Thursday, October 13, 2011

How To Microwave Interesting Characters In About Four Minutes

I had a feeling Transformers 1 and 2 were going to suck out of the gate but I ponied up anyway.  And I'll actually sit here and defend the first film.  Dumb as hell, but the final fight in the city was awesome and even Shia leBouf was kinda funny sometimes.

But then here comes Revenge of the Fallen and oh God why.  The big hooplah was that two of the robots were racist caricatures.  The big hooplah we should've raised instead should've been about "oh this writing is five-year-old territory" or "well Hop on Pop might've made a more thrilling PG-13 film than this."  (And this is the part where you ignore that Cat in the Hat movie and pretend it happened entirely in an alternate universe, which was then collapsed by an all-powerful deity.)  I haven't even seen Dark of the Moon but I heard it actually tanked more, which I didn't think was even possible.  Then again I guess if you want a wizard of mediocrity, Micheal Bay's got those spells memorized for life.

So here's my point.  They say we should make interesting characters for fiction, like our novels and RPG scenarios and game scripts, but sometimes we're all lazy so we reach for old hat.  Making good characters is tough stuff, no doubt.  But I am one of a new breed of lazy people.  If there's a simple, systematic way to get great results, I'm all over that.  And during my quest to make writing great characters way, WAY easier, I stumbled upon a great trick.  By itself it makes more interesting characters out of the box, but you can easily use the results as a starting point for further fix-it-ups.

Here's what you do.

1.  Throw down a stereotype.  High schooler who can't talk to women, fat guy married to hot wife.  Just get something down to work with.

2.  Now, twist the expectation.  I got this from Orson Scott Card and I have used it ever since.  By expectation, I mean what the audience usually expects.  So Dorklad can't talk to women.  Why?  Oh, uh...he's just a goof.  That's the normal expectation.  Pass.  Change the answer.  So maybe now the geeky nerd can't talk to women because he's misogynist and proud of it.  Or maybe he thinks they're all shallow and only values REAL relationships.  You see what I mean.

3.  Do this ten, twenty times with different details.  Pick at least the third answer that pops in your head each time.  First two answers are usually more stereotypes and we're trying to avoid those.  So now he doesn't offer lame comebacks to bullies.  Maybe he's Zen, thinks there's better stuff in life to fuss over.  Or maybe it gets to him, BUT he's so smart, he usually sets up a gambit to get revenge like a chessmaster.  Just try something besides "W-Well, YOU'RE a butt too!"

I'll stress my disclaimer now: this may not get you supremely intricate characters.  But a half hour's thought sure made something cool to work with, right?  From there you can easily toss this guy into situations and watch him fumble, see what he does now that you've got enough to work with.  And for scenarios and scripts, this is your instant-NPC-in-a-bottle right here that isn't just "Welcome to Cornelia!" guard number four.  Your world will seem more alive and feasible with a few dozen unique, if simple, folk running about.

I'll do it right now with a character.  Name: Arnold Winchester.  Stereotype: snooty old white American businessman.  What do you expect from this guy?  He's rich, has a big house, wife and two adult children, a yacht, dabbles in the financial on and so forth.

Let's change things up.

1.  He doesn't have a big house.  He actually lives in normal suburbia.  Why?  He loves the energy of activity around him.  Hearing children play outside, hearing the neighbor mow his lawn, having the radio and TV on while he charges him up.

2.  Let's keep him in the financial district.  But he didn't work to where he was from the ground-up, he was given his assets by family.  Now let's imagine that, eager to learn and create his own success, he's maintaining his assets while building another company on the side, learning as he goes.  No, better idea.  He's working as an unknown to take over someone else's company, learning as he goes.  Evil, yes.  To him it's just business.

3.  But then again, ruthless old businessmen bore me.  Let's change it again.  He's back to building another business, but not to validate himself.  He knows he can do it.  He's just going to give the business as a present to a woman he wants to charm.  What better way to show your intelligence than to build something incredibly successful like that?  She'll get a kick out of his smarts.

4.  This raises another question.  If he's trying to charm this woman, where's his family?  Does he even have one?  You assume he either never married or got divorced or they were killed or whatever.  Here's a notion: what if this guy married a woman whose husband was AWOL, and then the husband came back?  Well, now this woman's torn, because she likes her husband, but Arnold's a swell guy too.  Arnold doesn't want to deny her the love her husband can provide, so he willingly divorces her and is now questing to find something else.  And maybe that business he's building is a parting gift.  That's rife for relationship drama.

I just sat down and blathered on paper, twisting expectations, and already I've got some interesting stuff to explore.  If I shot down a few more birds I could have a full character to run with.  The point is that I barely invested any effort, and here I am in happy-character land.

The next time you want to make a compelling character to drive your scenario, give this a shot.  Whatever you come up with, it'll probably be better than Revenge of the Fallen.  Domo Arigato for sucking, Ethnic Robot Sidekick.

But this is only one of many potential tricks.  What do you do to write decent characters without any hassle?  Or do you think toughing it out is the only way to make good characters?

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