Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Out Of Character

At times you can reach a point in your story (whether it be a script, novel, storyboard, personal roleplay, or comic book boards) where you want a particular course of action to take place, but once you write it out it doesn’t quite work. There can be plenty of reasons why this is so. Perhaps the action is too contrived (Are aliens arriving in the midst of the unicorn cabal? Have you set up previously the idea that aliens might like to hang out with unicorns, or are you dumping them on the reader like an unwelcome house guest that has a tendency to pee in the potted palms when no one is looking?). Perhaps the action is arriving too early or too late within the plot and you need some major structural surgery. Or perhaps it can be one of the simplest sins and Character X has just done something that he or she would never do.

Just because you are the god of your own little paper and pencil world does not mean that you can whimsically tear it down whenever you feel like it (and if what we just read on the last page was “it was all just a dream” I’m looking at you...hard).

Action needs to flow naturally from the behavior of your characters, and basically within stories there are two types of action - what I’m going to dub internal forces and external forces. Charming Aside: I’m fairly certain other writers/instructors have tackled this concept, and even given the same or similar names to these forces, but I’m going to take a lazy pass and blame the zeitgeist on this one. That’s right, I’m not even freaking Googling this. In any case internal forces are actions that are motivated from the characters within a story, while external forces are actions that are motivated from the world that the characters inhabit. A hurricane is usually an external force. The hurricane can be a perfectly natural occurrence for a crew of people to experience out by some coastal town. That same hurricane can become an internal force if Character Y is a charming elemental-channeling sorceress bringing down the hurricane to devastate her fellow cohorts - either wittingly or unwittingly. Here’s where the fun comes in.

Is Character Y malevolent because of some past event and she’s out seeking meteorological revenge? Is she a bumbling ditz (beloved by virtually all Japanese animated series) who tried to water her sunflowers and got off to a bad start? Or did you just want her to summon a hurricane because you needed something spicy and wet happening on page seventeen? Normally I’d recommend another diversion if you need some mindless spicy/wet combinations (burritos are excellent you perverts), but if you absolutely need a hurricane there, you’re going to have to do some soul-searching. And by that I mean you’re going to have to search the souls of the characters you’ve created.

It can feel pointless and frustrating to list a bunch of likes and dislikes of a character at times. You don’t really need to know Nancy Drew’s favorite ice cream flavour in most situations if you’re trying to figure out how she’d react to uncovering secret military silos. However, you do need to know what your character would tend to prefer, want, or detest overall. Start big and then narrow it down from there to distill out the information you really need. If you have honestly examined your story and the way your characters are behaving and still find the action coming off badly, then perhaps something else is lurking amongst the lines and symbols, wrecking havoc on your sweet little world. If that is the case gentle readers, then you might need to break out the bigger scalpels.

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