Should characters be robots?

I recently joined a critique group over on Dragonmount and someone there started a rather interesting discussion there today regarding a blog post by Robert J. Sawyer who points out on his blog:

Psst! Wanna hear a secret? The people in most stories aren’t really humans — they’re robots!
Real people are quite accidental, the result of a random jumbling of genes and a chaotic life. But story people are made to order to do a specific job. In other words, robots!

and

And, of course, that means that you shouldn’t start with a character and then go looking about for a story; it’s a lot easier to do it the other way around. First, come up with your premise (for instance, “I want to write about a telepathic alien who can read subconscious instead of conscious thoughts”). Then you ask yourself who could most clearly dramatize the issues arising from that premise (“There’s this guy, see, who’s been suppressing terrible memories of the suicide of his wife”).

After that, head for your keyboard and build the character to your specifications, for that one specific job. (In this case, the story has already been done brilliantly; it’s Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.) Of course, you have to add subtleties and quirks to give your character depth, but if you do it right, only you will ever know that underneath the real-looking skin, your hero is actually a made-to-measure robot . . .

I guess I partly agree. Of course your character has a certain function, a specific ‘job’ as you put it. After all that’s what prompts character action and interaction.
But then again I couldn’t imagine creating a character just for the sake of their function. When I’m creating a character – or when they spontaneously pop up in my head waving and screaming PICK ME! – I’m thinking of a couple of things:

– yes, what’s the characters’ function, what do they do in the plot and how do they influence the story as a whole?
– what is their background/personality/motivation? In my experience thinking about those three can either result in something that perfectly fit into your already existing plotline or it can create something new. It can result in a new subplot or even in the general plot taking a completely new direction. This is the point where I’m not thinking about shaping my character to fit into the pre-existing story, but where I’m pretty much doing the exact opposite of what Sawyer suggests.

So with that said, I only about halfway agree with that approach. Sure, you have to model some characters to fit into your plot, but there are just as many occasions when it happens exactly the other way ’round and a character and their action or motivation lead your plot into a completely different direction.

Then again it also depends on what kind of writer you are. I suppose Robert J. Sawyer’s suggestion works very well if you are already totally set on what you want to happen in your story. If you already know exactly what your protagonist(s) and your antagonist(s) etc are going to do, then you just need to fill in placeholders so to say.

Maybe it’s because I’m not that kind of writer and usually start out knowing jack-shit about where my story is going in the end, but I hold it more with Nathan Bransford who recently pointed out in his blog  that character and plot are pretty much inseparable. It’s a little simplified, but IMO you can’t really have a detailed plot without knowing who your characters are and the other way ’round, you can’t have intriguing characters without them having a background, a personality and a motivation that drive the plot that unfolds around them.

There’s no writing without images

I just read a great post on writing and images on Joshua Palmatier’s blog over at livejournal and it made me think of different writing approaches.

I hate synopses. I’m not that kind of writer. I’m sorry. I like to let the novel shape itself as I write. But we’ve had this discussion before, so I’ll leave it and get back to the point.

As I begin to contemplate writing these plot synopses, I realized exactly what it is I know about the book ahead of time . . . which is jack shit. Or rather, it’s exactly two or three IMAGES from the book, which people tend to call scenes, but in fact they aren’t. I work on images, and the scenes and the rest of the book grow from those images. That’s how I operate, which is why writing the synopses is so hard. The growing into scenes and then into a book happens WHILE I WRITE. It doesn’t happen ahead of time.

I’m quoting this section, because this sums up pretty much how I’m doing my own writing. I’d call myself a character-based writer, but then again there’s no character without plot. Plot surrounds characters, shows their background, motivation, antagonists. To say it bluntly, your character doesn’t exist by their looks alone. It’s not just some middle-aged, average-sized, blond and blue-eyed person, but that person coming from a certain background, having undergone certain influences, motivated to achieve a certain goal.

Now regarding Joshua’s post: How would you be able to write about all that without actually seeing your character, without actually seeing the scenes that signify your main plot events? It just wouldn’t work. All that would come out would be some hollow scenes without any depth.

I often find myself musing over a certain image that is so vivid that it connects with other images and plotlines and so makes for a great scene. Then I’m not only seeing the setting and the characters, I’m seeing their movements and body language, emotions reflected in their facial expressions, I hear background noises etc.

That with the characters’ stories, motivations and personalities makes the plot. Sometimes scenes like that don’t fit in with the main storyline, then I either alter them or they are vivid and meaningful enough to be converted into subplots. I recently made that experience with an image that popped into my head about Damian: I see him in the bathroom. His clothes are stained with blood, he looks tired and his hands are clenching as he scrubs the blood off his fingers. It’s not a very unusual image considering Damian’s line of work, but this time it’s different. I see him staring at his hands. There’s dried blood under his fingernails and he curses under his breath about the fact that no matter what you do, you never get rid of bloodstains.

