Monday, October 7, 2013

Honesty is the Only Policy

“He wanted to dream a man. He wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.” –Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins
I want to talk a little more about characters, if that’s alright.  I've been thinking a fair bit about them lately, especially since I've been reading this great comic K.P. turned me on to.  Maybe I can get her to write a review about it sometime when she isn't being crushed by a T.S. Elliot paper and 100 pages of T.E. Hulme reading.  As it stands, she is T.H.E. busy.  Anyway . . .

Characters are the vehicles of your story.  They aren't just our point of entry into what’s going on, they are what’s going on.  People want things, and do things, and say things, and feel things, and we come along for the ride.  There are plenty of short stories in which this is not the case.  Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Bradbury’s “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains,” and that other one what I can’t remember the name of.  Sure.  Short stories, like poetry, are their own animal.  There are also books – plenty of fantasy and sci/fi come to mind – that are much more concerned with the place, or time period, tech, or magic system, etc . . .   If you read either of these genres you can probably come up with about half a dozen examples off the cuff.  But these stories work better, in every instance, when they have a cast of interesting characters to support them, or at least competent characters who don’t muddle up our enjoyment of all those cool protocannons and silicon-nanoid symbiot-suits. 

How do you write compelling characters?  That’s a pretty high level question, and I’m probably never going to be able to explain it satisfactorily.  Let’s save a painful, technical struggle and just say they have to be dynamic and seem like they actually inhabit the world you’re writing in.  This place you've put them?  They live there.  And their lives spill over onto the page whenever you’re looking at them, and continue whenever you’re not. 

Do not write plot device characters whose purpose is to move the story along and make things easier on you.  Need a little tension?  Have that crazy character do something stupidly bad.  Want this character to be endearing?  Make that character terribly obnoxious, and have this character put up with her, or tell her off, depending.  No.  Bad writing 101.  No.  Your characters need to have their own purpose, irrespective of what you think you want them to do.  They should make things difficult for you, not easy, because you’ll discover they want things you hadn't planned on. 

First set in stone, no negotiable rule of write club: No one is an expert at this.  No one knows all, or even most of what should happen when they sit down to a new project, or even when they sit down each subsequent writing day.  Plan all you want, the name of the game is discovery and revision.  You try something, it doesn't seem quite right, it doesn't seem true to the characters, too cheap, too on the nose, or just uninteresting, what do you do?  You go back and go in a different direction.  But hey, don’t feel bad.  Now you know where not to go.  Now maybe you recognize the next time you start to veer in that direction.  This is the hardest part, the admitting to yourself “I think I've gone the wrong way.  I have to go back.  I don’t think this is it.”  But it’s easier if you can say it now instead of waiting for someone else to say it later.  Don’t fret.  You’re a writer.  Writers write.  This is what you do.  And it’s hard, but it’s also damn fun.

Remember, when it comes to writing, you’re only wasting time if you’re not . . . or if you’re not being honest with yourself.

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