As far as short films go, this next one is pretty great. Intriguing storyline, amazing effects, and decent acting. This is one of those films I’d love to see turned into a full length feature!
Also, I started playing this game last night called Brain Wars, and I can already foresee that I’m going to become a hermit and play this obsessively. Well, actually… I’m already a hermit, but now it’s gonna get reaaaal hermity.
It’s a free app and you can play against friends and strangers. I recommend you pick it up and then comment at the bottom with your friend code so we can play against each other!
A good story needs at least one of two things: a good plot or good characters. Ideally you’d get both, but beggars can’t be choosers. Well, actually, they can…but they shouldn’t. For instance, if you’re panhandling outside Chipotle and I bring you a chicken burrito, I don’t want to hear any complaints about how you’re a vegetarian or gluten free.
Take my damned burrito and be thankful. Consequently, that is one of my more popular pick-up lines. It’s never worked, but it makes me giggle.
Anyways, we’re skidding out of control and getting dangerously off topic here, so let’s focus, yeah? Good, stop blowing bubbles with your spittle and listen up. We’ve talked previously about generating ideas for your stories (Don’t remember? Figures… click here), and I can’t comment on whether or not you’ll drudge up a great plot from that exercise, but you’ve got a start in the right direction so keep going and eventually you’ll stumble out of the wilderness.
Or atleast, that’s the hope.
So, let’s talk about writing good characters now and suss out what exactly that even means. The title of this post is “Writing Likable Characters” but that’s sort of misleading because characters don’t actually have to be likable. They can be despicable.
If we loathe them for all the right reasons. When done correctly, it sucks us into the story like we’re watching a train wreck of horrible, no hope of turning away. In this case, our characters is doing a good job, he’s a good character.
Some writers claim that there has to be something redeemable about your character, something the reader can latch onto, a source of similarity from which a sympathetic relationship can spawn. Those writers are absolutely….correct, to a point!
We’ll use Darth Vader here for a quick example. He starts off as this mass-murdering sociopath (a role he never really grows out of), but by the end of the original Star Wars trilogy we understand him a bit better, and ultimately we relate to him based on the sacrifice he makes to save Luke.
Conversely, the Joker, from the Batman series, is a mass-murdering sociopath who we, as the reader, have a hard time understanding and commiserating with. He’s a terrifying villain for precisely the same reasons that the Alien from Aliens is, it’s because they’re so foreign to us. So unrelatable.
That makes them great for the role they play in the story, but ultimately we don’t really care what happens to them. We aren’t invested in their story, and truth be told, we’re just rooting against them the majority of the time.
A quick counterpoint to that would be Two-Face, Harvey Dent, from the Batman universe, who is a mass-murdering sociopath, but with a back story we can sympathize with. Given the correct circumstances, it’s not so hard imagining any one of us becoming the horrible monster that is Two-Face.
Eh, maybe he’s got a point?
And that’s what you’re looking for in a good villain. A terrifying persona that we can empathize with. Those are the ones that really get under our skin. Think back to Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker; the majority of Luke’s struggle in the second movie is an internal one as he fights against what he could so easily become.
We all have monsters lurking inside of us, and I think this is the launching off point for writing a good, likable character. Even the good-guys have inner demons they’re constantly fighting against. When those demons are rooted in the real world, when they are issues any of us could struggle against, then we have a sympathetic character.
That right there is a huge take-away; you’re character needs to be sympathetic. If they aren’t, then they are probably a caricature, possibly of evil (the Joker), or they are boring.
Readers don’t want boring.
One of the most despicable characters of any story I’ve ever read is Gully Foyle from The Stars My Destination by Alfred Besser. This guy murders, rapes, and pillages. In general, he’s a horrible human being. A dubious starting point for any main character. Even worst, he’s unrepentant. He doesn’t even feel bad about what he is.
He is so consumed by a perceived injustice against his person that he will literally stop at nothing to have his revenge. As a reader we understand his single-minded focus, perhaps from a slightly removed position that makes it hard to relate to his actions, but we get it.
Now, the thing about Gully is that eventually he realizes the horror of his ways, grows a conscience, and seeks to make amends. Which is probably the most important aspect of writing a good, likable character: they need to grow.
If by the end of a story the main character hasn’t changed, hasn’t learned from their actions, then the reader will be upset, and deservedly so.
A famous writers, who’s name I can’t recall, once said that the story you’re writing should be the most important event in the life of your main character up to that point. If it’s not, then you’re telling the wrong story. With that in mind, if you reach the end of your story and your character hasn’t changed, or grown, in an appreciable way, then you’ve done something wrong.
Life changes us. Ignoring that fact is a surefire way to write a lame character.
How is your character growing as the story goes on? You need to ask yourself this question often, because in a lot of ways it’ll serve as an internal guide for your story.
Writing likable characters is not about them saying the right thing, or doing the right thing. As individuals we rarely say, or do, the right thing. But we try. And that’s an important takeaway, your character needs try. They try to do the right thing, and they fail. They try to do the wrong thing and they succeed. One way or another they are not static participants in the world you’ve created, pushed around by destiny’s broom.
