Traitors and Tricksters

In real life, I prefer everything to be exactly how it looks.  For instance, I run around with my colors embroidered on my chest-- it’s kind of difficult to mistake me for anything but Captain America.  (There is the thing with Puerto Rico, but it was my symbol first.)  Real life, however, is seldom that simple.  Deceit and trickery are everywhere, as much as I hate to say it.  Liars, posers, people saying one thing but doing something else-- it’s my job to find and punch people like that.

That said, I give you my full permission to cram as much trickery as you can into your novel.

I can’t deny loving character plot twists.  When a character seems like an angel, then turns out to be the traitor everyone has been hunting-- in real life it stinks, but in fiction it’s thrilling.  Or when a character seems really nasty and mean, then turns out to be the noblest person on the team, that’s pretty cool as well.  And a style I don’t like quite as much but can be used to devastating effect: the unreliable narrator.  I’ll try to give you a good idea of each type.

Type #1: The Happy Traitor

I think we know how this one looks.  Characters like these make themselves hugely likable in some way or another, through mentoring the main character, siding with them in character conflicts or saving them from danger, or just being awesome.  They are the last people you’d expect to be evil, but then they shrug and betray you.  These characters, as genuine and good they seem at the beginning, usually turn out to be the most evil people in the room.

Writing this type of character is almost the same as reading it, but you have one distinct hardship: you know exactly who the traitor is.  If you, by a sliver of a scene or one wrong word, mention this character’s evilness, the surprise is ruined and the reader will see the plot twist coming.  You have to be as convinced of that character’s goodness as the main character is-- until the penny drops.  That said, however, you have to also lay clues along the way, pointing to the traitor.  In order to keep readers from figuring it out too soon, you also have to lay red herrings, pointing the finger at other, more likely characters before finally swinging around to the true traitor.  To help you out, the traitor doesn’t want to be discovered anyway, so he or she can lay false trails as well.  It’s a difficult process to master, but if you can do it right, the effect is stunning.

Type #2: The Grouchy Hero

Like Dr. Banner!  Well… not really.  This is the character that turns out to be the exact opposite of the happy traitor.  He or she comes onscreen completely unlikable; perhaps they stay alone all the time, or insult people, or refuse to work for the good of all involved.  The main character doesn’t like them, until suddenly they turn out to be the most heroic person on the team.  This arc often coincides with another character turning traitor-- the traitor foists all their wrongdoings onto the hidden hero, until the traitor is discovered and the hero is redeemed, usually with a very good reason for all their grouchiness.

But this works for anyone with a slightly questionable personality.  Mr. Stark, for instance.  On a given day, you can’t tell if he’s going to help you out or leave you in the lurch to go kiss Miss Potts.  (Or is it JARVIS?  Whichever one has hair.)  Usually he helps out, but I hear in the past he’s been… unreliable.  Which leads us to our final type.

Type #3: The Unreliable Narrator

This is probably the hardest of the three to pull off.  The first two possibilities depend more on your ability to lay clues buried under false trails.  This one, however, requires you to lie blatantly to the reader (or else not tell the whole truth, which is just as bad), to skew the reader’s interpretation of the plot.  For instance, Director Fury’s thing with the collectible Me cards.  Apparently, Agent Coulson never had those in his jacket, and Fury was lying to us again.  We didn’t know that, however, and it served its purpose quite well.  When done right, the unreliable narrator is one of the most stunning tools in fiction.

When done right.  Fury’s choice was the right one in that instance, but be careful with this--- lying to the reader is not nice, and readers generally don’t like it unless you do it perfectly.  If you mess this up, it will backfire badly.  Tips on not messing it up: make sure we know the main character lies once in a while, even to people they know and love.  That will make it easier for the reader to accept it.  Also, having them gloss over the tidbit they’re unreliable about might help as a style of foreshadowing.  Definitely toy with different ways to make this work, but be prepared for it to fail a lot before you get it right.  When you get it right, however, it will have been well worth the effort.

Being a good person demands candor in real life, but if fiction was truthful it wouldn’t be fiction anymore.  These three options are tools in your toolbox for when you need a stunning character plot twist.  My personal favorite is the Happy Traitor, although I used the Grouchy Hero in my last novel.  I look forward to hearing about your successes with each of these.  In the meantime, if you have anything to add about any of these three techniques, go for it.  I’d love to hear from you.  Until then, I’m off.  I hope this has helped you, and good luck.

