Most weeks I don’t have a lot of time to read. At least, that’s been the case recently. Work, life, writing. The writing is a very good thing. Ok, all of it is good. Reading has been ranking way down there, I’m afraid. I’ve fit in a fair amount of research reading, and one pleasure read (I do love our own Alma Boykin’s Familiar tales!). What I have also been doing, to give my brain crunchy little granola nibbles while my hands are busy at work, is listening to podcasts. I know they aren’t for everyone – especially not my peculiar blend, I suspect – but there are times something really catches my mind and gets it going. Read more
Posts tagged ‘character building’
This holiday I managed to find myself with one kid at home. Two of my daughters are up at college – one in her dorm, the other visiting – one is with her grandmothers, and my son is at home. He’s blissfully pretending that he’s an only kid for four days, and for the baby, that’s a big deal. One of the things he asked me to do with him was binge-watch a movie series, which we eventually bargained down to an anime series, because I refuse to admit there are more than three Star Wars movies, and he prefers the newer ones to the one I know and love. So he went through the various anime that are on Netflix, asking me what genre I like, and when I pointed out I will not watch a chick-flick (his words, not mine!) and he’s not allowed to watch an MA rated one, we wound up settling on one that is sort of fantasy but the situation is precipitated in a science fiction way.
I’ve been finding it… interesting. I’m very aware that the story is targeted more at my 12-yo son than it is at the 40-yo me, much less the me that is also a professional teller of tales. I’m still trying to convince my son that he doesn’t need to pause the show every so often and explain the plotline to me. I don’t know if he thinks I can’t follow it because anime, or if he just wants to show off that he knows it. The storytelling is very broad, which makes sense. You have a whole over-arching story plot, but in each twenty-minute episode there’s a sub-plot. I’m very much not a film geek, so I’m finding it a good exercise in study. The tropes are certainly tropey, and even though it is ostensibly a Japanese anime that has been redubbed in English, there are a lot of American or at very least Western tropes, like Santa Claus appearing in one episode (called Nicholas the Renegade, which amused me a lot and I liked the concept of that). The dubbing is amusing- you have a variety of options, to turn on the audio in Japanese, or English, to turn on closed captions in either of those languages, and most of yesterday we had it on in English with English subtitles running, and I noted that often the dialogue in print was not the same dialogue spoken. Curiously, this actually makes a difference. For instance, there’s a scene where the female character tells the male ‘I think I’m falling in love with you’ out loud in English, but the subtitle reads ‘I like you.’ Translation is tricky, culture is more so, the English dialogue is often much more detailed than the direct translation, like they think we need a bit more words to get the message without the tone of the spoken words in Japanese.
I’m going to bet a bit spoilery, but I don’t think any of my readers will mind. However, if you plan to watch Sword Art Online and haven’t yet you might want to stop reading now. The pilot opens with a long intro bit about this super-popular MMO game that is a virtual reality, and we see a montage of people waiting in line to buy it, and one guy (kid? hard to tell with anime art how old) who was a beta tester alreay going into the game. The game is, as the name implies, centered around the art of the sword. But once these new excited players are in the game, they figure out there is no way to log out, and then the player characters are all told that the game designer booby-trapped the VR helmets so they can’t leave the game, if someone takes off the headset it will microwave their brain and kill them. If they die in the game the headset will microwave their brain and kill them. The only way out is to clear the game.
I have so many questions at this point: how do they know this guy is on the level? If a player leaves the game, there’s no way to know if he’s dead or alive IRL, it could just all be a mindgame. And how is the player’s body being kept alive IRL? How are they going to cope if, after months (yes, the shows I’ve seen so far imply months if not years passing) of becoming a super-swordsman they win the game and come back to a body that has no muscle mass and must re-learn how to walk? Anyway…. this is what suspension of disbelief is for, right? I’ve hung mine pretty high and occasionally hit it with a cudgel to keep it quiet so my son can enjoy watching TV with mom, a rare treat for him.
And the show has it’s moments, don’t get me wrong. The mini-romances are handled sweetly and very lightly, as befitting a juvenile show. The scene I referenced earlier led to a lot of blushing but nothing more. The violence, such as it is, is very computer-graphics and looks like something out of a computer game. There was one scene my son felt he needed to warn me about where a character is shown in bra and panties – you know the bikini sets from about 1950? yeah, they looked a bit like that. It was cute. The whole thing is cute. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to use for my writing, but it’s an interesting study in building a character in thumbnail sketches. The main character starts out a shy loner, and sort of stays that way, but along the path to beat the game we see him do things like diverting the building anger against beta players who the new players are trying to blame for the disaster, by telling a big group that he knew more than the betas, and they should hate him, instead. They stop frothing up a riot against the betas and turn their anger on him, which was his point, taking away the division.