They are active agents for change, which is what we as readers can relate too. We want to be agents of change in our own lives, but often that feels impossible. We’re stuck at our jobs, or tethered to the mistakes of our past, our families need us in a way that stifle our sense of self and individuality. These are real struggles we all encounter and can relate too.
So, take your characters and ground them in the familiar, root their struggles in the relatable, and then show how they resist. How they try to outgrow their circumstances.
Do they always succeed? No, that would be disingenuous. Sometimes they fail, and that can make for just as great of a story.
Alright, so get down to the comments and tell me, what are some of your favorite characters and why? Who are some of your least favorite characters and why?
I’ll be honest, the first couple Fantastic Four movies kind of sucked. That’s not helped by the fact that in the grand pantheon of Marvel Superhero’s the Fantastic Four are kind of lame, but hey, what can I say? I’m a sucker for a superhero movie (yes, I watched Daredevil with Ben Affleck multiple times, and yes, I still hate myself for it. Shame doesn’t wash off easy).
Anyways, here’s the trailer for the new Fantastic Four. A couple things right off the bat. I like that they went with a younger cast. From the looks of it, they tried to diversify, by which I mean they added a token black guy as The Thing. <– Sarcasm.
At some point Hollywood is gonna catch up with the rest of the world and realize adding a single minority character doesn’t make a story diverse. *sigh* Some day.
Also, if quizzed, I couldn’t possibly tell you what this particular film is about. Looks like an origin story, but beyond that? *shrug*
Yep, it’s that time of the year again: Award Season. In the months to come, for those paying attention, there will be a truly impressive smattering of Awards swirling about. If you catch a Hugo or Oscar across your dome-piece, don’t act as if you weren’t given fair warning, ‘cause pretty soon it’s gonna be like an Awardmaggedon up in this piece.
Travel outside at your own peril.
Anyways, I’ve never been all that into Awards, writing or otherwise (especially in a medium as subjective as writing/art). In basketball or football, sure, with an army of statistics to back you up, one can make a compelling argument as to who was the most valuable player of the year, but how do you do that with writing?
Books and movies are interesting in so far as they are truly subjective. Case in point, The Southern Reach Trilogy, touted by many pundits as one of the best series of 2014, barely made a blip on my radar. Does that mean I have bad taste? Or maybe everybody else is wrong and the books just aren’t that good?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle, orbiting the always frustrating “both”. And this is where choosing the best books of 2014 gets really murky, ‘cause let’s be honest, of all the books to be nominated for all the various awards this year, how many of those have you actually read? How many have the judges actually read?
Has anybody read them all? Can anybody make an objective decision? No way. Impossible. Frustratingly so.
So, what happens? Well, it’s kind of the same old, same old. The authors who’ve gained a suitable following and are known within the community will consistently get nominated for awards, and within that fractional cross-cut of nominations certain authors will consistently win
Does that mean they are unworthy? Not at all. They got to where they are by being fantastic writers. I’m not trying to take anything away from them. But rather, I want to be honest that when we’re talking about the best books of 2014, we’re not really taking all the books, or even worthy books, into consideration.
To make the point, let’s take a look at the past decade or so of the Hugo’s (the grand poobah of awards within the Science Fiction/Fantasy realm).
Michael Swanwick won the Hugo for best novelette in 2003 and 2004. The year before he won for best short story. Two years before that he also won for best short story. How about the year before that? Yeah, you guessed it… best short story. So, in ‘99, 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004 Michael Swanwick consistently beat out thousands of other worthy rivals. That’s impressive, surely he must be the exception.
Or is he?
Neil Gaiman, (a fantastic writer), won for short story in 2004. Best Novella in 2003. Best Novel in 2002. Three years running, not shabby.
Now, Michael Swanwick and Neil Gaiman are deserving of every accolade they receive, no doubt. But how can two authors in a 5 year span, win 8 awards?
Are they truly that much better than all the rest? Well, let’s go a bit more recent and take a look at nominations that made it to the finals.
China Mieville was nominated for Best Novel in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2010, and 2012. 5 nominations in a decade.
John Scalzi was nominated in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2013. 4 nominations in 7 years.
Robert J. Sawyer 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2010. 6 nominations in 11 years. Wow! That must be a record.
Charles Stross has been nominated and made it to finalist status for Best Novel in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, oh and again in 2014. 7 nominations in a decade, with 6 of those being in a row. No winners, yet.
Okay, okay, so the same guys get nominated every year, what of it? Should we just throw in the towel and hand them the award?
Not so quickly, ‘cause here’s another little stat that will blow your mind.
In 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010 (sort of), 2011, 2012, and 2014, the winner of Best Novel were writers who had NEVER made it to the finals before.
What? Take 2008 for instance. Charles Stross, John Scalzi, and Robert J. Sawyer (who between the three have a combined 17 nominations!) lost to Michael Chabon who had NEVER, ever, ever, made it to the finals.
