Saturday, March 20, 2010

Here You Shall Not Go

Since Dave and Kate and Chris have all been talking about characters and creating good characters, I thought I’d talk about one characteristic of characters that – perhaps because of the way I write – baffles even me.

Good characters, like good real people, have doors in their head that say “here you shall not go.” Kind of like real people – or at least sane real people.

Heinlein had some fun with those doors in Stranger, because of course, his character raised by Martians doesn’t have the same closed doors in his head that humans have. So, “You shall not eat your friends” is not a “naturally” closed door to him. Meanwhile he has other closed doors that humans normally don’t have. Like “don’t waste water.”

Call it the superego, if you wish to go all Freudian but real people and real characters have definite barriers. And despite a certain school of thought in the sixties and seventies, those arent’ doors that need to be broken down. Rather they’re the doors that make us admire the person or the character.

By this I don’t mean the “doors” that are tested. Characters might have personal issues that keep them from doing this or that, issues that are detrimental to the character’s development or which stop him/her obtaining the character’s heart’s desire. This is what we call “character development” in the story. But this is not the same as the closed door that shall never be opened, or not unless you want to risk “breaking” the character.

Take Anita Blake, in the first few Laurell Hamilton’s. Part of what made her interesting to me was that she didn’t sleep with... well, anyone. She felt the attraction, she was a sensual person, but she had closed that door. Once she opened it, though the series in a way exploded in popularity, the character was broken to me. It’s not that I’m prudish, and I could have found a character interesting who was promiscuous from the beginning. It’s that the character to me, as I read her, necessitated a measure of self discipline. And that vanished.

It would be sort of like my writing a sequel to Darkship Thieves in which Athena is whiney, needy and is terrified of lifting her hand to defend herself. Because one of Thena’s closed doors is the “You shall not be a burden to others” and that includes in self defense. It’s not that she doesn’t feel weak or vulnerable or tired. It’s that the idea of not defending herself, or waiting to be rescued can only occur to her to be dismissed.

It’s a fine balance because to an extent, of course, fiction is supposed to test the character’s limit. On the other hand, you can test it to destruction.

So, how can one do it? How to balance it? And note that I’m asking in earnest, because I have no idea. I can point to other people’s writing and say “Here, she lost it” or “here the character broke.” I think in movie terms we’d say that’s when the character jumped the shark. However, in my own writing, and while I’m working, it’s all clear as coal, and I’m not sure how to test and evaluate whether I broke the character or not. Does any one of you have an idea of how to “see” this?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, I absolutely agree on the Anita Blake character.

Her belligerence towards paternalistic males and her slightly up tight attitude towards sex made her endearing for me.

Anonymous said...

I've run into a couple of instances of what I call personality transplant in a character.

And I won't say it can't happen. We all have subconscious triggers in our heads, and they can trap us. "Married women don't . . . " and things you enjoyed as a single -say going out to a bar after work and having a drink with co-workers sudden becomes a horrible, unthinkable thing to do.

On the other hand, in fiction, I think what you need to consider is whether the breakdown of the character's quality comes early in the book and is rebuilt over the course of the story. Sin and redemption so to speak.

If not, I think the Character's change needs to be *positive*. I have no trouble with a whiny dependent character growing a backbone and learning how to do for his or herself. Where the reverse is offensive. Maybe it's all slant. A loner learning to trust others sounds a lot better.

Stephen Simmons said...

I have a big problem with this halfway through my current book. The most significant defining trait of the narrative character is her devotion to protecting her brother. So I put them in a place where the fate of a world literally depended on him facing danger without her. Only he could do it.

And you're right, I can't tell if I got her through it credibly, or if I lessened the character. I've found a reader whose opinion I value, so hopefully I'll get some feedback on that nagging question shortly.

Kate said...

Gradual change can work... Something as drastic as Anita Blake's transformation from somewhat uptight, not gonna do it with anything unless there's a wedding ring involved attitude to being the local undead bicycle is definitely a case of "broke".

