In the spirit of delving into backstory after my 3 post streak with the Crafting a Character Series, I would like to share with you a personal story of my own.
When I was 10 years old, I felt so badass for staying up until 3AM to catch a cartoon that looked like it was made with construction paper by a group of kindergarteners. But the looks were completely deceiving as it would feature some of the most potty mouthed and outrageous content I have ever seen in my life. That show was South Park, and I loved it for its simplistic art style.
I also used to love drawing as a kid, but could never draw anything spectacular or anything close to replicating my favourite cartoon characters. But man, one day I drew a bunch of my own original South Park characters and felt so proud that I could finally replicate something I liked!
I wanted to show this drawing to someone who I used to love and whose opinion I used to value. They will remain as nameless as they are heartless, but basically, this person took a quick glance at my drawings–not a single glance at me–and then said nothing at all before they started using the paper to catch their toenail clippings.
To this day, I’m filled with rage when I recall this instance in my life. The time, energy, and effort I put into this character palette page was wasted to catch the waste of this disgusting individual.
What this communicated to me was that my time, energy, and effort was a waste because no one will give a shit about what I produce. This person was my world and their negligence stained my perception of the actual world at large. It was a bomb set in my brain, ready to detonate in later years, giving me a hard time to commit to creative endeavours.
I’ve always known that I was a skilled writer, and that could I continue to improve daily, but for a long time, I used to require the external validation of others to assure me that my work was worth my time at all. As for drawing, I gave it up in favour of writing and I often wonder if I stopped drawing completely because of this incident–or even without it, I would have naturally made the trade off.
Nonetheless, I’ve been hurt by this careless person and no longer love them, nor do I care about their opinion anymore. At all. Having explored this issue in my history has afforded me the comfort in knowing that the joy I have when I create–a song, a novel, a blog post–belongs to me and only me.
Sure it matters if people like what I produce, but it doesn’t matter as much as how much I appreciate my own time, energy, and creativity.
If anyone ends up liking it, I’m glad that it resonates with them. If they don’t, that’s fine. I’m always open for criticism and improvement, but after processing this aspect of my psyche, I can now tell the difference between whose criticism matters, and whose criticism is just a replication of what was done unto me as a child. At which point, I simply dismiss it as waste. Waste that belongs nowhere near my work.
Keep your waste to yourself because my work will shine as a repellent to your cruelty.
We’ve taken a look at how our present lives are defined by our pasts, and to come full circle, we will delve into breaking the shackles of history and achieving freedom in the future.
As always, characters are driven by Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. All three keys play an important part into unlocking the potential that resides in all of us, fictional and real people alike. Here is how GMC is considered in a character profile:
The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
Desires drive all action, purpose, and intention. Having a clear understanding of your desires is fundamental to understanding what steps you need to take toward leading a fulfilling life, as well as providing value to the rest of the world.
Even if your initial desire is what propels you into action, the desire may change over time or evolve to something else based on how much you want to achieve. Sometimes you do get what you want and realize you desire so much more than you ever realized.
Such is the case for Morgan from #16Things I Thought Were True by Janet Gurtler. After her mother suffers a heart attack, Morgan gathers the courage and tenacity to ask about the biological father that was absent throughout her childhood.
At the start of the story, Morgan sets out to gain 5000 Twitter followers, while having 0 friends in the physical world because she feels alienated after having an embarassing video of her dancing in boy’s underwear going viral.
Due to certain circumstances, Morgan is forced to allow two of her co-workers, Adam and Amy, to accompany her on a road trip to seek out her biological father.
Although confronting him is her initial desire (as well as amassing a ton of Twitter followers), Morgan develops a bond with Adam and Amy; two co-workers she had barely liked or understood at a personal level before their heart warming–and sometimes gut wrenching–road trip together. Her true desire all along had been garnering connectivity, and it didn’t have to come from her long lost father.
What are your main desires? Have you achieved them only to realize there was something more meaningful out there? What steps are you taking today in order to achieve these goals in the future?
Another important aspect of characterization is having strengths that contrast a character’s vulnerabilities. Many protagonists are victims of circumstance which drives us to sympathize with them, but in order for us to even want to root for them, they need to have major strengths that can help make them more appealing.
In the hit series How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby goes on a seemingly unending search for his soul mate. He starts off as a desperate lovelorn who just can’t catch a break because his desire often becomes a part of his major flaws. Having this desire starts off as a way to avoid himself and have him develop the mentality that he is nothing without somebody to love.
However, throughout the course of this dramatic rom-com, we learn that he has a big heart and he’s deeply invested in his friends. The love that he provides for them transforms into love for himself and discovering his own value as an individual before meeting The Mother/Tracy McConnell.
