Monthly Archives: July 2015

Three Levels of Characterization

Good writers do not cast stories entirely with xeroxed copies of themselves, mostly because that would be no fun. If you’re wondering whether I mean no fun to read or no fun to write, the answer is yes. Imagining you aren’t you is fun, and imagining you are you isn’t imagining at all. Writers are generally the kind of people who never stopped playing make-believe, so by the time they start publishing, they are pretty good at feigning the perspective of somebody who is different from them.

However, when those differences cross into the land of privilege and oppression, writers get scared. They get nervous about writing someone of another gender, race, orientation, religion, or with a disability.

On the one hand, it is strange that the same writers who will happily write a medieval knight, a cold-blooded alien or the monster under your bed can react with panic at the idea of writing a regular human being with somewhat darker skin. And yes, I’m laughing a bit at myself when I point that out. Just because I recognize the absurdity, that doesn’t mean I can’t experience it.

At the same time, there is something reasonable about the fear. The monster under my bed isn’t ever going to criticize me for misrepresenting it. It doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of all the misconceptions I’ve just reinforced, or subtle elements of racism I’ve unintentionally introduced into my own story. It doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t care. If I’m wasn’t more worried about writing a black character than a nighttime bogeyman, that would be a sign of very skewed priorities.

Of course, because the monster doesn’t exist, it also doesn’t have any reason to care if I choose not to write about it at all. It doesn’t need to be better represented in the media. Somewhere between the crippling paranoia and blase carelessness is a kind of sensible caution that should motivate writers to write underrepresented characters, and do that writing extra well.

I have a system for thinking about real world characterization traits. First, I imagine three concentric circles. The innermost one is for personal experiences. Everything I have done, every word I could use to describe myself, everything that I am goes into this circle. Then, just outside is vicarious experiences. Into this goes things that I am not, but that I have experienced indirectly through listening carefully to people who have chosen to open up to me. When my Mom tells me a story about her nursing job, when I read somebody’s autobiography, when a Korean-American friend invites me to their home and I pay attention to the differences and similarities between their family and mine, I can put all those things under vicarious experiences. In the third, outermost circle go things I can only research remotely, through dry articles and research papers and without any direct experience to temper them.

The research done in the outermost circle can be useful. Even when it comes to things I’ve experienced personally, some fact checking can expand my understanding. However, if I try to characterize somebody based mostly on traits I can only study remotely, I will end up with a flat, bland, stereotyped character. That kind of information comes in averages and generalities, and it cannot convey the flavor or sense of a culture. The middle circle of vicarious experience is more useful for that, but must be used carefully. I cannot expect to know everything about Korean culture from one family dinner. I might be able to pick out some details, useful for a scene at a Korean character’s house. More useful are the vicarious experiences I have repeated. A lifetime of my Mom’s stories has given me a good sense of what it’s like to work in a hospital, but one conversation with a Muslim about what they believe can’t guarantee I can write a convincing Muslim. Most useful for writing realistically, of course, are the traits in my innermost circle, the things I have personally experienced.

Here’s where the illusions begin.

People are never just one thing. They are hundreds of things piled up on each other and interweaving. They go through stages of being one thing and then another, they find one part of their identity more important than another, and they find other people react more strongly to some sides of who they are than another. The trick of writing convincingly is tearing apart everything in these circles, the parts you’ve experienced, the parts your friends have experienced and the parts you know intellectually, then weaving the parts back together, keeping the things you are familiar with dominant over the ones where your experience is limited. I can’t claim any personal experience of blackness, and my vicarious experience, though I’m working to improve it, is still sparser than I’d like it to be. That’s all right. I can still write about a man who grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, works as a vet and identifies most strongly as a cosplaying nerd, and sometimes has the experience of walking down a street at night and seeing a woman shuffle away clutching their purses, quickly but not too quickly because, after all, she doesn’t want to look racist.

Now, the reason to keep the traits you know best in the foreground goes deeper than just accuracy. It’s also about respect. It is fundamentally disrespectful to speak for someone who isn’t you, unless you’ve earned serious trust from them. It’s hard enough to do this with individuals, and essentially impossible to do it with an entire demographic. If I may switch from the perspective of the privileged writer trying to represent other groups, to the marginalized person who other people are trying to represent, I hate it when somebody tells me about this movie about a trans person, and just from reading the IMDB page I can already tell that A. the cisgender writer was trying to tell The Ultimate Story of What It Means to be Trans, and B. they got it wrong. That’s not the story that anybody cis gets to tell. Write about being a delightfully quirky Irish foundling trying to find her mother and make it on her own, while also happening to be trans. I love that movie. Or, you know, about an identity thief who happens to be trans. That works too.

