StoryBuilder 1.0 – Create the Perfect Character!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for some of you, if you hear one more author complain about some form of existential crisis that results in the catch-all epidemic known as Writer’s Block, you are going to find a block (or a writer) and throw it at said author.  Because, really, there has to be something better to do than complain about being uninspired.

Or maybe there isn’t. Maybe authors just like to complain about writer’s block because it gives us a chance to explain how great our writing normally is when we’re not blocked – which is most of the time, for some of us.

At any rate, this post is not going to be about writer’s block.  Not at all.  I promise.  It is going to be about Inspiration and Creation and How To Build a Beautiful Story Out of the Strands of Creativity.  Or something awesome like that.

writers blockI promise that this is in no way the result of a horrible case of writer’s block that is causing me to question my calling as a writer or my ability to tell stories.  Not at all.

So, to start this month’s fun exercise in StoryBuilding, we are going to create characters together!  Doesn’t that sound fun?  At the end of this post, you will have the perfect character to introduce into your new world.  I promise.  (Note: No refunds for time, effort, or mental suffering will be offered if the character does not meet expectations or spontaneously dies during the course of the story)

The way this is going to work is that you are going to categorize your character.  Simply pick a letter in each category and make note of what you picked.  At the end, you will read the explanation for each categorization and have the building blocks for a brand new character.  Aren’t you excited?  I know I am.

 

BUILD YOUR CHARACTER HERE!

1. Character’s Backstory:

A.   Mysterious
B.   Tragic
C.   Royal
D.   Ignominious
E.   Unexpected

2. Character’s Appearance:

A.   Dashing
B.   Uninspiring
C.   Ridiculous
D.  Magnificent
E.   Unexpected

3. Character’s Character:

A.   Optimistic
B.   Brooding
C.   Humble
D.  Courageous
E.   Unexpected

4.  Character’s Priorities:

A.  Self
B.  Country
C.  Beloved
D.  Favorite Pet
E.  Unexpected

5. Character’s Weakness:

A.  Self
B.  Nemesis
C.  Beloved
D.  Allergies
E.  Unexpected

 

Now, I hope you made note of all of your choices because I’m about to tell you what you have chosen.  I will provide the descriptors for each of these category choices, and you will have assembled a complex and fascinating character to lead the charge in your new story.  Feel free to do this multiple times to add new characters to your entourage if you are in a questing mood.   (Note: I know some of you picked E: Unexpected for every single category.  You are about to receive your just reward for such a bold move)

1. Character’s Backstory:

A.  Mysterious: This character was found in a large soup tureen floating in the moat of some random duke’s castle and subsequently adopted by the local blacksmith.  No one knows how long the babe has been floating in the tureen or where the tureen or baby have come from.  Of one thing everyone is certain, however: This baby is Destined For Great Things. No pressure or anything.

B.  Tragic: This character was living a happy life selling apples in a market with his/her mother until, one day, an Evil Man on a black horse came and not only destroyed the apple cart, but stole every single apple.  Also, the Evil Man killed this character’s mother.  Thus began this character’s journey.

C.  Royal: This character is the second child of the king and queen of the country.  The royal parents shower all their attention on the first child and heir, causing extreme bitterness in this, the second child.

D.  Ignominious: This character was a farmer who raised sheep.  That’s about it.

E.   Unexpected:  This character insulted a fairy who was already having a bad day and was immediately put under a curse which causes the character to turn into a rabbit on the full moon.  No cure for this curse has thus far been discovered.

2. Character’s Appearance:

A.  Dashing: Congratulations.  Your character cuts such a dashing and noble figure that others are constantly begging to join this character and pledging their loyalty and gazing rapturously upon such incredible dashingness.  This is quite a burden for your character to bear.

B.   Uninspiring:  Read the above description.  Imagine the opposite.  No one respects this character or thinks they will amount to anything.

C.   Ridiculous:  This character has purple hair in a world where purple hair is both unlooked for and frowned upon. This character is also a bit on the short side, a bit on the wimpy side, and a bit on the no-one-knows-what-to-make-of-you side.

D.  Magnificent: This character has purple hair in a world where having purple hair is exotic, unique, and worthy of admiration.  Also, this character is often assumed to be royal, whether this is true or not, which makes things difficult when looking royal is dangerous.

E.   Unexpected: This character is a dragon, complete with big, scaly body, the ability to breathe fire, and an unfortunate tendency to frighten the populace of surrounding countries.

3. Character’s Character:

A.  Optimistic:  This is the character the annoys everyone with a sunny outlook on whatever predicament they might be in.  Nothing is ever too bad to be overcome.  A proclivity toward making long, inspiring speeches may or may not endear this character to others.

