Finding that character-life balance

If you watch V, there are spoilers in this post. And for the Wheel of Time book Towers of Midnight. And Mockingjay. And now to the post.

I just finished the season finale of V, which was amazing, full of mind-blowing twists and turns, and quite a few deaths (though apparently ABC won’t confirm any of the three deaths that I saw on screen tonight, nor the one that looks to be coming at the very beginning of next season). If you don’t watch V (why don’t you watch V?), it’s interesting to note a different format to the episodes, especially after I recently finished my love affair with six seasons of LOST. With the exception of the two season finales, the episodes don’t really leave viewers with cliff hangers. They answer questions, and usually pose new ones at the beginning of new episodes, which are then addressed. The episodes feel, in many ways, like mini movies (which sometimes doesn’t work for the format, but I can appreciate it all the same for this type of show).

But what I really want to talk about is the fact that the writers for this show have no problem killing off characters. Main characters. When the main cast isn’t an ensemble like LOST. Of course, I suppose the writers could bring the characters back next season (those Vs do have some crazy healing powers, though why they would heal their enemies I have no idea), in which case I would have to eat my words, but let’s assume that these deaths really did happen. Dang. No fear of losing the audience in these writers. (As an aside here, is 5 million viewers considered enough to get a show renewed? If it gets canceled after tonight I might cry.)

One of my favorite book series, the Wheel of Time, has the opposite problem. The good guys NEVER die (and the bad guys keep getting reincarnated). Well, Hopper dies, and Birgitte has been forcibly ripped from the pattern, possibly never to be reborn, and some very minor characters have died, but that’s it. It makes the bad guys look pretty ineffective, actually.

Neither approach quite works for me. I have to suspend disbelief in the Wheel of Time (which is saying something, considering I’m already reading fantasy) because when I stop and think about it. the fact that all the Super Boys and Super Girls are still alive, not to mention the twenty or so other main characters, I really don’t buy it. But then when a series just seems to start drawing names out of a hat to see who will go (the last season of LOST felt like this at times), I get sad and depressed because, hey, I was cheering for these people. And now the story needs to find some way to fill their holes.

So now I’m trying to think of stories (television or book or whatever) that have found a balance that I find agreeable. Despite the huge death toll, I think the Hunger Games trilogy does pretty well in this respect. It would be perfect if either Prim or Finnick made it out alive; I really struggled losing them both in that last third of the book, especially with how unceremonious they both are. And…I can’t really think of another one. I mean, obviously there are hundreds of books with no deaths where that totally fits the story, but that’s not really what I’m getting at. Suggestions?

Lost: Why I love the characters lots of people hate

If you read my post yesterday, I listed some of my favorite characters from the show, and while I think my Hugo and Ben choices are pretty well received, I think my Shannon and Juliet choices are much less so. I’ve seen these Facebook games where someone posts a list of all the characters in the show, puts the number 10 next to each character, and then turns the post loose. The game is that each new poster copies and pastes the list into his or her post, subtracts one from his or her least favorite character and adds one to his or her favorite character. Once a character hits zero, they’re removed. Though this list seemed a bit strange in that it had Ben being eliminated pretty early, something you don’t usually see in these.

As before, spoilers below.

The general reception to Shannon was especially harsh and overwhelmingly negative. And yeah, she was a bitch through most of her time on-screen, but I always saw depth of character underneath that, and I thought it was interesting that the writers took such a well-known archetype and, in the end, turned it around, complicated it. There were hints of her vulnerability, sympathy, and complexity from the first few episodes: Boone’s comment that she’s a “functioning bulimic”; her conversation with Claire while Shannon is suntanning; her resistance to translating because she might mess it up.

