Saturday, June 28, 2008

Jefferson Scott's Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist

This is going to be a rather unusual review. I'm going to discuss a product I've been using: this is one of those little tools they sucker aspiring writers into buying because they're supposed to make us très awesomer...and I think I just decided Trace Awesomer is my new film noir detective name.

The product in question is Jefferson Scott's Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist, a system intended to help writers develop well-rounded characters. According to the website where it's available for sale,

Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist begins with a character center and then adds layers in a logical fashion, coming at character creation from a variety of angles--everything from how we perceive people in real life to how the character is (or isn't) impacted by the love of God. [more...]

As you can guess from that last bit, Scott is a Christian writer.

The system consists of three parts. The first part is a lengthy chart called the Character Creation Template, which asks a series of pointed questions about the character you are creating. They are good, sometimes challenging questions, and as the website promises, they come at the character from several angles and force the writer to think about the character in ways he may not have before. The chart is divided into several color-coded sections, twelve in all, that range from "Vital Statistics," including such basic info as name, age, and nationality, to such matters as "Interior Journey" and "What this Person Says and How S/He Says It," probably the most difficult section for me, which includes tough questions like, "How well can this person communicate an idea or story? If not understood the first time, how does s/he try to solve the miscommunication? Illustrate." Oh man, that's hard, especially since I don't know what a s/he is. Is that some kind of mutant?

After it's finished asking questions, each section of the chart demands a summary. The final sections demand a final summary, the composition of a definitive scene depicting the character, and a monologue.

Filling out the chart, Scott warns, takes approximately four hours per character, but I believe a thorough treatment actually takes around eight. I have found that filling out these charts is extremely taxing, partly because they challenge me to consider my characters in new ways and therefore demand a lot of imaginative input. In the process of completing the chart, I learn things I didn't previously know: for example, I'm currently designing a ten-year-old martial arts master with hypoglycemia; even though I already knew a good deal about him before, even though I already knew he had a romantic and melancholy nature and a pervading sense of inadequacy, when I began filling in data on the chart, it suddenly struck me that his life has been characterized by a complete absence of male friends or father figures, and suddenly I found myself exploring the implications of that. Had I not used Scott's system, I would have uncovered the importance of his relationships much more haphazardly, if at all.

The second part of the system is a set of pop psychology books the user will need to create the character, and which must be purchased separately. In his sales pitch, Scott only mentions one book, David Keirsey's Please Understand Me II, around which his character-creation system is structured. The book is a detailed description of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, which seem to have some faddish popularity. I'm not qualified to evaluate whether Keirsey's book is worth the paper it's printed on, or whether the Myers-Briggs system has any merit, but I admit that, so far, every time I dream up a personality for a work of fiction, I inevitably find that personality described with some exactness in one of the sixteen types outlined in Keirsey's book, even when I think the character is too larger-than-life to have a Myers-Briggs type.

When it comes to real life, I'm tempted to place personality-typing in the same category of junk science I place physiognomy and horoscopes, but as far as fiction goes, my only serious concern with Keirsey is his repeated insistence that these personality types are intact at birth and unchangeable. I find this unlikely, especially since the questions on his "Personality Sorter" are so vague, I could easily answer them differently on different days. A writer should give serious thought to how his characters change over time through the course of a story; the changes may be profound enough that even his personality type changes. The Myers-Briggs system might actually lend itself well to this, since there are four "core types" around which the sixteen types are built. If a character changes profoundly, such as by becoming more assertive and less reclusive over time, it might be a good idea to move him from one type to another while leaving his core type the same.

Scott doesn't mention it in the description of his product, but he uses two Christian works of pop psychology in his system as well, both of which the writer will need if he is to fully understand all the questions on the chart. The first of these Christian pop psych books is Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages. In filling out information on a character, Scott asks for a "primary" and "secondary love language." The writer would need to be at least remotely familiar with Chapman's work to understand what Scott means. Chapman's book has some flaws, but they appear to be outweighed by his insights, so it's not a bad idea to pick up a copy of this. However, rather than simply filling in the names of two of Chapman's "love languages" and moving on, it would probably be a better idea to give serious thought to how the character expresses and receives affection, and why. Since the major protagonists in the work I'm currently creating are all eleven and under, it feels a little weird to write about their "love languages," but The Five Love Languages often reads as if it were written to people eleven and under, so I figure it's okay. Besides, Chapman does have a chapter on children in the back of his book, which I found helpful.

It is probably best to use Chapman only loosely. Rather than merely marking down a love language for the character and moving on, I think it is worth the time to think in more concrete terms about how each character receives or shows affection. In doing so, I came to realize that a character may not necessarily prefer to receive and show affection in the same way. For example, one of the characters I'm designing, a pistol-packing fourth-grade girl, enjoys playing hostess, entertaining guests, and treating her friends to elaborate meals (in keeping with her ESFP "Artisan Performer" personality type), all of which Chapman would characterize as the "acts of service" love language. However, in considering the character, I realized she wasn't particularly interested in other people serving her, so I concluded that the "love language" with which she expresses herself, and the "love languages" (I'm beginning to hate that phrase) she prefers from others, are different. I distrust Christian pop-psych as a rule, but nonetheless, Chapman got me thinking about my characters in new ways.

