Okay. Here’s the deal.
Partly, I haven’t been posting rants lately because of one part of my personal life going to hell, but also because lately I hate all the rough drafts rants I start, and the things I’m interested in might make good essays, but they don’t make good rants as such.
So this one is about something totally bizarre that I am also interested in, and not very rantish. We’ll see how well this works. Feel free to tell me if it disappoints you, but keep in mind that most of them are going to be like this from now on.
A lot of this is rather abstract. I’ve tried to make it as clear as possible, but…well. When you’re dealing with how people think, it’s difficult.
1) The moment in the mirror.
This is all the fault of one of my current professors. She studies cognitive science combined with eighteenth-century literature, and she helpfully pointed out how many eighteenth-century novels have a moment like the one in Defoe’s Roxana, where the heroine (herself an unreliable narrator) tries on a necklace that one of her lovers has given her and looks at her reflection in a mirror, and simultaneously sees herself wearing the necklace and the prince watching her watch herself, while she watches him watching her watch herself, and he watches her watching him watching her watching herself…
How do you use this for characterization? Well, one of the obvious paths is theatricality. How much of your character’s reaction in a situation like this is acting rather than reacting? Does she adjust her behavior when she realizes someone’s else eyes are on her? Does she become flustered and put down the necklace? Does she not even think about the lover watching her, because she’s much too preoccupied with her own reflection? Does she try to guess what he’s thinking, but guess wrong? Knowing what your particular character does in a situation like this will tell you something about how she thinks, and perhaps give you clues to her background, like where she might have gotten actress training.
Two other minor notes: a scene with a mirror or other reflective surface may also make a great place to change viewpoint, as subjectivity can in essence pass into the mirror and then out again through a different line of sight; and while a character mooning over herself in the mirror and describing her looks is rightly a scene to be dreaded, having two people in it—and keeping the focus on their subjectivity—lessens the horror.
2) Embedded levels of knowledge.
This is point 1 without the mirror, kind of. Keep in mind that I’m going off my professor’s knowledge here, which as far as I know is recent, but possibly not the most recent, so if someone knows something that contradicts this, feel free to voice it. I’m interested in what effects it can have for writers, mainly, even if the numbers don’t stack up.
It is, apparently at least, a fact that human beings can only keep up with a certain level of embedded knowledge, of the “He knows that she knows that I know” kind. Our comprehension is good until the fourth level. When it hits the fifth, it drops rapidly (60% is the figure my professor quoted). We also start finding the sequence of embedded subjectivities hilarious. (That part, I don’t know the reason for. My professor promised to explain it, but wound up not having the time).
Here is a great way to explore the interconnections between and minds of people other than just your protagonists—particularly valuable for novels where you’re handling whole communities, or your main “character” is actually a place. Who knows what? How do they know it? Probably even more important, how do they construe it? Yes, things like this can be a bitch to keep track of, especially in intrigue and mystery plots (where people often seem to know things they really shouldn’t know yet), but my god, can you imagine how useful it might be for “reading” an enigmatic character?
More interesting knowledge for free: My professor named two authors who play around with these embedded levels of subjectivity. George Eliot apparently pushes her readers quite a bit, which may be one reason that her novels tire people out. And Virginia Woolf apparently embeds up to eight levels of “I know that she knows that he knows that I know…” in some of her writing. Very interesting thing to do, if you can keep track of them all.
3) Try describing your character’s “head-house.”
By this, I don’t just mean the metaphors the character uses in her thoughts, like “His stare was as hard as onyx,” or the metaphors the narrator might choose to represent the process of thinking, like “train of thought.” I mean, what does the character’s mental space resemble? Their head-house? What objects might they fixate on? What places might they envision as ideal, whether or not they really are so? What metaphors could they use to catalogue and store their memories?
It’d be the rare character who sees their mind perfectly in physical form, but there are still some inroads that this approach could make into people who don’t:
- Showing what place they think of as home. “I’m going to move back to my little village when all is said and done and build the best inn that’s ever been there” says something very different than “I’m going to run away to the city when I’m old enough and never see any of the places I lived in again.”
- Showing how they regard others. Because I have read a lot of George Eliot lately, the example I think of is Rosamond Vincy, in Middlemarch. She thinks about people as objects that can show her off to best advantage, and whom she will get rid of or exchange for new objects when they bore her. Very different from Dorothea Brooke, the other main female character, who has a dislike of art but a liking for being surrounded by other people she can help. (Now I really want to do a rant on some means of making one’s characters sympathetic—not to the reader, but showing they have the quality of sympathy).
