megwrites: Shakespeared! Don't be afraid to talk Elizabethan, or Kimberlian, or Meredithian! (shakespeared!)
[personal profile] megwrites
An actual post about writing! I know, it seems like I hardly make those anymore.

I got a bit inspired by reading a rather good post by [ profile] kateelliott on how to create deep, vibrant characters within a story, which I do recommend reading. I think that any writer at any level can benefit from this post, either as a lesson or just a refresher course on what does and doesn't work. I especially like that she says:

Aside: That I am a big fan of the adage “Show, don’t Tell” doesn’t mean there are never appropriate times to use Tell as one of the tools in your writing toolkit. There are. You just need to know when and why it works.

This is the essence of good writing advice. Remember that stories are as varied as people, so there is a time and a place for just about everything. It's just that knowing that time and place for things is 80% of human wisdom when it comes to writing.

So keep that in mind. What I'm about to say also is something that's conditional, and dependent upon what's going on in an individual story.

Reading lately, I've come across a few books that have been pretty good books, but unfortunately, there was something about them that really took away from my ability to believe the plot. And that something was that protagonists of these stories were running into a lot people who were not only willing to be helpful, but able to be helpful in some pretty major ways.

Most human beings, at least those who are not completely devoid of any shred of kindness or generosity, have the capacity to want to help others and they exercise that capacity at certain times in their lives.

This kindness factor is actually something that may be hardwired. I remember watching a PBS program a while back that showed that both children and some kinds of mammals will, when they see a researcher struggling with an easily fixed problem (I think on the program, the researcher couldn't reach a block or get to something they needed) will have a moment of, "Here, let me help you with that" and help the researcher.

But as I was watching that test and thinking about its implications, I wondered how far they could get the child's/animal's kindness to stretch and how it would change based on whether the party in need was a researcher or a parent or a complete stranger (or in an animal's case, a related animal or a non-related/non-friendly animal). I also wondered if it would change based on degree of difficulty of helping. Would simply pushing a block versus, perhaps, performing a more complex task reduce the amount of helpfulness? Or would the child/animal wait longer before helping?

Because I think that we'd find some really rather surprising (or unsurprising) results if we did such experiments.

The thing about human helpfulness, and indeed all human attributes, is that there is an element of cost-benefit analysis going into it, even if that analysis is entirely unconscious/subconscious. Let's say you were waiting to catch a bus and you saw a person (a stranger to you) struggling with a large, heavy package somewhere off to the side. This person looks like they need a hand and no one is helping them. Helping them would probably mean that you'd have to miss your bus and the next one won't come for a while.

For the purposes of this argument, let's say you're able to be helpful in some way.

Do you think your answers would change based on why you're waiting for the bus? If you were waiting to go to a very important doctor's appointment or a job interview your some other time-important activity that you can't miss without consequences, you might decide not to help. You'd feel sorry for the other person, perhaps, but you have to be where you need to go. And what you're doing MATTERS to you. Helping them will hurt you, and they're a stranger.

If you were waiting for that bus to go, say, grocery shopping on a day off or somewhere that isn't all that isn't time-sensitive, would this sway you to go help?

If you want to be really interesting, would your answer change based on the stranger's outward attributes? Race, age, gender, if they're pregnant, visibly disabled, class markers, if they look homeless or very rich, what their emotional state seems to be (are they crying, angry, or looking somewhat happy?).

I think most people would not stop to help if it meant missing the bus and being late to something important and time-sensitive (appointment, interview, job, etc). And I don't think that would make these people unkind or insensitive. Human beings have to make decisions about themselves for their own benefit, because when they don't, well, bad things happen to them. Decide to help that stranger, and lose out on a job opportunity, or end up missing a vitally needed doctor's appointment (and thus get sicker) or lose your job. What is that stranger to you that you should sacrifice these things for them and their needs.

Whatever importance that package and getting it shifted is (maybe it's life and death to them), you have your life, you've got to make decisions for yourself. If you sacrifice all these things for strangers who likely won't be able to pay you back, well, it's not going to be fun being you. And you might not be around all that much longer to make such sacrifices, for that matter.

It's just such these calculations and situations where a lot of books have lost me as a reader, because they seem to be chock full of characters (especially secondary ones) who just don't have this cost-benefit analysis and are put into rather convenient positions to be helpful.

The reason that this strains my credulity is because a) I haven't met a human being yet who didn't have this cost-benefit analysis behavior in some form another. People's assessments of costs and benefits vary, of course and b) not having this analysis evident in characters makes it clear that they're not thought of as a person by the author, but rather a walking, talking plot device that I'm supposed to feel interested in.

When I find people to be amazingly helpful in novels to the point where it takes me out of the story, this isn't because I'm so jaded as to human nature that I don't believe in human kindness. It's that I'm a firm believer in human practicality. And I believe in this because we're the dominant species on the planet, to the point where we've managed to kick the ass of every other primate species and a load of other plants and animals - many of whom are bigger, meaner, and have sharper teeth than us.

So obviously, human capacity to make really good decisions that advance one's position (or one's group's position) should not be overestimated. Nor should human capacity for preservation.

When I read about your character being helped by another character, I immediately think about why that other person is helping them, and what that help is costing that other person, and do I believe that they would do this in that situation?

Because unless you've shown me a character who is a perfect, radiating ball of goodness and light or who has damn good motivation (ie, helping this character will help them in a very important way) - I do get very dubious when, say, someone who faces execution for helping your character on their quest and has only just had a first conversation with them two chapters ago is right there, dedicatedly sticking out their neck to help someone when that end goal does not especially benefit them.

And I'm not wrong to be dubious, and neither are other readers.

