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Posts Tagged ‘characters’

I didn’t really get to watch the show Scrubs when it aired on television. It began while I was in college, and my schedules were always so all over the place that I couldn’t really watch shows with any kind regularity. Plus, I had access to Cartoon Network and I’m a big cartoon nerd. In any case, following college I moved out to California, and we never paid for cable or bothered to purchase rabbit ears (when you could still do that). It was the beginning of our TV being used solely for DVDs and video games (and now Netflix).

But I digress. Scrubs. I had always heard that it was funny, but I didn’t have a chance to dive into it until several years ago when I started watching it on Netflix. And I really enjoyed it, so much so that I just finished my third run-through of it.  It has that wonderful mix of zany and heart-tugging that I like.

It has its problems, of course, like many shows do. But there was one that I definitely picked up on this time around, one that had bothered me subtly before this and made itself known in my third run-through. In at least three episodes there is a moment where a female character is called out for an odd or unexpected reaction, and her response is more or less this: “I’m a woman.” (There is one episode where this bothered me so much that I refused to watch it this time around.) And these are the blatant moments; I’m sure there may have been other similar but subtler ones and I just didn’t notice (I tend to watch sitcoms while I’m doing dishes or other work).

Now, I get that there are differences between men and women, and whether those differences are genetic or developed based on the way society presses women to act, I’m not smart enough to say. I just know that they are there.  Regardless, to boil down a character’s reaction as “I’m a woman” is rather insulting to women. Not only that, but it’s also lazy writing.

Don’t make your characters do something because they’re a guy or a girl. Put some reasoning behind the action. Give the character some dimension. Have it make sense to the viewer (or reader). But don’t cop out with a simple “I’m a woman”.

But then again, I could be wrong. I am, after all, a man.

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I’ve found that over the years my television watching has gravitated far more to story-based shows, even when it comes to comedy. There will always be a place in my heart for some straight-up sitcoms like Cheers and Seinfeld and News  Radio. But of late I can’t get enough of shows like Community and Parks and Recreation. Why is that?

The latter two shows are comedically well-written, there’s no doubt about that. But what really hooks me about them is the character development which leads into character-driven stories, which have impacts on the future stories and the shows’ directions. It’s not “Point A to Point B” one week and then “Point A to Point B” again the following week. It’s “Point A to Point B” one week and then “Point B to Point C” the next.

I haven’t written television scripts in years, but I think if I were to do so, I would want to emulate the stuff that I’m currently into. Characters are important to me. You’ve heard me say that time and time again, and I’ll keep saying it. I rarely come up with a decent plot before coming up with characters to move it along. So if I were to start writing a TV show, I’d want to come up with characters, the basic premise, and then watch it unfold.

It would almost be like watching a TV show in itself.

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Don’t you hate it when people do stupid things?

How about when characters in a book you’re reading do something stupid? Or a character on a television show or in a movie? Doesn’t that annoy you? It’s certainly one of my biggest pet peaves.

“Wait, why would he go in there without his gun??”

“Didn’t she learn the dangers of that magical sword in chapter six??”

“WHY WOULD THEY DO THAT??”

I think many times when this phenomenon happens, it’s a case of the writer directing the course of events. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’ve said in the past that this is unacceptable when writing characters. If a character has proven himself or herself capable of making dumb mistakes, then that’s one thing. But if the character has never shown that sort of inclination and in the course of the story makes a stupid mistake or misses a key point of information that he or she should have understood, then it’s the writer taking you for a ride, and I don’t personally like the steering wheel being jerked out of the hands of the characters.

And I get it. When you’re planning out a story, you have a pretty good idea of what you want to happen. In your head, it’s perfect. And then you start writing it, bulldozing ahead with your perfect idea, but unaware of the damage you’re causing around you. Characters do and say things for the benefit of you, and suddenly become inconsistent and confusing. Sometimes it seems like they just do something for no apparent reason, leaving the readers to scratch their heads. But worst of all, when you plow forward with your perfect idea, you lose the opportunities for other ideas.

