Friday, February 15, 2019

Assorted Thoughts On Character Selection And Design

     When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I seldom take the time to think about the fundamentals of the enterprise. I’ve done enough of this to have internalized those principles. However, some recent experiences have caused me to revisit a subject a lot of fledgling writers struggle over: what makes a character, particularly a Marquee character, plausible and attractive.

     In my little tome The Storyteller’s Art, I posited a three-tier scheme for characters:

  • Marquee Characters: The persons whom the story is mostly “about.”
  • Supporting Cast: Persons involved with the decisions and actions of the Marquee Characters, but whose fates are of less importance.
  • Spear Shakers: Persons who appear where they do in the story simply because there has to be someone in that slot; unimportant except as human stage dressing.

     Broadly, a good story will pose its Marquee characters with conflicts, non-trivial decisions to make, and above all else tests of their values. By implication, they must have values, arranged in some sort of priority scheme. The story will then compel them to confront those values and ponder what they’re willing to say, do, pay, or sacrifice to uphold them.

     The writer’s decisions from that point forward will center on manifesting and demonstrating the Marquee characters’ values through the events of the story. This makes it fairly “obvious” that character design must come first.

     No plot idea is sufficient to make a story “work” if it isn’t first matched to characters who will act out their values through it.

     I inserted a large number of Marquee characters into Experiences:

  • Neurophysiologist and businesswoman Rachel MacLachlan;
  • College dean Amanda Hallstrom;
  • Novelist Holly Martinowski;
  • Holly’s flatmate Rowenna Walsingham;
  • Holly’s “fangirl” Irene Carroll;
  • Security specialists Larry and Trish Sokoloff;
  • “Star-crossed lovers” Daniel Loring and Ching-nien Chen;
  • And Onteora County’s Catholic pastor, Father Raymond Altomare.

     These interacted with one another and a gaggle of Supporting Cast characters of varying importance.

     Ten Marquee characters is about twice as many as even a large novel normally contains. At one point I found myself wondering whether I’d crafted an unmanageable mess for myself. I spent some time dithering over whether to “thin the herd” in the interests of keeping the story coherent. After a while I decided to tackle the challenge around the waist, as the central theme of the story – the power of the human desire for acceptance — required all of them to be depicted in its fullness. It proved to be a great deal of work, more even than Innocents had cost me, though I was ultimately pleased with the result.

     However, the price of that decision has followed me into the sequel to Experiences, tentatively titled The Wise and the Mad. Seven of the Marquee characters from the former book will appear in the latter one, along with a few new ones whose significance to the story is yet to be fully determined.

     If I weren’t already bald from “natural causes,” this would do it to me for sure.

     It’s a blessing to have your characters “snatch the story from you:” i.e., to dictate what the course of events must be, once the setting and initial conditions have been specified. Strong characters can do that for you. Indeed, the stronger they are, the more likely it is. But you must be ready to accede to their demand for control of the story.

     I’ve mentioned this before, which prompted fantasy and science fiction writer Margaret Ball to comment as follows:

     On moderately bad days the characters storm through the ms informing me that they never said anything like the vapidities I've ascribed to them. On really bad days I'm reduced to begging the characters not to hurt me.

     I got a big chuckle out of that, largely because I’ve often felt the same way. Nor is it a condition restricted only to us two. Indeed, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s a condition that should be striven for...but I must admit that I can think of no way to bring it about, apart from making your Marquee characters as vivid as you can.

     Another blessing, this one a bit more mixed than the one above, is to have a Supporting Cast character grab you by the lapels and shout “I deserve to be Marquee status!” That’s happened to me several times. In one case it caused the complete redesign of a novel, and the reorientation of its sequel. In the others I’ve “promoted” the assertive Supporting Cast member to Marquee status in a subsequent novel.

     Now for the “mixed” part. Apart from the eventual benefits, no writer actually enjoys rewriting. As for a large-scale redesign that forces you to discard your original outline, synopsis, and notes, let’s just say I’d rather have another root canal. But there are few assets of greater value than a character strong enough to carry a novel on his own shoulders, so one must learn to pay the price for it.

     Larry Niven, well known for his way with invented words among other things, has counseled us to “Save your typos!” It’s good advice. To that I will add: Don’t just carelessly toss off your Supporting Cast characters, expecting to use them just once. Be willing to think deeply about them. Some of them could be hiding heroic (or diabolic) stature of which you’re currently unaware.

     If there’s any more important brief maxim than John Brunner’s Two Rules of Fiction:

  1. The raw material of fiction is people.
  2. The essence of story is change.

     ...I’m unacquainted with it. The most fundamental rule of all is therefore:

Story == People Changing.

     If the changes are dramatic, the story will be arresting...but that requires that the people -- the characters -- must be plausible and vividly colored. No plot, however original or convoluted, can save a story populated by pallid or implausible characters. On the occasions when I’ve gotten them right, all else has followed. On other occasions...let’s not go there, shall we?


Tracy Coyle said...

I can see (and occasionally have been able to write) a character demanding the progression of the story. I agree it is the sign of a good character (writer) that their process through the story is logical FOR THEM...not based on my principles or logic but on the ones established for the character.

And I like character dense material...


Back in grad school I started a story and got well into it. The story seemed to write itself; everyone who read it liked it and thought the characters seemed very real. My problem was that I had no real direction and certainly no conclusion to direct things toward.

Now, I have a story that's started. I know the ending. I just need to figure out how to fill up the middle.