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What Star Wars teaches us about character introductions

In real life, we make judgments about people, often within mere seconds of meeting them. Those judgments, whether right or wrong, are incredibly difficult to change later on. You don’t, as the saying goes, get a second chance to make a first impression.

The same is true in our books. Scenes where we introduce readers to new characters are tough to do well, because we don’t get much space to play with before readers make up their minds. Not many paragraphs pass before readers decide whether they like, loathe, admire, or pity a new character. So we have to act fast.

Star Wars is a great example of how to do this well, and exhibits most of the core techniques I want to talk about. Star Wars (and I’m talking about Episode IV, here) manages to convey to us, in very short amounts of screen-time, the essential nature of all of its main characters and shows them to be unique, distinctive individuals. We can take some lessons there as to how to effectively introduce our own books’ characters.

Show them in action

When introducing a protagonist or other POV character, consider showing them in action. By this I mean putting the character in a scene where he or she has to actually do something. Make it a situation where the character has to make some kind of choice and take some kind of action (preferably, a difficult choice and an unpleasant action) in order to affect the outcome of the situation.

Early on in Princess Leia’s introduction—it’s not her first scene, but it’s close—she is faced with a no-win choice: give up the location of the rebel base, or see her home planet of Alderaan destroyed. We can see how difficult a choice it is for her, through her visceral, bodily reactions. She’s heartbroken to betray the rebellion, but she can’t let an entire planet’s population be eradicated either. It’s an impossible choice, but she makes a choice anyway, and we see the pain of it in the down-turn of her face, the slump of her shoulders.

What does it tell us about her? It tells us that she’s an important person within the world of the movie. It tells us that she is fundamentally a protective, nurturing person, in as much as she tries to protect the people of Alderaan even though she must make a huge sacrifice in the attempt. The scene portrays her as a deeply sympathetic character. But note—and this is important—the sympathy comes not from the choice itself but from how she feels about it, which we viewers read through her body language. Had she treated the choice differently, in a casual or cavalier manner ("Well, Tarkin, I can’t have you blowing up a whole planet, so hey, the rebels are on Dantooine. Go get ‘em, big guy!") we’d have had an entirely different feeling about her.

Show them in conflict

One of Luke Skywalker’s first scenes is a minor conflict between him and his Uncle Owen. We meet Luke in the scene where the Jawas sell R2-D2 and C-3PO to Luke’s family. Having made their purchases, Uncle Owen tells Luke to get the new droids cleaned up. Luke replies with:

But I was going into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters...

Epic whine. A whine that will go down in history. But, he obeys his Uncle. What’s going on here from a character perspective? We’re being shown that Luke is a relatively powerless figure. He has no authority, and little control over his life. Physically, we can see that he’s a very young man, so this makes sense and is something most viewers can empathize with. We’ve all felt that way from time to time. That’s the sympathetic hook of Luke’s character. But it also shows us that he’s not satisfied with the life he lives. He rankles at the limitations of both the life he lives and the place he lives it. As he remarks to C-3PO:

Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.

Conflict is a wonderful way to bring a character’s deeper motivations up to the surface where we can see them. Whether those motivations come out through dialogue (as they do here), through choices made as the conflict progresses, conflict is a great way to let us know what really drives your characters.

Show them using key skills, attitudes, hobbies, et cetera

We first meet “Old Ben” Kenobi, the “crazy old wizard” after Luke gets his butt kicked by the Tusken Raiders. (Side note: Luke clearly loses that conflict, which greatly re-enforces his powerlessness.) Kenobi comes breezing into the canyon, his brown robes flowing in the breeze, and the raiders all take off. Young, strong, able-bodied Luke was child’s play for the raiders, but creaky old Ben Kenobi scares them off without so much as breaking a sweat.

It’s not difficult to understand that this Kenobi guy must have something going for him. He’s got some kind of mystic juju going on in that scene which is nothing to sneeze at. At that point in the movie, we have no idea what his deal is, not yet, but we get it: he’s a powerful figure. His subsequent dialogue with Luke further reveals him to be both kindly and wise.

