Yes, I meant to rant next about male characters, but this has been on my mind a lot lately.
(And this one is even less rantish than the others. I need a name for them other than that. Essay? Maybe, but I associate essays with school. And research. And obscure academic arguments).
…I would like to know how.
I don’t think it’s possible in fantasy. Actually, I don’t think it’s possible in any kind of fiction writing, but in most stories set in our world, the web of relationships is one that we’re all familiar with and don’t think much about. We know that if, say, a teenager murdered someone and ran away to avoid the consequences, that said consequences would include upset parents, investigations by the police, a lot of angst, and criminal penalties. We know certain things about what kind of person the teenager would have to be to have committed the crime in the first place, and what kind of accident might have caused her to assume responsibility if it wasn’t really her fault, and what kind of circumstances would allow her to make a good case for self-defense. We can also make accurate guesses, based on what country and time period the story is set in, what kind of upbringing she had, what she looks like, what kind of clothes she’s wearing, what is possible for her to do, what kind of tastes she might have in music, and on and on and on.
Can you, in all of that, draw a firm line between what’s part of her personality and what’s part of the world around her? I don’t think so. Trying only leads back to the nature/nurture debate. It has to be a dotted line at the very least, and if the author doesn’t have any reason to mention it, the reader might not see any difference between “She listens to that music because it’s very meaningful to her” and “She listens to that music because it’s popular.”
My argument is that it should be the same for fantasy.
The characters and the world grow together, and will shape and be influenced by each other- in the very best fantasy. If a character has a grudge, she can’t possibly have a grudge in isolation (unless the fantasy is horribly shallow and is making other people into bullies for the sake of having bullies to beat up on). The people who taunted her had a reason for taunting her. Perhaps they hated the racial group she was part of, and that hatred springs from a crime that that group is believed to have committed long ago, which got everyone tossed out of heaven. And at that point, where do you make an ending of history and a beginning of a character sketch?
Say that you have a very clear mental picture of a character. She stands five feet tall, has clear brown eyes and light brown hair, and moves with a limping gait. Where did she get the limp? You decide that you don’t want it to come from a beating, so it’s genetic. What happened to influence her genetics that way, when you’ve already decided that her parents don’t limp? Say that her mother had a great deal of magic channeled through her body when your heroine was in the womb- perhaps her mother was the world-saver of the previous generation- and it resulted in both her daughter’s limp and her unusually short height. In seconds you know some key details of the last time the world was in danger, that magic in your world has genetic effects on babies in the womb, that the heroine’s mother was pregnant with her by the time she started saving the world, and that most people in your world are taller than five feet. And you have the pleasure of deciding whether the mother knows about this and feels guilty or scared or resentful or just content with her daughter as she is, or whether she doesn’t know and is restlessly searching for a “cure.” Character twines with setting twines with plot twines with character again. There is no true ending, no line to be drawn.
It’s my opinion that a lot of people already do this. Very few good writers plan their characters in isolation from their world, or try to jam histories together with people that they never would have produced. Of course, those bonds weaken somewhat when an author falls in love with both her characters and her setting and can’t imagine having either another way. Then it’s up to her to reconcile how her peasant hero can read when laws have been passed that make books the exclusive property of the noble classes. (And it’s up to her editor to point out that she needs to do it, of course, and up to the author to agree instead of throwing a hissy fit). Most of the time, this won’t take long, and can even end up giving a better direction to the plot.
Why do people call themselves “character writers” or “plot writers” or “descriptive writers,” then? I think it’s simple pride taken in something they know they do well, such as character introspection, plot twists, or breathtaking description of natural scenes. Most of the time, that’s what I find most impressive in a particular author that I’ve been told is a “character writer” or some other particular appellation. But the author doesn’t not have characters or description or plot or whatever else it is that they’re supposed to lack. They’re there. Tolkien, for all that I think he was more a world-builder and a language-creator than a character writer, didn’t simply write down lists of Elvish verbs and ask people to accept them with no mediating characters. He did that for his own private amusement and for people who had grown interested in the languages through hearing them in their proper setting, breathed through the mouths of their proper speakers. Tolkien himself didn’t go for long without wondering just what kind of people spoke his languages, where they lived, and what had happened to them. The wall between language-making and story-telling isn’t all that sturdy.
Nor is it that sturdy between stories and what are supposedly more understandable story “disciplines,” like character sketches. I’ll be blunt and say that I think character sketches are useless without some semblance of setting and plot, just as the cleverest plot twists in the world are nothing without characters to ride on and places to happen in, and fantasy worlds without characters and plots are likely to interest only their creators. Your imaginary person may have the greatest personality in the world, but how did he get that way? He didn’t shape his thoughts and feelings that you find so fascinating in isolation. His dysfunctional relationships with his family were surely influenced by many things- everything from the petty irritations that his parents inherited from their own parents to the fact that the Dark Lord was trying to conquer the world when he was growing up. The world does not begin and end within your character’s skull, even if he tells the story.
Plots are the same way. “Plot bunnies” bite people all the time, but most of them die of starvation or get hunted down by the foxes of Apathy without being written. Plot twists in themselves don’t mean squat if they’re not happening in a solid setting, to people we care about. You might have the coolest idea for ending the world that anybody has ever seen, but why does the person whose responsibility it is to end the world want to do it? (And none of this “He’s insane!” bullshit, please. That one’s overused). Develop the places and people, or, even if you do get published, you’re unlikely to convince a great many readers to care.
I’m being particularly hard on plot and character here because I don’t hear many people claim themselves as “setting writers,” while I hear the other two all the time. Reading their writing, though, I don’t see that, if I think they’re any good at all. I see the three, along with history and theology and genealogy and science and all the other things that the created world brings along with it, blending seamlessly. If a character does something that changes the world, who’s to say that that happened just because the character was a bastard? Why did he become a bastard in the first place? If his heart was hardened by being the sole survivor of the Battle of the French Loops, then you’ve got character and history blending again. And if the author wrote the Battle of the French Loops in the first place because she thought it was a cool idea, here comes plot to interfere. It’s never just about one or the other, once you get beyond the confines of the character sketch, the plot outline, the claims of a set of generalizations that people feel the need to parcel their writing skills out among.
Know everything about your story, inside-out and upside-down. No, not all of it will be as fascinating as working out what color Mina’s hair is, or what will happen when she confronts Janaster, but it’s much better than getting halfway through a novel and realizing that there’s no way Mina could have avoided the Dark Lord’s notice when you’ve made him omniscient.
That doesn’t mean plotting everything before you begin, of course. You can do it as you go along (my favorite way), when all of the story elements leap together like a wolf pack and you can’t tell which one made the decision to throw you the idea. But I think that until people break down the idea that they’re “character writers” or “narrative writers” or whatever, it’s much less likely to happen.
Well, um. That got into things I didn’t expect it to get into.