Writing Friday: Character Vines

I want to first be clear about something. Absolutely crystal fucking clear.

When I say ‘vines’, I don’t mean whatever weird internet trending popular twitteriffic hocus pocus yahoo-mail-having VOODOO the rest of you mean. I mean a type of plant that grows on things. I mean this because flowcharts look a lot like vines to me. Vines, with little square leaves.

Obviously, my college major did not involve a ton of chartmaking.

I should add here that the most productive thing I have used flowcharts for, possibly ever, was creating a passive aggressive note explaining to my boyfriend when PRECISELY it is okay to grab a clean glass from the cabinet. Obviously, it looked like this:

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A fine use, you must agree. But anyway: after first learning about them in grade school twenty years ago, I’ve come up with a SECOND use for a flowchart. This involves characterization and writing, and may therefore allow more of us to feel like they didn’t spend an entire year of grade school math classes in vain. Here’s my logic:

1) You can’t just decide a character’s characteristics willy-nilly. I mean, people go through development processes, don’t they? One characteristic is linked to the other characteristics. I.e.–if your character is a sociopathic comedian, there’s got to be some explanation of how these two traits–humor, psychosis–are linked. Maybe his mother choked to death on a peanut while telling a knock-knock joke. I don’t know.

2) Traits tend to develop BECAUSE of a trait already in existence. For instance–maybe our sociopathic comedian laughs hysterically whenever the knock-knock joke that killed his mother–which isn’t I imagine, actually all that funny, because knock-knock jokes rarely are–is told. So, to disguise this tick, he’s had to develop a whole identity as a loud-laughing teller and lover of jokes to disguise his deep psychological imbalances. Hence–even though he’s actually colder than the North Pole, he’s a comedian.

3) But it takes more than comedy and psychosis to make a story, kids. What other traits might this character possess?

4) This is where I recommend my character vines method, and do it with a cup of tea in front of me, and a top hat on, because that’s how you do things if you want people to notice you. The idea is to take one nebulous characteristic–in this case, we’ll say the one thing this person obviously is is disturbed–and name two characteristics (one good and one bad, traditionally) that are secondary to that first characteristic. Then, you do the same for those secondary characteristics. You can go on and on and on. You can figure out related characteristics until your beard is long and your private parts have long since withered up and dropped off.

Here’s a small version I did for this example, to show it up for you:

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Thinking like this–or actually drawing it out, if you’re a concrete sort of person–does two things for you. For one, just generally looking at this chart gives you the flavor of the person: lots of unemotional traits here, intellectual traits. It also gives you an idea of what the ‘redeeming’ traits of a character might be–he might be heartless and cold (watching your mum choke on a peanut’ll do that to you) but he would also be a dedicated and focused person of great intelligence, able to come up with innovative solutions to problems. He might not be the sort of guy you want to call for sympathy and a beer when your wife leaves you, but if your starter is done for and you have thirty minutes to get to work in the morning? Mhmm. Also, I imagine a sociopathic comedian has quite a good grip on how our society functions. He might not totally understand it–why, after all, would a sociopath care about a young man getting gunned down by a police officer?–but he’d probably be pretty funny. All the more funny, ironically, because he doesn’t understand.

The other thing it does is give you an idea, if you follow along one ‘branch’ of the chart, of how this character might grow and change in the course of the story. In the first few pages, for instance, your reader will figure out that your character is that big nebulous whitey-white ‘disturbed’. How, however, will that trait wind up manifesting itself and developing? Do you want this to wind up being, after some story development, a monomaniacal person, utterly devoted to finding the peanut farmer who grew the peanut that killed his mother? Or a quick witted and incisive person, who uses his unique point of view and experiences to change the world?

Then: what has to happen to make your reader go from seeing this person as simply ‘disturbed’ to ‘creatively insane’? Therein comes your plot.

A writer, in order to be good, needs to have an orderly mind. Needs, in fact, to be able to write a twenty page essay just as well as a short story–I see a bunch of folks saying they could never write essays or other expository writing, and let me tell you, if a person can’t manage that they can’t manage fiction. Fiction IS expository. Like in your English 101 essays, there are nuggets of information that need to be passed on in your fantasy/mystery/whatever novel, and they need to be passed on in a clear and logical way that your readers will understand. A personality isn’t just a skein of odds-and-ends traits all wrapped up together: it’s a formed thing, a careful thing, that flows from one logical point to another logical point.

We’ll do a whole new post on this soon, because it’s something I haven’t talked about much that very much needs to get talked about.

In the meantime, hope those of you in America had a great Thanksgiving, and those of you who’re elsewhere had a very peaceful and enjoyable November 27th.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Friday: Character Vines

  1. Love it. Like, on a level. It’s something I never considered doing before (I approach my characters with the “go run and play in the sandbox with the other characters” arc), and it’ll go a damn long way in cementing a personality with those I don’t see often (aren’t mainlined in the story), while also creating the arc. Brilliant! Fun! No stagnation!

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