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Writer’s Craft #14 – Character X, Character Y

April 4, 2011

A friend, named Kathleen Stewart, told me that my characters stand out because of their strong responses to each other. She was reading The Courtesan Prince, Part I of the Okal Rel Saga. This got me thinking about how SF, in particular, often portrays larger-than-life characters with traits that are easy to recognize. Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan is a hyperactive dwarf with a genius for improvising. You’d never confuse him with his tall and handsome, but much duller, cousin Ivan. Rubeus Hagrid, of Rowling’s Harry Potter series, is a good-hearted giant with a soft spot for malevolent creatures, while Harry’s other mentor, Sirius Black, is quick tempered, lean and cynical.

Here’s an excerpt from The Courtesan Prince in which I’ve replaced the names of the characters with the variables X and Y. Given the adjectives associated with each character (listed below the excerpt) can you match the variables with the right names? I am purposefully going to use a short passage, that isn’t particularly dramatic, in order to test the theory that characters can behave distinctly even in small things.

The challenge to you is to do the same thing with an excerpt from your own work and see if we can replace X and Y. If you don’t have something suitable, use an excerpt from a book you like.

“I make you nervous?” Y asked with a sudden smile.
X met his stare frankly and felt the Gelack recoil. “No,” he said, and meant it. “Is that an error?”
“Courage is never an error,” said Y, a bit sadly, and sighed. “I should explain your position, but first, please, eat your breakfast.”

Choices:

  • Ranar: even tempered, scholarly
  • Di Mon: high strung, aristocratic
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari T permalink
    April 4, 2011 9:09 am

    Hi, how fun!! let me take a guess, Y is Di Mon, and X is Ranar. Although, my impression of Y is that he is insecure and can’t be trusted becasue of it, and most likely he does not like X in the long run. X seems to lack social skills, might be a loner, and probably doesn’t like anybody in the long run. (It would be fun to do this exercise with an excerpt that contained no dialogue, just action. I see Y as someone obsessed with his hair, ha!)

    OK, my example isn’t that difficult, but here it is:

    “Have you ever had to defend yourself?” X asked casually.
    “What does that have to do with anything?” Y responded, his palms moistening.
    “It’s not something that’s innate,” X explained.
    “Are you implying I’d rather take a blow to the head?”
    X crossed his leg and resettled himself on the bench before answering. “I’m implying that there may not be a bundle of linen at your disposal, and the day is coming when you will have to strike first.”

    Jonathon- hard working, pragmatic, optimistic
    Willem-ill tempered, cautious, pessimistic

  2. Krysia permalink
    April 4, 2011 11:50 am

    I remember that scene and I know who the gelack is so it’s not fair for me to guess. But for the other I think that X is Willem and Y is Jonathon.

  3. April 4, 2011 1:47 pm

    I’m a sociologist, so even in editor mode I’m a bit nervous when characters are reduced to labels. Real humans do not consist of a set of unchanging traits, so believable characters (especially the main characters — background characters may be 2D) have to grow/change, or be occasionally inconsistent.

    For example, psychologist have been quite successful in arguing that there is something called IQ, that this reflects one’s intelligence, and that it is a unitary and fixed quality. Sociologists have been somewhat less successful explaining that this is largely rubbish — that intelligence is an emergent property out of interactions, that context is everything, and that far from a unitary trait, people have a wide range of skills, i.e., street smarts and book smarts may not correlate all that well — because psychological explanations of IQ fit very nicely within the ideology of meritocracy, which is central to capitalism, while sociological explanations challenge the status quo. Ironically, it is one of the great cliches of literature that the brilliant scientist is probably a nerd when on a date — see any episode of Big Bang Theory.

    So, I would argue that any trait you assign to a character is in part necessarily a trait in context — Character A may be a constrained, mild mannered soft spoken, unassertive guy at the office, where he is pushed around by his bully boss, but may well be quite assertive in another environment, such as at home with the kids.

    Of course, I take your point that a writer must give careful consideration to how characters would interact and that writers need to ensure that their characters are in character throughout the book. But it is equally important to recognize that ‘character’ is also reflected in the behaviours constrained or triggered by the enviornment — and since the whole point of most novels is to put our protagonists under strain, to move them to new enviornments, and throw them into new situations, it should come as no surprise to find them suddenly acting UNcharacteristically; or to peel away the surface layers of character to reveal the true inner character etc. etc. E.g., I think I’m pretty scholarly and even tempored — right up until my children are threatened. Then, not so much.

    I would agree that the first step towards character development is to thoughtfully outline a character (given background, parentage, current situation, agendas and vested interests) and to then ensure that every little action/dialog in the piece also works to reveal those characteristics; but then, as the action in the work develops, we must be able to see how that character bends, adapts, changes — or rigidly resists such change — as a more rounded and interesting character than can be captured by a couple of tags.

    • Mishell Baker permalink*
      April 4, 2011 2:21 pm

      I agree to some extent, but I balk a bit when people base what is acceptable/unacceptable in character creation on the facts of real-life psychology. That makes about as much sense to me as constructing a plot based on the events of real life (ask anyone who has tried, it doesn’t work out very well unadapted). Fiction is by its nature more orderly and “crafted” than real life, and so are its characters. While characters should be open to change in certain aspects, a mark of enjoyable writing is that characters remain constant in certain pleasingly predictable ways. You must decide at the outset which aspects of your character are open to an “arc” or a planned development over time, and which are immutable facts of his/her temperament that are used to identify the character in the reader’s mind.

      In real life, people can change whatever they like about themselves, no matter how upsetting those changes may be to those who know them. But try to give Dr. House a religious epiphany and your viewership will go out the window. 🙂

      In the case of this post, I think Lynda is deliberately simplifying her description of each character; I’m sure she could give you paragraphs and paragraphs on each.

  4. April 5, 2011 7:47 am

    The exercise, indeed, is simplified, preforce. I could, indeed, say a great deal more about the characters as Mishell guesses. And scholarly Ranar (yes, he’s X) does behave uncharacteristically on a few occations when seriously challenged by the environment. Good point there, Robert. Thanks for dropping in to comment. Interesting how the discussion of whether characters change or don’t change has emerged. I caught a bit of House the other day and suspect the producers have already changed House too much. They will lose the audience who loved him as he was and the series is probably about to fold. On the other hand, I like novels better than TV series on the whole because characters do change and evolve. The question of how much they can change is an interesting one. Something I ask myself, in fact, about myself. In real life. Truth can be stranger than fiction.

  5. Barbara permalink
    April 5, 2011 9:47 am

    I would disagree slightly with Michell above – while I do agree that some character traits should remain constant, so the reader doesn’t completely lose track of the character, and some should change so that the character isn’t boringly static, I question whether a writer needs to decide ‘at the outset’ which are which.
    Sorry, that risks getting into the ancient pantser vs. outliner discussion – but even outliners can find that their characters change in unexpected ways, I think.

    • April 5, 2011 11:01 am

      The question for me would be whether the change in character is in character.🙂 If you know what I mean. But I like to work from a deep understanding of characters — sort of an iceberg approach where I know a lot more about them than ever shows explicitly. It might be different if the character evolves “in situ” so to speak. I suspect both approaches can yield convincing results.

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