Saturday, December 16, 2017


Yesterday's blog post comments revealed that some of you are unfamiliar with what code means for a character. (Later in the day there are some very savvy comments about code; I encourage you to read the entire comment trail.)

Code is what a character thinks is right and wrong. What they will do, what they won't do. What they think is important. And unimportant.

To use my favorite example, Jack Reacher: Reacher's code is he's on the side of the underdog.  We see this over and over again when Reacher steps in to balance the scales of power. He hitches a ride east with an old black couple who have a gig in Atlantic City. He sticks around, counts the people paying admission, lets the club manager SEE he's keeping count, and when the time comes to settle up, he's the muscle enforcing the contract for the couple who would have been victims had he not been there.

What's in it for Reacher? Nothing, except he couldn't let the situation slide without breaking his code.

To use another favorite example, The Wire.  "A man must have a code."

Omar, who robs drug dealers of Baltimore and has been seen to shoot more than a few of them too, will not put his gun on someone who isn't in the game.

The trick about code is to SHOW it, not necessarily tell it. Omar in fact doesn't say this is his code, he agrees with Detective Bunk Moreland who says it.

Reacher never says "this is my code" but we readers know what it is pretty early on in each book.

And one of the reasons Robert Parker's books ceased to entice me after The Widening Gyre was that Spenser kept talking about his damn code, to the point I wanted to beat him over the head.

 Blake Snyder talks about an element of code in his essential book Save The Cat (page xv)


Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Oooh Code! I missed this yesterday.

Some of my most (to me) narratively interesting things have happened when I got to the margins of "what will this character do? what won't this character do?" and how the characters around them mesh with that.

CynthiaMc said...

That Reacher scene is one of my favorites.

Another favorite is in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible really does save a cat.

Happy Saturday, Everyone! My show is over and I'm catching up on Christmas. Hung the outside wreaths last night. Woo hoo!

Timothy Lowe said...

Just read the short story "A Christmas Memory" with classes this week. Has to be one of my faves. In it, Buddy describes his 60 year old friend with a simple list of "things my friend has never done, will never do" (she will never let a hungry dog go hungry) and "things she will do, has done" (one is to tame hummingbirds until they rest on her finger).

Incredible example of character building by Truman Capote.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

who are on the road
must have a code
that you can live by
and so
become yourself
because the past is just a goodby

us old hippies have this in our blood

This came up in a conversation with my Other Half
discussing some family behavior. We agree our personal code
is to never do something that takes advantage of other people's weaknesses.

I'm lucky, I've only read 2 Reachers so far so I get to read them all for the first time now!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Yes. Terrific conversation yesterday. And excellent post today. I love that excerpt from Save The Cat.

Sharyn, Well done! I also thought of C, S, N, & Y and the lyrics from "Teach Your Children Well." We must be from the same generation. Groovy.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

Hi Melanie,
I was surprised to be the first to post that!
Just ordered your Horses of Proud Spirit for my sister. She is an animal artist and tells me her next show will be all horses.

Amy Johnson said...

Wow, this is useful! Thanks, Janet.

I gotta share a story. Sometimes I'll show Janet's posts to my kids lest they go out into the world not knowing some important lesson she's taught. Earlier this year, I showed them a post that included another clip from The Wire. Fast forward to about a week ago, when an offspring and I were watching something on TV. From what I recall, two cops had lost two suspects when there was a fire or explosion or some other emergency at their location.

Cop 1: What happened to so-and-so and what's-his-name?
Cop 2: I guess they evacuated.

I looked over at dear offspring who knew precisely why his weird mom was having a laughing fit.

ACFranklin said...

Thanks everybody! I have discovered more things to add to the revision list. I'll just go do that. It's not inconsistency, per se, just a little weirdness in priorities that's easy enough to fix.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Yes. Between yesterday's comments and today's post...thank you! Lots to mull over.

Unknown said...

Another old hippie here, and now I can't get that song out of my head. :) Fascinating to me that code is very important in my personal life (although I don't name it that way), but I never thought of it in my writing. Is it not really as engrained in me as I thought? Or, am I going to review my work and see that my characters have it naturally? Happy Saturday all.

Steve Stubbs said...

Here is my favorite example of code and how to do a compelling ending rolled into one putrid lump. This comes from the movie I, THE JURY, which IMO has the best depiction of Mike Hammer ever. Unfortunately it was released only on VHS. There is no DVD to my omniscient knowledge. (This refers to the 1982 remake with Armand Assante as Hammer.)

In the final scene Hammer has finally identified the baddie as a ruthless psychiatrist and she is trying to distract him by hugging him while reaching for a concealed gun in a box behind her. There is a sudden report and the psychiatrist sinks to the floor. Hammer's gun is smoking. Before dying, the psychiatrist says, "How could you?" And Hammer, walking away nonchalantly and putting his pistol away says, "It was easy."

The Code of No Code. Hammer is a psycho.

I heard an intervew with the author (Mickey Spillane) on the radio years ago in which this book was discussed. The book was already a classic (meaning it was damn old) but people still remembered the shocking ending many years after the book was printed.

It was shocking because characters who are Politically Correct must not be killed. For a woman even to spend the night in jail for a little thing like murder would have been gut wrenching.

That is the best place for a shock, right at the end.

Kregger said...

