The Grammatically Incorrect Art of Putting "Care" in "Character"

So, after a couple of readers' responses from some souls brave enough to swan dive into a literary swimming pool filled with slightly-blue-tinted gelatin instead of water - and the world thanks you for your sacrifice, you crazy shining diamonds - a few things are becoming clear. First, the experimental total-immersion nature of the aforementioned work qualifies as something only to be repeated with extraordinary modifications. Second, some of the aforementioned work's cast needs a second go at the characterization station; however, while there might be a lick of paint daubed here or there to cover outright grammar incorrectness, this should be attempted not through any kind of v1.2 update which stomps all over the good and bad that has already been written (there's a reason why the Timeline Protection Act of 2562 - wait...). A direct sequel will instead focus on more sane and intelligible aspects. This ties directly into a third thing.

Namely, the author of a work cannot telepathically force-feed personality and cohesiveness to the audience.

So, in the gobs of perhaps slightly competent people out there in the wilds of the Internet, are there any exercises or metrics used for helping an author to say to themselves, "Yes, this person is a fundamentally differently-thinking alien from a place where kissing in public is considered indecent but coitus (provided that a tent or some such can be found to shield passersby from direct witness) is not, but they're still understandable and their plight doesn't require expounding beyond the function of the plot"? Not something that one can simply check off and call done for the day, but something which lets one have confidence in others seeing the seed of a person's identity, and recognizing how it grows while remaining itself - for both author and audience? Perhaps not something that makes one actually care about such an alien, but that at least gives them the sureness of mental foot to articulate WHY they don't care if that is the case - and not because the answer is "I don't understand."

It's a matter of being clear, and it's a matter of characterization. If one asks ten people, expect twelve solutions that all work. If you really have no idea how to do it, what you want to do is read stories where the author accomplishes this, and imitate that, and find someone to bounce your stuff off of so you have some grounding on how readers are reacting to your work.

Reading, and paying attention while reading, is how one develops technique. Advice and writing guides do help. They're shortcuts, but they work by giving you someone else's pre-chewed impression of fiction. It's edible, and acceptable source of nutrition before you have teeth, but it's no one's idea of good meal. Advice all relies on 1) the adviser having already identified the quality you wish to attain, 2) the adviser having correctly identified what it is that bestows that quality, and 3) their communicating it properly.

I hope someone like Rhodeworks will grace this thread with some more concrete answers, but this is mine: read good xenofiction, and find an analytical writing buddy whom you trust to understand and communicate their reactions.

Ill advised is the practice of writing with verbosity to an excess which results in the sacrifice of the clarity of one's message.

I have to concur; I'm having a hard time understanding what you just asked us, and I once wrote a whole book with a major character who circumlocuted for comic effect.

Apologies, regular dictionectomies are required.

Dialogue is your first and best weapon there. You can tell a massive amount about a character from the way they talk, and it consumes very little extra page space compared to other means. When you write a character's dialogue, stop to reframe it in terms of what they, personally, are hoping to get out of the conversation, what they're afraid of, how they relate to the other characters, etc. Dialogue should never (IMO) be just another way of conveying information. Shy characters will pause more, and self-deprecate a lot; insecure or bad-tempered ones will be combative; the uneducated don't use your million-dollar words. Etc.


Broadly speaking, Snuggle is right. I also echo what IratuSuzanno and theredsheep said.

Writing advice is a strange thing. When I first started NAH, I reached out to one of my favorite authors and just asked, hey, what did you do to learn writing? Are there any particular resources you'd recommend? The answer I got back was that, if you were already at the point where you were serious about writing, there were no resources that were worth anything. I won't say general writing advice is worthless, but I'm yet to read a book about How To Write that gives me something I don't already know.

Really, the only book I'd recommend is On Writing by Stephen King, but it's also not really a writing help book.

Anyway, the advice I got was that you should read what you want to write and seek to imitate how it made you feel. In essence, dissecting and reverse-engineering through the act of close reading. If you read a passage that had an effect on you, figure out how it had that effect, and then you can employ it yourself. Close reading is a skill like any other. It's the same thing as appreciating a car for how it looks, then learning how it functions under the hood.

I'd recommend reading Peter Watts' Blindsight. It has a cast of people with transhumanistic ways of dealing with the world and manages to make them all relatable and engaging and sympathetic, even the vampire who only comprehends the world in present-tense and the protagonist with his bifurcated brain.

Characterization and dialogue are things people say my serial does particularly well, so I'm just going to ramble a bit about my process and mindset and hope some of it is useful. A big thing was establishing who these characters were quickly, especially given the fact that there are three protagonists and it's a world set fifty years in the future after some substantial changes. A recent comment on the first chapter pointed out, on a re-read, how well the first chapter foreshadows Leopard's arc and basically encapsulates him completely. This is very deliberate. I write NAH with full knowledge of the paths I want these characters to take and where they'll end.

So, for example. When introducing Leopard, I wanted to convey the sort of person he is.

1. He's a criminal mercenary and he's pretty good at what he does.

2. He's not a 'cool' badass, even if he's comfortable with violence.

3. He's the most moral person in his group, which isn't saying much.

4. He thinks he's 'one more job' away from going legitimate.

5. He's a solitary individual who has one real bond, and is generally okay with this.

6. He thinks he's really objective and perceptive, and maybe he is -- but he has huge blind spots, too.

From there, we get these various conflicts: Will Leopard's morals, as nascent as they are, affect him? How will it affect his one friendship? If he's a criminal, will the law catch up with him? We establish who Leopard is immediately, even though the first chapter is also the inciting incident for him: they find the mysterious object. All the exposition and detail is only necessary in so much that it illustrates Leopard's story.

