On Writing #9: On Cipher Characters, Why They Can Be Flat, and How to Fix Them

Yes! A new “On Writing” post, and hopefully a good one.

This time we tackle characters that are ciphers for the author, and why they typically are flat, and some techniques to fix them.

A Definition

What do I mean by “characters that are ciphers for the author”? I mean, characters that are very similar to the author in many ways — attitudes, traumas, even life events. In fan fiction these are often called “Mary-Sue” characters, where Mary Sue has Teen Hunk Idol #3 fall in love with her and they live happily ever after (though Mary-Sue’s actually have a distinct advantage over some author-ciphers.)

The “Art is Emotion” Theory, the Basics

First of all, for the rest of this to make sense, I’ need to express my theory (and I’m sure other people have expressed this theory before, though I haven’t seen it) that art — all art — is primarily about conveying emotions to person watching/listening/smelling/tasting/feeling it.

Art is emotion. (Yes, I realize this is not a theory unique to me, but it took me a while to reinvent the wheel.)

An abstract painting, music, a short story, a novel, a poem, an award-winning movie, a beautiful chair — the reason these things touch us is that they work within our socio-cognitive framework to take the viewer/reader/audience on a journey through an emotional landscape.

The emotional landscape in most of adventure novels is tension — primarily fear/excitement/anger-based — but a novel could theoretically be built off joy, profundity (done well by Milan Kundera, actually), or any other intense emotion. But the goal is not just to convey a single emotion: a novel must take a reader through an emotional “journey”, moving one emotion — or mood — to the next in a subtle and convincing way. (But how to do that is another story, and most likely another “On Writing”.)

Why Cipher Characters Are Flat and How to Wring Emotions Out of Them

The problem with characters that are ciphers for the author (or very close to being so) is that most authors don’t know themselves very well. I know I don’t. I’m sure there are exceptions, but for the large part we are too close to ourselves to understand our motivations and actions and reactions clearly — and thus we are also too close to cipher characters. We cannot see the details of our bodies to convey the emotions easily, and we feel the emotions so naturally that we forget even to describe them.

So you get phrases like “Gerald was excited” instead of “Gerald fought back the glee that shook him from gut to fingertips.” Obviously, “Gerald was excited” doesn’t convey much actual emotion to the reader. It doesn’t make the reader feel the excitement.

This is bad because ART IS EMOTION, as stated above. Without emotion, there is no art.

It is very hard (for me, at least, and I theorize for many others) to describe our own personal emotional journeys. Memoirs, for instance, can be notoriously difficult unless they are written many years later, with great hindsight, and personal emotions are just as are to write in fiction if your character is yourself. (A notable to exception — many Mary-Sue stories are quite successful, but I think that is because of the novelty and intensity of infatuation — the very rareness of the emotion makes it easier to describe).

At this time, I know only three ways to wring emotion out of a cipher:

1) Increase the Character’s Emotional Intensity – Focus on unusual and intense emotions (such as falling intensely in lust with a Scottish woman, going to your child’s funeral)

2) Put the Character in a Challenging Situation
– Focus on unusual and intense situations that cause unusual and intense emotions (such as being in a world full of Vampire Teddy Bears, racing toward a cliff in a car with no brakes)

3) Increase the Character’s Emotional Distance From Yourself –
Make the character that is ciphering you much more distant. The two primary ways I do this are:

  • Give them traits that are not mine (ie, change the character’s gender, make them of a different political persuasion)
  • Take traits that I share with them and blow them out of proportion so that the character’s personality changes (ie, focus on the character’s grief and sense of estrangement/alienation))

Basically, this is a cheap and easy way of turning a cipher character into a REAL character that stands apart from you.

A Fourth? Solution: Creating a Lens for the Audience to See the Character Through

The “audience” — readers — need to see this character moving, acting, need to see the emotions on his face like in any Oscar winning picture or at least like in any Blade movie.

With a story, the camera can be positioned in the character’s emotions and thoughts or it can float externally, or it can be any combination of the two. Much like a camera in film, if you move the character in and out you can get different effects, highlight different elements. Even get close-ups.

A primarily thoughts/emotions camera can be a little slow, boring, and unsubtle for some readers, and also leads to “Gerald was excited” without any detail added in. But the external camera — where most of your story takes place — runs the danger of not conveying emotion at all unless the writer is very clever with word choice and the rhythm of the words themselves. Both cameras have their strengths and weaknesses, and using a camera built somewhere in between will have a mix of strengths and weaknesses from both.

This is not a unique concept; it is often discussed as the “emotional distance” from the character.

Figuring out emotional distance is not enough, though.

In order to show the audience the character’s emotions, you need to develop a framework — a specific technique or “style” to describing them. Here are a few questions to answer to develop a framework: Is Gerald a stranger to his emotions, or is he familiar with them? Will you use similes to describe his emotions or what he sees? How about metaphors? Are you looking for a particular mood for the character? Are there any key words or images to emphasize (such as: do you always describe him like a rainstorm)?

Since the lens is the portal through which the movie is put on film, I like to think of any combination of “emotional distance” (camera position) and “framework for showing emotion” (style) as a “LENS” — it is the portal through which the movie is made and where the focus is controlled:

Say you go for a lens where Gerald is tightly controlled and internalizes most emotions (Lens A):
Gerald stared at his wife wondering why her makeup was so perfect. So fresh. He squeezed down a sudden rush emotions in his belly, not understanding or even knowing what they were. All he knew for sure was he felt she was lying.

What if you prefer a slightly more externalized reaction from Gerald, but you still want him to remain a stranger to his own emotions (Lens B):
Gerald’s hear fluttered and squeezed and threatened to stop and he wasn’t sure why. It was just a button on his wife’s blouse. Just a stupid button buttoned through the wrong hole. He tried to turn back around and type the last words of the screenplay, but his fingers shuddered. Gibberish shot across the screen like curse words in a comic book. Her shirt had been perfect before she left. Why had she taken her shirt off? Was she cheating on him?

There are, of course, infinite levels to this.

You can zoom in and zoom out, but switching between lenses requires care. Perhaps I can write more on that later, but let me focus on this for now:

The nice thing about having a lens (or two or three), is that it is a re-usable tool. As long as you understand what you’ve designed and you at least think about it, you’re likely to get the character’s emotions across to the readers without saying, “Gerald was excited.”

No, Not a Fourth Solution

So I said there were 3 solutions and this a fourth solution? Can I not count?

Actually, this isn’t a separate solution. The lens will help you, sure, but if you don’t do the work and find a personality trait to focus on, or get the intense locations or emotions going, this may not save you alone. To me, this augments the other solutions.

With a lens one or more of the other tricks, you should be able to solve any problems you might have with a character that is a cipher of yourself.