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Rant, Rebellion, and Realistic Characters

08 Jan

This entry was originally posted in late December 2011, almost two months after I left a job of fourteen years and began a new life.

This work-related rant turned toward writing and characterization, but I cut the post short back in May 2011, and never finished until picking it up again seven months later, after the source of the rant was no longer part of my life. For good or ill, the rant is unchanged. However, I’ve expanded upon the original characterization portion, and hope my frustration and anger produced something worth reading, something that might serve others in their lives, their writing, or their work relationships.

I don’t like to be controlled. Don’t like to be micromanaged. Don’t like someone being “all up in my business” or constantly asking questions about matters that are no business of theirs.

This is an increasingly intense battle at my day job, in which colleagues misbehave but put the burden on my shoulders. I am made responsible for their behavior, and for the morale of my fellow workers.

Funny. I thought morale started at the top. And, last time I looked, neither my paycheck nor my title reflected that kind of responsibility.

Everything comes back around to one issue: control. Who’s gonna be the puppet master?

When someone says they trust me then they try to manage me, push me, pull the rug out from under me, they’re saying, “I don’t trust you.” When someone says they appreciate all my years of service to the organization then they try to confine me rather than giving me room to do my job, they’re saying, “I don’t appreciate you.”

Tasks that I did over a decade ago are no longer acceptable now. There’s been an added position, one that’s supposed to free the rest of us to do our jobs better, but the person in that role is so uncertain of his place that he’s grasping control wherever he can, and in the process making life difficult for the rest of us. Commonsense has gone the way of freedom, autonomy, and trust: out the door.

Layers of bureaucracy do not produce efficiency. They do, however, produce mountains of paperwork, frustration, and demi-tyrants.

A couple weeks back, I was told by a supervisor, “I don’t need any Lone Rangers.” Really? It was concerning an area I had overseen since I was hired almost fourteen years ago. Suddenly, I’m a Lone Ranger.

Then, last week, I was reprimanded — this person was shocked, shocked, I tell you — because I didn’t immediately do the first thing the boss asked, but offered an alternative that was better suited to the situation. After all, said this shocked individual, the good of the organization is superior to the good of the individual.

That’s a scary notion. There’s a whole lot of subtext to that statement (socialism and communism, for instance). Countless crimes and misdeeds have been carried out under the banner of the corporate good.

To my mind, the good of the individual is the good of the organization. After all, the organization cannot operate without the individual.

But what does any of this have to do with writing, other than serving as my personal rant?

Thus the soapbox is put aside, and here begins the actual writing-related portion about characters. Hope it helps!

Writers, how much control do you exert over your characters? Are they real, or are they robots?

If one is writing science fiction, robots might be expected, but even robotic characters tend to have personality i.e. C3PO or R2D2 in Star Wars, or android Mr. Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”; human characters, however, should not display robotic tendencies, unless the writer intends to use that stiffness or coldness to further the story somehow. (Or the “human” is a droid. That’s almost always cool.)

With a change of circuitry or software, at the whim of the designer, robots can be altered, predicted, controlled.

Not so with humans. Push, prod, bully, or demand, we’re stubborn, willful, changeable, foolish, scheming, proud, weak — all sorts of traits and addictions not easily controlled by ourselves, let alone by others seeking to change us.

Why, then, do authors try to impose their wills on their characters? Granted, characters should not run amok in a story, or behave illogically (unless, of course, that plays to character or plot). However, ever read a story where the author obviously had a goal in mind for certain characters, and forced them to adhere to that plot, against the integrity of the characters?

By integrity, I mean the truth of the characters — who they are, what they do, how they think and reason, what they believe, how they respond to authority figures, etc.

In the real world, questions don’t necessarily mean disrespect for authority, though there is the assumption that questioning a command equals insubordination. Questions are a search for information, for reliability, for a reason. Authors should allow their characters to ask questions and establish realistic identities: “Why must I say that? I would never do this. I’d never hang out with that guy. Even if she’s my relative, I wouldn’t just excuse her behavior. If you, the author, want this from me, you must first give me a reason.”

Just as valid a question in fiction as in the real world, have you earned the authority to make such demands of your characters? Are you a trustworthy storyteller? Do you keep your story’s promises? Give your characters logical motivations? Allow plot twists to arise organically from the story rather than, say, including gunfire or an explosion — or the cliched dead body — just to jazz up boring or dead-end material?

Even if they can’t always express it, readers can tell when they’re reading the work of a competent and trustworthy storyteller, and when they’re reading a story full of contrived circumstances and unrealistic characters.

My opinion: A tacked-on happy ending is less desirable than an organic, realistic tragic ending. (Although, to be honest, I much prefer happy endings to sad ones.) And give me a hero I can believe in, flawed or not, because he or she is written as if real. Warts, rebellion, and all.

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