Friday, 20 April 2012

On Using Your Noodle

Dear Readers, -or, you know, Pete-
I must apologise for not having posted in a while.  I have, of course, been inundated with mail crying out for the return of A Niche for Neil and there has even been reports over the tears at the prospect of my no longer blogging.*cough*liar*cough* Well, reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated - I am still here, alive and well.  I've just been, erm, well, busy. Last Friday there was a party and the week before was Good Friday, (and Easter really snook up on me this year.) Now of course I could've updated in the middle of the week but I'm a stickler for consistency... and I had nothing decent enough to post with... Anyway, apologies over, enough excuses, let's just move on, shall we? Please?

Here, dear readers do we now begin with this week's topic: *ridiculous, unnecessary fanfare* Writing What You Know
This week's topic was actually inspired by stalking people on Twitter a comment I read, somewhere online, that was written by the most estimable Aaron Diaz, (of hit webcomic Dresden Codak fame): 
"It's bad form to have protagonists who are just carbon copies of yourself. Part of good writing is putting yourself in someone else's shoes." 
Now, it occurs to me that there's also a very similar line in the good ol' book To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus Finch gives advice to the tune of 'walk a day in someone else's shoes, then you'll get to know them.'  The point I want to look at though, is not just plain empathy, which I encourage people to try out as the philanthrope I am, *cough* but I want to look briefly at the call that there is on writers to go that step further in understanding people, and then in turn creating believable characters.  

You see it's all well and good to have a really great plot to your narratives but if your characters are vain, vacuous, whiny, and inconsistent, you're likely to lose a lot of readers; or the ones who care about good writing at least.  And yes we could debate character-driven plots over plot-driven characters until the cows come home, (perhaps someday I will) but the point is, if your characters aren't decent enough to begin with, there's no point using them in anything.  
 (As a quick interlude I want make a couple of quick side-points:
1. Me and Aaron Diaz aren't bros, he doesn't even know I exist, I just wanted to quote him. I'm not trying to claim a connection or name-drop.
2. With all this talk of horrible characters you might well think I'm attacking something in particular. Well, that person/book/series you're thinking of, you know the one I mean, I'm not. Maybe some day I will thoroughly rip it a new one as I would like to but right here and now: no. I don't need the flamers and I don't even have the publicity to make it worthwhile...)
Right, now, where was I? 

There is a call on every writer to go beyond 1D, plain, boring, or stupid characters and create people who are functional, usable and perhaps even likeable so their writing can really feel like a success. I, of course, can't claim to be perfect on this point but I do try.  As the quote says, it's bad form to copy yourself into your work - it's even one of the cardinal sins of fan-fiction, that wonderful land of self-indulgence! (Unless you're actually going for true-to-life, semi/autobiographical stuff, of course.)  Copy-pasting yourself isn't going to get you anywhere because, well, you're you and I'm me.  We go to fiction for slightly unreal, perhaps larger-than-life people who we probably won't find in our day-to-day lives.  And besides which - if you're writing a universe where your protagonist is the hero who fights an evil wizard/alien/pirate/ninja, etc. then you have to be real and be stuck with your own limitations on how to wield a sword/blaster gun/cutlass/katana, etc. Be honest, how many of you out there have received a full lifetime's worth of training in all of these things?  So if you're own life is limited, then how can you use you?  You've got to go that step further in thinking about other people and how they live. breathe, behave.

We can't use 'carbon-copies' of ourselves because we're not all we want to be, so then we have to find someone who could do that job.  I'm not necessarily talking about going out there and finding a wizard and asking about doing your work-experience with them or anything but a little bit of research, the right comprehensive kind, can go a long way.  (Though the image tickles me a little.)  If we take that step to understand the world we've created, and the kind of people that inhabit it, then we'll find that the characters, effectively the tools we've got to work with on whatever we're writing, are of a much better quality.  They apply themselves to the world around them better, they say things that you wouldn't, they have strengths and weaknesses that are right for themselves.  
Now my advice on this point is to hit the books.  Where you can and it's necessary, do the homework on your world and what people can be like in those situations.  (Or maybe just people in general if that'd be more help.)  The other thing to is to sit down, as part of your planning, or your editing process, and sketch/diagram/work out who these people are that you're subjecting to your whim.  Because, let's face it, you're still calling the shots on the whole thing; you're just doing it better.

But there are dangers, 'cons' if you'd prefer, to this angle.  Too much research can make your writing horrible and can create 'cold genius' narratives.  By this I mean: you know the theory and details of your world or the characters but you don't feel them or how things should work.  A few months back I started a book that was supposed to be the novelisation of a videogame.  Of course I'm not stupid enough to actually name the author or the series of game here because I don't want to be sued for what I'm about to say.  Namely that the book was just plain awful.  There was backstory to the characters that the game had not previously provided but there was no real connection on their actual thoughts/feelings.  Or if there was, it was done really badly and in a way that didn't live up the promised excellence that the author's reputation seemed to describe.  Additionally, the novel and game covered certain details of geography and history that I think most people would definitely have to research and boy did it show.  I came away from reading the first couple of chapters, which I had placed a lot of hopeful expectation on, with the feeling that the author had simply had a sheet of historical crib-notes in one hand and a brief description of the characters in the other while he dictated the narrative to his PA.  He knew his facts, but he had, in my opinion, no feel for his characters or their world.  
'Cold genius' pieces are horrible and yes they're probably written to a slightly higher quality than their opposite - the 'Unconsidered zealot' works that may have lots of enthusiasm but have had so little actual work put into them that their characters are vacuous and one-dimensional.  The former tend to just feel like textbooks that didn't quite get picked up by proper, academic publishers while the latter just read like trashy mush that the publisher was high when they read them.

So, of course, we come again to the middle-ground.  Truly the most horrific position on the battlefield but very much where things get done.  Someone quite wise once said "everything in moderation" and I think trying to keep the balance on these things is the right thing to do.  We need to go beyond our own experience and characters, but we don't want to stray and get lost under mountains of cold facts either.  
Now, before I finish, let me say that of course the unique quality of our own personal, individual lives has some worth; and yes, by all means, if you can tap into something wonderful and insightful that no one else could give a little of that in your writing and let that shine through, but you cannot be the whole matter with which you write, you have to make your worlds, your characters something else.  Love them, cherish them, but don't forget that they can't simply be you.  Listen to the call to create something else, something different from yourself, to go beyond normal, familiar, personal.  Try things out.

Until next time, 

Neil F