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.
            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.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Information vs. Noise

            Many thanks for your patience.  Sorry I missed last week, but—as suspected—travel stuff kind of overwhelmed me.  Texas Frightmare was pretty amazing.  If you’re a fan of horror, or any subgenre of horror, I highly recommend it.
            Enough of that, though.  Let’s make some noise.
            Actually, let’s not.
            Writer and writing coach Damon Knight made an interesting observation about how we receive facts as we read.  When we come across a fact that we don’t know, it’s information (I have four different statues of the Egyptian god Anubis on my desk).  Information is new, and we tend to pay attention to it. 
            A fact that we already know, on the other hand, is noise (the sky is blue, candy is sweet, the KKK is bad).  Noise is annoying.  It’s repetitive and distracting.  We try to block it out and focus on other things, because we know listening to noise is a waste of our time.
            Let me give you an example...
            I saw the pilot for a television show a few months back.  Well, most of the pilot.  I shut it off halfway through.  Normally I wouldn’t call out shows or movies for mistakes, but since this one’s already been cancelled, I don’t think it matters.  The entire first act of Once Upon A Time In Wonderland goes back and forth between young Alice adventuring in Wonderland with her Djinn boyfriend and adult Alice in an insane asylum, where she’d been for years because she insisted her childhood stories were all real. 
            As we kept going back and forth, the style of storytelling (and, granted, the whole premise of the show) made it very clear that Alice actually experienced these things.  So the ongoing inquisition at the asylum became doubly pointless.  I knew they thought she made it up and I also knew it really happened. 
            And information we know is just noise. 
            What’s interesting, though, is that as this back and forth continued, a shift happened.  The Wonderland sequences became noise, too.  Even though they were giving new information, it was still couched in the frame of “this really happened.”  And I already knew it really happened, because that was established early on.  So I began to glaze over the entire first act of the show and wondered when the actual story—something new—was going to begin...
            I just finished a book where everyone in a small village is being affected by mood-altering technology that are making them dull and listless.  The most vibrant people are tired and apathetic, and even pale from lack of sunlight.  As our young heroine returns home, she keeps observing how everyone is tired and apathetic and pale.  The girl at the local Quik-E-Mart is tired and apathetic and pale.  The clerk at the grocery store is  tired and apathetic and pale.  The deputy who she confronts about it is tired and apathetic and pale.  And she comments to her as-yet-unaffected friend about how tired and apathetic and pale everyone seems to be, and they wonder what’s going on.
            And I’m sure you were skimming a bit at the end there, because there’s only so many times you can see “tired and apathetic and pale” before you start glossing over it. It’s what I ended up doing.  I have to admit, I skimmed large swaths of the book because it kept showing me the same things over and over again.
            Y'see, Timmy, I need to be aware of noise not only in my story, but in the way I tell my story.  It’s unavoidable that I’ll need to repeat something every now and then.  But this should be the rare exception, not the standard pattern of my storytelling. 
            My story should always be moving forward.  My characters should be growing and learning and developing.  This is all progressive motion, and it’s what every story needs to survive. 
            Because if my story doesn’t have forward movement, it’s just me sitting there making noise.
            Next time, I’d like to speak in code for a bit.
            Until then, go write.