Wednesday, June 10, 2009

One Hand Washes The Other

So you have this character and you’re half in love with him. In fact, if you’re like me, the characters come to you first and you see them as whole people and you love them as friends.

You want to share your character with the world! You love him or her so everyone will also, right?

Right... except... except the world can’t see your character the way you do. That intimate feel you have for what makes them laugh and those cute dimples and all? Not there for anyone else.

The character is in your head, not theirs. To readers he’s a stranger. Many things that are cute, or sweet or funny from a friend are either incomprehensible or creepy from a stranger.

So, how do you introduce Mr. Or Ms. Fantastic?

You could, of course, just start the book with “this is my character, look how wonderful he is.” You could go on that way about what he eats for breakfast; the smell of his shampoo, how flowers and small children turn their faces to follow his progress; how entire cities come out and lie down in his path lest he hurt his foot on a stone.

Of course you could. You could also take up recreational fly fishing or perhaps basket weaving and leave the writing alone. Because trust me, that approach above? Every slush pile has hundreds and hundreds of those.

The sad thing is when you do that you sound exactly like a middle school kid with his or her first crush. And let’s face it, no one but your bestest friend, who had a crush on the same person, wanted to hear another word about it.

So... how do you bring your wonderful character to the reader in all his splendor? Plot, my dear, plot. Plot is what reveals your character. It’s more like bringing your middle school crush home and let him show your parents how smart he is and what good manners he has. If you can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter how wonderful you tell them he is. And PLEASE make sure you don’t do that – make sure your character isn’t acting like a complete idiot while you tell us (cunningly using the other characters, maybe) how wonderful he is. Show us he’s wonderful. Make him be wonderful.

Say your character is very generous. Start with him giving half of his cloak to a beggar. But please, for the love of heaven, don’t show us how gentle he is next and have him pet a puppy. Instead, make the whole character work to move the plot. Is your character generous? What is the typical defect of generous people? Well... they don’t keep enough to survive? They get taken in by confidence men? Use that. Have your character rolled. Have it move the plot.

To me plot without character and character without plot is the sound of one hand clapping. Maybe very zen but not very entertaining.

So... give me examples of where this works or doesn’t. Or give me examples of a book that’s only one or another and yet works.

The winner of last week’s contest for a fabulous t-shirt with the cover of Darkship Thieves is Lady Dawn! Please email me with your address


Kate said...

Examples of plot and character flowing seamlessly together... Well, I guess I'd better metaphorically leave the altar to PTerry out of this one since I seem to cite him for everything because he's so ____ing good. Besides, the neighbors object to the goats and it's such a pain getting blood cleaned up after the ritual sacrifice.

Anyway. Non PTerry examples. Dave immediately leaps into the mind, lobs a coconut and runs off again. Seriously, can anyone who's read Rats, Bats and Vats imagine that story working without Ariel, Fat Fal, Pooh-Bah and co? Could you see it working with a privileged, idealistic soldier instead of Chip? I can't. Once what I call the trigger incident is past, everything the characters do makes sense given their nature and advanced the plot.

Sarah's books too, particularly the ones coming out in the next year or so as well as Gentleman Takes a Chance and the Magical British Empire series. (nobly refraining from going "neener neener neener" over having read Darkship Thieves and Dipped Stripped Dead). Once something kicks off the action, the rest arises naturally from the interaction of who the characters are and their environment.

And Sarah and Dave had better not try to say otherwise, either. I know how good they are!

Amanda Green said...

I have to agree with Kate...and, like her, I will climb off the PTerry fan wagon.

For me, a book needs to grab me pretty quickly with character and plot. I don't want to read a travelogue any more than I want to read nothing but dialog with no background, no scene setting. Kate's already mentioned Dave and Sarah, but that's not going to stop me.

The silence was all a fussy librarian could have wished for. It was 2:29 A.M. and the second floor of the Regenstein Library was deserted and dark . . . except for the prowling flashlight.
They had said that the noise came from here. . . .
The security guard thought it was probably nothing. There’d been no external alarms—just some “weird noise” the two cleaning women claimed to have heard coming from somewhere in the general bookstacks in the west wing.
The guard rounded the corner, and halted in his tracks. Shredded books lay scattered around the bizarre-looking object. The surrounding shelves hadn’t just been knocked down. The force of the thing’s arrival had crumpled the metal shelving as if they had been made of aluminum foil. He started to turn away . . .
From the apex of the five-sided black pyramid, a beam of violet light engulfed him. Briefly. Then there was no one there to engulf.
From chapt. 1 of Pyramid Scheme, by Dave Freer.

