How to Be a Gutsy Writer: Stay True to Your Characters
Part 13 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
Sometimes the greatest act of courage any person can perform is simply that of being honest. This is arguably more valid for writers than for just about anyone—and it is nowhere more valid than in being willing to stay true to your characters.
Here’s the thing about characters. They’re humans, right? Which means (spoiler!) they’re a composite of traits: neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, likable or unlikable. They’re a little bit of everything.
As writers, this realization can sometimes put us on shaky ground. We want to write characters who are both real and likable. But in allowing our characters to be real, sometimes this means letting them make choices and performs deeds that really aren’t all that likable.
That can be scary. What if, in being honest about your characters, you end up creating someone readers won’t like? Or, worse, what if the character ends up reflecting upon you in a way readers might not like so much?
Well, here’s the good news: as real as these fears may be, they’re largely unfounded. Readers like “true” characters far more than they do likable characters—and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War shows us why.
Why Captain America: Civil War Is the Marvel Movie We’ve All Been Waiting For
Marvel has bent expectations right from the start with their interwoven cinematic universe of heroes who bounce in and out of each other’s movies. In the third, and probably final, Captain America movie, Marvel pushed this concept to the max (yes, even maxier than with Avengers). Civil War brings together almost the entire team so far (with the notable exception of Thor and Bruce Banner) into a storyline that does what the series as a whole arguably does best: interpersonal conflict.
From the moment the Civil War storyline was announced, I was stoked. It’s such a ripe opportunity for exploring characters, convictions, and painful relationships—all of which the Marvel series has in spades. Although it’s certainly not a perfect movie, the Russo brothers directorial team once again proved themselves capable of streamlining a vast amount of characters and subplots into a story that was ultimately always going to be about the face-off between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.
I’m a Team Cap girl all the way, but I came out the theater (three times) finding myself chewing over the presentation of Tony more than any other character. When I then went back to re-watch Iron Man (which kickstarted the whole idea for this blog series), the overarching story came full circle in a way that made me feel Civil War is a culmination of the entire journey so far, the movie we’ve been waiting for ever since Marvel blasted onto the scene to the riffs of Black Sabbath.
Almost entirely, this is due to the fact Marvel was willing to be achingly honest about its beloved but incredibly flawed characters.
There really isn’t much I don’t like about this movie, save that it inevitably wobbles under its huge burden of plot and subplots toward the end and feels a little anticlimactic in a few places. It isn’t perfect, but what works for me works so well I really don’t care.
It’s hard for me to come up with a good highlight reel this week, just because, you know… everything. But here are few shout outs:
- Best. Motorcycle. Stunt. Ever.
- Beautifully pertinent and burningly intense subplot via the Black Panther.
- Spidey. Spidey. And Spidey. (As soon as “QUEENS” blared onto the screen, I hurt my face grinning.)
- And at last: sensible shoes for Black Widow.
4 Ways to Stay True to Your Characters
In trying to walk that sometimes delicate line between likable and realistic heroes, you might find yourself writing your way around honesty without even realizing it. Sometimes it’s hard being hard on our characters—because it also means being hard on ourselves.
We often want our characters to conquer, to be happy, to be worthy. They’re vicarious extensions of ourselves after all. But the irony is that when we whitewash our characters, we inevitably end up with weaker stories.
Here are four questions to ask yourself in order to double check that you’re staying true to your characters, your story, and, ultimately, yourself.
1. Who Are Your Characters?
Sometimes you will deliberately set out to write a certain kind of character. Other times, you’ll discover the character while you write him. Either way, it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees and miss out the “big picture” character you’re creating.
Sure, he’s funny, does the right thing, and generally fills out his hero shoes. But is that all he is? Western author and Wordplayer Brad Dennison describes the protagonist of his McCabe series as:
Johnny McCabe, the main character, is a gunfighter who has a moderate case PTSD from being shot at too many times. He doesn’t oil the door hinges in his house, because he wants them to squeak when they open. At night, if he hears a door hinge squeak, he knows the door is being opened. If he hears that, or even the house creaking, he’s instantly awake. He keeps a gun within reach at all times.
This isn’t heroism; it isn’t intended as heroism. It’s a traumatized man dealing with a hard past. And Brad is honest enough about his character to look past the surface trappings of the genre to recognize that and write it forthrightly.
