Saturday, September 4, 2010

Characters

My son's young personality was pretty much set before he ever met the man who would become his stepfather, so I'm constantly amazed at how alike they are.  They fall into these patterns...for instance, they love to communicate while apart, which is most of the year since the boyo lives with his dad in a distant state during school.  Then they spend the summer bumping heads, so much alike that living together makes them batty.  Now I know what my relationship with my dad must have looked like from the outside.

I call my daughter "My Little Demon."  She's a planet sized ball of willful energy squished into a skinny six-year-old package.  Even when she's being good, she's pushing.  She's completely her own person, yet shares a lot of traits with her brother that, I'm told often, were not inherited from her father.

My mind holds all these little facts, like any parent's, about my kids with no effort at all.  I don't have to think hard to recall that, while the Wee One (my girl's other nickname) likes tomato slices and loves fried pickles, the Boo Man (a name he's outgrown, but I haven't, and that serves well enough to not spread his identity around the internet) hates tomatoes and thinks fried pickles are the grossest things he's heard of that don't come from an animal.  I know their strengths and weaknesses, the music they like, the shows they are likely to watch...

It's like that with my characters, too.  Or, rather, it's like that with the protagonists.  I haven't written out what Quinn did for his tenth birthday, but I know him well enough to guess (can't really be wrong since I did make him up, but you know what I mean).  I haven't taken the time to figure out Wade's favorite food, but just thinking the question, I know immediately that this chick is meat eater. The spicier, the better.

My antagonists, on the other hand, tend to be closed books to me.

Stories usually come to me from the character; some voice that isn't mine will seem to speak to me, or a physical/psychological quirk will stick in my head and I'll end up building a person around it.  Then I'll discover what story they belong to.  Unfortunately, that often leaves me with "insert bad guy here", with which I create a story that's never fully cooked.

Realizing that is a good thing in a G.I. Joe sort of "knowing is half the battle" way.  But even when I was a  kid, I always responded to that with, "Yeah, but it's the easy half."  Figuring that out didn't mean that I could fix it.  Trying to redo my villains following the hero template just made me feel bad for them; I couldn't help but want to write kinder, gentler versions....

I may have gotten the reality check that I've needed during last weekend's drunken celebrations.

Long story short, the liquor flowed and conversations turned to places they might not go while everyone is sober.  I learned that my ex had told a nasty little lie about me, and to my family no less.  The truth is simple yet complicated, and illustrates the character flaws of each of us.  The narrative he created manages to paint him both as victim and hero, and makes me a bad, bad person.

In a life that I've gone through great pains to make drama free, he became my villain with that stupid, selfish act.

As a woman, I was furious.  As a writer, something clicked.

Here's where my thinking gets convoluted, but if you've followed me this far, hold on!  When I was a kid, my game of choice was D&D {Dungeons & Dragons Core Rulebook Set (Dungeons & Dragons d20 3.5 Fantasy Roleplaying, Three Book Slipcased Set)} with it's character alignments that dictated behavior.  Lawful good characters were basically the white knights with good intentions.  Lawful evil finds it's modern equivalent in the corrupt district attorney, following the law, but happily putting it to bad ends for a profit.  And as good opposed evil, lawful personalities found their opposite in chaotic alignments.  Chaotic evil characters were the baddest of the bad with no regard for anything but their own desires.  Think serial killer, but not Dexter (Dexter: The First Season) since he does have a code--a sense of being more lawful evil--to live by.

I was once invited to a different game that I, alas, never became too familiar with.  But it did introduced to a different way of viewing alignments; a system not so much of good vs. evil, but varying degrees of selfishness.  I hadn't thought about that for years.  Decades.  Til my ex's lie was exposed.

Let's use him to build a better bad guy!

