Braak’s Guide to Humanizing Your Characters

Posted: April 19, 2012 in books, Braak, Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

So, now you are a writer, great! You have probably made a lot of characters in your writing, and gone to classes, and done workshops, and read a bunch of books, you probably know about ten times more on this subject than I do. And yet here you are, reading what I, BRAAK!, have to say about writing, as though I know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Well, since you’re here, let’s talk about how to humanize a character, and let’s be real about it, you know? Just. Real.

The important thing about characters is that when you read them (or see them on TV), that you don’t mistake them for robots. (Unless the character is of a robot.) That is what it means to be human: not a robot. Unless, I guess…I mean, I guess you could make a character that was technically a robot, but by virtue of their behaviors, they actually seemed kind of human, you know?

Well, whatever. Not only am I not a good person to ask about writing or story or things like that, but I’m also not super-great at understanding human beings or their myriad stupid feelings. You all just look like weird robots to me.

Anyway, here we go. Five ways to make sure your reader realizes that your character is not a robot.

5. Make Them Sad About Something.

Shit, people love it when characters are sad about things, because that is one thing that robots definitely are NOT good at. Being sad, or miserable, or brooding. It’s best if a horrible tragedy afflicted the character at one point, and now that character thinks about it at moments of heightened emotional tension.

I think this is the dumbest way of making a character seem human, because I think things like loss and personal tragedy shouldn’t be tossed around unless they’re actually going to be a part of the narrative. But don’t worry, there’s more!

4. Give Them Some Friends.

I mean, real friends, not sidekicks. You know who doesn’t understand friendship? Robots. But regular human beings have friends, and they talk to them about things that don’t have anything to do with the plot. (I mean, the plot of their lives. Which regular people don’t typically have, but if they did have plots in their lives, they’d still do things that WEREN’T part of the plot of their lives, and one of those things is talking to their friends.)

Listen, I know that you don’t want to waste time in your spaceman movie having scenes in which Admiral Laserblast does something not directly related to blowing up the Cholorian Hordes, but maybe just take a second out of the tension to let him be buddies with somebody. They can have a drink or a hamburger or something. You can actually learn a lot about a person from the way they eat a hamburger with their friends.

3. Give Them Hobbies.

This is kind of like the aforementioned, but have you ever noticed how your friends like to do things? Generally, it’s something dumb that you don’t care about, which is why not only do you not talk to them about it, but you get kind of impatient when THEY want to talk about it, because you very reasonably believe that everyone’s time would be better spent talking about the things that YOU find interesting.

It’s still there, though, and that’s kind of a thing. You know how a famous jazz aphorism is that music is the space between the notes? Well, maybe character is the space between the action. Or, anyway, character is defined by what you do when you’re not leaping into the air and dragon-spin-kicking Eric Roberts. Maybe you like to cook, or play the drums, I don’t know. As I intimated earlier, I don’t really care about your hobbies.


Let’s get this out of the way. The Tragic Flaw, or the Fatal Flaw, is a dumb idea. It’s a holdover from a very specific interpretation of tragedy that is literally 2500 years old, and has everything to do with a very particular cultural tradition that produced plays that no one even WRITES anymore. I mean, honestly, the closest thing to Greek ritual tragedy that anyone’s produced in the last decade was actually Cabin in the Woods (see, in this case, it’s the willingness to transgress that’s the fatal flaw, though I think this kind of gets muddied in the deconstruction of the horror trope, which is an essay for another day).

BUT. One thing that human beings do, with your inferior, fallible human intellects, is fail to succeed at things. People (unlike robots) just fuck shit up all the time. This is a pretty good way to let the audience know that the character is human: when the character messes up at something.

I know, it’s weird, because heroes and shit, right? But if you think about Indiana Jones, who was a pretty great hero, that dude was wrong about shit I would estimate half of the time. Wrong counterweight for his golden idol, wrong about Alfred Molina (that was Alfred Molina in Raiders of the Lost Ark!), wrong about if he could beat up that Nazi. Raiders is like two hours of a dude just not succeeding at shit.

1. Tell a Joke.

This seems obvious, but you know? It doesn’t happen that much. Robots can’t tell jokes, just human beings tell jokes, so that’s a good way to tell the difference between a human and a robot.