HOW TO DISCOVER THE CHARACTER YOU’RE REALLY WRITING
- Step back and really examine your character. You may already know everything there is to know about him. But it’s also possible you’ll realize a few things you haven’t noticed before.
- Look at his obvious flaws. What is their root cause?
- Look at his obvious virtues. What is really motivating him? Ideally, your character should never be engaging with your main conflict (or, for my money, any conflict) for purely selfless reasons. So what’s his selfishreason for the good stuff he does? Now, you’re discovering who this character really is.
- Once you’ve exhausted your own awareness of your story, call in backup. Ask some of your readers: What is their take on your character? Chances are excellent you’ll learn some things about your own character you never considered before.
HOW CIVIL WAR WAS HONEST ABOUT WHO ITS CHARACTERS REALLY ARE
Any conflict of moral values gives you a tremendous opportunity to drill deep into the heart of the characters. The stakes go up even more when these characters are both “good guys” and the author bears zero responsibility for villainizing either one of them.
In Cap and Tony, we have arguably the two most popular characters in the entire series. Most viewers love both characters and, deep down, want to cheer for both characters. But both characters can’t both be right. They can’t both win.
Cap is a stubborn anti-authoritarian (which is an awesome bit of irony coming from an ultra-conservative, ultra-traditional character), who has a dubious personal agenda in rescuing his long-ago best friend Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier.
Tony is and has always been the most flawed character in the entire series, and the filmmakers never once shy away from this. Tony’s the “bad guy” here. Tony makes wrong decision after wrong decision for deeply personal reasons that feel like an almost inevitable outcome of his past hang-ups and mistakes. Not exactly heroic for a guy who has always been one of our heroes.
But how much better is the movie and the character development for being willing to shine a light on its characters’ dirty secrets?
2. How Have Your Characters Changed By the End of the Story?
Want to utilize one of the best ways for discovering who your character reallyis? Look at how she has changed—or not changed—by the end of the story. Even if your character starts out as a less-than-great person, she might prove who she really is by ending as an objectively good person who chose to do the hard right thing. Or, vice versa, she might have chosen to reject the right thing in order to cling to her own selfish or broken preferences.
The story never lies. Even when you might not entirely realize what kind of character you’re writing, the story will tell you. You can put all the pretty glitter you want on a character, but if her change proves to be negative in the story’s end, that‘s who she really is. And vice versa (which is one reason we love anti-heroes so much).
HOW TO FIGURE OUT HOW YOUR CHARACTER HAS CHANGED
- What negative personality traits has she overcome?
- What positive personality traits has she embraced?
- What positive personality traits has she rejected?
- What negative personality traits has she embraced?
- How has she changed physically (new clothes, straighter posture, etc.)?
- What has she sacrificed along the way to gain her goals (either selflessly or selfishly)?
The character these answers reveal is the true character. This is the character you’ve been writing all book long, even if she spends most of the book acting in opposition to her ending status.
HOW CIVIL WAR WAS HONEST ABOUT HOW ITS CHARACTERS CHANGED
This is Cap’s movie. There was never any doubt he was going to be the “good guy” and “win” the conflict, while Tony would be the “bad guy” and “lose.” This premise worked largely because of how it had been set up by the previous films.
Had the storyline turned Cap into someone seeking emotional revenge, the story would have been neither honest nor compelling. That’s not true to the character. Putting his friendship with a solitary wrong person above everybody else’s moral and logical arguments, that is true to his character.
The heartrending final fight in this film works largely because Tony’s actions are also utterly true to the man presented throughout his five previous films: emotionally distraught, ridden with daddy issues and regret, full of self-loathing, and obsessed with self-redemption.
The beauty of it is that Tony’s “flaws” are so utterly relatable and compelling, audiences are not distanced from him even as he makes wrong choices and tries to kill other characters we love.
3. What Are the Logical Consequences of Your Characters’ Choices?
Often, writers will set up situations for their characters to work through just because these situations are interesting or fun for the moment. But honest writing demands we always create consequences for these situations.
If your teenage character goes for a joyride in a cop car just because you like the scene that results, that’s not good enough. The cops better show up at his parents’ door the next morning, wondering why their vehicle is double-parked outside the driveway.
The single most honest thing any writer can do is force his character to face legitimate consequences for his actions.
