Yes, yes – I’m still alive. Been over a month since I posted on this blog, but that’s been because life has a way of keeping me busy. I hope you haven’t missed me.
No, that’s not true – I hope you’ve missed me terribly and this blog post comes and an enormous relief.
I’ve only got a spare few minutes, so naturally what I want to talk about is something larger than can be contained in so short a post, because that’s how I roll.
I want to talk about character.
The other day, I was being interviewed by a grad student who asked me, essentially, how do I create characters in my stories/novels. This is a good question – a significantly better question than the usual “where do you get your ideas” thing – and part of what made it good is that I hadn’t really thought through it in any kind of concrete way and this question forced me to, all at once.
My answer went like this: at the start, every character is built around a core concept (or high concept, if you like). This is the central, fundamental trait that defines most of their behavior. So, by way of example, I used Fred Rodgers (who is a real person, not a character, but bear with me). Mr. Rodgers’s core concept is that he wishes to see the best in all people and wishes to be kind and understanding to all, and so create a more compassionate and loving world. This desire to be compassionate and kind drove every aspect of what he did – it is central and indispensable. To use another example, Tyvian Reldamar is fundamentally selfish and cynical – he does not believe that true “goodness” exists, and therefore he sees no reason to aspire to it.
The core concept is important, but it is only the starting point. You must then layer a character’s experiences around that concept. What happened to them to make them that way? Once that way, what actions did they take in accordance with their core concept and how did that shape them further. If the core concept is the mold (or the outline), the experiences give that outline depth and contour. Fred Rodgers created his show; Tyvian abandoned his family to become a pirate. Because Mr. Rodgers created his show, he became a beloved personage and found himself an essential part of millions of children’s lives; because Tyvian became a pirate, he became part of a criminal underworld which he later mastered.
But of course we are not done. The next thing – and this is possible the strangest step of all – is to ask yourself under what circumstances will that character violate their core concept. Because, you see, none of us wholly live up to who we think we are. Smart people do dumb things, angry people can be kind, and the cruel and hateful can still love. Mr. Rodgers, for instance, sued the KKK when they aired ads using his his image. It actually made him – him – mad. You can watch the interview where he talks about this: there he is, the King of Kind, his lips pressed tightly together and his syllables clipped, because nothing (nothing) makes Fred Rodgers angry except hatred. Likewise, there is Tyvian, the world exploding around him at the start of The Oldest Trick, and what does he do? Takes a second to save the life of a worthless street kid. Why? Even he doesn’t know. In fact, it take the guy a full four books to figure out the answer to that question.
This moments – what I will term the character’s moral limitations – are super important to making a character that people love and one that resonates with readers. These moments are immensely illuminating as character building moments, since all the best and most interesting characters must be capable of change, and we crave that particular quality in every character we encounter.
I’d also, as a brief gaming aside, that the same exact thing goes for Alignments in D&D and other such character-building tools in other RPGs. People aren’t robots – they can and do violate their core beliefs all the time. It’s the circumstances under which they do so and why that make them human and, therefore, relatable and interesting.
Anyway, that’s my .02. Keep watching the Mandalorian everyone. I’m sure I’ll get Disney+ soon enough and then I’ll see what all the fuss is about.
I will now put forth a premise that I shall seek to support:
You cannot love both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion in the same way.
I don’t mean to say that you cannot enjoy both – it is possible, and indeed I myself do enjoy both. I am saying you cannot love both in the same way and,
arguably (though I am less certain on this score), you likely cannot love them the same amount. The reason for this is narrative distance.
In The Hobbit, you are right there with Bilbo every step of the way. You learn his quirks, his thoughts, his every move. You are tired when he is tired, full when he is full, and so on and so forth. The narrative distance is small. Granted, Tolkien does maintain a certain distance from his character (the narrator often has little asides to the readers about this or that), but for the most part you are deep in there, in the trenches of Bilbo’s adventure. It begins and ends with him, and it is told in that way. Heck, the name of his memoir is There and Back Again. Indeed, one could argue that at least half the uproar against Peter Jackson’s…well, let’s just say indulgent adaptation is that so much of the story eclipsed Bilbo’s journey, his growth, and his triumph.
