29 September, 2013

Purpose Built Characters (that we all invent…)

Indonesian Moonshadow  WEB

My Indonesian publisher’s suitably colourful interpretation of the heroic Moonshadow

Humans, especially creative ones, are right into the business of building characters, don’t you think? Let’s be painfully self-honest for a moment: when we create a profile (an image or representation) of ourselves for social media or a personal website, we craft a version of ourselves that we feel we can live with, that maximizes our positives, edits out or plays down our negatives.

Most people know the best angle to be photographed from, how to hold themselves to show off their finest physical traits. In fact it can be argued that from an early age, when we become socially aware, we learn how to fashion the ‘character’ that is us–an idealized caricature – to help us get by, win friends, fit in. Given that social groups can be snobby, exclusive or downright cruel, it’s actually most understandable. We learn to present the ‘me’ that will work best in the situation. It’s about survival.

In the craft of fiction, be it for writing, filmmaking, poetry or animation, we should take this principle further. Into fine, subtle science. Characters that really work for readers and viewers are developed by following certain principles. Each contains a paradox, an irony, if you like, but is not really contradictory.

Firstly, characters must fit the crisis you put them in. No point in writing a tense siege epic with lots of action (as I did in Cybercage) then making the main character a gentle, pacifistic, singing nun. And yet (first paradox) you also don’t want a clichéd, typical, predictable hero in such a situation – please, don’t just do the guy from Die Hard yet again.

Secondly, characters must be stretched, pushed to their limit for maximum drama, yet remain credible, believable, as they rise (or not) to the challenge.

Thirdly, as they make progress, change and evolve, they must still remain true to their core essence, which works if you give them relatable human depth. This also applies to ‘bad guys’ by the way, and is why I made Seamus Roth, the villain in The Stalking Zone, such a vivid character with a complex history. In part, it was to challenge the reader on the whole issue of judging him. Put through the same nightmare, would you, Quintus, would I, be any different?

When characters succeed in engaging readers and viewers, they become enduring; they can be interpreted in art, acted, rebooted, reinvented, many times, and from many different cultural perspectives. A bit like us, really; we can morph ourselves endlessly, at least in the on-line cyber world, experimenting with our identity, our sense of self. And hey, it’s okay. Yes, it’s normal and human.

The ancients did it with statues, the rich have always done it with portraits, many Asian friends of mine do it with manga images of themselves, and much of the western world now does it with Facebook. A humble suggestion: let’s just try to give that character some depth too.  🙂


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