John Ostrander: Writing 101 — Contradicting Your Characters

by John Ostrander

The most oft repeated dictum about writing that I’ve heard is: Write What You Know. The question is – what do you know? To take a literal meaning to the question suggests that you can only write within your own experiences which is awfully limiting. I’m a white middle class male and yet I created Amanda Waller who is black, female, and from the projects. What did I know that allowed me to do that? And yet, Amanda is one of the best, most realized, characters I’ve ever created.

My view of Write What You Know is – what do you KNOW as opposed to what you were TAUGHT. What has your own experience taught you to be true? An unquestioned belief, in my opinion, is not worth having. Only by testing that belief – by doubting, questioning – does a belief become your own even if you come to the same belief that you started with. Now it’s your own.

What do you know of life? Not what you were told or taught but what have you experienced? What do you know that is true? That should be in your writing. 

For example, take Character. For me, the essence of character is to be found in contradiction. Take a piece of paper. On the left hand side, list a series of attributes. Such as:

Friendly

Courteous

Kind

Obedient

Cheerful

Thrifty

Brave

Clean

Reverent

In other words, a Boy Scout.

On the right hand side of the page, write down the opposite of what you wrote on the left hand side. You cannot use un-.dis-, or ir-. In other words, no Unfriendly for Friendly. Be creative in your choice of words. With “Clean”, what do you mean? It’s how YOU define the word; it’s what that word means to YOU. How does it resonate? Be creative.

If everything you wrote on the left hand side of the page is true, then in some way, in some place, everything on the right hand side is also true. I have invariably found that the essence of character is found in contradiction. Again, it’s how you define those words. What do you MEAN by them? HOW are they true?

No one is all one thing all the time. Our personal characters are tidal; they ebb and flow. The sea is always the sea but is also always in motion and so are our natures. What is true of us should be true in our characters.

However, we don’t show all those aspects of ourselves every moment of the day or night. Different people, different circumstances, bring out different aspects of ourselves and should do the same with the people we create.

That’s part of the purpose of the supporting characters. Different people in your lives bring out different aspects of your own character. There was this guy I knew many years ago who I just did not like and for a long time I didn’t know why. He wasn’t a bad guy but I just felt uncomfortable around him. I finally figured out that it was because he mirrored sides of me that I did not like, that I was uncomfortable having.

Circumstances and events can also bring out different sides of you. Kim used to ask me how I would react in such and such a circumstance; I told her I wouldn’t know until I got there. We like to think we know what we would feel or how we react in a given situation but the truth is we only know how we think we would behave or how we’d like to believe we would act. You can’t know for sure until you’re actually in the situation.

So – how do we show all these contradictory emotions in a story? First of all, you use one at a time. In a comic, that might be for one panel. Try to use more than one in a panel muddies the story and makes it unclear. One at a time, please.

That said, you can switch to a completely different emotion in the next panel. Don’t try to “transition” from one feeling to the other. I’ve seen inexperienced writers do it; I’ve seen inexperienced actors do it. The ones who don’t do it are people in real life; the emotions flow, one to the next. Something hits you, you react. That’s what you want in your story.

What makes a person or a character react, have a certain emotion, tells you something about them just as it does in real life. What annoys you, either a situation or a person? You can go further – why does that person or situation annoy you? Every writer is something of a detective; you follow the clues to get a clearer picture of the character you’re writing. Do it right and so will your reader. That’s something that you want.

Do you have to create a character this way? Of course not. Different writers have different methods. You can do it completely by mechanics. I was once watching an interview on TV and a writer told his acolytes that the first thing you needed was a good name. I threw things at the TV.

I like stories that seem to emanate from character. Learning something from a well rounded and created story can tell me something about myself or the people around me. It makes, I believe, for a better story.

Writing a better story? That’s the job.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. It’s been awhile since he’s been here, but now John’s back with a new column at a new blog, PopCultureSquad, where this piece first appeared (with lots of pictures even). You can learn more about John and his many masterworks HERE

How Many of These Screen (and TV) Writing Mistakes Do You Make?

Yeah, we mess up too. But we’re keeping quiet – and trying to learn – while this excellent talk gives us one Acme Ton To Think About:

Via the ever-helpful folks at Film Courage

4 Pro Tips for Creating Your Own Web Series

Regular TVWriter™ visitors know how much we love web series. Turns out quite a few sites feel the same way and as glad or even gladder (is that a word? we hope so) to share their knowledge of what makes a good web series. Mashable, for example:

by Max Knoblauch

As a comedian, entrepreneur, writer and filmmaker, it’s clear Amy Rubin has never allowed anyone or anything to pigeonhole her into one role.

