Learning! — One-dimensional Characters

One problem that many a novice writer stumbles into when taking their first forays into novel writing is characters that are too one-sided. This is especially bad for main characters, who get a lot of the spotlight. You want to create an immersive world that takes the reader out of this one, and if a character is always depressed and unmotivated, it can feel unrealistic. So in this post, I’ll go over not only how to avoid making a character feel flat, but also in what circumstances it may be actually benefit a story.

Main characters. Arguably the single most complex things in your story, depending on what you’re writing, there’s a lot that goes into giving a character depth. I think that one major pitfall new writers fall for is focusing on their ‘fatal flaw’. They throw a bunch of cool and heroic personality on their traits, and then they stick on one bad one: arrogant, scared, lazy, etc.

The problem with this is that writers often use flaw as the first go-to for establishing conflict, and suddenly you have an entire major plot conflict built around the fact that your protagonist was too stubborn to apologize and admit fault, creating an antagonist and a lot of unnecessary events happen that seem unrealistically blown out of proportion simply because you needed a conflict trigger.

The other challenge is that readers often want to relate to their main characters. If you’re only showing us how arrogant and powerful they are, it’s hard to identify with that, because (practically) nobody is confident all the time. But you don’t want somebody that is constantly depressed over the loss of the loved one that died fifteen years ago because that isn’t very relatable, either.

Protagonists often have character arcs where they overcome their flaw, of course. Bilbo the grumpy hobbit realizes he loves adventure, Dr. Frankenstein comes to terms with the repercussions of his hubris, and Aang finally accepts responsibility and destiny over the course of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Many protagonists need arcs where they tackle and conquer their shortcoming. The trouble lies in painting the entire plot structure and the character around this flaw.

Aang is many things, not just ‘carefree and avoidant’. Rather, much of his character is shaped around it. He loves to have fun, and he’s very silly. Perhaps he wants to hang on to his childhood as much as possible. He also grows very attached to his friends, and maybe he’s scared of endangering them because of his destiny. The difference is that we aren’t seeing ‘carefree’ the whole time, we’re shown many aspects of his character.

So let’s say your character is too one-dimensional. How do you fix this? Well, ask yourself what other sides this character my have, even if they don’t show other people. You don’t want anyone on stage to seem like a cardboard cutout unless they’re part of the background, and main characters never are. If your protagonist struggles with depression, ask yourself what makes them happy. What used to make them happy, and why? If happiness isn’t an emotion you want this character to show the reader, what else could be used? Maybe they express their sadness as anger to other characters, so while everybody thinks that Protag has anger issues, the reader really knows they’re just depressed, a side they show the reader only when alone.

To sum it all up, I’ve found the easiest way to give characters depth is to ask them what circumstances provide what emotion to that character. If I can’t think of anything that would make the character happy, I invent something out of the blue. Maybe it’s coloring books. Why? I don’t know, but I can explore the reasoning behind it in the next chapter or a rewrite. It doesn’t have to make sense immediately. Maybe your character will tell you why coloring books are so special to them on their own, and if they do, let them. Sometimes your characters will know more about themselves than you do.

So, all that said, when are one-dimensional characters okay? Well, simply put, anyone who doesn’t get a spotlight can get away with being one-dimensional. If the camera doesn’t focus on them too often, them only expressing one emotion is perfectly fine. In fact, if a character isn’t important enough to give the reader more than their name, I don’t even consider them characters. People at a party are furniture, part of the scenery, not meant to push any part of the story one way or another. Cardboard cutouts are fine here. As the story progresses, fleshing out their character can work, but be careful with this, the more complex a character seems, the more important they may seem to the reader. Don’t give depth to characters that don’t need it.

As a side note, flat main characters can work, but it requires a lot of work, and I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, don’t try it unless you’re deliberately putting the spotlight on a flat character.

Prompt — (SG) Chapter One Pt. 1, “Antichemist”

“I’m sorry, I must have misunderstood you.”

“You’re Previk, right?”

“That is my assumed name, yes.” He adjusted his collar under the young man’s scrutiny.

