Tag Archives: characterization

Characterization: Victimhood & Active vs Passive Characters

Sarah Hoyt wrote an interesting post on victimhood and the cultural imperitive in the West which makes us root for the underdog, yet many writers confuse being the underdog with being the good guy.  She has a lot of great info/background, so I’d recommend you give it a look, you can find it here.  I thought I’d write a bit on the craft of writing characters from my own perspective.

First off, it’s something I’ve seen, even in mainstream media.  It is a cultural tendency, especially in America, for us to see someone worse off (or just apparently worse off) than us and to feel empathy.  Yet when you go this route as a writer, you automatically face an uphill battle for the character to grow.  Indeed, the first part of their growth will, by necessity, being to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get out of the rut… or else they’re not a fully fleshed character… they’re a trope.

If you are going to start someone out as the victim in order to garner reader sympathy, well, there’s lots of hazards.  The typical revenge story has the murder of the family or friends that sets the hero out on their journey… yet at the heart of a revenge story is the tale of destruction upon the character themselves.  They can’t let go of their hate/anger and so end up destroying themselves in their effort to destroy their enemy.  Hamlet is an excellent example of this, as the titular character literally destroys himself and everyone around him… because he’s a victim and he wants justice.  Hamlet is an intelligent and presumably capable character who brings down the lives of dozens through his own indecision and self-pity.  But it’s a tragedy, so I suppose we’re supposed to see that all coming…

A character who identifies with this type of event is automatically crippling their own growth… until they let go of that.  And if they grow as a character to release their own pity for themselves then why should a reader then feel sympathy for their plight?  An example of this is the John Milus movie: Conan the Barbarian.  The titular character sees his entire village put to the sword, his father ripped limb from limb by dogs and his mother beheaded.  He’s sold as a slave as a child and dehumanized into a gladiator who fights for his survival and little else.  Conan, however, is a survivor.  This is established throughout the beginning of the movie as he not only meets every challenge, he excells.  Conan is a character who doesn’t identify as a passive character, he seeks out ways to excell and succeed.  Also, it’s a fun movie with lots of violence and bloodshed, but I digress.

Too, when you destroy the character to make him a ‘victim’ you automatically make the character a reactive character.  They aren’t going out on their own to do stuff, they were forced to do so.  This takes the initiative away.  A character without initiative, who is spun along by the efforts and actions of others is not a strong character.  It gives a starting place and it allows growth, yes, but I would argue that it makes a character less interesting.  Stories are, at their root, about people going places and doing things.  I would say that if your character is continually affected by the actions of others… perhaps you are writing from the perspective of the wrong character.

Active characters get out and do things.  They slay the dragon or lead the insurrection or marry the prince(ss).  When they encounter an obstacle or downturn in life, they don’t set on their hands and whine, they pick themselves up and they face it or find a way around.  JRR Tolkiens Lord of the Rings would have ended quite differently if Frodo just gave up at the first sign of hardship.  Yes, characters are allowed to have times of moral terpitude or uncertainty.  That is often where secondary characters shine, such as Sam, who whenever Frodo couldn’t go on, stepped in to cheer him up or get him moving.  The point is, that even the most unhappy, put upon heroes have to take action… and the writers who identify their characters as miserable put-upon underdogs need to think cautiously about just what mentality they’re designing their characters towards.  Hardship is a part of the story, a character can’t succeed at everything or there is no risk… but it’s how the character reacts to that hardship, what values they have and what their responses are that defines them.

An author could quite easily write a ‘hero’ who rises from wretched and abject misery to preeminant success… with little or no effort on their part, beyond the suffering they endure knowing they’ll get their just desserts on those who opposed them.  Granted, I don’t know that I could finish reading the story, especially if the self-proclaimed hero does nothing to further themselves.  Worse, in a way, is if the ‘hero’ could find success through their own actions, yet they waited or endured instead.  This smacks of self-satisfied feel-good nonsense: that enduring hardship makes us grow or is admirable.  That is complete drivel.  The man living on the streets collecting donations for himself isn’t growing… he’s static, he is unchanging.  Hard work makes us grow.  Reacting to those events, digging down inside ourselves and finding an inner strength to not only go on, but to improve our conditions is admirable.  The woman who puts herself through college working as a janitor, refusing loans and handouts, is admirable.  A character who has pride in him or herself is one who we want to read about… pride in accomplishments and capabilities.

