Since COVID still has things slowed down, I need to dig into my bag of ideas. Since I’m still on a Naruto kick, I figured now’s the time for my five favorite Naruto characters. This isn’t ranked by power, but instead only the ones I liked.
#5) Itachi: Honestly, this is one of the best characters to study to begin with. Itachi has a fantastic arc. His story is heartbreakingly beautiful. He’s amazingly powerful. I like his personality. That personality really matches his story to. He’s figured things out, and he’s acting on those realizations. The only time he acts on hope is when he’s thinking about his brother, and even in that case, he’s planned for the worst.
#4) Shikamaru: For the same reason I like Itachi, I like Shikamaru more. He’s hilarious in that he can do anything, but he’d prefer to do nothing. I’ve already told you how much I loved his role in the Asuma arc. I like characters who are thoughtful. I love watching them to see how everything will inevitably come into fruition. I spent every arc watching him and thinking, “somehow, this is a part of his plan.” It usually was.
#3) Naruto: I don’t think I’ve ever had a title character as my favorite. But Naruto is pretty close for me. He’s everything I want a character to be. He’s sympathetic and proactive. His numbskull antics get him into trouble and it sort of makes him comedic relief when he’s not supposed to be so. Still, he is a brilliant title character who always makes me cheer for him.
#2 Gaara: I LOVE a redemption arc. Honestly Gaara would be my favorite if I did this tomorrow, but he might fall to number three next week. That’s why I’m doing the top five: because they are all my favorite at one point or another. I just love that Gaara was as low as one could be and then became one of the most loved characters in the show. His sand power is what initially caught my interest. I just thought it was cool. He’s also got that cool-but-passionate personality.
#1 Rock Lee: Yeah, that’s right. Look, it’s pretty simple why I love him most. I see a lot of myself in him. He’s probably in the worst position to be a ninja, but he’s earned his right to be there because of that hard work and determination. Honestly, anyone who wants to know me better, just watch Rock. His single-minded determination is pretty much how I’ve worked for as long as I can remember, and the pain he feels when his dreams are put at risk or the people he loves are in danger resonate with me as well. Don’t even get me started on drunken fist and his love for his mentor!
So that’s my list. Do you have a top five you’d like to share? Why?
Do you remember your high school yearbook? More specifically, do you remember that list of most or Mr. and Ms? I thought it might be fun to talk about a few of my characters using that concept as a twist. I’ve never really tried something like this, so hopefully, it’s fun!
Most Clever: Ardelia Sabine, Stealing Freedom/Power of Words. This isn’t even close! I think a number of my characters have a degree of wit, but Ardelia is on another level. She’d be a great villain if her motives were different. She’s always thinking and planning. Where power or just plain grit get some characters through, Ardelia is a throw back to the characters who love it when a good plan comes together.
Most Sympathetic: Elele’Therios, Sojourn in Captivity. This was a close race in a few ways, but Elele takes it for me. I think this will be controversial to those who’ve read all my work, but I stand behind it. I still think the first chapter in her story is the best first chapter I’ve written to date. There’s so much that happens to her that I don’t think anyone could read it and not hope for better things for her.
Most Dramatic: Sal Veltri,Caught. It was a close contest between him and Elele, but Sal is pretty dramatic if I’m being honest. He’s a man of passion in a lot of ways, and his emotions are always to the max, which is why I gave him this title.
Character I’d Most Like to Hang Out With: Driscoll Navin, The Journals of Bob Drifter. The guy’s hilarious! He’s hundreds of years old, so he’ll have a bunch of stories to tell. I also happen to know he’s generous, so he’d probably pay the tab.
Most Frightening: Grimm, The Journals of Bob Drifter. Ohhh, so very, very close. (NO SPOILERS!) For obvious reasons, I’m going to go with Grimm. Sure, I have other characters who are pretty darn frightening, but Grimm gets the edge because he’s literally a grim reaper. Again, perhaps some controversy in this pick, especially considering the catch to Grimm’s goal, but I’d still run screaming from him in his cowl before any of my other characters to date.
Most Fun To Write: Caden Carroll, Caught. For so many, many reasons. The first is that Caden only speaks in metaphor and simile. I had so much fun researching the normal way to say what Caden means to find the perfect story or movie to pull from. He’s such a cool character to work with, and he’s absolutely bonkers.
Most Like Me: Richard Hertly, The Journals of Bob Drifter. This one will also (oddly) receive a lot of debate for those who know me and have read my books. Here’s the thing, Richard is never satisfied, nor does he ever feel good enough. That’s probably the core of who I am, and why I most identify with him. There are a number of other things I think I have in common with him. All my other characters have some aspect that is beyond something I have without careful thought and consideration. Naturally, they all have a part of me, but Richard has the part I most recognize about myself.
Best Developed: Kaitlyn Olhouser, Caught and Repressed. I’ve loved watching her grow thus far, and I can’t wait for you all to see the woman she’s destined to become. Elele was in consideration for this as well, and this may shift, but, for now, seeing how she’s grown from a scared little girl into even the young lady she is in Repressed is just fun.
Most Lovable: Bob Drifter, The Journals of Bob Drifter. I really think this guy could pretty much befriend anyone. He’s kind, intelligent, polite, and honest. I’ll be honest and say he’s the character I hope most of my readers would call their favorite. I think the reason most people love that book is because most people love Bob. I’d also argue that the majority of those who didn’t care for it think it fell short because, for whatever reason, they didn’t like Bob.
So there you go! For those who’ve read my books, what are your thoughts? Would you give any of these awards to other characters? Who is your favorite character? I’d be interested to hear about it in the comments below.
Spolier Free Summary: It may appear as though I’m just piling stories together to catch up on reviews, but the truth is I don’t want to catch up. I need a solid cache of stuff to review. I don’t like Wednesdays to go by without a review because that’s one of the staples of this blog. The reason, then, I am putting these two stories together is because I consider them two parts of the same story. I also think this was one of the stronger stories in the anthology. I’ll get to that later. Boss by Scott Moon and Leverage by Josh Hayes are the third and fourth stories in the Four Horsemen anthology, For a Few Credits More.
