Writing Excuses 9.10: Engaging Characters
Key points: sympathetic and engaging are different, but not mutually exclusive. Getting into the character’s thought processes, understanding why they make choices, is part of being engaging. Some wit or sense of humor. Doing the unexpected is a critical element. Heroes often are boring because they do the expected, while villains are always trying new things. The process of learning new, interesting things to create a story can be reflected in engaging characters who are learning, too. Things that interest and engage you are good for engaging characters. Often side characters are witty and engaging, while the main characters are bland. Sometimes the person in a character’s head is very different from the external view. Character quirks should not be standalone oddities, but part of how the character thinks and what the story is about. Character quirks should connect to actions. Random character generation, five different things taken from a list, can help avoid homogenous characters, but for causality, why does this character have these quirks?
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 10.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, engaging characters.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And as part of the Germany-America Writing Excuses Exchange Program (GAWEEP), we have Nancy Fulda.
[Nancy] Hello, I’m Nancy.
[Brandon] You may not realize this, but Nancy actually does live in Germany, and Dan is in Germany right now. We actually just sent him over there so we could have you.
[Nancy] There’s actually a little known fact that German and American governments have a treaty that states that the number of artists and scientists in both countries needs to remain proportionally balanced in order to prevent the influx or outflow of too much intellectual talent. So when Dan went over to Germany, they had to scramble and find an artist to send over here for a few months.
[Brandon] And here you are.
[Nancy] Here I am.
[Howard] Truth stranger than fiction.
[Mary] And so engaging.
[Brandon] Yes. Oh, yes. This podcast topic was suggested by a listener on our Twitter feed when they said I understand about creating sympathetic characters, something you’ve discussed about… Discussed about? You’ve discussed on the podcast several times. But is that different from creating engaging characters, and how do you do the latter? So, I’m going to pitch it at you, podcasters. How do you create an engaging character?
[Howard] Well, first of all, absolutely it’s different. If you talk about the antihero, an antihero can very easily be a non-sympathetic character who is extremely engaging. As I’ve watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, and while yes, they’ve also made him…
[Howard] Sympathetic in many ways, I don’t find him sympathetic at all, but I find him extremely engaging. I’m fascinated, I’m along for the ride because it’s interesting, it’s engaging.
[Brandon] As I understand about the series, not having watched a lot of it, he grows less and less sympathetic as the series progresses. That’s part of the arc of the character. Yet many people say this series gets better and better as he becomes less and less sympathetic, which is very interesting.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the examples that I would point to, which is a book I’ve talked about before, is the Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law. There’s a character, Glokta, who is a torturer. That’s what his job is. He’s not sympathetic. But he is so engaging. A lot of it for me when I’m… What makes an engaging character for me is getting into their thought process, so I understand why they’re making the choices that they make. Also people who have at least some wit, some sense of humor. They don’t have to be cracking jokes, but some like dry commentary at least, or some juxtaposition of… Against the darkness, helps me. When you have an unsympathetic character who is engaging.
[Nancy] We should point out of course that sympathetic and engaging are not opposite terms.
[Mary] That’s true.
[Nancy] They are not mutually exclusive. Miles Vorkosigan, from Lois McMaster Bujold’s series, is for me a beautiful example of a sympathetic and engaging character. He is unexpected. He handles the… Well, he interacts with the world, he reacts to problems, completely differently than I do most people I know would. Whenever there’s a problem, he somehow manages to make it all worse, which I always thought was great… And logically, right? One understands why he makes it all worse, but he just dives straight in. I would argue that the aspect of the unexpected is a critical element of an engaging character. An engaging character reacts to the world differently than I would, and that’s what makes him interesting for me.
[Mary] Oh, yeah. You know what, I think that might be why I find a character who is non-sympathetic but has some wit to be… It’s that element of surprise, it’s the juxtaposition of the two. I think that is what is doing it for me. You’re right.
