Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When I Fall In Love, It Will Be Completely

I decided to jump into this discussion on character and though there are many reasons why I love or hate a character, I must start at the beginning. And at the beginning I fell in love with someone out of the pages of a book.

I was eleven or thereabouts. I might have been eight. After a while all those ages run together. At any rate, real love and any interest in men was a long time in the future. But I got my hands on Dumas The Three Musketeers. For those who haven’t read let me explain that after some preamble with the youthful D’Artagnan and some barbed tongue-in-cheek comments, we move on to a scene in the Captain’s office, where he’s upbraiding two of the Musketeers – Porthos and Aramis – because he’s heard that the third of the inseparables, Athos, was wounded. Of course his wound was an humiliation for the musketeers, so he’s telling the two musketeers he called in that perhaps he should go and command a nunnery instead. Only at that moment Athos comes in. It is clear he is wounded and only staying on his feet by a powerful effort of will. He came to save his comrades from being yelled at and he refuses to show his weakness, but he is in fact so wounded that he collapses when the captain squeezes his hands.

At that moment I fell in love. Head over heels. As an adult and a writer, I think I can tell you why – it was his sacrifice for his fellows, his iron will in dragging himself in, his refusal to give and inch and – ultimately – the undeniable physical wound that causes him to lose consciounsness. This created a brew of courage, honor and the inevitable compassion for someone who is hurt that couldn’t help but capture me.

Athos is not a very admirable character. He drinks. He’s a mysogenist, and he killed his wife – perhaps with the best of reasons, at least for his time. But the introduction captured me so much that I stayed with him until the end of the series and then as some of you know went on to write mysteries with the musketeers – really for the sake of spending time with Athos! And might now be doing another (fantasy) project with them soon.

Such the power of making a character larger than life at the outset.

There are many characters in novels that I hate. Usually if I hate the character I hate the novel and vice-versa. And I’m not going to waste my time describing them. Instead I’m going to jump to an iconic novel of a legend of the field, a novel that by rights I should hate with a passion, because all its techniques and its “point” are the sort of thing that rubs me wrong. (This is not to say it’s bad. Just that it’s almost custom made to push my buttons the wrong way.) However, that novel remains on my shelves because of its main character. I’m talking about The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula LeGuinn. Therem Hart Rem Ir Estraven (not sure I got the first name properly spelled, and I’m too lazy to go to the shelf tonight) comes on stage through the eyes of the Earth character who despises him and views him as a conniving, venal sort of person. (The characters, for those who haven’t read the novel, are hermaphrodites, so the proper wording is hard.) Then we jump to Therem’s mind and we find he is actually an admirable person in an impossible situation, trying to live up to his commitments and hanging off the end of his rope. The author then proceeds to both put him through hell and make him come through it with honor and dignity. And then she kills him.

I’m not sure the last one is needed, but its emotional punch is very powerful and keeps you going back to see how she did it.

The only thing I have against what she did with that character is that it ruined two of my early – unpublished – novels in which I tried very hard to replicate that effect but just managed to make people take such a dislike to my character that they never got over it.

And those are characters that make me fall in love with them. There are others – Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Demerel in Venetia (which, in answer to the obligatory Heyer question is, in fact, my favorite Heyer.) And it occurs to me both these characters are in reality very flawed and come across even more flawed than they are, but have an inner sense of honor that might not fit that of society but which is, in fact, noble and larger than life.

In the comments (to Dave?) Doc John mentioned that he was told one of his characters was too powerful. That is a big issue. I had to figure out how to handle this with Athena in DarkShip Thieves. For good and sufficient reasons, integral to the plot, Athena IS better than most people. I balanced this out by giving her good instincts but – due to her upbringing – the moral sense and self-image of a catatonic gerbil. What this means is that even though she’s smart, she can be completely blinded by her own perceptions and apply her mind/strength in EXACTLY the wrong way. In effect, in many ways, she’s her own worst enemy.

I think the point is that if your character IS larger than life in good, you must balance it with larger than life in ill also.

I’ve – as usual – written five times as much as anyone else. So let me bow out for now. I shall return eventually with my amazing, piercing, and possibly excess-coffee induced insights in how to create truly loathsome wretches. Maybe...

11 comments:

Dave Freer said...

Hmm. In biological/fishing terms they're called super-attractors -- an exagguration of a natural trait that elicits more of a reponse than the real thing, with certain factors acting as releasers of a behavior pattern (I recall sticklebacks (where red is a male display color) frantically attempting to attack a royal mail truck driving past their tank. Of course, Sarah, we need to know what for humans (a less evolved species than sticklebacks) these superattractors/ releasers are.
So: what are they ;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

For me -- I don't know if universal, though I remember your telling me something about natural behavior of primates -- they seem to be loyalty, honor (which mostly boils down to a sense of one's obligations), and Nobless Oblige -- i.e. looking after the helpless because you AREN'T helpless. However I'm not sure they're the same for everyone. Almost sure the last one isn't. Might read as "stupidity" to many. Of course, any of those exaggerated enough becomes a character flaw, too.

