Character Groups: What George R. R. Martin Taught Me

I’ve been getting writing lessons from George R. R. Martin lately— OK, I’ve been binge-reading the Game of Thrones series. (I’ve never seen the TV show except for a few minutes when HBO had a free preview. Didn’t care for it at the time.)

The main thing I’ve learned so far is actually from an appendix of Book One (A Game of Thrones) in which it lists characters by which families they are associated with. There’s House Baratheon, House Stark, House Lannister, House Arryn, House Tully and more. Not only are the family members listed, but also their servants, knights, bannermen and the lesser houses connected to them.

In my own current WIP, I’ve come to realize I need to work on forming sets of characters like this myself— for two different kingdoms, Schwalenland, and a neighboring, poorer kingdom called Ruthenia where my protagonist goes into exile, hidden from the tyrannical king who kills her parents, her father’s dragon, and his own wives, whenever he wants a different one.

For Schwalenland, writing lists of the noble houses and other noble families is part of the worldbuilding. For Ruthenia, it’s important because my protagonist will be meeting different Ruthenian noble families, including, eventually, the Tsar-Autocrat of Ruthenia, who is also the Postmaster of a postal service which uses firebirds to get messages across the land (to the few Ruthenians who can read.)

Character groups are not only important in sweeping fantasy fiction series. Even in a contemporary mystery novel, your character may interact with a group of characters in a workplace, another group in the home environment, and other groups in places associated with solving the mystery.

I’ve realized that NOT thinking about the character groups I shall need, and creating them, slows down my progress on the WIP. I’m trying to take time to create a few of the character groups I shall need. For my Ruthenian characters, since Ruthenia was settled by small groups from the different Slavic-language-speaking countries, I have to research names typical of Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Polish, Czech and other Slavic groups, and find names for the noble estates as well. And work out the economic resources of the different estates. House Pavliuk has a copper mine, vicuna wool, and rare types of wood valued by woodworkers.

One creepy thing about the mass-market paperback edition of the books I am reading— among the endorsements by other fantasy writers they include one by MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY. Whose daughter Moira Greyland has interesting things to say about the abuses inflicted by MZB and her husband, Walter Breen, a convicted pedophile. MZB is no longer someone whose endorsement would be respected by anyone, I am afraid. (I used to be an obsessive Darkover fan, but now I can see too much of the real MZB in some of the stories.)

Comment: How do you create character groups for your fiction? Do you create them in advance or as you need them? Do you have any good tricks for doing it?

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Key Character Traits: Just Say It

Recently I’ve been reading Mercedes Lackey’s more recent books in the Elemental Masters series, which features Sherlock Holmes as a character. Arthur Conan Doyle, the character’s creator, has I guess been dead long enough that other writers can use his character. But what do we know about Sherlock Holmes?

Perhaps you know that Holmes is a great detective who uses deductive (or inductive) reasoning to solve cases. Or that he is a brilliant man with loads of obscure knowledge. How do we know this? Because Conan Doyle told us so!

You may believe that writers should be more subtle than that. But really, how else can we convey that sort of information about our characters? We can write a scene that illustrates, we think, that a character is highly intelligent. But if we don’t say the words, some of our readers will conclude that the character is of average intelligence or even not that bright. Readers don’t all experience stories the same way, and many miss out on the subtle intentions of the author.

P. T. Barnum’s circus was the greatest show on Earth. We know that because Barnum plastered those words on every circus poster. He was not subtle. But he had the greatest show on Earth— because he said so.

Muhammed Ali (born Cassius Clay) was The Greatest. How do we know? He said so, repeatedly. And now, after his death, when they do a television documentary about his life and death, the words ‘The Greatest’ are used by a great many people who knew him.

You may wrinkle your nose up at the idea of just telling readers about a character’s most important trait. Isn’t that telling instead of showing? Yes, it is. But that beginning writer’s mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’ is not a commandment from On High. Both showing and telling have a place in our stories. I mean, which works better, telling the reader that a character has green eyes, or writing an otherwise unnecessary scene to show the reader the character’s eye color?

Character features that you tell directly unify the reader experience. Everyone who reads your story will know that John is clever, Mary is clumsy, Jack is homosexual, and Marco is a black man. Being more subtle, and showing, means you are leaving readers out of the loop. I remember reading two different books in which a major character was black, but I didn’t know until the latter half of the book. The writer was just too subtle about it.

The question is, which character features are important enough to tell? You don’t want to make a long list of things to tell— that bores readers. That’s why we have the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, because some beginning writers want to write lists of character traits into their story. You need to reserve the telling to no more than one or two important traits— traits that make your character who he is in the story.

Descriptive items and diversity status are also things that should usually be stated flat out. You don’t need to make a big deal about it. You just need to let your readers know to picture the character as thin, fat, tall, short, Asian, Caucasian, Gay or straight, wheelchair-bound or able-bodied. These things need to come in near the beginning— when you introduce the character for the first time.