In hero’s journey terms (and Star Wars is definitely a hero’s journey story), even in this short introductory scene Kenobi is an obvious fit to be the story’s mentor character.

Use vivid imagery

Don’t discount a vivid set of visuals to introduce a character, either. Like Darth Vader. Even without John William’s unforgettable musical theme for Vader, we know he’s a total badass from the moment he steps into the smoke-filled corridor of Princess Leia’s spacecraft. His imposing physical stature, jet black outfit, and billowing cape all speak of power. The symbology is not subtle at all, but it is pulled off with such panache that the overall impression is powerfully striking.

Show other characters’ reactions

Speaking of Vader, he’s also a great example of how other characters’ reactions can show the viewer (or reader) a more complete picture. He shows his face—well, his mask anyway—and storm-troopers snap to attention along the corridor’s walls. They make room for him to pass. Rebel soldiers avert their eyes and clasp their hands behind their heads. Those reactions, even though they come from nameless (and for the stormtroopers, literally faceless) extras, tell us everything we need to know about Vader. When Vader steps into that corridor, he’s the man. He’s in complete control of the situation, and no one is about to defy him.

Except, getting back to her for a moment, Princess Leia. And what does that tell us about her? That she’s strong, oh so strong, and indomitable.

Make use of setting

Where we meet characters says a lot about them too. We meet Luke out in the ass-end of nowhere on his Uncle’s moisture farm. He could scarcely be in a less influential setting. It’s a great setup for Luke, because for him Star Wars: A New Hope is a fish-out-of-water story. He’s the backwater nobody who finds himself suddenly thrust into the middle of hugely important, high stakes events. That we meet him in such an inauspicious location, and particularly since the previous scenes involved spaceships and Very Important People, shows us exactly the degree to which Luke is going to be an unlikely hero, bumbling through very much out of his depth.

Han Solo’s introduction is also rich with setting. We meet him in the practically the sleaziest dive bar in the galaxy. That alone sets him up as an unsavory rogue character. We then see him shoot his way out of an encounter with a bounty hunter, and with more than his share of casual bravado, establish that he is as much in control within this environment as Vader was back on Leia’s spaceship. We’re also left with no uncertainty that this Han Solo guy is likely the worst of possible choices Luke and Ben have at their disposal for getting off Tattooine, except that he’s their only choice. His roguishness, established as much by the setting as his actions, works to sell the desperate circumstances Luke and Ben are in.

Note, too, that this is a perfect introduction for Han Solo in terms of setting up his overall character arc. He flips from being an indifferent mercenary figure to being an active ally to the rebellion. And in later movies, he shows his softer side, his willingness to take risks for those he cares about, and so forth. His arc is all about that shift from being a self-centered opportunist, to a more idealistic supporter of a cause that is larger than himself. For that to work, we have to meet him while he’s still a pompous jackass, and the Mos Eisly cantina scene is a great setting to establish that as a starting point for him.

Drop some hints about backstory

The opportunity of meeting a new character is not an excuse to tell us their life’s story. It is not an occasion to indulge in a massive backstory infodump. Don’t go there. Just don’t.

It is, however, an opportunity to create some mystery by hinting at interesting elements of backstory. The opportunity of meeting a new character is to raise some compelling questions in the reader’s mind which you can then explore more fully as the story moves on.

Darth Vader’s physical form hints at significant backstory. From the first second we see him, he is obviously a physically powerful character. And yet, there’s that mechanical, raspy breathing that hints at an underlying frailty. He’s got machines and blinking lights all over his chest. You cannot help but look at him and wonder What’s under the mask? And how did he get to be that way?

When we meet Luke Skywalker, it’s in the context of his aunt and uncle. The dialogue takes particular care to give us their names, Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. Shortly thereafter, we see that he doesn’t simply work on their farm, he lives with them. The subtext of the conversation where his Uncle refuses to let Luke send in his application to the Academy tells us that they are his caregivers and surrogate parents. So we wonder Why is he living with them? What happened to his real parents? We’re not given some kind of heavy-handed flashback montage showing us what happened to Luke’s parents (we had to wait 20+ years and five more movies to really understand that), but we are given hints that there is a compelling backstory there.

