Friday, September 6, 2013

On Characters....

On Characters…

People can’t see other people well. They walk through life with a series of caricatures and stereotypes that only gain three dimensional once they get to know them. It is a slow process, that blossoms with assumptions being overturned and pleasant and uncomfortable surprises making the person more human. This is the experience of interacting with people in everyday life.

Interacting with characters in a book is the same way. 

You have the stereotype that you encounter briefly. Not much else is shown. And the characters even acts accordingly. Then they do one thing you don’t expect. And it is endearing and humanizing. And the character begins to reveal more about themselves, becomes fully three dimensional. 

As their setting, their choices, their words, and their blank space begins to inform them, they become fully realized. But the whole process has to begin in the passing of a stranger on the sidewalk or an overheard conversation on the bus.

The interaction begins with the readers encounter of a stranger.

So in “Water Thief” who are the caricatures and stereotypes we are introduced to? There is the caricature of the overbearing mother in law and the disgruntled daughter in law. This is a common trope, and everyone easily takes a side. 

There is a the caricature of the teenage boy and the girl he has a crush on, an easily identifiable situation. 

There is the caricature of the lowly employee who has to do his boss’s job, especially when its something that terrifies him (like public speaking). 

There is the caricature of the businesswoman who has set her life on hold while her irresponsible sister lives her life without regard. 

There is the stereotype of the community, divided among racial lines. There is the stereotype of the native american’s aggressively demanding reparation from the white man. There are the stereotype of the western cowboy who is macho and doesn't give a shit about anyone and is maybe a bit racist. And then there is the stereotype of the bleeding heart liberal who just wants to help everyone and spend money on everything but who has no solid concept of what the repercussions of their actions would be. There’s the stereotype of the nerdy college geek who tinkers with things but isn't physical in anyway.

So these are the strangers we meet first. 

And at first these are the roles we see them play, as readers they are strangers and all we can do is identify roles that we traditionally are use to seeing, and identifying with one side of a conflict. 

This means in the conflict of the mother and daughter in law, either siding with the outsider trying to get in, or with the insider protecting their things from the encroaching outsider. 

In the example of the boy and girl we see the admirer and the admired, the one who can’t help falling in love and the one who can’t help being loved.

In the example of the sisters, it’s the responsible one who sacrifices her happiness for others, and the one who just wants to be happy and doesn't understand why the first makes her own life miserable. 

Everyone has been on one side of another of these divides. By making their interactions visceral and honest, people will immediately take a side. And that is how they become emotionally connected to the character.

Once they are emotionally connected, it’s time to introduce the rest of the cast. 

In the world of the mother and daughter in law, it’s the son/husband and how he responds to the two. In the world of the boy and girl, it’s the other suitors. In the world of the sisters, its their mutual acquaintances. Essentially anyone who has to take a side in the conflict, and whose side they take. This draws circles of inclusion and exclusion. 

The reader, now identifying with one side of the conflict, draws a circle of who they agree with and disagree with. They are now fully committed to the story and the character’s progression.

Now is the time to introduce the surprising reaction. 

Basically, make the character break their stereotypical reaction to things. Reveal a hidden side of them that goes against the grain of their caricature. This is the first hint of three dimensional. Return them to the caricature immediately after. They show a brief glimpse of more. 

Then hide it again. 

This makes reader suspect that there might be more going on with the character.

The surprise for the mother and daughter in law would be if they agreed about something, possible to one or both’s shock. Or if one of them publicly supported the other in a way that no one was expecting. And then immediately afterward, hostilities between the two resume. 

For the boy and girl, it would be the boy losing interest in her. Or possibly her expressing interest back at him, for a moment. Something changes the paradigm and he no longer admires her. Maybe he gets the chance to see her naked, or something similar, and he refuses. But then it goes back to his daydreams/masturbation about her. 

For the sisters it would be the high strung one doing something artistic, or the artistic one taking out a bank loan or something banal like that. 

The point is that there is a moment when we realize maybe this character isn't just their caricature. 

Then it returns to the stereotype. 

For a while.

The reactions of the individuals in the circle of inclusion and exclusion is important, when the character’s moment of surprise happen. This affirms some in the circle and reveals some who maybe do not belong in the circle. 

This either means the reader weeds them out, and its good if the character affirms this by weeding them out of the circle, or the reader is just suspicious of them, which is then good if the character doesn't affirm the reader’s suspicion. 

This creates tension.

So basically when the family sees the mother and daughter in law reacting nicely to each other, some will approve, some will be suspicious of one or the other. And some will not care. This will cause some to be suspicious in whether the characters should be trusting them.

At this point I start revealing more about the various internal motivations, fears, repressions, et al. 

This is where the inflation of the character takes place. These internal things have to be referenced a few times at surprise moments for the sake of continuity. 

And the characters becoming aware of and choosing to deal with or ignore the problems is how character development happens. Development I can do. Even the exposition I can do, as long as there is the initial few surprises to make the expanding of the characters feel fluid. 

The hardest thing I struggle with at this time is the initial caricatures. 

I feel like I want to inject too much of the exposition right off the bat. To have full, three dimensional characters from the get go. 

But that’s not how it works. 

A plot is delivered slowly, over time, in a series of progressive revelations. 

A setting is best revealed slowly, in concrete images with strong connections, possibly over time. 

A character is best revealed first as a stereotype, and then by slowly revealing different facets of the character. 

So, the hardest part becomes holding back at first. Letting the character be a stereotype. 

A caricature.

A one dimensional thing. 

Once again, we return to the Delphic Maxims. 

Nothing in Excess.

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