Monday, April 18, 2005

story as Rorschach

I had an enlightening and disturbing thought the other day. I've known for some time that everybody brings their own baggage to a story or a crit. I've commented before on the strange and--to me--insignificant details which critters will pull out of a story and rant about.

But yesterday I connected that fact or trend or whatever it is with the disparity of perception of what constitutes "good" character development. Character development, like beauty, is in the eye and ear of the reader. My grandfather just insisted that Farscape was one of the best character-driven shows on television. I happen to fall in the Whedon camp, but I know people who think Dark Angel was a far better show because, and I quote, "you can tell what the characters are thinking." Well, yes, dear, because they're force-feeding it to you.

There are two general ways to develop characters. One is to give the character a genuine personality: how she acts, thinks, talks, and how others react to her. For the writer, this is a form of method-acting on paper, and it may be hard for a reader to later describe the character, because you didn't tell them. The danger, in this technique, is that you run a very real chance of readers just plain disliking your heroine, because they just plain don't like the kind of person you made her (and by extension, the parts of yourself you build into her).

The other way to develop character is, in my mind, superficially. This often involves more telling than showing. The writer may describe what the character looks like, her job, her apartment, her whole life story, with emphasis on the messy bits and how she was psychologically affected by them. This is, to make a gross generalization, the method most often employed in hard sci-fi, westerns, and action thrillers. I don't care for the technique myself, but it's useful in plot-driven fiction, where you only need the character to be a type and not an individual. Where you don't need the reader to care about the hero a whole lot, in other words.

There seems to be a disproportionate number of sci-fi readers who prefer the latter type of characterization. And once I stopped to think about it, this made sense, because sci-fi geeks are not known for their ability to read people or interact with the world. So it stands to reason that they "get" characters with trait-markers attached: leather chaps, big gun, nun's habit, big blue eyes and heart-shaped face, whatever.

It's not that they want shallow characters, or think of the fiction they like as superficial; far less do they see themselves as poor judges of character. I'm not suggesting that, either.

What I'm suggesting is that they project their own desires onto the characters. We all do it to an extent, but if your most meaningful relationships are with fictitious people, aren't you going to make them as ameniable to your fantasies as possible? The definitive example is, of course, fanfiction.

Fanfic is almost invariably character-oriented. It's all about emotion and relationships; I don't think I've ever read a fanfic story that had a plot per se; it's just one character ruminating on his/her relationship with another character. Furthermore, fanfic is notorious for taking the characters in directions that the creators never intended, often inserting traits and behavior that the character would never exhibit on the show (and I'm not just talking about slash).

Few months ago I read an article by some respected science fiction guy (I cannot recall whom at the moment) who was talking about entertainment becoming more interactive, so you just buy the world and the characters and make up the story yourself, or insert yourself into the story or whatever.

And I was thinking about how mass-market sci-fi and fantasy shows and movies get less and less inventive, and the video-game industry outgrossed the movie industry for the first time last year, and movies are getting more like video games and vice versa, and I'm wondering if Hollywood has gotten either so cynical or so savvy that they're deliberately not bothering with the character development. Why should they? There's so little genre entertainment to choose from these days, the die-hard fans have to take what they can get, and their expectations are low: all you need is a spaceship, a couple aliens and some nifty weapons. The characters are placeholders; they just need interesting and distinctive "looks," maybe a catch phrase or quirk apiece, and the audience will fill in the rest. They see what they want to see, anyway.

1 comment:

C8H10N4HO2O2 said...

You know you're on to something anyway, so it's redundant for me to say so. Can't remember where I read it, but remember a while ago someone commenting on how very melba (my word, not theirs, and I want credit) Hollywood protagonists in particular have become. I'm not even sure they're even quite 'type' characters. They're just empty vessels, into which anyone can project themselves, if they so desire. Yes, you could be the rattled everyman guy Will Smith plays in Enemy of the State... because there really isn't that much to him. So sure, that could be you, too... Choose your own adventure... in 35 mm.

John Brunner, who I'm wont to rave about, now and then, wrote in Stand on Zanzibar of 'Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere'--placeholder characters worked into a whole range of television entertainment. For a modest subscription fee, the TV puts your face on them, instead of the generic one. So you can see yourself traveling to wherever, doing whatever. Insidious effect, inevitably capitalized upon, is that it becomes a ready device (as if any more are actually needed) for the manipulation of popular opinion. You see yourself as Mr. Everywhere, and the network has Mr. Everywhere say sure, we should invade country X, all of a sudden, it's your opinion too.

I don't want, entirely, to knock the notion that fictional characters have value to us when we identify with them. (I'd go further and say if your readers don't get, a bit, what the antagonist, in particular is on about, there's not going to be a lot of tension, but it's a larger issue.) But sure, there's something a bit exploitative about a character so utterly generic that they're nothing more than a screen upon which you hope the members of your audience will project themselves. And fiction would be awfully boring without people who infuriate and disappoint us, now and then--people who, really, we don't even always understand--even people whose demons are either so far off-camera or so utterly alien to us that we actually get really, really angry with them, now and then.

I always really struggled (and speaking of demons) with Whedon's Anya, in particular. Really don't like her. I get her, sure. I just don't like her much. But then, I always really identified with Willow. And she didn't like her much either... and when she blurted out 'ex-demon, sure, doesn't know the rules--well, learn them', I was right there with her. And thank you, Ms. Rosenborg, for saying what I so wanted someone... what I so wanted anyone to say...

But then, I had to give the writers credit. Sure, Anya was annoying. But no more so than a lot of people I know in the real world. And why aren't there more of those in popular entertainment? People who aren't (quite) just overblown caricatures of offensively overgrown ids run amuck (acceptable in good parody, sure, and vastly overused in sitcoms), and people who make perfect sense, and could exist, but are just incredibly abrasive in terms of my tastes? The people (and they are many) who I'd probably just about dive into a sewer to avoid, if the opportunity presented itself?... even if I did, kinda get where she was coming from.

That was Anya. The writers' sense of her was perfect.

Me, I think I've got a character perfectly down when I don't know quite what they're going to do right up until they do they actually do it. And then I believe it utterly. Yeah, looking at it, that's right, that's what they'd say. Still not quite sure why, but that's them.