Deep Characters

I had the rare privilege, last night, of sitting and chatting over dinner (and after dinner, since the conversation was so pleasant) with friend and fellow author Tom Rogneby. It was the first time we had met in person, but since we’ve known one another online and talked there about our books, it was a very comfortable get-together and highly enjoyable. Social things aside… we did talk a little shop.

There’s something very invigorating about talking writing with someone who understands what you’re doing, what you are hung up on, and can from an external perspective point out what the snag is. I don’t know if I helped him at all, but he certainly pointed out in one phrase something that made me go ‘oh!’ that will work…

We wound up talking about series, and our philosophies regarding them. I’ve written a couple of shorts (and a novella, Lab Gremlins) that could be knitted together into one world, and probably will be in time. I didn’t do it on purpose, but as Tom pointed out, these disparate stories all feel like they are set in the same place, with characters that could meet up and work together without breaking the universe rules I created.

Both of us, we discovered, had similar problems with long-running epic series. You run out of escalations. I think I’ve written about this before, but you know what I mean – eventually the series jumps the shark, and then it jumps back over again while the shark has a laser strapped to it’s head. He was talking about his BoogeyMan stories. There are three of them, beginning with The BoogeyMan, and I highly recommend them (more to the point, they are some of my First Reader’s favorites). Tom tells me he is working on a fourth, and his plan at that point is to take the four novellas and combine them into one contiguous volume, which will also be released in paper. Then, he said, he plans to stop writing in that world.

I both agreed and disagreed with him. My long-time readers will know that I wrote a planned, set trilogy with Pixie for Hire. I got a lot of cries for ‘more!’ when I ended it. But the story I wanted to tell had been told. Now, what I did do, and this book will be out by the end of the year, is go on and tell the story of another character in the same world. I plan something similar with the Tanager series – there is a plotted trilogy arc, but there are other books I plan to write following secondary characters in the same worlds as the first three.

Tom was funny. He looked at me, smiled, and said, well, I’d like to tell more of the story of… and he told me that he wanted to further explore a secondary character in the BoogeyMan world. But, he said, I don’t want to make her into a caricature. He wasn’t sure he could fully develop a character of a different gender and culture than his own. I will admit I gave him some side-eye for doubting himself, and he laughed. But then he explained that what he wanted to do was to fully develop her in a way he hadn’t been able to, yet.

It’s a good point. I write male characters as comfortably as I do because I can bounce them off my First Reader at any point to make sure they don’t come across as a gal with a swinging dick. Having read enough of Tom’s work, I have no doubts he can pull off the female portion of his character. The other part… I had asked a friend for some reading and listening recommendations recently. I wanted to explore the full depth of the cultural divide that has led to the unrest currently stewing in our cities, and I trusted her to point me in the direction of some solid thinkers, not superficial activists. She gave me the names of three podcasts, and I’m passing them on to Tom, but also to you, readers, as I suspect you’ll enjoy them as much as I have.

Lexicon Valley with John Whorter – an excellent, funny, and informative podcast full of language, origins, music, and a very excited guy telling you all about them. This one I recommend for a deeper understanding of word use, phonetics (you write dialogue and dialect. Yes, you do, and if you don’t, start). It’s also great for understanding the roots of culture as steeped in origin.

The Glenn Loury Show, a fascinating take on some of the hot topics and current events. I really like this show because while Glenn has a very clear vision of what he believes, he brings on guests who don’t always agree with him. They then have a lively and respectful debate. It is a joy to listen to, and the perspectives are invaluable if you want to grow your take on the world, as they range all over the map.

Conversations with Coleman I enjoy in no small part because the take here is of a young person. I’m not old (coff) but I am not hep to the scene, if you know what I mean. I don’t always agree with him, but he is articulate and passionate. Also, his is a show that like Glenn’s, has conversations with deep respect but not always agreement. And it is often a window into a culture I have glimpsed before, of the academician.

And with that, I have an in-person conversation to attend to. I’ll leave you with this – if there’s a character you want to write, but worry that you can’t put yourself in their head to fully develop the persona? Do your research. Don’t let the stereotypes and easy thumbnail sketches lure you down the path of cardboard cutouts. And don’t assume that if a person is from a culture, they are iron-bound by that culture. We all have the odd kicks in our gallop.

 

15 comments

  1. Cedar, I know McWhorter only from several of his Great Courses classes. I find myself often re-listening to them. His enthusiasm in contagious, and he makes a subject entertaining, where the dry facts could be, well, dry.(PS- Many, if not all GC classes are available on Audible. So I augment my collection with my monthly subscription. No pimping of mine could be complete w/o mentioning Dan Carlin. Google is yer friend. 🙂

  2. “…problems with long-running epic series. You run out of escalations.”

