Killing Characters

I don’t care for death.

Who does? you ask.

Authors who want to write good stories, I think, is the answer.

Death is a part of life. It’s hard to get away from. It’s tragedy. It’s drama. It’s often very good storytelling. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling, and death, threat of death, or fear of death is often at the heart of conflict.

I have a friend in my Nerd Club who is a big fan of death. She judges authors on their willingness to kill off main characters, and she doesn’t shy away from following through with her own characters. Death is inescapable, I’ve heard her say (paraphrased), and to leave death out of your stories or to let all the good guys live is rather ridiculous and robs a story of all realism.

You may have heard my thoughts on this already, from my Harry Potter post. I liked Lord of the Rings because all the good guys were still alive at the end, even though you thought at least a few of them had died along the way. Joyous reunions for all, tears only shed for parting on a long trip.

I am an escapist, in fiction. I find enough death and sorrow in the real world that I don’t care to have it follow me into my fantasies. I like books where people live. I cry easily when characters die. I cried through the entire last half-hour of Titanic, the entire second act of Les Miserables, and the last three chapters of Harry Potter. Yes, I admit it. I am a sucker. I am the person they make Hallmark commercials for. I gasp, sigh, and cry on cue.

Some people find this sort of secondhand sorrow enjoyable, cathartic. I rarely do.

Death itself does not scare me as much as it used to. I believe that death is not the end, not for me or for anyone else. I believe I will see the people I love again, whether I die first or they die first. This does not stop me from fearing loss. I do not want to be alone.

That is what I think of when I think of death. Even if it is for a character in a story, someone I have little emotional connection to, I find myself thinking of the possibility of his or her death in terms of who will be left behind and what effect it will have on those people.

I never kill my characters. At least, I have not to date. If they annoy or bore me, I send them away to some land outside of focus where they can moulder away in obscurity, fates unknown. That’s better, because it leaves the possibility that some day they could return. Death is so permanent. Heck… it seems more permanent in fiction than it is in reality (unless, I suppose, you’re writing about zombies).

The only story I’ve ever written including death was a story where half a clutch of dragon eggs simply did not hatch. They had died in their shells before they ever had the chance. It was a beautiful story. Probably one of the best I’ve ever written for my Nerd Club. I cried while I was writing it, I cried when I proofread it, and I cried again when I re-read it several months later.

I wonder about the psychology of killing characters. What sort of person can hardly stand to do it? What sort of person avoids it entirely? What sort of person kills characters with glee? What sort of people are they in real life? How would they react in a real life or death situation?

Sooo Many X Chromosomes

((If you’re looking for information on actual chromosomes, check here.))

One of the disappointing aspects of Pern Fanfiction is the utter lack of men. We have something like 40 active writers in my club, and currently, not a single one is male.

Actually, I’m not being fair. There are men out there in Pern fandom, somewhere. We get them once in awhile, but they never seem to last. If they do, I’m convinced they must be a very particular sort of man, and I’m not entirely sure what that is. On the other hand, we get women of every sort under the sun.

I called this disappointing above because I think a good balance of males and females makes just about any situation better. In fact, I worked in an office for awhile where there were no men at all. It was a rotten working environment. There was so much cattiness and gossip and general snarkiness that it was sometimes almost unbearable. The competition between women can be so much more vicious than that between men, because for some reason, we can’t keep it professional. Competition isn’t just about the job, climbing the corporate ladder, or earning the boss’s respect. Competition is personal. It’s about who is a better person, who did what to hurt whose feelings, who is the boss’s favorite.

Iiick.

The most amazing thing is, in most situations, all you have to do to put women on better behavior is toss one man into the mix. I’m not being sexist, I’m not being anti-feminist. I’ve just observed this as a fact of life. Generally speaking, one Y chromosome is adequate to bring the dizzying swarm of X chromosomes back to some level of humanity. (Now… I have NO idea what would happen if you tossed a very effeminate man into the mix. That might not help at all.)