Every one of my stories – every one of them – started off going in a particular direction in my head. Then, when push came to shove, I’d get to a turning point with a certain character and the plan would come to a fork in the road. In one direction was my original idea, already laid out for me to send my character down. But it would mean forcing the character to make a decision that they normally wouldn’t. In the other direction was… well, I never quite knew. But that was always the direction that made the most sense for the character to go. And from there, a new story idea arose, sometimes birthing new characters, new places, new sub-plots.

The general rule of thumb for me is that the character knows more than I do. I’m just the monkey typing away at the keyboard. Ook ook.

Keyboard-Monkey

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Have you ever been in public and heard a young person talking in the manner of someone much older than them? Or the reverse situation in which an older person is speaking in a manner that you’d expect from someone younger? It takes you by surprise for a moment, because it’s not the norm. And that happens to me when I’m reading about characters who do the same thing.

I’ve only started noticing this more and more in recent years. Having grown up on fantasy, everyone talks pretty formally, young and old alike. But I’ve been opening up to less fantastical writing, with characters in more familiar settings. These characters, mired in either in our world or worlds similar to ours, should speak in a manner consistent with the way people around us speak. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

A good example was one I gave in a book review a while back of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. The character of Odd was supposed to be a twenty-something young man, but he (and his girlfriend, who was the same age) spoke in a way that didn’t mesh well with the description of him that was given. More recently, I’ve been reading a trade paperback from Marvel collecting stories from the “Runaways” series, written by Joss Whedon. Now, I like Whedon’s writing, but I’ve never been one to laud him with praise. He’s good, very good, but many people put him on a pedestal that is much too high in my opinion. And in this TPB it’s reaffirmed for me. One of the big things that’s been killing me is Whedon’s typical attempts at writing witty dialogue, but using it in an inappropriate manner for the age of the characters. These are kids; there is a way that kids talk that is believable, but this is something that Whedon, in his attempt at writing his infamous Whedonesque dialogue, seems to forget. It takes me right out of the story, which is a shame, because it’s an interesting one.

I think the problem writers have in this regard is that they are writing in a way that they think children talk. Oftentimes when a writer has to write something that they don’t have a whole lot of experience in, they fudge it, and sometimes it works. But with writing dialogue for younger characters, you need to know. You need to spend some time listening in on conversations, just like you’d do with observing adults. You don’t have to learn and know all the slang terms, but you need to know the general manner in which younger people talk and what they talk about.

And if you’re going to have them speak in a more adult way and/or make references to things that most people their age wouldn’t know the first thing about, explain it. Use that as a springboard for giving more depth to the character. But at the same time, don’t just do it for the sake of letting yourself talk through the character, because then you’re making the dangerous journey into Mary Sue territory.

In short, this is a case where you don’t write what you know – write what they know.

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I’ve been watching the newest season of Doctor Who with a renewed sense of excitement. I thought the beginning of season seven was pretty strong and had a lot of entertaining moments. I was most happy when they finally got rid of the companion Amy Pond (although I was sad to lose Rory). Without returning to a rant I did previously, Amy’s character was terribly written (and terribly executed by the actress). Characters are important to me, and when a writer (or team of writers) gets it wrong, it pulls me out of the story.

That being said, I was interested to see what the writers would do with the new companion, Clara. The answer, unfortunately is: Not much. I’m only two episodes behind at this point, but the character has failed to be… well, a character. The only interesting thing about her is she’s mysterious. And that doesn’t make her a character, it makes her a plot device.

Stepping away from the Whoinverse for a moment, here’s the deal. Your characters need to have characteristics that set them apart from each other. It doesn’t have to be something overly special. It can be something as simple as having a different reaction to a particular situation, or different way of solving problems, or habit of causing problems. But something needs to come from that character that says, “This is who I am.”

When outside forces are affected by a character who is just “there”, such as the Doctor exploring the mystery of Clara, the character becomes a vehicle to drive the plot and nothing more. Especially so when that character is passive and contributes nothing much to the story.

