C is for (the secret of killing) Characters

Zombie-Sophia-the-walking-dead-sophia-30391439-480-480The issue of the killing of fictional characters has been on  my mind lately. Perhaps it was in anticipation of last night’s Walking Dead episode, which was…. unsettling.

Fiction with a high character body count is a thing right now, in books, television and movies. But there is a trick to it. And I will reveal it to you.

Think of The Walking Dead. Any TWD fan can tell you of all the tragic character deaths they have endured. Laurie. Tyreese. Lizzie. Mika. You might guess that the first episode of TWD was just LOADED with important characters that were there so they could be killed off later. But the first part of that episode was just Rick, waking up in a hospital full of zombies.

You see, many of the major characters who suffer tragic deaths in today’s fiction didn’t start out as major characters. Or even as minor ones. Most of them began as peripheral characters— more part of the scenery than people. Kind of like those redshirt security men that kept getting killed on the original Star Trek.

When you kill off a peripheral character, it’s not a big deal. It’s almost like punctuation. Big-Bad just killed a redshirt, I guess that means he’s serious. Even children can handle a peripheral character death. Those characters haven’t had time to become PEOPLE to us.

But the trick of high-body-count fiction is that before a character dies, his status is increased. He gets more screen time, he interacts with major and important minor characters, we learn a bit of his story. If he dies then, it’s not a minor death. It feels like a major beloved character has been wantonly killed. Even though a few short chapters/episodes ago that character was anything but major or beloved.

But doesn’t it give away the author’s intent when a peripheral character is built up like that? No. Peripheral characters are built up like that all the time, with no intent of then gruesomely killing the character to torture the reader. The characters may be built up because they have an important role to fill down the road, or to be a replacement for another character who is going to die or move out of the story.

In a television or novel series of the high-body-count type, new peripheral characters must constantly be introduced. The characters must go on being killed, but the character group can’t be seen to be shrinking down to nothing. The series must continue to have a base of characters to root for, love, and, possibly, mourn.

But I have one concern about high-body-count fiction. What is the author really trying to say with all the deaths. For some, it could mean that every life is precious and every person deserves mourning when the go. For others, it could mean that they believe life is meaningless, we all die anyway, so who cares if someone dies, gruesomely, right now. For some unskilled writers, random character butchery is just a way for the writer to get some attention. But writers should be concerned about what message their work is leaving in this essential area of respect for life, lest they find their ‘Number One Fan’ perpetrating a real-life massacre in their honor.

C

This is a post in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/

Learning to introduce characters in a novel.

When you are beginning to write a novel, there are two ways to introduce each character: give too much information about the character, or too little. It’s hard to learn to do it just right.

One thing that helped me was to take out a novel with a similar amount of characters to introduce that was in the same genre (science fiction) and written by a traditionally published author.

I took out my writing notebook an analyzed the first few scenes. I wrote down on what page each character was introduced, and what information was given about each character. I noted who was the viewpoint character in each scene. When I was done I wrote a short summary of the scene.

This helped me a lot. I noted that in the novel at hand, three characters were introduced in the first scene and two different characters in the second. All were important characters in the whole novel.

Earlier in the morning I had started a first scene for my ‘Starship Destine’ novel. After doing the analysis on the professionally written novel, I came to the conclusion that in the rewrite I have to introduce smaller groups of important characters at a time. I also noticed that my model novel mentioned more specifics about the futuristic starship technology in these early scenes.

I think the method I tried today is something I ought to continue with— using a real, professionally published novel as a model to be studied. When reading, I tend to skim in search of excitement. But if I am reading specifically to learn and I take notes, I see things I wouldn’t see otherwise.

It also helped to see what things were mentioned about the characters in each scene. The viewpoint characters in the two scenes— who were the two most significant characters in the novel— had more information given about them. The other characters remained more of a mystery, though I did learn whether each was human or alien. Slight mention of the past history of the two major characters was even given.

For my writing tomorrow, I’ve decided to do a new scene with a different character, starting a little earlier in the story. I’m going to keep the other characters at a minimum, and introduce the initial crisis— an attack on the Terran Fleet Academy’s home world by unknown forces.

Of course that means I’m going to start a whole new scene 1. I’ve done two others. But I think in my case that’s just part of the way I get started. A couple of false starts clarifies things for me.

So, fellow writers: what have you learned through your writing today? And if you were to use a model novel to help you study an aspect of writing, what novel might you pick and why?

A ban on Anglo-Saxon character names?

Captain_KirkAs a fan of science fiction for lo these many years, I have long been dismayed at the critique of science fiction that states there are too many Anglo-Saxon characters with Anglo-Saxon names. Why dismayed? Because these critiques are always in English— the Anglo-Saxon language— and reference science fiction in English.

It only stands to reason that the majority of people who read science fiction in English are deeply comfortable with Anglo-Saxon character names. In England it is because most of the people are ethnic Anglo-Saxons. In America, it’s more because Anglo-Saxon names are so common— even though often those Anglo-Saxon names belong to African-American people.

In the days of the pulp science fiction magazines, editors wanted authors to use Anglo-Saxon names for their characters because the reading public identified with such characters. In fact, many of the authors adopted Anglo-Saxon pen names.

But time marched on. After World War Two, when African-Americans and Asian-Americans served their country so well, and many American men had gone overseas to fight and thus become more aware of other parts of the world, change was inevitable. Non-Anglo-Saxon names, and characters, were more accepted by readers.

Many people think of the television series Star Trek (the original series) as having broken a lot of barriers when it came to having a multi-cultural character group. But the captain— very much the main character in that version of Star Trek— was of Anglo-Saxon origin. In fact, of the three main characters of the show there were 2 and 1/2 Americans— Kirk and McCoy were Americans and Spock’s mother, Amanda was also.

The Enterprise did have a variety of other characters and had amazing diversity for the time. But they wisely didn’t expect the average television viewer of the day to accept a non-Anglo-Saxon as a lead character.

But today things are very different. Instead of being plagued by old-fashioned outright prejudice, we have the kind of new-age prejudice that calls Star Wars ‘racist’ because Darth Vader is wicked and he’s black (?). OK, he’s not really black, but he wears a black outfit.

Audiences today would accept an Asian or African or Pacific Islander as a starship captain and identify with the character. But for those people who still have a touch of Anglo-Saxon in their genetic makeup, and who have the misfortune to be ‘white’, there is a little discomfort. When we see someone of a non-Anglo-Saxon background, we wonder if they would judge us harshly because of our evil ancestors. We identify a bit more with characters that might have a bit of Anglo-Saxon blood, and so are ‘evil like us’. And we are comfortable with Anglo-Saxon names that we don’t have to put our tongue on backward to pronounce.

University liberals would probably love to declare a full ban on Anglo-Saxon names and Anglo-Saxon characters. But they would be saying that IN ENGLISH. And as long as we have fiction in English, there will be fiction readers who would like to have Anglo-Saxon characters as part of a happy mix including every current type of human and a double serving of interesting aliens.


See that place up on the top of this blog post where you are invited to rate this blog post with one to five stars? For experimental purposes I’m asking each person who reads this post to give it 1-4 stars. If enough people do it, maybe it will create a black hole or something.