Thursday, July 1, 2010

Adding Color / Society for the Encouragement of Cruelty to Characters

Reading some fantasy recently, I came across in insane character. He was only slightly insane - and he also knew he was insane. Not that I have never read insane characters before, just not for a while.

It made me realise that there is so much scope to add color to characterization. Joe Abercrombie did some interesting things in his series, particularly with his crippled Inquisitor-type character. In this case the extra dimension was the pain and physical impairment that the character had to continually deal with (JA also altered the prose between character sections to give them a distinct feel. Nicely done.).

We take it for granted in modern society that 'pain free' is normal. You don't need to go back more than one or two generations to find people who just carried on with chronic pain, toothache . . .whatever. My mother was like that. She would just shrug her shoulders and say 'It will work itself out, eventually.'

Yet despite this - and that fact that almost all fantasy is set in medieval/historical settings - pain and discomfort are rarely mentioned.

You don't want to go too far and overwhelm the reader with an in-your-face setting that is just too grim to enjoy, but little touches can go a long way to make characters distinct for the reader.

Outcasts and aliens - people on the outside of society are always fun as well. This immediately adds conflict, both internal and external.

This all just goes to prove how damn sadistic authors are. So far I have made my potential characters insane, then given them chronic pain and introduced them to Albert Camus. At least I haven't broken their hearts - yet. MuahahahahaHAHA!!

So what other interesting elements of characterization have you explored? How have you tortured your poor characters lately?


Synova said...

My mom, who has severe arthritis in her knees, went to the Winchester Mystery House and when she got back she said that when she was walking up one of the staircases with extremely shallow steps she thought that quite *obviously* the crazy Winchester lady had rheumatoid arthritis and was taking opiates for the pain.

It explained everything.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I love making my characters suffer.

Reading about physical pain is pretty boring. You can only talk about it for so long before people switch off.

Joe Abercrombie does it well with his torturer character.

Rita de Heer said...

Carrying on from your comment, Rowena, it seems quite contrary that reading about physical suffering is boring (I agreee)and when psychological suffering is being described, readers become completely engrossed.(I'm going on my experience with my book club, here)

Could be related to the theory that mere death is not nearly as threatening as psychological annihalation?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I think we all suffer much more in anticipation of something going wrong, than in the actual event of something going wrong.

When it comes to describing pain, we can only say it hurts in some many ways. But when it comes to describing fears, there are so many variations!

Anonymous said...

I like to keep my character's egos under control through family relations. The very smart girl? Weight issues aren't enough. Her sister's a beauty queen. The most powerful wizard in the world? His little sister can kick his ass. Her problem? Can't get a date.

That's a good point about pain, and the non-availability of anything to do anything about it. I just watched a show that over-emphasized the non-PC character of the world just half a century ago, the uncaring verbal cruelty toward the handicapped,and police abuse of suspects were the most obvious. The later we always seem to remember, but ordinary people yelling at someone in a wheel chair to get out of his way, mocking someone with a stutter, racial slurs . . . We tend to forget that a sizable part of the adult population used to carry on like school bullies in front of God and everyone. And everyone else looked the other way.

Anonymous said...

Pain is like anything else in a helps if you have some familiarity with the affliction in order to catch the details. People without that particular pain do things they do without even thinking about them.

I wouldn't know what to do if I didn't wake up one day in some sort of pain. But I don't have knee problems. I can bend, squat and do whatever with them whenever I want. I know people with knee problems however that deal with all of the details every day. I would look to them if I had a character with knee problems. It's a good, common pain to give a character.

I had an aunt with a polio shoulder when I was growing up. I used her ailment as the basis for such a character in one of my stories. It was quite fascinating thinking about all of the conversations we had in real life in order to pull the character together on the page. My aunt was only one generation back and there was unbelievable crassness and disregard from society toward her as a person.

When putting characters together, this is a great way to add conflict, interest and depth to characters. Good post.


C Kelsey said...

