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Writer’s Craft #16 – Making a Statement

April 18, 2011

Making a statement through your characters

Do you express your values through your characters? Author Justine Graykin gives us her take on the question, below, as this week’s guest writer. Please share your thoughts about the question, with or without examples from your writing. (lynda)

by Justine Graykin

The protagonist reflects, the antagonist rants. The reader is left to ponder both sides of a situation with sympathy, if not full appreciation, for the opposing points of view. Even simplistic plots and one dimensional characters designed purely to entertain send a message of some sort: subtle affirmations that submissive women are desirable, or violence for a good cause is justifiable. We as authors can either take responsibility for what statement we are making, or simply shrug and go along with the market, popular culture, or the genre.

We can make a case for some idea or ethos through the way the plot turns, and even by our choice of setting. But the actions of characters, their choices and fates, most often make the statement. We can choose to exalt the nobility of war through a virtuous warrior, or condemn prejudice and persecution through the sufferings of an outcast. Or it can be something simple, which nonetheless makes a statement about what is valued in a culture.

Making a statement about what is valued in a culture is the example I’ve chosen to illustrate, through Brinnalamaya, a character from my Elder Light series. She holds a position rather like a supreme justice in a technologically advanced republic. It gives me an opportunity to make a statement about a contemporary issue, books versus eBooks, but something a little deeper as well. Of necessity we make pragmatic choices for the sake of convenience. But our lives are richer if we do not abandon the authentic experience entirely.

The rich wealth of story collections and novels produced by their culture over the centuries was stored in the data vaults of the Museum and Archives, accessible to anyone with a computer or other reading device. Brinnalamaya always kept pleasant and interesting reading material stored on her computer for when she had a moment or two to relax. She also drank the tea that was quickly made by machine, generically flavored, served in mugs easily washable and not easily broken. Such was the necessity of having a busy life with many obligations; one needed convenience and efficiency.

But when she had genuine leisure time, a luxurious expanse of hours during which she could turn off the messenger, pretend she was not at home, and do just as she pleased, she would make tea from boiled water and steeped from choice selected and blended leaves, perhaps sweetened with a drop of honey, served in a lovely mug of unique and somewhat fragile design. From a shelf, especially made for their storage, she would choose one of the books she had collected, favorite texts turned into old-style, bulky, inefficient, obsolete and splendid artifacts. She would take it down, feeling the smooth texture of the cover in her hand, touching the pages and turning each leaf. She would settle in her most comfortable chair, one with good lighting above it, wrap herself in a particularly soft blanket, sip her tea, and read.

The beautifully rendered illustrations and the carefully chosen print style of a well-made book pleased the eye in a way that no screen image or hologram could. Mere information could be shared on demand through networks. Even works of art could be reproduced electronically for the benefit of the masses, for their appreciation and education. But for that education to be complete one had to at least once see the object as it was meant to be seen, physical, present, unmediated. Paintings, sculptures, performances of music, theater, all were best appreciated when one was there, in the same room, sensing all the subtle nuances of the experience. Books performed that service for written text. If it was truly art, it needed to be rendered into a form that did it justice. Not virtual images on a screen to be quickly scanned, consumed, discarded, but a book which endured, had presence, continued as a palpable reality even when it wasn’t being actively read.

Justine blogs at http://justinegraykin.wordpress.com/

13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2011 8:36 am

    A fascinating topic. On the one hand, a story that has nothing to say tends to be completely forgettable, if not outright unreadable.

    On the other hand, a story that speaks in favour of values one does not hold will often alienate readers: I have myself thrown books by, say Stephen White, across the room because the right wing, militaristic, misogynistic values expressed by the characters overwhelmed the action/adventure elements. I can only read so much ideological claptrap before my brain explodes.

    And then there are authors who challenge my core values by developing really insightful thought experiments — creating worlds in which things are other than they are here and now and so making me rethink whether my fundamental assumptions are in fact valid. In these cases, the stories are not only memorable, but ‘significant’. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite and Karl Schroeder’s Permanence. The former challenges basic rules of our civilization by positing a situation where the opposite values make more sense for the context; the latter challenges our values by extrapolating current trends to their (il)logical conclusion. Both really made me think. (The latter is more of a simple adventure novel, but I haven’t been able to use an ATM machine since without getting angry!)