The boy glanced around the small brown room. It was dusty and dark. Something more akin to an abandoned attic than a conventional store with goods. “I need a vial of your worst non-fatal disease.”

“Absolutely not.”

“What? Why not? Business is business!”

“Sir, I deal exclusively in my patron’s own health. They tell me which ailment they wish upon themselves, we do some measurements based on their body type, and I give them precise calculations of what they need and how much of it they should have.”

The boy frowned. He was taller than the chemist, but his face told Previk he was little older than a child unaccustomed to the new height. “That’s stupid. Why would anyone want to get sick?”

“Responsibility is a double-edged sword, my boy. Many people use my services to avoid work or other duties. People often find it preferable to be bedridden than to be forced into something they find unfavorable.”

“So what if I wanted to use it on myself?”

“A boy your age?” Previk shook his head. “No. You came for revenge. You wanted somebody to suffer. A girl who wronged you, I’d wager.”

“Actually, no,” he replied, a little smug now. “This had nothing to do with a girl.”

The chemist chuckled at that. “There’s always a girl. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, boy, revenge related services are one of my most common requests. Or at least they were until I put the sign on the door. ‘Sales are exclusively for customers. You buy it, you drink it.’ Most people at least read it before walking in here. Nobody leaves my store without drinking whatever it is they bought.”

“I see. He didn’t mention that.” He deflated as he said that, disappointment all over his face.

Previk’s brow furrowed. “‘He?”

“My master Rozire sent me. He just told me to buy your ‘worst non-lethal drug’ and to give you however much money you asked for.”

“Rozire?! Is he in Lower Terrace, then?”

The boy looked back up at the chemist, hope restored. “You know him? Yes, he is! He’s dealing with other matters, though. Said I could handle this one on my own.”

“Well,” Previk scratched an eyebrow. “That rule of ‘You buy it you drink it’ is a little new. Rozire wouldn’t have known about it. I must say I’m a little upset he didn’t come see me himself, but he’s always been a busy man. What’s on the agenda today?”

Revitalized at the change in conversation, he glanced about the dimly lit room, making sure they were alone. Then, he grinned. “Can you keep a secret?”

“My entire business hinges on secrets, boy.” Previk smirked in return.

“We’re infiltrating Upper Terrace. Sneaking through the Meadows under the cover of night.”

Previk’s eyes eyes widened as he whistled. “That’s quite the agenda. I’d better hope you succeed or I’ll never see dear old Rozire again. Your master never does anything by halves, I suppose. You two will need all the help you can get. How much money do you have on you?” As he said this, the chemist left the front desk and opened a door to the back room.

“Thirty-three hundred dragon marks.” His tone said that money was beneath him. With Previk gone, he took the opportunity to look about the room. ‘Abandoned’ was still the first word that came to mind, but there were no webs. The shelves were scarcely populated with bottles, and few of them had liquid in them. Now, however, he got the sense that it was more to protect the merchandise from thievery than a lack of inventory. The dull purple drapery over the windows filtered the light, but the cloth itself was well kept, not a hole to be seen.

“Three thousand dragon marks, you say?” he called from the back room. “That’s good. Exactly how much a vial of Red Teeth will cost you.”

The boy choked. “You can’t be serious!”

Soon Previk returned with a small crystalline bottle, A slow purple liquid sloshing inside. “This stuff doesn’t come cheap.” He set it on the desk with a delicate yet deliberate grace.

“I could buy a house with three thousand dragon marks.”

“And you could also know what it’s like to be pushed to the brink of death, wanting to jump but being unable to have the strength to do so. What’ll it be?”

With a tangible sigh, the boy took out a few dozen coins, each with a small dragon skull emblazoned on both sides, and placed them next to the bottle. “Three thousand is way too expensive,” he grumbled.

Previk scooped up the coins and gestured for the boy to take the bottle. “Well, you should know that I wouldn’t sell that for under four to anyone other than Rozire. I’m doing him a favor, since he seems to be short on coin these days, if that’s all he gave you.”

