Tag Archives: Characterization

Imperfection – an essay on characterization

Does your protagonist have any imperfections?

I am not a perfect human being. I have a flattened spot at the back of my skull, no nose cartilage, and both my little fingers are a weird shape. If I was to start listing my personality flaws, we’d be here all day. And yet, I’m an attractive woman with a pleasant personality. My flaws just make me … me. There a millions of pleasant, attractive people on the planet, but my imperfections assist in creating my individuality.

The same should apply to your protagonists and antagonists and every other character in your narratives. A truly perfect protagonist lacks realism, and your audience will find it difficult to relate to them. A too perfect protagonist runs the risk of becoming a Mary Sue or a Marty Stu. Or worse, boring.

Don’t fall into the misconception of making their virtues seem like faults, because your audience are too intelligent to fall for that. It’s a bit like being in a job interview, when they ask you ‘What’s your greatest problem’ and you say something like ‘I can get too obsessed with getting everything right.’ Everyone around the table knows that you are not going to admit to having homocidal thoughts about any workmate who interrupts you while you are on lunch. But your readers should know that kind of detail about your characters!

I am currently updating my character profiles for my train book, now that I am nearly half way through the narrative. My characters have evolved and I want to keep their folders relevant. I just noticed that I haven’t really described how my main character looks in the text. Time to polish those flaws.

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Tamatoa – the best Disney Villain Ever!

Moana-Shiny-Tamatoa

As I may have mentioned, I really enjoy watching a good villain. Villains always seem to have the most fun. The perfect example is Tamatoa from Disney’s Moana, who has the all the best lines and steals every scene he is in, while also having the best bad boy song ever. My only problem … as a zoologist, I looked at Tatatoa and immediately thought to myself “But most crabs moult. Wouldn’t that mean he would lose that love shiny shell every year?”

Nope. Juvenile coconut crabs do moult, and like hermit crabs, the little crabs wear scavenged shells for protection. However, as adults, they grow a tough outer integument. The coconut crab reaches sexual maturity around five years after hatching. but they reach their maximum size only after 40 to 60 years. They are fully terrestrial once they mature, and can drown if held under water for too long (hence Tamatoa living in an air bubble).

So Tamatoa could have grown to be huge, and he could be wearing a shell covered in treasure from one year to the next; even if has moulted, he could be wearing his old shell over the new one. These little details are important to me, even though giant singing crabs don’t exist. They certainly don’t have teeth!

So, why do I have to try and make sense of an animated character? Well, Tamatoa wasn’t the original form of the villain. It is obvious that the animators had done quite a bit of research of their own to come up with our glam crab. By knowing how they came up with such a charismatic antagonist might help me add a bit of that glamour to my own villains.

Tamatoa-Sing SHINY.png

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The Competent Woman Protagonist: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Compenent Women

Table by Javier Zarracina for Vox

I read an article about Competent Sidekicks on Vox, and saw this table. I don’t completely agree with it, as Luke did blow up the Death Star, but Leia certainly gave him access to the Death Star plans and his torpedo-firing spaceship. But I do think this table makes a valid point; why do these competent women not get their share of the credit at the end of the day?

Agent 99

Agent 99

This cliche is as old as television. Look at 99 and Maxwell Smart. Smart was extremely lucky to be teamed up with Agent 99, as she did most of the thinking and the hard work while he got most of the credit. What made him survive was luck – not to be underrated, but it can’t be depended upon. Even in the modern reboot, Agent 99 has all the training and skills. Max and 99 are the extreme example of the trope, with Starlord and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy coming a close second.

This occurs quite a bit in literature too. So,how do I avoid this happening in my Steampunk novel.

Well, for starters, my protagonist is a competent woman. And – at the end of the story – she will be getting her credit and her reward. Yep. I finally figured out the reward that would make her happy … a free pass into Kew Gardens. For life. No restrictions. For a woman academic of the 1870s, that is like winning Olympic Gold.

So much more satisfying that marrying her off into a faux ‘happily ever after’.

 

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Stereotypes, Uncategorized, Writing Style

What happened to Crabtree and McGee’s Writing Careers?

constable-george-crabtree

Jonny Harris as George Crabtree

Two of my favourite television characters have a lot in common, even though they exist in two very different universes. Constable George Crabtree, played by Jonny Harris, is a science-loving gentleman with literary ambitions. Special Agent Timothy McGee, played by Seam Murray, is  science geek & computer nerd who has literary ambitions. At one point, the literary ambitions played a major role in the plot lines of their respective shows. However, both seem to have abandoned the writing life.

murray_sean_ncis-as-timoth-mcgee

Sean Murray as Tim McGee

Now, I was thrilled when these young men wrote their books and saw them published. Sure, they were given a hazing by their friends and colleagues, but they were successful authors! In both television series, their new status as authors played a part in the plots of several episodes. However, all that has fizzled out. If their books or writing careers are mentioned, it is only in passing.

crabtree-teaching-a-writing-class

Crabtree teaching a writing class containing L. M. Montgomery, the author of ‘Anne of Green Gables.