It’s good practice, when telling about an important trait, to mention it more than once. I remember the James Blish novelizations of Star Trek episodes. He mentioned, again and again, that Lt. Uhura was a black woman. Sometimes he called her a ‘Bantu woman.’ I’m sure today he’d have to do a major rewrite. But none of the readers of his Star Trek books missed out on the fact that Lt. Uhura was a black woman of African origin. If he hadn’t repeated the description, I’m sure that some skimming-through readers who had not yet viewed the TV series might have pictured Uhura as a blonde white woman, or an Asian woman. Or one of those green-skinned ladies they had on the original Star Trek.

Telling, like showing, is an important writing tool, if done correctly. You need to learn when and what to tell, and what to show, in order to communicate your story to readers.

Writing Better Male Characters for Young Male Readers

ChuckNorrisReading is becoming less of a thing, and for 1/2 of the potential reading population, there is an obvious reason. Writers are taught to write ‘strong female characters’ for the sake of young female readers. Since that might be hard, it’s considered good enough to have compliant feminist female characters who spout current feminist slogans periodically.

But how does that affect the young male reader? By the time a boy has learned to read, most boys have internalized the idea that boys and men are evil, sexist pigs who are always wrong unless they strictly obey the nearest feminist. And even then they will never be as right as a feminist woman, unless of course they become one….

Reading has become a hostile space for boys. The genre of science fiction, once fun for boys, is now full of spunky women and token gay male couples— things that the average young boy won’t like reading about. Boys’ adventure fiction has been replaced by girly fiction— after all, girls tend to be more enthusiastic about reading, why give mere boys any thought?

But boys are humans, too. Shouldn’t we want boys also to have enjoyable fiction? After all, as a teen I enjoyed books meant for boys as well as ones with ‘strong female characters’ and was the better for it.

How are some ways we can make our fiction more boy-friendly? First, drop the feminist jargon. Boys don’t need to hear that men are pigs or that one should always believe a woman who accuses a man…. Let the boys grow up into strong men before we tear them down.

Second, tone down the emotional content. Men and boys are less comfortable talking  about their emotions than women are. Boy readers won’t enjoy emotion-centered stories. It’s something most boys aren’t really able to deal with yet.

Another factor is to have a strong male mentor character for your boy hero. Many boys suffer from carelessness these days, and others may be estranged from their dads. A good male character can help a young man with such needs. Think a character that could be played by John Wayne, rather than a metrosexual.

The thing about mentor characters is that they tend to disappear when the boy hero is ready to stand on his own. And boy heroes are very early ready to stand on their own. They never feel quite ready, when the mentor dies or disappears, but they always are, if only just.

Male readers demand more action. Don’t have your characters sitting around talking about doing stuff. Have them do the stuff! That’s actually a good rule in fiction for either sex— less talking, more doing.

Finally, learn to trust your male characters. Don’t think of them as potential sexist or male pigs. Let them just be guys. You don’t judge your female characters by how well they conform to male social patterns. Treat your male characters the same way— with respect for their differences.

For my regular readers— I am still not home yet, am in a rehab center near my home recovering from a small stroke. Am carrying on, blogging using my Kindle and trying to stay active on Facebook. 

 

Never Do Gender-Switch Writing Exercise

DexterA lot of older how-to-write books suggest various gender transforming things as writing exercises or practices. One of them is switching a character or real person’s sex.

For example, if you want to base a character on your Aunt Mabel, including her quirks and her life experiences, you are told to switch Aunt Mabel into Uncle Milton. That way the real Aunt Mabel won’t take offense.

These days, that is bad and unusable writing advice. How can you change the sex of a character when society forbids us to notice any difference between the sexes? Except of course that males are prone to evil and sexism and must be replaced by obediently feminist women.

The sad thing about this increasing feminist ideation in our society is that actresses can’t be happy about the parts they can get unless those parts were written for men. So we have to suffer through female remakes of good movies, which are dull, but good for us since they will remove some of our brain cells and turn us in to better feminists.

So the sex-change writing exercise is out for today’s writer. What can we do instead? Make a character significantly younger or older. What will your YA sixteen-year-old heroine be like at 75? Write a page or two about it.

Changing a character’s race is as problematic as sex. If you actually change the character because of a race change, you are guilty of racism. You can change character ethnicities, though. From Italian-American to German-American, for example. Or you could change a character’s region– from Texan to California girl. Or social class— make the son of a farm worker into the son of a university professor.

One thing all of these switching exercises require is knowledge. Otherwise you are just switching character stereotypes, or showing off ignorance. We don’t want to do that.

If you are going to make a character older, know what real people of that age are like. Don’t be like that very young writer who made his 30 year old character old and feeble! Older writers have the advantage here, having lived through a number of life stages already.

The same with ethnicities and regions. You are probably going to have to stick to the ethnicities/regions you know best– your own, and those of your lifelong friends.

Do you have any tricks to help transform your characters— to make them more unique, or less like a real person you know?

The Protagonist as Hero: Dexter Morgan

It used to be that writing theory called the central character of the novel the hero. Today terms like ‘protagonist’ or ‘main character’ are more popular, and even ‘antihero.’ What is the difference? I propose it is that the hero practices one or more virtues— habits of choosing the good rather than the bad.