With a careful hand he took the bottle, staring at the liquid inside.

“In order for it to work, you have to drink it. It won’t do anything if it isn’t ingested, got it? Rozire will know what Red Teeth does, if you don’t. Just be sure to tell him what it is. And if you give this to anyone sick or elderly, the chances are pretty good they may die, even if it’s designed to be non-lethal. Got all that?”

The boy nodded, still too shaken to respond.

“Oh, and one more thing. You won’t have to worry about breaking that bottle. It’s extremely thick. You’d have to smash it into the ground as hard as you could to crack it. So as long as you don’t lose it, you’ll be fine.”

He tucked it into the recently vacated coin purse and nodded. “Thanks for your help. Rozire sends his regards.”

Previk nodded sagely. “It’s always a pleasure to help a friend. Say, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you plan on using it for?”

He shrugged. “He never told me. Just said that it was important.”

“Always full of mysteries, that one. Well, tell him I hope to see him soon, especially now that he owes me a favor. Sunlight guide your path. Or, well, I suppose not in this case.”

The boy gave a genuine smile that, after a moment, grew to unease as he felt the purse at his side. “Aenias guide us all,” he said before opening the door to Lower Terrace.

Improv 101 — Beastie Rap

Beastie Rap is one of my troupe’s favorite games, and the biggest requirement is knowing your cast. Also, having somebody that can beatbox works wonders. This game is a crowd-pleaser, and while I think it’s a little silly, I can’t deny the fact that it brings a lot to a performance.

This is an elimination-style group game that requires lots of energy. Typically eight people works best for this, but any even number works. (An odd number still works if one of the improvisers can beatbox instead of play in the game.) The way that it works is you’ll get a simple name like ‘Matt’. You have a beat, and the first person on one team will say something like “Walking down the street with my best friend Matt!” (anything that fits a similar amount of syllables works, though), and on the last word of the lyric, everybody else on their team will jump in with whatever word they want it to be, much like the style of Beastie Boys from whom this game was inspired. The opposing team will answer with their own lyric that rhymes with ‘Matt’, and this is where it gets tricky. The person coming up with the word has to let the rest of their team know what that word is using the rest of the lyric. For example, “You pet it and it purrs, it’s called a ___!” and the rest of the team will jump in with ‘Cat’.

It  sounds tough but it’s actually pretty easy, and this is because of two things. The first is that whatever the word is, you know it will have to rhyme with ‘Matt’. The second thing is the fact that you don’t have to make a cohesive plot to this song. Each lyric is individual. The cat lyric doesn’t have to retain any continuity with the Matt lyric, (though bonus points to you if you can manage it), so you can use that time to tell your team what you want to say. This goes on until one person from either team messes up, and another person steps in. This sort of elimination is fun because even if you’re “out”, you can still participate by shouting the words at the end.

How do you mess up? Simple. If the person fails to convey the word to the rest of their team, leading them to shout out different words, or if they can’t think of a rhyme, they’re out. Really, though, it’s up to the ref (and the audience) whether some mess-ups are worth being forgiven, though often none of them are.

When you’re playing this game, you don’t have to stick to any strict words. You can take objects as suggestions, not just names. You can also take polysyllabic names, though by virtue of how rhymes work, this doesn’t necessarily make rhyming any more difficult. You can also open the song with any dialogue. You can say “Walking down the street with my best friend Matt!”, or “This guy at work, they call him Matt!”, or “I hate this jerk and his name is Matt!”. The only factor is fitting it into the rhythm of the beat. Though, in a performance where you’re taking people’s real names as suggestions, I would refrain from insulting them for fear of them taking it personally, so be cautious.

And that’s the whole game. Final parting words, though. My troupe rarely practices this game, because you don’t want improvisers to be too familiar with the names that are used. This is an elimination game, and if they’ve practiced so much that they know all the words that rhymes with every common name off the top of their head, they won’t get eliminated, which is half the fun of the game. So when I teach this game, I do enough to explain the game and get them into a rhythm that works, and after that we only play it every few months to make sure we all still know how it goes.

