May 5th, 2008

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

About Books: Characters II

It's a principle of logic that statements in the indicative cannot (logically) lead to conclusions in the subjunctive or imperative.  That is, factual statements do not lead *logically* to "should" statements....something we observe when we look at current events.  Without the intervention of a value system,  the existence of a problem does not induce action to correct it.  

For the fiction writer, this means that dumping a problem on your character's foot will not ensure any particular action.  Your character won't act unless he or she is motivated to act, and motivation requires more than "just the facts, ma'am."   It requires a bunch of internal factors that can be summarized as "values" but--for the writer--need to be teased apart because they are all--severally and together--motivators for your character to act and react in response to events.  So the most important things to know about your character are internal things, things that make him/her behave believably in human terms, not just physical-science terms. 

Characters all come with intrinsic, constant traits (race, gender, biochemistry, etc.) and extrinsic, environmental traits (the intrinsic as modified by experience.)   By inheritance, each person has a range of adaptations possible to him/her in different environmental situations...the more constricted the environment (in terms of both physical resources and social ones) the less you can tell what the real potential of that person was.  But that range is not infinite: no amount of perfect nutrition or medical care or anything else would have made me a six-foot-four blue-eyed blonde male.  The more the writer understands about human biology and psychology, the more skillfully he/she can imagine and construct characters with believable complexity of traits and experiences....and thus, with more layers of motivation, arising from many different levels of their being--from the core biological drives to the highest-level, most transient effects of, say, fashion.  The more layers of motivation a writer can tap, the more ways to connect character to plot, to make the character feel real and complex.

Everything we do, we do because of some motivation, and that motivation is beautifully mathematical--a balance of competing forces or vectors (vector calculus, if you will.)   I am sitting here writing this not because of a single compelling drive to explain character development...but because, of the many possible actions which I kindasorta want to do, and think I should do, this is the one that balances the other motivations the best.  I'm not just doing this because I want to--I'm also doing it because I can avoid doing something else (several somethings else) and this is an excuse which lets me feel good enough about myself (oh, gee, I'm helping others--that's worthwhile, right?  So I don't have to do X, because I can do Y...)  to not do the other things.  We all have dozens of things we might do at any moment--and our actual actions are the vector sum of all the influences, internal and external, that bear on the moment.   We are hard-wired for two things: first, we are all hardwired to repeat experiences that give pleasure, and avoid those that give pain (positive and negative feedback)...but second, we are also hard-wired to pay more attention to the novel, the unexpected experience.  These can conflict, to produce the individual who ignores or seeks out experiences that are unpleasant because a) it's become familiar enough to be tolerated or b) the drive for novelty/unexpected overcomes the drive to avoid pain.

So in a story, the characters act for a reason--their reason.  Where did that reason come from?  What are the factors that sum into that action?  And (most important for the writer) how can we use those potential reasons and factors to make a story work?

The longer the story, the more you have to play with, but in any story  (even a short-short) you need more than one level of motivation to make it the best it can be.  Let's look at several  (which should suggest to you that there are even more, if you need them.) 

Physical:  on the physical level of motivation, you have the basic biological needs and their associated drives: the need for air, food, water, space in which to exist (habitat, if you will), and avoidance of adverse stimuli such as pain and death.  Also on the physical level are bodily functions such as excretion and sex.   Choking or suffocating characters will seek air; hungry characters will seek food; characters crammed uncomfortably into a space will try to get out; characters will try to avoid pain and death.  Unless there's another competing motivation...because humans will, at times, find something else more compelling than a desire for food or a fear of pain.

Social:  here you find the motivations common to a particular social situation--at every level from familial to national/cultural.  Cultures set the values that connect facts to actions: hunger to eating or not eating at certain times or particular foods or with certain people or with hands or anything else.  You'll find multiple levels of social motivation: the unconscious response to early social conditioning that makes it hard for most Americans to eat "bugs" (eeeuw!), the engrained beliefs about gender, race, ethnicity, religion, the prevalent dominance structure and acceptable attitudes about it, and very conscious awareness of what is likely to produce the best social result...which clothes to wear to work v. play, which cultural icons to admire openly, etc.   Acceptance, rejection, cooperation, rebellion, dominance games, ambition--arising partly out of individual biology, but also out of the experience of social interaction from infancy on up.  The same objective events have very different effects on the insides of people...one person falls off a horse and never rides again; another falls off the horse (maybe even the same horse the same day) and hops back on without a qualm.  Not only does the physical experience vary (one may be more sensitive to pain, or have a better sense of balance) but the social experience will vary (who got laughed at, who got sympathy, who had a previous experience which made being laughed at or getting sympathy different from the other?)  

