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In Defense Of Wooden Characters (1 Viewer)

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luckyscars

WF Veterans
A lot of the time, Writing 101 says that good stories begin with one or more good characters and grow from there, that the recipe of a good story begins with good character and plots through a succession of scenes in which this good character is developed.

The premise is true, that 'good character' is fundamental to good writing, I definitely can't think of a good story that didn't contain excellent characterization. However, what gets missed is the idea that stories need to START with good characters.

I don't think this is always the case. In fact, I would go as far as to say that obsession with creating the ideal protagonist/antagonist/love interest(s), whatever can be pretty distracting and potentially cripple the organic growth of a story through obsession over facets that may not actually be necessary or important.

What I think is more fundamental than character-building is concept building: That is, the formulation of what a story should be trying to say, what it means, rather than what its parts are. My WIP involves a woman who, in the throes of a traumatic experience, travels to a rundown castle in Scotland where she discovers [redacted].

Even though I'm drawing close to the end of the first draft, I still have very little real knowledge of this character. Sure, I know the basics, obviously. I know her name, her age, the basics of what she looks like (I can 'see' her), where she is from and the most basic outline of her: I know what motivates her in the story. But beyond that, I know almost nothing. I have not truly engaged with her personality, her background (beyond that which I had to come up for the plot), her values, her beliefs, blah blah. In short, she remains a rather cloudy figure, a bit of a shell. So do the other characters.

But the fact she was a cloudy figure -- quite 'wooden' -- made this draft exceptionally easy to write. At no point have I felt beholden to 'What Frances would do...' when making decisions: I am effectively making her decisions for her, based on what makes sense for a general person-in-that-predicament. I am figuring out who she is based on what I can see happening, based on what works to drive the plot toward its 'meaning'. The meaning of the story, at this time, is what matters.

The good parts about writing this way are

(1) There's no risk of getting bogged down in overthink, the character is whatever they turn out to be over the course of writing
(2) You avoid getting to close to the character, too overly invested in THEM as opposed to THE STORY, the interests of which may sometimes be in conflict with the character
(3) The options to then polish and expand on the character in the second draft feel easier and more numerous because the characterization can be viewed in the context of the plot, and frankly the plot can be less enjoyable and harder work to get right
(4) The end result is, certainly seems to be, a character who is actually not wooden at all, because they were created without prejudice and allowed to emerge on their own, without conscious effort.

Just to summarize: Not advocating for actual wooden characters in the end, of course, only that the obsession with and time spent on 'creating the perfect character' can, in my opinion, be unnecessary and distracting.

It is very possible to write a character-based book based on aspects that don't require tremendous thought or upfront investment. Anybody can be interesting and, certainly, anybody can become interesting in the right environment.

Often, a character only becomes interesting because of what happens to them. Pick the most boring, dreary person you know in real life and put them in a war, a crime, a filthy love tryst, whatever and watch them become captivating.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
I’m struggling with a wooden protagonist in my novella, which makes me a little uncomfortable. If I don’t sort that out, I can essentially say goodbye to my story being “literary” in any capacity.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
It makes sense as you describe it. I guess, I just wonder if you can write a wooden character and still portray tension and motivation. For example, how does she deal with the trauma, and does the reader get to understand who she is through that and why she chooses to flee to Scotland?

I see that this is also a means to an end, because as you say you can go back and embellish in a subsequent draft. And actually reading this has helped me a lot because I am writing a story where motivations are a big part of the plot. But my protagonist has a romantic interest and I am having a hard time figuring him out as a person. Because my style is dialogue heavy, I needed someone close to her, so she could talk out her work and professional situation. So other than his profession, he's a lawyer, I haven't really figured him out. I also want to give him some sort of vulnerability or fault so that he's not perfect, but again, I haven't figured that out yet. But you have given me the confidence to just press on and worry about that later because his personality is not crucial to the plot.

Great post BTW!

 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Often, a character only becomes interesting because of what happens to them. Pick the most boring, dreary person you know in real life and put them in a war, a crime, a filthy love tryst, whatever and watch them become captivating.

Exactly. I think some authors, particularly beginners, mistake personality for depth of characterization. They wind up with frenetic characters which tire me, and that I have trouble believing. Put a character in a tough or interesting situation, add tenacity (or some other innate quality), and you have a start on a good story. The character doesn't need flashy dialogue, outrageous behavior, or constant emoting.

