Monday, May 25, 2009

"I MADE you!"

("no you didn't. Did it of my own volition")

This ties into a recurring unkillable theme in sf and indeed fantasy - the creation that goes out of control. Not only does it reflect in stories but it also comes full circle on authors and bites them in the behind-regions, because their characters become self-willed and recalcitrant (I have for sale a lovely new line in character whips, crops, martingales and, for the ones that really won't listen, the electric cattle prod. Forget the naughty step. It doesn't work on fictional characters, and besides, it's cruel and unnatural. Available today, if you call now, at our special promotional prices... but wait, there is more...).
Sadly, this is the natural way of things with well-developed characters. They become self-willed, get a+ for their Turing tests, and blunder through your carefully crafted plot like a drunken sow through a ladies tea-picnic, gobbling delicate crustless cucumber sandwiches by the trayful, stepping on china, ignoring screeches, and then decide that Great Aunt Agatha really is the sexiest boar they have ever met -- which just proves that rampaging characters too can be right.
You actually can't restrain them. While this may ruin my newest get-rich-quick-scheme (more inspired than galvanic buggy whips or the pornographic rabbit trap) nothing actually works. If you try, you'll ruin the book. You have to give them their head (and not necessarily on a platter) and vaguely try and herd them toward the less breakable parts of the plot furniture. And the worst of it is that not only do they take over your head, (which can be extremely dangerous. Do not, I repeat, NOT associate with me while I think I'm Benito Valdosta) you have READERS starting to mutter "I am the finest swordsman outside of France!" puzzling their nearest and dearest quite a lot.
These are the characters that you remember. Not always your favorites, but the ineradicable - sometimes not with best brain-bleach. They keep coming back on you. And, it appears readers come back to them. (It's difficult when the author gets demands for yet another book with Miles, or Ariel or Biggles in it. But not as difficult as not being paid.)
These characters are born out of primordial soup... well, the brains of writers, which is much the same thing. And the one thing that provides that final galvanic spark... isn't known. But modern science, with tireless research or at least an infinite numbers of monkeys have established that you need LOTS of bits. Now, we seem chock full of authors here. When you 'build' a character on your sla... uh in your mind - what do you put in?
Give! Maybe we can identify that crucial element.
Mine of course is attitude. And hair. I have never had a character come to life without knowing about the hair. Even those without it.
Well. I showed you mine. Show me yours?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

My characters become my friends -- I know it's sad. But seriously ...

I know the book is working when the characters come to life.

Amanda Green said...

You hit directly the problem I faced with my current WIP. I'm working on an alternate history/fantasy set in 1913 Russia. A fun time with lots of potential for warping and twisting events to see what happens next. Rasputin was going to make one appearance in the book. One. That's all.

Foolish me. The man with the hypnotic eyes and personality that could change from crude peasant to drawing room manners to cleric pushed and shoved and inserted himself into the plot until he became one of the major players.

And he did it by becoming alive for me. If I tried to keep him out of the story, the book would fall flat. But it has put a different flavor on the book, one I think -- hope -- will be better than my original vision.

Of course, if I thought I could wrangle him into some semblance of order by using your proffered merchandise I would. But, being Rasputin, he'd probably enjoy it. Sigh.


Dave Freer said...

Rowena, I paraphrase Terry Pratchett - when people tell me ought to get a life, I tell them I am already living three. If only we could just be friends. But they want to be me.

So: answer the question - what bits of your character must you have decided on before they become a person?

Dave Freer said...

I am deeply relieved I do not find rasputin living in my head - it was one omy nicknames once... so. You based this on a real historical figure. What details did you insert to make them come alive to you? I'm dealing with various historical personages... the hair and the eyes must exist in my imagination before I can 'see' them.

matapam said...

I find that deciding to kill them works very well.

Once you've conceived in your mind the scene where the semi-redeemed minor POV character completes his redemption, sacrificing his life to save your main character it's just about guaranteed that he'll stick his heels and not only refuse redemption, he'll start stealing scenes with emotional outbursts. Then he'll make you rewrite so he gets the girl.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, with Rasputin there were two things that seemed to make him come alive for me. The first was his eyes. Every description I've read of him, every photograph I've seen, his eyes are the focal point. The physical descriptions may vary -- he was stocky, ill-kempt with yellowing teeth or he resembled his peasant stock or he was well dressed and clean -- the pale eyes are always described as hypnotic and able to see straight to the soul. Like Hitler's ability to mesmerize with his words, Rasputin could with his eyes.

But what really seemed to grab me as he started becoming more integral to my plot was his combination of being the master manipulator, always out for his own benefit, to being wise enough --and worried enough about Russia's future -- to know that Nicholas II had to be reined in and controlled before the Bolsheviks managed to convince the populace to overthrow the Tsar.

That dichotomy has become the driving force for the book. If I manage to sell it and am able to write the other two books of the series, that dichotomy will play out, eventually leading to his death...but not at the hands or in the manner of his actual death before the Russian Revolution.

Dave Freer said...

