Posts Tagged ‘character development’
That’s the name of the first chapter of David Gerrold’s book Worlds of Wonder, which I bought from him personally at I-Con last weekend. We also traded books, a copy of my St. Martin’s Moon for his Little Horrors. He may read mine (I suspect lots of authors trade books with him), but I’m already reading WW. I read the bio at the front, and noticed that he failed to mention a book that I had on my shelves, a Star Trek novel called The Galactic Whirlpool. I got it signed the next day, of course.
This chapter is more in the way of an introduction, some biographical notes and a discussion of the basic nature of stories which will underlie the rest of the book. So it’s a bit unfortunate that the definition of a story presented in this chapter is not one I entirely agree with. “A person has a problem, he explores the problem until he understands it, finally he makes a choice (usually a difficult one) that produces a transformation of understanding and resolves the difficulty. So a story is about the experience of problem solving and the lessons learned.” (p. 4)
I’m not sure I agree with the whole ‘makes a choice’ bit. Sure it feeds into the whole idea that the hero makes his own destiny, chooses his course, etc. But I like to think my heroes will do the right thing once they know what the right thing is, so making the choice is pretty much a given once a proper understanding has been reached. That’s why they’re heroes. (Which may be why we’ve started calling them ‘Main Characters’ or ‘Protagonists’, rather than heroes. ‘Hero’ has a certain moral component to it that those other terms don’t.)
The problem for a hero is understanding the issue. Sometimes the hero has to make a difficult choice, relinquish some cherished belief, in order to achieve the necessary understanding, but once he has it he’s good to go. Which may be why my stories have so many characters in them who aren’t the hero, because watching a hero do the right thing is dull. Maybe frenetic and plot-heavy, but worth little in terms of character development.
Or it could be Mr. Gerrold’s science fiction background talking. The understanding the hero arrives at could be a theory, like all theories in need of verification. The difficult choice could be the Hero’s decision to test that theory with his own skin, and perhaps those of his group.
On the other hand, regarding his remarks on the benefits of enthusiasm over rage as a driving force behind the writing, we are in much more agreement. I’ve never written from rage, so I have trouble imagining how that would work for me. Enthusiasm, however, I have a lot of experience with. I wrote the equivalent of 8 novels thanks to enthusiasm, in the fanfiction realm, which also served to fulfill my million-word apprenticeship, about which more in some other post.
Back when I was writing my many stories in the Chuck fanfiction realm, I often thought of it as great practice for any future writing I would end up doing. Having already written St.Martin’s Moon at that point, I knew that there were certain types of writing which I was not very good at, such as mystery, with its focus on pacing and plotting, and horror, with its focus on pacing and setting/ambiance. Chuck was a great mixture of light and dark, romance and comedy combined with spy action and some darker drama. My own strengths were in the romance and comedy areas, I thought at the time, where my ability to write strong dialog and characters was most important. The slow and methodical pacing of a spy story, mixed with the occasional burst of action, was what I needed work on.
I was mainly thinking of my more normal stories when I thought this, such as the stories of my Nine2five series, in which I rewrote the last three seasons of Chuck to be more of a piece with the first two. The third season, usually abbreviated as S3, was a very dramatic turn for the show, which the producers thought of as a Hero’s Journey type of story. Which may have been their vision, but if so, they were very poor story-tellers, since the first two seasons weren’t so strong on the Hero’s Journey and they were very strong on the romantic comedy spy adventure. (In fact, the show never did become a Hero’s Journey type of show, as nearly every step along that Journey was erased and forgotten by the end of the episode.) S4 and S5 were far worse, in terms of story-telling failures, so fixing the whole series was quite a lesson plan for a practicing writer. (I added the links to my stories in case anyone wants to read them, but they do assume you know the show, so a great deal of exposition is left out. You have been warned.)