I think it is a shame that this aspect of their lives ended up put on the back-burners (so to speak). I know they are both characters in predominantly crime-fighting shows, but these  shows have had decade long runs with plenty of time to build up the background and personalities of their characters. George and Tim just aren’t about their jobs. No character should be defined by just one aspect of a life.

tim

From writer to action man?

Both characters were light comic relief at the start of the run of their shows. But these are characters that have shown immense growth and added maturity. I hope that ‘growing up’ didn’t mean that they had to give up their writing careers. Writing isn’t a kiddies’ game.

I’m hoping that they both still write, but have developed the sense to keep it from their workmates.

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How Setting and Plot can affect Characterisation

professor-alice

My main character of my Steampunk novel is a seventeen year old girl called Alice. She is a polymath, and finds it difficult to gain respect and recognition for her inventions and education in the male-dominated field of science in Britain, in the 1870s. How you build a character should link back to your setting and plot. I am going to run though how Professor Alice was developed.

When I first had my idea for the novel, I knew it was going to be about a woman fighting against the established patriarchal restrictions built into the scientific society of Victorian England. So the fact she was female was a given. And she had to be tough and resilient.

She also needed to be rich. Alas, but only the daughters of the wealthy usually had access to a proper scientific education. A poor girl would be lucky to scrape enough education to read, write, and do figures. I made both her parents well educated, so that it was more likely that Alice would receive a better education than watercolours and piano playing. By making them minor nobility, it also gave me the opportunity to explore the class system of the Victorian era.

Now to pile on the negatives and increase her struggle. Red hair was NOT a fashionable colour in the 1870s, and was associated with prostitution and the lower classes. I didn’t want Alice to be a conventionally pretty woman. As well, I made her tall, in an era when small women were favoured over tall women (and I suffer from height envy – if I can’t be tall, I can at least write about tall women). In this way, she is visually striking without being considered beautiful, so that her looks would create uncertainty in social occasions. No hiding away like a wallflower for my Alice.

She was going to be having a lot of adventures, so she had to be fit and active. As well, she doesn’t wear corsets or skirts on a daily basis, because they restrict her movements and bustle skirts are simply dangerous in a laboratory. This would also add to the perception of her unnaturalness or Otherness in society.

When you look at characters in books, don’t assume that their appearance was just a random choice by the author. A small, brown-haired Alice with no money or education would not have been able to function within my plot.

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Sometimes …

Sometimes … the best characterisation is all about conflict and paradox.

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Characterisation … don’t try to show us everything at once.

 

Once in a while, I try to get clever and show off how much work I’ve put into the characterisation of one of my cast in a book. My goal is to construct believable, three-dimensional personalities that resonate with the audience. What usually happens is that I get overexcited and try to cram too much into once scene. What I get is chaos.

all-your-clothes

It is a bit like trying to wear all your clothes at once. It doesn’t impress anyone with your sense of style … it just makes you look fat and a hot mess. It is better to wear something simpler; you know, the whole less is more thing. It can work in your writing too.

classic

Now, you don’t wear the same thing every day or to every occasion.

You dress to suit. Over time, people build up an impression of your sense of style. You can tailor your outfits to reflect your changing moods.

cate-busywith-style

Now, that slow build-up has become my approach to character construction within my work in progress. Instead of trying to show character complexity all at once, I build it over the space of several chapters. Of course, in a short story, you don’t have the space for this method. In a book, you don’t have to aim to be succinct, though I am not saying that being terse, laconic, or compact can’t work in a book. I’m all for breviloquency and clarity. But why not utilise the luxury and freedom of all that space?

catehair3

Prose need not be the opposite of poetry. Rediscover your love of language.

 

 

 

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Misunderstanding the concept of a Strong Woman Character – Steampunk Feminist Perspective

image-from-etsy-02

When a writer talks about a ‘strong’ character, they don’t actually mean that the character is physically able to lift a horse or beat up ten opponents or swears like a shearer. A strong character is a complex character, three dimensional, not a stereotype. There have been some work put into constructing the character. The character lives and breathes on the page.

Lately, there has been a trend toward ‘strong female characters’ in books, television, and Hollywood movies. However, it appears that the multiple meanings of the word ‘strong’ has confused a lot of people. So, here are some questions you can ask yourself when trying to decide if a ‘strong female character’ is strong in name only.

