Scryptic Column #12 — How to Write Tough Characters Instead of Characters Who Act Tough

Grimjack is a lesson in acting tough without acting like TRYING to be tough

This was prepped for the regular column I used to write at Scryptic Studios. Then Scryptic ceased to be. Which is a loss. This is part 2. Part 1 focused on how I struggle to write tough characters, having had a nice life and spent more time thinking up jokes than threats. I always overwrite my heavies as coarse violence machines, spewing out tough chatter. In reality, the guy who won’t shut up about how he can beat anybody is the one who often crumples. The differences were what intrigued me enough to write this. 

I swear I posted this before [edit: yup], but I can’t find it. I also can’t find Swift as Mercury columns #6-11 but oh well. Here we go. The one before this was about how to write tough dialogue even when you’re not tough and don’t have practice being intimidating. So what should your characters do instead? I think it’s similar to how actors don’t want to actually get drunk to play drunk, but play someone trying NOT to look drunk most times, 90% of making characters actually act tough is knowing that as soon as a character has to make a threat, they’ve shown not their power but their weakness. The threat is implicit. The boundaries are what you really want to paint. 

#12 – Do You Know What Really Hard Is? (pt. 1)

File Under: Tough stuff

Pounded out to the silent screams of: Kill Bill Vol. 2 soundtrack

Last column addressed how to talk tough. The answer, of course, is don’t try, so this one’s about walking the walk.

I’d been making pass after pass at a confrontation in the opening chapter of this mob western called Strychnine Kiss. It consists of two parties threatening one another, and while that happens, the structure’s wrong and it doesn’t work. There’s an architecture to how people bully, bluff and threaten.  Before any real action takes place, a staredown is a chance for the combatants to assert their superiority and avoid any dangerous engagement. If you can thump your chest loudly enough, you might not have to risk bodily harm.

Of course, some folks are into bodily harm.  And that’s where we’re at today. Action films and comics get a (probably deserved) bad rap, but action, we’re also told, is the best possible means of characterizing someone.

So as long as things are going to explode, they ought to be meaningful. Few do it well in comics. Andy Diggle is a master of action as plot, and so he steals your breath. Give us a glimpse of the different personalities behind the fists and triggers.  John Ostrander’s a personal favorite of mine for this. My first great comics love was a relentlessly nasty piece of work called GrimJack, because it had a very guarded heart that in no way contradicted its viciousness.

Grimjack is a lesson in acting tough without acting like TRYING to be tough
Grimjack is a lesson in writing tough characters who aren’t acting like TRYING to be tough

Strychnine Kiss is a hard world.  It’s Chicago after the oil and the government have both run out, and the only thing keeping things in line is the mafia, which has been in power for so long, it’s the official governing body.  Most crimes are permitted, under the right circumstances. Honor’s the new code of conduct, and like most rules of thumb, it gets sorely abused.

Most people, therefore, are more defensive, and less willing to trust. That’s a kind of hardness, perhaps the first step. But like I say, I’m new to this. I’m not vindictive, and haven’t known many vindictive people.

So I picture two samurai about to duel. The first strikes an attacking pose, the second assumes a stance in response to that.  Reacting, the first chooses a new pose to which the second is now vulnerable, and so on, it’s a warning display and preparation for the battle at the same time. There can be a lot of conflict without a lot of action.  If done properly, it resonates with subtext; that’s what’s so great about Brian Azzarello’s writing beneath the patter.  He puts the screws to all characters, and by the time the gun goes off, the scene’s such an ionized airlock your head is buzzing.  He earns almost any ending he can devise.

That tension, that build-up, in a stand-off also implies that conflict is inevitable.  And yet Strychnine Kiss is about clawing to the top by doing things differently.  The main character is a woman, used to dealing with misogynistic thugs. There are going to be a lot of challenges to her authority.  What’s more, she has a reputation for being pretty crazy, which I think she plays up in order to cover her back.  But it means she needs to be unpredictable and fearsome.

And yet…I can’t have her just punching everyone’s lights out unprovoked because nobody would follow a lunatic like that.  What’s more, it makes her a jerk, drawing sympathy for the thugs she’s muscling around.  That’s ok in measures, but only as part of her internal conflict.  If I time it wrong, or phrase it wrong, she just becomes a vicious beast, and you can’t do that more than a couple times before it’s established and set in stone.  Anytime you repeat a trick, you’re repeating an idea.  If that’s not your intention, and usually even if it is, you should develop it a little further along.

And speaking of intentions, it’s not her goal to commit slaughter, which would only bring her more trouble and probably create all kinds of psychological havoc.  But she does want to make her own death not worth the opponents’ trouble, which is the only weapon at hand for her.  She leverages it to get what she wants (the thugs’ dispersal).

Statistics tell us women commit fewer acts of violence, but most humans are ready to do so if it becomes the best or only option.  But statistics are generalized, and characters are most interesting when and how they deviate from norms. A woman trying to salvage her authority from a brash man in an underling role might act outside of her own inclinations to send the right message in male terms.

Vulnerability plays a huge factor in hard characterization.  Bullies pick on the weak. But bullies are often (not always) scared of something themselves, taking a broad offense against the world to avoid being put on the defensive.  I’d say in almost equal measure, some of them are just sadists, but even then, you have variety. There’s the actual psychopath, the psychosexual sadist, the power junkie, etc.

Think of violence as music.  The same performance can express very different messages depending on the amplitude, the key, and perhaps most importantly, what’s left out. Deliberately atonal chords can send a message of something very wrong indeed.

After I wrote the first issue of Strychnine Kiss’ earliest incarnation I realized I’d placed my morally fluid protagonist in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, so I was probably just channeling my 12-year-old self’s love of the aforementioned GrimJack.

Less is very much more when writing intimidating characters, and oversimplifying them makes them shallow instead of solid
Less is very much more when writing intimidating characters, and oversimplifying them makes them shallow instead of solid

The main character is one John Gaunt, an all-around gun-for-hire and occasional detective.  Gaunt was once the best gladiator in the city of Cynosure, but is now past his prime and getting by on skill rather than talent, dodging tougher battles when he can via his reputation, and winning the ones he can’t with dirty fighting.

But that’s not really what makes him hard.

Drawn into a fight, Gaunt lets free a crazy smile, a sick grin like he’s been waiting all week for this.  And yeah, that makes him hard. But not really hard.

What makes him really hard, what makes him so much more believably tough than the action heroes of the ‘80s who wade through endless gun battles with stony stoicism, is Gaunt cries.

Loss and trauma don't automatically translate into stronger characters, but how they respond to adversity does
Loss and trauma don’t automatically translate into stronger characters, but how they respond to adversity does

He doesn’t run around weeping, but when he tries his damnedest to stop something terrible from happening, and it costs him a higher price than he’d have liked to pay, then yeah, that blow reaches his core.  Crying authenticates the tough exterior, because an absolute lack of emotional response to something like killing his son wouldn’t make him tougher; it’d just make him less human, putting him on the side of the sociopaths.

It would also undermine the loss.  What’s the point of the story if nothing matters to the protagonist? Even that monster Lono, in Azzarello’s 100 Bullets, can’t believe it when the only two people he respects are dead, one of them by his own hand.  Loss, then, makes us hard. Taking something from others, that’s hard too.

In the final analysis, hard character is a resolve to achieve a particular end regardless of cost to oneself or others, but murky relevant factors color the audience’s sympathies.

Maybe a simpler way to say it is: find out what your character wouldn’t do, then find a way to make them do it.