    And then there are books that reinforce our current values. Those can be good too! The author has something to say, and we listen and think, ‘yeah, good point’, or ‘excellent illustration of that principle’. The trick is to bring forward some new insight, to make the reader recognize or realize something they hadn’t consciously thought about before, rather than just pandering to the preexisting prejudices of the audience…

    One of the worst examples of pandering was an Asimov (I think it was Asimov) novel from the 1950s in which the secret document over which the characters had been risking their lives turns out to be the American constitution — as if that particular, not very democratic document, was the only model of democracy available 1,000 years in the future. As a Canadian, pretty much left me banging my head against the table — and the book is not one that people remember today. Same with that Star Trek episode where the Coms verse the Yangs: my god, that was hard to take! Not literature, not memorable (at least, not in a good way!) and not a model for writers.

    But finding the balance between saying something and being pedantic, between pandering and reinforcing, between challenging and alienating — that’s not easy.

    • April 18, 2011 1:15 pm

      Looked up Courtship Rite on Goodreads and made it a ‘to read’. Thanks for introducing me to an author I may enjoy.

  2. fvanhorne permalink
    April 18, 2011 10:52 am

    This is a tricky one for me. I have plenty of strongly held views, and I’m not a subtle writer (working on that). I find that if I don’t hold myself back, I can easily use my characters as polemic-spewing cudgels. That may help me to relieve some stress and make me feel like I’m exacting justice on the world. But left unchecked, my poor readers will end up saying, “I get your point. Geez, come on, already!” If they make it through at all.

    In my novel Southpaw Junction, I have a character who’s a minority in several ways, suffering in a small and small-minded town. In my first draft I took the discrimination to cartoonish levels, and the story suffered. I managed to scale it back in later drafts, to the point where I now feel like the story makes its own point without so much narrative intervention on my part.

    • April 18, 2011 1:19 pm

      Have you read War and Peace? I remember being moved by it greatly until I got to the bit near the end where Tolstoy gets on his soap box about the evils of the Russian army hiring German consultants. The greatness in the work before that, I think, is that he makes it all real enough there’s some ambiguity to extend oneself into. Although Tolstoy is by no means without a stance on matters other than German consultants.🙂

    • April 18, 2011 1:30 pm

      PS Thanks for giving us an example from your own writing! If there’s one character in the Okal Rel Saga who expresses my values more than most, it has to be Amel. Which is sort of scary because while some readers love him, other readers find him irritating. My alpha-male character, Horth, expresses integrity as a value. Always bothers me, though, that without his instinct to win and ability to do so, his honor and integrity wouldn’t get a chance to express themselves. Once one gets into a position of power, however, I think integrity can be valuable even from a utilitarian point of view if it gains you allies.

  3. Mishell Baker permalink*
    April 18, 2011 11:40 am

    I have found that readers will read whatever values they most deeply hold (or resent) into what you write, regardless of what was actually in your mind when you wrote it.

    • April 18, 2011 1:21 pm

      It is an uphill battle changing anyone’s mind. But don’t you think a good book can, at least, raise questions the reader might not otherwise have asked themselves? Maybe such questions have to “sneak up” on some readers more than others.

      • Mishell Baker permalink*
        April 19, 2011 6:29 am

        I think a true master storyteller can plant seeds of doubt in a reader’s mind regarding long-held beliefs, but it is a hard thing to do! I think most stories tend to be Rorschach tests, with readers seeing in them whatever is lurking in the depths of their own minds. As a random example, think of the popularity of the TV show “All in the Family.” It was written to expose and ridicule ideas such as racism, but many racists loved the program because they felt Archie was “telling it like it is” and courageously saying the things they weren’t allowed to.

  4. Krysia permalink
    April 18, 2011 10:20 pm

    Im not a very deep writer…

    • April 19, 2011 9:05 am

      ah but isn’t there a message in the story even so? Perhaps about not to take the world to seriously?

  5. April 19, 2011 11:11 am

    Some of my favorite science fiction stories are intentionally polemic or didactic, so it’s kinda hard for me to think of it as a bad thing. I like Stapledon, Wells, Zamyatin and his imitators Huxley and Orwell. I actually enjoy the Sturgeon and Ellison stories that are intended to be ruminations on the nature of love and hate, good and evil, justice, etc.. I am sure that these influences show in my writing to some degree. Whether the reader could accurately reconstruct my own views on every subject from my writing is doubtful, though.

    • April 20, 2011 12:04 pm

      Thank you for standing up for deep thought in SF.🙂 Stapledon is Olaf Stapledon, right? I looked him up on Wikipedia and was delighted to see his writing influenced so many. I liked this summation from the Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaf_Stapledon):

      “Stapledon’s fiction often presents the strivings of some intelligence that is beaten down by an indifferent universe and its inhabitants who, through no fault of their own, fail to comprehend its lofty yearnings. It is filled with protagonists who are tormented by the conflict between their “higher” and “lower” impulses.”

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