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.

Sometimes.

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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5 Comments

Filed under books, Uncategorized, Writing

5 responses to “Character Building

  1. Cheryl

    My current favourite one is Kvothe, from Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Name of the Wind.”. At least, he is my favourite character I’m reading at the moment and boy does he get put through the wringer. My favourite Terry Pratchett ones are Death, Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax. All three are ‘built’. Of yours, I still think I like Chip the best. He was very definitely built from his experiences.

    • I felt Vimes really was ‘built’ – Death and Granny (and Rincewind) I felt actually grew from a bit player start and were back-built (nothing wrong with this, but in later work, they’re fuller. I don’t know the Rothfuss’s work – although that’s the second recommendation I’ve had. He does seem a good fellow. Chip is off the old block ;-).

      • Cheryl

        I hadn’t read any Rothfuss until recently, and then a friend who I share a few favourite writers with recommended him. Interestingly enough, he starts out in 3rd omniscient POV to set the scene in an inn, then after a chapter or two, goes into first person as Kvothe tells his story to Chronicler. I’ve read good first person, and I’ve read good omni, but I don’t remember seeing a mix of the two before and I think he does a great job of it.

        You’re right about Death and Granny, they do get better with age. Vimes, though, he started off built.

  2. I just finished the third Bolg P.I. novelette. These are fantastic, Dave. I disagree that he’s hard to identify with. Either that or I was a dwarf Pict in another life… Keep writing. The world needs you.

    • heh. Thank you. _I_ love them, and really wasn’t sure how they were being received. The plan -at present – is to write two more Bolg novelettes – I’ve started both, and string them together into a picareque novel. That’s not o say there would not be other case files, or historical Bolgs, but they have the joy of being quite open-ended.

      I think a Pict 🙂

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