Writing Excuses 13.40: Fixing Character Problems, Part I
Key points: What do you do when readers say your character is boring? How do your characters relate to the plot? What about it matters to them, why are they hurting, what choices are they making? What is the role of the character in the story, and what unusual ways can they fill that role? When main, or point-of-view characters, are boring, they probably need something to be passionate about, while secondary characters need more external attributes developed. Make the character more proactive. Check for flanderization, and make sure you are using all their facets. Hav you pushed yourself on a character and been rewarded? Yes. The hot girl who became a favorite main character. Sgt. Schlock growing a conscience. How did you do it? What are the steps? First, see the hot girl through someone else’s experience. Show that she is an individual. Show that shoppnig is a hobby, and what is important to her.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 40.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Fixing Character Problems, Part I.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And this is going to take more than 15 minutes.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] The reason this is a part one is, with our new format we started last year, we have different teams of podcasters, and I wanted to try something where we pitched some of the same questions at one team and then the next team, and see how the answers get shaken up and see how it feels different, because this is a… This is really a method podcast right here, this one, where it’s like how do you go about this specific thing. In this case, it’s how do you go about fixing problems with characters. So we’re going to pitch most of these out Howard and Dan, because Mary and I will be next week in Chicago.
[Dan] Because we write really problematic characters.
[Brandon] Actually, you are one, so…
[Dan] It makes it easy.
[Brandon] So, my first question is, readers say your character’s boring. What do you do?
[Dan] Make them interesting.
[Brandon] Ooo, okay.
[Mary] Well, thanks, Dan, for that insight.
[Dan] Yeah. Anytime. Okay. So, what I like to do with my characters is to figure out, and I’ve talked about this before, is how they are specifically related to this plot. Not in the sense that the plot is driving them, but what about this plot matters to them? What is hurting them? What choices are they making that no one else in the same situation would make? Often, when the character is boring, it’s because those links are very soft.
[Howard] Oh, interesting. See, I’ll often approach it from the more plot-driven way, which is to ask what is, in as clichéd terms as possible, what is this character’s role in the story? Is it supposed to be a plucky sidekick? Is this the protagonist? Is this the grizzled veteran hero whatever? What is their role in the story? What are the things that they are supposed to be doing in order to move the story forward? Then, I follow that up with, what is the most interesting/destructive/unexpected way that they could fill that role? Even if it breaks the story, it’s those… I put those answers on the table, because often, as I’m coming up with that, something will shake loose and I’ll realize, “Oh, wait. That is… That’s so crazy it just might work. Because that’s not clichéd at all.”
[Brandon] So, that’s interesting, because when I’ve had this problem, sometimes it’s the opposite problem. Meaning I have confined a character too much to a role, and I’m not allowing them to grow. In fact, the reason…
[Howard] That is absolutely… That is spot on. There are so many kinds of problems I can have with a character. Usually, when they’re boring, it’s because they’re not doing anything interesting, and I start with the interesting things they have to do. Sometimes, they’re boring because the things they’re doing are predictable. Even if they’re interesting things, they’re predictable because they’re fitting the story role too closely. Then, I ask the same question, what’s the story role? What sort of extracurricular story roles can they fill in interesting ways?
[Mary] I think, for me, the way I handle it depends on whether I’m talking about a main character, a point of view character, or a secondary character. Because I don’t handle it quite the same way for the two characters.
[Brandon] Well, talk us through the different ways.
[Mary] With the point of view character, I find when they are boring, it’s usually having to do with the reader is not enjoying being along for the ride with them. So this often means that I have to give them something that they are passionate about that isn’t directly related to the story, or I have to look at the ways that they are connected, as Dan was talking about, to the story. That I haven’t sufficiently developed those. When I’m dealing with a secondary character, what I’m looking at are the external attributes of the character. Whereas, with a main character, it’s all the internal attributes that are… That I think the reader is primarily responding to. So with a secondary character, there I’m looking at trying to make sure that I bring out a quirk or do something to make them more specific and distinct. But it’s much more dealing with the way they are expressing and moving through the world, rather than the way they are experiencing the world, which is the way I tackle it with the main characters.
