Tag Archives: characterization

Weapons: Helping Descriptions Feel Natural

The biggest challenge when working with description isn’t the act of describing itself. It’s knowing the when or where. Sometimes, describing weapons can get awkward. This happens a lot for me in fiction, especially when an author plunks all the description down in a place where it doesn’t belong. It’s important to remember even when writing Third Person Omniscient that when a character thinks about their weapon or talks about their weapon, they need to do so in a manner which feels natural to how the character thinks and acts.

Think about this, which sounds more natural.

Gerald’s hand shifted back and pulled his Glock 17 9mm off his Sam Browne belt.

Or:

Gerald’s hand shifted back and he pulled his sidearm off his Sam Browne belt. His fingers locked easily around the silver grip. It was a Smith & Wesson 5906. No longer standard issue in the LA Department, they’d moved on with the times to other, newer, models. Still, Gerald thought, can’t beat a classic.

The thing about description is you need to find reasons why you’re characters are describing the object to begin with. The Glock 17 is standard issue in most police departments around the country, while the reader might not know that a cop like Gerald certainly would. If his gun isn’t important or special to him in some way, then dropping description of it randomly into a sentence feels out of place. It’s just his sidearm, standard issue, nothing special. Comparatively, in the second example Gerald uses his weapon as a stand in to tell the reader that he’s out of date. It was standard at one point but we’ve moved on with the times, Gerald has a reason to tell us about his gun and we get some character development out of it too.

This transitions into working with a sci-fi or fantasy setting, even if the weapon the character wields is like nothing we’ve ever seen on this earth they still need to treat it like it’s normal (unless it isn’t). There’s a time and a place for extensive navel gazing about what the weapon can do, but if it’s slowing down the scene then chuck it.

Sam swung her XLJ452 lasgun around and pointed it at the dreaded bug monster. She fired, reducing the beast to a smear of chunky, blue salsa.

Let’s change the scene and compare:

“And this one?” Drill Sergeant Martez’s finger dropped, pointing to a long silver cylinder with a bulky handle. The full collection of standard issue lasguns and pistols sat on the wide table.

Sam straightened. “The XLJ452! Marine issue! Fires a beam of light straight down the bug humpers gullet and reduces them to a blue smear.”

“A blue smear?” Martez lifted an eyebrow.

To be honest next to the XIL321 and the XLJ456, the XLJ452 looked a little like an oversized penis. “Chunky salsa?” Sam asked.

“Chunky salsa, Private?”

“Yes, ma’am. Chunky salsa, ma’am!”

The idea is to give your characters a reason to talk about details in your setting and not just drop them in at random. Make them a natural extension of how your character feels, thinks, and talks about their weapons. The explanations need to feel natural and support who your character is supposed to be and what they are supposed to know. If your character works with their weapon often, they may not have a reason to share exactly what it is and the story behind it unless they are pressed. Or they are nerds. Or it’s their job to know.

-Michi

Why We Fight

For a character that fights, this is the most important question that they will ever answer and one each has to answer for themselves. It comes in before “what we’re fighting for”, it comes in before “who we’re fighting”, it comes in before all other questions pertaining to the individual. It’s true that it’s a philosophical question, but at some point every person must face their own existential dilemma and come to grips with what they can do versus what they are willing to do. They must realize in themselves their own capacity for violence and ultimately, for many fighters, decide what they’re willing to kill for and what or who they’re willing to die for.

How far are you willing to go?

When do you stop?
Why are you still here?

What are you living for?

It is a question that seems simple on it’s surface but is complex in the depths it pierces into a character’s soul and psyche. Before you do anything else and muddle about in the details of your character, you’re going to have to figure out for yourself why they fight. It is also, always, worth remembering that the reasons a character gives upfront may not be the real reason, it may be the reason that they give to themselves much in the same way a real human being does when avoiding an uncomfortable truth. As the author, it’s up to you to find that truth and press the character in your story until we get to the heart of it. Violence does not work without the human component, violence without meaning is just violence and meaningless violence that fails to affect the narrative is ultimately a disservice to the story.

