Archive for the ‘Characterization’ Category

Time is precious to me. I don’t like it when other people recommend something that causes me to waste my time. That’s one reason why I don’t post regularly or recommend many things on this blog but this video is exceptional. It is utterly incredible. It’s 46 minutes long, but if you want to write psychologically rich characters, then it is absolutely worth every second of your time. You might even have to watch it a second time (like me).

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This post is a corollary to my previous post on character admissions. I’ve seen the following issue many times but most recently in DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots. It is a minor complaint in this particular film so if you haven’t seen it yet, do so before reading on. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of an excellent film because there are spoilers below.

Puss-in-Boots with Humpty

Humpty and Puss’ grew up together as friends. They were both mischievous in their younger years (pictured above) but Puss had an opportunity to turn his life around. Humpty later tricks Puss into helping him with one last job – robbing the local bank. When Puss discovers the deception, he whispers in his friend’s hearing:

‘You tricked me.’

True to life, if you were tricked into committing a crime, the first thing out of your mouth would probably also be, ‘You tricked me!’ The problem is, that is the last time Puss ever utters those words.

Any normal person wrongly accused of a crime would repeat this truth to everyone they met – especially the authorities – until they listened. Characters should speak the truth. 

Yet Puss says this only once and only in the hearing of the one who betrayed him who already knew it. He never mentions it again. Not when confronted with the local authorities and not in front of his mother. Both of which happen multiple times.

Worse yet, at the end of the film Puss admits to being guilty for a crime he didn’t commit rather than utter those three simple words. Puss didn’t rob the bank. Humpty did and it was Humpty who got Puss to help under false pretenses.

Speaking precisely, the flaw being identified is a form of misunderstanding that occurs when a character fails to express their proper motivation. Puss being misunderstood is required for the plot of the film. Puss in Boots is fabulous otherwise. It is well-written and Humpty’s dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever experienced. DreamWorks really shines with their dialogue and especially their voicework.

The flaw is actually much more prominent in another genre of film: Romantic Comedies. I can’t remember a recent romcom that didn’t include this flaw and I confess I’ve quit watching them like so many movie goers. Misunderstandings are fine premises as stories go. They are certainly common enough and can be done correctly, but misunderstandings in real life are almost never based on one character in jeopardy failing to state the obvious truth when given the opportunity. Yet this limp-dish-rag variety of misunderstanding has become a staple of the romcom.

Bottom Line: Don’t write characters this way. Don’t even use such a motivation as a placeholder in your development process. This problem – the natural expression of a character’s motivation – is avoidable simply by removing the ability for the character to express it. So, suppress the truth. Put a gag in that character’s mouth for that scene, either physically or metaphorically. Write in a boisterous character that won’t let the truth be heard. Better yet, tie this boisterous character into the plot by giving them something to lose if the truth got out. Give them the motivation to prevent the truth coming out even if it is as simple as the guard in Puss in Boots swearing to bring him in if it’s the last thing he ever does.

Puss has no gag and nothing to lose by speaking the truth. In fact he has everything to gain and since Humpty has presumable already paid for his crime, nothing he says will harm his former friend. All of which is why this bit of Puss’ character falls flat. Admittedly, DreamWorks attempted to plug this hole in the final scene with a plea by Puss’ mother to not fight the guards before he had an opportunity to speak. But in all honesty he’d already had that opportunity multiple times and didn’t take any of them.

Remember, speak the truth or suppress it. Those are the only two acceptable options.

If you want to know more of the ills applicable to the romcom, as well as where they shine, I invite you to visit the Living the Romantic Comedy blog by Billy Mernit. If you haven’t seen Puss in Boots and are reading this, then do yourself a favor and cue up the movie on Netflix. Despite this flaw, it’s a very fun family-friendly movie with lessons about friendship, loyalty, and redemption.

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I have noticed a disturbing trend in my media of late. At least, it’s disturbing to me.

Maybe it’s the stories.

Maybe it’s the theme.

Maybe it’s writers who are too proud. Or directors afraid to offend. Or editors, producers, and publishers. But…

Characters aren’t admitting their guilt anymore.

I’m not talking about the villains. I’m talking about the heroes.

I’m of the old school in which a person who commits a crime or is guilty of some fault is expected to admit their guilt as proof of their change-of-heart and this must happen before their status with their community is restored. But I’m not seeing it play out like this anymore either in the movies I watch or the books I read.

This concept is the heart of the Christian conversion experience and has been a staple of media in western culture for centuries. Heroes typically change over the course of their stories so this concept is tailor-made for them. Usually, a bit of dialogue is all that is required because change can usually be shown. However, it seems the modern incarnations of our heroes are taking a lesson from the villains’ playbook and never admitting to anything anymore.

