Saturday, January 15, 2011

Breaking Down (with Robert Roman)

Nope, I’m not going to talk about the succession of automobiles I owned in college. I mean, I could, but then Val would get upset at me for doubling the overall amount of text on the DDD site. Seriously, I had more than I can count on both hands. That may have been due to the fact that I paid less than $1000 for all of them put together when you include the two that I was paid to get rid of, but I still went through a lot of them. From that I learned that cheap cars break down a lot and that I’m not meant to be a mechanic.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I’m here to ramble on* about writing, specifically about character development. I’m not sure how anyone else does it. I’m really not sure how you’re supposed to do it. My degree is in biology, not literature. OK, I took some honors Lit courses down in Florida, but that’s not what I got my degree in. Anyhow, anyone who knows me very well knows I tend to analyze things. The technical term is reductionism. As the Ur-Goth or PJ or Dana will tell you, I love to take things apart to see how they work. Don’t think about that too much in conjunction with my degree.
Moving on, a lot of people don’t realize this now, but I was a complete social misfit as a kid. A Compleat Social Pariah, if you will. Now, some of that had to do with physical characteristics. I was short, I was a touch doughy, I wore BCDs, and I had… rather different coloration… from the rest of my schoolmates. I got teased about all of those, but I’ve come to realize that a lot of it had nothing to do with those. It had to do with having NO intuitive understanding of how people interact. I said or did things with the best of intentions, but they still came out wrong. Occasionally I missed blindingly obvious social clues. I’ve got some funny stories about those. I’ll even tell them to you if you get me drunk enough**. If you’ve ever watched Bones, picture a fourteen year old blond Zack Addy and you’ve pretty much got it.
Now, I still don’t have an intuitive feel for the way people interact. What I have done, however, is gotten better at puzzling out why they act the way they do. Some of that I’ve learned from listening to advice. A lot of it I’ve learned from not listening to advice and seeing what happened. Still more I’ve learned from carefully observing the behaviors of people who do seem to have a knack for dealing with people. Finally, I’ve found others who take the same approach I do, albeit with wildly differing goals.
I was going to link to some blogs I read with that last bit, but then I regained my gorram sanity. A more misanthropic bunch you’ll rarely find. What’s odd is that while I learned an enormous amount about how to interact with people from those blogs, and the blog owners themselves seem to have become misanthropic by gaining the knowledge they have, I became less misanthropic when I acquired it.
OK, I kinda like the word ‘misanthropic’. It’s got some weight to it. You can batter someone about with it, but it’s not as clumsy as ‘bastard’, nor does it set off spell check like ‘warthogging vomitous mass’. It’s sort of the ASP extendible baton of the English language.
All that said, when I’m putting together characters, I go looking for what makes them tick. I trot out their wants, their needs, their history and their plans. What I find most interesting is what brings characters to life. It’s not the virtues. Those are nice, and every good Hero or Heroine should have one or two, but the vices… Ah, the vices. Those are what bring a character screaming into this world. Right now I’m reading Twilight... What? I had to see what the fuss was about. Anyhow, I’m reading Twilight and I realize why I couldn’t bring myself to watch the second movie. In the book, both Bella and Edward have reasonable, realistic vices. OK, they’re shabby and plain next to their virtues, but they have them. Movie version? Not so much.
Not only that, but some of the best scenes in fiction are the ones where a character either overcomes or succumbs to their vices. Character development is rarely about virtue. I mean, really. What can you do with virtue? It’s about vice. That’s why we love the villain so much, and why antiheroes have such appeal. It’s even, dare I say it… Who am I kidding? I’ll say just about anything that comes to mind. It’s even a big part of the appeal of the bad boy archetype.
So… yeah. I tear stuff apart, see how it ticks, and come out of it with antiheroes. Now if only I could put one together with the appeal of Jaime Lannister or Havelock Vetinari….
If you’ve been amused or entertained by what you read here, come visit my site or go take a look at my books! I’ve got a selection of styles to choose from.
*I DID say ramble on, now, didn’t I?
**I’m not a cheap drunk, but I’m pretty narcissistic. One strong gin sour will probably do it.


Maureen said...

I always find it fascinating to hear how other authors put things together. You are very observant.

Now, I think virtues can be interesting vices...

I have no idea how I develop my characters, but I love hearing how others figure it out!

Kathleen said...

I agree about vices in character development. I can root for someone who struggles with an issue and finds love and happiness, despite their bad habits. I like when the characters have virtues, but I don't want them to be Barbie and Ken either.

Author Leanne Dyck said...

Interestingly I had this tendency with The Sweater Curse to make Gwen too real. In fact, one of my beta readers said something like, "I don't understand why she's acting that way--it doesn't make sense."
I was tempted to say, "Oh, yeah, well does everything you do make sense." I didn't--I bite my tongue.
Thanks to Decadent's skilled editors Gwen was kept real but made more logical.
You know that The Sweater Curse is published I miss her.
Investing as much time in developing yours characters, Robert, I image you grow attach to them as well.

Robert C Roman said...

@Maureen - Thanks! I think you're the first person who has said *I'M* observant, but I appreciate the compliment.

@Kathleen - Yep, that's a big part of it. Without vices, there's no inner conflict.

@Leanne - Yep. I've been blessed with beta readers who call me out on forced behavior when I force a character's behavior, so my editors don't have to call me out on it... much. Still, while people aren't always rational actors, internally they'll have a reason for what they do, even if that reason is 'I like the pretty lights'.