    I had this problem with the TV series Supernatural. I haven’t seen the last several seasons. Pretty much every year they would solve the overarching Big Bad, but it would lead to them releasing something worse to deal with the next season.

    1. It’s also a good reason to not start out with universe-shaking consequences. Give yourself SOME room to escalate.

    2. Indeed. I think a good rule for a series is: Characters cannot die – not get seriously injured or near death, but dead, dead – more than twice. I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer but it, too, broke this rule.

  3. In my latest collection of short fiction I have main characters who are a) an openly homosexual man in LA in 1965, b) a paraplegic, c) a sterile woman, d) several young men who grew up after the internet revolution, e) a mutant, f) an android and g) a character who lives a thousand years through advanced technology–none of which I am.

    Nonetheless, I felt perfectly fine with telling their stories.

  4. I’m facing that with the next two (sketched out only) Familiars books. I think it will be time, after M-Familiar, for André and Lelia to ease back, and let the next generation start taking more of center stage. I really don’t want to end up doing a “Familiars Save the Multiverse” story.

    1. As soon as I finish the reading for M-Familiar, I’m going to start reading about night in the pre-modern world, how it was understood and perceived. That’s for the Merchant book series. I truly have to work into a different mental space to write those characters. Different sex, different stage of life, different environment, different understanding of the world . . .

      1. Depends a lot, and I suspect that night vision/Vitamin A in the diet made a difference. Irish people got scared at night, but they also assumed that tons of people were roaming the countryside at night, and knew the roads and shortcuts, as long as they could avoid bogs, bodies of water, and ditches. Other places, it is like nobody went out at night unless they lived in town.

      2. I’ve said this before (and in Amazon reviews), but it bears repeating: You do an amazing job with that series. It’s immersive.

  5. Thanks! You’re right – research, research, research! The character has the potential to have her own series, so I want to make sure I set her up properly and in a way that isn’t cardboard. Writing a female character has its challenges, but writing one from a real-world culture that’s so far from one that I’ve had experience with is going to be a good excuse to do a lot of reading before a word goes on paper.

  6. There’s definitely the writer philosophy of ‘stop the series when the story is complete’, or ‘only worry about a story universe as long as you need to for the story’.

    I’m at the stage where there are a lot of philosophical options that I’m open to, because I haven’t written enough stories yet to know my own preference as a writer.

    As a reader, there are genres I enjoy, which can be extended to lengths that might well be arbitrarily long.

    One is Xianxia. The Xian refers to Taoist immortals, and it is a genre based in folklore about becoming immortal. Folklore inspires worldbuilding of a magical system with a series of discrete power levels. The plots then involve progressing through the levels of the magic system by collecting resources and secret lore.

    Typically, the characters start off at the bottom of the pecking order, because everyone around them is at a higher social status, because of connections and higher power levels. Eventually they gain power levels fast enough, that the previous bullies are no longer threatening, and they travel to a different environment where they are again at the bottom of the local pecking order. A xianxia usually does not stick to only one or two of these cycles. When an author feels that the sequence of cycles would strain credibility for what power levels can be kept segregated in a single world, the character can ascend to a higher level world, where they are again at the bottom.

  7. I prefer stories that are self-contained narratives within expansive (or expansible) worlds. Sometimes the worldbuilding only extends to the edges of the current story, (some of this is affected by the choice of narrator: I’d say it’s accurate of my 1p-limited narration in The Night My Father Shot the Werewolf (in Planetary: Luna) but in Under a Wayward Sun (in the Earth volume of the set), I tried to leave enough worldbuilding hanging over the edges to weave several more stories onto the tapestry.

    The closed narrative arc lets the author (theoretically) conclude the set at any (whole) number of finished stories, but the open-ended worldbuilding lets him keep going if there’s more to tell about the world. Sir Pterry’s Discworld books are among the best example of this I can think of.

  8. I think Pam has done a great job with this problem in Wine of the Gods. There are very few (three [Wolf, Harry, Gisele]) semi-regular characters throughout the entire series. If you go with “recurring” and “several books”, the count goes up to around a dozen. There are lots and lots of branches, some of which rejoin later, but most of which do not – or have not yet (what happens next with Eldon?!?!) – beyond a casual mention.

    That’s also a cautionary tale about creating “throw away” weirdness: I’d bet the four-letter names were not intended to expand into nearly half the books. I’ve only once caught a slip, so I’m betting they have longer names in the draft versions and are search-and-replaced later.

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