22 October, 2012

Our First Fog Horn

Characters.  (See "Follow the What!?" for context, here.)

I knew a young author (now best-selling in the UK) who spoke of "what a character wants".  That's a brilliant way to move forwards, but I like to start at the bottom of the ocean.  From there, fill up with oxygen and your body floats up on its own.  It's a question of mentality and I believe it's important, especially as a distinction for beginners to understand.

Every author will have a different method.  You'll have to discover your own, but learning others' can help.  Mine is as follows:

Who is your character?

Where are they?

Why are they there?

From who they are, all else will spring.  What they want becomes an inherent function of this.  Recently, I helped someone see that Hannibal Lecture was human.  This woman was confused by the fact that Hannibal had no motivations that a reader might like.  She thought connections with a character came from liking them, in a way.  I pointed her towards understanding that, first of all, we are made to admire him, which makes us fear elements of ourselves, and second, he's human.  We feel his existence.  He's real.  Whether he acts the pure villain or the self loathing, complicated schyzophrenic, he's real.

An idiot then kept badgering me, telling me that caricatures were fine in fiction.  I'm still not sure how his comment relates to my point, but I think he offers a helpful metaphor here, so I'm glad I met him... I guess.  He said everything is fine so long as it moves the story forwards in a manner satisfying to the reader.   I agreed with him.   He kept repeating himself like a barking dog, only without the purpose of mind.  He was an idiot. 

Instead of barking, he should have looked up "caricature" in a dictionary because what he meant was "archetype".  A caricature is, by definition, a character who lacks any human motivation.  An archetype achieves singular motivation or even singular personality.  The difference is in the word "achieves".  Superman has reasons to be Superman.  Gandalf comes across as a magical archetype to the characters in Lord of the Rings and gradually we understand his complexities as they unfold for the characters we're busy following.  The reality is under the surface.  Good archetypes are people too, is the lesson I'm trying to get across here. 

I must emphasise that I'm not advocating fleshing a character out with a great deal of expository prose.  Good characters don't need expository prose.  In fact, the main thing our idiot missed was that good characters move the story forward by their very nature.

My method is simply to have them real in my mind.  From there, action (pure or not) can define them in the same way that you can, as one human to another, get a sense of another's sentience via observation.  Make them real to you.  Love them.  Hate them.  If they weren't inside of you, you wouldn't be trying to write them down, so let their reality flow. 

Where are they?  This one seems simple, and in an infuriatingly complicated way, it is.  You've invented something.  Now give it context.  That can mean almost anything, and so, like much good advice, it sucks.  Savour the fact that "context" is a vague word.  You've a universe to explore in fiction, here.  Where the character "is", is what story the reader is within.  That can even be purely in the character's head.  There are no rules in art.  There's a universe, just like in people.

Why are they there?  See how that's a question of motivation?  It's both your motivation for writing them down, and it's the character's motivation... for what?  What do they want?  That's one way of looking at this question.  But the answer springs from the other two (and inspires the other two, but only once the ball is rolling).  What they want springs from why they want it.  Otherwise you're letting plot stand in the way of character, when they should facilitate each other.

The deeper you go, the more real your surface will be. 

Now let's go way back to the metaphor about the bottom of the ocean.  Fill your lungs with your whole imagination!  Start as deep as you can with as much breath as you can and let your story boil and rise on its own.  Passion is the key, here.  Love or hate your character, your world, everything.  The more you feel, the more your reader will.  The more real your character is to you, the more your reader will connect.  The point is, here, that it's a wonderful process.  Writing is fun.  That's why you want to do it.  Even the agony is wonderful.  So free your imagination and let it play.

Live with zest and gusto, love and hate, joy and fulfilment.  Savour the depths of the human experience, from the good to the bad, and you just might create something worth savouring.  Now get back to work.

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