Tag Archives: character development

Character Development: Let’s Talk Snark

Snark can be a great tool in your author’s dialogue box. It can be wielded well and when used well it can be responsible for creating some solid heroes and villains. So, if it sounds like I’m bashing snark, well, I’m not. I’m a fan of snark and of sass, and I enjoy heroes with a healthy dose of sarcastic wit.

But, snark comes with it’s downsides. It’s not appropriate for all situations and used in the wrong ones, it can actually be very damaging to both the tension and the story. Snark can damage the threat level of your bad guys, it can weaken and degrade your minor characters, especially your protagonist’s relationship with them (if they’re your snarker). It can be used in situations where being snarky is senseless, useless, and even stupid. While this isn’t a bad thing on it’s own, it can be very good if that’s the author’s intention in the scene, when the senseless stupid snark is the means of the character achieving what they were after in a situation where such snark would usually be detrimental or downright suicidal, it’s generally very damaging to characters, tension, plot, and the overarching story.

So, let’s talk snark:

1) Know who your character is snarking at:

If you want to prove your character is intelligent (or that they’re self-destructive), they need to be capable of assessing the situation and moderating their behavior appropriately. It’s one thing to be snarky to a friend or someone your character knows well. It’s quite another for them to be snarking off at an authority figure, or any character who is in a position of power that is greater than the character’s own. It’s especially bad if that authority figure is someone the character has come to and needs assistance or permission from. (Like in Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, where her bounty hunter/mercenary protagonist got snarky while trying to convince the head of the area’s Magical Police Force to let her assist their investigation into the death of her mentor.)

It’s one thing to have a problem with authority, it’s another when the character is actually actively sabotaging their own efforts and the author doesn’t realize it. Think about this:

2) Snark is a defensive mechanism: snark is a defensive mechanism used to drive other people away from a character. Unlike other forms of humor, it requires making someone else look stupid to be successful. Someone’s going to have to be the butt of the joke, someone’s going to have to look bad for the protagonist to look good. Most people, especially when they are in the room to hear it aren’t going to be happy. A character whose authority relies on maintaining control of the situation and being in charge, isn’t going to be very happy when they’re mocked to their face. If they’re someone tolerant, they’ll just be more likely to say: “lol no”, when the protagonist comes calling. If they’re someone like the local crime boss, they’ll have to retaliate. Let’s just say, I hope the protagonist enjoys having all their teeth pulled with a pair of rusty pliers.

3) Snark is a sign of control: characters who have leeway to be sarcastic are usually the characters who are in charge or have power in the situation. These are the characters in charge of running the local army base, the jackass cop who is arresting your rebel protagonist. These are the characters who can get away with it, the characters who snark when they know the person they’re snarking at can’t fight back. Nobody really wants to put up with a jackass who makes them feel like shit most of the time. If your hero is constantly snarking off at authority and at their buddies because they feel out of control, maybe that’s a reason why they shoudn’t have friends. So, if your hero is snarking at your villain, it better be because they’re trying to make that villain angry enough to fight stupid or distract them, not because they believe the villain’s not a threat (and they’re proven right).

4) Snark is a good way to make someone angry: Like I said above: someone’s gotta be the butt of the joke. If you’re character’s going all John McClane snarky on someone because their tongue is the last weapon they have in a situation where their outmanned, outgunned, and dragging themselves through a skyscraper on bloody feet then…fine. Snark can be a great way for your protagonist to cover what they’re actually doing by getting the other guy angry. This is a great use of snark, so long as you remember the part about being outgunned and on the defensive. It doesn’t really work when your protagonist is in control of a situation at the end of the fight or just generally acting like an intellectual or emotional bully.

Or…they’re just not funny.

