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?