Character growth is the essential part of a story and while I’ve seen the victim mentality as a starting point (here’s looking at you Edge of Tomorrow), it can never be the end point for a strong, central character… not unless you want to turn them into a narcissitic villain (which is an option, that bitterness that comes from victimhood is the perfect fodder for turning good men into monsters).  Even then, though, a victim’s mentality only goes so far… and itself must be replaced, else the character would remain too passive to accomplish anything.

 

 

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Godzilla 2014 Movie analysis: Characterization & Plot (spoilers)

Okay, so as promised, here’s my more indepth analysis of Godzilla (2014). Spoiler alert: I’m going to discuss in detail some of the scenes and events of the movie, so if you don’t want some of the twists and turns spoiled, watch the movie then read this. Why analyze Godzilla when there are plenty of other movies, presumably with better plots and characterization? Because I can, and because it contains a lot of excellent examples.

Because elements of the plot and characters are intertwined, I’ll jump around a bit. The movie begins with Monarch exploring an open pit mine in the Phillipines. They discover the bones of some ancient, long deceased primordial beast, along with two spores, one of which has opened and ripped its way out of the mountain, leaving a trail of destruction to the sea. The movie then jumps to Japan, where engineer Joe Brody is a distracted man worried about seismic anomalies. The movie does a good job here showing him as a workaholic who is both very concerned about the safety of the power plant and doing his job well, even if that may inadvertently cause issues with his family.

The scene establishes him as a somewhat-absent-minded type who is nevertheless well loved by his wife and son and also sets the ground for friction with his son later on in the movie. It is well done, particularly for the set-up later in the movie, as early on his son has made him a happy birthday banner, which his mother promises to show to Joe later on.

The action then comes quickly, as the seismic anomally cracks the nuclear containment and floods the lower levels of the facility with radioactive coolant in vapor form, forcing Joe to choose between waiting in the hopes that his wife can get clear or saving the entire population of the city to include his son. It’s a well-done scene where he gets a last moment with his wife, though I think it would have had more emotional impact if it hadn’t been given away in most of the trailers.

Up to this point, we still haven’t seen the titular Godzilla. One might expect the seismic anomally to reveal itself as the beast… but you’d be wrong. The power plant collapses, and the young son to Joe watches from school… but there’s still no monster(s) to be seen.

Revert to fifteen years later. Joe’s son, Ford, is now a US Navy EOD officer, just returned from a long (really long, 14 months, holy cow) tour. This is a moment, plot wise, which gave me a bit of a headache, but only from dealing with EOD types, who most often had six or nine month tours, even during the Iraq Surge. Anyway, I digress. He disembarks the plane, links up with wife and his own son, and has a bit of a party with them. Then, before there’s any solid characterization between wife, son, and Ford, there’s a phone call that his father (Joe) was arrested in Japan.

The characterization here was very bland. It basically makes Ford into generic military man, his wife into generic spouse (we find out later she’s a nurse), and his son into generic military son. They are entirely bland, with nothing of note beyond the fact that fourteen months made them both miss Ford. There was no development of the relationships, nothing beyond the fact that they are obviously very close, because it shows them being close and saying how close they are.

The movie then goes to Japan, where Ford is now reunited with his father, takes him back to his father’s apartment, and we see that Joe has developed an unhealthy fascination with the ‘accident’ that claimed his wife’s life. At this point, we get some great characterization on the part of Joe. He’s furious and frustrated, and we see that the absent-minded engineer has descended into obsession.

What we don’t get here is any more development with Ford, who feels like a secondary character. We see that he doesn’t agree/approve of what his father is doing, yet he is easily swayed to sneak into the restricted area after an impassioned plea. I felt like this scene had a lot of potential, perhaps to have Ford accuse his father of killing his mother (which he did) or lay out some angst about how he has made something of his life. Instead, he just sort of makes some filler dialogue and we move on to the restricted area.

