Procrastination is Character Building

by Wholesome Rage | 21 February 2019

I aspire to be like George Orwell, alternating between essays on writing and essays on politics, and dying before the age of fifty. It seems I’ve been a bit heavy on the politics essays lately, so I thought it might be time to write another writing advice article.

After asking my editor for suggestions on how to write writing advice, he gave a good suggestion that I’d never have thought of on my own.

It was fantastic advice—only, halfway through writing this, I realized that making bespoke examples meant implying they were objectively good writing.

Not a good feeling, lemme tell you. In my desire to be helpful, I’m afraid that might come across as arrogant. Not my intention at all.

So here’s the deal. I’m just making examples to demonstrate concepts, and I’m not holding them up as the definitively correct way to write. But I only get to make that attempt if you promise to show me a little bit of mercy on this.

We square? We good? You clicked the little checkbox marked “I Agree”? Alright. Cool.

One of the first, best pieces of advice many authors are given is: “If it doesn’t advance character, setting or plot, cut it.”

A second piece of that advice is that any paragraph that can do two of those three things at the same time is golden.

And generally I do think that’s good advice. What this advice doesn’t cover though, and something that is less obvious, is that it means characters can, and should, absolutely faff about sometimes.

So here’s the point of this article. I’m giving you express permission to just bum about with your characters and have fun with them.

There’s a mindset that doing so is wasting words, so just having your characters faff about feels like bad writing when you do it. Not having that, though, is one of the big reasons an author’s idea for a character will never make it onto the page. It’s also one of the biggest reasons you’ll find people aren’t invested in your world, or your plot.

Characters are the medium through which we care about those other elements. We care about the world, and the story, because of how it affects people. Your audience will care a lot more about what’s happening when they’re interested in who it’s happening to. If you’re having trouble making your characters feel real, here’s the advice I can think to give.

1. Describing your characters.

Your characters can just be floating balls of names if you start a story in-media-res. That’s fine right up until it isn’t—at some point, you’re going to have to give your audience a mental image to work from.

So. How do we do that?

Typically, authors start out describing what they literally see in their mind when they think of describing a character, like they’re giving a description to a police sketch artist. They say, well, she is tall, so I’ll write that she’s six feet tall. And she has red hair, so that goes too–oh, and her eyes are green! And she wears clothes of this and that color.

They describe the physical attributes of the character, and they are extremely dull when they do it.

Friend of the author Julio Mur almost never describes his characters like this. Instead, he’ll use descriptions like; “She smiles when she dances”. He’ll hardly describe anything visual about the character, except maybe a defining accessory, but he’ll focus heavily on how you should feelpicturing a character, and let the audience work out how that feeling looks on their own.

This works better, because visualizing a character has two important elements: How that character chooses to present themselves, and how that character is seen by other people.

A literal description might cover the first element, but it rarely conveys the second unless it’s delivered bluntly. Phrases in YA literature like “the kind every guy/girl had a crush on” comes to mind.

I have two clear characters in mind, who I’ve used in a novel: Jacqueline Bailey and Rowan Oake. Let’s describe them, first the literal way, and then a more advanced approach.

Jacqueline Bailey was a tall girl, denim jorts and flannel top with rolled up sleeves over the top half of a t-shirt, framing a neat square of tight stomach. Her brown cowgirl hat was never out of arm’s reach.

Rowan looked like a fighter pilot who’d stepped out of his second world war photograph, dashing blonde hair and a brown bomber jacket even in summer. He was handsome, but it was obvious he wished he looked rugged instead, his gentle eyes at odds with the bad-boy jacket and jeans.

We now have a Pokedex entry of them. It’s functional. It works! But that’s about all that can be said for it.

Now, let’s try giving it some oomph, and make it a bit more abstract. Let’s add some movement to it.

Jacqueline looked like the kind of farmgirl you only saw in magazines you were supposed to hold sideways, right down to the cowgirl hat. The two were so inseparable that, even when everyone imagined her naked, the hat stayed on.

