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.

3 thoughts on “Character (part 1) – Why do you exist?

  1. So we can expect a Graeme/Batman crossover story soon?

    My working formula for Plot at the moment is:

    Protagonist pursues a GOAL,
    encounters OBSTACLES,
    which force her to make some difficult CHOICES
    and then suffer the CONSEQUENCES
    on the way to SUCCESS OR FAILURE

    This is fractal: it applies at the novel, chapter and scene level. Obstacles and consequences escalate as the story progresses. And there are complications such as characters redefining their goals because of all that icky personal growth stuff.

    But my point is, character IS plot. Or at least that’s how I’m approaching my book.

    As a basic formula, it’s serving me well. And it provides an easy metric to tell if a scene or subplot is actually relevant: does it advance the protagonist’s goals?

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