Thursday, January 01, 2009

Things to Consider - Don't lose the character through the Gimmick

So I figure as long as long as I have a blog and opinions I could theoretically be putting on it, I may as well be like every other jerk on the internet pretend that people actually care about what I have to say. If any of you (the two people who watch this blog) disagree with what I'm saying, feel free to call me on it and I'll try to explain what I'm on about.

So anyway, first topic up for discussion;

This is my story about a psychic ninja farmboy who fights the Evil Dragonmancer King that's trying to take over the world.

Hey, that's great. Why should I care?

Something that's been grating on me more and more these days are people who write characters that are all gimmick and no... character. If you think of your character in your head and you can't envision them as the same person without all the bells and whistles, this is probably something you are guilty of yourself. So this evil dragonmancer fellow, why is he planning to take over the world? He just feels like being a bastard today? Has to assert his evilosity in case people were starting to forget about it?

If your character is defined by their magical powers, you haven't designed a character, you've designed a power. At this stage, you're on par with every remotely creative person with the ability to articulate their ideas to others. If you can't add some solid motivation to back that up, no one has any reason to care about your characters until you team up with a writer who can.

The secret to writing a character worth their salt is to consider Maslow's Pyramid of Human Needs;
This Pyramid represents the basic concerns of a human being in ascending order of triviality. The lowest levels of the pyramid represent the lowest common denominator that all people can identify with. As you climb the pyramid, problems will generally matter less.

The bottom of the pyramid represents life-or-death needs like food, water, shelter, air. No one in the world will ever question a character's motivation to not die. Matters of life and death will always interest an audience, so even a character who sits at a high level on the pyramid can be stripped down to a basic need for survival in the climax of a story.

Less important than air, but still of pretty high concern is safety. The feeling of unease walking home alone at night, fear of losing your job, and health issues are all fairly universally accepted as important motivations and can easily turn into life or death struggles in their own rite.

Love or belonging is a fairly light, inoffensive problem for a character to overcome. On it's own, it's a status more suited for comedy, as it lacks the drama of life-or-death struggles.

Respect amongst one's peers is in a similar boat, and is the last really relatable struggle you can put your character through. Self-actualization is more of an abstract idea that can lose your audience, as a character whose only struggle is to be the best at what they do is not terribly entertaining if they can't be stripped down to a more basic need in the pursuit of that goal.

Conflict is built out of characters gambling their place on the pyramid as they attempt to raise their status, and characters cannot climb to a higher level if the needs below them have not been met. For example, a character will not be worried about getting the girl if they are in the middle of drowning. The more a character stands to lose, the more an audience will care about them. Eboneezer Scrooge can't get the people to respect him until he opens up and makes the community love him. However, if he can't change his ways he'll die an early death, alone and uncared for with people looting his property.

People are quick to call "Mary Sue" on characters they feel are overpowered, but the problem with these characters is not in their copious volume of powers, it relates back to the pyramid as well. "Mary Sue" characters are generally boring because they're rich and everyone wants to be their friend and they have a smoking hot significant other and they're the best at what they do. They're already at the top, so their character has no room to arc. A protagonist can have rainbow hair, fourteen wings, and laser beams shooting from their purple eyes and still be interesting to read about if they have some kind of real human struggle in their life that the audience can connect with. John Arcudi's character Major Bummer is a handsome, indestructible superhero with inhuman strength, but he's fun to read about because he's always losing his jobs at fast food restaurants and VCR repair shops when his bosses are angry about having to clean up after his massively destructive battles at work.

The stories that stand the test of time to be told and retold through the generations are the stories that can be broken down to these basic struggles, because it will not matter if the protagonist is a psychic ninja farmboy, everyone will always be able to understand what they are going through. You can strip them of their powers, put them anywhere in the timestream, and they will always be the same character at heart. Fairytales and fables are especially good examples of this.

In the story of Beauty and the Beast for example, it does not matter at all - AT ALL - that the beast is a monster. What the audience relates to is a character who needs to find someone to love to ascend to a level of esteem and self-worth who meets a girl that is also looking for a sense of belonging. Her father falls into a struggle of security, so she leaves and in turn puts the beast character into a life or death situation. People will always understand and relate to this no matter what setting you drop the characters in. This is why Disney traditionally bases their movies off of fairytales, mythology and popular books, the stories have already proven their worth. It doesn't matter if Blackbeard is a cyborg, Robin Hood is a fox, or William Sikes is a new York Loan Shark, the character is still the same as they ever were.

This is a clip from the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar starring Ted Neely and Carl Anderson as Jesus and Judas.

