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Friending, NaNo, characterization rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Friending, NaNo, characterization rant
I just added seventeen friends to my list from mctabby's friending frenzy. And I'm only on page 8 (of 21).

I do like fandom. But I think I'm going to have to start sorting my friends somehow with those fancy filter things--art friends, communties, etc. But I don't know how to do it, and don't feel like learning until after my frenzied writing month is done.

On said upcoming writing frenzy, I'm already telling myself, "This is dumb, no one will like it, they'll think it's derivative and empty and..."

And this, my friends, is why I haven't gotten far. Nattering voices in my head. And it's why I'm doing NaNoWriMo. When you're writing upwards of 2,000 words a day--and I'm going to try for more--you don't have time to listen to the hectoring voices. I'm a big believer in going into writing with humility and a little bit of fear--keeps me from writing crapfic--but when it becomes totally paralyzing... it's going to keep me in the madhouse for life, and the way I generally survive the madhouse without going mad is by saying, "My real life is when I go home and write." That will be harder to argue in twenty years.

Since that's not a very entertaining post for any new friends, let's see...

Oh, I don't have anything funny. Howsabout a rant? Characterization? Sure, why not? It's been awhile. There've been comments (largely by Suethors who find their stories sporked at various sporking sites) along the lines of, "This is MY characterization!!!! It's only wrong in your stupid INTERPRETATION!" Not shockingly, I disagree.

These are things that the original author normally gives us outright, or implies strongly enough that it doesn't leave much room for INTERPRETATION.

1. Dialogue/Cadence. For any major character, and most minor ones, the original source material gives a good sampling of how a character speaks and interacts. Obi-Wan Kenobi speaks differently from Anakin Skywalker (and certainly from the, er, colorful Ewan McGregor)--it's a more cultured, easier tone of adult voice, the voice of someone who has the basic manners of life deeply ingrained. He uses a sort of gentle dry humor, which separates him from the brassy Han Solo. Han's dialogue is different from Luke's. By the same token, in HP, Hermione's dialogue has a very distinctive cadence to it--a little rapid, culminating in unfinished thoughts often enough that Ron actually comments on it in OotP. She's swotty and over-eager when she's nervous, and an impatient speaker when she's excited. Ron is more lackadaisical, and Harry more circumspect. Remus Lupin is terribly cordial even when he's snarking on Snape (in fact, he seems to use the cordiality as his form of snark), and Snape is short tempered and formal in his speech. Sirius Black engages emotionally with the people he's talking to, while Peter Pettigrew is timid and hesitant about presenting any thoughts he might have (or lies he's thinking about telling). This is all there in canon. Hermione suddenly becoming a giggling Valley Girl, aside from being non-British, would be totally outside of her way of speaking, and would require a serious explanation of her behavior. Why is this important in characterization, beyond the obvious? Because we choose words the way we choose them for a reason. Saying, "My husband is indisposed at the moment" says something very different about the character speaking than, "My ol' man's in the crapper again" (though the unfortunate husband is likely to be in the same predicament).

2. Priorities and goals. Characters want and value things in their fictional lives. That's part of how the author introduces them to us. Now, they may want more than what the reader/viewer initially believes, but the author chooses to show certain things because they do matter to the character. Draco Malfoy not being at all concerned about the image he's projecting, or Hermione not worrying about her homework (or putting dating ahead of it) is out-of-character, because those are established priorities of the characters in question. Obi-Wan values being a Jedi. Anakin wants his family. Buffy is conflicted about being a Slayer, but repeatedly chooses it. Sam Beckett values the idea of going home (even if he sacrifices it). Jack McCoy likes to win cases (even if he's not always 100% ethical about it). Ender Wiggin wants his brother to love him. All of this is explicit in the texts, and not contradicted by actions which might cast doubt on the stated motives. Ignoring these priorities and goals makes for OOC-ness.

3. Tone. Harder to define and related to cadence, but it's not solely about the way words are strung together. It's about the entire manner of the character. Now, how your POV character perceives this tone may vary--some people really love Wagnerian opera while some people prefer Lennon-McCartney--but the tone itself needs to be even. Molly isn't suddenly going to become cold and disinterested, though your character may perceive her as nurturing and strong-willed or as a closed-minded busy-body.

