The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Soraya LeBlanc

elizabeth olsen scarlet witch action figure toy

Here’s a character I made up for some Reddit thing that’s going nowhere.

Name: Soraya LeBlanc
Occupation: a wizard, specializing in divination and transfiguration
Age: forty, been in magic training since eighteen
Where: born in the south of France, in a rural area. She’s a big city girl like Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City”
Motivation: obtaining wealth and luxury, but not through marriage if she can avoid it (unless that gets her to a goal — she’s interested in what’s hers, not what someone else owns)
Tool of choice: Magic–using divination to predict the future to profit from the outcome or transfiguration to make things into more valuable things. Also uses her “milf-ness” to her advantage when needed.
Education: Bonne Motte’s School for Development of Magic for Girls
Likes: Fine foods, bright colors, thick books
Dislikes: Dirt, vegetables, things that are gross (grew up with two little brothers who annoyed her to no end with pet frogs and boogers)
Quirk: Obsessed with clean teeth, always makes sure they’re white and spotless, spends money on this
Symbols: Adorned with fake roses, but really wears fluffy things underneath

My Philosophy on Writing Women, Part 2 – The Debate

woman writing

Don’t bite my head off yet.

This is a list of tips that I collected over time regarding common mistakes writer make when writing from a woman’s point of view. Most of them come from David Farland/David Wolverton — a published, well-known author, most known for the Runelords series. And he is directly quoting from other women. So if you want to directly complain about the content, complain to him. Here is some excerpts from that e-mail (it’s not on his site, archives don’t go back that far) and another link to a similar post to mine. Here is his site.

When I originally posted this, I was accused of being sexist, misogynist, and other things I teach my daughters not to call people. It lit a fire. So I took the list down so I could repost it under a different context so we can look at these and see what’s wrong and right. Now is that time. Please enjoy all the disclaimers below so that this doesn’t become another hotpot.

First, David Farland is a published writer. Getting published is my goal and he seems to know what he’s doing. I do not. So I am not ready to dismiss his words right away. But I’m willing to hear differing opinions. This blog is all about knowledge transfer and improving writing. Now is the time to comment. Transfer away!

Second, I am not a feminist ally. I never claimed to be. I believe in not discriminating based on biology or cultural stereotypes, but I can’t call myself a feminist and still watch porn. And daddy needs his porn. In a perfect world, we’d declare us all as humans or people and be done with it. But that’s not how it works. The fact is that male and females of any species have scientifically-proven differences. They think different, they act different, they feel different, their biology is different, their minds are different and it’s ignorant to ignore the mountains of evidence that explain that. Please recognize that the goal here is to create realistic, three-dimensional women that my daughters can be proud of, not women whose only character arcs are based on their biology; e.g., getting raped or pregnant. Stereotypes are not a substitute for characterization.

Third, a lot of the below was accused of being generalizations. Well… yeah. These are tips about writing from a typical woman’s point of view. The “everywoman”. No one character is going to fit every trope. Not all woman are circular thinkers or uncomfortable being alone. But if you want to figure out a polar bear’s behavior patterns, do you have to study ALL polar bears? No, just a sample. These bullet points are about mistakes people make when writing about women in general. A woman CAN become aggressive and violent, but in general, won’t. So any arguments to the point of “these are generalities! I’m a woman and I don’t blah blah blah…” will be dismissed.

Fourth, given any statement involving a “thing”, it does not imply the negation of that thing’s opposite. That’s a logical fallacy. For example, assume A. It is a fallacy to think that because A ^ Q -> P, that (Not A) ^ Q -> (Not P). If I say “young people like Mountain Dew” it doesn’t mean I’m implicitly saying “old people hate Mountain Dew”. So a response to “Give women powerful reasons for what they do” should not be countered with “All characters should have powerful reasons for what they do.” The person who made the statement specifically referred to women because of observations he/she made regarding that specific group. Such arguments will be dismissed.

Fifth, for simplicity’s sake, we’re assuming all the women and men we’re talking about are heterosexual. Homosexual characters and stereotypes are beyond the scope of this list. K.I.S.S.

Sixth, this is advice. And all advice, especially with writing, must be taken with a grain of salt. We are writers, and we make mistakes. Our duty is to tell the truth, but that’s hard. People will misinterpret good intentions, and nothing will please everybody.

Seventh, turnabout is fair play. I also have a similar list of points about mistakes people make when writing from a man‘s perspective. If there’s enough demand, I could post that too. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of negative stereotypes about men — I do plenty of diaper changing, house cleaning, and if I thought about sex every seven seconds, I’d never get anything done.

