Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The First Sight And The Second Thoughts

First, I want to start by bragging that I have talked to Terry Pratchett twice, outside the Discworldcon (where I got to talk to him a little more.) [The conversations themselves were by and large inconsequential – the second one dwelt on the habits of the felis domesticus and the advantages of an invisible fence.] I also want to admit that I read I Shall Wear Midnight, his latest book, just out.

What do these things have to do with one another?

In reading the last one in the saga of Tiffany Aching, I was reminded of the fact that witches don’t have the second sight. They have the first sight and the second thoughts.

I suspected the first time I came across that sentence that for witches you should read writers. Perhaps that’s just my personal deformation, of course. I can find myself reading a book on macrame and stop and view something as a profound image on writing technique.

That is neither here nor there. Whether Pratchett meant it as a metaphor for the writer or not, it reminded me also of the first time I saw him. It was World Fantasy or World Con (Yeah, I’m that sharp) in 2000 and it took place during the meet and greet (aka swill and mill – which leads me to believe it was WF as Worldcon is too big for such niceties.) There was this huge, garrulous crowd of people. And standing by the wall, looking out with intent eyes was... Terry Pratchett. It took me a moment to believe it was him. I’d been reading him for five years, and I didn’t realize he was JUST starting to take off in the US. (Heck, that same con, when asked for an example of a non-monarchic system in a fantasy I said “Terry Pratchett’s city-state ruled by Patricians and guilds” and the panelists said “Terry who?” Also, they booked his reading in one of the smallest rooms. There were people standing and sitting in every inch available. I was kneeling at the back, and someone was standing over me. I.e. He had fans, but the powers that be didn’t KNOW that.) Being me, and born, congenitally without shame, I then approached him, introduced myself and told him about the shrine to him in my office, next to the writing desk, and the goats I sacrificed daily to his picture, shame about the carpet. He took it in stride, and didn’t seem to think I was a total lunatic, at least considering he initiated a conversation with me later.

When I think of the first sight and the second thoughts, I think of him standing there, evaluating everyone, listening, trying to get inside people’s minds.

I’ve been listening to Heinlein, after reading his bio (And, heavens, the juvenile I’d never read: The Rolling Stones – could be my family talking. No, I’m serious. Scary that. Smaller cast of characters, same repartee) and I find that of course a lot of his experiences made it into the book. Dabs of this, bits of that, scenes recorded indelibly in the node of memory.
We will do that, of course, all of us. How not? They are the things that make us, that compose the personality bit by bit, at the almost molecular level. More than that, we will use the feeling of being there. The fear before engaging in battle. The first time you realized someone was trying to kill you. The first time you faced the possibility someone might kill you but here you would stand and here you would face what might come. The fear from which courage is forged. And more than that – the pity you felt for the first time; the first time you fell in love; your first kiss.

All of these will come back to you when you write – when your character is in the same situation.

But what about the situations you’ve never faced? Above I described the first time you realized someone was trying to kill you. Yep, it’s an experience in my bank of memory (No, nothing paranoid. Someone was shooting at a crowd from an upper floor window. I was in the crowd. Not THAT exciting.) As is the experience of having a weapon pointed at me and choosing not to back down because backing down would have started a rout and increased the chances the weapon would be shot.

I have those experiences, but I realize they’re not common. And what if your character needs it? And what if my character needs experiences I’ve never had? Because characters do, from time to time. Dyce is divorced, with a son. Clearly I’ve never experienced that. Clearly I’ve never been a man, much less a young man who turns into a dragon. Clearly I’ve never faced a lion. And clearly my son has never been an alley cat addicted to beer.

Shouldn’t you write what you know? Of course you should. And the good writers, Pratchett and Heinlein come to mind, know humanity. They know how to untangle the skein of thread that binds us all. They know the truth beneath the passing situations. They have the first sight and the second thoughts.

Those are needed, see. The first sight reveals things as they are meant to appear. The second thoughts reveal things as they are.

Most writers – most of those slogging in the trenches, aspiring to greatness – can do this in varying degrees.

There are two “degrees” that annoy me to the point of rambling incoherence (Yes, like this.) One is the type where the writer chooses not to write anything he doesn’t “Know”. This is usually interpreted as anything he hasn’t lived through and it produces pathetic, over precious, involuted works of quotidian life. Very fine if that’s what you like. It is not my cup of tea. It is not even the foam on my cappuccino. Alternately, there are the people who interpret this as being “Write about what you’ve read about.” The problem is when they’re writing about a gender, an orientation, a class of people, a profession, a political assembly that they don’t belong to/despise/don’t care for, it tends to come across as second hand knowledge, about as flavorful and memorable as sawdust crackers. For examples refer to the vast sea of what I call pseudo redneck sf. You have the uneducated/laborer/artisan as a voice character, but the author never met anyone without three graduate degrees. So the character comes across as either stupid or sluggish or despicable or all three.