When we meet Obi Wan and come to understand that he isn’t just a crazy old man like Uncle Owen told Luke, that he does have some kind of power, we’re forced to wonder What the heck he’s doing living out in the middle of a nowhere desert?

We’re forced to wonder. And because of that curiosity, we’re compelled to keep watching. It works in books, too.

The number-one job of a character introduction

If I can sum all this up, my advice would be this: Craft your character introductions to tell us what’s most important about that person. You don’t get much space before the reader’s first impression is set, so make it count. Concentrate on conveying the one thing you most want us to believe about that character.

And make it something good, because above all, we need a reason to be interested. Give us some reason to love, to hate, to admire, or to pity the character. As long as we feel something about the person, we’ll read on. As long as we’re interested in who they are, we’ll be interested in what happens to them. The second we realize there’s nothing about a character that interests us (usually because the writer has left them too opaque), we lose interest in the story itself.

July 30, 2010 19:00 UTC

Tags: character, introductions, action, reaction, conflict, skills, imagery, setting, backstory, mystery, curiosity

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How settings make or break your characters

You want to know how powerful a well established setting is? It’s so powerful that when badly done, it can break the reader’s belief in the actions of your characters. Ultimately a weakly developed setting can destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the whole novel. But when well done, a setting supports the believability of even the most unusual behaviors of your characters.

This article applies mainly to novels with unusual settings, ones that alter the bedrock truths about life here in the 21st century that we all take for granted. That’s what I mean by an unusual setting. This can happen in any genre, although it is most often a factor in fantasy and science fiction.

And fair warning: this article may seem less about character development than my usual fare. This is only because it’s impossible to untangle characters from the settings that are the foundation on which the character’s whole life rests. Almost nothing has as much influence on how your characters behave as the setting. If that seems like a strong statement, read on.

Settings have rules

Since all of this ultimately relates to suspension of disbelief, let’s take a second to talk about the non-character-related ways to break the reader’s belief in an unusual setting. For purposes of this article, let’s take our setting as something very different from our own day-to-day world: A sci-fi Mars colony, 25 years after the colony has been established, but based on the technology we have today. I’m purposely choosing an extreme setting to show how far authors can—and should—take the business of settings.

Settings have rules, which have to make sense in and of themselves with respect to the reader’s general knowledge, intuition, and common sense. For instance, here’s a rule that is true for Mars: “Mars is an astonishingly dry place.” With today’s technology, colonists certainly won’t have been able to change the Martian climate in only 25 years, so consequently you would be unwise to stick this in your novel:

McCann opened his eyes to a gray, rainy day. “Oh, fabulous,” he muttered as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.

“Quit griping,” said his billet-mate Shariz. “At least it’ll wash the dust off the hab.”

You can’t get away with this because you made it rain on mars. You violated the rules readers will assume a reasonable Mars colony setting ought to have to follow. If you stick this scene in your novel, the reader’s going to think “This joker doesn’t know the first thing about Mars!” and will lose faith in you to tell a believable story. Although if I’m to believe what I wrote back in January (and I suppose I should), even this is kind of character-related too.

Settings affect characters

If I had to sum up this whole article in three words, that would be it. Settings affect characters. Seems obvious, right? Well, it is, but that doesn’t stop writers from forgetting it all the time. Or rather, I suspect what happens is that the author forgets what his setting is from time to time. I know that sounds impossible—how could you forget your setting?—but it does happen.

Settings may be quite outlandish, but the characters in them are still just people. They’re still driven by the same fundamental emotions, impulses, and desires as those of us who live right here on Earth in the 21st century. My suspicion is that authors get caught up in the familiarity of ordinary people, and lose sight of how their particular ordinary people—the ones in their books—are supposed to be affected by the setting. As a result, they end up with characters who think and act in ways that are perfectly normal and believable here on Earth, today, but which violate the expectations one would have for characters in a different setting.

