David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

"Who the fuck are these people, and why the fuck do I care?": thoughts on characterization

When I'm reading, I often play a game called, "Who the fuck are these people, and why the fuck do I care?"

The term "game" is something of a misnomer, because it's not conscious, or hasn't been until I noticed my brain was doing something and tried to figure out just what that something was. It actually happens pretty deeply, on an instinctual level. "Who the fuck are these people, and why the fuck do I care?" is the best name I've come up with to describe what's happening, and the reason I came up with it is that a while back I realized that I've been playing this game when I find that a story has made me confused, or angry, or really fucking bored. Recently, I mentioned the concept when giving concrit to a friend on a novel, and doing so made me realize it would be worth elaborating on and discussing with a larger audience.


The reader should be able to figure out who the fuck the people in a scene are, how they relate to each other, and how they feel about each other, and should be able to remember these things for when the characters show up again.

Here are some sample questions for the writer to consider, in helping the reader to do these things: Who is the viewpoint character? How does the viewpoint character relate to the supporting characters? Are they on the same team? Who is in charge? Who wants to be in charge? Who *should* be in charge? If they're on different teams, how many and how are they aligned with respect to each other? What do they want? What will they do to get it?


Why does the reader want to read about this character/these characters? What is the point of identification? Why do we find them interesting enough to put up with? What makes us want to find out more?

Maybe the characters have an interesting problem, or an interesting conflict. Maybe they do something cool. Maybe they show some unique skill. Maybe there's a mystery to solve, a question to answer. Maybe the reader is already invested in them from a previous chapter or book; "why the fuck do I care?" mainly comes up when dealing with new characters. What is the character's importance to the story, and why are we spending time with them?

Let's take a look at examples of bits that work and that don't. For example, here is the opening of George R.R. Martin's A GAME OF THRONES (mild spoilers for the series through A FEAST FOR CROWS below):

"We should start back," Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. "The wildlings are dead."

"Does that frighten you?" Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.

Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. "Dead is dead," he said. "We have no business with the dead."

"Are they dead?" Royce asked softly. "What proof have we?"

"Will saw them," Gared said. "If he says they are dead, that's proof enough for me."

Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been sooner rather than later.

One hundred seventeen words in, and look how much we know.

There are three guys: Will, Gared, and Ser Waymar Royce. They are on the same team, but they don't much get along. They come from an explicitly classed society that is inspired by historical Europe but is not historical Europe, because the names are strange and "Ser" is a weird spelling (I hate this particular trope of Martin's, personally, but it conveys information here). Royce is in charge and is higher up socially than the other two. Gared is the most experienced, and looks down on Royce for this reason; the quasi-medieval setting is further enforced by life expectancy, because being past fifty makes Gared old. Will is the lowest-ranking among them, and he's more naturally reticent than the other two, who are both strong personalities. We don't know who these guys are working for, not yet, but we know they're in the woods, that it's not their normal location. They're Guys On A Mission. What mission, we don't know yet: but we know that somebody's dead, and these guys are going to check it out. That makes them authority figures, or at least active investigators. And what does that mean, the wildlings are dead? What are wildlings? Royce hints Gared is afraid; is there something to be afraid of? Royce doubts Will, Gared doesn't. Who is right, and what is the lurking menace? These are all things that the reader will want to find out.

I just spent twice as many words explaining it as Martin spent doing it.

Skip ahead to the next chapter. This is where we start to get introduced to the Starks. Bear in mind, A GAME OF THRONES has fifty bajillion characters, and it's hell on the reader to keep track of who they all are. But Martin accomplishes it effortlessly in this chapter. This is how it opens:

The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king's justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran's life.

Who the fuck is Bran? He's a seven-year-old kid.

Why the fuck do I care? He's a seven-year-old kid going to his first beheading. And wait, nine years of summer? What kind of world is this?

As if that's not enough, in the very next paragraph Martin starts laying some exposition about wildlings, about whom I'd read in the prologue (prologue was set-up, this is pay-off, and answers some of the questions the audience was asking itself, so that's satisfying). He mentions Robb, and a little later Jon, but doesn't tell us right away who they are to Bran; they're just names at first. Martin doesn't feel the need to detail or develop them immediately on introduction. No tags, no descriptions, no actions; he mentions them as being there. When he describes Ned Stark, he does so from Bran's POV: Ned Stark is Lord of Winterfell, which is odd to Bran because it contrasts with Ned Stark who is Bran's father. Martin mentions Theon Greyjoy as Bran's father's ward, and Jory Cassel as the captain of the guard, but he doesn't describe or detail them either. When Martin gets around to telling us who the fuck that Jon guy Bran mentioned is, this is how he does it:

Bran's bastard brother Jon Snow moved closer. "Keep the pony well in hand," he whispered. "And don't look away. Father will know if you do."