B.   Brooding:  This character hates the optimistic people of the world, is not prone to speaking much, and prefers to look darkly at things and assume the worst.  For some reason, others still find this attractive in your character, much to your character’s annoyance.

C.   Humble:  This character is not worthy of anyone’s high regard no matter how awesome they may be.  This character wishes everyone would stop assuming such good things about him or her and wants nothing more than to serve, despite being the leader and main character.  This character is simply not good enough to be so good at everything.

D.  Courageous: Leading every charge, risking life and limb whenever a small child or kitten is being assaulted by a minion of darkness, caring not at all if he/she lives or dies, this character may or may not be truly skilled in battle, but will bravely sally forth regardless.  Often seen sporting war-wounds which are simply ignored, this character will stand up for Truth and Right and battle Injustice and Evil unswervingly.

E.   Unexpected: This character is a combination of all of the above, a complex individual who hopes for the best, plans for the worst, hates attention, and loves taking unnecessary, but impressive risks.  This leads to an assortment of conflicted emotions that often paralyze this character in a state of indecision just when important decisions need to be made.  This character’s friends and foes alike are often confused and nervous whenever a confrontation is imminent because one never knows what to expect.

4.  Character’s Priorities:

A.  Self:  This character may have many good qualities and is well aware of them, which is why this character deems it so important to preserve such a valuable life as his/her own, perhaps at the expense of someone slightly less valuable.  This may seem callous and unheroic, but your character realizes that it is utterly impossible to be a hero if one is dead or imprisoned or otherwise inconvenienced.  Keeping oneself alive is a first priority from which every other heroic trait might naturally follow.

B.  Country:  For better or for worse, this character loves king/queen/president/dictator and country more than life itself.  This may become something of an issue of the country somehow fails to uphold other standards of the character, but ultimately, preserving the country from foes foreign or domestic is this character’s goal.

C.  Beloved:  True love conquers all, and any villain worth his/her salt knows that to get to your character, all they have to do is find your character’s beloved and place that individual in some creative form of danger.  Your character will risk life, friends, country, and any unfortunate person who gets in the way in order to save this most prized and treasured of beings.  Most likely, your character’s beloved is somehow a key point in the villain’s plot anyway, so saving him or her conveniently serves two purposes.

D.  FavoritePet:  Who needs people?  Your character’s favorite steed, favorite dog, or favorite bird is somehow constantly in danger and constantly in need of saving.  Thankfully, this favored pet of your character will end up saving your character’s life at a significant juncture, thereby justifying your character’s strange priorities.

E.  Unexpected:  Your character wants nothing more than to be a traveling bard.  Every experience, both good and bad, can be turned into a song.  At the end of it all, your character hopes to write the ultimate ballad by which to be remembered forever.  Your character is frequently caught composing a new tune during critical moments of the plot.

5. Character’s Weakness:

A.  Self:  Your character has issues.  While somehow remaining lovable, your character often questions his or her ability to solve problems, be a leader, be a follower, save others, save him/herself, or otherwise succeed at the given task.  If anyone insults your character’s appearance or ability, your character is immediately consumed by self-doubt.  It is both irritating and endearing.

B.  Nemesis:  The villain of your story is either the character’s sibling or schoolmate who knows all of your character’s weaknesses and goals, being a former confidant.  After a falling out, which was in absolutely no way your character’s fault, of course, the villain is determined to destroy the main character by any means necessary, and is frightfully creative in doing so.

C.  Beloved: See above description of Character Priorities: C.  Pretty much everything threatens the life of your character’s beloved, rendering your character incapable of making logical decisions, inspiring headlong rushes into traps, and ultimately causing your character to question any moral principles once held if they stand between the character and his/her beloved.

D.  Allergies:  Whether it is peanuts, glowing green rocks, or some mysterious antagonizing agent in the possession of the villain, your character cannot seem to get through an entire chapter without stumbling headlong into something that causes excruciating pain, delirium, and poor decision making specifically to this one individual.  Since no one else is affected, having friends around can be helpful, but this allergic reaction will occur in conjunction with any important plot point.

E.  Unexpected:  Your character is deathly afraid of rabbits.  This may or may not be known to the villain at the outset of the story, but probably will be by the climax.  Woodland areas are traumatic to your hero, as are most grasslands, farmland, and pretty much everywhere else.  No one is quite sure how your character is still (mostly) sane.

 

Share Your Results!

Having reached the conclusion of this character description workshop, you should now have a complex and interesting person to work with for your story.  No two characters should be alike, even if you’ve picked the same letters as someone else, so if you would indulge me in sharing your character’s description, adding your own details and filling in the basic outline a bit, I would be much obliged.