In The Silmarillion, things are different. This is not the story of an individual (though there are many important individuals to like). It is not the story of a single act or battle (there are numerous to choose from). The Silmarillion is a epochal tale, spanning a full Age of the Middle Earth (or two). The characters, though personified, are not people. You don’t know how Feanor likes to drink his tea. You don’t know what it was like for poor Galadrial to walk across Helcaraxe with the other Noldor when the world was young. Was she cold? Frightened? You have no idea. The story doesn’t tell you and, what’s more, doesn’t treat such details as important. The Silmarillion is a book of history and myth for a fictional world and, therefore, the individual is subsumed beneath the tides of peoples and ages. You are observing the world from an extreme narrative distance granting you unparalleled breadth and scope of narrative, but no intimacy. When Gothmog smites Feanor down, you couldn’t give a shit.
You’ve probably noted that I have a bias, here, but I’m trying not to. There is nothing wrong with a broad, mythic approach to storytelling. Many wonderful stories are told that way – The Iliad, much of the Old Testament, and many modern fantasy and science fiction novels, as well. It’s a totally different flavor, though, than the intimate tale. I contend that you can’t love them the same way, because they are fundamentally different things.
Recently, I read Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem and, following that, read Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. Both of these stories maintain a pretty healthy narrative distance between the reader and the characters. Even though Three-Body Problem runs a fairly close Third-Person Limited point of view, you don’t feel close to the characters. Your connections with them are mostly businesslike, with the exception of one character (one of the first ones you meet). Likewise, The Grace of Kings tells a sweeping saga of rebellions and empires and battles and politics, but only one character really captures your attention and, even then much of what he does is held at a distance from the reader. You do not live in Kuni Garu’s shoes. His struggles are not your struggles. You like the guy, sure, but you are only mildly disappointed at his setbacks and modestly gratified by his victories.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, personally speaking, such styles are not for me. I am in it for the character, ultimately, and the character alone. I can extend my concern to a group of characters, certainly, but there is only so close I can get to so many. One of the reasons why I am drifting away from George R.R. Martin these days is because there are so many POV characters in Westeros that I’m losing interest. Martin, to his great credit, has spent about five books having his cake and eating it too – telling a sweeping narrative of historical proportions while also keeping you emotionally connected to (most) of the protagonists. That, however, is a slippery tightrope, and he’s losing his footing for me. I don’t think I’m alone there.
My closest inspirations for my own fantasy work are the likes of Robert Jordan (who wound up having much the same problem as Martin is struggling with at the end), Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch. For them, character – the individual – is the key to the story. Tell as many generational tales as you like, but I want to be able to feel at home with the protagonist. I want to hear Kvothe sing, I want to trade dirty jokes with Locke and Jean, I want to get in arguments with Nynaeve and watch her tug her braid in frustration. If I can’t have that – if I can’t make a personal, intimate connection with the characters I’m supposed to be caring about – I’m not going to get invested in the story. I might enjoy the story, but I’m not going to love it the same way.
EDIT: Apparently WordPress ate the start of a paragraph. It has been replaced.
Plot and story derive from conflict – anybody who’s tried writing anything has figured this out at some point. In order for something to happen, you need the character(s) to do something. In order to make that something they do interesting, there needs to be something at stake. Things are only at stake if there is some situation in which Option A is preferred over Option B and yet, with inaction or failure surpass some obstacle, Option B will come to pass or remain. That state of affairs is called “conflict” – I want A, but I have to overcome (whatever) to achieve it, otherwise B.
So concludes your really, really basic lesson in plotting stories.
The idea of conflict is simple enough, but how to go about creating it is infinitely complex. You need things to be at stake, yes, but what constitutes that? Furthermore, how large should the obstacle be preventing the character from achieving their goal?
To present an example:
- Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
- Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.
