RSS

Tag Archives: Character

Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Narrative vs. History

Putting the “Story” Back in “History”

(A continuation of my Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar series.  For the month of June, I’m looking at the effects of narrative on worldbuilding and its use in writing good stories and characters.)

What do we really know about the past?  What other people tell us.  Go read Ken Liu’s You’ll Always Have the Burden With You.  I’ll wait.  Not only is it a fun story, it’s a perfect example of the fallibility of the historical record.  Human beings are wired for narrative.  It’s in our genes.  It helps us make sense of a world that’s merely a random sequence of events within a given system.  Narratives are our best attempt at making those obscure rules transparent.  In the story, the narrative of a Gilgameshic epic serves the purposes of the head archaeologist.  People like the story, the expeditions get funded.  An alien tax code is boring (not really, but for your average human, it holds little interest), while an epic fantasy with religious overtones is fascinating.  It’s an open question in the story whether the truth really matters.  The main character criticizes an interpretation of the findings that within the expedition team has since been discredited, and yet when the same thing happens with the interpretation of the most fascinating artifact, he refuses to believe it.  or at least bows to the argument of the expedition leader.  It’s unclear if any of the characters notices the irony, although I can only assume Liu intended it to be available to the reader.

This concept is reflected in actual history.  Greek and Roman “historians” have often been suspected of telling fibs to further their agenda.  Did Carthaginians really sacrifice infants, or was that merely a convenient fiction during the conflict between them and the Romans?  Were there really temple prostitutes, or was it merely a way to discredit otherwise comparably civilized opponents?  Does belly-dancing really descend from the sacred dances of the temple priestesses in the Levant?  Or does it just make lessons more marketable to New Age and Feminist customers?

Beyond mere misinterpretation based on imposing our own value systems on alien cultures or just plain old aliens, there’s a purposeful misunderstanding, of which no culture is innocent, that can corrupt true history and misguide us in our understandings of others.

Rather than the truth, history is just the most successful narratives that have survived long enough that no one can refute them.

These narratives can even be so successful that they overshadow living truths of other cultures, or the narratives put forth by the modern descendants of past cultures.  All it requires is a lack of competing narratives.  Whether this is because those narratives are lost to history or are being purposefully suppressed, or because they aren’t available in a given language, or just because they haven’t penetrated popular consciousness, it makes little difference in the end.  Sometimes we can manage to unseat false or misguided narratives.  Sometimes even when the truth is known, it’s just not sexy enough for people to care.

What does this have to do with fiction?  You can take advantage both of narratives and how we apply them to history and apply them to your world-building, to your plots, to your characters, to your themes.  Being able to conceive of multiple plausible narratives for one situation, and being able to point a reader down those roads can be a valuable skill for a writer.  Mystery writers use it to place red herrings, to keep their characters from looking stupid in the multi-suspect structure of many procedurals.  Medical procedurals such as House MD make use of this concept such that a tiny little fact can change what appears to be the most reasonable narrative, or more specifically, the most believable diagnosis given a certain set of symptoms.

The three easiest targets for a narrative are those who are honestly ignorant of a topic, those who are more ignorant than they think they are, and those who are invested in the likely outcome of a given narrative.  Our understanding of economics is rife with competing narratives and confounding factors.  We know many small pieces of the puzzle, but the whole picture eludes us, and that makes for plenty of seemingly reasonable possibilities.

And as a result, what is the general populations view of economics full of?  Conflict.  Various people are invested in various economic narratives for various reasons.  They may or may not believe these narratives to be true, but they act as if they are true, or pretend to act like they are true because of the benefits of doing so.  Trickle-down economics benefits those at the top of the heap; the truth of the theory is irrelevant in that sense.  Plenty of competing theories are guilty of the same.

And that applies to any area of human study or endeavor.  In politics, we may be more familiar with the concept of propaganda, which is a subset of narrative, generally associated with political bodies.

No society is truthful with itself.  Whether they deliberately mislead themselves, are tricked by someone, or are just blind to the perceptions of others.  Neither are humans.  Self-image is also a form of narrative, whether it’s someone’s actual opinion of themselves, or the “reality” they try to project into the minds of others.  Any non-zero number of humans engages in spin at one time or another.

The next time you’re working on a story, whether it involves a single character in the moment, or the history of an entire nation, consider: How would this person or group spin themselves to outsiders?  To insiders?  To themselves?  How do they want to feel about themselves, how do they want others to feel about them, and what do they gain from the various possible interpretations of the facts?