Life — Writing Mode

Over a month ago I had plans for what I was going to do over the summer. With no school or job, I have pretty much free 24/7. So, I decided to utilize it to implement Stage Three of the “Productive Me®”. After Stage One and Two (overhauling my work space and my physical appearance), Stage Three was to be a full, set in stone schedule I would adhere to day by day. It included set times in which I would be eating as well as specific break times in between a six hour writing session. I had everything planned.

And I had the self discipline to adhere to it exactly one day.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated with myself, but I’m not surprised. The heat always makes it difficult to be productive, and while I don’t want to diffuse the blame from my own lack of willpower, I really do feel like I could be doing more than what I am if I were in a different situation.

I’m not trying to make excuses and say “Woe is me, I would be great if only…”, but rather I think the way I’m forcing it isn’t right. That isn’t to say I’ve learned what does work, because I wouldn’t be having any issue of I did, but I’m still missing something.

I think about this a lot. I go to bed and wake up later than I’d like. I’m a morning person, but I rarely have any mornings because I don’t go to bed before 2 am. I’d go to bed sooner, only my room is loud and that path isn’t likely to bear fruitful results.

If I had the means, I would move. I’d find an apartment or condo in northern California or Oregon where the heat isn’t so oppressive, and just existing isn’t quite as expensive as it is here. Somewhere where things aren’t so busy.

Am I lazy? I would argue against that. So much of my thought process is driven by my desire and need for independence. Every time I need help in anything it weighs down on my soul, and so I strive to be the best at anything I do.

So when I can’t find the strength to sit down and write, even when I know I’ll feel great when I’m done, I’m at an impasse. I sit there staring at the blank screen for over an hour. Maybe a few paragraphs, but “Writing Mode” never comes. That elusive trance where the minutes float away as I’m lost in thought writing. I can’t force it, no matter how hard I try. But I know the conditions when it comes the easiest. And those conditions aren’t easily accessible at the moment.

It’s times like this that I wonder. Is this a writer’s problem? Or a human problem? Perhaps it’s something unique to creators, but I can’t help but feel like every day that I let slip without writing a substantial amount of fiction is a failure. What am I worth if I can’t even muster up the willpower to sit down and stare at a computer?

Story — (SG) Prologue

She glanced back to the house, ensuring there were no witnesses. There was nothing wrong with what she was doing, of course. She was only breaking one small rule. Satisfied that she was undiscovered, she laid back down on the grass behind the precisely trimmed hedges.

Esmina held the little device up to her eye again, looking up at Eranos. The sister-planet currently blocked the sun, as it always did this time of day. It was a period of false night; the Shadow it was called. As dangerous as the genuine dark, if Aenias custom was to be believed. Naturally, all that was foolish nonsense. She came outside during as many Shadows as she could get away with.

The planet’s surface was difficult to make out in the dark, but that didn’t mean much, thanks to her clever new invention. With just a few shaped lenses, she could make out the planet with far more detail than before, even in the dark. She could differentiate between the land masses and the oceans, and if she was lucky, she might be able to see some tiny pinpricks of light, like yesterday. Faint stars twinkling on the planet’s surface. What could it mean? Fire, probably. Eranos probably had forests just like Asamos did. With as faint as those lights were, however, forest fires must not last long, if that’s what the source of the light was.

But she was not so lucky, as there were no such lights today. Disappointing, but she wouldn’t let her precious moments go to waste. Instead, she tried to spot any distinctions that were less prevalent when the sun shone on its surface. It did seem to have thicker clouds during its night time, but she hadn’t studied that particular subject long enough to come to any firm conclusion.

Soon the sun started to peek out from behind the sister-planet, signalling an end to the Shadow as the world was bathed in light once more. As it did, however, she caught movement in the sky. Something small. An insect, perhaps.

But no, her eyes spied a small dot in the sky. Something that didn’t move. She used the device to get a better look. A spyglass, she thought. That would be an appropriate name.

It was difficult to make out, especially with the sun so near, but the object she found looked fixated, much like Eranos. It was circular, as well. What could that be?

