Thursday, March 18, 2010

Getting Under the Skin

For once, the Kate feeelthy mind (tm) isn't involved in this topic... Well, mostly. I can't make guarantees.

Sarah talked yesterday about character and plotting that fails to deliver what it promises. In my not at all humble opinion, part of that failure is the inability of the author to get inside the head of the character. If you don't understand this person, sooner or later you'll write them doing something that's completely wrong for them because it makes perfect sense to you. This is why the best authors have a kind of self-induced multiple personality order (it can't be a disorder, it's more or less under control).

Sure, there are times and and places where it isn't necessary to be that close to your characters. I've yet to encounter one where your fiction isn't improved by that level of understanding. Even extremely formulaic fiction comes alive when the author knows and lives the characters.

Yes, lives. It's a weird state for me, where I'm aware of the real-world considerations around me, but my mind is in a different universe. Oh. Right. That's normal for me. It's when my mind is being a different person in a different universe that gets weirder than Kate-normal. I describe it as channeling that character, because the effect is precisely that. When it's working well, I'm simply the medium by which the character's actions, thoughts and feelings find their way onto the screen.

I know, intellectually, that it's a kind of self-hypnosis where I get myself into the right state and let my subconscious do the heavy lifting. It knows more than I do. My descriptions reflect the way I perceive what's happening.

So, after that lengthy introduction, how does one actually channel a character?

We all have tricks we use to get in the zone. 'Soundtracks' for a book, images that work for us, routines we use to settle our minds so we can focus. Getting inside a character's mind is, for me, a step or two deeper. If I'm working with a historical era - or a setting that closely parallels one - I read as much as I can about it, particularly things like the lives of people in the area and social class I'm looking at, the importance of religion, typical upbringing, and so forth. What I'm looking for here is the environment my character was raised in, because that shapes innate tendencies and governs acceptable actions. Quite simply, no matter who you are or how you were raised, some thoughts are literally unthinkable because the mental scaffolding they need simply doesn't exist. What those thoughts are depends entirely on the culture and language: culture by shaping what is considered 'good' and 'bad' (there are some human universals. There's also a lot of wiggle room), and language by building the scaffolding to frame thought. To take a really simplistic example, a couple of hundred years back, the Inuit probably had no way to think of a hot, arid environment. Neither their cultural experience nor their environment provided any kind of framework. On the other hand, they had any number of ways to think about cold and snow - leading to the old "twenty words for snow" meme. I'd be surprised if they had any cultural reference point for 'introvert' or 'loner', simply because an environment that harsh isn't survivable solo.

So... in a hypothetical historical, even an introverted loner Inuit character is going to be much more people-oriented than a modern introverted loner. He/she will also live within his/her tribe's views of the roles of men and women because moving outside that framework is literally unthinkable. As you learn more about the culture, you'll learn more about the beliefs that affect how your character views the world - how the arrival of a particular kind of wind signals that it's time to move south, the many layers of meaning surrounding every aspect of the tribe's world, the skills that are valued and those that aren't (it doesn't matter if you're the world's greatest mathematical genius when your people don't need to count past 'many' and you've got no access to anything else). Ultimately, the more you know about the world your character lives in, the more you know about how your character has been conditioned to respond to life.

That's when you, as the kind and caring author you are, turn your character's life inside out and upside down to start the story (okay, usually there'll be some kind of introductory stuff first, where your character is living his, her, or in some cases its normal life). At first, your character's going to respond to the new stuff by working with the closest match to 'normal', then there'll be a gradual change and growth. This is the easy part.

The difficult part is doing the same process when you're dealing with the villain. You can always tell someone who can't manage this - their villains are shadowy, offstage menaces that fall flat the instant you see them clearly. It's something of a given that it's a whole lot harder to write convincing evil as opposed to 'decent person who happens to be on the opposite side' or even 'misguided but well-intentioned' - the reason is pretty simple. Most of us can't imagine someone with absolutely no redeeming features at all. If you can't imagine it, you can't get inside and look through its eyes, and you sure as heck can't write it convincingly.

The same process applies, but if you can get inside an evil person's mind, it's... disturbing. One character I've written, after spending time in his point of view I wanted to scrub inside and out. Fortunately I haven't needed to write anyone like that in a while - but I can pretty much guarantee I will have to write evil again. The places my stories go pretty much guarantees it. I'm still not sure whether I was more disturbed because I could write him, or because he was one of the very few who actually is evil, knows it, and chooses to be that way.