Ted Mosby’s strength is his ability to love and his hopeful spirit, but it took transmuting it for himself and for what he already had in order to achieve his goal; meeting a woman who more or less resembles a combination of all his friends.
What are your major strengths? How do they play a role in helping you achieve your desires?
Perpetual Passion and Main Mission:
The mark of a strong character is intertwining their personal desires with their major strength in order to contribute something to the world at large. People who want to make a difference in the world, or at least in their immediate world (interpersonal relationships), are always challenged by people who want to keep things the same and not improve the state of the world.
Having a mission and commiting to it is admirable because it’s the ultimate test of character to offer your gift to the world, despite of its initial reluctance to accept it–when ironically, the world may so desperately be in need of your gift.
Batman, despite all his violent brutality serves as a good example for a character rooted in their principles. He’s committed to fighting injustice, but will never ever kill criminals.
He believes anybody can be redeemed and sees the possible good in others all despite of the hatred he has for his parents’ murderer (which changes depending on which reiteration of the Batman story you read, watch, or play).
I could just as easily use a character who embodies the purist level of virtue, but I think Batman serves as the best example because he’s still fundamentally flawed being so addicted to enacting violence, and only stopping short of actual murder. It’s debatable whether or not he creates more villains than he puts away, but one thing is for sure: he is committed to his perpetual passion for fighting crime as his main mission.
What are you passionate about? What’s your main mission? What mark do you want to leave in the world and why do you think it’s important?
In the previous installment of the Crafting a Character series, we took a look at how characters think and behave in the present. What usually shapes those behaviours and attitudes is their past.
Backstory is the cornerstone of all character development because it’s in the past where almost the entire identity of a person is formed. Whether you’re creating the backstory of a character, or looking at your own history, the past has a ton of answers for your questions about the present and the future.
Why Can’t You Just Let It Go?
Main Shaping and Influencing Incidents:
Usually in childhood, but not always, we’ve all had significant moments in our lives where our views of the world and of ourselves were changed forever. These incidents range from being tragic, comical, or inspiring. Either way, discovering the life changing events in your own life, or creating one for your character, can drastically improve your understanding of what may drive a person to behave the way they do in the present.
In a classic episode of The Simpsons, the family wants to go on vacation, but when their plane is about to take off, the family learns that Marge has a fear of flying. “Let me off the plane,” she says and then starts pacing down the aisle back and forth.
“Let me off! Let me off! Let me off!”
Marge starts going to therapy and at the end of the episode, she uncovers childhood memories she must have locked away for years.
She recalls thinking that her father was a pilot, and child Marge follows him into a plane to find out that he was a stewardess–which was a rare occupation for men in the 60’s–and the embarassment of her father working a woman’s job apparently traumatizes her into having a fear of flying.
There were a few more adverse memories she recalled, and those were the ones that seemed more logical in explaining why she had the fear, but I won’t go into detail about them here. Just watch the episode, it’s hilarious!
Can you recall any traumatic events that have fundamentally wounded you for life? Or do you have any memories of being significantly inspired by someone that motivate you to this day? How have any of these influencing incidents impacted the way you behave in your present life?
Relationship With the Family:
Your family is your first experience of what it’s like to be in a social circle, particularly in your formative years. The way you relate and interact with your extended family helps you develop the social skills (or lack thereof) that which you bring in to the rest of society, be it at school, post-secondary education, work, and the market place.
More importantly, your parents’ marriage vastly influences your ideas of love, marriage, and friendship. And depending on the bond you have with your parents–whether it’s strong, weak, or non existant–you’re automatically subjugated to either replicating or replacing your experience of them.
The nameless narrator in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk grew up, for the most part, without a father. So when he befriends the wise and witty renegade Tyler Duren, he looks up to him as a father figure.
When they start living together, Tyler gets into a sexual relationship with Marla Singer, a woman the nameless narrator met at a bunch of support groups. This becomes a recreation of the narrator’s childhood in that he never sees Tyler and Marla in the same room together, and becomes the middleman of their interactions–thus recreating his experience with his parents before they got divorced.
What template for romance have your parents imprinted for you? What relationship do you have with your extended family? How have these affected your mode of interaction with the rest of society?
Where They Grew Up:
From your country of origin, to your economic status growing up, and your childhood home, where you grew up also greatly defines how you’ll fit in to the rest of society.
In West Philadelphia, born and raised, is where the Fresh Prince spent most of his days. But as you know by the title sequence theme song, he got in one little fight and his mom got scared, so he moved in with his uncle and auntie in Bel-Air.
What made this sitcom so great was how Will Smith’s care free and eccentric hood mentality clashed with the prestigious and more “dignified” culture of upper class Los Angeles.
This made for an interesting conflict with Will trying to behave in a way that was acceptable to the culture, while also staying true to himself. Though, the funniest parts of Fresh Prince for me was when he was free to be himself around rich and pretigious people, and they welcomed him with open arms, thus showing that cultural division can be torn down if both parties are willing to be friendly.
