Tag Archives: characterization

Hero or Superhero

Usually by this time on Tuesdays, I have an idea about what I’m going to blog about. Heck, I usually have an idea when I get up. Sometimes I even have the post written the night before. But not today. I blame yesterday for it. Between painting and taking down cabinets and an emergency plumbing repair (nothing serious, just threw off my timing on the other projects), my brain wasn’t on writing or blogging. To be honest, I needed a day like that. But, it meant this morning, I was scrambling for a topic.

So I did what I sometimes do in that situation. I went to other blogs, social media feeds, etc., and looked to see what folks were talking about. I came across a couple of different threads on different sites about what readers look for in main characters, especially in genre fiction. The phrasing was different but it all came down to one main question: do readers want heroes or superheroes for their main characters? Or, to put it a little differently, do they want flawed characters who have issues to overcome and who might grow some during the course of the book or story arc or do they want that perfect character who, like Clark Kent, swoops in to save the day and rarely has a hangnail, much less anything seriously go wrong in their life?

In one of the discussions I looked at, someone commented that they didn’t think you needed a character to have flaws or to “grow”. They pointed out characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones and asked how they “grew”. I think those two stood out to me the most and for different reasons. Ian Fleming wrote Bond, at least in my eyes, as the “perfect” man. He could get and bed any woman he wanted. He was the perfect spy. He was the man most other men wanted to be. There’s no problem with that. For the time when the books were written and for the genre involved, that’s what readers and publishers wanted. Besides, for every James Bond, you had a George Smiley. John le Carré wrote Smiley as an older man, one who had fallen from grace in the intelligence community. He was not the perfect man and he had a past to overcome. In my mind, in many ways, he was much more interesting than Bond ever could be.

As for Indiana Jones, he was far from perfect. While those imperfections didn’t cripple him, they were there. He was impulsive. He didn’t always think through the consequences of his actions, even when those actions might put others in danger. He had daddy issues. We see some growth, especially with regard to the daddy issues in the third film. (We won’t mention the fourth film. Please don’t mention the fourth film.)

But, where my mind went first when I saw the original discussion was my own reading and David Webber’s Honor Harrington. One of the things I loved about Honor from the very beginning was that she wasn’t perfect. Sure, because of her genetic background, she was taller and stronger than some. She was also a brilliant Naval officer. But she had her own ghosts and insecurities. Those could come close to crippling her. She had a temper and a streak of vengeance a mile wide. Both of which cost her as well, at least early into the series.

I loved seeing her shine as a Naval officer and then seeing the insecurities as a “normal” person. I’ve known people like that. They excel in the office or boardroom, in the surgical suite or at the front of a classroom. But put them into a social setting and they suddenly think they are unworthy, ugly, insecure, whatever. That was Honor. Over the course of the first three or four books, we get to see her grow as a person. She was already a strong officer but as a “woman”, she had a long way to go.

That did not make her any less of a leading character or human. Far from it. By seeing her able to put those insecurities or, in some cases, prejudices behind her in order to do her duty was refreshing. those flaws kept her from being a Mary Sue (something she has come very close to being in the later books in the series, imo).

What I noticed on each of the sites where I saw this discussion happening was that they rarely seemed to mention female main characters, focusing instead on male leads. Maybe their responses stem from the belief that men shouldn’t show weakness, maybe it came from something else. I don’t know. But, I think it comes down to a matter of degrees.

I don’t know about you, but when I say I want a character with flaws, I don’t mean I want a character who has been broken by life. Oh, there are places for that, but not every leading character has to be broken. They can be bent — hey! Get your minds out of the gutter! — or they can simply be human. Growth doesn’t have to mean a major change to their behaviors and attitudes. It can be as simple as learning to admit that they don’t know everything or that they might not be the best at something. It can be learning to let someone else into their lives, be it on a romantic scale or with regard to business.

Sometimes, we need characters with some flaws to make them believable. What is appropriate to one story or genre might not be for another. So, here’s my question to you; what books do you think do the perfect (or superhero-esque) character well and which ones do you think do the flawed character well? (Yes, this is also my way of adding to my TBR stack.)