So what do these wonky numbers tell us? Well, if you don’t win the Hugo’s on your first time in the finalist circle, then you’re probably not gonna win for quite sometime. But no fear, you’ll keep getting nominated indefinitely, you may just never win.
Sorry, Charles Stross.
Consequently, Michael Chabon hasn’t made it back into the finalist circle.
You win some, you lose some.
What’s the point of all this? Who cares?
Meh, I only care a little bit and even that is fairly forced. If somebody wants to give me an award, I’ll take it, but beyond that I can’t summon the strength to really get all that interested. So, instead, I’m gonna give my own awards.
Here ya go, the first annual “Lazy Robots”.
But since I think it’s really dumb choosing just one (and why should I even have to? Huh? Tell me, why?) I’m gonna give you the top ten books of 2014.
Consequently, the only stipulation for being eligible for a Lazy Robot is that the book had to have been written prior to 2015, and I read it sometime in 2014. Arbitrary? Yes, but they are my awards so suck it up.
Sorry, no time traveling books from 2097 trying to sneak into the 2014 Lazy Robot line-up. Time traveling is cheating.
But mostly cheating.
Okay. Here’s the top ten list of 2014. Every book on here I would unequivocally recommend for your reading enjoyment.
BLACKBIRDS – Chuck Wendig
The Night Circus
Lies of Locke Lamora
The Book Thief
All You Need Is Kill
The Name of the Wind
There ya have it, one really long winded blog post, and ten book recommendations. Not a terrible ratio. What were some of your favorite books of 2014?
Now for the moment you’ve been anxiously awaiting all week: Books of the Week! Yaay! Let’s cut the shenanigans and get right down to business.
1) Authority – Jeff Vandermeer (For those wanting some moody science fiction)
Authority is Book Two in the Southern Reach Trilogy. Now, for those of you with good memories, you’ll recall my thoughts on Annihilation (Book One) were all over the place. The writing is fantastic and sets one of the most depressive moods I’ve experienced in book form, but I had serious doubts about the story-line–namely, I was gripped by the fear that I would get to the end and none of the original questions raised in book one would be answered.
But, I’m persistent, and The Southern Reach trilogy is being hailed by alot of really smart folks as one of the best series of 2014 so I figured I owed it to myself to atleast complete the series.
Authority picks up right after Annihilation following an entirely new character who, just like in the first book, is sort of unlikable and…weird? I don’t know the best way to describe the character who chooses to refer to himself as ‘Control’.
Authority left me with a lot of the same feelings that Annihilation did. Very depressive as the mood sustained throughout the book is melancholy ladled in thick spoonfuls. Some questions were sort of answered, but more questions were raised than before. Weird questions that didn’t really matter, in my eyes.
Anyways, I stuck it out and gave the story 4 stars based on the writing alone, with the possibility that the series could be fantastic depending on how Vandermeer wraps it up in the third book….which brings us to the next book of the week.
2) Acceptance – Jeff Vandermeer (For those who liked Annihilation and Authority)
This is it, the finale of the Southern Reach Trilogy and the book that I figured from the beginning the whole series would come down too. And?
Well, l hate it when my expectations are met, specifically when I expect the worst. Unfortunately Acceptance offered vague explanations that ultimately make very little sense. The writing is, again, fantastic. Very moody and visceral, so if you’re into atmospheric reads, this could be for you.
But if you’re looking for a story that wraps up with a pretty bow on top, look elsewhere. I’m no stranger to stories like this ending by leaving the reader to fill in somegaps, but I’m sorry, I won’t abide by a story that doesn’t answer the big questions raised in the first chapter of the first book.
I feel strung along, and sort of used. Those aren’t good feelings to come away from a book with, which I think is why the Southern Reach trilogy has such hot/cold reviews. It’s divisive and I think that’s great, I just wish I wasn’t on the negative side of that divide. Bummer, I had high hopes, but, again, if you remember from my Annihilation write-up, I knew this was coming.
3) The Cat Who Walks Through Walls – Robert Heinlein (for those who like witty dialogue, strong female leads, and weird gender relations)
If you’d asked me in the first fifteen chapters I would have told you I love this story! The dialogue is amazing, full of witty snark that I eat up like movie theater popcorn; the story was intriguing; the world was creative and well thought out; and the characters were both strong willed individuals moving through the world with agency. I love these types of stories.
So what’s the problem? Around halfway the book just took the hardest left turn I’ve ever suffered through. I gripped the oh-shit bar for dear life as this thing started swerving like a 14 year old driving for the first time after half a dozen Zima’s.
Hang on, I don’t know where this is going!!!
The story that occurs in the second half of the story has nothing to do with the first half, which was the more intriguing half by far. In fact, at about 3/4 of the way I realized there wasn’t really a plot. There were just characters doing stuff that they claimed to be important but without any proof to support the supposition. Also, the witty dialogue continued throughout.
Which is cool, but here’s the thing about witty dialogue: snarky banter is fun, but it’s not enough to support an entire story. Sorry, it’s just not. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way so I figured I’d save you some time and just let you know upfront.
It’s a bummer, ’cause I LOVE Heinlein, but you should avoid this. Truly.