Partly, I think that being creatures tuned to Story, we want reasons. Real people might do a personality U-turn after a traumatic event. Story people can't - we have to see them change or we won't accept it. It's why Scrooge needs Marley AND three Ghosts before he can change his ways.

As for identifying when you broke one... Sorry. I'm not much help there. Mine won't LET me break them. If I try to go somewhere that's not right, hello flat, dull, stodgy, can't write this crap prose - if I don't just stop cold until I can figure out what SHOULD be going on. It's frustrating as all get-out.

When does the movie "Honey, I broke my character" come out?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, exactly. Plus the tension between "wanna do it" and "my beliefs don't allow me to" added a lot of ... drive to the books. Suddenly it was gone.

Of course maybe I'm odd, I get bored by written sex after a while. It's like "It goes in, it goes out, it feels good, yeah, yeah, yeah, move it forward to the actual psychological or physical interaction of another kind."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You might have identified the change "quality" between needed change and "breaking the character". Not so much that a character who was self sufficient becomes a whiner and that's wrong (though that is too) but more that if the change is something needed for and which enhances the Omph of the plot, it should be done, if not, foggedabout it. PARTICULARLY if the change simply makes it easier for you to write the characer in some way. (I know, I'll fill three pages with ooh, ahhh, um...)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, that would seem to be a good compass. Someone else's unpoluted head. The only caveat is that if this person knows how you think, normally, or if you talked the plot with them, they might be to in it to spot any issues.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Uh... Sexicle. I did something wrong, but bless me if I know what. It just stopped cold, and I won't be able to restart it till I guess the magical g-spot.

As for breaking characters... Mirrorplay, which is up for rewrite. Now, understand, this is from my "drop walls on them" phase of plotting. I just dropped one too many on the character and for the rest of the book I had a wax dummy I was dragging through EVERY painfully slow and stodgy scene. Bleah.

Dave Freer said...

"So, how can one do it? How to balance it? And note that I’m asking in earnest, because I have no idea"

I think Kate touched on the right answer: in a logical progression that the reader can see, and that does not destroy key features of the character, but changes it's direction. And um, hopefully in a direction that readers want it to change to. It's also something that takes a lot of foreshadowing. One of the most difficult characters I ever wrote was Howard in Slow Train - a man of fundamental conservative Christian belief, from a patriarchal society challenged by a series of things that just didn't fit into 'acceptable'in the world-view he was raised by. Let's face it he's a character modern literature says should be a villan, not the hero. But from the very start I begin sewing little seeds - showing him to be intelligent, questioning and adaptable. He remains true to the basic tenets of his faith - but shifts that in direction which is the opposite of his background. I don't know if I succeeded (let's face it I was taking a hell of a chance, considering the narrow-minded bigotry in the hallows of our genre, thinking the unthinkable, breaking damn near every taboo. If I stealthed this one...) but I felt his gradual shift of attitude built up to the point where that change was not only possible it was almost inevitable.

Kate said...


You managed Howard brilliantly. By starting with him as something of an outcast because he's constantly thinking and coming up with better ways to do things and showing that he's kind-hearted and won't harm someone who asks him for help you set the seeds that this is a good person.

The rest is his innate goodness coming to terms with the notion that there are a whole lot of "right" ways, and his isn't the only one. The rest is, as you say, inevitable. Someone more rigid and less imaginative would have done very badly.

Of course, I still get a giggle out of what you did with the "people's paradise" and Dear Leader's head.

Kate said...


From what I've seen of Sexicle to date, I suspect you've got Athos using the wrong method to reach his goal.

And yeah, if you drop too many mountains or walls on the poor bastard, you will break him. Especially when they come out of nowhere. I used to plot this way too - nowadays I try to show someone (either the character all unwittingly or an enemy of said character) carefully undermining the wall so it will topple on the character. It satisfies our built-in sense of the rules of Story that way.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate and Dave,

Possibly. I might be too incremental and giving the impresison of being caught in a loop.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, people who get caught in a loop should never write about rollercoasters ;-)