The exact same situation is not necessarily true in fiction writing groups. I’ve been in my club for nearly 10 years, and during that time, I’ve seen maybe ten different men pass through the club. None have ever lasted longer than a year. For the most part, we do well enough without them. Occasional snarky fits or hormone-induced rages are impossible to avoid, but don’t tend to get too out of control. We take great pains to keep said fits off the public spectrum, at any rate, so if they do happen, they don’t ignite a great firestorm of name-calling, hair-pulling, or eye-poking.

Perhaps the fact that we can keep it under control is partially due to the fact that we all write for at least one male character. That is a rule. When all your writers are women, you tend to wind up with an unnaturally high proportion of female characters, so we instituted a rule that each writer must have at least one male character. It works surprisingly well. So perhaps being forced to assume a male perspective now and then fills the same role as having an actual man in the room to keep hormones at manageable levels.

But why the dearth of males to begin with?

I wrote a very interesting paper in college. It was about gender roles in the Writing Center, where I worked. There were 60 writing consultants, and our job was to help students with writing they had to do for classes (primarily). The ratio of male to female consultants was 1:5. Since the school was about evenly split between sexes, there had to be a reason for this odd split in the WC. Eventually, I concluded that it had very much to do with the connection of sensitivity and writing. That is, people who write by choice often tend to be more sensitive in all aspects of their lives. (A vast oversimplification of the best Topics paper I ever wrote, but I bet no one reading this cares.)

That, I believe, is reason #1 there are so many more women than men writing fanfic. I haven’t done my research, but I’m willing to bet that phenomenon is present in all fanfic, not just Pern-based. Women are usually more sensitive than men. Sensitivity and writing go hand and hand. If A=B and so forth. Perhaps the parallel is that men, being more physical creatures, are more drawn to games like Dungeons & Dragons. Something about being able to swing a real (okay, plastic) sword around is more appealing to that Y chromosome.

Reason #2: Anne McCaffrey’s world is very attractive to females, or those of feminine persuasion. Why? I think there are two primary reasons. The first can be found in many romance novels or other smut geared directly toward women: perfect male characters. They are handsome, charming, secure, romantic, willing and able to rescue damsels in distress, and always ready with witty repartee before bringing down the bad guy.

I personally find this aspect of her writing to be pretty awful. We don’t allow our own members to write characters like that (not on purpose, anyway), but if you’re the author created the world in the first place, I guess you can get away with anything. Ew.

More important, though, are the dragons. In Anne’s world, dragonriders are very special. It begins when a person with potential to become a dragonrider is picked from a crowd of teenagers by a searching dragon. The searching dragon is able to sense something about the one individual that makes that person special, more likely to be able to form a good bond with a newly hatched dragon. (Score one for self-esteem!)

Then, this new candidate is stuck on the sands in front of a bunch of dragon eggs, either to be chosen or sent home rejected and unloved. The statistical odds would be about 50/50 (twice as many candidates as there are eggs), but of course, the character you write is better than all the rest of those bums, and will obviously impress one of the hatchlings. (Score two for self-esteem!)

Better yet, dragons come in different colors, some of which are more “special” than others. Green is most common, blue and brown fairly common, but gold and bronze? Those are really unique. Less than ten percent of eggs that hatch are bronze, and about 1% are gold. These colors, when they appear, are especially attracted to people who are excellent leaders, highly empathetic, and generally good people. So if you are chosen by one of these dragons, your self-esteem soars through the roof. You know, without question, that you are the best of the best. You don’t have to prove it, because the simple fact of being a rider to that dragon proves it for you. (Score ten for self-esteem!)

And any dragon gives you something else: unconditional love and companionship for the rest of your life. Imagine your favorite pet. Now, imagine you could speak to each other, that the pet would live through your entire lifespan, and you could use that pet to travel to anyplace in the world within seconds. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I’d be willing to bet my left shoe that if you took a survey, nearly all women involved in Pern Fanfic got started reading Anne’s books in their early teen years. That is the stage when you are looking so hard for personal validation, for an indication that you are special and lovable. If a dragon couldn’t do that, nothing can. And so teenage girls dive into a world of fantasy, imagining themselves on the backs of a golden queen, all their insecurities erased by the fact that the gold dragon was able to see past their nerdy, unpretty exteriors.