Finally, this is not the end. There will be a part three, summarizing things I’ve learned about female character creation at some point in the future. I originally thought about simply not continuing this storyline and avoiding controversy. But that’s cowardly, and I promised I would post this. If nothing else, learn from my mistakes.


CRYING & EMOTIONALITY

Have women get emotional about what they really care about.
Give women powerful reasons for what they do (true love is the one that motivates most).
Too much crying is bad. Women might cry, but not in the middle of a fight, or at the drop of a hat.
Women are extremely sensitive, insecure about their looks, and are slow to forgive and forget when someone makes them feel unattractive, stupid, masculine, or some other undesirable thing (e.g., the person who teased them because their chest was flat, a man who tells she’s getting “big”, a man who says she had big hands, the boy who said her butt was getting jiggly after the end of basketball season.)
Three things you should never ask a woman: How old are you? How much do you weigh? When is your baby due?

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
This study seems to indicate that women experience heightened emotional intensity “in the moment”. But over all time, they’re about the same. This might explain the perceived frequency of crying.
How Stuff Works: Women & Emotionality and other science.
Are women more sensitive? Read this article and decide if the anecdote applies.
Women cry. They cry when they’re upset, when they’re happy, sometimes when they see a commercial on TV that reminds them of their child. Hermione cried. Jane Eyre cried. Scarlett O’Hara cried. But then they picked themselves up, and got back to work. Men cry too. I cried during John Q, but I attribute that to the nine beers I had. I think when they cry matters more. And that they shouldn’t cry when it doesn’t make sense to.

COUNTER EVIDENCE
Perhaps the first point should be reworded to be “All other things being equal, a woman will be more emotional about something than a man would.”
It may be more accurate to say that women and men are just as emotional, but women show it more. (source) A 1998 study said that men and women do not differ in emotional response, but women are more expressive about it (source and abstract)
Someone in the previous post said: “Some women cry a lot. Others don’t, because people are different. Some people might actually burst out crying in the middle of a fight. It depends on the person.”
I’m not too cool with “true love” being something that motivates the most. But I’d like to hear from the masses.


RELATIONSHIPS

Women have close friendships with other women. If Ted Bundy had been a woman, her friends would have known. Women keep a circle of women friends around to talk about issues. Without that circle, women feel completely and utterly alone.
Women become intimate by talking and they talk about everything.
A woman who is friends with guys must hit the “sister/buddy” button to belong. Not the girlfriend button. It doesn’t do much for your love life.
Women make connections.
A woman alone will feel it more than a man. She will miss not having someone to talk to. A woman who says she hates women and only likes men is a danger flag. Note how many hero’s girlfriends have no female friends whatsoever.
If a woman has no female friends, this means something’s wrong (unless that wrong thing is that she’s a genius in a tiny town and doesn’t fit in, which means she’ll be fine if she moves somewhere with more people).
Relationships are the most interesting thing in the world.

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
Someone in the original post said “Because there’s never been a woman serial killer in the history of the world?” If you’re writing about a woman serial killer, she’s probably the focus of your story, not an “everywoman”. 93% of all serial killers are men. Of the remaining 7%, 1/3 worked with a man. (source) That leaves 5.6% of independent serial killing women. And serial killers, by nature, don’t follow typical behavior patterns.
I wish I could find this story again, but I remember reading about a woman hired by NASA. She was working in a group mostly of other males, and she found it incredibly frustrating that the men would rarely talk to each other. This led to avoidable problems and repeated mistakes. She took it upon herself to get the team organized and communicating more. Because of this, she was promoted to their supervisor. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it — although she was now in a position of authority, she was no longer doing the job she was hired to do, and became removed from her peers.
I think the point of these statements is to show that women are frequently shown with no friends besides the male leads, i.e., The Bechdel Test. It’s one of the reasons I hated Once Upon a Time. Titanic, one of the most loved movies by women, only just passes because of some short conversations with her mom about money. Rose has no friends she can talk to. No wonder she tried to kill herself. On the contrary, in Jane Austen books, the females have friends and relations they talk to almost constantly. Even Daria, one of the most antagonistic, aloof, unapproachable women in fiction, had a friend. Also see “Bechdel Test in Movies”. For more fascinating reading, look at the Top Movies Picked by Females. Not one passes the test until you get to #17 Spirited Away — a foreign film.

