Sunday, April 08, 2007


Since this is the celebration of Spring, and a Pagan holiday, I decided to get a little lighter today than I have been. Spring? It's snowing and the temperature is below freezing...and we've had quite a bit of freezing drizzle, which is almost unheard of in this area...

Today I thought I'd talk about something that I get asked about a lot. Where do my characters come from?

My protagonists are generally victims of the world they live in. Strangely, as anti-military as I tend to be, a lot of my characters are soldiers...but they're usually soldiers with a conscience. They view the nasty world of war from inside, and don't like what they see. Often that consumes them...yes, I have a bad habit of killing off my characters.

I view oppression in the world as one of the greatest evils, and thus my characters are often religion, society, the corporate world, whatever happens to be bugging me on the day I write.

I also use scientists a lot...and they usually realize that whatever they're doing is being perverted by the government they work for. Are you starting to see a theme here?

As for antagonists, I often try to use people that I can't really understand. Again the military is a big one for me. I know this will piss my friend Vik off, but if you join the military as infantry, fighter pilot, marine, and such, then it means that you are willing to kill. Somewhere in your psyche is the ability to take another human being's life, and that is something I can't comprehend, so I often use those characters. Same could be said for using CEOs of major corporations. I've never understood the goal of raping and pillaging the planet and its inhabitants just to make a they're often my antagonists. I suppose it's an attempt on my part to better understand these people.

More than anything, my antagonists tend to be amorphous concepts (oppression, environmental damage, war, hatred). There may be people filling those roles, but they're part of a bigger whole, and at times even my antagonists are victims more than participants.

Basically, I guess you could say that my characters tend to be caught up in a world that they have no chance of truly understanding, and they have no chance of being able to control it. Still, it's their struggle that makes them who they are, and even if they fail, they usually give a good fight.


Keith said...

The hardest thing about characters is to make them fallible. The author knows the ways that a protagonist will succeed or an antagonist will fail. This has the deck stacked too much. The ending must be a foreseeable consequence of the action , but it must be a surprise to the characters, as well as the reader. Characters must fail. I forget who said that a plot is chasing a character up a tree and then throwing rocks at him. If you don't have fallible characters, that stumble and fall a lot, then your story is just a comic book. If the reader doesn't believe that the protagonist might die or lose or give up, then the story is not worth reading.

One advantage to having lived a few years and moving in the weird world of blues harmonica is that I have met some real characters that I can use to populate the stories. I have to tone them down to the point where they are believable, though.

Using yourself as a character is not a good idea. You know too much about yourself and you wind up explaining yourself to the reader all the time. I like to pick someone I know as the protagonist and throw in pinch of myself or a spoon full of other people - season to taste.

J Erwine said...

My characters are almost alwys fallible, sometimes to the point of almost being unlikable...

As far as using yourself as a character, I agree, although I do have to admit that there's often a little piece of me in most of them...the secret is trying to figure out what parts...

Anonymous said...

Fredric Brown said to model your antagonist on someone you admire, it makes things more interesting.

This would also tie into your earlier post regarding shades of "grey". As an atheist, I throw out the spectres and devils and imps, and agree with the philosopher who says that no one knowingly does evil. People make excuses to themselves for what they do. For ex., the American pacifist resigned to pay for the war with his or her tax dollars. Thoreau took a stand, wound up in jail -- and famous.

As a fiction writer, I can even imagine the twisted "reasoning" behind the suicide bomber and jihadist, but I can't excuse it -- or blame myself. If they see themselves as freedom fighters or revolutionaries, I see them as Barbary pirates or crusaders, their war with the rest of the world fueled more by ancient mythology and its legacy of hate than by anything a secular nation has ever done.

I think the tragedy can become much more profound and realistic if you refuse to make a straw man of the antagonist, and the pacifist should really know better than to demonize a US marine sniper or a Walmart exec. By understanding where they're coming from we can more effectively undermine their willingness to harm and exploit.