More on that topic next week, unless I get derailed (this is quite likely). For this week, lets have some examples of books where the plot can't be separated from the characters and their environment. My pick (yes, I'm cheating and going for several in one) is the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch books by PTerry. It's impossible to separate what happens from Vimes and Carrot, and it's impossible to separate Vimes from Ankh-Morpork. He even manages to take the city with him (in a metaphorical sense) in The Fifth Elephant.

Who and what are your choices?


Anonymous said...

I remember the shock the first time an author pulled me into the bad guy's POV. A thriller by Fredrick Brown _Knock 132_ or something like that. He started out being stupid and irresponsible, wound up plotting his wife's murder. And I was there, understanding why . . . WHAT!

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Great post Kate :)

I would say the Uhtred series by Bernard Cornwell (again, cheating with a series). Uhtred is so much a part of his world and time, such a personification of what Cornwell (and I) believe a man would have to be to survive and be successful in that world. The ruthlessness, the emphasis on honour and fate (wyrd bið ful ãræd), the sheer hardness of his character, for me, typifies the age he is set in.

I get what you mean about thinking and "living" your characters. I have a chap who is so mechanically-minded (quite literally) that emotions are something quite at odds with how he thinks. He still feels them, of course, but expressing them is difficult. This makes writing from his point of view pretty hard for me, as the observations about the world and the internal monologue of his thoughts is so different to my other characters (very much emotional creatures). But, should I get it right, I hope that it will be a really immersive element of the book - to really see how someone who is pretty alien to the standard thinks and views the world.

Either that, or its going to be a bloody great mess of a POV :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I love Repairman Jack, where you're sort of walking a fine line between good and evil, between light and dark. I'd say most of my characters tend to be like that, too.

Pratchett does the bad guys fairly well, it goes without saying. Vetinari is often halfway there, himself. The only clicheed bad guy I can think of off the top of my head in his works is in The Fifth Elephant.

Heinlein ranged from "so so bad guys" to truly evil ones, but the evil ones are the ones you don't really expect, like the people who hire Friday in the end. They are being perfectly logical and utilitarian, no moustache twirling or cape swinging. Somehow, I suspect that's closer to the mark of evil. They want what they want, and never mind what happens to others in the process.

Oh, by the way, the TRUE mark of half-assedness in writing villains is when someone "goes mad" and does bad things. This is an author who -- blesses him or her -- can't really comprehend evil, so it must be an effect of madness. There was a fashion for this in mystery about ten years ago and it just about led ME to mad villain status.

I find a lot of these when I judge contests, and I was guilty of it, myself, once, in my early twenties (thank heavens never published) so I think that it might a young and innocent author's transgression.

Stephen Simmons said...

This is what keeps me buying Weber's books. Honor Harrington IS the book. Well, Hamish and Sir Horace and the others frequently become big parts of it, too ... but the book is the characters. The plot is just part of THEM.

Someone (don't recall now who it was) mentioned Donaldson yesterday or the day before. Donaldson has a gift for writing evil, and a genius for painting black-on-black, utterly hopeless scenes to display that evil to best advantage.

I'm about to find out if I hav anything remotely like that in me. My villains only sent minions (or mini-onions, as my old GM used to call them) onstage during the first volume of the series. Now I have to actually write them.

Kate said...


That's it exactly... when you can understand why this character is doing these things - writers who can do it effectively are rare critters.

Kate said...


It's a special challenge, getting inside the mind of someone who's very different from you. Doing it well is its own reward, in my view.

At least, in the case of the villains, once I've had a bit of time to distance myself from the piece.

Kate said...


Repairman Jack is disturbing, perhaps because he's so very much an antihero (in the sense that if he was on the other side he'd be the villain).

I LOATHE the "goes mad and does terrible things" or worse, "IS mad and does terrible things" trope. For starters, I've never seen anyone who uses it get madness right.

It might be a sign of an immature or possibly excessively naive author when that's the only way they can imagine someone doing horrible things. Not that the trope is entirely false - berserker rage probably counts as "mad", and the forms of mental illness where the poor bastard who has it hears the voices ordering him to kill so and so or is utterly convinced such and such is going to kill him and he's got to defend himself is a definite example. But that sort of psychotic break tends not to make good story anyway because the ultimate issue is a brain glitch.

Berserker rage on the other hand... Personally I find that works much better as something a hero needs to overcome than as a defining feature of a villain.

Kate said...


That's an excellent example - Honor Harrington is so much a part of those books.