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Predictable Behaviour

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.

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Chopsticks

Chopsticks
Pam Uphoff

Two decades ago, I injured my right hand. Good doctors, good hospital, good antibiotics, brutal physical therapists . . .

I never think about it. Until I try to eat with chopsticks. Something in the motion finds a hidden weakness, and by the time I’d finished dinner yesterday, well, “survived without having to shamefully ask for a fork” pretty much sums up my relief.

I suspect we all have hidden weaknesses. Physical, mental, emotional. Sometimes just hidden from outsiders, sometimes hidden from ourselves.

Our written characters need those as well, but you have to be careful just how you smack the reader with them. You have to handle it in a way that doesn’t have the reader throwing the book across the room. You have to foreshadow a bit of touchiness on a subject, or, or, say a drinking problem, or a flash temper. I hate to say this, but you have to give trigger warnings for your characters.

Sometimes the explanation can come afterwards, hopefully getting it in before the book gets tossed.

“I told you. I don’t drink. What? Did you think that was because I’m a happy drunk? ”

“And that, children, was a stupid loss of control on my part. As you no doubt noticed, when angry, I didn’t seen to be doing much thinking . . . ”

And then there’s simply being out of practice. Yes, you won’t forget how to ride a bike, but after a decade of not actually doing it, gaining weight, getting flabby . . . you’re going to suck at it. Music, drawing or painting. If you’ve never smacked head on into “Oh crap, I can’t do this anymore!” I recommend thinking of something you haven’t done since you were a kid and having a go at it. Experiencing that horrified realization that you’ve grown up/lost the touch/gotten old can be useful in making your character’s reactions realistic.

And a character who is new to a certain action? There’s going to be a little bit of fumbling and awkwardness. You can give your MC a natural talent, but I’d recommend a couple of afternoons of fencing lessons before you turn him loose to hunt ogres. The character who’s instantly perfect is really irritating.

Or speech. If your character has never been stuffed into suit and stuck up on a platform before a thousand judgmental eyes, make him nervous. Let him successfully cover it, if that’s necessary for the plot. But let the reader see the jitters, and then the growing confidence and relaxation.

How does your character carry off his first compliment to a lady? Does your lady panic when a kiss turns into a grope? Dance in her new high heels and instead of enjoying the evening (or remembering every word a foreign ambassadors says for later analysis) can’t think of anything except the excruciating pain of her feet?

Even Superman needed Kryptonite to show that he isn’t so indestructible that he’s boring.

My Beta Readers called me on a lack of character development on my recent NaNo opus. At nineteen should he be so awesome already? No insecurities? No self doubts? URK! Dammit. They’re right. And what I’m editing right now has the opposite problem. The cocky smart asses I’m starting with need a few crash and burns to climb out of, to earn that maturity and resolution at the end.

Make your character sweat to earn his fictional role. Make him worry about it, then make him fumble his chopsticks. It’ll make him more human.

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On worldbuilding, sequels and keeping it all straight

As I was trying to figure out what to write about today, I came across this article. It’s a fairly good short — note the short — description of some of the problems writers fall into when sticking to worldbuilding tropes. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them but, as with anything, if you rely on tropes too much, your run the risk of turning your work into something much too predictable to maintain steam.

But what the article really started me thinking about is how you maintain an overall story arc — and keeping your characters in, well, character — over the course of several books or a lengthy series. It is a problem you see in books, movies, TV shows and even gaming. You want your characters to grow. You want to have them suffer as well as have joy. But, if you want to keep your readers happy and not have them throwing the book — or game or whatever — across the room, you can’t have them acting one way in one installment and then turn them into something completely different in another. Or, if you do, you have to have a pretty darned good reason for doing it.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, your readers expect your character to react in a certain way unless there are new outside factors impacting his decision making. For instance, even though it was very early in the series, we already knew in Honor of the Queen, that Honor Harrington was a competent and extremely talented officer. Because of how she was raised, from the philosophy and example set by her parents, as well as the society she grew up in, she did not understand or “get” a society that believed women were not just as competent and capable as men. So, when she was given the assignment to transport Manticore’s representatives to meet with Protector Benjamin Mayhew on Grayson, we as readers expected her to be her usual, competent and often brilliant self. However, because of some of her own insecurities, it didn’t surprise us when she took her ship away from Grayson, leaving another ship, one with a male commander (iirc) there.

