Writing Characters With Matt Bird

How do we decide on the hero for our story? How can we write distinctive — but still believable — characters? Matt Bird talks about aspects of writing character.

In the intro, a guide to UBLs, Universal Book Links [Draft2Digital]; Your author brand [Ask ALLi with me and Orna Ross]; The Creator Economy in Bath.


Today’s show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing, and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna

Matt Bird is an author, screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. His latest book is The Secrets of Character: Writing a Hero Anyone Will Love.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.

Show Notes

  • Matt’s journey from indie filmmaking and screenwriting to non-fiction, blogging, and podcasting
  • How do we decide on the hero of the story — and how readers sometimes choose someone else anyway
  • Deep point of view (POV)
  • Writing distinctive — but still believable — characters
  • Mining real life for character details
  • Does a character have to be likable?

You can find Matt Bird at TheSecretsofStory.com.

Transcript of Interview with Matt Bird

Joanna: Matt Bird is an author, screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. His latest book is The Secrets of Character: Writing a Hero Anyone Will Love. Welcome, Matt.

Matt: Thanks so much for having me on.

Joanna: I’m so excited to talk to you.

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Matt: Oh, I wrote a lot. I was an English major. I always liked writing. I always liked creative writing. I decided to become a filmmaker. I wrote and directed many, I would call them indie films, but what is below indie film, DIY, no money changing hands in any way, shape, or form movies.

Then I decided to go ahead and go to film school. I went to Columbia Film School in New York and decided to focus. Very quickly, I realized that I was more of a screenwriter than a director. I focused on screenwriting, got frustrated with the program in various ways.

I talk about in my first book, how it was basically a fantasy camp, and you weren’t allowed to criticize anybody for anything they had done, well, not even criticize people that sounds bad, but, if were to ever go, you may have to reconceive this then they were like, nobody should ever reconceive anything, you should achieve your vision.

Joanna: Very artiste.

Matt: I spent a fortune at Columbia, and then it looked like I was going to make a big. When I got out, I got a big-time manager and got a lot of Hollywood meetings, and sold some screenplays, which they never paid me for. I was very frustrated with Hollywood.

Then I got cancer and lost a year of my life to that. And then, when I found that all of my career heat was totally gone by the time I came back from chemo, I was frustrated, and I started to blog.

At first, it was an underrated movies blog where I watched a movie every day, this was in the heat of blogging back in 2010, I guess. And I watched a movie every day and wrote about it. And then eventually that just became exhausting. I’m like, ‘I gotta come up with another way to blog every day.’ And I’m like, ‘I can start doing writing advice to make it easier on myself.’

So I started giving writing advice, and that took off. And people really liked my writing advice, and so they said, ‘You should collect this in a book.’ I wrote a book called Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers. I did not come up with the very wordy subtitle of that book, ‘Writer’s Digest’ did.

That book has been very successful, and I’ve been very gratified by that success. And then ‘Writer’s Digest’ was owned up by Penguin Random House, and Penguin Random House asked me to do a new one. So, I’ve written a brand new book, The Secrets of Character: Writing a Hero Anyone Will Love.

Meanwhile, I have a new big writing gig that I can’t really talk about very much. But it involves a lot of the things that Joanna talks about on this show. It involves AI. I also have a podcast called ‘The Secret of Story Podcast’ with James Kennedy.

And I’ve got a second podcast, which is just for fun, which is called ‘Marvel Reread Club’ with my brother, Steve. And that’s me. That’s what I’m doing.

Joanna: Wow. That is great. And, of course, you’ve gone through all the ups and downs there. Talk about a hero’s journey, which I’m sure we’ll come back to.

You’ve had the excitement, the highs, potentially, of Hollywood, the downs of, obviously, the difficulties and cancer; that’s a big one. So interesting to hear where you are now, which is obviously, blending, writing, technology, podcasting, blogging.

I love all that. And I think that’s actually important as we come into the topic of the book, which is character. So, let’s get into the book. First of all, I want to address the hero.

How do we know who should be the hero of the story?

Matt: First of all, I should say that hero is gender-neutral and morally neutral, obviously, a hero can be a man or woman. I’m using that term genderless. And it can be totally evil or totally good. I’m not using that term to imply a hero should be a good person, obviously, there are anti-heroes and all sorts of other heroes.

