Limyaael's Rants

Writing Different Characters, Part 2

Written on 2004-10-04; Read the original post on LiveJournal

The difference between characters and poster children is that people care about the characters.

5) Consider different sexualities in your story, and the way in which you’re showing them. I already did a whole rant on gay and lesbian characters in fantasy, so I won’t be repeating those specific points. I do think that characters of different sexualities, whether homosexual, bisexual, or otherwise represented, can fall victim to the “poster children syndrome” more easily than characters of different races, genders, or species.

PCS is when the author forgets about portraying the characters as whole people, with attitudes and flaws and habits they indulge in when they get up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning, and makes them a simple statement of their sexuality (or whatever other difference is inspiring this). That leads to one of two results:

-The characters are incredibly tormented by that one trait and for that one trait, making them symbols of the world’s intolerance and almost certainly turning the whole story into message fantasy where the polemic gets overpowering.

-The characters are made, again by that one trait, into shining idols that no one can touch. Any criticism against them focuses on that one trait—sexuality, in this case—and the author quickly shows that any critics are without a leg to stand on. In a way, this is importing current sensitivity about sexuality into a world where it may not fit, and insisting that the characters act like twenty-first century people, even the ones who are understandably different, products of their own worlds. (It also often leads to introducing carbon copies of the intolerance against the “different” characters, never mind that perhaps no one in the whole fantasy world is of those Christian denominations that practice intolerance).

The two results of PCS are usually the same. The character’s sexuality is distorted to take over the story, and all attention is focused on who he or she’s sleeping with. The character is not a tall, lanky man who picks his nose in the morning and guzzles his ale and trips over his own feet when he tries to jump up on his horse and just happens to sleep with his own gender. He sleeps with his own gender, and that’s it.

I think that if you do want to write about the acceptance of homosexual or bisexual characters in a fantasy world, it has to be done subtly. Fantasy is a great genre for social critique--sometimes. If the writer doesn’t do it well enough, then it’s not fantasy offering a social critique, it’s just social critique, and your readers can feel irritated and not take away anything from the story except disgust.

Fantasy that urges acceptance of characters of different sexualities has to do it subtly, a step sideways from reality, not reality with a few dragons tacked on.

6) Mix and match the religions. I’ve mentioned before that one gaping hole in most medieval fantasies is the presence of a powerful Church, which defined and structured the true Middle Ages in important ways. Outside medieval fantasy, world-spanning religions actually seem to be more common, but the author doesn’t appear to have a clue how they got that way.

Remember that even in an age when we can justifiably claim some religions as “world religions,” there are others flourishing in the same country and right under their noses. It’s a trade-off. If you have a world with lots of high tech (or high magic, for that matter) and free spread of ideas, one religion is less likely because people will feel freer to splinter. In a low-tech (or low-magic) world, one society might be in the grip of a theocratic government, but that government probably won’t have the manpower, resources, and magic to conquer every single group of different faith in the fantasy world. And if it does, people are likely to rise up and form, if not different religions, different sects of the great faith. Study early Christian history if you don’t believe me.

That means that there should be people of some other religion around. And no, by this point I don’t think there’s anything new to be done with just one other, the dark or demonic religion that so many fantasy authors seem to favor. Nor do I think it’s a good idea to write a nature-worshipping religion vs. a tech-worshipping one, or a male versus a female, or a sky vs. an earth, or the religion of Three-Toed Dragons vs. the religion of the Two-Toed Dragons. The author can try to be fair and even-handed, but almost inevitably the religion the protagonist chooses—whether immediately or after realizing how horribly the “right” religion has screwed him over—turns out to be the correct one. The people of the other religion end up seeming fools at best, evil monsters at worst.

Put a bunch of different faiths in there. Stir them up. Your protagonist might have very strong feelings against those nasty evil god-worshippers next door, but what happens if someone shows up who worships a different goddess, one she’s never heard of? Change in societies can happen from such contact. Conflict can happen from such contact. And there’s the first seeds of plot.

And then, when you have these different faiths, try your darndest not to portray one, or a few, as horrible and irrational and wrong, and the others as wonderful and rational and right. Stepping out of the double-religion trap is only a beginning, since it can be repeated with multiple faiths if an author isn’t careful. Imagine yourself as a worshipper of that different religion, or write a POV character from that religion. How does that change and shift the paradigms by which someone lives?