[Brandon] That’s a really good way to define it.
[Nancy] Yeah. A reaction that is logical, and yet totally different from mine. I get this with my husband sometimes. I love being married to him. We’ve been married for… 10 years, I think now, I have to count. We’ll have situations still where because his brain wires differently than mine, he will still say something that I totally… It totally makes sense in the context of his world, and yet I still didn’t think of it. I was showing him one of my stories once, Pastry Run, this like space opera about people who are like trying to go through this jumphoop that sends them to the moon. He looked at it and he said, “Well, who’s paying for all of that?”
[Nancy] I was like, “That’s a really good question.” Again, this aspect of the unexpected, a different reaction, is often very refreshing.
[Brandon] This gets to the soul of what we call the villain problem, which we’ve talked about on the podcast before, which is the problem with heroes being overshadowed by villains in stories that are more engaging. This is most commonly highlighted in superhero… The superhero genre, where a lot of times, the villains are more interesting characters than the superheroes themselves. To kind of really dig into this, I’ve asked myself, when I’ve looked at it, what makes the heroes boring? To get that kind of reverse. What is it? It might be what you’re talking about here. They do the expected. They do… Yes, they’re reactionary, which is the thing we bring up a lot, but you can have a reactionary character who acts in bizarre ways who’s really engaging. I’ve always kind of thought of it as the reactionarism, but I wonder if it’s more the fact that they do exactly what you’re expecting them to do. When a plane is going to crash, Superman goes up and saves it. He does it exactly as Superman always goes and saves a crashing plane. That leads to repetition and boredom. Where the villain is always having to come up with a new scheme to try and foil the hero, and they are experimenting and things like this. Now of course, in some genres, the villain just does the same old thing and the hero just does the same old thing. But we’re getting at why some of these villains are so engaging.
[Howard] The trick that I’ve found works for me, and it’s not that I’m trying to… Let me back peddle a little bit. I don’t set out to create engaging characters. I set out to create a story. The characters being engaging is just one of the things that grows out of my process. Or at least I’d like to think that that’s what’s happening. But part of that process is that I will research something that I personally find really interesting. The process of reading it interests me, fascinates me, engages me with that learning process. Then this character… That character is not going to explain it to the reader. That character is going to go through the learning process that I went through, demonstrating these things, running up against these problems. If I’ve done it right, it’s fascinating and it’s educational, and whether or not the character is sympathetic, we’re along for the ride because it was something that the author found so interesting that he decided or she decided to put it in the book.
[Mary] I think what you just said about the things that interest and engage you are exactly the things that you should be looking at when you’re looking to create an engaging character. Who do you like to hang out with in real life? Who do you want to spend time with? Those are attributes that you can figure will probably make an engaging character. Now I like people who are uniquely themselves. I have a really good friend who has some deeply annoying aspects. But they are so uniquely the way his brain works… And I’m not talking about you. Don’t worry about it.
[Mary] So uniquely the way his brain works that… And it’s unexpected. It gives me a different way of approaching things to spend time with him. I’ve learned… I filter for the things that annoy me because everything else is so great. I think that that’s part of what makes an engaging character.
[Brandon] Now this is awesome. This is a great discussion, because you’ll notice… I have noticed, how about this, with my students and with a lot of books I read, that writers do this naturally for some of these side characters. Because they are projecting sidekick or friends or things like this, and they are projecting onto them the things they like about other characters or people they’ve hung around with. But there’s this perennial problem with main characters being bland. I think it’s because of this. They’re projecting all this onto the side characters, but they’re not taking some of it, internalizing it for the main character. This happens time and time again both in published and unpublished books where the main character is this blank slate of blandness, surrounded by a world that’s very engaging and beautiful and wonderful.
[Nancy] Okay. Now here’s a question though. Because it has been argued, and I think to [their regret?] in some circles that having a blank slate main character is useful in order to create sympathy and a motive for the reader to identify the character.
