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Category Archives: Character

Human Conception: From Reality to Narrative

Psychology textbooks like to talk about the idea of “roles”: gender roles, professional roles, class roles, etc.  This is merely one instance of the greater process of human understanding.

Premise:  Reality is infinite and almost infinitely complex.

Premise:  Human beings–and their brains/processing power–are finite.

Question: So how do humans manage to interact with and understand the world?

A human being takes a subset of reality, and creates a rule from it.  A system of rules for a given topic becomes a model.  A group of models is understood through a narrative.  Our conception of the world, both physically ad intellectually, is comprised of a series of narratives.

Similarly, when we consider ourselves, there is a process of understanding–

Person -> Perceptions -> Roles -> Ideals -> Narratives -> Identity

–where “person” is a reality whose totality we cannot completely comprehend. When we consider others, we trade out the idea of Identity with the idea of a Label.  Now, a person can have many labels and many identities depending on context.

This goes back to the premise that we cannot understand everything all at the same time.

It is possible to move from the Label/Identity layer down into narratives, roles, and perceptions.  But no matter how low we go, we can never understand the totality, and this is where we run into the problem of false roles, false narratives, and false labels.  The vast majority of our conceptions of other people are flawed, and the other person would probably disagree with a large portion of them.  And so we have misunderstandings do to our inability to completely conceive of the totality of a person (or the world).

 

So, we take the facts we have and try to find what’s called a “best fit” case.  When you graph trends in statistics, you draw a line through your data points that best  approximates the average location of the points.  The same is true when we judge others, no matter on what axis we are judging them.  We look at our system of roles, ideas, and narratives, and try to find the set of them that most closely fits our perceptions of the person in question.  Then, we construct our idea of their identity from that best fit.  In this way, we warp (slightly or egregiously) the unknowable totality of reality as we experience it to fit a narrative.  Because our system for understanding and interacting with the universe is only capable of so much, we reduce reality down to something it feels like our system can handle.

The reason that certain character archetypes and narrative trajectories are so popular is because they match the most easily understandable roles and narratives.  Good vs. evil is easy for our  simplified system to handle.  It’s much harder to judge and therefore arrive at an “appropriate” emotional response to grey morality.  Because humans and the cultural sea in which we swim impose a localized best “best fit” on our collective consciousness, as writers we can learn about these best fits and cleave to or  subvert them for our own purposes in our writing.  We can pick where to deviate in order to focus our attention and our chances of successfully getting across our meaning.  Just as we can only handle a certain complexity in understanding reality, we are limited in our ability to deviate from the norm successfully.  Thus the  commonly re-quoted “You get one big lie” in regards to maintaining suspension of disbelief.

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Privilige and How it Affects Your Characters

I’ve been reading a lot about privilige lately, and I’ve always gotten that there are various kinds of privilige:  white privilige, class privilige, male privilige, heterosexual privilige.

But the concept of privilige is so much more wide-spread than that.

There are all sorts of little ways in which we judge people, and all of these involve privilige, sometimes they are tied into bigger chunks of privilige.  And sometimes it’s just this one little thing, and because you can’t tie it into a larger idea of privilige, you classify this person as less because of it.  There are all sorts of things that fall into this category.  Using a credit card at the store, writing a check, how to hug somebody properly.

And I know that if everyone in the world read my post, many of them would be saying:  “What do you mean ‘hugging somebody properly’?  You just hug them.  How could you not know how to hug someone?”  But hugging is a learned behavior.  You learned how to hug people during some period of time (if you have learned how to), likely when you were growing up.

And so when you go to hug your 21-year-old roommate, or girlfriend, or cousin, or friend, and they pull back, or are a limp fish, or manufacture some excuse not to hug you, just consider: maybe they don’t hate you, maybe they aren’t secretly angy, maybe they don’t not care about you, maybe they aren’t planning to break up with you, stop being friends, or whatever else.  Maybe they just didn’t grow up in a household where they learned how to hug.  Or maybe the reason they’ve never been in physical contact with you is because due to something in their life, they associate physical contact with negative feelings or treatment.

The same thing goes for writing a check, or making an appointment with a doctor, or anything else.  Maybe they didn’t get a bank account when they were sixteen to keep their birthday money, or their trustfund.  Maybe they don’t know how to call a doctor because they didn’t have money for medical care.  This person is probably already feeling awkward, or scared, or like shit, because they know they don’t know how to do this thing.  And they know how people are going to react.  I’m sure most people have seen this happen.  “How do you not know how to use a computer?”  “Anybody knows the “A” button means “yes”.  “How can you not work a dish-washer?”  “Dude, how hard is it to order a drink at the bar?”  “What?  You can’t read?  Are you stupid or something?”  “You can’t ride a horse?  What the fuck have you been doing with your life?”

Some of these things we already associate with privilige.  Some of them we feel are bigger problems, and desverve more sympathy.  But what they have in common is they are all learned behaviors.  Do you know why this person doesn’t know how to do that thing?  Because they didn’t have someone to teach them how.  You know how to do it because someone taught you, or you learned yourself.  But even if you did learn yourself, guess what?  This person is going through exactly what you went through:  watching other people do this thing while trying not to be too obvious, covering up the fact that they don’t know how and hoping they won’t be found out, feeling like shit because how dumb must they be to not be able to do something everyone else seems to know how to do, and knowing that if they are found out, that’s exactly the question other people are going to ask about them.

