Monthly Archives: November 2012

Character Building

Back when I was a gossoon, and the world was yet young and unformed in places, whenever your parents, teachers etc wanted you to do a spot of septic-tank diving or eating earthworm-spaghetti in the ante-chamber of hell, or to take a long swim in water that could freeze impure thoughts solid and leave you singing falsetto for six months, they’d tell you it was ‘character building’. I don’t know if this is an expression elsewhere, but in Darkest Africa, it was used often. Let me assure you all that if I had to get post-facto planning permission for my character, it would make several major national bureaucracies explode. It’s almost worth it. I have a character, as a result of their well-meaning efforts, slightly larger than Pangea, and incorporating architectural styles from Aztec to Zorasteran, and all possible intermediates.

In their generous fashion the Army, South Africa, migration, and the publishing world have done their very best to continue this good work. I only have something to do with the last part now, and really, I appreciated your efforts, but you can stop now. Let’s try doing things the easy, pleasant, highly rewarding way… just so I can experience that too.

Being possibly slightly biased, I think this has made me into an interesting (if confused and confusing) character, except when I have had three glasses of wine and start droning on about fisheries management, stats and the philosophical underpinnings of politics, at which point I can put hyperactive two-year olds to sleep and wildly cast nasturtiums (or whatever other delicate blossom comes to hand, like cauliflower) about the ancestry of politicians and fisheries scientists. Do not give me wine.

And from this I wanted to extend the would-be writer’s thoughts into that job some of us do, and some of us just make as we go along. Being fluent liars – that’s what fiction is, after all – we’ll probably deceive you about how we slaved over the hot keyboard to do this, even if we didn’t. But it is worth thinking about. We read about a character, and not, in most instances, a plot, or the gifted beauty of the prose (well, yes, but look at the fact that most modern literary fiction sells 3 copies to people who aren’t pretentious enema-orifices, and there is a fairly limited supply of the latter, as the sequential disease-vectors for this unpleasant complaint are the soy-latte, Voltaire and the vegan leather leather boot, and most people are sensible enough to avoid at least one of those.) We read about character… because: 1)We can identify with them. 2)They are amusing, different, interesting.

You simply can’t always do the first. My politically incorrect hero PI Bolg,
is difficult for anyone to identify with. Well, perhaps aspects of him. I am sure there are some of you who are 4’7″. I am sure some of you are blue. I know for a clearly established fact that some of you are contrarian, and have enough attitude to stop a herd of charging buffalo in their tracks. But my point is Bolg is an easy character to make interesting. He’s had many lifetimes of character building. Most of the time we simply don’t have that luxury. And if we’re to follow that excellent piece of advice – write about something you know about (or at least something about) – one’s characters can end up well, like us. Which is tough (and rather obvious) if you’ve lived a sheltered life and are a young writer (or even an older writer who has a great imagination and yet has a fairly safe, comfortable life. You’re a cubicle geek from the software industry and the most exciting thing that has ever happened to you is a FEMA official looking at you funny (Yes, there is a real author rather like this).) You can write characters other cubicle geeks love, and there are a lot of them to buy your books. You can make my eyes glaze over. Or you can step out of your known.

Of course, the joy – or trial – of being an author is that you don’t have to restrict yourself to experience. No, I cannot be female and give birth. I cannot be a skin color I am not, or an orientation I not. Trust me, most female fantasy writers couldn’t possibly deal with the life-threatening, often acrobatic and deadly adrenalin fueled hell-scenes they write either. Most male ones or sky-blue pink and polka-dot skinned ones cannot write about medieval torture and the emotions of crusaders or harlots from experience either. What they, and you, can do is to build that character – and if they do it well, build it with foundations of your experience and observation of real people, re-enforcing of research, bricks of building it up gradually (that interesting character does not arrive fully formed and deep without this. You get cardboard cutouts, all very well for demonizing political opponents, but useless for enveloping readers). He wasn’t always the finest swordsman outside France. Once he was the finest boxing champion of kindergarten, for three years. And before that he was the kid they laughed at for wetting his pants. This shapes and forms that building. And then there is mortar. And the author only has one kind of mortar, and that is imagination and real empathy, the ability to see himself, standing there with a dark stain spreading from his crotch down his pale blue trouser legs while the other kids giggle and point. To burn from the scolding and to cringe with the embarrassment that shaped that brick.

And then finally… there is the plaster-work. And that is confidence and panache. Cough. Many is the author who has hidden lousy character structure under this. You can get away with it too.


Until you don’t and the whole book collapses like streets of cheap clapboard or dominoes when the reader jars on one of those weak characters.

The other route – which is particularly favored for coming of age novels is of course to write those bricks and mortar. It’s easier. But the books still usually call for the same things.