Are some people in those groups all three? Oh, undoubtedly. Though to be truly nefarious you need to sharpen those qualities through the application of exquisite education. Trust me. I’m one of them with graduate degrees and worse I run in their circles. But your average laborer is no more likely to be stupid than your average professor. For a given kind of stupidity, they might be less. Less bookish, sure. Less educated, sure. Simple? Moronic? No.

And this is where the first sight and the second thoughts come in handy. I’ve spent any amount of time lurking in public places – and not just university bars – listening to people. In fact, at any party, any diner, any restaurant, any public garden, any sports event, I divide in two. There’s the Sarah that takes part, and the Sarah that listens. And then... there’s the Sarah that thinks. “What would I be like if....”

Am I very good at this? Well, I’m neither Pratchett nor Heinlein, nor even Freer (who has a more varied life experience than most of us) but I try really hard. And if I fall short in how I handle someone, I hope I fail on the side of respect. I.e., I would rather treat my character who isn’t like me with more respect than disdain.

I’m not talking about villains here. We all know about rounding your villains. We’re talking about secondary or even main characters who are utterly different from you.

What would I like you to do? Identify a type/gender/profession of character you’ve never written. Tell me about it in the comments. Try to imagine what you would be like as that person, assuming you have the same intelligence and faculties, just a different starting point. Then go do some rudimentary research and try to write it.

Alternately and as well, feel free to rant about how this is often violated, just use no names or book titles, because I already have enough enemies; or to talk about someone who did this wonderfully. I’ve named my contenders above.


MataPam said...

I really dislike incompetence in a main character. I can think of two right away, one author I simply stopped reading. The other may get dropped soon. In both cases the stories are humerous, but at some point they cross or come close to the line of "This is too stupid for belief. Or even suspension of belief."

No one is competent at everything, but one rarely chooses a career at something one is absolutely no good at, and never gets any better.

This is different than Lois Bujold, who loves to throw her characters into situations for which they have no training. But her characters learn, and by the end are quite good at the job.

Brendan said...

Although you may not have all the experiences necessary to relive a moment and fictionalise it sometimes it is good to get as close as you can get for some added flavour. I am re-reading a long time favourite author(Anne Spencer Parry) who staged her pivotal battle scenes in one book with a re-enactment group to get the feel for how it could play out and sailed aboard the Young Endevour tall ship for another.

The reason I retreated to this bastion of comfort was I had been reading another author whose writing where a character got shanghaied and ended up on a boat rang so false I almost screamed in frustration.

Not everyone can do what Anne did but trying to get those experiences even second hand through other peoples first hand accounts can't but help make your understanding and so writing better.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Lovely post, Sarah.

People will never cease to amaze me. They are like this giant jigsaw puzzle I've been trying to put together my whole life and just when I think I've slotted in the last piece, I discover a new piece and have to work out where it gits!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, I love Bujold's characters.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


If I'm one of the two, be kind and tell me via email... (Though myself, I only consider Dyce impulsive, not stupid.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I read A LOT of biographies. And though I desperately wish to write a pirate saga (I spent a great part of my teen years reading the Adventures of Captain Morgan)I never felt comfortable enough with the idea of the ship itself, and the nautical terms to do it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I think loving people, or at least being very curious towards them makes for my favorite type of writer.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, yeah, what Bujold does is RIGHT because the best way to get the reader to buy into the character/setting is having them grow together into the role. It is also the best way to explore an SF/F world. This is why so many of the old style sf start with the terran ambassador/visitor to the aliens, particularly if the aliens are very odd and/or repulsive/strange. See Left Hand Of Darkness for technique

MataPam said...

Oh, and writing Characters I don't like or understand? Oh, a real Born Again Christian. Male or female. The kind that is dead sure the Earth is 6000 years old, gay marriage will destroy the institution of marriage, and [Insert Politician of Choice] is the AntiChrist.

Honestly Sarah, I don't think I could write such a Character as anything but a stereotyped farce.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Weird Pam, because I could. Mind you, I don't have any of those opinions, but I know several fundamentalists, both on the right and on the left and one of them has a physics degree (No, not that one.) They just arrived at their conclusions by a winding way. But then, in a way, all of us do. I wouldn't write one of them simply because there's no payoff. The right ones will tell me I'm wrong if I portray a lefty and vice-versa. No payoff. Also, none has been called for, so far. I SUPPOSE if I write Miss Honey Childe some of her neighbors will be fundamentalist Christian.Bound to be, just by location.