COUNTER EVIDENCE
I don’t know about a “circle”. At least one friend to talk to is important, if for nothing else than so there can be a relationship character.
I’m not even sure what that third bullet point means. What is a “sister/buddy” button? Does that mean that a girl has to hide romantic/intimate feelings for the guys in her circle of friends?
I believe there are plenty of women who like being alone. That’s not determined by gender, it’s determined by personality. I wonder how many female introverts have no one to talk to, and if they’re fine with that.
There seems to be a trend these days of the Manic Dream Pixie-Girl, e.g., New Girl, Bones, 500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Elizabethtown, Garden State. Shows about an adorkable, quirky, crazy girl who has no friends because she doesn’t act like everyone else. It seems to be a concept carried over from Japan. Anyway, my point is those types of girls don’t exist. They’re a male fantasy.

LINGERING QUESTIONS
How do women form relationships with each other? In my observations, they talk to each other. Men need to be doing something, some purpose, some task. But women are more than fine sitting around a table and doing nothing but talking.
I’d like to hear from any women that have no other female friends — only male friends. How do they feel? Do they think they’re missing out on something?
I can’t tell if that last bullet point means “relationships are very interesting” or “women find relationships very interesting”. What do you think?


LOVE & SEX

Men fall in love with their eyes. Women fall in love with their ears.
Do not confuse romance and sex. Female drive is wired to how a man makes her feel emotionally.
Women are sexual, but not stimulated by the same things men are. Women like things clean e.g., mouth, body, house, sheets.
Give her some motivation. If she’s breaking a man’s heart, we should know the reason–eventually, at least.

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
Someone in the previous post said “My female housemate and I are both much messier than our male housemate. I am a slob. I know MANY female slobs.” Agreed, but I think “clean” in this instance is not referring to clutter, but to stains, dirt, foulness, hygiene. The messiest woman I knew in college also had the most bathroom stuff. My wife recently told me “You’ll never find a female plumber — too much grossness”. I’m sure at least one must be out there, but I’ve never found one either. (Although a female plumber would be a great character for a story.)
None of the Disney princesses, great symbols of femininity, have any motivation. The only thing Belle, Jasmine, Ariel, Pocahontas, Aurora, Cinderella want is “more”. At least Mulan was trying to save her father.

COUNTER EVIDENCE
Someone in the original post said: “Except for all the women out there who like NSA sex. Or who don’t like men. Or who are asexual.” It looks like the number of women who like “No Strings Attached” sex is on the rise. However, it also looks like that kind of sex makes women depressed. (source) And feel dissatisfied by that type of encounter. So I guess the takeaway is, if you’re making a woman character who likes NSA sex, make sure the rest of her personality fits. Otherwise, you’re just making a male fantasy.
Female sex drive is a funny thing. Seems to be all over the map. Some like porn, some don’t. Some are kinky, some like vanilla sex. The one common thing I hear is that, while women have better sex with someone they have an emotional attachment with. (source). This is not the case with men.
Men might become initially attracted using visual criteria, but that definitely can’t sustain a relationship.


MEN

Romance equals effort. If a man pays attention to do something she likes, buy something she wants, says something she needs to hear, that is romance. If he tunes in to her, turns away from everything else and listens, that’s romance.
Women love how men look. When they smell good, in a shirt and tie, young, thin, muscular, older, tall, smart, handsome, accomplished, kind, generous.
Give us a reason, other than sex, for the man to love her.
Women find sincerity, humor, self-confidence, and broad shoulders attractive. Jaw lines, powerful hands, and how a man presents himself are also attractive.

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
I asked my wife “Why do women like getting flowers? There’s no male equivalent for this. Flowers are just plants that die in two weeks.” She said it’s not the flowers that are important, but it’s that I was thinking of her.
My wife thinks I’m most attractive when I’m in a suit. I hear lots of other women get turned on by men in some kind of uniform. Even UPS guys.

COUNTER EVIDENCE
Women probably have as much variety of what they find attractive as men do.

LINGERING QUESTIONS
Someone in the previous post said “This may be true for some people, but not for others.” If romance does not equal effort, then what does it equal?


PHYSICAL APPEARANCE

A detailed description of appearance is not a substitute for characterization.
A woman who looks like a super model must work very hard to do so. Women come in all shapes and sizes, interests and personalities.
Your female character shouldn’t be worried about clothes and hair while she’s saving the world.
Write a woman character so that she isn’t dependent on a man to save her.

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
In my experience, sometimes when authors introduce a new woman character they focus solely on what they look like, especially sexual characteristics. Men rarely have descriptions. That seems unequal.
I love that last point, and that’s probably the most important takeaway from all this. If nothing else, at least write a women who’s happiness is not dependent on the love of another.


