mxpw's Scribe Theater Three Thousand

So Frea asked me to do a column on writing. I think it was partly inspired by a comment I had made in this thread: Back into the Fold. I answered a question by one of our readers about what methods they could explore to better improve their writing. In the comment, I said that one of the best ways to learn how to write is actually by reading. This is very true. It’s pretty much how I learned to write, and I think Frea would say that it has helped her greatly as well.

To that end, Frea suggested what I do for this column is to take writing done by our fellow fanfiction writers, and try to analyze and break down the strengths of their writing styles. It seemed natural to choose our Most Benevolent Overlord Frea to be my first guinea pig.

Frea has many strengths when it comes to writing (and yes, she does have weaknesses as well, all writers do). While discussing them all would take more time than I can afford to spend, I have decided to select two of those strengths for discussion. For the purpose of this particular post, I am going to look at Frea’s ability to develop her characters and effectively showcase that characterization in her writing.


There are many chapters from What Fates Impose that I could choose from to analyze characterization. Let’s face it, Frea’s story is full of it. So much so it makes me sick. She makes the rest of us look bad. But regardless of my jealousy, characterization is something she does well. Why is that? Because, for the most part, she lets her characters develop naturally. She doesn’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Her characters aren’t stupid or don’t change dependent on whatever the plot dictates at that point in time. This is a skill that is invaluable in a writer. Even if you write something that is plot driven instead of character driven, you should always take pains to ensure that your characters are acting intelligently and consistently within the universe you’ve created.

Now I’m going to take one of those many chapters that have so entertained you all and give you some specific examples of just how Frea does her characterization. We are going to look at Chapter 38: “A Day in the Life.” I chose this chapter because it’s recent and because it focuses primarily on the personal relationships of the characters. This is really a character driven chapter.

First, we’re going to look at a scene between Chuck and Sarah. In this scene, Chuck and Sarah are discussing what is happening with Jill:

"How did we get a Fulcrum tracker?" Chuck asked.

If he wasn't always hyper-aware of everything Sarah did these days, ever since Just say the word, Chuck had turned his head upside down and his world inside-out, he might not have caught it. But Sarah's eyes cut down and to the left, just a flicker, just once. And Chuck knew.

"Jill was wearing butterfly barettes in her hair," he said, his voice hollow. "That's how those Fulcrum guys found us. They tracked us using the EM-50. Jill brought them right to us."

Sarah's hand, the one closest to him, flexed a little bit, as if she wanted to pat his arm or grab his hand but wasn't sure. She gave him a sympathetic look. "I'm sorry, Chuck."

Chuck just shook his head. "It's not your fault. She put her faith in these people and they were just using it to come…clean things up." To kill her, he thought, trying his hardest not to think of the look on Jill's face as she had tumbled to the floor in the musty, disgusting office of the Heartbrake Hotel.

The first thing I want to point out about this scene is how understated it is. There’s no dramatic dialogue, no extreme action, no flourishing diction. And yet it’s a fairly emotional scene, as Chuck must confront just how frakked up things became with Jill. The scene is slow, careful, but that’s what actually gives it its emotional resonance. What does this have to do with characterization?

Well, a lot, actually, because the development in Chuck and Sarah’s characters is all non-verbal in this scene. It’s subtle, and subtle characterization is often what you want to focus on as a writer, because it’s often not noticeable. You want your character development to be in the background, to slowly build up, bit by bit, as the story progresses, without noticing it. Because that makes it feel more real, makes it seem like your characters are actually three dimensional. You want to avoid having a light bulb moment with your characters as much as possible, and by that, I mean, you want your developments to seem natural and not out of nowhere. If you’re writing about a romance, your protagonist shouldn’t meet her love interest on page 10, adventure through the bulk of the book, and then realize out of the blue (her “light bulb” moment) on page 375 that she’s in love, even though the previous 350 or so pages had very little romantic development at all. That’s bad characterization.

Fortunately, that’s not the case here. With the line “But Sarah's eyes cut down and to the left, just a flicker, just once. And Chuck knew,” we are able to see, with one sentence, just how far the Chuck and Sarah dynamic has come. We don’t need half a chapter of Chuck and Sarah being together (as much as we might want one) or Frea explaining to us how Chuck and Sarah have progressed. With one gesture, we can see. All Chuck has to do is see Sarah’s eyes move, and because throughout the previous 37 chapters we’ve seen little events like this take place, we accept that Chuck makes the intuitive leap he makes in the next sentence.