Violence is about ugly truths, it involves both the greatness and travesties we can rise to in the face of extreme adversity.  Why we choose to stand is as important to a narrative as the act of standing itself. A character who continues to stand even when they have every reason not to, to keep fighting even if they have no tangible gain, even when they know there will be no reward waiting for them at the end, these are characters we all want to cheer for. But, you can only get there by figuring out what your character is willing to die for, what their motivation is, and why they have chosen to fight.

Yes, fighting back is a choice. Yes, the act of making a choice is an act by your character (or you) of taking control and power over their life. There is a certain kind of power in decision making, just as there is for choosing to carry the blame even when those acts are mistakes. It may not be a choice they want to make and it may not be a morally good choice, it may simply be choosing to act to save their life or of not acting when they are in the heat of the moment. “I did what I had to.” “I couldn’t move.” I often don’t know how a new character will jump until I put the screws to them and back them into a corner.

It’s okay if the reason is ugly. A character that fights because they enjoy it is authentic. A person who enjoys that act of hurting other people is authentic. Sometimes, those people are hidden behind kind and helpful faces. It’s okay to be wrong.

It’s okay if your protagonist is not noble. It is okay if they are not as noble as they’d like to be. It’s okay if you find ugly and uncomfortable truths within yourself. It does not make you a bad person, it just makes you human.

The most useful advice I will ever give on this blog is to tell you to find and not shy away from the human component of violence. Look at people as they are and bring that authenticity to your work, to your characters, and let them be real people telling real stories.  When we substitute a more pleasant reality for the complex, dark, and difficult world we live in, we cut out the heart of what makes a story genuine. Look at the world, look at people, ask why they fight, and accept that the answer may not be pleasant or comfortable. Explore the parts of yourself that make you uncomfortable, try to understand them, and try to make peace with them.

Why do we fight? Everyone’s answer is different.

-Michi

On Writing: Psychological Shock

There are two different kinds of shock that can easily be confused with each other: physiological shock from receiving a grievous injury and psychological shock which is an acute stress reaction to a terrifying or traumatic event. In this article, we’re going to talk about how a writer can communicate that their character is experiencing psychological shock without having to outright state it. There are many tips out there that are useful for writing fight scenes and most of them won’t be helpful when your story requires coupling an action sequence with an acute stress reaction.

So, let’s go below the cut and talk about it.

In this, we’re going to talk about psychological shock from the writer’s perspective and how to use it. However, we are not medical professionals. For a full understanding of psychological shock, more research will be required.

What is an acute stress reaction?

An acute stress reaction comes from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. This could be anything from watching a random passerby get gutted by a mugger, being attacked by a mugger, finding a family member dead in their bed, being the victim of violence, experiencing a betrayal by a close friend, being on the wrong end of a gun, etc.

This experience links into both the fight or flight response and the combat stress response.

Okay, so what does that mean?

If you’ve never experienced an acute stress reaction before to a traumatic event in your own life then manufacturing it on the page may be difficult. Even if you have, reliving the experience in your own mind in order to get it right can be incredibly traumatizing. What is most important to presenting shock in your story is not that you focus entirely on getting the exact symptoms right, it’s getting the feeling right and making sure that the same feeling infuses every aspect of the scene if it’s being written in either First Person or Third Person Limited.

I mean everything from pacing to word choice should be representative of selling the experience to your audience. This is how you make anything in your story authentic. You have to sell it as if you were experiencing it yourself.  Method acting will help; imagining the scene as if it were happening to you will help if you’re willing to go there.

How to do that:

I personally describe shock as feeling sluggish and dazed. I felt far away from my body, far away from reality and what was happening around me. Information came in slow, but my reaction to it was dull and, depending on the situation, nonexistent. In events that happened after, I remembered everything that had happened with perfect clarity but it still felt like I had been on autopilot. For me, how hard I get rocked by shock often depends on what I was expecting going into the event. If I’m completely blindsided, it can take a while to recover. If I was prepared for it or had begun preparations for it, I have less to work through before getting back to the regular world. I apply this to my characters when working through how they feel about events and what parts of the process they get caught in.

