Friday, May 16, 2014

Character Cheat Code

            Up up, down down, left right, left right—novel.
            If only it was that easy...
            I haven’t blathered on about characters in a while.  Well, not strictly about characters.  Characters are the heart of storytelling, so really I’m always blathering on about characters.  And I saw something great a few weeks ago that got me thinking.
            Anyone here watch Game of Thrones?  I wanted to talk about a bit at the start of this season.  No, don’t worry, no spoilers...
            On the off chance you don’t watch, Arya Stark is the tomboy daughter of a noble family.  She’s on the run after a good chunk of said family’s been killed.  The Hound is a giant, mercenary brute who’s served as bodyguard, champion, and enforcer for the king, depending on what the moment calls for.   He snatched Arya up thinking he might get a reward for saving her, and they’ve formed sort of an uneasy alliance since then.  In the bit I mentioned, Arya and the Hound are riding doubled-up through the forest and she’s complaining about their lack of food and her lack of horse.  She berates the Hound for not stealing any gold from the King before he fled the city.
            “I’m not a thief,” he growls.
            Arya, who’s had some unpleasant encounters with the Hound in the past, glares at him and says “So killing an unarmed eight year old boy is fine, but you won’t steal?”
            The Hound looks past her, shrugs, and says “A man’s got to have a code.”
            My friends and I all chuckled at that.  The truth is, I think the Hound went up a few notches in everyone’s opinion right there.  He became a better character.
            Why?
            We like people who have a code.  It doesn’t need to be something spoken aloud or written down or sworn to in an oath.  It doesn’t mean they have to give up their possessions or disavow their former lives or change their name.  It just means these people are true to their beliefs.  True to themselves.  They say this is who they are and what they do, and they’re being honest.  The Hound.  Leon the Professional.  Dexter.  Barney Stinson.  Hannibal Lecter.  The Terminator.  All of these characters should be villains, or loathsome at best, but we like them because they all have a certain code they follow, and they won’t change that for just anything.  Awful as it may sound, we all like the fact that the Hound can kill a child without question, yet be insulted at the thought he’d pocket a few coins he wasn’t entitled to.
            From a writer’s point of view, a code is good because it means my audience can get a clear definition of my character.  It gives me a bit of background and development, because I can now explain or hint at why this person has said code.  It also provides me with an immediate source of conflict, because I now know there are things my character won’t be willing to do (and because a character who can do anything gets boring fast).
            The downside, of course, is that once I establish a character has some form of personal code, it’s tough to have them go back on it.  Y’see, Timmy, people don’t base their lives around an idea and then just change their minds on a whim.  These beliefs are an integral part of the character, so altering them is a major thing.  If someone tosses their vows or beliefs aside over something minor, it makes them look like very weak. 
            Which, by extension, doesn’t make me look too good as a writer.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about compression.
            Until then, go write.

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