In terms of having a hero, so you had asked me in sort of your pre-questions, well, what if your book has lots of heroes? What if your book is a multi-cast novel? And the bad news is that it’s up to your reader to determine who your hero is.

Your reader will usually pick one character to be their favorite, and sometimes it won’t be the main character.

And sometimes your audience will be like, ‘Well, you’re telling me who the hero is, but I prefer this character. I prefer Han Solo to Luke Skywalker, Luke Skywalker is whiny.” And so, you have to be prepared for that.

You have to be prepared for the audience picking a hero. I talked about “Traffic,” where there was Michael Douglas as this struggling DEA secretary, who has a daughter who’s doing drugs. And people just saw that movie, and they were like, ‘We do not care about this guy, boo-hoo.’

Benicio del Toro played a Mexican cop, and everyone was like, ‘We like that guy. That guy gets the Oscar, Michael Douglas gets no Oscar.’ And it’s up to the audience to determine who the hero is.

Now, in turn, if you have a book that has truly a ton of heroes. So let’s look at a book like War and Peace, which has many, many, many heroes. One thing that Tolstoy does in that book is before every scene, one hero gets a prep scene. One person in that scene gets a little prep scene where they establish what their expectations for that scene is, and they become the hero of that scene.

So, you’ve got a huge sprawling novel, it’s got maybe, 6 main characters and 10 more fairly major characters. But every scene is one person scene and has its own POV, and that is established beforehand.

Even if you’ve got a ton of heroes, you’re generally going to be writing about one POV at a time. You’re going to be writing about one hero at a time. You’re going to be making people care about and privilege one hero at a time.

Joanna: We should say POV is point of view and if people are new writers, that can be complicated. I like the example of George RR Martin with the ‘Game of Thrones’ book, because a lot of people might have also seen the TV series as well, because that, to me, is a classic multicast with a lot of different heroes.

In terms of the point of view, having read the book as well, he changes the deep point of view for a number of different characters.

So, in terms of a technical writing thing, can you explain how we use that deep point of view and, almost, I guess, manipulate the reader into understanding who the hero of the story is? Even number of pages about that character from that character’s point of view?

Can you explain how we use that deep point of view and, almost, manipulate the reader into understanding who the hero of the story is?

Matt: I’ve talked about how in ‘Game of Thrones,’ that you have to skim ahead in ‘Game of Thrones’ and see like, okay, the first chapter is from Brans’ point of view. So is he actually the hero of the book? Is this a book about a seven-year-old boy? Because Bran is only seven in the books.

Then you flip ahead, and you’re like, well, every chapter, hopefully in that book, has the name of the POV character at the beginning of the chapter. I think there are seven POV characters, and there’s 22 chapters. And you flip ahead, and you’re like, ‘Okay, is Bran going to be the main character?’ You’re like, ‘No.’ He only gets like three of the 22 chapters.

Eddard is clearly the main character. He gets most of the 22 chapters. And you have to go, ‘Okay, maybe, I’m not supposed to totally bond with Bran right away.’ And indeed, Bran is this POV character through whom you’re looking at his eyes, and you’re more interested in the world around him than you are interested in him.

This is what is sometimes called a POV character, a character who we are meeting the world through his eyes, but he is not the main character. And we meet all his brothers through his eyes in the first chapter. We can tell that we’re choosing between them.

It’s easy to see that Theon is not going to be the hero because he can’t take anything seriously, and he laughs and kicks the severed head around, and we don’t like him. But we have a hard time deciding in that chapter. We sort of like Jon and I can’t remember his name, the eldest son, and we’re like, ‘Oh, they seem like two variations on manhood. They seem like two different versions of appealing manhood.’

We can’t quite decide, and indeed the books can’t quite decide until they abruptly decide at the end of the third book, and or in the middle of the third book. And it’s like, oh, okay, I guess the book has finally chosen its own hero. The book series has finally chosen its own hero when one of those two sons abruptly dies. Sorry, spoilers, I try to avoid spoilers. That’s a really interesting book.

