I Heart Sketch Bags: Writing Broken Characters

Totally not sketchy.

Everyone I like is a sketch bag.

Not my friends—at least, not all of them. Friends, you know who among you is a sketch bag, and rest assured if I haven’t beaten you with a sock full of nickels yet I probably find it endearing—but my fictional characters. Some people gravitate towards the Captain Americas and Supermen of the fictional world.* I am not one of them.

No, give me your broken women and fucked-up men, your people that fall down over and over again. Give me the ones that fail.

It’s a little too fucking trite to say that I like those characters because they remind me of myself. It’s a little too small, as well, because the truth is that they remind me of people. Because people mess up so much. The ability to fail—to fuck up, to make bad choices, to identify the right choice but still make the wrong one—is a compelling character trait because it reminds us of ourselves and everyone we know. We’re all a mess, in some way or another, so characters that reflect that are more believable.

But there’s a flip side to the sketch bag character coin, and it has a name: redemption.

We need characters that fuck up because we need to them to redeem themselves. You can’t redeem someone who’s already perfect. They need to be damaged before they can be fixed. And they have to fix themselves. It can’t be a case of some other character swooping in to solve the problem. That is annoying as hell and makes me want to set the book in which it occurs on fire. No, whatever is messed up, they have to untangle that ball of yarn on their own. Other characters can help, offer advice, maybe supply that crucial piece of the puzzle when it’s needed. But in the end, the character has to choose.

A compelling fucked-up character is one that makes the wrong choices a lot, but when it comes down to the wire, they choose right. Even if it hurts them.

This may result in new problems and emotional baggage and scars. That’s fine; change isn’t always good. But the character should be moving. Fuck ups who remain fuck ups in the same way are boring. Fuck ups who change are not only interesting, they are believable. And, hey, like the rest of us, they can always try again.

*Even in the RPGs I play, I’ve only ever played a lawful good/principled/fill in your system’s term for the quintessential Good Guy here character once; it was in a short campaign and I mostly played it for the lols.

Monday Challenge: Nature Versus Demeanour

Le Vampire,engraving by R. de Moraine

Seriously, who wants an eternity of that?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the games I’ve run as a Game Master over the last few years is Vampire: The Perpetual Hassle*. The system is flawed** but there was one part of the character creation process that intrigued me. There were two aspects side by side at the top of the sheet: Nature and Demeanour. And they were all about the role-playing aspect of the character as opposed to the stats.

On one side, Nature: the way the character just is. The way they were born or the way they were raised, something made them that person at heart. It’s who they really are.

And on the other, Demeanour: who other people perceive them to be. The face they present to the world, intentionally or not.

Now, it’s possible with some characters that these could be identical. A character that appeared to be a brash, no-nonsense, heat-of-the-moment type could really be that way. Or they could be an abject coward who puts on that face to prove something to themselves and others. Or a deeply manipulative little shit who knows that the easiest way to put one over on people is to be underestimated.

You see where I’m going with this?

Your characters have a Nature and a Demeanour as well. They have who they are and who they appear to be. The way those things are presented—if they work together or constantly contradict each other, if their outward manner is a direct contradiction to their inner personality or closely aligned, if they believe their own demeanour over what they know is true, deep down—will influence their progress through the story. Might influence their exit, too, especially if someone who is essentially harmless comes off as a threat.

Monday Challenge: write about a character’s Nature and Demeanour. They might be similar, they might be diametrically opposed. They might be something in between.  Figure it out.

*Okay, that’s not it’s real title, but a Jhonen Vasquez comic I read fucking years ago referred to a game by this name and I’ve always secretly thought of it that way.
**Like all gaming systems. You have to take what’s useful and run.

Good For Parts Only

English: Car (Lada 2101) Up on blocks in

She may not run, but there’s a great personal space issue in the trunk.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Character creation is one of the best parts of writing.* Making those people out of your brain dust, moulding them into who you need them to be. And, occasionally, discovering that they’ve somehow decided who they’re going to be on their own time. Don’t ask me how that works. Sometimes people just turn up, like they walked into my head from someone else’s. Not a comforting thought, that. I hope they remembered to lock the door behind them.

But to make those characters real, they need real characteristics. They can’t just be The Sports Girl, or The Overprotective Guy, or The Crazy Neighbour. They need idiosyncrasies. Habits of speech. Gestures they repeatedly make. Things they do when they’re angry, or upset, or in love, or surprised as hell.

The good news: I know just where you can get some of that stuff.

This is a great time to start surveying the people you know for raw material. Now, I don’t mean that you should just make someone you know into a character and insert them into your story. You’ll end up with a lot of fights if they catch on and are not be pleased with their fictional portrayal. Seriously, step away from that. It does not go well. And it’s fucking lazy.

Besides, you don’t need the whole person. Just a few pieces.

You need their weird parts: your friend’s walk, like she’s got something wrong with a knee. Your neighbour’s habit of spinning his wedding ring around and around while he answers a question he doesn’t want to. Your uncle’s way of ending every sentence with ‘there’: “How you doing there?” “We need to get rid of those lemur carcasses there.” “Your aunt’s banging the mailman there.”

Little things fill out a character and make them more real. After all, real people do stuff like that. I sure as hell do. Just don’t go overboard and give everyone three ticks that makes them advance across a room like a clockwork automaton. But to make those characters into real people that the reader cares about, they need…quirks. So look for them in your everyday life, and use them.

And practice saying, “Do you do that as well, Aunt Sadie? I never noticed. I guess it was just my subconscious at work!” with a straight face.

*That and being like unto a god. Which is part of the same thing, I guess.