That's marvelously economical. Note something that's critically important: the other characters have, at this point, absolutely no agency. They do not exist in terms of who they are to themselves; they exist only in terms of *who they are to Bran.* We give a fuck about Bran because 1) holy shit, he's a kid going to his first beheading? he expects to go to more? what the hell kind of place is this? and then 2) because Bran is our viewpoint on the scene; we see it all through his eyes. So detailing them only briefly, in terms of their relationship to Bran's POV, means they're easier to keep track of. Who's Lord Stark? Bran's father. Who's Theon? Bran's father's ward. Who's Jon? Bran's bastard brother. Very, very simple. And memorable. Martin's not defining them yet; he's just establishing them.

Next, Martin begins to bring the details of the relationships in by doing simple bits with the characters in small groups:

The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy's feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put it boot on the head, and kicked it away.

"Ass," Jon muttered, low enough that Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran's shoulder, and Bran looked over at his bastard brother. "You did well," Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, an old hand at justice.

And there you have it: Theon-Jon-Bran. That lays out their personalities and relationships perfectly.

The beheading over, the characters ride back, and the small-group dynamic really gets going. Martin notes that Bran "rode with his brothers." From the Theon-Jon-Bran bit, we go to a Robb-Jon-Bran bit, in which Martin shows a philosophical disagreement between Robb and Jon, confirms the audience's assessment that Robb and Jon are half-brothers, and then sends the two older boys ride off on a race. Then we get a Bran-Ned scene, where Ned lays out the relationships among the boys in more detail: Robb is the oldest, and will inherit; Bran will have a keep of his own. And then we hear a yell that Robb's found something, and everybody's in the scene where they divvy up the direwolves. At which point, guess what? We know who all the characters in that discussion are and how they relate to each other, and the reader doesn't get lost even once.

It's *amazingly* efficient and effective. In that chapter, Martin lays out who the male House Stark characters are and makes them memorable. He doesn't develop anyone he doesn't have to, because they would be distracting. He lets the reader focus on the bare minimum necessary, grows the characters as the reader begins to remember them, and paces the development very carefully, training the reader in the process. It's bloody brilliant work.

Now let's look at a case where Martin falls down on the job. In my opinion, the fourth book in the series, A FEAST FOR CROWS, should not have been published in its existing form. After book three, which is tight, tense, and has enough climactic sequences for several lesser novels, book four is a bloated, unwieldy letdown. It's not just that there are individual chapters and scenes that could have been tightened or cut, there's an entire plotline that accomplishes nothing useful and that could have been done in a paragraph or two. Really, book four pretty much sucks.

Anyway, we're going to be looking at a chapter in A FEAST FOR CROWS. Let's skip the prologue of three dudes gabbing for far too long before a guy gets stabbed by somebody we don't recognize, and the too-long chapter of Aeron Damphair deciding the iron islands need a kingsmoot and go straight to chapter three with the Captain of Guards. Said Captain of the Guards is our viewpoint character, and his job is to guard the prince of Dorne.

Here's the problem: we don't give a fuck about Dorne. The only reason it's figured in any of the books is that for reasons of personal revenge a Dornish knight known as the Red Viper served as Tyrion Lannister's champion in a trial by combat against the crown's champion, Ser Gregor Clegane, aka The Mountain That Rides. We don't really care much about the Red Viper's quest -- he's introduced as a minor character, and his quest gave him backstory and motivation and helped add to the epic nature of the fight with Ser Gregor, but at this point in the books neither major characters nor readers give a shit about Dorne, and this is the first time we've gone there in a viewpoint chapter. Which means that this chapter has to sell us on Dorne.

Here's how the chapter opens:

"The blood oranges are well past ripe," the prince observed in a weary voice, when the captain rolled him onto the terrace.

After that he did not speak again for hours.

It was true about the oranges. A few had fallen to burst open on the pale pink marble. The sharp sweet smell of them filled Hotah's nostrils each time he took a breath. No doubt the prince could smell them too, as he sat beneath the trees in the rolling chair Maester Caleotte had made for him, with its goose-down cushions and rumbling wheels of ebony and iron.

For a long while the only sounds were the children splashing in the pools and fountains, and once a soft plop as another orange dropped onto the terrace to burst. Then, from the far side of the palace, the captain heard the faint drumbeats of boots on marble.

