Lunacon 2014 (1a): Building Character

Panelists: Mike Flynn and Ken Atlabef.

I was a little disappointed to see that the first panel sported Mike Flynn as a guest.  At the last Lunacon, Mike Flynn was the moderator for the panels I consistently liked least.  My recollection was that he was a know-it-all who made points only to emphasize his intelligence or to plug his own books, and that the expertise he claimed did not jive with my own knowledge in those areas I had actual expertise in.  To be fair, at this panel, he was much more witty and, since it was a writing panel, a lot more effective.  He did continue to make it all about him, although it turns out, he can be pretty funny.

The first thing I noticed is how old the audience skewed — I might have been the second or third youngest person there, and I am no spring chicken.  This might owe to it being the very first panel to open (before they’ve even set up registration!); maybe only geezers can get away in the mid afternoon on a Friday.  🙂  However, looking over the whole evening, it does seem that Lunacon is trending gray.  More on that later.

The title of the panel was a play on words.  Rather than moral education, it was about how to craft characters that people will care about and that have the strength to carry your story.

The two panelists did make some really good observations, which I think I’ll find useful when I ever wander back into writing fiction.  In no particular order of importance:

  • Most sci fi is  plot-driven.  Other than sci fi, most modern fiction is character-driven.  This is probably why sci fi fans complain that other works drag or seem to be about nothing.
  • It’s important that characters be true to life.  “True” here doesn’t mean factual or literal.  True-to-life means that the characters act in ways that make sense to the reader.
  • The star of Lord of the Rings is Middle Earth itself.  Tolkein didn’t write a story so much as a travelog.
  • Altabef felt very strongly that you need to “profile” your characters fully before writing them.  He came back to this several times.
    • They need to have a back story and you need to know it.
    • You must create as much detail as you can.
    • But you should reveal only the “telling details” — the ones needed to move the plot or to define the character.
    • It’s OK to surprise the reader later but you should never be surprised.
    • That’s what a first draft is for — to uncover the ways your characters will surprise you.
  • Flynn felt that, when you introduce a character, you should provide the reader with a physical image as soon as possible with as much definition as possible.
    • Don’t write stories about ghosts (unless it is a literal ghost story and your character is  a literal ghost).
    • The character should be doing something that reveals who he is.  Think Indiana Jones, who is being Indiana Jones — whip cracking, cautious, observant — within 30 seconds of appearing.
  • Dialog is the way you reveal and explore your characters.
    • Every character should sound like  a person.  They should not sound like the same person.  🙂  A note for Aaron Sorkin, I suppose.
    • You can flesh out dialog (and break its monotony) with eye movement, facial expression, tone of voice.
    • A good writer is observing people all the time and noting their distinguishing tics, mannerisms, etc.  You should constantly observe people to try to figure out their motivations — getting them “correct” is less important than the exercise of coming up with them.
    • There’s a writing exercise that occurred to me that I want to try: Come up with a situation or piece of conversation and re-tell it for each character.
  • Character flaws are useful hooks.
    • It’s best if the character’s flaw has something to do with the actual story.  🙂
    • It’s imperative to avoid Mary Sue syndrome.
    • One technique: Assign each character their Myers-Briggs score, then put them in a situation where they have to act against it.  Use that discomfort.
  • Villains
    • No man is a villain in his own eyes.
    • When possible, include an anti-flaw — a redeeming quality — to avoid the Punch Clock Villain problem.  Unless that’s what you’re going for, which is OK in its own right.
    • Generally, don’t have the villain do it for the evulz.
    • A truly great villain leaves the reader unsettled, because he/she demands sympathy or at least understanding.

Then the group degenerated into discussing Batman.  Of course.