Important Character Questions, Part I

I’ve recently been posing “Important Character Questions!” on Twitter, and it’s fun and I will probably continue doing it. Exactly zero of the questions is actually important, most are and will be completely absurd, but that’s why I love them. I’m a sucker for those Tumblr RP prompts that are all, “What’s your character’s favorite ice cream flavor? Preferred sleeping position? View on Brexit?”

And because I figure it’s only fair, I will answer them myself here. (The characters in question will be my Ash characters unless otherwise noted.)

The questions so far, in chronological order: Continue reading Important Character Questions, Part I

Rules and Rules

When my very first story appeared, a critic who reviewed it began their review by noting, “This is a world where x does y.”

And they were wrong, that was wrong, but the reader wasn’t to blame. I know why they believed it: because the characters in the world did. And they believed it for the same reason the characters in the world did: because they’d been told so.

It wasn’t a law of nature, a rule of the world, it wasn’t a factual thing at all; it was a (central) religious belief held by a certain part of the world’s population. But in secondary-world fantasy, where so many of the laws of nature are inventions of the author and the reader does have to rely substantially on what they’re told, how do we effectively distinguish for the reader what is fact in this false world and what is itself a fiction within the fiction? The characters believe a thing wholeheartedly, so anything not written from an omniscient POV must necessarily contain and reflect that belief.

The reason I’m glaring at this issue anew today is that I’ve been mapping and re-mapping my novel’s plot, and the mystery at its heart relies on one of those “everyone knows” rules-of-the-world being false. It’s an ancient fiction invented by a group within the story to keep two factions of the populace separate, and to protect a secret held by one of those groups. The characters in the world — in both of the factions in question — believe it, to the point where all kinds of other rules have flowed from it, and society has been structured in part to uphold it.

But a thing has happened in the book that contravenes that rule, because the rule isn’t true, and figuring out that the contrary thing has happened is at the moment critical to the riddle of the book’s events.

A nonplussed alpha reader of the book said to me, “But I don’t understand how x could do y, because [legitimate logical reasons].” And she’s right! It can’t! It doesn’t! But the world is sufficiently weird and full of sufficient other breaks from our reality that no one else yet has blinked at it. We want readers to suspend disbelief, so how do we signpost the places where actually a little disbelief is a wholesome thing, where the gaps are deliberate?

I read a lot of mystery novels, and the one thing I absolutely cannot abide in a mystery is the solution to the puzzle hingeing on a piece of information the reader could not have known, was never privy to, and which the author whips out with a flourish at the end to say Ta da! Fooled you! That isn’t fair in a mystery; the reader needs to be able to play along at home, as it were. And I’m worried that I’m going to do something very like that here.

Listen: Here is how the world works, Rules 1 through 10. Now figure out what’s happened here.

Ha ha! The solution is, Rule 6 was a lie! Ha ha ha!

I may be making too much of this one thing, too? A lot of the story is about the gradual peeling-back of these layers of fiction that people in power have plastered over the world, the stories we invent to explain our universe to ourselves, so maybe it’s perfectly in keeping with the rest that this unexpected thing has occurred. A lot of the rules will prove false before the end.

But I feel strongly that there’s a difference between surprising a reader and betraying them, and while the book contains a great deal from column A, I’m worried that some column B is slipping in there as well. Something about this particular instance seems unfair. It feels akin to the difference between eventually explaining, “And now I shall demonstrate how pigs can fly after all,” versus demanding, “Who could possibly have reached the third-story window of the farmhouse from the outside? We all know pigs can’t fly!” (Knowing smirk.)

And maybe the solution is simply to throw a skeptical side character or two into the mix to stand at the margins and raise their eyebrows at things occasionally, to remind the reader that the world is never unanimous. But maybe there are other solutions I’m missing? Maybe it doesn’t need a solution? I don’t know.

I’m writing this post mostly because just articulating things like this, laying them out, helps me think about them. But I’d be genuinely interested in hearing other people’s thoughts and ideas.

Thoughts About Boobs

So yesterday on Twitter I linked to @gaileyfrey‘s Storify about objectification and male gaze in writing female characters. Or her Storify about boob spies, if you prefer. You might want to look at that first, if you haven’t; I’ll wait.

I had some expound-y sorts of thoughts on the matter, which were too much for Twitter, so I’m just gonna put ’em down here. They aren’t any kind of gospel; they’re just my Thoughts About Fictional Boobs.

As writers, we have a finite amount of space, a finite number of words, in which to Make Characters Happen for readers. No reader is going to stick with us indefinitely while we noodle around with minutiae, and no publisher is buying 800,000-word books. So the things you say about a character and the actions your character takes on the page should be salient. Character-relevant or plot-relevant, as you like, but relevant and revelatory in some way. Useful information, no noodling. The reader is trusting you to tell them the important stuff, and trusts that this is going somewhere.

If your female character’s first thoughts about herself, or her thoughts on a regular basis, are “boobs” or “hair” or whatever, you’re telling the reader those are salient character details: your female character is boobs and/or hair. If your female character is something other than boobs and/or hair, then maybe that’s the stuff you want to hit us with, in the limited space that you have.

(It is possible the main point of the female character in question is SHE’S WHOA HECKA SEXY, the end. But in that case, there are probably better and sexier ways to convey that than “BOOBS,” which is kind of like Sexy at an Eighth-Grade Level. Also 97% of the time that is a dumb Main Point for any character.)

Boobless writers take note: as a Boobed Person, I do think about my boobs on occasion. But usually only when they’re being annoying in some way, the same way you probably rarely think about your elbow until it’s itchy or you’ve knocked it into something or you’re dressing for an Elbow Fetishist’s Party. My boob-thoughts are not a salient character detail. I don’t put them in my LinkedIn profile or anything.

If the fact that your female character has boobs is one of the most telling details about her, you probably need to think harder about that character. If it’s not one of the most telling details about her, then think about what you should be telling us about her instead. Readers can fill in the boobs.

Similarly, if the first or most pressing thing your hetero male character thinks or notices regarding your female character(s) is: “BOOBS” — well, again, readers absorb that as a telling detail about him. You, the author, have chosen to use your limited piece of the reader’s attention to share your character’s boob-thoughts, thus they must be insights of some kind.

And again, maybe that is what you want to tell readers about him — he is quite noisily heterosexual, or he finds this lady WHOA HECKA SEXY, or he is a libidinous gentleman, or his brain is in his pants-parts — in which case, cool, you do you. Maybe that is an important thing to note; maybe his pants-brain is about to get him in trouble, for instance, because he is distracted by it. But if that isn’t what you want readers to absorb about the character, then maybe shift focus to stuff that is. I doubt most straight men would rank Thinks a lot about boobs high on a list of their significant character traits. Boob-thoughts, extant or not, aren’t high-priority information.

My husband is a big fan of animated movies, and he explains that it’s because everything you see on the screen, everything in the frame at any given moment, is there on purpose. Someone drew it, someone chose to put it there. Every detail was considered. It helps to think about your writing this way, too. Every choice you make matters, every detail that shows in the finished scene should be there because you considered it before putting it in place. Make your finite number of words do what you mean them to.

I’m not here to tell you DON’T DO THE THING; I’m telling you to think about the thing you’re doing and whether it’s your aim. I’m not saying your characters shouldn’t have and/or think about boobs; boobs are rad. I’m just saying that in this world, in your reader’s brain, your characters get to occupy limited space. Is it your authorial intention to fill that space with boobs?