That said, however, the story that is coming to my aid at this moment is not Nine2five but a much less ambitious and more experimental piece called ‘Not This Time‘. This story came between my more typical stories, such as ‘Hannah HISHE‘ and ‘Chuck vs the Epilog’, and Nine2five, and may have contributed to my development of the ideas for the latter story. What made ‘Not This Time’ (hold on while I save that title on my clipboard, just in case I need to write it a lot) experimental was the problem it was written to solve, as regards the finale.
In addition to the will-they-won’t-they trope that makes so many shows so painful to watch, the finale for some reason included the amnesia trope for one of the most popular characters, so all of the development that character had undergone over 5 years of show-time was completely erased. (The producers for some reason thought this was a good thing. I have my own theories on the matter, which I have written elsewhere.) As part of the ‘drama’ of the whole thing, she had occasional slight flashes of memory, to give us faithful viewers hope that our beloved character was not irretrievably lost, I guess.
‘Not This Time’ was written in that context. I wanted to do a story showing how the woman had been changed over the last five years and stayed changed, in spite of the loss of memory. I would do this by using several characters who were known to her before the show started, and show how her memories of those people had not changed, but her feelings about them had. I can’t say it was my most successful story, but it did take me to some very dark places, in addition to practicing different types of story, such as my first song-fic, which I don’t think I did quite right.
This is all coming out with my current novel, a story that is a compendium of stories being told about the main character, Tarkas, in the context of a real-time adventure that is slowly unfolding. The original idea was to have these stories told by Tarkas’ son Janosec, which they were, in the beginning. As the story went on, I found myself in a situation where Janosec had to go away for a bit, and I could either follow him and listen to a repeat of a story I’d already written, which I didn’t want to do, or find someone else to follow. Fortunately I’d already introduced such a fellow, so I followed him to a variety of places, where I was able to continue the story-telling motif, with different characters as the teller, sort of the inverse of the style I’d used in ‘Not This Time’. Rather than one person remembering several people, and seeing how she’d been changed, I had several people remembering one man, to show how he looked to their different perceptions.
It’s a very experimental idea for a novel, I think. Certainly if anyone trips across this post as they traverse the inter-web and can think of stories like this one, I’d love a heads-up about it.
I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.
What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.
Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.
They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)
It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.
Yeah, I know, but I go to South Carolina for the Book Festival they have in Columbia, and I don’t go to Alabama at all.
Speaking of the Book Festival, I just got back from there on Monday after spending four marvelous days in weather that wasn’t rainy and was warm. This time around they decided to hold the festival in May instead of February, and I was lucky that my local festival, Duck Pond Day, wasn’t the same weekend. Actually it was my publisher who was lucky since I wouldn’t have traveled 800 miles for the privilege of losing money if an event literally down the hill from my house was waiting for me. Duck Pond Day is next Sunday, so life is good.
It was also the weekend my new book came out. Yes, St. Martin’s Moon is officially released, although at this moment it only appears on OmniLit.com and the sister site All Romance Ebooks. I also got a fabulous Triple Espresso review.
At I-Con last month I got to use my new handmade wooden bookshelf on wheels. At SC I was able to use both of them, although I think I’ll have to get some new wheels, the big ones I have don’t fit right and the shelves tilt. We had no room for anything else, there were lots of other authors sharing the space and space was at a premium. Having a lot of shelves was very handy. I even sold a few electronic copies of some of my short stories, that’s never happened before.
The other authors were Sam Morton and Connie Hullander, both of whom apparently live in Columbia or thereabouts. Everyone else had to travel a bit, Sean Hayden and his son Connor came up from Florida, Kieryn Nicolas came down from PA, Marlis Day came out East again and Gale Borger traveled the furthest of all. Even better, almost every one of them had a new book out, and this festival was where it was going to debut (at least the paper version)! I picked just so many new titles to read! And I have to read them, of course, otherwise how could I promote them to all the lucky patrons of my other bookselling events?
One thing we had no room for was a place to sit. I spent every hour of both days on my feet and moving around. You can imagine how stiff I was when I finally got a chance to sit down. If you’re lucky you can’t.