What would have surprised me is if Honor had pushed herself and her abilities at the Protector and the rest of the planet from the very beginning. That wasn’t the Honor we knew. She was still young and still had personal demons she was fighting, demons that often undermined her self-confidence everywhere but in battle. She would see her initial withdrawal as making it easier for Manticore’s reps to do their duty on Grayson. The events that played out helped force her to deal with the fact that she couldn’t let those insecurities impact her decisions as an officer and did, in my opinion, help push her down the road into healing and moving past what had happened so long ago.

Now if, instead of having Honor withdraw from the planet when she saw how her presence was impacting the Grayson media and more hidebound members, Weber had her force the issue and throw the fact she was female and every bit as capable as a man in the faces of the patriarchal society that Grayson was, it would not have been in character and the book would have gone against the wall. There had to be a trigger to push Honor into stepping away from her shyness and from her doubts. She needed something to make her take an in-your-face approach to the Protector. That trigger was an attack on the planet that led to the death of her beloved mentor. Now she had a personal stake and she was, by God, going to do her duty not only to her Queen but to their prospective allies as well.

That was the Honor we had come to know in the previous two books and it is an Honor who has grown and matured over the course of the rest of the series.

Unfortunately, that sort of growth and consistency isn’t always present. Sometimes it happens when an author — for whatever reason — takes a series and warps it from one genre to another. One example of this is what Laurell K. Hamilton did with the Anita Black series. When the series began, it was firmly in the realm of urban fantasy. The story revolved around Anita Blake and her work dealing with rogue vampires. She was basically a bounty hunter with a license to kill vamps that didn’t follow the rules. In other words, it was a modified police procedural/mystery.

After half a dozen or so books in the series, it went to paranormal romance and then to what can only be called erotica. Why? Because the plot no longer centered on Anita’s work but on her sex life. She went from being a human who was also a necromancer to being basically a necromancer and a succubus and a were leader and mistress of a vampire and who knows what else. To me, and to a lot of other readers, Anita had been broken and the books no longer held the “must read” tag they once had. Friends who did stick with the series have said that Hamilton has gone back to something more akin to the early books but I’ve not returned to the series. Hamilton broke trust with me when she made a major change in Anita’s character without adequate explanation or reason other than someone thought it would sell more books.

In gaming, I have seen this at work as well. The latest example is in the Borderlands series. Borderlands and Borderlands 2 are fun games. While the plot is thin in Borderlands, nothing all that new to gaming, it is more apparent in B2. There is a consistency in characters, characterization of classes and in lore between the two games. B2 very clearly built upon the legacy of Borderlands and expanded upon it.

Not long ago, the game developers released what they have called a “pre-sequel” in the series. Appropriately titled “Borderlands – the Pre Sequel”, it falls chronologically between Borderlands and B2. Which it had to since one of the main characters, even if a non-playable character, was killed at the end of B2. My problem is that it takes characters we’ve known from the other two games as basically the good guys and makes them not so good. They set up and then betray Jack. That, in turn, leads to him becoming the evil madman who is the bad guy in B2. So here you have the villain you killed in B2 acting as basically the hero, albeit a slightly unhinged one from the very beginning of the game. The good guys from Borderlands are now basically the bad guys and they are responsible for what happens in B2 — something that you aren’t given any clue of in B2.

But it is the hanging threads from the pre-sequel that bother me, especially when I think about those who might play the games for the first time in chronological order. The pre-sequel takes characters and classes from the first game and use one of them — I’m trying not to give too many spoilers here. Sorry — to warn of problems to come. The only problem is, none of those problems are shown in B2. So, as far as I’m concerned, Gearbox and Gearbox Australia have dropped the ball and they need to get Borderlands 3 out soon.

