No One Writes Plays About People Brushing Their Teeth

My play writing teacher back in college used to regularly tell us, “No one writes plays about people brushing their teeth.” At the time, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah? Just wait.” Of course, she was right and no one gives a rat’s ass about people brushing their teeth. People turning into rhinoceroses or people standing around waiting for some mysterious thing or person to show up are still perfectly acceptable, even if they are so mired in dense allegory that most folks never get past the rhinos or just who the fuck Godot was.

Hint: Godot was all the stupid shit we spend our time waiting for. At least according to Samuel Beckett, but what does he know?

But here’s a funny thing: Everyone brushes their teeth. And, just like there’s no one right way to eat a peanut butter cup, everyone does it a little differently. For some people, it’s a ritual: Present the toothbrush, bow, and move to each tooth with military precision. Others, slap some toothpaste on the brush and go to town while humming Bliss N Eso songs and drooling toothpaste on themselves. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which one I am.

How we approach things tells people a lot about us. Are we the kind of people who want a neat, tidy meal where the burger wrapper is folded exactly so and there’s a distinct place on the wrapper for the burger, the fries, and the ketchup and they DO NOT TOUCH? Or are we the kind of people who can eat the whole meal straight out of the bag and toss it in the back seat for the next owner of our car to deal with?

Little things that seem trivial when we’re doing them can cast long shadows on our psyches. They’re the kinds of things that add richness and detail to characters, too. Little quirks like collecting Pop Swatches or having an affinity for Teen Beat magazine might not be important to the character’s arc, but they can help explain why a character is doing something without, you know, explicitly explaining it.

Think about this way. How interesting is reading about a character when the author comes straight out and says, “She was anal-retentive”? Boring. What about describing how she opened her burger, pushed it gently to the side of the wrapper, poured the fries neatly on the other side, and put the ketchup perfectly in the middle. Or a character that eats burritos with a knife and fork? Or describing a room so organized that the books on the bookshelf were all exactly the same height and organized in perfect alphabetical order? Those little keys add up to saying someone’s a neat freak without resorting to actually saying it.

While it’s doubtful anyone will write a play about someone brushing their teeth, it’s entirely likely that describing the way someone brushes their teeth can create a more complete picture of the character.

Advertisements

Writing A Character Sketch

charactersketch

My son and his friends love to play games where they one-up each other on powers.

“I’m armor plated!”

“I’ve got armor piercing swords!”

“I have shields!”

“My fireballs can pierce your shields!”

Eventually they get to the inevitable “I’m a god in Mech” level and just clash. There’s lots of whooshing and kablooing and slashing. Boys will be boys, and going all kablooey is just part of growing up. They even manage to rope some of the girls in sometimes and everyone is out there changing the rules by the second. It’s fascinating to watch, but it’s kind of like watching a game of Calvinball where the players can’t touch each other because the school has all these rules.

It’s great fun for kids. Exercise, creativity, problem solving. These are all good things even if the kids do get to bend the rules. In the world of writing, rule changing can be the kiss of death. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, damn is it infuriating.

Everything is moving along nicely then a character does something that is so absolutely out of character that the fantasy world crumbles and the reader is left staring a jumble of words on a page. All the magic is gone. This usually happens when an author needs a way out of a situation and can’t think of a good one so, aha! the young girl was god all along!

whatamilookingat

It sucks.

One of the best ways to avoid things like this in your writing is to have a pretty good idea in mind of what the characters are actually like and stick to it. Sure, characters can change, but it shouldn’t happen rapidly and it’s something the reader should be able to experience. Those changes should also be driven by the effects of the plot on the characters. In other words, characters (like real people) need a reason to change.

That’s actually one of the reasons for the Saxton books: I knew I needed him back in the series, but he was painted as a smug asshole in Henchmen and still pretty much a jerk in Arise and that wasn’t going to work for Transmute. So, I wrote a few novellas about how his desire to hunt monsters changes his world view. It was also an excellent way to expand on the mythos of the bad guys from Arise.

