Smorgasbord

Internal Conflict:  Five Conflicting Traits of a Likable Hero.

1.  Flaws and Virtues 

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but characters without flaws are boring.  This does not, as many unfortunate souls take it to mean, imply that good, kind, or benevolent characters are boring:  it just means that without any weaknesses for you to poke at, they tend to be bland-faced wish fulfillment on the part of the author, with a tendency to just sit there without contributing much to the plot.

For any character to be successful, they need to have a proportionate amount of flaws and virtues.

Let’s take a look at Stranger Things, for example, which is practically a smorgasbord of flawed, lovable sweethearts.

We have Joyce Byers, who is strung out and unstable, yet tirelessly works to save her son, even when all conventional logic says he’s dead;  We have Officer Hopper, who is drunken and occasionally callous, yet ultimately is responsible for saving the boy’s life;  We have Jonathan, who is introspective and loving, but occasionally a bit of a creeper, and Nancy, who is outwardly shallow but proves herself to be a strong and determined character.  Even Steve, who would conventionally be the popular jerk who gets his comeuppance, isn’t beyond redemption.

And of course, we have my beloved Eleven, who’s possibly the closest thing Stranger Things has to a “quintessential” heroine.  She’s the show’s most powerful character, as well as one of the most courageous.  However, she is also the show’s largest source of conflict, as it was her powers that released the Demogorgon to begin with.  

Would Eleven be a better character if this had never happened?  Would Stranger Things be a better show?  No, because if this had never happened, Stranger Things wouldn’t even be a show.  Or if it was, it would just be about a bunch of cute kids sitting around and playing Dungeons and Dragons in a relatively peaceful town.

A character’s flaws and mistakes are intended to drive the plotline, and if they didn’t have them, there probably wouldn’t even be a plot.

So don’t be a mouth-breather:  give your good, kind characters some difficult qualities, and give your villains a few sympathetic ones.  Your work will thank you for it.

2.  Charisma and Vulnerability

Supernatural has its flaws, but likable leads are not one of them.  Fans will go to the grave defending their favorite character, consuming and producing more character-driven, fan-created content than most other TV shows’ followings put together.

So how do we inspire this kind of devotion with our own characters?  Well, for starters, let’s take a look at one of Supernatural’s most quintessentially well-liked characters:  Dean Winchester.

From the get-go, we see that Dean has charisma:  he’s confident, cocky, attractive, and skilled at what he does.  But these qualities could just as easily make him annoying and obnoxious if they weren’t counterbalanced with an equal dose of emotional vulnerability. 

As the show progresses, we see that Dean cares deeply about the people around him, particularly his younger brother, to the point of sacrificing himself so that he can live.  He goes through long periods of physical and psychological anguish for his benefit (though by all means, don’t feel obligated to send your main character to Hell for forty years), and the aftermath is depicted in painful detail.

Moreover, in spite of his outward bravado, we learn he doesn’t particularly like himself, doesn’t consider himself worthy of happiness or a fulfilling life, and of course, we have the Single Man Tear™.

So yeah, make your characters beautiful, cocky, sex gods.  Give them swagger.  Just, y’know.  Hurt them in equal measure.  Torture them.  Give them insecurities.  Make them cry.  

Just whatever you do, let them be openly bisexual.  Subtext is so last season.

3.  Goals For the Future and Regrets From the Past

Let’s take a look at Shadow Moon from American Gods.  (For now, I’ll have to be relegate myself to examples from the book, because I haven’t had the chance to watch the amazing looking TV show.) 

Right off the bat, we learn that Shadow has done three years in prison for a crime he may or may not have actually committed.  (We learn later that he actually did commit the crime, but that it was only in response to being wronged by the true perpetrators.)  

He’s still suffering the consequences of his actions when we meet him, and arguably, for the most of the book:  because he’s in prison, his wife has an affair (I still maintain that Laura could have resisted the temptation to be adulterous if she felt like it, but that’s not the issue here) and is killed while mid-coital with his best friend.

Shadow is haunted by this for the rest of the book, to the point at which it bothers him more than the supernatural happenings surrounding him.  

Even before that, the more we learn about Shadow’s past, the more we learn about the challenges he faced:  he was bullied as a child, considered to be “just a big, dumb guy” as an adult, and is still wrongfully pursued for crimes he was only circumstantially involved in.

But these difficulties make the reader empathize with Shadow, and care about what happens to him.  We root for Shadow as he tags along with the mysterious and alternatively peckish and charismatic Wednesday, and as he continuously pursues a means to permanently bring Laura back to life.

