So, characters. I’m about to release an anthology (Sept 1! Out on digital! Sometime after that out in print!) of braided-together stories, which means it’s time again to remember how fond I am of writing character driven fiction. Even my most intricate plots are often back-burnered so I can ramble on in the characterization vein. And because I do this so often, I have Opinions about characters and the writing of them. I could go on for pages and pages and pages about why the reading from the book of Joss (“Why do you keep writing strong female characters?” “Because you’re still asking that question.”) bothers me. I could go on for pages and pages and pages why the argument that this character is only interesting in a widespread fashion now is because he’s been made into an anti-hero. And so on and so forth.
It all boils down to one of my core tenets of writing and my approach to writing, which is that a character should be that character first. All else is secondary. It’s a bit like, shut up and tell the story. All else comes second to telling the story.
Yes, I’m simple like that.
And no, I don’t believe that it’s as easy as all that. I’m also a big believer in easy not being the same thing as simple, and vice versa. It’s not easy to write well! You have to keep track of a lot of moving parts, you have to make sure you’re engaging the audience, you have to come up with plots that are appealing in some way and settings that aren’t so far off the mark that they confuse or make people lose interest. You have to create characters with whom your readers or audience want to spend a few hours of their time. Preferably a lot of hours of their time. It’s hard!
To go back to that persistent issue of strong female characters, let’s start with the fact that we’re leading with “strong” and “female.” In English at least, lists tend to be front-loaded, like ingredients on a food package. The first ones are the most important. Strong and female come before character, as though it was just enough that the character is strong (what does that even mean anyway?) or female (as opposed to feminine, say?) or preferably both. I do not prefer both, I prefer to have characters. Some of whom could be described as strong, some of whom could be described as female. But, first and foremost, they are individuals in my story with attributes and personality traits who make decisions that affect the plot and each other. You know, characters.
The anti-hero thing came about because of the new SHIELD trailer, and a discussion of black-bagging, and somehow this worked its way around to whether SHIELD could work as a protagonist because, let’s face it, they do some shady shit. And my opinion was that Coulson (I haven’t yet met any of the other leads in the show) didn’t necessarily get his big break simply by being an anti-hero. Coulson suddenly became interesting to millions of fans because, with a calm and bland demeanor, he threatened to tase Tony Stark and watch Supernanny while Stark drooled into the carpet. Coulson became beloved because of his combination of government issue unflappability, his interest in a show that is not traditionally masculine, which is then juxtaposed with the unsubtle implication that he’s more badass than Tony freaking Stark and the slightly more subtle implication that this is a babysitting job and Tony is a bratty five year old. Plus a touch of imagined slapstick violence. Add together, drop in one well-saturated in talent actor, blend, and you have a character so adored by his fans they created a worldwide movement to bring him back from the dead.
Characters. It’s not just about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Anti-Hero, the Strong-Female-Character. It’s about not starting with a label requirement to begin with and then fleshing it out because you need your quota of people of color. They’re characters. People.
And no, that does not mean I think shows or movies or books or other media should be let off the hook when they produce works that are largely populated by white able-bodied men with middle-class diction and speech patterns. If nothing else, their statistics are skewed, women do exist in the world, they make up about 48-54% of the population! Depending on who you ask. I made the numbers up. People of colors other than white do exist. People who are not from the US exist! I’ve met many many of them. People who are poor, who are filthy rich, who talk some ways different, who speak not so good English, who are missing limbs and can’t afford prosthetics, who are missing limbs and choose not to use prosthetics, who love men, who love women, who love this person right here and can’t see themselves with anyone else. Who love in so many different ways. People who function and interact with the world in ways that are familiar and common, and people who interact with the world around them in ways that are not so common. You see what I’m getting at here?
Some things I’m working on right now. I’m working on an ongoing serial (you can sign up on my email mailing list to the right) where one of the main characters is a college-educated upper middle class young woman named Lucy Townsend. In addition to being all of those things she’s had a number of lovers, some of whom were good decisions and some of whom were very, very bad. She has a mother, a father, and two stepfathers all in her life, and yes, that means her father remarried another man. She’s quick-minded, trained by a number of ex-spy, ex-military, ex-sniper types, she has a tendency to bounce and be cheerful, she’s resilient, she’s very new to the doing of such things although also well versed in the theory. By turns she could be called a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a Daddy’s Girl, a Strong Female Character, or … well, a few other things that it would spoil to say. But as far as I’m concerned, and what I keep in mind when I’m writing, is that she’s Lucy. By the time I set fingers to keyboard I knew what it meant to be Lucy. Or, well, I was acquainted with the part of my brain that knew. That’s a whole other blog entry.
In my Black Ice anthology I have a number of other characters. One of them is effectively genderless and faceless; this is made much easier by that character’s stories being written in the first person, but since that character has a lot fewer of the personal identity markers that we have, it makes the character difficult to describe. Without massive spoilers, anyway. I have a character who is a female ADA who seems to turn up ex-girlfriends in at least two places. I haven’t outright stated she’s a lesbian, and likely I won’t unless it turns out that she calls herself that for some reason in some context I haven’t yet written. She just happens to have two ex-girlfriends. (Originally I typed that she just happens to have two girlfriends, but then I changed it, because if she had two girlfriends she would have made different choices and then be a different character.) I have a dead guy, I have a lot of non-human people, I have a woman who works her way through nursing school. A couple of her boyfriends also feature. And sure, if put to it and because I’ve gotten good at slapping labels on things when I have to (though I don’t like to), I could call them a Lipstick Lesbian or a Strong Female Character or a Biker Gang Dude or a Bruiser or what have you. I try not to unless I’m actively reducing them for brevity or marketing purposes. They’re characters. People. They may be fictional people, with no concrete history beyond what I set on the page, and subject to interpretation a thousand different ways, but you know what? I try to treat them to an extent as people, too. Chiefly by not labeling them. My characters are characters are characters.
I’m not sure I’m giving writing advice here. I might be giving thinking advice. Which is as far as I’ll go down that rabbit hole, but as with all things that even smell like writing advice, take from it what works for you. I have Opinions, as I said, about characters. And if you take anything from this ramble then please take this: the second clearest voice, when writing, comes from knowing who your character is when they are not being their title, their gender role, their race, their ability, their sexual orientation, their job, their culture, their religion, or their national identity. Your first clearest voice should always be your own, but I know no solution for that except time and lots and lots of practice.