Character (part 2) – Pick up the gun

Ah good, you’re back. Some of you, anyway. Sorry about the delay; I was held up first by post-Mexican-banquet indigestion, then by post-platelet-donation disorientation. My life, it is a carnival.

So anyway, last weekend I said that character is secondary to narrative – or, more precisely, that it’s more important that characters exist to convey narrative than it is for narratives exist to convey character.

Let’s now simultaneously reinforce and refute that statement with a linked pair of polemics, drawing once again on our two examples, Batman (the Caped Crusader) and Graeme Riley (the Feline Frottagist).

First, a further riff on last week’s ideas.

The demands of a strong narrative shape character.

Or, less obliquely, that characters can do whatever is required to make an engaging and satisfying narrative, even if it doesn’t seem at first glance to gel with what’s been established for that character so far.

A lot of authors talk about characters writing themselves, and shying away from doing things that they don’t want to do, and books needing to be rewritten to fit their needs. And I get some of that, and will sorta-kinda agree with it later in this post, but the notion that ‘characters write themselves’ is just abject silliness. Leave your manuscript alone for a couple of months, mid-scene, and when you come back to the PC/iPad/notebook, those characters will still be where you left them, no text magically appearing to tell you what they got up to.

What authors mean, of course, is that the character is so well-defined that some actions no longer feel in-character, and in order to continue writing the story, they can’t have the character do what was originally plotted/planned without going against that definition. The character is too strong, the writer too bound by what’s gone before, and the narrative must back up and be rerouted around the mighty sequoia that is the protagonist.

Yeah, I don’t agree with that.

Greg Stolze famously called the gaming version of this the Gamer Nuremberg Defence – ‘but it’s what my character would do!’ It’s a copout in gaming and it’s a copout in writing, because characters are created, not born, and any limitations or constraints on their behaviour are also creations. If your character won’t do that, what you mean is that you don’t want to write your character doing that. And okay, sure, don’t do what you don’t want to do, but don’t blame your character for your decisions – and if your refusal to write your character that way makes the story or narrative weaker, that’s on your head too.

Here’s the truth – any character can do anything, if you want them to. The genius can do something stupid. The good man can cheat and lie. The hardened criminal can reform and find a better purpose. The friendly cat who greets commuters at the train station can steal and sodomise stray laundry. The question is not ‘Will this character do this?’, because that the answer to that lies with the author, not the character – the question is ‘Will this character do this and still remain believable and convincing?’ And okay, the answer to that lies with the author too, but it’s expressed through the character.

Let me demonstrate this further using my greatest area of expertise – Batman. (Sure, I could have finished that degree in physics, but this is way more important.) As we know, Batman hates guns, never uses guns, would sooner die than pick up a gun because his parents were shot dead by a guy with a gun.

It’s ironclad logic: BATMAN = NO GUNS.

So here are some picture of Batman using guns, as published by DC Comics.

MIND = BLOWN.

If one of the longest-standing, most constantly depicted and defined characters in 20th-and-21st century fiction and pop culture can act against type to make a better narrative, your character can do the same, and so can any other character. Characters are vast, they contain multitudes, and more importantly they’re not real and they do what they’re told/written to do.

And yet.

Let’s turn that statement around and go the other way.

The demands of a strong character shape narrative.

This is the truth of characters ‘writing themselves’ – a strong, engaging character imprints and expresses themselves in everything they do. You can tell characters what to do, and they’ll do it, but the personality and flavour you’ve given will dictate how and why they do that – and, more importantly, how they change after that act and how the narrative changes with them.

Everything has fallout. Everything has consequences. And exploring the ramifications of a character going against type and changing under pressure can provide tense, powerful writing. For a character to go against type/definition does not refute that definition, it throws it into contrast – and the lengths they go to before going against type, the way they finally go about doing so, and the consequences of that action afterwards all shape and define the flow of the narrative.

(And as a callback and aside, this is one of the reasons I dislike backstory – because it can overdefine a character and make it more difficult to change and question that character as the narrative progresses.)

For me, that’s the most gripping way that character and narrative intertwine – the degree to which you can build a narrative from choices, rather than from expectations. Grant Morrison didn’t think ‘Batman hates guns, so he can’t shoot Darkseid with the god-killer bullet’; he thought ‘Batman hates guns, so when he shoots Darkseid with the god-killer bullet it will be even more significant and say even more about the character’. (Well, I’m sure he thought something like that, although he would have thought it in a Scottish accent.)

This isn’t about about ‘plot-focused’ versus ‘character-focused’, because those things are inextricably linked. It’s saying that if characters are (among other things) tools used to express narrative, then they are Swiss Army knives, not mallets; they can be used in any number of ways, rather than inflexibly pounding a narrative in only one way, one purpose, one aspect. Strong characters have power; strong characters are maybe the most important element of an engaging narrative. But strong characters are bamboo, not oak trees; they bend under pressure and then snap back, rather than standing firm in the face of story and either tearing in half or stopping the flow dead.

Characters that can change and be changed by the narrative are interesting; characters that have to be preserved, that can’t do the wrong thing, and that don’t allow the writer or reader to explore them through question and contrast are lifeless and bland.

Make your characters dance. The dance is the story; the dancer is how you tell it.

That’s what, ~1100 words on something you could sum up in a paragraph? My work here is done. Next Sunday, the last thought I have on character (for the moment).

And come back in a couple of days to chew the fat on various things and see whether I was talking utter shit when I said I was going to get back to work on Arcadia.

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