Emotional:  On the inside, individual to each character, experience (including social experience) is processed differently and leads to a different balance of emotions.   Parents and teachers know that one child reacts to a scolding with angry defiance and another with sadness...the same level of scolding.  Innately, from birth, personalities are different, and experience can either reinforce that difference or smooth it out--but will not change it.   The same basic emotions--joy, sadness, fear, disgust, satisfaction--are attached to different things, in different amounts, in different people, for different reasons. 

So in a story, a character may, dealing with the problem you give him/her, react from any of these levels or sublevels, or any combination of them, just as you do.  If you have an hour for lunch, you may be juggling errands (the bank, the post office, the dry cleaner's, buy a gift for a friend's birthday) with the need to eat (especially if you skipped breakfast), the awareness that you need to eat carefully because of a health problem, the knowledge that the only places to grab a quick meal near your errand-destinations don't have the food you should eat, guilt over having skipped breakfast and not having packed the lunch you should be eating, concern over gas prices and a struggle to find the most efficient route through your errands, resentment for being expected to do so much in so little time, resentment at not being able to just get a burger and malt without feeling guilty about that, too.  What do you eat for lunch?   More importantly,  what would your character do?   Larry the diabetic,  let's say, who's divorced, with two kids (one of whom has a birthday in two days), with credit card debt,  a bank account nearing zero, only a quarter tank of gas in the car, bills he has to get in the mail today or else, payday's not until next week...you can see that you can tie what he actually does to physical, social, and emotional motivators.   Will he buy his kid the expensive toy the kid really wants and risk more financial problems?  Will he blow his diet because of frustration?  What kind of person is he, at all levels?

When we get to plot, you'll see that this kind of understanding of your character's motivations lets you maintain tension on various levels at different times, so that the reader feels the pull of the character, but isn't being held on the same level throughout.  Sometimes your character's facing a physical threat (maybe--not in all stories), and sometimes a threat to self-respect or social position or financial security or relationship stability.  Just when the character is triumphant in one thing, something else may go wrong (as it does in real life...immediately after my first book came out, when I was jubilant and heading for a bookstore to sign copies--the muffler fell off the bottom of my car, loudly and publicly and expensively.)  Plots need setbacks and complications, but they should not all be at the same level. 
woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

About Books: second critical interpolation

In reviews, criticism, and workshops, you'll see/hear a lot of critical comments about characterization.  Some of them will be spot on and some won't--in fact, will be totally wrong.   As a writer, you need some benchmarks for the criticism you'll get, and you need to know how to interpret criticism that--though partly wrong--is also partly right and can clue you in to mistakes you've made.

1) Phrasing: if the person commenting uses only cliched terms to criticize your characterization, the comments are useless even if there's a flaw on your characterization.   "Cardboard characters" simply means the commenter wasn't convinced by, engaged by, your characters.  This could be a limitation in that reader (there are incompetent readers, and most of them think they're good readers), or the reader didn't like the characters for other reasons (confuses "familiar character type" with "shallow"), etc. 

2) Experience outside literature:  does the person commenting have enough knowledge and experience to know when you got the behavior right?    For instance, I've written characters that felt real to people who had experience in that field, but were questioned sharply by those without any such experience.   Even though the reader lacks experience, the best writers can convey enough of an unfamiliar setting/occupation so that most (never all) readers will accept the reality...but not if the reader has strong and unrealistic biases in place.  A common flaw here is that a reader has a theory of character (of human nature, of social/cultural reality) that is not based on fact, and thus imposes a false standard.   I remember shocking a child from a very strict religion by not having the behaviors she was sure all non-members of that church had.   I've run into readers/reviewers/critics who had just as unrealistic beliefs about genders, religions, occupations, political viewpoints, etc. 