I don’t blame them. I feel the appeal myself. I have my gold dragon so I am allowed to look around and judge everyone else. 😉

Men don’t work like that, I don’t think. If they have insecurities as teenagers, they don’t need proof that they are lovable, they need proof they are macho or manly. An opportunity to run around with a fake laser gun is probably more appealing to the nerdily inclined among them.

What then, the fate of our club and all our X chromosomes? We’ll carry on as we always do, imitating the Y chromosome as it suits our needs and smiling curiously at any legitimate Y chromosomes who drift our way, counting the days until they drift off again.

The Writing Mirror

In writing class today, we played the composite story game. Most people have done this at some point in their lives. Each person in a group starts a story, then every few minutes, you pass it around and then write a few sentences on someone else’s story. Eventually your story comes back to you, having gone totally haywire. Here’s my story:

Billy Bob couldn’t believe his ears. He leaned over and turned up the radio. Had he really just heard what he thought he heard? “Astonishing news this morning!” the announcer said. “We just found out that

Canada’s army has mobilized against the United States of America. Hockey-stick related injury reports are streaming in. It is speculated that the attack is indicative of Canada’s long-standing envy over America’s ‘really cool flag.’ A statement issued by the Canadian prime minister read:

‘Eh, we will trow all our best rocks and sticks at them until we can drive them away, yah? Too bad we have excessively strict gun laws which prevent us from properly defending ourselves.'” Just then, an alarm rang out signaling

that Joe should wake up. “Damn,” he thought. That was a good dream. It had been awhile since that dream; he loved it every time. Just then his wiener dog Max came into the room and peed on his new rug.

“YOU LITTLE BASTARD,” Joe screamed. He got up immediately and cleaned it up. Well, time for work I suppose, he thought. Maybe I can pick up where I left off tonight with that dream.

And there you have it. A truly brilliant act of literature, yes? Well… it could use some copyediting.

Anyway, the point of the exercise was to get us to think about different styles of writing. We went around the table and talked about how each person’s style was different, and how you could tell that from the story bits each person had written.

It is always a bit disconcerting to have someone appraise your writing style. Writing can be very personal, and we can be very touchy about it. I learned this very well working at my college’s Writing Center: you handle a person’s writing the way you would handle his ego – gently.

All we did today was say “I think so-and-so is a humors writer/soap-operatic writer/dark writer.” Not so bad, eh? But a judgment nevertheless. My writing was judged to be “nice,” that is to say – I spent my story fragments trying to lighten the mood. We had bunny rabbits with PTSD, man-eating fat boys, homicidal casino workers, and hands stretching up through pavement cracks from the depths of Hell. I guess subconsciously, I was trying to keep the tone light. I wanted to be entertained, not depressed.

So yeah, it was probably a fair assessment, and none too damaging to my ego. But it made me think about how I perceive myself as a writer too.

I know my role as an administer of my writing club: I am the one with the light touch. I am the one who is overly-sensitive to member feelings and the one who wants everyone to be happy. Clubs need people like me to protect the members from people like eq4bits, who I’ve seen leaving comments here. 😉 Clubs need people like her to help the club as a whole survive people like me, who would probably let everyone get away with twinkidom. As Shawn said during class today: “You bring balance to the Force.” Thanks, Shawn. You get points for that one.

But what about me as a writer? I have flashes, now and then, of seeing my writing from the perspective of others, and I find it very strange. Like a mini out-of-body experience. Am I always a fluffy writer? I wondered today. Hmm. Let’s see.

I just cracked down on J.K. Rowling for disclosing the imperfections of her characters. I said I wish she’d left them ideal. That doesn’t bode well for me.

My own characters are interesting enough, I think. My primary character is a young woman who is my age but very different from me. She is ambitious, where I’m a big fat sheep. She has difficulty maintaining relationships, where I think I’m pretty easy to get along with and I’ve found the love of my life. She’s been accused of murder, she’s transfered men to other places for selfish reasons. In the end, she’s a good leader, and at least she isn’t a twinky.

Hmm. Writing her up like that, she doesn’t sound very interesting. I have plans for her to fall madly in love with a man she can’t be with. I’d like her to develop some enemies. In the past, I’ve written some stories about her that have made people cry (or so they told me). I think I’m pretty good at that. I make myself cry a lot, but I’ve mentioned before how easy that is.

