Monday, May 18, 2009

A test of Character


OK, we've decided on a bit of furniture re-arrangement in here. Make it a bit more lively and play some wild music. Get more people involved.


The purpose of the joint was to talk about writing process, but it hasn't been very focussed, so I've suggested we talk about writing areas, and the mob get to chirp back, ask hard questions, offer topics and yeah, make our lives a bit more lively and miserable :-) So: to start the ball rolling - it's been said there are really two kinds of novels, plot driven and character driven. Of course like most generalisations this comes in 53 shades of true and betwixt, but I'm a believer in character being what get me to read on.

So: who is your favorite character and why? Chip in please. Let us know this worth doing and we'll all try for feedback and grow all of writing through this.


I'm going to start with Miles Calverleigh from Georgette Heyer's Black Sheep. I love the touch of antihero and humour. I also love the way Miles feel 'deep'. You're not quite sure what is going on in his head. Heyer manages a few neat tricks with writing this character that I've tried to use myself. She trails his the background JUST enough to intrigue for starters. It's cleverly and subtly done.


Come on. Roll up! Roll up! Comments on Miles, comments on your fave characters. Then we can extend this to what we do to build characters, what tricks there are etc.


35 comments:

Anton Gully said...

I'm trying to write a novel at the minute (see my blog!) and this is something that I'm having a hard time with.

For years I read nothing but trash SF and was perfectly happy with it. Recently I've been reading outside my normal field of experience, for reviews. So I've read a number of books that are character driven and I'm not hating them.

At first I was genuinely confused how I could have finished reading a book and nothing had actually happened. Really.

I've just started King's "On Writing" and I think he's in favour of character driven story-telling. Which is a no-brainer if you can pull it off but I'm building a plot scene by scene and I expect my characters to do as they're told and no ad-libbing.

For my sins, I've read a lot of Star Wars novels. I read the entire New Jedi Order in the last year. Some of those books are great but I don't think there's a single fully formed character in the lot of them. The one guy who tried (no names) actually wrote the weakest book, in my opinion, because formula series writing needs blocks to fill the right shaped hole.

People will tell you there are great characters in those books, but there aren't. They're all completely 2 dimensional. But I find the stories entertaining.

Elric would be my favourite character ever and he's more complicated than most anti-heroes, though I think that became less so the more Moorcock wrote about him. But compare him to one of Ann Patchett's main characters and he's little more than a cartoon.

Dave Freer said...

heh. As I said, 53 shades of true and betwixt. I like character to _drive_ my plot. Character driven does not have to mean nothing happens. Elric of Melinbone (can't do those accents) was probably one of my favourite Moorcock characters - simply because I can remember him. Now, let's start picking into this. Why do you remember Elric? And IMO the only way your characters are going do what they're told and no ad lib... is you know dan well who they are and shape them around that plotline. I shall peer at the blog if you leave directions :-)

Anton Gully said...

Elric was quite different to any of the other fantasy heroes I was aware of at the time (which was probably limited to ERB's heroes like John Carter, or REH's Conan.) He was an introspective weakling who didn't fit in with the old world his cruel and arrogant people had dominated or the new world of man. When he's forced to embrace chaos in the name of love it ends in tragedy. Hmm. I think I know what I'm re-reading again this weekend.

Elric was interesting because of his vulnerabilities.

Dave Freer said...

Hah! Excellent.
"Elric was interesting because of his vulnerabilities"

and in that you have encapsulated a valuable secret for making your readers interested. Take LMB Miles as a very different example of the same.

Anton Gully said...

I'm going to have to pick up a copy of "The Black Sheep". I seem to recall Georgette Heyer is one of Stephen Fry's favourite authors.

Dave Freer said...

The material may not be to your taste, but for anyone wishing to be a writer her repartee is worth reading.

Anton Gully said...

To be honest it's something I've already been told I should be looking at, though it was Jane Austen that was specifically recommended to me.

warpcordova said...

It's hard to say who my favorite chaarcter is, because a lot of the writer's I like tend to use the same character over and over again in different books and series. Different name and face, same hat.