So Matapam, you find a death-sentence a powerful motivator for the unliving character to run around and search its galvanic spark? But surely there must be the stuff of life there first? A mental image conjured from that soup of words we use to make odd pictures in our brains. An idea how big they are, what they wear, what their breath and BO are like?

matapam said...

Actually that hideously recalcitrant Character started out as a wizard who'd been trapped in a spell for thousands of years. So he started out as a rather large black goat.

Perhaps the problem was that I sympathized with him. Made up too much back story. He wasn't really evil, he was just the young apprentice to the evil wizard, goatified for no wrong he himself had committed, just condemned by association.

I think it was giving him a history that started the personification. But planning to kill him made his independence clear.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam -that's what I was trying to get someone to put forward - a character only becomes 'real'when they have what a real person would have - shape, form and a background. I do quite detailed (anal?) character sketches of every character - stuff that never gets used in a book, stuff my readers may 'fill in'quite differently. I know what their grndmother called them. I know if they whistle while pissing. I know what tune it is. I know what body shapes they find attractive. I know where they came from and who were beaten by... It's not for everyone, but it is for me. I've always been a story-teller - to myself as a little kid making up complicated histories and people to myself for hours. even now I tell myself a 'bed-time story'before falling asleep - okay I am probably working out just where the first mate ofthe Cuttlefish came from... but its that history.

Kate said...

Weirdly, my characters coming alive isn't the issue. Getting them to shut up is.

I couldn't point to any one thing that makes them live: all of them have an irritating tendency to feed me information on a need to know basis - and I don't need to know.

If there's a character creation process, it doesn't happen in my conscious awareness. Usually the characters are just there and will drop information in my head when they want it to be there.

My subconscious must be a very peculiar place indeed.

So sayeth Kate the mad genius. (I'm certain about the 'Kate' part, and the 'mad' part. Genius... they tell me it's true, and someone has the tests to prove it)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

First, Dave, thank you. I thought I was crazy. Actually my characters don't take over me, but they also don't SHUT UP.

Two things make them come to life for me. First, the name. And I know this sounds insane, but they seem to have a name and if I guess it, I lock onto them. It's much like invoking a demon, I think.

Take Kyrie in Shifters. I tried Kris, Kate, no. She wanted to be Kyrie Grace. (Rolls eyes.)

Then there's the hair-color, physical type. I never choose it, but I have to be able to "see" it. I've dragged a character through three chapters before going "Oh, Lord, he's a blond." and then I have to backtrack, otherwise he won't live for me.

The final thing is I have to HEAR them in my mind, the voice, talking... They usually reveal some strangely intimate (though not necessarily off color) fact about themselves, ("When I was two, I had a bunny named Savage.") And then we're off.

And Rowena, I've NEVER, ever discriminated on the basis of existence or lack thereof.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Historical characters... Usually I research until I can feel my way into the person's head, and glean just enough facts to actually make a character. I mean, the historical person IS NOT the character and vice versa. Can't be. There's no way to know who the person really was and also, without lying too much, you need to make them acceptable to present-day readers. For instance, it's hard to write a stupid character and sell him/her.

So, I have Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth wife. In my reading of her, she was not so much a nympho was -- being rather devoid of power -- used sex to get what/where she wanted. So I have this self willed woman trying to fight the buffets of fate and intrigue...

And then... and then she came to life. Now she doesn't want to be a queen. She wants to run away with Francis Derham and become a pirate in Ireland.

WHAT on Earth can I do? It's an historical bio-novel.


matapam said...

You pretend she's an Irish Pirate, day dreaming of what she'd do as a queen, and write that down fast before she catches on?

It's amazing what our subconsciousnesses can do to us. And how many people they can be.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, I sympathize with you about Kathryn Howard. While Rasputin doesn't want to run off to be a pirate, he does want to be more than just the Tsarina's confessor. He truly does see himself as the only hope for Russia.

Dave, let me see if I can answer your question a bit more cogently now. Rasputin became "real" to me when I went beyond the mystique that surrounds his name now and started filling in some of the details. For Russian Nights, it was filling in his motivation while keeping him as close to historically accurate as possible.

Specifically, while he does relish the prestige he gained by becoming the Royal Family's religious advisor, he is well aware that the policies of Nicholas II's grandfather, as well as those of Nicholas himself, are leading Russia down a path that will destroy it. He feels he has to do whatever it takes to keep young Alexei alive, to mold him into a strong ruler, so that Alexei could cure the ills inflicted on their homeland by his father and great-grandfather.

Of course, this being Rasputin, he isn't wholly honorable by any means. He operates under his own rules of decency and expediency. This is a long-winded way of saying that, by giving Rasputin motivation beyond madness and evil, by letting him be a more well-rounded person, he came alive for me and now I can't get him to shut up.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam -- I love the idea that threatening to kill off a character can make them dig their heels in.

In my first trilogy I had a convenient villain who refused to tow the line. It turned out he had noble motivations that made him tragic rather than evil. And once this happened I couldn't kill him, couldn't do anything but fall in love with him.

Sigh ...

matapam said...

Hmm, it's starting to sound like an empathy short circuit.