But I digress. Wilford Saxton was written a particular way for Henchmen and we got to see more of him in Arise. I had a mental sketch of the character and I stuck to it pretty well for those first two books. Likewise, the rest of the cast has seen subtle changes, but their basic personalities and capabilities are still intact. Eve still drinks too much and functions as a leader. Jessica is still mercurial and dangerous. Steven’s still basically a jerk with his heart in kind of the right place. Sure, there have been some changes in the characters, but they were changes driven by the results of the story.

I pulled off this bit of supernatural chicanery by keeping the characters true to themselves and I did that by generating character sketches.

At its most basic, a character sketch is a blurb about a character. You don’t need to generate sketches about all the characters in a book, but the main characters definitely need some flesh. It doesn’t take much, usually a few paragraphs and some thought to generate the skeleton of a character and throw some meat at it. Physical attributes are the first layer of this process and they’re usually the least useful in terms of creating a character. Just like in the real world, the way a character looks or dresses usually has little impact on how they act in the story.

1475959324414

Wherever she is, I assure you it’s very hot.

There are notable exceptions, and I’ve used them: Eve is a seven-foot-tall, bulletproof blonde. Her height and hair color are actually important to her character and a side effect of what she is. Most of the time, though, it’s less important to develop looks because readers like to generate those on their own. Give the most basic descriptions and leave it at that.

What is import is giving a character a history and a philosophy of life. That’s what lets a character maintain stability throughout the run of the story. So, to build off the post on clowns (which I’m still tinkering with writing), let’s take a look at a possible character that was described in the story outline: the hero who dies to save a young couple.

The Hero: (dies before the story ends, but sacrifices himself to save others)

Name: Jake Roberts

Age: mid 60s

General look: weathered by the dry desert. Lean. Wears a lot of denim and gingham shirts. Regularly seen without a cowboy hat, but absolutely refuses to wear it indoors or in his truck. His truck is a dirty, if well-maintained, late 80s F150. It’s dusty, but otherwise spotless. His truck is a key indicator of his personality – keep things in shape and if they ain’t broke, don’t fix ’em.

History: Born on the same ranch he still lives on. Ranch covers a huge tract of land that’s been in his family since the 1800s. Left the ranch to join the Army, felt it was his civic duty. Served two tours in Vietnam. After being wounded and saved by a Vietnamese man, he decided he wasn’t sure who to trust: the government or the people the government sent him to kill. Traveled Asia for a while. Came home and took over the ranch after his parents started to get too old to do it on their own. Father died in car crash. Held his mother’s hand as old age took her away. To this day he quietly swears he saw his dad in the room when his mom died, but refuses to tell many people about it. It’s this fact that lets him have just enough of an open mind to contemplate the nature of the clowns.

Factoids: Usually believes the simplest solution is the best. Not prone to much talk. Likes his bourbon and cigar on the porch as he watches the sun go down. Never gets drunk. Still vehemently believes in his country even though he feels it needs to get itself together. Never curses. Used to go to church regularly, stopped after his mother died. Believes God can’t be put in any physical place. Seen as something of an odd-ball in town, but people listen to him, sort of the wise old Obi Wan Kenobi of eastern New Mexico. Think Sam Elliot in “The Big Lebowski”. Has an encyclopedic knowledge of cowboy sayings.

Certainly it’s impossible to sum up a person’s life in a few paragraphs, but a character sketch isn’t intended to do that. All we’re really trying to do is lay out the foundation for the character and give a few points that will explain why they behave the way they do. The book itself is for summing up that life, or at least a portion of it.

Do you create sketches for your characters? Got any you’re working on? Leave a comment!

Links:

Scribendi’s guide on writing character sketches

Udemyblog’s guide

Wikihow’s guide

This Picture – Writing the Other Side

They were actually BFFs off-screen.

