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Raveling Character

I’ve been looking over some of my older work and I have noticed that the stories I write these days are much bigger. More words, more characters. I used to be able to happily sit down and crank out a two-hander with the intention of quickly exploring a single character point or an idea. Nowadays, however, everything I write seems to have a cast of thousands.

I don’t generally think of myself as an ‘ensemble’ kind of guy, but I have always been fascinated with minor characters. Supporting roles, cameos, servants, villains, best friends, henchmen. I will forgive a lot of faults in a piece of work if the minor characters are well realized, but it’s a rare occurrence when it happens.

I am often asked questions like “tell me about your main character.” During a panel about strong female characters at Continuum recently somebody actually asked the question “If you could design your kickass female hero, what would she be like?”

I took issue with the term ‘hero’, but otherwise I answered the question straight. It was only afterwards that I realized that I already had written a book about the character I described–Clarice, from Bloody Waters. But, like most of my characters, Clarice was not a character that I ‘designed’: she congealed out of a number of my own obsessions and interests and she came with her own story. 

As I have discussed elsewhere, I am not a proponent of the “Hero’s Journey”. In my estimation it basically amounts to “character goes adventuring and is changed. All parts optional.” My engineer-brain doesn’t find this to be a particularly useful construction and my writer-brain thinks that over-reliance on it yields little more than formula fiction populated by stock characters.

We say that character should drive story, but characters and stories are not separate things. A character is not a static entity; a character is a representation of a person. People are a collection of memories and experiences, usually contained inside a single body, over time–it may just be a few seconds or it may be a lifetime. That passage of time is inseparable from one’s sense of self. We are our own stories, and stories are all propelled by the arrow of time. Character is inseparable from story.

On the other hand, the idea that a well-conceived character is one who is changed by the story is one that I find deceptive. Of course characters change–they grow older, they grow experienced, they learn new skills–but the capacity to learn and grow and change varies immensely in real people and it should vary in fiction, too. A character does not have to be enlightened in some way for a story to be worthwhile “Gosh darnit, those alien invaders killed a ton of people, but they sure taught me to be a better dad.” I don’t buy it.

Characters who are unable or unwilling to change with circumstances have valid stories, too. The degree of difference in a character’s attitudes between the first time we meet them and the last is not a measure of the quality of  a story–the measure is in how convincingly that transformation takes place (or fails to.)

While most fiction revolves around a singular protagonist I think we’ve all gotten a bit too caught up in the whole thing. A story may revolve around one character, but he world that they inhabit probably should not. We’ve all consumed stories about the Chosen One, etc etc, I think that this trope is due for retirement, or at least a decade or so of hiatus.

Most stories are not about the Messiah (most of mine are about Very Naughty Boys). Most events or characters in a fictional world should not exist solely to facilitate the hero’s journey. Every character, minor or major, has their own ambitions, their own agenda, their own story, and if these do not influence the way that they act towards the protagonist then they are not characters, they’re plot devices.

Of all of the genres that constitute popular fiction, I feel that crime fiction  does the best job of raveling character threads into a cohesive story. Carefully planned capers come apart because somebody stiffed a diner waitress on the tip; because one of the crooks was more interested in exacting revenge than in getting away with the score. Everyday people and events get in the way of thieves pursuing their goals, but when did the Chosen One fail to rally the Army of the Righteous because he was doubled over with food poisoning in a truck stop toilet? (Hey, I might actually use that…)

Most fiction provides only a limited number of POV characters. Every character adds complexity and the hardest part of an author’s job is to distill something entertaining and meaningful out of a confusing mass of ideas. There comes a point where too much complexity makes the work difficult to follow; where it obscures the point of the story or muddies the theme. It is simply not possible to model a complete reality with a finite number of words–the task is to provide just enough detail enough to convince the reader.

Not all characters are important enough to warrant a huge amount of airtime and I certainly make deliberate decisions about how much space I can give to each For a book with a huge cast it is impractical to provide a fully calculated history for every minor character, so I try to  find ways to suggest that those minor characters have a life outside of this particular story. It may only take a single sentence; a single line of dialogue. Something that surprises you, the writer.  When that line changes the story–maybe only in a small way–that’s when I know it’s working. Often-times it is these moments that give me the greatest insight into what the hell it is I’m even writing about in the first place. Looking at the story from a minor character’s point of view can really give me a new perspective on the story.

And so: character should drive the story, but the world in which those characters live probably should not revolve around that story. Beyond that, I don’t believe that there are any particular rules as to what constitutes a good character or a bad one, beyond the fact that characters need to in some way demonstrate their own volition–their own lives beyond the story.

That’s the hard part.

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