But let’s rewind that back. Snark is a good way to make someone angry. Your reader should never be questioning (unless you want them to question) why someone would ever want help your character, especially if all they’ll get from it is pain and misery. John Constantine ran into this problem on one of his more well handled comic runs, he kept getting his friends killed and he started running out of friends. Now, Constantine is a conartist (and arguably a villain protagonist), he’s a self-centered jerk, he’s an all-around asshole, he’s an adrenaline junkie, and the people in his setting generally respond to him like he is one. Including denying him assistance when he asks for it because they know they’re not going to get anything from it except pain and misery.

He spends a great deal of his time in a few of his comic runs backtracking, capitulating, and trying to talk people around into assisting him before he screws them over and gets them killed. It’s a theme.

I love Hellblazer, but let’s not pretend Constantine’s a nice guy people like. At least, not when he’s in the hands of a competent writer *cough* Garth Ennis *cough*.

5) They’re that damn good: Boba Fett is pretty much the only character I can think of who actually fits this description. He’s the best bounty hunter in the galaxy, everyone quivers at the sound of his name, and he’s actually far too skilled and useful for Vader to annihilate him for the crime of mouthing off. He’s not replaceable. Every other character in the story (including Luke) was replaceable. Yoda and Obi-wan even had a backup ready in case he failed. There are almost no characters in the universe who are so good that they can say: “You need me, so I can do and say whatever I want.” A Chosen One with that mentality who survives is a Chosen One who has the author cheating for them.

Look: Stories have to have an internal logical consistency. This internal logical consistency is what generates suspension of disbelief in the reader. You’ve got to stay inside it, if you break it, you break your setting and your story. Your character, even if they happen to be the better version of you, is someone who has to live in the setting world you create. They have to be responsible for what they do and say, even when they’re saying and doing the things you might wish you could do. Other characters will respond to them based on their own worldview, their own values, and their own needs or desires in combination with your character’s actions.

The local police chief isn’t going to want a newbie nobody assisting on his investigation, mucking around crime scenes, and mucking up evidence. Especially when that newbie nobody has no background in investigation and has a close personal tie to the deceased. It’s all well and good to say: well, they’re good enough so why would he turn them down? 1) Why would he need them in the first place?  2) Conflict of interest is a real problem. Revenge isn’t a legitimate motivation to give to a cop, it’s an understandable one, but it’s just going to get crossways of what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s okay to have a character who is the Constantine level of self-destructive, it can create a good story. But make sure that’s the kind of story you want to be telling first, not “oh shit! I just made my biggest villain look like an idiot, now the tension bubble is gone and the reader might not be afraid of them anymore!”

I can’t worry about your character going into their final fight if I’ve already been convinced they’re going to come out alive.

motivation for moving beyond your writing habits: Some help on picking character names

motivation for moving beyond your writing habits: Some help on picking character names

Dove hired a forensic artist to draw how women see themselves versus how others see them – the results are moving.

http://jazzylittledrops.tumblr.com/post/48118645174/why-doves-real-beauty-sketches-video-makes-me

This is an excellent counter commentary to this video. It’s probably already been posted, but take it anyway. Multiple views on every issue are always good.

Fight Write: Just That Damn Good

Let’s file this one under: bad ideas from movies and TV. Although it’s fun to think your characters are so good they don’t need to train, this simply isn’t the case. Any skill you neglect will degrade a bit over time. This isn’t much of an issue if we’re talking about your ability to speak a foreign language, or tinker on your car. In those cases, there are clear thresholds, either you can do it or you can’t, and if you’re above the threshold for what you need to do, you’re good enough.

The same isn’t true of fighting. If your character isn’t practicing, stretching, and otherwise keeping in shape as a martial artist, their ability to fight will be seriously affected when going toe to toe with a foe who has been.

This is related to the weapon maintenance bit from the Your Character’s Weapon is a Character article. Any martial artist needs to be working constantly to stay at peak. It doesn’t matter how good they are, if they’ve been screwing around, and they face off against your villain, they’re going to lose.

If your villain is supposed to be effective, it’s safe to assume they’re spending all their time working towards their goal. If they’ve achieved their goal already, somehow, they need to be working towards a new one. In short, your villain needs to be active. Moving forward, they are  a mobile target. If your hero is lazy, then they are constantly playing catch up.