In the end, I guess that means my writing isn’t all roses, which is just as well. We had one member who we nearly ran out of the club for just that reason – too much positive and not enough conflict.

I suppose it is situational. Though my musings apply primarily to fiction, a predisposition toward the positive can come across in non-fiction too. Look at the perfume the government sprays all over its announcements. Oh, nevermind. Not a good example of non-fiction. But there are ways of writing letters, ways of addressing people, that are more light-handed than others. And I guess, as already mentioned, I do specialize in that. I think it is usually effective and easy to swallow, but I suppose there are times when you just need a hand from hell to come and tell it like it is.

What’s the opposite of MPD?

Subtitle: The Dangers of Fictionalizing Yourself

MPD. Multiple Personality Disorder (or, as I understand it, the PC term is now Dissociative Identity Disorder). One body has many personalities living inside. It’s a serious condition that has resulted in plenty of entertaining jokes and movies. I’ve known one person with this condition. It’s much more alarming in reality than it is in those movies.

But this isn’t meant to be a post about anything serious like that. What I really mean to talk about is what happens when you are so attached to your own personality, that you can’t imagine any other personality even exists.

Over the years, my writing club has had several members who are unable to separate themselves from their characters. This means two things for a writer. First, it means her primary character is a fictionalized (and usually idealized) version of the writer herself. This ties in very closely with twinkiness, but isn’t quite the same. (I’m open to suggestions for a name for this disorder. For now, we’ll call it EDP: Egomaniacal Personality Disorder.)

This creates a whole slew of problems. Characters we base on our own lives are usually boring. Of course, we don’t think so, because we are living our lives and know all about the drama and romance. I’ve never met anyone whose real life was truly boring, the problem is that real lives rarely translate well into fiction. Why do we love to read about celebrities? Because they are not “real.” Normal people don’t have lives like that. Celebrities can get into trouble we “real” people can only imagine and they are, therefore, just as good as fiction.

But not me. Or you. Not, that is, without a lot of help from actual fiction. So let’s just assume, for the sake of this argument, that fictionalizing yourself is a bad idea that results in a boring character.

The sad result of writing boring characters in a group writing environment is that no one else wants to write with you. The result is that you begin to wonder why no one likes you, the writer. The situation becomes even more complicated if people do write with you, but the story doesn’t go the way you expected. Did you intend for that studly horse trainer character to fall madly in love with your sweet little harper girl, but instead they had a big fight and he took comfort in the arms of another woman? They’re just fiction, right? So why do you feel so bad?

If we write ourselves into our characters, the line between fiction and reality can become very thin. This is okay if you’re writing a novel based on your life – then you have control over everything and it can work out exactly the way you want. Not with multiple writers, each in charge of different characters. Actions done by someone else’s character to your own character become personal and everyone winds up unhappy.

This is very difficult to explain to writers, especially new ones. The first thing they do is go into denial. “Oh no, she’s not like me. Her temper is much shorter, and I don’t have red hair.” Uh huh. Then, if they try and change the character, they wind up not liking her anymore, and become even more unhappy. Or, they can’t change the character and nothing else changes either.

The second unfortunate result of EPD happens when a person suffering from it creates many characters. These characters may have different names, different appearances, different ages, different backgrounds, or even different genders… but they all wind up being the same person. The results of this are pretty much the same as above – no one wants to write with you.

What is the solution? Can EPD be cured?

I think so. Usually, practice is the key thing. Most writers will eventually come to understand that they can’t keep their characters too close, or they will be stifled. Like in real life, characters have to be able to respond to each situation presented, they have to be able to change as a result of being in that situation, and they have to have their own voices. In our world of fan fiction (while not true of all fan-fics), the outcome of any story is rarely certain. Flexibility is a must. Learning to have two different characters react to the same situation differently is a very good exercise.

And sometimes, I am convinced (though my fellow BOD members likely wouldn’t agree with me), the only cure is to let a writer get away with it. If she never gets to realize her fantasies of perfection and stardom, she will never understand that there are other, more entertaining options. Sometimes, I think it just has to be gotten out of the system.

