Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Socratic characterization, or how to create imaginary people by arguing with the voices in your head

There’s a wide range of theory on how to create good characters. Some people swear by the fill-in-the-blank character worksheet; some insist that characters can only be discovered by writing them and seeing where they go; lots of writers fall somewhere in between. And all of these methods work, to some extent. This is one of the things I learned early in my writing career—there’s a lot of excellent advice out there, and the fact that it’s excellent doesn’t keep it from being useless to you. Every writer is different; every brain is a different machine; some software runs better with certain operating systems than with others.

Personally, I like the Socratic method.

For those of you not fortunate enough to have a classical grounding in your education, the Socratic method of teaching involves asking students a series of carefully chosen questions so that they discover answers on their own rather than simply memorizing what the teacher says. Firing questions back and forth requires both sides to engage fully in the debate, and usually strengthens the arguments involved until some meaningful conclusion is reached. It’s labor-intensive, but its results are often spectacular.

When I sit down to create a character, I usually have some germ of an idea as a starting point. Perhaps I need a certain type of character to fill a role—“I need a villain who can really give my hero a run for his money,” or “I need someone who can see through illusions” or just “I need someone who can be funny occasionally, because all this doom and gloom is killing me.” Other times, I get a piece of the character before I find the story in which he appears—this happened with Trevor, where I imagined an ex-sidekick with emotional trauma before I knew he’d be meeting up with Rae, whom I’d already created. But however it happens, I don’t usually get the J.K. Rowling effect where a character just walks into my head, fully formed and ready to go. I have to discover enough of that character to get the story rolling, and then the story will help me discover more.

So I start with what I know. I list my needs, and then ask what kind of character might do and say the things I need done and said. Or I list what I know of this strange person living in my head, and branch out from there. Then I ask myself questions—principally “Why?” and “How?”—and the character begins to form.

Take the case of Eagle Eye, a former hero mentioned in Masks who will appear in later books, if I get them. Early on, I saw him in my mind as constantly responding to things other people couldn’t perceive—twitching his head at sounds no one else heard, following scents no one else smelled, etc. I liked this otherworldly quality, and it made him a great foil for other characters, but I didn’t want him to be just another cardboard cutout with ESP, so I gave him enhanced senses. He hears and smells things others don’t because his ears and nose are unusually acute. So how would this affect his life? Well, if he couldn’t turn it off, he would probably be miserable in a modern city, what with all the noise and air pollution. He would want to live in an environment he could control, which meant a large piece of property where he could keep people and stimuli out. I hit on the idea of using an abandoned aerospace facility in the South Bay region of Los Angeles—my childhood memories are full of rusting hangars and fenced-off warehouses and airfields. But how would he afford such a large piece of property?

At this point, I brought in an element I knew I needed. One of my teenage characters in Masks is an orphan who will have to build a fake identity—and while he can forge any number of parental signatures and computer records, he will need a flesh-and-blood relative to appear at some point in order for him to get one thing he desperately wants. Eagle Eye could be old enough to pass as this boy’s father or—better, for the boy in question—his grandfather. The combination of Eagle Eye’s newly acquired age and the aerospace element led me to the idea that this character had a long past, and some of it might be tied in to things like top-secret aviation. He’d been around a while, he was a mask, he was comfortable around aircraft and aerospace facilities, and he was content to live as a hermit, so he probably didn’t like people. He was hiding something. That led my brain to Cold War espionage and state secrets. What if this character knew something, and was using his information to extort the money he needed to live off-grid? That would explain how he managed to live the way he did, and why he did it—his enhanced senses made him want to isolate himself, and the fact that he had once been a hero (a relatively unselfish profession) and that he knew state secrets would make him want to avoid a couple of innocent kids for their own good.

Whoo. Headrush.

I went on from there. I decided to make Eagle Eye particularly active during World War II—it would make him old enough to look grandfatherly and connect him to the Golden Age of comic books—and that suggested his powers came from some kind of wartime experiment common in comic books of the day. I added a twist: rather than having his powers come from an American super-soldier experiment a la Captain America, what if his powers came from the Axis? It was a promising idea, but why would, say, the Nazis give superpowers to an American? I read up on medical experimentation in Auschwitz, and thought of all those American superheroes who were drawn into comics fighting the Nazis. What if Eagle Eye had been captured overseas on one of those missions, and after the scientists assigned to figure out what made him tick discovered he was just a standard cape-and-mask mysteryman, they decided to use him as a test subject for their own projects? He would have been in better shape than the average Auschwitz inmate, and they wouldn’t use strapping SS men for the first round of potentially lethal testing. So Eagle Eye was a test subject who survived, against all odds. The kind of mental toughness he’d need to get through that made him a very interesting character, especially when I set him up beside much younger, more uncertain heroes like Rae and Trevor.

But the reference to Eagle Eye in Masks had him wounded in action during the mask purge, ten years before the novel begins. How would a man who was a biological adult during World War II manage to operate as a superhero 60 or 70 years later? Okay, the experimentation would have to slow the aging process somehow—that was a comic-book gimme. And how would the subject of German super-soldier experiments come to know state secrets he could trade for a hermitage? I recalled that there was a lot of controversy about using scientific data gathered from Auschwitz (most notably, studies on the best ways to revive people suffering from hypothermia), so perhaps he knew of some U.S. government program trying to reconstruct what was done to him. That would give him the right combination of horror and tragedy. I liked it.

But wait! I’ve written myself into a corner. If he’s such a confirmed hermit, why would he come out of hiding to help my character who needs a fake grandfather? Plus any injury that would take a super-soldier out of action long-term would probably still be painful ten years later, physically or psychologically. What could this boy possibly offer him that would be worth the pain and indignity of going out into the world again?

I realized, at this point, that I had a very rich history for my character from the beginning of World War II to the present … but I had nothing before that. So my next question was: what kind of person would be running around in a bird costume at the beginning of the war? He had to live in New York, where my history of masks required their population to be centered at the time. The classic figure of the wealthy Manhattan playboy didn’t appeal to me … but I could see a poor kid from the tenements getting suckered into testing an experimental flying rig. (Who else would be willing to jump off a building for money?) So that would make him an immigrant, or the son of immigrants … and as I looked into the history of immigrant groups in New York, I found a promising lead on his ethnicity. But it would mean he came from a large and socially conservative family—people who would have been proud of him for going off to war, but people who probably wouldn’t react well to the freakish state in which he came home from that war. That meant he probably hadn’t seen or spoken to his big, happy, crazy family in more than 60 years. He went from being part of a large, loving unit to being a solitary person, in pain, surrounded by people he couldn’t trust.

And that, I knew, went right to the heart of Masks. Most of my masked characters are literal or figurative orphans, building their own families and communities out of the oddballs and outcasts they encounter. It seemed unlikely that Eagle Eye would have any children of his own, but if my orphan boy could show the right kind of spirit and determination, he would make a tempting surrogate son for a childless hero.

It took a bit longer than this in real time—I had to yell at the voices a bit more—but I ended up with a richly developed hero with a killer backstory and a compelling motivation in the present. I sat down later and worked out the precise mechanics of his powers and the experimentation that led to them, and that affected things like build and eye color, so they were written down some time after the initial session. But the basic soul of the character was done, and everything grew from there. I sent the rundown to Nicole, and she did her customary magic.

I think that’s the most awesome-looking helmet Nicole’s ever drawn …

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