Finally, ask yourself, what are the burdens of maintaining these narratives?  How do they affect your characters’ or society’s relationships with others?  Where do the various narratives your characters or societies feel the need to assume conflict?  How do they balance those conflicts, if they can?  How do the imbalances force their hand?  And how does self-image conflict with self?  Is it better to assimilate to the useful image?  Is it worth the pain and stress not to?  Why these self-images?  Guilt? Ambition? Or desire?

Look forward to next week for some specific analysis of the effects of narrative on history as regards the Japanese in World War II.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 1, 2015 in worldbuilding

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven and How We Often Get It Wrong

I was reading a thread about fridging on AW today–fridging is the practice of heaping torment on some side character to give motivation to the protagonist, based on a Green Lantern comic where his girl-friend was murdered and stuffed in a fridge and this was his motivation for the revenge plot–and it highlighted something to me that I think we often miss when we compare stories based on their focus.

There has long been a dichotomy in the study of literature involving the over-focus of a particular story on either its plot–a characteristic commonly attributed to the trashiest commercial fiction–or on its character, an allegation commonly leveled at literary fiction during debates on the prestige of various forms of writing.  It’s an argument with a lot of history and occasionally acrimony, and much like with fridging, I think a lot of people who participate in it are really missing the point.

The more sophisticated participants don’t get caught up in the literary vs, commercial fiction arguments, instead focusing on reader/writer preference, but even still I think most of them are thinking in too simplistic of terms and miss the subtle nuances that underlie the real issue.

First, I want to point out that it’s also possible to have a setting driven story, a complaint often made against science fiction and fantasy dealing with extensive description or focus on world-building, and it’s also possible to have an over-focus on theme.  Fairy tales, for instance, often lack plot or character nuance because they are created to express a theme or moral to their audience.

But the real issue goes back to my example of fridging.  First, I want to look at the issue from the side of so-called plot driven fiction.  What plot-driven fiction does when dealing with characters is to take short-cuts in characterization based on common tropes.  For example, killing the protagonist’s wife/girl-friend/sister/daughter/mother to provide motivation for the plot.  Or the hero’s journey trope of call-to-action/refusal/submission, where rather than having a unique personal motivation to approach the quest, the character is forced into it by circumstance.  Or in a crime story, where a character is thrust into action by being framed by the real culprit or suspected by the authorities.  Although these can be valid and complex motivations, to often, as with the female in the fridge, they are treated as short-cuts needing little development, as the audience is familiar with the motivation.  Sister raped and murdered -> Male character is off, no further thought required.

On the side of character-driven fiction, the complaint is often that the character thinks too much, rather than too little.  This is described as whining or angst, or wimpy-ness.  many times, the reader of commercial fiction wonders why the lit-fic hero doesn’t get off is ass and do what needs to be done, isn’t it obvious what should happen?  This is an attitude inculcated in readers by the ubiquitous use of sign-posts in commercial fiction.

But this view to me is too simplistic.  Sign-posts exist for a reason.  They have uses, and they can be very effective.  Many commercial fiction writers have been sign-posting to get through tricky motivational issues without “bogging down the reader” in internal monologue and to jump straight into the “exciting” parts of the story.  But what they should really be using them for is to give the reader a way to relate to the character, while exploring how specific circumstances create an unique motivation for the character, rather than relying on generic reader outrage.  Too often the character is fridged, and then its off to the races, never looking back to consider why that character was special to the protagonist and what specifically about the fridging event is motivating the character.  That exploration should be informing the morals and the lengths to which the protagonist is willing to go to get justice for the act, and not just an excuse to have a swash-buckling, fire-fight heavy adventure with a pass for any bad acts committed during.

The distinction between character-driven and plot-driven fiction does exist, but it’s neither as clear-cut or as blatant as the various detractors of each focus make it sound.  It’s not all cookie-cutter archetypes and protracted passive wangsting, but rather a subtle misunderstanding of the various tools of writing.  Neither the external nor the internal arcs of the story can stand alone.

You can certainly have weak or under-developed character arcs, or a meandering plot full of holes, but the idea that one element precludes development in the other is false.  Although the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses is basically discredited, I think we can still argue that by imposing these terms on our fiction, we’re creating a false impression that it’s relevant to a well-made final product, and it isn’t.  However you arrive at your storyline, the actual book should never reflect your behind-the-scenes methodology.

Finally, there is another less common way of looking at the issue, which is based on the idea that a premise is a promise by the writer to the reader where the writer asks questions and then answers them.  From this perspective, a plot-driven story is where the primary question/promise is based on the external narrative arc, and a character-driven story is where the primary promise involves the internal character arc.  But even here, a good book doesn’t lack in its promise about the other arc.  The two arcs still influence each other.  It’s simply that the book makes clear that the climax-resolution is molded more around one arc, while the resolution of the other is a consequence hinging on the main resolution.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on July 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , ,

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.