You can communicate shock fairly easily through some simple techniques.

Remove the active verbs.

Compare:

Looking down at her hand, Margaret saw blood.

Versus:

Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood.

One of these is fast and I’ll admit, the one with “looking” sounds better, but it also moves more quickly and feels more active. When you want your sentences to move more slowly, to feel more sluggish, it’s worth taking a step back and taking your time because from the character’s perspective everything has slowed down. (Always remember though, time is keeping pace for the other characters in the scene unless they are likewise affected, so keep them moving at normal speeds.)

Long sentences interspersed with short sentences.

Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood. Blood. Whose blood? My blood. No. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be her blood.

By interspersing long sentences with short ones, you can develop an awkward, intentionally jerky feel in the pacing which adds to the sense that the character is feeling out of sorts and distant to what’s happening around them.

Repetition

 Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood. Blood. Whose blood? My blood. No. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be her blood.

We can use repetition of the same word over and over to emphasize that sense of distance; that the character is taking a while to come to terms with what he or she is experiencing. The information is taking a while to sink in. We also add in a denial of the reality present which results from surprise.

“He shot me! You shot me! Derrick! Why would you shoot me?”

Shock can follow your characters for a while, so even at later points in the story it’s important to call back to it through changes in your character’s behavior. So, remember to keep track of that. Whether it’s pain from the wound:

Her cheek hurt. Why would it hurt? Oh right, Margaret thought, she’d been shot.

or from a distinct change in their lifestyle:

I turned my head, hand tightening on the remote. Dad always came home at five after five and he’d give me hell if he caught me watching television. I waited, listening for the familiar thrum of the Ford Taurus as it wound up the driveway, the catch of the headlights on the windows, the blur of green through the white shades. On the tube, Batman laughed but no grinding wheels came up the asphalt. It was just another car passing our front door outside.

Oh. I paused. Oh, right. Dad wasn’t coming home from work today. Dad wasn’t coming home ever again.

Give it a try. See what you turn out.

Happy Writing!

-Michi

It’s Cool If Your Action Protagonist Wants Kids

It’s also cool if he or she doesn’t, but the reason why she’s saying no should be a character driven one (preferably not with too angsty a motivation). Right now, especially in YA, it’s become a common character trait for a female action hero to not want children. It imposes this belief that girls in action roles will wither up immediately if they’re exposed to any traits that are remotely feminine. It’s a repetition of the idea that strength – be it intellectual, emotional, or physical – comes from being as close to male as possible. A girl can kick ass and still want to be a mama bear one day, just like a woman can hold off on children because it’s “not the right time” as opposed to “ever”.

A man can want to raise a brood, be a stay at home dad, and enjoy baking in the kitchen. The same man may also be a police officer. A little girl may love Barbie dolls and Breyer horses, the same girl may also be raised in survivalist cult and capable of gutting a man six different ways with a knife. The dichotomy between the two doesn’t need to be a commentary or symbolize her loss of innocence, her inner femininity, or her “softer” side. It doesn’t have to mean anything at all. Liking handbags doesn’t have to be a sign that your supernatural protagonist just wants a normal life, just like being into fashion doesn’t automatically make one shallow.

Try to stretch outside stereotypes for characters.

-Michi

Thank you for having such an awesome blog. I always appreciate the knowledge and realism you guys answer questions with (like that people’s inexperienced characters would really lose in a fight against someone trained or their biological reactions to being injured, etc, which many books ignore completely). I was wondering if you would expand on a person’s natural fight-or-flight response to being in danger, especially if they are untrained or the situation is out of their normal life. Thank you!

There’s a bunch of different possible responses to fight or flight, there are lots of ways that it can go horribly wrong for the person who is experiencing it. Fight or flight is a natural instinctive response that is there to save your life, the problem is that instinct is a killer. Relying on your natural instincts will get your killed, I don’t really care if you’re a supernaturally endowed Vampire Slayer or an average person on the street. There’s a reason why martial combat involves retraining the instincts and, in most cases, outright replaces them with an entirely different set of responses is because the natural ones stink.