But Leopard is generally seen as the hardest of the three to like, and I think that's partially because he wasn't supposed to be likable and the fact that the typical serial character is a blank slate badass, but they're generally 'cool' and that throws some readers.

So, I'll talk about the others. After Leopard, comes Sabra. In her first few chapters, I wanted to characterize her in the following ways.

1. She's a relentless humanist and driven because she genuinely thinks people are good. 'I am because you are...'

2. But she'll win at any cost, even in a friendly game. '...but better you than me.'

3. She owns her actions, but understands that there is a wider world of circumstance.

4. She has friends, a family that loves her. She's not a loner and she's not particularly unhappy.

5. Despite being impetuous, she is also thoughtful. She takes even her dead-end job very seriously.

6. She holds herself back more than others hold her back.

So, the most obvious conflict there is how can Sabra reconcile her humanism with her mean competitive streak? Can she reconcile them? A key theme of Not All Heroes is that contradictions are destructive, both societal and personal. She is the most obviously heroic character of the three, but NAH is a story that understands heroism in the ways of the Classical Greeks, not in the sense of, say, Superman or Spiderman. Sabra also receives some key points of characterization in the prologue.

But even Sabra isn't the character who people think is the most effective. That's the third of the big three, Pavel Fisher.

1. He's a former superhero who retired after experiencing great personal trauma -- but he's still registered, still has his costume.

2. He's a good person at heart, even if he's a curmudgeon. He's grumpy, but only to people he feels deserves it.

3. He's a curmudgeon because a. the trauma and b. the fact he's smart enough to see that nothing is being done.

4. He lives alone, doesn't really take care of himself or his apartment, but has a cat whom he dotes on.

5. He thinks he has sacrificed enough for a world that may not have deserved it.

6. He tries to do the right thing, but he's got mental wounds. He visits his old team leader in hospital, but it's once a year, on a schedule.

Contrast this to the elements of worldbuilding throughout their first few chapters.

1. There are superheroes. Some of them are deific forces of nature (Leopard), some of them are basically super-cops or super-criminals (Sabra), and others are just trying to have normal lives (Fisher).

2. There's a global peacekeeping organization. It helps out with disasters and has a monopoly on superheroes (Leopard), but doesn't seem to care about long-standing issues (Sabra), and seems to be motivated more about preserving what exists than fixing things (Fisher).

3. It is fifty years in the future and, in that time, the world has experienced a renaissance and a period of crises, but both are considered 'over', stuff to be discussed in history books. For example, we meet Leopard in Guatemala which has become a failed state/disaster zone in the wake of a superpowered clash. It is not an anarchic grimdark hellworld, but there's clearly a divide between the first world and the rest of it.

Worldbuilding is only important in so much that it helps illustrate the characters and their story. Why is Sabra going vigilante? Because she's lived through years of institutional neglect, but also because she is passionate about her broken-down city. Why is Fisher so grumpy? Because he lived through the Golden Age and seen the world just kind of go back to how it was - what did he sacrifice so much for? Why is Leopard a thug, at least in part? Because he has a dim view of the IPSA and its hegemony - and he's somewhat justified.

Have the three of them changed while still being identifiable as themselves throughout the story? Yes. They're all recognizably the same people in Arc 2 as they are in Arc 1. This depends on understanding how and why people change. People don't so much as turn 90-degree corners as they make minute adjustments over time. A repeated idea in Not All Heroes is the idea that everyone has momentum and it takes a lot of effort to overcome that. Leopard, for example, has gone fairly legit by Arc 2... but it doesn't suddenly make him a good person, nor does it heal his issues. It'd ring false if he just turned a corner like that.

The more alien a character is, the more work you need to do in making the audience care about them. As mentioned, Peter Watts is pretty good at this, introducing Siri Keeton in a way that both makes it clear that common bit of empathy and yet how alien his perspective is. Generally, though, I'd say the way to do it is to introduce them quickly in a way that lets us understand who they are and what they desire. The more alien and bizarre the world, the easier the characters should be to understand.

Take Worm, for example. Worm's beginning is not the best -- Taylor in a bathrooom upset about her best friend being her bully has very little to do with the story as it builds up. It should begin with the Lung fight, really. However, a lot of people believe that Worm should start with a particular event/flashback that is depicted later in the text between two trans-dimensional beings. That would be even worse, because the reader can at least understand what it is like to be bullied. But the navigation protocols of two eldritch beings? Eeeehhhh...

I'm running out of steam and this post is already quite long, so I'll leave it here. I hope it helps. I'll check in to see if you have any additional questions or thoughts and do what I can to help with 'em.

On the subject of dialogue, this sounds like an excellent idea for characterization, but, well...

Even in such a situation, there would be differences in outlook due to genetics and variations in upbringing (geography, age, life experiences--even birth order matters). If your characters legitimately have no discernible differences in outlook, interests, or goals, then I'd say you have bigger problems as an author than how to represent the personalities they don't have. Unless, of course, the exceptions and the non-human cast (which you imply exists) are who the story is really about, in which case the typical members of society are redshirt extras and it doesn't much matter if they're homogeneous.

Blindsight is actually available on the author's website, as are a lot of his older works, under Creative Commons: