Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Writing: Character Integrity

(Picture from here.)

I think about writing a lot-- it's what I think the most about-- but I don't write about it much. I don't because I tend to think that artists talking about art is too often just self-aggrandizement. The work should stand alone.

But I've had enough discussions about such things lately I thought I'd put my thoughts down on electrons. If it works I'll do more of them.

In my fiction I've been working on something called character integrity for a while now, trying to understand what it means and how it works. It's related to something I've come to call writing honestly, which I'll come back to.

Character integrity is, simply, portraying a character in a story as a human being. Like most simple definitions, this is a lot more complex than it sounds.

For example, let's say you've created a really interesting universe with titanic deities, smarter and more powerful than humans in every way, that manipulate human beings without their knowing. Now, a story about such things needs a human being as a foil. But the titanic beings are manipulating human beings without their knowing. So, to have the human being the means by which the nature of the titanic deities are shown they have to interact with the human. So, now you're stuck. There are a few options:

  1. You make the titanic deities stupider than the human so they can be fooled. (Wheel of the World books)
  2. You make the titanic deities flawed or weak in some way the human can manipulate. (Lord of the Rings.)
  3. You make the human special in some extraordinary way. (pretty much any fantasy you can find on the shelves)
  4. You make the titanic deities human in some way to put them on even footing. (Lord of Light)
Sound familiar?

These can be, of course, combined. For example, if you substitute for titanic beings, adult powerful wizards, you have both #1 and #3 and get Harry Potter. If you take #4 out of the fantasy universe and put it in SF space opera you get Dune. All of these have been shown in Star Trek or Star Wars at one point or another. All of them are in heroic comic books all the time. All of them represent a compromise between what the author wants the character to do and what the character is capable of doing. There is another solution in this scenario: the human doesn't get to find out what makes the titanic beings tick.

After all, if these are superhuman titanic beings bent on manipulating humans for their own purposes, why should they reveal themselves to a lone human like an old Republic serial villain? Short answer: only because the author tells them to.

This brings us to the greatest enemy of character integrity: the author.

Any author worth his salt is going to want to write something that tells you something. It might be something as trivial as aren't submarines cool? (Tom Clancey, The Hunt for Red October) Or as profound as the drive that creates evil men can also in those men's redemption create greatness (Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination). But they want to tell you something. Characters are the fundamental mechanism by which these things are told.

(Not language. I have an ongoing argument with some colleagues that language is the fundamental thing in the story. I think so only in the same way that tires are the fundamental mechanism by which the road learns of automobiles. But that is another rant.)

A terrific example is Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Being a work of the 19th century, the example is not perfect. Still, Twain created a particularly limited narrator to view the world and show the things he wanted to show. Because of that, he was forced to present them to his narrator in a way the narrator would understand and appreciate. There's a section where Huck ends up with the Grangerfords, as sophisticated and genteel a family as Huck has ever met. He's quite taken with them and cares for them deeply. They welcome him with affection and take care of him. They are, as far as he can tell, the sort of people he admires. Yet, they have a characteristic that Huck can only view as a flaw regardless of how he attempts to overcome his prejudice: they are involved in a feud with another family and kill each other to the last man. Here's the critical point: Huck is just sick with what happens. But the Grangerfords are quite comfortable with it. To them, it is an honorable and just state. They feel they are doing something that is to be admired.

The integrity is shown that at no point do any of the Grangerfords think of themselves as villains or less than honorable. At no point does Huck love them any less because of their flaw. And at no point does Huck ever embrace what they are doing. These are full human beings with all of their differences and neither side is forced by the author to make a "point". They make whatever point they are going to make on their own.

If I were to write a story from Hitler's point of view I'd probably have him thinking of himself as a German patriot, an Aryan purist, trying heroically to defend the dwindling power of his people against a monstrous Jewish hoard. That's likely what he thought about himself.

The problem in the current culture is we have this idea that drawing a character with understanding implies acceptance and forgiveness. That is simply not true. If "to understand all is to forgive all", then we must change our common definition of forgiveness. Understanding does not imply forbearance or absolution in any way. Presentation of someone who is evil from their own point of view should not imply that the author subscribes to the point of view. It should be no surprise that one of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Othello-- the good man destroyed by his flaws-- even though Iago is one of the weaker characters-- he has no good in him.

So that's what I do: dwell on the character from the character's point of view even if the point of view is offensive to my own.

But if you want to write about flawless heroic characters challenging the odds for the right reasons and prevailing, that's fine. Go to it.

But I find the idea boring.

Wall of Idiots

The Debt Peonage Society: 2005 description of what should have been repealed when the crisis hit

Links of Interest
DIY Repair of a Nuclear Turbine
Doctor Atomic and here.
Captain Disillusion
Catfish Tastes Human Flesh!
Kentucky Space
The Beautification Engine
Monkey Waiters
House of Mirrors. House of Windows: Clarence Schmidt

No comments:

Post a Comment