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See you at 2500 hours?

We tell stories about people, and people tend to go about their everyday life most of the time. Sometimes that life is full of small gems, and all the author has to do is unearth those gems. In other cases, the strengths and weaknesses of a person aren't revealed until something extraordinary happens. When we're not in Kansas anymore. When the clock strikes 25. When the going gets tough and the fan is set to max.

I've talked about The Natural Story before, and about how we can mix everyday events with the extraordinary to create tension and interest. But tension is most interesting when the outcome takes root in the people in the story, either by shaping them or changing them completely, thereby revealing what they're made of.

Some will say that civilization and culture are just the veneer that covers our true animal nature, and that if we scratch the surface of a man, we'll see the beast within. Fortunately there are many ways to do that, subtle and otherwise, and many degrees of change. Good thing, or we'd quickly run out of stories.

Something Happens But Leaves No Mark
Any person with a plan can be stalled. In Die Hard II John McClane is trying to get home to his wife, but terrorists take over the airport, and he has to fight them to be united with his family. He conquers and wins, but in the end John McClane isn't all that changed.  Out-of-the-ordinary events scratch his surface for a moment, but leave no permanent scars.

They Didn't Ask Me
Many a reluctant peasant has had the life of a wizard thrust on him in heroic fantasy, because magic is dangerous and the choice lies between training and death. Very often some kind of threat, either to the person or to someone he loves, prompts the character to take a different path in life than he had planned for or wanted for himself.

The stress that comes from being forced onto a path you never wanted can reveal that character's personality very well. Does the wannabe blacksmith break down and cry because he's forced to train as a mage? Or does he figure out a way to work magical armor?

These stories resonate with us because random factors influence our lives. Many boys want to be pilots, firefighters, or Superman, but many boys end up as account managers or telemarketers because of the circumstances in his life that he didn't have control over - or because he didn't take control.

Look Ma! The World Changed
When the aliens land, or the dragons return, or the zombies begin to shamble through the streets, the world changes for everyone. This trick is of course very popular in genre fiction.

Change can affect many or few of the people in that world, depending on the story, but the story doesn't become truly interesting before we get into the head of a person, whose life has been turned upside down. Who needs a judge, when the concept of the law doesn't matter anymore, and how does that judge make the transition into a new world? How does a scientist wrap her mind around the physics of faster-than-light propulsion drive or alien anatomy?

A good example of this kind of story could be Greg Bear's Blood Music. In this story the main character has to wrap his mind around a very large concept that changes not only the world but what it means to be human or even sentient.

We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Many fantasy and science fiction stories explore worlds where the rules and circumstances of human behavior are different from our world. This alone is often enough to show us how a person reacts to a warped reality, but it's not necessarily the same as having that person face a crisis. What's strange to us may just be everyday life to them, so we don't get to see these people under pressure unless we add a threat to the world or to that person. (Incidentally, that's why there are so few lasting Utopias in fiction.)

The Life-changing Experience
A life-changing experience happens when nothing will ever be the same again. It can be that your house burns down, an accident you're involved in, a death in the family, you win a billion dollars in the lottery. Along with that change comes a new set of circumstances in the person's life that shows us something important about that character, and the stress often forces the persons to adapt or change. It's something that happens to all of us in life at some point or another, and how we deal with it says a lot about us--which, I guess, is why it makes for such interesting stories.

I can't help but think of 'Trading Places' (with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd), which involves two such life-changing experiences. And you've got The Dukes philosophizing about what change will do to Murphy and Aykroyd at the same time (does circumstance or heritage make the man?)                          

The Slow Change
Instead of instant disaster, continuous stress can creep up on us so slowly that we hardly notice the changes to our personality. But fiction allows us to examine the change in others over a relatively short amount of time and perhaps help us recognize it in ourselves.

The Count of Monte Cristo comes to mind. In this book, Edmond Dantès is imprisoned unjustly and spends 14 years in the prison Chateau d'If (thanks for the details, Wikipedia). The imprisonment is described in detail, and we get to follow the process of the change that Edmond Dantès goes through and the bitterness that later prompts him to seek revenge at the cost of his apparent success in life.

Breaking the Major - Personality-Changing Experience
Stronger still is the personality-changing shock. Our personalities are more or less shaped at the age of 2, and there's not much that will change us after that. However, traumatic emotional situations can provoke a change in the way the person feels, behaves, and trusts himself and others - positively or negatively, but often negatively.

In Susanne Bier's movie 'Brothers', one the brothers is an army Major. A strong leader who takes initiative, leads his men well, and doesn't hesitate. But the Major is captured in Afghanistan and locked up with a Private, who is breaking down under the strain. The Major does what he can to keep up the soldier's morale, and even when they're both beaten his personality remains intact.

But the captors decide they can't get more information out of their captives and decide to use them for entertainment instead: single combat to the death. Under the threat of guns, the Major kills the Private. That's the moment when they break the Major - the murder fills him with guilt, self-loathing, self-destructive behavior, and as he refuses to face his actions, he turns his anger at his family instead.

Another personality-altering experience is central in Iain M. Banks' "Use of Weapons", and the story revolves around the mystery of what happened to the main character long ago.

When Does Change Strike?
Often the new circumstances and the changes to the character ARE the story. But past changes may shape a story as well. Or to put it differently: A stressful situation may have changed a character in the past.

(Another kind of change - the big awful change - is often present in a story too: The change for the worse that that characters are fighting. This often happens in fantasy and SF where the entire world is threatened. But that's for another post).

Most people have gone through exciting periods in their lives, and these times shape them in some way. That's the backstory our characters have, and often that backstory goes a long way to explain how they act in the story. Think Smeagol in Lord of the Rings. Or think of Robert De Niro in The Deerhunter.

In some stories, the backstory is revealed slowly and in bits, and in those cases it often becomes as important as the forward-going plot in the story. Again I want to mention Iain M. Banks, who is a master at this kind of storytelling (see for instance 'Look to Windward). But usually the backstory isn't nearly as important to the story as the ongoing plot, and that's a rule of thumb we should try to remember as writers: what happens to our characters now is what makes our stories memorable.

Questions
What breaks your characters out of the deadlock of everyday life? Is it big or small? Could your story happen without it? And what did I forget in the list above?


Inspiration for some of these thoughts: Nephew: Klokken 25 (25 O'Clock). Danish lyrics.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
musingaloud
Feb. 19th, 2013 04:23 am (UTC)
Good stuff here, Jakob! Really thoughtful post. I'm impressed.
jakobdrud
Feb. 19th, 2013 10:17 am (UTC)
Thanks, Pam! I've been wondering about fiction and characters for a while, and I realized that putting those thoughts on paper would add some structure to them... and perhaps help me implement them in my stories. Characters have always been my weak point, I think. Characters and endings.
musingaloud
Feb. 19th, 2013 03:14 pm (UTC)
Endings are tough. That's a major thing I notice in reading slush -- lots of times it's the ending that will break a story, because we really look for that resonance at the end -- but as a writer, I have a *really* hard time finding it myself. There's those endings that are okay, that make you go 'huh', or worse, 'eh', but what stories need is those ending that make the reader think, 'perfect' or make you cry or hope or just filled with any kind of emotion.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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