In this case, they broke the timeline, another problem you can find yourself faced with in writing series. So, keep your notes about your characters and timeline and all the details that can trip you up close at hand. You might not think it important if you vary from the world you’ve built but your readers will. More than that, they will remember and their good will only lasts so long.

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Characterization and the Bunny

I was trying to come up with a good topic to amuse and entertain you all, and as I am wading through final edits on Trickster Noir, after a long week of school, my brain had run a bit dry. So I put it off, and fixed dinner, and as we sat and chatted over the meal, we got to talking about favorite cartoon characters. Mine are Pepe LePew and Marvin the Martian. My First Reader likes Yosemite Sam, Sniffles, and Taz. Of course we both like the old gray hare, and neither of us like Road Runner or Tweety in too large a dose. Funny how the oldies are still golden, when I introduced the Looney Tune set to my kids, they adored them too.

We got to talking about what makes these characters endearing, and what it is that keeps them fresh and alive for new generations. Even the ‘villains’ are enjoyed, like Marvin and Sam, as we mentioned above. So what is it? And how can we incorporate it into our storytelling? I’ve talked before about reading profusely to make our writing better, and my personal preference not to use film, but in this case I’m making an exception, because I think there is much to be learned, and besides, it’s fun!

I think that as a culture we root for the underdog. So Tweety, the tiny helpless bird (and of course Granny, alongside her little pal) fending off Sylvester, and Jerry backing down Tom, fit into that niche. Neither of us, talking about it, are fond of these characters. Tweety can be a bit saccharine, and we’re both farm kids. In our worlds, mice are not a good thing and cats are supposed to earn their keep. Rabbits are equally destructive, mowing the garden as fast as it’s planted, but Bugs himself is endearing and earns our cheers as he galumphs through ridiculous scenarios.

Perhaps it’s a combination of his take on life – devious, snarky, and not a little irreverent – with his intelligence. We all like smart heroes. Even if occasionally they are smart by accident, and especially if they are smart without smacking us in the face with it. Bugs can make accidents happen in his wake without ever seeming to try.

Pepe LePew, on the borderline of clueless, and I don’t mean this side of the border, is charming in his relentlessness. He reminds me of Wooster in PG Wodehoouse’s classics. He means well, but oh! the chaos that follows him around, to his perpetual bewilderment. Marvin has a bit of this, too. He has a plan, and just can’t quite understand why it’s not working.

The Martian cartoons are very Human Wave, you know. It’s Bugs’ planet, and he’s not apologizing for it, he’s just doing his darndest to protect it against being blown up or covered in inflatable alien dog-things. Marvin in turn is only doing his job, like the wolf in one of my all-time favorites, the by-play between the sheepdog and the wolf: “Mornin’ Ralph. Mornin’ Sam.” It’s a job… the separation from reality, the sheer surreal transition between everyman commuting to work, to wolf-eat-sheep while the dog tries to make him dead, there’s a brilliance to it.

The thing about these cartoons is they are classic comedy, but they last, and work, because they capture human truths in them. As a metaphor for life, we can all look back at our paths and muse ‘shoulda taken a left turn at Albekerkey’ even if we have never been to Albuquerque. They have become embedded in the American psyche. It’s worth some time on my part (and no small pleasure) to delve back into them, watching them for characteristics that encapsulate humanity, that I can weave into my own tales. And, of course, the humor is worth learning to add to my work, something I already try to do, but can always improve.

We may not write comedy. Some of us do, Kate Paulk’s Con series are brilliant and well worth the read if you haven’t already. You will laugh yourself silly.  However, adding some humor to any story alleviates the human suffering, keeps the tension from drawing too taut, and a good laugh is a wonderful thing. My favorite movie, Singing in the Rain, has the absolute best song-and-dance routine in it, and I take it to heart. Make ’em laugh!

