Things I Know About Kids: Their Timing is Impeccable

When my daughter was still very small – we’ll say, somewhere in the range of half a year old – she wound up with a case of constipation. As parents of any small children will tell you, this is something to be concerned about. A couple of days is nothing to rush off to the emergency room for, but several days in a row requires attention. After all, people have to poop; not doing so can mean that something is wrong, and can also cause a whole host of other issues.

At first I wasn’t too concerned, and maybe even a little bit relieved, since I’d changed an awful lot of poopy diapers up to that point. After a few days straight I thought I’d best ask our family physician about it. After sitting in the waiting room with a squirming baby for almost an hour, I was told to “just give her some prune juice”. The suggestion did not amuse me, since at this time my daughter refused to put anything other than breast milk in her mouth, but this particular physician (who shall remain unnamed) is the kind whose first suggestion is his final suggestion, so I gave up and left.

Hubby and I tried several things to “get things moving” for the baby. We tried the aforementioned prune juice, although it was nearly impossible to get her to actually swallow any. We tried giving her little tummy massages and pumping her legs up and down (hey, don’t look at me…we read it online). We tried several things that I won’t mention because anyone who hasn’t done those exact things will be more than a little creeped out – just trust me when I say that they were legitimate suggestions from other parents and health care professionals.

Eventually, it had been more than a week. I ended up at my physician’s office again, and recieved the exact same advice: “Just give her some prune juice.” I nearly bit his head off this time, because I was genuinely getting worried, and as I tried to explain, prune juice is useless if the kid refuses to swallow it.

We didn’t know what else to try. The baby seemed happy and healthy enough, so it wasn’t as though it was a medical emergency, but we were definitely concerned.

I can’t quite remember why we decided to go shopping in a town that’s a half-hour drive away. I’m sure we must have had a reason because we rarely bother to go this town unless we’re looking for something specific that we can’t find in our own town. Whatever the reason, on day 8 of my daughter’s refusal to defecate, after having barely left our house for over a week, we found ourselves in a Shoppers Drug Mart that is a 30 minute drive from home.

Kid’s have impeccable timing.

If I’m recalling the event correctly, hubby had been holding the baby and I had wandered into another aisle, when suddenly he came storming toward me with great concern in his eyes. I think we got into the store’s single washroom without anyone noticing what had happened. There was no changing station in that single bathroom. There wasn’t even a counter. The sink was tiny and had no ledge around it. Literally the only place to lay the baby was on the floor. I tore half the roll of paper towel out of the dispenser and made a make-shift “change table” on the floor, and hubby laid the baby down.

And there we were, in a Shoppers Drug Mart bathroom, a 30 minute drive from home, trying our very best not to throw up as we struggled to clean the result of 8 days of constipation from the baby and ourselves. Trust me when I say that whatever you are imagining right now is not horrifying enough to explain the actual event. I used an entire pack of baby wipes. My hubby could barely watch while attempting to hold the baby still as I worked, and he kept gagging off to the side. Twice I actually had to get up and run over to the toilet because I was sure I was going to vomit. What felt like hours later we had the baby all cleaned up and in a new set of clothes (that, thank god, I’d had in the diaper bag). I washed my hands in such scalding hot water that I’m amazed the skin didn’t peel right off them.

I’m pretty sure I remember the baby laughing at me during this part. I’m not sure. My subconscious might be sensationalizing her role as antagonist in this particular piece.

Don't let the cute fool you...this is the face of pure evil.
Don’t let the cute fool you…this is the face of pure evil.

The point is that when it comes to kids, preparation is great, organization can be key, but expectation is a fool’s game. Kids will always surprise you with their ability to pick the absolute best time to do the absolute worst things. In retrospect, yes, my hubby and I should have considered that a blow-out of mass destruction was imminent sooner rather than later, and that this kind of thing would not be best dealt with while out in public, but I guarantee you that if we had taken that trip to Shoppers on day 3 of this little episode, the little bugger would have chosen that moment to explode from the inside out. Kids just have a way of knowing the exact perfect time to strike.

“So what’s the point?” you might ask. “If they’re going to surprise me no matter how much I plan ahead and think that I’m ready for anything, then why even bother telling me this?”

Because it makes for one hell of a story, that’s why. And that’s another thing I know about kids: they’re great for material.

What the New Ninja Turtles can Teach Writers About Good Characters

I’ve brought up the Nickelodeon re-imagining of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a couple of times, not only because my daughter loves them, but also because I’m pretty enamored myself. When we first saw it my husband and I were a little bit wary – this was our childhood Nick was messing around with after all – but we soon found ourselves watching the show just as intently as our daughter was. Later we discussed among ourselves exactly what it was about the show that made it so appealing, and we established that it’s the characters. Specifically, it’s all the things about the characters that were lacking from the original cartoon.