Look at Harry Potter. For personality and daily behavior, he's a pathetic and drab character. The draw is (a) he shows resilience and bravery when needed, and (b) the fantastic events revolving around him. All the personality is in his friends, associates, and adversaries. Since they are not the focus and don't appear constantly, those personalities don't overwhelm the reader.

Did Rowling sit down and plan that strategy for her characterizations? I strongly doubt it. But she had decades of examples of everyman protagonists to influence her.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
It makes sense as you describe it. I guess, I just wonder if you can write a wooden character and still portray tension and motivation. For example, how does she deal with the trauma, and does the reader get to understand who she is through that and why she chooses to flee to Scotland?

I see that this is also a means to an end, because as you say you can go back and embellish in a subsequent draft. And actually reading this has helped me a lot because I am writing a story where motivations are a big part of the plot. But my protagonist has a romantic interest and I am having a hard time figuring him out as a person. Because my style is dialogue heavy, I needed someone close to her, so she could talk out her work and professional situation. So other than his profession, he's a lawyer, I haven't really figured him out. I also want to give him some sort of vulnerability or fault so that he's not perfect, but again, I haven't figured that out yet. But you have given me the confidence to just press on and worry about that later because his personality is not crucial to the plot.

Great post BTW!


You're right that those questions regarding deeper characterization do need to be addressed at some stage. My point is only that they don't need to be labored over ahead of time, or even 'at the time' when the initial story is still being meshed out, that trying to flesh a fictional character outside of the context of events can be extremely difficult, a bit of a craps throw actually.

Vranger's example of Harry Potter is a good example of this. It is clear that the character of Harry could be (and, for my money, likely was) extremely undeveloped when Rowling begins writing. He is effectively exactly what you would expect from the bare-bones 'ordinary preteen British orphan boy'.

Harry Potter is effectively a stock character, a twentieth century Dickens orphan who, in many respects, is hardly different at all from Oliver Twist or any other 'stock orphan boy' character from traditional literature. What makes him different is the events Rowling chose to have him react to. By the end of the novel series, of course, he is far more developed and quite different from the Twist orphan. But there was no need to start out with him figured out and, in fact, doing so (say, by deciding at the outset what his personality would be, his likes and dislikes, his every motivation) might well have made the rest of the story far more difficult to write.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
I've written characters that might externally seem wooden or stodgy, but I wrote them in close POV and (IMO) their inner world was interesting.

Many characters may appear wooden early in the story, but it's our job to tell their story such that the reader cares about them.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I've written characters that might externally seem wooden or stodgy, but I wrote them in close POV and (IMO) their inner world was interesting. Many characters may appear wooden early in the story, but it's our job to tell their story such that the reader cares about them.

When we read about "wooden characters", I wonder if we all have a clear definition. I'm sure we each feel we do, but are we all thinking the same thing? LOL So I thought I'd look it up. I found a number of blogs discussing "wooden characters". None of them defined the term, they assume we all know exactly what the discussion is about. So they launch right into how to avoid wooden characters.

The top result was a blog from 2013. It seems to have three or four definitions for a wooden character, some of it contradictory. "A wooden character is a cliché" -- a fully realized character (the opposite of wooden according to the blogger) should "leap off the page". Sorry, I can list myriad cliched characters that leap off the page.

I'm by no means suggesting the blog is useless. There are some fine tips in it. And there are other blogs, most of which have slightly different ideas of what a wooden character is and how to fix them. Andrew Friday says "The best thing you can do when creating a character is give them a flaw." Wrong. It's an option, but it's only one of many things you can do when creating a character. The "best thing" is what fits our story.

In a movie, we think an actor is "wooden" when they deliver lines in a monotone. Obviously, that doesn't apply to writers, other than we can structure dialogue in a way we hope forces the reader to hear what we hear as we write it. But that's not a function of characterization, that's a function our writing not being flat. (There's something else we could discuss).

Now I have to close this comment and decide what I'm really getting at, because so far I'm just discussing my observations and musing.

I think what I'm getting at is this: Are we concentrating more on the theory of characterization than finding acceptable characterization in practice ... and I think that jives with LuckyScars' OP.
 
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MistWolf

Senior Member
Plank approves this thread
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bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
A lot of the time, Writing 101 says that good stories begin with one or more good characters and grow from there, that the recipe of a good story begins with good character and plots through a succession of scenes in which this good character is developed.

The premise is true, that 'good character' is fundamental to good writing, I definitely can't think of a good story that didn't contain excellent characterization. However, what gets missed is the idea that stories need to START with good characters.