[Brandon] it has been, and I’ve read those essays…
[Nancy] So. Do you think that’s true?
[Brandon] They point out Harry Potter as an example of this, particularly for teen writing to… I don’t know.
[Mary] Yeah. I… See, I would… I think it… Boy, I would not have called Harry Potter a blank slate character.
[Nancy] Yeah, I actually had that reaction too.
[Brandon] Well, blank slate… I think he’s… If you compare him to Ron and Hermione, he’s the bland one.
[Nancy] But not a… But he’s not a blank slate.
[Brandon] No, not a blank slate, but…
[Nancy] I mean to say he has a great deal of motivation, desire to [inaudible]
[Brandon] All I’m saying is there are essays around that I have read that talk about Harry Potter and why Harry is less… Like you can say, here’s Ron’s personality, here’s Hermione’s personality. Harry’s is harder to describe.
[Mary] Yeah, see but… I… My argument would be that the reason that that is the case, and this might be what happens with main characters in general, the reason that that is the case is because we’re in Harry’s head and so we understand why he is making the choices. Whereas Ron and Hermione are being viewed from the exterior, and therefore what we’re getting our Harry’s perceptions of them. People tend to categorize their friends into more into… By… Oh, Ron is my wacky redheaded friend.
[Nancy] He’s the funny one.
[Mary] Yeah. So that might be part of what is happening with that perception. Or at least… Since it’s something that I don’t agree with.
[Mary] That’s my guess about what might be going on. So that might also be something to look at with your main character as ways to make them engaging is to maybe think about what type they are. I’m not saying… To me the idea of creating a character who is a type… It does not sound appealing.
[Brandon] No. I do agree with what you’re saying here. In fact, I’ve noticed it before in fiction that I’ve enjoyed that sometimes when you go into a character’s head, they become a very different person than they were when they were viewed externally. That is a sign I think of really good writing because when you get in their heads, suddenly everything makes sense that didn’t make sense. There are characters Robert Jordan did this with that I absolutely love. When he approached in the head, I’m like, “Wow. This character’s very different in their head.”
[Howard] Myke Cole’s Control Point, the debut novel, the character of Oscar is… I reviewed the book, I loved the book, and lots and lots of people on my blog commented. The comment from the people who didn’t like the book was, “Oh, wow. I just did not like this main character. He did dumb things. He made horrible mistakes. He’s a terrible person.” I remember reading the book and thinking this is why I like the book. He’s engaging, he’s learning things, and yes, he makes some serious mistakes and he owns up to them. It makes it a powerful book. From this, what I gather is I sure am glad people like Myke Cole are willing to write protagonists who are engaging and they’re not antiheroes, but they’re not blank slates, they’re very… They’re kind of unsympathetic.
[Nancy] Yeah. As you go into the next book in that series, too, he does some very interesting things with Oscar Britton and the second main character he introduces.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week is actually… Nancy, you’re going to give it too this time. It’s Heir to the Empire.
[Nancy] Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn. It’s a Star Wars tie-in book set I believe about five years after the episodes one, two, and three. [I think she means episodes four, five, six?] I found this book when I was a teenager. I loved it. I still love it. It takes the characters from the trilogy and fleshes them out in a way that they became real, living, breathing people for me. I enjoyed watching what happens when a new Grand Admiral from the Empire who wasn’t anywhere on screen before… He’s a fabulous villain. He comes in and he decides he’s going to start putting the Empire back together again, and take care of this rebellion. We meet the woman who was sent to kill Luke and failed. We meet a bunch of other interesting characters. It’s just fabulous writing in a world that I love.
[Brandon] I really love these books, too. Every other Star Wars book has struggled to live up to what he did with that trilogy.
[Howard] He being Timothy Zahn?
[Brandon] Timothy Zahn. Including the new prequels have had trouble struggling to be anywhere near as good as the Timothy Zahn books.