Maybe I’m not watching the right movies or reading the right books, but I think this is a trend nonetheless and I think a bad one.

Brave Logo
If you’ve already read my post on Pixar’s latest movie, then you may remember my complaint that neither Merida nor her mother ever fully apologizes for their behavior. Merida’s rebellious attitude goes unrecognized and unpunished. Her mother’s anti-social behavior too.


My best guess is that it’s a symptom of modern culture. Because in everyday life even our President, someone who I largely support, has not prosecuted the wall street professionals responsible for taking our economy to the brink of destruction. I applaud him for moving us forward and seeing us through some very difficult times, but part of me wants Justice. Accountability. Revenge too, if I’m being honest. And now that our most pressing issue  – the US economy – is being dealt with I’d like to see these troublemakers get their comeuppance but it hasn’t happened yet.

Personally, I have more respect for baseball players like Mark McGwire who admit their drug use – even if it is years after the fact – than those who continue to hide their faults. (Better late than never but also better early than late.) Of course the irony of modern culture is that all publicity is good publicity. The fact that we know certain names and not others has little to do with morality and lots more with what makes a story news-worthy.

As for me, I plan on having my characters admit their guilt if doing so is in keeping with their character. It is easy as a writer to avoid the hard conversations, but it is those types of conversations where honesty prevails that are most memorable and true to life.

The following statement was issued by Mark McGwire on January 11, 2010 admitting to steroid use during his career:

“Now that I have become the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, I have the chance to do something that I wish I was able to do five years ago.

“I never knew when, but I always knew this day would come. It’s time for me to talk about the past and to confirm what people have suspected. I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize. I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989/1990 off season and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again. I used them on occasion throughout the ’90s, including during the 1998 season.

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.

“During the mid-’90s, I went on the DL seven times and missed 228 games over five years. I experienced a lot of injuries, including a ribcage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a stress fracture of the left heel, and a torn right heel muscle. It was definitely a miserable bunch of years and I told myself that steroids could help me recover faster. I thought they would help me heal and prevent injuries, too.

“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn’t take any and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.

“Baseball is really different now — it’s been cleaned up. The commissioner and the players’ association implemented testing and they cracked down, and I’m glad they did.

“I’m grateful to the Cardinals for bringing me back to baseball. I want to say thank you to Cardinals owner Mr. DeWitt, to my GM, John Mozeliak, and to my manager, Tony La Russa. I can’t wait to put the uniform on again and to be back on the field in front of the great fans in Saint Louis. I’ve always appreciated their support and I intend to earn it again, this time as hitting coach. I’m going to pour myself into this job and do everything I can to help the Cardinals hitters become the best players for years to come.

“After all this time, I want to come clean. I was not in a position to do that five years ago in my congressional testimony, but now I feel an obligation to discuss this and to answer questions about it. I’ll do that, and then I just want to help my team.”

(Source: ESPN)

Note that McGwire didn’t issue this statement as a player. Nor did he admit to using drugs during a congressional hearing. He issued this statement after accepting a new position as hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. In other words, his conscience was bothering him and he admitted his guilt honestly from feelings of remorse. That’s why his fans believed him. That’s why he got a standing ovation prior to the Cardinals home opener on April 12, 2010 – four months after his admission.

His statement before the house committee on government reform is illuminating too:

Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve the problem. If a player answers ‘No,’ he simply will not be believed; if he answers ‘Yes,’ he risks public scorn and endless government investigations…My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself. I will say, however, that it remains a fact in this country that a man, any man, should be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty. (Source: CNN)

This is reality. Why aren’t we writing more material that includes scenes like this?

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My principal sends out a morning email each school day with information about events that will occur that day. My favorite part is the quote at the end. Today’s was:

Sports do not build character. They reveal it. – Heywood Hake Brown

It made sense but it also begged another question. What builds character?

I tried to brainstorm a list:

  • Personal hardships – like having to choose between buying food for your family and gasoline to drive to work?
  • Physical Pain – like from breaking a leg and then discovering which of your friends still want to hang out with you even though you can’t walk.
  • A living example – like that favorite teacher who understood you in that one moment when it really mattered and gave you a hug.

I thought I spotted a pattern – that internal motivations built character while external reactions showed character – but that doesn’t quite work. All of the externals do reveal character but the internals are nebulous. It also seems these concepts are hard to separate. Where I see the building of character I almost always see a revealing too.

There’s something there but I can’t see it. What I can see is the answer to a long-standing mystery: Why is there evil in the world? For good. Because it reveals character. As we are tested, we reveal what’s inside so God tests us to reveal our character just as scripture states. Note that it is not because He doesn’t know what we are but because we don’t know ourselves.

So, how does this relate to writing? Revealing character is easy. Building character not so much.

(This suggests other questions like, “Does a writer need to build character in the first place?”  but that is a topic for another post. We can assume it’s a useful skill a little longer.)