BIOLOGY

Keep in mind their age and monthly cycle. Menopause can be very freeing, because they won’t have the emotional ups and downs. From age 10-50, the hormonal bell curve has a constant effect in life.
Teenage girls think about boys and sex a lot. Women are more inclined to think about careers or something that doesn’t involve men. Thinking about babies occurs, but tapers off after 40.

COUNTER EVIDENCE
Menstruation effects seems to vary wildly from female to female. However, I think it’s poor writing if you have a character action based on that, even if it’s a legit action. Because then, you’re simply using biology as an excuse for a plot point again.
Also, you never hear about when hero’s need to go to the bathroom. There’s a ton of books and movies that follow the main character and never leave. But you never see when they go to the bathroom. It’s a biological need everyone has, but you never hear about it. Didn’t Dorothy have to poop sometime when she was going around Oz? Did she excuse herself to go in the woods? What were the toilets in the Emerald City like? Did she freak out when she saw her poop was green?

LINGERING QUESTIONS
How important is the monthly cycle to a woman? Does it affect your personality? Is it always on your mind? Or do you have to be reminded of it? Do you look forward to menopause? Do you find a personality shift around menstruation time? There is no male equivalent for this, so I think it’s important to get this right.


PERSONALITY

Women have feelings. Write about that. Guys have no idea how much every little action or possible meaning behind an action is noticed.
A good writer can hook women by giving the characters interesting motivations, including the relationship, in the middle of action. Example: They’re being chased through the jungle by a giant zombie dinosaur. Does the guy run off and leave the girl to fend for herself? How does she feel about that? Does she dare toss the arm of their dead companion into the clearing to distract the zombie dinosaur? A woman might have feelings about that where a guy might be more practical.
Men are linear thinkers – one thing at a time, in straight lines of logic. They want to deal with HOW. Women think in circles – circles that are connected and have relationships and emotions. They want to deal with WHY.
Female characters must strike a balance between strong-willed and bitchy. Maybe she’s tough as nails with some things, but small animals turn her to mush.

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
I remember watching “Beauty and the Geek” and when they visited the female geek’s house, she said one of her favorite things to do was talk about this guy in the library she had a crush on. Analyzing what he did today and if it means he likes her. So it happens.
Differences in the ways men and women communicate is also a function of sex-specific areas of the brain. Women seem to have an enhanced awareness of “emotionally relevant details, visual cues, verbal nuances, and hidden meanings,” writes Nadeau. Similarly, while male infants are more interested in objects than in people, female infants respond more readily to the human voice than do male infants. (Robert Nadeau, “Brain Sex and the Language of Love,” The World & I, Nov. 1, 1997)
The linear thinking is supported by this expert. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just different.

COUNTER EVIDENCE
If you write down every little action that a female is fascinated with, you risk miring the story in unimportant details.
Someone in the previous post said “Some PEOPLE are linear thinkers, and some PEOPLE are not. Gender has nothing to do with it. If you want to write a believable character, get inside their thoughts, but don’t decide on a thought pattern simply on the basis of their gender.”
Someone in the previous post said “A good writer will hook ANY reader by providing convincing motivations and characterization. Not characterization based on tired, worn-out sexist stereotypes.” Agreed — men and women should both have some feelings about tossing the dead companion’s arm at it. They will feel it differently, though. However, that leaves the question when would the woman start to ask herself questions about the man’s conduct regarding the giant zombie dinosaur?

LINGERING QUESTIONS
Do women notice more details than men? Do they assign meaning to those details?
Do women feel they are constantly walking a balance beam between seeming strong-willed and seeming bitchy?


NURTURING

Females are nurturers. Men are fixers. A woman may try to sense what someone needs and provide that. But if a female is self-absorbed, she wants nurturing herself and will go to any lengths to get it. But it is still about nurturing.
A woman who understands men will provide nurturing by trying to “fix” a problem for the man, since that is how the male goes about it. A woman tries to get nurturing by providing it. She may not receive it from men, so she has to get it from other women. The male who nurtures a woman will likely have putty in his hands.
Strong women don’t have to be cold.

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
Basic sociology says that men tend to be more goal-oriented. Women are experience-oriented. Look at the games they play when they’re children. Boys play basketball and tag and hide and seek. Girls play hopscotch and jump-rope and jacks, games with no clearly defined goal. Think about shopping. A man finds what he wants, gets in, and gets out. A woman explores. (source)
Researchers have injected testosterone into unborn female monkeys. Male monkeys are aggressive and fight, while the female monkeys typically groom and nurture the young. The testosterone-injected females didn’t groom or nurture their children. They fought and behaved like males. (source)
“If socialization alone explains why societies are patriarchal, there should be any number of societies in which leadership and authority are associated with women, and one should not have to invoke examples of non-patriarchal societies that exist only in myth and literature.” (Steven Goldberg, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Open Court, Peru, Illinois, 1993, p. 15.)

