Here’s a topic dictated by the story I’m playing with currently. I seem to keep getting saddled with plots that demand this kind of character, which is an inconvenience, because I don’t like writing about fanatics. (I am trying to make the latest one a visionary in the cause of noticing other people. I’m not sure it’s working).
1) How did this character come to champion this cause?
Yet again, I begin an essay with a really freaking obvious point. However, it’s still good to think about. If the visionary is a visionary solely because she lives in a harsh and oppressive situation, then why doesn’t everyone living in that situation become so? Why does the situation still endure, in fact? Someone should have changed it long ago.
- Show the interaction between the situation and her personality. (See point 2).
- Show why everyday, ordinary measures of addressing her cause aren’t enough for her, why it must go beyond that.
- Show what’s different/unique about her path. (This is more of a problem than you might think. If the character is a revolutionary leader solely because she’s a powerful mage, then why haven’t the other powerful mages in that world’s history been revolutionary leaders? There are dozens of possible answers, but it does have to be addressed. This is reason #23478 I object to making someone the protagonist solely because she has an unusual talent).
- Show to what extent her cause is a cause. Does she see herself as serving a list of principles? A set goal? A small group of people? All of humanity/her species? Herself? It will make a difference to the way she argues and justifies herself, and as to what kind of support and enemies she attracts.
2) What drives her to become a visionary instead of something else?
There are people who do get fired up about a cause, but sink into apathy, or follow a leader instead of becoming one, or refuse to do certain things for it because of other principles—a pacifist refusing to use violence—or take a few steps down the road of leadership and then stop. If you’re going to write someone who does have a driving, overmastering reason to keep going down this very hard road, and work to stir other people up, then decide, once she’s bound to her cause, what makes her go to this extent.
I am now going to do something I’m not sure I’ve ever done before. I am going to praise something Robert Jordan wrote. If you really don’t want spoilers for the Wheel of Time, don’t read the next two paragraphs.
There was one character of his I did find fascinating. This is a character introduced in The Great Hunt, named Masema, who at first is a MOV (Minor Obnoxious Villain). He sneers at Rand al’Thor, the hero, and resents him because he looks like one of the Aiel, a set of enemies Masema fought. Then, at the end of the book, he sees a vision of Rand battling what he thinks is that world’s Dark Lord in the sky. It’s not, actually, but Masema thinks it is. He switches sides, and makes himself into a prophet for Rand’s cause. In later books, he causes a great deal of trouble by rabble-rousing and getting in the way and stirring up resentment of Rand among those in power.
I think this worked, because Masema’s hatred of Rand was unreasonable; he was strongly prejudiced. Give him a conversion, and he is still strongly prejudiced, just in the opposite direction. He hated what he thought Rand was, and then he loved what he thought Rand was. (Neither of these were necessarily based in reality. At all). That particular sparking incident for him to make himself into a visionary worked for him. It would not have worked for a character that Jordan had decided to make more skeptical and coolly judging, or one who abandoned his prejudices easily.
Now that that is out of the way, back to the essay. Perhaps the character’s decision occurs before the onset of the story, and you can sketch it in vague terms. Then you have to make sure that it actually fits with her characterization in-story. If she’s a naturally lazy and apathetic person, why does she care about this? If she generally dislikes followers of other religions, why in the world has she decided to champion this oppressed group of people who don’t share hers? If she has everything she wants, why would she want to uproot her life?
Once again, dozens of possible answers. Only one doesn’t really work: Insta-Epiphany! (Coming to a poorly constructed conversion scene near you!) I’m sorry. I simply refuse to believe that a person the author characterizes as intensely self-involved, interested in privilege, content with herself, and never having met anyone outside her class would convert to the cause of the lower classes the moment she sees a servant being beaten. She’s far more likely to be shocked for a while, or dismiss it as justified because, hey, if you’re an aristocrat, anything you do is. Put the Insta-Epiphany! back on the closet shelf. You can change her, but it’ll take more work than that.
3) What are her methods?
Violence is the most common answer, but does it fit with her personality? This is not just a question for the pacifists in the audience. If she’s very sheltered and has never been trained to fight, would her first instinct be to pick up a sword? (Or, for that matter, a gun, or a violent magical ritual that rips someone’s soul apart?)
One of the problems I had with Kushner and Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings was a minor character, whose name has long since migrated out of my head, who began to believe in the oppressed minority religion—horned gods, dancing in woods, you know the drill—and condone their cause. I could never figure out why. Now, a large part of this is the problem I addressed in point 2, and more of it is the result of fuzzy characterization, but these were people who at least talked about doing pretty violent things to the society that character had grown up in. He didn’t seem to care. Why not?