They were actually BFFs off-screen.

I stumbled across this picture several months ago and loved it. I still think Aliens is toward the top of my favorite movies list. In addition to the slow build that everyone in the audience knew was coming, the movie had a lot to say about who the monsters really were. As Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) says, “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.

Burke, Carter J. proceeds to run, leaving everyone to die horribly in the face of the Xenomorph onslaught. Of course he gets caught by an alien. There’s a scene in the book that shows (sorry, tells) him glued to the wall, waking up just in time for the egg in front of him to open and you know his death is going to be delightfully uncomfortable.

comeuppance

Comeuppance. Heck yeah.

In fact, you could make the argument that the true villain of the movie was really Burke and the Weyland/Yutani corporation all along. The aliens and Marines were just along for the ride and didn’t find each other’s company agreeable.

Anyway, back to the picture. It’s a still shot, probably from the production that shows our two heroines: the small, squishy one and the gloriously armored one. The alien queen gets a bad rap in the movie, but to be fair, she was as much a tragic hero as Ripley. I say tragic because, in the end, the alien queen fails and her children all die in fiery inferno.

Her tragedy comes down to motivations. It’s motivation that should drive a character. Even the bad guys have motivations for what they do and guess what? No matter how loathsome the bad guys may be, they all think their reasons are very good reasons for doing what they’re doing.

shocked

Don’t gasp. It’s true. We can all justify our actions at any given time. The reason for this is because we, as humans, are exceptionally good at lying to ourselves. Whatever it is we’re doing, we have managed to convince ourselves it is the correct thing to do.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, if you’re going to write the antagonist in the story you have to keep something squarely in mind: whoever the bad guy (or girl) is, they are doing what they’re doing because they think it’s the correct thing to do. Then you get to the really cool part: exploring those reasons. You may come to find that the reasons are noble, after all, just not in the context of the story you’re trying to tell.

Now, take another look at Aliens and examine the main actors in the movie. By my reckoning you’ve got three major players represented in the story.

  • The Marines (and Ripley)
  • The Weyland/Yutani Corporation (and Burke)
  • The aliens (and the Queen)

Every single one of them has a valid motivation for their actions. The Marines (and Ripley) want to do their jobs and go home. Those jobs include saving colonists and eliminating a threat. They’re attempting to realize that goal by killing all the aliens. The Company (Weyland/Yutani and its representative Carter J. Burke) wants to make profits for its employees and shareholders. It attempts to achieve its goal by bringing aliens back home. In their minds the value of the aliens as a study far outweighs both the hive and the lives of the Marines. The aliens simply want to live. They attempt to achieve their goal by capturing colonists and using them as both nurseries and food.

By putting all these groups with differing and mutually exclusive goals in one place you create our good buddy conflict. And you do it in such a way that the conflict becomes much more nuanced; now it becomes less like to say “So-and-so did x because he’s a big dumb jerk-face.” The parties in the conflict now have very valid reasons and, interestingly enough, the varying conflicts have become MECE.

mece

This means the resolutions for each possible outcome aren’t compatible with the other outcomes and at least one of the outcomes must occur. This is the nature of conflict. Let’s face it, it’s just not very fun if the conflict resolution is everyone just walking away.

In Aliens, there was no way that was going to happen, each party had a vested interest in their own goals. Most importantly, each party felt their goals were, in fact, not only attainable, but actually good things to do.

So, when you look at it that way, who’s the real villain? In the context of the movie it’s Burke and the aliens because the movie is ultimately about Ripley and the Marines. Told from another point of view, though, a struggling colony of aliens was wiped out by aggressors from beyond the stars or a potentially huge revenue stream was eliminated by shortsightedness.

Really look at your villains and you might see them in a different perspective. In my mind, the picture of the alien queen and Ripley will always be called “Two Lovely Ladies” because if you look hard enough, it’s pretty difficult to call either one of them a villain. It’s just that their goals contrary to each other.