In the restricted area, we get some more opportunities for anticipatory scene destruction (beautiful overgrown city falling slowly into ruin) followed by plot revelations that despite the collapse of the power plant, the evacuation, and the restricted area… there’s no radiation. The father and son duo rush to their old house, where Joe recovers his data and then sees the Happy Birthday banner his son made for him and his wife hung up in their office for his return, fifteen years ago. It’s a good scene which shows some emotional catharsis for Joe, and establishes that he is tormented by his past and must find some resolution.

Ford, on the other hand, goes back to his room and picks up a toy soldier. Not so much of an impact. The best part was the little terrarium with a cocoon and a label “Mothra” as a nice little implication of what is coming.

Not long later, they get arrested, and then dragged into a military style base built on the site of the power plant. Inside we finally get our first look at the monster… but it’s not Godzilla. It’s a chrysalis, inside of which something has absorbed the radiation of the reactors. (Yes, the science gives me headaches, but it’s a Big Stupid Monster movie, so leave your knowledge of science and physics at the door)

The plot thickens as Joe shows that his knowledge of the attack implies that another attack is immenant. No sooner is this revealed than the chrysalis begins to become much more active and the order is given to terminate it.

Me, personally, I’d probably try something more… final than electricity, particularly when the creature is shown to have an as yet unknown effect on electromagnetic fields. Nevertheless, they try. The creature then explodes out of it’s chrysalis… and it is definitely not Godzilla. The movie has done a great job to this point of amping up the anticipation. We know that we’re going to see him sooner or later, but for now, we get plenty of carnage as the monster smashes the entire facility, sprouts wings, and flies away. Oh, and it has a nifty EMP attack that disables vehicles and the electrical cage they held it in.

We’re back to the Monarch guys, scientist A and B who really don’t have much character at all. They’re essentially cardboard cutouts, with A being the one to announce events and explain things and B being the one who warns everyone that they can’t possibly do what they’re about to do. Scientist B is all the more annoying because she never says why we shouldn’t do things, just that we shouldn’t.

Unfortunately, Joe was wounded in the monster’s escape. Not long after this, on a helicopter ride to an aircraft carrier, he warns his son Ford to take care of his family. Shortly after that, he dies. Now, in my opinion, this was either an attempt to evoke sadness or a desire to save money and have Brian Cranston appear less in the movie. Having him die at this point basically transferred all the burdens of being an interesting character onto Ford… who we’ve already seen very little interesting about. I’m not saying they couldn’t have made him interesting, but they expended that effort on Joe, who is now dead.

Ford doesn’t take up a vow of revenge against the monster that has killed both his parents. He doesn’t seem to care, just wants to move on. So he catches a helicopter to Hawaii, tries to call his wife, and that’s pretty much all the emotional response we get.

Cut to Scientists A & B, who now reveal that Godzilla is back. There was some mention in the reveals earlier that they thought they killed him, but nothing about where he might have been. We see big scary fins as the monster swims along. Scientist A says that Godzilla is a Primordial Alpha, a predator which will hunt down the flying monster and put things back in balance. The US Navy seems unable to take action, unable to track the flying monster, and clueless as to where it is going. Right up until a Russian nuclear sub disappears and then reappears somewhere on Oahu.

Teams sent to investigate locate the monster. Godzilla then rages into the city to attack. We get our first look as Godzilla attacks. There’s a rather cool fight sequence wherein a whole lot of folks in Oahu get drowned by a tidal wave generated by Godzilla, trampled by said monster, or smashed by the flying monster. Right away, however, we see that Godzilla is at a disadvantage by the other monster’s speed and ability to fly. Unbelievably, they manage to make Godzilla both strong and powerful (witness his destruction) and incredibly weak.

