I had an entry awhile ago about contrived situations writers will often use to create conflict in the story. I only listed four examples, and three were situations, and one was a character type (the drama llama). Inspired by a YouTube video, I got to thinking about other character types who exist only to create some kind of obstacle for the protagonist to overcome and hopefully don’t exist in real life. Unlike a trope, these characters exist solely to move the plot forward. Their motivations don’t make sense, their characterization is flat, and their appearance in the story is either lazy on the part of the writer or contrived, or sometimes both.
I take character development very seriously (possibly too seriously), as you may have guessed from previous entries. Comic books have a problem in particular because the stories take place in a shared universe. Novels, in theory, should be better because usually only one writer creates the characters and develops the characters. However, that’s not always true. So here’s how I approach writing characters and character development, and some issues I have with characters in various media (warning: this is not an exhaustive list and you may be subject to a sequel rant in the future).
1) Inspiration – Some authors, when giving advice, tell aspiring writers to write what they know even going so far as to base characters are real people in their lives. Some authors (Terry Pratchett, for example), reject this notion and try to write characters that are nothing like anyone they know in real life. I suspect this would be much harder to do than writing about people you know, but I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met like Granny Weatherwax, so maybe Pratchett can do it (on the other hand, I have known more than a few Magrats…). So, where do I fall on this spectrum of writing from knowledge and making up whole cloth? Somewhere in the middle, I think. Also, I will take inspiration from a lot of sources, which is a writer’s way of saying I come this close to plagiarizing, but not quite. That’s still writing from what I know, right? For example, the characters in one of my flash fiction stories bear a not-unintentional and strong resemblance to characters from a certain Hanna-Barbera cartoon I happen to heart (I was going to provide you lovely readers the link but the story is apparently only available by purchasing the magazine so I’ll tell the title was “Meddling Kids”).
The only exception to this thus far is Dave. At the end of Necromancy for the Greater Good, I acknowledge my friend and fellow writer Dave, who wrote some of the songs and provided inspiration for the character of Dave in the book (the character of Dave appears in any story with a song Dave wrote). In this case, I purposely incorporated a person I know in real life into a story (with his permission). It was my way of giving credit for a co-writer. Also, Dave’s a pretty cool guy and I think I faithfully represented his personality even if I changed some other details.
2) Reliance on Class/Race/Occupation Tropes – I discussed this a bit on my entry on the fantasy genre. This problem is when an author relies on tropes to convey character ideas to the reading audience instead of actually providing explanation. For example, the author says, “X is an elf” with no explanation as to what an elf is because the author assumes their audience knows what an elf is. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with using tropes. They make a handy short-cut, especially in shorter stories, but authors shouldn’t rely on them, especially if the author is using a slightly different definition of “elf” than might be generally accepted. This isn’t limited to fantasy, either. If an author says, “X is a soldier,” that still is such a broad trope the author should go into some more details.
3) Lack of character development – Part of the appeal of a character is how much their situation is relatable by the reading audience.
a) A character should change and grow as events in the story progress. That’s really the whole idea behind the classic “hero’s journey.” However, if the story starts with a hero and ends with an unchanged hero, the story can lack a dramatic element to connect the reader to the story. Or if the pig herder goes on the journey and still ends up the very same pig herder, then again the character development has been missed.
The stories I critiqued for Writer G (before our falling out) had this problem. Writer G’s characters tended to be pulled along by the narrative and reacted but didn’t grow. For example, in one story, the main characters were betrayed and reacted with shock. Then later in the story, the main characters were betrayed by the same people and reacted with the same shock as the first betrayal as though this had never happened before. Later still in the story, the main characters were betrayed a third time by the very same people and still reacted with exactly the same level of shock as though this had never happened before.
b) I really don’t like stories in which the characters reaction to the events and the events themselves are disproportionate. That is, if a character watches some horrible, terrible event involving the deaths of hundreds and shrugs it off as though s/he lost a sock in a dryer, that’s poor character development. Likewise, if a character loses a sock in a dryer and behaves as though they’ve witnessed the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, that’s poor development as well.
