Like many of my peers, I’m semi-addicted to Angry Birds. I used think of flinging birds and obliterating bad piggies as a mindless waste of time (we all need a little of that once in a while), but I can honestly say that playing Angry Birds has improved my writing—enough that I could write off the cost as a business expense if the Android versions weren’t free. Those cute little birds are very effective writing teachers. Seriously.
One of my first Angry Birds Writing Reminders featured that Toucan-inspired guy to the left known as Boomerang Bird because of his interesting ability to double-back and hit things from behind.The first time I encountered Boomerang Bird, the spiffy introductory graphic told me what he could do, but without revealing his deeper capabilities and nuances.
Boomerang’s behavior after tapping the screen is dependent on his exact speed and trajectory when you tap, and there are so many nuances that in the beginning he rarely did what I expected. With time and experience, I’ve gained some instinctive knowledge of exactly how to launch Boomerang bird and exactly when to tap to get the desired results. I also learned a few things the introductory graphics didn’t mention.
Which brings me to the writing lesson.
Know Your Characters
When I began writing fiction, my characters were so flat you could read right through them. I recall one critiquer who asked point-blank if I’d taken time to get to know my characters, asking a lot of obscure questions I couldn’t answer. I thought she was nuts. After reflecting on the conversation and recalling the character development process I learned in the theater, I got the point. Since then, I’ve talked with many successful novelists about their character development process. Some journal, some do detailed character profiles, and others (myself included) use method acting principles to get inside characters’ heads and see what makes them tick. I’ve talked with successful novelists who spend months getting to know their characters before writing a single word of their manuscripts. Others just free-write and watch what happens, with the understanding that their first draft will be mostly dreck (which they normally are, anyway).
Whatever method works for you, do it with all the gusto you’ve got. The resulting character depth is like the difference between a plain, flat greeting card and a pop-up card with music and motion.
Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.
I was stuck on one level of Angry Birds for weeks, so stuck I considered deleting the game and trying to forget the thrill of obliterating those bad little piggies. I simply couldn’t get that Boomerang at the top of the birdie lineup to turn around the way I wanted and hit that sweet spot.
Out of pure frustration, I launched Boomer straight into the leading side of the pile and watched in amazement while it all crashed, pummeling the pig population and producing three stars. In a flash of realization, I understood why I was having problems with one of my characters.
I’m writing a series with a couple of characters that have unique and unusual abilities. The easy way out as a writer is to let my characters use those special abilities, but after my Boomer Bird revelation, I rewrote a few pages and forced one to not use them. The entire dynamic of the inter-character relationships changed dramatically, and as I dug into the character I found that she was afraid to use her special ability in that situation. It made her vulnerable. Her best friend (my protagonist) picked up on that fear, but interpreted it as anger and rejection, adding even more tension to the friendship, along with layer upon layer of character depth.
Like real life, we don’t know what a character might be capable of until we corner them and force their hand. Take away a man’s job, a mother’s children, or a Pastor’s church and you’ll discover a whole range of hidden strengths, weaknesses, motivators and flaws. It’s those hidden things that make characters interesting. Next time you’re face-to-face with a bland, boring character, boot them out of their comfort zone and see what happens.
Just don’t be a piggie about it.