If pushed, though, I would go with Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher's "The Dresden Files". He's human, and makes stupid mistakes like everyone else in the world. He tries to do the right thing, even when it's not the most popular thing t odo, and he's not afraid of standing up for his reasons.

Dave Freer said...

So:with human frailties but a moral code you could identify with or look up to, right? (therein of course lies the crunch - one man's morality is another idea of stupidity. But there is an inbuilt respect for integrity in all of us.) Now the hard question - how did the writer establish this character's integrity in your mind? (it was probably something very early in the book. It should be)

Ori Pomerantz said...

I like Terry Pratchett's Moist von Lipwig. He's a trickster who is very fast on his feet, and needs the adrenalin rush of danger. In many ways, my opposite. I'm a coward in many ways.

I think I like him so much because he has confidence that I need to develop, and because he is the secular version of a repentant sinner. He's a criminal who has been seduced by the lure of an honest life.

John Lambshead said...

Eric Flint liked as Black as Hell but told me that the characters were too powerful. It is difficult for a reader to enthasise and identify with a superman, or in Karla's case, a super-monster.

The POV character in Storming Hell is very different. She has a great talent but doubts her own capacity. She is also stricken with anxiety about her social position, scared of failure and so on.

Rhian in Night Of The Wolf is a self abuser with low self respect.

Eric is right. These are interesting characters.

John

KylieQ said...

So what exactly is the difference between character-driven and plot-driven? If I had to guess, I would say that my writing is more plot-driven - I put a bunch of characters in a particular situation and see what happens. To me, that makes it plot-driven but I'm not sure if I'm understanding the difference.

Anonymous said...

Granny Weatherwax. She always hits the nail right on the head.

--Fran

Dave Freer said...

So: Ori you like him because he's a trickster (here we come down to list of fantasy stereotypes made famous - or infamous, by Eddings) and because there are aspects of his character you find admirable. I look on fantasy stereotypes as existing in part for a reason, just as most traditions exist for a reason (which may no longer apply). The standard reaction is 'don't use them they're stereotypes', mine on the other hand is they're stereotypes because they work. It is curious how often these same stereotypes are reflected in mythological pantheons and legend - across a vas spectrum of cultures. ie. they have a timeless broad appeal (for someone who has used this well, see John Lambshead). It is however necessary to give them various frailties, and ways for us to identify with them. And no, a book does not need the whole damn pantheon.

Cat Hellisen said...

If I think about that characters that I like, the ones I come back to (Paul Atreides, Sam Vimes, Dick Diver, Elric) there are things I notice:

Flawed, driven/obsessed, complicated, conflicting goals, witty/sarcastic.

Hmm

Interesting, I've never really thought about it

Dave Freer said...

(nod) John, Eric is right a depressing number of times :-). We come back to the frailties, the ability to identify with and/or aspire to the characters. Superman is only interesting because of kryptonite, Batman - far more human - seems to have a broader appeal. Yet people keep writing supermen...

Dave Freer said...

KylieQ -that's more or less true. I think Agatha Christie is usually cited as the eg of plot driven. Character diven - the lead character has some aspect which causes the story, possibly independent of any action or dramatic action anyway. Um. 42 Charing cross road? There are more commonly graduation between the two extremes. Dune would be a good example - it couldn't have happened without the situation, but the situation would not have occured and would not have been resolved without the aspects of the characters. Plot driven tends to have fairly poorly realised characters - cardboard caricatures/ slot anyone in here - but a carefully contrived situation.

Dave Freer said...

Fran - I think Granny Weatherwax comes back to my comments about stereotypes with a twist. Pratchett - bless him - is a satirist of the highest order, and it shows in his characters - who are what we expect... and yet not. GW (you'll never think of her the same way again) is his take on the wise-woman/crone.

Dave Freer said...

Then, Cat, we're kind of doing what we set out to do. The 'driven' aspect is something that I think gets missed. Flawed, identifiable with - these usually get mentioned. The concept of stereotypes having a evolved for a purpose is less popular. You're right however, powerful books almost inevetibly have a powerful character carry us along with their energy. Sarcastic could always be something you id with - it is for me. And it great for dialogue.

