Thursday, January 22, 2015

Uncertainty/risk in terms of character

We build up our own understanding of risk through experience: how we react to uncertainty/risk and how others react to uncertainty/risk.

So when we look at characters, what experiences do they have with risk/uncertainty, and how can we use our own experiences as writers?

Sorry for another Margaret Atwood quote, but: “Our problem right now is that we're so specialized that if the lights go out, there are a huge number of people who are not going to know what to do. But within every dystopia there's a little utopia.

I’m not really a fan of dystopian books. Part of this is because I prefer personal/intimate character journeys rather than ‘save-the-world’ ones. I’m also not really a fan because dystopian world are often simplified to the point where a blind monkey could poke logic holes all over the place.

Note I said often, not always. I have read a few fabulous dystopian books.

Logic is my thing. It’s how I write (I could probably link 2 dozen+ posts about writing), how I read/edit/critique (and another 2 dozen here), and how I think (seriously, you’re already neck-deep in another nerdy-over-analytical-series-of-posts and you should know I'm prone to this type of behaviour).

Like my favourite writing-group-ism, the “Pizza Popsicle”, I drive everyone crazy with the number of times I ask “why” and "I can't quite imagine that."

And I think a huge part of this is I want to believe. I want to get so caught up in a character or world that I lose the impulse to ask “why” and just live in the story.

So bringing my point back around again (darn you, shiny tangents…)

The Margaret Atwood quote is about uncertainty/risk. If the lights went out, for those to whom that was an ‘uncertainty’ would have no way of managing/planning, and that situation would be a dystopia. For those to whom the lights going out was a ‘risk’, for them, because they have the ability to manage/plan, that situation could be their own utopia. 

Hey, what an awesome chance to whip out a shotgun and loot/pillage or kill that neighbour who always lets his dog poop on your lawn.

So, why am I talking about dystopian literature and Margaret Atwood when I promised a post about characters?

Well, because I think that can be the basis for how you position your main character within your world (and I’m not specifically meaning sci-fi/fantasy, I’m being inclusive of contemporary/our world/etc as well when I use this term).

Zombies attack. For your main character, is this situation ‘risk’ or ‘uncertainty’?

Your MC’s brother overdoses. Is this situation a ‘risk’ or an ‘uncertainty’?

Your magician got cursed and now his wand is a self-aware, snarky pit-viper (with its full latent magic).

Your orphan shark MC has just been adopted by a vegan parrot fish couple.

All of these characters in all of these situations could react in an innumerable number of ways depending on what their background is, but switching it from 'risk' to 'uncertainty' ups the stakes.

When you get to the climax and your magician is facing a demon-princess transmogrified into a giant hydra, and has to convince his wand-turned-pit-viper to help when it would rather slither into a cool, dank hole or sunbathe on a sunny rock, as a reader, I want to believe it when your magician pulls a badly whittled flute from his robes and hypnotizes that pit-viper into saving his ass…

…but if you haven’t lead me to believe it’s logical, that he can whittle a flute, that he has past experiences with hypnotizing snakes, or fighting giant hydras, I’m not going to believe it. Sure, he can flub up every one of those things along the way, but he has to gain experience in those areas.

The trick of convincing a reader into believing something as absurd as that (by the way, that pit-viper story idea is now copyrighted*… so no stealing) is possible.

No matter what you throw at your character, there has to be a balance between ‘uncertainty’ and ‘risk’.

Well, no, I’m going to amend that. I think the inciting incident can be an ‘uncertainty’, and other events/challenges in the story can also be 'uncertainties', but the climax has to be a ‘risk’. The character must have the experience to manage/plan to take down that giant hydra. He can’t suddenly just take off his shoe and throw it in the air in the hopes that the hydra will choke on it… if that hydra does choke, or the magician suddenly becomes enlightened (even though he has never meditated a day in his life) and can cast killer-destructo-spells without his pit-viper-wand, then I’m throwing your book across the room.

Okay, not really, because I’d probably be reading it on my Kindle.

There must be a logical progression/absorption of knowledge/experience.

And I’m not just talking about big stuff, I’m talking about little stuff too.

Y’know I will pick apart every word in every sentence (which is why I don’t do line edits). One thing I am particularly anal about is are *how* characters view the world. Metaphors/similes that are out of character, phrases ‘too old’ or ‘too young’, observations that are ‘too juvenile’ or ‘too self-aware’, I’m going to take those apart really fast.

A character in a sci-fi story is probably not going to compare a distant planet or technology to something common from Victorian England, just as a character who has grown up in the mountains isn’t going to describe things with visuals from, say, the ocean, or the plains. Your seventeen-year-old valley girl who grew up in the city and is into shopping and makeup won’t compare the sound of her heels to gunfire and the sound of her friends talking shouldn't be compared to barnyard animals. Those things are not in her field of focus.

People talk differently, depending on their background/experience, and so should characters.