This song is about the flagship figure of the Christian religion, but it has nothing to do with his connection to God or the miracles he's performed. This song is about two friends, one of whom is concerned that the other is letting his ego get dangerously over inflated. The story of Lancelot and Guinivere is that of a man sleeping with his boss's wife. Ganondorf is a dignitary who goes power hungry and loses sight of the positive intentions he started out with. Princess Leia is the uptown girl who falls for a backstreet guy.

What it basically comes down to is that writing fantasy stories is like drawing fantasy creatures. Dragons may not exist, but people can tell if they are believable or "realistic" based on how relatable they are to real animals. In the exact same way, the stories that stick around are the ones people can relate to real situations. Frills are the spice that draw people in, but it's not worth the effort if you don't have the meat to put them on.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article.
It's made me realise a few things about how to write my characters. I've never really had any instruction on how to write.
Even when reading interviews with great authors like Neil Gaiman they don't seem to be able to convey just how they build their characters at the most fundamental level.

The self-actualization part reminds me of a British show called Extras. It about Ricky Gervais' character rising from extra to a star of his own sitcom. But the studio ends up butchering his ideas to become a show for the lowest common denominator.
So he struggles to move beyond that to become a more serious actor.
But in the end he realises that he's just not that talented and all he really ever needed was his friend who was with him from the beginning.

Tony Stark is a bit of a mary-sue going by that definition. But he's saved by the fact that he had the revelation to become a superhero and has all kinds of conflicts and and problems.

Of course there are also the stories that purposely try to alienate their audience. Such as any Stanley Cubrick film. And yet you find yourself pulled into those stories because it's different and fascinating and there's a message underneath it all. Usually a commentary of society and humanity, which in itself is relatible or at least gets you to think.


Coelasquid said...

With characters like Iron Man who "have it all", the interest comes when they are stripped down to more basic needs. The devices that bring the audience back are parts like where he's hit by a bomb, gets a chest full of shrapnel and hears he has a week to live. Or the part where he gets on the outs with his company and his job security is at stake. Or any of the parts where he's on the verge of death because the power supply thing in his chest is removed or he's facing a baddie in danger of killing him. Next to these, that parts where he's fine-tuning his suit are relatively uneventful.

Stanley Kubric films are no different. Clockwork Orange, for example, Alex is the leader of his gang, with the respect of his peers. He lets that power get the better of him so he loses their good favour and they set him up for a fall with the cops. After he's caught and arrested, his parents sort of disown him, so he's stripped of his love and belonging. Once he's out of jail he doesn't have a job or even a home, really, so he's missing that sense of security. His former gangmates beat him and come dangerously close to drowning him, as well the man he did wrong by in the past tries to drive him to suicide, so his life still comes on the line. By the end you get that sense of vindication when you see that he's cast off his psychological conditioning and is ready to climb back to his former place of glory.

Creature SH said...

Now, you requested comments in the case of disagreement.... But you probably won't get many comments that way. Why disagree with tried-and-true fundamentals of writing ? By the way, you did a great job at relating these things. Very concise and to-the-point, but not too short for anyone to get the point.

I think that a very good example for this principle to work is the first Superman reboot (You know, when "post-crisis" still referred to one single crisis that actually meant something). Before the reboot, he was very much an alien pretending to be human, with kryptonian mindset and sensibilities. In order to make him more relatable, they emphasized his upbringing on earth as well as his private life. Now he was a farmboy in the big city, worried about living up to the huge expectations associated with him, his relationship with Lois Lane and even his job. They finally gave the reader much more profound reasons to care.

Zlukaka said...

This was really interesting to read and made me discover some of my own vices anew. XD

Many of my characters tend to be too powerful/successful/skilled. And they don't often face life'n'death situations, yet they have problems with their relationships to relatives/friends and have other similar troubles. I wonder how bad this symptom is... XD;

How many flaws do you think a character should have to be believable? Because human beings are so full of flaws, compared to an average fictional character...

And do you think over-powerful characters are a bad tendency?

-asks the wise person- ^_^

I really like your characters, Squid. :3

animationthingies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
animationthingies said...

(whoops I messed up my comment, repost time)

I think it's also very challenging to write believable monsters/mythical beasts. You covered the Beast himself and stripped him down, but I think in writing characters that are monsters from the get-go, it's just as easy to get lost in the fact that they're a fascinating creature. I tend to write mine "from the ground up", and develop the personality as a person, then imbue into the creature, whether or not they were human to begin with (if it's a fantasy story or something).

That works for me, anyway.

Minding not all characters NEED to relay a sense of humanity. General Radcliffe from Pocahontas was written and designed to be theatrical character the audience could sit back and root against without getting caught up in sympathies. But I feel like it's risky to mention this to people just starting out because that is a (somewhat) particular route to take among seasoned writers. Radcliffe and Wiggins were two characters out of a big cast to be portrayed this way (excluding the animals, although they played on the sympathies of children at times).

