Economy of Character

Chair, as subsumed by the concept furnitureThe human brain can only retain so much information; real estate in there is limited. One of the purposes of our minds is to condense that information to a manageable level. This is done through the formation of concepts, the most abstract of which are like skyscrapers on that limited real estate.

When using your mind to create these concepts (i.e. thinking), you are combining two or more objects or concepts (chair and table) into a higher-level concept (furniture). This new concept in effect gives you information about a potentially infinite amount of chair- or table-like objects (that they have the qualities of furniture). This applies to anything else your mind deems worthy of being called furniture.

Why bring this up in a discussion about character?

I primarily write in the fantasy genre, which is known to suffer from a malady called the cast of thousands, which is exactly what it sounds like. In order to achieve the epic scope they desire, some authors create many cultures and lands and people them accordingly. Some of the better writers attempt to alleviate this problem through masterful characterization and differentiation, but the problem remains: the human brain can only retain so much information.

It’s happened to everyone I know (myself included) who reads fantasy, especially the doorstoppers. We come across a character, and the name seems vaguely familiar, but we just cannot remember who that character is. We either figure out who the character is by the context, just ignore him, or treat him as a completely brand new character, history forgotten. None of these is ideal for a writer trying to tell a coherent story with a powerful emotional impact.

One solution to this problem is the very same process that you’ve used your whole life to make sense of the real world: combining lower-level units into higher-level abstractions.

Let’s say you have a character who is a policeman. Then, later on, you decide you also want to include a serial killer in your story. Nearly opposites, to be sure, but what if you combined these characters? A serial killer that is also a cop? Such a character already exists: Dexter, from the popular show of the same name. One of the hallmarks of both the book series and the show is how complex and interesting the main character is.

Of course, it’s easy just to smash two characters together and call it a day. But, like forming real concepts, it has to make sense (or rather, you have to make it make sense, since you are the one creating the character). You would never subsume chainsaw under the concept furniture. Also, the concept needs to have something essential about it that justifies its existence. The concept furniture tells us more about the world than just knowing about tables and chairs. The same must be true of the character. That essential attribute is that character’s identity, which in fiction usually boils down to his motivations, his personality, his beliefs, his psychology, etc.

In the example above, that identifying attribute could be Dexter’s homicidal urges as framed by his strange moral code.

Some of the immediate advantages of doing this should be obvious. First of all, your readers know who all of the characters are. But also, those two characters, who were perhaps a little flat to begin with, become three-dimensional when combined into one (if handled properly). This leads to deeper, more thoughtful fiction. Remember when I said that thought is concept formation? That’s why: the reader actually engages in that process when coming across characters like this.

Of course, this applies to other aspects of fiction as well, such as worldbuilding. So, take pity on your poor, confused readers and please, please economize your characters. Not only will they enjoy your stories more, but you’ll have made them feel smarter by the end, and that is always a good thing.

Stand Alone or Grow a Forest?

If books were trees, I’d have a forest in my head. It’s 842,622 words long, filled with sweeping character arcs, murky intentions, sacrificial heroism, the syncopated percussion of snapping bones, the crackling discharge of magic, the heady musk of blood. It’s a trilogy that has marinated in my conscious for near twenty years. It dwells in the vaults of my mind, the limbs of its beautiful prose framed by spaces, commas and periods, yearning to live the life of ink, dripped and stamped into meaning. My epic magnum opus.

Of course, I pulled that word count out of the ether, but I tend to read and desire to write doorstoppers . . . as long as they’re well-written. Twice before I tried to write the first book of my planned trilogy, and twice before I wrote myself into more corners than any house has a right to claim. The trees of my series blinded me, cramped the single tree I was trying to cultivate. It wasn’t until I heard other authors I respect and read talk about postponing larger projects that consumed their younger years while they honed their craft that I realized I was biting off more than my writing chops could chew. Carrying a story through a single book is far easier than trying to drape one over the frame of a series.

This is why most authors I’ve spoken with advise not trying to write a series fresh out of the gates. Usually, the untried author won’t be up to the challenge. Does this mean you’ll never be able to write a series? No. Michael Jordan didn’t dunk the first time he jumped, Brett Favre didn’t throw a touchdown the first time he picked up a football. And besides, most publishers won’t buy a series from an unknown author, though there are the occasional exceptions: Joe Abercrombie, Sam Sykes, R. Scott Bakker and others. Some publisher submission guidelines even go so far as to say if you’re submitting something that’s part of a larger work not to provide any info on the later books. If they’re interested, they’ll ask.

So, the advice which was given to me and which I now pass on to any other aspiring speculative fiction writers out there is to write a self-contained, stand alone novel-or six-before tackling a series. Prove to yourself you can carry a story from its beginning, through the muddy middle to its brilliant climax. The best series-in my opinion-contain books that stand on their own with beginnings, middles and endings, so focus on that when you’re just starting out. But-and this is important-don’t hold back! Don’t cling to your best ideas so you can use them in an eventual series, use them in what you’re writing now! You want anything you write to stand out and wow the reader . . . like a majestic tree standing apart from the forest.