My complaints in this sequence is first that the military is painted as both ineffective and unable to take even the most simple precautions. They already know that the flying monster has an EMP attack. What do they do? Send in helicopters to attack it up close and then attack with jets… also up close. Beyond that, Ford has a nice little series of scenes where he saves a kid… but then there’s no resolution, he reunites the boy with his parents, but there’s no feeling of accomplishment, the boy goes on his way and Ford continues trying to get back home.

At this point, Scientist A and B realize what Joe figured out on his own, that the monster was using echolocation to call to another of its kind. They can’t possibly think of who it might be talking to, certainly not Godzilla… until Scientist A says that it is absolutely not possible that it was talking to the other spore, because they dissected it and put it in… you guessed it, the radioactive waste storage facility. Because, since it feeds off radiation, that’s the safest place to put it. *sigh* This is where the plot begins to give me a headache.

Flip to a team which races down an open highway. Visually, a very cool scene, with helicopters and humvees and all kinds of military awesomeness. They pull up, begin to check the site, and then… wow, there happens to be a gigantic, three hundred foot hole in the mountain that absolutely no one noticed. That’s right, it ripped the side of the mountain away and was already halfway to Vegas. Which it quite impressively demolishes, the devastation being shown in a sequence of cool scenes.

The second monster and the first are now expounded to be male and female, and that they’re trying to breed. The military now announces their best plan to date: lure all three monsters (Godzilla too) twenty miles out in the ocean away from San Francisco, the apparent target with nukes, detonate them upon arrival. And, because they know that the monsters use EMP, they install mechanical triggers. But wait, there’s more… lets move the nuke(s) on a slow-moving train (subject to the EMP attack) with the final plan being to put it on a barge (also subject to the EMP attack) and oh, yeah, start the count-down before the nuke even manages to get out of the harbor. Oh, that fancy new trigger can’t be remotely stopped either… so no way is that going to end badly, right?

Possibly the worst, most fallible plan given the situation. Inevitably the land-bound monster number two eats all but one of the nukes. Not long after that, the flying monster snatches the remaining one (after the mechanical timer is engaged) and the two establish a nest in the middle of San Francisco, with eggs, armed nuke, and incoming Godzilla Alpha Predator.

This then comes to some of the best scenes in the movie. Someone apparently does the math and realizes that if you fly high enough you can avoid the EMP (would have been useful to move said nukes, maybe even in a B-2 or B-52 or something designed for that rather than a train). So there’s a HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump into San Francisco just as Godzilla makes landfall and starts a fight. Not much sense in it, but it does look very cool. The fight sequence here is both visually impressive and evokes emotion. At this point, they’ve basically established that the military can’t stop these monsters, humanity’s only hope appears to be that Godzilla will destroy them and then go back to doing whatever a three hundred foot tall lizard does in his spare time.

But it’s quickly obvious that Godzilla is over-matched. The flying creature is faster and more nimble and works in concert with monster number two, which is almost as big and tough as the titular monster. The fight sequence here manages to establish Godzilla as an underdog, which automatically is a positive. The intrepid special forces (I think, they don’t make it clear, but why would they carry M4’s against giant monsters? You would think they’d swap out for some bigger weapons, maybe a few more AT4’s, some grenade launchers like M320’s or M203s, or hey even ) team manages to get to the nuke, but there’s a problem, the lid is stuck shut. Apparently they’re in an alternate universe where no one has invented crow-bars, hack-saws, or other useful tools, so the decision is, with thirty minutes left, to carry the warhead across town to the waterfont, put it on a boat, and drive it away to a safe distance. Again, I’m left scratching my head, because it really doesn’t make much sense. And our main character is an EOD guy, right? He should know all about cracking the thing open and getting it to work. But nope, he’s onboard with the plan. We do have a moment of brilliance, then, when, seeing the eggs, he uses a handy fuel truck to blow the nest sky-high.

