Considering characters

As I continue with preparations for nanowrimo, I find myself inspecting the assembled cast and considering each very carefully. I found myself wondering this morning if one in particular would be better off male than female, and that has made me look closely at what each brings to the ensemble. Have I made the best selection I can? Have I got one particular character in just for a single joke? Will that relationship actually work in practice? Is that sub-plot going to be worth bringing along? And do I need a male hero that I can fall in love with?

This last is the one giving me most pause for thought, and to answer the question I need to think very carefully about what I want this particular character to do. Can she achieve that as a female? Can she achieve it as a male? Which produces the better story? Which will I enjoy writing most?

My baby novel tends to contain mainly female characters, and a lot of this is down to the plot itself, although discussion at writing group did lead me to explore a little more the role of males in that world. This new one contains a mixture, because among other things I want to show the range of people who play MMORPGs, and explore the different relationships that form and what each might get out of the game. I currently have a team of seven people: four males and three females. That’s pretty balanced.

I need to decide whether Elaine is too much of a Mary Sue in the story, or whether she’s really going to live her own life and have her own experiences. Equally, if I turn her into a male, is it for personal reasons rather than because it makes the story better? Which will I enjoy writing more? Which can I write better?

In the end, I think being female provides the best chance to contrast game life and personality with real life and personality, and that just has the edge, so for now Elaine will stay, but as I put more thought into the role she plays in the main story and in the relationships and growth areas, that still has time to change.

In other news, I get to design a new computer game and a related world system at the same time, just as background to the story. Writing isn’t just about actually putting words down on paper, you know!


It’s not about the bike, it’s about honesty

I first came across Lance Armstrong years ago when I was given the book It’s Not About the Bike at Christmas in a sort of lucky dip type book swap. I found the book fascinating, and was impressed with Armstrong’s strength and determination.

When this fuss about doping first came up, I ignored it. I knew the man; I’d read his book. You know when you know someone you believe in them? That’s what I did. So in the latest round of protestations I was willing to take his word for it rather than believing the officials.

Then we come to the point where he’s admitted to it. I understand there’s the pressure to succeed. I understand he wanted to win.

But giving into the pressure? Then these endless protestations, these lies about lies? That’s what hurts. He was a symbol of life after cancer, of hope after near death, that you could come back and be stronger than ever, better than ever.

That was a lie. And that’s what upsets me the most. Not that he cheated to win a competition or few, but that he let down all those to whom he gave hope.


Who’s your hero?

Who do you look up to?  Who do you really admire?

One that I’m fond of is Ada Lovelace – in a world full of men, Ada Lovelace became what is normally recognised as the world’s first computer programmer.  She worked with Charles Babbage, who developed the world’s first mechanical computer, the analytical engine, in 1842.  Ada was a mathematician and by all accounts she loved to think.  I don’t know how those who knew her reacted to her, but in a world dominated by men she must have been a formidable figure.

Another woman I admire is Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.  She was another computer programmer, this time after the second world war, when she was instrumental in the development of computers and computer languages.  When you talk of computers being debugged – Grace was the person who first coined the phrase, after discovering  a moth stuck in the relays.

In a world still dominated by men, these two stand out as exceptional females, but why are there so few women in the computing world?

There are other women in top spots, of course, but my suspicion is that women tend to get on with things quietly while men are busy crowing about what they can do.  Men can have more of a tendency towards the obsessive, logical mindset that enables them to excel in the field.  Or maybe men are those who had the time to play with these systems when they first came out, while women were busy running the house, and now they are busy keeping the area as a boys’ club, fighting to keep the place to themselves and exclude women.

I don’t know what the answer is, whether it’s any of the above, all of the above or other reasons.  All I know is that I love trying to figure things out, and I enjoy the challenge that computers provide.  And I feel sad when people suggest that they don’t need to try to understand, or even care to understand.  I feel that it’s become fashionable to be ignorant, and to wish to remain that way.  Famous people crow about how they’re useless at maths, and it’s acceptable to be poorly educated.  “I don’t need it” is the cry, instead of “I want it.”  And meanwhile the world around us becomes more and more complex and fewer and fewer people understand it or can be bothered to even try.