Dave Freer said...

I want to pop back to something Anton said here - "People will tell you there are great characters in those books, but there aren't. They're all completely 2 dimensional"

May I offer the suggetion that - at least to some extent Moorcock has managed something special here - he has got readers to inject their own idea of character into what amounts to an outline. Obviously, the character where you fill in the dots is worth more.

Sara M. Thorn said...

Plot driven to me is when the characters are there to fill roles, they are not the reason the plot happens. You could pluck them out and insert another character with completely different temperament, say, but with the same sort of skills, and the plot would be the same.

A character driven novel would be one where the very nature of the character is what drives the plot forward, which doesn't by any means exclude a strong plot.

The characters I tend to like best are the ones that give me the feeling of being written with honesty (towards the character). Which I realize is a rather subjective impression. I think it's similar to what you said about characters feeling "deep".

To me, it's a feeling that the author has delved into the deeper, perhaps less savory, aspects of the character, and doesn't 1) hold back on showing them and 2) hold back on using them against the character. (Empathy vs. sympathy towards the character.)

A common writing advice is to make the worst thing possible happen to your character. I think this is often used to mean the worst external-type thing. The most interesting plots and novels, to me, are OTOH the ones where the worst internal-type conflict happens to the character. The best example that comes to mind at the moment is the movie The Dark Knight, where for example the very core values of Harvey Dent is what ultimately works against him.

I think it requires a lot of skill to convey the necessary nuance for great characterization on the page. Characters often seem to be very real to their creators, but that may include many half-acknowledged or not quite verbalized aspects of the character that never end up in the actual book.

Sara

Anton Gully said...

"Plot driven tends to have fairly poorly realised characters - cardboard caricatures/ slot anyone in here - but a carefully contrived situation."

Most genre fiction is plot driven, even if the characters have been given a bit more depth, IMO. Honestly my knowledge of character driven fiction is slight, but I think of books like "Something Happened" by Joseph Heller - I read that about twenty years ago, not knowing any better, and it knocked my socks off. I don't think there's anything comparable in genre fiction.

"May I offer the suggetion that - at least to some extent Moorcock has managed something special here - he has got readers to inject their own idea of character into what amounts to an outline. Obviously, the character where you fill in the dots is worth more."

That would tie in with what I said about Elric becoming less interesting the more he was written. The blanks that were being filled in by the reader were getting explicitly filled in by the writer.

Sharyn Lilley said...

My favourite Heyer character would be Venetia. I have demolished about 4 copies, because it's on my comfort re-read shelf.

So why do I like her? Well the humour is always a key in my reading, I like wry humour, I like characters with flaws who are able to laugh at themselves.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah said:
"A character driven novel would be one where the very nature of the character is what drives the plot forward, which doesn't by any means exclude a strong plot."

Agreed - but to put this maths terms the set plot driven or set character driven may include grearter or lesser parts of the other set but does not have to include any. In my opinion character/plot mixes are usually easier to read than pure versions of either. Pure character - no plot - is a royal cow to write, let alone read. Pure plot is not too bad to write and will probably at least give you mediocre sales for a very small investment in character.
While I agree - really powerful books can come out of internal disaster, there is a thin line here between writing endless whiny angst (which has a market) and letting us SEE that conflict in action. The latter is pure gold.

Dave Freer said...

Sharyn - I must admit to far prefering Aubrey and Dameral to Venetia herself - Of her heroines I'd pick Sophy (from the Grand Sophy) as my favourite. But the self depreciating wit is big hit with me in so many of Heyer's characters. I think I identify and aspire to it ;-)

WangZheng259 said...