With #1, we have our stakes: Bill wants milk. With #2, we have our conflict: in order to get milk, Bill needs to figure out how to avoid his neighbor. In this particular story, the stakes are not very high and the obstacle not too dire (if Bill doesn’t get milk, what’s the worst that can happen to him? If Bill is caught by his neighbor, how bad are the consequences, really?). The conflict, in other words, fits the situation. It seems realistic. But what happens when you mess with that formula?
- Bill needs to get to the doctor or he will die.
- Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.
So, obviously, Bill leaves his house. The obstacle (talking lawn care for fear of being rude) no longer seems significant. Bill just points to the giant gushing wound in his side (or what have you) and blows past the neighbor. Here, the obstacle isn’t sufficient to match the stakes, and the conflict doesn’t really work. Let’s try this again:
- Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
- Bill cannot leave his house, because if he goes outside he will be eaten by Great Cthulhu.
Here, the obstacle is far, far too great to make it reasonable for Bill to leave. He can go without milk for a little while if the alternative is certain death and madness in the tentacled maw of a Great Old One. The stakes just aren’t high enough to justify the risk.
In order to have a good conflict, you need to know how to balance the stakes and the obstacles appropriately, or the plot begins to break down and become nonsensical or absurd. Things can’t be easy for the characters nor can they be impossible to the point where nothing would happen. As a writer, it is your job to ride that line between the easy and the impossible. You need to be what I think of as cruel.
Your characters must suffer for their goals, yes? Well, it’s your job to make them suffer exactly the right amount to make their victory seem worthwhile. Make it too easy, and there is no payoff. Make it too hard, and everything becomes dismal and sad. You, the writer, are in a certain sense a torturer – you need to rake your main character over the coals just enough that he talks, but not so much that he dies. As any torturer will tell you (well, I presume – I don’t actually know any torturers), that’s a fine line to tread.
I got much of my practice doing this by running role-playing games for my friends and playing in RPGs run by others. The best GMs, I’ve found, are the ones cruel enough to make victory seem impossible but also kind enough to make it possible for you to succeed. I played in one campaign once where our victory was clearly, obviously assured – the GM would not kill us or even maim us terribly, and everything always worked out in the end. It was boring. On the flip side, everybody’s played those Call of Cthulhu games where everybody dies inside of two hours and the monsters win – also a bit boring after you’ve done it once or twice.
The best games? The ones where you’re counting every hit point and scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as ammunition and special abilities go and yet still, somehow, you’ve got to save your PC’s father from the clutches of the Liche King or he’ll be lost to you forever. You’re sitting there on your buddy’s couch, heart pounding, because you know your character could die and everything could go south and, whaddya know, you actually care what happens (stakes!) but the obstacles seem so impossible (conflict!). What you don’t know (or maybe don’t always realize) is this: your GM is scared, too. He’s sitting on the edge of his seat, because yeah, he’s made it crazy impossible and, no, he won’t back down. If he backs down, he loses everything – you lose everything. So he throws you a line here and there, he encourages you, and he prays that the dice go your way just enough so you can win. And what a win that is!
Conflict – writing – isn’t too far off from that. At least, that’s what I think.
Just a reminder to pre-order your copy of The Oldest Trick from anywhere fine e-books are sold! It releases 8/11/15 and is the absolute best place to start if you’ve yet to dive into the Saga of the Redeemed yet. Go check it out!
Lately I’ve been trying out a variety of contemporary sci-fi authors that deal with various aspects of the Singularity. I think it’s sad to admit, but I have yet to be able to finish one. The last one I tried was Charles Stross Accelerando, a book which I recommend you do not read unless you find long strings of technobabble to be as hip and cool as Stross seems to. My current battle is with David Brin’s Existence, bought when I heard an interview with him online in which he had a discussion about the future of humanity that I found intriguing. I read the description of the book and it also sounded interesting. It is interesting. So was Stross, honestly. So what was the problem?
None of these books seem to have characters. If they do have characters, the characters exist primarily as mouthpieces by which the author can convey all the interesting thoughts they have and that they speak about at length in NPR interviews. The thing is, though, that such discussions, while interesting, do not make for a good story. At least, they don’t for me.