c) Mary Sues. In summary, this is common in fan fiction, but this character is one that is generally totally, ridiculously awesome from beginning to end and always has the skills/knowledge/power to save the day even though s/he seems initially unqualified. An example would be a yeoman in “Star Trek” suddenly knowing how to fix the warp drive even when Scottie (or La Forge) can’t fix the darn thing. Mary Sues don’t really change; the story exists to show off how awesome the Mary Sue actually is. This, by the way, is why the criticism of my lead female character in “Snow and Ashes” was pretty stinging. I can see where it might have come from because some Mary Sues do start of rather unassuming and then start flinging fireballs and stuff like that. However, I disagree with the assessment because the character was slowly growing into a demi-god, so she was supposed to gain powers over time. This is a very subjective trope, so your opinion may differ from mine.
Part of the reason I disliked the Mercedes Lackey stories Writer G suggested to me was that I felt the main characters were Mary Sues (although I didn’t have the trope name when I read those books). I read part of The Serpent’s Shadow, which as a Sayers fan annoyed me more than it might have otherwise. Set in Victorian England, the main character was a female half British/half Indian doctor with the ability to use magic. In order for the author to show how progressive she is, she has the main character pine for anachronistic medical advances like latex gloves and encourages her friend to start the field of pediatrics. These examples were clearly there to show how awesome the character was. That annoyed me. The urban fantasy story (Children of the Night), was worse. Everything Diana was or did was Special. She had Special powers. She lived in a Special house. She had a Special role in life. Those are Mary Sues, at least to me.
d) Informed Attribute – When a character is established to be a certain kind of person, say, Lawful Good (because I’m a geek that way) and does not behave within the parameters of a Lawful Good character. For example, the Lawful Good character routinely commits acts of theft or murder and yet the readers are still expected to consider this character Lawful Good. Basically, the audience only knows this character is supposed to be Lawful Good because they are informed by the author. A good movie example is Anakin Skywalker from the “Star Wars” prequels. In the particular example of the author telling the audience the character really is the good guy or nice guy, see specific forms of this trope “character shilling” and “designated hero.” Or, for a comic book example, Emma Frost is supposed to be a reformed villain (although with the direction the X-men has taken lately I’m not sure if that’s actually a correct statement anymore) but never acted any differently than she did as a villain.
e) When a character is established to be a certain kind of person, say, Lawful Good, and for most of the story is Lawful Good and then suddenly degenerates into a thieving murderer with pretty much no reason and the readers are supposed to believe this transformation. Poor, poor Cyclops. This “character development” to me is more accurately called “character assassination.” I have a LOT of problems with this in comic books. This doesn’t conflict with the idea of a character changing based on events of the story. I’m sure there are sequences of events that could drive a Lawful Good character down the path of evil. The key here is “sequence of events.” Characters that switch alignments with little provocation or time are not good characters (see, again [not literally of course] the “Star Wars” prequels).
4) NPCs (non-player characters). This is a problem in expansive novels (or sets of novels). Sometimes an author will get lazy and introduce a whole bunch of characters that seem to be created from a general template. This is related to the problem of relying on tropes, but the template idea is even more broad. It makes me think of the NPC templates gamemasters use to create one-off or story arc characters that really don’t matter in the larger scheme of the story. Or, to put it another way, Red Shirts. In novels, this results in characters who show up for the equivalent of a scene or two and then just die or disappear (or worse, we’re informed they’ve died) and the audience is supposed to have some sort of emotional reaction to a character that is really nothing more than a plot device or background scenery. Think of the opening scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the nightclub when the waiter bravely sacrifices himself for Indy. We just met this guy literally three seconds ago, and all he’s done is get killed, and Indy’s vowing vengeance or something. The scene is meant to be deeply emotional and it just falls flat.
This is pretty long, so I’ll just wrap up here. Right now my snark is exhausted, but there may be more later. Or maybe I’ll move on to ranting about other aspects of writing. Only my Muse knows…