This then triggers big monster number two to leave the apparently defeated Godzilla, come back, find the nest destroyed, and identify Ford as the culprit. Before it can take action, you see a brilliant light, and from my experience, the crowd goes wild as Godzilla unleashes his radioactive breath attack. It was a visually impressive scene and was brilliantly done to make Godzilla seem the protector. Unfortunately, the flying monster intervenes, and big monster number two runs after the folks with the nuke. It kills off most of them without apparent effort. Thankfully, Godzilla has a reprieve of only fighting one opponent smash the flying monster, but then he’s buried by rubble. Again, a good scene, you see the underdog (underlizard?) finally get in a solid blow, but it amps up the tension of the fight sequence.

Ford tries to do what the others did, starts the boat, which is handily hooked up to some kind of Iphone touch pad, and the collapses, only to have the boat putter out as big monster number two unleashes its EMP attack, and then prepares to kill him. Godzilla saves the day (again) ripping back the monster’s head, breathing radioactive fire down the creature’s throat, and then ripping the head off in a finishing move. The boat starts up again, Ford is rescued, and Godzilla collapses, later to rise again to the cheers of the humans he saved. (Despite being named a predator, he did not actually eat the two monsters he killed, which also bugged me)

I will note that I enjoyed the movie, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the character I most related to was a three hundred foot tall radioactive lizard. It definitely could have been a better movie, with stronger characterization of the people in it. The science and physics were so far beyond real that you basically needed to ignore reality. Those at least remained consistent throughout. The plot was unnecessarily convoluted, with apparently a great deal of effort spent to ensure that Ford’s wife was downtown giving him reason to try to stop the nuke (as if saving everyone else wasn’t good enough) and also in making sure that said nuke was there to be stopped. I feel like they could have accomplished this in a less… well, stupid fashion, rather than having generals and admirals craft a plan that a five year old could poke holes in. But it worked despite those flaws, because the overall building tension throughout the movie until Godzilla himself is finally revealed, followed by continuing to pay out for what the audience wanted to see: a giant radioactive lizard causing havoc and smashing monsters in the middle of a major city.

What’s in a Villain?

Star Wars’ Darth Vader and Conan’s Thulsa Doom have one thing in common.  Well, two, but this blog post isn’t about James Earl Jones.  The commonality is that they have strong, powerful villains who strike the audience with fear and hatred.

Building a character beyond the antagonist role, into a true villain is something that brings both challenges and rewards to an author.  A powerful villain can bring instant emotional involvement to the audience, in a way that makes them root for your protagonist(s).  A powerful villain is memorable and the elements of their character can heighten the audience’s emotional highs and lows as the villain and heroes clash.

The two examples above are from movies, and in movies they have some advantages.  They can make use of impressive audio and visual techniques to impress an image on them.  In writing, we don’t have that advantage.  We can describe the villain, but in that, we need to pick our words with care.  Getting overly verbose can distract the reader, while a few quick words can too easily be overlooked.  It falls on an author to choose the description carefully and to insert it in such a way as to avoid distracting the reader.

But a description doesn’t tell the whole story.  It gives the reader a few words to capture their imagination, but it doesn’t tell them what makes the character a villain.  True villany requires acts of darkness and it is this that makes a villain truly vile.  As with most writing, showing is better than telling.  Don’t tell the reader that the villain has no value for human life… show it.  Such callousness is part and parcel for evil characters.  A caution here, it is better to make implications rather than dive too deep in such darkness.  With small implications, you capture a reader’s imagination.  Often the readers can paint a darker idea of the character’s actions than you can describe on paper.  Wallowing in such details can also quickly go from tasteless to ghastly.  An atrocity is there to remind us what the hero opposes, not for authors to work out latent psychological issues.

Making a villain distinct is the next important area.  This is difficult for a number of reasons.  Science fiction and fantasy are replete with villains, both well developed and… not so much.  The tropes and cliches are such because of the vast scope of the genre.  The genre lends itself to powerful, maniacal and insane villains, and you’ll see scores of these chewing on the scenery and sending forth their Legions of Doom.  This is where being able to build strong, vibrant characters is important.  If the villain feels real and the actions they take seem to follow from their motivations, then the tropes and cliches won’t jar the reader.  Making those characters as unique as possible goes a long way towards this as well.

Hopefully this helps you to develop strong, powerful villains in your stories.