Why can’t people agree on the importance of their cause but disagree on the best method of achieving it? It happens with schisms in real-life political parties and churches all the time. And the people who go their separate roads over this are not all mindless sheep or just out to make the protagonist’s life difficult. (I think personal animosity to the protagonist is the most overused reason for the actions of the bad guys in fantasy books. Or, if not, that it runs a close second to the old “insane villain” idea). They can be believers, on fire with all the passion that the author says is a good thing in the heroine, but mocks when it comes to the people facing her. No, someone who wants to use violence is not morally superior, of necessity, to someone who prefers slower reform. It may be a situation where nothing but violence will accomplish things, but why not give both sides convincing arguments instead of making the reformers toadies of the establishment, or traitors, like anyone who betrays the old royal heir’s location to the usurper?
Violence is the most common method of advancing a cause in most fantasy books. It need not be the only one. Teaching someone to read can be a revolutionary activity, in societies where you aren’t supposed to do that; it is in Steven Brust’s Teckla, and people keep right on doing it even though the divine order in that universe means their revolution is doomed to failure. So can sheltering refugees, providing people space to practice their religion, copying down or passing along information, remembering what someone else wants you to forget, making speeches, drawing cartoons, writing articles, tracking known enemies of the cause or the group, refusing to recant one’s principles, breaking prisoners out or smuggling food to them, blockading city gates, and, at least on occasion, refusing to use violence when it would make someone on the other side die a martyr or do the vision more harm than good.
What your visionary does should make sense to her and with her characterization. And if that’s making speeches in the center of town instead of trying to assassinate the king, then write that story.
4) Realize she won’t be good at everything.
Another “so obvious you wouldn’t miss it falling down the stairs” point, but it really is a temptation for visionary characters, I think, because so many of the ones that appear in fantasy lead by charisma. When Pratchett’s Samuel Vimes gets briefly tangled with a revolution—well, possible revolution—in Night Watch, he defuses tension by putting himself in danger and making cool, calm, composed remarks. To the people he’s a man of the people, but he can also deal with the higher-class characters. He tries hard not to let things come to violence, but he’s prepared to use violence. And people look up to him, believe in him, follow him, for that reason. He’s not perfect, but he also doesn’t make the wrong move that often. What really saves the story, I think, is that this is time-travel, and so much of what Vimes does comes from knowing what happened the first time this went ‘round.
Most visionaries don’t have that kind of literal double vision. And yet, they aren’t really all that wrong. They manage to judge their enemies accurately (toadies and traitors). They are good fighters, but either the situation doesn’t require anything other than fighting—and remember, not being good at something isn’t a weakness if the story never requires that the character do it—or they shift tactics when it does. They capture the loyalty of every worthy person. They never make the wrong decisions because of lack of sleep. No matter what their background, mage or mercenary or peasant or sheltered university student, they rise to the occasion.
Don’t confuse “charismatic” with “always right.” A person can be dashing, charming, able to make you agree with him, acting as necessity dictates, and wrong.
Once again, Brust does this wonderfully—from both sides. His hero in Teckla is a strong individualist, one who’s managed to survive and thrive despite the intense prejudice against humans in his world, and he finds the collective revolution, which involves his wife, appalling. He wants his wife to get out of it and come home. She refuses. Vlad’s personal charm and assassin’s instincts work with a bunch of people in power, including the Empress of Draegara, but he does not manage to sway the revolutionaries, who have their own charismatic leader, Padraic Kelly, to his side.
Writing with Emma Bull in Freedom and Necessity, which is really more alternate nineteenth-century British history than fantasy, Brust does the opposite. James Cobham, apparently dead for two months, suddenly pops up and starts writing letters to his cousin. It becomes apparent that James is involved in much larger matters than his family ever knew about, and he’s cunning, resourceful, determined, dedicated to his cause, and capable of violence. But he makes stupid mistakes, too, especially out of hurt pride and touchiness about his supposed background, and gets scolded for them both by his cousins and Friedrich Engels. Just because he has personal charisma and can convince people doesn’t mean he’ll succeed. (Brust’s characters make actual mistakes, quite often, especially in the way of sayingreally stupid things. It’s one of the traits I love about his writing).
Visionaries are usually, by necessity, intense people. Resist the temptation to fall under their sway yourself, however, or to make everyone in the story do the same.
