissa who is very different from Quincy, who none of you have read because her book is not published yet. On the other hand, I have fallen into a trap that I’ve only just noticed where the boy that hangs out with that girl, they’re all the same. Marcus is basically just Bal who is basically just Ruben, who again, you’ve never read. So I’ve had to take back… Take a step back and go, “Now, wait.” I’ve been doing really well with my main characters, and kind of letting the side characters fall away.
[Brandon] I did that too. I’ve… It’s been fairly recent that I’ve noticed it, but more like in the last five or six years, that I was commonly letting side characters fall way more into tropes than the main character. I was focused so much on the main character.
[Dan] Yeah. Which I think is just a natural stage of progression, as you really start to love getting to know who this person is and just as deep as you can. You can’t get to know an entire cast of characters with that level of granularity without going nuts. So you do kind of have a tendency…
[Brandon] So that’s what happened to you.
[Dan] Aha ha ha. You have a tendency to kind of let it slide on those. Like, “Ah, yeah, you know the best friend boy. He can just be the best friend boy.” But then my writing group on this most recent book is like, “Um. This guy does not have a very distinct personality.” I realized, “Oh, yes he does, it’s just this other person’s personality.”
[Howard] We should do our book of the week.
[Brandon] Oh, you want more time to think, do you? All right.
[Howard] I… I’ll be honest with you. I’m trying to find a way to articulate this so it goes quickly.
[Howard] Because it’s a long story.
[Brandon] Let’s do our book of the week. My Lady Jane.
[Valynne] Okay. My Lady Jane is written by Brodie Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows. One of the things that these authors do so well is humor. It’s kind of a young… It’s a young adult… Basic description would be a Princess Bride meets Ladyhawke. Some of you may be…
[Dan] I want to read it right now.
[Valynne] Way too young for Ladyhawke. But basically, there are three characters that this book focuses on. It’s from different perspectives. It’s going back to the time where Edward is the king of England, and he’s dying. So he’s trying to focus on finding an heir, and he’s getting his cousin Jane ready to… He’s arranging a marriage to secure their kingdom. There’s also a horse that turns into a man. He turns into a man during the day, at dawn, and then turns into a man at night. So the three of them get drawn into this conspiracy and have to figure their way out. But the thing that I love is mostly the humor in the way that these characters interact with each other. The time period is just fun as well.
[Brandon] That sounds great. Is the soundtrack done by Alan Parsons Project or…
[Dan] In my head, all books have a soundtrack by the Alan Parsons Project.
[Brandon] Actually, I don’t think Ladyhawke was technically the Alan Parsons Project, but… There is a relationship there.
[Brandon] Howard, you’re up. Come on.
[Howard] Okay. I majored in music. Specifically, music composition. One of my feelings is that… I mean, I could write a melodic hook. [Garbled] They called me Mister Viral Melody because I could write a melodic hook very, very quickly. It was a thing that I was good at. What I was not good at was taking these things that worry a minute and a half long and turning them into a four or five minute piece that explores variations on that melody. In part, that’s because of a general failing, which is that I just didn’t know how to put the time in. I didn’t know how to do the difficult things. I had done the easy part, and it’s cool, and it sounds good, and can I be done and turn this in? By the way, I graduated with a degree in music composition, so apparently the bar is lower than it should have been.
[Howard] The bar is quite a bit lower than it should have been. But when I look at my work, writing and cartooning… I look back at it. I’ve been doing this now for almost 18 years. I have learned to do the hard things. When I began, these characters were… They were one-hit wonders. They were simple melodies. They were melodic hooks. I have needed to draw them out for 18 years. There have been… If you know the mathematics behind how a fugue is written, you’ll see that the melody for a fugue… Not every melody can be turned into a fugue. In fact, there are a lot of melodies that sound like they will make a good fugue, and then you find out halfway through that they don’t. I had that happen to me several times. The point here though is that as I am exploring variances in characters, as I’m adding more characters to the cast, I’m discovering this underpinning, this mathematics of how the characters and the art and the story all interact. I don’t have an actual mathematical formula for it, but… But when I close my eyes and sit in the chair with the blanket on me and the cat on the blanket, thinking about the next things that happen in the story, the pictures in my head are the same as the pictures were when I was trying to write music. I know that sounds really weird and creepy, but that’s the way it works. That journey… For me, the journey has been one where periodically I will do something that I just love in cartooning and realize, “Wow. I’ve leveled up. I’ve told the story in a new way. This has been awesome.” I told a story entirely from female points of view. I didn’t think that was even possible. Did I do it well? I did it better than I would have three years earlier. Could I do it better now? Absolutely. But I was very pleased with it at the time. I look at that and I look back at my career as a musician and I’m disappointed. Because I was not the musician I could have been if I had woken up and paid attention to doing the hard things. So ultimately, my journey with character is this journey where I’m looking back at me as a musician and shaking my head and saying, “Dude. I know you love making comics, but you could have been writing symphonic scores for video games. If only you had gone a little deeper than these little cardboard melodies you spat out.”
[Dan] That story was sadder than I thought it was going to be.
[Howard] It was not going to end happy.
[Howard] Honestly, if you come back…
[Dan] Come on, funnyman. You’re supposed to be funny.
[Howard] If you… If any story you tell about your journey, if it does not reflect back and have some regret in it, you’ve lied. And I’m not gonna lie. Well, I’m gonna lie. A lot. But I’m not going to lie about that. There are regrets. We’ve done things wrong. We get things wrong all the time. I love that… Recently, I wrote an argument between Ellen Foxworthy and Kevyn Andreyasn in the comic. Kevyn apologizes. My email box was flooded with people who were saying, “Oh, my gosh. You need to… You need to make a poster of this apology, so that people can learn how to apologize. That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. It’s so in-character and so perfect.” When I wrote it, I was crying the whole time because I had learned how to feel what that character was feeling and talk my way out of it in ways that explored all of the mistakes that he now recognized he was making. That was really difficult writing to do. It was fun getting email that says, “Hey, wow, you’re awesome.” But it hurts to recognize that I could not have reached that point without having made some of that character’s exact mistakes and failed to appropriately apologize for them.
[Brandon] Every once in a while, you remind us why we have you on the podcast.
[Howard] Thanks. Those moments fill me with regrets.
[Brandon] No, that was brilliant, Howard. That was really, really well done. I’m glad we did this episode. I’m glad I kind of gave you guys free rein.
[Brandon] Dan, you’re going to give us some homework.
[Dan] Yes. We want you to do what we have just done. You can learn a lot about yourself as a writer and editor goals for the future by taking stock of where you are. So find someone, some wonderful person who is willing to listen to you, in your writing group, or a significant other, or whoever it is. Then give them your journey with character. Talk about when you first started writing, how did you do characters. How do you think you have changed since then, and where do you think you should go next?
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.