Holding out for a hero?

What makes a hero?  What characteristics do we look for in those we admire?  How do we create a character that people will love?

These questions, among others, have entertained me for many an idle hour.  If I were to write about my perfect hero, what would he be like?  In the meantime, I seek heroes in the world around me, not usually in real life, but in books, TV, movies… I might make up stories about those heroes or just enjoy watching/reading about them, but while they have been wildly different in many ways, there’s usually a common thread, which makes me wonder if I can pick it out.  Such heroes are present in literature and on screen regularly, so it seems it’s not just a personal thing.

Young, male, good looking – all those are fairly standard, although it doesn’t have to be classic good looks.  For me a quick intelligence is far better than physical power.  Rich is useful, but not anywhere near as important as a really strong sense of integrity and nobility.  But there has to be a major flaw somewhere.  The best hero in the world means nothing if he has no weakness, and I’m not just talking kryptonite.  As well as that vulnerability, Superman also had the separation from his parents as a baby, the knowledge while growing up that he just didn’t fit in.  Spiderman had his love for his girlfriend, that he didn’t dare indulge for fear of opening her to harm.  Merlin has the knowledge that he’s different because of his magic powers, and the haunting feeling that he has to work to protect his best friend, while understanding that if his friend knew the truth he would be repulsed and possibly order him imprisoned or killed.  You get the idea.  Or maybe their vulnerability is in their personality; House drives people away from himself, as well as constantly suffering pain from his leg.  Rodney McKay is so focused on his science that he doesn’t notice the human and social needs of those around him.  But the bottom line is that all of them are fiercely loyal and will always come through when they need to.

To really make things work, though, there has to be at least one person, maybe a few, who know the secret and see those vulnerabilities, who watch the hero’s everyday life while understanding what life’s really like for him, how he struggles every day and how the appearance of normality is just that; who are prepared to get past the outer facade and deal with the real person inside, because they know that he’s worth the effort, and who become, even if just for a short while, part of the hero’s inner circle.

You see all these not only plain but magnified in fan fiction – the most popular type of fanfiction will torture the hero to an extreme degree either physically or mentally. In the genre of Stargate SG1 fiction, the phenomenon was known as Danny bashing, after the hero Daniel Jackson, whom writers just seemed to love to torture.  There is a whole style of fanfiction known as hurt/comfort, which follows this pattern.  Face it – we always hurt the ones we love!

This brings to mind a very strange, disjointed scene in a series a few years ago: they tried to do a remake of The Professionals, two men who formed a partnership in CI5, Criminal Intelligence 5.  Very early on in the first episode, we see one of the pair calling on the other, who is fast asleep and dreaming of his wedding day – which is broken up by a gunman gunning down his bride and all the guests, leading to him waking up obviously seriously distressed from a nightmare.  This was never explained or referred to again, from my memory, but set the character up as one with a hidden past full of tragedy, a classic trick for a writer wanting to give his hero a boost.  Christian Grey, the current hero of fashion, has his own tragic past, and the appeal of the books for many readers is the character and needing to know more about him.

I’m bearing all this in mind as I try to create my own hero.  You see, if I create my own I can adapt his story to be whatever I want.  No having to stick to the canon, as in fan-fiction, so the safety of the original structure is gone, but I can build my own structure, and play with it however I want.

I know a bit about my hero, but not enough yet.  I know roughly what he looks like, his name, but not his complete backstory.  That’s what I need to work on, but in order to have a complete picture of him I need to know his vulnerabilities and also his supporters, his sidekicks for want of a better phrase.

From what I know of psychology, though, I suspect most people have a hero inside them, whose vulnerabilities can sometimes make life difficult, and we also have a sidekick, because we can watch ourselves, understand what makes us vulnerable and support ourselves as best we can.  We can be our own best sidekicks and cheerleaders, if we can only figure out how to support ourselves instead of putting ourselves down all the time. And that, to my mind, is at the bottom of our fascination with this sort of hero.  Because when it comes down to it, we all want to believe that we are good and we are loveable, and that we have friends who are willing to see past our flaws and prepared to be there for us, whatever happens.