Also, avoid the “fools” argument if you can. This is the idea that everyone in the wrong religion “knows” that the right one is correct, but they carry on worshipping the Devil/destroying the earth/oppressing women/sacrificing virgins to the Three-Toed Dragons anyway. Why anyone would do that if they had unassailable reasons to believe otherwise is not something the author brings up. They’re just fools, the poor misguided things, and if they burn in hell or die in agony it’s not the protagonist’s fault.

If you do this, congratulations. You have just linked intelligence to religious faith. Now go and write a super-genius who comes from that religion as penance.

7) Stay away from “cute” animal/human hybrids and intelligent animals. I think most authors who try to use these have:

a) spent way too much time wishing they had had a talking animal as a child.
b) have never considered what an animal/human hybrid would actually look like.
c) think their audience should coo or giggle over these characters, instead of treat them with any seriousness.

This leads to a number of effects, all of them unfortunate. The author is likely to use the character as blatant wish fulfillment, and especially as a tear-jerker for the audience when the animal dies. An animal/human hybrid is always attractive, never unattractive, and is sometimes so humanly described that you wonder why anyone notices the animal traits. The cooing and giggling mean the character is inevitably reduced to the status of sidekick or comic relief, even in their own stories; Watership Down and Tailchaser’s Song are exceptions, but that’s because they treat rabbits and cats, respectively, with a degree of seriousness and refuse to make them do “adorable” things all the time. (Also, animals in both books die horribly, without getting final speeches or any of that malarkey). And finally, the authors who handle these characters aren’t really challenging human prominence, any more than authors are who dump one token Zen elf into the party. They’re just saying, “Oooh, look what I can do!” and giving the audience a chance to vomit pink sugar.

There are some things you can do to counteract this:

-Think and react as the characters do. Take them seriously. Don’t assume they’ll die saving the hero’s life, and see what else there might be for them to do.
-Study the habits of real animals. For example, African gray parrots are clever and so on, but they shit all over the place, frequently. What’s your hero going to do if he wants to look really impressive and his telepathic parrot has just dumped a load of green liquid down his back?
-Be able to envision your animal/human hybrid clearly—what traits might make it easy for them to do things that humans can’t do, sure, but also what traits might make it hard for them to do things that humans do without a thought. Say they’re snake/human hybrids speaking human. How well do they do this without lips?
-Embody yourself in the characters. Think of the way that a dog would see the world. Sight’s not going to be the most important sense. Obstacles that a human would leap over become a problem. The dog would probably not refuse to kill a rabbit just because its human partner was a timid nature-worshipper who wanted to cuddle the rabbit, and he wouldn’t be disgusted by raw meat. Be able to know what it’s like moving on four feet, no feet, two feet and two wings, or fins as you do what it’s like moving on two.

8) Go beyond all this. What distinctions might matter to your characters that don’t matter to us? For that matter, what might your characters be that hasn’t even been envisioned yet?

Eye color is one example that doesn’t matter to a whole lot of humans in modern Western society, except on the level of personal attractiveness. Yet say it gets linked to magic in your world, and then it could become a matter of life and death. Would babies with eye colors that indicated they had no magic be treated less well, or even killed? Would people who had eye colors on the border lead uncertain lives? Perhaps a flourishing trade in magic or contacts to conceal and change eye color would spring up, and how would the government respond to that? What happens to the blind?

What about shapeshifters? What if they could turn into more than one animal, or into rocks, into trees, drops of water, the wind? That’d be one nasty enemy to fight. What would it be like to write from the point of view of a shapeshifter who could attain any form, or live in a world where you should be polite to the nearest rock, because you never know when it might turn into a tiger and try to eat you?

Protagonists don’t have to be human, humanoid, or animalian. Make up something else instead. Make up creatures that survive on magic as natural resources. Make up sentient plants or deep-sea organisms. Choose settings where humans would have a hard time surviving, like the extreme polar ice caps, the bottom of the ocean, the open broiling desert, the sky without magic, and see what would live there. The necessities of creation like that will spin new plots and new characters by necessity. How would you write someone who doesn’t eat, sleep, mate, or die? What kind of concerns might they have?

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