Posts Tagged ‘characters’
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.
I was talking to a librarian just yesterday, and I gave myself the idea of a story with no hero. The more I considered the idea, the more I wondered if I was not already writing such stories, even the short ones, where you’d think there wasn’t enough room for tangled skeins of story lines.
I started out writing fantasy novels, with the premise of a man who was an incarnation of the Holy Will being called on by the Gods to do the work they needed to have done. That first story, Unbinding the Stone, was mostly about him, my Hero, but even in that book he had companions who played a significant role in how the story played out, although they tried not to do everything. I think that first book was the last book where I had a hero.
I traded that role for a host of MCs, all of whom were necessary to the resolution of the story, none of whom were sufficient to the resolution of the story. While Tarkas, hero of the first book, played a dominant role in the sequel, A Warrior Made, I can’t say that the story would have been resolved without the efforts of all the other MCs, each on their own arcs that all came together at the end. I think that book was the last where I had a villain.
Instead I have situations, often fantastical or supernatural in nature, as in St. Martin’s Moon, in which people act according to their natures. Some, with a bad nature, act badly, but the main characteristic of the villain is lacking. They are not plotting, nor are any of my other MCs planning their reactions to what he does. They aren’t necessarily reacting to him at all. It’s the situation that matters. Simply defeating the bad-natured MCs won’t resolve the situation, which is what needs resolving if the story is to have a satisfactory conclusion.
I don’t know if there is a technical term for this type of story. Do you? Most genre fiction I’ve read has a villain, with henchmen and a plan, and a hero who works to stop that plan with the assistance of any number of lesser characters. I’ve never heard of a genre novel without a hero. Have you?
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.
It’s really kind of strange and unpredictable what will strike a reader’s fancy. In the latest chapter of my latest fanfiction story, Sparring Partners, I had a scene where Sarah and Ellie go to a bar for some ‘girl time’ (a phrase which makes my wife gag every time she hears it)(not that type of gag). Sarah has commented that her relationship was so screwed up that they had three first dates, two first kisses, and fell in love at first sight, so having the wedding after they got married should come as no surprise.
When I started writing the chapter I was in a very different mindset, I guess, since the opening scene has a very different tone, Sarah asking Ellie to help her arrange her wedding after the fact (her desire to say her vows in front of people who will hunt her down and kick her ass if she fails to keep them is another favorite scene). This often happens to me, by the way. I’ll start a story with no real idea where I want it to go, and then something will occur to me halfway through. With these fanfics it’s usually easier, since I’m modelling the story I write on the story they told, but in this case the story they told doesn’t have much to offer.
The nine2five idea was mainly intended to keep the tone and theme of the show after season 2, developing them in the same direction season 3 did but not the same way season 3 did, since season 3 was really poorly done. In this case, since Chuck isn’t an agent he’s not going to go out and seduce a mark, or face the grim prospect of burning him afterward (my comments about season 3 above notwithstanding, I happen to like this episode because of this sort of dramatic development, most of the things that made season 3 suck weren’t in it).
As a result, I’m free to use this timeslot to work on other aspects of the overall season, such as the wedding, and getting Chuck and Sarah in shape for it. It’s not every couple that gets post-marriage, pre-wedding jitters. Sarah is trying to become a ‘real girl’ with a ‘real life’ she has no idea how to live, since she never had one, and she sensibly turns to Ellie, the realest girl she knows.
When they walk into the bar, the first thing Ellie asks about is the two first kisses, and Sarah says, “Damn, lost a nickel.” She then takes a nickel from her pocket and moves it to a different pocket. This chapter is already turning out to be one of the more popular I’ve ever done, and that gag is one of the most popular gags in it. Don’t ask me why, it was just a little whimsy when it first occurred to me to write it. I guess it’s the whimsy that does it. Sarah is usually such a sober sort of girl that something so ‘out of left field’ has more impact.
It’s the little things.