1/ Are her actions over-the-top to overcompensate for the lack of other female characters or a personality of her own? SFC often display exaggerated ‘tough’ mannerisms that no man would get away with, or take risks that are stupid rather than brave.

karathrace

Think of the characterisation of Starbuck, Kara Thrace, during the first season of the new version of Battlestar Galactica. When we first encounter Kara Thrace, she bears a strong resemblance to the original 1978 Starbuck character: both were portrayed as hot-headed and cocky fighter pilots, with a tendency to challenge authority head-on and get into trouble. Both were avid gamblers and enjoyed drinking, smoking cigars, and casual sex. Except Kara was even more full on than the original Starbuck. She did stupid things that a trained warrior would never do. However…

All kudos to both the writers of the series and actor Katee Sackhoff for being able to give this version of Starbuck to opportunity to grow and change.

2/ Is she ‘every bit as good as a boy’?  In other words, is she simply a male character in every aspect but her gender? Is she a classic Patriarchal male in all her strengths and virtues, and in her flaws, as well as her values – with only her gender ticked as ‘woman’ rather than ‘man’?

sergeant-calhoun

Sergeant Calhoun

Look at Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph. Here is her character description from the Disney-Wiki:

Calhoun is hardcore, tough, and incredibly strict. She commands her troops with a firm and domineering hand, and exhibits a fierce tenacity in which failure is never an option. She has no tolerance for shortcomings, and doesn’t hesitate to roughly reprimand her soldiers, and additionally seems to enjoy goading them with taunts to increase their drive. Although Calhoun comes off at first as crass and callous, she is very serious and stoic when not engaged in gameplay. Her tragic backstory has left her heartbroken and untrusting, with a dry sense of humor. It is her backstory and her dedication to her job that she appears to consider herself a soldier first and woman second.

The comment that she is “a soldier first and a woman second”is telling. I’m yet to hear a man described as ‘a soldier first and a man second’, because, of course, the default setting for soldiers are that they are men.

sharon-stone-as-the-lady

I’m also thinking of Sharon Stone’s The Lady in The Quick and the Dead. Clint Eastwood  – in his spaghetti western era – could have played her role. Her backstory was the same backstory for a dozen Western movies.

Tasha Robinson wrote a compelling argument against Strong Female Characters during last year’s summer blockbuster season, lamenting that: “Bringing in a Strong Female Character™ isn’t actually a feminist statement, or an inclusionary statement, or even a basic equality statement, if the character doesn’t have any reason to be in the story except to let filmmakers point at her on the poster and say ‘See? This film totally respects strong women!'” The irony of the celebration of and hunger for Strong Female Characters is that they perpetuate macho notions of strength and capability, which just happen to be communicated by women and girls.

From the article I’m Sick of Strong Female Characters in Film by Clem Bastow

3/ Does the character have agency and a voice of her own? Does she make her own decisions and take responsibility for her own actions? Does she disappear during the action? Is she the rescuer or the rescued? Does she act and her actions impact the plot, or does most of the action take place around her?

Part of this problem is the idea that behind every great man is a great woman.  It means that the woman’s actions are still being defined by a man. Why isn’t the woman just out there doing for herself?

This one can be tricky. Consider Valka from How to Catch Your Dragon 2; she plays no real part in the plot after her build-up as an awesome character. Of course, overcoming this lack of voice and agency makes for a brilliant story, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Female characters lacking in voice and agency tand not to be that memorable. Gee, I wonder why?

4/ Does she end up as the trophy for the male Protagonist? This is a Disney favourite. Think about Jasmine from Aladdin and Meg from Hercules.

aladdin_jasmine

meg

They were sassy. Independent. Actually played a part in the resolution of the story. And still ended up as the trophy brides. This happens so much, I could let you make your own list…

It doesn’t matter how sassy your SFC is, if at the end of the story she is the ‘prize’ won by the hero. The very worst example I can think of is Kate from the movie, Hackers. Kate is the only girl in the hackers group AND she is the ‘prize’ in a bet between her and the protagonist, Dade. I came out of that movie completely enraged.

kate-from-hackers

Kate was played by a very young Angelina Jolie.

5/ Is the SFC complex and three dimensional?  Or is her ‘strength’ her only defining characteristic?  The white-haired witch from the movie, The Forbidden Kingdom, is powerful, and evil, and we have no idea why. Oh, she wants to be immortal … but we are never given any backstory or understanding of her character. She is just strong, physically and magically.

white-haired-witch

As a child, my youngest daughter loved this character because she was so strong, and she wanted to be that strong with magic. I’m not saying that children don’t love complex characters, but when your target audience is older, you need more than strength to define a character.

Gazelle from the movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is another of these strong girls with one dimension characterisations. Imagine how much more interesting her character would have been if she had been allowed some dialogue and an insight into her motivations. Was she in it for the money? Did she hate humanity? Was she in love with Valentine or his ideals?

6/ Is she the token female in an all male cast?

avengers-movie-poster-1

age-of-ultron

civil-war

Oh look, a girl on each side…

Need I say more? Others have written reams about how badly the character of the Black Widow is being treated in these movies.