Writing Amazing Villains

Without antagonists, there would be no story. The hero would not face the conflict that propels them through the book, and equally, the readers would have no one for whom to cheer. This is why creating a strong antagonist is so important.

Vocab tidbit: an antagonist is the force of conflict to the protagonist, the hero of the story. Antagonists can take a variety of forms: a dystopian government, the inner demons of the hero, or an organization. When an individual is the antagonist, that person is called the villain.

What villains shouldn't be

Think of some of the classic villains that you know. The Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The evil stepmothers and queens in Disney princess movies. As characters, they're boring. They have a single dimension: evil. Which is why it is fascinating to explore "their sides" of the story in books/movies like WICKED and MALIFICENT. 

This does not mean that villains should not be evil. Good versus evil is one of the most common themes in literature. What it does mean, however, is that your villain needs to have a story. Why are they evil? What are the motivations behind their actions? How can you show these details to your reader?

Your checklist for an amazing villain

1. Do they see themselves as evil?

Though you may automatically think, since we are in this process of creating developed villains, that the answer is no, that's not the case. You have the options of both yes and no. Here is some exploration into both:

If your answer is no...

What are they trying to accomplish? Just like your protagonist, your villain needs a goal. Even if the goal is something as simple as world domination, they need a reasoning behind it. What is their deeper "good" motivation?

If your answer is yes...

So your villain is evil and knows it. You still need to ask yourself what your villain is trying to accomplish. And even if, like the Joker, that answer is chaos, you need to ask yourself why. Why does the villain want this? What made the villain reject the path of goodness?

From Darcy Pattinson

2. Backstory

Backstory is incredibly important for all of your major characters, particularly for villains. Think of the amount of backstory you know about Voldemort and how his past led him to that Halloween night when he killed Harry's parents. Think of WICKED, which is the entire backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West. Knowing your villain's backstory will help explain those "why" questions I mentioned earlier. 

3. A Fear and a Strength

These are where your protagonist comes into play. The villain needs to be stronger than them, otherwise, it wouldn't be much fun to root for the guy with the upper hand. With this in mind, how is your villain stronger than your protagonist? Is he, like Voldemort, incredibly powerful with a massive amount of supporters? What obstacles will the protagonist need to overcome in order to level out this playing field? Think of Harry and his crew destroying one Horcrux after another and how daunting of a task that was. 

Now for the fear. This should be tied into the desire or the past of your villain. A truly amazing resource for developing characters, particularly in the realm of desires/fears, is this website.  Technically, it's a spiritual resource, but by Asgard is it good for characters. You can choose a "chief feature/flaw" for your character, then it will provide insight into their past, their desires, and their fears. 

Because Voldemort is becoming an excellent example, think of his greatest fear: death. This fear explains why he created the Horcruxes--one of his strengths. And J.K. Rowling beautifully tied these into his past when he used his muggle family to create these Horcruxes and sealed them into objects that defined Hogwarts, the only place he felt at home. 

Lastly, this fear needs to lead to the villain's downfall. Unlike the protagonist, who faces and overcomes their fear, the villain needs to be so blinded by his fear that he exposes himself, and then the underdog protagonist can seize the opportunity and defeat him.

4. Appearances

Your reader needs to know your villain early into the story, otherwise he's not particularly scary when the protagonist finally encounters him. There is a quote (if anyone knows you said it, please post it in the comments so I can cite it. I couldn't find the writer on Google), that goes something like this: "The villain needs to appear in the beginning so we can know him, the middle so we can fear him, and the end so we can defeat him." 

Tip: If your villain is the driving force of the catalyst that propels the hero into the story, that's an easy way to introduce them in the beginning.

Giving your reader all these juicy details

Now that you have some amazing ideas on developing your villain, your next question must be "How will I give the reader all of this information without a cliché villain monologue near the end?" You have a variety of options to choose from, depending on your story. I'll list as many as I can think of here.