So what builds character? The only thing I can think of that might exclusively build character as opposed to reveal it or involve some combination of the two is to watch another human be a good example. Humans imitate what we see others doing. We want to be like people we like. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but when we do imitate one another it’s evidence that character building has taken place.

Maybe that’s why there are so many father figures and mother figures in fiction. Even more heroes and mentors. As writers, we need our readers to identify with the protagonist and all protagonists need something to live for, some goal to obtain. So if readers get to observe the moment when the protagonist bonds with a likable hero or mentor figure, then readers will more likely bond with the protagonist.

Even more if the hero or mentor dies later.

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This is the best explanation of the difference between a trope and a cliche I’ve come across. It also contains the best advice for when to use and when to avoid them.

A trope (in a story sense) is any plot, character, setting, device, or pattern that we recognize as such. It’s kind of everything, from the unassuming farm boy to the rebellion against an oppressive government to the wise mentor to the chase scene in which the car smashes through a pane of glass being carried across the street.

Tropes are what make stories run. A story is not good or bad based on whether or not it has tropes. ALL STORIES HAVE TROPES. A story is good or bad based on how those tropes are used.

What we like about tropes is familiarity (“Yay, ninjas!”), excitement (“Oo, the hero’s going to get all awesome on the badguys!”), and especially when our favorite tropes are twisted in interesting ways (“I did NOT see that coming”).

What we don’t like is when tropes are predictable to the point of boredom. That’s when a trope becomes a cliche.

via Author’s Echo: Tropes vs. Cliches.

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YouTube – Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability.

Once in a while you come across something so profound it either changes who you are or reinforces a core belief.

This was one of the latter for me. I showed me clearly that my faith in Jesus Christ is well-placed. This woman has researched and studied vulnerability and it perfectly matches some of the truth claims of Christianity.

Simply amazing.

She also has a web site for those interested in learning more: http://www.brenebrown.com/

Authenticity, Shame, Empathy, Vulnerability, Courage, Compassion, Connection.

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Source: A tale of two envies and what sells iPhones and Blackberries | SciGuy | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle.

Who knew there were two types of Envy? These researchers describe two distinct types – supportive and competitive. They call the supportive variant “benign” and the competitive “malicious”.

The researchers found that benignly envious people were willing to pay more for products a deserving friend had that they coveted, as in $110 more for an iPhone. That’s a good chunk of change.

However, people who were maliciously envious of iPhone owners were more likely to pay more for related but different products, such as a Blackberry.

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Yes, you read that right. I stumbled upon a very, very tantalized pattern in scripture tonight. It even parallels the formula for character creation popularized by writers like Dwight L. Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It’s simply this: Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. (Strength equates to the more common Body.) The specific scripture I used (and there are many, many that mention this pattern or a portion thereof) is Mark 12:28-31. The key verses are 30 and 31.

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:28-31 (NIV)

I was trying to get a handle on a biblical view of human nature, to understand the parts and how they relate to one another. And the Lord led me to this verse.

So, how does this work? Let me explain.

It took some digging into the meaning and definition behind these words. Thankfully, an excellent article already existed on the subject, To Love God With “All Your Heart” is NOT Enough! by Stephen Gola. You can read the full article for details (it’s short), but here’s my skinny version:

First, note that the order in scripture is important. We’ll come back to this later.

Heart The center or core of our being. The source of our life and existence – either our fallen state or our spiritual life in Christ.
Soul The animated qualities that show we are alive like breathing. Includes emotions, attitude, will, desires, and aversions.
Mind Deep thinking, meditation, and reflection. The putting together of mental concepts. Intelligence, knowledge, and understanding.
Strength Our whole being in action. One’s ability and might. Forceful, proactive problem-solving and trouble-shooting. Goal-oriented action. Heart + Soul + Mind united in a common goal or task.

I know what you’re thinking; Heart and Soul seem backwards and you’d be right. Apparently, our modern understanding has Heart and Soul flipped so that they have taken on each other’s meaning. So the real order should actually be Soul-Heart-Mind-Strength or from innermost component to outermost component. Here it is revised and corrected according to our modern understanding:

Soul The center or core of our being. The source of our life and existence – either our fallen state or our spiritual life in Christ.
Heart The animated qualities that show we are alive like breathing. Includes emotions, attitude, will, desires, and aversions.
Mind Deep thinking, meditation, and reflection. The putting together of mental concepts. Intelligence, knowledge, and understanding.
Strength Our whole being in action. One’s ability and might. Forceful, proactive problem-solving and trouble-shooting. Goal-oriented action. Soul + Heart + Mind united in a common goal or task.