He has past traumas, present challenges, and at least one goal that propels him towards the future.  It also helps that he’s three-dimensional, well-written, and as of now, portrayed by an incredibly attractive actor.

Of course (SPOILER ALERT), Shadow never does succeed in fully resurrecting Laura, ultimately allowing her to rest instead, but that doesn’t make the resolution any less satisfying.  

Which leads to my next example…       

4.  Failure and Success 

You remember in Zootopia, when Judy Hopps decides she wants to be cop and her family and town immediately and unanimously endorse her efforts?  Or hey, do you remember Harry Potter’s idyllic childhood with his kindhearted, adoptive family?  Oh!  Or in the X-Files, when Agent Mulder presents overwhelming evidence of extraterrestrial life in the first episode and is immediately given a promotion?  No?

Yeah, me neither.  And there’s a reason for this:  ff your hero gets what they want the entire time, it will be a boring, two-dimensional fantasy that no one will want to read.  

A good story is not about the character getting what they want.  A good story is about the character’s efforts and their journey.  The destination they reach could be something far removed from what they originally thought they wanted, and could be no less (if not more so) satisfying because of it.

Let’s look at Toy Story 3, for example:  throughout the entire movie, Woody’s goal is to get his friends back to their longtime owner, Andy, so that they can accompany him to college.  He fails miserably.  None of his friends believe that Andy was trying to put them in the attic, insisting that his intent was to throw them away.  He is briefly separated from them as he is usurped by a cute little girl and his friends are left at a tyrannical daycare center, but with time and effort, they’re reunited, Woody is proven right, and things seem to be back on track.

Do his efforts pay off?  Yes – just not in the way he expected them to.  At the end of the movie, a college-bound Andy gives the toys away to a new owner who will play with them more than he will, and they say goodbye.  Is the payoff bittersweet?  Undoubtedly.  It made me cry like a little bitch in front of my young siblings.  But it’s also undoubtedly satisfying.      

So let your characters struggle.  Let them fail.  And let them not always get what they want, so long as they get what they need.  

5.  Loving and Being Loved by Others

Take a look back at this list, and all the characters on it:  a gaggle of small town kids and flawed adults, demon-busting underwear models, an ex-con and his dead wife, and a bunch of sentient toys.  What do they have in common?  Aside from the fact that they’re all well-loved heroes of their own stories, not much.

But one common element they all share is they all have people they care about, and in turn, have people who care about them.  

This allows readers and viewers to empathize with them possibly more than any of the other qualities I’ve listed thus far, as none of it means anything without the simple demonstration of human connection.

Let’s take a look at everyone’s favorite caped crusader, for example:  Batman in the cartoons and the comics is an easy to love character, whereas in the most recent movies (excluding the splendid Lego Batman Movie), not so much. 

Why is this?  In all adaptions, he’s the same mentally unstable, traumatized genius in a bat suit.  In all adaptions, he demonstrates all the qualities I listed before this:  he has flaws and virtues, charisma and vulnerability, regrets from the past and goals for the future, and usually proportionate amounts of failure and success.  

What makes the animated and comic book version so much more attractive than his big screen counterpart is the fact that he does one thing right that all live action adaptions is that he has connections and emotional dependencies on other people.  

He’s unabashed in caring for Alfred, Batgirl, and all the Robins, and yes, he extends compassion and sympathy to the villains as well, helping Harley Quinn to ultimately escape a toxic and abusive relationship, consoling Baby Doll, and staying with a child psychic with godlike powers until she died.

Cartoon Batman is not afraid to care about others.  He has a support network of people who care about him, and that’s his greatest strength.  The DC CU’s ever darker, grittier, and more isolated borderline sociopath is failing because he lacks these things.  

 And it’s also one of the reasons that the Lego Batman Movie remains so awesome.


God willing, I will be publishing fresh writing tips every week, so be sure to follow my blog and stay tuned for future advice and observations! 

Yuri Plisetsky and a Lesson on Emotional Range

As someone from the social sciences, I just love, love, LOVE Yuri Plisetsky. He is a precious emotional goldmine. If there is one character I would like to narrate my life, it’ll be Yurio, because you KNOW he’ll come up with out of this world creative ways to tell you how you are the piece of shit who matters and deserves to be happy in life.

Here are the conflicting (but perfectly healthy) and beautiful smorgasbord of emotions I imagine this precious boy has for certain characters of the show.