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Hidden in plain sight

It’s not how big it is, it’s how you use it. And this may be the only time in my life I use that phrase without entendre.

What I’m talking about, since entendre is out of the question, is the extra stuff that goes into a story. The scenery, characterization, action and so forth that isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary to the story, but which lifts the piece from workmanlike to good – or if your name is Terry Pratchett or Dave Freer or Sarah Hoyt, freaking brilliant. Technically a lot of it is foreshadowing, either of future plot or character, but it really serves more purpose than that – and it can be any size at all, from a single word all the way up to scenes and even chapters.

Pratchett’s latest book, Dodger, has a magnificent example of a single word. In this case, the name of a dog. When I first read the dog’s name, I had the reaction most moderately well-read readers would have – er, what? Surely not?. When, despite the name, the dog developed as a very… doggy… character whose main characteristic was the canine version of Foul Ole Ron’s Smell, the name faded into the background of the piece as just a name. Until near the end of the book, Pratchett drops the punchline. Yes, I nearly sprayed the pages.

This didn’t need to be there. The dog could have been named anything, or even not been there, and the story would have worked just fine. But with it, it becomes memorable.

That’s the small size. For the larger size, the opening paragraph of Dodger is another good example. In terms of plot and character, the whole paragraph could have been deleted without losing anything. In terms of pulling readers into the setting it’s without price.

The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that it was dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellows for supremacy in the air and waiting to splash down. It was a deluge. The drains and sewers were overflowing, throwing up – regurgitating, as it were, the debris of muck, slime, and filth, the dead dogs, the dead rats, cats, and worse; bringing back to the world of men all those things that they thought they had left behind them; jostling and gurgling and hurrying toward the overflowing and always hospitable River Thames; bursting its banks, bubbling and churning like some nameless soup boiling in a dreadful cauldron; the river itself gasping like a dying fish. But those in the know always said about the London rain that , try as it might, it would never, ever clean that noisome city, because all it did was show you another layer of dirt. And on this dirty night there were appropriately dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.

Evocative, no? You can feel the water beating down, and you want to get your feet up to keep them out of the disgusting stuff that’s coming out of the overloaded drains. If you’re like me, you can smell it (and you rather wish you couldn’t). That kind of detail is the sort of thing that really shows the difference between the merely good and the brilliant: it’s not just describing a heavy rainfall. Without anything mentioned about when the story is set, you know that it’s not set in modern times. The language is just slightly old-fashioned, and the detritus (no, not Sergeant Detritus) washed out of the drains is not what would emerge in a modern flood. Modern Western cities are cleaner than that, as a rule.

Sure enough, the next paragraph opens with a carriage. A two-horse coach with a squealing wheel. That’s ample to drop the time-slot into the 1800s somewhere, when London was a major city, had mostly paved roads, and was a huge place. A few side comments about peelers and the wars place it somewhere in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign. Meeting a sharp-eyed fellow by the name of Charlie Dickens is just gravy.

Similar levels of description happen all through the book, in ways that work in perfectly with the characters and perspective. A mansion gets described not in the technical terms of what it’s got in it, but by the way a young man who’s done his share of thieving would see them – namely target rich environments, and what is the deal with having so much useless pretty stuff that it’s got to take someone forever to dust it all every day? He’s doing them a favor taking it off their hands… It’s a lovely example of hiding the future twists in the open by having them just be there as part of the verbal scenery as it were.

Simply put, Pratchett is working magic, only instead of gestures and talk to distract his audience from what he’s really setting up, he’s using words. And that’s rather more difficult to do.

Sarah pulled the same trick in the novel she’s snipping once a week on her blog: way back near the start there was a casual mention that the hero is doing something so illicit that no-one would do it even when the Crown Princess disappeared twenty years earlier, then the action hit to distract readers from the key information that there’s a missing princess and highly placed dirty deeds. As a result, when the reveal came quite a long way further in, it wasn’t a surprise. The dirty deeds are still unfolding, because Sarah hasn’t finished the book, and of course it’s not as polished as Dodger, since she’s posting slightly cleaned up first draft as she writes it. But the layering and the misdirection is all there.

