Saturday, 12 May 2012

Introducing Characters

One of the trickiest aspects of writing fiction is introducing new characters. It gets more difficult when the novel is about a group of people. The reader needs to get a ‘handle’ on each one, and an idea of how they differ. This doesn’t just mean physical looks, which are only skin deep, but of who they are, what they care about, and how they would react in a situation. Here’s a set of character descriptions (‘handles’), all describing the same character:

  1. Kat was small in stature, had very short black hair and was introverted.
  2. Kat was shorter than the rest of the crew, but it didn’t bother her; she rarely looked any of them in the eye.
  3. Pierre had to duck his head to enter the cockpit whereas Kat walked straight through, hands clasped behind her back, avoiding eye contact with any of the crew, as usual looking as if she’d just stolen something. 
The first is dull, and is ‘tell-not-show’. The second is more interesting, because we wonder why she won’t look them in the eye. The third is more ‘show’, and more suggestive of her character, as if she doesn’t trust the crew or herself, though at this stage we don’t know why. Notice that 'show' is longer than 'tell', so we reserve it for key characters. There is no point (for the reader) in investing florid descriptive effort in a 'walk-on' (and walk-off) character. 

A time-honoured (aka cliché’d) way to describe someone’s face is to have them catch their reflection in a mirror, say, just after having taken a shower. Again, here’s three versions of the same character description:

  1. Micah stared into the mirror noting the matt of black fuzz on his head, and muddy brown eyes.
  2. Micah caught his own reflection, wondered why he ever bothered to comb his hair, and as for his eyes, they reminded him too much of his father.
  3. Micah gave up on the irrepressible fuzz on top of his head, and stared into his muddy brown eyes, like his father’s. They made him want to punch the mirror.

The point about the third one is that it is less narcissistic, relating Micah to a strong (and evidently negative) relationship, which at the same time tells us a lot about him, and makes the reader (perhaps cautiously) sympathetic to him. The reader wants to find out why Micah feels the way he does. 

If a novel is single protagonist or point of view, then each character might be viewed from either an ‘omnipotent’ (narrator or ‘helicopter’) viewpoint, or from the protagonist’s perspective. The advantage of the latter approach is that we get the protagonist’s viewpoint, which can work well combining a physical and motivational ‘handle’, particularly when there is contrast between outward appearance and inner character:

Vince watched Louise’s lithe body saunter around the room, her blonde pony tail swinging from side to side.  She glanced back at him with a smile, her bright blue eyes sparkling just for a moment. He smiled back, but only on the surface; he’d watched those same eyes when she killed, when they sparkled just the same, maybe more.

[Incidentally, most male readers are attracted to the Louise character, most female readers want to kill her. She is probably the most commented-on character in The Eden Paradox.]

If there are more character points of view, then this has a particular advantage for describing the ‘hero’ of the piece. Having heroes describe themselves seems self-indulgent, and will make the reader less ‘sympathetic’ to the character. Even if the hero does it in a self-deprecating way, this is also risky, because then the hero becomes less heroic. Far easier to let a secondary character describe the hero. In the following extract from The Eden Paradox, Zack, the pilot of a four-person space craft, enters the cockpit and muses about the crew and their plight. One of the crew, Kat, has had another nightmare, always the same one, about what they will find when they reach the planet Eden. The point of the piece is partly backfill for the reader (this is from chapter 2) and introducing the characters, but it is also preparation for a rather harrowing scene where they will all have to depend on each other. The seeds of how they will react later are all sewn here.

