Story Engineering, Day 2. Characterization and a summary of what I’ve learned

Today, I’ve chopped through 43% of Larry Brooks book Story Engineering, and I finished characterization.  That was an interesting way to consider how that works. In a nutshell, he says there’s the surface dimension (1st level), which is the façade (oooh, a Basque letter) you present to everyone, i.e. charming ex-CEO who smokes cigars and loves the ladies. The second level is the back story on why you are how you are: upbringing, experiences, abusive uncles, car accident where you were struck by 57 Chevy on the corner near school and it changed your life at 17 so that you were permanently broken and now you’re an addict at 63 and trying to change and you’ve always wanted to own a copy of the car that almost killed you, etc. So yeah, it’s the psychology behind the character, and that backstory needs to come out in the first act so we get a clue to the character’s deeper ideals and why they tick. Then you have the third dimension, which is the times when their true character appears, not the first level facade. We see behind the curtain to the real person.  And the third dimension moments define the character, whether they choose right or wrong, and why they choose that. (He doesn’t say this, but third dimension moments are also not usually on display, they seem to be triggered by some sort of conflict or event. Or maybe he said that in different words. I’d have to go back and reread it. That’s where the kindle isn’t nearly as fast as a dead-tree book.)

There’s a great deal more. He talks about character as structure (how the character develops throughout the story, which is, I think, the character arc). Essentially, certain things have to happen at certain times in the story, or it’ll be all fouled up. Your character needs to struggle all the way into the end of act 2, and if she overcomes that struggle before the climax, it messes up the pacing of the story because that becomes the new climax, and everything else after is anti-climactic.

I was considering this when I was reading Kate Colby‘s The Courtesan’s Avenger (Desertera #2), which, incidentally, was a great read. In it, her protagonist Dellwyn Rutt, a courtesan, has some serious flaws. And her backstory informs these flaws and the bad decisions she keeps making. She makes terrible decisions, but they make sense from the point where Dellwyn feels real and has very good reasons to make her flawed decisions. I kept yelling at the book, “Arc! Arc already!”  Of course, if she’d arced, it’d stop being interesting because then nothing would happen.  Nevertheless, it made for a good read and the character (and supporting cast) are well-characterized. They all have flaws, and this gets in the way of meaningful discourse, just like real life.

Today, I will read and attempt to embrace what Mr. Brooks has to say about Theme. I have a feeling that while I may see the words, I’ve never been one to grasp the underlying meaning very well. That’d be my character flaw. “Huh? There was a theme?” It might be my undoing as an author. Plus, there’s the aspect where I say, “why don’t we just have some nice shoot-em-up scenes.” Well-written, lovely, boring, non-thematic scenes that come out dry and meaningless, when instead I could be writing a thinly veiled polemic about the dangers of senior citizens running for president. As if that’s what the world needs, right now.

You may enrich the content of this blog with your treasured comments below. Especially if you understand theme.

Character Creation Writing: Hidden Negative Traits

I was reminded by another author’s comment about the Negative Trait Thesaurus that one help for your characters is to demonstrate subtlety. All characters have negative traits. This does not mean that they demonstrate that trait all the time, or even under normal conditions. The trait may be lost amidst a sea of goopy nice traits and only come out on full moons or when the character is stressed or pushed. You can therefore have a character who is boring and dull and predictable during the initial scenes who suddenly displays their negative trait when bad things start happening, which it will if you’re being properly mean to your characters.

For an example, take nice little old ladies who have a streak of nasty racism. One moment they’re making pies and talking about “bless your heart!” and “don’t that beat all?” and the next moment they’re muttering about how them n—–s should never have been allowed to drink out of white fountains and sit at the front of the bus. Granny doesn’t go off until she sees the people for whom she bears this enmity.

This, in turn, can trigger other negative traits in other characters, in a domino effect. A character who preaches tolerance may express hatred for the racist granny, thus demonstrating the negative trait hypocrisy. We may never know these traits exist but for granny triggering it with her racist rant.

The subtlety comes by toning things down. If granny does nasty things without ever putting a reason behind it, that leads to confusion, though in her consistency, the other characters and the reader will be able to do the math and figure out that granny is a closet racist.

Maybe making granny conflicted lends credence to the racism, so that most of the time she’s sweet and trying to do the right thing, but it turns out she’s got some history where she was dating a guy of the race she hates so much. They broke up, it was her fault, and now she hates everyone. This sort of illogic makes stunning sense, because most people don’t want to face up and of course, unrelenting racism rarely seems to stem out of circumstances such as these, but that baggage can make her more interesting if we can ever get that information out of her.