Obara. He knew her stride; long-legged, hasty, angry. In the stables by the gates, her horse would be lathered, and bloody from her spurs. She always rode stallions, and had been heard to boast that she could master any horse in Dorne… and any man as well. The captain could hear other footsteps as well, the quick soft scuffing of Maester Caleotte hurrying to keep up.

Obara Sand always walked too fast. She is chasing after something she can never catch, the prince had told his daughter once, in the captain's hearing.

Two hundred forty-one words, and for more than half of them nothing happens.

But let's look at them in terms of what information they give. What do we know? There are four characters: Hotah, the prince, Obara, and Maester Caleotte. The prince is weary and uses a wheelchair: ill, or perhaps old; we don't know yet. Hotah is the captain of the prince's guard. Obara Sand is a bastard daughter who wants to see the prince about something. Is it important? Is she pissed off? Maybe, but no, wait, it's clear from Hotah's POV that she walks like she's pissed off all the time. So until we know more, that doesn't tell us anything. Maester Caleotte is coming with Obara, but he appears to be on the prince's team because he built the prince's wheelchair. The main bit of information we get is that the prince does nothing for a long time. This does not inspire confidence.

Moving on:

When she appeared beneath the triple arch, Areo Hotah swung his longaxe sideways to block the way. The head was on a shaft of mountain ash six feet long, so she could not go around. "My lady, no farther." His voice was a bass grumble thick with the accents of Norvos. "The prince does not wish to be disturbed."

Her face had been stone before he spoke; then it hardened. "You are in my way, Hotah." Obara was the eldest Sand Snake, a big-boned woman near to thirty, with the close-set eyes and rat-brown hair of the Oldtown whore who'd birthed her. Beneath a mottled sandsilk cloak of dun and gold, her riding clothes were old brown leather. One one hip she wore a coiled whip, across her back a round shield of steel and copper. She had left her spear outside. For that, Areo Hotah gave thanks. Quick and strong as she was, the woman was no match for him, he knew… but she did not, and he had no wish to see her blood upon the pale pink marble.

OK. We know Hotah's first name is Areo, and he's from Norvos. Well, we're four books in and we've seen a shitload of places, and I don't remember where the fuck Norvos is, or if it's ever been mentioned before. We've got a big description of Obara, and a fair chunk of her life history, and we've got details we're suddenly expected to remember. Also, apparently there are people called Sand Snakes, of which Obara is the oldest one.

We find out, at length, that 1) Obara is not just being Obara, she's actually pissed 2) the reason she's pissed is that her father, the Red Viper, is dead 3) the prince was notified of Obara's father's desk in a letter sent by raven, which he was exceedingly reluctant to open 4) the people of Dorne are as pissed about Obara's father's death as Obara is 5) Obara wants the prince, her father's brother, to do something about it, but Hotah isn't letting her talk to the prince because 6) this is the prince's watch-the-kids-splash-in-the-pool-time and nobody interrupts that. Also, 7) the prince has severe gout. It takes quite a while for Martin to get all of this out. Meanwhile, lots of names are spilling. The prince has a daughter named Arianne, with whom Hotah has some kind of connection. Obara wants an army for herself, and one for someone named Nym, and one for someone named Lord Yronwood. There's a place called Sunspear and a guy named Ricasso and a building called the Tower of the Sun, and the prince needs to go there to keep Obara from raising an army but that's where Princess Myrcella of Westeros is, with her Ser Arys Oakheart, whom Hotah figures he'll fight to the death someday, so word will leak back to the Iron Throne that the prince is infirm, and then the prince goes into his lineage and starts talking about his brothers Mors and Olyvar, who died in infancy, and his late sister Elia, whom the Red Viper wanted to avenge, and the Red Viper himself and some dude named Lord Gargalen, and Hotah thinks about the three bells of his hometown, which also have names, and all of these things are coming fast and thick, and it is intensely boring because 1) Martin has not sold us on who any of these characters are 2) there are too fucking many of them to remember and 3) nothing has happened yet, but hey, they're going off to Sunspear and maybe something will happen along the way.

It's at this point that Martin spends a good few words on how everybody gets dressed for the trip and what the prince has for breakfast and which kids he says good-bye to.

Coincidentally, it's at this point that I began to believe that A FEAST FOR CROWS should have been heavily edited. With a chainsaw.

The characters get underway and meet Nymeria Sand, the second Sand Snake, another bastard daughter of the Red Viper. She makes it known she wants a bunch of dead Lannisters, and she thinks the prince is an dithering idiot. (So do the townsfolk; when the prince gets to Sunspear, they pelt his litter with fruit.) Then we meet yet more useless people with names, and finally the prince meets Tyene Sand, the third Sand Snake, and guess what, she wants the same thing as the other two, except her plan is to call Myrcella heir to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, which she would be under Dornish law, and win the war on home turf when the Lannisters inevitably attack.