And I don’t mean a quip. Like a pun that an action hero says after he kicks a guy off a cliff. “So long, Cliff!” He might say. Quips, those are jokes that a character tells to the audience. That’s bullshit. That doesn’t make us think that characters are human beings, that makes us think the author of the movie or the book wants us to think that they’re cool (update: you’re a writer, no one will ever think you’re cool).

The thing about jokes is this: human beings use humor all the time, for everything. We use humor to relieve tension in stressful situation, we use it to bond with people around us, we use it because we’re bored and we want to think of something to do. I would actually say that, among human beings (as opposed to robots like me), humor composes at least half of the way that we interact with people that we know.

Is that right? Think about that for a second. How much of your life do you spend explaining the plot to your friends? How much time do you spend just trying to amuse each other?

I’ll bet if you broke it down, you’d find that most of what you think of as being flat, boring characters is just an unrelenting humorlessness.

  1. Christian says:

    I think Garth Ennis is a good example of a writer who uses a lot of these: friends (who drink together), hobbies (drinking) and telling jokes (about drinking, while drinking) and screwing up (often because of excessive drinking); he was really good at adding depth to characters (Except The Punisher, but he’s obviously supposed to be one-note), which of course raised the pathos when they died horribly.

    That still won’t compel me to read another issue of “The Boys”, though.

  2. Moff says:

    What about including lots of long, drawn-out scenes where your characters masturbate? (Either by themselves or with some friends.)

  3. braak says:

    I am pretty sure that falls under the “hobbies” category. Unless they don’t successfully orgasm, in which case it is a Tragic Flaw.

  4. Jason Gormally says:

    If that makes for a tragic flaw, then I’m tragedy personified.

    (I was looking to write the name of a really tragic classical figure, but all I could think of was Oedipus and there’s no way in hell I was going to put that.

  5. jmascisforpresident says:

    On “the tragic flaw,” the idea isn’t as old as people think- it’s often attributed to Aristotle’s Poetics, particularly his discussion of Greek Tragedy. However, a close reading of the Greek – I believe the word is hamartia – is somewhat broader in it’s meaning than mass modern interpretation suggests (literally, “to miss the mark,” I believe, and interestingly the same word used by early Christians to mean what we now refer to as sin), and has connotations of ignorance and failure. Aristotle’s actual meaning has a more direct connection to plays like Oedipus Rex – it’s not that Oedipus has a “tragic flaw” he just doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s a decent, if slightly surly guy. The true origin of the modern understanding of “the tragic flaw” is a mistranslation of Aristotle from around the Middle Ages. This particular mistranslation since wormed it’s way into academic elite circles where it got stuck, frustrating many a modern classicist, forced to deal with an outmoded hold over from an other age, that was never accurate in the first place.

  6. braak says:

    That is true, Tragic Flaw in the Aristotelian sense really just means “tragic error” — Oedipus’ mistake was not listening to Tiresias when Tiresias told him to leave this shit alone.

    (Though, in fact, my Greek theatre teacher always suggested that a more appropriate term is “Moral Bad Luck”; Oedipus is in a position where no right action is good. He either lets everyone in Thebes keep suffering from the plague, or else he punishes himself for his transgressions.)

    But however much literary analysis has taken a misguided approach to dealing with Greek tragedy, no one finds and latches onto dumb rules faster than modern American screenwriters.

  7. jmascisforpresident says:

    “no one finds and latches onto dumb rules faster than modern American screenwriters.”

    Truth. I think your Joseph Campbell/”Hero’s Journey” comment in another recent post was right on the mark with regards to this, too.

    Yer site is awesome, btw!

  8. Jesse says:

    My understanding of the tragic flaw is that it’s something innate in the character that makes him uniquely suited to fail at the specific thing he’s trying to succeed at, right? People usually mistake it to mean the hero has A flaw but it’s really THE flaw, the one flaw that will make him screw this one thing up OMG how tragic. It’s a really specific type of story — if every story had one of those we’d be insanely exhausted of it.

    But flaws in general (as opposed to The Flaw) can also be boring and forced (as you mentioned in another post). However, for purposes of this post, having flaws can certainly differentiate a human from a robot if that’s your aim. The only robots with flaws are freaks like Maximillian.

