Status and 3D Characters

Information for this blog post came from Steven James’ breakout session, How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters. He’s quirky, fun, and talks with his hands. Go check him out!

StatusA woman is slumped on a couch; a man stands over her, glaring at her with folded arms. Who has higher status?

The woman finally closes her book and looks up at him, clearly annoyed. He puts his hands on his hips and starts complaining about all the ways she’s messed up today. She frowns, unimpressed, and says nothing. Who has higher status now?

The man tells her she needs to shape up or find a new apartment. The woman leaps to her feet, waving her arms and screaming. She flings the book across the room, and the man shakes his head and leaves. Now who has higher status?

There are many different kinds of status. Relational status is a character’s status in personal relationships (family, friends, that one guy from high school biology that you just can’t stand). Positional status is a character’s status in a professional setting, such as her position at work. Situational status is the status of your character against whoever she happens to be interacting with at that moment; if three strangers show up in your living room with knives, chances are pretty good that they have higher situational status.

What makes characters interesting is variable status. Maybe your character was no doubt the snappiest dresser at last Friday’s sock hop, but she then has to go to work Saturday morning for a squeaky-voiced misogynist who makes her stay after hours to clean the floors on hands and knees. But then she goes home and gets the royal treatment because she’s the only one keeping bread on the table since Grandpa retired and Joe got laid off. Varying status in varying situations is what keeps a character interesting. Without these dichotomies and contradictions, characters can feel one dimensional and unrealistic.

“Turning the tables” happens when a character with seemingly low status suddenly claims the higher ground. Say the three guys with knives charge into the living room to find an aging man sitting on his couch eating a bowl of ice cream. The three men seem to have the higher status- they’re in a larger group, they’re armed, they have the element of surprise. But then the man pulls a fully automatic rifle from under the couch and calmly tells them, “Kids, you’ve got about five seconds to get out of my house.” Who has the higher status now?

Control always boosts a character’s status. A character can manifest control internally (keeping her temper in check), externally (stopping the bomb before it blows up the White House), or interpersonally (calming his raging daughter with a few quiet words and a hug). The way a character stands, how long she holds a gaze, how cool she is in a crisis- all these things convey control, or lack thereof.

Let’s go back to the sample characters at the beginning of this post. They actually swap higher status back and forth. In the first segment, the man is using physical presence to attain higher status- the fact that he’s standing over her with folded arms is a very dominant position. But when he’s whining about everything and the woman keeps her silence, unimpressed, she has higher status because she’s clearly the calmer character. But that gets thrown out of the window when she starts ranting and throwing things. Stillness is power. A lack of stillness shows that she can’t even control herself.

The two most important characters you will write in your story are your protagonist and your antagonist. Both of these characters need to have high status, but they can have high status in different ways. For example, antagonists usually have very high positional status (such as Lucas’ Emperor Palpatine or Goodkind’s Darken Rahl) while protagonists often don’t (Luke Skywalker, Richard Cypher). But protagonists usually have high relational status- they’re loved and trusted by their friends- and situational status- people, powers, or tools, show up to aid them in their quest; they also always have the moral high ground. But no matter what kind of high status they have, it’s very important that neither protagonists nor antagonists lower their status through their own actions. If they lower their own status, they come off as weak, stupid, or otherwise unworthy of their counterpart, and the final clash in the climax is less tense as a result.

Protagonists need opportunities to be heroic, to be noble. They need to sacrifice for the good of others. They need to stand up for the oppressed. They need to place the best interests of others ahead of their own.

On the other hand, antagonists need opportunities to be dastardly. They need to be seen as scary, as wrong, as the kind of person that needs to be taken down. Evil for the sake of evil is boring, so they need motivation and intention that leads them in that direction. As Steven James said about all characters: “Action without intention distances readers- What are they trying to avoid, obtain, or overcome?” Your antagonist’s and your protagonist’s motivation and intention should be clearest to readers, so make sure it’s clearest in your own mind first.

Remember, “realistic characters: are consistent and reasonably predictable; are caricatures, not stereotypes; act only when motivated or caused to do so; and are believable and interesting.” If your characters are lacking in any of these respects, take the time to remedy that! Make sure you understand what motivates your characters, why they make the choices they do, how they move through their world. Understand how their status changes from person to person that they interact with, and use those actions to propel your protagonist to greatness.