COUNTER EVIDENCE
Is it a social construct? Maybe what happens is men ACT LESS nurturing in order to relieve their burdens and face less competition in the workplace (source).


OTHER

Girls are stupid, women are smart.

SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
Twilight.

COUNTER EVIDENCE
The Hunger Games.

Code Monkeys and Nerd Humor

code monkeys pixel art

I recently watched Code Monkeys on Netflix. It was a short-lived animated sitcom about a video game company. The animation is done in 8-bit style pixelation and abound with video game references (for example, they have to jump over a pit of spikes to get to the meeting room, and the top status randomly flashes lines relevant to the plot, like an aggression meter or points scored). This is the kind of show I would be all over.

Except…

None of the characters are likable. The main character’s co-workers is one of those “Stiffler” guys who constantly makes sexual and homosexual remarks, humps everything, and without fail, tells the hero to do the exact wrong thing. He puts a turd in the microwave, which explodes. The IT guy is obese, naked, and egomaniacal. The one black guy is angry all the time. The company is led by a stereotypical Texan who doesn’t know anything about video games and seems only concerned if you’re gay or not. He has a jock son who berates the other workers, but is dumb as a rock. The two girls are bland and only exist to be girls interested in video games.

Why is it that so much nerd humor, especially plot-oriented works, revolved around people being douchebags to each other? That totally goes against likeability, and that is a key element to any successful series. Look at Friends, Cheers, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I Love Lucy, The Simpsons. These are all likeable characters you’d love to spend time with. In fact you do, a half hour a day or week. Sometimes more if its in syndication. But none of these are geeky shows.

I think this is why nerd humor fails to gain an audience. I find the writers too often, scrapping for characters, just turn them into jerks so they can have some potty humor, some plot contrivances, and to get the show moving. Not valid.

It is quite possible to have likeable characters and nerd humor in the same melting pot. PvP, an online comic, has a great cast of likeable characters, none of which are jerks. They act a little jerky to each other, some are snobby, some are sarcastic, but they all like each other. They’re lovable, they have relationships with each other. No one acts like a kowtowing bitch.

In The Guild, there is a vast blend of characters, from the ditzy to the hyper to the egomaniacal to the perpetually angry. They’re highly identifiable, like personality silhouettes. Most of them are non-empathetic jerks. But it gets made up for by the fact that they are get knocked down pegs during the course of the show. Vork’s single-minded frugalness, Bladezz’s stardom, Zaboo’s child-like ADD — they make fun of themselves, and they learn from their fatal flaws.

Then there are some nerd shows that didn’t make it because no one got along, and they were all jerks. Heroes – even in the first season the character relationships showed up. The only person I wanted to see was Hiro, the lovable geek who was the one person who actually enjoyed his power. The rest were criminals, greedy, or idiots. No one got along, they were always in conflict with each other.

I rented a movie on Netflix called “The Gamers: Dorkness Rising”, about some D&D players. I guess it was a low-budget film, but the plot was awful. None of the main characters got along–it was like they went out of their way to be absolute dicks to each other and screw each other over in the most petty ways possible. Like being characters that you can’t be, or constantly trying to have sex with NPC’s – in the middle of the throne room. I stopped watching midway through. And I NEVER do that.

There’s a place for geek humor — look at The Big Bang Theory. My wife can’t get enough of it. It’s amazing that it was created by the same guy who made “Two and a Half Men” — the two couldn’t be more opposite. Those guys are a lot more likeable — they’re not egotistical, they’re awkward, they have trouble in social situations, they try and fail, then try again. That proves there’s A) an audience and B) it can be done well. So let’s get some more of it.

Pre-Writing as Unlockables

This weekend I created two new characters for the next novel, and I thought, “You know, it’s similar to unlocking characters in a video game”. I’ve talked before about how thinking up ideas is like uncovering a dinosaur fossil (metaphor provided by Stephen King). In other ways, it’s like when you’re playing a video game and you unlock something new. It could be a setting, it could be a cutscene, or it could be something useless that provides a little background, like concept art (worst unlockable ever, I don’t care how the sausage is made, I want more sausage).

And sometimes it’s a character. In video games, this is not always the best thing to unlock–playing through the game again with your main character in a fish suit doesn’t enhance the experience much *cough*God of War*cough, unless that character is super different, like maybe he has a melee weapon instead of a gun. But in writing, characters are what the story is made of. So discovering a new one is probably one of the best things you can do while pre-writing. And one of the most fun.

