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Transcript for Episode 2.3

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode Three: Characters with Brandon Mull

Key points: make your characters feel real by understanding them. What are their personality quirks? What do they want? Quirks that are a little bit extreme help make the illusion real. Ask yourself, “Why can’t this character fill this role?” Design imperfect characters who are interesting in that slot in your story. Know the three act format and remember that real heroes always fail twice (at least) before they succeed.

[This episode was taped at Mountain Con, with questions provided in writing from the audience]

[Mull] how do you go about creating characters that feel real when you don’t have experience? For example, I’ve never been a 12-year-old girl.

  • [Brandon] how do you create characters that are very different from yourself?
  • [Mull] I try to fake how a 13-year-old girl would talk. That’s sort of like the simple answer, but… it truly does have to do with being a good observer. Trying to pay attention to how these different types of people would talk. If you don’t feel like you have your finger on the pulse of how a certain kind of person would be, maybe don’t make them a character. You know what I mean?
  • [Brandon] or at least a viewpoint character
  • [Mull] Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. At least a viewpoint character where you have to be in their head. To get in their head … [Spirited Away] part of it is having the guts to take it on and see if it feels real and see if people agree.
  • [Howard] for some kinds of characters, the easiest way to go about it is to emerge yourself in their culture. Want to learn about how old people talk? Sit down and talk to some old people.
  • [Off microphone comments about Howard’s age]
  • [Howard] 40 is the new 16
  • [more chatter]
  • [Howard] but there are some cases, like with the 12-year-old girls, that just won’t work. As much as 40 may be the new 16, I can’t hang out with a bunch of 12-year-old girls because there are going to be legal repercussions or at least parental ones.
  • [Dan] I have tried to write a female protagonist before and I was horrible at it. I want to try it again soon but it didn’t work at all for me. One thing that did work very well for me was writing a sociopathic main character… primarily because that comes with a pre-packaged psychology. The entire American Psychiatric Association is handing me a character sketch in the form of massive books. So if you’re going to write about a sociopath, then this and this and this are all going to be true, and that will inform how they act and that will inform what they do. And that makes it very easy.
  • [Howard] if you’re writing about defective people, and you can read up on defects, it should hold true that there is child development literature out there somewhere that is not about defective people that you could perchance research, too.
  • [Mull] and a big part of it, too, is that everyone is a person. Everyone is a human being. And everybody has their own personality quirks. So figure out this 12-year-old girl. What are her personality quirks? What does she want? Is she cautious or is she daring? Figure those things out. Those kinds of questions are how you bring any character to life.
  • [Brandon] I often get this question myself because Mistborn is about a 16-year-old girl. The primary viewpoint protagonist of the trilogy. I’ve had lots of praise for that. What people don’t see is the first few books I wrote where I failed miserably. What did I learn? One of the problems I was having with writing the opposite gender was that I was including them in a book simply for the purpose of having a romantic interest. Then when I got into their viewpoint, they felt flat as a character because I had not developed them to be their own person. They were developed to be trophy characters. And when I started to say to myself what is important to this character that isn’t important to others, what character conflicts does this character have that would not bother anyone else… find conflict, find the driving motivation…
  • [Dan] when you sit down to write a character, put it in terms that you are familiar with. If you’ve never been a 12-year-old girl, yeah, but you have been scared, or you have been adventurous, or you have been whatever something that you do understand. Give that person those human qualities that do make them relatable to you and then you’ll be able to write it much better.

[Howard] how do you develop character quirks that come across as realistic and story appropriate?

  • [Brandon] when I’m building character quirks — you know story appropriate is a good question because I’m looking for stuff that ties in honestly to the conflict and to the setting. I’m looking for quirks that in some way can tie into other parts of the story. Not all of them have to be. But it’s more useful if you’re going to have a quirk… if you’re going to have a shy character, if their character is shy, if the plot is going to require them to do things that make them…
  • [Howard] I’ve got lots and lots of characters, and in many ways I define them for myself by quirks that I know they have got. If their quirks, if their goals, if their objectives — if the things that make them real characters to me aren’t central to the story that’s currently being told, they don’t get the spotlight for that story.
  • [Brandon] think about Monk the character. This is the OCD investigator. He’s got this obsessive-compulsive disorder. The reason it works so brilliantly for a character quirk is that it keeps interfering — it keeps being present all the time. I’ve had problems sometimes where I’ve given a character a character quirk and I never remember that they have it and my readers don’t need either because it’s not important to what’s going on and so it makes them forgettable as a character and it makes the quirk forgettable.
  • [Mull] which leads into one thing, that if the quirk is there — or if the personality trait is there — it sometimes helps to make it a little bit extreme, a little more extreme than it might even be in a real person, because it’s not a real person. It’s an illusion, it’s words on a page, and sometimes making that illusion a little bit extreme helps it feel a little more real even though that’s kinda counterintuitive.
  • [Brandon] one of your character quirks is the kid that carries around a backpack… I love that quirk. What did you call it? His adventure pack?… it’s like his bat belt, but with kids stuff. And it works great because he gets in trouble and he’s like, well, I got a flashlight in here…. nothing big, not saving the day
  • [Mull] not like MacGyver saving the day with a rubber band
  • [Brandon] it works well for a character quirk. It doesn’t become a plot focus, but we remember it because he’s always got it with him… he might have duct tape.
  • [Dan] from my perspective writing horror, one of the things I’m always trying to do is make things disturbing, make them spooky, and so when I was looking for quirks to give to my main character, I thought what does he do for fun, well, how about he cooks. That was in the first book, but nobody cared because I didn’t make it interesting. In the second book, I said well let’s make this really spooky by saying that he doesn’t cook meat because it reminds him of human flesh and all of a sudden that made him creepy and that made that quirk a lot more interesting.

