Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Desires, Fears, Beliefs: Characterization At Its Base

     The political news is still all about the Mueller Report and the reactions of various talking heads, so let’s allow that to rest for today. I have a fiction topic in mind, one that a lot of fledgling writers have a great deal of trouble with.

     In my little tome The Storyteller’s Art, there’s an essay on “The Sin of Over-Management.” Its core thesis runs thus:

     Once you have defined your characters -- i.e., once you've given them their powers, their desires, and their constraints -- you must allow them to act in accordance with those things. Beyond that, you must permit the reader to learn about your characters from the characters themselves.

     Some of that is too obvious to require further development. For example, a character defined as a reasonably ordinary human being must not suddenly develop super powers. Alternately, a character defined ab initio as subject to an inability to face danger must not suddenly become profoundly courageous. These rules are understood by all but the idiots. (Yet one of the best known of science fiction’s progenitors, H. G. Wells, actually broke one of them in his novel The First Men in the Moon. It’s an amusing illustration of human fallibility.) But the part about characters’ desires seems not to be well appreciated.

     The most important thing about your characters is what motivates them: their desires, fears, and beliefs. A character may change in the course of a story – indeed, if none of your characters change at all you don’t have a story – but the changes must be traceable to the events he experiences and the contexts in which they occur. Moreover, he cannot jump an excessively wide gulf: to have a character morph from totally evil to totally angelic simply doesn’t work. The prudent fictioneer leaves that sort of “story” to God.

     Once you’ve defined a character, you must then allow him to act in accordance with his desires, fears, and beliefs as you’ve postulated them.

     Of the four indispensable elements of story, characterization is regarded by most writers as the most challenging. A writer wants his Marquee characters to be both relatable and interesting. There’s tension there. To be relatable, a character must seem familiar enough to the reader for some degree of identification. But to be interesting, that character must differ enough from the common run of Mankind to stand out, to make his decisions at least somewhat off-axis. The launching pad for all of that is motivation.

     “What people want,” from the 30,000 foot perspective, can seem fairly uniform. We want to prosper. We want to be safe. We want acceptance, admiration, and affection. And we want the sense that we’re progressing: getting better, or at least wiser, as time passes.

     But of course at the individual level the details will vary. Not everyone defines prosperity the same way. Not everyone has the same threshold value for “safe.” And so on. It’s within the details that distinguish us as individuals that characterization takes place.

     You can’t make a relatable character completely and utterly fearless. (In Joe Haldeman’s formulation, “the kind of person who would face certain death with a slightly raised eyebrow.”) Automata incapable of conceiving of their own elimination could be made fearless, but not flesh and blood humans. Neither can you make a character completely and utterly selfless. Your decisions about what he fears and to what extent, or what will cause him to sacrifice his own interests for others, are critical – and once made, they must be honored. If they’re to change, the changes must be justified by his experiences in the story.

     How is that done? Ah, it’s time for more coffee!

     The old maxim “Show, don’t tell” relates specifically to how your characters must be revealed to the reader. There are three channels for this:

  • What your character says;
  • What your character does;
  • What other characters say about him.

     Those are the only valid methods. This often chafes the fledgling writer: “Why can’t I just tell the reader what Smith is all about?” Simply put, because it’s intrusive. It’s un-organic. It’s like finding an op-ed essay in the middle of a novel: What’s that doing here? It’s the writer inserting himself into the story, instead of standing back respectfully and narrating the action to us. In other words, it isn’t storytelling.

     The temptation can be strong. It’s your duty to resist. Your readers-to-be are counting on you.

     If you’ve done your characterization well, your character’s decisions and actions will be convincing. The reader will be able to see him as a believable person. To achieve that standard, the best of all aids is backstory.

     Backstory is “the story before the story.” Your character didn’t spring from the brow of Zeus just as the story began, did he? So he has a past you can create, just as you created him. Thereafter you can exploit it as a basis for his decisions and actions.

     Little bits of backstory will make their way into the story proper. It’s not wise to incorporate all of it, of course. But elements from “story past” can, should, and will make their way into “story present.” Here’s an example:

     “What I’m about to tell you,” Holly’s lover said, “I’ve never told anyone else. Shortly before I left for Cambridge I made some inquiries about surgery. You know the sort.”
     Holly said nothing. Rowenna sipped from her glass.
     “It wasn’t that I wanted it for myself, love. I knew I could never be a fully normal woman. But I hoped that if I could just contrive to look normal, it might mend the rift with...”
     “With your father,” Holly whispered.
     “With Sir Thomas,” Rowenna said.
     “But you didn’t go through with it. Why not, Ro?”
     “Because it would have killed me,” Rowenna said. “The surgeon said my body wouldn’t withstand the shock.”
     “Did he know you were...naturally the way you are?”
     “He did,” Rowenna said. She finished her wine and set down the glass. “He was familiar with the condition. He said I wasn’t the first futa to explore the possibility with him. He’s of the opinion that futanari are stuck as we are, that as strange as our condition is, our nervous and endocrine systems are too tightly integrated to endure serious alterations. He said he’d made inquiries among his colleagues, and that they’d left very little room for doubt.”
     I have more options than she does.
     I never would have guessed.
     Holly reached for her lover’s hand. Rowenna looked up and said “Don’t!” Holly pulled back at once.
     “You must hear the end of it,” Rowenna said. “I went to Sir Thomas and begged him to listen to me. I told him what the surgeon had said. He listened, and when I’d finished he pulled out his checkbook, wrote a check for a hundred thousand pounds, and handed it to me. He said it was all the same to him. He said he wanted nothing further to do with me, that I could do whatever I pleased as long as it was far away from him.” She met Holly’s gaze once more, and Holly could see that her face was wet. “And as I had attained my majority, he ordered me to leave Norfolk and not return.”

     [From Experiences]

     Rowenna’s explanation of the rift between her and her father (Sir Thomas) is part of the justification for her extraordinarily strong bond with her lover Holly, a transwoman of the usual sort. While it has moderate importance in Experiences, it blossoms most completely in The Wise and the Mad, which I expect to release this summer.

     (There’s an interesting sidelight here: I’ve been continuously developing Rowenna through two novelettes and two novels. Much that was hidden about her in the early stories comes to light in the later ones. In that sense, backstory can become “story proper,” but great caution is required, that you not slip into “telling” rather than showing character. I may expand on this in a subsequent essay.)

     Rowenna fears to lose Holly. Her fear is founded on the most important difference between them: Holly is the way she is by choice, whereas Rowenna, a futanari, is not. Holly has the option of renouncing the changes she has imposed upon herself and going back to masculinity. Rowenna has no such option…and she fears that Holly, whom she’s known for only a short time, might exercise her option and leave her behind.

     That’s how it’s done.

     Desires, fears, and beliefs. Make it your mantra. They’re what move all of us out here in the “real” world. Let them move your characters as well. Don’t imagine that you can get away with instant, unjustified transitions from evil to sainthood, or cowardice to heroism. Tell the story – or rather, let your characters tell it to you.

     The rest is just typing.

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