Juliet’s character, on the other hand, was received rather positively by critics, but very negatively by a lot of fans. They criticized Mitchell’s acting because Juliet often came across as flat (for lack of a better word; what I’m trying to get at is that she didn’t react as emotionally as many of the other characters we’d come to know and love), but this is a character trait of Juliet, not a failing of Mitchell. Juliet’s story was always incredibly captivating for me, and so complex, and while she did things that I wouldn’t expect over and over again, afterward, I felt that her reactions were really the only possible ones for her character. She sacrifices much throughout the show, and when she turns on Sawyer in the season five finale, I found it heart wrenching and utterly believable that she would fall back and try to protect herself. And throughout all of season six, her death has been hanging over Sawyer’s character, driving his choices and decisions in much the way I wished the writers had done with Claire after Charlie’s death. If Juliet does not come back during the series finale (she’s not listed as a guest start for “What They Died For,” I will be a very, very sad little Lost fan.

Finally, if anyone is interested in playing along with my favorite character and who-would-win-in-a-fight bracket games, let me know and I’ll post the links here once I make the PDFs.

What makes a readable and relatable character?

Look at the cute kitten

Not everyone loves kittens, even when they are this cute.

Character is one of the biggest things—if not the biggest thing, depending on who you talk to—that will influence whether or not a reader likes a book (or story, or essay, etc.). Plot (that dirty word!) is probably the other, followed by language. But what makes one character better than another? What is it that  separates a likable fictional creation from an unlikable one?

For me, the answer to this question usually has to do with character motivation. Do I  believe the character would act as he or she does? This means getting to know a character’s background, history, culture, social motivations, emotional responses, opinions, and a whole slew of other things, of course. But I’ve noticed an interesting trend lately in that there is a whole group of readers out there who dislike characters for acting in ways the reader can’t imagine acting in his or her own life.

Some examples:

  • Clare Abshire from The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • Any of the five Lisbon daughters in The Virgin Suicides
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening
  • Faile Bashere or Perrin Aybara (and many others) in The Wheel of Time
  • Anna Karenina from Anna Karenina
  • Nora Helmer from A Doll’s House

Gender issues aside (since I’ve already covered this over at Bark), I think, as I said above, the commonality here is that these characters all make choices that the reader feels he or she wouldn’t make if put in the same place and so, somehow, this is an unrelatable, unlikeable character.

I too have fallen into this in the past, but that just makes me more sure that, when this happens, it is usually the fault of the reader rather than the author. Not, of course, that that means the author bears no burden for making well-rounded and believable characters, but the question is who is the character supposed to be believable to?

A few months ago someone told me she hoped I wasn’t writing a book with sex or profanity,  because she refuses to read books with those elements. Well, I am. There’s both sex AND profanity. And my main character is angry and often lashes out at people. But these elements aren’t included because I want to shock, or because I somehow feel cooler for including them: They come from the characters.

But then other people tell me they don’t want to read books that feature these types of characters. They ask, “There’s enough of that in the world already so why do you have to write about it?” I can’t speak for all writers, but I know why I do.

Because I’m interested in these characters.

I’m interested in pulling away the layers to get at the rawness that exists in all people: The lies told, the contradictions inherent in every day, the cruel thoughts and, sometimes, actions. But I also like the way these dark things jut up against brighter things: the moments where people act for each other, when they breakthrough to a new piece of honesty. To have one or the other—the struggling homeless man who never steals, attends mass every Sunday, and has an all-around cheery outlook on life, or the cruel rich man who cheats on his taxes and his wife, treats anyone lower than him with disdain and scorn, and hates kittens—this is not believable! Not even in genre—even Darth Vadar had that whole pesky I-sort-of-don’t-want-to-kill-my-son thing.

In the end, I feel it’s my job as a fiction writer, when I see something ugly or shameful, to not look away, to not try to ignore it, but to instead look a bit closer.

Outlining melodrama

I have a confession to make: I never outline. Or, rather, I never outline successfully. I’ll try every so often to jot down some notes for future scenes and, in one case, I actually plotted out an entire book, but it never works. Oh, I wrote the book to the outline successfully (during National Novel Writing Month back in 2006, I think the year was), but every time I outline, I run into the same problem.


