Monday, February 7, 2011

Writing Exercise: Describe Your Character

I didn't come up with this writing exercise, so before I get started I've got to do a plug. Red Letter Media is an independent film site with all sorts of weird, wild stuff on it that I haven't fully explored yet. What I have looked at are the film reviews of Harry Plinkett, who pretends (I hope) to be a crotchety old man who reviews movies, mails out pizza rolls to his commenters, and kills prostitutes in his creepy basement.

Okay, there's a certain sick sense of humor in these reviews, but Plinkett really does do an excellent job reviewing movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. He's got a cinematographer's eye for detail. Did you ever wonder if the camera angles in Revenge of the Sith were part of the problem with that movie? Well, Harry Plinkett is here to tell you, yes, they were part of the problem, and explain exactly why.

And he also came up with a nice exercise that you, too, can do when you're writing. In Harry's own words:

Describe the following Star Wars character WITHOUT saying what they looked like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was. Describe this character to your friends like they ain't never seen Star Wars.

Just substitute the name of your novel/short story/whatever for Star Wars. The idea is that the more descriptive you can be, the stronger the character is.

For example, Samwise Gamgee is an honest, simple guy. Not stupid simple; he just doesn't complicate things by worrying or overthinking a problem. He's got this amazing sense of wonder about the world, and he's always excited to see new things. He's very loyal and very protective of his friends. He's always ready to do a bit more work, even if he's already got the most on his plate. He's the steadfast friend, the loyal companion, the guy who's surprised at his own courage.

Or how about GlaDOS? She acts calm and professional, but secretly she enjoys watching you try to do things and fail. In fact, she wants you to fail. She'll be encouraging, but always with a subtle little dig or bit of sarcasm. You get the sense that she's not all there, that something's messed up in her head. If you mess with her, she can be scary, even dangerous. She wants to be the puppet master, the subtle manipulator, but she's not entirely in control of herself.

You can read those two paragraphs and get a pretty good sense of the characters without knowing anything else about them. You don't need to have read The Lord of the Rings to understand Sam; you can get a feel for GlasDOS without even knowing she's an AI from a videogame.

Now, try to describe Lara Croft. You know, Tomb Raider.

In case you didn't play any of the games.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

I don't know about you, but I had some trouble here. My mind leapt to Indiana Jones, but Lara's not a passionate adventurer who believes in doing the right thing, no matter how much she gets beat up for it. She's not prone to romantic entanglements with strangers in dangerous situations, she's not plagued by bad luck (no matter how many times you fall off a tall object playing the game), and as far as I know she doesn't mouth off when she'd be better off keeping quiet.

So, not Indy. She's aristocratic, self-confident and she's got a dry sense of humor. She seems to have no connection with anyone who isn't dead or soon to be dead.

Lara Croft's been in ten plus games, two movies and a few comic book series, and I still think GlaDOS, a tin can who has been in one very short game, is a stronger character. GlaDOS is insane and interesting beyond her role as an antagonist, but Lara Croft is just an action hero without much else going for her. Sure, she's wildly popular and arguably the first electronic sex symbol; but what's her favorite color? Her favorite book? Could you even take a guess? Can you imagine her standing at the entrance to some lost realm with an honest sense of awe, or do you think she's going to jump through a crumbling window with guns blazing?

I hope I'm making my point: If all you know about your character is what he looks like, what his job is and what he does in the story, he may not be a very strong character. Give this exercise a shot, and see if it helps you round your cast members out a little bit more. And if it works, drop Harry Plinkett a line sometime and thank him.

You might even get a pizza roll.


Unknown said...

I seem to recall some romantic entanglements from the L. Croft movies....maybe.

what the hell is a pizza roll?

ps: hi

David said...

You wouldn't recognize them. A pizza roll is like a miniature egg roll, but filled with cheese and tomato sauce and maybe little flecks of pepperoni or sausage. You buy them frozen and heat them up in an oven or a microwave.

They're a horrible thing to eat, and a truly horrendous thing to find stuffed into your mailbox, which is one of Plinkett's running gags.

narrativium said...

Be fair to Lara: she's the player avatar. Because she's not independent of the player's controls she doesn't respond at her own pace; there's a vacuum of substance which comes with that - whereas, you're not supposed to put yourself in the place of GlaDOS.

Comparing like with like: how would you describe Chell (the player avatar in Portal)? Any better than Lara?

David said...

Ah, but Lara's not just a player avatar, is she? She has cutscenes where she acts independently. She even talks directly to the player at the end of the game. And at this point, she's been in enough other media that the vacuum of substance should have been overcome. Admittedly I may need to watch the movies again, but I don't think it has.

Now, you've got me on Chell. She doesn't really have a character, and I think that was a deliberate decision to help build intimacy between the player and his/her avatar. Anything I say about her is going to be guesswork.

But if all you want is a fair comparison, how about the Team Fortress 2 classes? Observe:

The Scout is a young, energetic teammate. He's not the brightest bulb, but he makes up for it in enthusiasm. He's something of a braggart.

The Heavy is a big brute with a surprising amount of intelligence when it comes to the equipment he dishes out mayhem with. He takes his guns seriously, but there's a real joy to him when he's in the middle of a firefight. He's also a complete sandvich fiend.

The Sniper is a pure professional; he's in it for the paycheck and the boost to his reputation. But he's got a family somewhere that has a problem with his job, and he gets a little miffed when he tries to discuss it with them.

The Engineer's a laid-back, friendly guy, enjoys a little bit of music. He's very smart and takes a lot of pride in his devices. He's also a stone-cold killer, if one degree removed from direct violence.

All these guys have are a few in-game lines and a cinematic each, but they've all got a surprising amount of personality, even a bit of depth to them. More, in my opinion, than Lara Croft.

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