Being an Ass to Your Characters

This week's topic comes courtesy of the ever-cool Lydia Kang, who axed, "What part of yourself have you put into a main character? Why?" (See what Laura and Danyelle had to say about it.)

Characters swim into my psyche mostly intact. And since ye olde subconscious is holding the net, there's all kinds of Zoe-bits in each one - the flotsam, jetsam and half-chewed fish from the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald of my brain - which means I now gotta work to make sure they're, yanno, them and not me. And one of the ways I do this is by probing as deep into dey biznass as I can

chiefly by being an ass to them.

Easy way to get another angle on your character? Take the scene you've already got in mind, then run it aground. Got her arguing in a diner? Drop her on a ship's haunted prow while some fucked up apparition screeches toward her - and her only escape is the black churn of water. What does she do?

Is he in a school cafeteria breaking up with his girl? Drop that motherfucker into the funeral of his ex's mother. What does he say? Female detective chasing dude through a Noo Yawk street? Plant her in Afghanistan, bleeding from friendly fire. What happens now?

Remember, you ain't gotta USE any of your alternate scenarios or even write 'em down. Imagining is plenty. Just like we grow best outside of our comfort zones, our characters develop more fully when you take THEM out of YOUR comfort zone (i.e., your planned scene), just to see what happens.

So, yanno, it's cool that my brain comes pre-populated with characters. It's cool if they snatch bits of my personality as they scramble out of my gray matter. It's not cool if they all look, eat, curse and otherwise act like me. That's how I separate church and state, anyway: First realize they're Bits o Z, then swap their situations to see how they act which helps make each one unique, whether they be sons, daughters, captains, cooks - or the North Wind or the Witch of November :)


mshatch | September 22, 2010 at 10:15 AM

what an interesting way to get more out of your characters. Thanks!

Alesa Warcan | September 22, 2010 at 10:19 AM

"Got her arguing in a diner? Drop her on a ship's haunted prow while some fucked up apparition screeches toward her - and her only escape is the black churn of water. What does she do?"

She argues with the fucked up apparition until it jumps into the churn of black water to find some respite from the viperish tongue.
"Is he in a school cafeteria breaking up with his girl? Drop that motherfucker into the funeral of his ex's mother. What does he say?"
Umm, Mrs. Robinson, I think it's time for us to see other people.
"Female detective chasing dude through a Noo Yawk street? Plant her in Afghanistan, bleeding from friendly fire. What happens now?"
She says, "Dude, what the fuck? I was walking there!"
Haha! I can relate to this post... Which isn't always the case with "writing themed" posts. Good stuff!

Stina Lindenblatt | September 22, 2010 at 10:35 AM

I've been doing this. Like you said, you don't have to write it down. I do it anytime, like while washing the dishes (cuz I don't trust my glasses to the dishwasher). And apparently, according to my kids, I have a "face" when I do this. (I'm guessing I look zoned out)

Tere Kirkland | September 22, 2010 at 10:50 AM

Great post! Gotta try this.

LOL, Stina, my husband says I make a "face" when I'm brainstorming, too.

Sangu | September 22, 2010 at 10:55 AM

Ah, Zoe, what a great post! This is a fab character-building tactic!

Nate Wilson | September 22, 2010 at 11:07 AM

This is a fantastic idea, Zoe! Thanks! In fact, I wish I'd known of it sooner, to really flesh out my characters.

Now, if you don't mind, I'm off to strand my U.S. Senator at an abandoned research post in the Antarctic, thrust my top scientist into the midst of a clash between the IRA and the police, and put my invisible monkeys into a nunnery at lunchtime. (That last one isn't to develop their personalities, though. I just think it'll be fun to imagine the outcome.)

Zoe C. Courtman | September 22, 2010 at 11:58 AM

Hey, MS, Tere & Sangu - glad you found it innerestin'. Thanks for stopping by!

Alesa - GOD you crack me up :D I love the "dude, what the fuck! I'm walking here!" Can't wait to see you next month - we're gonna laugh our asses off :D

Ooh, Stina, I know exACTly the look you're talking about! It's the one that makes my hubs beat a hasty retreat before I start talking Book, lol :)

Hey, Nate! Thanks for the new follow - gonna check out your blog as soon as I hit "post comment". And invisible monkeys in a nunnery!! :D Hell, I'm just interested in a nunnery at lunchtime my imagination working they have mystery meat? Do they have cliques? Is there a cool nun table? :)

Piedmont Writer | September 22, 2010 at 11:59 AM

I've always found I put more of myself into my male characters than I do my female ones. Why? I don't know. Maybe so no one will actually think I wrote about myself.

