Being a Better Writer: Tools VS Actions

Welcome back readers? I trust you all had a pretty enjoyable weekend? Especially with the newest episode of Fireteam Freelance having released on Saturday?

No official word from me at this time whether or not we’ll see episode five this Saturday, but there will be something (either another interview or an interlude). But until then we’ve got a whole week of content to to think about, of which the most important is today’s Being a Better Writer post.

After all, it is on of the site’s primary features. So without further ado, let’s dive into today’s topic. Which is a bit of an interesting one.

See, today’s topic was inspired by someone in a writing chat room asking for thoughts and opinions on a character sheet they’d assembled for their story, and a trend I noticed with it. A trend that then combined with a more common complaint I’d seen online in the last few weeks and discussed on book sites.

We’ll start with the trend. There were several discussions I’d seen in the last few weeks across writing sites and discussions about so-called “gamification” of characters. Or, to put it another way, writing characters whose abilities felt like they were out of a video game.

I realize this is a bit vague and that’s because there’s not an official term for what these people were discussing (and ultimately complaining about). But what it boiled down to over paragraphs of discussion was … Well, I personally wouldn’t call it gamification, though I see why those complaining about it would. And it does fit. Me, I’d call it “animefication.”

If you’re familiar with anime at all, you’ll know why here in a moment. What readers were complaining of was written work where characters had “attacks” or “skills” that were both names and deployed often in solution of the protagonists/antagonists pursuits.

In other words, they’d be reading a story, and the protagonist would helpfully inform readers that he had a “magical ability named ‘Light Whip’ that would do X” and then any time X came up, they would proclaim “Light Whip!” and use it.

Obviously, both “gamification” and ‘animefication” aren’t the best terms for this, but that doesn’t change that there is an issue with this in some works these days. But I hadn’t given much thought on the why of it until I saw this writer’s character sheet and there was a sudden ‘eureka’ moment in my head.

See, this writer had gone ahead and written out a character sheet, as writers often do. No problems there. But when it came to the section on their characters skills, rather than be general with what their character was good at, they had written—you guessed it—a named list of “actions” they could take.

Like a role-playing game. Or an anime. There was the name of the skill, and how it worked, and what they did with it. All in a neat little list.

But seeing that list made all these complaints I’d been reading “click” in my head and I immediately saw how and why so many were complaining about this type of writing, and how people were getting there.

Because in making lists like this, these authors had restricted themselves. Fallen into a trap of their own making wherein they were becoming too specific and limiting what they (and their characters) could do.

What it came down to, ultimately, was what I immediately made notes of as “Tools VS Actions.” Which ended up being the title of this post.

Okay, let me explain a little further by giving you a simple example. Suppose you are writing a character that is a thief. They break into places and steal stuff. Now, you sit down to create a character sheet, but have you ever considered that how you write the character sheet determine how you’ll see them in the story? Here’s are two examples, and lets convey how they might differ:

Tools: Matavar carries a number of tools with him for use in his thieving, such as a small prybar, lockpicking set, tape, and thin, tough wire.

Seems pretty straightforward. But here’s our second. What’s different?

  • Prybar: Used when Matavar needs to pry a door or window open.
  • Lockpicks: Used when Matavar needs to undo a lock.
  • Tape: Used when Matavar needs to hold something in place.
  • Tough Wire: Used to get through small window gaps.

Now, I know a number of you might be thinking “Well, one is more detailed. That’s all.” And yes, that’s true. The second is more specific. But it’s also more limiting.

Previously on Being a Better Writer it’s been stated that readers prefer underpowered characters to overpowered ones as an underpowered character has to be a lot more clever and skilled with the few talents that they possess. That’s still true (no worries there) but what we’re looking at today is another “approach” that gives us an issue. So I ask: Can you see how the second approach to “character design” is intensely limiting?

It specifies what each tool is for, and when the character will use them. As opposed to the first approach, which simply says “Here’s some of the equipment they carry.”

Again, this second approach limits what the character can do with the tools at their disposal. Because they don’t have a “prybar.” They have a “prybar for prying doors and windows open.” And so, as the writer and creator of the design references their own sheet to find solutions, their sheet tells them what each item is for.

So our hypothetical creator of Matavar’s sheet is thinking “Matavar needs to break into a house and steal a necklace” and looks at their sheet, and they’re given detailed instructions on what each tool is “for.”

By following those instructions, they’ll write a scene, yes, but a scene where each tool is likely applied exactly as it is intended. Over and over again. After all, that’s what the character sheet specified. Not only does it list the tool, but how it will be used overcoming specific obstacles.

The character sheet I saw recently did something similar, but with magic and “attacks.” The creator had written up a detailed list of “spells” and “attacks” that the character would use, each both detailed and named.