So this is how you create a detailed, deep, three-dimensional character. Now compare this with Swain’s ideas about how to write using Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs):

  1. Reaction to Failure – Show Emotion followed by Reflex and Instinct.
  2. Deliberation – Consider options for next course of action.
  3. Decision – A decision is reached which becomes the new goal.
  4. Goal – The goal is identified and established clearly and specifically.
  5. Conflict – Hero attempts to achieve the new goal through behavior. Struggle.
  6. Failure to Accomplish Goal – Conflict ends in failure. (Success is reserved for the end.)

Now with the four components identified:

  1. {SOUL is not specifically included in the list, but the core values of the specific person are assumed as starting points.}
  2. Reaction to Failure – Show Emotion followed by Reflex and Instinct. (HEART)
  3. Deliberation – Consider options for next course of action. (MIND)
  4. Decision – A decision is reached which becomes the new goal. (MIND)
  5. Goal – The goal is identified and established clearly and specifically. (STRENGTH)
  6. Conflict – Hero attempts to achieve goal through behavior. Struggle. (STRENGTH)
  7. Failure to Accomplish Goal – Conflict ends in failure. (STRENGTH)

It’s a good fit, right? Compare the definitions and component parts of the four to the steps above. Simpy amazing.

As an added bonus, let’s map the concepts of Personality, Motivation, and Behavior also. Here’s a brief set of excerpts from Wikipedia:

In psychology, motivation refers to the initiation, direction, intensity and persistence of behavior. Motivation is a temporal and dynamic state that should not be confused with personality or emotion. Motivation is having the desire and willingness to do something. A motivated person can be reaching for a long-term goal such as becoming a professional writer or a more short-term goal like learning how to spell a particular word. … Personality invariably refers to more or less permanent characteristics of an individual’s state of being (e.g., shy, extrovert, conscientious). … As opposed to motivation, emotion refers to temporal states that do not immediately link to behavior (e.g., anger, grief, happiness). – Wikipedia

  1. {SOUL is essentially your Personality, what makes you – You.}
  2. Reaction to Failure – Show Emotion followed by Reflex and Instinct. (HEART – Motivation)
  3. Deliberation – Consider options for next course of action. (MIND)
  4. Decision – A decision is reached which becomes the new goal. (MIND)
  5. Goal – The goal is identified and established clearly and specifically. (STRENGTH – Behavior)
  6. Conflict – Hero attempts to achieve goal through behavior. Struggle. (STRENGTH – Behavior)
  7. Failure to Accomplish Goal – Conflict ends in failure. (STRENGTH – Behavior)

So, not only is this a biblical model for creating believable characters (and a fairly straight-forward and simple four-step pattern at that) but also a pattern for effectively writing those characters into stories. Who knew this was written in scripture? Figuratively speaking, I think God likes killing multiple birds with the same stone, don’t you? Remember to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

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Source: How-to Author, Randy Ingermanson – Margie Lawson.

Characters always do something for a reason. Writers usually call that reason the “motivation.” I like to break that out into three main parts, and let me go backward from the most visible parts to the least visible parts:

1) A STORY GOAL — Each character should have only one of these and it should be a clear and objective goal. Your reader should know what it would look like for the character to reach her goal. Scarlett O’Hara wants Ashley Wilkes. Either she gets him to marry her, or she doesn’t. Either way, you can have no doubt. This part of a character’s motivation should be one-dimensional.

2) AN AMBITION — Each character has something abstract that they want out of life. Miss America wants “world peace.” But what does that look like? Ambitions are always fuzzy. They have to be; they’re abstract. Each character translates their ambition differently into a concrete story goal–which we talked about above. Scarlett wants to be “the belle of the ball forever.” And she believes that marrying Asley will give her that. She’s mistaken, but that’s OK. She believes it. That’s what drives her. This part of a character’s motivation should also be one-dimensional.

3) VALUES — Each character believes certain core truths to be self-evident. No proof is needed that these core truths are really true, because it’s “obvious”–at least to the character. The ambition we talked about above always springs from your character’s values. This is where you want your character to be multi-dimensional. You want your character to have several values–core truths–and these should be in conflict. Scarlett thinks it’s obvious that “nothing is more important than being the center of attention.” This drives her ambition to be the belle of the ball. But Scarlett also believes that “nothing is more important than surviving.” This leads her to do all sorts of things that some of her friends are just too genteel to do. Scarlett is willing to get her hands dirty doing things that no belle of the ball should ever do. Scarlett’s values are in deep, deep conflict, and that’s what makes her a three-dimensinoal character.

I’ve never heard it explained exactly like this, but I think Randy is absolutely correct.

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Source: Left vs Right | Information Is Beautiful.

If you ever need to write a politically-motivated character or write political dialogue, then this diagram may be very useful. It was created as a joint effort by David McCandless and Stefanie Posavec for David’s book, The Visual Miscellaneum.

Left vs Right (US Version)

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