Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It's all about the Benjamins, baby

"It" is also all about the every-other-name-in-the-baby-books. Some recent spelunking into the wild world of my inner psyche has revealed that:

1. Good stories are made out of characters;


2. Settings, objects, and invented words and/or concepts are not characters.

This striking difference was illuminated to me the other day when I sat down to write a story about "death-cults, headbangers, and Sodomites," in a near-future where food distribution networks have broken down resulting in partial-geddon and demanding the clever use of electric trains for the sake of society's (ill-)health. Christian cannibals? Check. Chinese Autopsy fans? Check. Mid-western altruists? Check.

Although this scheme may seem loaded with characters, it's actually based primarily on ideas, and consequently entirely hollow. The only characters in this outline are "characters," the kind of people you refer to derisorily. "Jack? Yeah, what I character. I hear he eats his wife's belly-button lint." It's the idea of the character, rather than their compelling force as real creatures, that makes the story spin.

Compare these fiends of my imagination against an idea I later derived from a dream: two monstrous figures, limping through a jungle, helping a third, smaller, equally nefarious being to escape some kind of bondage. Obviously, the story I describe in the first example sounds fantastically more exciting (to me, anyway). But the characters, though vivid, have no actual story to tell; they only have traits to display. On the other hand, the latter example suggests beings who are swept up in some kind of action, and hence have motives, desires, disappointments, and consequences bound up in their characterization.

The second story as written? Far superior to the first. I'd still like to write a story about all those inane subjects mentioned in the first instance, but I'll have to fashion some more authentic characters--as opposed to characters--before I can manage something that is actually readable.



  1. I've found that Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert Charles Wilson are some of the best sf&f writers at characterization and character development. You should check them out.

  2. I've been meaning to add Le Guin to my "reading queue." Any particular novels or collections you can suggest?


  3. Ben, definitely give Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint a gander, if you haven't ever done so. It's full of brilliant ways to forge lively characters. In particular it stresses the importance of motivation, both conscious and unconscious. Fascinating read.

  4. Her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is quality stuff. It's in the collection "The Wind's Twelve Quarters".