When you hear people talk about books or movies where “the setting is like a character in its own right,” this is what they’re trying to put into words: that the setting has indeed affected the actual characters in accordance with whatever rules go along with that setting. Characters thus have a relationship with the setting as much as they do with other characters.

How to get it right

When you elect to use an unusual setting, you’re taking on some extra up-front work compared with normal-world novelists. You have to borrow a page out of Einstein’s book and do a “thought experiment” about life in your setting. You need to spend some time to figure out what all the explicit and implicit rules of your setting are, and from them, deduce what makes sense for how your characters would live, what they would eat, how they would govern themselves, et cetera.

A good place to start is by making a list of how your setting differs from our real life setting. “It’s like here, but gravity is weaker, there’s barely any air or water, all you have is what you brought from Earth, and instead of six billion people on the planet there are only 54, and they all live together.” If you feel it’s necessary, you might make a list of what’s the same, too. If any of your items relate to people, make them about people generally, not about the specific characters you may have in mind for your story. It’s not time to think about the story yet, not before you’ve got the setting firmly fixed in your mind.

Once you’ve got a handle on what’s the same and what’s different, you’re ready to do the thought experiment. Let’s take those Mars colonists as an example, and let’s offer the further twist that our colonists have been completely cut off from Earth; perhaps a super-virus spread on Earth after the colony was established, wiping out Earth civilization, meaning there will be no future supply ships or new colonists.

Consider the mundane

On some level food, water, and shelter are boring, but you can’t skip them. In fact, you should start your thought experiment with these essentials because if these are missing, it totally re-focuses people’s attention on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. In the case of Mars, air can’t be taken for granted either. Still, people don’t like spending their days obsessing over how they’re going to meet these basic needs, and as a result, people tend to organize their lives so as to make this as easy as possible.

You need to consider, within the parameters of your setting, how people are going to keep the bottom of the hierarchy satisfied. Our Mars colonists are going to have to grow their own food. They’re going to have to be fanatical about recycling water and, well, let’s just call it “organic matter.” They will have brought some shelter with them, whatever kind of prefab habitats came on the colony ship, but that’s about it.

Even stuff like the reality of clothes and garbage within this setting, entirely mundane to be sure, have enormous impact on your characters. The colonists will have brought clothes with them, and certainly some quantity of replacements, but that’s it. They can’t just make more at the drop of a hat, nor can they pop ‘round to The Gap to pick up some new khakis. So, taking care of one’s clothes becomes much more important than it is here on Earth. Mundane, yes, but it sure raises the stakes when somebody spills coffee on somebody else’s shirt.

Mars colonists probably wouldn’t even have the concept of garbage. If all you have is what you brought with you from Earth, even a ripped up, coffee stained, sweat pitted old shirt is still going to be a resource. Somebody, somewhere, is going to find a use for it. In a Mars colony, nothing gets thrown away.

Consider social norms

These physical realities around the necessities of life, clothes, garbage, and so forth all shape social behaviors. Those realities dictate how the society within which your characters live conceives of what is acceptable, normal, and even right or wrong.

Our Mars colonists, by necessity, will be hard core recyclers. If somebody dies, the funeral will end with putting the person’s body into the compost heap to be spread around in the gardens, or maybe pureed to be put into the colony’s hydroponics system. To you and me this may seem disrespectful of the dead, or even ghoulish, but to them it’s simply a necessity. Besides, it’s not like they have anywhere else to put the body.

The lack of ready access to new clothes, on the one hand, might mean people would be super paranoid about caring for their clothes. Certainly in the initial years after a colony’s establishment, when social norms from Earth are still engrained in people’s minds, that would be true. But on the other hand, the colony’s dome city or whatever is bound to be 100% climate controlled, kept at a balmy late spring temperature with perfect humidity all the time. That being the case, it’s not like the colonists really need to wear clothes. And as the years go by and clothes wear out, well, maybe it would just be easier to go around naked all the time.

