Category Archives: Character

Black and White vs Grey Part 2: The Grey Camp

In my last article I wrote about a particular audience of readers whom I called the “black and white team.”  These readers enjoy stories where clearly defined heroes and villains face off in battles of good vs. evil.  These stories can feature complex interplay between the heroes (and also between the villains), but in the end, there is never any question as to which side is “good”, and which is “bad”.  Facing off against the “black and white” team is the “grey camp,” who are looking for something different from their fiction.

I first encountered the “grey camp” as a group of people who’d watched a cartoon series and realized that they sympathized with the villains moreso than the heroes!  To their minds, the villains were strong, assertive, independent and persistent, whereas the heroes were passive, forever reacting to the villains instead of taking their own initiative, chastened by their leader if they went off on their own.  Small moments of dialogue and animation showed hints of affection between the villainous characters, indicating that the villains just might have a “life” outside of fighting the heroes.

This fandom’s “grey camp” hoped for more fiction that would develop the villains as rounded characters..  They argued that fans could care about the “bad guys” as much as they cared about the heroes. As it turns out, some of the ongoing fiction has begun presenting the villains as characters with conflicting beliefs, legitimate grievances, and admirable traits of their own.

These stories provide a challenge in that the protagonist must have enough positive traits for the reader to be interested in her and care about her actions, but she also must be “villainous” enough to be a credible member of the “enemy” side.  I think about “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a novel where the main character is a German soldier in the First World War.  Originally written in German, the translation into English allowed English readers to see the conflict “through enemy eyes.”  In other cases, the protagonists may do “bad” things, but the enemies they are fighting are worse, and therefore readers feel good about cheering for these anti-heroes.

Taken one step further, the “grey camp’s” stories can go beyond the good guy/bad guy dichotomy to show complex situations where two sides, both with positive and negative aspects, are set against one another.  Or, the hero might find herself with an ally who behaves in ways she finds disturbing or immoral.  These stories challenge the reader to see issues from different points of view.  They illustrate how upbringing, beliefs, personality traits, and life experience can affect a person’s interpretations.  Characters may experience the same event, but draw wholly different conclusions from the result.  Protagonists suffer from flaws and sometimes behave badly; antagonists show courage, loyalty, and friendship.  Characters, and readers, sometimes wonder which side is right, and why?

Writing the “grey camp” can be very challenging, and I will devote the next article to some of its pitfalls while providing suggestions and techniques.

Historical Mythology: Don’t worldbuild without it

In preparation for the next volume of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve been rereading the series so far, and it struck me how much the historical mythology he has created helps his world live and breath. It made me want to write this post about how important historical mythology is in creating a fully realized world.

Now, when I say historical mythology, I’m not necessarily talking about religion or explanations of the natural world. What I’m talking about is the how people use history to explain the here and now. It’s the mythologizing of real historical events and people. It’s putting a spin on what happened to come up with a why and a how that serves the present.

We all know that it’s as important to know what happened before a story began as it is to know where the story is told. No story takes place in a vacuum. There has to be a “before” if there is a “now.” How deep you go into that history depends, of course, on what genre you’re writing. A Paranormal Romance will give history less weight than an Epic Fantasy.

But knowing knowing the history is only part of the process. The other is how that history becomes part of a person or places mythology. Historical mythology is one of the building blocks of backstory that I think people forget. Very often we treat what we write as truth, and the reader will read it as truth. In that epic fantasy you’re writing, you might have an extensive historical time-line of what really happened. But people don’t remember history as what really happened. We remember history by being told about it from others, and as the old adage says, “History is written by the victors.” Historical mythology is how that real history is remembered over time, and it applies to the world, such as with wars and social changes, but also to the personal, such as with what happened to a father and son that caused them to stop speaking.

One of the truly interesting thing that happens when you start looking at history from a mythology standpoint, is that you see how it can change depending on the point of view. Using Martin as an example, one of the more important moments in recent history is the war that made Robert Baratheon a king. This war was sparked by Prince Rhaegar Targaryan running off with Lyanna Stark. A Stark would say that they went to war because Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna, but a Targaryan would argue that the two were in love. Ask someone not of either family, and the whole issue might have been just an excuse to dethrone Rhaegar’s completely insane father. One makes the war about vengeance, another love, the third justice. In this way, the mythology aspect simplifies the incident and gives it meaning. Over time these varying points of view will perpetuate, merge, and come in conflict with each other. We can already sense the impending conflict when the last of the Starks finally meets up with the last of the Targaryans.