 During the class, Steven James shared a beautifully concise list of character actions and behaviors that indicated higher or lower status. I’ll post that Friday, because ‘tis the season.  See you then!


DIY Writing Prompt Generator

DiceYou’ve probably all known me long enough by now to know that I’m pretty much a dork on a multitude of levels. (For those of you who hadn’t picked up on that yet, check out any of these posts.) And so it was that, in the name of good dorky fun, I set out to create my own writing prompt generator! Whee!

So after kicking around the idea for a couple weeks, I had a list of a few features that I knew I wanted. I wanted it to have an element of randomness. I wanted it to deal with various parts of a story instead of just one. (So, it might prompt me on either setting or inciting action or characters, rather than just one of those things.) I also wanted it to be practically infinite- it wouldn’t be just cycling through the same handful of prompts every time. And despite all these things, I wanted it to be about as basic as I could make it. Because, as has been manifested many times in many ways, complicated things- mostly in the form of technology- frighten me. (For those of you who hadn’t picked up on that yet, check out any of these posts.)

And what could use randomness and be less complicated than a die? I considered using a d20, but didn’t want to do that much work (see point on basicness), so I stuck with the classic six-sided die. Everybody has a d6 laying around!

If you too would like to make your own random prompt generator, all you need is a die (or dice! You can do as many prompts as you want!), a writing utensil, a piece of paper, and your fantastic brain. And fantastic hands for writing with. And maybe a hard surface to write on as well. Anyway, you get the point. Dice, paper, pen.

Number one through six (or however many faces your die has). Then decide what elements you want your rolls to prompt you on. If you want this to be even simpler, you can do them all about characters, or settings, etc. I wanted to incorporate more than one element, so my list looked something like this:

  1. Object
  2. Inciting Action
  3. Setting
  4. Character
  5. Opening Line
  6. Inciting Action

(This really doesn’t have to be complicated. Skip this step entirely if you’d rather, and just write a bunch of random stuff. Because random!) After you know what topic you want each face of your die to represent, flesh it out a little further.

Think of a prompt regarding each element that is simple enough to make sense in just about every context with which you use it; is broad enough to be open to a variety of interpretations; and has the potential to be different each time it is applied. For example, here’s the generator I came up with:

  1. Walk into the adjoining room. What is the first physical thing you notice? Put this item in a story being used in a nonconventional way.
  2. Look at the newspaper/go to an online news outlet. What is the main headline? Without reading any more of the story, write a story based on this premise.
  3. Text the person you last texted and ask what their favorite show/book was as a kid. Write a story based in that world.
  4. Look out the closest window. What is the first moving thing you notice? Write a story from his/her/its point of view.
  5. Turn on the radio and listen for one complete sentence. Use that line as the first line of a story.
  6. Go into a nearby bathroom or closet. If you knew you would be attacked in one minute, what would you use to defend yourself? Write a story that starts with that preparation.

I guess #2 is kind of Inciting Action/Character/SomethingElseEntirely, depending on what the headline is. But you get the point! Each prompt is designed to have the potential to be different each time, thereby making it (almost?) infinite. But they’re also each simple enough to be broadly applicable (can be used in nearly any situation you would typically find yourself in- might not work as well if you’re camping or in the middle of a global robotic takeover), and widely interpretive (can be understood in a variety of ways, thus adding to the number of possible stories being generated).

So after working all that out, the only thing left to do was to field test it.

I rolled a four! So I turned around in my seat and the first moving thing that I saw was a… raven! Darned things are everywhere! (At least this one wasn’t killing half my flock and then not even eating any of their remains besides just one of the heads. Seriously, raven, that’s creepy.) So I set about writing a short story from the POV of a raven. And here is the totally-unedited-don’t-judge-me-it’s-a-first-draft result! (Yes, I wrote this just before posting, haha. But I like it! Maybe worth cleaning up?)

All in all, this was fun. I don’t know how often I’ll use my little generator, but I felt more creative just after having made the thing. Got the writing juices flowing! Yummy! And most of the time, that’s all I really need. So, good job, writing prompt generator. I’ll keep you.