1. Your hero already knows your villain à la evil stepmother.

2. Your villain is common knowledge to everyone or at least the hero's allies (Voldemort, Sauron)

3. Your villain is the face of a larger group/organization (The Hun from Mulan, Janine from Divergent)

4. Your villain is allies with the hero then betrays them (I'd list examples but don't want to give away spoilers)

5. Your villain gets a POV (The Raven Boys)

6. You reveal information about the villain before revealing the villain's identity (murder mysteries, BBC Sherlock)

Other fun ideas to play with

Here are some additional tidbits on villains that I'd thought I'd ramble about:

1. Villains that mirror the hero in some way (Harry and Voldemort)
2. Enough POVs that characters easily play both villains and heroes (Game of Thrones)
3. Villains that don't start out as villains in the beginning of the story (The Amazing Spiderman I and II)
4. Villains that team up with the hero... at least for the time being

In conclusion...

Your villain needs a lot of why's. Your villain needs a strength that outweighs the hero and a fear/vulnerability for the hero to seize. And most important of all, your villain needs some spotlight so the reader learns to fear and understand him. 

Any other ideas to add to any of these sections? Post in the comments. Also, I'd love to hear a bit about your villains and why they are so awesome.

Character Darkness with Black Widow

There is darkness in each of us.

For some, it’s a shadow. The kind of thing you turn around to spot and it’s gone. That one time you write the answers for a test on your wrist. The lies you’ve told your mother. For others, it’s more of a cloud. Looming, weighting the air and shading everything in gray. The people you’ve hurt with the flick of your tongue. The decisions you’ve made and regretted. Then there’s the blackness, the all-consuming darkness-- Sao Paulo, the hospital fire, Dreykov's daughter. The body count. The blood stains you can’t bleach away.

Everyone has secrets.

The secrets we conceal inform our actions. We are what we hide. What we choose to reveal and how we reveal it shapes us. These are the lies we tell ourselves, the things we cover up, the fears we drive into the hollows beneath our hearts. We live, hoping that no one will ever know the truth.

So let’s talk about it.

Darkness is important. Characters who lack any form of darkness come off as a Mary Sue. Flawless, and yet incapable of holding a reader’s attention for too long. As writers, it is up to us to determine our character’s degree of darkness. We run the risks of making our characters too soft or too evil, depending on how we reveal the information.

Harry Potter is sometimes at risk of falling into a Mary Sue category. But his troubled past and tendency to get himself into precarious situations make him someone we can spend a few thousand words with. We know how he got his scar immediately, but it isn’t until the final book that we can appreciate how it changed him, how it informed his decisions, how it made him the man he becomes.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown reveals Tana’s childhood in pieces, just enough so we understand why she is willing to go the lengths she does to flirt with darkness. Holly Black bends Tana, but doesn’t break her. Black pushes boundaries. The tongue-biting kiss haunts me. It’s something I didn’t quite expect. It’s something I wanted to happen. It’s something that horrified me. It revealed a black wish within Tana and changed the way I looked at her for the rest of the novel. Had Black allowed that to happen even a page sooner, it wouldn’t have worked.

In I’m Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells, John Cleaver’s self-awareness and openness about his darkness helps the reader connect to him and sympathize with him, despite his tendencies. We know from the first few pages the kind of person John is, and yet we can’t help but like him. We, are capable of forgiving a multitude of sins, provided the information is presented in the right way.

In S.H.I.E.L.D, we're in the business of finding, keeping, and using secrets. Half of my missions are spent manipulating people’s darkness to my advantage; playing a new character. I know how far I’m willing to go, how far I’m willing push others. You learn to read people, to get out what their hiding without losing too much of yourself in the process. My job is constant self-revision. I make myself a new person, a new character for each mission. But despite the number of times I have rewritten my story, it’s still me. My darkness is at its core. I can’t edit out my sins. But I can use them.

And I will.


Shades Of Grey: Iron Man On Moral Ambiguity

I’m being poked. “Pepper, I told you not…” My helmet is forcibly removed. It’s Thor, and suddenly I realise why I’m being treated in such an undignified manner. My heart sinks, and I let slip an expletive that probably wouldn’t get through the swear filters JARVIS has been secretly adding to my suit’s microphone.

where do you think i've been for 3 hoursWhat do you mean, forget? Of course I didn’t forget.

It’s my turn to post. And there I was, looking forward to a nice relaxing evening working on one of my suits. An old one, actually: it needs some fine-tuning, but I reckon it’s pretty close to operational. No doubt when I get closer, I’ll figure out what it was that made it break in the first place.