[Dan] do you have any suggestions for avoiding character traps — stereotypes such as the overlord, the farm hero, etc. who are all the same?

  • [Howard] when you say traps… tropes?
  • [Brandon] the best advice I ever got on this was from our friend David Wolverton/David Farland and he said when you’re designing a place for a character for a plot, ask yourself why can’t this character fill this role? If you’re developing a heroic lead, asking yourself why can’t they, why can’t they? And that will give you these quirks and these handicaps and things. You’re not trying to design the perfect character for that slot in the story, you’re trying to design the imperfect character who is interesting in that slot in the story.
  • [Brandon] how do you avoid making cliches?
  • [Howard] I think the cliches that you’re more likely to fall into are the villain and super villain cliches. Because we’ve seen that so many times. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you can tackle it in a new way. Take the trope and say why do people keep writing this. There’s got to be a reason even though it often gets them in trouble and here it is. Look at it from a new angle and now it’s not a trope and people will accuse you of being original.
  • [Brandon] strange attractor. Best ideas are those that are both familiar and strange at the same time. Something familiar mixed with something new. The preserve for magical creatures is an excellent example. A wildlife preserve — we all know what a wildlife preserve is — for magical creatures — boom! Strange attractor. Doing that for characters — it’s this character that you are familiar with done this new way. But if too many people have done it that new way, then it becomes the familiar and you’re going to need something new as well.
  • [Dan] in some cases, this can be as simple as just replacing the farm boy was something else — the baker’s assistant. A simple change, just swapping something out for something else. But if you really force yourself to think how would a baker’s assistant go about this, how would they react, how would they have been raised differently, then that can give you enough of a twist on the old saw that you can make it work.

[Howard] I’ve read some script writing books that talk a lot about the three act structure. Do you think that’s relevant or helpful for fiction? Maybe for short fiction?

  • [Howard] short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, but don’t be a slave to it.
  • [Brandon] you are the three act format guy. You always talk about the three act format in storytelling. Outlined for us the three act format and why it’s useful.
  • [Howard] there’s a dozen different ways you can approach this. The way I approach it is:
    Act One: your protagonist is presented with a problem that he’s actually reasonably competent at solving, and sets out to solve it. By the end of act one, it looks like we’re close to a solution.
    In Act Two, we discover that the problem is not the real problem — it goes beyond that, and the protagonist is shown to be completely out of his or her depth… that’s where you get your catastrophe and your big dark — that’s where things are darkest.
    And then in Act Three, things start to come together. The problems are still every bit as bad as before, but the protagonist has actually stepped up, has found a way around his weaknesses. Climax, resolution, roll credits.
  • [Brandon] Mull, do you think in three act format?
  • [Mull] I think of it in a simple way that someone once explained to me, and that’s Act One get your character up a tree, Act Two throw stones at him, Act Three get him down. As far as speaking of it super simply, you’ve got characters and you gotta get them in trouble and the trouble has to get thicker and they’re doomed and they have to figure something out to their success or failure…
  • [Howard] Dan Willis describes it as the three disaster format. You have a disaster in act one that the protagonist is close to solving. Then you have a disaster in act two that is much worse. And you have a disaster in act three that is the end of the world but they manage to pull it out.
  • [Dan] I work with a lot of authors in Nanowrimo — That’s National Novel Writing Month. A lot of that time — I hear this constantly — they will finish their book early. They’re like I thought this was going to be huge but I’m done after like 90 pages. Usually that’s because they’re not using a three act structure, they’re making it too easy to solve their problem. The way I always go about this is try-fail cycles. You have to try and fail at the least twice before they can actually succeed.
  • [Howard] with regard to is it relevant or helpful for shorter fiction? I’ve praised Schoen’s Buffalogic … in many cases, this is the defining element in short fiction. They’re not trying to write three act format.
  • [Brandon] I don’t think in three act format. I analyze in three acts, but I don’t think that way. I do look for try-fail cycles, but I’m not a slave to it. I’m trying to write a really great story, and things do have to get worse before they get better…
  • [Howard] when you say you analyze in three acts, when the editor takes it back to you for the first rewrite…
  • [Brandon] No. When the book is done, then I can say here’s act one, here’s act two, and here’s act three. I never think in three acts when I’m writing partially because I’m writing books that are 250,000 words long. In that case I can’t break it down into three acts. I have to break it down into 12 or 15. I’ve got lots of different acts…. I’m writing for each little character. I am sometimes writing here is a problem, here’s them struggling with the problem, here’s their resolution. And I’m doing that… but I’m not doing it all the time for the whole book because I’ve got so many different cycles of people going through for all these different things. In the Wheel of Time, I’m writing a 700,000 word book and in that case I’m not looking at three acts. I’m looking at everyone being divided down to multiple little chunks. And often times I’ll have a character go through an entire plot structure of three acts and then start a new one in the same book. Or do three groups of three acts. I think it’s a good tool to be aware of, but as always, do what works best for you. Try different things. Being bound too rigidly doesn’t work for me.

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