We are also able to understand how Chuck could go from completely misreading Sarah in this scene at the end of Chapter Four to knowing Sarah so well in Chapter 38 that she doesn’t even have to speak for him to know what’s going on:

"I know fourteen ways to knock you unconscious without either of us moving right now," Sarah warned. "And I'll do it. I swear I will."

"Here?" Chuck pasted a sarcastic smile on his face as he deliberately looked around at the admiring crowds all around them. Early or not, late September was still tourist season. They were far from alone. "Try it."

It was Sarah's turn to stare. She stayed in his path, her gaze absolutely level on his face, her features perfectly mirroring the stubbornness on his. After a moment, she looked both sad and resigned. "I'm sorry."

"For what—" Chuck managed to say before her hand lashed out.

All he saw was black.

Things have obviously changed since that moment in Chapter Four. Now, Chuck would never doubt Sarah if she said she was going to stop him. He'd believe her, because the relationship has evolved to the point where such doubts are no longer possible. Another important aspect from this scene in Chapter 38 is that Sarah’s eyes moving essentially cuts out possibly several paragraphs of unneeded exposition, and we are able to see Chuck’s mind at work, furthering his own characterization (showing us how intuitive and smart he is). And with “Sarah's hand, the one closest to him, flexed a little bit, as if she wanted to pat his arm or grab his hand but wasn't sure,” we are afforded insight into Sarah’s thought process without having to actually be in her head. Again, we don’t need actual dialogue here, just the prose is enough to tell us far more than dialogue ever probably could. That’s the kind of stuff you want to do as a writer.

Last thing we’re going to look at is a description of Sarah.

She looked far more relaxed than he'd seen her in a long time, even in the Jeep driving toward Phoenix. Her coat was unzipped over the shirt she'd worn around the CIA and NSA headquarters earlier, though she had changed into jeans and a pair of fuzzy boots to ward off of the cold. There was a light blue scarf around her neck, not tied. In that moment, she didn't look a thing like Superspy Agent Walker, just a woman in her mid-twenties enjoying a beer with friends.

I’m only singling out this paragraph because it’s a great example of how physical description can be used for character development. Nothing is said. Sarah doesn’t really do anything. She’s just sitting there. And yet, through the description of how she’s sitting and the clothes she’s wearing, we gain a look into her head. The key part is the scarf. The scarf is like a giant, neon sign resting above her head that says, “I like Chuck Bartowski and would like to make babies with him.” I jest, but only slightly. Even if Sarah hadn’t been as obvious about her feelings up to this point in the narrative, with the appearance of the scarf, we’d suddenly have good insight into just how she felt.

Sarah doesn’t have to say, “Chuck, I like you,” because the scarf does it for her. It makes us recall that moment in Chapter Three of To Resist Both Wind and Tide where the scarf makes its first appearance. We remember what it meant to Sarah at the time and what it symbolizes for her. How a character positions themselves in a scene, what they wear, what gestures they make, can often invoke great insight into who they are as people and what they feel, with hardly anything more needing to be done than writing a single sentence. That’s the kind of subtle, understated characterization that Frea does well. It’s the little things that build up into major developments later on. That’s a very effective way to build your characters.

So there you have it. Hopefully this has helped you in some way. I’m not sure if it has. Part Two of my two-part Fates analysis will be on world building. Look for that…well, you guys know me, it could come next week or next year. It really all depends on how much Frea motivates me.

And if I'm in a good mood this weekend, I may put a preview of my Hallowhedon fic up on the blog.


  1. Anonymous23.10.10

    thanks, mxpw, for the insights. i'm not a writer, but i certainly know when i like something as a reader. fun to have someone dissect something that i really like, like fates. makes me appreciate it on another level.
    -- seaboji

  2. Sparky23.10.10

    And Frea mentioned regretting "To Resist Both Wind and Tide" :(

    Chuck and Sarah have come a long way in the short time the spent together.Fates verse is great in that way.

    mxpw,nice breakdown. I don't like the "next year" part though :)

  3. Sparky, if Frea regrets Winds, I'm pretty sure it's for entirely different reasons than from what you are thinking. I don't think it has anything to do with the way she wrote it, don't worry. ;)

    Loved this, mx! See? You should've done this sooner. :D

  4. Anonymous23.10.10

    Thank you for this Sir MX! I'm not as eloquent as the rest of the bloggers here, but I would simply like to tell you that I really appreciate this entry you posted. :)

  5. Sparky, Crystal is right--I don't regret the writing in W&T at all. I just regret writing it the story because for about two months after I finished Sarah's POV, every review for Fates seemed like it was begging me to continue Sarah's POV. Sometimes it didn't even feel like people were appreciating Chuck's POV at all, which the logical part of me knows is really not the case. To be completely vain, writing W&T was like introducing crack to the Chuck fanfiction community, for some reason, and then ending the story was like taking it all away.