Rowan looked like a sweet guy bluffing at being a bad boy. The effect of the action-hero jawline and haircut was ruined by the smile he thought looked dashing and rakish, but mostly made him look like he was about to break down giggling any second.

No scars, no broken nose, and nobody believed him when he said it was because he was just that good.

Doing descriptions like that in a total vacuum feels a bit like trying to do long jump from a standing start. These are best done in a story context, giving the character something to do. But, this should still show you the difference I mean.

Also, you’re allowed to like the first descriptions more! That one’s a preference thing. But what’s important about that is that those specific details can come as they’re more relevant to the visual, and are usually better as a next paragraph.

I asked Julio to do a take on how he’d introduce them:

As far as cowgirls went, Jacqueline was real enough to feel fake. Jackie was the reason packing a revolver counts as a fashion statement, and she looked like she was made so kids who love John Wayne realize they’ve hit puberty

In a room full of supermodels, Rowan would be the pretty one. His haircut alone made it clear that he was painfully aware of this fact, and absolutely fucking hated it.

Leather jacket, roguish smile, five o’clock stubble and aviator sunglasses — Rowan Oake wasn’t just a beautiful man. He was a beautiful man trying to pull off a bad boy vibe. He was a fourteen year old girl’s dream boyfriend, and a forty year old woman’s favorite kind of clown.

How much better is that?

2. Small moments

One of the most common things I see newer authors do that disappoints me is when they just tell me how the character feels: “Their surprise was obvious”. “Their expression was sad”.

There’s one element of characterization: How they react to a prompt. But it loses the second element of characterization: How they react to the prompt.

How does this character specifically show sadness, happiness and surprise? How do they do it in a way that’s unique to them? Their gestures, their voices, all of this builds a better idea of a person.

I’ll show you what I mean.

Let’s jump into the middle of a short story about two characters on the run. I have a clear idea of these characters, but I’m not going to tell you what they’re supposed to be like.

There was a tense moment as the black van screamed past, leaving Rowan and Jackie waiting to see if it had seen them pull into the alley.

Just the metallic fizz of a cooling engine. They’d lost them.

Rowan was obviously relieved. “Too close.”

Jackie chuckled. “That was some quick thinking there.”

“Thanks, but, I wasn’t thinking at all.” Rowan said, “I just kind of shut my brain off.”

They waited a few more moments to make sure, then drove to the nearest motel for the night.

Things happen! There’s plot! Drama!

You don’t care though, because this is bread-and-water. This is purely functional writing. Let’s make some small tweaks.

First we can do what I said above: Add in the small gestures and expressions that make the characters feel more alive, more themselves.

Then, after that, we have some bits of narration that could be better expressed through dialogue. Going to the motel, for instance, is a decision they had to make. How do we show that?

Rowan gripped the steering wheel, white knuckled, as the black van screamed past without seeing them. Jackie was holding her breath too, one hand on the door in case they needed to run.

Just the metallic fizz of a cooling engine. They’d lost them.

Rowan let his head fall against the wheel. “Too close.”

Jackie let her breath out, and chuckled. “That was some quick thinking there.”

“Thanks, but, I wasn’t thinking at all.” Rowan managed to force a queasy smile. “I just kind of shut my brain off.”

“Well. It was a good bit of not-thinking then.” Jackie pulled out her phone and checked a map. “We have enough cash for a motel, or good food, but not both. Your call.

“I want to sleep forever, and I totally lost my appetite.”

“Motel then. I’ll give directions, and we’ll sort out what we do from there.”

A high resolution picture comes from being able to see the small details.

By making the decision a dialogue moment instead of narration, we see a relationship dynamic emerge that wasn’t clear at all in the first version of the snippet: While Jackie’s more comfortable in the scene, she’s still deferring to Rowan.