4. Talents, skills, and assorted traits. This probably should go without saying, but a Hermione who's incompetent in Potions, an Anakin who gets stranded on a planet because he can't find a mechanic to fix his fighter, or a Sam Gamgee who thinks McDonald's is fine dining is not going to fly character-wise. There's stuff that they're good at. And there are things that are just true about them--Harry's messy hair, for instance, or Anya's literalism (BtVS). There are just things that are so, and must continue to be so, unless the change is something that the plot hinges on. No, I don't mean as in, "I need Padmé to be sexually loose to make my plot work, so I'll make her a floozy." I mean, as in, "Something is making Padmé not herself... can Anakin and Obi-Wan find the cure before she disappears entirely?"

5. Existing relationships. The character in canon has a network of friends and acquaintances, and treats them in various, generally stable ways. A story may be about a shift in one of those relationships--a cooling or deepening or, er, warming--but you have to start at the canon point. Also, just because you as an author don't like a character doesn't mean that a character who likes him in canon will suddenly start disliking him. In other words, you may think James T. Kirk is a womanizing creep with shallow ambitions and lousy command practices, but Spock, in canon, considers him a good captain and apparently doesn't care one way or another about the revolving cabin door. Spock is not suddenly going to become terribly indignant about these things, because they are part of the existing relationship, and he is not indignant about them. You could hang a plot on Spock encountering something that makes him question it, but it can't be an ongoing issue.

6. Moral values. Again, not yours, but the characters'. This is related to goals and priorities, but is less temporal. What does the character believe about right and wrong? Does he believe in it at all, or does he, Voldemort-like, believe that "there is no good and evil, only power"? What moral lines has s/he been shown unwilling to cross? And which ones does he, shockingly, stride right over? (Giles and Ben in BtVS5.) Does the evil character know s/he is evil, or does s/he believe it's all for the greater good? Canon-wise, not fanon-wise. Some characters, mainly minor ones, we don't know about. Others, there's enough information to judge. So if you happen to think Ron is evil, I think you're wrong on any number of counts, but you could write your story--as long as you understand and write Ron himself as believing that he's good.

7. Self-perception . This is the only one that's not always made clear in the original texts, but a lot of times, it's very strongly imlied. Hermione is insecure about relationships with anything other than her books. Willow conveniently tells us, when she's evil!Willow (and to some extent, in her doppelganger Vamp!Willow guise), what she thinks of her "weak" self, though it's not normally quite that bad and she tries to overcome it. Harry sees himself as "Just Harry." Ron sees himself in competition with his brothers. And so on. Getting these self-perceptions wrong is going to mess with characterization rather severely.

Anyway, that's my rant today.
13 comments or Leave a comment
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: October 26th, 2004 09:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Pay no attention to those voices, Fern.

2K words per day is an impressive goal, but you can do it!
ashtur From: ashtur Date: October 26th, 2004 09:41 am (UTC) (Link)
This is one area where writing fanfic is actually harder than writing original fic. (The same applies for any form of writing where the writer is not also the creator of the character... movie/TV writing, many comic books, adaptations of movies, and the like.)

If you develop a character on your own, you have an intuitive feel for that character, the way they speak, the way they think and the like. I know what Agianna is going to do, how she'll talk.

On the other hand, if you are trying to write someone else's character, it becomes much harder. You have to try to "absorb" that character, understand their thoughts, their motavation, and still try to connect with the creator's view, a much different, and much harder thing to do. I still question fairly strongly if I got Susan "right" (even considering she had all of three lines in OoTP).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 26th, 2004 11:11 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if it's harder exactly, but it's a different skill set in addition to the regular writing skill set. In addition to a general ability to understand people, you also have to be able to parse a text and understand, to some extent, what the author is up to, and not in the way they teach in English class. Fanfic is less akin to literary analysis than it is to improvisational performance. (I can imagine a good English class assignment, in which the students are each given a character in the novel and a situation, and told to improvise a short monologue about how the character would approach it. Though the less imaginative types would freeze up, I guess.)
castaliae From: castaliae Date: October 26th, 2004 10:26 am (UTC) (Link)
I'll bite: What is NaNoWriMo?