I came up with a new character this weekend and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. So it’s like in a video game, when you unlock the character, you want to try them out. So you learn all their new moves, new timing, maybe plot and cutscenes, weapons, HP, basically what makes them tick. Some characters carry more meaning then others. But if they are fun, then it’s a great feeling to discover them, because you know the audience is going to enjoy them just as much.

Until I kill them off.

ISTJ

ISTJ
Introverted: 100%
Sensing: 25%
Thinking: 38%
Judging: 72%
This is me. This is the results of my Myers-Briggs personality test. I am very introverted and very judging. I am not intuitive or perceptive (as my wife will attest to). And it’s probably not going to change. This is who I am, and who I’ll continue to be.

100% introverted is pretty bad. I think it basically means that if everyone else fell off the world, I would be happy. Which is a little disturbing if you can view it objectively like I can (since I’m capital-J Judging). Of course, I don’t want everyone to fall off the world. Who would read my books? (on the other hand–100% readership!)

It’s like a super-hero power. If no one’s around, I’m at my strongest, but there’s no one to share my power with. And with more people, I get progressively weaker. I lose more energy.

It’s also a probable reason why I fear the apocalypse so much. When the world ends, you’re going to need to ask for help. You’re going to need to trade with people, negotiate, argue, persuade, be a leader and a follower at the same time. I am none of those things. I am really shy about asking for help. One time, when I was in middle school and it was winter (below freezing), I forgot my key to get into the house after school. Instead of asking one of the unknown neighbors for help, I sat out there for an hour, waiting for my sister to get home.

The test also gave me some famous ISTJ people: Herbert Hoover (wins for best president during a depression), Harry S Truman (bookworm like me, but destroyed Japan, which is my favorite country after the U.S. and before Canada), Kirk Douglas (He’s Spartacus… no, he’s Spartacus. He’s Spartacus), Clint Eastwood (made a lot of cool movies, but seems to play a grumpy douchebag in all of them), and Greta Garbo (who?).

Likable Characters

tony stark desert

Let’s talk about likable characters for a second, shall we? It’s not like I have anything better to do.

I watched Iron Man a few days ago and that got me thinking about this topic. One of my favorite things about the movie was Robert Downey Jr., and I know I’m not alone. The man was perfect for this part because Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Both have addictions, both have incredible charisma (a prominent feature in addicts) that makes them charming, makes them people you want to hang out with and do things for (this enables their habit – they have ways of manipulating you and convincing you that “they’re all right”). Tony Stark is a likable character. He’s the kind of guy you want to be.

But he’s not the kind of guy you want to be with. Look at him, he’s a manipulative asshole that plays by his own rules. He leaves his best friend hanging several times throughout the movie (at the airport, at the award ceremony), sleeps with women of dubious moral character, then has his secretary show her out. He forgets his commitments, forgets his responsibility, and generally does what he wants to do, both before and after his “transformation”. I certainly wouldn’t want to hang out with him, but boy howdy do I want to live in that mansion, wear that suit, drive those cars, and be as witty as him. I want to be him, but not be with him.

Which brings me to the theme. The key to success for any story, no matter the medium, is to have likable characters. Any long-running TV shows have this – Friends, Cheers, Frasier, The Simpsons, Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files. These all have characters that you’d love to hang out with. You probably wouldn’t want to be them, since either their relationships are filled with so much drama each week you never know if you have a girlfriend or hate your brother this week, or you’re under constant danger of living nebulas or FBI double-agents infected with alien oil.

Characters you’d want to be, but not be with seem more prominent in movies – Austin Powers, Indiana Jones, anyone from Star Wars (even the Ewoks). Maybe that’s because of the likability principle – a character you would want to be, you can’t take too much of. These are people who go on adventures, get pretty ladies, and end up with some sort of recognition or reward. Video games too – Squall Leonhart, Cloud Strife (oh no, I have to choose between Aeris and Tifa, how horrible to be in that position), Link, Mega Man, Scorpion, all these guys rank high in the GameFAQs character battle each year. Even bad guys fall into this category. Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter? These guys last across multiple mediums because they are people you want to be. Look at the absolute power they wield, both mystical and not.

fun characters | Simple character, Vector character design, Character design

Many of the people I’ve mentioned so far are male-oriented characters. I don’t know if this theory holds true for female characters. They seem to run the gamut from Jane Austen characters to Step Up 2: The Streets & Legally Blonde. I guess I’d have to be a woman to get a bead on it.

