Tag: characters

Saints and Sinners

My post on Friday about inconsiderate bikers reminded me of a principle of characterisation for writing: avoid stereotypes.

A stereotyped character is one whose traits are those of their group, or more precisely of one perception of their group, especially if those traits are incidental to the fundamental properties of the group. So, if your lion character eats meat that’s not really stereotyping since lions (in our world) have to eat meat, but if your lion is lazy or cruel or arrogant those are just expressions of the standard view of lions.

And that’s not to say that there are not lazy or cruel or arrogant lions, but assuming that that is what your character should be like is pretty lazy in itself.

The trap here is to assign sainthood or sinnerhood to a character just because they are part of a particular group: cyclists are saints for saving the planet with their non-carbon-emitting legs, or anyone on the bus who is over thirty is a failure*.

The thing is that stereotypes are useful – it’s like clichés: they’re over-used but they became over-used for a reason. Similarly stereotypes are a helpful way to think about the behaviour of large groups of people or entities. The problem with clichés is that you end up using them thoughtlessly as the best way to say something, and in the case of stereotypes you make the mistake of behaving as if all individuals are a perfect mirror of the culture they are part of.

My usual defense against this is to use the Fiasco method when building characters – build the relationships between the characters first, which informs the characters’ personalities with much less arbitrary choices about their traits.

[*] Margaret Thatcher was a nasty person.

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Self-Help Characterisation

What with one thing and another, I have read a number of self-help books – particularly parenting of late. There are a few of them that have been helpful to my family in handling otherwise contentious situations, but this post is not about how to use self-help books to improve your life.

What these books are great for is demonstrating dysfunctional character traits.

There are a few ways to use these books as a resource:

  • use the negative examples. Any book which is talking about child behaviour is going to be presenting examples of children with those undesirable or inappropriate behaviours – imagine an adult with those traits, or a new-born AI.
  • use negative behaviours to escalate the situation. If your antagonist’s mental state is shading into irrational because of emotional stress, try having the protagonist attempt logic and reason then see how far that gets them.
  • use the positive behaviours to give your characters plausible techniques for “winning”. This might be as simple as being given actual insight into how a knotty situation could be resolved, but might be a specific action or way of thinking that could calm things down enough for the protagonist to gain the upper hand.

My intention is to make this an occasional recurring series here – not to review self-help books for their original purpose, but to present the kinds of character details which can be extracted from them. A couple of particular books I’ll be looking at include How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and The Whole-Brain Child, but there are a couple of ADD-related books which have interesting things to say too.

Are there any psychosocial resources you use to give your characters realistic traits?

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People react to events around them.

If you want to make your characters more real then describe their response to events affecting them: that casual insult from a passer-by; the joyous news of a royal wedding; a near miss from a poorly driven vehicle – all of these are occurrences that might affect a character’s mood and will help to illuminate their personality. Perhaps the royal birth that everyone is so excited about is a cause for despair because it puts them that much further from the throne.

In particular, though, people react to death.

Your character might be used to dealing with insensitive co-workers or passing insults from strangers but when your character has witnessed a dozen murders the night before, they are unlikely to be cheery as they pop into the coffee shop to get a latte.

Death is something which raises our deepest fears into the light. The reaction to a death will vary depending on the relationship to the character, but even those who are remote can have a profound effect. In my own case, I remember being completely floored by Douglas Adams’ sudden death – I didn’t know him, but I enjoyed his work and felt like I shared a tribe somehow: he was one of my formative influences, and I was appalled by how young he was.

So make your characters react to these things to make them come alive.

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Details, details

some details are more important than others

some details are more important than others

We make worlds and people to live in them, but we cannot possibly pour all of that onto the page. Instead, we must evoke setting and character by the use of precise details and choice of words.

I am thinking here, of course, of fiction where the intention is to tell a story rather than to fully describe the place or the person. In this case, the description applied to the elements has a couple of basic goals:

  • to make the elements serve the story
  • to make the elements distinctive

Serving the Story

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

Anton Chekov

Characters do surprising things, but readers feel cheated if those things are not seeded in the story: if a character has been hobbling about on a walker for the first hundred pages and then suddenly casts off their shackles of infirmity to chase after that criminal who just robbed the bank with no hint that she was someone else, or without some other kind of transformative event, then the reader may well cast the story aside.

Settings need the elements to be there to support the story. A nursery with a shotgun hidden under the baby’s bed only makes sense if you’ve seeded the idea that the nursery may not be all that you would usually expect – hints of the babysitter’s history as a drug runner, say, or the parents’ desire to be ready for the zombie apocalypse.