It was probably me who mentioned Donaldson, if you read it here. He has the darkness to a fine art - to the extent that since my breakdown I can't read him. Whether that's because the breakdown happened while I was emerging from the angsty teen phase or because I"m still a smidge fragile in matters of gloom, doom, and despair, I don't know. I don't plan on finding out, either :)

On the flip side, the Thomas Covenant chronicles absolutely needed Thomas Covenant, warts and all. If you have a large enough vocabulary and a fondness for being dragged through hundreds of pages of utter misery for a teensy glimmer of bittersweet hope, it's brilliant characterization. (If you don't, you're not going to get far enough into the books to CARE)

Chris McMahon said...

Interesting, Kate. I often forget how the setting influences character - import though.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate, Covenant isn't even Donaldson's best work, imho. It's just his best-known. Take a look at his "Daughter of Regals" anthology. It isn't quite as ... well, as Donaldson, for lack of a better adjective, as "The Ill-Earth War", and they're shorts. But it's still that black-on-black brilliance, and the king-making "non-hero" who CREATES greatness in the normal people around him/her ...

His "Mirror of Her Dreams"/"A Man Rides Through" two-book series is also brilliant, but it IS as bad as Covenant ...

Dave Freer said...

I must admit to a weakness with villians. I get too much into their headspace and end up worrying about myself. Elizabeth Batholdy left me feeling sick. She's stupid and vain and terribly powerful. I worry about the stupid part.

Kate said...

Chris M,

I think it's easy to forget the influence of setting - we're so much products of our society and environment it's invisible unless we do something dramatic like move to another country.

One of the things that was truly eye-opening for me in understanding Eastern Europe in the mid to late 15th century was reading short biographies of the prominent people of the time. Every single one of them was a hostage of some sort when young, all of them with a high likelihood of being killed if their relatives misbehaved. Such an environment does not a stable political situation make.

Kate said...


I'm inclined to agree there. I have the anthology and the mirror duology, and can't read those any more either.

Donaldson is brilliant with fractured (forget flawed, his characters are mostly broken in many ways and held together by pure stubbornness, I think) characters in worlds where you might maybe catch a glimmer of hope if you look in the right direction and squint.

Kate said...


YES! Elizabeth Batholdy is brilliantly realized - I can understand everything she does and see how in the same situation I might well do the same. And yeah, that IS worrying.

You don't need to fear the stupid part, though :) Keeping up with the mad Aussies will keep your wits good and sharp.

You ARE coming to Worldcon, right? I've got my hotel room booked, just need to get the flights (waiting on the tax return for that one).

Dave Freer said...

"You ARE coming to Worldcon, right? I've got my hotel room booked, just need to get the flights (waiting on the tax return for that one)."

Yes, Barbs and I just need to get a round tuit - registering has been on the list for about 2 weeks. Looking forward to seeing you, Kate! You wouldn't like to consider coming out to stay on the island for a bit? I know there is family and stuff in Oz, but we'd love to have you here.

Stephen Simmons said...

I guess I'd have to say I'm a "semi-pantser", then, at least as far as longer works go. :)

For both of the series I have in progress, the characters told me quite firmly, up front, how each series was going to end. And getting from their starting points to those endings immediately implied certain major landmarks along the way. But the rest of the route? Mostly it's been a journey of discovery.

Kate said...

Dave, if I can swing it, with bells on :) I haven't got any hard scheduling outside the con and the vacation time I"ve booked - a lot is going to depend on what my flights to and from Melbourne are doing.

At the moment, you've got a roomie for Worldcon. I got hte hotel right on the convention center, too, so nice and convenient.

Kate said...


Those can be fun - when they're not "interesting" in all the wrong ways! You certainly get some unusual detours along the way.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate and Dave,

Can you guys PRAY for a sale here soon for me? I'll join Kate, then. I'll even bring shark bait, who is dying to come, but afraid to go alone... (Also unless sale too risky monetarily for us.)
Shark bait is now about four inches taller and skinnier. Good thing Barbs tells me no teen girls on isle!

Kate said...


HELL yes! I haven't STOPPED praying for you to sell and sell big.

Dave - bring an air mattress or two, then we can have our very own room party ;)

I've booked a twin room, but it could be a bit squishy with me, you, Barbs, Sarah AND shark bait in there.

Dave Freer said...

Kate we have somewhere to stay -hotel prices were just too evil. And yeah, holding thumbs for Sarah's big sale. Even with Shark-bait ;-)

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, it's Okay about the taller part really. The sharks aren't that fussy ;-)