From near and far the creatures gather—winged and hoofed, clawed and fanged, and armed with quick rending maws. Great hulking beasts appear that the world has not seen in uncounted ages: reptiles that crawled in great primeval swamps long before human foot trod the Earth; saber-toothed tigers and winged pterodactyls. And others: bears and apes; foxes and antelopes, all converge on a small hotel on the outskirts of Denver, as a snowstorm gathers over the Rocky Mountains.
Outside the hotel, some change shapes—a quick twist, a wrench of bone and flesh, and where the animals once were, there now stand men and women. Others fly into the room, through the open balcony door, before changing their shapes.
In there—in human form—they crowd together, massing, restive. Old and young, hirsute and elegant, they gather.
From the start of Gentleman Takes a Chance by Sarah A. Hoyt.

He shouldn't have taken the shortcut.
Bahzell Bahnakson realized that the instant he heard the sounds drifting down the inky-dark cross corridor. He'd had to keep to the back ways used only by the palace servants—and far more numerous slaves—if he wanted to visit Brandark without the Guard's knowledge, for he was too visible to come and go openly without being seen. But he shouldn't have risked the shortcut just to avoid the more treacherous passages of the old keep.
He stood in an ill-lit hall heavy with the stink of its sparse torches (the expensive oil lamps were saved for Churnazh and his "courtiers"), and his mobile, foxlike ears strained at the faint noises. Then they flattened in recognition, and he cursed. Such sounds were none of his business, he told himself, and keeping clear of trouble was. Besides, they were far from the first screams he'd heard in Navahk . . . and there'd been nothing a prince of rival Hurgrum could do about the others, either.
From Oath of Swords by Dave Weber.

All three of these grabbed me from the outset. I want to know more about the characters, their world and what is going to happen to them.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Do I have to restore sanity? All right. Introducing a character and a plot at once and the wrap-around of both. I'll start with Heinlein, (since I didn't swear off my particular altar.)

This is not the beginning, but it is the start of character intro in The Puppet Masters: *For me it started much too early, on July 12, '07, with my phone shrilling in a frequency garanteed to peel off the skull. I felt around my person, trying to find the thing to shut it off, then recalled that I had left it in my jacket across the room. "All right," I growled. "I hear you. Shut off the damned noise."*

It goes on to show the character going through a plot that reveals him as an exceptionally resourceful man devoted to those he loves, cat and human. Heinlein doesn't tell us he's a genius. In fact we find out before the character does.

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, the character introduces himself formally. *My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of the Classic of tea. My family is quite undistinguished and since I'm the tenth of my father's sons and rather strong I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.* he then gives us family background that flows seamlessly into the problem in his native village. Though the character is Hastings to the Poirot of the "main character" Master Li, the reader comes to admire #10 Ox's humanity and resourcefulness.

Laurell Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures, *Willy McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead dind't change that. He sat across from me wearing a loud palid sport jacket.* again, introduces both the beginning of the plot and the snarky tone of the heroine who, before later upsets, was sort of like Faith in Buffy (except I think Hamilton wrote her first.)

So, comments? Ideas? Banana peels? Come on guys. My cat died on Monday and I'm depressed. Give me something to think on.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I'd have to say Joe Abercrombie's 'The Blade Itself' introduction of the torturer character was riveting.

Kate said...

Heinlein, Friday.

I'm at work so I can't dig out the quote, but in the first paragraph, Friday (who narrates) has mentioned a lunar colony, a space elevator, and that someone is clearly following her so she kills him.

By the end of the first page it's obvious even though Friday herself hasn't said so that she's resourceful, intelligent, regards rules as something to work around, and some kind of spy, and that the dead man is also at best a spy, complete with multiple forms of identity.

As I recall, I'd made the "buy this book" decision by the end of the first paragraph.

Mike said...

Examples of books that are practically pure plot, with little or no characterization? How about some of the mystery or puzzle plot stories -- James White's Hospital Station stories come to mind, where the key to the story is the puzzle at the middle. One of the problems with those cardboard characterizations is that usually once you know how the puzzle gets solved, rereading the story isn't terribly interesting. But good mysteries -- Nero Wolfe's Rex Stout, for example -- usually stand up even when you know how the mystery comes out, because you want to read about the orchids, the food, and Archie Goodwin's adventures. So clearly it doesn't have to be that way.

Going the other way -- characterization, but no plot? I'm tempted to point a finger at literary fiction, but someone would probably explain why I really should appreciate those. Most of the genre fiction that I'm familiar with is more likely to err the other way, leaning on plot with sketchy characterization. Not necessarily, but the genres tend to push for plot.

Kate said...

You do all realize that if no-one else comments Sarah might sing at us? She's threatened it before.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sigh. I was trying to think of an example that's all character. The closest I can think of that I enjoyed, off the top of my head is Pearl S. Buck's Women. And Mike, I'd never tell you you're missing anyting with not reading boring stuff...

Anonymous said...

"Light A Penny Candle" If I recall the title correctly. I have no idea how I bought it, nor why I read it. Perhaps I kept thinking the plot would cleverly expose itself at the end? It can best be summed up as "Two girls grow up and go through life learning nothing from their own mistakes, each other's mistakes, nor their parents' mistakes. When the writer reached the publisher's desired word count, she stopped writing." The scary part is, I heard there was a sequel.

I do _not_ understand literature.