The trip home was less fortunate, in several respects. I left SC on Sunday night after the event ended, making it about halfway through North Carolina before stopping at a motel. After getting lost twice. The motel, a Best Western, was a little pricier than I would have liked but I wasn’t really motivate to try the non-name brands down the road. At least they had a decent complimentary breakfast, and a busload of friendly tourists who were no doubt occupying all the cheaper rooms. And Julia, my daughter who was doing the event with me, got to use the pool. Yay. Well, at least she was happy.
The next day I was supposed to stop in at my publisher’s warehouse and pick up my books, every copy of A Warrior Made I could find. I’m pretty sure most of them were buried, I never saw so many boxes of books in my life! People, you gotta get out there and start buying Echelon books. I mean, seriously.
Anyway, for the last part of the trip I had a thousand pounds more weight than I was used to, and of course that was when a serious accident on the NJ Turnpike closed the road and forced us to make a detour onto Rte. 1, at rush hour. I don’t think we made much better time than the parking lot we left behind. When we finally got back to LI we had to deal with the crappy paving job that I felt every pothole and crack of, thanks to the aforementioned extra thousand pounds. And I was too late to catch the season finale of Chuck. Thank God for VCRs, except of course something went wrong. Thank God for Hulu.com!
Next month, Chicago!
See you there?
The answer, as everyone sane and sensible knows, is ‘because she looks like one!’ Which just goes to show you how silly and surface-oriented peasants can be. The more accurate answer is ‘because she weighs the same as a duck’, but I digress.
It came as a bit of a shock to me to find out recently that not only do some people actually read character descriptions (which I tend to skip over in favor of the next set of quotation marks), but that these same people actually find their experience of a book significantly enhanced (or degraded) based on that description. Since I have stated before that ‘stories are characters in motion’ it follows that the mere appearance of the character has no place in a story unless it affects the ways in which my characters are able to move. Because the Mikado’s will is law, and I am the Mikado.
This is not to say that such things are irrelevant, but that they are only relevant in a certain set of contexts. The smaller the set, the less relevant they are. Normally eye color isn’t a very important detail, but in some cases, like Roald Dahl’s The Witches, where they have purple eyes, it can matter a great deal. In Dave Duncan’s Seventh Sword trilogy the hair color of the two brothers is quite significant. But these are in fantasy novels. I have heard the occasional complaint about the overuse of certain eye colors to indicate some degree of exotic-ness about a character, usually in the context of a romance novel. I imagine red hair would also fall into that category. I described Candace, the romantic lead of St. Martin’s Moon, as having red hair, but only because I had dreamcast her with Alyson Hannigan and she has red hair. The other female romantic lead of the story (which, by the way, is not a romantic triangle) eventually turned out to have been blonde but that was just a throwaway line, mainly to distinguish her character from another.
Skin color and gender are much more relevant elements of a description, although gender is much more so. Skin color would depend heavily on context, for example in the movie Live and Let Die, as James Bond was traveling into Harlem his pursuers said it was as easy as following a cue ball, him being the only white-skinned person around. There is of course a subtext to this scene. Since the movie was set in this world at that time, it would hardly be realistic or plausible for there not to have been one. The importance of the description can depend as much or more on the subtext as the operational context directly. Probably more so, since the subtext is part of the backstory of the character and will also affect the way way he thinks and reacts.
I suppose the real question is how the character is created, or viewed. One of the reasons I dislike the ‘characterization’ school of character creation is that it puts the emphasis on the external visual and behavioral aspects of the character. I create mine from the inside, and I spend the book discovering their foibles, dislikes, and preferences. I don’t imagine that most people, unless they’re in front of a mirror and specifically inventorying their appearance, are going to think twice about their hair color. So I don’t think it makes too much sense to have a character go on at any length about his own appearance. Similarly, when they are interacting with others the descriptive prose I employ is based on what they perceive rather than what they see, and only occasionally will they pay any notice to the way someone looks. Tarkas has often gone on about blue eyes, white skin, and yellow hair, but always because these are unusual to the point of miraculous. When the miraculous becomes commonplace he ceases to notice these things. Backstory is much the same, almost by definition it forms the background webwork of assumptions that we make about the way the world works. Those assumptions are not likely to be explicitly examined unless we encounter a scenario where they don’t work, or they’re brand new. One of my favorite Vorkosigan moments when he discovers that he’s fallen in love with someone, another is the soldier Bothari, when he’s forced to choose and decides not to be a monster.