So: Okay. your turn. Let’s talk about characters where, although you did not see the building, you were sure the author had built them, not just taken prefab units for their book?

cross-posted at Mad Genius Club


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Neither A nor B

Heads or tails?

It’s a choice, with the occasional ‘balance on edge’, or ‘simply fail to come down at all’, which applies well to tossed coins.

It may sometimes apply to other things. Stepping over a cliff for example. Humans very often apply it a lot more broadly. Democrat or Republican. Black or white. Male or female.

It is a core theme in many of my books, that patently in a lot of cases, this is bullshit. 1)Things are seldom simple and entirely and perfectly described by a narrow simple category. If you think they are… you probably are behaving like a sheep, and haven’t actually looked carefully. Pigeonholes may work well for pigeons. They are lousy for people, emotions, philosophies or political positions 2)There is almost always another possibility, if not a myriad of them. Yes, you may have chosen to vote for one or other party. It is massively unlikely, unless you are, in fact, a prion (and incapable of independent life, let alone thought) that, if you actually thought about a party manifesto you would agree with all of it. And, if you really thought about it, inevitably humans choices come down neither A nor B but a percentage of A, a percentage of B and percentage of options through to zz. DRAGON’S RING – a choice between A & B… and actually neither are good. 3)We may simply be looking at the whole damn thing bass ackwards. Take health insurance as a simple example. What is it intended to do? Make sure that when you get sick you can afford to be treated and get better? Or in other words, that you can stay in good health? Right? Does it? As far as I can work out, only incidentally, and in fact the principal beneficiaries are people who only benefit if you are sick (especially as inevitably the insurers themselves have ownership or part ownership of the facilities for treating you). The IDEA of making sure you are not sick simply because you can’t afford treatment is a very desirable one. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thought they deserved to die or be sick and miserable because they didn’t have the money for treatment. I’ve met a few people who didn’t mind if it happened to someone else, as it never seems to occur to them, that someone else could be them someday, or their child, lover, mother or friend. So: it’s a good goal. But yet… when you think about it, the way it has been applied has been as counter-productive as possible, making affordability more a case of ‘how much blood can we take in how many ways from the host before it actually dies?’. If I were to announce with convincing evidence that I had a cure for everything that might ail you, and that I was going to release it, free, next week, I would give Flinders Island about 3 days before being nuked, in the process killing several hundred highly paid assassins and hitmen from every part of the medical business. (I’m ugly but not that much of a fool. I’d be elsewhere.). Yes, indeed, there are some wonderful doctors, nurses, radiographers and research chemists who would love nothing more than to say ‘my years of training and experience are now worthless, I’m unemployed and have to find a new job, and I am so happy about it’. But these make a small fragment of a fairly desirable group of people, and Doctors, nurses etc, make up a valuable but a very, very small fraction of the group whose livelihood depend on people being sick. A lot of these are salesmen, administrators, accountants, managers, board members, lawyers, CEO’s – not medical people at all. In fact, if you did a careful look at where the money from that insurance goes… most of it will be into this group (who don’t fix you when you’re sick) and the smaller volume into the actual cost of things needed and the people needed. And really, there is no incentive (especially, yes Discovery Health, I am looking at you, where the hospital facility is owned by the insurer) to limit that wastage. In fact, big talk aside, there is no value in keeping the insured healthy. If the insured never need a doctor, high premiums will put them off (unless insurers get the state to play ball and make them have it by law. At which point you may as well give the medical industry your salary check.). To look at this more logically there need to be serious incentives to the medical industry… to stop people needing their treatments and to make those as affordable and effective as possible. And actually the only way to do that is to reward the right things and punish the wrong. So for example they get paid… if you aren’t sick. If you are sick your premium reduces. If you’re incapacitated or die… they pay out. If you over-live your expected span… they get a bonus. And work out ways to get rid of the dead weight which adds no value. If the state wanted to interfere, the right way would to punitively tax the non-medical (or in the case of pharmaceutical companies non-scientists) personnel. Or make those non-tax-deductable expenses. Costs that cannot easily be passed on to the public, either via directly charging more, or getting the public to pay more tax to cover for largely un-needed expenses.

And those are just some of the possibilities. If you don’t want to go that far, maybe an effective basic state health service that forces private medicine to be competitive and offer more.

What underlies much what I write are simple questions: what are we doing this for? and is how we deal with it an artifact or accident or history, or really best for the purpose? I’ve used medicine as an example, but you could apply it to anything from energy supply to governance. Of course my possible answers aren’t right. But they’re about providing the right motivation to solve the problem, rather than motivating the creation of groups/institutions/bureaucracies whose lifeblood is keeping the problem vaguely under control but there forever.

The answer is inevitably neither A nor B but a big mixture of that and other things, and sometimes something new.


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