The first charactor I came up with for this set of criteria is Pat Buckman in Tom Kratman's Caliphate. I don't know how much of his character made it into the final copy, but I view him as an ordinary everyman who did something unforgivable (breaking the constitution) while operating under tremendous strain. He is someone who does much of what I might do in his place. He also functions quite well for being nuttier then a fruitcake, and I find that somewhat inspiring.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I have serious issues with the idea of Agatha Christie was plot-driven. In the Poirot books perhaps to an extent, but the Miss Marple books, to me, feel character driven. They're not character-studies, but like most cozzies, the victim and the murderer are interlaced character necessities. Her characters are very believable, too. I could move into St. Mary Mead tomorrow and know these people as my neighbors. Miss Marple is -- painfully so -- much like my grandmother. And I fully agree you want to know evil, you should grow up in a village.

Plot driven? I'd say certain thrillers.

Actually lately I've been trying to wrap my character studies in action. Not sure how it's working...

Anton Gully said...

I'm no Christie expert but aren't detective novels plot-driven almost by definition?

Regardless of how well drawn Miss Marple's character was, there was going to be a crime, an investigation and the unmasking of the criminal.

At no point would Marple have thrown it all in halfway through the case and gone on a sketching expedition to the South of France because she needed a explore the feelings she was having for the grocery delivery boy.

She was constrained by the plot.

IMO, obviously. You could say that it was not in Miss Marple's character to leave a case unsolved, but I'd then argue that that's because she's a lovable device designed to move the plot along. You'd then probably throw some insults my way, there'd be shoving, leading to pushing. Blows would be landed and before you know it, it's the curious case of Miss Marple and the Blog Comment Massacre....

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Anton,

LOL. Sane people don't fight me :)

well... would you accept that her going on a sketching expedition to the south of france would make me kick the book across the room and if in one of my moods hiss "They shouldn't ALLOW women to write, damn it." (No, don't examine that. It's not worth it.)

I disdain the sort of pointless meandering plot. I like a melding of character and event where the event illuminates the character and the plot makes sense of the conflict.

My counter would actually be that the mystery is the device that Christie uses to explore a palette of characters. There is a puzzle, sure, because it was required in her days. I think this explains why I like Christie but DESPISE Sherlock Holmes.

Anton Gully said...

"My counter would actually be that the mystery is the device that Christie uses to explore a palette of characters."

Hmm. Touché.

Would you still want to read about the characters if there was no mystery? So long as the mystery is there the characters are being driven by the plot, and not the other way around.

Anton Gully said...

Oh, an unrelated note. In an earlier comment in this thread, about six months ago, I said I couldn't think of any character driven genre fiction. I think I thought of one -
some of M. John Harrison's Virconium stories. I did not enjoy them though and he's a literary darling these days.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Would I still want to read the characters? Yeah, probably, but ... how do I put this? I view plot as a means for testing the characters, so without plot I get bored.

OTOH would I read Miss Marple in space? You bet your feet!

Neill said...

For plot driven detective novels I'd nominate Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsey stories or Laurie King's Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Both definitely have plot, but also characters who are complex and believable. Agatha Christie really did seem plot driven to me. You usually did get a recurring character with a bit of depth, but everyone else seemed to be in the story to be either a suspect or a victim or to lead the reader astray.

For SF my favourites would be Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles, Mark and Kat Vorkosigan in particular) and Terry Pratchett. I think Terry does societies better than individuals though - not a complaint about his characters, just I think his greatest strength is social satire.

I really liked Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice - I liked the wit, determination and intelligence.

For a character to be engaging they need to seem human, have some vulnerabilities and flaws, but also have admirable qualities. I'm not a big fan of either anti-heroes or supermen.

Looking back on my list another common thread is intelligence. I hate reading about characters who do obviously stupid things. Makes me feel like I'm watching a slasher picture :)

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, I think the world is overdue a Miss Marple in space.

Dave Freer said...

Neill, on intelligence - it's why I prefer Bujold's Mil sf to Weber. It always felt to me as if Miles solved conflicts with clever ploys and Honor with yet another toe-to-toe slugging match. The latter may closer resemble reality, but if wanted reality I'd stick to newspapers. YMMV of course, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was more of a reflection of my character (both real and desired) than necessarily of the wider public. People LIKE slasher pics. Never really understood why.