A lot of books try to cheat their way out of that with characters just “instinctively knowing” what to do because that’s easier for the author to use as opposed to crafting a character that can deal with the situation. Unfortunately, a character who is relying on their instincts is one that’s no longer rationally processing information and is running on their emotions, their fear and their terror. These emotions can be powerful tools, assuming the person is still in charge of their higher brain functions. If they’ve given in, then it can become deadly for them.

This rule is true even for trained martial artists. If you’ve been trained specifically to subvert an instinct, then you can take advantage of anyone who hasn’t been conditioned against that specific instinctual reaction. Starke did this to me when he showed me bursting (which is a technique common to Krav Maga where two strikes happen simultaneously instead of as a one and two in a combination), I’ve been trained to deal with one strike not two at the same time. So, I instinctively moved to block the one that came high, instead of the important one which was coming into my stomach. I’m trained to respond to any form of movement entering into my peripheral vision, but not to look for two strikes at the same time. So, I’ll respond to the one I see first. This won’t actually work against someone who is untrained, because the attack is betting on a very specific kind of response from a trained combatant.

Combat works by being one step ahead of where someone else’s training already is and it takes work to stay ahead of the curve. Not to bash on Joss Whedon and Buffy too hard, but the sad truth is, if the show played out under real world rules, that Buffy could be taken down by any decent martial artist. She has an over reliance on her own instincts and acts with the expectation that she’ll naturally know what to do instead of working under the assumption that she has to train to stay one step ahead of the competition. Forget about other characters with superpowers, Buffy could be taken out by Mulder from the X-files and he routinely gets his ass handed to him by characters with more combat training throughout the show’s run.

Some common reactions to fight or flight:

Freezing up. It’s common for someone to go with neither fight or flight, instead they get stuck between the two. Their brain is pulling them in two different directions and the end result is that they do nothing at all.

Running away. This is the flight response. However, the problem with the flight response is that the person in question is not necessarily in control of which way that they are running away. They’re just trying to flee. Instead of taking inventory of their surroundings and choosing the best route that will lead them away from danger, the individual in question has about a 50/50 chance of ending up in a situation that’s worse than the one they were in before. This could involve fleeing into a dead end alley, not running far enough away, not taking cover if the person who is chasing them has a gun, or turning around and fleeing into the arms of a secondary captor. They’re just running, that’s it. Running without purpose or thought. This will also not stop the person who initially triggered this response from chasing them. At that point, it’s a question of who has the better athletic ability and who is running with their brain turned on. It’s hard to get away if you’re not thinking about where you’re going.

Fighting back. Then, there’s the fight response. It’s worth noting that just because someone responds by fighting that doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to be any good at it. They could be powered by a lot of things, anger, rage, adrenaline. But, here’s the issue: fighting on anger alone is fighting stupid. People who fight on anger forget that they can be hurt and they become reckless. If the initial aggressor has kept their cool then they are the ones that are actually in control of the fight. Sometimes, pain is enough to knock someone back into reality and that’s when fear takes over again. Then, the fight stops, the person who acted on instinct loses their steam, and they lose.

The Fugue State. We make a big deal about fugue states and berserkers, but the problem with a fugue state is that the person in it is still only acting on anger and rage. The fugue state does not endow them with any more skill then they previously had and they are in even less control of their body than the person who just acted on the anger response. If the person in the fugue state has blacked out, then all they are doing is acting on instinct alone and while they may not notice the fact that they’ve been hurt they’re even more vulnerable to an aggressor who can manipulate someone’s instinctive reactions to their benefit. If the fugue state fails to scare the aggressors into backing off or unsettle them so that their technique suffers, then there’s very little else it can do. It works against the average schoolyard bullies, but that’s about it.