“We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.”

the Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation

I’ve just started reading Redshirts by John Scalzi and I have been very struck that there is almost no physical description of the characters, and yet they are all distinct because of how they talk and what they speak about.

The details we put in need to be enough to be sure who is doing what.

Names help, of course. Having major characters with differing initial letters or at least easily distinguished names on the page helps make it clear who is speaking. Making physical descriptions clearly different – or even subtly different, if you focus on the subtleties – helps clarify who is acting.

Similarly with settings. We can’t put in everything* so we have to describe what makes each location distinct from the others, whether it’s the insect-crusted ceiling of the cave or the Louis XV sideboard in the sitting room rather than the Louis XIV.

How do you decide what to put in and what to omit?

[*] and this was one of the basic problems with Bluehammer, that I tried to.

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Needs and Wants

I wrote a few weeks ago about different kinds of characters which stories are about, but I didn’t really explore motivation for those characters. For the sake of avoiding now-overloaded terms, I am going to refer to these central characters as the lowest common denominator – MCs, or main characters.

What do the types of MCs have in common?


For a character to be at the centre of the story, they must have a need or desire which they aspire to. How effective they are in satisfying they need is where the agency axis I mentioned before comes in – a hero can be effective in pursuing their needs and desires, while a more fallible or constrained MC might have their story be about how their needs are always out of reach, so that any tiny movement in the direction of their needs being satisfied will drive them to make otherwise questionable decisions.

Where I Am

I’m thinking about this a lot at the moment because I have three stories I am working on with different levels of neediness and agency in the MCs.

  • Song – the MC (and, now, narrator) has agency aplenty in his usual sphere of operations, but has still loosely defined needs: doing his job and freeing AIs seem to be the goals he aspires to more than anything. How do I present a choice in which he chooses to dive into unknown waters?
  • Chance – the MC wins agency through the story, but her needs are well-defined: to be taken seriously, and to avenge great loss. The change I’m thinking of in the setup will, I think, make the root of these needs more clear.
  • A New Dawn – I don’t control the motivations of the MCs here since they are the player characters, but I am working on the motives of the NPCs. The government operative is so far apparently only a jobsworth*, but his origins are inevitably deeper than that. The therapist is apparently a manipulative and deranged lunatic, but her drivers may be more subtle. And so on. The key point here is that needs and wants aren’t just for the MCs – every character has them.

All of this is about figuring out the factors that characters would use to make decisions in the moment. The MC is presented with a choice – mercy or malice? Honesty or deceptiveness? – and the needs they have will control how they act at any point in the story.

[*] a Briticism for an officious individual, typical applied to petty bureaucrats and obstructive service staff. “It’s more than job’s worth.”

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Heroes, MCs and protagonists

I was following a very interesting conversation about heroes and protagonists, anti-heroes and villains today on Facebook* started by one of my writer friends.

I am not going to recapitulate the discussion. Instead I wanted to present some thoughts on character roles and in particular on central or point of view character roles.

I’ll also be diving into roleplaying, but that will come later.

We Can Be Heroes

Does a story need a hero?

It’s pretty clear that most successful stories need a central focus – or a series of foci for a multi-POV story – whether that central character is the narrator or not. For example, the central human character of Moby Dick** is Captain Ahab but the narrator is Ishmael.

But is Captain Ahab a hero?

The Facebook conversation I mentioned was concerned primarily with the difference between heroes and antiheroes – those flawed central characters who might do the right thing despite themselves rather than out of heroic principles – and from what I know of Ahab he would fit the antiheroic mould quite well.

However, I wanted to go a different way here to talk about central characters and the meanings of different labels we use for them because it seems to me that there is a hierarchy in play here: a hierarchy of agency.

Heroes are larger than life characters who bestride the story rather than merely being in it. Indiana Jones is a hero who is known to his antagonists before the story starts. If we are talking of agency, we must mention Bond – James Bond is well known amongst his enemies*** before the story starts (at least before Connery’s Dr No, anyway). Luke Skywalker is a hero who is undertaking the well-documented Hero’s Journey from apparently humble beginnings to true heroic status.

But not every story has a hero as its central character. Sometimes the protagonist is more normal than heroic. Arthur Dent is hardly a hero – he is an aggressively normal person rather than a hero, someone written to evoke sympathy rather than admiration, but he still has agency.

Many of the stories of Lovecraft have main characters who are ordinary people marked by circumstance rather than capability for their role in the tale****. The reader has empathy with the protagonist because they can identify with them, but in many cases the story happens to them rather than because of them.

So this is the hierarchy, then:

  • heroes have the most agency because they have the drive and/or abilities to do extraordinary things
  • protagonists have agency but have limits also
  • main characters are central to the story because it is they who the story happens to, but they may be victims of the story rather than instigators.