Lessee, in the current novel I'm working on I have a guy who is an Iraq war vet who took some massive damage from and IED. The docs pieced him back together with lots of metal bolts. Then I have his girl friend dying from a fatal disease. So he's in physical and mental pain. Then I magically heal his girlfriend (mental rollercoaster). And THEN I magically heal him... causing his body to painfully force all those metal bits out. Kindness to characters? What's that? :P

Amanda Green said...

Hi, Chris. Interesting post and it hits one something I was thinking about as I was reading a book last night. This is a book I'm glad I got as a free download because I'd be seriously ticked to have paid money for it. Great concept but there are two problems with it. The first is that the author forgot that the two lead characters should NOT have the same "voice" and the same emotional problems and still get along with nary a hitch. The second is it needs some serious editing.

Anyway, the author torments the leads by making them feel like outsiders. Both harbor very dark and dangerous sides. One was abandoned by her parents and the other had to live with the fact his father killed his mother after she abandoned them. Add in a healthy -- or unhealthy -- dose of mistrust for both of them and yet they immediately bond and, well, do other things ;-p

The concept behind the book, looking normal but having that dark secret that sets you apart from those who are "normal" as well as those who should be "your people", is great. It's one I like to play with. You look like any other Joe on the street but you know you're not -- even if you don't know the reason. You try to fit in, but you know you never can, not really. There's something about you that is dark and dangerous. Are you going insane? Are you already insane? Or is this a bad dream you'll soon wake from? Yeah, I'm a sadist witch when it comes to my characters - bwahahaha.

But with all this, there has to be some relief -- comic or not. That's what is missing in the book I was reading. There were only two levels in it -- resentment over the character's situation and fear of what would happen if she - or he, because the author gives both POVs and often in the same paragraph which is another of my pet peeves -- lost control. Hopefully, with my characters, I give the fear and frustration, but also let them have a little satisfaction -- even when the character happens to be the villain in the piece.

C Kelsey said...


Yes! When it comes to the characters of a story, if there is no ray of sunshine, nothing to make their lives worth living, then you have a group of characters that are hard to empathize with, and probably suicidal. People, even in terrifying situations, aren't one or two dimensional. The whole range of emotion and possibility is still there, even if your story is a tragedy that *must* end badly.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Synova. Interesting perspective. From the character development point of view it shows how the world changes depending on what is most central or influencing to that person.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. Should I put you down for membership in the SECC?

I think what makes the JA character interesting isn't the pain itself, or the disfigurement, but how this drove that character, how his interactions with the world swung around it.

Chris McMahon said...

Rita & Rowena: I wonder also if the psychological pain is usually part of some ongoing internal or external conflict that seeks resolution - or worsens - and that is what makes it more interesting. Whereas physical pain is more like a character trait. It would be boring to go on about someone's blue eyes, or height.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. It is shocking to think of - even more so that this happened only a short time ago. Makes you wonder about human nature. From the writer's point of view though, it does offer opportunities to add gritty texture - if that is the nature of the piece.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Linda. It is something I often forget myself, but it is a great way of adding a unique perspetive. Not so much in the pain or infirmity itself, but how this changes the way the character has to deal with their world - and how their world regards them.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. That must make getting through security at the airport I real treat for that guy:)

I love the image of him forcing all those bolts out of his body - its a very visual thing that would work well on screen.

Its terribly cruel what we do to characters. But so much fun!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. The deep dark secret. That's a good one. Something that sets the character apart, but also drives internal conflict. Interesting. My usual characterisation is so instinctive I often miss opportunities to add these sorts of elements.

I know what you mean about needing to provide a relief to the tension in the story. If done well, it can makes these moments of levity really poignant.

I think I usually laugh harder at the one-off joke in the middle of a tense drama, than the jokes in movie billed as a comedy for this reason.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. Good point. There are usually multiple levels going at the same time. Like how James Bond will still make witty comments to impress a girl while being lowered into the shark tank:)

Mike said...

Let's call it SEC squared, though? That way we get to talk about secs, which is always a popular topic :-)

Chris McMahon said...

Good idea, Mike:)