Thursday, November 11, 2010


Excuse me if I don't sound coherent today. I'm trying to articulate concepts about the functioning of backbrain processes, which are delegated to the backbrain for reasons.

One of the crucial false dichotomies writers deal with is that of plot vs. character. If an author's obvious strong suit is plot, her characters are likely to be called "cardboard." I'm looking at Agatha Christie here. If you assume that her characters are all puppets at the mercy of her plots, read Endless Night and Crooked House. Hell, read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and pay attention to exactly why it is fair and why so many people have insisted it's not. I dare you.

The flip side of this is the assumption that characterization interferes with plot. If the internal workings of the character are featured prominently, we hear complaints of dullness, or that nothing happens. Yeah, nothing whatever interesting happens in The Berlin Stories, does it? Just a series of character sketches. No plot in Little Women, or Jane Eyre, no action in Pride and Prejudice.

The character is an emergent quality of the plot, and vice versa. Some of us find one entry into the story easier than others, some stories require greater emphasis on one element or other, and even skillful authors create imperfect books, but there's no essential conflict here. How much more deeply could we know Poirot, and enjoy puzzling our wits with the ghastly evils he encounters? How much action could Lizzie Bennett endure and still remain the focus of our attention?

I always start with character. I have a knack for it. No, I have an uncontrollable compulsion for it. One of the reasons I love RPGs is that by the time I've arranged a few randomly generated numbers in the necessary order and chosen a role in the party, a brand new person has spontaneously generated in my head and needs exploring. Sophia the perfectionist patrician priestess, Bucky the ugly rogue with the chip on her shoulder, Erulisse the bard whose powerful charisma is based on the urge to make those around her feel good about themselves - don't worry, I'm not going to burden you with character stories, but the point is I didn't go through any conscious process of making them up, but they come to me full-blown while other people are still min-maxing* their stats. It takes me a little longer to project a persona into a computer-generated figure like the Sims2 characters I'm 'shippy for, because of the layers of graphics and computer code between me and them, but by the time I've played them a few times I "know" all sorts of things that aren't covered by the rules. The primary difference between a gaming character and a character in a book is that they develop past their concepts in response to the action of the game and the interactions of characters run by other people (or a machine) rather than in response to actions wholly within my own brain.

It beats me how the reading of August Santleben's memoirs and a wildly biased history on Reconstruction Texas generated a pragmatic cross-dresser with a deadpan sense of humor, but she's here, she's queer, I've got to do the best I can with her. I had to research a bunch of topics radiating out from Len before I could write this book. I can't describe how this works. I never wrote a bio of her, or listed what was in her pockets, or interviewed her. I could, but I never had to. She's not hiding from me. For someone who spends her life in such a drastic disguise, she's surprisingly transparent. The remaining characters, alas, are correspondingly opaque. It is on me as an author to know what they're doing, but Len only knows what they do and say around her, and though she's not stupid, on certain subjects she is ignorant.

And of course, this is all nonsense. If I succeed, Len may appear real to a reader, but she will never be real; not even, in one sense, as real as my RPG characters, who at least interact, through me, with other entities independent of both of us. And the character who seems real to a reader will not be identical to the character I'm dealing with now, but an amazing replica created in the context of another's brain. Her face will be different; her voice will not sound the same; she will even have subtle differences in her motivations based on the reader's experience of human beings.

But the possibility exists that she will continue to seem real to people decades, even (why not go whole hog, here?) centuries after I'm dead; when I am no more real than she is in the sense that I will have no physical substance, no brain to think with, no voice to speak. When I am at most a character in a biography, at once mysterious and familiar, as all people are to our fellow creatures. Who seems more real to you: Sherlock Holmes or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

I can't worry about that right now, as such character immortality is always an accident. Nor can I draw any conclusions.

This is just the kind of thing that's on my mind. In my mind. Whatever.

*Min-Maxing. The behavior of juggling choices during character creation in order to maximize effectiveness within the rules of the game while minimizing the negative consequences of those choices. Min-maxers have reputations as lousy role-players, and often are; but it's also the method some people have to use in order to find out who they're playing. There's no wrong way to do this, in games or writing.


  1. Interesting post! And I can certainly tell what my own leanings are as I reacted to your post. I immediately wanted to argue that characterization doesn't interfere with enhances plot! But of course, that depends on whether you are a plotter or a character builder.

    When I first started writing, I thought I was better at character than plot. And at that time, it's possible I was. Now I know I'm much better at plot than I am character. I wish it was the other way around. I think I would be a better writer if the character came first.

    I don't find it useful to write bios, make lists of traits or interview my characters. I can create a long list of information, but that's all it is. Two-dimensional information. Characters live through their voices...voice is difficult for me to find.

  2. Sometimes you just have to be patient with yourself and trust the process. The hardest thing for modern people to grasp is how much of their brain work, particularly creative work, is done without their conscious connivance. The Muse lives in the neurons outside the circle of light cast by your intentions.

    And sometimes you have to give yourself nothing else whatever to do. I figured out the choreography of the next scene by taking a notebook and nothing to read to my husband's eye appointment. With nothing else to occupy me I was able to work through all the unusable scenarios and realize what must have happened by the time he came out.

  3. You advised me once not to be too scornful of my fanfic writing, since it provided practice that would carry over to other writing. And it was indeed in writing fanfic that I first became aware of how changing one character (an enemy of the hero is instead a friend, a female character is instead male) can cause the entire plot to take a different form than it otherwise would have (robbery and murder becomes robbery and rape, with long-term consequences for both parties).