Let me know in the comments if you whipped up your own writing prompt generator! I’d love to hear about your prompts, or any stories that came of it. Happy writing!

Paper People: Adding that Third Dimension

Image from www.stampington.comI think the number of stories I have read with no characters is exactly… hm… zero. Maybe this is a thing, but I am yet to come across it.

The problem is, it’s hard to have an actual story without having any people. People are agents of change, shakers and movers, and, because of all this, they are interesting. (‘People’, of course, doesn’t have to mean ‘humans’. Go crazy.) As said by Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, “Stories are about people who are uncomfortable.” Meaning: No people, no story.

Without characters, things can still happen. You can have a completely people-free event (like, I dunno, an asteroid smacking a mountain), but there won’t be any story to give it context, meaning, and relevance. Changes may occur, but without them happening to characters we can identify with, they’re not any changes we care about. (It’s worth noting that, the moment I thought about this scenario, I started thinking about all the creatures that it would impact- plants, dinosaurs, monstrously huge insects, the world’s first mammals- and even anthropomorphized, imagining the agony of the shattered crust of the earth. I intuitively sought out a character to apply significance to the event. The thought that astroidal pummeling happens on, say, Jupiter all the time didn’t even occur to me until much later, probably in large part because I know of nothing there that would mind getting walloped by space rocks. No character? No caring.)

But how to make characters? How do we create people who are more memorable than the ink and paper they’re printed on? To do that, we look to real people and some of the features that grant them realistic depth and interest.

Real people:

Have Pasts. People don’t just blip into existence the moment you meet them. Nor should your characters. Know about their childhoods, their past relationships, their crime records. Even if most of this never makes it directly onto the page, it will still impact who those characters are and what decisions they make.

Have Wants. Everybody has wants, whether that’s being desperate for a better brownie recipe, unquestionable rule of the entire subcontinent, or just ten unbroken minutes to eat your Cup Noodles without your boss hounding you. People often have contradicting wants that lead to internal or external struggles.

Have Problems. We’re all flawed and we live in a flawed world. This creates problems for us. Give your characters a mix of large and small problems. Maybe Joe has an undeniable attraction to colored paper clips and his boss is tired of having to buy more paperclips all the time. And his dog likes his self-righteous neighbors more than him. And he just accidentally received a coded message about a nuke that’s going to land on Manhattan tomorrow and the cops won’t believe him. Poor Joe.

Have Emotions. Even those who work really had to keep them hidden or suppressed have emotions. Heck, even Spock has outbursts of them every now and then. Even characters that seem worlds away from us (the royal princess, the admiral of the intergalactic freight ship, the drug-addicted dock worker) are relate-able through their emotions. And while you can probably get away with an emotionless antagonist (smallpox, Skynet, an asteroid [hey! It’s back!]), readers expect to be able to connect emotionally to the protagonist.

Act. Real people act on their wants and needs. How they act tends to color our opinion on whether they are a good guy or a bad guy (or the comic relief). We struggle against what we don’t like, even against what seems inevitable, and this should be especially true of your characters as well. Real people can spend their whole lives flying under the radar. But a character who does that will be… well, pretty boring.

Surprise. Even people you know your whole life surprise you. (My kids surprise me all the time. Often at hall corners. And with sharpies.) People have secrets and people harbor contradictions. (For example, I like to <whoops! secret!> and I am a dairy-intolerant fromager.) Characters should surprise readers in how they address their problems and achieve their wants, while still maintaining a believable adherence to their core values and personality.

Change. Characters- and people- change. (A chief break-up insult is to tell someone that they never change, even if this isn’t strictly true.) The changes your characters make will mark their progress through the story. In fact, the story is all about the changes they undergo, changes that come about on their journey toward achieving their goals.

Now, you’ll note that there is quite a bit of room for overlap in these different arenas of ‘realness’. This, too, is another facet of reality. Blurriness. Overlap. Confusion. Your written characters should be every bit as complex- as messy and contradictory and terrified- as the people sitting next to you on the bus, buying pastrami on rye in front of you at lunch, checking out books at the library.  That’s how to write a realistic character.

Fill your pages with life and detail, and you will create the kind of characters that readers think about long after they close the final page of your book. Happy writing!