There’s variations within all of these, but nothing else we’d categorize as unique. It’s worth looking into more though if you’re interested. People can react in a variety of ways, but whether or not those ways are going to be helpful to their specific circumstance is questionable.

I hope that helps!

-Michi

A character is trained to endure pain and injuries, how does that training look like?

Honestly, there’s no real way to tell. They look like people and the training affects each individual in unique ways. It will change their personality, but what that change is? That depends on the individual in question. You may know, but most of the other characters probably won’t unless the character in question has told them or they’ve seen him or her in action.

It’s a little cheesy but I’ll throw out an example from Stargate SG-1.

We have Jack, we have Sam, and we have Teal’c. They have all been trained to endure pain and work while injured. Eventually, Daniel gains this ability through his own experiences in the Stargate program. What do they have in common in their personalities? What specific tells do they share? They’ve all been through it, but if you knew nothing about them when you met would you know?

It gets more confusing if we throw Teyla, Ronon, and Sheppard on the pile from Stargate Atlantis. Ronon and Teal’c fulfill the same role in the narrative and have a baseline of similar experiences, however they are very different as individuals.

People are not simple and how they respond to adversity isn’t something that can be broken down to a simple statistic. It’s made worse by the fact that all training is not the same, not all experiences are the same, and people change based on what they’ve gone through. You can put two different people of similar personalities through the same meat grinder and end up with wildly different results in how they’ve changed and who they’ve become.

-Michi

Do you have any advice on making flawed characters? Do you think any of the MCs from the snarked books are flawed & why?

readingwithavengeance:

I think all the MCs from the books I’ve done are flawed.

I rarely see a character in a book that isn’t flawed.  Most writes seem to have a good handle on that.  Everyone except the most adorable of newbie fanfiction writers understands that perfect characters aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  The trick, instead, is to make sure you’ve got the right write the flaws as having consequences.  Too often I’ll see books where the MC has a glaring flaw that I think the author didn’t mean to include, because careless writing turned them accidentally racist or selfish or spineless.  And too often I’ll see characters who have flaws, and their flaws are front-and-center…and those flaws have no meaning.  You’ll end up with a rude, snarky character…who has everyone loving her anyway.  You’ll up with an impulsive, brash character…who only jumps in when it turns out she was right all along.  Yes, they have flaws, but they never struggle with those flaws, and they never have to deal with the downside of those flaws.

Consequences and struggle are the whole reason people say flawed characters are good.  We want to see them deal with the problems caused by those flaws.  We want to see the characters fall down and get back up again.  Simply including a thing that would be a flaw here in the real world but not having the Big Brass Authorial Genitals to deal with that is meaningless.

Also, it’s important to make sure that people have reactions to your characters flaws that are based on their own personalities.  Get in the head of your secondary characters and look at the MC’s flaws from their view.  If your MC is rude and recalcitrant and uncommunicative, that’s going to piss off even their friends.  Don’t have only the “bad” people getting mad at her.

Some Thoughts: Emotional Blackmail

This isn’t really a post about how to write emotional blackmail or even what it is. This is more my attempt to point some lines that have become common in the writing of relationships that are so insidious in the ways that they present unhealthy relationships as okay and even desirable/romantic.  I’ll be honest and say that emotional violence is among the most difficult forms of violence to recognize because it hits and hurts so deeply but leaves no physical signs of abuse. A character that is experiencing a dysfunctional relationship may be blown off by their friends, family, and others who aren’t receiving the same treatment by the person who is abusing them.

Emotional blackmail is all about guilt and controlling the subject’s behavior by making them feel badly about themselves. They attempt to keep them with them by threatening them, not just with exposure, but through harm to themselves. “It’s your fault I did this. I love you so much.” is common. Emotional blackmailers are commonly jealous and controlling, they want the object of their affections to be with them only and are often insecure when they are with anyone else or behaving in a manner that they do not want them to.

It’s the undercurrent of blame in the discussion and the shifting of responsibility to the object of the blackmail that makes it blackmail. It sounds like they’re talking about you, but the reality is that what they’re saying is “me, me, me, me, me”. (Also, “your fault, your fault, your fault”.) It’s often an obsessive love and it’s worth noting that it can happen between family members and friends, beyond just romantic relationships.