Also, I think I may add this to my memories. I'm always worried about OOC and this seems to be a great checklist.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 26th, 2004 10:52 am (UTC) (Link)
National Novel Writing Month. In which crazy writers try to cough up 50,000 words of prose during November. I'm going to use it to break my original fiction block. I hope.
leeflower From: leeflower Date: October 26th, 2004 02:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
I present a way of looking at the roles a writer plays, apropos of your self-doubts:

Wildchild: Writes and writes and writes and writes. The meat of the expertise is the interesting turn of phraze, the fresh image, the creative comparison, the witty comment. Everything the wildchild writes is PRECIOUS! They can write no wrong, because they don't look at what they've written, they just keep ploughing forward. In trying to get your 2K words a day, this is first and formost the part to play.

Architect: Comes in after the wildchild. The architect is concerned with function and structure, and is the role you assume when you highlight whole paragraphs and move them about. The Architect knows what makes a good character, a compelling plot, and a reliable structure.

Carpenter: First and formost to the carpenter is form. Sentence by sentence, they build the story. Their I-beams are grammar, their wirings are spelling.

These three are very good friends, who can and often do run around simultaniously. They have a fourth counterpart, though, who must be kept alone.

The Judge. He plays an extremely important part in the story writing process, but he and the wildchild simply cannot stand each other, and as he is twice the wildchild's size, it's best to simply seperate them, and invite him in to do his work after the wildchild has retired for the night.

So shove the judge in the closet. Your fans are rooting for the wildchild.
the_jackalope From: the_jackalope Date: October 26th, 2004 04:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oooh excelent post. Now if only it could be pounded into the head of anyone who writes fan fiction. I'm tired of being suckered into a story by decent writing only to discover half-way through it that I no longer recongize the characters.
penknife From: penknife Date: October 26th, 2004 06:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love this, and most of my thoughts are "I totally agree." 1 is key -- if you can't get the characters' voices right, you need to go steep yourself in canon until they come clear for you. And I like 6 and 7, especially, because those come up a lot in X-Men movieverse. You can make a case from canon for "Magneto is evil." But it's totally OOC for him to believe that.
michelle_ravel From: michelle_ravel Date: October 26th, 2004 07:54 pm (UTC) (Link)

All this is true. And when we read... certain stories... it's easy to tell when a characterisation is off, and it usually has absolutely nothing to do with who's in love with whom. It really has to do with--does this character SOUND like himself? Is he making choices he would make? Is he using the word "crapper"?
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: October 26th, 2004 08:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is a lovely essay, fernwithy. I especially liked #1, because I think it's something people don't necessarily think of when trying to keep someone IC, but it makes a huge difference. I've read a number of Snapefics that were otherwise good, but the authors just couldn't nail his voice. And his way of speaking is so distinctly his own that when an author doesn't get it right, it really feels OOC to me.
arclevel From: arclevel Date: October 26th, 2004 10:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sort of having similar issues with writing, but I think I'll make a post in my own journal about them. Good luck plowing through, though!

In general, I agree with all of these. However, I think some of them do still leave a lot of room for interpretation. For instance, you could look at the same set of actions and, without extensive romanticizing, attach a different set of priorities or moral values to it. Obviously, this is a lot more likely with minor characters. Similarly, I think that quite a lot of things can be changed in future fic. However, in both these cases, I think that the author still has a responsibility to connect it back to canon. For instance, if saying that Draco's a fluffy bunny and really has no interest in pureblood politics, then he still needs to have some reason for acting the way he does. Why does he call Hermione a Mudblood and strongly imply he sides with Voldemort? Why does he act in such a way that HRH have exactly the opposite perspective on him? In that case, I think I'd sort of qualify these (or add), "narrative perception," which in HP means "Harry's perception." If a character is not who the narration sees, then why does the narration see him as such?

In future fic, I think you can change practically anything (speech patterns less so, especially if the character's already an adult). However, I think it's important to have at least a general mental framework for how said character got from there (ie, OotP) to here. If Snape and Remus are madly in love, then how did they get over their incredible antipathy and see each other in a new light? I don't think this necessarily needs to be in the story, but the author shoud have that perspective (and might want to allude to it).

Basically, I agree and think this is a great list of things to remember, but I also think that good authors can still carefully work around them.
seelechen From: seelechen Date: October 27th, 2004 02:36 am (UTC) (Link)
That's a great list of elements to pay attention to in characterisation. Helpful, too - I'll likely keep these to mind when I'm writing.
sea_of_tethys From: sea_of_tethys Date: October 29th, 2004 07:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Easiest way to sort friends into groups is to use a client - I use Xjournal. It's really simple, you make a group folder and then just drag in the usernames of all the friends you want to put in it.
13 comments or Leave a comment