Friday, August 12, 2011

In Living Color

So, Star Trek wins this week? Good. Mr. Spock approves.


I'm sitting here at Starbucks trying to decide what I want to say this week. I know, I can hear what y'all are thinking:  

Really guy, you're writing at Starbucks? Could you get any more hackneyed?

Well, that's not exactly what I thought, but hey, don't judge. Being in public is good pressure to write, plus there's this pretty girl who works here that I'm kinda crushing on, so in the name of coffeehouse stalkers everywhere, I'm darn well gonna be a walking (or perhaps sitting) cliche.

Like these guys

So where was I?  Right, Starbucks. People-watching is one of my favorite activities since I've started writing creatively, as it allows me to passively observe the human animal in it's natural, over-caffeinated environment. A busy chain cafe like this one, it turns out, is a great place to learn about writing characters.

Whether we realize it or not, when we observe the people around us, we from personal constructs; which my old communications textbook defines as "a mental yardstick by which we make initial judgments about eachother." Many of these constructs conform to societal stereotypes. For example, one might look at the guy standing at the register right now wearing track pants and a tank top and think "fitness nut." Therefore, he will order soy milk in his latte. Most new writers, again whether or not they realize it, use personal constructs when they create their characters. This is especially true for speculative fiction writers like myself.

Like members of the non-literary population, we form our personal constructs from what we observe around us; what we perceive as norms. Unlike everyone else though, we form most of our constructs from the media we consume, or what we see, hear and read. For fantasy writers, these tends to be greats like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and (nowadays) J.K. Rowling. I know my first fantasy world formed around a bunch of characters loosely a bit too closely molded after Rowling's heroes and heroines. More traditionally, Fantasy writers fall into modeling their characters after Tolkien's characters, creating eternal archetypes (or, if you prefer, cliches): The wise wizard (Gandalf), the jaded warrior/lost heir (Aragorn), the stubborn dwarf (Gimli), the unlikely hero and the trustworthy friend (Frodo and Sam).

"The Unlikely Hero," Tolkien's one archetype that has survived mostly intact into modern fantasy.

New writers, it's time to take notice! What is your favorite book, movie, or TV show? Now take a look at your fledgling novel and look closely at your characters. You'll notice it too. I did. But take heart, there is hope.

A good way to learn to write believable characters is to first examine your own. Not your main character in your novel: yourself, your mind, you. After all, most define characters as simulations of real people, so how better to learn how to write good characters than to examine the real person you hopefully know best? Look deep down at yourself, and notice all the things you do or think. You may see yourself as a writer, but hopefully you are so much more. Maybe you like to run, or play an instrument. Are you married, or maybe you feel you are unlucky in love? While you may define yourself as a writer or academic, your personality shows shades of many different and changing things, like a living watercolor painting. Your characters should be the same way.

All masterpieces begin with a single color.

The good news is that most writers start with archetypes, and build on them with details and quirks to make them feel alive. This is fairly simple, and is a practice that improves with time. For example, let's take another look at the soy milk fitness nut.

So, there is a fitness nut at the counter. The uncreative writer might make him look impatiently at his watch as he waits for his soy latte. You could look at this another way, however. Maybe he's impatient because he's getting whole milk in his latte, due to the fact that his newlywed fitness nut wife won't let him have it at home. Perhaps he pulled ahead of her to get to the cafe first, so he could secretly enjoy his indulgence before she arrives. Maybe he's wearing track pants in the summer because he is the rare male anorexic, who despite working out constantly feels that his legs are too unsightly for running shorts. You get the idea. :)

There is another, surefire way to write great, real characters. Become them. That's right, I'm not crazy or delusional. Whenever you write a character, try to feel their motivations. Feel their pain and triumphs. Use the basic empathy you have for other humans, and put yourself in your character's shoes. I promise your writing will be more passionate and your characters will feel that much more real because of it. Great actors do the same thing with the characters they play. Here is a link to one of my all time favorite videos, Sir Ian McKellen describing how to do just that.

Well, this has been an extremely lengthy post. Sorry if I took up too much of you all's time, but hopefully y'all learned a bit. Remember, you want characters, not caricatures or cliches.




  1. Long though it may be ;) ... I loved this post, Jarryd. Your descriptions and examples are right on and I love your photo illustrations. Thanks !

  2. Thanks, Candice! I really appreciate all the support you're showing for me and this blog. Looking forward to seeing yours start up. :)

  3. Jarryd, this piece was very provocative in a good way and I intend to read it several times to harvest the many good seeds it contained. As a novice writer it is helpful to be exposed to some of the varied approaches used by writers when approaching their writing.
    I too enjoyed the illustrations and explanations. Thanks for this sharing this great piece.

  4. Thank you, Gayle. There are plenty of things I didn't say about writing great characters, but those were the two best methods I know to keep them from being flat and cliche. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I also enjoyed reading your blog post earlier today. :)