I don't think this is always the case. In fact, I would go as far as to say that obsession with creating the ideal protagonist/antagonist/love interest(s), whatever can be pretty distracting and potentially cripple the organic growth of a story through obsession over facets that may not actually be necessary or important.

What I think is more fundamental than character-building is concept building: That is, the formulation of what a story should be trying to say, what it means, rather than what its parts are. My WIP involves a woman who, in the throes of a traumatic experience, travels to a rundown castle in Scotland where she discovers [redacted].

Even though I'm drawing close to the end of the first draft, I still have very little real knowledge of this character. Sure, I know the basics, obviously. I know her name, her age, the basics of what she looks like (I can 'see' her), where she is from and the most basic outline of her: I know what motivates her in the story. But beyond that, I know almost nothing. I have not truly engaged with her personality, her background (beyond that which I had to come up for the plot), her values, her beliefs, blah blah. In short, she remains a rather cloudy figure, a bit of a shell. So do the other characters.

But the fact she was a cloudy figure -- quite 'wooden' -- made this draft exceptionally easy to write. At no point have I felt beholden to 'What Frances would do...' when making decisions: I am effectively making her decisions for her, based on what makes sense for a general person-in-that-predicament. I am figuring out who she is based on what I can see happening, based on what works to drive the plot toward its 'meaning'. The meaning of the story, at this time, is what matters.

The good parts about writing this way are

(1) There's no risk of getting bogged down in overthink, the character is whatever they turn out to be over the course of writing
(2) You avoid getting to close to the character, too overly invested in THEM as opposed to THE STORY, the interests of which may sometimes be in conflict with the character
(3) The options to then polish and expand on the character in the second draft feel easier and more numerous because the characterization can be viewed in the context of the plot, and frankly the plot can be less enjoyable and harder work to get right
(4) The end result is, certainly seems to be, a character who is actually not wooden at all, because they were created without prejudice and allowed to emerge on their own, without conscious effort.

Just to summarize: Not advocating for actual wooden characters in the end, of course, only that the obsession with and time spent on 'creating the perfect character' can, in my opinion, be unnecessary and distracting.

It is very possible to write a character-based book based on aspects that don't require tremendous thought or upfront investment. Anybody can be interesting and, certainly, anybody can become interesting in the right environment.

Often, a character only becomes interesting because of what happens to them. Pick the most boring, dreary person you know in real life and put them in a war, a crime, a filthy love tryst, whatever and watch them become captivating.

I often see these posts on twitter and facebook writing communities, where people bang on about "if their character was a fruit, what would they be" or what their favourite colour is and whatnot. To me, that's too much minutiae - I mean, I have no idea what my wife's favourite colour is. I don't even know what my favourite colour is, not sure I've had one since the age of about 9. But with my characters, as with people in general, I do maintain some sense of who they are. In that way, they seem more real to me than knowing every detail. Like regular folks, I know bits about them, some quite standout things, and I guess the rest if I think about it at all.

But that's just me, and one of the reasons I write. I can get quite obsessive over things (and people) to the point where it might potentially interfere with my normal relationships with them. So, not only is writing a great way to redirect that assuredly harmless yet slightly strange trait, but also it means I have a ready wealth of data to draw from. It works for me, and it seems to result in reasonably relatable characters just about enough of the time, I think.

However it does mean certain things can't happen because they would be contrary to my characters' personalities, and that does come with challenges. But it is what it is, and we are where we are. I just have to think my way around it, but without it I would probably have less motivation to write at all, so I just work with what I have. Sometimes, like you say, just chuck the situation at them and see what they do, well-developed person or no. I quite like the idea of having a character of a particular type be thrown into a circumstance where they would, all being well, never be. It's kind of fun. It's fun watching them squirm and rise to the challenge in their own special way. If I could leave off the characterisation at first and focus on the plot I would. I'm entirely jealous of folks that write that way, but for some reason that doesn't seem to be how my own personal fuel flows. I would lose interest, I think. Whatever works, works.

I'm interested at the moment in the idea of what makes a book (or anything, really) genuinely great. Is it a good plot? Good characters? Exceptional writing? I actually think it's all of them (and probably a few more), no one single answer. If a story covers a good number of these fundamental pillars, it has a reasonable chance of standing out, imo. Of course that highlights the things I need to work on, like plot. The structure of plot, how to create tension, and so on. I'm getting there, I think, slowly. It's a good learning experience.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
When we read about "wooden characters", I wonder if we all have a clear definition. I'm sure we each feel we do, but are we all thinking the same thing? LOL So I thought I'd look it up. I found a number of blogs discussing "wooden characters". None of them defined the term, they assume we all know exactly what the discussion is about. So they launch right into how to avoid wooden characters.