It’s very important to Martin that every chapter only have one point of view. Martin eventually wrote some episodes of the TV show. And then he did commentaries on the DVDs on those episodes TV show. And there was one scene with, again, I don’t remember his name, the character who became the bodyguard to Tyrion later on.

They’re preparing for the big siege of Kings landing, and there’s a scene between two minor characters. George RR Martin says in the commentary for that episode that he wrote the screenplay of that, ‘Oh, it’s so much fun to get to write the scene because I wasn’t allowed to write it in the books because neither of these characters were POV characters.’

Even though he had so many POV characters, he just knew he couldn’t have that many. He couldn’t have 20 POV characters. And so, he was not allowed to write that scene because none of his POV characters was in it. And then on TV, it’s less strict. POV is less strict on TV. And you can write a scene with two minor characters in it, with none of your major POV characters in it.

Joanna: Yes, because we’re not inside their heads with TV and film, whereas in the book, we’re inside their heads. And this, I guess, we can also use the ‘Game of Thrones’ book as a cautionary tale because as we record this, the book’s still aren’t finished.

If you add more characters that you want to write the point of view from, the books become more and more sprawling, right?

So, I would say a tip if you are starting out is maybe pick one hero, one point of view.

I think a really good example of this is The Hunger Games. I always use that example. If you just write Katniss Everdeen’s story, it can become a lot simpler if you just like, ‘Here’s the hero and here’s the arc,’ and there you go, there are other characters. But if you have one, it becomes much easier. Is that a way to simplify a story?

Matt: Oh, yeah. That would’ve been a completely different novel if we’d had just a Haymitch, Peeta scene without Katniss there, or if we had, you know, broken POV with her at all, it’s such a strong voice in that novel.

Voice is, of course, one of the most important elements of writing, especially of novel writing. And to have her strong voice in every paragraph, in every line of dialogue, well, not every line of dialogue, not when she’s talking to somebody else, but to have her strong voice in every line in that book is what makes that book work. That book is so much driven by voice. And even though the book is in third person, I believe, right?

Joanna: I think so.

Matt: But even books in third person, if they have limited POV, and that book has limited POV, we are only seeing things described in third person that… But is it in third person? I don’t know.

Joanne: This is interesting because we can’t remember off the top of our heads, but we both feel that we know that character, and we know that character’s voice in such a way that it, I guess it doesn’t matter, so much like a deep third person, a close third person, whatever they call it, point of view, brings that character to life so much more than a much wider point of view, I guess.

Matt: Yes. It is first person. I just looked it up. My book begins with The Hunger Games as the main example. I’m quoting from the book so it wasn’t hard for me to look up here and see examples of whether or not it’s in first person or third person.

I think that The Hunger Games is not the greatest novel, it’s not an all-time classic of literature, but it is such a good example of how to become a successful novelist.

It is such a successful book. It is such a good book to study in terms of how to write, how to learn to be a writer. Because it is so simple. Because it is so powerful.

In some ways, cynical, you know, this was a writer who was writing a lot of books about cockroaches talking to each other under the streets of New York. And then she said, ‘I’m tired to write about cockroaches. I want to write a more successful book.’ I think she made certain, somewhat cynical decisions when she wrote that book, and they were brilliant decisions. And, in terms of craft, it is unbeatable.

Joanna: Absolutely. Right. So getting back to characters, how can we make readers believe in the reality of our characters, make them three-dimensional? Obviously, we can’t do that for every single character, it’s just not necessary in a book.

In terms of our main characters, how do we make them believable, but obviously, still special enough for a story?

Matt: In my book, I talk about how you have to do three things right away. You might have the reader believe in the reality of your character. You have to make the reader care about the circumstances of your character. And you have to make your reader invest in…make the reader invest their hopes in this character to solve this problem.

Most stories are about the solving of a large problem and we need to invest our hopes in that character to solve that problem. So, I begin the book by talking about The Hunger Games because it does all three right away brilliantly.

One of the first ways, as I’ve said, to get us to believe in a character’s voice. If a character has a believable voice, then we love him right away. One of the main ways to determine your voice is how many periods versus how many commas you use. There’s a lot of periods in The Hunger Games.