I shouldn’t have to give examples for Dave – aside from anything else, if I tried I’d end up citing the whole bloody book. He’s that layered, that clever, and just that damn good. Just go buy his stuff and read it. Then buy Sarah’s and read that.

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The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh My!

The time has come to take a look at the art and craft of characterization. This probably seems weird, since characterization is one of the things pantsers tend to get “free” – but getting it and writing it well aren’t the same thing. It’s worth reading up about what makes a good character and learning the skills of portraying a good character without the – often dubious – benefit of having this person show up inside your head and tell you stuff. Aside from anything else, your characters are the ultimate in unreliable narrator.

They’re artifacts of your subconscious, no matter how real they feel to you, and you don’t always know enough about their world and environment to know when they’ve got something wrong. This is where that bane of pantsers (yes, pantsers have rather a lot of banes. We collect them, I think) comes from, namely the character who thinks/acts like someone from your current era and culture despite being from something completely different.

Now, before people start jumping all over me, yes it is possible to do this. When you do, it had better be a deliberate way to show up some absurdity of the current era/culture and not because you think that’s how everyone thinks and acts. Trust me, it’s not. The US is currently more or less based on individual and guilt – meaning that it’s wrong whether anyone sees you or not, and that responsibility as well as glory rests on the individual’s actions. There’s two spectrums there – every society lies somewhere between the extremes of group-based versus individual-based, and shame/face versus guilt. Most of them fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing some individual rights/responsibilities, and operating on a mix of guilt and shame. More to the point, the more ‘natural’ (as in, this is mostly how humanity has been throughout history) mode leans heavily towards group-based and shame/face. This isn’t meant to be a critique or condemnation – it’s more to point out that the modern US (and the rest of the Anglosphere) is something of an anomaly, historically, so there’s a pretty good chance that anything you write is going to have at least one group and face oriented character. And that person will think and act very differently than you do.

Right. So culture shapes thought. So does climate (ask any Aussie, including this one). So does geography. All of that goes towards who and what your main character is. If he’s never been outside space stations and space ships before, he’s likely to have a bad case of agoraphobia the first time he walks on a planetary surface. Someone from a desert could regard water with near-religious awe.

Now comes the fun part – when pantsers write, we tend to be very strongly inside our character’s point of view. When readers read, we tend to start from the assumption that this person is like us. If drawing the character isn’t done well, the result can be jarring to say the least. A really bad effort can see the book take a flying lesson – which isn’t a good idea if you’re reading on an ereader.

As usual, go to the resources that are there to help plotters build realistic characters, and read them for the information about presenting the character information to readers. The goal is to Heinlein it in, the same way you Heinlein setting. The second big resource is authors who are experts at this – Terry Pratchett (who, let’s face it, is an expert at just about everything), Sarah Hoyt, Dave Freer, Mercedes Lackey (to some extent – she certainly has that rare gift of making a whiny, unlikeable character sympathetic – it’s worth reading the Vanyel books just for that technique). I’m sure there are others – this is just a list that comes to mind right now (and since I’m perpetually semi-brain-dead and usually stealing time from something else when I write, research isn’t an option).

The goal you aim for is to have the character’s actions and responses drop information about their life and basic assumptions without an “As you know, Bob”. The character who reaches for a weapon when stressed or startled – and which weapon – tells you a lot about the kind of person they are and some about their technology and social status. Basically, the first reaction of someone who does a lot of fighting, either as a professional soldier or something less formal, is going to be to go for their weapon, and they’ll feel naked without it. The same kind of reaction applies to someone who’s paranoid, although they’ll usually be wanting to go for a concealed weapon.