I can’t say I recommend it, exactly. But I do think that there are things we can learn and pull from the visual that can add to the textual of writing, especially if you are writing for a younger crowd that is used to things like anime.
As we learn to write, one of the greatest tools, and conversely, the most crippling failing, can be the understanding that humans are predictable. It can be very easy to predict that a man and a woman pushed into close proximity with, say, one of them in the role of taking care of the other who has been injured: we all know that story ends with them being in love. But if we do this too often, we fall into stereotyping. There’s a thin line between developing a cardboard character who hits all the clichés for human behavior, and one who is richly alive but still human in their motivations and reactions.
Let’s take, for instance, a denizen of a blog we’ll dub vile 666 and make an assumption. We could write them as cowardly creatures who stay in their safe space ranting about things they have extrapolated from other blogs, and those things bear little to no resemblance to what the rest of humanity would call reality. But that would be a stereotype. Instead, we need to look deeper and see what motivates these characters and drives them to believe the way they do with the concomitant reactions that leave the rest of us wondering just how delusional they can get. Here, we see that the characters are confusing a tiny space of their close, er, friends with the big wide world. Here’s a human assumption: the reaction of the larger population of humans to small cliques is, by and large, apathy. But inside the clique, reality becomes constricted to the small pool of light cast by their news sources, and they can only see what is illuminated by that light. In other words, a phenomenon known as gaslighting.
In a story, we sometimes see characters and wonder why they are doing a certain thing “that’s stupid,” we think, “why can’t they see beyond their noses?” In real life, this can happen. Humans are predictably short-sighted, and once they have allowed their world to contract into the visible range of the gaslight, the rest of the world falls dark to them. Powerful stuff for the author, if done right, to show that world being expanded again by turning on other lights and revealing a broader realm to the character. The most recent example I can think of in fiction is the Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia, with the culminating episode being the man who cannot see beyond what he was taught all his life traveling for the first time outside his proscribed realm. A redemption story is one that humans, predictably, crave as it promises that mistakes can be mitigated, and we’ve all made mistakes.
It’s not an easy journey to undertake for your character. Keep that in mind. Simply snapping on all the lights at once to reveal a once-hidden universe will shock a human into a whimpering withdrawal even if they are made of stern stuff. They will reject that which is outside their perceived reality. A very good example is writing a story of a human suddenly discovering that magic is real. Have you ever read a story where the character who learns all about some paranormal phenomenon, takes it in stride, and you the reader had your suspension of disbelief shattered? People don’t react that way. This is also a tool used in writing fantasy, the people who simply don’t believe their own eyes and reject truth in order to maintain their comfortable existence.
It’s not stereotyping to know that people do react in certain ways. The man who rescues the woman will indeed be very attractive to her. The nurse who tenderly cares for a man who in time recovers his strength will be dear to him. But if we look deeper, we can add depth to the characters, using the predictability as a map of highways and knowing we need to add the secondary and tertiary roads to create a fully-developed character. People resist change, and will return to old habits if not pulled away for some reason, or given support as they change slowly. Humans are this way for a reason: it’s not safe for a human alone to careen off in every direction, abandoning the cave for sleeping in the tree and picking that new shiny red mushroom for dinner. We take things slowly almost by instinct, and it’s not a bad thing.
In a story, we can precipitate our heroes into trouble that forces change on them. We can, authorially, shatter worlds literal and metaphorical, to make the story happen. But we must remember that humans are always human. Some of the characters, just like some people, will refuse to admit light into their constrained world, and will run around pulling all the blinds tight, taping tinfoil to the windowpanes, and then retreating to a small closet to pretend the world not-as-they-know-it doesn’t exist.
It’s much better to write the flexible characters, the ones who face the storm afraid but undaunted. These people exist in real life, too. The curious ones, the seekers of knowledge, the ones willing to take a pratfall from time to time, get up, dust themselves off, laugh at how silly they looked, and learn from it. The ones who follow the light and help guide those who cannot see out into safety as the skies fall. They are the characters that, predictably! we like to read about, and hope, in our hearts, that we are like.