Johnny Boss is after his former team member Jessup, who reportedly killed a peacemaker and stole an immensely valuable slate (memory card). Everyone wants it; Jessup has it, and he’s hidden well. Catching Jessup might be easy, but keeping him is hard enough with a rival company after him. The fact that Johnny’s XO is ready to make a play for the big chair isn’t much more helpful. Mac was on his way to being a Peacemaker before one mission with a particularly brutal training officer caused him to decide otherwise. The individual being brutalized? That would be one Jessup, who Mac discovers is on his planet and in much more trouble. These two stories fit nicely together to give a great narrative from two points of view.
Character: Mac stood out from the group, but the characters in both of these stories all have a depth that’s rare in short fiction. In fact, both of these stories are pleasantly character based. Boss is a man trying to keep control. Mac is a man who sticks to his principles, which is why I’m drawn to him. I like neutral character arcs, and Mac is a great example of how it’s done. Sorry, that was probably author-speak. I like stories that revolve around characters who change others. Think about the arc to Winter Soldier. Cap’ didn’t change, but his actions changed others. Mac has that same feel, so if you like the kind of story where a man stands up for what he believes in, this is your story. The complexity increases because the characters’ motivations are clear. There’s probably only one true antagonist. The rest are just folk trying to get by.
Exposition: Both of these stories were fantastic here. I got the background I needed without slogging through backstory. Sure, I need a bit of info to keep me from wondering what was going on, but I only got the explanations I needed. The fact that these stories were so tight and well controlled really makes me believe these two authors worked closely together on the project. I don’t know if they did or not, but I sure think so.
World building: I wasn’t as lost as I was in the other ones. Sure some of the terms had me checking what I knew, but not too many. It’s possible that these characters are more connected to the rest of The Four Horsemen Universe, which was created by Chris Kennedy, but if it is, it would only be a bonus to fans of the universe. These stories (standing together) are worth reading alone.
Dialogue: Hayes was probably a bit stronger than Moon in this regard, but they both probably could have been a tad better. It wasn’t stilted or jarring in either story, but there were points where the dialogue was clearly just a chance to give a bit of exposition. Stilted? No. But I’d say forced in some places. Again, it’s not a criminal amount. In fact this is the only real place I have any negative criticism for these stories. One might have a little forgiveness for this seeing as though the stories are relatively short (and tiny when you’re someone like me used to reading 400-page monsters.
Description: I think I’d have liked a bit more detail. The visuals were great. It felt like a movie theater in the action sequences. But just a touch of description here or there would have taken these stories to an even higher level. That said, if I’m asking for a bit more, fans of hard science fiction are probably going to feel like there isn’t enough. I was happy with it though.
Overall: These stories stand out from the anthology because they are connected. (As far as I’m a novice in the world. Every story here might be connected, but I don’t see how other than they’re all in the same universe. Fans of deeper stories will like the combination of these tales, and they’ll be rewarded with clever endings and great hero moments. I like this story combo more and more as I think on it, and that’s always a sign of a good story.
One of the more common questions I get is “Which of your characters is most like you?” I’ve heard other authors talk about this with varying degrees of frustration. I’m not exactly sure, exactly, what the consensus feeling is, but some authors don’t like the idea that the characters they create are based on someone (or at least just one person). I’ve discussed how I develop characters, and it’s absolutely true that they all have some pieces of lots of people I know, but no one character is simply a representation of any one person. I’m frankly too afraid of appropriation lawsuits.
A lot of my friends mention that reading my book was odd because they saw so much of me in my books. I don’t mind that so much, but that’s because I always give my characters some part of myself.
There’s a common phrase in the world of writing: Write what you know. Now, in Fantasy, this seems much more difficult when you consider ancient worlds and other races. Still, the simple fact is the life you live has an impact on the worlds you create. While I normally like to do case studies, I just don’t have enough knowledge on other authors to speak. At best, I have a few vague recollections. I believe this to be true about most authors, and to show it, I’ll talk about how my life has effected my art.
In The Journals of Bob Drifter, the most direct things I pulled from my life are locations and occupations. Patience is a photographer because I’m a photographer. I understood the field, and it worked for the story. Bob is a substitute teacher. The trick he used when he first met David is the same trick I used to gain my classes’ attention as a substitute. The fact that Bob looks a lot like me is coincidental. I had a buzz-cut hairstyle pretty much the last 15 years of my life. I grew it out recently. I was at an event when someone showed me the cover and said, “Is that you?” No. While Bob has my background in education, the similarities in hair are about all we have in common. I have family near Surprise, Arizona. I was stationed in San Diego and Syracuse while I served in the Navy. I took these locations because they were familiar. It made it easier for me to write since I could actually remember some of these locations.
I want to be clear about my role in the Navy. I served as a combat photographer. While some of my friends saw combat, and even earned recognition for their actions in combat, I didn’t see any. However, I certainly trained a lot. That training was put to use in Caught while writing the scenes involving Oneiros. None of this is stuff you couldn’t learn by watching Act of Valor, but it helped me have something to draw from.
While stationed in San Diego, I did a lot of volunteer work. I did some work with the homeless, and was shocked to hear that, as of 2010, there were 1,200 homeless veterans in the city of San Diego alone. This became the inspiration for another book.
Now for the other side of the coin.
I expect most authors pull from what they know. It adds realism and makes world-building easier, but there is a line. It’s poorly defined and depends more on the author than any actual rules. I’ve been to Afghanistan. I know what the weather is like. I know the road conditions. But I didn’t take actual locations. First off, my memory (while, in my opinion is pretty darn good, isn’t good enough to remember any one of the dozens of locations I visited in the six months I was there.
I mentioned Kirkuk Iraq in another book, but only as a location. Appropriation is a real privacy rights violation and something I take seriously. Locations are one thing, people are far more important. Yes, I usually take a TRAIT or two from people I know, but I have not (well..not since I was 13 and clueless) nor will not ever simply take someone I know and make them into a character. The closest I came was an old chief of mine. I spoke to him about it. While they look nothing alike and their situations in life are not even remotely similar, the trait I gave this character is what most would know my old chief for. The point is, I felt so strongly that I approached him and discussed the matter with him.
