Writing Tip: Kill your Sycophants

Photo by Viki Burton – CC BY-SA 2.0 with some significant cropping by me.

You read that right. I am advocating the murder of those you love. Well… not real people. Beloved characters.

As a writer (and often as a reader) I find that stories fall into a bit of a feedback loop. Say your character, Thangar the Warrior, meets up with Agethos the Uncouth. Initially, he’s struck by Agethos’s disagreeable scent, but eventually, they realize that they share a common purpose: to end the tyrannical rule of Edgar the Hopelessly Lame. Great. We’ve had some conflict, a bit of resolution and now a new goal for our united heroes to tackle. The story is humming along.

Here’s the danger. Now that Agethos is working with your hero, he’s never going to disagree, right? Because your hero is super awesome and everyone that truly gets him is going to see that he’s only doing what’s right…

There’s so much wrong with that! Your hero does have flaws, right? He’s making regular mistakes, and selfish choices, etc, right? So Agethos shouldn’t just be going along. Plus Agethos should also be selfish and broken. Their flaws should rub each other the wrong way. They should have differing ideas about how to take on Edgar…

The second trap, is to let those disagreements be trivial. This is not a real disagreement:

“Ah, Thangar, my excellent companion,” Agethos said, pouring the remains of the previous night’s stew over their campfire. “If we take this road to the left, we’ll get out of the forest and feel the sun on our faces.”

“But, Agethos, my pungent companion,” Thangar answered as he lounged on his bedroll, watching his friend work. “If we take the right road, we can be at Edgar’s palace fifteen minutes sooner, and free the people of Novellia from his odious repulsivity that much sooner.”

“Good point, my wise confederate. To the right we go.”

This isn’t conflict. It doesn’t matter. Now, Agethos doing all the chores while Thangar lays around on his butt… that could be the seed for a deeper conflict.

Remember, the more challenge and adversity you throw at your hero, the more interesting your story will be, and the more those challenges and adversities are caused by your character’s own flaws, the more poignant your story will become.

So if you find your sidekicks becoming sycophantic suckups, bump them off and replace them with prickly characters that keep your hero on their toes!

How do you set your characters at one another’s throats? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments section.

Writing Tips: Create an Interesting Character Part 2

If you missed it, you can read part 1 here.

So, you’ve figured out a major event that shaped who your character is, and you’ve thought through what they want in this scene. That’s good! Here’s a couple of additional questions to tackle.

Who were/are their parents?

My acting coach always used to ask me the names of my characters parents. It seemed ridiculous. But her point was, who doesn’t know the names of their own parents? Naming your characters parents may not bring anything of value to your story, but knowing about them will. Like it or not, all of us have been shaped by our parents. Some of us were shaped by never knowing them. Others were shaped by the incredible love their parents showed them, or perhaps by neglect or abuse. Whether your character’s parents impacted them positively or negatively, they add a vital layer to who your character is now, and what they’re about to do.

This gets into your character’s background. Where have they been and how does it shape who they are now? Much of this detail may never be revealed in the context of your story, but it’s important because it shapes the choices your character will make.

Where are they conflicted?

I’m not asking where they face conflict. Your story should be rife with that. I mean, where are they at war with themselves? Take me, for example. I’m a very honest person. Being truthful is something I deeply value. Except on those rare occasions when I lie. I love my wife. She’s amazing. My passion for her is hard to quantify. Except in those moments where I put myself first. We humans are a writhing bag of contradictions. When creating a character, my natural impulse is to point them in a straight line, wind them up and let them go. But real people aren’t like that. Somewhere we all have those hooks, those wounds, those bits of damage that will pull us off course. And there are other things, issues about which we just can’t make up our mind. Give your characters those sorts of contradictions and struggles.

What weird things do they do?

Hobbies are great. Your character should have one. And mannerisms. What do they do that’s kind of odd? What are their compulsions? I’m loath to admit this publicly, but good writing is all about honesty and self revelation, right? I have a difficult time bypassing a q-tip. If I see one, I’m compelled to clean my ears. It doesn’t matter if I just did it. And if I don’t see one, I could go a month without cleaning them. Here’s another one: I grew up with parents who told me to clean my plate. When I was in elementary school there was a terrible famine in Ethiopia and a lot of people were starving to death. In my mind, I still have a responsibility to eat everything served to me, and not throw away food. I’ll often catch myself scraping at my plate trying to get everything off of it.

Maybe your character bites their tongue when they concentrate, or they make little whistling sounds without realizing they’re doing it. These traits do two vital things for you. First, they help your audience to tell your characters apart. Don’t be Robert Jordan and make every female sniff in annoyance and pull her braid. (I’m a huge Jordan fan — but that was one of the weaknesses of his books) Let each character have their own unique quirks. It helps us keep track of who is who. The second thing this does for you, is it reveals something about who they are. If you do this right, their quicks give us hints at the things that shaped and drive them. And that can become another mystery we want to unravel. So we turn to the next page and keep reading.

Of course, there’s a ton more that goes into creating a good character, but I don’t want to commit to another episode right now. I’ll probably circle back to this eventually, though.

In the mean time, what questions do you ask yourself as you seek to make compelling and interesting characters? Please share them in the comments.

Writing Tips: Create an Interesting Character Part 1

I dropped out of college to go be an actor. For year, I apprenticed myself to an incredible actress who relentlessly demanded I understand my character.

I use the same techniques when I’m writing. In fact, I go a little overboard and feel what the characters are feeling… it’s exhausting. But the fundamentals are sound.

Who is this person?

Hopefully, they already have a purpose in your story. Don’t think this only applies to your main characters, either. I think this is worth asking regardless. The ragged bum who shares a drunken glance with your hero, as he staggers from the tavern — he has a purpose. He has goals. What are they?

Why are they the way they are?

Years ago, I played Max in a production of Sound of Music. Like a good little actor, I spent weeks learning everything I could about the politics and history of Austria in the 1920s and 30s. What I learned is than the Anschluss wasn’t really a singular event. Austria experienced lots of violent political upheaval following the first World War. Max is a politician. So naturally, his primary motivation is to keep the knives from coming for him. Once I understood that, his every choice and action in the rest of the show make sense. Max wants to be on the winning side, because that’s his only hope of surviving.

You may not need to do that level of research, but you do need to know what the formative events are that shape your character’s choices. They need not all be huge or dramatic. At this moment in my life, I’m trying to get a handle on a dust mite allergy. It’s new. I don’t know how to properly manage it. And sometimes I’m not getting a decent night’s sleep for a week at a time. In those moments almost everything in my life is filtered through a foggy, reactive lens of exhaustion. I just want to sleep!

What do they want?

So figure it out. Every time your character walks into a scene, ask yourself: what do they want out of this interaction, this conversation, this moment. Ideally, it should run squarely against the desires and goals of the other characters they’re interacting with. Nobody wants to read a novel about how much everyone agrees.

There’s a second useful layer to this one. In addition to determining what the character wants in each scene, determine what they say they want. That doesn’t mean they should always explicitly state their goals. The point is, that most of us go into things with mixed motives. We put our good guy face on, and make every effort to pursue what we perceive as the public good. But there’s also an underlying motive. The one we don’t want to tell people. So hopefully you’ve got the underlying motive worked out. But don’t skip the excuse. What’s their justification? How would they make this goal sound noble? If you’re writing dialog, there’s a good chance that as the conflict rises, some of those justifications are going to come tumbling out.


There’s lots more that goes into making a compelling character, but this is already a long post. So I’ll toss out some more questions in a few days.