The top result was a blog from 2013. It seems to have three or four definitions for a wooden character, some of it contradictory. "A wooden character is a cliché" -- a fully realized character (the opposite of wooden according to the blogger) should "leap off the page". Sorry, I can list myriad cliched characters that leap off the page.

I'm by no means suggesting the blog is useless. There are some fine tips in it. And there are other blogs, most of which have slightly different ideas of what a wooden character is and how to fix them. Andrew Friday says "The best thing you can do when creating a character is give them a flaw." Wrong. It's an option, but it's only one of many things you can do when creating a character. The "best thing" is what fits our story.

In a movie, we think an actor is "wooden" when they deliver lines in a monotone. Obviously, that doesn't apply to writers, other than we can structure dialogue in a way we hope forces the reader to hear what we hear as we write it. But that's not a function of characterization, that's a function our writing not being flat. (There's something else we could discuss).

Now I have to close this comment and decide what I'm really getting at, because so far I'm just discussing my observations and musing.

I think what I'm getting at is this: Are we concentrating more on the theory of characterization than finding acceptable characterization in practice ... and I think that jives with LuckyScars' OP.

In my current WIP, my protagonist is an android. This means, to a certain degree, I have to craft her as wooden. For me that means not so much being a cliché but having limited emotional responses, and not many idiosyncrasies, which is tough, because she does, in my head canon, have a personality that I keep having to either suppress or explain. There's lots of "her sensors spin up and start eating CPU. To a human this would feel like creeping paranoia". I've been binge-watching Humans, which has actually helped. But I do have a juicy flaw for her, so hopefully that can help contextualise her for readers, give her a place in their heart so I can keep her mostly expressionless.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
I often see these posts on twitter and facebook writing communities, where people bang on about "if their character was a fruit, what would they be" or what their favourite colour is and whatnot. To me, that's too much minutiae - I mean, I have no idea what my wife's favourite colour is. I don't even know what my favourite colour is, not sure I've had one since the age of about 9. But with my characters, as with people in general, I do maintain some sense of who they are. In that way, they seem more real to me than knowing every detail. Like regular folks, I know bits about them, some quite standout things, and I guess the rest if I think about it at all.

But that's just me, and one of the reasons I write. I can get quite obsessive over things (and people) to the point where it might potentially interfere with my normal relationships with them. So, not only is writing a great way to redirect that assuredly harmless yet slightly strange trait, but also it means I have a ready wealth of data to draw from. It works for me, and it seems to result in reasonably relatable characters just about enough of the time, I think.

However it does mean certain things can't happen because they would be contrary to my characters' personalities, and that does come with challenges. But it is what it is, and we are where we are. I just have to think my way around it, but without it I would probably have less motivation to write at all, so I just work with what I have. Sometimes, like you say, just chuck the situation at them and see what they do, well-developed person or no. I quite like the idea of having a character of a particular type be thrown into a circumstance where they would, all being well, never be. It's kind of fun. It's fun watching them squirm and rise to the challenge in their own special way. If I could leave off the characterisation at first and focus on the plot I would. I'm entirely jealous of folks that write that way, but for some reason that doesn't seem to be how my own personal fuel flows. I would lose interest, I think. Whatever works, works.

I'm interested at the moment in the idea of what makes a book (or anything, really) genuinely great. Is it a good plot? Good characters? Exceptional writing? I actually think it's all of them (and probably a few more), no one single answer. If a story covers a good number of these fundamental pillars, it has a reasonable chance of standing out, imo. Of course that highlights the things I need to work on, like plot. The structure of plot, how to create tension, and so on. I'm getting there, I think, slowly. It's a good learning experience.

[/quote]

Yeah. You know, I get the logic behind the argument that one should know characters (especially major ones) on a level of kinship. But the effort often times seems misdirected. As you point out, random quirks and minor preferences simply aren't important to the story most of the time. Nobody knows what Captain Ahab's favorite color is and I absolutely believe Melville gave it zero thought.

When such quirks are important to the story -- a scar on a forehead being the mark of the antagonist -- I believe these, for the most part, come about on their own. When 'designing' Harry, I don't believe Rowling had a strong urge to give him a scar. What she needed was a way to foreshadow the notion of the character being 'touched by evil' and this feature came about because of the need to show the concept rather than 'to build character'.

