Writer’s Wednesday: Character Agency

I’m in the midst of finishing/starting a big project, and I realized what’s drawn me so deeply into this story (or set of stories) is my characters. That’s because it never feels like any character in the story is a prop piece; no one is hanging out in this story just to help or further another character’s arc. The plot requires all the characters, and none of them want to feel useless; they come and go when they have a part to play, which has made this story difficult at times, but also a thrill ride to write. All the characters have their own agendas, and whenever I’ve been stuck, focusing on what each character wants helps crack the story open again.

Think about your favorite stories (books, movies, TV, comics, wev). Each major character has their own reason(s) for being there, don’t they? Even the villain (and especially the villain) should have unique motives for being involved in the action. That’s because no one lives their lives, hoping to be the set piece in someone else’s life. Who wants to do that? We all want are own story; we think what happens is about us. Every side character and villain thinks it’s their story, not the heroes.

LSP gets it.

That’s why fridging a character is such a pernicious thing to do, too. It’s traditionally been done with women, but there might be examples of it being done with men, too. (A father or brother dying could qualify.) That character is essentially boiled down to a prop, a piece of set decoration for someone else’s pain and growth. If you’re going to off a character, sure, their death is going to impact the rest of the story (as it sometimes should), but maybe they’ve contributed their own little part to the story or went out fulfilling (or failing to fulfill) their own wants and needs. GRRM may have oodles of characters, but each character feels like they’ve come into the story for their own reasons. It’s a bit easier to show that each character is unique in multi-POV stories, me thinks, but it can definitely be done in single POV stories as well. Two of my favorite stories/series growing up were Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series and Harry Potter. One of the things that subconsciously drew me to these stories was that all the characters felt real to me. When I went back and read them as an adult, I was struck by how the supporting cast has so much of their own agenda; sure, the many story is about Harry or Sabriel, and other characters take that journey with them.

But the main point is that it’s a with not a because.

People aren’t prizes (hint: people owned by other people are slaves), and reducing characters to objects is the fastest way (for me personally) to lose interest in a story. It’s the princess in a castle syndrome; the hero needs to rescue the person in the highest tower or at the center of the maze, but it’s difficult to understand why or empathize with the hero’s quest because we don’t even know who this person is! They’re an abstraction to us, an ideal. Sure, me might care because we like the hero and want them to succeed, but if they’ve never met the person they’re trying to save, it’s hard to see why they’d want to. At least own up to the fact that you’re chasing an ideal, hero, and not a person. Jeez.

Of all the stories that got the ‘princess in a tower’ thing right, it was Shrek. Fiona starts out as an ideal, a princess to be won, but she’s not the end game of the story. When she’s saved, we find she has her own wants, her own desires and needs. It’s a twist, and a good one, in the traditional story of rescuing a damsel in distress. She wants to break her curse, and we’re rooting for her to do it (of course, not in the way she’d like it to be done, but that’s dramatic irony for you). This is because Fiona has agency: she’s in the story for her own reasons. Everything else about a character can change, but the act of checking to see if the character is joining the quest (or sabotaging the quest) for their own goals helps more than all the complex world-building or 3D chess level plot machinations ever will into making a story feel full and alive. Good story tellers do this because they’re in love with their characters (or love/hate with some of them), and they don’t want to leave any of them without a good reason to be participating in the plot. You, dear reader, are welcome to think the reasons given are stupid or contrived, but that’s another post for another day.

They came for second breakfast.

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Living while introverted

I am an introvert. Surprise, I know, being part of that half of the population. It’s like being a woman. Flip a coin, and you could probably guess my gender and particular social inclination. The most common reactions to being an introvert are “You’re not shy!” or “But you go out a lot!” Well, yes, but here’s the thing: I require ridiculous amounts of me time. I need large chunks of space and time to myself to be creative and to just think. I’m not a ‘group work’ person. It’s not because I don’t like other people, but it’s usually because, if I work in a group or with a group, I still need swaths of time to go off and work on my own. Introversion has little to do with being shy and all to do with enjoying silence and a sense of open space in the world.

