Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Character Shorthand, or What I Learned Playing Video Games

In a novel, there are lots of ways to reveal information about a character.  The narrative can get inside a character’s head, show thoughts, emotions and reactions, and then switch to another point of view to show how others think of the character.  Movies have fewer tools – to truly get inside a character’s head requires a voice-0ver, which involves first-person narration, which is always more suspect than an omniscient narrative voice.

But movies have an additional tool: visuals. The written word can describe how a character looks, but a movie can present the visual down to the last detail and do it instantly.

So let’s narrow  it down further to one of the most constraining story-based media I can think of for presenting character, online video games.  Generally, each player creates a character to interact with other characters and the game environment.  There is no real backstory, the character can only take the standard actions allowed by the game, the tools for expressing emotion are awkward at best and interactive dialogue is frequently (although not inherently) limited to things like “Where are we going,” and “Hey! You got me killed!”

So what tools do you have to make your online character stand out? To make him or her a person and not just an icon? And, of course, can these tools be applied back to writing and other media?

There are three major things you have when creating a character for an online game.  First, there is usually some customizability in the character’s appearance.  Gender, apparent age, color, and, depending on the game, possibly species.  Second, there is usually some choice of occupation/role/abilities/archetype.  And finally, you get to name the character.

Is that enough?  Actually, it’s a lot. I’ve created a lot of these characters over the last few years (because I often find making ‘em as much fun as playing them) and I’ve found that the ones that I stick with are the ones where the three elements (appearance, role/archetype, and name) come together well so that you immediately get some feel for the character.

Let me give you some classic movie and TV examples.  Indiana Jones, adventuring archeologist, with his dusty leathers, hat, and whip.  Note the odd name, reminiscent of the pulp heroes of old.  How about James T. Kirk, starship captain, in his Starfleet uniform?  He shares with Indiana Jones the combination of a common name (James, Jones) and and unusual name (Indiana, Kirk).  And Kirk is such a short, sharp syllable. It’s a very strong name.  And there’s Luke Skywalker, who, despite being a farm boy, insists on wearing white.

And I don’t see any reason not to name and describe characters in writing with the same degree of care. For a literary example, consider Miles Vorkosigan, created by Lois McMaster Bujold. He's got a great name (and on his planet, names beginning with Vor are significant,) a great visual and role (he's a dwarf soldier/aristocrat) and he wears a wide degree of uniforms, all chosen carefully for the occasion. There's a lot to him, even before you get inside his head.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Theme Repetition, or A Rant about Chris Claremont

One piece of advice I often hear given to writers is: Read. Read lots. Read lots of things. So I thought it might be fun to spend the next post or two reflecting on the various odd media that I ingest and what I might learn from them. Today I would like to reflect on how an author uses personal themes and tropes.

I am currently reading, among other things, a Pulitzer prize winning novel and a series of comic books. So let’s talk about the comic books.  I am currently reading X-Men Forever and boy howdy, has someone let Chris Claremont off his leash.

Perhaps I had better explain that.  Chris Claremont was (quite deservedly) one of the rising stars of the American superhero comics industry in the late seventies and early eighties. He wrote a lot of titles, including a small, floundering book called the X-Men, which he (along with artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne) elevated to the status of Marvel’s flagship title.

Along the way he explored some themes and ideas that were just beginning to show up in the genre – the potentially corrupting influence of great power,  heroes and villains switching sides, heroes having to fight other heroes (not in the silly misunderstandings already common in the genre but in deadly earnest), heroes being transformed and having to readjust to who they are now, heroic sacrifices and unexpected character deaths, strange and unexpected turns in the heroes’ love lives, and a  focus on the female characters becoming increasingly more powerful.

Flash forward to 2009.  Claremont has long since left the X-Men for other titles, and even taken a break from comics to pen a few novels. Wherever he’s worked, he’s continued to explore the ideas he helped pioneer back in the X-Men.  And then someone has a great idea – let’s publish a comic series showing what the X-Men would have been if Claremont had never left the book. Pick right up where he left off.

And now we get to the part about writing: it’s not wrong to work with certain themes, motifs, ideas and all, but they can become a trap. You see, X-Men Forever has a slight problem: it’s all Claremont’s established themes and ideas, all the the time.  Heroes and villains switching sides? Got five of ‘em.  Transformations? At least three. Unexpected character deaths? Start right up in the second issue. Heroes fighting heroes in deadly earnest?  All the bloody time.  And all the rest, too.

Authors naturally write about what interests them.  We like to explore themes and use plot tricks we think are entertaining. And if we are lucky enough to be well established and have a fan following (which, let’s be fair, describes Claremont but not me) it is likely due, at least in part, because our readers like the paths we choose to explore.

I have, over the years, noticed repeating ideas in my work. I have several romantic pieces based on the idea that true love is a crock and you don’t get a happy ending unless you work for it.  My novels all touch on the responsibility of power and the consequences of its misuse.

So how do we know when to stop?  When are we approaching an idea from a new perspective or when are we just repeating ourselves? I wish I knew.  But I suspect we start by acknowledging the problem.

Tune in next time when I explore what I’ve observed about character development from playing online games.