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Feb 28, 2012

Character Based Stories

Coming soon: Anna Karenina, Zombie-Vampire Threesome
I write genre fiction mostly, but I read much more widely. It's a danger to read only in your own genre. It leads to a narrowing of walls and eventually a sense of being trapped and bored. Also, reading an unfamiliar genre is like traveling to a foreign country. You never learn to love your homeland so well as when you are abroad.

Recently, in a writer's group I belong to, there was a discussion around the question, What is 'Character Fiction' and how is different than 'Plot Fiction' or some other kind of fiction? It goes without saying that any time you ask a group of writers to define something, they will pour out loving new editions to the dictionary, with all the connotations, denotations, cicurmstantiations, transubstantiations and exceptions they can collectively envision, expand on and create, so by the end of the discussion it will be agreed that under the right circumstances, "character" can sometimes mean "things you do with a lawyer and an elephant while trapped in an elevator," even if that makes no actual sense. Imaginative people will find the one unique instantiation in which it makes sense.

(It was for this reason that I often flunked simple reading comprehension tests in elementary school. The question: "Can a fish ride a wagon?" would provoke me to envision the many, many paths leading to a fish riding in a wagon, so my answer was always, "Yes, if..." The correct answer was always, "No.")

So I shouldn't have been surprised that the discussion wound up at the agreement that EVERY type of fiction is Character Based Fiction (Yes, if...), because after all, every fiction has characters in it, right? Indiana Jones is a character. Therefore Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is Character Based Fiction.

His therapy sessions just as interesting as Woody Allen's.

The correct answer is No.

I've been thinking about this as I plot out the later novels in The Unfinished Song. Character growth is extremely important to me in this series. Each character has his or her own arc, issues, weaknesses, etc. There's one supporting character who is dear to me (aside from Dindi), and I need her to do two things. One is simply grow as a person by facing her greatest weakness. The other is (possibly) lead some dudes into battle. The battle against the weakness is internal and the other battle is very much external. Ideally, they will play off each other nicely. But I have to be honest and say, What character weakness would work best with someone trying to lead dudes into battle against Lady Death? That's the clue that in my story, plot (and theme) are more important than character. If I were writing true Character Based Fiction, it would be the other way around. I would decide on what her personal issues were first, and then pick a vocation or circumstance or location that would expose her.

This can be done crudely or subtly. In Indiana Jones, for example, there's a snake pit to be crossed. So it's a great idea to make Indy afraid of snakes. It's pretty weak as weaknesses go, but it humanizes him a bit... he does have some fears. And guess what...he has to cross the pit anyway. Because we couldn't see his courage if he didn't.

But wait!

Doesn't this may mean that the story is all about the growth of the Character, about Indy overcoming his fear of snakes?

The correct answer is No.

Because if the plot called for a pit of scorpions instead, you could just as easily make Indy's fear be about scorpions. Or heights. But probably not about bunnies. (Unless you are Monty Python.) Because fear of snakes and scorpions is understandable, it's visceral, it's something you would count on to keep grave-robbers and heretics out of your booby-trapped, treasure-filled tome. If Indy were afraid of something ordinary, unless it were played strictly for a running gag, it would take too much time from the main story to explain why he has such a weird hang-up and explore how he overcomes it. That wouldn't leave enough story-space for him to take a roller-coaster ride on the runaway mining car. Hello! Prioritize.

For instance, the heroine of A Secret Sign of My Own avoids intimacy by eating soap whenever things go too well on a date. (This among her many, many other problems.) This is pretty weird. The character would be too bizarre, and too craven to relate to if the author did not spend so much time letting us get to know the many facets of her personality and her personal history. That's the other thing about Character Based Fiction. You have more leeway to have unlikable characters. If you do it right, the reader will still like them...even learn to love them. In my genre, that's a lot harder to pull off, simply because I don't have the story-space to dedicate to letting my readers be completely intimate with my characters.

An example is a supporting character named Gwenika. She has some issues. She hurts herself; she trusts the wrong kind of guys. If she were a character in literary fiction, I could spend pages hinting at her childhood with a bitter, overprotective mother and a seemingly perfect older-sister, I could go into more detail about what she does to sabotage herself, and I think the reader would know her much better, and perhaps be more forgiving of her sometimes less than heroic qualities. But there's also war and revenge and taboos and traveling and healing to do, so I show her as best I can in the context of the forward-moving plot. Some readers like her; some find her tiresome. That's just the price of the trade-offs that have to be made between forestaging plot and forestaging character.

She also likes to knit.

Because, yes, every book must be driven, in some sense, by the characters, their needs, goals and weaknesses, even if the author only realizes what those need to be after deciding the plot. And if the most Character Based Fiction needs some external action to hang on, even if it's just standing by a table, willing a phone to ring which never does. Every story will have to prioritize, and you're never going to find the One True Perfect Balance for all books and all eternity.

But can you find the perfect balance for this book, for your book, here, now?

The correct answer is Yes. If.

*  *  *

Quick update on Wing!

The Unfinished Song is twelve books, but there are story arcs within that, so you could also look at it as a series of 4 trilogies. They all end on cliff-hangers except the the finale of the series, so that's no help to you.  :)   The reason this is relevant, is that I realized I have to resolve certain issues with Blood (Book 6), the sequel to Wing, before I can be sure Wing is done. I'm dying to rush through, but I am resisting that temptation. I hate it when books later in a series start to degrade in quality; I don't want that to happen because I've been hasty or careless. The overall story arc is secure, but it's the little details I have a hard time keeping consistent. (Did X happen before Y, or vice versa?) My editor is a great help to me, but there are some questions only I can answer.

I imagine as the series goes on, these quirky details build up and that's why authors have to work harder and harder to keep consistent and on track. I vow to do my best.

There are a lot of juicy scenes in Wing and Blood and I savor them as I write. All I can do is hope that you will too, and will agree that the wait was worth it when I'm done.

The good news is that while you wait, there is still time to get Wing for free by signing up for my newsletter.  And for readers new to the series, either email me or visit Amazon to read the first book for free too!


Charmaine Clancy said...

Have popped over and downloaded The Unfinished Song... pretty cover!
How are you finding the free aspect? Do you think it will help increase interest? Curious because I'm trying a few promotional ideas with my new book MY ZOMBIE DOG, such as giveaways etc.
Sounds like you're working hard on that series!

Domey Malasarn said...

What a fantastic post, Tara Maya! This was really good for me to read. I do agree with you, even though sometimes I'll start to justify things in an unhelpful way. For me, when I'm writing, the thing that helps me to be character driven is to throw away the idea of a neat or planned ending. I try and create characters who seem to be self-propelled, and their own actions usually make the story messier and messier by the end. Sometimes I'm lucky and the ending works. Most of the times I try to make the rest of the story as strong as I can so that people forgive the bad ending!

Tara Maya said...

Thank you, Charmaine! The title of your book sounds charming. It made me laugh. Freebies work well, though expect delayed gratification.

Tara Maya said...

Domey, thank you. I think you make a good point, although I'm coming at it from the other angle. I have the ending which is already in place, and I can't simply wander off into a different ending. In this sense, it's somewhat like the ending of a Romance. A romance is character based, in a sense, but subordinate to the HEA (happily ever after). The interest comes in learning how these particular characters, with these particular misunderstandings, will express their love. When Romances fail it's often because the HEA is so obviously tacked on; the characters have done nothing to earn it.

I read an interesting quote about ending in media res, which I plan to explore more in a later blog post.

Unknown said...

Your books are amazing!