- Giving a clue as to how much a character whose main involvement is with the mind has absorbed of his or her profession. Does a scholar have a mental library? Or is it something else not that stereotypical?
- Playing around with how much the interaction of personalities influences mental magic. So a mental healer enters someone else’s mind, and sees it as a forest. But is that her perception, or the perception of the person whose thoughts she’s entering, or something of both? And if it’s all hers, is she healing the other person, or forcing her way in, imposing her will on them?
- Elaborating a cultural perception of physical space, or a philosophy of thought, like the Renaissance one that said reason had to command the passions. What kind of head-house do you have when a character sees her home as blending seamlessly with the forest? Would a culture where the dominant ethos divides someone’s being into soul, mind, and heart have a lot of people thinking in those particular threes, rather as we do with ego, superego, and id? What kind of philosophical dialogue could you get out of this? What kind of common, casual “pop culture” references?
4) Knowing how a character thinks can give them a unique voice.
I’ve read book reviews before where the reader complained about all the characters sounding the same. Sometimes this is literal, as when the peasant child somehow speaks with the same educated vocabulary as the queen, but other times it means something more indefinable—despite the presence of several supposedly distinct first-person or third-person narrators, it still sounded like the same person spoke the book all the way through.
Sometimes this is the reader’s fault. Sometimes it is the author’s. But how might you approach fixing it?
One way is to know how they think. Delve into that enough, and you won’t have to resort to artificial tricks like giving one character exclusively italicized dialogue, or having another speaking only in fish metaphors. Develop their rhetoric, their assumptions, their perceptions, their biases, their locus of control, their ability to think for themselves, their influences, their head-houses, their educational background, and I think their voices would flower on their own.
Why? Because I believe the main problem with characters all sounding the same is that there’s really only one subjectivity present in the book—the author’s. If she submerges herself in other people to the extent of knowing how they think, then that little problem goes out the window.
5) Critical, skeptical characters become easier to portray.
Indulge me in a brief flashback to a previous rant: my hatred of characters whom the author tells me are “rebellious,” “feisty,” “curious,” but who then don’t ask a single fricking question on the entire quest, and express attitudes that are absolutely conventional in their own worlds. That’s some rebellious passive character you’re dragging around there. Yes, in a way it’s the fundamental tell-no-show problem again—the author tells me one thing about the character, but shows its contradiction—but the particular problem here is the fondness for maverick heroes, like sword-fighting women in faux-medieval societies, outcasts, and exiles. If they’re going to be mavericks, have them act like it. Make them actually independent, separated from their societies in some fundamental way, instead of just ready to snap a few sarcastic comebacks or have a few daydreams of “something grander” and otherwise think exactly like everybody else.
Now, get into their subjectivity. Ask yourself the question I believe doesn’t get asked often enough about characters supposedly like this:
How is their thinking actually different from that of the people around them?
Yes, how, not why. “Why” results in a bunch of half-baked ideas about wise grandmothers and mystic mentors and admiring friends who recognize hidden talent and insure that it gets training. It can produce good stories, but it also produces really crappy ones. And too often, the only product is an exotic background story—she’s a mysterious orphan trained until she was seven by a hermit who wouldn’t teach anyone else, and from there on by a phoenix!—which apparently leaves no impression on the protagonist’s mind, and still doesn’t explain how exactly the hermit and phoenix made her able to decide that women should be the equals of men.
So. Go for how. Examine their attitudes and beliefs. Poke at their philosophy. Look especially hard at the justifications and reasons and rationalizations and explanations and excuses they use. Once again, this doesn’t mean that your protagonist has to be obsessively introspective and self-analytical. She doesn’t. This is stuff for you to know, not her. Whether or not the reason she tells herself she’s acting for is the real one, you should know it. (In fact, a lot of the stuff in this rant might be more useful in character profiles or world-building notes than in the story itself. What we see in the story is its consequence).
This means a lot of complicated characterization.
6) This might lead to more academic or philosophical fantasy.
This last point is purely for my own amusement, since I like academic fantasy. No, not magical education fantasy. I’m thinking more Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell than just the story of someone going to a magical school. It’s in the way the character thinks, and thinks about thinking, not just the setting.
There are very few academic fantasies out there. I want more.
I am going to try to keep up this trend of rants up, if this one manages to fly.