She tried to find it again without the help of her invention. At this point, however, the sun was too close, and she couldn’t make it out. It would have to wait for tomorrow.

With the Shadow being over, it was no longer taboo to be outside, but it would be suspicious if she returned to the house at this moment, so she would still have to sneak in. And now would be especially risky because anyone could walk outside and find her here.

With a slow exhale she got up from the ground and into a crouching position. Moving around in the dresses her father recently began forcing her to wear was troublesome, since it was more difficult to be quiet, but she was getting used to it as the days passed. She bunched up much of the excess cloth from her legs and held it in the hand carrying the spyglass. Then, peeking over the hedges, checked to make sure nobody was watching. As soon as she deemed it safe, she turned towards the path and hustled towards the manor.

And bumped into somebody the moment she rounded the corner.

“Oh, my!” Gaelin breathed, shielding his eyes. “My sincerest apologies, miss.”

“Gaelin! What are you doing here?” she hissed in a hushed tone.

The ashen skinned Tenshari stood with his left hand completely covering his eyes. His servant’s garb was kept nicer than most, and his right arm was completely bandaged in typical Tenshari fashion. “Looking for you, I’m afraid. It appears we must discuss your disregard for customs.” Peeking an eye to look down on her through his fingers, he soon turned around to face away from her. “Including your decency. Do cover your legs, miss.”

Esmina dropped the bunch of cloth to let the dress fall once more, and her face reddened despite herself. “I don’t know why you’re being so weird. You’ve bathed me hundreds of times.”

After a quick glance to make sure she was proper, he faced her once more. “I may have bathed a child hundreds of times, but you are no longer a child. Surely your father has made you aware of this.”

She scowled. “Don’t remind me.”

“Besides, if your father hears any rumors of his daughter and Tenshari servant being outside together in the garden during the Shadow, I fear banishment would be the least of our concerns.”

“Wha—but I didn’t even know you were out here!”

Suddenly panicked, he put a finger to his mouth to quiet her. “The truth hardly matters where gossip can breed, miss. Now please, go inside before we are both punished.”

She glanced up at the sister-planet. Was that tiny speck still there? There would be time to think on it later, but for now Gaelin was right. She shuddered to think what her father would do if some absurd rumor got out. Best to avoid trouble if she could. “We’ll talk later, Gaelin. I have some things I’d like to share with you, when we have time.”

Gaelin smiled. “I’d love to hear it.”

With that, she hurried back to the manor, eased open the door, and closed it behind her without a sound.

Review — Starcraft: Legacy of the Void (430)

Starcraft has always had a special place in my heart. I know it’s not accurate, but I do consider it the beginning of Esports and gaming on a competitive level. I never was very good, though. I was probably only about twelve years old when the second true installment of the game, Wings of Liberty, came out. This game has had an enormous impact on the gaming community as a whole, and while I’ve talked about it before, let me give my thoughts on the latest version. Even though it’s already two years old at this point, I hadn’t played through the last chapter until this past month, so cut me some slack.

Protoss is my favorite race. Between the goopy, brooding, and infesting insectoid swarm of the Zerg, the mechanical, sturdy, and militaristic might of the Terran, and the advanced, noble hierarchy of the vengeful Protoss, I’ll take the latter. I don’t like the bug or the hardbitten war aesthetic much, but an ascended race of people who think they’re better than everyone else? Yes please.

So, I think it goes without saying that since Legacy of the Void was the Protoss chapter of Starcraft II, it was definitely my favorite. I have the strongest handle on what my capabilities are with that faction, so I can try a little bit harder and pay more attention to the story than I could before.

And man, Legacy of the Void has some awesome characters and stories. I won’t spoil anything here (though the statute of limitations is definitely over), but it definitely has a lot more character than anything I really felt in the other two campaigns. The previous two objectives were: “save my x-girlfriend”, followed by “figure out who I am then get vengeance”. This time it’s “unite your fractured people, then take down a god”. This campaign felt a lot more impactful than the previous two, even if it is because it’s the “final chapter” of Starcraft II. Obviously I can’t really give credit to the writers here. It’s pretty much comparing the climax to the beginning and middle of a book, which isn’t fair at all.