How do you know if someone is a witch? or a Hero? Because they act like one.
I was told, once upon a time, that the central character of Moby Dick was supposed to be a character who ended up getting washed overboard in the first chapter. Don’t ask me why, I haven’t read the book. The point is that the story at some point decided it didn’t want to be about this guy, and so he was gone, because Melville was smart and didn’t argue with his story.
This is a common problem among authors, I suspect. I’ve experienced it in various forms over the years myself. I’ve never had it so bad that I killed off my MC, but I have had stories that wouldn’t let me develop the MC the way I intended to, which is to most intents and purposes the same thing, the story equivalent of “If I’d been born to the family next door…” (Which is silly, since obviously I wouldn’t be me if I’d been born to someone else, or in another country or time.)
One reason I don’t have it is that I tend to give my MCs social roles which are, let us say, indeterminate. They can be whatever they need to be, so if I don’t like the way they’re going I can easily send them off somewhere else. I couldn’t do that if I was writing romances or anything else set in a rigidly stratified social milieu. Comedy maybe, Gilbert and Sullivan did quite a lot of lampooning of just such things. My stories take place in such places, sometimes, but they aren’t set in them, if you know what I mean.
Another reason I don’t experience this problem much is that I write character-based fiction. The plot (such as it is) grows with the character, and I discover it along with him. As a result I never, for example, make the character act out of character to serve the plot. The plot should only be seen in bits and pieces, as the character sees it. The story is not the plot, or the setting. The story is the character discovering the plot and perceiving the setting. Stories are characters in motion.
(This blog post is an example of this. You’ll never know or see the crappy titles and first paragraphs I started with.)
So if you have an idea, develop a plot, create some characters, and start your story, only find that the story wants you to bury your plot, kill your characters, and run off to a foreign land, my advice would be to listen. We’ve all seen kids whose parents force them, urge them, manipulate them into being what they don’t want to be, and they’re usually unhappy people as a result. Don’t do that to your stories.
In a few months (2 months to be precise, Feb. 1 of next year), my new novel, St. Martin’s Moon, will finally make its first appearance to a grateful world. It occurs to me that perhaps I should start thinking about considering the possibility of figuring out how to let people know about this momentous event.
Or I could just skip all that and do it now, but I’ll take a little sideways step first.
I have been a little distracted lately. I’ve discovered a number of programs in various libraries and have been catching up on shows that I like. I recently discovered Burn Notice this way, as well as finding seasons of Castle. I even discovered that a TV movie I’d seen, Witchblade, had been made into a series and put on DVD. The problem is that these are library items, so they have to be watched within the loan period. I’ve spent the last several weeks plowing through all these episodes and enjoying them all hugely, but I haven’t been updating my website the way I should.
But it occurred to us that this might itself be something to put on the website. Stories are stories, after all, and it might interest someone who is a fan of, say, Burn Notice, to see what kind of fantasy or paranormal novel would be written by someone who also likes a spy drama like that one. They do have a lot in common. All of my books feature a central figure who operates mostly without oversight, trying to do the things he thinks are right. They are all character-centered stories. I think my hero Joseph Marquand would get along just fine with MichaelWesten. Just about the only thing Marquand doesn’t do is voice-over to the audience some arcana of the operator’s trade.
So I’m thinking what I can do is some series of blog posts on the subject of my favorite stories, going into some detail as to exactly why they are my favorite stories. ‘Stories’ will be taken in the widest possible sense, including books, movies, TV shows, comics, etc. I love looking for connections like these and I hope other people will too. I’d love to learn of new stories I haven’t yet seen, as well.
Care to join me?