And that, I think, is the reason there are so many hundreds of different Fan-fic clubs to choose from. Every writer who can’t have her own way in one place has started up her own club someplace else, where she can reign as Twinkie Supreme.

Flying Twinkies

Okay, this is one of my favorite topics. Twinkies. No, not the cream filled, American pastry delight. At least… not unless you’re being metaphoric.

In Fandom, we have hijacked the word “twinkie” and now use it in reference to anyone who writes characters that make you want to gag.

I imagine the origin has something to do with the fact that twinkies (the tasty pastry) are sometimes so sweet they make your teeth hurt. When the word first came to be used in fandom, it referred to writers who invented Perfect Characters. You know what I mean: she’s tall, lovely, has a dulcet singing voice, loves animals (and they love her), is appreciated by adults because she is such a hard worker, has had to turn down three proposals of marriage, and had to fight off one man who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer with her own bare hands. And she’s psychic. And has pointy elf ears. (Okay, those last two are just for bonus points.)

Yes, that’s what Twinkie originally meant. We apply the term to the writer and not the character, because we assume it’s the writer’s fault that the character is so gross. Over the years, we’ve also begun applying the term to any writer who is clueless.

Most fandom writers start out as Twinkies, unless they have some other fiction writing experience under their belts before they come to us. Usually it doesn’t take too long to scare the twinkiness out of a person. As soon as they realize that their MarySue characters aren’t very much fun to write about, they’ll move on to more interesting things. But not always. Sometimes, Twinkies stay twinkie for life.

I started as a Twinky. My first character was beautiful, very short (a dead-twinkie-giveaway), had black hair and green eyes (hair color for Twinkies is optional between black and red, but the eyes are always green), ran away from home because she was misunderstood by her evil parents, lived by herself in the wilderness where she managed to construct a castle out of a cave, impressed five firelizards (mini-dragons, for those of you who aren’t in on the Pern scene), and eventually was rescued by a dashing dragonrider from Benden where she went, saved the lives of several important major characters from Anne McCaffrey’s books, and then impressed the gold dragon. It was awesome.

It took me a couple years to get a clue, I think. My theory is that people write Twinkies because they are trying to idealize their own personalities and become the star of the show. In a game like this, though, there aren’t any stars – only stories. Sometimes your character can be the star, but not always. Sometimes he has to be someone else’s backup singer (sequins optional).

Until you realize that, you’ll probably continue to wallow in your twinkiness and wonder why no one else wants to write with you.

The difference between writing and role playing

Here’s an item that plagues my club. What is the difference between writing fanfiction and role playing?

The truth is, the difference isn’t always a big one. I wish it were bigger.

Role playing is the act of putting yourself into a character’s shoes, becoming that character and letting your identity mingle with that character. At least, that is what I believe. You can do this Dungeons & Dragons style, at the risk of accidentally calling your spouse “Zorg” over dinner some night, but you can also do this through writing, where I suppose the risk is signing a letter to your spouse with “Love Anastasia, Queen of Lovebegone.”

Using writing as a method of role play is simply a matter of writing out actions in “real” time. One common way to do this is in a chat room, where all involved characters interact. One writer usually functions as the proverbial “dungeon master,” handling changes of scenery or non-character based interactions. (“And suddenly it begins to rain, and poodles form on the ground. Before you can figure out why, they are running around and nipping at your ankles.”) Everyone else responds as if they are there in the moment. (“Lulubelle screams and falls over as one particularly vicious poodle clamps onto the hem of her dress and rips it clean off.”)

Writing in present tense is also fairly common (if not a rule) for role playing through writing. If you are in the moment, you’re reporting events as they happen, like a sportscaster, rather than describing the way they went, like the commentators at the post game. It’s fast, it’s exciting, and often, no one cares exactly what happened after it’s done. What matters is the moment.

How about writing fanfiction? We of the fanfiction world have delusions of grandeur. We think of ourselves as authors, we care about our characters in a whole different (and probably baffling) way. Our plots are lengthy. We just concluded one plot which had been brewing since late 2004. Our characters are deep. If you want to know why Renaldo hates women, read his story dated 1/13/1987. What matters to us? The story. If you read my stories, I want you to forget for a moment that I wasn’t the inventor of the premise. I want my characters and my plots to be so intriguing you will read what I wrote because it pulls you in.

