Friday, August 15, 2014

Origins of Characters

I recorded a documentary on the behind the scenes off the James Bond franchise a while back and I finally got to watch it a couple of nights ago. While much of it was the behind the scenes drama of the movies, the first part held a lot of fascinating aspects for me as a writer.

Ian Flemming participated in World War II as a spy. However, he was not a field spy, but he did manage a field spy team. He would rather have been in the field. He was a commander in the Royal Navy, but land bound in London. During the war he fell for a young courier. They were very close, but she was killed and it left him heart broken. After the war he was lost. Spent time at his Goldeneye estate. When the Cold War dawned he got the idea for James Bond. Many aspect of James Bond are autobiographical. Flemming was a bit of a playboy and never really settled down.

So, how did Flemming create James Bond. Well, the name came from a book on birds he had at Goldeneye. James Bond was the author and Flemming thought it just the sort of boring name his spy would need. Otherwise Bond was basically the spy Flemming had wanted to be, but reset from WWII to the Cold War. Bond was a cold killer and a passionate lover. He could switch from one to the other as the need arose. You can't quite say that Flemming didn't give him flaws, but it is those flaws as a person that make him a great spy. The same flaws Flemming saw in himself. Well, maybe not flaws, but aspects of his personality that really didn't fit in with the quite life.

That is just one example of how you create an iconic character. George Lucas did something far different with Star Wars. He consulted Campbell's book of mythical archetypes and used those to populate his story, a strange mixture of samurai cinema, WWII war movie, and his own boyhood in California. If any character in the film shared traits with Lucas himself, it would have been Han Solo, or maybe Chewbacca. The others come from myths and speak to the type of story humans have been telling for millennia.

Then there is Charles Dickens. So much of his work is autobiographical. He knew the things he wrote about and while I can't say if he put himself in any of the characters, he definitely put his family in them. Some writers didn't leave much to compare, but there are tantalizing tidbits. Victor Hugo was out on the streets of Paris and came across a barricade on that fateful night. Who might he have seen there that led to Jean Valjean, Marius, Enjolras, Eponine, or Gavroche. Regardless of the individuals, whoever he met that night likely died and lived again in the spirit of the characters he created.

Jane Austen lived most of the life of her heroines. He family was of modest income, comfortable but not rich. Her family was close. Her stories are a biography of her time. But unlike her characters, she never found the love and marriage she made sure they had.

Writers often create characters who are based on hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled. Lives cut short, loves lost, careers not tried. Often characters are more polished that the original, but sometimes they go the other way. This all goes in line with what I think makes a good character. Realism is the key to connecting with the reader. Sometimes that realism may be linking to our real life fantasies, not our real life. Some characters live the life we can only dream of, some are so close to us that we empathize with, some are so bad off that you hope no one you care about ends up like that. But in each case and in the areas in between, they are the realities encountered by our species. Our characters, even when they wield great powers that defy physics, are human. That is what makes them relateable to readers.

So it is no wonder that some of the most iconic characters have their origins in the real lives of their creators or the lives of those around them. The good characters feel real because they have their origins from the complex and human lives of their creators.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Write What You Know?

They say when you sit down to write that you should write what you know, but is that really good advice? I’ve come across a few instances where it just might be the worst advice you could follow.

This past year there has been a big blow up in the speculative fiction community about gender stereotypes in writing. More recently there was an analysis of the seven season of the new Doctor Who series using the Bechdel test to determine if the show was sexist or not. Now I have issue with that test, not because of what it is trying to test, but the way it does it. That’s a topic for an entirely different time. Right now what concerns me is the way writers deal with sensitive issues such as race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.

Race I think I have handled. I grew up in a town that was predominantly white, but not exclusively. I consider myself blind to race, as in I do not treat anyone different because of how they look. I never have. I wasn’t raised that way. I am very race conscious. I know racism exists and I deplore it in all its forms. No one should have to experience that. I have filled my writing with a variety of races and if they were every to turned into movies (I know it’s a pipe dream, but no writer can help it) and cast according to how I see the characters, there wouldn’t be many roles for white people.

But it has come to my attention, through some of the things that have been happening, that my treatment of gender may be a little too close to how I was raised. There have been few working women in my family and there are few in my stories. An oversight I intend to correct. As I have pondered just how this came about, I have reached the conclusion it is because I have followed the advice and written what I know. No bad intention on my part, but the things that influenced me when I was young, and from which I continue to be inspired, tend to be male dominated. Just about everything I watched or read is male centric.

It is odd. I was raised by women (with few strong male figures in my life) and I portray women as people with their own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve even been told that when I write female protagonists that they are stronger characters than my mail protagonists. Even so, the ideas I come up with for stories lack many women characters. Men and women share this world 50/50. The characters in my stories should follow the same split, but I was well into my fourth novel when I realized what I was doing.

