Tuesday 23 June 2015

Episodic Characters — Character School Part 3

In the previous two articles from this series, we looked at general tips for believable character interactions, and the basic fundamentals of creating solid main characters.

Both of those articles give a number of useful starting points for the kind of things that need to be taken into consideration when we are trying to craft characters the reader will enjoy and respond to.

But what should we do if we want to develop a character across several books? How can we juggle the opposing goals of creating a reader-character relationship, and not giving away too much too early?

I might just be able to help with that.

What's the Problem?

When I started to plan the Armada Wars series, I had envisioned it as a collection of multi-part stories, taking place on a huge stage (the galaxy) and across several decades. Characters would appear in several (or all) episodes of a particular story, and possibly even appear in other stories which occur at different times in their lives.

What I wanted to avoid was the sort of ad hoc approach to character development that occurs in franchises where many different writers contribute to long term stories, often put in positions where they would be crow-barring in some long term history just to serve the short term plot.

As an example of this in action, let's look at Star Trek: Voyager. I am quite fond of Voyager, despite its dated style and obvious drawbacks, but the character devices they used to employ always drove me nuts. You'd have a great character such as Seven of Nine, with a terrible event in their history which is often — and briefly — referred to. Then after a couple of seasons a writer comes on board to flesh out that historical event, and it's a great character episode. But then later you get to thinking about it, and hold on... wouldn't that mean that this, this, and these preceding episodes would have played out differently? Why did Seven not explain matters at this point here, where it would have saved her and the rest of the crew some strife? Why wasn't this mentioned earlier, so that I cared about the character more and believed why they are the way they are?

You get the idea.

As you can imagine, I had to have a jolly good think about this character problem very early on.

Tackling the Problem

The system I came up with for managing characters across several books is one which will probably make sense quickly, although it was by no means immediately or intuitively obvious. I had to consider many factors which actively compete with each other.

Some of these were:
  • Giving the reader enough information to identify with characters.
  • Holding back enough information to not spoil any surprises later on.
  • Not over-loading the reader with "data dumps" of complicated histories or emotional meltdowns.
  • Avoiding creating a character moment which would obviously indicate a later plot event (especially if that event occurs in a later book.)
...and so on.

Depending on how much thought you have given this problem, you may recognise some or all of those facets.

Let's take an example from the current story arc: protaganist Elm Caden.

In the first book, Steal from the Devil, Caden is very obviously the main character. But here's the thing: as we read the book, we're not quite sure why that is. He doesn't do much. His reactions are fairly predictable. He rides his authority through the story (or rather he tries to), right up until the climax where — even as far as his own buddy is concerned — his primary contribution is to act out of character.

In Devil, Caden's inner thoughts were often bouncing off what you might call his companion personality, the not-quite-defined entity he refers to as "The Emptiness". Also, some of the scenes which dealt with him were flashbacks, each one from his childhood at progressively later times.

In the next book, List of the Dead, we lost the benefit of flashbacks for Caden, as that device switched across to the secondary protagonist Rendir Throam. We also heard a lot less from The Emptiness, although there is just enough there to remind us that it is still a part of Caden's personality (difficult to phrase that without spoilers!)

But where Devil left us wondering why Caden was the main character, Dead drives the point home. He IS in charge of the mission, and he DOES have his place; both in the hierarchical society of the Imperial Combine, and in the swirling morass of events which we rightly suspect is dragging the galaxy towards some terrible, unforeseeable confrontation.

In book three, The Ravening Deep, the flashbacks will again switch, this time to tertiary protagonist Euryce Eilentes. But by now Caden is established, and both his story and his personality will grow along the template which the two preceding books created.

Through Devil, we're left with the impression that Caden came from a privileged but emotionally damaging background, and that this has led to him coming up with some very strict internal "rules" which he uses to govern himself in his work and his day-to-day life. We know he has issues, and while we might suspect what they are we aren't certain exactly because of the unusual way in which they manifest (i.e. The Emptiness).

This creates a "hook" which propels the reader on to Dead, where they require that mysteries be explained. In Dead we do get some answers in respect of Caden, but not in the way we expect to get them. Where earlier it would have clouded his decisions, The Emptiness falls silent and we see what happens to Caden when he has no internal counterpoint for his thought processes, when he is left to make his own judgements with the dual benefit/burden of emotional facilities that he had bottled up for a couple of decades.

Spoiler warning! Right at the end of Dead, Caden is then stripped of something which is very important to him both in terms of his ability to perform his role, and his emotional stability in general. That's the hook for Deep right there.

Putting it all Together

If you read and remember the previous articles, you might already have figured out that my approach is systematic and relies on two things: foreknowledge and consistency.

Here is where all the groundwork laid down in the character design stage pays off: we're using the character histories we had worked out ahead of time to stay grounded, and literary tools like flashbacks to bring those histories to life.

The trick at the character level is to keep goalposts for the characters; for their moments of clarity, their challenges and obstacles, their confessions or declarations to other characters, and the inner thoughts they share with the reader.

But it has to work at the episodic level too, and this is why I planned out the story of all five books in the current arc before I began writing, and the story frameworks for the books which will precede this story. Each main character goes through stages of development which are internally consistent with the plot of the book they occur in, and externally consistent with the plots of the other books — not just in that story, but in future stories.

I call this the "Episodic Characters" approach.

Let's return to the example of Elm Caden. In Steal from the Devil we join him when he is already in turmoil, and we aren't sure why that is. In List of the Dead it's as though he is in the aftermath of that turmoil. In The Ravening Deep he will face turmoil of a different kind, which will intensify in books four and five, culminating in the story's apocalyptic climax.

But it doesn't stop there. Those with sharp memories will recall all the little moments in Devil which referred to the Trinity Crisis, and we know that Caden, Throam, and Maber Castigon all had involvement in those events. That story will be told, and — as with any of the Trinity Crisis characters who we have already met — Caden's role in it will add to and complement what we have already seen, instead of contradicting it. It will not only provide new insights into the character and the plot of the current story, but also bleed through into later events (hint hint).

This is kind of a modular approach, taking aspects of the characters and parts of their lives as functional chunks which can be unplugged from the whole and slotted in where necessary or desirable. So how on earth can we as writers decide what should go where?

I use a variation on the rule of parsimony: "a principle according to which an explanation of a thing or event is made with the fewest possible assumptions."

For me, events from the characters' past — or explanations which they wish to share with the reader — must have episodic relevance. They must add to, explain, enhance, or create intrigue for the contextual landscape of the episode in which they occur.

So to look at Caden more closely, we note that his sporadic, almost chaotic thoughts and behaviour throughout Devil contrast with his often calm, clinical demeanour and the solemnity of his role, showing us that it is not only his own personality which is complex and mysterious, but also the quietly dangerous times in which we meet him.

Truth be told I have bent this rule a few times already, but the only time I break it is when I want to link events from one book to events in another, or suggest that there is a link. Even if those other books are not going to be written for years.

This was a long article which might appear quite complicated on the first read, but as usual I welcome any queries or comments!

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