The code also happens in real life.
This may be Billy the Kid lore, or some other villain.
The story goes: On staying at a widow's farm and hearing her tale of woe, Billy gives the widow the delinquent mortgage payments. The next day, the banker is robbed at gunpoint on leaving the widow's farm.
I personally do not understand rooting for gangsters, thieves or near-do-wells, but in literature as well as life there seems to be...a liking?

Sarah said...

Wow. My second day in a row of unlurking!

Code can be simple, too. I'm a high school math teacher and I started thinking about the unspoken codes teachers have. They very rarely show up on syllabi, but students figure them out pretty quickly.

For instance, I don't care if students complain about assignments or math as long as they work. (Extra points if the complaints are creative and/or make me laugh.) I don't need kids to like the subject, but I demand that they be kind to each other. On a daily level, that means that I'll let a student blow off steam about math or even me, but I'll shut them down if they're harsh to a classmate.

The code is different for every teacher, but it's there. And teaching is only a facet of life. We have codes for parenting, for work, even our hobbies.

Code is everywhere, even though I hadn't thought of it in those terms till Janet mentioned it yesterday.

Claire Bobrow said...

Great excerpt from Save the Cat. I went back and read yesterday's entire comment thread, which was well worth it. Thanks to all who helped illuminate "code."

Now off to the grocery store for holiday cookie ingredients (though I'd rather roost on the couch and keep reading The Trials of Morrigan Crow - the latest MG I can't put down.)

John Davis Frain said...

Love that scene with Pacino. I have told the "Catch you later" story more than a dozen times as an example, and I get giddy every time. So illustrative.

Some days, Janet, this blog really speaks to a person on such a deep level that it gets them re-thinking their own work. I have a save the cat scene in my current WIP from Nano, and it played out fully in my head as I was reading this. Now, a whole new wrinkle just came to me. I'm not going to edit it till I finish, but this will go into the folder. Without even turning the hourglass!


Lennon Faris said...

Very illuminating.

Steve - villains with no code in real life would be terrifying. But villains in stories with no codes don't excite me at all - it feels like cheating! It's like the author is just doing what s/he wants.

Give me a 'psycho' with a batsh** insane code like Harley Quinn and I will read that. Trick is to still not be predictable, just believable in hindsight.

ACFranklin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ACFranklin said...

Whoops, Mulligan.

Even psychos should have a code, and Hammer probably does in the example above. They can not care about other people, but they should still care about themselves or their desires. So it comes down to things like if they would risk death for more power, or do they not see the risk as worth it? And, if so, why?

One character I know of is actually someone who enjoys killing, who isn't afraid of dying, yet still has a code. He prioritizes killing those that look like they don't expect to die because it entertains him, and he values above all else being the one to kill his girlfriend, in the future. (She wants that, too. It's weird, just go with it...). One of his choices was between continuing to try to kill someone who *really* got under his skin and saving his girlfriend from death-by-arranged-circumstances (again, to kill her later). He picks saving the girlfriend.

Craig F said...

A great place to begin to show the

A) emotional

B) Moral


D) All of the above

code of your protag is in your query. Their response to the inciting incident should be a one word version of the code you want your writing to expound.

Then try to keep that code consistent through all of your plot twists. If not consistent then you have a build an existing code into a better.

The voice of YA could be considered as building a code.

CynthiaMc said...

I've been writing in my garden all afternoon. Still working on my Nano project, which as it turns out, is all about code.

It started out a few years ago as a 1-act play for a competition. My main character was about to be put to death. I ended up getting a show and not finishing that play, but that character haunted me. How did she get there? That led to a story much bigger than I thought I could tell. Still, it haunted me.

This past Nano my rule was "no rules, just write and see what happens."

Logical Me - Before: I don't see how this can all come together.

Writer Me: Shut up and write.

Logical Me- After: OMG - it's working!

Happy writing, y'all.

Anonymous said...

I really need to watch The Wire one of these days. So much time, so little to do.

Timothy [re, Macbeth (prior post)], that's an interesting take on it, that he's caught somehow, and abandons his code. Makes him sound like a better man than I remember; or one shaped more by fate than choice. But it's been years since I read it (and I'm certainly not a scholar). My impression was that he willfully interpreted the witches' "prophesy" in such a way that freed him to abandon the pretext of civility and restraint, thus revealing his true code (as the witches intended)-- that there was nothing he wouldn't do in pursuit of ambition and thirst for power.

Guess you could argue it either way, which might be part of why it endures. Fascinating character study. And interesting how little has changed since then, with regard to the corruption inherent to power and ambition.

julieweathers said...


I think this is one thing that draws me so much to the Civil War. Robert E. Lee wrote letters to editors against slavery long before the war broke out. Yes, his wife inherited slaves from her father and the agreement was they were to be freed no later than five years from his death or when the estate was debt free and the will terms could be carried out. Unfortunately, Custis left the estate in extreme debt so Lee could not free them as he wished.

Lee wrote that breaking up the Union was nothing less than treason and strongly advocated Virginia remain in the Union.

However, when Lincoln offered him command of the Union armies he declined as he knew he would have to raise arms against his home and family. He said he was wanted to never raise a sword again and to only grow corn. When Virginia did go out, so did he with a very heavy heart.

So it was for a great many men on both sides. People had to go against things they believed in for that very strong sense of honor that went even deeper.