Let’s just look at the third paragraph of The Hunger Games. I think it’s a great example of ‘Believe, Care and Invest,’ but it’s also a good example of how my advice is sort of the opposite of Save the Cat. Because she almost kills the cat in the first paragraph, and then she does kill a cat two pages later.

In the second paragraph, it says, ‘Sitting at Prim’s knee guarding her is the world’s ugliest cat, mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of a rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me.’ And then she talks about how she tried to drown him.

Right away, she’s got very believable voice. She’s got very unique circumstances in her world. We care for her right away because she couldn’t afford to have a cat. She felt like she had to kill a cat in order to protect their meager way of life. And boy, oh boy, do we invest in Katniss right away, because she is out there bow hunting.

What could be more badass than bow hunting? And she does kill a lynx, that another cat, a big cat that has been following her around and she has decided to kill it because it is chasing off game. Then she sells its pelt.

Obviously, killing animals is very tricky in books. A lot of people are very upset by it. But in this case, I don’t think many people are very upset by it. I don’t think many people are like, “Oh, that poor lynx.’ I think people think it’s pretty awesome when they read that in The Hunger Games. But so there you go. You’ve gotta ‘Believe, Care, and Invest’ right away on the first page.

Joanna: It’s interesting because, of course, we say about the reality of the character, is it a believable character? But we’re writing fiction, does it have to be a believable character or just someone, as you say, that we care and invest in?

I’ve not been in a situation like that where I’ve been starving so much that I have to go hunting with a bow and arrow, most of us haven’t, thankfully, but we still believe it, even though that’s not our situation, right? Is it that it has to be believable or just careful in some way?

Matt: I get that believability has nothing to do with, oh, this is Superman, he’s flying. Heroes can fly, therefore, this isn’t a believable character. Believable is more about Superman can fly, but also Superman has to have a job. And he’s someone who has friends in the comics. He has friends in the movies.

In ‘Man of Steel,’ he does not have friends, he has a love interest. But Jimmy Olsen did appear in one of the Snyder Superman movies just to get killed in two seconds after he appeared. He’s not Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen.

You need to give your hero a fully flesh-out world. You need to have sensory information.

There’s plenty of sensory information in The Hunger Games.

Sensory information makes the world come to life. Anthropomorphizing nature makes the world come to life. They eat a ton in The Hunger Games. Descriptions of food, audiences love descriptions of food. They have their own unique jargon. They’ve got just a bizarrely complicated setup.

I think a lot of times people are told, ‘Don’t have a complicated setup in your book.’ But the whole math of the lottery in The Hunger Games is very complex.

I think that makes worlds more believable when there’s a lot of rules that have to be explained, even though we’re told often don’t do that. I think that there’s all sorts of ways in which The Hunger Games is believable, even though we may think that America will never fall and no one will ever start running a hunger games. That has nothing to do with it.

One thing is, I just re-watched this weekend the movie ‘Captain Marvel.’ And at one point, Captain Marvel is talking to Nick Fury, and she’s like, ‘Prove to me you’re not a squirrel.’ And so, this is exactly what writers do. We have to have our characters prove to readers that they’re not squirrels.

Nick Fury is like, ‘Well, let me tell you about my history. Let me tell you about my mom. Let me tell you some interesting biographical details that make me a unique, interesting person.’ And then she says, ‘Name one more thing you couldn’t possibly have made up about yourself.’

That’s so much about believability is including details that make the reader go, ‘The writer couldn’t possibly have made that up. That’s too real.‘ Then Nick Fury says to her, ‘If toast is cut diagonally, I can’t eat it.’ Then he then realizes that she didn’t actually need him say that, that she was already convinced, but she is at this point sort of cracking up because she got him to admit that.

But, in fact, she did need him to say it because that is the ultimate way to prove that you’re not a squirrel, to prove that your characters are not squirrel, are not imitations of life, imitations of reality. To prove that they’re real characters is a detail. Like, “if toast is cut diagonally, I can’t eat,” is gold for a writer.

That’s the sort of thing where you can pull it from your own life and gift it to your characters, and then they come to life. But the audience can tell, oh, that’s not made up, that must be from somebody’s real life. That must be from the author’s real-life, or the author’s mother’s real-life, or something.