So with that in mind, here are a few key concepts that I think Nick’s version of the Ninja Turtles can teach writers about creating good characters:

Your characters should BE who you SAY they are.

It sounds obvious, but not as obvious as you might think. A lot of people make the mistake of putting a label on their character, but then doing everything possible to make their character act like the exact opposite of that.

This is the first thing that my husband brought up when we were talking about what makes the new Ninja Turtles a great show: “They actually, you know…act like teenagers.” I realized right away that he was right. If you go back to the original cartoon, later iterations, and even the live-action movies, the Turtles consistently act very un-teenager-like. It’s a key descriptor in their very existence – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – but they’ve never acted as such. The closest they ever resembled actual teens was in the original cartoon, but I challenge you to go back and watch an episode right now. You’ll notice that they act less like teenagers and more like surfer frat-bros.

In the new version of the show, the Turtles embody everything we think of when we remember what it was like to be a teenager. They’re goofy and playful, quick to anger, and constantly getting in trouble. They defy their “father” on a regular basis, get crushes on girls, are cocky and overconfident, and have to take a major beating to learn any lesson. They’re also brothers who actually treat each other like brothers, constantly fighting and bickering, tormenting each other and picking on each other, while also taking care of each other and having each others’ back.

So think about this the next time you’re creating a character. If your character is a religious older woman she’s not likely to be hanging out at night clubs all the time. A jock character isn’t going to seem authentic if you never write him playing any sports. And a teenage character should act like a teenager.

Your characters shouldn’t be clones.

Quick, anyone who grew up with the original Ninja Turtles cartoon, what are each of the Turtles known for?

“Leonardo leads; Donatello does machines; Raphael is cool, but rude; Michelangelo is a party dude!”

Everyone who grew up with the show knows these distinctions. Leo is the stalwart leader, Donnie is the techno-genius, Raph is the feisty grouch, and Mikey is the lovable party guy. Right?

Again, I challenge you to go back and watch the old cartoon. We all know that these are the different personality types of the four Turtles, but if you watch the old episodes you’ll notice that aside from when Donnie plays with a computer’s keyboard or Mikey says, “Cowabunga!” all the Turtles act exactly the same. Raph is in no way any more “rude” than his three brothers, and Leo doesn’t lead so much as he lifts his swords in the air and says, “Get ’em!”

Hell, they even look identical except for the color of their headbands.

Take away the letters on their belts and put the pictures in black and white and I defy you to tell them apart.
Take away the letters on their belts and put the pictures in black and white and I defy you to tell them apart.

In Nick’s version, each of the Turtles have very distinct personalities. Leo is the leader, yes, but he’s also a huge geek who loves a Star Trek-like cartoon so much that he has the episodes memorized. Donnie is the techy, who he’s also gawky, and socially awkward. Raph has anger management issues and is extremely sarcastic pretty much all the time. Mikey is dumb as a brick, but in an incredibly cute and innocent way. And there are lots of little details that differentiate them all, like how Raph’s shell is chipped to show that he’s the rough one, and how Mikey is shorter than the rest to give the impression that he’s the innocent, youngest brother. Hell, just look at them…you can practically see their personalities in the way the new creators designed them:

2012-Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-nickelodeon-33749841-800-871
The gap between Donnie’s teeth cracks me up for some reason.

Remember, even if your characters have a few key similarities, you want them to stand out from each other. They should have their own specific likes and dislikes, personality traits and hobbies. When a reader thinks of a particular character from your book, you want them to be able to picture that character apart from the other ones, to immediately know exactly who they’re reading about.

Antagonists should bring drama and tension to the story.

It goes without saying that The Shredder is, and forever will be, the main villain in the Ninja Turtles universe. He’s their arch-rival, the enemy that relentlessly strives for their extermination.

Also, in the original cartoon, he’s a bumbling idiot who can do nothing right.

I’ll admit that the late 80’s/early 90’s era was one during which most cartoons were a little weak in the drama center. They wanted to be light and fun, without exhibiting too much violence or anything that grumpy parents might find distasteful. But even taking that into consideration, The Shredder brought very little in the way of antagonistic tension to the original cartoon. He was such a pathetic fool that even as kids we knew there was no cause for concern because his plans always failed miserable. And he was a laughing stock, for sure. No kid who watched the original cartoon thought that The Shredder was anything other than hysterically inept.