It gets worse if your character is facing off against their henchmen. Outside of a few specific examples, henchmen or soldiers will be spending a chunk of every day training, exercising, and honing their abilities, even if they aren’t actually learning new material.

To keep up with that, your character needs to be training, practicing and exercising, or they will get outmatched fast.

All of this becomes even more immediate when you consider that hand to hand combat is a dynamic thing. While some of the Asian martial arts pride themselves on being built on traditional combat techniques, modern combat is constantly evolving.  Counters are being developed to the strikes that worked yesterday, and those counters will be less effective tomorrow, because of a shift in strike preferences and techniques.

If you want your character to participate in combat with professionally trained combatants, they need to train and be ready to encounter new things every day. There’s no place on the battlefield for a hero who rests on their laurels of being “just that damn good.”

-Starke

Fight Write: We’re Only Human

Today, we’re going to take a break from our regularly scheduled blogging programming to discuss some important character traits. There’s a somewhat disturbing trend roaming through YA right now and while this deals mostly with female “action hero” protagonists, it’s affecting the male characters too. We can call it exceptionalism, prodigy, or perfection but there is a pervading trend right now in popular literature that says a hero must be perfect to succeed. We have a steady stream of heroes who make no mistakes, who travel on a simple, single line towards an inevitable destination. Their flaw is that they are without flaw, the mistakes they make are the fault of someone else, and all the choices are easy. I sort of wish that in real life, we fit into such easily identifiable boxes but alas, the world is a bit more confusing than that. Worse, a perfect character is a boring one. A character whose fall is softened, whose antagonists are left on a choke chain, who is perfect, ends up negating tension in their story.

Below are some basic suggestions to keep in mind when crafting your characters. This applies to female action protagonists as well as male ones, but keep in mind that female characters (unfortunately) walk a much tighter line than their male counterparts. For them, you’re fighting an uphill battle against audience expectation.

We’re Only Human:

This one is going to be a bit more general, rather than specifically about fight scenes, but it’s worth talking about: Your character does not need to be perfect. They can be wrong, they can make mistakes, and they can fail. And all of this can make your story stronger. A character with flaws will always be more interesting, to the reader, than one without. So, let’s talk about a few writing flaws, that can massively improve your characters.

The Master or the Apprentice:

Your character doesn’t need to be skilled at everything they want to be, and they certainly don’t need to be the best. Ask yourself, which is more interesting? A character who is trying to earn their place and learn the ropes of a skill, or a master of all they survey. A character who is a master of a skill can be useful if you’re trying to teach the audience about that skill, but in nearly every other situation, you’re going to get a more interesting story if other characters exist who outclass your character.

For instance, Star Wars isn’t interesting because Luke and Vader are on an equal footing. Throughout the original trilogy, Luke is playing catch up to Vader’s skill as a combatant.

Having characters who are flat out more powerful than your protagonist, creates a real threat that the they can be defeated, and for your audience, a real threat to your hero. Who will win? It’s hard to say. And that’s what’s going to keep your audience turning pages.

Beyond Right and Wrong:

Your character can be wrong, make mistakes, and screw up, just like any other person. And, to an extent, this won’t hurt your story. This is a bit trickier, because you can swing too far, have your hero be wrong about everything, and end up with a mess. But, don’t be afraid to let your character make mistakes. Trust people they want to, but shouldn’t. Misunderstand situations they’re not familiar with. Even get manipulated into doing thing things they really shouldn’t.

Bad calls are something everyone has to deal with sooner or later. How your hero deals with them can be far more interesting than a character who never makes mistakes.

What is important is the decisions the character makes have to based on a rational thought process, just one that doesn’t have all the information.

Omniscience:

On that subject, your character doesn’t need to know everything. Really, they can’t. When they’re making decisions, ask yourself: what do they know? What do they understand? What do they believe?