Not to say that Radcliffe didn't have his humanity deep down. He had his motivations - wanting recognition and respect as well as money. He can still be applied to the chart.

But over all the character, no matter how you intend to gear them towards people's sympathies(if at all) should have the basic ingredients of a sympathetic character. Not that every character can be that thoroughly worked out depending on the project/story or what ever. There are restraints, but it's not impossible to at least build a basic foundation for each, either.

I'm sure if Disney wanted to, they could turn around and try to relay Radcliffe as a sympathetic character, it's not impossible. But his design is so larger-than-life it may be kind of alienating for the audience. Delivery and tact are key here.


Character development is pretty much one of the best things ever if done properly. When I draw/write, it's my favorite process.

Coelasquid said...

Yeah, I think using Radcliffe as an example, you get why you see very few fans of him as compared to say, Frollo, Jafar, Gaston, or any of the other popular Disney baddies who had more human qualities to them. Frollo was the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do parental figure, Jafar was sick of catering to the whims of a superior who was clearly of lesser intelligence than himself, Gaston was the hometown-hero captain-of-the-football-team type. Radcliffe's who motivation was "I'm racist and I want money", so it's fun to watch him fail but you don't see him show up on many "favourite villain" lists.

Zlukaka: I think you can tell if a character has too many powers if you can't really challenge them anymore. Interesting stories are built out of conflict, so if your character is just a Swiss Army Knife of magical powers that can get them out of any situation, you can't write interesting stories about them because there's nothing that can stand in their way.

Creature SH: If you haven't seen it already, you might want to check out the DC Realworlds comics. They're not exact parallels of the comic heroes they're supposed to reflect, but it's kind of a cool concept. Like the Superman character is a nerd that everyone picks on, and as a heinous practical joke some of his tormentors get him drunk and get a big superman logo tattooed on his chest, and since they're in a super conservative 40's kinda town it ends up totally destroying his life. Eventually he ends up in prison, bulks up really huge and gains some confidence, and ends up drawing from the experience to help the people in the community and keep crime down once he gets out. "Batman" is a mentally retarded man who pretends he's a superhero while he's working his job at the grocery store and tries to help people in "peril". He reunites with a girl who used to pretend to be his sidekick when they were little, but has fallen on hard times and is involved with an abusive boyfriend. She wants him to mind his own business, but the Batman character just sees that his "Robin" is in trouble and is determined to save her. The last one I saw was the Justice League one that follows a group of people who used to play Justice league together when they were little kids, but years later at a halloween party after they've all kind of become jaded adults.

Every single one of the stories is really cute and feel-good. They cover some heavy subject matter, but they all have happy endings so it doesn't feel bogged down with all that SRS BUSINESS comics are plagued with these days.

Creature SH said...

The DC Realworlds thing sounds very interesting. Oddly enough, I'd never heard of it until now, so thank you very much for pointing it out! I'll definitely go looking around Ebay and the other usual sources.

In a sidenote on that SRS BUSINESS... Actually, don't even get me started. You just know that something's going very wrong when the "gritty realism" is taken so far that it loops back to utter absurdity.

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Anonymous said...

Wow, I have never thought of character design in this way. I have always appreciated the hero that has a tragic flaw, and the villains that are "human" rather then a "monster" have a much more gripping character. Comparing the creation of a good character to one that follows Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs really puts things in perspective. For myself in particular this article strikes a bit of a chord. I have been considering for some time about creating something, a story created from my own imagination. That is the idea, but the process is still in the primordial stage of development. My "characters", though they would be more accuratly described as slightly coherent ideas of what I would want my characters to be,go through near constant change. The thing I think have tried to do so far is to create a character that is so omnipotently powerful that it ends up destroying itself. I create a character that I want to be the best, giving it unbeatalbe abilities, that it becomes hard to fit in real character let alone placing the character into a belivable storyline. So to get to the point of this comment, that whole comparison just made so much sense, and seems so simple in retrospect that I feel like I will have a better grasp next time I try to put pen to paper. So basically thanks for putting things into prespective, and sorry about this rambling essay.

Coelasquid said...

Hey, no problem, It's fun to hear people think out loud. I'm glad that I helped you sort some things out!

Kosh said...

This is a nice summary of a basic writing concept that CONSTANTLY gets overlooked in even major published/produced media, from books to movies. Mark Millar, we're looking at you.

A great (if geeky) resource for people interested in better developing their characters can be found in a few sourcebooks for tabletop RPing games. I'm not even a big tabletop player, but I've been blown away by some of the great writing advice and character help these books give. The Complete Book of Villains (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition) is probably the best one I've ever come across. Get a digital or physical copy of it if you can!

Coelasquid said...

I could probably talk to one of my friends about that one! He's a seasoned DM with an extensive library for the game.