Once we reach beyond the surface and assign a motive, a history, an inner self who isn't really bad, look deeply into his eyes . . . we initiate some sort of positive feedback loop and the character become someone real, someone we understand and know well enough to have an emotional connection to.

Interesting to think that understanding someone and caring about them is so internal that it doesn't even need a real person to blossom.

Chris McMahon said...

A lot of my stories seem to start with the character. I might see them doing something, or at some particular moment. Or I will get a sense of their delimma - what's in their way.
They seem to be already in there (the preverbial primordial) and wait for their chance to burst out. At that point they are tapping their feet impatiently for me to write the story, which kind of wraps around them.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, it'll have to become alternate history ;-)
My characters tend to be dominant and try to take over the headspace. Or maybe it's that I am wishy-washy. Or do you think multiple personality disorder is a job requirement for writers?

Dave Freer said...

Kate I was sold a map of your subconcious. It was very large. And it was like the bellman's map except that it had 'terror incognita' written on it in octarine ink

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - that's a nice analogy - but mine is more like an empathy china syndrome (or runaway empathy black hole) than a short circuit!

Dave Freer said...

Chris, the idea of some of mine already being in my head frightens the hell out of me. What HAVE they been doing in there!

KylieQ said...

The naughty step is cruel and unusual punishment but the electric cattle prod isn't??? So glad my parents didn't know that.

WangZheng259 said...

I do not know if any of my characters count, but I think of myself as starting with the world building. Character building and plotting are not currently at a level that I consider solid. I do have characters that are original and solid in my mind, but I am not sure how I got them from the world building stage into that form.

I guess part of what really defines a character is the manner in which they are insane. They don't talk to me, and I don't know what they look like, but I understand how and why they make decisions and take actions. Talking is something difficult for me, and I don't much care about looks. If someone comes from a population such that brown hair and brown eyes is statistically likely, I am happy just going with that. I know that a character is closely tied to 'The March of Cambreadth', 'Rikki Tikki Tavo', and 'I am Infantry'. I know her reading, her listening, her formative childhood influences, and given the specific assumptions in the worldbuilding that relate the functioning of the human mind, where her madness comes from and why it works.

For another, I know how he ended up a functioning child detective, how that works, some of what it cost him, and why he is the key to the solution of an otherwise insolvable mystery of importance, but I don't even have a name or an appearence. I know the surname of another family in the setting, and I've assigned names to all of the presidents there between Bush II and 2070 or so. (As an aside, I seem to do a lot of presidents, possibly due to the nature of some of the scenarios generated by the world building.)

Part of things is that I have a strong sense of self, and know it well. I know that I would not be functional in many of the scenarios I come up with. With my world view, drives, modeling, understanding of humans, and so forth, it just is not plausible that anything truly interesting occur. (Except for certain bit parts and maybe a comedy of errors or two.) So, for a character of mine to be plausible to me and interesting, I have to understand or model intuitively enough of what makes them tick, no matter how alien it is.

WangZheng259 said...

I've figured out how to describe my process. To do this, I decided to start my usual process over again from scratch. (I did this while trying to go to sleep last night. The partial and incomplete write up is projected to take much longer.) First I start with worldbuilding. For this case, I decided to go with having physically distinct minds and mental energies, which can build up in things like metals which allow many electrons to move. From that, I got my scenario of 'psychic' extraterrestrial 'humans' with no metallurgy interacting with humans who have unknowingly psychically charged portions of the metal supply. This would perhaps be my second step.

Step three generates a character or characters depending on how the scenario plays out. In this case, I ended up coming up with 'Knife Girl', for the lack of a better name. The underlying mechanism involves my brain rapidly looking at possibilities, and constantly testing or altering the structure of things until it seems right. So, I ended up altering some of the worldbuilding and the scenario as I roughed out the character of 'Knife Girl'. Knife Girl comes from a civilization in a permanent state of hostilities with another civilization I have not bothered to give a proper name to. My brain stores the data fine without actual names. Both civilizations function based off of somewhat incompatible systems of using mystical energies. She'd been kidnapped some time ago by the opposing forces. As they have a monopoly on the ability to travel between worlds, they moved her into the custody of a cult on Earth operated by certain members of the nobility of the opposing forces.

The next step is making a narrative with the scenario and characters. Currently, I have the cult being raided by the cops, and knife girl being rescued. Originally, I was split as to whether she would escape and hunt down the cultists, or be taken off into hiding in protective custody. She won't have been exposed to knives before this period of time. While writing this, it occured to me that the cult could counterattack, and she could get lost in the mess. I'm not even sure the country and time it happens in. What I do know is that as I think about it, details accumulate and eventually the character can be said to exist.

The following step would be finding a discrete chunk of the overall narrative, and turning it into a story, but I haven't really trained myself to do that yet. The step after that should be rewriting and more rewriting, if I've figured things out correctly.

A partial list of known influences for this experiment

Key- The guy who wrote the Witch Mountin books
Tom Kratman-Mental energies unknowingly stored in warship steel
John Lambshead-His recent article here regarding taxonomy of magic, religion, science, technology, etc...