Yuuri “Katsudon Piggy” Katsuki

Same name, interesting | good step sequence, I want to see him do a perfect skate | WEAKEST PERSON I KNOW FUCK | want to beat him | shit want to beat him in everything | can’t take him losing to others | PROTECT HIM AT ALL COST | gay disgusting Russian-hero-stealing fuck | fuck this guy | sorta fond of him | talk about him to Grandpa all the time

Viktor Nikiforov

Role model | person I admire the most | but I have had it up to HERE that he wins all the time | he even got Katsuki wtf is nothing sacred | isn’t he old enough to die yet JUST FUCKING DIE ALREADY | but thanks for the record-breaking choreography, I guess | will surpass him someday

Otabek Altin

Most okay guy I met | appreciates how great I am, which is pretty cool | can be trusted | will cheer for him, I want him to beat everyone else | still want to beat him in competition, though | and he better want to beat me, too

BONUS: Mila Babicheva

Slut | sister I never had

Lol, who/what did I miss?

Ok but listen

One of the Paladins, probably Hunk, got off earth with his wallet in his pocket.

He doesn’t think a thing of it; earth cash is worthless in space

A few weeks into life flying through the galaxy in a castle ship finds him sitting around feeling really comfortable and realizing he needs a simple task done. Maybe he left the oven on. Maybe he forgot the Thing he was working on in another room and needed it in this room. Maybe he was thirsty and wanted a drink.
Point is, he didn’t wanna get up

So he kinda side eyes Lance
“Hey Lance, do the thing for me.”
“Dude no. Do it yourself.”

A lightbulb pops up in Hunks mind: “I’ll pay you” he says

Lance perks up: “how much we talkin’?”

Consideration: “five dollars”
Negotiation: “make it ten.”
Refutation: “dude I bet I could get Keith to do it for three.”

Keith shrugs. Hunk translates that to “I probably wouldn’t actually, but I want to see where this goes” or possibly “I heard my name and this is probably an appropriate acknowledgement of that, but I haven’t actually been paying attention.”

Surrender: “fine. Five.” Lance goes and does the task, and comes back, “pay up, Hunk.”

Hunk roots through his wallet.
“You got change for a ten?”
“Nope”
“Well… Tens are all I’ve got… So… I guess I’ll give you one and you’ll owe me a five-dollar-favor?”
“Yeah sure. Sounds fair enough.”

Lance leaves the room, satisfied, just in time for hunk to break out laughing. Hard enough that the rest of team Voltron is Concerned (is this an existential crisis? Hmmm. No, not yet). Breathless, hysterical. In subsides after a time.

“You… Realize earth money is worthless in space, right?” Keith asks

Hunk starts laughing again, but nods. He just gave Lance a worthless piece of paper with a number on it in return for two favors. And it’s Priceless
(If we’re being honest, the favors were actually worth like, maybe two dollars each, but who cares? A favor is a favor, and earth cash is utterly useless anywhere but planet earth, what else is he gonna spend it on?)
.
.
.
But wait this definitely continues. Lance keeps doing tasks for worthless money.
Eventually Lance tries bribing Hunk back. And y'know what? Hunk was running low on cash, and it’d be good to have some in reserve, just in case he’s feeling especially lazy and wants to bribe Lance. So Hunk accepts. He gets ten dollars back (he managed to wrangle it so that it was ten dollars for a six-dollar-task especially well-done, so the ten is all his)

And it’s funny, it’s kinda fun, and it works. Lance does tasks for money, hunk does tasks for money to give to Lance to do tasks (you probably see where this is going)

Suddenly one day, the other Paladins realize how well it’s working and yknow what? They. Want. In.

Hunk started it all out with oh, about thirty dollars; a ten, a twenty, and about 63 cents. Lance had four ones. Pidge brings in two tens, three fives, and seven quarters. Keith adds about 5 dollars in loose change that he won’t admit to why he has.
Shiro didn’t have anything to add bc he spent the last year as a space prisoner, and Allura and Coran aren’t from earth and don’t use the same currency

It starts tame. Lance was bartering for a task to be worth a full ten. Keith pops up and says he’ll do it for five. Lance says fuck that, he’ll do it for four. Keith says $2.50, Lance says $2, Keith deliberates for a minute but says $1.25, Lance gets on his knees and begs to do it for $1. Keith surrenders the bid. Lance fistpumps and almost shouts about winning (who am I kidding. He definitely shouted) he sprints out of the room to do the task.
Keith high-fives Hunk. Hunk returns it, with a sense of foreboding
(Keith doesn’t really participate, except to bait Lance into doing a task cheap)