Think about it in ‘The Sopranos,’ where Tony Soprano’s mom won’t answer the phone after dark. And you’re like, ‘Oh, that has to be real.’ And indeed, that was true. In the DVD commentary, David Chase talks about how his own mother would not answer the phone after dark. And he is like, she’s like, ‘Somebody called me after dark.’ And he is like, ‘Well, who was it?’ And she’s like, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t answer the phone, it was after dark.’ And he’s like, ‘Mom, that doesn’t make any sense.’ But, of course, these days nobody answers their phone.

Joanna: I never answer my phone. Yes, okay. So you’ve talked there about interesting details, which I totally agree, really important about people’s lives about backstories.

One of the things that can be overdone are what are called character tags, which might be a scar, or a limp, or something like that distinguishes them physically. But how do we write these sort of character descriptions?

How do we distinguish our characters with tags without making them gimmicky or cliche?

Matt: I’m rewatching the Marvel movies right now, and you can tell that we’re on movie number 20, we just did ‘Captain Marvel.’ So many characters have eye patches in this movie. Nick Fury has an eyepatch, Odin has an eyepatch, Thor eventually has an eye patch. Eye patches are done, you cannot do eye patches anymore.

Obviously, Harry Potter made it work because they gave him a lightning shape scar, which lots of characters have scars. James Bond has a scar in the books, but not in the movies. But, oh, okay, lightning shape scar makes come to life again.

Or characters may have tattoos, but the tattoos in ‘Avatar: The Last Air Bender’ are so distinctive and cool. They are really great. Jack Sparrow in ‘Pirates of Caribbean’ has a P branded on his arm by the East India Company.

Scars and tattoos and disabilities, they do make characters come to life. You’re actually marking your character. You’re actually giving your character a physical distinction instead of just character distinctions, instead of just more ephemeral distinctions.

But, you’re right, they can totally be overdone. It’s a risk. And, certainly, a character cannot have them and still be a fully fleshed-out believable character. Katniss Everdeen does not have a scar, a tattoo, or a limp.

Joanne: I think probably her tag is the bow and arrow because that is both the thing that provides food, it becomes her weapon. Yes, in my mind, that’s what springs to mind, of course, in the end, is that the bird and that, I guess some of the actions.

There are things when you think of a character, I guess you could say there are associations with that character, that become part of who that character is. I think when you are a new writer, scars are almost the one that happens. Everyone has some kind of scar.

The scar also implies backstory, which can also help with character and plot, and certainly, that’s what it does in ‘Harry Potter’.

You’ve said mine your own life, but I’m on novel number 18 or something. I definitely find original character tags to be difficult to find. But as you say, maybe Marvel was using them. I haven’t used an eye patch.

Any tips for coming up with some of these details?

Matt: There you go. Keep a journal is the number one thing to do. Every day when you get home, before you go to bed at night, write down…

Joanna: What do mean when you get home? We’re all at home!

Matt: We’re all at home all day long. It’s true. I work from home. But if you have any way to get out in the world and any way to see or hear anything, or just with your own family at home, then write down interesting things that people did or said.

Write down stuff where it’s like, you just have to be constantly in the lookout for details like if bread is cut diagonally, I can’t eat it. And you may be on your 18th book, but I’ll bet you there’s more than 18 things in your own life, like, if bread is cut diagonally, I can’t eat it, and you just need one per book. You just have to keep mining your life and coming up with more things like that.

I give examples in the end of my book about examples from my own life of ‘Believe, Care, and Invest.’ In order to come up with those examples, I just check my own sheet where I keep track of details from my life. The believed detail was actually my daughter singing a song from the latest rap musical she had written.

My daughter loves Hamilton and writes rap musicals. I just quote the absolutely buck nuts, insane lyrics from her rap musical songs that this 10-year-old girl was writing. And I’m like, ‘That can’t be made it up.’ It’s also something that’s very real.

We have not really seen this Hamilton generation yet, this generation of 10-year-old girls who have memorized Hamilton on-screen yet or in, I don’t know if it’s showing up in novels yet. But it’s the sort of thing where anyone who knows 10-year-old girls, knows this is true. And this hasn’t been done to death yet. And I’m like, ‘That’s a perfect believable detail.’