And this is another way to think about/write an authentic voice, by knowing what your character’s field of focus is.

I’m not saying I an expert, I am in no way claiming I’m right or I never make mistakes, but this is one of the things I work towards (read: obsess over) in my own writing. Heck, my own taste in characters is pretty questionable...

(seriously... I'm not even going to bother linking because there are too many examples I could use here)

How your character understands the world and makes choices is based on their past experiences. 

You’ve heard the line, “To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

So what tool** is your character?

And what do the problems you (the writer) throw at them look like? Are they all nails (risk), or did you throw a few screws and a staple in there (uncertainty)?

If you're having a problem with tension, maybe your 'hammer' character has been given all 'nails' and every problem is too easily solved.

* Wouldn't that magician story make an awesome bedtime story?
** Hahaha, I totally called your character a tool! (can you tell I'm over-tired?)


  1. "And that is how the magician beat the curse," Charlie says, "by convincing the viper they were a garter snake."
    Jay waits until she closes the book. "This is about Honcho, isn't it?"
    "It's not about the wandering magician --."
    "But it is." Jay's grin is huge and triumphant. "He was alone, and then you travelled with him like a friend-boss!"
    "You're saying I am a pit viper?" Charlie says carefully.
    "Only sometimes," he says, sticking out his tongue.

    1. *snort*

      And you know all those MA quotes were for you, right?

  2. In seriousness, interesting post and much to digest. I've never done a true zombie story (or a dystopia) often for somewhat the same reason. The zombie story is functionally that of the 1%: you're the lucky ones, and everyone else becomes a zombie or is devoured by them. I'm not sure too many stories frame it in quite those terms.
    Also, generally, I am not a fan of fiction that leaves you wanting to slit your own wrists and the like. The world is shit enough without writing fiction designed to make it seem even worse, so dystopias tend not to appeal to me, and most post-apocalyptic stuff is the same -- often because the latter tend to make no sense at all. Also because survival in such stories is generally a case of who is the bigger asshole: it's about the myth of the American Triumphant Individual, but told in a way that nerfs any notion of heroism the concept might have.

    1. But to be that 1% (I'm talking zombies) those characters have to come to the zombie infestation with experience to plan/love through it (so, zombies attacking are a risk, not an uncertainty). I don't think I'd consider that *luck*

      And aren't all stories about being that 1%? Surviving/Winning/etc? No matter if it's taking down the evil dark lord or the nerdy guy getting the girl he likes?

      But I do tend to prefer that 1% survival story about being about surviving oneself ;)

    2. Hmm, good point. Technically, in a zombie story the 1% (human survivors) survive due to skill/knowledge -- so my comparison doesn't really work at all, since the conflict of the story is often 'do we help other survivors or not even if it may weaken/limit/kill us?' Often, perhaps sanely, the answer is no. In this case it's more being part of that 1% boils down to skill rather than luck.

      And yeah: I think it definitely works better if the focus is surviving yourself. and the kind of person those narratives can force you to become.

      Hm. I'd argue that a lot of stories aren't about the 1% (in terms of success or otherwise), mostly because if you don't get the girl someone else will. I do think a lot of Dark Lord style fantasy fails in that by making the MC into a Unique Snowflake though I am not sure how many of them get meta over that....

    3. I don't usually talk about books I read/have read online, but a few 'survival' type books I've really enjoyed, because they are more about 'personal' survival are: 'Not a Drop to Drink', Mindy McGinnis, the 'Chaos Walking' series, Patrick Ness, and 'Ship Breaker', Paolo Bacigalupi

      I think they're all really well written from a realistic perspective. None of the main characters feel like allegorical figures, which is what that 'Unique Snowflake' 'chosen-one' stories tend to become -> more about 'good vs evil' and moral lessons than a story with real characters.

      There are different ways to survive, and those come down to the choices the characters make. That's the interesting part... the choices.

      Perhaps my explanation wasn't clear... but I think all stories are about that 1%. A story where the odds are completely in the main character's favour would be completely boring. The more challenges, the less likely the success, the sweeter the victory, yes? Even if the victory is something character-growthy like coming to terms and seeking help for depression.

      Though sometimes the suicide at the end is the 'win' (yes I'm a Kafka fan)

    4. Ah! Good point, and yeah. The 'chosen one/snowflake' stuff does have something to it, though. Some day I might figure out a story where the character is convinced they ARE one and sees the world in good/evil when it really isn't that at all. Though in that respect it would probably just be a story about someone on the far side of either political spectrum, come to think of it... heh.

    5. Haha. Yup, 'heros' are as bad as 'villains' when you get down to the psychology ;)

      What's interesting though is how eager we often are, as readers, to cram interesting characters into those allegorical labels. Perhaps our brains were warped by too much analysis of 'Lord of the Flies' in school?

      As soon as you start stripping away the character so it fits into that neat little box... well, stories just start to get boring :p


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