MataPam said...

I've argued with a few on line. Now I just sit back with total incomprehension as they deny the evidence they're walking around on.

I'm fine with spirituality._The Hogfather_ is probably one of the best examples of something close to my own nebulous philosophy. It's the literalists, that baffle me.

I could probably do a background character, but any page time at all and I'd have to subject him to the wrath of god, via lightening bolt, or possibly, a small meteor.

Kate said...

I don't go out of my way to write any particular "type" of character. They just happen. What I do do, is spend a fair amount of time figuring out the culture my characters are from, and what would likely be normal there/then - someone from a 'shame' culture will see things very differently than someone from a 'guilt' culture, which will be different again than someone from a 'lassez faire' culture.

Thus far it seems to be working...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I am almost mystically religious -- in a way that would drive most people insane.

However, in religion as in politics I believe in letting people make up their own minds. Arguments, sure. Silencing the other side? Never.

However, I don't fight fair and deploy blunt wit at will.

None of which means anything about portraying seriously religious characters. Could I portray a phony? I don't know. Not as Main character. UNLESS he had a good reason for the deception (see The Sixth Column.) For the portraial of a good, sincerely religious person, read Small Gods or Carpe Jugulum

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yep, Kate, you also treat historical characters neither as modern nor as "slow"

Kate said...


Also Slow Train - Howard is a wonderful portrayal of a sincerely religious person, and one from a very fundamentalist flavor of religion at that.

Brendan said...

Getting into the brain of a Flat Earther isn't that hard(it is pretty small after all). I think the three main things to remember when writing is that they see an acceptance of evolution as denial of God, their arguments aren't rational but emotional and they are sincere in their beliefs.

Brendan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brendan said...

A story I read recently that fails the characterisation test was an old Poul Anderson one called The Escape. In it civilization breaks down because suddenly everyone's intelligence is lifted and so no one is willing to do any of the menial work that makes society tick like farming and other such unworthy tasks. The implication was, that most jobs would only be done because people didn't have the mental capacity to do anything else.

And then there was a part I turned down in the school musical. It was the villain role(which wasn't a problem, I played Jud Fry in Oklahoma the following year) in a wannabe Grease knockoff. The problem was he had a level entitlement I couldn't understand. He was the Homecoming King and couldn't handle the idea that the Homecoming Queen wasn't 'his'. They had nothing in common except for their 'status' and he didn't even seem interested in her until she started dating someone else(the Bad boy). The whole idea was so bizzare that I couldn't find my way into his character.

By contrast Jud I could understand. While he too felt an entitlement that didn't exist I could see how at least in his mind he was the hero and deserved whatever he could get. His song Lonely Room is a masterpiece of justification and psycosis.

Synova said...

Someone who has done religious fundamentalists very well is Wen Spencer.

In one of her Ukiah Oregon books (my brain went to bed without me so I don't recall the title... Tainted something) the villains are a cult, the FBI agent is the skeptic, the Dog Warriors have a traditional and profound belief in the soul, and Ukiah is Unitarian.

Even in the case of the cult she asks... but what if you were given real demons to fight? In the end each disparate group is shown to be rational, IMO. (Individuals, maybe less so.)

Also, perhaps surprisingly, I think that John Ringo does more-or-less fundamentalist Christianity quite well.

Synova said...

Brenden, I tend to think of some of the older stuff like the Poul Andersen story as an insight into the ideas that society was working through when they were written. Poul (and I am guessing here, from the brief plot description) was probably making an argument against the idea that menial tasks required or indicated intellectual simplicity. That story about the "unclean" garbage processing caste on a space station and the subsequent shunning of the visitor who unstopped their "drain" and saved them all would probably fall into the same category. I don't know if that one stood the test of time or if it, too, would just seem too silly now.

Brendan said...


You can check it out yourself if you want as it is freely available from feedbooks.

Perhaps a story which is message first and story second is another reason why ultimately it can fail. A reader of a "message" story who doesn't have the perspective to bring the story to life will walk away confused as to what it was trying to do.

Another example from the theatre is a play called "The One Day of the Year". It is about the conflict between father and son over the meaning and symbolism of ANZAC Day. The only problem is that it was written in 1958 and by the time we came to study it at school in the mid 80s everyone's attitude to our remembrance of that day had changed so the positions of both main characters were totally alien to us and that rendered the conflict unintelligible.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Heaven save us from message stories. They not only age worst of all, but you can get the same "happy bump" from reading a blog post that agrees with you -- if you agree with the story -- or the same argh if you disagree. Also, all characters tend to read as fillers.