Are your current living conditions different from how you grew up? If so, what has this contrast done for your sense of identity? If not, was it a conscious choice to remain comfortable with the familiar or do you intend on breaking the cultural barrier?
From the writing guide Revision & Self Editing by James Scott Bell, I’ll be hand selecting three fundamental considerations for every post in my Crafting a Character series. For the purpose of self-knowledge, you could also create a character sketch of yourself and dig into the following concepts to obtain a goldmine of introspection.
I am More Than Just an A/S/L!
The typical character sketch would include the age, sex, language, and other physical traits of a person. If you want to run deeper than a basic police profile, consider the following.
Point of Vulnerability:
Knowing your character’s point of vulnerability can vastly shape your entire story. Figure out what their personal pitfalls are, what triggers their frustration the most. It will be one of the greatest deciding factors in what they will react to and how.
From Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s point of vulnerability is his sense of courage. No matter what era Marty finds himself in throughout the epic trilogy, he often walks away from a challenge until Biff Tannen (or his ancestor) asks, “what’s the matter, [are] you chicken?”
Our spunky, time traveling hero turns around and responds with “nobody calls me chicken!” This point of vulnerability causes Marty to never backdown to almost every challenge presented by this long running lineage of bullies. It often gets him into more trouble as opposed to escaping it.
At the end of the epic trilogy, Marty learns to feel secure with his integrity, thus knowing when to back down from a needless challenge. Although this test of bravery had served him well for the first half of the series, this point of vulnerability and how he deals with it is revealed for what it is; an ego trip designed to make him feel brave, while costing him progression toward his more important goals.
What’s your point of vulnerability? What kinds of challenges do you receive relevant to it, and how do you react to them?
Physical appearance and how they feel about it:
Physical appearance only describes how a person looks, but what’s more important than this basic fact is how they feel about it.
In Skinny by Donna Cooner, an obese high school senior named Ever is tormented by the whisperings of “Skinny,” a voice in her head who constantly berates her about her weight.
When Ever breaks the chair she’s sitting on at a school assembly, she decides that enough is enough. She goes under gastral bypass surgery to help control her food intake, as well as start an exercice regimen that helps her expand her self confidence by shrinking her waistline.
Even people of average or beyond average attractiveness can have issues with their physical appearance. (For the sake of argument, let’s just say there is an objective standard for beauty, even though it’s usually in the eye of the beholder.)
For instance; Perfect by Natasha Friend features a dynamic duo of 13 year old girls that have bulimia. Since the death of her father, the protagonist Isabelle developed the habit of binging on a ton of food and purging it right out.
Isabelle joins a bulimia outreach group where she is surprised to find Ashley Barnum there, the popular and pretty girl at school. She is shocked to discover that the girl she once revered as picture perfect also has body issues, even though both girls are actually skinny. In fact, if Ever encountered these girls, she’d be repulsed by their skinniness and eating disorder.
How do you feel about your physical appearance? Have you updated your wardrobe extensively, started working out, or are you simply secure with it? What role has it played in your life?
What Others Think:
The old addage, “you shouldn’t care too much about what others think,” is coupled with the cliche of “it’s easier said than done.” To some degree, we all concern ourselves with how others perceive us, whether extensively or minimally.
The more self aware he becomes, the more he begins to worry about how others perceive him. Since a ridiculous standard is forced upon him, being the first talking chimp and all, it becomes increasingly difficult to contain his baser urges while maintaing the eloquent and intelligent personality he has developed since acquiring language.
When our self perception clashes with what others think of us, it creates a divide between staying true to ourselves or conforming to the crowd–or in some masterfully crafted instances, finding a middle ground.
How much do you concern yourself with external opinions? Has it caused you to change your behaviour or have you developed any habits that help ward off the temptation to please others?
Isn’t that such a snobby name for a burger joint? You just picture all the customers criticizing every single bite of their burgers and saying, “meh. I’ve had better.” But it’s alright, that’s what the restaurant invites you to do in order to improve customer satisfaction!
Likewise with writing, receiving criticism can help improve one’s craft. Since writers usually expose the depths of their inner most desires and concerns within the world through the abstractions of fiction, receiving criticism may sometimes feel like it’s their entire personhood that is being criticized. Their work is an extention of themselves and so it may be hard for them to have emotional and objective distance from the glaring flaws that may be present in their work.
In order to keep a writer’s self-esteem in tact, and let them know you really are trying to help, use the Critique Burger style of delivery.
Imagine this burger represents your thoughts on a certain piece of work. The top and bottom buns are positive things you could say about a written piece, while everything in between represents the negative aspects that can be improved on. That is where the meat of criticism resides!