[Brandon] So, the times I’ve had the most trouble with this, I found the solution for me either is to make the character more proactive. This character doesn’t… Often times, they just aren’t doing enough. Everybody else is doing things around them, and they need something to work on themselves. Or, as the story I’ve shared before, when Dan read one of my more recent… It’s been a few years now, books, and said, “The main character’s the most boring one. Everybody else has passions about life and has character arcs, and your main character is static, and is playing a straight man for everyone else to bounce off of.” Which, it’s okay to have someone play the straightman for people to bounce off of, but when it’s your main character and most of the viewpoints are from that person’s viewpoint, it’s going to be… End up being a boring story with this kind of hole at the center of it with all these active things happening around them.
[Dan] Another thing… We talked a few months ago about flanderization, and… Wear a character just becomes a quirk or a caricature of themselves. So I find… I don’t do a lot of pre-work on characters all the time, but I try to, if I know I’m going to have a big cast, write up a quick sketch of who they are and try to make that is round as I can. Because if a character’s boring, what’s often going on is that I am just writing them the same way in every scene. They’re not who they… They’re not themselves, they’re just that version of themselves that was in chapter one. So going back to that initial pre-write and saying, “Oh, there’s all these other facets that didn’t show up in the first chapter and I’ve been ignoring them, I need a way to pull those in.”
[Brandon] Let’s stop and talk about our book of the week, which is the Heroine Complex.
[Mary] Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn. This was pitched to me as The Devil Wears Prada with superheroes. It is a fun, kicky, literally often, story about the personal assistant… Told through the point of view of the personal assistant to a superhero. There are demons from another plane coming through, and the demons imprint on the first thing that they see. The story opens with them having, into a cupcake shop. So she is fighting demonic cupcakes. Which kind of tells you the tone all the way through. The thing that I love about this is that while it is about superheroes, it’s actually about the interpersonal problems between the characters. I think that Sarah does a really good job of having characters that are very extreme, larger than life, but also very rounded.
[Brandon] Excellent. The Heroine Complex.
[Mary] By Sarah Kuhn.
[Brandon] All right. Question for you guys, and I’m going to ask this to the next week’s podcasters as well. Are there times you’ve pushed yourself on a character and been rewarded? Meaning, the character was okay, but some of the feedback came back, maybe this character’s little bland or you thought this character’s not living up to what everyone else in the story is doing, and you pushed yourself, and it worked?
[Dan] I’ve got a great one for this. So, in the Serial Killer books, in book one, there’s one character whose entire job is (A) to have a father who’s a cop because I needed that particular thing to come out in a scene, and (B) to be really attractive so that my obsessive stalker main character could fixate on her. That character was Marcy, who, by the end of the trilogy, became many people’s favorite character. That’s because the writing group kept saying, “She is so one-sided and cliché. We need her to be more than just the hot girl.” So pushing and giving her extra sides and giving her more to do really paid off.
[Howard] One of my favorite moments… And this wasn’t something that grew out of reader feedback. It was the realization that… And I realized this 5 years ago. Sgt. Schlock is an iconic character. He’s a character who doesn’t get much of an arc. If you look at who he is in book 8 versus who he is in book 10, book 2, he’s always just kind of got a 4 point moral compass. Kill it, eat it, talk to it, take a bath in it. Those are what he does. In book 13, I killed him. And brought back a clone that had lost 4 days. A lot of people were kind of shocked at that. “Oh, my gosh, you’ve upended your whole story, how does… this changes the whole dynamic of… How can you kill characters?” What I was setting up was something that I really wanted to do in book 16, which was Schlock growing a conscience. Where he is in a prison cell and is actually mourning over having killed people. Because he’s killed a lot of people. It set up one of my very favorite scenes, which a lot of people have emailed me about, and said, “Wow, I was not expecting this amount of power in a story.” It was the concept that a soldier’s sacrifice is not dying, a soldier’s sacrifice is killing so that other people don’t have to. Because killing hurts. I couldn’t tell that with any of the characters other than Schlock because it would ring too heavy. With him, I sort of trick people into thinking it was jokey, and then it was heavy, anyway.