Sort of like the “list” of spells you’d find in a role-playing game. Pen-and-paper or on your TV.

That was the moment, by the way, where my brain made the connection between the “gamification” that so many readers these days were complaining of finding and how that was happening. Because writers were building these detailed lists of actions for their characters to undertake, and then tossing them out again and again. Often with the “names” so that their readers could identify them.

In the process, they were limiting their stories, their characters, and their own ability to craft.

How? Why? Well, I answer that with a question: what’s the difference between a tool and an action?

See, these writers are crafting their characters actions when they make character write-ups like this. They’re defining things in advance.

Have a thought exercise. Gather a ground of people in a circle. Or even one person. Hand them a tool of some kind. What it is doesn’t really matter. It could be a plunger, a hammer, an ancient eldritch artifact. Now ask them how many uses for it they can think of.

You may have actually done a thought-exercise like this before, designed to get one to think outside of the box and look at ways of creative problem-solving. Where you were part of a group given an item and asked all the different ways to use it?

How would that group differ in their answers if they were instead given an item and told “here are the three uses of this item?” How would that impact their creativity when asked to solve a problem using the items they were given?

Starting to see the difference? And how creating a detailed list of “these are the actions available to the character, and what they can use them for” would not only be limiting, but frustrating to the reader?

See, a “tool” is not an action. And yet for these lists, they often are written and given as such. For example, magic of any kind is a great tool. But if you write very specific instructions as to what the magic will be used for, you run the risk of limiting how not only your character uses, it but you as an author use it.

In other words, less is more when it comes to “defining” the tools and skills in your character’s possession. The more narrow a focus you give each tool in your character’s disposal, the less you’ll think of other uses when you’re checking the sheet to remind yourself what they’re capable of.

In addition, being less specific in this area will help your writing as well. Because being so specific, as readers have noted, tends to “gamify” the writing wherein the author slips into simply “naming” a talent, skill, or tool as a solution. X happens, character excitedly pulls Y out of their back of tricks, then Z happens, so they pull out W, then X happens again, so again we get Y …

When instead, rather than just a form of writing where the character “answers” each threat they face with a name, something that can quickly become rote, going in without that answer but the tools to build an answer will cause our characters to react to what they face and use the tools we’ve given them in clever ways.

Going back to the example given above with our thief Matavar, what would happen in each case if the obstacle they were presented with was a locked window?

Well, in the case of the detailed list, the answer is obvious. We consult the list, and it tells us that a lock is “defeated” by the lockpicking tools. Boom, lock is picked, Matavar has defeated the window.

But if we simply look at a list of tools that doesn’t detail that, we can create a much more memorable scene. Perhaps he goes to reach for his lockpicks, but this isn’t a window with a keyhole. It’s a latch, and its on the inside. Maybe the prybar? But he thinks about it and that would damage the wood and leave signs of his passage, plus make nose. But maybe if he could slip that bit of wire through the gap and undo the latch …

See how much more interesting and dynamic that is? And certainly much more interesting to the reader as Matavar puzzles his way forward, even if for a moment.

Now, there are two more aspects of this I want to talk about. This idea of having tools rather than “set actions” when we build our characters? This applies to everything about them. Not just physical tools, but skills and talents as well. Don’t write out a list of ‘martial arts moves” that your character can use (yes, I’ve seen this happen both in sheets and in stories), but write out what disciplines they practice and what that means they tend to do when they fight. Don’t list out every ability they have and what they’re for, but rather what sort of things they’re good at.

You can even apply this to magic. Even in a system where the magic your characters use is confined to specific spells, you can treat those spells like tools with a myriad of uses, rather than just “it does this every time.”

The other thing I want to note with this is part of why readers are getting annoyed with “gamification” and that’s because there’s a lot of fiction these days that refers to whatever solution by the name of the skill/talent/tool. It can’t stop reminding the reader that the door was opened “with the power of lockpicks and the protagonists’ obvious skill with lockpicking tools!”

Again, this comes back to these character sheets being too specific. It’s less a case of “When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail” and more “Here is your hammer, and here is a list of all the nails this story will present and conquer.”

Give your characters talents, tools, and skills, yes. But don’t define them so closely and carefully that you end up limiting where and how they can use said tools, talents, or skills. If they carry a collapsible shovel in their camping pack, don’t just have them use it when they need a hole for their campfire, but not when their truck gets bogged in sand and they need something to dig one of the tires out and they’re looking for the “tool to dig a truck out.”

Too much detail can be a bad thing. When it comes to our characters talents, skills, tools, magic, etc, the more detail we give, the more we may restrict our story and the solutions our characters come up with.

So give them tools. Don’t define their actions before the challenge is even presented.

Good luck! Now get writing!


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