Shiro did not have any money to start. He rectifies this by quickly earning Hunks twenty and one of Pidge’s tens. Keith bribes him with three pounds of loose change for something else, something secret. He accepts the bribe. He now has $35. He spends it wisely. Responsibly. And definitely does not use the twenty to convince Lance to shut up for one 24 hour period. (He actually doesn’t! They decide that one dollar for one hour of silence is a perfectly acceptable wage. He buys 20 hours of silence. The other 4 are wasted to sleep. It’s kind of hilarious watching Lance try to charade his way through the day. After that, that’s usually what the twenty gets spent on)

Pidge does a fairly similar thing to Hunk, but quickly becomes known for being a ruthless haggler. She will get what she wants out of this five dollar bill or else. The Paladins fear her. But they obey.

Allura and Coran don’t really get it. But them not getting it has very different results. Allura simply does not participate
Coran… Thinks that Earth Money looks cool, and starts collecting it.
“Hey Coran, I’ll give you a ten if you do this task”
“Hmmm no, I already have one of those… Ooh! Do you have one of the small brown circular ones? I don’t have any of those yet!”
One day he gets ahold of the ever coveted twenty
That day is… Eventful.

All five Paladins crowd around Coran, offering to do anything for that twenty dollar bill. Literally anything.

Hunk breaks first, surprisingly.
This all started with a worthless ten dollar bill and a subtle prank on Lance. After all, earth money is worthless in space.

And now…

In some ass-backward way, his spending-money-because-what-the-hell-it’s-already-worthless has… Made a booming economy, right here in the castle.
A booming economy of about $75.38
Objectively, that total number is not enough to buy a robot. But here Pidge is, offering to build Coran a robot, not even for the seventy-five, but for one single twenty
The money was worthless, but now it is not because he started using it because it was worthless. Causality is confusing and terrifying. Hunk considers having that existential crisis. The money was worthless and now it is not, because he assigned it worth
He wanders off and flops down beside Allura. Her shoulders are shaking slightly. She is laughing.

He turns to the Paladins.
Keith is egging Lance on again, so far Lance has offered to not speak again for a week, no two weeks now. It seems Keith is aiming for one full month of silence.
Pidge is upping the numbers of promised bells and whistles for the bot. So far Hunk is starting to wonder, if Pidge even builds it, if it will replace Coran outright.
Shiro seems to have accepted that he will not win the twenty, so now he is managing the others offers: “no Pidge, the bot may not automatically fire death lasers, we don’t want any accidents. Make it manual control.” “Lance, three weeks of not saying anything at all is a bit excessive. Be reasonable, three weeks no speaking except from a word bank the rest of us choose of no more than 100 words (and except on missions)”
Meanwhile Coran doesn’t really care for a cool robot so much nor for Lance’s silence. He does rather like this “twenty dollar bill” though, because it completes his collection

Keith gets Lance to agree to one full month of silence, except for no more than 100 words from a word bank the others will decide on for $20.
Keith whips out a twenty dollar bill that he’d had in his back pocket all this time and slaps it into Lance’s hand.

Everyone loses their shit.

(Lance’s word bank includes a few useful words like “me,” “you,” everyone in the castle’s names, “space,” “fuck,” “please,” and “thanks” as well as a few out-there but useful ones, like “apologies,” “affirmative,” “negation,” “assemble,” “post,” “prior,” “cerulean,” “vermillion,” “chartreuse” “midnight,” “golden,” “rainbow,” (bc you know, lion colors) and the like. The rest were fairly nonsense, and a few of which were memes; “smorgasbord,” “brouhaha,” “Simba,” (actually, most names from the lion king) “Pepe,” “loss,” “Beyoncé,” and so on.
One memorable day (more like meme-orable day tbh) they got the quote “post smorgasbord, me, you [gesturing at all other paladins], assemble rainbow Simba. Fuck Space Voldemort’s vulnerability”
Translated roughly; “hey guys, after breakfast lets form Voltron and hit Zarkon where it hurts!”

They never do completely stop calling Voltron Rainbow Simba. Like you think it dies down, then suddenly it’s back, like it never left.
Also “yeah man! Fuck space Voldemort’s vulnerability!”)

It’s one of Keith’s favorite things he’s ever done

I call this Smorgasbord Toast. Smorgasbord Toast is what happens when you run out of your usual groceries so you just pile everything you have left that could feasibly taste good together onto a piece of toast and call it breakfast. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s atrocious. You’ve really got a 50/50 chance with Smorgasbord Toast.