Next week, we’ll do some world building in a similar fashion.  By the end of the month, I expect to have several bestsellers in the making.

You’re welcome.

The narrative significance of the body (part 1)

One of the most important, and trickiest, parts of telling a good story is figuring out how much detail ought to be given to physical descriptions of the characters, and, if so, what those descriptions ought to be like.  This is doubly tricky in our age – for we live in an age of body idolaters and body indifferentists.  If we follow the former, we may describe our characters’ physical characteristics in some detail, but those descriptions will go no deeper than the skin.  If we follow the latter, we will be Gnostics.

That isn’t to say that we must include detailed physical descriptions of characters, or be Gnostics.  The New Testament authors, for example, are quite emphatic that Jesus was and is a real Man, with real flesh, and that He trod upon and did not float over, the real earth (except on the rare occasions that He walked on water).  Yet nowhere in the New Testament do we get a physical portrait of Him.  The only physical detail of significance we get is a curious detail about the risen Jesus: He retained the five wounds of His passion.  That physical detail, though, has considerable narrative significance.  It demonstrates that the Man who walked out of the tomb Sunday morning was the same Man whose marked and lifeless body was laid to rest in the tomb on Friday afternoon.  The Man’s story was graven upon His hands, feet, and side.

We see that kind of sparing physical detail throughout the New Testament.  The only other instances of physical descriptions I can think of in the entire New Testament (excepting the Revelation) are the descriptions of Jesus at the transfiguration, and Luke’s statement in the Acts of the Apostles that in the moments immediately preceding St. Stephen’s martyrdom, his face “was like the face of an angel.”  And Stephen would soon be among the angels.

When we turn to the Old Testament, we get little more.  Meeting young David for the first time we hear three things about his appearance:  First, that he’s less impressive, physically, than his older brothers – for the Lord looks on the heart, not the outward appearance; second, that he’s ruddy from keeping the sheep; and third, that he has beautiful eyes.  The author does not explain that last detail in terms of the color, shape, or set of David’s eyes.  Yet it is significant that the author specially notes the eyes – the part of the outward appearance where the heart is most visible.

The point is that there are physical features that have peculiar narrative significance.  Some of these are common features: eyes and smiles[1], features common to all, have stories written all over them.  Some of the features of narrative importance are more unique: marks from pregnancies, scars from battle, surgical scars.  In marking these features out for particular attention, we avoid both body idolatry and Gnosticism.  Noting them, we preserve the evocative things written upon flesh that make characters.[2]


[1] As to smiles:

So much reads straight in a smile’s crooked lines:
One betrays care, fear of the enemy –
tough, big, or swindler — crouching at the door;
Another knows where the enemy hides,
And, that presently the bastard will be
Knocked out cold upon the doorstep.
If you smile, friend, follow that second line;
The first is to cast your pearls before swine.

[2] Character is a word of Greek origin.  In biblical usage, it may refer to an instrument used to make a mark upon something, or the mark impressed upon something by such an instrument.  It’s the word used of Christ by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews – that he bore the “express image” of God.

Conflicting Opinions and Writing to Your Audience

Writing is hard...

I am currently in the process of editing my first novel.  As part of the process I sent the novel out to a small group of test readers; friends whose opinion I respect and (at least most of whom) new little or nothing about the novel beforehand.  Well, I recently heard back from my test readers.  I was very happy to receive generally positive remarks.  Everyone liked the novel, thought it was well written, and easily worth what I plan to charge (or at least that’s what they told me ;)).  However, as I asked, every one of my test readers gave me comments on how they thought the novel could be better.  Most of these comments were helpful and quickly implemented.  Some of them are going to take a little bit longer to actually work in but will happen.  A few were confusing or nonsensical and I had to sit down with the person and ask what that person meant…

And then there were the areas where people disagreed.  These actually cracked me up at first.  One reader would say, ‘I really like so and so but I think you get rid of him too early,’ while another reader would say, ‘I didn’t like so and so (same character) very much and I’m not sure why you put him in the novel in the first place.’  Or one reader would say, ‘I love the pacing of such and such part of the storyline, I though it was perfect,’ while another reader would say, ‘I thought the pacing of such and such (same thing) was way too slow.  You definitely need more on this earlier.’

Obviously we, as authors…or as people, can’t make everyone happy.  In fact to try is relatively foolish.  On the other hand if we just write exactly what we like with no attention paid to anyone else then…well we’ll like what we write…but most other people probably won’t.  However, if we keep a specific audience and purpose in mind as we write, then we can take contradictory comments like those above and weigh them accordingly.

