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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
A Conversation on Character
October, 14 2003


I appreciate your time, and I would like to ask a question of you. It concerns character motivations, which for some reason, is a difficult thing for me to grasp. I flounder around with it all the time, and I get the feeling some people just do it without thinking . But here goes how it has developed for me:

1. Usually I don't think about it. I just write the story. For me, story comes first. I don't start with a character. I start with a story, and then my characters come later. I have characters in the vision of the story, but they are mostly just cardboard. So then I invent characters that fill the plot.

2. This leads (admittedly) to my characters sometimes being FORCED into a plot, and sometimes once you develop the story, they end up doing things outside the plot. This is okay, but it complicates things somewhat. (I'll get to this again at the end of the letter.)

3. Then comes what I have come to call: The Trap. If I stop with #2, I am fine. But I go on, and study, and read about how characters should be motivated by higher values, all this crap about deep real characters, etc, (this is where I just lose it) that these higher values make them more resonant, and give your novel more success. (I know, I read these things and react to them, but wait... I have come to my own conclusion about this already).

4. So, entering the trap, I attempt to give my characters HIGHER motivations and thematic elements. This complicates everything, and frankly I seem to have a hard time coming up with these HIGHER motivations. Initially, my question would have been, HOW DO I COME UP WITH THESE HIGHER MOTIVATIONS.

5. But, then I thought about it, and I realized, maybe these HIGHER MOTIVATIONS, these thematic searches for Love, for Justice, for Truth is just a trap and not something I should really try for, but instead just let develop.

So you see I have my answer... I think I got it right. And to prove it... I took a look at two of YOUR characters, Ender and Bean.

Ender - In Ender's Game I see no overarching thematic HIGHER MOTIVE. He's just a kid, unique, interesting, thrown into a situation in which he struggles the best he can. He muddles through, and survives, and even suceeds.

Bean - Ender's Shadow - Same thing. A young kid who muddles through, does the best he can.

And this VALIDATES my conclusion up above, in #5. YET... then I took it a step further. Look into the future books of both these characters, Ender and Bean, and suddenly I DO SEE higher thematic elements of higher motivations.

Bean's failure to save that girl in the first book, (I can't remember her name! The one Achilles murders) becomes a thematic movement of motivation for him. He, in my mind, becomes very concerned with protecting the innocent. His failure there moves him constantly to seek to help those who can't help themselves. It sets up his conflict with Achilles, who PREYS upon the weak. Yes, Bean is dying, he is tragic, he wonders if he is human, but overall he is moved by this higher purpose. It ties things together, and indeed it does give the entire Bean saga a high theme, a high level feel to it. I'm not even sure you meant to do it. That early scene where the girl dies, seems to have resonated throughout all of the books. It's shaped Bean's character. But it's VERY understated, it's not over the top. It's almost, and here is the key, as if it JUST EVOLVED NATURALLY. (That's the success of it. Isn't that what you are going to tell me. That you have to let this come out of the honest story telling of it. That it can't really be planned...)

Ender follows the same pattern. In later books he becomes defined and motivated greatly be the events in the first war. Because he exterminated the race of Buggers, he becomes very motivated to preserving new life forms as well as advocating a great need to UNDERSTAND things before we go in all guns blazing. His later movies, uh, I meant books, are very highly thematic. But again, I am not sure when you wrote Ender's Game originally this was where you intended it to go, or if it just developed. (Was it?)

Right? That's what you're going to tell me. All this high falutin THINKING about theme and higher motivitions is just hogwash. You think about the story, and the character, and let the THEME and feelings develop naturally. This is why writing comes from inside us, it is the truth we tell, and why we can't help but reflect our times and our culture in our writings (as you mentioned about Nephi and Mormon in your storyteller from Zion essays).

But that goes back to my original question, which might be the easiest or the hardest to answer: What do you do when your characters start doing things outside the outline.... GRIN? What happens when this honestly developed higher motivation takes your character in a direction you didn't intend?

I guess I can try and answer that myself. I've heard enough writers say they let their characters take them whereever they lead. But what if that MAJOR SCREWS up the story. I mean, what if Ender figured it out, it wasn't a game, decided to rebel, and quit the game, and Bean wasn't there to fix it, and the Buggers won and the whole story goes down the drain?

I guess the real question is, how much control do we exert over our characters? There have to be times when we say, no... you aren't going to ruin this story. Get BACK IN LINE! (grin) Right? In the end Ender HAD to win. He had to kill the buggers. Or your story would have sucked... (right?)

-- Submitted by Jason F. Smith

OSC Replies:

As I went to great lengths to explain in my book on Character and Viewpoint, there are various levels of characterization, which you use as needed for a particular character in a particular story.

If the story is ABOUT character (i.e., it follows the character story structure), then you absolutely must know the character and all their relationships, and therefore all those other characters and THEIR relationships.

But if, as I suspect is the case with what you're writing, you are writing event or idea stories, then characters do not have to have the same level of depth. What you're writing is traditional Romance (not love stories, but stories of Great Deeds even if done by common people). And in Romance, characters ARE WHAT THEY DO. That is, we discover who they are by seeing the choices they make. Characterization will consist of showing their decisions and motives at the time, but you don't have to make a big deal about it. Often the situation will be explanation enough.

think of Die Hard. The gestures toward 'character' were slight indeed - his marriage was over but he still loved her and hoped she loved him. This had VERY little to do with the forward progress of the story. Does anyone have any doubt that the character would have done anything even slightly different if he had not had a close relationship with one of the hostages? OK, maybe at the end - but the point is, you didn't have to know anything about his childhood or his high school or his old friends or his first kiss or any of that other crap. HE WAS WHAT HE DID and WHY HE DID IT and that's all the characterization you needed.

Besides, "higher motivations" implies that characters are all good guys. Characters often have very low motivations <grin>. Let the moral universe take care of itself. You'll find out who you are by seeing what you write. But don't plan it like an essay designed to teach moral lessons. That just gets icky. Instead of following some character schema, you should be feeling it as part of the writer's trance: Ah, yes, THAT'S what he'd do, or, Oh, man, yeah, THIS is what's got to happen now. If you have some moral lesson in mind (this character represents Courage), then you won't feel as free to follow the story where your unconscious mind wants it to go.

Bean's response to the death of Poke is not "thematic" - it's just something awful that happened to someone he felt responsible for. He didn't think he felt responsible for anybody, that he was just looking out for himself. So it wasn't a "theme," it was the beginning of his awakening to his humanity. This mattered in the story, because Ender's Shadow could not be an event story the way Ender's Game was, for the good reason that Ender's Game already covered the event story. So instead, Ender's Shadow had to be a character story that took place within the framework. So Bean's desperate desire to become human IS the story, because it's following the character structure.

However, there's no "theme" in it. He doesn't represent some virtue. He'd just trying to become a civilized person. Which means ... he's trying to grow up.

In short, your analysis is dead on ... but your terminology is irritating <grin>. I just hate the idea of grand morals and essay-like themes. These things are discovered. How would Bean respond to event X and event Y? Not, how should I make Bean respond in order to show Virtue X and Sin Y?

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