 
8 Comments

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

 

Tags: , , ,

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?

 
4 Comments

Posted by on September 30, 2010 in Character, Writing

 

Tags: , , , ,

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.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on May 10, 2010 in Character

 

Tags: ,

How the Four Aspects of Character Define the Story: Part 1… and a Half

Last time I brought up the four main aspects of character in fiction.  Hopefully everyone who read that post now has a good understanding of what these aspects are and how they relate to each other.  In the next set of posts, I want to go into more detail on how these various aspects of character interact with the story.  I’m going to be illustrating these interactions with examples from published fiction, and maybe that will give you a better idea of what I’m saying.  I know I can be a bit opaque at times. 😉

The easiest aspect to address is “skills, abilities and attributes(SAAT)”.  We’ll stick to that for this post, since the discussion is going to be much more involved.  In fact, if the title suggested to you that this will take more than one post, I may be getting better with titles.

First, I’m going to tack on a fourth part of this category, the “T” in the above acronym.  It may seem like hair-splitting now, but when we eventually discuss Mary Sue/Marty Stu characters and cast balance, it’s going to come in handy.  Trust me.

T stands for… “talent”. ***pauses for the groans to pass***  Whatever you may think about talent in real life—whether you follow the 10,000-hour-genius school of thought, or the natural gifts philosophy—the fact is that it plays a large role in fiction, whether that’s your heroine’s staggering gift for pissing off her friends, or her incredibly advanced flute-playing.  Or whatever.

Next, for the rest of these posts, I’m going to use the word “trait” to refer generally to any part of any aspect of character.  “Personality trait”, “physical trait”, “motivational trait”—and I can’t really think of a reasonably graceful term for SAAT traits.  Feel free to suggest one in comments.  I’d appreciate it.  Also keep in mind here that there’s a very similar continuum as far as intellectual traits go, with intelligence standing in for natural talent, knowledge for skill,  and so on.

Now, back on-track:  Not only will this aspect affect how readers perceive and sympathize with your character, it has a lot to do with your plot, or it should.  Unless you’ve tacked on a bunch of extra awesomesauce traits to make your character cooler, the way they meet the obstacles in their path is going to rely almost entirely on what they can do.  (That is, for the external conflicts.  Internal conflicts are a whole other story.  In fact, you might say that every book has two stories, one following the plot, and the other following the characters.  But that’s a topic for another post.)  If your character is a demolitions expert, they’ll be seeing safe-cracking from an entirely different perspective than if they were a computer programmer/hacker/console cowboy.  We’ll be starting with a no-skill situation, and picking the next thread up later. 

No matter how many latent talents your character may have, they’re not going to get much done without a repertoire of skills.  They might be the strongest mage in the world, but if they know jack about casting spells, some poor conjurer panhandling in the park could out-magic them.  This situation is most often found with younger characters (but not always), and it comes equipped with a whole host of tropes and conventions to help writers get around it.

Trope 1: The Call et al: If you’ve ever read any epic fantasy, you’ll know what most of these tropes are.  They’re laid out in excruciating detail on TV Tropes, or in Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Face.  These all relate to how even though the MC is a completely worthless good-for-nothing, (s)he will still somehow manage to save the world.  We migh generalize and call this “Fate”.

Trope 2: School!  I know everybody’s familiar with this one.  Harry Potter, Name of the Wind, Earthsea, Velgarth,  a bajillion anime and manga.  This is where the talented, the not-so-talented, and the absolutely abysmal gather to learn their craft.  Older students tend to go to a high-class university or get more practical training.  I’m just happy Eragon opted to skip this trope.  Stories that follow this trope generally contain a great deal more slice-of-life action that Fate and Mentor stories.  While learning the skills needed to resolve the conflict is still important, it’s not usually the driving force behind the characters’ actions.  For Harry, going to Hogwarts has little to do with defeating Voldermort in the beginning, for example.

Trope 3: Master/apprentice:  Unfortunately, Eragon opted not to skip this trope.  Any fantasy writer is going to be only too familiar with this one, though it applies in many other genres as well.  Martial arts, competitive board games, you name it.  It may not be as common in genres that require the character to start off with a comprehensive skill set—such as mystery, thriller, or romance.  Same for school, actually.  A good recent example is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, which features and adult version of this trope—something that’s sadly uncommon.  Although younger protagonists are generally less self-directed than good ole John.  We can call this the Mentor story.  You can often find him hanging out with Fate, but almost never school.

