Wednesday, June 14, 2006


I'm closing in on the start of Book 4. If I stick to my plans, I should write those all-important first words tomorrow. Eeek!

In the last day or so, I've been creating characters. Yeah, I already have an established cast of thousands, but each book needs some new characters to play particular roles, and this one seems to have a lot of them. A lot of writing guides and workshops have little checklists or questionnaires to help you develop characters, asking about stuff like hair color, eye color, height, build, favorite food, favorite color, etc. That's not how I create characters.

I tend to work from the inside out, starting with the core of a person's being, then adding flesh and finally physical description. Because I'm really into that whole universal story/archetype stuff, I like to start with archetypes as foundations for characters, then build on top of that. Unless a character jumps fully formed into my head or is obviously "played" by a specific actor, the physical description may be the last thing I come up with.

One of my favorite books for characterization is The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines by Cowden, LaFever and Viders. They take the basic core archetypes and classify them in ways that work for modern fiction (much as Christopher Vogler took Joseph Campbell's work on the universal myth and distilled it for modern storytelling in The Writer's Journey. There's a danger, though, in using books like this because if you're not careful, you'll end up with stereotypes, and the writers even almost encourage that by providing lists of likely careers and activities for each type. Yeah, certain types of people are often drawn to certain kinds of work, but the whole idea is supposed to be that it's the motivation behind the action that determines the archetype, so each type could be doing the same job, and the difference is in why they're doing it.

I think that's one of the reasons the characters Joss Whedon creates really capture people's imaginations. I don't know if he deliberately uses archetypes to create his characters, but they're all pretty easy for me to classify, so they seem to fit the archetypes well. But he always throws in a twist or two to make these characters more interesting people, and those twists go counter to some of the suggestions you find in the book. For instance, you'd think that prostitute (or Companion) would be the chosen career of the Seductress type. But Inara in Firefly is a Nurturer. Even in her work, she takes on the role of nurturing, caring figure. You expect to see a sultry, sexy prostitute, but a gentle nurturer is more interesting.

While I do recommend this book to writers, I also caution against looking too closely at their examples because I think the authors often miss their own points. They classify Harry Potter as a Professor, the type who is driven by gaining and mastering specialized knowledge. I totally disagree. Yes, he's studying to be a wizard, and to us that counts as specialized knowledge, but in his world, he doesn't have any particularly specialized know-how. He's an indifferent student at best. When he succeeds in fighting Voldemort, it's not so much about what he knows as it is about his heart and his courage. I think he's actually the Lost Soul, the type who is driven by wanting to belong and wanting to find a home. He most wants to defeat Voldemort because Voldemort destroyed his family and threatens to destroy the new "family" Harry's finally found in the wizard world. He wants more than anything to belong and fit in. He tries to do well in school mostly because he doesn't want to get expelled, since school is the next best thing to home and family for him. (And that's yet another reason why my Owen isn't a grown-up Harry Potter. Owen fits the Best Friend type. He's actually content with his life and just wants to keep things stable, with everyone getting along and leaving him alone. His motivation for beating the bad guy is that the bad guy isn't playing by the rules, and the bad guy is disrupting his quiet life.)

I actually once got into a rather vocal public disagreement with one of the authors of this book at a workshop when she asked people for examples of certain types. I said that Wesley on the series Angel was a particularly interesting case because he looks like a Professor to others, but he was really a Lost Soul. She said I was wrong, that he was a definite Professor. I said that was giving in to stereotypes, and that him wearing glasses and liking books didn't make him a Professor. His primary motivation in everything he did, even going back to his first appearance on Buffy, was that he wanted to belong, to be an integral part of the group. Yes, he wanted to have the crucial information and to be right, but he wanted that because it was the only way he knew to contribute and be so crucial to the group that they couldn't shove him aside. His need to belong was so strong that he was willing to ally himself with someone he'd recently considered a potential enemy, just because he was the one person Wes knew when he was left stranded in a foreign country.

The interesting twist on the character was that all the other characters took him at face value and made the same assumptions about him that this author did. They thought that knowledge itself was what motivated him, so when they gave him something to translate, they thought they were giving him what he needed to be happy. They didn't realize that yes, he'd just about kill himself to get the translation for them, but at the same time he felt like that was the only reason they wanted him around, so their attempts to do what they thought made him happy only ended up making him even more insecure. (Anyone out there agree/disagree with me?)

I've recently read a book called Inner Drives, which uses the Centers from some Eastern belief systems as ways of explaining characters and character growth. I haven't yet incorporated some of these ideas into my writing system, but I can already see the dangers of taking it too literally. They list behavior patterns, clothing and food for each center, and while following that would certainly give you consistent characters, I think you'd also get boring characters. You need to shake things up a bit -- and know why you're doing something unexpected, not just do it for fun -- to have characters who really jump off the page.

And now I need to go decide what all these people I've just created should look like. But first I have to exercise. There was some zipper agony yesterday with a pair of pants that fit me perfectly not too long ago, and I need to do something about that.


April Erwin said...

I totally agree with you. Then again, I think some people are just more 'insightful' than others. There's always more to a person than the surface shows, and it's where the deep water runs that makes that person really interesting. Obviously you're one of those insightful kind of people. Which is one of the reasons you're a great writer.

Shanna Swendson said...

Figuring out what makes people tick is kind of a hobby of mine. I used to psychoanalyze my clients to know how to deal with them.

I think if the writing thing doesn't work out for me and I can't get another book contract, I might become a psychologist.