On Picking Characters Apart

Lately, my friends have noticed that I can be a bit of a bother when it comes to consuming media and being displeased with certain factors. These factors typically involve either the plot making no sense whatsoever (hello, Oblivion? can you hear me?) or the character motivations being unclear / inconsistent (er… hello, Oblivion?).

Yes, okay? I can be a bit of a balefully banal bugbear when it comes to consistency in my fiction. And sometimes I am a bit harsh, a touch unforgiving. And, probably more often, I myself am inconsistent with my opinions because, hey, I’m just this guy, you know?

(One easy example off the top of my head is that I rather enjoy the character Richard B. Riddick. He is kind of one-dimensional, kind of too good at everything and generally lacking weakness, but I find him charming, in that I’m-just-as-happy-cutting-you-as-sharing-a-tender-moment-with-you kind of way. This was not enough to pull me through the most recent entry to the franchise which felt like Riddick fan fiction and did not involve nearly enough Karl Urban. So I liked The Chronicles of Riddick. So sue me.)

Despite the shocking revelation that I am not perfect, I hope you can stay on track with me as I get around to my point.

I just recently have started getting back into listening to podcasts. A lot of the reason that I fell off this particular bandwagon was due to my main device for podcast consumption — my supposedly-trusty iPod touch — decided to take an early retirement. I tried to make an economical replacement by spending much less money on a Nokia Lumia, and I suppose I got my money’s worth. The thing does have native support for subscribing to podcast feeds, but it just is not easy or smooth to get to them, find them, play them, control them, or know when new episodes are available. The Apple product line may be expensive, but it works for those purposes and I look forward to returning to the comfort of their gilded cage (assuming they do not discontinue or further nerf the iPod touch line),

The podcast I listened to today, Writing Excuses (which is highly recommended for not just writers, but also people who just want to think critically about what goes into a story and how to better think about stories) regards the three-pronged model for viewing characters. In summary, the three ‘dials’ proprosed were: Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy.

How good is your character at what he does?

Does she sit around and wait for things to happen to her or get up and make a difference?

Do we even like this guy?

They discussed these attributes and seemed to settle on the idea that this is not always a zero-sum game. The ratios do not need to add up to exactly 100% (80% likeable, 10% proactive go get ’em, and 10% competence… I think that could be a fair summary of Arthur Dent’s character. Though to be fair, most of the competence he exhibits stems from dumb luck related to his presence rather than Arthur’s own ability.)

I thought about the characters in the book I’m editing (a process which has fallen off to the wayside until… approximately an hour from now *cough*) and this three-pronged approach is giving me a new angle on things. My story is very character-centric. The characters ARE the story, and events that take place in the plot are all closely tied to the actions and motivations of the few characters involved.

Trying to define the levels of those three attributes for each character is giving me some (useful, I hope) second thoughts to how I present each character. Another important thing to consider is that, even though this is a standalone book with no plans for a sequel or extended universe, the characters will shift their ratios around as the story progresses. Especially in books that relate to younger protagonists, the level of competence can and should change to bring them to the ending.

(This also calls to mind the character that I cut, a victim of “mercilessly slaughter your darlings” if ever I had one. In my mind, this guy was very competent, very likeable, and very proactive: he stole the show from the main characters by being too good at everything. Even taking him out of the picture for a large chunk of the book, I felt like he was an unnecessary distraction from the real point of the book. I liked him so much that it hurt to excise him from my novel, but swearing to myself that I would use him elsewhere, in some other story, helped ease the pain.)

Anyway… the point is that it could be a good idea to go over your work and check your character’s levels against the plot in which they move. Sometimes, having a highly sympathetic character who is highly competent and highly proactive works (see Jack Bauer in 24, though his sympathy wavers from time to time as he does worse and worse things in the name of the Greater Good). Sometimes having a highly sympathetic character who is a bumbling idiot works.

Another exercise I might take up (as suggested by Brandon Sanderson in the podcast) is trying to figure out where characters I like in other media fall on this scale. I would say to take it a step further (especially with characters who appear in several books, movies, or recurring TV shows) and try and track their changes over the course of an extended existence.

Maybe I’ll learn something.

Or maybe I’ll just use it as an excuse to watch more Leverage.

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