In a way, this sort of humanizes the world. It makes the history of the people and places as frail and faulty as the people who live with it. I don’t know about you, but I’m still reading Martin to find out if any of the points of view above are what really happened.

So, when you’re writing that personal story, whether it takes place in an epic world or down the street, think not only of the real history, but how that history can be simplified, misunderstood, or all out mangled. Then, look at how that altered version affects the characters you’re writing about. Not only can this make for great conflict when the various versions meet up, but it gives the world you’re creating a more realistic, human scope.


I am a Christian of a conservative evangelical stripe.  (If it matters to you, I lean to the Calvinist end of the Christian theological spectrum.)  I am not ashamed of this.

I also love to read and write science fiction and fantasy.  I am not ashamed of this.

This is not a contradiction in terms, or an oxymoron, or a paradox, or an antinomy, or any other such condition.  Sorry, it’s not.  This is, however, leading me to scratch a particular itch that has been bugging me for a loooooong time.

No, I’m not going to indulge in a theological rant.  Not my purpose here.  Nor do I intend to delve into issues of morality, ethics, doctrine, or comparative theology.  (Contact me off line if you want to have that kind of discussion.)  I’m not even going to discuss whether or not religion should be a part of whatever cultural world building you do.  (Although that would be an interesting discussion in its own right.)  What I do want to do is raise a few points about how religion is portrayed in fiction-or more specifically, how people of faith are portrayed in fiction.

As I have admitted, I read mostly science fiction and fantasy.  In the last (mumble) years, I have noticed a trend.  It’s more prevalent, I believe, in science fiction and modern urban and paranormal fantasy than it is in more general or high/epic/quest fantasies.

There has always been a tendency for science fiction as a genre to treat religion as if it is irrelevant.  But increasingly of late, I see stories where characters who are people of strong religious faith are consistently described as if they are either congenital idiots who are so stupid that they willfully believe in things that are patent falsehoods, or they are amoral connivers and hucksters, or they are amoral religious fanatics whose most fervent desire is to destroy anyone and everything that does not fit their very narrow viewpoint of what is right and proper.  I as a reader am left with the implication that the only reasonable people around are those who are not religious.

Granted, religion has from time immemorial been a haven for con-men to take advantage of their credulous neighbors.

Granted, a lot of people today go through the religious motions just so they can find social or business or political advantages.

Granted, institutionalized religion has been involved in a good many wrongs over the centuries.

This does not mean, however, that all people who are truly believers in whatever they profess must necessarily fall into those categories.  The majority of people of faith are good people, moral people, who care about what’s right and wrong and care about other people.  That’s been true throughout history, and is still true today.  To consistently portray them as a whole as mentally deficient, as power-hungry despots, or as wolves preying on sheep is unrealistic.  An individual character can be credulous, or venal, or fanatical as the story demands, but an entire class of characters shouldn’t be.  It’s sloppy world building.  It makes for cardboard cutout two-dimensional characters, which in turn makes for sloppy writing and two-dimensional stories.

It’s not dishonest to write stories about characters whose beliefs are different from your own.  Eric Flint makes no secret that he’s an atheist, yet many of his characters in the 1632 series are accurately and warmly portrayed in their religious beliefs.  I’ve read that David Weber is a lay Methodist speaker, and I know from personal correspondence that he is a man of Christian faith of some depth, yet he has skillfully portrayed characters in several of his Honor Harrington novels of a level of religious or political fanaticism that would rival the worst we’ve seen in real life in the last twenty years.  And personally, I wrote a story in which the bad guy was totally amoral and a rapist.  (And yes, I was very glad to get that story done so I could get him out of my head!)  Yet I promise you that his nature and beliefs were not consonant with mine.

It is dishonest, however, to write stories about characters and not portray them fully.  It is dishonest to craft characters and tar them with the brush of all the excesses and sins committed by others under a particular banner (be it Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Republican, Democrat, atheist) but not give them credit for their virtues.  Even out and out villains have some virtues-how much more should regular people have?

And in the end, it makes for boring reading.  Really.

Is the same thing happening in other genres?

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.