The Lonely Writer …

There is a misconception that writing is a solitary activity. Insofar as the first steps of the process are concerned, it is. The initial draft and the rewrites can only be done by the writer. But check out the thank you or acknowledgement pages of any published book. It lists writing groups, friends, family, editors, research contacts, mentors – in short, it’s a community of support and resources which helped the author create a publishable book.

Support systems are integral to our success. They inspire us. They challenge us to perfection. They nourish our thirst for knowledge on craft and genre. They help us understand the business of writing – how to get the first contract, who to approach and how. And it’s a blessing when that support system is found within your writing group.

Every good writing group has members who help each other, by giving advice on craft and genre. But, most importantly, we need to be with like-minded people – those who understand the writing life – the joys and successes or the struggles and crazy times. These are the people who celebrate with us when the first draft is complete. They share our angst as we rewrite and perfect our work. They commiserate with us through the rejections. They party with us when the manuscript is sold and finds a home in bookstores.

I love the writing groups I belong to. One is this group which founded The Fictorian Era. Although we span three countries, we set weekly goals, support each other through highs and lows, beta read for one another and discuss issues for emerging authors. A local group, Mystery Writers Ink, provides awesome speakers and resources on matters of crime and craft. And, the third group, Imaginative Fictions Writers, is a critiquing and professional development group many of whose members have spearheaded the When Words Collide, a multi genre popular fiction conference for readers and writers.

The support we receive, we must give back. That is the nature of the writing life. We are there for each other. So, look at the writing group you belong to. Does it feed you? Does it inspire you? Then, ask yourself, how can I give back to it? Writing groups function because of dedicated volunteers. But, those volunteers can only do so much without jeopardising their own writing. The old adage, many hands make light work, seems trite, but it’s true. If we all do a little, we all get a lot back.

Just remember, successful authors have a community of support around them ….

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World-building – Stepping Through the Dance

So, I as a writer want to commit fiction. And I’ve been told I have to engage/indulge in world-building to do this. What does that entail? My thinking about this has changed even during the last few weeks since I started ruminating on this. Today’s thoughts look something like the following.

World-building is nothing more and nothing less than all of the foundational decisions that are made while preparing to commit fiction. At the moment my concept of this is that it is basically comprised of five components, in more or less the following order.

  1. Cosmology
  2. Biology
  3. Technology
  4. Sociology
  5. Characters

These labels are being use more as generic buckets and not as precise technical terms.

To begin with, the default of anything we must consider is the Earth human historical experience and understanding of our existing universe-how can it be otherwise, when it is our own physical/emotional/historical/social matrix? That means we need to make a conscious choice if we want/need to step outside that matrix in our writing.

When we consider the universe we plan to write our story in, the paramount question in our minds should be “Why?” We as writers need to justify anything we are going to create or change from the default. “Because it’s a cool idea!” isn’t good enough. “It’s fun!” isn’t good enough. “I like it!” isn’t good enough. As Tim Powers was heard to say at a recent SF convention (Soonercon 2011), he not only asks himself “Why?”, he then comes back and asks himself “Why really?”, in recognition that the first answer may not be the only/best/correct one. There has to be a reason in the story for that change. Not just a reason in the story, but it has to be key to some element in the story. Otherwise, what good is it?

And if we accept the defaults for all or most of our universe, we must answer the same questions, and for the same reason.

Either way, we may have to ask the second question several times to drive the real answer out.

So, briefly speaking, what kind of choices do we writers need to make? (A reminder: since I write fantasy and science fiction, I may cast my net a bit wider than some of you.)

Cosmology – the choices we make that determine the size and physical characteristics of the story universe, whether it is a superlatively grand multi-verse concept that authors such as Charles Stross and David Weber have recently utilized, a setting as small as a single mind inside a single skull/brain, or something in-between those two extremes. This includes the decisions we make about science and magic, most especially the rules that govern any twists we introduce to the Earth normal matrix.

Biology builds on cosmology, to my mind. If you’re going to vary from the default, perhaps even more important than knowing why certain biological constructs work is knowing why certain constructs won’t work. In the biological “world”, everything has a price, and the desired constructs might be possible, but only at trade-offs in other areas that might be prohibitive to you or your characters. Biology also encompasses the decision about what kinds of intelligence exist: human/alien/artificial/dwarf/elf? Other(s)? Blends?

Technology, whether “scientific” or “magical” or blended, builds on cosmology and biology, and is one that often is under-researched and under-developed. It includes not only decisions about what will work and what doesn’t, but also the questions about what resources are required, how much wealth it takes to own the technology, and maybe even how that wealth is developed.

Sociology: history, societies, religion, philosophy-the more we deviate from the default, the more intense both our research and our writing becomes. What twists will we create? What effect will they create in the universe?

Characters (which builds on cosmology, biology, technology, and sociology): This is a very nebulous territory lying on the borders of the Sociology aspect of world-building and the whole Writing Element of Characters. But in that borderland there is room for something that is “east of the sun” of designing a society and “west of the moon” of developing the individual characters in the story. It’s hard for me to define exactly what this part of world-building entails, but at the very least, this will involve developing the character, conscience and ethos of the peoples in our universe. This would potentially be very emotion-laden ground.

Okay, enough about the “how-2” of it. Next post we talk about some of the ins and outs of it all.