That’s the real point of the three circles. Recognize that your ability to write a human being and speak for a demographic are two totally different things. Recognize that people’s experiences are multidimensional, yours included, and that you can expand your repertoire, but not instantaneously. One of my favorite research resources is the NaNoWriMo reference desk forum. It’s a good way to get obscure questions answered by an expert, but on every page you will get somebody asking, “so I want to write about this deaf person, and their entire reason for living is to find a way to regain their hearing and finally become whole, obviously, so I need to know how that can happen, and also I don’t know anything about being deaf-mute, so could you tell me what that’s like please?” Then you get a couple people saying “here’s what I found out on Wikipedia” before somebody finally says, “sigh… I’m a CODA/interpreter/actual Deaf person, and everything you wrote is already wrong.” Nobody can become an expert in a whole different way to perceive the world overnight.

In conclusion; think about what you know. Recombine that to create new and different people. Work on expanding what you know, and be patient with the process.

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Boring Privileged Protagonists, or How to Write Relatable Protagonists, Part 2

I write a lot about diversity in writing. It’s a big topic these days, and there are lots of “let’s make society better” reasons to have important characters who represent the wide swath of human experiences. Sometimes I talk about these, but I also think there’s some value in recognizing that this isn’t just a social issue. This is a better storytelling issue. Earlier I gave the example of how one of the biggest problems with the latest Spider-man reboot is the way they have mishandled disabled characters. It wasn’t just offensive; it set them up to characterize their villains in ways that were detrimental to the stories as a whole. Today, I’m going to return to that line of reasoning, and talk about how reflexively casting protagonists as white, straight males often sets writers up to lazy writing that produces boring protagonists.

I should say right away that there is nothing inherently wrong with writing a protagonist who is white, or male, or straight, or any other privileged class. I’m also not saying those protagonists are inherently boring. In fact, in a way I’ll be arguing the exact opposite. See, I think the reason these demographics are so popular for protagonists is that they are seen as neutral. It’s the default setting for people, and any points at which a protagonist deviates from that is “different.” You don’t want characters who are different, because that will make it harder for people to relate to them, right?

Hopefully you all are already seeing problems with this. Being white, male and straight (and for the rest of the time when I say this, go ahead and fill in cis, non-disabled, etc) is not normal. There is no objective normal. Real human beings come in all kinds of combinations; white, female and gay; trans, male and black; gay, white, gender queer and disabled, so on and so forth. Because one deviation from the privileged “normal” is enough to make a person “the other,” the vast majority of us are in some way different from Standard Hollywood Protagonist Demographic Model type one. If you want characters to be interesting to their audiences, you need to rely on a lot more than just “he’s a straight white man.”

I first realized this was a problem when the first Kick-ass movie came out. I liked some aspects of it, but I also found it kind of forgettable, and the main reason was how bland the hero was. Frequently the hero is boring because they spend most of the story reactive, not proactive, but this was not an explanation that worked. The hero of Kick-ass is very proactive. He wants to be a superhero, so he makes himself a costume and goes out to find some crimes to solve. I was struggling to relate to him, struggling to like him, and frankly if it wasn’t for Hit Girl I probably wouldn’t have cared at all whether the good guys won.

I was in college at the time, and I remembered a part of my homework where the author was introducing me to the concept of privilege. He pointed out how in order to be perceived as normal in this society, you have to be white, male, straight, cisgender, nondisabled, upper-middle class, vaguely affiliated with Judeo-Christian religion, etc. He asked us how many people really fit all of those categories. The male part alone cuts out over half the population, everything else whittles at it until you have to wonder if so many as ten percent of the population feels fully “normal.” Then I realized, this was why I couldn’t relate to Kick-ass. He was supposed to be an ordinary average teen boy. You know, white, and kinda Jewish but not really, very straight, not rich but not poor, not really outstanding in every field. Normal.