So why is this a plague upon my club?

I mentioned once that we have about 40 active members in the club. Of those, 25 are solid members, and the other 15 are either coming or going. Why so many in transition? There are at least a bazillion members of Pern Fandom out there. I would say the majority belong to the Role Playing crowd. I’m going to generalize and say that folks who enjoy that type of interaction tend to have shorter attention spans. They often belong to several different clubs (if there are a bazillion members of Fandom, there are at least half a bazillion clubs) and have countless dozens of characters.

And so when they get bored and start looking for something new, sometimes they find us. We love new members. The more the merrier. Clubs stagnate if they never get new members. But if a member doesn’t fit a club…

The other downside to the anonymity of the internet is that people aren’t afraid to get ugly when things don’t go their way. I think we’re a particularly pleasant bunch at my club, but we still have really rotten results with members sometimes. We did everything we could, and they just didn’t tack on. It’s okay – we’re better off without them anyway.

But what about the ones who want to follow our rules but just can’t break old habits? I suppose it’s gratifying to know they like us so much they want to make the effort. But come on, guys. How tough can it be to remember to say “we went to the party last night” instead of “we go to the party?” It’s weird! No one even talks like that..

Why Fandom?

I think that Fan Fiction (fanfic for short) is a really intriguing phenomenon. A single author comes up with a truly brilliant idea, and soon the rest of the world has latched on, thinking they can either improve on it or add to it or even make it their own. In all honesty, I would rather have my own good idea to write about instead, but since I apparently missed the originality boat, I’m willing to settle.

I have theories on why people enjoy doing this sort of thing. Here they are:

  1. Readers love a story or character so much, they can’t bear to see the story end. In this type of fanfic, writers use the author’s original characters to extend stories past the written conclusion, write backstories to predate the original author’s work, or even add things into the author’s version of the story. Search for “Harry Potter Fan Fiction” if you’d like to see how popular this is. It’s nuts.
  2. Readers find the concept behind a novel or a series truly fascinating, but are disappointed with the actual plot. They feel perhaps they have a plot that is more satisfying. Again, they use the characters created by the original author. Perhaps the story as a whole was okay, but they hated the ending. Rewritten endings seem to be a particularly popular form of fanfic. Misery for those of us who lack the homicidal tendencies of Annie Wilkes.
  3. Lastly, there are the groups who fall in love with the scenario behind a fictional work, and wish oh-so-badly they could live there themselves. This usually applies to science fiction or fantasy works where the world created is broad and well developed. Go to any local bookstore and check out the Star Wars and Star Trek wall. There is a whole wall, I guarantee it. Star Trek is such a big field of fandom, in fact, that they have conventions, societies, and dress up like Klingons to get married. But what about us folks who are shy? Who have secret passions for nerdy hobbies but don’t want to be seen in public wearing a Ferengi facemask (even if it meant your own mother couldn’t tell who you were)? For us, there is writing. And what more anonymous place than the internet?

The fanfiction I write falls under that last category. Anne McCaffrey developed a beautiful world on a brilliant concept: a creature exists who would choose you out from a crowd, tell you you are better than all those other people, and love you unconditionally for the rest of your life. Oh yeah, and now you get to work together to save the world.

Let me make one thing clear: I think Anne, though brilliant with her ideas, is a mediocre writer. Her plots are good, her characters are rather Twinkie, but her writing itself is a little blah. Not only that, but she created her world as she wrote her stories, a device that would have mortified J. R. R. Tolkien. The result was some serious plot holes, and worse, holes in the world of scientific logic.

But we cope with that. We find bandaids to put over the gaping holes and construct characters and plots that are more satisfying than her originals. (Sssh, don’t tell too many people I said that. I could get mobbed.) And we really enjoy ourselves.

I’m convinced one day, I’ll do like Meg Cabot and launch out of the world of fanfic into a world of top ten best sellers and movie deals. One of the characters I invent will be so intriguing, or some plot so juicy, I’ll be able to pull it out of the world of fandom and make my first million. If I do, I’ll be humble and pay tribute to my fictional origins.

Just not where my adoring new public can see it.