But the reason I mention this is that all characters, to have staying power, need to be likable. Unlikable characters in a fantastic plot often get forgotten (this is the case in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent, the main character, is little more than a whiny straight man, Ford Prefect is a personality-less infodumper, Zaphod is a plot maker as he gets the group into trouble when needed, Trillian is T&A, and Marvin is Marvin. Fortunately, the humor more than makes up for these characters, but it’s why HGTTG’s audience remains limited to cult status). How do you make characters likable? I don’t know. I try and make them funny, but I know they have to have flaws and are often based on characters in real life. Everyone knows a Rachel, or a Ross, or a Chandler.

The Storytelling in Half-Life 2: To You I Say thhbppt

Let’s talk about Half-Life 2 for a minute, and hopefully its still current enough we don’t have to jump into the Wayback Machine. I bought The Orange Box as my reward for getting a new job. I really just wanted to play Portal, because the Internet community can’t shut up about it, and I know they’re offering the individual games up soon, but I didn’t want to wait (I couldn’t since I have a two month old and no time), plus it was a hell of a bargain – Half-Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2 + Team Fortress + Portal. I just got finished playing all the Half-Life 2 content, and I’ve got to say, as far as storytelling, I’m not impressed. Why am I not impressed? Because not enough backstory is explained. Like I said in my essay about Shadow of the Colossus, if I don’t know why I’m there, why should I do anything. When you start Half-Life 1, you know who you are and where you are by the time you finish the tram ride. By the time you shove the crystal up the laser’s ass, you know who’s important and what’s going to be important. And by the end of the game, you know what happened, why it happened, and what’s probably going to happen next. I loved the sensation that you start as this genius MIT physics geek, hand-picked to work in the most advanced and secret scientific facility in the world, and you seem to be nothing more than a cart jockey. As the game went on, you were introduced to plot twists (the marines infiltration, the animal testing area) that kept the revelations going, while keeping intrigue (the G-Man, lambda complex) to have the character guessing what all this means. By the end of the game, I was satisfied, but eager for more. Not so with Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2’s biggest problem is that you’re instantly teleported from Half-Life 1 to 2. No explanation why, no transition from one to the other. The G-Man says some cryptic shit, then you appear on a train. Why am I on a train? Where am I going? Who are these guys with me and when did denim get so popular? Who’s that guy on the TV screen? Where did he come from? Am I in City 17? What happened to Cities 1-16? Not good enough for City 7, am I? Is the world in trouble? Where’d my guns go? Did I stop the Xen aliens? Where am I supposed to go? Who are my friends here? Who is the enemy? How long have I been out? What happened while I was gone? Will there be cake?Only half these questions are ever answered, and then, sparsely. Unless I looked on the Wikipedia, I would never know that Dr. Breen was the former administrator of Black Mesa, or that the Combine are here to harvest Earth’s water and change the chemical composition of the air. I would never know that the Vortigaunts are now friendly and why they are friendly. Yet the headcrabs aren’t. If this was real life, there’d be a lot of Vortigaunts limbs lying around City 17 right now. So all of this boils down to ‘what should I be doing?’. This is the first question I ask myself when I start a video game. When Cloud bounced out of the train, that was the first question I asked, and it was answered quickly (blowing up an evil energy reactor as part of a eco-terrorist organization). In Resident Evil 4, when Leon rolled out of the car into some Spanish villa, I knew where I should go (start exploring and discover the zombies). In these cases, there are clearly defined enemies, allies, and motivations. Unless I know what I’m doing and why, I just can’t get into the game. The other reason Half-Life 2 fails to produce emotional attachment is the lack of compelling characters (and this ties into the motivation for the player). You wanted to seek vengeance for Aeris. You wanted to save Rinoa from space. You wanted to see what Midna had to say. Half-Life 1 didn’t really have compelling characters either, but it made up for it with compelling character models, such as Barney the security escort, and the headcrabs. These didn’t become memorable because of who they were, but because of their behavior, which was part of the game mechanic. True, Half-Life’s audience isn’t the same as Twilight Princess’s audience, but at least Half-Life 1 had the newness behind it. In Half-Life 2, the programmers created even more newness, but didn’t exploit it. The Combine are little more than targets. The headcrabs have no new information revealed story-wise (besides they like watermelons). The ally characters are hardly more than background noise. Alyx is a memorable and popular character, but she’s not much more than a partner. She doesn’t initiate things, she doesn’t have a history, and her personality is the same as everyone else. Who else do we got? The bumbling Dr. Kleiner? The wizened Eli Vance? The Vortigaunts? They’re nothing more than rest stops to break up the action. They don’t dispense anything useful and they don’t move the plot. The only character I wanted to see more of in the future was Lamarr.Besides, the whole point of Half-Life is that you are Gordon and Gordon is alone. I should feel more alone, more empty, like in Silent Hill. Half-Life 2’s world is vast, but not empty. It’s detailed, but not thematic. I feel like they created this beautiful dam and then plopped some Combine soldiers in there for me to shoot, like Hogan’s Alley. So how do you tell back story well, without boring the player with ten-minute long intros or endless files to read? (I’m looking at you Resident Evil) Well, God of War put you right in the action, and explained Kratos’s backstory in periodic flashbacks. But this probably wouldn’t work for Half-Life because the nature of its storytelling was always from the perspective of the player, and it never deviates. God of War is all about high action, quick events, and visceral art. Half-Life is about life-like detail, realism, and freedom. Twilight Princess used Midna as a medium, as well as other characters. As the both of you confronted Zant, their dialogue revealed what happened to Hyrule. But the Combine don’t talk to each other, and Dr. Breen never calls to say hi. All you know is what the rebels know, and they always seem to get interrupted when they’re going to tell you something. That’s irritating to a gamer. Let the brother talk, man. Let’s see the seven-hour war. Let there be a few meetings to discuss the current situation. Let me pick up a newspaper and read it. That way you can allow the player to be Gordon (and never a movie viewer) and still keep the game consistent.I feel like Half-Life 2 didn’t capture the same spirit that Half-Life 1 created. It didn’t have the same zest, the same alien themes. It replaced the intrigue with unanswered hanging questions (the difference between the two is the desire to learn more and how much becomes revealed/resolved). Whenever you make a product based on existing material, such as a movie based on a book, you can basically do anything as long as you stay within the spirit of the material. That’s what Mortal Kombat (1) did. That’s what Silent Hill did. That’s what Batman did. Even Resident Evil 4, a radical departure from the gameplay, was still awesome because you were still fighting zombies in scary enclosed places. They kept the fans happy because they kept true to the spirit of the source material. They didn’t make Leon fight in an nu-tech industrial warehouse. They didn’t make Batman into a struggling teenager trying to cope with his identity as a superhero. So, despite it winning this year’s Gamespot award for best story (which I think was really for Portal, so I don’t know why they didn’t just give it to Portal itself instead of the Orange Box), Half-Life 2 gets a C+ for storytelling. Okay, not great. Now, I must return to my computer to catch the end of a thousand year old Final Fantasy rom hack.