Now the questions that arise are of course: What happened? But there are many more, somewhat closer related to what kind of character Damian is. Those questions and their resolutions make the scene – more than that actually, because a scene like that may have consequences for the main plot and other characters.

My personal conclusion is that if plot and character are inseparable, so are the two of them and images. After all, how would you be able to write a good scene if you can’t imagine it?

Which leads me to the question: What is first in your writing? Character? Plot? Images?

Is your character a Mary Sue?

Just got this test from Saint-Know-All’s blog and it rather amused me (not just the fact that the test has appalling grammar at times 😉 ) I just did that test with most of my main characters and they scare anything between 7 and 9 points, which definitely disqualifies them, being Anti-Mary-Sues so to say; hey, mission accomplished.

But let’s face it; I’m really trying to make my character different, to avoid some of the most common (poor farmboy becomes most powerful wizard of a strange land (called “the strange land”) and kills evil king after finding Mysterious Magical Sword of Super Powerz (or: the Sword of Truth? ;)) Nah…

Of course there’s the one or other cliche every (fantasy) author has to deal with, so it’s basically impossible to avoid writing something that hasn’t ‘been there’ yet in one form or another. Yes, Light is very dystopian and the Shadows are basically thieves and oh did I mention that my characters live in an abandoned space ship, while this is in no way a science fiction novel? – Okay, end of cliches here…

As long as it’s just something general and something that MAKES SENSE (please don’t give me that omniscient super-hero with absolute super-powers and not even a fart of a moral flaw…) then the use of cliches is okay. At least in a certain dosage. Then they enable you to twist those cliches around and make something entirely new of it, to break certain rules and conventions. In this case, cliches and the occasional Mary Sue-aspects of your character can be helpful. Again CAN not WILL BE. In the end it just really depends on what you as an author make of it.

One of my (numerous) rookie mistakes as a writer has been ignoring the borderline of original writing and fanfiction. Light started out rather flat, borrowing a lot in terms of general motives etc. from other fantasy series that I really liked. No need to say that this is not the way to go and I suppose a lot of this happens on a rather subconscious level. In the end however, it’s your own ideas, your own twists and your characters quirks and ambiguity that obliterate cliches. What can I say? Since I’ve started to write how and what I wanted to write instead of focusing on how other authors ‘did it’ my writing has changed – and improved – a lot, but that’s part of the learning process.

And yes, I should be editing One right now, but I’ll probably spend the weekend trying out different approaches and see which one works best 😉

Using Spreadsheets

Tonight, I’ve actually started to use the spreadsheet-method I’ve read about a while ago. The basic idea is to outline your scene numbers, setting, its position and function within the overall plot etc.

For the first 20 chapters of Deviant, I used the following structure:

Scene Number: (numbering the scenes helps you in your overall structure as well as in your notes. For example, I’d just note: edit scene 28 in my notes, saving myself an explanation of what happens in the scene)

Time: (I have several scenes that aren’t set in the present, this helps me to keep track)

Place: (self explanatory 😉

Plot Category: (I basically define this, writing down to which subplot this scene belongs to, for example ‘Ares’ past’, ‘The Shadows’, ‘The Gift’ etc.)

Scene Description: (write down what happens in this scene in 1-2 sentences)

Purpose: (what does the scene accomplish? Does it introduce a new plotline/new characters? Does it create foreshadowing or suspense?)

Plot Step: (Unlike the original post I’ve read about this method, I like to stick to the old Aristotelian Drama Pyramid here: Exposition->raising tension->climax->falling tension->disaster/chaos)

So far this method has been great as an overview of my plot as an entity. It helps to isolate individual scenes and I already marked some scenes that I want or need to edit to fit into the new setting or add some character background to. It takes a little time to write all this down and sometimes scenes aren’t easily categorized, but in the end the work pays off and lets you keep track of your plot development.

For example: Is there enough exposition? Is there a scene that doesn’t have any other purpose than serving as filling material? Is there enough raising tension leading to the climax, etc?

I wanted to use excel for this first, but after running into some problems with the 2007 version trying to sort my booklist that I also made today alphabetically (how the heck do you tell the title and author column that they are very much dependent on each other? blah!) I decided to abstain from excel for a while and use word instead. Later on I’ll probably put a copy into my notebook, for coherence’s sake 😉

All in all this weekend’s word count is at 3.4 k and counting and I also got some structuring work done. Yay me defying the distraction of relatives with kids coming over as well as my mother in law buying a Wii and brother playing Zelda all day. Did I mention that I want to play this game really badly? Damn. Must…resist…

Apart from that, did I mention that I started “Heroes Die” by Matthew Woodring Stover just yesterday and that it already rocks? Definitely a recommendation 😀

Anyway, I’m drifting off into rants. Must be the energy drink I just had. May I just add that those things are NASTY? 8)

And today’s conclusions are:

1.) Make Prologue part of Chapter One, thus

2.) break up One into two chapters to avoid becoming too long-winded

3.) new prologue will show events that happen in the midsection of the book hence providing suspense and foreshadowing while also featuring one of MC’s most treasured nemesis’ ^_^

But seriously, I think I got the beginning and opening hook straightened out in a manner that doesn’t create too much confusion. I’ll also divide the book into two parts plus prologue and epilogue as far as structure is concerned.