Lydia Kang | September 22, 2010 at 12:50 PM

Oh the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald! I was so haunted by that song as a kid!

Your post is brilliant, as always Zoe. I love what you do to your characters, inside and out. You have no mercy on them, and that is a good thing.

Roland D. Yeomans | September 22, 2010 at 1:06 PM

Great, thought-provoking post. For me, I will be watching a scene in a DVD when the image of what Samuel McCord or another of my characters would do in the same situation.

I sometimes get some great bits of dialogue I can use in my writing. Have a great mid-week. Roland

Hannah Kincade | September 22, 2010 at 1:36 PM

Even though I do have enough neruoses to share, I've been lucky that none of my characters are like me. Although I will def keep an eye out now that you mention it. Maybe I just don't realize it.

Hey there's a contest I'm having on my blog that is right up your alley. If you're interest, pop on over. :D

Have a great day!

Anonymous | September 22, 2010 at 1:57 PM

LOL! Great post!

It's quite the antithesis of my day job work of collaboration and empathy, but I'll give it a go.

Change is good. ;)

Elana Johnson | September 22, 2010 at 3:10 PM

I think it's a great exercise to put your character in a new/bad situation and see what happens. That's how you really get to know them, and how they talk/feel/act. I need to do this more--great idea!

Christine Fonseca | September 22, 2010 at 4:41 PM

"prepopulated with characters" LOVE THAT!!!

Carol Kilgore | September 22, 2010 at 5:07 PM

Great ideas. I just might do that and see if I can't get a better handle on some of mine. Thanks.

Alex J. Cavanaugh | September 22, 2010 at 5:40 PM

And here I thought I tortured my main character enough...

Carolyn V. | September 22, 2010 at 6:19 PM

Okay, I need to tortured my mc tons more. =) Hee hee. Awesome post Zoe!

Vicki Rocho | September 22, 2010 at 9:50 PM

LOVE it! Permission to be a sadistic twit. Best not let this carry over into real life, LOL

Michelle McLean | September 24, 2010 at 9:48 AM

LOL be an ass to them...priceless :D

Jen | September 24, 2010 at 10:35 AM

Bahaha! This was hilarious... be an ass, it's okay, they like it. LOL... beautiful twist, very well done!

Elena Solodow | September 24, 2010 at 3:51 PM

I love your voice! Nice post.

RaShelle | September 24, 2010 at 9:06 PM

Hey Zoe, it's true. Putting them in a strange, out-of-their-comfort-zone situation is great!

Carl Manes | September 25, 2010 at 10:56 AM

I'll definitely be using that tip when I try to sit back down with my next script Zoe! My problem is just delivering a unique cadence to each character when they each typically share some part of my own personality, but this sounds like an awesome way to put them in different scenarios that will generate separate identities! Thanks!

Elizabeth Mueller | September 25, 2010 at 5:25 PM

Hi Zoe! Wow! I really enjoyed this post. I use myself in practically every one of my characters. Even the villains! What's really weird, is because they all come from my gray matter, they are an infinite part of me. I can't separate them from who I am and define where it begins, either. I am not villainous in any way, but I can make a mean one!

Come and visit me!

Pam Torres | September 26, 2010 at 7:55 PM

Thanks Zoe! I am looking forward to using idea. I also really love your to-the-point-this-is-how-it-is voice, frankly I find it refreshing! Looking forward to following!

Demon Hunter | October 1, 2010 at 10:31 AM

Great advice, Zoe. I will certainly try this and see what happens. :)

K.M. Weiland | October 2, 2010 at 12:21 PM

As writers, we often identify ourselves with the protagonist, but really our job is to be the antagonist and stymie the MC at every turn. We have such a fun job. :D

Lizard301 | October 4, 2010 at 1:53 PM

Dude, how have I missed all of your posts? You are SO POPULAR!! *no surprise*

... and you're sweating the curriculum. Pfft!

Breaking out of your comfort zone applies to all creative enterprises, not just writing. For instance, I learned recently that I have a mental block regarding sweet and savory. In my head, sweet should be sweet, and savory should be savory. The thought of maple flavored bacon makes me gag, and I would NEVER put fruit in my stuffing when I roast poultry. But I know for a fact that it's been something people have been doing for years and apparently it doesn't suck. But this also keeps me from trying ANY idea that would mix sweet and savory, and we are all a work in progress.

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