So. Morally ambiguous characters. My favourite.

I was afraid that I might be stepping on Loki’s toes here, but I’ve seen his post on villains (got there before you, ner ner ner), so I think I’m safe. Not that I’m scared of Loki. But you know. It pays to be careful.

Morally ambiguous characters are fascinating, whether they’re villains that are too easy to sympathise with, or protagonists who keep stepping over the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Your readers are left wondering who they’re meant to support, and questioning their own moral values. This is particularly the case when a protagonist they loved turns to the dark side and starts killing people.

One of my favourite examples of this is A Song Of Ice And Fire. At the beginning of Game Of Thrones, you’re probably rooting for the Starks. Because let’s face it. Anyone called Stark is bound to be awesome. And you’re also pretty sure that the Lannisters are the bad guys, because of the whole incest-and-throwing-small-kids-off-towers thing.

By book four? It’s not looking quite so black-and-white. Hell, it’s even possible to feel sorry for Joffrey at times, if you’re trying, but it’s probably not worth the effort.

ASoIaF illustrates two important ideas: characters who start out innocent and ‘good’ but through circumstances are driven down an increasingly ‘dark’ path until their actions are of questionable morality (e.g. Arya Stark), and characters who start out fairly despicable but because of the journey they take, reach a point where they’ve got pretty substantial redeeming features (e.g. Jaime Lannister).

i'm alarmed with how okay with this you are

So how do you do this?

I was recently working on a narrative where the protagonist was a contract killer, and she killed people pretty emotionlessly from a young age. Not gonna lie, I took tips from Natasha, but don’t tell her I said that. While I was writing, I had to keep thinking: “What’s going to make readers like this character?” You know, apart from the fact that I wrote her, so she’s awesome. I needed my readers to care about a character who, by all objective measures, was a pretty awful person.

Making readers like a bad guy

Give your character a sympathetic feature

Maybe they kill people, but hey, they love small fluffy animals and they spend a lot of time looking after children. It’s hard to write them off as evil, but at the same time, how can you call them good? Bam, moral ambiguity.

Make them worthy of respect

Okay, so they slept with their sister and killed a bunch of people, but they’re also loyal, honourable, and willing to rescue people they care about. It kind of makes them hard to hate.

Make them suffer

Oh man. This one’s fun. See, you can have the most awful character, but you put them through hell and your readers will start caring about them because “Nobody deserves that kind of treatment, you cruel author of evilness!” This one can also provide the trigger for your character to grow as a person.

But then you’ve got to think about how to do the opposite. A hero who always does the right thing is boring, and it also makes it harder to root for the villain. To create true moral ambiguity, it’s got to be on both sides. A heroic villain. A villainous hero. (My alter-ego write about this, actually.)

Making readers doubt a good guy

Let them make the wrong choices

A hero who never acts on impulse, selfishness or downright stupidity is way too nice. Give me a hero who makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that gets a lot of people hurt and/or killed and forces everyone to re-evaluate how they feel about the characters. Selfishness is a good way of making your heroes less clear-cut.


Make them abandon their principles

You’ve got a character with a strong moral backbone who believes in doing right by his fellow man? Yeah, right. Put him in a situation where it’s do-or-die and see how tightly he clings to those morals. A clue: not very.

Show the consequences of what they do

Saving a city from destruction is only a great idea when it hasn’t been half smashed up and its entire population dead because the hero didn’t do enough to rescue people before taking on the enemy. People are almost always going to suffer, often as a result of people who thought they were acting for the greater good. The greater good is usually only greater for the people who weren’t there at the time. Dwell on that, and your readers will start wondering who the real hero is.

Play your good guys and bad guys off each other, with the failures of the good guys being picked up by the bad guys. Superhero all ready to run over a kitten in an attempt to save the world; villain picks it up and moves it out of the way. Make them work with and against each other. Don’t give all your good qualities to the hero, and don’t give all the flaws to the villain. (You may want to read my post on character flaws. Hey, have the one about antagonists while you’re here. You’re welcome.)

And eventually, it should be kinda hard to tell which is which. Those are my favourites.

So stop writing black and white stories, and give me something where the lines in the sand are smudged and overtrodden: where it gets really interesting.

arrive with crowds

-- Iron Man

Thor? Thor, you can stop poking me now.

