Category Archives: character

Character (part 1) – Why do you exist?

And we’re finally back with another polemic!

But first, I’m going to talk about my cat.

I haz a Facebook page too.

This is Graeme Riley, Ace of Cats, AKA Rockstar, AKA Station Cat. He’s about 12 years old, and we inherited him from a previous owner who was a massive douchehat. Graeme is fearless, adventurous and an absolute slut for attention and affection. He hangs out at the local train station during the morning and evening rush hours, whoring himself out for pats and snacks. He likes meat, but not as much as he likes chocolate and ice cream. When he purrs the sound gets caught in his throat and turns into a hack. Last month he took it upon himself to wander to the other side of the suburb, leading to a desperate jog during my day off to collect him from a good Samaritan before he decided to play in traffic some more. He’s the greatest cat in the world, and everyone who’s met him adores him.

He’s also a degenerate sex offender who drags towels, knitted items and underwear into the hallway at 2am and rubs his technically-neutered groin against them while yowling in either ecstasy or self-loathing. Sometimes he drags clothing items through the cat door to ravage them in the yard, or across the street, and then ditch them to be found later or lost forever. The beanie I bought last month vanished less than a week later, and I suspect it is buried in his secret fuckpit to be occasionally dug up and screamingly humped in some kind of feline recreation of The Silence of the Lambs.

I bring up this loveable knitwear-rapist because he’s something of a character, and this is the first of a three-part series about what I see as the role of character in fiction, specifically in prose. A lot of these ideas started percolating in my head during the Continuum panel on RPGs and storytelling, where I often found myself saying that strong characters were more important to the experience of play and story than things like rules or plot.

I still stand by that, but I want to mix it in with one of my weird theoretical absolutes about writing and narrative, which on the face of it contradicts what I just said.

Here’s my position statement, which is bound to raise a few hackles:

Characters should exist to serve a narrative, rather than narratives existing to serve a character.

If you’re scratching your head at that, I’m not surprised, because it’s a concept I’m struggling to articulate clearly, particularly if I don’t want to come off as decrying stuff as Bad Wrong Fun.

Let’s try it this way. Characters are a means, rather than an end, and they’re a means to reaching a strong narrative that draws the reader in. But it’s too easy to fall in love with a character, because they’re interesting and multi-faceted and have so much potential, and to forget the fact that that character needs to be part of a story, to face conflict, to be part of a narrative in order to have any point at all.

Pure logic helps us here, because narratives can exist without characters – science gives us many examples, from the creation of an ecosystem to the death of a star – but characters can’t exist without narratives. Sure, you can come up with a character concept, flesh it out with personality and traits and artwork, but without some kind of way of communicating and demonstrating that character, it doesn’t exist in anyone’s head except the creator’s – and if the only point of that communication is ‘hey, here’s this neat character’, no-one’s going to care. You need a context, you need a story, you need a reason to care; you need a what happens next?, and that comes through a narrative.

To take it back to the beginning, I think that a story about Graeme isn’t as interesting as a story involving Graeme, because one’s an anecdote about a cat, and the other is (or at least might be) a narrative about various things, with breadth and body, and a cat eating ice-cream and molesting cardigans in the centre of that narrative, helping it to move forward. I can tell you that he’s a swell cat, and the people at the train station can tell you he’s a swell cat, but until he gets involved in a story, until there’s a point to me describing his frottage-filled friendliness to you, all you’re going to hear is blah blah blah this cat’s great, and that’s fundamentally not that interesting.

This is also why I can’t generally connect with prequels, and even less with fanfic, because those stories are (almost) all about exploring the character above all else, and have a narrative centred around that, where conflict is reduced and where the circular point of reading about the character is just reading about the character. It’s a narrative that points back at the character as its reason to exist, and for me that’s pointing in the wrong direction.

At this point, anyone who knows me or anything about me is thinking: ‘Hang on, you practically worship the character of Batman, so how can you go around saying characters aren’t important?’ (Which I’m not saying, but it’s an understandable misreading.)

My biggest role model. Probably explains a lot.

Well, I could say that serial superhero comics are a different beast to straight prose, one where characters are often more important that the stories they appear in, and perhaps that’s a problem with that genre/medium mix. But that’s a copout (or at least a subject for another time). Better to say that there’s a reason why Batman’s my favourite character – he appears in a lot of stories that are just goddamn fantastic narratives, with themes and pacing and conflict, in which Batman’s successes have to be fought for and in which there’s more to read than just a dude standing on a gargoyle dressed as Dracula.