Some common phrases:

“I don’t need anyone but you.”

This might sound really romantic on the surface, but the truth is that it’s actually very insidious because the expectation is the co-dependant response of  “I also don’t need anyone but you” with the expectation that the object of their affections will throw their entire life away to put the person they love first. They aren’t taking the other person’s feelings into account, all that matters is theirs.

“I told you, you have the ability to hurt me more than anyone else in the world.”

This phrase is insidious because it means that if the object of their affections steps out of line and hurts them, then they can blame them and play the victim. The person on the receiving end of that statement will feel that they are the cause of the person’s hurt and will be less likely to leave them.

“Look I am taking a huge chance trusting you and if you screw me over, I’ll probably never try anything like this ever again.”

This places the blame for the relationship failing directly on the shoulders of the object. If they leave or want to call it quits then the suggestion is that they’ll have screwed up the blackmailer’s whole life. They love them so much that they’ll never be all right again and must sacrifice their feelings (and whatever future feelings they may have) so that the blackmailer can feel safe and secure. A statement like this doesn’t take the other person into account at all. It’s about one person and ensures that the object knows that they will be the villain if they leave.

It comes in many different flavors and these are just a few of the possible ways it can assert itself. It’s always worth looking into what makes a relationship dysfunctional when trying to write them.

-Michi

(Edit: Also the true killer: “I did X for you, why haven’t you given me Y?”)

Starke Edit: “If you really loved me…”

“And let’s not talk about the fighting in Taken, unless we want Starke to go on at length about how wrong it is when paired with the main character’s background and profession.” Is it wrong that I actually really want to read that? I always take Hollywood combat with a giant grain of salt, but Taken seems to have tried to emphasize a kind of realism regarding Neeson’s character’s abilities (though, still, Hollywood). I’d be interested to read a pro’s opinion on the inconsistencies.

This goes way back to something we said a long time ago about tailoring your martial arts to your characters. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) uses a modern style that appropriates material from Aikido and Jujitsu.

Now, the style was designed by an ex-SAS operator, to be used by celebrity bodyguards. It’s supposed to use as little force as possible to subdue unruly fans while the bodyguard is on camera. While I kind of cringe at the style on a philosophical level, the concept is solid, and it’s aimed at a niche that really benefits from a specialized art form.

Here’s the problem: the movie isn’t about a bodyguard protecting a celebrity in front of the cameras. It’s about an ex-special forces operator trying to recover his daughter from human traffickers.

Mills sticks to that single style through the entire film, and, fairly frequently, he’s put into situations where that style really does not excel.

Now, a real person, or even a realistic character based on that background, like Jack Bauer, Vincent (from Michael Mann’s Collateral), Val Kilmer’s character from Spartan, Michael Weston (from Burn Notice) and nearly every Treadstone trained character in the Bourne films (not in the books) all mix up their styles to deal with the situation they’re presented with.

These are all characters that should be trained in multiple hand to hand styles; so they can employ them easily in any appropriate situation.

Mills is regularly sidelined by rookie mistakes that wouldn’t be out of place in a thriller with an untrained protagonist, but are completely out of place if your protagonist is supposed to be Jack Bauer with the serial numbers filed off. The scene where he’s dragged out of a car by one foot comes to mind as an example.

Would it be a better film if Miles was employing kill strikes like the Bourne films use? I’m not sure, it has a lot more problems that stem from Luc Besson handing off the director reins, but at least then Mills would be a credible special forces operator and not a suspension of disbelief shattering roadblock.

If you want to see what Taken could have been, I’d say rent Spartan. It’s a very similar film, from 2004, but with a much more brutal hand to hand element, and really a more brutal ethic to the entire film. I wouldn’t call it a fun movie, but if you want to write a special operator, then I would say it’s required viewing.

-Starke

Also, we’re finally home; regular posting should resume shortly.