Thor's Thoughts: Character Questions

Good day, fair readers.

As this month of August progresses, you have likely noticed our theme of Characters and Character Development. To be frank, I do not consider myself to be a complete expert on the subject, but I do have a few musings I would like to share.

When we read, we often find ourselves loving certain characters and disliking others. Why is this? Perhaps we enjoy reading the ones we relate to, or the ones we find most interesting and intriguing. Or it could be that we are drawn to wit, humor, or similar backgrounds. Regardless, we know one thing: characters without these things are often one-dimensional, and those, dear readers, are the characters who do not get love from readers.

Discovering who your characters are can be difficult, but -- as with anything in writing -- you must use the tools available to you and discover your preferred method. One thing is certain, you must know your characters as well as you know your best friend, or even yourself.

Here are a few methods you can try to see how well you know your characters, or, if you know them well already, this may perhaps help you flesh out their personalities.

1. Character Bio Sheets

Searching the internet will bring you a multitude of these in a variety of options. Questions such as their favorite color, their favorite song, dream vacation, and things of the like. I find these trivia-like questionnaires to be handy for those writing contemporary fiction. Anything set in a modern world will be more likely to use these kinds of facts. Of course, it can be altered for speculative fiction, if your SciFi has film, or your fantasy has vacation spots.

The questions on these that will be most helpful are things like, where do they live? Who are their family? Where do they work? Etcetera. Again, this is a tool. Try it, and see if it helps you. If it does, fantastic. If it does not, well... try something else.

2. Deep Questions

These are the questions you are unlikely to find ready-made on the internet. And the questions will change for each character. The point is, you must get to the bottom of who they are. What is their view on love? Religion? The political issues of the time? Who do they love? Who would they die for? What causes will they fight for? What do they do when cornered? Asking these kinds of deep questions will get you into your characters' heads and allow you a better understanding of what drives them to act the way they do.

3. Character Interview/Chapter

This can be done in a couple of ways, possibly more. One, you write out a conversation between yourself and your character. Me: _____? Character:________ and so on. "Talking" with them will often bring to light parts of their life you didn't know you had in your mind. It's quite freeing.

Or two, write out a chapter or so from their point of view. First person or third, but try to write from their perspective. Let the character's being and personality come through in how they see the world. The good Captain and Ms. Romanov, for example, would likely observe different things upon entering a civilian home. Where Steve would be thanking their host and commenting on a lovely sofa, Natasha would look around for various escape routes.

4. Discovery Write

Similar to number three, but it takes longer. For me, and my alter-ego, we often have difficulty solidifying a character until the second or sometimes third draft of a novel. We plot out the events of a story, and have an idea of who the characters are, but we do not do much questioning of them at the beginning. If I try to ask questions about a character prior to writing them, I find I get lost. Writing them out, even in thousands of words that will likely be discarded, I get to know them. By the end of a draft, I can then go back and add in little tics, opinions, and phrasings that will, from the very beginning, flesh out the character I finally know.

It should be noted that any of the above tools can also be used along with the others. I often discovery Write my characters, and then use the other tools to solidify what I know. Some writers ask the deep questions before ever beginning, and they know their characters inside and out from the start. Others might be halfway through the first draft and realize the character they thought was the main character isn't the main character at all, or won't be able to do what the plot requires of them. In those cases, perhaps a new character is needed, or an altering of the plot to allow the character to go on.

As you can tell, there are many variables when it comes to characters. Yet, they are likely the single most important of the "big three"  story elements: Plot, Character, Setting. A good plot and vivid setting will go a long way, but not if we don't care about the characters.

Go forth now, fellow writers. Give your characters a second glance, get to know them better.

Good luck.


Side Characters are Awesome (Well, They Should Be)

When thinking about characterization in your novels, it's so easy to only focus on your main characters. Don't get me wrong, your protagonist is important, and you should spend a lot of time on them. And we all know how you feel about your MC.

Unfortunately, it's so easy to get caught up in making your MC great, and forgetting that they're not the only person on the planet. I'm sure we've all seen examples of stories where the main characters are great, but everyone else seems to fall flat.

We can't all be superheroes, but everyone can be a hero.

What do I mean by that? You can't make everyone a main character. The story can't be about everyone. But that doesn't mean you have to treat all the supporting characters like their sole purpose of existing is for the main character.