The balance between writing what you know and creating what you can create is an art in and of itself. Let me end with a few dos and don’ts.
Do: Use what you know to draw from. Your careers, hobbies, and interests can make for wonderful world building tools. Don’t be afraid to put them to use.
Do: Use locations and cultures with which you are familiar. It’s important to build a life-like world or use real-world locations in ways that help the reader gain a more visceral experience.
Don’t: Use real people without their expressed written permission. If that sounds like the end of a football game, it should. Now, some people enter contests specifically to be put in books. The very act of entering said contest waves a persons right to having their likeness used fictitiously.
Don’t: Use real scenes. This is debatable. The point is it’s close to the line, and I tend to avoid things like that. If I write about a restaurant in San Diego, I make sure I’m using that fictitiously, and it’s not fictionalized in an unflattering way. (At least I make every effort to do that). If I can make up a place, I do. There may indeed be a restaurant in San Diego at the location I offer, but if there is, I didn’t know it was there. So long as the location is simply used as a setting, I’m not OVERLY worried, but if I have any other way to do it, I will, especially if I’m looking for a “seedy” location or something of the sort. If I write information that’s accurately portraying the location, I’m safe, but accuracy becomes my friend. At the end of the day, if you’re worried about it, if you feel a little weird about it, don’t do it.
If you’re an author, and you want to provide your thoughts, please feel free to do so in the comments section.
Recently I posted a blog about how I develop characters. While doing that, I talked about how in in character files, I outline each character’s progression. This is commonly called plotting. You use structures to develop each character’s through-line. In the post mentioned above, I discussed the need for each character to be their own main character. I also mentioned they need more than one plot.
The bulk of my plotting terms come from Brandon Sanderson’s online lectures. I may have altered some terms because they make more sense for me that way, but those have the bulk of the structures I use.
As I grow, I consider other options, but this is a solid list. Essentially what it boils down to is asking yourself, “How are my readers going to know my character is growing.” Reminder: Regression is a form of growth.
I always knew about the Three Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey. The Journals of Bob Drifter follows a three act cycle. The “Matt breakdown” of this is: Introduce Hero. Make life suck. Resolve issues established in Act Two.
Rather than rehash what is already covered brilliantly in the links above, I thought I’d do what I love best, and provide you with some examples. I call these case studies. I learn best by looking at what others have done and seeing how it applies to what I’m trying to accomplish.
Corey Truax covered the heroes’ journey quite well, and Star Wars is a textbook example. Corey’s breakdown and Episode 4 are more than enough to go on.
Mystery: If your character is trying to learn something, you’re writing a mystery. It could be who killed John Doe or what’s wrong with the water in Ladonis. (I made those up to give you examples, so if you find something I accidentally touched on, I didn’t mean it.) Now, I’ve sung Sanderson’s praises a lot, so I feel talking about Elantris would be a bit unfair here. Let’s give someone else a little credit. Redshirts by John Scalzi is type of mystery. It’s hilarious. It’s obviously a parody (I’ll track down my review and post it on the new blog soon). The point is, the main character is trying to figure out what exactly is going on. I loved this book, but what pushed me through it was each clue the main character had to get him to realize what was happening. One of the main plotlines for my sixth book (New Utopia) is a mystery. Sanderson mentions Big Problem plots. I sort of lump this in with mystery as whatever they’re trying to do, they still have to figure out how to do it.
Try Fail: I tried to make this a sub plot as well because the character is trying to achieve something. The mystery would be how to do it, but what makes this plot stand alone better for me is the fact that you don’t actually need a large objective. I use this more for character than plot. Grimm is essentially a try fail plot in The Journals of Bob Drifter. If Grimm didn’t get closer to his ultimate objective, there’d be no tension, and his conflict with Bob would feel meaningless. My takeaway here is that the more a person fails to do something, the more surprising it is when the character succeeds. Now I’ve peddled my book several times over, so let’s talk about another book. Fade to Black byTim McBain is a more “problem” based thing, but what kept me reading was the fact that I wanted to know if the main character’s new approach was going to work.
Travelog: Sanderson mentions a few in the link I gave you, and I’ll elaborate on one of those. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan does a lot for me as a reader, but it also teaches me a lot. I was 90 pages into it and wanted to shout at my brother for recommending it, but he’d ordered me to read the first 100 pages, and so I did. If I use my analytical eye, I can find out why. Readers want to know the story is moving. The first 100 pages of The Eye of the World is all character introduction. Now, when I read book 13, and Sanderson tied back to that first 100 pages, it brought tears to my eyes (I’ll talk about endings in a future blog). So why was I so frustrated? The Eye of the World is essentially group of people trying to get somewhere. You have a map in the book that tells you where you are as a reader. The destinations change as well, but you always know you’re moving because the characters are striving to get somewhere. The first 100 pages of Eye of the World might frustrate readers because the characters don’t move. That 100 pages sets up the other 14 books (counting the prequel). They’re important and even cherished, but as a stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t have wanted to finish it had I not been ordered too. I’m glad I did. But the book moves much faster as we follow the characters and where they go.
Relationship Plot: I was about to sing C.L. Schneider’s praises again, but I feel if I’m too heavy handed, I’m not giving you readers enough material to read. I want to give a lot of books some credit. I haven’t spoken about the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer, and this is a good spot to do so. Here, you’d have to read the first three books to analyze the plot I’m talking about, the relationship is between Artemis and the magical creatures. The most used plot is “People meet and don’t like each other; then they get to know each other and fall in love.” There are many types of love, but the story could be about the breakdown in a relationship too. (Remember, where I say progress, change might be a better term).