Joanna: Interesting. This is something that people struggle with a lot, particularly at this point in history when there’s a lot of focus, rightly so on diverse voices. Very important that we have diverse voices writing books.

As writers, we also want to write diverse characters. I don’t want to just write middle-aged, married white British characters. And in fact, I don’t. I rarely write them at all.

How can we write effective characters from other cultures, other races, other experiences in a way that is still respectful?

Matt: It is one of the hardest things. It is definitely one of the hardest parts of writing. A lot of it is just research. Watch documentaries, transcribe voices of interesting characters, and try to really get these voices down.

Obviously, the best thing to do is just get to know a wide variety of people, and write in the voices of people you know, or have gotten to know through transcribing their dialogue from other places, from reality shows, from documentaries, from anything you can. But it’s one of the hardest things to do.

Joanna: I think research is the key. I write multinational novels with people from all different cultures. And what I do is as you say, I research.

For example, I wrote a scene set in an Appalachian snake-handling church in the USA. I am never going to go to one of those churches, although it’d be really cool, where they have serpents and that’s part of their worship of God. I found this hour and a half documentary on YouTube, and as you say, I literally transcribed it because the way they spoke during their service was just something I could never make up.

By transcribing it and then mentioning that documentary in my author’s note, I hoped that I was able to respectfully talk about that culture in the process of writing my fiction, plus also set up my character within that church that explained their later behavior. So that’s the sort of cultural and religious difference.

I did the same with Destroyer of Worlds, which is almost entirely set in India. So, I think research is a great way. And as you say, it’s often documentaries, or memoirs, or books, you know, written by particular people. I don’t think we should be afraid of it. I think it’s too important to be afraid of. You have to embrace it.

Matt: If you look at one of the most beloved TV shows of all time, ‘The Wire,’ has a lot of diverse characters in it, and it was written mostly by white people. The creator of that show, David Simon, was a white person, and yet he actually never got in trouble for that show. People absolutely loved these characters. Idris Elba became a star, Michael Jordan became a star.

I went ahead and I looked at that show. Like you said, it’s dangerous to look at other fiction examples because you’re getting a second-generation voice. But when I went ahead and transcribed some dialogue from that show, I realized that, yeah, I talk in both my books about metaphor families, and I realize that everybody on that show has a different metaphor family.

They have different well of language that they go to. And I’d remember just everybody cursing up a storm on that show, but Omar never once utters a curse word in any way, shape, or form on that show. His metaphor family was pirate, which is not a metaphor family you would instantly associate with because metaphor family sometimes times comes from a character’s background, but sometimes comes from their aspirations.

So, he was talking about, we’ve got a parlay and these words that you sort of associate with ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ I talk about in my first book, how in the UK version of ‘The Office,’ how Gareth’s metaphor family was military, even though he works in a paper company. And he, like Omar, had wanted to be something other than what he was. He saw himself in a tradition of people that did not match his immediate surroundings.

That’s such a great way to get a character to come alive.

Such a great way to get a character be believable is have them have one source of language that they are drawing from that might be atypical.

If you look at ‘Star Wars,’ Obi-Wan’s metaphor family is military as well. He is this spiritual hermit, but he uses all of this language out of the military when he talks. And it really gives the character a strong, ironic counterpoint, and baked into his character, and really makes him come to life.

Joanna: We’re almost out of time, but I want to talk about the subtitle, which is Writing a Hero Anyone Will Love. I’ve been watching a couple of things recently. So, ‘WeCrashed,’ on ‘Apple TV,’ which is just brilliant, and you just hate the characters, but they’re so compelling to watch.

And then also ‘Succession,’ about the billionaire media mogul and the family. There are literally no likable characters in both of these TV series, and yet I cannot look away.

Do we always need to love characters or do they just have to be compelling in some way?

Matt: In preparation for this podcast, because you had said you wanted to talk about ‘WeCrashed,’ I went ahead and watched the first three episodes of ‘WeCrashed.’ And then I re-watched the first 10 minutes because that’s what I’m talking about in my book, is the first 10 pages of a book or the first 10 minutes of a movie or TV show.