HOW TO WRITE LOGICAL CONSEQUENCES FOR YOUR CHARACTERS
- Take a good hard look at the choices your character makes.The more important those choices, the more scrutiny they deserve.
- Ask yourself, in a realistic world, what negative consequences would logically result from these choices?
- Then take it one step further. How can you make these consequences even more dire? The bigger the scene (e.g., is it a plot point?), the heavier the consequences should be.
- Now, punish your character with these consequences. Take it as far as you can without delving into melodrama. It’ll hurt, but your story will improve in every way imaginable.
HOW CIVIL WAR WAS HONEST ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES OF ITS CHARACTERS’ CHOICES
Including Tony in Civil War was a brilliant idea on so many levels, not least because it closes his arc in such a sad but honest way. As a hero within his own movies, he seemed fated by genre convention to end heroically. But because Civil War lifted him out of the context of his “own” story, it allowed for a much more honest appraisal.
As you may remember, my take on the “cornerstone” themes in the individual Marvel trilogies is that the Captain America movies are about friendships and loyalty, the Thor movies are about family, and the Iron Man movies are about self: selfishness, self-destruction, self-improvement, and the search for personal redemption.
Tony is a desperately flawed person, who has been seeking redemption in all the wrong ways. He has spent the entirety of the series trying to escape his own self-loathing and atone for his mistakes. Everything he’s done is a flamboyant gesture in an attempt to assuage his own guilt—from becoming Iron Man in the first place as a way to atone for his war profiteering, to creating Ultron in an attempt to protect the world from the threats he feels partially responsible for launching, to pushing the Accords in atonement for the deaths in Sokovia.
But no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t escape himself. That all comes home in a desperately raw and honest way in Civil War when his character finally spirals out of any semblance of heroism, forcing both Tony and the audience to face the truth about him.
4. Which of Your Character’s Actions or Attitudes Scare You?
How do you know which of your story ideas is truly honest?
As my critique partner Linda Yezak wrote recently in a series of posts:
What are we afraid to write because it’s too intense and personal? Write that. Write it because it’s most relatable, because it’ll help you overcome the baggage, because your readers will realize they’re not alone. Because, if you don’t write about it… your story is shallow.
Sometimes our characters end up going to some pretty dark places—and we don’t like it. We try to steer them back to the light, back to that fun, light, happy little scene we really want to write. But that’s not honest. It’s not going to do either your character or your story justice. And readers are instinctively going to understand you’re avoiding the story’s juiciest possibilities.
HOW TO WRITE CHARACTERS THAT SCARE YOU
Ultimately, whatever scares you about your character is something that scares you about you. Writing is sometimes self-introspective torture. (Gotta suffer for your art, remember?)
- What scares you most?
- What makes you uncomfortable?
- What don’t you want others to know about you?
- How are these things reflected in your characters?
- How are you avoiding writing these aspects of your characters?
- What scenes can you create to allow you to fully explore these aspects?
HOW CIVIL WAR PRESENTED SCARY CHARACTERS
As far as jerks go, Tony is a deeply likable character. He’s funny, smart, unexpected, loyal, and ultimately, in his own individualistic way, upright. But if he was just a good guy with a smart mouth who pretended to be a jerk, that wouldn’t be an honest character.
In truth, a likable jerk can be one of the hardest of all characters to write. We write them because we love their baditude, but that doesn’t mean we always like the grimy parts that create that persona.
For example, we may find Tony endlessly entertaining, but the fact remains he’s often immoral, out-of-control, and dangerous. How easy would it have been for squeamish writers or filmmakers to gloss over these less appealing aspects of his personality?
And yet if they had, we would never have gotten the intense and often cathartic honesty of Civil War, in which all Tony’s bad seeds finally bear catastrophic fruit, which he and everyone he cares about must deal with. It’s not the end we want for one of our heroes. But it’s the end we need because it’s the only end that’s true.
Honest characters are hard to find these days, as Hollywood churns out cookie-cutter adventure flick after cookie-cutter romance flick. One of the main reasons Marvel stands head and shoulders above just about every other franchise out there right now is that it set up difficult but compelling characters from day one—and stayed true to them every step of the way. This is nowhere truer than in Civil War.
While this isn’t my favorite of the Marvel movies, I do feel, in so many ways, it is the series’ crowning achievement. Even if the entire series made the unlikely move of careening downhill from this point forward, Civil War at least brought everything full circle in a brave and satisfying way.