But they don't just go into a holding cell whenever they're not in a scene. They have lives. You don't have to write about it all, but you need to realize this. Your side characters still wake up in the morning, live out their days, and go to bed every night. The more you're aware of their daily behaviors, passions and time spent, the more interesting they'll become - both to write about and read about. They don't need to be the hero, they just need to think that they are.

So, take a break from your MC and let your writer imagination take over - following a day in the life of your side characters, and see how they behave. Really get to know them.

So, you now know what they do, even if it isn't information you'll choose to share in your story. Fantastic. The next thing you need to do is make them unique.

Everyone always talks about giving your MC something that makes them who they are - authentic and interesting; something that gives them a voice.

Why wouldn't you do that for your side characters as well?

I'm not saying that you need to give your side characters eye-patches and large scars. You don't need to give them superpowers, or make them an assassin, or have them part of a secret government agency (although you sure can). But you need to give them something that is interesting. Whether it be everyday or completely insane, side characters are still unique people - so show us that. Give them a passion, a hobby, something that is defining that readers will remember.

Have them interact with other characters, whether or not it's your MC, and display a little bit of that interesting personality, keeping their daily behavior in mind.

As mentioned before, the most important thing to remember about your side characters is that they're people with lives. Your MC is not the center of the universe, with all other characters revolving around her. Every character in your manuscript - from the psychopathic villain with a full monologue to the creepy pizza delivery guy with long hair and a bird tattoo who only says one line - has their own stakes, their own wants, their own goals, and their own obstacles getting in the way.

What, you think just because I'm not a title character means I only live when the superheroes need me? Of course not. I'm being sent on all kinds of missions, working with my team, occasionally having a little me-time once in a blue moon. But I never just disappear. (Okay, maybe I did one time, but you try dying and coming back. It's a process.)

Your side characters should be the same way. They all have their own story going on, and it just happens to intertwine with the story of your MC. Don't forget that. Don't overlook your side characters. Interesting supporting characters make for a more interesting read. Spend some time on the little guys.

And, who knows? You might enjoy a side character so much, you decide to do a spin-off just so you can have them as a lead.


What's Your (Back) Story?

I know a little something about having a troubled and troubling past. And present. So do most people I know.

As a writer, you're going to populate whole fictional worlds with people with complicated pasts, or, at least, back stories. And as a writer, you're going to need to figure out how to let your readers in on that back story (or enough of it) without boring or overwhelming them. Here's my back story presented in convenient meme form

Informative and concise, right? But you can't place a useful little meme into your novel, so here are a few humble suggestions on what not to do:

Do not start at the beginning of your character's story. "Chapter One: I am born" worked for Charles Dickens in David Copperfield but he wrote in a different time for a different audience and, as Stark just pointed out to me, legend has it he was paid by the word. If you want to let your readers know a character's entire life story, it's still better, usually, to not start at the moment of their birth. Even if there is something odd or important about it, you can tell it later, when it becomes important to understanding the character and the story. You can do this through a natural conversation or a flashback of sorts, but be careful of those flashbacks. Too many and you'll give your reader vertigo.

Sometimes it's useful to think of the relationship between you and your reader(s) as a kind of friendship. You probably don't know everything your best friend did from the moment their lungs first took in oxygen and if they had tried to share these details with you early on in your friendship, you probably wouldn't be friends now. TMI. A relationship has to develop over time. That's why as a writer you want to avoid the information dump. While it seems efficient, perhaps, to front load all of a character's relevant data early on so you can get on with the story, that robs your reader of the pleasure of discovering the depths of your character over time and it gets in the way of the relationship you want to form with your reader, which needs, like all relationships, to develop gradually.

When I first met Tony Stark, for example, he pissed me off with a barrage of questions about my past, my condition, my feelings, why I turn into a green rage monster. He even poked me in an attempt to get me to spill (or bring out the other guy).
I don't share my life readily. I wait until I can trust people, and, for the most part, I trust Tony now (though I have some misgivings about this Ultron thing he is developing right now and can only assume that he has at last learned his lesson about creating armored super robots). And for his part, Stark thought he wanted to know everything about me at once, but where would the fun have been in that? Same for your reader. As a writer you don't want your characters to share their entire lives at first either. If someone really wanted to know all they could about a person instantly, they would go to Wikipedia and get all the pertinent details at once. But people turn to fiction to see a person's life and personality unfold slowly over the course of many pages. Getting to know someone over time is the pleasure of a human relationship and getting to know a character over time is the pleasure of a reading relationship. Too much information at once can kill both types of relationship dead.