But, on the other-other hand, other forces might oppose casual nudity: The fact that the colonists have extremely limited food, water, air, and space means that they can’t just go around having babies willy-nilly (no pun intended). Procreation would, again by necessity, have to be severely governed. China has a “one child per family” policy; Mars colonists might have a “one child per funeral” policy—nobody gets to be pregnant unless someone else dies to make room. Severe restraints on procreation could lead to highly regulated interactions between men and women. They might even start enforcing gender segregation within the colony to limit the interactions between men and women, and thus, the chances for unapproved pregnancies.

Or take it further: if the colonists know there won’t be any more settlers from Earth because of the super-virus, then it becomes critically important for these colonists to preserve their genetic diversity. This means that when the opportunity for somebody to get pregnant does come up, there will probably be an official colony geneticist whose job it is to decide who the parents will be.

Perhaps, in a society where these are the realities of life, the notion of love and marriage, of loving partnership, would become entirely divorced from the notion of parenthood: You wouldn’t get married because you wanted to have a family with someone. You wouldn’t even expect necessarily to have a family with that person. But you would expect that, at some point, you or your spouse might get a visit from the geneticist saying “I need you go to inseminate (or be inseminated by) so-and-so.” And whether you liked so-and-so or hated their guts would have no bearing on the situation.

Setting equals society

It goes on and on. The more different your setting is from real life, the more that setting changes the way society itself operates. For instance, what do you do if somebody commits a crime? If you have a murder within the colony (hardly unexpected, with the same people cooped up in close quarters year after year), what do you do? How do you punish the killer when there’s no prison to send them to, and you can’t execute them since you need everyone working for the colony’s survival.

That’s what setting does. It determines a great, great deal of the way societies are forced to act. Maybe your setting isn’t so extreme, but I guarantee you, whatever it is about your setting that makes it different from the setting in which you live your own life, that difference will shape the society in which your characters live.

I should note, this thought-experiment process for identifying the ramifications of an unusual setting in fantasy and sci-fi is not all that different from what many writers in other genres do. In novels set in historical time periods novels or in contemporary but exotic parts of the world, the realities of those settings shaped their societies just like a sci-fi Mars colony setting shapes its society. The only difference is that writers whose settings really do or did exist on Earth can do research to learn how the setting actually did shape a society, while fantasy and sci-fi writers have to think it through themselves.

That’s the bottom line. Whether you do it by research or by imagination, you must somehow arrive at a clear mental picture of a society grounded in the immutable factors of human psychology and behavior, but which is also perfectly attuned to the realities of its physical setting. It is this society in which your characters live, so you better know how it works.

Where writers fall down

What I’ve seen in client manuscripts (and the occasional published novel) is writers who haven’t done the necessary work to put this clear mental picture into their own heads before they figure out their plot and before they start writing down what their characters are doing and how they’re reacting.

This is why careful character development is so critical. You have to know how all of your characters think and act—this is the controlled multiple-personalities of writers—but never forget that how your characters think and act is equally determined by their personalities as by the society they live in. And as we just saw, society is a function of setting.

Get it right, and your characters’ non-Earthlike behaviors are not only completely believable but also support the reality of the setting itself. Get it wrong, and behaviors that would be totally believable here on Earth become suddenly nonsensical and collapse the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the setting too.

It doesn’t work to let your characters act like you or I would, based on the rules of modern Earth culture, while living in a setting that is dramatically unlike our modern world. It just falls flat. As a reader, it’s impossible to maintain my suspension of disbelief about the story as a whole when the characters don’t act in ways that are congruous with the explicit and implicit rules of their settings.

Pit your characters against the setting’s rules

So if you want to write a sci-fi romance set on Mars, go for it! But make sure everyone’s behavior is in keeping with the behaviors that make sense—that are necessary—given the realities of the setting. It may mean that the plot you had in mind doesn’t actually work. It may be that the plot you intended turns out to be grounded in modern Earth behaviors that wouldn’t make sense on Mars. Chances are, this will initially come as a disappointment to you.