  9. braak says:

    Well, it’s kind of complicated by a number of factors. The first is that we have to remember that Greek tragedy was ritual theater in a way that we literally just don’t do anymore, and haven’t done for a thousand years. Most of the kind of literary analysis we use on the Greek plays — in terms of character and theme and motivation — doesn’t even necessarily apply.

    And it’s further complicated by the fact that we’ve only got a tiny fraction of the tragedies that were written, and basically the only analysis we’ve got is Aristotle`s stuff on tragedy, and you know, that guy did not have the benefit of thousands of years of literary analysis to back up his findings. We think of Oedipus Tyrannos as the ideal tragedy, and we’ve been using it as a model for ritual tragedy since forever, and why? Because Aristotle said it was the model (it also won the Greek Tony Award, but that was just one year, and we’ve got no idea how the rest of Athens would have stacked it up against, say, The Libation Bearers, which is my favorite).

    But just taking Oedipus, the thing about ritual tragedy is this: Oedipus has to be a ritual sacrifice to redeem the transgressions of his people (“tragedy” comes from the word “tragos” meaning “goat” — Tragedy is the “goat-dance,” the ritual goat sacrifice turned into theater). For that to happen, two things have to be true: 1) the sacrifice has to be a good (worthy) person. 2) The sacrifice has to, in some way, willingly transgress the laws of nature.

    “Hamartia” as tragic error is probably more accurate, because Oedipus can’t suffer a weakness of character and still be a worthy sacrifice; he has to have been a good person who made a terrible mistake (though, we have to probably accept that getting into a fight with someone that you met by the side of the road and then killing them was not a thing that the Greeks thought was all that bad). His choice has to be unwitting, because if he voluntarily murders his father then he’s an unworthy sacrifice, but if his father just died or something (or Oedipus killed his mother in childbirth), then he wouldn’t have transgressed.

    I think The Libation Bearers really makes this problem a little stronger: Orestes willingly transgresses against natural law by killing his mother, but he does it in service to another natural law so he’s not morally compromised.

  10. braak says:

    The Tragic Flaw as a flaw comes from a literary interpretation that wasn’t required to maintain the ultimate worthiness of the sacrifice, because it was applied to regular tragedy instead of ritual tragedy — the mythic sense of someone-is-dying-for-our-sins can be left by the wayside, and we’re seeing Aristotle’s notions of perpiteia and anagnorisis: as an audience, we enjoy the cathartic experience seeing the reversal of fortune of a relatively good man, but he doesn’t need to be completely good, because now we can accept a certain amount of moral complexity.

    And, in fact, the notion of the Tragic Flaw doesn’t really work when we apply it to the great figures of tragedy, either. What’s Hamlet’s Tragic Flaw? Most people say “indecision”, which I think just betrays a really shallow reading of Hamlet as a tragedy. What’s Macbeth’s tragic flaw? Ambition? Bloody-mindedness?

    But really, the tragedy of Macbeth is that he is a human character who doesn’t understand that he lives in a world of cosmic law — Macbeth can’t be a good king, because he’s not the true king, and the tragedy of his story is him unwittingly butting his head against the form that confines him.

    Likewise, the tragedy of Hamlet is that he’s a human character trapped in a revenge play — there’s not anything wrong with Hamlet. Even from an Elizabethan perspective, it’s not like the Elizabethans didn’t have a notion that murdering people out of revenge wasn’t really a great thing to do (one of the reasons, I suspect, that Shakespeare set the play two hundred years earlier, and in Denmark which in Elizabethan England might as well have been on the moon). Hamlet doesn’t want to participate in the cycle of revenge that he’s trapped in, and that is in every way laudable.

    But he is trapped, and that’s what makes it tragedy — he’s a good man destroyed by the necessary laws of the universe.

    I think tragedy actually enjoys a pretty direct evolution from Aeschylus (who argued that civilization had overcome the barbarous natural universal law and supplanted it with a better one) to Euripedes (whose Bakkhai pretty clearly presents a natural/cosmic world that topples civilization for no reason other than that it’s civilization), to the Shakespearean tragedies and into 20th century Absurdism, which differentiates itself from historic tragedy only by adding that there is no central purpose or value to that sacrifice — that when man transgresses, he’ll be destroyed, because the laws of the universe are shit.

    It then comes back around, I think, to modern-day horror, which actually returns a highly-moral sense to the nihilism of the early 20th century.

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