Tag Archives: writing character

contradictions of character: the good kind

Tim Riggins. Ah, Tim Riggins. It’s like someone reached inside my subconscious and constructed the perfect teenage boy to break my teenage heart.

But enough about me.

Friday Night Lights is (mostly) masterful when it comes to character. The show is built around the marriage of Coach and Mrs Coach, which aims somewhere between a very realistic portrayal of actual marriage, and a kind of ├╝ber-marriage that we can all aspire to. There are so many moments between these two that are so pitch-perfect it gives you tingles (or a goofy smile) to watch them.

I think part of what makes their characters so brilliant is that they are full of contradictions. My teacher recently spoke about this idea – that you don’t only want to know your character’s attributes and backstory and personality and motivation, you also want to know in what small ways they are contradictory. It wasn’t something I’d ever really thought about before, but it works like a crazy thing.

Take Tim Riggins, for example. He’s bad enough, hot enough, oblivious enough, boyish enough to be the stuff of fantasies. But the moment that made my infatuation official was this:

He’s been punished for something-or-other by having to help out at the girls gymnastics competition. It’s a local thing, very low-budget, very much outwith his usual spectrum. The guidance councillor walks in to check on him, and we see his frustration – with having to be there, we think.

“How’s it going?” she asks him.

“It’s terrible,” he replies. Okay, we think, of course he find this terrible. This is Tim Riggins, for god’s sake. Then he adds, “We’re only getting an 8.6 – they’re kicking our ass.”

You do not expect him to invest anything in amateur girls gymnastics. The fact that he does makes him utterly irresistible.

And, as I think is probably true of most contradictions of character, at a deeper level it’s not contradictory at all. It’s very true of his competitive spirit, but mostly that drive is obscured by his bad behaviour. So in a way it’s a moment where we get to see him clearly – we get to see a sign of the life below the exterior. Which is what good writing’s all about.

the brilliance of Terry Pratchett

when I was young and my older brother was reading Terry Pratchett, and my younger brother was about to start reading Terry Pratchett, his books still had those dizzying, vulgar (I’m not sure whether I mean that in a positive or negative sense, but I’m sure that’s the right word) covers. I thought for years that his books must be a surreal and adult romp through some incomprehensible world.

Not all of that impression was wrong, but having now read almost every Discworld book, I know that not much of it was right.

I’m reading his second-to-latest book at the mo, Unseen Academicals, and it’s coming home to me all over again, just how well he writes characters. Specifically, characters who are pretending to be something they’re not – or pretending not to be what they are.

(I realise those last two pretty much say the same thing, but there is a huge difference. It reminds me of an anecdote Michael Caine tells about his early days of acting. He was on the stage doing his very best “drunk man walking”, when the director stopped him. “I see a sober man walking in a squiggly line,” the director said (though he may not have used the word “squiggly”). “I want to see a drunk man walking in a straight line.”

Both amount to the same thing, but are completely different. The difference between a character putting their energy into pretending to be something they’re not, and putting their energy into pretending not to be what they are is what makes Terry Pratchett great.)

His characters are complex. They are unreliable narrators, because they’re not always honest with themselves about who (or what) they really are. Their motivations are not what they appear to be. Or else they have two opposing motivations, and you never know which one will out. It’s nature v nurture battling it out inside one consciousness.

It creates narrative traction like nobody’s business, because whilst you’re following the bigger-picture narrative and trying to figure that out, you’re also working away in the back of your mind on what this character is hiding from you. It never feels coy, because they’re almost always hiding it from themselves, too.

Very often, when the conflicting parts of a character come to a head, there’s a moment where free will determines the outcome of this one struggle, which most likely determines the outcome of a larger struggle. A character’s own nature sets the stage and writes the drama for their own moment of epiphany.

The next thing is figuring out how the hell he does it.

and the heartbreak continues…

I’m reading Lover Unbound just now, and still mourning the separation of Butch and Vishous. Makes it hard to engage with V’s woman, but more about that tomorrow….

Coming back to the book after my evening of class and choir, I had this odd feeling like I couldn’t remember what had happened so far. How the characters had come to be where they were in the book.

I started to panic just a little, book nerd that I am, hoping I would still be able to be inside the story, even with my curious case of amnesia.

It got me wondering: is reading a story like learning the alphabet? You have to forget it all over again in order to read the whole. If a character and their journey is truly well-drawn, does it matter whether you remember the particular events, as long as you intimately know the character as they are now – as a changed, transforming thing?

I think this is what agent Donald Maass is talking about when he writes:

A true journey is not just all that we experience but how we understand it: our minds in nova, our hearts seeking peace.

character building

A couple of posts ago I was thinking about narrative tension, and how as a reader we want the conflict/problem to be resolved, when actually it’s the fact that it’s not solved yet that keeps us reading.

Well I just read this article by Doris Egan, one of the writers on House, that takes that idea further – to an interesting, complex place.

She suggests that the interest isn’t so much in the hero solving the problem, as in how the hero adapts to the problem.

I won’t paraphrase the whole article, because I couldn’t do it nearly so well as she does, but it’s definitely worth a read. One of the best frameworks for building believable characters that I’ve seen for a while.