But trust me, it’s actually a good thing, because it means you’re discovering what Donald Maass calls inherent conflict in your premise: maybe your star-crossed lovers can’t hook up because the very non-Earthlike rules around love and romance in that colony don’t allow it. If that’s what you discover, don’t fight it. Work with it! Readers will love watching your characters explore the tension between their emotional drive to be together and the colony’s overall greater good of keeping the population in check.

When they’re well done—when the characterization lives up to the explicit and implicit rules of the setting—stories that pit characters against the settings they live in can be fascinating both for the plots they contain as well as for their ability to explore human behavior in inventive new situations.

June 29, 2010 20:15 UTC

Tags: character, setting, society, inherent conflict, Donald Maass, suspension of disbelief

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Steinbeck was wrong


John Steinbeck

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Steinbeck said that, but I think he’s wrong. You’ll have way more than a dozen.

Sometimes people ask me where I get ideas for my novels. I’m not always sure where they’re going with the question. Are they looking for a recipe for getting ideas of their own? Or just curious about my “muse"?

Happily, there’s no real magic to it.

I think a lot of people who have never written a novel, or who have tried but haven’t succeeded to their satisfaction, have this misapprehension about the process of coming up with ideas. Like we writers sit around in our offices, or take long thoughtful walks, or sit in Starbucks swilling chai lattes, waiting for lightning to strike. Like ideas for great stories are some sort of gift that you have to wait and hope and pray for, that they come from some mysterious external source.

The source of these ideas is often external. I’ll grant you that. But it’s nothing mysterious. It just a matter of paying attention to what’s going on around you. It’s a matter of learning to see the world through a storyteller’s eyes. It’s a matter of looking at people and events, and asking yourself if there’s a great premise lurking somewhere in there.

I didn’t always get that. I used to believe there was a recipe for it. That writers sat down and worked through some sort of secret process that generated story ideas.

I thought that until the first time I tried to create a story idea that way. It was going to be a spy story, because I have a soft spot Tom Clancy style espionage thrillers. I worked at it for a couple of weeks, until I realized that I absolutely hated the storyline I’d come up with.

The first successful novel writing experience I had was in 2005, during NaNoWriMo. I decided very late in October to try it. With no time to work out anything new, and out of desperation, I wrote a fantasy novel based on a piece of backstory I’d created for a role playing game some years prior. Roll your eyes if you will, but hey, at least it was something I already knew, and had a certain geeky enthusiasm for.

One year, an idea came to me while I was at the bookstore. I saw a book sitting out on one of the half-off tables. It was a history of the Pony Express. It just sort of jumped off the table into my hands. By then I had a storyteller’s eye, and it said to me “Dude, that’s a great setting!” I wondered to myself why I couldn’t think of a single book or movie that takes place there. I walked out of the store with that book, instead of the one I’d come for. I read it, it was absolutely fascinating, and when I was done I had in my head a young adult coming-of-age story set there in the wilds of what is now Wyoming.

One year, a story came to me in a dream. No, I’m not kidding. Well, it was more of a nightmare. I woke from the dream with just fragments of it in my mind, but vivid ones. Rather than just shaking it off and trying to go back to sleep, my storyteller’s eye said “Wow, cool sci-fi premise.”

My current work in progress came from a blog post I wrote a while back about backstory. In the part where I was talking about characters with interesting quirks, I wrote something about maybe having a character who collects Soviet-era comic books. I had no intention of that turning into anything, it was simply the quirkiest thing I could think of on the spur of the moment. But my storyteller’s eye said “Hey, remember that spy story you tried to write? The one that sucked so much? Well, what if spies hid secret messages inside the comic books?”

There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers. Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up. — Stephen King, On Writing

Together, Steinbeck and King have it about right. That first idea may be tricky for you. It might have to come in a flash of inspiration, or desperation. But once you’ve developed that storyteller’s eye, you’ll see them coming at you all the time. One time, you may get a premise. Another time, a setting or a detail about a character. Whatever it is, it hints at the rest. That’s where stories come from.

Ideas are everywhere. See them. Grab hold of the good ones. Don’t let them go.

November 25, 2009 22:01 UTC

Tags: writing, ideas, premise, setting, stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck

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