He's a regular guy.  He's got his good qualities and bad.  Yeah, he did plenty to contribute to the break up of our marriage, but that's enough water under the bridge that, after a few days' of deliberation, I accepted his Facebook friend request.  The fact that he also friended my dad and brothers is creepy, but no biggy.  The lie he told makes him an asshat, but not the biggest in the world.  Not much of a bad guy in real life.  But fictionally, those things are just the start.

Maybe he plays the part of the old-lover-turned-good-friend so well that, when little things start to go wrong in our heroine's life, she thinks it's all a coincidence.  One small, self-serving act that he got away with leads to another; he's sure that he's right all the while, never seeing the has crossed the line until the climatic end.  It can be all about recovering his lost love--psychological thriller; romance if his misdeeds are the obstacle between her and her new hero.  Maybe befriending her was just a means to get to a family member--mystery or mainstream.  Or maybe there's a supernatural element behind his selfishness--horror, urban fantasy.

OK, so the genre stuff is, perhaps, a red herring.  The nut that I needed to crack was that I start at the end, with them filling in the space of evil; knowing how they get to that point might breath new life into my antagonists.

7 comments:

Seleste said...

It's always best to understand all your characters as much as possible. In my current WiP, none of the characters really have bad intentions. As you mentioned, they just have different levels of selfishness. It's making for some interesting degrees of conflict to see who will go how far to get what they want. :)

patriciahollett said...

I enjoyed the thought process and the rant to finally breathe some life into your antagonist by looking at the people in your life and the different levels of evil or selfishness. It's much easier to base characters on some of the qualities of the people you know because you know what 'makes them tick', and it sounds as if it's given you a different perspective on your writing that wasn't entirely clear before. Glad to hear this is becoming easier. And on a side note-exes are usually the villan...hehe! :)

Falcata Times said...

Good solid post, you've explained your points well. I suspect that the reason that you don't get on quite as well with the villains is due to not having a better idea of them. You can't associate that well as you've never looked at things from the "evil" point of view.

For example, look at a time when things went to hell and you wanted to get vengeance in some shape or form. How did you plan it (and don't tell me you didn't all writers have to admit to the evilness of thier own schemes), what did you intend to do? How would you have done it?

Now look at that scheme from a fresh perspective. If you heard someone come up with that with no idea about the event that made it occur, would you understand it? Could you even comprehend doing it? Finally, is this pov a bit screwy?

That's the way it is with villains, they just have a differing viewpoint on the world to a lot of people. To get to know them you have ot look at things in a similar pov. Look at the characters scheme. How would you achieve it? Is it realistic goal wise?

From there you'll get a better picture and remember that not all villains wear black, some may be the meanest son's of guns on the planet but they could have a soft spot for kittens and love them to pieces etc.

Hope it helps,

Diane Girard said...

A villian who is pure evil is never as interesting as a villian that has some good traits. I'm sure your insight will help you to flesh out your characters.

Best,

Diane

michellemuto said...

I think that as writers, we compile a bit of ourselves, people we like - and really don't like, into fragments of our characters. It's only natural!

I think we've all got a few villains who stemmed from people we don't like and never will, but at least at writers, we can understand their selfish motives enough to make really good characters out of.

Nicole said...

Have you ever read a webcomic called "The Order of the Stick"? They parody D&D, and have great character descriptions that have modified the way I will forever think about the traditional alignment descriptions. Things like "Stupid Good" and "Chaotic Greedy." (I can't find the descriptions on the comic site; I think they go with the OOTS board game.)

Anyway, those cracked me up the first time I saw them, because they fit the author's need for alignment better than the traditional "Lawful Good" (etc) ever did.

An Again said...

Thanks, as always, for all replies.

" You can't associate that well as you've never looked at things from the "evil" point of view.

For example, look at a time when things went to hell and you wanted to get vengeance in some shape or form. How did you plan it (and don't tell me you didn't all writers have to admit to the evilness of thier own schemes), what did you intend to do? How would you have done it?"

Awesome point, and one I plan to work with.