The internet is a black hole in the subspace of our lives. Clicking on a link reveals a crap-load of other links that demand your clicky-clicky-clicky-clicky attention. Four hours later and you’ve skipped two meals, forgotten to pick up the kids, realized a ten-page college paper is due in (shit) 30 minutes!, and for some reason you went from looking for a way to make potato salad to reading about the crazy world of pet costuming and why you should be outraged at the animal cruelty of dressing Rex the bulldog in a pink tu-tu.
Oh! THE HUMANITY!
Point is, we all get lost in the Internet Black Hole. Guilty! Right here. [Raises hand]
Sometimes, though, getting lost pays dividends. For instance, I found this crazy article about character design. It was written by the author of the Dresden Codex, a webcomic. Read the article by clicking here. Try not to click on any other tempting links. Don’t!
While this article was intended for cartoonists and comic artists, I think it’s something writers should consider. Character design is important. Readers need to distinguish the characters in a story from one and another. The most well defined characters stand out, have depth. They’re memorable. The author of the article references the ‘naked test’. Basically, characters should be distinguishable when you strip them of their cloths, hair, and ornaments. I take this to mean, as a writer, that my characters not only need to have an identifiable look but something more.
Now the article author is talking about the physical baring and presence of a character. He goes so far as to say drawing a character as athletic is not specific and defining enough. There are several types of athletic. He has a chart. A sumo wrestler is way different from a football player. And a football player is built differently than a runner. Yet these people are all athletic. Same goes for the shape of the head, brow, the lips, eyes, jaw, et cetera.
For writers, coming up with the look of a character is important. I don’t remember where I heard/read this but one of the great modern authors said that a character needs three defining physical descriptors. Nothing more. Anything more is too much and readers will not remember all those details. I’m paraphrasing, of course.
Think back to your favorite novel. A character is described once in great detail. Usually. When they come on to a scene later, they’re described in less detail. If at all. How does the writer and the readers, then, distinguish the characters? I maintain that characters, if described well, will have placeholders in our imaginations. What’s more important than is stripping them naked and sculpting a finer design for the character beyond their physical appearance.
What I mean by ‘more’ is motivation, purpose, personality. Take ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ for instance. If I told you to name off and describe the characters in the film, without referencing their physical description or skills, you could do so. You could probably leave off the names, describe the characters in a couple sentences (at most), and any fan could match the names to your descriptions. Wide-eyed guy who lusts to escape home and seek new adventures. Wise and easy tempered mentor type, who is always two steps ahead. Brash and headstrong girl who needs no help getting into trouble or saving the world. An ego-driven reward seeker who always has his friend’s backs.
Of course this is only the beginning for a character, who grows with the trials and tribulations put forth to them in the story. His or her reaction to those events defines them even further, especially when their actions conflict with the choices of other characters. That is drama. Drama is plot.
I’ve heard this before and I agree… plot serves the characters.