This adds a little bit more detail: Maybe Jackie’s more confident in this scene not because she’s more capable, but because she’s trusting Rowan to make the decisions.

3. Procrastination:

So that’s some suggestions for how you can inject character into what you’re already writing. But what about writing faff, adding scenes where the only point is to show off and build your characters? When should you write faff?

Faff is best written as procrastination, or being distracted from something more important. Avoiding something gives you a direction to follow.

If there’s a moment where characters are meant to be doing something that takes time, but the time itself isn’t important to focus on, that’s when you write those small moments.

Keeping to cars, here, it’s important for the plot that a car gets fixed. All the plot needs is for you to say: “They fixed the car” when it happens. Wham, bam, done. But maybe you should ask if it’s interesting to show the characters fixing the car, for more reasons than just asking if the car needs to be fixed.

This ties into why so many conversations are written while characters are cooking, or eating. Not only does what the character eat give insight into their preferences, but cooking requires a lot of tedious little tasks like chopping, washing, peeling, cutting, and just staring at something until you know it’s not going to burn.

It’s important to look for those moments in a story that you’d otherwise be tempted to skip.

Let’s give an example here, following off from the last scene.

The motel was part of a national chain, so you at least knew what you were in for. They were crap, coast to coast, but they were a very consistent crap. Each one was crap in the same way as every other one, so you knew exactly what you were getting for your money.

Still. It meant a clean double bed with a TV, and a pool that had regular cleaning. It meant they could probably afford breakfast the morning after.

Nobody would find them there, at least for the night. They parked the car outside a different room, and made to bed on numb legs as they felt the full force of the adrenaline crash kick in.

Tomorrow was tomorrow’s problem.

Again, I see a lot of writers write stuff like this where the problem isn’t obvious. The little details and touches of wit mean that, at a sentence level, it’s decently written.

But you pull back and it’s a weird feeling scene, isn’t it? It feels dodgy because it’s trying to talk around what the characters are doing, instead of just writing that.

This is because what needs to go here is faff. You need to write about something other than what the story’s about for a moment.

Skipping straight to the next day might work better, but it also feels rushed. Good writing works best when there’s big changes in emotion. The motel scene is needed, because there needs to be a feeling of safety that night, after the chase. Some respite.

A good emotional rollercoaster requires sharp ups and downs placed close together, and some straight bits to catch your breath and build anticipation. Also like a rollercoaster, it’s not always helpful to focus on getting to the end as fast as possible: Let’s have some fun.

We could get some of these moments in the next part of the story where the characters are planning their next move, as well. In fact, you probably should.

But you had to write that scene anyway. Here we’re adding a scene just to muck about with the characters, which doesn’t move the plot forward at all.

Let’s take that snippet up there as a prompt.

The motel was part of a national chain, so you at least knew what you were in for. They were crap, coast to coast, but they were a very consistent crap. Each one was crap in the same way as every other one, so you knew exactly what you were getting for your money.

Jackie smirked as they pulled in. “Hope you didn’t have your heart set on room service.”

“I don’t think I’d be able to handle a stranger in our room, tonight, anyway. Honestly.”

Jackie looked over slowly at him, but his eyes were locked forward. “You want to wait here while I get us a room?”

Rowan nodded. There was a few seconds pause, then Jackie got out of the car in silence. A few minutes later she opened the driver’s side door again, jingling the keys at him.

“They didn’t have a room with two singles, so it looks like we’re bunking tonight.”

Rowan grimaced as he unbuckled his seatbelt. “I can sleep on the floor if you want?”

Jackie noogied him, tousling up his hair, while he was still too tangled in his seat to fight back. “I appreciate the chivalry, partner, but that won’t be necessary. Hope you packed swimmers in your bug-out bag, because the pool actually looks nice.”

Rowan popped the trunk as he got out. “I did, actually.”

“What? Really?”

Rowan shrugged, walking around the car to grab the two canvas gym bags they’d manage to grab. When Jackie reached out to grab hers, Rowan gave her the most genuine smile he’d managed all day. He had this.

