Characters are funny things. I think just about any writer will tell you that there have been times when a character took on a life of his own and refused to do the things the writer planned. As the character develops, his personality develops until when the writer gets to the point where Harriet is supposed to marry Peter, the writer realizes that there is no way in hell Harriet would do such a thing. And then she has to write a half dozen more novels worth of character development to get them both down the aisle.
It’s rewarding when this happens, because it means that the character has become more like a real person than simply a cardboard puppet for the author to manipulate; and that means that the character and the things that happen to him are more likely to be meaningful to the reader.
When my characters are obstinate and refuse to follow my elegantly constructed plots, I generally let them have their head and adjust my story accordingly. I’ve got plenty of practice doing this running RPG’s with my wife.
But sometimes I come across a related problem. What do you do when your character has opinions and beliefs that differ greatly from your own?
Usually it’s not that big a deal. It’s a common situation, after all. Imagining what it would be like to be a person other than yourself is pretty much a prerequisite for being any kind of a writer, especially one who is writing about a different historical period. As the fellow once said, the Past is another country; they do things differently there. If a character of mine has different political views or religious beliefs or moral outlook than my own, we can agree to disagree for the space of the story.
I will admit that sometimes I am not above mocking such a character and use my prerogative as author to poke fun at his misconceptions. The biggest temptation of all is to “convert” the characters. Robert Heinlein once said that there were only three basic plots in fiction, one of which being “The Man Who Learned Better.” Growth of understanding is what character development is all about and what better way to develop the character than to have the story be about how the character learns that his former opinions were wrong and comes around to the author’s way of thinking?
Except… when you put it that way… Gee, that sounds awfully egotistical. And worse yet, it reduces the character back to being the cardboard puppet again, dancing for the author’s amusement.
I’m not saying it can’t be done, but to do it right, the writer needs to show the character’s conversion developing naturally out of the character.
Arthur Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in Spiritualism, and once wrote a story in which his character the bombastic Professor Challenger has a dramatic encounter with the ghost of a former assistant which converts him to a belief in the afterlife. Doyle wrote no such story about Sherlock Holmes, in which the Great Detective renounces his skepticism about the supernatural. It would have out of character for him; it would have seemed contrived; it would have seemed false.
I was once in a similar situation many years ago. I was playing a character in a Victorian Era monster hunting game named J. Hamish Broadstead who was an arch-skeptic. He completely rejected the supernatural and had made it his life’s mission to debunk fraudulent mediums. He was your stereotypical late-Victorian scientific materialist — come to think of it, I borrowed a bit of Professor Challenger for him — and I admit, I played him as a pompous buffoon. After all, since there really were vampires and ghosts and such creatures in the campaign, his obstinate refusal to see this was a running gag.
I decided to draw a comic book “origin story” for my skeptic, explaining how he became so obsessive about debunking the supernatural. I framed it as a dream in which he is guided through his past by another of the characters, who was loosely based on the Phantom Stranger. ( “This isn’t going to be like that wretched Dickens Christmas story, is it?” “I’m afraid so, Professor.” “Can’t stand Dickens. Always taking legitimate social concerns and sentimentalizing them.”)
So, I had Broadstead’s spirit guide show him selected scenes from his youth culminating in an incident where as a young man he exposes a fraudulent medium at a seance and the shock of the revelation causes his sickly, invalid sister to fall into a swoon. She dies shortly afterwards, and Broadstead blames the charlatan. Secretly, though, he harbors guilt at the thought that had he not unmasked the fraud, his sister might still be alive.
At that point in the story, I realized I needed to come up with some kind of resolution. There had to be some reason for Broadstead to relive his tragic past. I needed Broadstead to find Redemption.
I couldn’t buy it. It just didn’t seem right for Broadstead. Given his background and his personality, I could not picture him having a religious experience; it would not ring true. Even if he ever did have such an experience, he would almost certainly interpret it in purely materialistic terms. And in any case, since I framed the story as a dream, he would likely discount the whole thing when he woke up anyway.
So how would I respect Broadstead’s character without seeming to validate a world-view I disagree with? How can I be right and stay true at the same time?
In this particular story, I had the spirit guide offer Broadstead the chance to speak with the ghost of his sister and resolve their issues. Her ghost appears behind him, arms outstretched and beckoning to him. But Broadstead banishes her with a grumpy “Poppycock!” without ever seeing she was there. He doesn’t need anybody’s help and he is perfectly capable of dealing with his own guilt issues by himself, thank you. Besides, if there is an afterlife — which he does not for a moment concede — then his sister certainly has better things to do than to come back here. To the end, Broadstead remains proud and self-sufficient and true to his personal philosophy and code. And yet… his sister was there, if only he would see her. And the story ends with him standing quietly by her grave. Praying? Pondering? I left it for the reader to decide.
I’m not exactly sure if I succeeded in striking the balance I wanted in that story. I thought it worked pretty well at the time, and had some nice bits of dialogue; but in summarizing the plot, it seems rather weak. Sometimes a story works, sometimes it doesn’t.
I found myself in a similar situation with my story “Spitting at the Sun” in which an orkish shaman undergoes a crisis of faith when his world changes and a new religion arises to challenge his own. Working out his traditional beliefs was a fun exercise in world-building. The difficult part came when I needed to have my orc resolve this crisis and reconcile his beliefs to the new situation.
No, I didn’t make him a Lutheran. A Lutheran orc might be interesting; but he wouldn’t fit in this story. I wanted to be true to the character. Anything less would come off as phony. I had to find what aspects of my own beliefs my orc would comprehend and be open to, so that when he comes to a deeper understanding of things, it flows and develops from who he is and what he knows. Having him experience this satori in the middle of a fight helped. He is an orc, after all.
It can be a delicate balance. The character has to have enough in common with the audience that the reader can relate to and understand him, but he also needs to be different enough to be believably part of another world with a different society, different attitudes and different culture. If the writer manages to portray the character well, not only does the character gain a deeper understanding of his world, perhaps the reader does as well.
In his secret identity, Kurt Wilcken is a ninja cartoonist. He has written and drawn stories for Antarctic Press and Radio Comix and his current webcomic, a Pulp-Era adventure titled Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine, appears on his website. He also blogs occasionally on subjects ranging from comic books to obscure Bible stories. You can find his story about the orkish shaman, “Spitting at the Sun”, in the fantasy anthology Hunt the Winterlands.