That wasn’t my normal. I was a homeschooled person, raised in a radical religion but coming to question it, attracted to men and treated as female but struggling with a feeling that I was supposed to be male. I started wondering how many other people in the theater could really relate to his “normal” life. Because the Hollywood market caters to teen males, probably that was represented more than average, but about ten percent of those were going to be gay. A lot would be Asian, black or some other race, and that would greatly affect their experience of teenage maleness. Some would have disabilities. Some would be Muslim, others pagans, some atheists, etc.

I also realized that, even though I had a few things in common with the protagonist, I didn’t really care. We were both white. So? I, for one, have never once gone, “man, I love that white protagonist. I can totally relate to the way our hair naturally looks ‘professional’ and we don’t have to choose between hair relaxers and battling for natural hair acceptance. And that scene where he walked into an expensive department store and didn’t get followed around by mall security? It’s just like how I don’t get followed around by mall security for no reason other than the lack of criminal stereotypes about my race. I sure hope that relatable white human being survives the movie.”

In my experience, people relate most actively to their most privileged or marginalized statuses. They form their sense of self around what they have had to struggle with, or fight for. If you want an easy way to get me passionately fixated on a character’s well-being, if you want that character to be my absolute favorite person in the entire book/movie/show, make that character trans. FtM or MtF doesn’t even matter; heck, in their absence I’ll get attached to the tomboys and the girly men. It’s not just me. I remember one day my boyfriend and I took a museum day, and accidentally both wore Star Wars shirts. Three different black security guards took the time to talk to us about the upcoming movie. None of them failed to mention Lando. They weren’t even trying to make a big racial point. Their minds just happened to collectively drift to, “have you heard anything about them bringing Lando back? Man, I love Lando. They gotta have Lando.”

What about minorities who I have no experiences in common with? Well, I am a person of average height. I have no dwarfism conditions. Despite this, Tyrion Lannister is one of my favorite characters on Game of Thrones, as he is for most people. Also, I really loved the character Peter Dinklage played in The Station Agent. In neither case did the external difference between us make it hard to identify with the character. If anything, the opportunity to see life from a different perspective made the characters more interesting. I liked both characters because they were people like me, and seeing their humanity through the lens of differences was cool.

This was what Kick-ass lacked. He didn’t have any character that went deeper than “well, that’s pretty normal of most teen heterosexual white males.” The part where he actually put on a superhero costume was a difference, but there was nothing inherent to his character that made him the kind of person who would do that. He was just wish fulfillment for nerdy white straight teen males.

Good characters don’t just walk around with census data stuck to them. They are first and foremost made out of things that connect us, collectively, as human beings. Then the author layers individualizing details over that; a backstory, a personality type, tastes, dislikes, aspirations, and of course demographics like age and race and economic status. Next the character must become dynamic, making choices that only they could make, but we see how those decisions come from emotions and needs and limitations that we all experience. Good characterization portrays the universal through the specific.

This is not to say that you cannot write white straight male protagonists. However, if you do, you should be careful to not see those as some sort of human default. Do not rely on that to make anybody relate to your character, and don’t dismiss other demographics simply because you worry they will be hard to relate to. To get people to care about your characters, the most important thing is to write a human being.

Or, you know, a black lesbian transwoman with mental health problems and a physical disability of some kind. That should work for everybody.

Boring Ordinary Protagonists; How to Write Relatable Characters Part 1

Last month, I knew I would be working on a big project this month and the next, so I decided to use my two weeks off to pre-write some blog posts. Next month was planned to be a bunch of Veggie Tales reviews, and this month was going to be a series of four posts on boring protagonists. It was all set and ready. So naturally, in the middle of this week I decided to completely redo all of the posts I had planned. Oh well.

I did a post last month that I really liked. It was inspired by a fabulous Neil Gaiman novel, Anansi Boys. After that book was done, I was still in a Gaiman mood, so I picked up an audiobook of InterWorld, a book he cowrote with Michael Reaves. That book became the inspiration for this month.

It wasn’t an entirely bad book. If you enjoy cool worldbuilding you will probably like it quite a lot, but somewhere early on I realized the protagonist, Joey, was one of those protagonists who I found boring, not in the okay sense I talked about in my introductory post, but in the really bad, reading about him is the equivalent of a mouthful of cardboard sense. I’m going to use him as an example, with no disrespect intended towards Neil Gaiman. I still love the vast majority of his work.

