I’d had this post planned for a while since Kafka is one of my all-time favorite authors, but it seemed an appropriate moment for some words relating to senseless systemic oppression and hopelessness. All dreariness aside, I’ve always admired Kafka’s subtle wit and absurdity. These words may not be as showy as some of my previous, but they evoke an anxiety and restlessness that I think we can all relate to these days. I collected these words mainly from this translation of the Castle.
Today we will combine the results of our last few exercises to analyze our characters’ relationships. In my examples I use the zodiacexercises, and the likes/dislikes from the Del Toro post. However, this can apply to any character profiles/information, as long as it’s applied evenly to all characters.
First, open the profiles of two characters you want to compare. Scrivener’s split screen function is helpful, but simply putting the windows side-by-side works too. You may find one character’s profile is shorter, so you can fill it out to match.
Now that we’ve learned how to assign zodiac signs to our characters, today we come to the fun bit– matchmaking! This isn’t just for romantic partners, you can ‘matchmake’ any character with another, seeing where they get along and where their personalities would clash. This exercise can deepen shallow relationships– in what ways might your MC agree with the villain? How is the perfect couple not-so-perfect?
A while back, film director Guillermo del Toro tweeted character profiles he’d written for several of his characters. It was a fascinating look at how much work he puts into his characters, and a unique method. In this post I will discuss his profiles, including one aspect that I really, really love, and will include a template .doc profile in his style.
Even if you think the stars only tell us when our birthdays are, this is a fun exercise that could give you some insight into your characters. This is also a starting point for future zodiac-themed exercises.
To begin, you will choose your characters’ signs. Don’t go by their actual birthdays — read about the signs and find one that suits your character’s personality. There are a lot of guides out there, but some astrology sites are a bit shady. I recommend Google image searching ‘zodiac personalities’ etc to get some visual guides. For an example, here are some traits:
When we focus on realism in writing, we can hew too close to actual human speech with all its attendant ums, uhs, and y’knows. Even if we edit these superfluous words out, we might still feel tied to certain conventions. In a movie, you might see a conversation between two characters where one is telling a story.
CHARACTER A: “So, words words words words words.”
CHARACTER B: “Oh yeah?”
CHARACTER A: “Yeah, so then words words words words words.”
CHARACTER B: “Uh huh.”
CHARACTER A: “Then words words words words!”
CHARACTER B: “Oh wow.”
This makes sense in visual media like comics or films, because we see the other character sitting there silent. However, we can typically read faster than someone can speak, so these pauses don’t feel as noticeable in writing. It’s good to break up big paragraphs, but you can lose a lot of the beats and superfluous exchanges. For an example, here’s some unedited dialogue from a story of mine.
Everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure, (or at least mine!) can’t be accused of tepid, flavorless writing. I haven’t read her ghostwriter’s work, but have enjoyed the cheesy, melodramatic fun of her original books. Today’s words have been taken from my favorite of her books, My Sweet Audrina.
Based on that famous quote, many writers feel obligated to slaughter their casts lest someone find them weak or sentimental. The quote was meant more generally, as in removing anything the writer enjoys that might not serve the story, but most have taken it to mean sending their poor characters to the gallows. I take some issue with the broader idea, (a topic for a future post,) but I take particular issue with needless character death.
Some characters are so doomed by common conventions that I’m shocked when they survive. The sickly childhood friend, the wise sensei, the caring mother– all seemed fated for early graves. While character death can drive plots and provide motivation, it is often used for shock value and weak plot devices. (See Women in Refrigerators.) Other times it’s used to prune sprawling casts, create a sense of danger, or to liven up the proceedings. Judicious character murder can be essential, and horror and mystery all but require at least a modest death toll. But if you think it’s just what’s expected, don’t do it. Or at least, think twice.
It may be controversial for a horror writer to suggest reconsidering killing a character. After all, I’m a fan of some slasher flicks, where the prime content seems to be nothing but character death. But killing a character can be a cheap trick– an easy way out of a difficult scene. Let’s say there’s this obnoxious character that keeps hindering the MC’s plans. You could drop an anvil on them; problem solved. But will that be a satisfying event, or just make the reader roll their eyes? Must your young character be orphaned before her big adventure? While it could be an important motivation, it might be a convenient removal of the roadblocks loving parents might pose. Don’t kill characters to make it easier for you to write. Stories are all about conflict– what if those loving parents go out searching for the adventurer and get in trouble? What if they send someone to find her? There are a lot of interesting events you could miss out on.
I feel sympathy for those doomed characters. Why can’t the sensei retire happily for once? The disabled or sickly character could live a fulfilling life despite their problems. The eager little brother could join the adventure instead of becoming a tragic backstory. Sometimes you can subvert expectations by not killing a character. If the reader expects them to die, it diminishes the shock value. And the characters who die at the end of the book– was it necessary? We can still worry for their safety without the follow-through. No one expects the main character to die in that first battle on page 30, yet it can still be exciting. Are you killing the character just because it feels like the obvious thing to do?
In a subsequent post I’d like to address the idea that bleak, tragic endings are more serious and literary than upbeat ones. For now, I will offer my opinion — we live in bleak times; let those doomed characters catch a break for once. Consider killing that dashing adventurer; they’ve had it easy for far too long!
Have you ever felt like a character was being a useless slug who’s dragging your whole scene down? Or maybe you could just use a fresh perspective to break through your writer’s block. Unlike the previous block-breakers, this exercise will be more for your reference than generating words for your draft itself. It may still give you the boost you need to forge ahead through a tricky spot.
In a nutshell: re-write a troublesome scene from another character’s perspective. Try switching to first person if you’re currently writing in third, to get more of their unspoken thoughts. You could write it in another color directly in your draft, or separately. Go through the whole scene, step-by-step, imagining this character’s reactions. You might decide they’d say something different, or even take a whole new course of action. Go with it! If you don’t like where it goes, back up and try again.
When you’re satisfied, look at your original draft. See that character in the back, sitting silently with their hands folded? What might be different now that you know what they’re thinking? Maybe your POV character will notice and behave differently too.
Maybe you can’t get anyone to beta-read for you. Maybe your friends and family are dragging their feet about looking at your short story. Maybe no one ever asks how you’re progressing or even asks you what your new book is about. This is a common experience for all artists, writers included.
People who don’t create can forget that books/films/comics/games are created by the hard work of other human beings and not sprung fully formed from the mind of some genius. People are absorbed in their own lives and anything outside their experience is difficult to relate to, or even imagine. Someone not showing interest in your art isn’t necessarily out of malice or disinterest in you as a person. They might be deeply interested in what you’re up to, but just forget about it in the moment.
However, I know for me, no amount of evidence to the contrary can completely dissuade the ‘no one cares’ feeling. Even if people say they are eagerly waiting for my next release, I think ‘yeah right.’ So for this post, let’s assume that in fact, literally no one cares. Your writing is still worth doing. Here’s why…