And this is why I hate “how to fix your life, you shy introvert!” type help articles. I read them because I’m a masochist. This is the latest piece I came across. The article should have been about ways to make sure you get out of your house more because it’s about how to get out of your house in the age of extreme creature comforts. It’s more about being lazy than about being introverted.

I hear you! I’m a total introvert and the creature comforts of home are usually a lot more enticing than a social outing. The amount of awesome that you can stuff into a small house makes it incredibly hard to get out and leave. The fact most people have a big flat screen TV, can stream just about any movie or TV show on demand, and can automate the delivery of pretty much everything makes it easier than ever to stay cooped up inside. Still, social interaction is good for you, so let’s take a look at some ways you can motivate yourself to get out of the house every now and again.

There’s the assumption introversion never means leaving your house. Wrong and wrong. I go outside a lot, work a job, go for walks, travel, and all kinds of other things, but I’m still an introvert. I can do a lot of these things without interacting closely with other people. I guess the reason I like my little apartment is because I crave my own space. Even when growing up, I craved my own spaces, little places where I could go, think as long as I needed, and feel completely comfortable. It’s about me time, not about vegging in front of the couch. There are out door places, places away from my apartment, that qualify as ‘me’ spaces. I had this seat in the library I always tried to sit in because I loved its location. I felt completely comfortable in that corner, tucked away from loud groups of people, and I did a lot of solid work there. At home, I loved my swing set. I had my swing, which was different from my sister’s swing, and I would go out there and swing for hours. Seriously, I was obsessed with swing sets. If my sister came out, we would play, but I liked to get out there alone and just swing.

This is introversion. This is not being shy but an in your bones need for solitude.

That being said, being an introvert doesn’t make you better. It really doesn’t. Being a women doesn’t give me magical estrogen powers. It’s a 50:50 population split. Flip a coin, it’s just like that. As a society, we put a lot of value on extroversion because it’s essential for community building. In case you were wondering, as social animals, humans are all about community building, so this is why we do prize extroverts, but once again, flip the coin. You’re not better, just different.

That being said, what if you’re an introvert who wants to interact better with people? What if you want to learn how to socialize in a way that makes sense for you? “Must I fake it?” on the ‘Since You Asked’ blog by Cary Tennis is the best advice I’ve ever read about how to be an introvert in a world that values extroversion. Here is the question and the best part of the answer, but read the entire thing.

Question :

I was wondering if you could give me some meta-advice. See, I’m quite shy and introverted socially, so I have difficulty in making friends or moving beyond a superficial level of acquaintance. I read self-help books and the like — I’ve even had a little counseling — for advice in how to amend this, but I’m seeing this apparent dichotomy in such advice that I don’t know how to resolve. On the one hand, they say that to make connections with people you should turn your attention to the other person, ask them questions about themselves and their lives, and so on. On the other hand, they say you should always try to “be yourself,” don’t try too hard, act as comes naturally to you. But with my personality, I have to “try hard” to generate conversation, to think of questions to ask people, and to not revert to going on about my own inane opinions if nothing immediately springs to mind (to say nothing of ignoring the feeling of artificiality produced by this strategy). If I acted as came naturally to me I would not be talking much (except to people I already know).

Answer:

The uneasiness of the introvert in a social situation has to do with the signals you are getting from the rest of the people that you do not exist. So assert your existence. You needn’t do this in any obvious way. Just feel your toes. Feel your hips. As you stand in a circle of people, feel your breath. Look at the other people. Allow yourself to look at them and think about them. Notice how their mouths move, how their eyes change, what kind of hair they have, what their skin is like, what they are wearing and where it came from. Regard them. Hold your space. Do not worry that you will be called upon, or that you must be ready with shallow patter. Just calm down and observe. Be a million miles away.

This holding of your own space is a form of quiet aggression that can redress the imbalance between the extroverts and the introverts. Yes, the extroverts command airspace. They say phrases. Their faces move. But you have the right to your own thoughts. If what they are saying is ludicrous, you do not have to laugh and pretend. If you make them uncomfortable, they will find some other guacamole.