Characterization Case Study: Gravity

originalThe best way to study characterization and plot is to look at examples, both good and bad, and to note what worked and what didn’t.  I’m going to do a quick case study of the recent movie Gravity.  It’s an interesting movie that (due to a very small cast and a rather linear plot) can be analyzed with relative ease.  As a quick disclaimer: this is not a movie review and it will hold some spoilers.  As a secondary disclaimer: I enjoyed the movie, the music, special effects, science and plot were all relatively well grounded and a lot of fun… but I’m going to dissect the characters in the movie as examples of good and bad characterization. 

First things first, a look at characterization.  There are really only two characters in the movie: Stone and Kowalski.  The movie does an excellent job right away to establish Kowalski as a cowboy, right down to his music selection as he bounces around the hubble telescope on his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit).  He’s excited to be where he is, cocky, and clearly knows what he’s doing.  Throughout the rest of his (brief) stint in opening part of the movie, this is all we really see of Kowalski.  Stone on the other hand, is more difficult to characterize.  At first, she is totally focused on her work.  Later when things begin to go wrong, she panics.  We learn that she doesn’t want to die, that she is afraid, and that she really doesn’t seem to like space.

This last was the part that broke characterization for me.  The way things are now, if someone isn’t totally dedicated and driven to become an astronaut, they won’t even stand a chance.  It doesn’t matter what your background is or how important your mission, you can always train someone else.  There are millions of applicants and countless intelligent people willing to learn whatever skills it takes to go to space, they won’t want someone who doesn’t want to be there.

But then Kowalski shows up to save Stone.  The two learn that they are the only survivors from the shuttle and both deal with it in their own ways.  Kowalski becomes professional and reverts to an almost military mode.  From the perspective of characterization, this is excellent.  We see the other side of a character, and we see that his cowboy persona is just one facet of a more complex person.  Stone just sort of shuts down.  She says that she’s low on oxygen, she doesn’t volunteer any information, and at several points, tells Kowalski that he should leave her, that she’s slowing him down.  This, frankly, makes her character seem rather dull.  In the initial panic and worry of the disaster, we are immediately sympathetic to her character.  She is adrift and struggles to survive, we want to root for her.  Her giving up after being found and rescued by Kowalski gives away a lot of that initial viewer sympathy.  No one likes a quitter, and the apathy that she begins to show about her own death makes her character seem very bland and hard to identify with.

Then, in typical survival mode, Kowalski asks Stone about where she is from, if she has anyone who waits for her back home, if she likes her job and what she does after work.  This is the perfect moment in a book for the viewer to identify with a character.  You learn about the details of their life, the things that guided them and shaped them.  The scene could not have been framed better, with only the two characters, tethered by a single cable and with the entire Earth as a backdrop.  Literally, they’re the only two people who exist, with no other distractions… and Stone takes a right turn to depression.  Stone doesn’t have a family, she had a daughter who died in an accident.  She apparently doesn’t have parents, siblings, or any romantic interest at all either.  In fact she seems to have no reason to go on living.  She concludes her brief explanation with a statement that she ‘just drives.’  She seems to be a woman with no reason left to live… so why exactly is she in space?  Please, tell me that her device would prevent future falling accidents such as the one that killed her daughter or cure cancer or at least give her some goal or drive to base her life upon.  Give me something, I want to root for these characters.  They’re in a disaster with miniscule odds of survival, I want to think that their lives mean something.

The two characters reach their destination, but in true movie fashion, the EMU (rather like a jetpack) runs out of fuel in the last seconds.  The two tumble and scramble for a hold, and in the end, Stone is tangled in some line attached to the station and Kowalski is attached to Stone by the tether.  Of course, the cables are slipping and there is too much mass for the friction of the cables to overcome.  Kowalski says that he’s going to cut himself loose, and explains to Stone what she’ll have to do to survive.  This is a pivotal moment in both character’s story arcs.  The cowboy/professional mission commander sacrifices himself (showing yet another side of himself) while the frightened and confused Doctor Stone has to come out and shine, to find her internal strength and succeed despite the odds.  Frankly, I think it was a bit heavy-handed.  The scene could have played out more true to Kowalski’s character if done in a split-second decision, rather than as it played out… a long and agonizing moment for Stone.  They did it more for plot reasons than characterization, I think.  They set up Stone without the tools to survive so they wanted Kowalski to give her those.  Given the amount of time they had, and the way they established Kowalski’s character, I think it more likely he would have attempted something dramatic to save them both.  However, clearly the story they wanted to explore was Stone’s growth, even if Kowalski was the more interesting character.