Chapman's major deficiency is the same as Keirsey's. In the chapter on children, he appears to work from the assumption that "love language" is something a person is born with. The writer, however, should consider how life experience has shaped a person. For example, if his family was cold or even absent as he was growing up, a character may crave physical affection, or perhaps shy away from it. The writer should not only consider the character's attributes, but how the character developed those attributes. It would be a good idea to jot down some of that information in the "love language" space on Scott's chart.

Also, while I'm on the subject, I wish Chapman would either come to a final decision regarding the gender of my spouse or else stop writing in second person. As he writes, my hypothetical spouse keeps switching between him, her, him/her, and him or her. I feel like I'm married to Ranma.

The final book Scott uses is unfortunate and represents his only major flub. The book is Robert S. McGee's Search For Significance, which looks like an archetypal example of the kind of garbage that has done so much to reduce Evangelicalism from a real religion to a cosmic self-help seminar. Nonetheless, the questions on Scott's chart that draw from the book almost--almost--manage to make it useful. When Scott asks about the character's "wrong thinking" or "self-medication," he is essentially asking about self-reinforcing behaviors, about how the character rewards himself or treats himself when stressed, and about addiction. This is the section in the chart to explore a character's retreat into comfort food or comic books or alcohol, if he retreats into such things. Nonetheless, Scott's questions get off-base because he hews too closely to McGee: he asks, for example, "What is God's answer to that wrong thinking category?" and then presents four options, "justification, reconciliation, propitiation, or regeneration." The Catholic, of course, will scratch his head and wonder if those aren't more-or-less synonyms. Indeed they are, and in McGee's book, they essentially mean the same thing: talking yourself into believing you're fine and dandy no matter what you've done or what your life is like because you've received the alien righteousness of Christ. Though a writer might gain a little inspiration from McGee, using him too much could, I am convinced, harm an artistic work. McGee's solutions to "wrong thinking" mostly amount to flatulent pep talks that could be summarized as, "I'm fabulous, gorgeous, and darn it, Jesus likes me." If your characters' problems are that easy to solve, you're doing something wrong. Nonetheless, after skimming McGee to get an impression of what Scott is getting at in this section of the chart, I find it is quite easy to retool Scott's questions so they are meaningful.

The third part of Scott's system is a simple computer program called CharPick. Its major purpose, according to Scott, is to randomly generate basic information for walk-on or minor characters. So far, I have found little to no use for CharPick. The data generated by the program include such things as a Myers-Briggs personality profile, wealth, cultural heritage, place of origin, and a number of other factors. The program is customizable, but I haven't bothered; I find it more useful to simply open the chart and fill in the CharPick information myself without using the program. I tend to think it would be too much trouble to customize the program to randomly generate information that, more likely than not, I already know about the character anyway. Certain sections, such as "disability," aren't worth customizing. The hypoglycemia "disability" of my aforementioned underage martial-artist, for example, is not built into the program, so I would have to add it myself, but I have no intention of introducing more than one hypoglycemic character to the story, so there would be no point.

The only real drawback to Scott's system is an inevitable one: a chart is stagnant, but a character, or at least a central character, should not be. The chart, when finished, will be a very thorough examination of a character, but it will be a thorough examination of that character at a single point in time, probably when the story begins. If a writer wishes to explore how the character changes over time, it may be necessary to fill out the chart twice or thrice. Considering that it takes eight hours to fill out the chart, that sounds daunting, but at least it should go more quickly the second or third time around, since much of the information won't change.

My only other complaint is a minor one: Scott's Character Creation Template is color-coded, probably so the information can be found quickly and easily. However, I like to print mine after I'm finished. Because a finished chart, thoughtfully and thoroughly completed, will fill over twenty pages, that's a serious drain on an expensive color ink cartridge. I usually switch to black-and-white printing before printing the chart, which of course defeats the purpose of the color-coding.

The writer will, of course, get out of Scott's system what he puts into it. I recommend spending extra thought and time on those questions that seem the hardest to answer or the least interesting; after all, those are probably the aspects of the character you've thought about the least, and which are therefore most in need of development. I am finding the system useful, and it is encouraging me to learn things about my characters I likely wouldn't have learned otherwise. If you're an aspiring writer who wants a systematized way to develop and keep track of characters, Scott's Character Creation is worth considering.

But even though I'm finished, I can't quit until I point out that some sentences in Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages read uncannily like R&B lyrics. For example, Chapman writes, "One of you comes home and asks, on a scale of zero to ten, how is your love tank tonight?" (p. 140). Now just imagine that set to a well-dressed, sweaty beat:

On a scale of one to ten, baby--
How's yo luv tank tonight?
(How's yo luv tank tonight?)
I said how's yo luv tank tonight?
(How's yo luv tank tonight?)
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