So Jackie whapped him up the back of the head and took her bag off him anyway. “Don’t be a martyr. It’s room 6, Captain.”

Rowan hefted his back again, and led the way with that dumb grin Jackie missed seeing. “Well, I guess that makes this fair then.”

“Makes what-”

He shot off with a cackle, bag bouncing against his back. “Race you!”

“Oh, you no good, low-down rascal. Oi!” Jackie took off after him, but there wasn’t nearly enough ground for her to make up for the head start.

“Beat you.” He poked his tongue out at her as he fiddled with the key.

“Only ‘cause you’re scared of a fair match.”

“What? It was totally fair, you took a bag off me.” Jackie slugged him in the arm, hard enough to wince, but Rowan played it off and rolled his eyes, opening the door. “I still won.”

“If you only won ‘cause you cheated, is it really winning?”

“Yes.” Rowan nodded, doing his best imitation of a wise teacher voice, “If I won because I cheated, then I won.”

“So you’re saying I should cheat next time?”

“Nah, ‘cause I don’t want you to win.”

Jackie was at least glad he was out of… whatever headspace he’d been in, in the car. It was scary to see him so focused on anything.

The room had a TV, and a clean double bed, and a cupboard to throw their bug-out bags in. Rowan dropped his on the near side of the bed and fell face down onto it like a cut tree, bouncing as he landed.

Jacqueline kicked her bag into the cupboard and made for the TV remote.

“So, you going swimming?”

“Later.” He groaned into the pillow. “Nap first.”

She sat down next to his head, leaning her back against the headboard. Rowan shifted away from her until he was right up against his edge of the bed. Jackie snorted. “C’mon, tough guy, I ain’t going to bite you.”

He considered that, then wiggled back until his head was pressed into her hip, and he threw an arm around her waist to give her a really lopsided hug. “Thanks. Couldn’t do this without you.”

She grabbed the pillow she was sitting on and bopped him on the head with it. “Don’t forget it, either.”

He answered with another squeeze.

She waited until he fell asleep before turning the TV on. It didn’t take long.

As an extra note: Any scene that just has two characters will trend towards heavy topics and waxing poetic. It’s immutable as gravity. If you don’t want that, make an excuse for a third character to drop in.

Now, note all of that is totally unrelated to the plot. You don’t even know what the plot is, you have no idea what’s happening, and I’m being very careful with that in these examples.

But because you’ve read moments like this, you’re probably more interested in what that plot might be.

On the other hand, writing just the plot snippets didn’t necessarily make you more interested in what the characters were doing. It probably didn’t make you more interested in the story, either.

4. Romantic chemistry

There’s something I call Plot Relationships in my head, which is how I feel about relationship in stories where I’m shown a lot how intense a relationship is, but I don’t feel emotionally attached to it personally.

Usually they’re relationships where the two characters are just perfect for each other, they agree on everything, and the world just stops for the two of them. The feeling still comes across every time I’m shown how much two characters love each other without being shown what they love about each other.

There’s a reason for them. Plotlines where something separates them for some reason. It’s there to just let you know: These two people love each other more than life itself, everything that follows makes sense because of that.

One of these people will be the protagonist. The other is just a Macguffin with a pulse.

Not particularly flattering or compelling, though Macguffins are still a valid tool in the right circumstances.

The problem is that it still shows up in romances. Since ‘Get the Relationship’ is the objective, typically we’re led to believe that the relationship is a good thing to want because that’s what the narrative says. But a lot of writers forget to… like… show us? Why it’s good?

There are two important notes here that are true more broadly, but most specifically to romance:

  1. Have the characters talk about something that isn’t the plot, or each other.

I mean, they can talk about each other too. That’s fine. But just talking about each other, or their relationship with each other, is flat.

  1. Show how they approach the same thing in a different way.

He likes stargazing because he’s interested in the history and the stories we tell about the stars. She’s interested in it because she thinks humans might walk among them some day. He tells her about our past, she tells him about our future.