Many of the negative traits are best leavened in the loaf sprinkled in an easy way. Too much salt ruins the bread. Consider the first few traits listed:


Some of these, done to the extreme, will overwhelm the story. A character who is absent-minded to an extreme is crippled and will weigh down the story with that aspect. It becomes the central part of the story when you watch something like Flubber. [Unfortunately, I cannot unwatch that movie. So sad.] In Flubber, the scientist is brilliant but extremely absent-minded. He is able to create new life and a substance in which the laws of physics do not function. In any other character, they would use the discovery to win acclaim and accolades and funding. With our absent-minded professor, he uses his discovery to help the college basketball team win a game so he can win back his ex-fiance.

Absent-mindedness is a public aspect which becomes apparent with little exposure to the person, whereas the addictive person may be able to conceal their addiction well, and it would take more penetration into the character layers to see the patterns of addiction affecting their decisions and their life.

I think the take-away here is that the negative traits you assign to some of your characters may not ever be known by the reader. You, as the author, while making your careful character studies in which you lay out the facts and intangibles of each, will know the trait and know that it’s there, waiting, like uranium ore under the basement, making the people sick without them knowing the cause. The negative trait may even be the driving force behind the character Goal.

Random Positive Trait Creator Success in Excel

As I’ve mentioned before, I purchased Ackerman and Puglisi’s excellent Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes a few weeks ago.

There are a lot of positive traits, I must say.  They have these columns listing them, and then there’s four different categories.


So, you pick from each category.
Me, I hate all that choice. There are 80 traits in the interactive category alone. I dunno, I gotta pick one from each?

Enter Excel!
I entered the traits into Excel (I won’t say how, but it’s pretty obvious) and stuck a random number generator at the top in cell A2, which looks like:


That gives me a range from cell A4 to A47, where I have the Achievement traits. Note that the random number generator creates an integer with up to 3 decimal places, so I use the round to round it off. If you don’t have that, when you try to grab the integer later it won’t have a good cell address.

Then for the paydirt, the thing that grabs whatever it is out of the column according to whatever the random number generator created.

In cell A1, I have this:


I copy the formulas across 4 columns with the numbers adjusted for the stuff in the column.

This gives me the result:

Idealistic Honorable Introverted Obedient

Some of the positive traits aren’t compatible with others, but I haven’t figured out a simple way to tell it “don’t use these results, they’re wrong!” I certainly could program it to do VBA and put in a string after each term with the opposites that may cause conflict, i.e. for Analytical, these traits aren’t usually compatible: adaptable, adventurous, illogical, impulsive, melodramatic, paranoid, sentimental.

Or just eyeball the result and decide on my own without a machine’s help. I can also program it to randomly select the negative traits, as well.  Ultimately, it’s a nice starting point.


Alert Enthusiastic Whimsical Humble

Don’t mind me, but I couldn’t help but see that you were standing over here with a blog. I love blogs! Maybe you could paint it blue.

Creative Optimistic Flamboyant Responsible

That one doesn’t look real. Creative AND responsible? Doesn’t fit the stereotype.

Characterization Part X of Y

I’m currently reading Ackerman and Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus.  There is a wealth of data in there on the negative traits, and the book starts with a long wordy explanation of how those traits come about and how they fit with the positive traits.

I found me in there.

Yes, the Pontius Cominius Achilles heel. I found my major positive trait, and I found my negative downfall. Reading my negative trait, I was squirming and saying, “Yep, they got me.”

The big takeaway here is that I can see where you put combos together and get a tricky human. A nice, not-cardboard person who has drives, desires, wants, loves, hatreds, flaws, virtues, and is so inherently messy that the reader resonates by either squirming and saying, “that’s me,” or they identify with the positive characteristic and say “that’s ME!”  By messy, I mean that I can see where each one is being driven by their circumstances, their history, their natural inclinations.

I’m jumping between the characterization books and the Write Great Fiction by Bell. I like Bell because  he says you can learn to write and he can give you the basics. I read somewhere this weekend, wish I could remember where, that this whole endeavor was 5% talent and 95% determination.  How much grit do you have? I thus need to set some goals, and with my negative trait in mind–it really is my conflict– hold to a schedule and push hard.

This novel will be written. It will be fantastic. It will be richly characterized. It will have good structure, pacing, plot, and it will lead to a second, because you can’t market your writing with just one novel or readers have nothing to go buy after reading my first brilliant opus.  I will do complete characterization for my protagonist and three additional support characters by the end of this week.  I will finish reading Write by the end of this week.

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.