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Writing Advice 2: Get Good Characters

I’m just after teaching my creative writing class and I’ve been thinking a lot about character.  I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Horror for the MFA and I’ve been seeing a lot of shitty characters.

So I chatted with the students and we thought about character and what makes a good one and I’m going to make a few suggestions today.

Defining Traits:

A good character will have at least five defining traits. This was tough to wrap our heads around.  We spend a good deal of time struggling to separate motivation and goal from character.  Do we love “Life of Pi” because it’s about a boy in a boat with a tiger or do we love Pi because he is a resourceful and optimistic Indian boy?  Is there a difference.

I’m pretty sure I would read a short story about an entitled rich racist in a lifeboat with a tiger (for purely fantasy fulfillment), but to hold the novel Pi needs too be a rich character.

The traits could be emotional, behavioral, or physical.  But most of us could come up with a fairly complete list of three to five for our favorite movies/films.

My go-to example: The Batman!

  • Intense desire to see criminals brought to justice
  • Intense desire to save people
  • Dresses as a bat
  • Intelligent
  • Extraordinarily athletic

Notice how those traits can contradict themselves (Batman can’t kill The Joker because he badly wants to save him).  If a writer finds himself unable to write a list of five traits or sees too many synonyms or physical traits popping into the list, it’s probably a sign that more work needs to be done.

To use a personal example, in my novel Evasive Love, I have a character in a steampunk society who is 1) an intelligent scientist, 2) a repressed homosexual, 3) entitled and 4) used to a high standard of living, but 5) an essentially good person.

To see how all those traits impact the character, here’s his backstory. Elliot’s sexuality puts him in conflict with his society (Victorian ideals) so he loses his wealth and privilege.  He gets back to his standard when he uses his intelligence to design drugs for his boyfriend, a wealthy criminal.  The boyfriend starts using the drugs to kill and poison people and Elliot can’t morally allow this to go on so he uses science to destroy boyfriend’s business and flee.

Character and Archetype

We also hit on using stereotypes and archetypes to access characters.  This was tied into creating writing prompt which involve an adjective, a noun, and a scenario.  The noun tended to be an archetypal noun.  So we had a cocky warrior, a loving mother, a stuck-up hobo entering into scenarios.

While this approach seems a little mad lib in the idea generation. It’s actually very useful in developing a character. If you can identify the archetype your character fits you can play to the type, play against the type, or play inside of the type.

  • Play to type (a hard-boiled detective in a noir murder mystery)
  • Play against type (a hard-boiled detective who is works as a janitor)
  • Play inside type (a hard-boiled detective who is a deeply romantic woman)

Like most things in writing, there’s no hard fast rules, or right and wrong. So a character could be playing with type, against, and inside at the same time.

For example, The Batman!

Batman falls neatly into The Hero archetype. He is motivated to do justice.  His traits are goodness, intelligence, drive lead him to go fight bad guys.

Batman plays against the trend of superheroes by being obsessed with the darkness, dressing as a bat in black instead of in bright colors, being fairly violent and gritty.  (Now-a-days, we call that an Anti-hero, but Batman also holds to his no-kill rule, usually so… still predominately good).

But some writers have also attacked Batman from a different archetype.  If you apply The Orphan to Batman, you show his vulnerability and his longing for a mentor.  If you apply The Mentor archetype to him, you can show a different side of him working the Robin.  All of these conflict and compliment the original archetype of Hero in interesting ways.

No matter how original your characters are, they are going to fit into some archetype.  So why not bring that eventuality into the foreground and use it to make rich characters?  Be aware of the type and work with or against it.

My one warning in creating characters this way is you end up with stereotypes not archetypes. Stereotypes are bad because of their specificity and predictability.  A dumb blonde is not an archetype.  Innocent is the archetype and you’ll notice it had nothing to do with gender or hair color. Ditto to black thug vs. warrior.  While it’s possibly to write a deep and interesting character that matches the stereotype (we live with them every day after all), a good writer will be aware of the stereotypes are work against them.  For example, Legally Blonde plays against type by making the blonde ditzy and fashion conscious but wicked smart.  The Wire plays with type by giving us the interior lives and struggles of a depressed and violent community.

Some links we shared:

Archtypes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_stock_characters


Character, Goal, Motivation, by Debra Dixon