What are other people's attractors?

WangZheng259 said...

I think I agree with Sarah's. Also, functional madness, fanatic determination, efficiency, and effectiveness. To continue the pattern, Miles Vorkosaigon is an example of functional madness that is mostly useful.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Well, there is something in The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exuperi, which like many well brought up girls of my generation I read to nausea, that might nonetheless apply. There is a point at which the lost aviator says he loves the little prince for the intensity of his love for his rose. (The little prince travels between worlds and left his rose in his asteroid. Long story.) That it shone through him like a lamp.

That is something else that can, in the end, make you love a character. A fanatic love for something, even if it's not something you love or would have loved (but something you understand someone loving. Unless you're writing a serioulsy distopic take on the world. Or some sort of depraved, sideways fantasy. If someone is in love with -- meh, there was a movie about this some years ago and it was ew -- self mutillation through car crashes, you probably won't get the warm fuzzies but the creepy crawlies.) then you feel a strong afinity for the person.

In all the characters I cited they are in love with that quaint definition of their "name" prevailing in more traditional societies. They won't sully their reputation. (This is not entirely a self-centered thing, since reputation was a trading currency in a "smaller" world. Losing your name could affect those you love very badly.) But it can be something else. Suppose you start a short story with this young woman who wants to go to the next village. Okay fine. You can even want her desiring this because she hates her place. That's fine. But if you have her wanting to go over there because there's this tree she loves and she wants to sit under it... well... you sympathize more. Love always makes a character more sympathetic than hatred or dislike, I think. Of course, it helps if they love something more than a tree... I'm just out of it today.
Of course, this leads to the first rule of character plotting. Find out what the character loves over all in the world. Now take it away...
:-P

Dave Freer said...

Ah loyalty. insanity.
"Cair clung to a spar floating in the open ocean, out of sight or scent of land. The rain had stopped now, and, as the spar rose with the swells, he looked around for other wreckage. Other heads in the water.
He saw nothing but white-capped gray sea.
The loss of his crew cut more deeply than the loss of his ship.
He drifted. And clung. The cloud-tattered morning turned to a slate-skied afternoon. There was no longer hope left in him. Just relentless determination, beyond any logic or faith.
And on the wings of evening, a dragon came out of the seamist." A Mankind Witch

It's a admirable trait to social animals, yes. As is perserverance.
But there are others. Not so nice maybe... a capacity for violence IS an attractant. So is sexuality. How do we make these different, how do we quickly establish them in our characters?

WangZheng259 said...

Thing is, it isn't so much the insanity as the ability to adapt to it, and be useful in spite of or because of the maladaption. Kratman's Carrera, Staur and Muhlenkampf are all very well adapted to war, to the degree that they do not thrive anywhere else. I think this is part of the appeal of them for me. Buckman is just plain nuts however. They aren't exactly the best examples of people overcoming the obstacles that malfunctioning nervous system and brain, or a very different way of thinking pose. But that is something I aspire to.

I don't know if my liking for the underlying ethos predates exoposure to the stories, but I share the desire of the engines in the Thomas the tank engine stories 'To be Really Useful.'

I've noticed that my reaction to Joan Aiken's stories has changed since college, perhaps due to growing up. Now, I want to punch out the villainous adults. Then, I really admired the ability of the kids to land on their feet. I was not the most self relient child, and I dearly wanted to be able to take care of myself, no matter the adults around me.

These are sort of a case of me liking charactors who personify what I want to be capable of myself. Ability and utility are some of my big desires.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hey, WangZheng259, aren't we all functionally crazy????

John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena
I have a pschiatrist's opinion that I am clinically sane, if a little wierd. So how many of us can boast that?

John

Dave Freer said...

Dear John, Insanity is a relative concept. I mean look at ANY of my relatives...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I have a paper saying that I'm sane. It's a bit like Nobby's paper saying he's human in Pterry's watch books, but still I treasure it. :)

Functional... well, that no one ever called me.

WangZheng259 said...

Rowena,
As the others have said, there are degrees of insanity, and degrees of ability to function. One the one end there is eccentric, and I think anyone interested in the mechanics of storytelling qualifies at least for this. On the other end, there is the completly unable to function, hold down a job, make and maintain social relationships, or take care of oneself state.
I do not think there is any human who can truely be said to be perfectly sane. However, most are able to function to some degree or another. I may have calibrated my standards off of Doc Smith too much.