The new Ninja Turtles, while still designed for kids and careful not to be too violent or mature, has fixed this issue with their villains. The Shredder is angry and powerful, and while his cronies may be a little pathetic, he is absolutely not. In the first episode in which the Turtles face Shredder, they get absolutely pulverized…and that’s the end of the episode. They are able to escape certain death by complete chance, and we’re left with the knowledge that our heroes are currently not powerful enough to defeat their enemy.

Even in a kid’s show, tension makes for good storytelling, plain and simple. Your antagonist needs to bring that tension. You want your readers to genuinely wonder if something horrifying is going to happen to your main characters at any given moment. Without that tension, the story serves no purpose and the antagonist is flat and pointless.

All characters should have flaws.

No one is perfect; not protagonists, not antagonists, not anyone. The original Ninja Turtles cartoon (along with most cartoons of that age) really glossed over this concept. The Turtles were always able to save the day easily because they always knew exactly what to do. They never made anything other than the smallest of mistakes, and lessons were learned with minimal effort. While this can be acceptable for small children (since they think their heroes are infallible anyway), it doesn’t fly most of the time. Characters without flaws are impossible to relate to.

The new Turtles have lots of flaws, and it makes them more relatable and likable because you can put yourself in their position. Leo is the leader, yes, but he’s also a teenager with all the angst and frustrations that the age group is famous for, so he makes mistakes and doesn’t always¬†act like a leader. As previously mentioned, Mikey is dumb as a brick, and he’s constantly screwing up and getting himself and his brothers in trouble. Donnie is a tech genius, but sometimes his gear breaks down or blows up in his face. Raph lets his anger get the best of him and it lands him in lots of trouble.

Even the co-characters have their flaws focused upon. Splinter lets his fear for his “sons” cloud his judgement. April does whatever it takes to look for her father even when her ideas are dumb and dangerous. Shredder has a vendetta against Splinter that takes precedence over everything else and causes him to make poor decisions.

Readers want to be able to relate in some way to the character’s their reading about. If a character is clumsy or shy or a terrible drunk or has a gambling problem or an awful body image, it lets us put ourselves in the place of that character because we feel empathy with them. When a character (mostly likely an antagonist) has really awful flaws, like being a psychopath, it makes us root for their downfall that much more. If a character has absolutely no flaws it makes us wonder “where the hell this perfect person came from and why should I give a rat’s ass about them?”

In conclusion…

The characters make the story. Without good characters even the best of plot lines can wither and die. You want your readers to love your characters (whether they’re good guys or bad guys), to care for them, to root for (or against) them. There are a lot of books, movies, TV shows, and video games out there that are sub-par because the creators made characters who are hard, if not impossible, to like. And sometimes we, as writers, have a hard time seeing that our characters are unlikable, because they’re like children to us and our children are always perfect in our eyes. So I beg you to read articles like this one, examine the characters you love from all kinds of different mediums, and ask beta-readers about your characters’ likability. A little bit of extra effort can make a world of difference in creating characters that feel¬†real.

Laugh, Cry, and Scream

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of jumping between stories. Within my own work I’ve been moving between zombie apocalypses and werewolf romances, between epic fantasies and personal journeys. At the same time I’ve been reading books, watching movies and TV shows, and playing video games. All this going back and forth between different stories with different characters has gotten me thinking about what makes a truly memorable character. What is it that makes a particular person in a book, tv show, movie, or game become this amazing character whom you can’t get enough of? What makes a character great?

I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve come up with three answers, three things that make a character great, in my opinion.

Great characters make you laugh.

Humor is almost a given, isn’t it? Laughter is like a drug, one for which the only side effects are happiness and maybe some pleasantly sore muscles. Mentally and physically, our bodies get high on humor, which is why we love comedies so much, why we appreciate friends and loved ones who can make us chuckle, and why we tend to gravitate toward peers who share our appreciation for what is or isn’t funny. Sense of humor is not universal, of course, but almost everyone will find themselves drawn toward a character who can make them laugh, especially if that laughter is of the deep-down, belly-rumbling, gasping-for-air variety.

Characters who give me the giggles:

Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory – He’s just so absurd and stoic in everything he says and does that it’s absolutely hysterical. I genuinely don’t know how the actors of this show make it through their lines sometimes.

Tyrion Lanister from the A Song of Ice and Fire series (G.R.R. Martin) – I’ve rarely read a character so damn witty. His humor is rude and crude one minute, and exceptionally intellegent the next. Every second line out of his mouth makes me go “HA!”

Great characters make you cry.