After years of creating political videos on Capitol Hill, Rubin left to found her startup production company, Barnacle, creating video content for companies such as Vanity Fair and The Nature Conservancy. In 2013, she started her own web series, Little Horribles.

Little Horribles isn’t your typical web series. The slow, subtle humor of the show more closely resembles FX’s Louie than something you might find on CollegeHumor. The largest demographic of the show’s one million viewers lies in the 25 to 44 age range.

“Most of the content we produce is for this demographic that I feel is underrepresented. They’re kind of left out of the world that is YouTube,” Rubin tells Mashable. “They have indie tastes. They aren’t, like, subscribing to channels. But they are out there and I think they want content.”

For aspiring filmmakers, writers and anyone who wants to create a web series, Rubin has a bit of advice that could save you plenty of time, money and headaches.

1. Writing is paramount — don’t force it.

If someone sent this to me, would I send it to my sister? That’s my test

If someone sent this to me, would I send it to my sister? That’s my test,” Rubin says. Without an outline or a basic idea that you’re passionate about, there’s really no point to creating a web series in the first place.

“With online video, where things are shorter, I think a lot of things can be forced,” she says. The lack of time for real character development and narrative arcs can lead many creators to rely too often on tropes. Rubin tries not to force any aspect of Little Horribles….

Read it all at Mashable

More about ‘Rejection. A Wilderness Guide for Writers’

Mark Evanier, one of the biggest writing talents in TV, comic books, and blogging has been writing a series of articles on the subject of rejection as faced by all creative people.

A few months back, we introduced you to it via Part 23 in the series. Here’s another intro and, of course, a link, to the most recent installment:

by Mark Evanier

Around 49.5 years ago, I launched my career as a professional writer.  At the time, I didn’t imagine that nearly half a century later, I would still be doing it.  I didn’t imagine that I wouldn’t not be doing it, either.  I had a fairly good imagination but I’ve never imagined too far ahead of myself.

Writing was the only thing I wanted to do and I clearly had more aptitude for it than anything else except maybe Hostage or Human Sacrifice.  So it was kind of like, “Well, I’ll try this and if (or more likely, when) it doesn’t work out, I’ll figure out a Plan B for my life.”  So far, it hasn’t been necessary but I sometimes think, “Well, maybe next week…”

As I’ve mentioned here:  When I started out, I did a lot of writing for magazines. For one, I had to write a profile of a famous singer, which I did largely by paraphrasing and rearranging hunks of various press releases that the singer’s publicist had supplied to my publisher. After the piece was printed, the publicist hired me to write press releases and also to write articles about his clients. He gave the articles for free to the magazines which ran them, each time with no indication that the author worked not for them but for the subject’s publicist. Two of those magazines later offered me assignments.  It was a more benevolent version of how Washington, D.C. operates.

So it was generally a matter of one job leading to another. The publicist also had me writing jokes and fake anecdotes for his clients to tell when they went on talk shows. Then when his second-in-command went off and started his own publicity firm, that guy hired me to work for him, too.

Amidst all of this, I met other writers and we’d tell each other about jobs we knew that were open or buyers of writing who were in need. I even began to get calls where someone I’d never met before would say something like, “I’m putting together a new magazine and I need a 5000-word article about such-and-such by Monday. Phil says you’re the guy who can get it done for me.”

Maybe ten years ago, I addressed a group of wanna-be writers and I told them what I’m telling you. There was one gent in the first row who had a great deal of trouble grasping certain aspects of this lecture. He kept saying, “You’re telling us everyone thought you were a brilliant writer” and I definitely was not telling them that. If you think I’m telling you that, read more carefully. I am not making any sort of claim or evaluation of the work except one. I am telling you that they found it useful.

To be honest, I never knew if they found it excellent or mediocre or what.  There are those who hire writers who will say “Great job” about just about everything they accept because, I suppose, they think praise will keep you willing to do more work for them without asking for more money.  There are also those who think the opposite: That if they tell you it’s great, you’ll demand more money.  A lot of people deliver compliments the way we applaud performers even if we didn’t like what they did — as a kind of polite obligation.

As nice as some of it may be, never take that kind of thing seriously.  A great old pulp magazine writer named Frank Gruber once told me, “There are really only two compliments you can ever get from your editor that are meaningful and certainly honest.  One is ‘Can you do another job for me next week?’ and the other is ‘I’m giving you a raise.'”

But let’s get back to the key word for today’s lesson: Useful. The buyers found my work useful. The reason they shelled out money for my writing was that they found it useful….

Read it all at Mark Evanier’s outstanding blog

See all of the series so far

11 Ways Writing is Good for Your Mind, Body and Spirit

Another exciting infographic, and possibly the best intentioned one we’ve ever seen for writers:

More cool infograph-type stuff is here

“Professional Editors. Affordable rates” are also on the very same site. Worth checking out!