    And would you look at that, my diamond shoes are too tight and my purse can't hold all of these hundred dollar bills...

    My tiara still fits, though.

    It's amusing to me that Maximus chose to focus on my developing characterizations, as that (and dialogue) is what I view as my forte or wheelhouse or whatever word have you. The topic of my major research paper my senior year of high school was on the use of characters and narrators in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House." Apparently I learned a few things throughout the years. How did I do that? Well, mxpw said so right at the beginning of his column: I read. Anything and everything I could get my hands on, voraciously, to study and for pleasure both, and every time I read a story, I think about the characters.

    One of the things you can do to really work on your characterizations is think, "Would I like this character I'm reading about in real life? Would we be friends? Or would I dislike him?" One of my all-time favorite characters is Gunnery Sergeant Marine Torin Kerr, but man, I think if I met her in real life, I would really fear her. This helps the characters come alive to me as I'm writing the story, and it can make it easier to bring them from the page to the imagination, which is where the biggest gap of trouble can occur. Giving characters that sort of perspective can also let you see things about them: how they stand, sit, hold their coffee, look, do they touch others a lot or do they shy away from human contact? These little details may seem trifling, but the right word used at the right time can just make a character flare to life.

    So, my writer homies out there, what tips and tricks do you use when coming up with characters? It can be original, or it can be for adapting Chuck characters from the visual and aural to the written word. Share! Let's get a discussion going!

  6. Anonymous23.10.10

    "To be completely vain, writing W&T was like introducing crack to the Chuck fanfiction community"

    So does that make Fates heroin?

  7. Sparky24.10.10

    Frea,so you regret that story because you created a monster? :)

    In canon,we don't get to see much of Sarah's thought process. Chuck's POV is what we usually have. "To Resist Both Wind and Tide" was different and refreshing in that regard.

    If we are gonna go with crack analogy,Fates is somewhat addicting too. No PLIs,Sarah is in love with Chuck for app. 2 years before he even knew about it,etc. But i'm not complaining :)

  8. OldDarth24.10.10

    Excellent article mxpw. To show a visual collorary, near the beginning of Chuck Vs The Couch Lock, we get a quick shot of Sarah's look of pride and approval as Chuck explains the details of his plan to General Beckman.

  9. JohnClark24.10.10

    I have to say Frea I'm kinda sad to see you say you regret writing W&T, while I understand it completely. As one of the minions that begged for more of Sarah's POV I feel I should probably say I did and still do appreciate Chuck's PoV but Cuck great as he is, has always been an open book emotionally. Both in cannon and fanfic he wears his heart on his sleeve. Even the best of writers would struggle to to find something new in his character that would surprise a reader or alter there perception. Sarah is of course the opposite, her character is so narrowly explored in cannon and so often haphazardly explored in fanfic that your characterization of her stands apart in a way I don't think any chuck characterization ever could. That's why anytime you let something slip out that is an expression of the Sarah that exists beyond her stoic exterior it feel revelatory. In Fates we get them only in the glimpses Chuck picks up on. In W&T due to her own hyper-awareness we get everything as well as an idea of her intern thoughts. I thing the defining attributes of the Fates-verse are the sheer breadth and depth of the narrative, it's immersive-ness, and perhaps most importantly what I have to say is the defining characterization of Sarah Walker so the more I as a reader get the chance to see inside her headspace the more fascinating it becomes.

  10. I don't think it's the most flowing part of a fanfiction story, but writing a characters 'stream of consciousness' can be helpful in getting across your point. It's hard, however, not to let it become a crutch. Eventually, you morph these written thoughts into more subtle things like a crinkling of the brow or clench of the fist.

    When reading stories, I use an 'eye-roll meter'. If a piece of dialogue or lick of action makes me roll my eyes (involuntarily, of course), then it's probably OOC/not good characterization.

    I think it's also good to remember for Chuck stories that you have to start with the characters as they are on the show (unless you're doing total AU) and move away from that organically until they become yours to do with as you please.

  11. @heb I have to admit, I am really focusing on this in my writing. I dont want to overdue it, but i am trying to see if I can avoid Chuck felt like...as much as possible.

    Thanks for writing this MXPW not only did it help me with my writing, it helped me with my with my reading of ff. I have seen some great stories, but the lack of characterization prevented me from enjoying it as much as if it had been there.


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