Sadness is a little less obvious, but whether you might believe it or not sometimes we crave a good sob-fest. Why else would movies like The Notebook be so popular? The thing is, crying is cathartic; even if you didn’t realize you were stressed out or upset, crying gets all the pent-up bad mojo out, and while no one wants to be sad for real-life reasons, being sad for a character allows you to experience that release of emotions. Being able to feel for a character, to be truly empathetic toward them and experience their pain, releases a host of hormones and chemicals that leaves you feeling somehow refreshed and rejuvinated.

Characters who give me the sniffles:

Dean Winchester from Supernatural – It’s one part great writing and one part awesome acting on behalf of Jensen Ackles, and the combination is a character who has made me exceptionally weepy on more than one occasion (but don’t tell my husband…I always turn to my side so he doesn’t see).

Simba from The Lion King – There is one scene in particular that I’m talking about, and if you don’t automatically know which one I’m talking about you can’t possibly have ever seen The Lion King, so GO WATCH THE LION KING RIGHT NOW, YOU FREAK.

Great characters make you scream.

Fear is another thing entirely. Though there are always going to be some people who run in the other direction when faced with fear, quite a lot of us love it. Fear gives a person a unique rush of adrenaline and “fight or flight” hormones that can be obtained in no other way, and how better to experience such a thing than from the comfort of your own home while reading a scary book or watching a horror movie? When a character makes your heart beat faster, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and gives you a nervous twtich because of the incredible tension, that is something real and visceral that you won’t soon forget. If the eventual result is actual nightmares, the character has really done their job.

Characters who give me the wiggins:

The creepy ghost girl from Shutter (original Thai version) – There is one thing I will give to the Asians…they know how to do ghosts, and this chick in particular had me literally watching the movie from between my fingers. Bonus points for totally freaking out my husband and father-in-law.

The Joker from The Dark Knight – He may not be scary in the “I’m going to have nightmares forever!” sense, but Heath Ledger’s maniacal version of The Joker creeped me out more than I can tell. He was truly, entirely mad, and that is a frightening concept.

There are, of course, lots of other factors that go into making a good character. The protagonist should be likable but also have real flaws, the antagonist should be hateful but have relatable qualities as well… You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure, or if you haven’t I’m sure you know most of the rules without even realizing it; that’s how you as the consumer recognize the characters you like. But in my opinion, the three things I’ve mentioned above are what take a character from simply enjoyable, to positively incredible. And if you can somehow incorporate all three of these types of characters into one story…wow. Just wow.

Character (groups) that have made me giggle, sniffle, and wig out:

The cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV) – Fear doesn’t necessarily apply anymore, but I watched this show when I was young and significantly more innocent, so hear me out. Back in the day the monsters creeped me the hell out, the banter between characters (good and bad) constantly had me laughing, and the misery that several of the characters went through made me (on more than one occasion) bawl like a little girl. To me, that is seriously a winning combination, and that is why this show is one of my all-time favorites to this day.

The characters from Invitation to the Game (Monica Hughes) – The characters in this book were witty and amusing, went through a tense, frightening situation that threatened their lives, and experienced a plethora of negative emotions and miseries. I’ve read this book dozens of times and I still experience an emotional rollercoaster whenever I read it.

As a writer I now find myself in the position of trying to incorporate these factors into my characters, which is a much more difficult endevour than simply pointing them out in the books I read and the movies and shows I watch. Humor isn’t my strong point, although I’ve been told by readers of my fanfiction that I’ve made them chuckle a time or two. I strive to incorporate fear into my horror and fantasy pieces, and I hope it comes across, but I haven’t been in the position yet to have anyone tell me one way or the other. Misery seems to be my “thing” (what does that say about me…?), as I love to torture my characters and I’ve had a number of people inform me that I was successful in drawing out those tears. It’s a very difficult thing striking all three, but as other writers will attest, writing is rarely easy and creating excellent characters can often feel like an exercise in futility. Regardless, now that I’ve beaten down exactly what it is that creates characters I’ve come to love, you can be damn sure that I’ll be keeping these three factors in mind whenever I put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

What about you? What characters have made you laugh until your belly hurt? Sob like a baby? Cower under a blanket? Are there other factors that make a character great for you? Please share!

From Another Perspective

Last week I wrote about how kids see things from a different perspective and that we have to remember that when dealing with them. For writers, perspective can be a powerful tool because a story is never truly whole until you’ve seen it from all angles. To illustrate this concept, I’m going to use the example that made me come up with the idea for this post in the first place: coworkers.

My day job is as a commissioning technician in the Alberta oil sands. For those who don’t speak “tradesperson”, that means that a bunch of people built a plant to extract the oil from the sand, and my company makes sure that everything is set up properly before it runs. To this purpose we have two major groups; field technicians and control room technicians. Field technicians deal with the physical equipment in the main area of the plant, while control room technicians are the ones watching the computer screens that the plant will be controlled from, and they deal with the internal programming.