And see, here’s the thing. I’m not saying characters aren’t important – they’re vital to making a narrative engaging, maybe more vital than anything else. And that’s their function – to get the reader involved in the story, the movie, the game, to make them care about what happens, to keep them immersed in that narrative until the end. Everything else, including (especially including) being interesting for their own sake, is secondary to that. The presence of a good character doesn’t fix a bad narrative – there is no shortage of bad Batman storiesafter all – but a good narrative can be told even through a bland or under-developed character, because the writer has other tools to hook the reader in, and even to make them care about that shaky character

So really, as far as polemics go, this is pretty mild at base: have a reason for a character to be in a narrative, a reason that makes that narrative stronger and more engaging – because if the character isn’t doing that, then what the hell is she/he there for?

Other than pursuing self-gratification upon unguarded cardigans. For some people that’s an end in itself.

…that’s it for today. Come back next weekend, when I will contradict pretty much everything I just said. Honestly, that’s the plan.

Never tell me the odds… er, backstory

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that fictional characters are most interesting when they’re doing something.

And yet, there is a school of thought that says that a character needs backstory and background, and that a character who’s already done something is more interesting.

This school is wrong. This school is teaching that the Earth is flat, that 2 + 2 = ham and that Blade Trinity was a better film than Blade 2. (For god’s sake, people, Blade 2 had Ron Perlman and Blade Trinity had Triple-fucking-H. What are you huffing?) This school needs its teaching license revoked, and then the school buildings razed to the ground.

Entirely made of awesome
Entirely made of dicks

Ahem.

Anyway, having talked a bit about why backstory is bad for narrative, I’d like to move on to why it’s bad for characters in general. This comes, in part, from the Continuum panel on roleplaying and storytelling that I was on last month, where I ended talking a lot about how character influences play and shapes story, and about how the actions of characters in play is what drives a game. That left me thinking afterwards about character and how to portray it, and I’m going to write about that next weekend. This post is a bridge, taking us from the negativity of last week to the positivity of next week over the broad river of moderately-negative-but-not-that-much-honest. Well, okay, it’s pretty negative, but that’s just because I like writing the word ‘fuck’.

There are two reasons why backstory is poisonous for characters. First, it’s because backstory exists outside the narrative, as I ranted about last time. Events that happen before the current narrative can’t be experienced by the reader as part of that narrative – you either summarise them, which is boring (‘That was the week I saved the President and was awarded the Medal of Honour for a fourth time, Ginger!’), or you set up a second narrative stream to play them out, which pulls the reader from the narrative they actually want to explore (‘Before we defuse the bomb, let’s have a flashback to how I graduated from bomb defusing college!’). Both of these are tell-not-show errors, because you’re not demonstrating character within the narrative, you’re writing directly at the reader and dumping the information in their heads. And that’s boring.

The second reason, which is subtler, is that backstories don’t have conflict, and conflict – the need to meet and overcome obstacles to reach goals – is what drives stories. Backstories shunt conflict offstage so that those obstacles have already been overcome (or failed, I guess, though that’s vanishingly rare) before the narrative starts. And perhaps that’s one of the main reasons why gamers love backstory so much – it’s a way of setting up interesting conflicts for your character, with none of the uncertainty of whether they’ll actually have to work to overcome those problems. Same for writers, I think – working through a conflict can be hard and demands a strong development of character and story. It’s much easier to have them worked out ahead of time and present them to the reader, forgetting that what’s actually interesting about a conflict is the process of working through it, rather than the actual outcome. That’s why failure can make for a strong narrative, because exploring the process of that failure is way more readable than just learning about another success after the fact.

I’m not saying that every character should be a tyro, novice, farmboy or 1st-level adventurer (pick whichever description you like). Experienced characters are interesting because they carry with them the weight of authority and confidence, and can justify the skills and abilities they possess by dint of that experience. But they, like the farmboy, are starting this story at the beginning.

I'm cooler than the hero. That's my fucking backstory.

Look at one of genre’s most beloved characters, Han Solo – there’s an experienced character that shows off his skills and background from the moment he appears on screen, without the need to stop and tell us about how he learned them. When elements of his background come up, they’re story rather than backstory – he gets hunted by Jabba the Hutt and sold out by Lando Calrissian (shit, sorry, spoiler warning) within the narrative, rather than flashing back to the events or describing them in detail to other characters.  No, those conflicts got referenced briefly in story to create new conflicts that drove the current story – and then, I imagine, they got described in intricate and tedious detail in prequel novels that fans read out of duty. That’s what backstory leads to – prequel novels and fanfic. AND NO-ONE NEEDS THAT.

So how do you portray interesting, engaging, experienced characters without delving into (or ‘revealing’) backstory? Let’s talk about that next weekend.

If you agree, disagree, or want to tell me how awesome Han Solo and Hutt Girls Gone Wild was, get in there and leave a comment.

And if you want a double dose of me being opinionated out of all proportion to any intellectual authority I might possess, head on over to today’s LiveJournal post, where I talk at great and tedious length about Captain America comics, of all things.