In the aforementioned novel, I had a wedding, a lottery winner, a little old lady who found a cat and gave it to her granddaughter without parental permission, a girl drowning in a pool because her mother was on the phone, and then that same mother running away (and her husband chasing her, of course) because she couldn’t face her guilt—all in 50,000 words. And trust me, it was much more melodramatic than the above list makes it sound.

You see, I tend to like subtle tension in my writing, the small moments that open up into larger ones, but when I try to write that down in an outline, it looks like there is no tension in the story, and so I add more.

For my current book, I haven’t done any outlining. I just finished part one, and I don’t know yet what the first scene of part two will be. Instead of planning, I’m going to go back to what I’ve already written and decide what seems natural based on what I already have.

This reminds me of a quote by Nabokov about how his characters are galley slaves—he doesn’t let them take over the book, as many other authors will tell you their characters do (and that that’s how they know a story has life). And despite what I said above, I think I fall in the middle—if I let my characters do whatever they wanted I’m sure I’d end up with a boring book. Instead, I focus on character motivation but always remember that I have the power to to change that motivation to fit what I want.

For instance, I was writing one of the early scenes in my book and decided that it would amp up the tension if one of my characters could potentially be pregnant. However, the way I’d written her, she was a very sexually-conscious woman, well-versed in contraception, and I didn’t want the maybe-I’m-pregnant tension to come from that 1% chance of failure; THAT felt like melodramatic manipulation. So I spent weeks brainstorming reasons this very forward-thinking woman would make a decision that was very likely to end up with an unwanted pregnancy. Had I let the character take over, I would have had to cut that thread and lost that tension. But had I been set on getting her pregnant from the beginning, I probably would have created a different character, a more soap-opera worthy one.

Thesis writing and offensive viewpoints

I think it’s actually thesis news on my blog here, and if it’s not it should be since I started over in September, and I know I haven’t posted since long before then.

I’m working on a novel for my thesis, one of the few students, I think, who is. And I see why. It’s draining to come back to the same piece day after day, to not get a break from the characters and their lives. Don’t get me wrong–I’m loving writing these characters, and I’ve somehow managed to find a soft spot for each of them–but it’s challenging. Especially when it isn’t going well.

Tonight, however, was one of my best writing nights so far. Yeah, some of the middle of the scene I’m working on is pretty flimsy, but I feel that I’ve always had trouble with conflict. Tonight’s scene dealt with the usage of the word raped to describe, well, things other than actually getting raped. What I found most challenging about this scene was to write it from the point of view of a character who is uncomfortable at how much another is offended by the usage rather than from the point of view of the character whose opinion I share (which, if you know me, you know what it is). I’ll be curious, in my meeting next month, to see how well I pulled off separating my own opinions from those of my characters.

So now my question: What books/stories/films have you read/seen that put you in an uncomfortable situation in regard to your own beliefs? For me it’s currently Lolita, a book which I love and am currently rereading as part of my thesis list.

Friends of Fiction Writers

An interesting issue arose out of a workshop piece this week that I wanted to open up for discussion. Fiction writers aren’t tied down with the strings of factual truth (story truth, yes, but that’s another issue), and so we are able to pull pieces from our lives without telling things as they happened. For instance, I could pull a description of a friend or a family member, combine it with a mannerism of a classmate and a dialogue quirk of a coworker to create a new character, one who is not representative of any of the people from whom I pulled.

The issue, though, can arise when someone recognizes his or herself, especially if the composite character is of the less-than-flattering variety. So my question is this:

As a writer, do I have a moral or ethical obligation to my friends and family to not create characters based too heavily on them? Where does one draw the line? What’s the difference between flattery and offense? How would you feel if you recognized pieces of yourself in one of my characters? Does the type of character matter?