Since the top bun of the burger is bigger, this is where you should start off with huge compliments to help cushion the impending critique. It’s important to show that you understood what the piece was trying to convey in terms of emotional and philosophical themes.
For writers who like to write deep and meaningful stuff (such as myself), it is an absolute honour for readers to relay back to them what moral lessons they’re trying to instill their work with, or at least any subtle nuances that takes a clever mind to notice. So once you’ve begun your critique pointing out what the writer did right, you move on to the meat of the matter.
Pointing out the flaws in somebody’s work is the most juiciest and rewarding aspects of delivering criticism. When a writer opens themselves up for criticism, they must do it with the utmost humility and vulnerability–and the ones delivering the criticism must empathize with this–or the whole operation will stink. Sometimes the bearer of bad news lacks the tact to criticize effectively, the writer takes everything too personally, or a combination of both may occur, and that could lead to some sour interactions.
To increase your chances of keeping a critique session productive, keep in mind that constructive criticism comes in two forms: Conclusive Criticism and Inquisitive Criticism.
Conclusive Criticism comes in the form of bluntly telling the writer what may not be working out in their writing. This could be in the form of essays, poems, even memos, but since fiction is my forte, let’s focus on critiquing novels.
Every other form of writing will require criteria unique to each individual medium, but common criticisms for writing novels include:
Inconsistent plot points
Events or characters that don’t move the narrative forward
Verbal vomit that doesn’t serve the overall narrative
Scarce narrative that could use more detail
Lack of conflict
Lack of depth or direction
Lack of relatability/accessibility
…and much more. If you have some to add to this list–or a list for any other form of writing–feel free to leave a comment below!
At the meat of the matter, you’re basically given free reign to tell the writer where their story falls flat on its face so you can help them either trim the fat or fill in the gaps. Since most writing is rewriting, your criticisms (whether they’re rejected or accepted) are valuable in determining if there needs to be more or less–or a complete removal–of certain aspects in the piece.
Only by eliminating the fluff can you help a writer focus on where their story stands firmly on its feet, and gravitate towards strengthening the positive aspects you have pointed out in the top bun process.
There have been times where I’ve opted for asking clarifying questions, instead of making any conclusive statements, in order to help fellow writers understand their own stories better. Inquisitive Criticism comes in the form of open ended questions that are designed to help a writer figure out the solutions to their work on their own terms.
This is my favourite method of giving and receiving criticism because who doesn’t love feeling like they’ve figured things out on their own? What gives me even greater joy is helping someone out without ever telling them what they need to do, because often times they already know somewhere deep inside, or just through Inquisitive Criticism do they figure it all out themselves.
The kinds of questions I’ve asked were in the lines of:
What kind of character is X supposed to be?
So then why did they do this instead of–?
Who is the character that contrasts their personality?
Why not put them in more scenes together?
What’s the importance of this scene?
What is your charater trying to achieve?
When was this particular scene foreshadowed?
Finally, at the end of your critique, you could restate the positive aspects you’ve already touched upon, or you can quickly mention a few more surface level positives. These could include word choice, notable dialogue, notable narrative points, or simply saying that you liked it as a whole. Coming full circle, this is where you can also state that if you did X, it could help embellish aspect Y of your story, and therefore Z can happen more logically.
Build Your Own Burger
Just like a real burger, people customize what they like to put in between the buns in conjunction with the meat. Likewise, you can choose between Conclusive and Inquisitive Criticism or combine them to your liking, and it will always ultimately be up to the writer whether to implement or discard your criticisms to the best of their judgement.
Understanding the the burger method of delivering criticism increases the guarantee of having your criticisms considered. Even if the writer doesn’t end up taking your advice, they will at least be given a lot to think about in the realm of possibilities.
“Constructive criticisms are merely suggestions, not commandments.”
How to apply this to your life:
Delivering a Critique Burger can immensely help you in having your opinions valued, either in a writing workshop or any other aspect in your life. This could range from personal to business relationships, and providing feedback this way will help others know that you recognize their merits, while also noting that there can be some improvements they can make so they become the best versions of themselves. Likewise, receiving criticism in this fashion will also give you an interesting and objective perspective on yourself where a variety of aspects can be considered and worked on.
Why this exercise is important:
Let’s face it, nobody’s perfect and nobody gets everything right the first time. With a little constructive criticism, we can help each other improve in many aspects in life. There is so much I could say as to why this exercise is important, but I think the ending quote of this post will be sufficient.
“We all have blind spots, but thankfully we don’t have the same ones.” – Stefan Molyneux
What are other methodologies of delivering criticism that you have found useful?
What did you think of the burger method? Do you believe that it could be helpful? If not, why not?
Whatever your thoughts are, I’m interested!
Feel free to criticize this very article if you’d like!