Tag Archives: Characters

On Letting Characters Be Smart

Last night I was reading a good book, quite absorbed as it ramped up toward the climax, when certain telltale signs began to appear.

“Aaaand here’s the part where we fail to share crucial information for no good reason,” I thought. And sure enough, there it was.

Now, this was a great book I really enjoyed, and it wasn’t so glaring a failure of motivation that it spoiled things for me. But it got me thinking about all the classic cases of authors making characters do dumb things to drive the plot along: not sharing important information, making bad decisions, trusting people who are obviously evil, not figuring out things that are glaringly obvious to the reader… all writing sins of which I’m not innocent, mind you, and easy traps to fall into.

Of course, characters can and should do dumb things when it makes sense for them to do so. If characters never made mistakes or bad choices, what would we write about? But their errors need to spring from the character’s particular flaws or the forces that drive them—or at least from a plausible moment of confusion, panic, or weakness. Not solely from the author’s desire to push the plot in a certain direction.

The thing is, most of the time The Dumb isn’t even necessary. In the book I was reading last night, the character really didn’t need to hold back the key information to make the plot work. The problems she was facing were big enough that the people she could have told couldn’t have fixed them, and the plot could have played out pretty much the same. There was no reason not to let her be smart.

Some of my favorite books feature characters who are smarter than me about the plot. THE WESTING GAME is one of the most awesome middle grade books of all time, and part of the reason I loved it as a kid and love it now is that Turtle is razor-sharp smart. Sherlock Holmes also regularly figures out things before the reader does, and it certainly never hurt his appeal.

There’s plenty that can go wrong to thwart even a character who’s being smart. By all means, throw obstacles into their paths to keep them from sharing that crucial secret. Put pressures on them that force them to make choices they know they’ll regret. Let their own drives and beliefs blind them to the truth. But when your character is being oblivious or doing something less than brilliant, ask yourself these two questions:

Is this decision coming from the character, or from my plot outline?

What would happen if they did the smart thing instead?

I’ve been surprised at the interesting directions the latter question can take me. Sometimes I can even land my characters in more trouble than they’d find by plunging ahead on the Path of Dumb I’d originally laid out for them.


Writing Secondary Characters from the Inside Out

My growth as a writer consists largely of “Well, DUH!” moments, where I realize in a blazing epiphany something super obvious I should have known all along. My latest is about writing secondary characters, and I’d like to share it with you. (I can’t say that without hearing a folk guitar intro in the background, so feel free to imagine one.)

Here it is in a nutshell: Write supporting characters from the inside, not the outside.

For years, I’ve been trying to take to heart the advice that characters other than the main character should have stuff going on, too — that they could each be the hero of their own story. For all major support characters (love interests, villains, BFFs, etc), I generally have sections in my notes where I plot out their arc, figure out their goals and flaws and fears, and all that good stuff. I thought that was enough, and sometimes I got good results that way. But other times, no matter how good a character’s arc looked on paper, I couldn’t make them come to life in the story.

I have one particular character in the book I’ve been revising who gave me a hell of a time. I couldn’t get him to work. I redesigned him completely several times, gave him more plot and more interesting relationships with other characters, and rewrote his scenes over and over. But each time I sent a new draft to beta readers, every single one of them unerringly singled him out as the weakest character — and they were right.

So I tried something I hadn’t done before. I tried to inhabit him as if he were the main character. While I was folding laundry, or in the shower, or driving to the store, I ran scenes in my head with him as the viewpoint character, letting him drive the scene. Thinking his thoughts, feeling his feelings, making his choices.

It helped immensely. I went back and rewrote everything the character said or did. I don’t know yet if he’s where he needs to be… but he’s finally a Real Boy to me now. He can talk and argue with the other characters on his own in my head, while before if I had him in a scene he was just filling the purpose I needed filled or providing a backboard for another character to bounce off.

I’m now in the early planning stages for a new book, and I’m trying the same thing with each of the major characters. For instance, there’s an antagonistic character who I originally envisioned as a flat minor villain (flavor: Ambitious Sociopath Vanilla). But then I tried really treating her like the hero of her own story — not just making notes about her arc, but getting inside her head and writing some of her story in my imagination. I wound up with a far better understanding of why she’s doing what she’s doing, and she expanded in much more interesting dimensions, becoming more human and tragic (if still ultimately a villain).

I have no idea why I wasn’t doing this before. It seems like a no brainer, right? But for many of my supporting characters, I was writing them from the outside, with no idea what their inner headspace was really like. Writing for the effect they’d have on the scene, or the interactions they’d have with the main character, rather than inhabiting them and driving their actions from inside their thoughts and feelings.

Let’s just say a more immersive approach is working better for me so far. Well, DUH.


On Tearing Down Walls

I grew up wanting to see more girls with swords on book covers. When I find one, it still makes me feel all warm and happy inside (especially if she’s wearing sufficient clothing, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue). It means I have a place in stories — a place I want, and a place I can be proud of. And a place in stories can carve you out a place in the real world, very directly. If you see female warriors, astronauts, and scientists in books and movies and games, you’re far less likely to question that they can exist.

I didn’t have to grow up wanting to see more people with my skin color on book covers. But lots of kids do. We need to change that, now more than ever.

The news lately has made it too horribly, tragically clear what happens when we see our fellow human beings as Other. We need to get all colors of faces on book covers, in movies, in games. And not just as the Token Black Guy on the team of 6 or even the Hero’s Best Friend… and certainly not just as the criminal, the thug, or the villain’s non-speaking lieutenant. We need diverse heroes, scientists, magicians, love interests, teachers — characters you want to invite into your living room. Characters you’d trust to watch your kids or save your planet.

We have to carve out that space in our stories. A safe, trusted, awesome space for all our friends and family in this wide world with its rainbow of people colors. Because what people see in stories, they will expect in reality.

Our imagination is our greatest power. Use yours. Create stories, art, and games that embrace and empower all kinds of people, diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and more. Your kings, gods, heroes, and scholars don’t need to be white straight dudes. They can be, but there are a lot of other options out there. And by using one of them, you can make someone feel happy and included. You can open a door that might have been closed otherwise. You can help show people raised in prejudice a wider world.

Who knows? You might even save a life.