Saturday, August 13, 2005

And a Cast of Thousands

I've mentioned several times the importance of sympathetic characters in stories. Even the antagonist must not be a simple "villain," striving to do evil for its own sake.* From your antagonist's point of view, his actions may not be moral or even pleasant, but they are an unfortunate necessity to getting what he needs. The antagonist needs to have reasons for the things he does, and the reader needs to understand those reasons. Don Maass claims that all stories are character-driven. Now, at least in science fiction, that's patently false. Tom Godwin's classic short story, "The Cold Equations" is one example of a story which is not character-driven. While we are symapthetic to both characters -- otherwise the story doesn't work -- neither character changes as a result of the story. The stories is about an idea, the immutable laws of nature that make no exceptions for any mere human. There are many other examples of non-character driven stories that are both meaningful and important.

On the other hand, people relate in a much deeper way to a story that is character-driven. I would never want to discourage the true original thinkers among us who can make non-character stories work, but for novice writers, these stories are probably the best way to get started. Maass provides a number of suggestions for building compelling characters, and they are worth repeating here. First, we have to strive to make characters larger than life in some way. You may think that readers will better relate to an average Joe like themselves, but never forget that we read fiction to explore the people we could be, not the people we are. Our characters should do the things we can't, say the things we wish we had said, and change in ways that we can't. Many writers have pointed out that characters must be multifaceted, or else they earn the dreaded "cardboard" designation. While our characters need to have flaws to be believable, readers are sympathetic to characters' strengths, not their weaknesses. We feel pity for weakness, not sympathy -- there's a big difference. When the characters' strengths and weaknesses are in conflict with one another, then we have a deep, compelling character (and, not incidentally, a source of conflict for the plot).

Maass suggests assembling a cast to show contrasts between the characters. More than simply getting a group of people together, as authors we can create the group which is guaranteed to dramatize the inherent conflicts. Maass also suggests building complex characters by combining the roles of individual characters into one. For example, if there is an ex-wife and demanding boss, why not make them the same person? Wouldn't that increase the complexity of the situation? Finally, Maass makes an interesting suggestion: Choose the narrator to be the character that is changed the most by the story. I don't think I agree with this, as there are many examples of stories in which the narrator is an observer, not the protagonist -- just consider Sherlock Holmes or The Great Gatsby. As before, however, I think the beginning novelist could do far worse than to follow Maass' advice in this regard. It's a rule of thumb, not a law of fiction, but it's a good rule of thumb, nonetheless.

In science fiction, many editors have said they are looking for idea stories. If, on the other hand, you can create a character-driven story that depends upon an idea that can only be explored through science fiction, then I think you've got a guaranteed winner on your hands.

*You know, I've never understood the old pulp stories where the villain is going to destroy the world. If you wipe out the planet, bub, where are you going to live?

No comments: