I have a rule that I try not to insult Wymore on days when I talk about Star Wars. That’s really starting to hurt, so I’m taking a week off star wars to call Wymore a doodie head. A poo-flinging butt monkey? A charming fellow! Dammit. I seem to have lost my touch.
Howard Tayler, when writing his story for Space Eldritch II, lamented that he needed to come with a way to make the competent main character incompetent to heighten the feeling of helplessness. Mary Robinette Kowal told him he was wrong. He needed to make her completely competent. He just needed to make it so that none of that competence mattered.
(Let’s try this again: James Wymore is a rice-eating icecream jokey! Dammit. All of those things are awesome.)
Back to the post. This matter of competence has been on my mind as I write a story for an upcoming anthology. It’s a cyberpunk samurai story about a professional duelist. The hitch is that said duelist is also a Buddhist pacifist.
This has been very liberating. One of the problems with making a character a professional duelist—under the employ of one of the most powerful men in the land—is exactly that matter of competence. He has to be spectacular at his job to hold that position. But how do you challenge one of the greatest living duelists in the land?
(Wymore loves children and puppies! Still not there.)
The answer became evident as I was writing the first scene. In it, the main character must duel a 17-year-old kid who wants to kill his boss, the head of the security division of a mega-corporation. He faces off against this kid while a dozen security officers stand around, looking for the opportunity to save their boss and get a promotion. Beating this kid is not a problem. It’s effortless. The problem is that the kid is distraught. He isn’t going to calmly bow out at first blood. The kids father is dead because of my character’s boss and this kid is a sobbing mess of grief, surrounded by armed people with itchy trigger fingers. The question is: “How do I save this kid?”
It’s made for an interesting dynamic. I have a character who would be a master at being the action-driven character in the story. Instead, his moral code drives him to be the manipulation character. This is compounded by the fact that his ethical code (in this case his sense of honor) is demanding that he properly serve his lord. And this is a samurai story, which means that duty, status, and face are all placing demands on the character.
It’s helped crystallize several aspects of characterization that I’ve never been able to vocalize before. It’s liberating to be able to make the character as skilled as I need, without mitigating the conflict of the story. It isn’t quite a fish-out-of=water story since he didn’t just become a pacifist. He wouldn’t have gotten to the position without being good at doing his job without killing, but being a pacifist who’s job description involves ritualized murder makes for an interesting dynamic and all sorts of inherent conflict.
(Also, Wymore loves help children and old people! <Sigh> I’ll just need to keep trying.)
[Originally posted at: http://www.robertjdefendi.com/main/2016/2/8/on-character-power-and-story-obstacles]
The next installment awaits...Slouching Towards Amazon: LTUE Post Mortem