For my novel I can look at the comments and say, this reader didn’t like this, but that reader did like this.  Well that reader is closer to my target audience than this reader is, so it will serve me better to weigh that reader’s opinion as heavier than this reader’s opinion.

Yes, it's true. I am actually a famous Indian man who was assissinated in 1948.

At the same time when multiple readers agree (e.g. All of my test readers mentioned that they really liked one character and felt that he disappeared from the novel too early) then it obviously behooves me to listen (in this case to do some rewriting and expand said character’s role).  All in all, I am very glad that I sent the novel out to test readers and I have received some very valuable feedback from them.  Of course that means more writing and more work for me to do…but if it makes for a better novel…well, that’s not a bad thing.

Delusional Dwarf Seeks Creation

One night, as I sat on my couch, sleep-deprived and diligently trying to write a review on a book I had not read (bluffing is an essential skill for graduate school), I became distracted by thoughts of a new character.

“Wouldn’t it be funny,” I said to myself (grad students do that sometimes), “if there were a dwarf who thought he was a miniature giant?  Ooh, and he could be completely obsessed with battle!  Ooh ooh, and he could be obsessed with rocks, too!”  From those humble origins, Nobbley was born (NOT, as he claims, from a lake of pulsating fire that occasionally spits out spontaneously-created warriors).

Who was Nobbley, though?  Why was he delusional?  Why did he like rocks so much?  I could see him, even hear him in my mind (he has a very unpleasant-sounding voice), but I knew so little about him.  What were his interests, goals, motivations?  And most importantly, what the heck was I going to do with the little creature?

Clearly, I needed to get to know this character better.  So, I rushed into the room where I keep my trusty, soon-to-be-patented Character Generator 5000 and pushed the big red button . . . . .

Okay, maybe I didn’t do that.  There is no Character Generator 5000, though I certainly could use one sometimes.  No, what I actually whipped out that night was one of my greatest not-at-all-secret tools for the creation of characters (drumroll please):  a list of questions!

<sound of cricket chirping>

Honestly, that’s really what I used.

<sound of another cricket chirping>

Let me explain:  I have found, time and again, that ill-formed characters tend to have very short life-spans.  I get bored with them, the reader gets bored with them, and sooner or later, I end up either feeding the offending character to a dragon or I delete the story they are in.  You just can’t write a decent story unless you know the characters well.  It’s really just common sense.  If the writer doesn’t know enough about the character, what chance does a reader have?  I once worked for months and months on a heart-wrenching tale of the World War II homefront, and then ended it by clicking on that fatal option, “Delete.”  The offending story was whisked away from the land of the living, never to return.  Why?  Because my characters were paper-thin and I had come to realize that I would not feel the slightest twinge of regret if they all got shipped to the Russian front.  I didn’t know them, so I couldn’t care about them.

Nobbley, fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, in the cases of the characters who have to interact with him) did not fall prey to the same fate.  By the time Nobbley entered my mind, I had perfected the “Preliminary Character Questionnaire.”  Yes, that is the proper name of the afore-mentioned list of questions.  Whenever I start to create a character, I first fill out the questionnaire.  By the time I’m done, I know enough of the character to keep him/her/it alive.  I can move on to deeper, more probing questions about the character.  If I can’t finish the questionnaire, I know that the character has no future and I feed them to the dragon that consumes all my worthless characters or bad ideas (he is very well fed).

Here is the set of questions that I use:

What is your full name?

When is your birthday?

Describe your appearance.

Tell about your family.

What is your favorite color?

What was/is your favorite subject in school?

What is your occupation (or intended occupation)?

What are some of your hobbies?

What are some of your skills/talents/accomplishments?

Who is/are your closest friend/s?

What is your deepest wish?

What do you feel is your purpose in life?

What are some smaller things that you would like to accomplish?

What is your personal philosophy?

What attracts you to a member of the opposite sex?

What is your deepest regret?

What is your favorite food?

What do you dislike most of all?

What are your three biggest pet peeves?

What types of books do you like to read?

Describe your ideal place to live.

List five things that make you feel happy.

What is your biggest fear?

Tell me four completely random facts about yourself.

What kind of relationship do you have with your parents/guardians?

By the time I reached the second or third question with Nobbley, I was giggling.  A lot.  By the time I reached the midway point, I had come to feel that particular motherly fondness that I eventually feel for all my sustainable characters.  By the last question, I knew Nobbley well, and wanted to know him even better.  He had a future!  The dragon would not be fed on this day!  Nobbley just needed a story.  But in what story could I possibly make use of a delusional, maniacal dwarf with a machiavellian mindset, poor vocabulary, abominable grammar, and a strange love of rocks and battle?

That’ll be another post.