[Howard] So. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 30-day free trial membership. Download a copy of Heir to the Empire…
[Nancy] Heir to the Empire.
[Howard] For free by Timothy Zahn. There is also for free a 21 minute commentary narrated by Timothy Zahn and… http://www.audible.com/pd/Sci-Fi-Fantasy/Free-Excerpt-Star-Wars-Heir-to-the-Empire-Behind-the-Scenes-Audiobook/B005JZ4RJ6/
[Mary] Betsy Mitchell.
[Howard] Betsy Mitchell. I’ll be honest with you. If you like sitting and listening to authors talk for 15 to 20 minutes at a time about author things, that’s probably pretty squarely in your wheelhouse.
[Mary] The actual title of that is Free Excerpt, Star Wars, Heir to the Empire, Behind the Scenes.
[Brandon] There you are.
[Nancy] I think I may need to download that.
[Brandon] Right. So. Engaging characters. This is actually a really good book to use because Thrawn was such an engaging character. He changed how I viewed creating villains, and characters in general, because of his theme… How he was. He had a theme to him. I want to get to this idea of the quirkiness as a method of engaging. Because as I remember, Thrawn would judge based on the art that a society created. He would look at their art, because there’s so many different planets in the Empire. He would study their art and then through that come to understand that race and know how to dominate them. The way it was described was quite brilliant. This became a very interesting character quirk. The reason I want to bring this up is oftentimes I find that new writers misunderstand what we mean when we say character quirk. A character quirk for me, a really good one, is not this person likes to eat their peas frozen. Granted, that can be a fun little aspect of a character, but a really good quirk in the kind of powerful character attribute way is something like this where Zahn [should be Thrawn?] is this great war leader, but he’s also a student of art and he uses it in a very interesting, different way that is fundamental to how he thinks and how the book progresses.
[Nancy] I would submit that the difference between the peas character quirk and Thrawn’s character quirk lies in a connection to his actions. It is integrally connected with his agency. It changes the way he does things. I would submit that that’s a very interesting and useful dividing line.
[Brandon] No, that’s great.
[Nancy] To look for in quirks.
[Brandon] You do want both for your characters. There’s nothing wrong with having a character who likes his peas frozen.
[Nancy] But it doesn’t change the outcome of the novel.
[Howard] Thrawn didn’t want frozen peas, he wanted galactic peas.
[Howard] Okay, we’re done.
[Mary] Okay. I’m going to need an ice pack to get past that one.
[Howard] I’m so sorry.
[Mary] So what I was going to say is that I don’t think it actually has to have an impact on the… A direct impact on the outcome of the novel. But I do think that it can’t be something that lives in isolation. That if he prefers frozen peas, he prefers them for a reason, and that difference needs to carry through. It can’t just be a one-off bizarre thing that’s on the side that has no impact on the rest of how he views the world.
[Howard] For instance, in the new Disney movie, Frozen, if the character of Elsa loved eating frozen peas, that would be an outgrowth of who she was.
[Mary] [laughing Right!]
[Nancy] This is one of the potential drawbacks of the character generation method which is sometimes really useful where you just roll a dice, take from a list. Sometimes there are online lists where you can take random things about the character. That’s a useful way to make sure your characters are not all homogenous. I think it’s even stronger if you then take that list of unusual elements of your character, and look for causalities. And say, “Okay. Let’s take this deeper. Why? What is it about this character which causes affect A, B, and C?” If you can find and create those causalities, I think you’ll end up with characters that are much more three-dimensional and much more interesting and engaging, than simply a character with five different quirks.
[Brandon] So, Nancy, can you spin this or something we talked about into a writing prompt?
[Nancy] Oh, absolutely. I want you to take a character, put them in a difficult situation, and throw away your first three ideas of how they respond.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. A special thanks to Nancy for being on these four episodes with us.
[Howard] And thank you to Germany.
[Brandon] For sending you along. Please check out her work. You all are out of excuses. Now go write.