3) Experience with literature:  Does the reader have the reading skills to recognize the actual characterization, or is he/she confined to a theoretical or fashionable approach?   Most writers have had reviews that made them go "Huh?  This person could not have read MY book!"   Some readers, though possessed of basic reading skills, are hasty in judgment and do not read books thoroughly even if they finish them.  They do not know how to read deeply, how to notice subtlety, how to recognize deeply layered characterization.  Again, unrealistic literary theories create some of this problem. If a reader believes that stories are binary--either character-driven or plot-driven, and that plots in which something happens necessarily means that characters lack complexity and depth, they will not see what's clear to more perceptive readers.  Reading skill takes time to develop, and it also takes the ability and willingness to read the book that's there on its own--and compare it to reality beyond books--rather than try to fit the book to an existing category. 

Which boils down to: most of the criticism of characterization I've seen is way off base. 

That does not mean it's useless to the writer.  

It's a matter of proportion.  If the readers who think your characters are boring, shallow, or just plain wrong constitute 5% of the responses, then you've just run into the reality that no book satisfies everyone.  If half the readers don't like your characters, you have a problem, but it's probably not exactly what you're hearing.   If the readers are people you know (your alpha readers) you can train them to give  you useful feedback; otherwise you have to look at your characters again and rethink what you know about them and what you've actually shown.   (Another post will deal with training your alpha/beta readers so they're the most help.)

Some writers and a minority of readers like to use unlikeable characters.  If you've chosen to write about unlikeable characters, then you can expect that a lot of people won't like them, and won't like your story as a result.  Your choice--you can accept that you're writing for a smaller audience, or you can modify your characters a little, give them a redeeming trait that may attract some more readers. 

If your characters are intended to be likeable, are they likeable the right way?  Or did you give them the kind of flaw that is really annoying all the way through, rather than plot-critical in a few places?   Do you and most people agree on what likeable is?  (Novice writers may use theoretical versions of likeable rather than real-world likeable...may use Sunday School niceness and perfect manners instead of genuine warmth, wit, etc.)  Are they too good, too perfect?   Are they not good enough? 

Have you shown your character's weaknesses in a way that a) will be recognized and b) will be accepted by readers--so they can empathize?   Have you shown your character's insides--his/her feelings about that weakness--as well as the effects of it? 

If your characters lean toward the ordinary, have you put hooks to their potential interesting/extraordinary bits in a way that most readers will notice them?   Did you make clear connections from their innate and acquired traits, via their motivations, to their actions?   That is, is the chain of causation connected all the way through from biology and psychology to action and consequences?

If you conceive of characters in depth, if you know their insides intimately, you can still leave out (because you know so much) something that's essential for readers--even the best readers--to grasp if they're going to commit to the character.   Though you can ignore the snarky, dismissive comments to some degree, it's always worth checking to see if you *did* leave out what you meant to put in, or if you added details that confuses/camouflages the real nature of your characters.



woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

About Books: Plot I

I seem to be stuck with this in my head, and the only way to get it out is to write it, so the saga continues.

Except it's not a saga. It's a series of essays.  Which brings up (as intended) the topic of Plot as an element of Story.  What is Plot, when is something not Plot, and why am I so firm about it?   To answer the last first, I'm firm about Plot because it's so often misunderstood.   Plot is one kind of narrative, but all narrative is not Plot.  These terms are used interchangeably by some, and that's unfortunate because we need the distinction if we're going to write Story.