Okay. You want to avoid the information dump. But how do you know when and how to weave all that back story into the narrative? I wish there were a magic formula for that, but if such a thing exists I haven't found it. I know that it annoys me when people cryptically refer to their pasts. Natasha and Hawkeye refer, now and then, to "that time in Budapest" and I have no idea what they're talking about. It seems it was a charged time for them and something they don't want to explain to others. That's their choice. But as a writer you have to be careful about throwing out hints about a backstory that go undeveloped or you risk making the reader feel like they are outsiders to an "in" joke. 

You also don't want to throw in a bit of back story just to "pad" your story. A character's past behavior is meant to explain present behavior, not to make your work into an epic-length tome. Loki is a megalomaniacal jackass who wants to rule the universe because he didn't get enough love from his father. Why he feels this entitles him to rule the universe is best left to a psychologist to explain but it helps me to understand him and his motives. His past self helped to form his present, as mine did. My past self was afraid of what anger would reduce my father to, especially in regard to how he treated my mother; my present self is afraid of what my anger will reduce me to (or how it might reduce a major city to rubble). But if  I were a character in a book or movie, you wouldn't have to know all of the details of my childhood, all of the traumas that make me the poor candidate for a season on The Bachelor that I am today. A good writer can deploy one economical detail to tell a whole (back)story:
Sometimes one detail, one short line, can reveal more than an entire case history of a character could.

So even if you have a whole notebook full of back story for each character you've written, lists of their favorite foods and songs and what color shirt they wore to their first day of third grade and how that day went, don't throw it all in the book. Think instead of a few key details, a few representative moments, that will reveal all of that and leave your reader wanting more.

The Hulk reminds me that there's an awful lot of power in what you don't say sometimes. Take it from a guy who can frequently be reduced to monosyllables. Or grunts.

Until next month - Bruce Banner and the Hulk out.

* the fake film poster above comes from a Clint/Natasha fan fic Tumblr,

What's In A Name?

Hawkeye here to talk about your characters. Fury has called me in yet again, and I really don’t have much time to get this out there so here we go. (Moral: stay in school kids)

Close your eyes and pretend you’re in a bookstore. You’re looking for the latest and greatest action novel, and at random you pick one off the shelves and start to read the blurb. I can almost guarantee you that almost the first thing you learn about that book is going to be the name of the main protagonist. Very few dust jackets do not do that, because the character defines most of the story.

So Why Are Character Names Important?

Your character’s name is more than just a label or something to call it. The name is going to define who he or she is as a character. We often don’t realize it, but we’re often judging people and developing first impressions based on names. Think about it, when you hear the name Hawkeye, you're not going to picture a skinny runt of a guy with no life. No, my name exudes boldness, excitement and excessive hotness. Wouldn't you agree? 

The name you choose for your character should be a representation of who your character is, or who they are trying to become. The meaning can have value, or the name can have a kick that fits with who you want to portray. It's going to be different for every story, the names will represent different things, so think about what you want the name to portray. 

In an interview with Author Lindsay Cummings I once saw, she talked about why she named her character Meadow. If you've read The Murder Complex you know that Meadow is not a sweet little girl as her name would suggest. She could kick your butt before you could say..well anything. So why is she named Meadow? Lindsay wanted to set an opposing picture for her character, that a cute little name didn't define her character. 

Names can parallel or oppose your character.Maybe you're writing about an Assassin Lord so you name him Aaron, which means exalted or strong. Or you need to characterize the sweet little sister so you name her Hannah, which means grace. 

But in a completely different spectrum, names can also attract readers and pique interest. Especially if your story sits in a very well written and read genre, opening yet another Plain Jane meets Babe Jack might not be the most appealing. It might not seem like they do a lot, but it's fun to read about different named characters. 

Finding the Perfect Name

The naming process is going to be different for everyone. Names come easy to me, as it's generally one of the first things that I know about my character. Maybe this describes you, maybe not. The first step is always going to be to think about your protagonist's progression through the story and their emotional and physical arc. If that doesn't give fruit, there are countless sites available to help you find the right name. Here are some sources you might try:

Want to find a standard character name? Use a baby name dictionary to search by letter, popularity and even definition.