He likes science because his childhood dream is becoming a mad scientist, and he likes going out in public in a labcoat, cackling at lightning storms. She likes science because her father it was how she bonded with her brilliant father, and she takes it very seriously. His eccentricity inspires her. Her practicalities make his ambitions achievable.

Compare and contrast. It shows why they work together and it shows what they give each other. What sells a relationship, more than anything else, is showing what they can give each other that nobody else can.

I’ll add a third note here, specific to romance:

  1. What do they find attractive about each other, and why?

It doesn’t matter if characters are self-evidently attractive. It’s not enough to describe the attractive traits of a character. You have to have describe someone noticing that. It’s the noticing, not the traits themselves, that are important.

So let’s break that down into a scene.

So say I wanted there to be a romantic arc between Jackie and Rowan. Writing the previous scenes I’ve worked out they have good chemistry, and I decide at this point of the story to give myself that angle. How would I do that?

The bed was empty, that was the first thing Jackie noticed when woke up. She rolled over and checked the cheap digital alarm that came with the room. Not even 6am yet.

Rowan’s bag was still here, and its contents gutted and strewn about the room. If it was anyone else, she’d have worried. Since that was just how Rowan treated his stuff, though, it just made it easy for Jackie to see what was missing from it.

His swim trunks.

She stared at the clock again, and had a debate in her head. Get a few more hours of sleep, or go out and check on the big idiot?

Probably wouldn’t be able to sleep if she didn’t check on him.

Well, there was that decision made. That and it might have been her only chance in a while to try that white bikini.

She grabbed the two room towels, knowing Rowan would have forgotten to, and walked around to where the pool was.

She heard him long before she could see him. Rowan was thrashing the water, swimming laps. No way he’d heard her sneak up on him. She pulled the child-safe lock as quietly as she could, and sat herself down in one of the plastic sunchairs by the side.

It was fun, seeing him like this. He had a lot more brains than you’d think, but you’d only know it if you could see Rowan focus on something. And he had no patience for anything he thought wasn’t worth his time.

Always made time for her, though, ever since they were kids.

He nearly drowned when he noticed her, came up hacking water. “How long have you been watching?”

“You don’t mind. Just wanted to make sure you were doing alright.”

He eyed the far side of the pool he’d been swimming for, in the same way dogs eye the front door when they want to go out. “I couldn’t sleep. Was way too pent up.”

“Waste of a good pool, if you ask me. Swimming’s for fun.”

Rowan head dipped lower below the water line. “Doing laps is fun.”

“If you’re blowing off steam, It’s better to soak in after you wear yourself out doing something more intense.”

“More intense?”

Jackie thought about it, looking to the pool fencing. “You know what?” She swung herself up onto the fencing, made sure it’d hold her weight, then hung upside down by her knees. Hands behind her head, she tested out a quick vertical sit up, pressing up her chest into her legs, then falling back to vertical again.

“Race you. I bet I can do fifty of these before you do twenty laps.”

Rowan looked at the pool, did the math in his head. “Side to side, or full circuit?”

“Side to side. 10 full loops.”

“You’re on!”

Then Jackie knocked out the first crunch. “One!” She counted loud.

“Oh! Come on, I didn’t get a kick off!”

“Sucks – two! – for you – three! – don’t it?”

Rowan tore for the wall, then immediately went for the somersault kick and torpedoed to the other side. Jackie doubled down on the crunches, grinning. It was only fifteen before the sweat started getting in her eyes, but she only had a narrow lead to work with and Rowan wasn’t going to slow down.

Rowan went five laps without coming up for air. That could give a girl ideas.

Not that she thought about him like that. She’d known him since they were kids. Just, a hypothetical other girl. You know.

Thirty five crunches, to his fourteen laps. This was too close for her liking – how wasn’t he already tired before this?