Time Bomb: This can be quite literal or not. Essentially this device is in effect when you put a limit on something. Murder mysteries do it well. Every time you pick up a murder mystery, you want the hero to find the villain before someone else dies. It’s subtle there. It’s a lot more literal in Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. Thread is going to fall any day now, and Pern doesn’t have enough dragons. The second part of New Utopia (which will become its own book after I revise it) has one of these.
What I wanted to do with this post is show you the types of plots that are out there and give you a few examples to study up with. I hope it helps.
Character development is a fluid process for me. I consistently try new things and keep what I feel worked and get rid of what I don’t like. Sometimes I bring those things I don’t like back because as much as I don’t like them, they help me create more realistic, sympathetic characters.
I put a lot of thought into how to present this because of how fluid my process is. I thought about taking you through how I evolved and what I tried. I can do that if anyone is interested, but what I think anyone would use this for is to put what I know I’m going to do when I start writing my eight book (Sojourn is a short story and Elele is already developed).
Quintessential Editor covered some ground with hisblog about using dice to create characters. This comes in handy mostly because of the character sheets for me. I did this a few times. It worked, but I thought it was too time consuming, so I dropped the sheets. Now I’m brining them back because some books have WAY too much for me to track. I have word processing character sheets, and I may adapt those, but I need something that helps me track my characters, particularly physical attributes.
I also took full advantage of Brandon Sanderson’s online lecture about Character Creation. That helped me mostly as it came to plotting. (Note: Today, I’m talking about development. That way, I can talk about plotting later.) But it does give me a snapshot, and it helped me streamline (in my case too effectively) my character sheets.
My character sheets start as simple pages in a word processing document. They get larger as I start plotting the character.
A note on archetypes. I outlined Caught using archetypes. While I want to know the role my characters play in the book, what I found this ended up doing was make my characters too cookie cutter. They fit their role in the plot, but it made them plot devices and not characters. I think what I’ll do next time is add the archetypes to the character sheet, though this still scares me. (NOTE: As I publish this, I’ve again decided against it.) I’m a very literal, linear thinker, and I don’t want to force my characters in a direction they wouldn’t go just so they fit some standard archetype.
Where my ideas come from: I teach my students about this concept where a writer has an idea for a story. I got it from one of my sources we used to develop the course, Telling True Stories. They call it the glimmer moment. I exist in a constant state of glimmer infinity. I constantly have flashes of imagination or insight that I think would be amazing. I jot them down or commit them to memory (let the debate on memory begin here). When enough of those ideas arrive to formulate one consistent narrative, I know I have a story. The idea for Caught came to me when my mom told me about a nightmare she had had. (Am I a bad son?)
I mention that because sometimes the main character develops clearly in my mind. Sometimes they don’t. What I mean is I have a sense for the emotional description of the character, but not the physical one. When I see the character clearly in my mind, I don’t fight it. When it doesn’t matter, I let chance determine those characteristics. For Perception of War, the flip of a coin determined the gender of my character. A four-sided die determined his ethnicity and color. I’ll probably post a blog about this one day, but I think characters are people.
There are several fantastic stories out there where race, religion, and gender are arcs. When they aren’t I feel silly developing a white male character simply because I’m a white male. Sal, the main character in Caught is a protector and a Soldier. He was always a man in my imagination, but I’ll tell you frankly the majority of the service members I respect most happen to be women. It’s not a knock on one over the other, just a point I’m trying to work to. He was a man, because of the dynamic I wanted to create with a few other characters. He was white because my four-sided die said so. He’s from Philly because that’s where my finger landed on a map. When these traits matter, writers should take great care. They always have significance though because they’re parts of what make a person who he (Sal) is. None of those characteristics affected the plot, so I let chance decide because it’s fast, and in my mind, it’s the best way I have so far to make sure the diversity in my books comes anywhere near the diversity of life.
That brings me to character sheets. Like I said, I’m going to bring more elements in, but here’s Bob’s character sheet.
Bob Drifter : Robert Drifter
Light brown hair
Bob’s exactly what I named him. He’s a drifter. In personality as well as occupation. He’s accepted who and what he is, for now at least, because it’s all he’s known. He’s kind and takes it upon himself to be more of a guide than a conduit. Others in his field don’t take such measures, but a part of who Bob is demands a certain courtesy. He doesn’t remember anything at all about his life before his work. A part of him is curious, but, given his nature, he accepts things without much argument. Things are. Part of this stems from his belief that change isn’t possible for him.
Now take a look at Elele’s. This is her character sheet from Sojourn. Please know I’ve absolutely deleted a few spoilers, and that may cause some confusion, but I’d like people to read the book and be entertained by some of the twists. Note the differences between her character sheet and Bob’s:
(The trouble with Sefaram is that they all look essentially the same. Hair is a thing. But they’re very hard to tell apart unless you look at their Faline. These fractal patterns are the way Sefaram see one another. Where humans look at skin color facial shapes (shapes are a thing for Sefaram too), Sefaram rely most on the inner-most ring of the faline.)
Hobby 1) Travel
Hobby 2) mathmatics.
Height: 60.8 inches – 5’1”
Weight: 161 pounds
Build: Sleek. (She’s twiggy even by Seferam standards.)
Hair Color: Black (All Sefaram with hair have this)
Hair Length: Mid-shoulder
Hair Style: Rolled and braided. What would you call cornrowed hair that is braided into multiple braids…then braided again? (I don’t speak hair). (NOTE: I did some research and talked to a friend. The most accurate term I found was braided weave)
Eye Color: Black (All Sefaram)
Eye Shape: large ovals longer than tall. (deer eyes) (All Sefaram)
Face Shape: Round.
Freckles: None (Sefaram have none)
Moles: None (See above)
Scars: None as of Sojourn. (SPOILER DELETED INFORMATION)
Faline: Outter pattern (FAMILY IDENTIFIER): Four tear-drop-shaped loops in which the points meet in the middle. Inner Pattern (INDIVIDUAL IDENTIFIER): A pattern resembling a seven-pedaled flower blossom. (NOTE: Faline are ultraviolet patterns on the mid-section of each Seferam. Think of them as luminescent tribal tattoos that follow fractal patterns).