The result of this is that the character, when written competently at least, does become 'developed' but that the development of the character happens in accordance with the story concept and the environment, not through some molecular recipe of what we, as the writer, may find interesting ahead of time. Once the first draft is completed and the blueprint of the story is there, we can then always revisit the characters and expand on them in retrospect, but we should not be doing that before we know what happens to them.

This can be seen as sort of analogous to most engineering projects. When building something -- a ship, a plane, a piece of furniture -- do we not always start out with identifying what we are actually trying to achieve? The guy who designed the jumbo jet did not begin with no idea of what he was trying to achieve. He knew the basic concept and the goal. Once he had the basic concept, he sketched it out, then drew it out, then built a prototype. At no point before this was the matter of the components and how they were composed in need to consideration. We design components according to the design and the design according to the task. We may have an idea of the components we will be using -- it would be silly, for instance, to design a jumbo jet without any consideration to the sort of materials that exist and what would be available -- but at the end of the day this is about what comes first. The fact that, at the end of the day, the components and their quality is absolutely vital to the whole thing working is indisputable, of course, but we don't begin with them. Prior to the prototype, if the designer of a jumbo jet gets hung up on what he will create from, how it will look and perform, the rabbit hole is endless.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
In my current WIP, my protagonist is an android. This means, to a certain degree, I have to craft her as wooden. For me that means not so much being a cliché but having limited emotional responses, and not many idiosyncrasies, which is tough, because she does, in my head canon, have a personality that I keep having to either suppress or explain. There's lots of "her sensors spin up and start eating CPU. To a human this would feel like creeping paranoia". I've been binge-watching Humans, which has actually helped. But I do have a juicy flaw for her, so hopefully that can help contextualise her for readers, give her a place in their heart so I can keep her mostly expressionless.

You make me think of Data and R. Daneel Olivaw. :)
 

MistWolf

Senior Member
...At no point before this was the matter of the components and how they were composed in need to consideration. We design components according to the design and the design according to the task. We may have an idea of the components we will be using -- it would be silly, for instance, to design a jumbo jet without any consideration to the sort of materials that exist and what would be available -- but at the end of the day this is about what comes first. The fact that, at the end of the day, the components and their quality is absolutely vital to the whole thing working is indisputable, of course, but we don't begin with them. Prior to the prototype, if the designer of a jumbo jet gets hung up on what he will create from, how it will look and perform, the rabbit hole is endless.

Not a good analogy for your argument. Before designing the 747 (most any aircraft really), the engineers knew what components they had to work with and had to figure out how they'd fit in the aircraft. More importantly, how each affected center of gravity and polar axis of movement in each of the three dimensions. (Of course, once fabrication and assembly started, changes need to be made.)

(I'm not disagreeing with your method. Everyone has their own way of creating a story.)
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
Not a good analogy for your argument. Before designing the 747 (most any aircraft really), the engineers knew what components they had to work with and had to figure out how they'd fit in the aircraft. More importantly, how each affected center of gravity and polar axis of movement in each of the three dimensions. (Of course, once fabrication and assembly started, changes need to be made.)

(I'm not disagreeing with your method. Everyone has their own way of creating a story.)

I agree with MistWolf. That's what makes authoring fiction so different than engineering or designing. The author can start with a blank slate and take it anywhere they want to. No restrictions on materials, useability or practicality. That's what makes it so creative, but sometimes it can work against, because it gives us all a whole lot more ways to skin a cat!
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Not a good analogy for your argument. Before designing the 747 (most any aircraft really), the engineers knew what components they had to work with and had to figure out how they'd fit in the aircraft. More importantly, how each affected center of gravity and polar axis of movement in each of the three dimensions. (Of course, once fabrication and assembly started, changes need to be made.)

(I'm not disagreeing with your method. Everyone has their own way of creating a story.)

Yeah but I said they would have some idea.

The point is that the idea comes before the ingredients and what could be always trumps what already is: If the components for the 747 did not already exist, they could be created (within reason). The reason we have microchips is because somebody conceptualized the computer (and other technologies) first and we designed what was needed to make the larger thing work. If there isn't already a piece of wood that's the perfect size for the concept of the chair, the wood can be created that is the right size for the concept of the chair. That doesn't dismiss the importance of details, only to say their lack of existence, or lack of perfect existence, should not inhibit the broader idea, which should come first.

The point is that the capabilities of a project should not hang on minutiae. Much of character building is about the minutiae.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
It'll all come around in the edits. It always does for me at least. I haven't "loosened" into the character until about midway. During my edits, the joints have been lubed and the woodenness of the character is shaken out of the earlier scenes.
 
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