Now, I’m only here to preach at you a little bit.  I do actually have a writing-related point to this.  When you’re trying to figure out how a character would act in a given situation, or what they might reasonably know how to do, consider:  What skills would they be in a position to learn?  Did they cook the dinner in their house as a kid?  Did they have spending money?  Are they familiar with physical forms of affection?  If their parents don’t trust them with money, there’s a good chance they won’t know how to write a check or use a credit card.

Perhaps more relevant: How might they react to what other people can do?  What do they see as common life skills?  What do they see as a common reaction to a situation?  Someone who butchers their own animals for meat might see being scared of blood as weak and a personal failing.  Someone with rich parents and a trust fund might be surprised to find a friend doesn’t know how to pay with a credit card, or order in a fancy restaurant.  Someone with an old hand-me-down for a car might be curl their lip at a rich kid who needs a mechanic to check their oil.

All of those are pretty obvious examples.  But your characters will have specific set of prejudices and abilties, based on their background and social group and living situation.  And if these factors don’t match up with what your character actually knows or can do, I’m going to be very suspicious.  The same for if they are mysteriously blind to various forms of privilige when they shouldn’t be, or aware of them when their background doesn’t explain why.  And I’m going to wonder if maybe you as the author are blind to this privilige.  I’m unlikely to judge you personally for this, but I’m not going to have any sympathy when someone else calls you out.  Because as a writer, this is something I expect you to know.  Writers research all kinds of things during the course of writing a book, and privilige in all its forms is something you damn well better be aware of if you want to portray the real world accurately and fairly.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2011 in atsiko, Authors, Character, Privilege, Writing

 

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Confessions of an Aspiring Writer: Voices

I’m going to tell you all something that I have never before uttered in the light of day:

“I do not hear voices in my head.”

I know, I’m a writer.  How can I not hear voices in my head?  How can my characters not talk to me–occasionally causing me to stop dead in the middle of a busy street?  I don’t know.  But unless I’m actively generating a voice for pre-writing purposes, my characters do not speak.  They sit quietly like good little children until I call on one of them to answer a story question.  This has always been how my characters work.  Whether it’s fanfic or fantasizing, daydreams or “serious” “original” work, my characters must be conciously stimulated to speak and act.

And so when I go to other writers’ blogs, or read interviews by/of them, I’m always wondering… Am I crazy?  Or are they?

Perhaps I am simply unlucky, but character dialogue has always been the toughest part of writing for me.  Not character voices per se, which I feel are one of my strong points, but actual dialogue between characters–and quotation marks.  Is this because my characters don’t speak to me, or is it the cause of them not speaking to me.  I don’t know.  But I worry.  A lot.

Am I alone?

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2010 in Character, Writing

 

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Rules for Being a Bitch

There are a lot of different character types out there.  One of the ones that’s currently popular is the Bitch.  Especially for antagonists, and especially in YA.  (Though other major characters and other genres can work with a Bitch as well.)

In this post, I’m going to look at why Bitches are so popular, and what exactly it takes for a character to be a Bitch–rather than a bitch.  To start us off, here’s the #1 Rule for Being a Bitch:  “If being a bitch doesn’t work, be a bigger bitch.”  Sort of like how you build a better mouse trap.  Basically, we’re talking about perseverance.  Bitches are popular because they’re easy to hate.  Changing character types mid-book can be a big turn-off for many readers, so a character that’s consistently bitchy, but consistently inconsistent otherwise makes for a great conflict.  You never know what they’ll do next, except that it will be Bitchy.

For example, “Redemption” is a good theme, but it can be hard to pull it off, and sometimes when you just Love to Hate someone, “redeeming” them can ruin that great character-reader dynamic.  Characters interact with the rest of the story, but a good writer can make it seem like they interact with the reader, too.  And that means there’re are going to be character-reader dynamics just like there are character-character dynamics.  Both are equally important to the story, so you have to consider how a story change is going to affect them.  It’s something to keep in mind.

Also keep in kind that good Bitch is clever, manipulative, and just downright self-absorbed.  They know what they want, and they know how to get it.  They’ll lie, cheat, steal, and be your best friend if it means getting what they want.  Whether it’s your boyfriend, your money, the pirates’ treasure, whatever.  And they always have a back-up plan which is even more clever, manipulative, and self-absorbed than the original.  That’s what makes them so enjoyable.  A dumb bitch gets no respect, and a clumsy bitch just gets pure derision.  If your reader is just laughing at the antagonist, you’re not going to get enough story tension, and the reader will be left wondering how pathetic your protags are that they can’t even get around this loser of an antag.

The absolute key to a great Bitch is that your protag doesn’t realize they’re a bitch until the climax.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the Queen Bee of the local high school, or the seductive sorceress down the lane.  If your Bitch is too obvious, the character won’t be fooled, and there won’t be the bittersweet tension between what the reader knows and what the protag knows.  And that’s where the power of a Bitch plot comes from: the subtle undermining of the protag, the strange coincidences the cause them to miss the goal, the emotional damage they suffer for believing in the Bitch.  Whether they’re a powerful swordswoman, a lovelorn but confused teenager, or a coroner in need of some lovin’, a good Bitch can be just the thing to turn a boring story into a rippin’ good yarn.

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at the different types of Bitches and how they operate.  Every genre is going to have its own take on the Bitch, and every setting is going to have its own version of that take.  Plenty of fertile ground in which to plant a story.

 

ETA:  I’ve noticed lately that this post is getting a lot of traffic from tumblr, mostly what seem to be YA writing blogs.  Even though this is primarily a speculative fiction blog, and not YA or contemp, I’m glad people are finding something to enjoy.  So much so that this is one of my top five most popular posts.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2010 in Character

 

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