Both field techs and control techs are required to commission any given piece of equipment (okay it to run). They have to work together constantly. But here’s the thing: control room techs are (gasp!) located in the control room, while field techs are out in the “field” (the main area of the plant). Neither can see what the other is seeing or doing, which results in many instances of failure to communicate and/or jumping to conclusions. I started this job as a field tech and was later moved to the control room, so I am in the prime position to give a few examples of the different perspectives and the animosity they can cause.

Say, for example, that you’re a field tech working on a transmitter that measures the flow of liquid through a pipe. Your transmitter has been set up to read a range of 0 to 100 meters per second. So you call up your control tech and ask to test the transmitter, but the control tech asks you to hold on for a moment because there’s a problem…his computer shows a range of 0 to 200 meters per second. So you wait…and you wait…and wait…and wait… You wait so long that you begin to think that your control tech forgot about you, so you try calling him on the radio again. He doesn’t answer. You try again. He still doesn’t answer.

Now you’re starting to get mad. Where the hell did he go? Finding out the proper range for the transmitter can’t possibly take this long. Is he just ignoring you? He must be fooling around up there in the control room with his other control tech buddies. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass that you’re standing out here in the cold, ready, willing, and able to get this job done. Damn him and his cushy, stress-free desk job… What an asshole!

I can’t honestly say that this exact thought process never went through my head. More than once my field tech buddies and I put in complaints to our bosses that were along the lines of, “We can’t get a damn thing done because we spend all day standing around waiting for the control techs to get back to us!” Then I moved up to the control room myself, and I got to see the story from the other perspective.

Say, now, that you’re a control room tech and you’ve just had a call from a field tech. He tells you that he wants to work on a transmitter and that his range is 0 to 100, but oops! The range on your screen is 0-200. So you ask him to hold on and you go out to find out whose numbers are correct. This involves flipping through a several-hundred-page document that, maddeningly, is organized in no logical way known to mankind. It takes you a good 5-10 minutes to finally locate the information on this transmitter and lo and behold, the field tech’s numbers are correct. Okay, so the numbers in the program have to be changed, but you don’t have the authority to make the change yourself, so you grab the necessary paperwork that must be filled out to request that an engineer do it. On your way back to your desk the control room coordinator snags you and shoves some more paperwork at you from another group of field techs. He also gives you a second radio because the second group is on a different channel than the first group. So you get back to your desk with your two piles of paperwork and your two radios, and you’re just about to call your tech to explain what is happening when your boss appears at your desk and asks you to look something up for him. You do so, because he’s your boss, and he immediately launches into a veritable Spanish Inquisition’s worth of questions about something you worked on over a month ago. You can’t recall the exact details so you sweep aside your pile of paperwork and your two radios and you dig through the mess of your desk to find your log book. While flipping through weeks worth of notes with your boss hanging over your shoulder you hear your name being called on the radio a few times, so you grab it quickly and respond that you’ll be right with them. In the stress of the momenet you don’t realize that you’ve accidentally grabbed the second radio and are actually broadcasting to no one.

In short, you’re trying your damnedest to organize a dozen things at once, and yet there’s a field tech out there in the field, fuming about what an asshole you are for making them wait. You see how perspective can dramatically change the story?

This can work in both directions as well, of course. I’ve been in the control room waiting for a field tech to disconnect a wire for the purpose of a test and found myself wondering what was taking so long. I’ve even considered how incompetent a person would have to be to have so much trouble with a single wire. Then, inevitably, I would find out afterward that the wire in question was fifteen feet in the air and the tech couldn’t find a ladder, or that the wrong type of screw had been used on the wire and the tech had to go hunt down a different screwdriver.

The whole world revolves around the different perspectives from which we each see things, and this is important to remember when writing, because it is a constant source of conflict. For instance, there’s the antagonist who truly believes they’re the good guy because they see their cause as idealistic. Or there’s the protagonist who loses all their friends by doing something stupid that they felt at the time was the right thing to do. There’s the age-old story of how men and women can’t understand each other, or how children see the world in a completely different way from adults. The world is swarming with conflict because different people of different genders, ages, races, religions, creeds, classes, backgrounds, educations, and so on all see things from vastly different points of view, and that is fiction gold. Think about it and use it. Some of the best books I’ve read make excellent use of showing how the “good guys” and the “bad guys” really just have a very different perspective on things. After all, rarely does anyone believe that they themselves are the problem.

Perspective. How do you use it in your writing? Where do you see it in daily life? What books have you read that make good use of this idea? Please share!