He’d always wanted to be a stuntman. Did all the martial arts, the parkour, everything that’d look cool on camera. She’d seen it all, because she was always the first person he came to show off to.

It used to be she pretended that she didn’t mind. Then she caught herself pretending that she was still pretending.

Maybe it was because he was the only guy who didn’t notice her like that?

Forty five to his eighteen. She’d win, but these last five were always hell.

Or maybe it was just because he was the only one that could ever keep up with her.

Fifty. And Rowan wasn’t even halfway on his last lap. He threw himself over the side of the pool, spluttering water.

Gods, but her ribs ached.

“You won,” he wasn’t happy about it.

“Yeah, I did.”

“What did we bet on this?”

“We didn’t.” Jackie dropped down from the fence, and stretched. “Just wanted you to tire yourself out.”


Then Jackie cannonballed right next to him. He raised his arms to shield his eyes, which gave the perfect opportunity to slip behind him and put him in a headlock. “I told you. Swimming’s what you do to relax after. So relax with me.”

“Yeah? As if I’m already tired after twenty laps.”

“Twenty laps is easy. Twenty laps trying to beat me though?”

Rowan shrugged out of the head lock, dipped, spun around. Before he could make a reversal, Jackie kicked off him and darted away. He grinned. “That’s fair.”

“So no more laps. Just paddle about with me.”

He paused. “… wanna play Marco Polo?”

Jackie splashed him and raised an eyebrow. “What, like kids?”

“Kids don’t play at my level. I’m going to kick your ass at Marco Polo.”

She paused. “This is the closest I’m going to get you to relaxing, ain’t it?”

“Well yeah.” He shrugged, and shot back a powerful smug look. “I’m not going to have to try, to be able to thrash you at this one.”

Jackie grit her teeth, closed her eyes and started counting.

Whether that snippet was any good or not? Totally up to you to judge.

The point remains, though, that that’s how I’d hint a romantic arc between those two characters: Play off their mutual competitiveness. Have them try to trick each other into doing what they want, bouncing off that competitiveness.

Have both of them win, because what they want more than anything else is that competition.

Rowan’s a little insecure. He’s competitive because he needs to win, and be seen winning. Jackie’s extremely confident. She doesn’t need to beat anyone, she’s happy to lose if she can put up a good fight.

They work well here, to me, because they both deeply care about the competition, but they push each other to do better, rather than get sore about the winning and losing – well, besides an immediate demand for a rematch.

I’d show something like that by making even a kid’s game something they can egg each other into being a contact sport for. There’s a lot of places I can take that.

The other note was the situps versus laps detail, because I wanted the competition to be asymmetrical. The point was racing each other, not in being good at one thing. The emphasized that what they had in common – competitiveness – wasn’t actually about a specific thing. It made the trait more prevalent than the activity.

A lot of people complain about romantic arcs feeling obligatory as side plots in stories, but I think it’s just because romantic plots are rarely done well. Even when both characters are interesting or good, not enough detail is spent on why they’re interesting together.

Moments like these sell that far more than showing off how interesting both characters are as individuals.

On Rewriting:

A lot of this is discovery writing, so this is why many famous authors say that rewriting is real writing.

By the end of your story, you’ll have ‘found’ a lot more details about your characters that you didn’t get at the start of writing them, because you didn’t know them well enough.

Going back to the start and tweaking their lines after you get a much better feel for them can be vital to having a consistent story. You’d be surprised how ‘wrong’ they can sound after a few chapters of development, after you’ve been better introduced.

I think that’s about all I have. Hopefully these examples helped you better understand what I’m trying to say, and if you were hesitant about writing character scenes before, you’re far more excited to write them now. If nothing else, take from this the permission to just have scenes that explore your characters without worrying about the plot for a bit, and you’ll find your stories will be much stronger for it.

In hindsight, maybe a better title for this would have been; “A Little Ditty About Jack and Rowan”.

« Previous Post

Next Post »