So the prince shrugs and orders them all arrested, so they can't cause any trouble.

Let me sum up: the daughters of the Red Viper each want vengeance for their father, so the prince has them arrested and locked up. To achieve this end, as a writer, Martin gives us three indistinguishably-voiced characters each stating that they want variants of the same thing, which means that we essentially get the same scene three times. And then the conflict is pre-empted, so the three new characters Martin dragged onstage and tasked us with remembering don't even fucking matter. Moreover, the chapter is pure set-up for the "elevate Myrcella" plotline (which in itself could have been cut), and as such could have the same effect were it reduced to a single line of exposition.

When I reread the book I had exactly the same reaction I had when I read it for the first time on realizing that the active character was the prince of Dorne, which is *exactly* "Who the fuck is this guy?!" Do I know this character? Do I care about this character? It's not a question that I'm asking as a reader because I'm curious, but because I am bored and angry. There are characters I am invested in, characters I care about, characters I *want to know the fate of,* and I'm stuck with some Dornish asshole with the gout. GRRM, I'm thinking, you had better make this guy fucking awesome and fascinating, or give him some wicked problem to solve.

And he doesn't.

That kills the chapter. It's not just that it doesn't work; it's actually excruciating to read. We don't care about any of these characters going into it, because they didn't exist or might as well not have. Thoughout the series, Martin does wonderful work making us care about characters, but here he completely fails to make us care about any of them. The viewpoint character, who would be expected to engender our sympathies, doesn't have any meaningful decisions in it, and the prince, who does have decisions to make, makes only one and solves his problem in the most boring way possible, thus letting all the air out of the conflict the chapter spent an inordinate number of words arranging.

Don't do that.

Here are some techniques I'd suggest for helping your reader understand who the fuck your characters are, and why the fuck the reader should care:

-- DO NOT INTRODUCE TOO MANY CHARACTERS TOO FAST. I can't remember five people I meet at a party *in real life.* I'm not going to remember ten characters when you dump them all on me in the space of a few pages. Give the reader some time to get used to a few characters at a time. That way, they'll be able to keep track of who they are.

-- DO NOT INTRODUCE TOO MANY DETAILS AT A TIME. If you do have a bunch of characters in one place at one time, don't feel the need to go into detail about who everyone is and their entire backstory immediately. Characterization is like snowballs and money: it naturally accretes.

-- KEEP THE READER ORIENTED IN SOCIAL SPACE. It's not just about what the characters' names are, or their backgrounds. The reader needs to know who these characters are to each other. Are they on the same team? Or opposing teams? How are they related or aligned? This doesn't require exposition; remember Theon goofing with a severed head, and Jon not liking it but muttering his reaction rather than declaring it. That says a lot about the relationship. It takes the author a paragraph and a half and less than fifty words.

-- KEEP THE READER ORIENTED IN SETTING SPACE. Your setting means something to your characters. It's their home, their workplace, the dead-end burg they can't wait to escape, their Shangri-La. They'll have different attitudes toward it. In A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, Winterfell means different things to Jon, to Robb, and to Theon. Arya and Sarsa both love King's Landing, but for different reasons. Setting space reinforces social space.

-- USE VIEWPOINT TO CHARACTERIZE. Different characters see different things and react in different ways. Think about not just what people will say, but how they will feel about what they see. Think about what the other characters in a scene will do in response to their reactions, and how the viewpoint character will interpret the response.

-- GIVE YOUR VIEWPOINT CHARACTER MEANINGFUL DECISIONS. Choices are what establish character. If your character just watches, what good is he?

-- LET CHARACTERS INTERACT WITH DIFFERENT PEOPLE, ONE-ON-ONE. Jon Snow is not the viewpoint character in the opening chapter of A GAME OF THRONES. Nor does he get much detail before the wolves show up. But we get to know him when he reacts to Theon, engages with Bran, argues with Robb. These are very brief exchanges -- they're not even really scenes -- but we get to know Jon and learn he's somebody worth watching.

-- DO MORE WITH LESS. The opening of A GAME OF THRONES is the PSYCHO trailer of book openings. You think it doesn't tell you anything, and then you look closer and realize it tells you *everything.* There's more info in that than you could fit in the equivalent words of infodump. You can do more with less. Your reader is smart; if you write with clarity, you give them a chance to see things without having to spell them out.

Originally posted on my DW. | people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.
Tags: writing

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