7/ Could all her strengths be defined as masculine strengths, rather than her being strong in her own unique way? In other words, could your SFC be replaced by a male character and no one would notice the difference?

Strength comes in many different forms. If you classify as strength only in terms relating to overt masculinity, you are misunderstanding what strong means. I want to see a strong Female Character who can rejoice in her ‘female’ and girly strengths. She laughs or cries because showing emotion isn’t a weakness. She is strong – not in spite her femininity – but because of it, while at the same time not letting her femininity define her.

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Caricature versus Stereotype: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

A Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

A Caricature: a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.

From Google Definitions

Caricatures of attendees at an Australian suffragette meeting.

Caricatures of the attendees at an Australian suffragette meeting.

Anti-suffragette cartoons

The stereotype versus the caricature.

own worst enemy

anti-suffragist choir.jpg

Suffragette3USE

The Stereotype of a Suffragette from the viewpoint of those against the suffragette movement.

what I would do with...

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Place Keeping as Characterization: A Steampunk Perspective

Otto as a mad scientist

Art by Brian Kesinger

So, you’ve put together this kick-ass character. She has the ability to absorb a pile of seemingly unrelated information and find all the connections. She can find answers hidden in confusing masses of data. She has the quirky need to eat high-octane snacks to fuel her thinking. And you then use NONE of these interesting characteristics, and turn her into a standard ‘agent’ character with none of these characteristics ever referred to again. I’m looking at the writers of the character of Ellie Bishop from NCIS.

Monsters and Men

Eleanor Bishop – a wasted character

Once Bishop joined the team, she stopped being a data specialist. Everything that made her unique was no longer part of her characterization. Did they think that Abby was enough of an eccentric for one television show? (And, on a side note, whatever happened to Tim McGee’s writing career?)

I have found this very frustrating. Why go to all the trouble of creating and introducing an interesting character to then underutilize all that work that went into making the character? It makes no sense. I suspect lazy writing – they just needed a woman to fill that ‘space’ at the departure of Ziva David, to play a sisterly figure for McGee, a girlfriend for Abby Sciuto, a daughter substitute for Doctor Mallard and Leroy Gibbs. As she was the first ‘married’ character in the team, she did not replace Ziva David in Anthony Dinozzo’s affections. However, they must have wanted to make it appear the new female character was a person in her own right … and then forgot about it.

This brings me to the point of this post. Do you have place keepers in your writing?

Have you written a character that simply exists to be a romantic interest, without giving them their own importance withing the unrolling of the plot? You can reveal this by using the Sexy Lamp Test. If the romantic interest can be replaced by a lamp and not affect the plot … you have written a place keeping character.

The Sexy Lamp Test was originally invented to detect gender bias within a movie or a text, but it is too useful not to use it as a lazy writing detector. It was invented by Kelly Sue DeConnick, a comic book writer.

Pretty_Deadly-01.jpg

The Cover of Pretty Deadly by Image Comics, written by DeConnick

 

I think the Sexy Lamp Test is a good metaphor and a great name for a place keeper. There are other ways of detecting place keepers:

  • they are often stereotypes;
  • they do not have any character growth over the course of the narrative;
  • they are two dimensional characters, unmemorable and uninteresting;
  • they have no meaningful interactions within the text;
  • their existence does not add anything to the plot.

A place keeper can be rescued and given a much more interesting role within a narrative, or can be incised without impacting on the narrative. It depends on what you wanted to achieve with that character in the first place. Of course, a minor character is easily cut from the story, but if one of your major characters is a place keeper, that can be more of a problem. You – as the author – will need to step up and make the effort to bring life and humanity to your place keeper.

You can start the process by considering these factors:

  • what is this character’s back story?
  • what is this character’s motivations?
  • How does this character interact with the protagonist/antagonist?
  • how does this character’s actions impact on the plot?
  • what makes this character an individual?
  • How does this character react to a stressful situation?

Even answering one of two of these questions should help bring a place keeper out of obscurity. For example, you have a mad scientist character who is essentially a place keeper. Maybe you’ve added the character for ‘colour’ in your Steampunk novel. Do any of this scientist’s inventions play a major part in the plot? If not, time to rethink that decision, as why have the character if you weren’t going to utilise her skills? In one stroke, you’ve saved her from being a place keeper.

Laugh like a Mad Scientist!

Now it is time to build on that. What drew her into her field of science? Was it something the antagonist did back in the past? Is her motivation revenge? Did she hunt down the protagonist because the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Is that something she is trying to keep a secret, or she does she relish sharing the details of what she will do to vanquish the antagonist?

See? Already your ‘place keeper’ is more interesting than a generic stereotype of a mad scientist. Write a memorable character, and she will stick with your audience for years.

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Writer, Stereotypes, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style