Monday, May 18, 2015

The Fine Balance Between Interesting and Approachable

As a science fiction and fantasy writer, I have the enormous privilege of getting to imagine all kinds of characters in all kinds of situations.  From genetically modified sentient tentacles dragging unsuspecting planetary colonists to a watery death to energy beings that inhabit icy wastes, it’s never, ever boring.

But it can sometimes be surprising.  I recently realized that of the hundreds of characters I’ve written over the years, there are three characters that stand out in my mind as the most memorable heroic figures I’ve created.  All three of these characters are women, and all three of them are either mothers or pregnant at the time of the story.

This didn’t happen by design.  The three characters were chosen because they were the best central figures to tell the tale I wanted to tell, and they were spread out over a period of a few years.  I certainly didn’t set out to create a body of work about motherhood, or different kinds of heroism.  And the blood, sweat and tears that went into their creation was no less than that that went into the aforementioned tentacle… and yet they stand out, at least to me.

Part of it might be the fact that these characters are different from me in many regards, and yet similar enough that I can identify with them.  It’s pretty cool to write about things that are new and different and way out there, and it has huge rewards if one appreciates science fiction as a literature of ideas – but on an emotional level, it can often leave you wanting to identify a little more with what’s going on.

These three characters have little in common with me on the surface of it, and have very little in common with each other, either – except perhaps for the fact that they live in very troubled places and times.  While it’s true that two of them live in Africa, one of them is in a future high-tech version of the continent, while the other lives in a post-apocalyptic world.  The third lives in a version of America following a second civil war.

I am not a pregnant African woman, nor am I a mother in a nightmarish version of the Southwestern US, and yet I feel what these characters are feeling, and can identify with their struggle – even years after writing the story, and long after I’ve forgotten what was going through my head at the time.

I believe I know why that is – but I need to digress a bit in order to fully explain how I came to this conviction.

I have lived in a bunch of different places as a child and as an adult, and travelled extensively for work – extensively enough that I have often made very good friends in the places I worked.   While I’m not one of those people who collects passport stamps, I have for one reason or another spent a significant amount of time in a few dozen different countries.

And whenever I get back from a long trip, especially if it was a trip to somewhere interesting, someone will invariably ask: “So, what are the people like?”

I used to take time to explain the intricacies of the social structure, the political situation and a whole bunch of other stuff until one day I came to realize the truth and simply answered:  “Well, the people are basically like you and me.”

The first time I did this, I had just returned from Syria to Argentina, so that particular pronouncement was met with a mix of disappointment and disbelief.  After all, these were the mysterious, almost unknown Arabs that had recently been accused of being part of an Axis of Evil.  How could they be just like us?

Well, they smile at many of the same things, like it when you say “thank you” and “please”, they love their families and they enjoy the feeling of a cool drizzle on a hot summer day.

Well, that’s obvious, I can hear you saying.

Granted, but bored taxi drivers also make small talk about inane subjects, and adults are stressed about being able to make ends meet.  Moms wait for their children to come out of school… and gossip about the teachers and the other moms.  The lives of the people anywhere are, basically, interchangeable.  Harder or easier depending on external factors, but the underlying human beings are very similar. Even the different personality types, from the timid and shy to the obnoxious and loud are present everywhere.

As final proof, I offer the evidence that, I get the same question wherever it is I happen to land: “What are the people like where you just were?” Seems like curiosity about seemingly exotic people is a common human trait.  The basic human identity is extremely constant across supposed barriers of religion, politics, race, gender or any other differentiating factor.  People, it seems, are people.  Switch them around and most of them will act in a similar way.  Scratch beneath the surface of local custom and fear of outsiders and you’re likely to find yourself looking back at you in the most unexpected places.

Of course, if we were all exactly the same, the world wouldn’t be a very interesting place, and neither would any story.  The interest lies in putting a character in a situation and then watching that character find a different solution to the one you would have used.

So, as a writer, how do you write characters that are different from you and make them believable? I would argue that if one has enough education to be able to understand the tools available to a particular character and the background that shapes their view of the world – and has done the research to fill in the gaps in that understanding, these scenarios practically write themselves.

The answer lies in asking the question: given these tools, skills and upbringing, how would I – or anyone on the planet – handle the situation?  And then write that.
I believe that characters need to be both interesting and approachable.  The differences with my thought process and personal situation is what makes them interesting.  But that deep-seated similarity to what everyone else on the planet feels is what makes them – and all of us – human.

- Posted by Gustavo Bondoni


Terri-Lynne said...

The book I'm working on now stars two people I have outwardly nothing in common with--a black woman from Georgia, and an Ecuadorian man living and working in the US. She's an OB/GYN pretending to be a farmer, he's a scientist and sought-after lecturer the world over.
They key, IMO, outside of some research is to write them as humans. Not black humans or white humans, male humans or female--just humans. The other stuff comes into play, but at the core, as you've said, we're all human.
Skin color, nationality, career choice--those are outer trappings that fuel what paces we put them through, how they will react. Make them ABOUT their skin color or nationality or career choice, and you have flat, stereotypical characters.

Welcome, my friend! XX

Anonymous said...

Welcome, Gustavo!

I especially relate to this piece: "..if one has enough education to be able to understand the tools available to a particular character and the background that shapes their view of the world – and has done the research to fill in the gaps in that understanding, these scenarios practically write themselves."

I generally focus on where a character came from and where he/she wants to go; if I have those two elements clear in my head, writing the present moment is fairly straightforward. Of course, getting those two elements clear isn't always an easy task! Thanks for a great post. So good to have you as part of the HoF family!