Zack ducked his head as he entered the cockpit the Ulysses’ chief designer had once explained to him was "compact". He squeezed past his Captain and their Science Officer – Blake and Pierre as they’d become after three months of sardine-can intimacy. Busy, as usual. Both working separately – ditto. Pierre was in virtual again, immersed by his visor in data slipstream analysis, oblivious to his surroundings.
From the back of his pilot’s chair Zack caught his reflection and sighed. He’d have traded his cobalt one-piece uniform for his old flying jacket any day of the week. The one consolation was the golden-winged image of Daedalus – the wiser father of Icarus, now employed as the Eden Mission logo adorning the crew’s chests. The crests glinted in the cockpit spots, especially Blake’s, since he polished his every morning.
Zack plumped himself into his servo-chair at the front of the cockpit, to the left of Blake and in front of Kat’s empty comms station. Three men and a girl in a tin can. But then he’d seen the early Mercury and Apollo craft, the Endeavour, and even the Mars Intrepid – those guys would have wept over such luxurious real estate. He fingered the two multimode joysticks that made him one with the ship, and felt his mood lighten. He couldn’t manoeuvre with the warp online, but once they decelerated… He could barely wait.
He stared out at the black velvet of deep space, punctuated by random pinpricks of ice-cold light sliding towards him with a glacial grace. Constellations that’d been his friends since childhood were gone. A girlfriend had said one night, a lifetime ago, that as long as you can see the stars and their patterns, the Big Dipper and Orion, you’re never lost, you’ll always find your way home. Zack’s substantial bulk, maintained despite space rations, shuddered.
He glanced across to Blake, his Captain and vet War buddy for fifteen years, studying a small-scale hologram of ship integrity. It showed the cockpit near the front end of the fifty metre long Ulysses, resembling a hornet’s body, its four sections and two back-up conical ion engines and dark waste exhausts at the rear. Zack frowned. The energy exchanges going on in the back of the fourth compartment were measured in yottawatts, off the imaginable scale. Only Pierre really understood it, but even he’d admitted that if the engineers had got it wrong, they’d be dead in a picosecond. Zack thought of the crew of the Heracles, lost with all hands. He’d known each of them personally.
The harsh red flicker from the Ulysses holo reflected off Blake’s rusty hair and chiselled features, lighting up the bow-shaped scar above his right eye from hand-to-hand combat in Thailand, and the pockmarks on his left cheek from the gassing at Geronimo Station. Blake had lost a lot of men in the War, but always got the job done.
"Seventh nightmare in the past week," Blake said, in his Texan drawl. He didn’t look up from his display.
"Yep," Zack replied. It was starting to affect morale, his own, at any rate; superstition and ill omens made lousy companions on long, confined trips. Seafarers had known it for millennia. Space was like the sea, just infinitely less forgiving.
Blake swivelled his chair to face him. "Anything new?"
Zack understood the implied question: was it like that screwed-up mission ten years ago, where one of their marines kept having nightmares for two full weeks beforehand? He shook his head. Blake resumed his work.
Zack toggled the forward screen control and with a flick of a finger, a single star changed to red – Kantoka Minor, Eden’s star, dead ahead. One more week, he mused; one more week before setting foot on another planet.
Before seeing if Kat’s nightmares have any substance.   
He kicked back in his pilot’s chair and pondered: neither the robot-based Prometheus nor manned Heracles missions had returned. Prometheus had arrived three years ago on Eden, but stopped transmitting after an hour. A year later, the manned Heracles had exploded, just five days before arrival, the list of possible explanations long and wild. Still, as they approached the nebula where Heracles disappeared, he was getting edgy, spending more time in the cockpit than was good for his spine; they all were. He glanced at his holopic of Sonja and the kids, smiling and waving, tucked into his console. He tried to smile back.
Kat slipped into the cockpit, furtive as usual, as if she’d just stolen something.
"Anything exciting happening?" she ventured.
Pierre stowed his visor and responded. "I’m afraid so. I’ve been checking and re-checking for the past hour. There’s no mistake. We’re losing oxygen."
Blake collapsed the holo. Kat halted mid-step.
Zack reached base first. "You’re kidding, right? I mean, you have no sense of humour, Pierre, but this time?"      
Blake interrupted. "Data."

The reader gets a good idea of who Zack is in terms of what he cares about and fears, and the way he thinks about the other crew members tells us not only about them, but about him, because he thinks about them in a kind way. When he catches his reflection we don’t see his face, because he concentrates on his uniform, and what it means to him (which also makes him a sympathetic character, because, let's be honest, many of us would be studying our own faces :-). There is a hint that Zack is a big guy, but otherwise there is no physical description of him. He is black by the way, mentioned in a previous section in the chapter. 
Blake’s is the only face described, mainly by the scars of war, which become relevant as the scene develops. Because the last sentence above is Blake’s, and because he in true cool, taciturn form utters only a single word in a clear moment of crisis, the reader has no doubt who is the leader here, the one who is going to get them out of whatever mess they’re about to encounter (Blake is the proverbial ‘good man in a storm’). The reader already intuits that Blake is the ‘one to watch’, and is drawn to him because he has been described by someone else. It is as if Blake is playing 'hard to get', but he isn't, in fact the reader already get's the sense that this man plays no games at all. The reader wants to get inside Blake’s head, though that won’t happen for another couple of chapters…

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ampichellis and Waterstones.

The sequel, Eden’s Trial, is available in ebook format on Amazon, paperback expected Fall 2012.

The finale, Eden’s Revenge, is due out Xmas 2012.

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