Especially when that self-sacrificing helpfulness stems from a character with a marginalized identity helping a character with a dominant identity. I've read more than my fill of books about women who exist just to be useful to men, or GLBT people who go above and beyond to help the straight character fix their relationship or save the straight hero/heroine by DYING, or characters of color who are just so darn helpful to the Nice White Protagonist - all risking and sacrificing their own selves, their own time, their own lives, their own well being as though the needs/wants/life of that protagonist is so clearly more valuable than their own that the choice to help is no choice at all.

What makes such decisions so aggravating is that they stem from the author's own valuing of these characters' lives (partly or in whole BASED on their oppressed identity), from an author who hasn't taken the step back to look at their story or their protagonist from an outside (that is to say, the READER'S) point of view.

So how does a writer avoid doing these things?

Well, I'd say that a big part is stepping back and looking at multiple point of view and motivations in the book, and seeing if they add up the way you might think they do. Because a honest assessment might show you that, wow, that person really is being way too helpful to the point of being illogical and dangerous to themselves.

Another part might be to rethink the situation your protagonist gets into, and whether you've made it too improbable to get out of without an equally improbable amount of help or luck. I think this is a big part of the Helpfulness Problem in books, and it seems that it comes out of speculative literature a lot. I've noticed that Nice White Girls In Urban Fantasy get a lot of help dealt to them because they're in situations that, frankly, the characters as they're written are just not equipped to deal with. That no one, even with superpowers, would be equipped to deal with. And because writers seem to want to up the stakes so much that it inevitably leads to a Save the World plot, they end up making other characters Much Too Helpful.

Another note, especially to you speculative writers out there: I don't necessarily need all the world, or all the kingdom, or all the city, or even all the damn neighborhood to be imperiled to be interested in your protagonist's plight. In fact, most of the most interesting, engaging stories I've read/viewed have been about a protagonist trying to accomplish something that's really only important to them.

I think about Firefly, for instance. I loved that show and think it is, in many way, a masterpiece (yes, it had deeply problematic issues with race, gender, and other things and that's another discussion that will happen at another time). The crew of the Serenity were not saving the world. They weren't even trying to save anything, besides their own skins. Unlike Joss Whedon's other series which were based on Hero/ines Saving Things, Firefly was just about a group of people eking out a survival, trying to stay free and keep food on the table and maybe even have a little fun while they were at it. Sure, there were some spur-of-the-moment heroics along the way, but it wasn't their overall mission.

And I loved that show so much. And it was brilliant. And I didn't need them to go around saving the 'verse to think of them as heroes. In fact, it was refreshing that they weren't. They were thieves and smugglers and survivors and that was a heroism all its own.

Or take Kindred by Octavia Butler (I consider this to be her finest work among her many spectacular works). The heroine in that case isn't really trying to save anyone but herself and her family members. The world isn't in peril. If she fails, the world will go on. It will be different (and she won't exist), but it will go on. But that's okay! Because the life and well being of that protagonist mattered so much to me that they became the world. Because the life of one single black woman does abso-friggin-lutely matter, and that the struggle for that life to come about and continue, and the shape that life takes does matter. Because Butler, being the genius she was and ever shall be, made me care. Not just about the protagonist, but the others around her. She made this world of unreal things completely real to me, and even when the heroine's survival comes at a price, I cared, and I wanted it even when it hurt.

And notice just how much outside help the protagonists in either of these examples gets? Little to none. In fact, they just get more and more obstacles stacked against them as time goes. They don't pick up helpful friends and companions, they pick up enemies and problems and difficulties.

If assistance must be rendered, consider giving the helper better reasons to be helpful. If you truly do need your protagonist to find a helpful person, give them a stake in things. I don't have a problem with characters banding together for common goals. That's very human and very smart. Helping someone who's say, trying to kill the person who shot your father a few years back makes sense. That revenge (or justice). That makes sense. Or make the helping worth their time. Have a reward built in for them. Are they getting paid? Will there be something in it for them at the end? Perhaps change how dangerous it is for the helper to help. After all, if it's very little risk or time or trouble for this person to help out, then it's more credible that they would. And it still allows them to be a character rather than a plot device.

But in the end, it comes down to that same principle that [ profile] kateelliott mentioned in her post. It comes to knowing that your readers are going to smart, savvy folks. And many, many of them have come to read about characters, which means they're coming to read about people - people they can believe and perhaps even believe in - and people are pretty good at telling a person from a plot device.

Date: 2010-07-26 12:21 am (UTC)
yifu: (li yuanzhi 2009)
From: [personal profile] yifu
Another part might be to rethink the situation your protagonist gets into, and whether you've made it too improbable to get out of without an equally improbable amount of help or luck.

Thank you very much for this post - this is exactly one of the problems in my current story. My MC gets a valuable amount of help (useful information, though he still fights his own battles) from other characters, and while I'm also showing that these characters aren't entirely helping them out of the 100% goodness of their hearts, it needs to be made clearer why most of them are willing to help him.

Date: 2010-07-26 12:39 am (UTC)
alcesverdes: A dragon writing  (Dragon Writer)
From: [personal profile] alcesverdes
Reading your post, specially the final part, I remembered The Princess Bride and how I've always liked that Iñigo has a good and clear motivation to rescue and help Westley. Fezzik too, since he doesn't want to be left alone again, and Iñigo is his only friend.

Other than that, your post and the other one you linked, are great advice.

Date: 2010-07-26 09:36 pm (UTC)
crossedwires: toph punches katara to show her affection (Default)
From: [personal profile] crossedwires
people are pretty good at telling a person from a plot device.

Yes! Great post.

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