Clothing: (All Sefaram leave their faline exposed. Men usually go bare chested. Elele wears what are considered prudish clothes. No style or fashion (especially since the bad guy’s arrival). She were’s a simple outfit that ties around the neck. It covers her breasts. Cloth covers her sides and becomes a mid-calf length dress. It’s always a simple color with no ultraviolet patterning (a common fashion trend these days). She wears simple leather shoes. (SPOILER INFO DELETED)
Jewelry: None. Sefaram don’t wear it. Their bio-electro-magnetic power plays hell with metal.
faline: For Seferam, they’re an emotional cue. They pulse in different ways the way humans blush or flush.
You’ll see a lot of elements from the above-mentioned Sanderson Lecture there. Like I said. I can promise you that second hobby gave Elele a dimension I never really expected. Little things like that help me get deeper into her character. I didn’t realize math was going to be such a huge part of her character until I gave her that hobby. It then became her occupation. It’s now one of her key assets to how she sees the world and progresses in her plot.
Not all of this became cannon. (Note the picture, she looks very different now that she’s all fleshed out) I left in some of my self-notes. They’re my musings, motivations or research sites for me to get a better feel. I did delete a bunch of my self notes because they were far too spolierific for me to include.
So my next evolution will blend all of these to help me develop a character in terms of physical attributes, motivations, archetype, and plots. Where Corey uses his D & D sheets, I was always a Rifts man myself. I’ll let those character sheets provide the physical attributes. I’ll let the Sanderson lecture round the character out. Then I’ll let them work together to make the character more realistic. Then I’ll let the plotting provide the finishing touches.
I feel this needs a summary:
1) Identify character. Leave what speaks to you alone and let chance determine all other physical attributes. For Elele, I knew she was female, and I knew what species she was. I also knew what culture I would borrow from most heavily for that species.
2) Name the character. (I’m all over the place here. I do everything from a quick study of names, to popular names of other cultures. Sometimes I look for what a name means in a language I best feel fits the culture of the character. When all else fails, I use arandom name generator. For Elele, I realized I liked the idea of palindrome names. There’s a mathematical significance to that (and also one of the other species in the book) that I felt was appropriate.
3) Fill in physical attributes. This includes race, species and other aspects of the character’s background.
4) Establish occupation, hobbies and goals. (this is where some plotting comes in).
5) Begin plotting. This is the most critical step. Every character is the main character in THAT character’s mind. So I plot as if this character is in her own story. I’m not married to this plotting or outline. Elele’s actual arc has some significant differences from the outline, but not who she is or what she does.
This gives me the freedom to get to know my characters in my own natural way. I’m a discovery writer at heart, and I need some room for that to work. What I don’t ever do is start plotting before I get a sense for the core of my character. When I outline one way, then realize my character wouldn’t do that, I don ’t fight it. Early on in Elele’s arc in Images of Truth, Elele was supposed to act and work in one way. Then I realized she wouldn’t handle that situation in the outlined manner. Her decision was more heroic, and led to better conflict and emotional payoff.
(NOTE: I’m talking about her role in Images of Truth, not Sojourn. Sojourn is a prequel to Images.)
Every character has a core just like every person. I find that core by gifting them traits. I take something from a character I love. I take something from someone I love. I take something from someone I don’t like very much. Then I take something from myself. I blend them together and it makes a new character I understand very well.
Let’s look at Bob: His part-time job and love of reading came from me. His drive to understand came from my mom. His love of quoting things came from Beast of the X-Men. I won’t tell you where his frustrating ability to mope comes from, because I’m not trying to dime out people I’m not actually a big fan of. (Note, I said people I don’t like very much. Me not liking a person in no way makes them bad or even unlikable. I feel naming said individual would borderline on slanderous.)
Doing that is what gives me a picture for how they would handle situations. We writers need to remember though that the horrible things we put our characters through is going to change them. If it doesn’t, it won’t feel realistic. I get a baseline from this, then let their experiences shape how they’ll handle future decisions.
I hope that helps. Honestly, it’s just the way I do it. How do you do it? Was this helpful? Any tricks or resources you like? Feel free to say as much in the comments below.
I’ve been reading a lot about plotting on blogs, and that always gets me thinking about characters with dimension. I’m not honestly sure if there is a distinction in this term from depth, but I feel like there is because what I’m talking about today has more to do with plots than traits.
One day I’ll walk you all through how I develop characters. I started one way, added a few things, twisted them around and landed at my process on character development. I might have even touched on it here and there already, but while I’d like to give you one place to go for my method of development, I want to focus on plotting.
So let’s start with how I learn everything, utter failure. I’ve said it a lot. Failure is great. It’s wonderful. Oh, it never FEELS very good, but it’s still important. I quite literally have scars on my body. Each one (I promise I’m not exaggerating) was preceded by me saying, “This is gonna be AWESOME!” and then I hurt myself.
The first completed manuscript I wrote was AWESOME! (and by that I mean awful, and has since left me emotionally scared). There are many reasons for this, but looking at this deep red line across the soul of my inner author, I think the biggest problem I had was that my characters each only had one plot, and those plots were all secondary to the overall plot. People just don’t work that way.
Think about your day? What do you do? Even if you break your day down into “Go to work,” “Come home,” and “Go to bed,” that wouldn’t come close to describing your day. As I write this, I’m on vacation with my family. One of my elder nieces, (she whom I call “The Junior,” who also happens to be an awful lot like her uncle) and I had the chance to sit down. I haven’t seen her in a year.
“So what’s been going on?”
“Not much,” she answered.
I went on to explain that I seriously doubt nothing much happened over the course of the year I’ve been unable to really sit down and talk. Oh, social media and cell phones allow for the highlights, but I wanted the directors cut edition of The Junior’s life.
That got me thinking about my editor’s comments regarding my Fourth Draft of Caught. We were discussing a lot of arcs and he told me “readers expect more in fiction.” You see, even now, Caught is very cinematic in structure and prose. I did that by choice, and I may pay the price when it comes to sales and reviews, but I desperately needed something faster after writing The Journals of Bob Drifter. That doesn’t mean I ignored my editor. In fact, I feel a lot more satisfaction with this Fifth Draft.
