Musings on characters

Well, I'm about halfway through my day. I got to campus around 10 this morning, sat in the computer lab for two hours, walked across to the Fine Arts building, sat in a classroom for two and a half hours, and now I'm back in the computer lab for another two hours. Then I have my News Writing & Reporting class from 6 to 9ish. Then I finally get to go home, only to do almost the exact same schedule tomorrow.


There will, apparently, be a lot of writing involved with this Small Group Communication class I have Mondays and Wednesdays, along with the requisite (and obvious) group work. There are a few group papers to go along with our own reflections of how the group is working together.

Not so surprising is the amount of writing involved in the Fiction Writing class. I took this class, god, it must be about six or seven years ago by now. Same teacher. I didn't really see eye-to-eye with her about the so-called "Fundamentals of Fiction Writing" back then. I thought I knew everything I needed to know, y'know? I was kind of arrogant. Plus I didn't really care, especially by the end of the semester. I don't think she remembers me, which is probably for the best.

See, the thing that got to me last time was her, in my mind, disrespect of the types of stories I enjoy. So-called "genre" stories. You know, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. She had this spiel (which she gave again today) about how we're not there to write these "formula" stories, that we're going to be doing more "literary" fiction, which I took as a slam against some of my favorite writers. Neil Gaiman, while he writes mostly in the fantasy genre, is one of the best writers around. Period. I think he was my prime example back then, that these favorite writers of mine, also including Peter David, Frank Miller, Warren Ellis, while they may write in a particular genre of storytelling, their work is far from formulaic.

Of course, me being the arrogant fool that I was, I took exception to this without actually thinking about what she was talking about, nor thinking about what my favorite writers were writing about. This teacher, I understand now, was railing against formulaic writing with good reason. It's boring. Been there, read that. Her goal is to emphasize characterization, that all good stories have good characters first, and if you have good characters then you can stick them in a sci-fi setting, a fantasy setting, crime fiction, whatever, and it works. Had I actually given thought to all this back then, I like to think I would have reacted quite differently, but probably not because, like I said, this was around the time that I really stopped caring about school in general.

It hit me, of course, later on, that the reason I enjoy the writers I do is because they understand this, they write great characters who just happen to live in certain time periods or universes or whatever. As long as you make your characters real and believable, you can put them in any situation you want. You can write about the Singularity and thousands of years in the future if you want to as long as you create real people to inhabit that world. Gaiman can write about ancient gods in present-day America and it works because his characterization, his attention to detail, makes you believe that, in this story, under these conditions, this is real.

My favorite writers may write in various genres, but they don't follow any particular formula. And that's the trick. I can pick up any Gaiman story, or Greg Rucka, or Charles Stross, and I have no idea, regardless of genre, where the story is going to go. Rucka's last Atticus Kodiak novel is a perfect example of this. With the first four novels he set up a world where Kodiak runs a personal protection service, bodyguards for hire, basically, and each novel is him and his team taking a new case. We meet Kodiak and his crew and get to really know them over the course of those few books, but the fifth one, Critical Space, completely turns the concept on its ear, ripping Kodiak, and the readers, from his comfort zone. It was quite a shock, and while not coming completely out of left field, it was extremely unexpected.

Essentially, at its core, writing is all about character. The greatest concept in the world will become an absolute shit story if there aren't realistic characters bringing us along for the ride.

So I can write my superhero story. I can write my half-Mexican/half-Japanese samurai hero's journey or my world-weary, noir-infused crime story. I can write in all these various genres as long as I inhabit the world with real people.


looksy said...

Yippee! So soon into your studies, you sound sooo inspired about writing! Your post has sparked inspiration within me.
Cheers to your future stories, can't wait to read them!!

AliKat said...

Its amazing how much our attitudes and outlook on things change over time. Its wonderful how much more open and interested you are about school now. Oh, and sorry I didn't call you over my little mini vacation, after the Kansas City trip and dinner with my parents I ended up sleeping most of Sunday and going riding on Monday. We will have to find some time to get together soon. I feel like I haven't seen you forever.

1031 said...

It has been a little while, hasn't it? I don't know how much free time I'm going to have this semester. I have all this reading and writing to do, plus whatever group work I'll have to do for the Small Group Communication class. And I haven't even had my first Astronomy class yet (that's tonight).

I'm sure I can squeeze you in somewhere, though. ;)

I hope you had a good birthday weekend, even without li'l ol' me. I'm interested to hear how the KC thing went.