[Howard] But that… That was incredibly pushy, and I remember one of the… Actually, a neighbor kid came over and asked me, “Why did Schlock have to grow a conscience?” I had to tell him, “It’s okay. He’ll kill things again someday.”
[Howard] Just not in the same way.
[Brandon] How did you make this decision? Like, was this early on, or…
[Howard] No, it was about… It would have been… During book 15, maybe book… Actually, during book 12, Force Multiplication, where I realized he’s just… Whoever he’s with, he is the commanding officer’s… He is their sociopath. They know… I mean, he’s an alien, and his alien mentality is kind of sociopathic, but not in the way that human doctors would describe it. I wanted to move away from that. How do you move away from that? Well, you make him feel bad about things he’s done. How do I make that happen? I spent several years thinking about it, on and off. It’s not like I was sitting there staring at the wall. But, when it happened, one of the things that I had to do, and this is one of the reasons it was so challenging, I can’t just go back. I can’t just have Schlock be all excited about going into combat and killing things. I have to have… There has to be… There’s a governor on that now. There’s a temper. There is a gauge, and it’s a little bit different. I have to keep track of that.
[Brandon] Dan, with your character, Marcy, how did you do it? There, first person there is from John’s viewpoint. How did you say I’m going to take this character and like, what were the steps that you took?
[Dan] The first big step is in book 2, where John goes to a high school event with Brooke, one of the other characters. That is the first time he really sees Marcy through the lens of somebody else’s experience. He’s… She’s not just the girl he stares at, she’s an actual person. She carries on conversations, and she has things that she likes, and things that she doesn’t like. Kind of the very simple conceit of let them talk about the town. Some of the girls love living in this little town, some of them hate it. Some of them want to escape it. So showing 3 or 4 opinions all about the same thing is a nice shorthand to say, “Look. She’s an individual. She’s a person that stands out from everybody else.” So, starting there and then building into book 3 when I just made her a main character and kind of built everything around her…
[Mary] I think one of the other things that I saw you doing as well is that she had interests that were not connected to the plot. You let us see them as glimpses… And her relationship with her family as well. A lot of times, when there’s a character in this role of the super hot girl, which is a problem character a lot of times… The love interest to doesn’t exist except as a trophy. They don’t exist except in that role. They don’t appear to have an arc of their own. Which, you set her up to have an arc of her own, and then brutally murdered her. Which is…
[Dan] Spoiler warning! Yes.
[Mary] The book’s been out long enough.
[Dan] I know, I know. One of the things I did specifically with her in book 3, because I knew I had set her up in that problematic space of she’s just the hot trophy. So I immediately tried to undercut that with giving her… What’s the right word? One of her hobbies is shopping, because she’s trying to get a good deal. That takes the specific aspect of her appearance and then re-contextualizes into this completely other thing. She’s not trying to just look good for the sake of looking good. She just likes finding great deals on clothes. That’s what’s more important to her.
[Brandon] All right. We’re going to have some homework, which I think is one of the most amusing pieces of homework we’ve come up with. Howard, you’re going to tell us about this.
[Howard] Okay. Take your very favorite character that you have created. Hopefully, something in a current work in progress, because it might be more useful to do this in that context. But someone who is just interesting and dynamic and works well for your story. Take that character and write a couple of scenes in which you absolutely break them. Make them boring, make them non-proactive. Make them stale, make them cliché. Wreck them. Do everything wrong. Yeah. Just wreck them. I mean, you don’t need to actually kill them. Because we’ll talk about that later.
[Brandon] The point of this being that sometimes in order to diagnose problems, you need to break them down into their compliments, and see what your natural instinct will be when you’re making someone boring, so you can better recognize it later. I’m really curious to see if this works for you guys, so post on the forums and let us know. All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.