One plotter way to figure out this kind of thing is to watch people. It’s easy to do: sit somewhere busy and just observe. Take note of the little unconscious gestures – these are the tells that will give away an emotional state someone doesn’t want to admit to. Some of them are universals, like blushing, clenched fists, flexing the fingers, clutching something and the like. Others are specific to the culture: Western Anglo-Saxon-based cultures view looking someone in the eye as an indicator of both trustworthyness and respect, where many Asian cultures consider it respectful to avoid a direct gaze. A lot of hand gestures are culture specific , too – although I’m not aware of anywhere that treats a nod as “no” and a headshake as “yes”. The US (and most of the West, plus by now most of everywhere else) regards the upraised middle finger as a defiant and crude way to tell someone to “go forth and multiply” as it were. Raising the index and middle fingers is seen in the US as a “Victory” sign. But in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK (and probably elsewhere), it’s only “V for victory” if the back of your hand faces you. The other way around, particularly if you move from horizontal to vertical, has more or less the same meaning as the middle finger. Then you’ve got the individual-level gestures. This person chews her hair when she’s nervous. That one jigs one leg. Someone else never stands still. These little things can be used for the equivalent of “stage business” to break up the he-said-she-said rhythm of dialog and show more about your characters.

And of course, the more you, the pantser, practice these techniques, the more you’ll find yourself doing them automatically. You’ll go to revise something and clean up your dialog and it will all be there, with the kind of revealing details that leave you wondering if the blasted thing started to write itself when you weren’t looking (It didn’t. Trust me on this. It’s just that pantsers get into a kind of writing trance where the words just happen, and they don’t necessarily remember writing them all. It’s the same reason you don’t always remember doing some routine task, even though you actually did do it. Your subconscious was driving.)

So, with all of this in mind, your hero needs to be a bit larger-than-life (just because we all know life as it is, and most of us prefer life-as-is to be kind of dull), more or less aimed in the correct direction, but most importantly, sympathetic. Readers will accept and even empathize with someone they’d normally smack for being a total loser if it’s done right, but let your hero kick a puppy and you’ve lost them forever. This is actually an issue in a number of really old books: most modern Western readers have grown up in a culture that regards it as a Very Bad Thing to harm the helpless, and human nature is such that cute and helpless gets a stronger reaction than ugly and helpless. Yes, you probably could justify your hero beating grandma, if she’s nasty enough. You’d never get past kicking a puppy or a kitten. Heck, you’d probably lose them there even if you were going for humor.

One thing I’ve noticed is that any character, no matter who or what they are, who goes out of their way to protect the helpless will be liked. I can — and have — written a character who is verging on psychopathic but who sticks to an absolute refusal to harm the innocent. People like reading about him (no, this isn’t published, yet).

On the flip side, it’s kind of passé to have your villain kick the cat to show how evil he is. Villainy in stories can be anything from standing in opposition to whatever your hero needs to absolute evil (which I have yet to see portrayed effectively, but that’s a different issue). If your villain has any interaction in the story – it’s possible to write one who doesn’t and is seen solely through the actions of underlings – then he, she, or it, needs to have similar kinds of characterization. Since many authors don’t like spending time inside the minds of their villains, that means external cues. Body language is always a good one: someone who is confident of their abilities will stand straight and often use a dominant pose. Gestures will be strong, and you won’t see a nervous twitch anywhere.

Another characterization tool is the choice of words. Someone who’s nervous will talk around a topic rather than getting to the point. Someone who’s in charge and – for illustration purposes – evil will give orders and expect them to be obeyed, instantly. After all, if you kill your underlings in horribly inventive ways because they don’t obey quickly enough, you would expect them to be in a hurry to do what you tell them. Tone can be conveyed through pure dialog, as well.

As for oopses – you start writing thinking Freddy is your hero, but he’s actually the villain of the piece, or vice versa – that’s what revision is for. If you find out you got it wrong and it switches on you partway through, keep writing and use a nice, easy to find way to flag where you have to change things around. I use [this] to flag out anything I need to correct, look up, or otherwise check on once I’ve finished the story. The square brackets don’t get used anywhere else in my writing, they don’t get lost or changed if I switch word processor, computer, or operating system (yes, I routinely do all three), so I can do a search for “[” and find everything I’ve marked along the way, and fix it all.

 

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