So how do I do it? In short, I remember people do more than one thing a day. Heck, sometimes people do more than one thing at a time (sort of, but don’t throw research disproving multitasking at me).
There are a lot of plots out there. Some also call them structures. Others call them arcs. Quintessential Editor did a few blogs about them recently.
I didn’t really do this with Journals or Caught. I’ve been doing it ever since. What I do now is plot each character before I combine all of those plots into one outline. I keep aware of what opportunities arise, and I’m not afraid to let them unfold. This is where those dimension comes into play. Let’s do an exercise:
Think of a character. Need help? Okay. I’m going to flip a coin. Heads for man.
*flips coin* (I do this whenever gender isn’t a large concern. I even did this with my main character in my seventh book).
TAILS…Woman it is.
How old is she? More importantly, what does she want? Well, since I’m here visiting The Junior, let’s start with what she wants. She wants to go to college and study theater. (See…I told you she was a lot like her uncle!) Sorry…I think VERY fast. What just happened is a lot like my process. I flipped a coin, determined a gender. The gender got me thinking about someone I love. I took that real struggle, multiplied it by the power of “Fantasy” and got this:
A Young Girl wishes to become a Mistress of Transformation. Why? To what end? When I talk about character development, I’ll go into more detail, but I like showing you HOW I think. Anyway. I have my first plot. Because I tend to subscribe to Sanderson’s online lectures, I call this particular plot a “travelogue.” Why? Because she wants to go to transformation school. Where Frodo had to get to Mount Doom, from a macro perspective you have a character who is in one place (high school) and wants to get to another (college).
This can even be what I call the “main plot.” However, on her way to becoming a college student, there’s more that happens. She has to earn money. She has to gain references. She has friends in high school that she may leave. She has to confront the Administer of Admissions. (I’m seriously developing a plot as I do this, I welcome you to do the same.)
Each of those other objectives are plots in and of themselves. They’re side stories occurred on the way to the main objective.
Now let’s take an easier, better-known case study. Wizard of Oz. Would we care NEARLY as much for Dorothy if she told Scarecrow, “Thanks for the directions,” and moved along on her way? She could have. The Tin Man is an even better example. Some subplots (at least for me) are discovered. (Oh crap, my character wouldn’t just leave some poor tin dude sitting there frozen…well…I guess this book’s going to get a little bigger while I work this out.) Others are plots you see coming. (Well, the Wizard isn’t just going to jump to help her.)
My point is, you want your character to have many plots and objectives. They may all arise as part of a single goal, but life isn’t that easy, so fiction shouldn’t be. What sort of plots are out there? Well, again, I put a LOT of stock in Sanderson’s online lectures, so I’ll just share that website with you here. Brilliant teacher though I think he is, I know there’s more info out there, so please share it in the comments below.
Here are a few case studies: (This is how I learn best, so I hope it helps you).
Wizard of Oz
I Am Not a Serial Killer
Most of those are best sellers or easily remembered, so forgive me if I don’t link to them. My point is, if you watch this, do so with a pen and pad. Write down the “events.” When I teach my students, I teach them to break their features down into what I call the “Guy Does” test. Break each event down into a subject-verb-object sentence.
Jawas Show Up
Uncle Buys Droids
Luke Sees Message
Droid Runs Away.
Keep going. When you do this, you see the progression of your story. You can reverse engineer each mini plot in what’s already been dissected to bits in terms of The Heroes’s Journey (the main plot of Star Wars).
If you dissect your character’s plot and only have one thing. It’s not going to feel real to your reader. Every character should be the main character in his or her own mind. Anime does this VERY well. Thinking about each goal and how the steps to achieve those goals will force new plots will help you create stories that have more dimension. More dimension (in my arrogant opinion) means a better story.
I’m very glad I had the chance to finish this book last week. I’d been excited to read the final book in the trilogy, and I wasn’t disappointed. To remind you all what’s happened so far, please check out my review of Magic-Price land my review of Magic-Scars.
Spoiler Free Summary: Magic-Borne is the final book in the Crown of Stones trilogy. It takes place pretty soon after the events of Magic-Scars. Ian is trying to solve the mystery of his scars, save a loved one, defeat his father, and find a way to bring peace to the land. We get a lot of questions answered and the readers will get a complete resolution, which is all any reader of a series can ask for these days.
Character: Ian is still amazing. His arch shows a lot of progress from the character we met in Price. He shines more in this book. I’ll admit I missed some of the other characters who, while still in the book, didn’t get as much air time as I’d have liked, but Ian is, and should be, why people are reading the series. In my review of the last book, I’d noted I would have liked more from them, but I think pulling back a bit was a sound decision. Jarryd had some major impact moments that showed his evolution in some pretty powerful ways, but the rest of the characters simply don’t get a lot of face time. It’s understandable given the ending, but I won’t lie that I wished they had a bigger role.
Exposition: This is about the same as the last book. Schneider has a knack for blending exposition with description to help the reader avoid large blocks of data dumping. I almost never notice the exposition in her work.
Worldbuilding: So what I have to do here is admit that if someone shouts that the ending “seems” convenient (or at least the plot device that brings about the end), I couldn’t get too angry because I’d understand what they see. I’d like to argue though that what Schneider did here is not MUCH different (if not even done better) than what McCaffrey did in Dragon Riders of Pern. Before anyone throws stuff at me, realize I’m only drawing a correlation between plot devices.
Pern is my favorite series (by a lot) and will always be. But if the plot device in that series didn’t bother you, the plot device in this one shouldn’t either. Schneider did a great job closing all the loops here and letting the readers learn about a complex magic system as they needed to. She sets up the ending to be complete and fulfilling while simultaneously leaving the door open for more books from that world.