5) Know what the complexity’s doing.
There is where you get to decide whether your visionary is the heir to a well-established movement—for example, someone who’s a second-generation guerilla fighter—someone reviving ancient traditions—a religious reconstructionist could fit in here, and so could someone trying to encourage the use and spread of an abandoned language—or someone starting or swept up in a completely new cause. Or something in between, of course.
Someone who grows up involved in this cause will probably know it’s for the long haul, and will be aware of problems not visible to those who looked at the world with fresh, angry, enthusiastic eyes. Think of the many, if inadvertent, exclusions made by the second wave of US feminism for a good example. Middle-class, white, heterosexual women tended to think of it as their movement, which meant that, at first, women of other races, working-class women, lesbians, and, of course, men were left out, or included in the extremely simplistic categories of “sisters” and “enemies.” (No points for guessing which was which). As feminists wrote and protested and demonstrated and argued and published, more and more people started pointing these exclusions out. It doesn’t mean the problems got solved. It does mean that those who continued to be feminists had to face the fact that the world was more complex and included more kinds of feminism than they’d thought at first. There are still debates about, say, whether men can be real feminists, but at least they happen now.
If you do have someone brand-new and on fire with anger or indignation, the complexity may not be visible to her, but that doesn’t mean it vanishes. People she wants to join her cause can be extremely reluctant to do so, because, even though they speak the same language or follow the same religion or are of the same racial group that she is, they’re of a different class, and they can see—whether or not she can—that she’ll rock the boat too much for them. She may ignore brewing hostility in her own organization under the misguided belief that the cause is so important, personal emotions must be, and will be, put aside. A neighboring country may be feeding this movement in hopes of disrupting her society’s stability enough to grab some territory, and the visionary character accepts their help gratefully, certain they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. All of these are great, and potentially devastating, mistakes for a character to make, no matter how charismatic she is.
Always know what your world looks like to the author-eye, not just the character-eye. If you’ve created a setting that has hidden traps just waiting to spring, and your visionary steps in one, be ready to let it spring.
6) Create a variety of reactions to her in the people around her.
More than mindless enemies and mindless followers, of course, but three—say mindless enemies, mindless followers, and one person who criticizes her but ultimately accepts her leadership—aren’t enough, either, I don’t think. Dozens would be better.
This counteracts that “superhuman” effect that’s possible when you have someone intense, committed to a cause, and capable of gathering support (and, often, talented in fighting or magic, and arguing for a cause the author herself thinks is right, such as for an end to oppression). It’s the most dangerous part of writing a visionary. You’re playing with fire. Get ready to have sand and wind and water to stop the damn thing from spreading too far.
Try for mockery, apathy, weariness—perhaps from an older person who once championed the same cause and is now watching this new one tramp down the same road and make all the same mistakes he made—burn-out, indignation, reasoned disagreement—in a story with a visionary, the rarest character on the ground is a reasonable, intelligent defender of the status quo—stalkerish love, obsession, confusion, deliberate misunderstanding, exhaustion—there are people who make me tired just from being around them—slowly changing understanding that still ends in disagreement, a desire to ride on the visionary’s coattails, intimidation, spite, irreverence—where are all the people who watch and laugh?—stubbornness, and anything else you can think of.
Think on reasons why her followers joined her, other than sheer admiration for her or their cause. As I mentioned in point 2, there are lots of people who get briefly fired up about something and then fade away. What makes those people who stay with her stay? And why isn’t someone there bucking to replace her, because he thinks he could do a better job? And where are the people who fool themselves into thinking they understand this cause, and then have their own ignorance shockingly revealed?
Think on reasons why people oppose her—and if controlling a visionary is hard, this is even harder. From this angle, I can understand why, say, The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth, which I hated, developed the way it did. Who wants to try to write people who really and truly believe that oppressing witches is good, or justified? Who wants to try to present them as other than mindless caricatures? Almost no one, that’s who. Much easier to write totally justified heroines destined to stick up for witches and totally unjustified opponents destined to oppress them (and lose). This is an argument in favor of making the situation complicated and muddy and sticky, I think, so that you don’t have to make someone simplistically racist or sexist or anti-whatever. (Which is not to say that I have discovered a liking for The Witches of Eileanan. Even more than the heroines, the dialect drove me utterly batshit. Just that I understand the author’s dilemma a bit more).
Make this a world your visionary belongs in, as well as one that needs her.
I have more to say, especially about visionaries not leading revolutions, but my hands hurt like hell, so stopping for now.