The book introduces Joey with a story about the time he actually got lost in his own house. He has a predilection for getting lost that is almost a superpower, and later on it is explained that it actually somewhat is. He has an ability to navigate non-physical planes, and somehow that translates to getting lost easily in more mundane navigation. However, after the first chapter, he never gets lost again. Not even when he is in an unfamiliar place, in a situation where his magical abilities can’t help him.

This same approach applies to the rest of his characterization. We are told he is a plain old struggles-to-get-a-C-student, but when he starts study of arcane magics and alien geometries and quantum physics that go beyond what our most brilliant scientists understand, he gets it. He struggles with it, but he is able to grasp the information and use it. He sometimes intuits things that nobody around him would even consider, when it’s convenient to the story, and in other scenes demonstrates no special sensitivity or predilection for insight. In the book’s ending scenes, he becomes a de facto leader of characters who never saw him as particularly leaderly until that moment, and when there was a more natural and experienced leader in the room.

Some might point out that I’m describing a Mary Sue, and I won’t argue that point, but I want to go further than that. The term Mary Sue has been used to the point that it’s meaning has eroded. It is usually derogatory in terms of intent. It assumes the character was some form of wish fulfillment, as in a way for the author to enter the narrative and do everything they want to do. I actually had a feeling that Joey’s inconsistencies might have come from another issue; not an egotistical desire for the authors to insert themselves, but a misguided desire to ensure that he was “normal” enough to get YA readers to identify with him. They stuck him with things like “gets lost easily” and “bad at school” to make him feel ordinary. They avoided traits that feel exceptional, like “extremely intuitive” and “natural leader.”

So there are two problems with this. One is that none of those things are neutral traits that every human being has. Natural leaders with a strong intuition are people. Gifted scholars are people. There’s nothing neutral about “seriously, I get lost in my own house, no exaggeration.” The other is, of course, the inconsistency. When you establish a trait as something that defines a character, those traits shouldn’t just go away without a reason. When Joey had traits appearing and disappearing at the whim of the authors, he failed to have any personality. He bored me because he didn’t strike me as an actual human being.

So, if you can’t just give a character “normal traits” to get readers to empathize with them, what do you do? Well, I don’t think we identify solely with traits. True, we often talk of a characters who we especially identify with because they happen to be like us, but that’s a coincidence the writer cannot construct. Also, that’s not the kind of relatability that protagonists need. A protagonist doesn’t need to be everyone’s favorite, but they need a vast majority of their audience to be able to understand and care about what happens to them. In that sense, I think what we really relate to aren’t traits, but experiences.

The human life is vast and complicated, and most people, if they don’t die extremely young, will experience all of its highs and lows. We will all have times of great happiness, destitute misery, cozy companionship, agonizing loneliness, eerie serenity. Someone who normally feels plain can have that one school dance where they got so dressed up and everybody admires their dress and they feel incredibly pretty. Someone who normally feels lovely can have a week when the flu has them feeling utterly hideous. Experiences that are a part of our life with a certain consistency are our traits. Someone who feels shy most of the time and confident only when there is a particular reason for it is a shy person. Someone who feels confident unless their crush is in the room is a confident person. Characters who demonstrate specific traits but still go through those universal human experiences, when the author has justified them, are relatable.

I recently read Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, another one of my favorites, and her characters do this well. One of the protagonists, Grace, is notably stoic and practical. She demonstrates this in a number of ways throughout the book; she cooks mother more often than her flighty artistic mother, when shopping she goes straight to what she wants without browsing, she doesn’t read people’s emotions as well as her boyfriend Sam does, etc. However, she isn’t rigidly like that throughout the book. There are also some wonderful scenes where Sam tries to explain his love of poetry. Grace doesn’t get it right away. He has to teach her how to listen to the sound of words, instead of puzzle out the meaning, and think about how they make her feel. Eventually, she does start to read poetry, and understand it.

This is what makes Grace interesting and relatable. Any of one of us readers might be more like Grace, or more like Sam. But we have all had experiences where someone we loved made us see something we thought we didn’t like in a new light. We have all had times when we had to pull it together and be the grown-up when we didn’t want to, and we have all had times when sadness overwhelms us and breaks us down, (and yes, that happens to Grace too). She’s a real person with traits that consistently show up, but within her is enough that we can all see something of ourselves in her. Universal human experiences shine through her specific personality.