Dialogue: I’d say the dialogue in Scars was better. There were scenes and arguments in Borne that felt a little quick for me. As I write this, I’d have to say Scars was my favorite in the series on a lot of fronts. That doesn’t take away from what this book is and could be. The biggest difference stylistically was the pace of the dialogue. Even the amount of dialogue felt a bit more rushed in this book. This was not to a degree as to degrade the quality, just not the same crips, visceral dialogue we saw in Scars. It’s still a great book. I just felt this was a weaker element of the book.
Description: I mentioned problems with how I saw characters in the review for Scars, and Schneider followed up her novel with much more character description. Her extra attention to smaller character details made the book that much more visceral than the last. I thought this was a great blend between setting, scene, and character description. This was an improvement from Scars to Borne.
A note on content: I don’t think this book is as explicit as Scars. There are some adult scenes in this book too. This still serves as a plot device as intimacy is a theme that shifts through each book. Where as with straight romance (note, I’ve only read two), you tend to see scenes like this for the sake of scenes like this. Here, you get steam and impact for the character. That’s something I appreciate.
Overall: I stand by my opinion that Scars is the best of the three, but this book is a very satisfying and complete conclusion to a great story. Where Scars upped the drama and the emotion, Borne lets us slip into the the resolution like a warm bath. I appreciate how this story tied up all the loose ends and let us leave this world feeling as if we’ve seen all there is to see, for now. This also holds true to how I usually feel about trilogies. I tend to like the second act best because that’s where the most drama is. That makes this book a perfect conclusion. No, it’s not the most exciting book because it can’t be. A reader has to leave a story knowing there’s nothing more (in a manner of speaking) to be seen from this arc. Borne does that. If Schneider ever decides to go back, I’m going to be immensely pleased. This was a sold, complete, well told story with an amazing protagonist and a fascinating twist on a few old tropes.
I honestly love character studies. I started them in high school and learned how to write by doing case studies. Just as I was pondering this very post, I ran into Adam’s blog post about how villains become villains.
I’ve grown up spoiled with stories. I’ve gotten to read, watch, and listen to a ton of great stories in a litany of formats. The most common trend I see these days is the sympathetic villain. Perhaps a more accurate term in this case is a “relatable” villain. Let’s face it, people just don’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll be a horrible person today.” People are motivated to take action.
This got me thinking about a character study I’d like to share with you. The most fascinating villainy turn I saw was linked to a phrase of mine. “The Devil isn’t the monster, he’s your best friend.” I hope the Lord understands my metaphor and his worshipers don’t judge. Let me explain the theory. I don’t think the devil is one who threatens and yells. It’s far easier to ENCOURAGE sin. So that’s the meaning. The guy who says, “Why not? Everyone else does it? Why not? Who’s it really hurting.” Temptation is the enemy of faith, and those “reasonable” steps away from what one should do is how that highway to Hell gets paved. Now, I promise, this isn’t a theological post. It just sets up this amazing story arch.
Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy is great just to read and enjoy, but I invite you to read it (or even better read it again) and pay close attention to Dorian Ursuul. His arch is amazing. You see. He’s a good guy. He has his struggles. He even has this intense desire to step away from the fearful reputation of his father. He’s a good guy right? Well…sure. But let’s try to avoid spoilers as much as we can.
The first thing that happens is he has to take the position his father had. It’s all fine and good to CLAIM to want to be benevolent and kind, but that doesn’t always work out in practice when you’re in charge. Dorian starts by hating himself and making concessions as to why it’s “necessary.” Indeed, as a reader, I found myself noting that, “yeah, what are his options?” Quite frankly his option was to live the bad guy or die a man of principle. Who doesn’t understand that?
What Weeks does masterfully is up the anti. Dorian does something else that isn’t’ very nice, but he has his reason. Then he does something slightly worse. By the time he makes his fifth or sixth “bad” decision, the readers have come to see him as having “gone bad.” Even if his reason is the most noble on the surface. This proves what I said above. Villains descend into darkness. I have a book on my own inspired by that very premise.
This arch is all about how power corrupts. As Dorian progresses, he makes every decision for a number of reasons, some of which make perfect sense. His descent was gradual and unfortunate.
This is a POWERFUL storytelling tool I’m surprised hasn’t ben made more useful in fiction. It makes the villain sympathetic more than a plot devise. I won’t lie. The main character, “Grimm,” in The Journals of Bob Drifter, is a plot device. I don’t hate any storytelling techniques on it’s surface. I’m simply trying to provide writers a tool for an underused structure they may want to consider.
I hope the example I gave makes sense. I really fight to avoid spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, you should JUST to follow THAT character’s story line. It’s amazing storytelling.
So I read a blog from Quintessential Editor a few days ago in which we discussed character or conflict. He and I may (I’m actually not sure) disagree on what makes a book great. I’ll vote character every time, and I have my reasons, but the blog inspired me to offer my view on what turns out to be how I evaluate characters.
I love Writing Excuses. It’s a great podcast, and they did a podcast a few years ago (back when I had the luxury of listening every week) that helped me understand why I like books. I’ve said it a few times. I like sympathetic, proactive characters. The podcast to which I’m referring is the one on character sliders. In it, they discuss how to evaluate characters by Sympathy, Competency, and Proactivity.
I’ll let you listen to the podcast for the explanation because they’re awesome, hugely successful authors, and I’m an Indie guy trying to find my way in the world. I will make one argument.
Sanderson explains that Sympathy is the “how likable a character is.” He’s my Yoda in every regard, but I don’t know that’s true. I think Sympathy (at least to me) is how strongly I feel about the character. Whatever the emotion, if I feel it strongly, I’m drawn to the character. The formula works regardless, but I see sympathy as “strength of emotional reaction” and not strictly “likable.”
What I thought I could add or build from this wonderful tool was how to use it when writing a book. I don’t see this as a character development tool myself. Rather, I try to anticipate how readers will see the character. I’m editing Caught still, so I’d like to use Sal. In the previous draft, he was proactive and sympathetic.
My editor and I disagreed on his arc. What I wish I’d argued then is that he wasn’t actually very competent. He tried several times and several ways to do something before he gained more power. His argument, in the interest of being fair, was that Sal struggled and failed so many times, and never reacted to those failures.