Stone then follows Kowalski’s guidance.  As an added threat, besides the debris that moves faster than any Earth-bound bullet, the station catches fire.  Because, really, Stone needed something to get her to get moving again.  Stone begins step two of three towards her return to earth and then discovers that her ride to the next stop is out of fuel.  This would be a perfect time for her to show her internal strength and that drive to survive.  Instead, she tries to reach someone, anyone, for help.  In the end, after a tearful conversation with some chinese guy with a dog and a baby, she decides that she doesn’t want to wait another ninety minutes for the debris to hit her yet again, she’ll just turn down the air and go to sleep.

Okay, I’m sorry, but while the plot of the movie had me hooked, at this point I just stopped caring about the character of Doctor Stone.  She has no family, no goals, no dreams, no ambition… she’s survived to this point because she doesn’t want to die and because someone we did care about sacrificed himself so that she would have a chance.  Honestly, I come back to the whole question: why is Doctor Ryan Stone here in space and who chose the hardest person in the world to identify with to be the survivor?

Cue the return of Mission Commander Kowalski.  His snarky comments and upbeat words breathe some life into Stone just before the obvious reveal that he was a figment of her subconscious as her brain shut down from lack of oxygen.  Luckily, she realizes she does have a way to survive after all, and goes about it.  She seems to have decided to live because Kowalski wanted her to, which in itself is something, at least.  Do it for the dead guy, it works in sports movies for a reason, and it at least gives us a reason why the lone survivor doesn’t just die.

As far as characterization, that concludes the entire movie.  We get a brief moment at the end where Stone stands up on the beach, somewhere on Earth and walks away.  This seems more a statement of survival than anything more profound.  In fact, the character of Doctor Stone doesn’t really seem to draw any closure.  She survives, which closes out the plot, but we don’t have any way to see what she has become, or even if she has changed at all.  What will drive her, after her survival, what will she do and who will she become afterwards?  These question remain unanswered, which, as a viewer I would find supremely irritating… except I really didn’t care at that point.  Stone was just the point of view for the ride, and I could walk away without any of those questions being answered.

Hopefully my fellow writers can take away some lessons from this.  I know I did, the biggest being that if you create a character that doesn’t care about themselves… your audience wont either.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a disaster, but the rest of your product, book, movie or game, will have to make up for that in other areas.

Building Strong Characters

One of my goals for writing characters is to develop them to the point that they feel real to the reader. Story can be interesting, but strong characters are what the reader ends up caring about. An excellent character will keep a reader coming back, again and again… and the victories and defeats of those characters are what bring out the most emotion in the reader. Flat characters are a crime that few authors can redeem themselves from. Flat characters are boring, trite, and often cliché. So how does one develop strong characters?

Strong characters feel like real people, sometimes more real that people we might interact with or deal with on a daily basis (trust me, I’ve had roommates with less personality than Master Harper Robinton from Anne McCaffery’s Pern series or Polgara from David Eddings’ Belgariad). What exactly does feeling real entail, though? I define it by several areas. First off, they typically have some defining character traits. Second, strong characters have a history, a place where they come from. Third, they have a morality (or lack thereof) that is coherent and based upon their origins. Fourth, strong characters experience joy, anger, love, and heartache just like real people. Last and most important strong characters make decisions based off of their emotions, experiences, and morality.