Trope 4:  Natural Talent: except it’s usually not “natural” talent, because that requires nurturing and focus.  What we’re talking about here is “my character can do this because(s)he’s a) awesome, b) made of cardboard, c) the child of a lazy writer, d) the prophesied messiah/hero/destroyer, e) the MC, duh!, f) in need of these powers too fast to do things right but plot is king, g) all of the above.  This is not always lazy writing, and the other two tropes can be just as bad.  But I always see a sign in my head when reading about these characters: “Here there be Mary Sues!”  Again with the Eragon, shouting a word in a language he’s never learned to solve a plot problem, even though it’s established he has to learn almost every other word in this language by himself later in the story.  In The Wheel of Time, Mat is especially prone to this syndrome, thanks to his transparently named Old Blood, which lets him do things that would normally require him to be significantly older than he is.  This trope is friend with everybody, though I can’t say much for their taste in this case.  It’s very convenient for passing time and getting around tedious things like practice and hard work that many writers and readers like to avoid.  Movies can often trade NT in for a montage.

Trope 5: The Pre-Promote: I’m adapting this term from rpg/strategy games, where it’s common to have one or two very strong characters at the beginning of a game or in certain storyline situations so new players can be coddled for a while.  In fiction, these are often people who could probably do this job better than the protag but are constrained by the writer’s love for their phosphorescing authorial insert.  Our examples here come again courtesy of Robert Jordan.  Moiraine uses the One Power to do most of the heavy lifting at the beginning, except on a few occasions where Rand exhibits a bout of Natural TalentTM, usually used to make him seem less of a wet dishrag than he really is at that point.  Physical combat is handled by Lan or occasionally Thom Merrilin, while Lan trains Rand in the easy and unskilled art of spitting men on three feet of steel. 😉  The Pre-Promote is friends with everybody.  They may take the role of Mentors in Fate stories, or teachers in School Stories.  They may or may not have Natural TalentTM, but they are quickly surpassed by the MC, and often die in very gruesome manners.

There are many other tropes associated with no-skill stories, but those are the major ones.  We may or may not address others at some point in the future.

A no skill situation means we won’t be seeing the true obstacle until late in the story.  For inexplicable reasons, the antagonists will not do the smart and expedient thing by going straight for the throat.  They’ll stall and be distracted until the protagonist is up to the challenge of facing them.  That’s because characters in these circumstances need time to learn how to get things done.  Whether early obstacles are overcome with help from soon-to-be-killed Pre-Promotes, or through sheer luck, it’s usually not due to direct action on the part of the protagonist(s). 

A character with no skills can function well in a very limited number of story structures, and no overdose of tropes is going to make that number any larger.  So if you decide to use such a character, make sure you’re coloring within the lines.  Now, there’s never just one way to write.  This is only what my own experience has been.  So feel free to chime in with dissenting thoughts and opinions, and to call me things you couldn’t say in front of an eighty-year-old sailor, if you like.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on April 26, 2010 in How To, Ideas, Writing

 

Tags: , ,

Atsiko’s Character Recipe for Stories

Last time I talked about how to move from a plot idea to a full story idea.  We learned about ideas, plots, and story questions.  But as I said in that post, there are many ways to begin a story.  One of the other most common ways writers begin stories is with a character.  So today, I’m going to give the basic steps of taking a character and creating a story around them.

Again, there are a few aspects to this–four, to be precise–and you can start from any one of them.

First, we have an image.  That is, a picture in the writer’s head of what the character looks like.  Images can be a lot of fun, but to turn a character image into a story probably requires the most work.  Common inspirations for character images include dreams, chance sightings in public, and sometimes a certain aesthetic, such as Steampunk, Victorian, or Vampiric.

Character images are very similar to character designs in games and anime/manga—that is, the visual aspect of the character.  While this is less important or visible in writing than character designs in visual media, it still needs to be known by the author, in order to allow for description and scene-setting. 

Now, why might this aspect be the hardest to start with?  Because stories are about characters—and more specifically, their personalities and goals.  While a character image might reflect that, it’s not the root of the issue.  But character images are only part of what you would find in a character profile such as many writers use to describe the character.

The second part of that profile is usually the character personality.  Their dominant traits, such as neurotic or fiery; their likes and dislikes, such as favorite food or favorite color; and of course the way they interact with other people: Are they bright and boisterous, dirty-minded and sly, or perhaps aloof and brooding?  This aspect is easier to build from, but still not the easiest.  While it is important as far as cast interaction and sympathy go, it doesn’t have the most influence on the plot.