I kept this in mind while revising. I kept in in mind while writing for the other characters as well. I want my readers to say two things when they read my books. “I (feel strongly) about his characters” and “they’re always moving.” I hope they hate the characters I want them to hate, and I hope they love the characters I mean for them to love, but as long as they feel strongly, I feel I’ve succeeded.
So how do you do this? Well, I’m sure there’s a lot of ways, but this is my own spin. At each major plot point (for me, this is when I check my outline), look at your character and see how the plot point might have effected each of these traits. Every time a character fails, he or she seems less competent. Some fans hate incompetent characters. I’m actually not one of them.
Case study: Naruto is a moron. He’s a goof, who’s just winging it. He can’t do a single normal jutsu and really only has the one major trick. But look at how hard he works! Look at how much he cares about his comrades? Look at how he struggles to maintain his bonds. In fact, each time he wins, it’s usually DESPITE his competence. Still, if he NEVER learned anything, he’d eventually get boring. So at certain points, he becomes ever so much less stupid. This is how we see his progression as a character. Don’t mistake progression as moving forward.
Case study: Rand al’Thor is one of my favorite characters ever. In fact, I’d like to compare him to Ichigo from Bleach. I feel Rand works more because there’s more progression. Ichigo gets more powerful. He’s competent, proactive and sympathetic, and he never really changes. Rand becomes all the more compelling because as he becomes more powerful (and we’ll have to discuss something soon), he becomes more isolated and less sympathetic. So you see, he devolves in sympathy as he evolves in power.
Is power a slider? For me it is. Because competence, to me, is the character’s success rate. But there are several characters who win a lot, but still don’t feel very powerful. The first that comes to mind is Ender Wiggin. He’s incredibly sympathetic, competent, and proactive. But none of that matters because he’s supposed to fight an alien race that the human race has feared for generations. Power is a factor in a lot of things, and conflict can be the gauge by which you measure it. So why do I consider it a slider? Because it can be used as a source of conflict in itself, not just a resolution to conflict.
Now that I’ve done a few case studies, let’s turn that microscope on myself. While writing Bob, I was very concerned about the first act because the conflict is subtle. Most reviews regard the first act as the best, which makes me feel good I didn’t cut it from the book. In the first act, Bob is sympathetic and proactive. His proactivity is what causes the conflict. Police notice him, and now he has to evade them. He’s not very competent. He doesn’t know anything about his job. He doesn’t know how to avoid police. He’s not even very good at covering his tracks. This leads to the climax of part one.
When I got to Part 2, I checked up on Bob’s sliders. Sympathy 100% Proactivity 100% Competence: 30% (I’m probably being nice). Power 50%. This might surprise people. While Bob talks about how “useless” his powers are, he’s still comparatively more powerful than most of the characters in Part 1. In Part 2, I introduce Grimm. Now he’s very competent, very proactive. How sympathetic is he? I HOPE readers say they hate him, but I can’t pretend to know. There’s hardly any feedback on him though, so that leads me to believe I miscalculated here. So he’s not sympathetic at all. (otherwise, readers would have said something about him by now). I can learn from this. But what he DOES do, is make Bob seem LESS powerful. That also makes him seem LESS competent. So the progress for Bob is actually devolving and not evolving.
In Part 3, I make Bob more competent. I do this by showing him learn. I had to bring in the “mentor” archetype. I had to give Bob a few wins. This made it so when he got to the final conflict, he looked like he stood a chance.
That’s how I use the sliders. If I ever felt like my sympathy or proactivity values were slipping, I adjusted for it. I encourage authors to do these checks. When you hand the book to beta readers, ask them to send a chapter by chapter evaluation using whatever sliders you use to evaluate the character, then compare those to your own assessment. If they’re the same, I’d say you’re doing it right. If they’re different, that’s when it’s time to find out what you’re missing.
I’ve never really cared much for competent characters. They bore me. Oh there are a lot of characters that I love that are ALSO competent, but for my money, if a character doesn’t make me feel and isn’t doing anything, I hate the story. That doesn’t mean EVERYONE will. Know your genre.
That leads me to my last point. The Mary Sue character. Corey would be awesome and tell you where that term came from, I just learned it an moved on. (The difference between a gardner and an architect if I’ve ever seen one). A Mary Sue is a character that is the most compelling, most powerful, most proactive, most competent character ever. Dear God, do I hate those characters. I argue that if a character is too powerful and too competent, the sympathy bar naturally slides down for me. It’s a risk writers take. But here’s my twist:
Mary Sues don’t happen when all the bars are maxed; they happen when all the bars are equal.
I get this from photography. I picked up that wonderful skill in the Navy, and I’ll love it for the rest of my life. In terms of light, if you have equal values of red, blue, and green, you get gray. You can have 20% of each, or 100% of each. (Zero..well..then you don’t have any color, so that’s black, which, according to Batman is a very, very, very, dark gray). I find characters feel like Mary Sues when all values are equal, no matter those values.
Character study: Rey. She’s not that sympathetic. Really. She’s just out there in the desert chilling. You LEARN to care for her, but that’s not the first hour of the movie I saw. She’s competent, but everyone but me remembers how she got captured (like a chump) and messed up the doors (like a fool) when they were first aboard the Falcon. If I evaluate Rey right after meeting Han, I’d say she’d measure out at: Sympathy 10% Competence 10% Power 10% and Proactivity 10%. Remember, Finn is the one who gets her to move. She wanted to go home through the first half of the movie.
Her arc SEEMS Suish (trademark M.L.S. Weech) because she processes equally across all sliders throughout the movie. She gains more power and competence. This makes her more proactive and sympathetic. I love the movie. I don’t mind Rey, but I don’t love her either, because she essentially sat around the desert until someone forced her to move, and even then she didn’t do much until she got captured. Watch the movie, let me know if you think I’m wrong.
So that’s it. Try it on your book. Toss me a few character studies. Let’s make a game of it. Until then, thanks for reading.