We’ve agreed to “let it suck” on first draft, yes? Just let it rip with the writing and get a draft completed. And we’ve been discussing ways to find and refine your work during rewrite.
Now let’s let the character share the workload, okay?
I reposted a character profile questionnaire to help you really get to know your characters. Yes, it is a lonnnnnnng list of questions, but if you are serious about telling your story, discovering the answer to each of these for your characters (at least the major ones, although the more you know about everybody in your story, the more authentic your writing will be), the better informed your writing will be.
This discussion is about that process. How does knowing your character alter the telling of your tale? It is a simple case of What Would Your Character Do?
Let’s say your hero is battling enemies. Would s/he use weapons? What kind? Would s/he kill? Knowing the answers to such “questions of moment” significantly change the scene. And knowing the right answer for your character specifically makes all the difference.
How do you get the answers? The character profile questionnaire will help because, as goofy as it sounds, the more you know your characters as “real” people, the more you know what they would do (you know how a family member will react to things, or a friend, or partner, or boss, right? This is the same kind of thing).
For example, in the late 1930s, when Batman first appeared, he would toss bad guys off roofs or shoot them. But then he didn’t. Why? The storytellers made a key decision based on specifically knowing Bruce Wayne: Due to the pain and trauma of witnessing his parents’ murder as a child, Batman doesn’t kill. This one answer to a single character question has propelled this particular character on a far more difficult and rewarding road for 70 years. There have been many intriguing stories exploring why he doesn’t kill, especially someone like the Joker, an antagonist supremely worthy of death. Not killing the Joker pushes Batman into a difficult moral corner, and, as Robert McKee has said, this is where character is revealed.
To kill or not to kill is just one ongoing character question, and all such considerations help define what characters do. In the 1930s and onward, The Shadow killed, Doc Savage did not (he used the equivalent of rubber bullets, and, most often, his big bronze fists). This major difference helped define each series.
Now take this example a step further. For something like 30 years (the 50s to the 80s), no comic book hero killed. Again, this wasn’t always the case. For most of their history, comic book heroes did not kill, mostly due to the Comics Code. When creators finally began dismissing that policy as the hollow political posturing it was, things changed. Some characters got darker, some killed, and this changed comics. Books like The Punisher, Sin City, and Preacher became known for death and chaos and violence. This had a significant -and not necessarily positive- effect on the entire genre. For example, as a more or less direct result of the darker morality of comics over the last 20 years Batman has had to deal with the increasingly horrific price of upholding his vow, leading some to interpret him as being as psychotic as the villains he faces (not a theory to which I subscribe).
In film, many Marvel characters kill. Mostly, they kill people trying to kill them, but there has been unsettling collateral damage during major battles (see Man of Steel or Marvel’s two Avengers flicks) and at least in Superman’s case, it caused much heated debate about whether he fulfilled the concept of hero as a result. All of this from various creatives answering one question.
Your question may be simpler. Carnivore or vegetarian? The answer will impact a first date scene. Allergies or no? How could that alter a scene wherein a character is hiding? Liar or no? Changes dialogue. Two liars? The dialogue scene grows more complicated. Two liars who know each is lying? More complicated still.
I am currently writing a short adventure tale featuring an internationally known soldier of fortune called Blackjack, who was created by my good friend Alex Simmons. In this story, Aaron Day (aka Blackjack) goes to a ruined Egyptian city to help the survivors there defend what remains of their home from marauders. He believes they should just leave, but Blackjack does much of what he does because of a belief system passed down, in one way or another, from his father. This causes him to respect the survivors hopeless cause, and make decisions with that in mind, even though that respect causes complications and increased danger to himself steadily throughout the story.
Knowing who Blackjack is has informed my decisions throughout rewrites. The story is far more complicated and rewarding than it was in the first draft because knowing the belief systems of both the hero and the survivors made demands on how I serve the story. Further, knowing the character has also influenced dialogue (Blackjack knows some Arabic) and action (he shows patience where a character like Wolverine would have cut someone).
Knowledge is power. Thorough knowledge will empower your writing. So let the first draft suck, then ask yourself, at each step of your rewrite, what would your characters do, and you’ll see the richer writing emerge.
Art by Tim Fielder. Blackjack created by Alex Simmons.