What is narrative?  The relating of a sequence of events connected in some way (however tenuous.)  In its simplest form (before it even gets to a sequence), it's Who  Did What.   John planted a tree.  It grows by adding things in sequence.  John got up and had breakfast and went outside and planted a tree.   Narrative can be nonfiction or fiction: "What I Did on My Vacation", a police report of an arrest or investigation, an account of a battle or a treaty negotiation whether real or imaginary.  Somewhere between reporting events (real or fictional) and Plot are short things that some people call stories: anecdotes, jokes, allegories.  If straight reporting narrative is "what I did today", then anecdote is "you'll never guess what happened on the way to the office"--the report of an event or incongruity that sticks out, a bit of unexpected stuff.  With a little shaping, some anecdotes have story potential  (more on that later.)  But anecdotes don't have some of the essentials of Plot.  Nor do jokes.  Nor--though this is argued by some--allegories.  Allegories and parables are ways of setting up fictional situations that teach a lesson (the fox and the grapes, the dog in the manger, the blind leading the blind.)   Plot as used in Story is more than narrative, more than narrative moving toward a point...Plot is a specific organization of events to produce not a moral lesson but an emotional reaction.

So: back  to Aristotle and the skeleton plot.   The whole notion of the skeleton plot frightens some people and annoys others.  They hear "skeleton" and think "stock/simple/obvious/predictable."   Think a bit.  Every vertebrate on this planet has a skeleton, and all skeletons have a backbone, with a wad of neural tissue (large or small) at one end.   Does this mean all vertebrates look and act the same?   No.  From smallest to the largest, vertebrates exhibit dazzling variety: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals...and within each group, more variety...large, small, herbivores, omnivores, carnivores, various methods of reproduction, various social groupings and behavior.  The fact that I have a backbone and a scorpionfish has a backbone and a hummingbird has a backbone and a poison-dart-frog has a backbone and a reticulated python has a backbone does not mean that if the only sample of vertebrates you had was me, you could easily predict the rest.  Or the kangaroo or the duck-billed platypus or the fruit bat--just to stay in mammals. 

What the skeleton plot backbone gives the writer is a link to the hardwiring of human neurology.  Other links exist (musical rhythms that bring forth dance, and characters that connect to our social neurology) but in terms of fiction, the Plot backbone is both essential  and efficient.   All humans with  reasonably normal neurology will develop to what's called "concrete operations", at which point they're aware of cause and effect and have a body of knowledge about common causes and effects, both physical and social.   They're also aware of "justice" (the right effect from a given cause) as defined in their culture, and they're aware that justice doesn't always happen (the wrong child is scolded when the broken pot is discovered.)  

Plot is all about cause and effect.   Here's your complex character, this seething mass of innate and acquired traits...and your character has a problem: a need, a desire, a demand for change.  It does not matter what the problem is, as long as it's big enough to get that character into motion and fits into the rest of the plot, and it can be an internal push for change, or a problem imposed from outside (a storm, a war, being fired, being hit by a car.)  That initial problem is one cause...your character's reaction (born of his/her nature) is the first effect.   That effect does not solve the problem, or it generates a new, larger problem.  The effect becomes another cause...which demands another action, which has another effect.  A cascade of cause/effect, action/consequence, sets off down the plot's slope like a growing avalanche.  The character is active, engaged in the struggle with the problem and its successors--revealing more and more of himself/herself in that struggle.  Like the vertebrae in a backbone, not all the actions/consequences are the same size and shape (not if you want an interesting story), and you-the-writer need to have an end in mind...the tail of even the largest snake doesn't go on forever.  In fact, you don't want a tail on your story--to switch metaphors, you want to follow the backbone down to the pelvis and have the story suddenly "birth" a conclusion that makes perfect sense in light of everything else--that feels right, that satisfies the itch for justice born in the child when he or she first grasp the concept of fair/ unfair.

Plot has a beginning (when the character meets the problem) and an end (when the character succeeds or fails by whatever value system is governing your story.)  In between it has terrain: mountains, hills, valleys, canyons, barren slopes, intricate caves, all of whatever size and difficulty that story needs.   The character's outward and inward progress is fast, slow, difficult, easy, successful, failing, from moment to moment, as the cause-effect avalanche works its way down the backbone  from skull to pelvis.  The outward and inward progression may not be in synch...in the most interesting stories, may not be, as a disconnect between the obvious outward success/failure and internal feelings about those events help reveal character.   If a character is imagined with sufficient complexity, a plot may have five, seven, even ten layers, each driven by a different layer of cause/effect in the character and the outside world.  But even the simplest plot in a child's book has a backbone and a beginning, a middle, and an end that makes sense.