And this applies to how I portray sexual orientation. I knew of no one who was not straight when I was growing up. I had some good influence from one of my favorite writers on the topic, but found religion for a while and was quite against it for a while until I realized 90% of the stuff they were feeding me was untrue. It took me a while to come back to a better place and I consider myself to be very forward thinking. I support marriage equality and early detection of gender identity (so a young person can get hormone therapy before hitting puberty so their body can develop as the gender they see themself as). But because this is something I have little experience in, I am hesitant to write characters like this because of that advise to write what I know.

So we come to today and my writing, and that of many people, which does not correctly reflect our world or our beliefs because we are writing what we know. It is drilled into us and I see that advice, while great for looking for a genre or story idea, is horrible advice when it comes to populating our stories. Our world had changed considerably and we need to change with it. Not just in our beliefs, but in the characters we fill our stories with. No, I may not be comfortable writing about a gay or transgender character, but I need to expand my horizons and learn and grow. No, I may not know enough right now, but I can learn, study, ask questions, seek advice, make new friends, etc.

So I propose a corollary to Write what you know. That is, if you don’t know it, learn it. And don’t stop with what society sees as issues. Imagine your own. In speculative fiction we have opportunities to imagine things that may never be reality, but it can let us explore these issues. We can make our writing a platform for equality for all while telling damn good stories. In fact some of the best writing has a clear message.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Bye Bye, Mary Sue

Writers are often faced with an issue when creating characters – believability. We have to balance the task of creating real, fleshed out characters with what we need to tell the story in the space allotted. Some are better at it than others. Those who have failed have led to some interesting character tropes. In particular is the character labeled Mary Sue.

Before I get into what makes a Mary Sue, I should first cover the goals and desired character tropes that it is sometimes confused with. Hopefully if you are reading this, you are familiar with the term ‘trope’, but just in case, a troupe is a convention or device a writers uses that will be immediately familiar to their audience. Some of the notable character tropes are the hero, the old mentor, the damsel in distress. Writers use them to best effect when they use a trope as a skeleton to build a fully fleshed character on. One of the desirable tropes is the Everyman trope. The Everyman is a normal person, someone the audience can relate to. They are used to great effect in many ways in a story, but have come to prominence as the protagonist. A proper Everyman is well rounded, fallible, not particularly heroic, but someone who can make it through adversity. They key to good fiction is to take a character trope and produce a realistic, well rounded character.

And then you have a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a miss of the Everyman trope. A Mary Sue masquerades as an Everyman, but where an Everyman has flaws and seems real, a Mary Sue is almost too perfect and too successful. Thing come too easy for a Mary Sue. If you have every played role-playing games, a Mary Sue plays with loaded dice. This trope was really born in fan fiction, but you can find them almost anywhere. Everything seems to go their way and yet they pass themselves off as completely normal. Readers wait for them to crash and they never do. I really shouldn’t just limit this to written fiction as it applies equally well to moving pictures, but even they have a script written by someone. Whether it is a reader taking the words and building a character in their mind or an actor performing the part, you still have a writer behind it.

I would pin the difference between an Everyman and a Mary Sue as failure. You expect and get failure from the Everyman. From a Mary Sue you will never get real failure. What does it mean to fail? Well, in the extreme it means death. But it also means you lose the love, you can’t save someone important, you can’t succeed at every step and have to try again. Failure builds character. It also lets readers connect with the character. What it boils down to is that with the Everyman, success is not guaranteed and usually not fully achieved. With a Mary Sue, they are going to succeed and get just about everything they want. For an Everyman, success comes with a price or is incomplete. For a Mary Sue, there is little price and it is complete (unless the writer saved something for a sequel).

The Mary Sue is like this because the trope comes from wish fulfillment. The writer wants what they character gets. It is a fantasy where everything goes the right way. In good fiction, as with life, few things come that easy. The Mary Sue character has everything come easy and the story just lacks something. It may be action packed, and a thrill ride, but there is no real danger, not sense that failure is imminent. By creating this sort of character, the writer has diminished their work. That said, parody and comedy have different rules. I don’t write that way, but the only time a Mary Sue can work to good effect is when the purpose of the story is different. For normal dramatic fiction, a Mary Sue is a bad thing.

The Mary Sue trope is not always a deliberate thing. Usually it is done on accident by someone who has yet to acquire their full set of writing skills. We can forgive a budding writer for falling for this trap. It is an easy fix. But when you have someone who eschews the fix and keeps doing it, you just have a bad writer. A writer needs to have a reason for everything. If you want to put in an Everyman, they need to have flaws and failure. If you have a comic purpose, you might have need of a Mary Sue. A writer needs to know their craft and use the tools and tropes that are called for to best meet the expectations of the reader. A reader of serious fiction will read a Mary Sue story and hate it or be totally bored.

Eliminating Mary Sue characters (except for those rare instances when they serve a purpose) is one of the first things a new writer needs eradicate. It is one of those things that separates the amateurs from the professionals. Few other character tropes are so fully tied to bad writing as the Mary Sue is. Part of that is the trope’s birth in fan fiction and the wish fulfillment of the fledgling writer. I did it. It is the hallmark of a writer who has yet to learn that to make fiction interesting, you have to put your characters through hell. You also don’t want to just insert problems for problem’s sake, but that is a post for another time.