Two links to Begin the day:
First, Another mistborn Annotation: Chapter Thirty-two
Second, a link to another Cool artist who likes my books! This isn’t the same fan artist as last week, but someone new. I think they may be posting some art of my work eventually. If they do, I’ll put up another link.
Third, here’s our feature:
Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use.)
#7: Characters who think too much like we do
This is a tough one to talk about, since there are a lot of different aspects to this concept, and they’re of varying important to me. I’ll look at three ways writing characters like ourselves can undermine our stories, yet explain why it is that we often use them anyway.
We are human beings, and as such, we are confined and limited by our experience. We can really claim to ‘know’ very few things, particularly when it comes to how others feel and think. A writer learns to approximate and guess, and I think this is one of the great arts of a novelist: The ability to write about what you DON’T know. I’ve never been a sixteen year old girl, yet a wrote a whole trilogy from the viewpoint of one.
And yet, because of our limitations, it’s very difficult for us to avoid writing characters who sound like ourselves. More than this, it’s very difficult to avoid writing protagonists who think like we do, and then writing villains who oppose those thoughts. A religious person, I think, is more likely to write an atheist as a villain–where an atheist might similarly put zealot believers in the roles of all of their villains. Along these same lines is a lesser sin–the sin, particularly in fantasy, of making characters and society act like ones from a modern day counterpart. I’ll talk about all of these issues separately.
The first is, I think, the most difficult to deal with. How do we stop our characters from sounding like us? Each character I write is, in a way, a different piece or aspect of myself. This makes it very difficult when writing novels to make characters that aren’t repeats of characters I’ve written before. Yet, I think that by pushing ourselves, writers CAN innovate and stretch themselves. Some of us, however, tend to get lazy in this area. In some long series, I see authors taking less and less concern for this, and writing characters that grow more and more similar in voice and action. It’s bad storytelling, but it’s something that a whole lot of pros do.
The greater sin of the three is, in my opinion, writing villains who think differently from yourself. Now, this isn’t a hardfast rule, of course. I disagree with people who murder others, but I’m not going to force myself to avoid making a murderer as a villain. However, if I were to make every villain in my books an atheist, while all of my heroes are staunch theists–and then are always proven right over those darn godless atheists…well, I think I’d be undermining the story itself. Instead of telling a story, I begin to tell a parable which only expresses my own limited worldview.
For this reason, I think it’s an oft-ignored element of good storytelling to try making your heroes see the world very differently from yourself, and an element of bad storytelling to always make your heroes view the world–even view morality–in the same way you do. It’s tough, sometimes, to stretch in this way. I’m an optimist, and so writing pessimistic characters is tough for me–particularly doing so, then not having them get proven wrong by the narrative. It’s tough for me to create characters who don’t see the same way I do in ‘charged’ moral issues, like homosexuality or abortion. And yet, my favorite authors are the ones who can present characters on both sides of arguments like this, and have them both be sympathetic. This begins to achieve what I see as one of the grand purposes of fiction: To show through sympathetic characters that there are those who see differently from yourself, but who are still intelligent, capable people. By including someone who disagrees with you, I don’t think you necessarily advocate their position–you only advocate understanding them. (Some readers have trouble with this distinction, however.)
It’s very hard to do any of this without getting preachy or undermining your story. Yet, I think this a corner we shouldn’t cut. We may not achieve it perfectly, but in striving, I think we will enhance our stories. I know a lot of authors do this anyway, and not all of them are lazy–they simply believe that having a message, at the cost of their story, is a worthy price. I disagree.
The final aspect of the three I listed above is that of making characters who live in a past setting, but who think like modern people. I’ll raise my hand high as someone who is very guilty of this, particularly in Elantris. I’ve tried to walk the balance better in my later books, but to be honest, I’m not sure which is ‘worse’ storytelling. To have characters who act somewhat like modern ones, thereby undermining the culture and history of your world slightly. Or, to have characters won don’t think like modern characters–but who by acting in the ways they do, become difficult to sympathize with or relate to, and thereby undermine the narrative in other ways. No easy answer on this one, though I do think it’s something we should consider.
We’ll move on to #6 tomorrow! Again, please forgive awkwardness in language above. It’s a rough draft, still.