Agency in Roleplaying

There is a mapping here to roleplaying games, and in particular the game systems.

Heroic systems such as Dungeons & Dragons consider the player characters to be heroes: extraordinary individuals with unusual abilities: a highly trained monk, a wizard with magical powers, or a chosen emissary from a barbarian god. Ordinary people in those worlds cannot throw fireballs or carve their initials into an opponent with their sword. Player characters are hard to kill.

On the other hand, game systems like Basic Roleplaying (BRP) – the basis for Runequest and Call of Cthulhu – try to model people a bit more closely. Call of Cthulhu especially is deadly for player characters, and that is not just because of the nastiness of the monsters: getting in a gunfight in CoC is not a good idea at all.

The Savage Worlds system tries to have a foot in both camps. The standard rules talk about PCs as wild cards, unusually gifted individuals with chances to retry failed tasks and more chance of completing tasks in the first place, but the Realms of Cthulhu setting tries to tone these advantages down a little with the gritty vs pulpy axis: selectively removing wild card advantages to put the PCs in more jeopardy.

They’re still quite hard to kill, though.

So, think about how much agency your characters. Where do your characters fit in the agency hierarchy?

[*] every now and then I think about dumping Facebook, but conversations like this wander along and I am reminded why it is still worth using.

[**] which I have never actually read, I’m afraid. For those howling in outrage that I have not opened this classic of American literature, I should note that grew up in Britain and so my English teachers inflicted classics of British literature upon us.

[***] which is a really bad attribute in a spy, although as noted occasionally he is an assassin rather than a spy.

[****] Randolph Carter is a notable exception.

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Cheese and beer

Getting to know your characters is always a good idea. Describing their relationships à la the Fiasco method is good for plot hooks and background, while general character design sheets are good for collecting general information. But what brings a character description to life are specific details.

Here are some examples of detail questions which you may never use directly in your writing, but which will help give shape to the character in your mind.

  • what cheese does you character like? Is he/she allergic to dairy?
  • does your character drink beer? Do they care if it’s microbrew/real ale*?
  • drop and give me twenty… books that the character has read. Which ones would h/she read again?
  • your character has just moved into a new home. What’s the first thing to unpack?
  • and what colour would the walls be painted?
  • does the character drive? What would be their dream car/bike/travois? What do they actually have? Do they maintain the vehicle themselves? Do they care about it?
  • does the character like camping? Does he/she have a choice?
  • write about the character’s morning routine.
  • does the character pray? Who/what to?
  • is your character a collector? What of? Do they deal in the collected items, or just gather? How meticulously are they sorted? Do they spend time reordering the collection? Would the ordering make sense to anybody else?
  • the character is going to an interview for a job they don’t want but really need. What does he/she wear?
  • does the character play an instrument?
  • what is your character’s least-liked sound?

A good source for these kinds of questions are Internet meme surveys, although leafing through something like Schott’s Almanac for sideways things to look at is also helpful.

Like I say, the answers to these questions wouldn’t usually be used as is (unless your story is actually about a cheese-tasting numismatist) but it colours the character in and means you will describe them and their actions more convincingly.

Are there any character questions you like to ask?

[*] no, these are not the same things, but they cover similar character traits for US and UK beer drinkers.

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Letting People Who Are Not Like Me Into My Stories

I am a little late to this particular party, but go and read this admirable essay: ‘We Have Always Fought:’ Challenging The ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative.’. Also, it is worth reading Chuck Wendig’s commentary.

The goal of my work is to write stories that people will be interested in reading, and ideally not just people who have the same outlook as me. I read fiction in part to inhabit other people’s lives, and my intent is to give that to others also.

However, I am also aware that I am living my life on, as Scalzi put it (), the lowest difficulty setting: I am a middle class (in both American and British senses), straight, educated white guy.

This all makes me want to do better in my work, to ensure my characters are not just straight, educated, middle class white guys. What I try to do is to include female characters who are characters first and female second – people who have a female perspective (ie not just changing the name of a male character), but whose lives and actions are not solely about stereotypically feminine concerns.

But I need to do better. The setting for Bluehammer is gender-neutral and many of the supporting characters are female, but two of the three MCs are male and I need to figure out the use of language. Similarly, the protagonist in Song is a middle class, educated white guy but is surrounded by a diverse supporting cast.

I’m fairly sure that my stories pass the Bechdel test (http://bechdeltest.com) but that’s a pretty low bar. What I want is to write interesting characters, some of whom are female.

Something to bear in mind, anyway.

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