Tim Waggoner said something the other day on Facebook:
Because stories are about people dealing with problems, the most important things to know about a character are how he/she responds to obstacles and handles stress. Even if you know nothing else about a character, knowing these two things will allow you to plot your story.
And I went, “yeah yeah yeah, I know that already.” But my subconscious said, “Are you sure? Are you sure you know that? Now are you sure? How about–”
So I stopped to think about it last night, because I couldn’t sleep (what with it being the Saving the Daylight/Murdering the Darkness changeover), and I got to thinking that mostly, writers don’t get this. Some really good writers don’t get this, or they don’t really get this for their main characters.
[Here I was going to add some recent reads that didn’t do this. And then I thought…nah.]
Someone who does this particularly well is Joss Whedon.
If you wanted to name Joss Whedon as a one-trick pony, this would be it: he assembles a group of flawed but relatable characters, and makes sure they stick to their flaws.
How does Buffy solve problems? She looks for them, and then she charges. How does she handle anything that can’t be solved by a full frontal assault? She trains so she doesn’t have to think about it or goes to her friends to get them to solve it. She gets all shouty and sarcastic…and whiny.
How does Mal solve problems? Trust but verify. Mal thinks to the next move ahead but is wise enough to recognize that the unforseen, unfair, and unjust happens–that life isn’t chess. So when he can’t verify, someimes he trusts and sometimes he doesn’t. And when he has verified, he just doesn’t have any second thoughts about the next move. When he falls down is in situations where he can neither trust nor verify – all that emotional stuff – in which case he dithers, hoping that the situation will take care of itself.
Hulk smash: a two-word character description. “Puny god” is funny because it was inevitable (Hulk smash) and surprising (…but even a god?).
Cabin in the Woods is all about the characters staying true to type…the reason the five main kids were picked (in the context of the story) was that they were so very good at staying true to type.
And so on.
Joss Whedon? Makes a whole lot more money than I do. So clearly I haven’t mastered this idea yet, and it’s a lot harder than it sounds.
And there are tons of ways to do it, too: Right now I’m obsessing/studying The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits (which sadly got screwed by the use of a flowery, “girly” cover on a perfectly evil novel), and her main character handles problems by ignoring them. When she can’t ignore them, she redefines them as Someone Else’s Problem, and then ignores them. And so on. All the while running madly about, trying very obviously to try to solve her problems, a hypochondriac of body and soul.
Gone Girl, which I had to put down, has its main female character trying to solve her problems by being the long-suffering passive female who needs to be rescued – the innocent – even when it means destroying innocence in order to do so.
The novel Somebody Owes Me Money is a Donald Westlake novel about a guy who just wants his money back. That’s it. A one-trick pony novel if I’ve ever seen one.
Terry Pratchett’s another guy who’s made his living off characters who stick to their flaws. The more successful the character is, in fact, the more aware they are of their flaws…and the more they make sure their lives are framed around what they’re inevitably good at.
Harry Potter makes a good go of it, but doesn’t always stick the landing. Even so: still good enough at it that the books have become world-famous.
Edding’s Belgariad. Stephen Brust. Mark Lawrence. Fruits Basket. Fullmetal Alchemist. Robert Crais. Every mystery writer worth a damn.
And so on.
Over and over and over again, our favorite books are about characters trying to solve their problems the same way they’ve always tried to solve their problems. And writing that really well is always trickier than it looks.