Our third aspect of a character is made up of goals, dreams, and motivations.  This is where good stories arrive at their themes and basic plots.  Most plots either involve pursuing the characters dreams, or frustrating them.  Myself, I prefer a certain amount of frustration, since that’s where most tension and conflict in the story is derived.  It’s hard to write a good story with interesting characters when this aspect is lacking.  It’s also one of the primary issues that pansters seem to encounter in their first drafts. 

In fact, this aspect is where most stories are lacking in terms of character.  If you’ve ever heard the term “card-board character”, this is what it’s talking about.  You might have the character image down-pat, but if there’s nothing behind it for a reader to relate to, the reader can’t root for the character, because there’s nothing to about them that’s interesting. 

Personality plays a role as well, but if this aspect is not addressed, all the snark and wit in the world isn’t going to drive the story forward.  “Passive character” is most often the term for a hero who’s got both image and personality, but is an empty vessel as far as trying to achieve their own goals.  While you might be able to get away with a passive character in some types of stories, it’s still a risk that you shouldn’t take lightly.

And now we just have one more aspect of character to discuss: skills, abilities, and attributes.  Anyone who’s familiar with RPGs knows how important this is, although since there’re only NPCs in fiction, it doesn’t have quite the prominence they’re used to.  This category deals with skills such as self-defense, manipulation of the environment and others, and normal physical attributes such as speed or strength.

Now, you’ll notice I’ve divided this into three categories.  I’ve used ones derived from common RPG mechanics, since they fit so well.  Naturally, these categories are going to be a bit vaguer in fiction.  A “skill” is facility in a certain area, such as computer programming, writing*wink*, or swordsmanship (to keep fantasy from feeling left out).  It’s generally something learned through studying, training, or practice.  “Ability” refers more to a specific power, and is often inherent, such as being genetic.  An attribute is the most passive category.  It refers to a general facility, such as intelligence, physical stamina, or charisma.

I think we could benefit from some examples, here.  Since I love talking about magic so much, we’ll focus on that—but this can be applied to any area, whether it’s sports, music, or fighting. 

Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea has magic most accurately classified as a skill.  It is learned, in a school, and honed through practice and concentration.  Elemental magic systems usually map as abilities: elementalists are born being able to control their specific set of elements, and often do so with no training or instruction whatsoever.  If you’ve ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, or played a game such as Golden Sun, you’ll know what I mean. 

For “attributes”, I think it’s easiest to use examples from gaming systems.  In many RPGs, such as Elder Scrolls or Dragon Warrior, characters are assessed in several attributes, such as strength, speed, luck, and intelligence.  These are general characteristics used to calculate health, attack damage or mana points.  They are generally not learned, but increase automatically as a game progresses.  Now, in a book, this progression will not be made in terms of points or levels, but more vaguely, in terms of “becoming stronger”.  The character will be able to swing a sword harder, run faster and farther, or figure out more difficult puzzles.

A strong character, and one that a good story can be built around, requires that each of these aspects be known and balanced against story obstacles.  Some aspects are more amenable to fudging or simplicity, but ideally, they would all be fleshed out and used to determine the course of the story.

Some of these aspects answer questions that came up in the plot recipe.

The skill and personality aspects deal with how the students from the previous post would act up.  If they were good at manipulation and had outgoing personalities they might incite crime or riots among other students.  If they knew a lot about computers, they might cheat on tests by hacking the system.  If they were physically fit and prone to violence, they might abuse other students, terrorize teachers, or destroy school property.  They drive the plot.

The motivation aspect answers the story question.  If they wanted to get good jobs and rise in public society, they would have to work hard to outshine all the other students, and meet the demands placed on students by the government, such as high test scores and acquiring skills in profitable sectors of the economy.  If they didn’t have the drive, they might burn out or drop out, and resort to rebellious behavior.  And if they were intelligent, driven, and angry, they might…  Well, you’ll just have to wait until the book finds a publisher to get the answer for that one. 😉

Finally, how is the story idea affected by the character aspects?  Well, image doesn’t map very well onto any of the plot aspects.  The story idea, being the main thing that makes the story stand out, is going to affect all of the aspects of character, rather than being affected by any of them.  The setting is going to influence the fashions, and thus the character images; the level of tech and the environment, and thus skills and motivations; and also the socio-cultural climate, and thus the characters personalities, and their way of expressing themselves.  Keep in mind that we’re only talking about how to start a story.  As a writer, you’ll have to deal with all of these things eventually.

This post has gotten rather longer than I expected.  In the next post, we’ll discuss more about how these various aspects affect the story; and after that, common terms for different character types, and how these types impact the story the character is in.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on April 25, 2010 in atsiko, How To, Writing

 

Tags: , , , ,