Characters are people, not a writer’s playthings. They need to become their own individual selves, to do the things that only they do, to interact in a specific way with other characters. Most of all, they need to stand out in a reader’s – or viewers – mind when thought about. When I think about, say, the character of Donna Noble (the Doctor’s companion in season four), I think of a strong-willed and often stubborn woman who had a huge heart. When I think of Clara I think of a pretty face and not much more. Doesn’t speak well of the people running the show, does it? And if a reader reads your stories and has the same feeling about one of your characters, that won’t speak well of you.

Give your characters life, but let them live it.

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I’ve made mention of this before, but I’m a brony (for those of you unfamiliar with that term, it’s a mash-up of “bro” and “pony”; it’s a descriptor for fans of “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”).  As such, I follow a few of the creative forces behind the show on Twitter.  One of them is the creator, Lauren Faust (who was also responsible for one of my other favorite shows, “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends”).  Recently she tweeted this:

Think you can't write women? Don't. Just write people and make them women.

(In case you’re interested in where the link leads, it goes here.)

This instantly put Faust on the top of my list of favorite people.  I’ve been saying this for years, almost exactly word-for-word.  It amazes me how many male authors think that they can’t write females.  If it’s not just thinking and it’s actually true, then they shouldn’t write at all.

Think that’s a bit harsh?  Here’s my logic.  Being a writer requires being an observer.  You have to know the world around you in order to create worlds on the page.  First and foremost is knowing how to write characters.  How can you possibly do that if you don’t observe how people act?  How they speak?  How they move?  How they interact with each other?  That’s stuff you can’t make up (and when an author tries, you can always tell).

Now, I’m fully aware that there are fundamental differences between men and women.  I’d be dumb to deny that.  But it’s in being observant that we can discern those differences, either consciously or unconsciously, and attribute them where needed.  The rest of it is just writing a character.  You don’t need to think,  “I’m writing a woman”.  Write the character.  Your brain will fill in the rest once you’ve trained it to.

And before you think I’m being one-sided, I do want to say that I’ve seen it happen the other way around.  I’ve seen female authors write what they think male characters should be, and it results in very poor, two-dimensional characters.  So it’s a two-way street, and both sides need to be more aware of their surroundings, because you never know when that unawareness can lead to a crash.

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I recently had a debate online with someone about the proper use of the term “Mary Sue”. My personal opinion (which is that I absolutely hate the term) aside, it’s become clear to me that there is a generation of young writers who are overusing and misusing the term, as well generating an irrational fear of falling into the Mary Sue trap.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, “Mary Sue” was a character in parody of Star Trek fanfic who was meant to be the perfect character. It evolved into a term that is used for author self-inserts that are characterized as perfect and loved by everyone. It’s pervasive in fanfics, but can be found in the literary mainstream (*cough* Twilight *cough*).

As I see it, one of the problems has become that young writers are far too quick to categorize a character (usually a character they don’t like) as a Mary Sue, when more often than not the character has just been poorly written. The specific argument I got into was that a character was “too powerful” and therefore a Mary Sue. My argument was that a character can be overly powerful, but if he or she is being written properly, he or she will have more depth of character than just being powerful. However, if the character is just a two-dimensional powerful person, they aren’t necessarily a Mary Sue, just a bad character. The debater in question then tried to tell me that language evolves and “Mary Sue” means something different now.

Without going on a tangent, I don’t agree with that at all. Yes, language evolves, but a term being appropriated by writers who have little to no experience and then being misused is not “evolution”.

The other problem of the Mary Sue phenomena is the creation of the “Sue police” (a term I ran across and rather like). These are the people who gang up on other writers and berate them for writing Mary Sue characters. The presence of these “critics” causes an irrational fear of accidentally writing a Mary Sue character, to the point where I’ve seen people legitimately worried about their characters more than they should be.

So here’s my advice, and it’s something I say over and over again in this blog – write a believable character. Don’t spend time wondering if the character is a self-insert, as most characters to some degree are. Don’t worry if your character is too perfect. All that worrying gets in the way of writing a clear and concise story. Spend that energy on making your characters real, the decisions they make consistent with their personality, their reactions true-to-life. If you do all that, you don’t need to worry.

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