Writing Advice #13

Pay attention to how real people around you act.

I think this one speaks for itself, and we all know why. We cannot write impossible characters.

This is what I call the Superman effect. Superman is basically the perfect man. Strength, speed, and heroism up the yin-yang. He’s always noble, he always does what’s right. His only conflicts come from the fact that he’s only one man and he has to save the sinking tanker at the same that a comet is hurtling to earth while he’s trapped in a locked room with Lois Lane and can’t reveal his secret identity. But we know he’ll get out someway, usually by moving faster than the human eye can see (that old MacGuffin). Otherwise, he’s never put into a moral quandray about whether it’s his place to kill the bad guy (Batman Begins), to reconcile his human life with his superhero life (Spider-Man), control his power (The Incredible Hulk) (See: Superman is a Dick), or battle his own personal demons while fulfilling the need to help others (Wolverine). Superman is all-powerful and uncorruptible. Thus, he’s boring. Superman no longer has a place in American folklore. He’s made himself obsolete.

I seem to have lost track of my argument here. I think I was trying to say that all the above examples are humans, and Superman is not (well, he is an alien, but I don’t think that’s relevant because he resembles a human biologically). If you want to write characters, they have to have characteristics. Not necessarily flaws, but a real good character will have idosyncrasies.

Real people have obnoxious laughs, slow speech, certain gaits. They try too hard to be likable, interrupt other people, act spazzy. They either make stupid jokes, or don’t say anything. They don’t eat everything on their plate, or they’re the friendliest people in the world, and you’d love to be like them and never can. They run marathons for breast cancer, and still live with their friends from college who now have a baby. They’re too loud, they have candy jars by their desk, they carry too much weight, they look like Hardy from Laurel & Hardy. They’re the nicest people in the world and are vegetarians. They struggle with balancing home, work, and life. They do tricks on wakeboards, and have cheesy mustaches.

Everything I’ve just said may seem fantastic or implausible, but they’re all real characteristics from the people I work with. None of them are special, but they all have things that I can point to and say “That’s what makes that guy that guy.” And that’s what you use when you make a character.