This will generate names of many ethnicities and provide character traits to accompany them.

This generator is great for all things fantasy. There are countless categories and generators to choose from, and it’s not limited to characters either.

Also fantasy based, but not limited to fantasy, this can help you name characters, places, and items.

So there’s a few sites for you. And when in doubt, using Google to search for common names of different eras and styles will yield results as well. You can even mash together dictionary words or derive your own from the early root words. There are so many options and ways to find the right name, don’t despair. It’s out there somewhere!

Hawkeye Out. 

July was a Gift

That is, I get to wrap it up.  (Badum-ch!)

July was an exciting month.

To begin with, the first three weeks held unbearable suspense as to the new identities of myself, Dr. Banner, Miss Romanov, and Agent Coulson.  At this point, no decision had been made, so we'll get to all that later.

In honor of Camp NaNoWriMo, July was first draft month for us.  Thor started us out with an excellent comparison of the speeds of writing, the pros and cons of each.  Personally, however, I think the month was off to a great start once Thor posted this self-portrait on the Twitter feed:
I have no idea why he did that, since I assume he wasn't talking about first drafts.  Nevertheless, I enjoy the sight of Norse gods seeking suicide for a stuffed animal's sake.  If only we could induce a certain green-clad one.  Anyway.

Next, Hawkeye glorified the plotting style of writing a first draft.  He gives hard-hitting questions to get to the root of a story before you begin, potentially saving you hours on the editing side.  I strongly encourage at least trying to outline a few times, even if you're a die-hard pantser; the experience is worth it.

Our knight in missile-launching armor chose this time to speak up, stressing the importance of momentum in a fragile first draft.  I thoroughly enjoyed his post and suggest it for anyone stuck in a perpetual rewrite.  Don't tell Stark, but I already used his [XX] advice.  It's a useful post, worth even a reread.  (Stark thinks so too.)

Loki gave five pretty awesome tips on simplifying the task of writing.  He reiterates the need for momentum as well as the appeal of plotting, but the best point he made, in my opinion, was number four on his list: give yourself permission to fail.  It happens once in a while.

AND THEN it was time.  The chosen ones had been... well... chosen.  Miss Romanov, Dr. Banner, Agent Coulson, and I all got personality facelifts.  Howard Tayler even weighed in on the choices:
He may have been speaking of some other developments, however.  (Despite his words, Howard Tayler is one of my favorite cartoonists.  I wish I had a comic.)

Take a deep breath.  With four new minds on the team, things get pretty crazy over the rest of the month.  Ready?  Let's go.

I posted first!  I had a lot of fun with my post, on the importance-- even considering momentum in a first draft-- of taking creative leave once in a while.  Never stop writing, but sometimes writing can take too much out of you.  I gave five steps (with illustrational moving-picture-thingies) to give you an idea of what to do.

Agent Coulson weighed in with a brilliant take on balancing writing with the activities of everyday life.  He made a lot of good points.  You can't write and fight at the same time.  Unless you used your laptop as a weapon...  I'll have to try that.  I'll talk to Coulson about it.

And in complete Black Widow style, Miss Romanov posted the exact opposite of Hawkeye: the joys of pantsing, discovery writing, gardening, or whatever you want to call it.  (Writing without an outline works too.)  As a longtime pantser myself, but having recently tried plotting to great success, I can see both sides of the issue and again encourage you to try both avenues.  The experience is worth it.

To round out the month in smashing style, Dr. Banner has five tips on regaining lost momentum in a first draft.  Trust me, he knows exactly how difficult it is to get up in the morning and force yourself to work.  (Laying waste to a couple major cities can make you awfully lethargic.)  Take his advice and don't stay down for long.

And with that, the month ended.  I enjoyed my July, even though I was in another country for July 4th.  (Come on, Fury...  None of the others get a holiday.  Why should I miss out?)  With all the excitement of this month, I can't wait for August's posts to begin.  Our topic this month is Characters and Character Development.  All of us will post at some time or another, so keep your eyes peeled.  I already know it's going to be amazing.

Have fun continuing your summer!  Write words, read words, and then write more words.  We're counting on you.

~Captain America