Boring Invincible Protagonists

When working on this post, figuring out how to explain the problem wasn’t the hard part. It was coming up with supporting examples. Just by reading the title, you probably already know what I’m talking about. If the hero never looks like they might lose, the story loses interest. Simple enough to grasp, but when I try to demonstrate it, most examples that come to mind actually slip away from this problem. This itself demonstrates the problem. Stories that truly have heroes who can’t fail tend to be not only boring, but so boring they don’t even come to mind as bad movies. They simply fall away into utter blandness.

For example, lets say I decided to use an action film for my example. That should be easy, because the heroes of those movies are often unrealistically strong and have superhuman endurance, so they can beat up 300 mooks on their way to the bad guy’s lair. I know I’ve seen plenty of movies where I just went “yeah, the hero will win because they have invisible protagonist shields and all the bad guy bullets will miss.” I’ve seen so many that none are coming to mind.

But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s as enlightening to talk about ways that this problem has been avoided. For example, many action films keep the tension up by having the real problem be something the hero can’t just solve with action. There’s a conspiracy they have to unravel (Bourne Identity) or better yet, a moral dilemma they have to resolve (Kiss of the Dragon). Or best of all, have the hero actually lose frequently, despite all their skills. Indiana Jones almost never gets his artifacts into the museum. He walks away with moral victories at best. That doesn’t hurt his films; it makes them incredibly successful.

Others get around the problem by virtue of the sheer odds they stack against the protagonist. One of my favorite examples of this is 1776. In this case, there is a different kind of invincibility. The protagonists, John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, have to convince the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. We all know the outcome. I’m not living a colony of the UK. Still, I got worried for the protagonists, because the writers established so many obstacles that the protagonists had to get past.

However, I did eventually come up with a good example for this one. It’s from a TV show that initially avoided this problem, and gained some middling popularity, before hitting a decline point. Furthermore, it demonstrates how this problem can sneak up on a writer who makes the mistake of thinking that boring invincibility is just about making a character externally powerful. The show is White Collar, and the character is Peter Burke.

For those who haven’t seen it, that was a show that ran on USA from 2009 to 2014. It was about an FBI agent, Peter Burke, in the white collar division and his arch-nemesis-turned-ally, Neal Caffrey. If you guessed from their roles which one was at the greatest risk of being dangerously invincible, you would probably guess Neal, the con artist. Neal has the good looks, the charm, the ability to get out of every single scrape. He was conveniently an expert in every type of forgery that exists. He was even a perfect shot, despite hating guns and avoiding weapons of all kinds whenever he could. You could easily accuse him of being unrealistic, but the truth was he was never boring, because the show was always hitting him with problems that seemed beyond his ability to handle.

For example, he quickly became attached to his new life as an FBI consultant, but he always felt a pull back to the thrill of his old life. The conflict between these two wasn’t something he could resolve with any of his abilities. His attempt to maintain his new life while keeping a hand in his old often came back to hit him, hard. His charm could let him pick up women with ease; he wasn’t so great at keeping them, and he lost three different women who he really loved. And finally, while his skills were improbable, they were always used to take down a villain so clever and dangerous, and on jobs where so much went wrong, it never felt like success was certain. It felt more like the writers were giving him just enough to maybe not get completely crushed.

In contrast, while Peter started out as an effective, more mundane foil to Neal, as the show went on his flaws faded. The problem started with him always being right. Initially Neal knew how to play around the rules while Peter was too bound to them. He sometimes needed Neal to lighten things up, or find a loophole when playing by the rules got in the way. Later he became fully willing to take advantage of Neal when he thought it was appropriate, but still invested in being Neal’s conscience. This sounded like a good idea, but in practice Peter kept on being right, to the point of omniscience. Even when he shouldn’t have enough information to know, he knew when Neal was being honest, he knew when to be suspicious, he knew when a plan would turn out well and when it would capsize. The show always vindicated him.

Furthermore, while Neal had real dilemmas and lost things, Peter’s threats never seemed that serious. If he was in danger, Neal would save him. If his wife was in danger, Neal would save her. If his career was in danger… you get the picture. He was never in trouble for anything more than the most token amounts of time. As a result, he went from a decent co-protagonist to a tolerable foil to an insufferable blight on the Neal Caffrey Show.

That’s the most important thing to remember about invincible protagonists. It’s not really a character problem. It’s a story problem. You can always come up with a way to make them suffer, lose, or at least have to work damn hard for their success. If they get boring, it’s not because they are overpowered, but because the author is pulling punches.