Character traits are often what define a character to the reader at first glance. These are often the most memorable things about them, and are often the things that pop into mind. Han Solo was a cocky and self centered rogue (he shot first!). Doc, from ‘Back to the Future’, was absent minded and excitable. Character traits are often established early on, typically in the first time the reader meets the character. It helps to make these traits memorable, as a writer, because this makes the character stand out in their mind more. Traits, however, are just a starting point. They create a character that has some resonance to them, but if that isn’t followed through, the character will seem hollow. A hollow character might be better than a flat one, but it robs the reader of the pay off of emotions as the character fails to grow over time and their experiences.

History and past play a huge role in our lives as people. It should be no less important for characters. As a writer, often I develop characters based off of the setting and their place in it. From the society and their place in it, I can develop what things they will find important, what their areas of expertise and knowledge might be. A character raised in the slums of a dystopian future might well view morality through a different lens than your typical 21st Century American. Beyond there, I typically dive into family (or lack thereof), which is often more important than society, and indeed, can alter things significantly. That same character raised in the slums might be the son of a missionary, who grew up treating the sick and injured…. Suddenly he might not be the callus killer. Throw in some life events, such as the death of his mother or the discovery that he was adopted and his adoptive parents never told him. These experiences change who he is, and will have effects upon how he acts.

Morality is often based upon the experiences of people. Morally upright characters can be vastly complicated or totally boring, whereas morally bankrupt characters can be highly entertaining or nauseating. Part of this is perspective and experience. A character who has a twisted sense of morals because of hi s experiences is understandable. He or she may frustrate a reader, but the moral code they follow will at least make sense. The same follows for a character with a comprehensive and solid code of ethics. What will drive me as a reader absolutely crazy is when there is a character whose morality doesn’t make sense. Characters who are bad because it’s cool or fun or the honorable street urchin are anomalies… and unless an author has a legitimate reason why, they quickly become an irritation. Even worse are characters with no defined or inconsistent morality. A character who will shoot a man in the back in one scene and yet fights an honorable duel in another would be incoherent without some background or logic behind his actions. A writer has a burden to show the reasoning and logic behind the characters’ decisions.

Emotion is the next crucial part of a strong character. A character who doesn’t experience emotion is boring, regardless of how many explosions or how interesting the setting might be. One of the best examples of this is from the movie Red Sonya. The main character’s sister — her only surviving family – dies in her arms in the opening part of the movie. Red Sonya then says something to the effect of “This is terrible, drops her sister’s corpse, and stalks off to exact her revenge. For a close knit family, the death of a family member is a powerfully emotional event. This event was supposed to drive Red Sonya to exact her revenge. This isn’t to say that the character should have fallen to pieces, but some small signs can go a long way to establishing the emotional toll of such an event. An excellent positive example of this is from Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hank’s character, after the Invasion of Normandy, goes to open a canteen and his hands are shaking so much as to make it nearly impossible. This shows that, despite his calm demeanor, he is barely holding it together, and mostly doing so for his men. A show of such emotional turmoil and yet strength immediately establishes his character as someone who feels real. Later on, when he makes decisions for his men, you can see that emotional turmoil is there behind those decisions, at war with his moral code and his defining character traits.

The last crucial part of strong characters is the decisions they make and, as a writer, ensuring those decisions are in line with the character. A character who makes decisions out of line with his morality, emotions and experiences is not a strong character. A character who has his emotions and experiences at odds with his morality is complex and interesting. Difficult decisions are what life is about, and the important decisions are always complex. An important thing to note here is that sometimes the characters don’t make the right decisions. Sometimes their morality or emotions or experiences drive them to make the wrong decision. In those cases, it is often a flaw, sometimes a tragic flaw. This should not be the norm, in my opinion. Authors like George R. Martin make their living by having characters make bad decisions on an almost constant basis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting reading, but as a reader, it frustrates me to the point that I give up. Good people make bad decisions sometimes, it happens in real life, and it happens in stories. Bad people make good decisions too, sometimes, which I find far more interesting.

The decisions that characters make often define them. These cause new experiences and produce new emotions that in turn, drive character growth and development. And the next step past making a strong character is to make that character grow as he progresses through the story. That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, what is a strong character that you really liked and what were their defining traits?