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Monday, April 18, 2011
An experiment in characterization
Back in January, I had the pleasure of reading Leviathan Wakes (Click on image for link to Indiebound), a full five months ahead of [most of] you nerds. If you're into science fiction and you follow the big releases, you probably already know about this book. If not, you're going to hear about it this year. It's Orbit's feature release this summer, it's already garnered fantastic reviews--including Kirkus, which is famous for being a tough reviewer, and a starred review from Publisher's Weekly--and it's quite possibly the most widely anticipated SF book this year. And check out the blurb from George R-freaking-R Martin! Also? This book simply kicks ass. You should read it. When you can. *snicker*
Anyway, one thing that struck me as I read it was how vivid all the characters are, including the secondary ones. There are two main POV characters, but countless others that we meet throughout the book, including some that only live for a few chapters, and they all feel like real people, with real foibles and distinct personalities.
Not to take anything away from the fantastic writing job that Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (the authors behind the pen name James S. A. Corey) have done, but I can't help but figure that part of that awesome characterization job is rooted in the fact that this story was born as a role playing game, and that many/most/(all?) of the characters were drawn from characters in Franck's campaign. (Daniel Abraham talks about the role-playing campaign that gave rise to the Expanse universe here.)
Now more often than not stories drawn from RPG's are denigrated, but I think that's more about when people take their generic D&D campaigns and attempt to turn them into generic, cliché pseudo-feudal fantasies, complete with elves and dwarves. This is nothing like that. Franck had a sweeping, cinematic background conflict that was as well-thought-out as any novel before the RPG ever got started, as Abraham notes above.
I was one of the many people fortunate enough to play in Ty's rich, rich universe over the years, which is how I came to get an ARC of this six months early. I only came in near the end, and my character does not appear (by name, anyway) in Leviathan Wakes. But I spent several months traipsing around the belt with Captain James Holden, and I'll tell you what--he feels more real to me than some people I know.
Each of us created a character for the campaign, rolling up stats and then inventing a backstory that would put them in the path of the action. We then introduced our characters to each other by writing a vignette starring our character, set some time before our character entered the events of the campaign. The vast majority of the players involved were writers, with varying degrees of publication success, so we all took our characterization seriously, and we each set out to create just one person that would ring true. There wasn't any sense that this or that character was "the girlfriend" or "the sidekick" or "the token" or any of those ruts we can easily fall into as writers when we're creating a whole cast of characters at once, and when we view those characters as a means to an end. In our case as players, the characters were the end.
Which brings me, finally, to my point on characterization. I've tried character sheets. I've tried interviewing my characters. I've tried writing up biographies. I've tried other people's worksheets with questions about a character's goal or what a character learns. Hopefully I haven't made to bad a botch of anything, but I haven't found any of these to be especially useful to me. Characters come alive or not, but months later I find whatever details I wrote down about these characters in some file and realize I never gave this or that trait a second thought. On the other hand, Eddie Suarez, the radical guerrilla liberation theologian I made up for Ty's game, still feels very real to me. I'm confident I could slip right back into his character and write new scenes from his point of view, and they would feel right.
So I'm going to try and duplicate the process I followed with Eddie with my new project. Not by playing an RPG. I think stories that are epic in scale lend themselves to that, but my stories tend to be much more . . . intimate. But in addition to coming up with background sketches for my characters, focusing on the roots of their personalities, I'm going to write little vignettes for each of the major ones from their point of view (whether it's in first or tight third). In Vanishing Act, I never wrote anything where the point of view character was Danny (the antagonist), or Paul (one of the good guys), or Steven (Chris's father). I hope spending some time in those other character's heads will help me make them more than just foils for the protagonist to play off of.