A story is about a person or, more rarely, as small group of people. They can live in as bizarre a universe as you please, but ultimately I, the reader, am interested in them only insofar as I am emotionally compelled by their conflict. The emphasis there is on their conflict – as in the character(s), individually. I am not really motivated by the plight of humanity in general. Am I interested? Sure. Believe me, I have many of thoughts about this myself, but I know that I can’t just write a novel that does nothing but talk about humanity at large without weaving such a discussion into the idiosyncratic problems of a specific individual. To do otherwise makes your novel didactic, preachy, evangelical. It wears on me when I feel that I’m reading a book that’s trying to do nothing more than engage me in debate. If I wanted that, I’d read non-fiction or attend conferences. When I’m reading a novel, I expect entertainment. I expect a protagonist with a problem I want to see resolved, not a series of placeholder people meant to do nothing more than paint a picture of what they think humanity is/will be like.
Now, this doesn’t mean I object to stories with defined and discernible points or arguments to be made (I prefer these to the completely ‘pointless’ stories that populate fantasy and scifi), but it does mean I expect your message to be a little more subtle. If I’m reading a book with a rotating cast of 6 main characters, none of whom have anything clearly to do with one another, and all of them apparently present to act as expository mouthpieces for your new universe, I am going to get frustrated. I am not reading speculative fiction for ‘slice of life’ scenes in imaginary worlds; I’m reading it for the exploration of character and conflict in unusual circumstances. This connects, if indirectly, to my frustration with certain long-running fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.) that have decided to put an emphasis on a persistent world rather than on the resolution of conflict. There is only so long I am going to wait for catharsis/denouement before I get bored, no matter how fascinating the subject matter of the fantasy/scifi world. If I suspect that there is no catharsis to be had because there is no dramatic tension to be released (because there are no characters that I am attached to or interested in), I am going to put the book down. If, however, you keep all that stuff in there and weave your issues into that conflict with a degree of subtlety, then you’ve just written a pretty damned incredible book.
Of course, I’m just one guy talking, here. I suppose there are a lot of folks (particularly in scifi) who really love those stories where all they really do is watch the world turn according to the author’s whim and various characters just kind of pop in and out. Come to think of it, I can think of authors who did this fairly well (Asimov and Clarke chief among them), but in all of those instances the plight of the hero was still central to the plot, no matter if the author was less interested in that plot than in the themes they were exploring. Anyway, I’m still fighting with Existence and, to its credit, it’s starting to improve a bit. If I have to keep sitting through radio talk-shows in the novel or attend conferences and actually listen to the speeches the guys are making, I don’t know if I’m making it through. If you wanted to publish a lecture series, Mr. Brin, you could just do that. I’d read it. Just don’t dress it up like an adventure story and expect me to applaud.
So, this past weekend and much of last week, my wife was very busy with work and very tired. As a side-effect of this, I was able to watch some action movies, which are rarely available for viewing in the Habershaw household, seeing as my wife generally doesn’t enjoy them and I’d rather watch something we both like instead of making her suffer for my own, sole enjoyment. Anyway, I (finally) saw The Book of Eli and Rambo IV. They got me thinking about character arc, since in both stories the action hero goes through a kind of character shift, except in once instance it is a bit more plausible and understandable and in the other it seems entirely arbitrary. So, with that in mind, lets talk a little bit about character arc.
In the first place, just about every story has at least one protagonist in which the audience invests their emotional interest. Some of your more complicated stories have several characters that might qualify, but we’re not here to talk ‘complicated’ stories; we’re talking action movies. In action movies (and lots of other straightforward, three-act tales from RomComs to Westerns to Courtroom Thrillers), there is pretty much always an identifiable protagonist – the hero, if you will. In good stories, this protagonist will be a round character (i.e. with identifiable and varied character traits that make them like real people) and one that is also dynamic (i.e. they change over the course of the story). Indeed, the quality and cohesion of this change is essential to whether or not the movie is a ‘good’ one or not.