Almost always, they got us to believe, care, and invest in the first 10 minutes before there’s any plot. WeWork is not founded in the first 10 minutes of ‘WeCrashed,’ but we totally believe, care, and invest in the first 10 pages, and has nothing to do with being a ‘lovable character’ or a likable character.

They’re not lovable, they’re not likable. I’d say that they are lovable. They’re not likable, but they are lovable, but they’re lovable in a very certain way.

So, let’s talk about how we believe in the first 10 minutes of ‘WeCrashed.’ One of the things that really makes a character believable, it’s when they have mottos. And you find this, especially on TV. TV characters have a lot of mottos. I go through my book like the three different mottos that House has, and his pilot in the three different mottos that Grissom has in CSI.

Adam in ‘WeCrashed’ gets a lot of mottos right away. “Fear is a choice.” “You’re a supernova.” These are mottos. I talk about how he’s got very distinctive tastes. Everybody loves songs. They love characters who love songs. And he loves the song so much, he makes his assistant desperately run out ahead of him and pump the song into the WeWork speakers before he enters the office. He has distinctive tactics and this is something that makes us believe and invest.

The way he steals his neighbor’s Chinese food in the first 10 minutes is so distinctive, it so makes his character come to life for us, and so makes us invest in his character. We are investing in him to solve the problem of his life.

This a problem in his life is that he’s poor, he’s not rich, and we need to invest in him to solve that problem. Even if we don’t really want him to be rich, even if we don’t want there to be more billionaires in the world. Then we see that that is his problem in this show and we want him to solve this problem.

In fiction, if we see someone is trying to tackle a big problem, we’re going to root for them to solve that problem.

And the tradecraft involved, I used the term from spy movies, in how he offers his neighbor a beer, which doesn’t exist, and really just as part of this clever plan to steal his neighbor’s Chinese food, is so wonderful and so makes it come to life.

In terms of caring, they do a very classic trick in WeWork, they jump ahead to the worst thing that happens to him. And they have a flash-forward, and then they jump back to the past. Often the flash-forward is the hero getting a humiliation that is deserved and is outsized.

We can tell in the flash-forward, he gets fired from his company. We’re not sure that’s what’s happening, but we’re pretty sure. And we can see he deserves it because we see him wake up halfway through the day, and have a servant rush in with a bong for him to smoke before he actually gets out of bed, before his feet touch the floor. So obviously, that’s a bad CEO. He should be fired.

Another big reason to believe is his distinctive wardrobe. We see him come to work with no shoes. We see him walking the streets of New York and coming into his office with no shoes on. It’s like, okay, that’s something where you see that’s like, that has to be from real life. And indeed it is from real life.

That’s another reason for him to be fired. But we also find out that he has borrowed $380 million against the shares of the IPO they’re about to do that is now going to be canceled. We understand that someone should get fired for smoking from a bong during the day or wearing no shoes to work.

But, having to have cost them $380 million, that seems like an outsized humiliation. That seems like a massive humiliation for toking up when they’re supposed to be at work, which is something that a lot of people haven’t done and haven’t been punished to that degree.

Joanna: The book is well structured in terms of tips. I appreciate the way you’ve written in the book, which is basically a succession of tips and examples for each. So, I definitely recommend the book, The Secrets of Character.

Tell people where they can find you and your books, and your podcast online.

Matt: As of today, you can go to Amazon or your favorite independent book stories website, or even your favorite independent bookstore in person, and buy a copy of The Secrets of Character: Writing a Hero Anyone Will Love.

You can also get my previous book, The Secrets of Story, at any of your favorite bookstores. You can find my podcasts on ‘Apple Podcasts,’ ‘The Secrets of Story Podcasts,’ or ‘Marvel Reread Club.’

You and go to my blog, thesecretsofstory.com, or just secretsofstory.com. I’ve been blogging since January 1st, 2010, and I have a massive amount of content that you can enjoy.

I’m redesigning the blog, it’ll relaunch soon, redesigned. But the original blogger version is still going strong. And you can also see about 150…I’ve moved to the top of the sidebar, 150 examples of novels, TV, memoirs, and movies, where I break down ‘Believe, Care, and Invest.’

Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Matt. That was great.

Matt: That was great. Thank you so much for having me on.

The post Writing Characters With Matt Bird first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • May 22, 2022