Characterization Lessons from Pop Culture


Some very good thoughts on character development.

Originally posted on Drew Chial:

1. Narcissist

Audiences love watching characters in dire situations work their way out. We want to believe that with enough determination anyone can lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. More than that, we want to believe that people have the power to look inward and turn themselves into someone better.

A character’s growth should account for shifts in his attitude, but if his personality does a complete 180 it will affect his believability.New situations should nurture the hero’s evolution, while his nature should remain the same. Inconsistencies in the hero’s essence will feel like a betrayal to the audience. The more the hero changes, the more parts of them need to remain the same.

Allow me to illustrate my point with a sampling of references pulled from pop culture: from Bill Murray’s filmography, to panned superhero movies, and the Star Wars rereleases.

What Bill Murray Teaches Writer’s About Constructing Characters

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Objects In The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are

There is a FaceBook group where I post little snippets of my WIPs.  Recently I received a comment on one of my sections that took me by surprise.

Someone said that my work sounded like it was meant for a Young Adult audience.

The bit in question was an introduction of two new characters who are the result of Samuel’s vital art–humans who have been surgically modified into living weapons.

“We’ve got more coming in, straight ahead. Brother, can you thin the herd for us?” Agony’s voice came over my phone and Catskinner drew both knives from their sheaths on my thighs.

“my pleasure,” he said and marched my body down the street, past the burning buildings.

“Samuel,” Agony added, “Would you send the twins along with him?”

Samuel nodded to Nimdok and Gorrister and they fell into step behind me, their bodies gliding with the same dangerous grace. I felt Catskinner bristle at their inclusion, but he didn’t say anything. There were a lot of villagers, after all. Plenty of murder for everyone.

The pair of them ditched their coats on the way up the street. The one to my left—gorrister, Catskinner informed me—unfolded two additional arms and spread them. They were attached at his hips, and each ended in a muscular knot of flesh. He flexed them and they opened up, revealing toothed jaws like the heads of a pair of eyeless mastiffs.

Nimdok, I saw, was a woman, and I suddenly recognized her. I had seen her last hanging from a chainlink fence by her arms, with nothing at all below her waist. Now she had legs, a dozen of them, thin and many jointed and armored like a crab. Each ended in a spearhead of polished bone and she clattered as she scrambled up the street.

Samuel’s work, no doubt. They made Luann look positively normal, but they also looked efficient and deadly.

 There’s nothing in there that strikes me as being particularly YA.  On the other hand, I know the context of the scene and the comment was from someone who had only seen that one section.

Still, I asked him what made him think I was writing for Young Adults and I thought his answer was interesting.  It was because I have semi-human characters that felt to him like comic book characters, and he associated comic books with a younger audience.

I personally didn’t read comics until I was well into my twenties, and the titles I tended to read were those that dealt with more mature themes, but I am familiar with the mindset. There is a prevalent idea that media that deals with speculative themes and imagery must be for children.

Those of us who work in the speculative genres have to be aware of this attitude, I feel.  I once found a collection of Kafka’s stories in the children’s section of a library.  Someone, I feel, must have glanced through it and thought, “A guy turns into a bug in this story–that’s got to be for kids.”

I see it a lot–my roommate and I have taken to seeing movies at the local 5 Star Lounge because while it is more expensive, it’s a 21 and over venue.  It’s worth the extra money to be able to see films without small children underfoot.  Parents will bring small children to something like Intersteller thinking that because it’s a “space movie” it’s going to be fun for children.

My books are written for adults and, judging from my reviews, seem to be well received by an older audience.  I deal with mature themes and frequently my characters are in bad situations and make bad choices.   I have some very complex relationships in my stories, some sexual and some not.  I have explicitly adult scenes, and also what I consider explicitly grown-up scenes–scenes involving building maintenance and managing employees and dealing with contractors.

Some of my favorite artists deal with grown-up themes using fantastic elements–Terry Gilliam, Neil Gaimen, Tannith Lee, Robert Heinlein, Phillip Dick, Ursula K Le Guin, Ray Bradbury. As I write this Pandora is playing The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”–a happy bouncy pop tune that is written about a fairly disturbing subject.  (I recall when it came out and I was the only one of my circle of friends who realized who “the old man in that book by Nabokov” referred to.)

So what do we do?  One way is to deliberately include a level of gore and/or erotica that is over the top enough to make the point that this isn’t meant for children.  A lot of underground comics went that route, I think.  Even then it’s no guarantee–I’ve seen Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat shelved in the children’s section of video stores.

Even Horror, which I think should be the most obviously adult genre, is often considered childish.  Many horror icons have spawn kid-friendly versions, from Count Chocula to the modern Monster High dolls.

I don’t know.  It’s an issue that bothers me as an author–I feel like I have to prove my work is something to be taken seriously by adults in a way that writers of spy thrillers or courtroom dramas don’t.  But then, life’s not fair, is it?


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A review of one of Tim Powers’ lesser known works.

Originally posted on THE BOOKS THAT TIME FORGOT.:


Greg Rivas is a successful musician at the hottest club in the city-state of Ellay. One day a man comes to visit Greg. He is the most powerful man in Ellay and needs Greg’s skills as a redeemer. A redeemer is someone who will kidnap and deprogram members of the cult of Norton Jaybush.

Greg is retired but accepts his job because the person taken by the cult is his lost love from when he was eighteen. So Greg infiltrates the cult and it takes him to the secret at their holy city of Long Beach. The adventure culminates with a meeting of Jaybush at the infamous club known as Deviant’s Palace.

Like most post-apocalypse stories the main protagonist is trying to rebuild or discover some technology to restore civilization. Greg is someone who is comfortable with the post nuke world be lives in. The story is about Greg’s coming…

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Up for Discussion: Street Photography: A Few Myths and Misconceptions

This gallery contains 16 photos.

Originally posted on Leanne Cole PHOTOGRAPHY:
Today we have another guest post and this time it’s from Sharon Morris.  She first approached me about the magazine on Facebook with a suggestion for a name, which turned out to be one…

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I Have Seen The Eternal Footman Hold My Coat

Thomas A. Watt has nominated me for a Versatile Blogger Award and while I appreciate the gesture, I am afraid that I must decline.

Versatility is the quality of being useful for multiple purposes, and I use this blog for only one thing.  What’s more, it’s far from effectatious at that.

Posted in Artists That I Admire, On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing, Poetry, Who I am | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Failed Earth Day Predictions

Originally posted on Watts Up With That?:

earth_soup This product failed too.

Via iHateTheMedia, here are a few of the predictions made on the first Earth Day. Don’t these sound like the predictions today that fail, like the 50 million climate refugees by 2010 followed by the moving of the goalposts to 2020?

“We have about five more years at the outside to do something.”
• Kenneth Watt, ecologist

“Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”
• George Wald, Harvard Biologist

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
• Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

“By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable…

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The Gods of the Copybook Headings

[written by Kipling in 1919 but still, I believe, very much relevant for today.]

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!


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