All that being said, my favorite part about the single player is that it’s totally okay to give the player incredibly powerful abilities because it doesn’t have to be balanced. You’re supposed to win. The way that Legacy of the Void achieves this, through giving your character choices of unique units as well as adjustable in-game abilities (like ‘giant_lazer.exe’). Being able to upgrade and customize the way your character(s) go into a fight is one of my favorite game mechanics, and the fact that the things I’m choosing are all incredibly powerful makes my decisions feel extremely rewarding.

And, of course I can’t talk about Legacy of the Void without mentioning Alarak. (Minor spoilers ahead, but nothing too pivotal to the actual plot.) As far as I know, this character didn’t even exist in the Starcraft universe before this campaign, but he quickly ascended (see what I did there) to one of my favorite characters. You don’t get a lot of ‘Lawful Evil’ characters in any franchise, and even the ones that are aren’t on the good side. Alarak is a good guy, but he would never be mistaken for a good guy, if you know what I mean. Plus, he’s amazing because he’s so condescending, and the way he does it is so funny it’s amazing.

So, is Legacy of the Void worth getting? If you’re a Starcraft player, absolutely, but if that’s the case then you’ve probably already bought it. If you’re new to the RTS genre and want to know where to start, it’s great for that, too. All the complicated strategy stuff is easily tossed aside for new players. It’s mostly there to give veterans a way to amplify their abilities even more.

But, as old as Starcraft II has gotten, I’d imagine the next major installment for the franchise is due somewhat soon. I’d be willing to bet that the next big game release will happen before 2020 ends. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if it was announced by the end of the year, but I don’t expect it to be. Whatever might be the case, this game is great and is very compelling for an eight/nine hour experience!

Learning! — Beginners are Unoriginal

A big problem that beginning writers (and other content creators) have is that they struggle with the concept of being original. Obviously, it’s really hard to come up with things that are original. There are so many things out there it almost goes without saying that anything you try will have been done before.

But what many aspiring writers don’t realize is that this doesn’t really matter. One of my first blog posts was about how originality is a myth, but really the core concept of being unique boils down to three things.

The first is that the single most important thing for a writer to do is to read and write. It doesn’t matter much what you read and write, in fact. You could spend your days reading magazines and writing a blog (self burn) and it still counts for author brownie points. They may not teach you as much as reading and writing novels, but practice is practice. Don’t waste your time not writing because you’re worried about the words not being poetic or unique. That’s not what matters.

In fact, this leads me to my second point, and that is that originality is far from unattainable. The only thing that isn’t original, in fact, is straight up plagiarism. If I told you to sit down and spend the next few weeks writing The Lord of the Rings from memory, filling in all the gaps with plausible plot points, it would end up being pretty different. I’d bet that if you changed all the names, the only thing that would bear much resemblance to Lord of the Rings would be the plot structure . Certainly the words wouldn’t be the same. Tolkien is practically old enough to be considered literature, for crying out loud. All things considered, I’d wager an experienced writer that took me up on this bet would be able to publish if those gaps they guessed at were compelling enough. (This activity would probably be an excruciatingly painful and unfulfilling exercise, though. Would not recommend.)

My third point is that it is perfectly acceptable for an aspiring writer to be intentionally unoriginal. Fanfictions are good writing practice, because the story structure is all yours. It’s a good crutch because you don’t have to invent new characters, but it still teaches you a lot. At the same time, writing a story about a group of kids that discover a new world will teach you about pacing and description regardless of how much you base its characters or events off Narnia. I would actually consider this sort of thing a great idea if you want to hone a specific skill. If you want to know how to put sentences and paragraphs together before you start stitching personalities into characters, fanfiction is a great place to start. If you like to build characters, don’t be ashamed of copying the plot-line of your favorite book.

Here’s the takeaway, really. This goes for everything, not just originality.

An aspiring writer can do no wrong as long as they are both reading and writing.