Sunday, June 30, 2019

On Characters! Or under, or beside.

Pictured: Damn, That's a character!

Hey Writers,

When last we met, I started talking about Virtual Machines, my current WIP, and I either scared everyone off or you're all mega-interested and hanging on for more. Realistically, it's probably about 50/50. So yeah, expect more of the same going forward. Sorry 'bout that. Or congratulations. Whatever.

So, when I talked about theme so long ago, I mentioned a little '80s flick called Black Rain, and the hero/protagonist, An NYPD detective named Nick Conklin (played by Michael Douglas). I bring our strung out, hard-hitting, old school detective up, because it's time to talk about the things that guide our stories; characters! More specifically, the protagonists who drive our tales.
What makes a protagonist memorable? Is it deep backstories or history? Is it fine details or quirks? 

Look at Nick;
- Veteran NYPD cop with a ton of friends on the force.
- an ex-wife who maintains a pretty lush lifestyle. Private schools for the kids, etc.
- two kids who are clearly fond of him, and with whom he has a great rapport. Clearly, a family man if not for "the job".
- suspected of taking cash from crime scenes to keep his head above water.
- under investigation by Internal Affairs and probably facing indictments for corruption and perjury.
- races his bike on the weekends for cash money.
- intense distrust and dislike of NYPD suits (read bureaucrats).
- strong sense of brotherhood with other cops.
- willing to bend the rules to get shit done.

That to me is one of the many magical things that elevates Black Rain above its cheesy '80s police actioner peers; it puts the human element front and center. Nothing about Nick Conklin feels random or contrived, in spite of the fact that it leans pretty heavily on Cop tropes. Film, however, is a collaborative effort. No doubt there were script meetings and story meetings wherein producers, actors, writers, and directors had input into the development of Nick Conklin, and cameras didn't roll until needs were satisfied. That sort of detail may not be as simple when you're an army of one.

I had a desire; I'd wanted to write a cyberpunk story without a typical cyberpunk protagonist. I had a theme, or a few themes that interested me, and I had a general basic idea of where I wanted my plot to go. Without a driver though, without that protagonist taking readers on a grand tour, i ultimately had sound and fury signifying nothing. At least in my mind.

I stress over characters, for me, weak characters, characters who feel like "name placeholders" tend to pull me out of a good story. Much as I love Tolkien, the majority of his characters were anemic. Robert E Howard did more to present one of Conan's many acquaintances throughout his short stories as strong individuals in their own right in just 5-10 pages than Tolkien did for the Hobbits in a thousand. This is a truth. Then there's Stephen King, who manages to make an everyman seem more alive on the page with just a name and some throwaway expositional dialogue than pretty much anyone else who's put word to paper.

Let's look at a few of my favorites:

Neuromancer bleeds good characters; There's our protagonist, Henry Case. William Gibson does a spectacular job of establishing Case early on, his desperation, his suicidal nature, and the storied past that drove him to that point are established cleanly and efficiently without exposition dumping. Even supporting characters like Molly and Armitage are well developed and elegantly executed. Neuromancer can be almost too cryptic or manic at times, indeed Gibson's economical use of phrase creates frantic pacing, but can feel choppy. Yet in all that economy the characters always feel real. This is probably my ideal.

Next up is Paul Atreides, the protagonist of Frank Herbert's Dune. Paul is pretty sparse as the novel opens, he's the 15-year-old son of Duke Leto Atreides. We witness the formative events that shape Paul, from the Gom Jabbar to the retaking of Arakeen, and that makes him a vibrant and endearing character. Herbert NAILS Paul's evolution from a boy, to a leader, to a prophet, to a messiah, to god, but we never lose sight of that 15-year-old boy on Caladan. No doubt Herbert planned Paul's evolution in a very detailed fashion, or maybe he evolved as Herbert plowed through "the process". Herbert's approach works for your typical "hero's journey", but it doesn't necessarily serve a narrative outside of that template. Harry Potter is another fine example of this sort of approach. People love Harry because they grew up with him. I often contend that following the film adaptations in 2001, the reason Harry Potter stuck around and Lord of the Rings kind of didn't, was because of strength of character.

More contemporary characters? Clive Cussler's swashbuckling treasure hunter, Dirk Pitt. Every novel essentially re-introduces Pitt's Indiana Jones meets James Bond persona and does so in very economical fashion; the narrative serves the character well and the reader is along for the ride. The books are often pulpy garbage, sure, but Pitt is a GREAT character who's well established without any kind of exposition sideroad, and the events that occur inform us as to his skill set. The narratives complement the cast of characters perfectly, and the characters drive the story.

Dan Brown, for all his faults, created a memorable contemporary character in symbologist Robert Langdon. This is Indiana Jones if he stayed in "archaeology professor" mode. His past is hinted at, he has one, he's not just a name on paper. Brown does a fine job of portraying Langdon as both a capable academic and relatable everyman. I may hate his writing, but he created a very cool character that rises well above the material he inhabits.

How much is too much? For me, any exposition that pulls you away from the narrative or puts the brakes on the forward momentum is too much. That balance is important, that hint of a past without deep diving into the character for a thousand words mid-stream.

How little is too little? Is the character a cipher? Is he a silent witness just along for the ride? Does he do anything at all? Make any decisions? Does he have any kind of a personality? Is he a robot? If he's anything more than just a name on paper within the confines of the story, it could be enough. It really depends on the narrative ultimately.

Who are your favorite characters? What authors really created memorable characters for you? And how? How do you approach creating your characters? Do you feel that a name is enough and just let the narrative shape your character from there?

Next time, I'll talk about "the process" of creating Nathan Zahir Roland and maybe Rachel Inverness;  the process I took, and why, and hopefully you can tell me what I did wrong.

Until next time,

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