Concluding from this, I’ll probably write a new prologue after finishing Eighteen. Still pondering if the prologue scene will actually show up again later in the book at its original place as far as the timeline is concerned…. We’ll see about that one.

Productiveness!

Today has been one of those days again. Frankly, I didn’t even do that much writing, but another 916 words finished Fifteen at a total of 3,577 words and I’m happy with it so far. But what is more is that today in general was a great day for inspiration to come. Maybe that’s because I’ve been hanging out in bookstores a lot today (in my favorite used book store and Barnes&Noble) and I’ve been talking books and writing a lot with several people including my friend Jen today.

Talking about what I’m writing always helps me to focus, even though it sometimes brings up new questions too. Today’s was mainly related to this post.

I just couldn’t help wondering if a structure based on multiple character PoVs really is the right thing. I’m really trying to be more brief in my writing, so adding more characters to Ares very strong arc might just unnecessarily complicate things, but then again separating Damian’s and Raeyn’s PoV as well as Dawn’s later on is really important for the overall story. It just doesn’t work if it’s only based on Ares’ perception.

And that’s that. Even though I’ve only written three chapters with in the “new way” if you want to call it that, it’ll most likely stick. Let’s hope I’m still thinking that way once I’m done with the first draft and throw myself into editing 😉

On top of that I’ve been having some great ideas in regards to the plot structure over the last couple of days. I’ll change the beginning a little, setting the first chapter in the middle of the plot so to say and then going back, narrating what had the characters end up where they are right now. I’ll structure it in a way of present vs. flashback scenes since I generally don’t really like linear storylines. But it’ll be organized, unlike parts of my nanowrimo part that often was unclear and flat out got readers lost. Don’t want that to happen again.

Also got some neat ideas for the second book, but those are only vague. I’m really concentrating on finishing the first book, then revising and editing it before I go on.

Other than that, I’m currently at 62,190 words, which I’m hoping means that I’m halfway done with the first draft (despite the 150,000 that I marked on my wordcount widget I’m really trying to get this tied off at 120k. Honest). Well here’s hope this is actually going to happen, but we’ll see how it turns out in the end.

Fundamental questions

On changing my setting there are two questions that have been spinning their merry little circles in my mind.

One: What is my writing style like?

Ok, I know I can’t write light “und am Ende lebten sie gluecklich und zusammen bis ans Ende ihrer Tage” (and they lived happily ever after) – fantasy. I just love my dystopian themes and in the end nothing is just black or white, shades of gray rule the world 😉

On the other hand though I know that I can’t just write about badass characters pursuing badass goals in a badass way.  That would just be too much of the black again. Instead I prefer a healthy balance. My characters are neither black or white (metaphorically spoken), they act to achieve their own goals, are often ruthless, but still have a conscience and a certain set of values that they’ll uphold.

 As for the story itself: Light is a post-apocalyptical story set in a world that still has so many open possibilities that are mostly facing scepticism or outward refusal. Politics are thrown back into what basically is a fascist system. Immigration is an issue as well as segregation and general decay of the “uncivilized” countries that are blocked from the opportunities that the Empire of Light (I’ll call it that for now) offers so freely to the obedient masses 😉 But then again there is no absolutely bad, as well as there isn’t anyone who’s absolutely good. This isn’t a story of the Hero’s quest and neither is it about the Antihero’s failure. Nobody is going to save the world unless the world is goign to save itself.

It’s all in the mix. In the end I’m not even sure what genre it would belong in. Urban Fantasy is probably the most likely. There are scifi elements, that make a specification even harder though. I guess we’ll see what the end-product looks like, right?

Question number two is actually related to an interview that Joss Whedon gave after the cancellation of Firefly. He spoke about the individual functions of his characters. I think it’s important to remember that your characters always contribute in some way to the story. None of them are alike and they affect the outcome and actions of the plot in their own individual way.

 So what do my characters represent? How do they contribute to the story? (I’m trying to keep this short knowing that this is totally rudimentary and incomplete. This just mentions some of their main character traits)

 1.) Ares: the mystery

2.) Damian: the “hard guy” of many faces

3.) Jay: straight-forwardness

4.) Naerya: passion

5.) Raeyn: the mercenary, always on the run

6.) Orpheus: the failing mentor

7.) Veleine: the conscience

8.) Arturiel: madness

9.) Sirius: control, purpose

10.) Dawnelle: the spy, ambition

This is actually an interesting questions and I find that, even though each of them have their certain main characteristics, they aren’t limited to just one side. All of them are ambiguous in their actions and purposes. They aren’t 100% good or 100% bad. In the end there are no stable allegiances, no entirely separate sides.