I was on Twitter yesterday–no surprise there–and I came across a tweet in which someone posted the definition of characterization as given in some dictionary. One of the first things that popped into my head was a bit of wonderment, that a writer would care particularly what a dictionary had to say about anything. While I like dictionaries for many purposes, playing Scrabble among them,I can’t imagine limiting my use of words to what a dictionary says it is. A dictionary is after all simply a repository of the way words have been used so far. In the past. Before I wrote the book I’m writing now. So if I use a word in a way some dictionary doesn’t like, that’s too bad for the dictionary. Not that I want to go too far afield, either, since I do want people to read my books and it helps that goal if they can understand most of what I’m saying. Like any other metric, the unfamiliar should be outweighed by the familiar.
Of even greater interest was the definition presented. “The aggregate of features or traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” Which makes a character sound like something I construct from a pool of traits and features until I get what I want. Umm, no.
I suppose there are some authors who practice this form of character creation. I once read a very nice series of novels about an author whose character decided to become real and improve her life. In practically every book, he was described as having this person’s hair, that person’s lips, some other guy’s eyes, or accent, or…you get the idea. Frankenstein’s monster sounded more human. Fortunately the books were much better than that, and those were the only scenes of that sort I can recall from the books.
To me it sounds just incredibly superficial. (I suppose I should add at this point that I was once a psychology major, until I realized that Behavioral psychology and I just don’t mix.) Aristotle (who upheld a Practice theory of virtue ethics) was closer than John B. Watson (the founder of the Behavioral school of psychology) by a long way but even he could be a little short-sighted at times. Of course, Aristotle also lived in a time when people were defined by the society they lived in, and not the other way around. Defining people by the city or by the book they appear in are both equally odious and limiting techniques. Aristotle couldn’t conceive of certain people being capable of virtue since they had no opportunities to practice it. In m0st books where people are described by their traits and features, I immediately wonder at what point in the story one of these features will turn out to determine the story, and which will be the red herrings. By limiting what I can do with my own characters it also limits what I can do with my books.
I make my characters the old-fashioned way. I rip out pieces of my own soul and throw them onto the page. I follow them around to see what they’ll do in the situations I manage to think up for them to be put into. I explore them, I discover them, I don’t characterize them. I may as well try to characterize myself.
As a bit of a follow-up to my previous post, I have been reading up on steampunk as a genre recently. I found this handy-looking little website that gave me all sorts of ideas about the kind of things they should have, they way they should talk, that sort of thing. This story I’m working on is sort of a ‘Jules Verne meets Rankin/Bass and they beget a Hallmark Special’ sort of story, complete with the stop-motion animation and the squeaky voices, and I have to get it right, since my wife has threatened to introduce me to Mr. Baseball Bat if I mess up.
If that’s not loving support I don’t know what is.
To some extent I’m a little uncomfortable with SF as a genre to write in. There seems to be such a predisposition to focus on the science, i.e., the setting, and I’m a character-driven guy. One of the reasons I write fantasy is that I can make up the setting as I go along. There are details, but fewer of them and I don’t have to worry about keeping them all straight in a single book. Steampunk as a genre seems to be all about such little details. Even Girl Genius, the brilliant steampunk webcomic, with all its wonderful characters, turns on an ever-expanding world of strangeness and new toys.
Gizmos. The Gizmo Effect is when the author becomes so in love with his gizmos that the story becomes about them, and not the character using them. So far it hasn’t ever happened to me, but I’ve read books where it’s clear the author had nothing else in mind. Surely you’ve read a few yourself.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like gizmos. Hell, read my books. (Please.) They’re full of gizmos, from one end to the other. But always because the story needs them. People using gizmos to do things. Sure Tarkas has a wondrous sword, but his culture has no word for sword. Or weapon, for that matter. And when the Demi-God comes along and ‘educates’ him, via a dose of Triple-Distilled Elixir of Warrior, the story benefits, because now Tarkas has to deal with reflexes, skills, and even thoughts he’s never held before and what do you do with them? My gizmos tend to have an effect on the man, and it’s the man I’m interested in.
Tomparasil is so in love with his gizmos he’s forgotten what it means to be an elf, and it’s the elf I’m interested in! This time I’ll have to use his gizmos to explore him from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. What can I say, I’m stretching myself. Wish me luck?