Perhaps it is the secularist writing experts who make it impossible to say ‘hero’ about everyone that is not morally perfect. Christians know that they only perfect Man was Jesus Christ, and His very perfection makes it difficult to use Him as the main character in a work of fiction.

The reason that the Hero was popular is because the reader would rather identify with a somewhat good character than with a nasty sort. The Hero can have flaws just like the Villain can have virtues, but we really don’t like to root for the guy who beats up his three-year-old or who rapes prostitutes for fun.

An example of this is Dexter Morgan. He actually is a somewhat Heroic character, in spite of his bad habit of being a serial killer. The author of the book series has negated the bad effect of this bad habit through several means:

  • Dexter is a ‘good’ serial killer who doesn’t prey on victims who excite him, or victims whose deaths will bring him personal profit, like real serial killers. He preys only on other serial killers, and he uses his forensic skills and police connections to make sure his victims are guilt. In other words, he acts as an unofficial supporter of the law, although he is breaking the law. Serial murder is one crime that cries out for the death penalty, both as a matter of justice and because it’s never safe to risk letting a habitual murder out of prison.
  • Dexter’s sister and her ‘vicious arm punches.’ Dexter has a very bossy sister, Deb, who often punches Dexter in the arm just to get his attention. Dexter doesn’t respond by pulling out his flensing knife, but he usually does what his sister wants. He even loves his sister, to the extend that he can love people.
  • Dexter as a henpecked husband. Dexter’s wife Rita is also bosses Dexter around, though in a gentler way. He appreciates her good cooking. He may claim he can’t love anyone, but he certainly acts like he loves Rita. She is also useful to him, as she expects him to act like a ‘normal’ husband and tells him the things she expects him to do to fit that role.
  • Dexter as a protector and friend of children. Dexter particularly loves to kill serial killers who prey on children. And he is good with kids, especially his stepchildren. It’s perhaps because Dexter was traumatized as a child himself.

So you see, Dexter Morgan has enough heroic qualities that we feel good about rooting for him in his hunt for the serial killing villains who take innocent victims. As a serial killer, Dexter may seem to be a villain, not a hero. But in the context of Dexter-world, he is so much more virtuous than the more wicked killers he is chasing, that he IS enough of a hero that readers can identify.

As writers who want our fiction to win over readers, we should make it easy for them. Make our main characters heroes— both by giving them virtues, and by giving the villains vices. If your hero has major moral flaws like Dexter does, give him some virtues, and a villain who has much worse moral flaws. No matter how much a reader might claim he has rejected traditional moral rules, he will still prefer to root for a character that has some good in him.

What true crime stories can teach us about fictional characters

I like to read true crime books, if they are well-written or if the case is interesting to me. And one thing I’ve learned about true crime stories— it’s all about the characters. There are some true crime books published every year because the murder cases garnered a few headlines and people want to read more. But the books soon drop out of sight, because most people don’t find the cases all that interesting.

Other cases— like those of Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Albert Fish, Ed Gein, and O.J. Simpson— remain of interest, no matter how much time goes by. Why is this? The difference is about the characters.

Some murders are almost routine. Armed robber kills victim. Pimp kills prostitute. Violent husband kills wife. Wife poisons husband— or a series of them— for the insurance money. These cases make headlines at the time, but most of them are quickly forgotten once the trial is over.

But the interesting cases are those with something special. A murderer that is notable and interesting— like O. J. Simpson, once the nation’s hero during his football career. Or perhaps an accused murderer that many believe is innocent, like Lizzie Borden. Or a sympathetic victim, like little Grace Budd who was lured away by Albert Fish and cruelly murdered.

Murderers aren’t normally the kind of people we want to spend time with, but the good true crime author presents the case as if it were a fictional tale with heroes and villains, and an ending that often brings a degree of closure.

Fictional stories are like that. It’s all about the characters. If the characters are dull and prosaic and walking stereotypes, the book is dull and you may not be able to finish it.

I knew an author that had a longish book out on Kindle. I read a lot of the beginning but I couldn’t find characters I much cared about or plotlines where I just had to know the outcome— perhaps because they involved characters that hadn’t caught my interest. But then the author wrote a novella about one of his more minor characters. He did a great job on the novella and on the Lead character. It still didn’t give me the inspiration to finish the longer book, though I did try. But my experience makes the point— the characters are the thing.

Many writers, like those with Asperger Syndrome or autism, lack the social skills and insight to learn enough about the real people around them to create book characters based on these real people’s traits. But reading books, both fiction books and nonfiction like true crime, allow you to benefit from some other person’s social insights. Of course, a true crime writer might be inaccurate about the details of some of the characters. Some writers repeat local gossip about a murderer to blacken that murderer’s name. I read a book about a woman who killed all of her own children, perhaps because of the mental disorder Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy. The local gossips accused the woman of being part of a rumored witchcraft coven in the area. But the evidence seems to point to the idea that this woman was quite conventional and attended Christian churches.

Now, fictional characters are not exactly like real people. Each fictional character has a function in the overall plot of the story. Real life isn’t that neat. But learning more about real people, even through a habit of true crime fandom, can help you create more compelling fictional people.