Contrary to popular belief, action movies with fabulous action and terrible character arcs aren’t ‘good’. They might be diverting or mildly amusing, but they won’t really thrill you to the core. Guy loses girl, guy blows up mob, guy gets girl is, well, derivative and boring, no matter how much kung-fu he knows. I’ve discussed this at somewhat greater length here, but it bears repeating: action is only interesting insofar as we care about and understand the stakes of the action involved. In a good action movie, the action sequences and the plot serve to change the protagonist in some way and we, as we watch this change, develop sympathy for the character’s plight. At the moment of catharsis (that is ‘dramatic release of tension’), we ought to feel an upswell of pathos and understanding. We have traveled with the hero and now understand how he has come to this powerful realization. This is the path of all the best action flicks, from The Rock to Conan the Barbarian to Casino Royale. This brings me, now, to the two movies in question. (spoilers below, for those of you who care)
I was really looking forward to this film, primarily because I really like the Rambo character. Yeah, he isn’t the most well realized action hero ever, but the internal struggle against his own ‘warrior nature’ is a compelling one for me. His story is about a man who seeks redemption but never manages to find it. I was curious to see how that troubled character matured into an older man, and Rambo IV was that movie.
So, we are given the fairly stock story about a bunch of well-meaning white westerners who butt their heads into some affair in Asia and get seriously burned and it becomes Rambo’s job to (reluctantly at first) rescue them from a horrible death at the hands of evil South Asian War Criminals. Despite how it sounds, the first two acts of this movie do a pretty good job of showing Rambo struggling with his conscience. He doesn’t want to take the missionaries upstream, but he does anyway because, deep down, he wants to believe that they can fix things. He wants to be a good man. He wants to be a man of peace. The big, bad world, though, isn’t a peaceful one, and Rambo winds up having to lead a team of rough and tumble mercenaries deep into Burma to save them.
But then, in the third act, while Rambo mercilessly slaughters a hundred billion Burmese soldiers in a shower of gore and explosions, the moment of catharsis somehow seems to elude us. One second he’s standing there, resolute and angry, over the corpses of his vanquished enemies, gazing down at the leader of the missionaries (who finally ‘gets it,’ I suppose) and then, after a fade out, we see him returning home to Arizona with a smile on his face.
What the what?
If Rambo’s problem is that he can never escape his ingrained predisposition to be an ungodly killing machine and, thusly, never can return home, how does this latest iteration of ungodly killing machinations change things? It would be one thing if he found God (even if it would ring hollow) or fell in love (which he clearly doesn’t) or something about the timbre of this violence has a visible effect on him (which it doesn’t seem to), but all we get is Rambo triumphant and then, magically, Rambo redeemed. That’s it? That’s not a character arc, that’s a character cliff. He just falls off the wagon of perpetual-war-addiction and goes to see his Dad. What, do they make a patch for that?
The Book of Eli
Meanwhile, in the character of Eli, we are given a similar protagonist as Rambo. Eli is old, the veteran of many battles, and trying to find his place in a world gone mad with violence and cruelty. His guide is his book – the one and only copy of the Bible – that he carries and reads from constantly and that he trusts will somehow bring him to the Promised Land. Like Rambo, Eli’s attempt at solitude and contemplation is disrupted by his encounter with Evil Men and his wish to protect an innocent woman. He fights to protect his book, but, in the end, after all the bullets have flown, he must give it up to save Solara.
Unlike Rambo, though, in that moment we have our moment of catharsis. Eli realizes something about the Book and gives it away. While we sit there, baffled at his decision to sacrifice his life’s work and, probably his life for the life of an innocent, a process of understanding begins. Though we figure it out later, by the end we see what Eli saw: the book isn’t the important thing. He is the Book. What the Book teaches him is essential, but the actual physical Book itself is not. When Carnegie asks Eli “God is good, is he not?”, Eli’s reply of “All the time” is sincere. It is because, at that moment, he understands. He lets go and, by letting go, he is victorious. This is a character arc; this is catharsis.
This was a better movie.
Now, I don’t mean to say that Book of Eli was the greatest movie ever – it was just ‘pretty good’ to ‘okay’, and I’m not entirely sold on the big twist at the end – but it was definitely better than Rambo and understood what it was doing on a level superior to many of its action movie brethren.