When you put this together, you’re character will be constructing their plans, and making their decisions, based on the information they have. This will inevitably lead to mistakes. And, again, that’s a good thing. A character scrambling to adapt to a situation they didn’t anticipate or dealing with information they didn’t even consider is far more interesting than a character who makes a perfect plan and executes it.

The original Star Wars trilogy pulls this over and over, the final acts of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi swing on these kinds of situations. (For both the heroes and the villains.)

I’m not saying the villain needs to be your character’s father, but any time you can pull the rug out from under your character like that, especially against expectations, is a wonderful moment.

Another example comes from a game called Arcanum: Through most of the game, the player is told they’re the reincarnation of an Elven Jesus figure, “Nasrudin”. You encounter the religion that sprung up around him, you learn about the religion’s history, all while preparing to deal with the religion’s sealed evil in a can. And then, about 80% of the way through the game, you actually meet Nasrudin, he’s been alive the entire time, in seclusion. The player cannot be his reincarnation, and the entire chosen one construct in the story is a sham. I wouldn’t even remember the story of a game from 12 years ago if it wasn’t an interesting and memorable twist.

As a writer, you can create the truth of your setting and your story, but your characters don’t need to know what that truth is, and they can build their understanding of the world off faulty information.

Loved by Children and Small Animals:

Liking or disliking someone on contact can be a good indicator of potential personality conflicts, but it’s a poor excuse for knowing if someone’s good or evil. The biggest problem is, now you’re telegraphing who will betray your heroes later, or who will betray your villain.

People (and characters) like and dislike one another for any number of reasons, unrelated to plot and faction. You can get much more interesting material by forcing two characters who actively dislike and distrust one another to work together towards a common goal, or by pitting two good friends against one another (without the whole, “you turned to the dark side, the friend I knew is dead,” shtick).

Above all else, it makes your story harder to predict and more interesting. While I’m loathe to recommend most TV writing, FarScape did an excellent job shuffling heroes and villains around and forcing everyone to work together at least once.

Because Losing is Fun:

Finally, it’s okay for your character to lose. Lose a fight, lose an argument. Sometimes this goes back to making mistakes, sometimes it goes back to your character being outclassed. How your character deals with defeat can be far more interesting than having them cruise through every challenge they encounter. Do they sulk? Do they break down? Do they rage? Do they get back up, and throw themselves at it again? Do they go back to the drawing board; look for more allies; look for ways to undermine their foe? Do they even accept it happened? Also, what are the consequences of their defeat? Are they injured? Does it cause their allies to doubt them?

If you’re writing in a serialized format, be that chapters, episodes, or a series, don’t be afraid to end a sequence in utter defeat. Your heroes can rally for the final act, but the idea that your characters can lose will do wonders for showing that your villains are a legitimate threat.

Again with the Star Wars examples, the entire reason that Empire Strikes Back works (and a large part of Return of the Jedi’s ability to work as a story), is because of the defeat that kicks in at the end of ESB. I’m not saying rip off Star Wars, but you can learn a lot about making a compelling story from the original trilogy.

-Starke (just wants you to know; fifteen Bothans died bringing you this article)

Tip: It’s necessary let your character be afraid.

Fear may be the mind-killer, but it’s a very necessary component of any character. For an action hero or any protagonist who deals with power (physical, psychological, spiritual, supernatural) how they approach fear will be the deciding factor in whether or not they will fall into the category of a bully.

For any true combatant (who isn’t a psychopath) overcoming the instinctual fear of harming themselves and causing harm to someone else is a key part of their training. How they handle the prospect and reality of causing harm to another, especially if that person falls into the category of “us” as opposed to “them”, will be a defining part of who they are. Combat is a terrifying, brutal, and uncomfortable place that is as much based in psychological willpower as it is a physical action.

Remember, fear is much more important than anger. Does your character face their fears? Do they run from them? Or do they inflict their fears on others?

-Michi