Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Essay: On the Importance of Character

I'd like to take a moment and write today about something that I feel makes a good character. If you were to take the time to get your hands on copies of David Edding's opus The Belgariad you'll see some good characters and some great ones. The Belgariad is also continued in his sequel series, The Malloreon, and most of the characters continue, with a few dying off, and a few more being moved aside to make way for new ones.

One character who happens to be my favorite starts as a minor one in the first series, mentioned in several books, but only appearing near the end of book five. He's much more active in the second series and he moves from being a bad guy to being not only a major supporting protagonist, but actually the focus of the falling action.

This character is 'Zakath, Emperor of Boundless Mallorea. The Man of Ice, who finally melts.

Throughout the years I have given David Eddings a great deal of grief in blogs, writing forums, and Amazon.com reviews for his complete inability to develop more than five characters. Lady Polgara, of the Belgariad and Malloreon is repeated in Lady Poledra, her mother, in the same works, and also in Sephrenia in the Elenium and Tamuli, and the goddess Dweia in The Redemption of Althalus, which I think is just a bad, bad book.

Silk, the artful thief, is repeated both as Talen in the Elenium/Tamuli, but also in Althalus as Gher, the ten year old whiz kid who has the bright idea of going back in time and fighting the damn war a second time after the heroes had already won because it's more clever. (Privately, I think the publisher gave Eddings a word count that he hadn't hit, so he was forced to repeat his plot... three damn times.)

But 'Zakath? 'Zakath is the only major Eddings character to never be repeated anywhere in his writing. (By the way, the apostrophe is supposed to be in his name. I'll let you read Guardians of the West, the first book of The Malloreon to discover why.) In fact, the two series are named after their most important characters. The Belgariad is named after Garion, who earns the appellation "Bel" ("beloved") when he performs his first overt act of sorcery.

But who is the Malloreon? The title could refer to the fact that the main characters spend the last four books of five wandering around in Mallorea, the eastern continent, but I think it refers to a specific person: THE Malloreon, 'Zakath.

'Zakath is not only the only character Eddings never repeated, he's also Eddings strongest character after Belgarion himself. Much of the two series is written from Garion's point of view, so it's much easier to understand his motivations, but 'Zakath is a wholly different animal.

I'll not destroy the secret for you. I'll say only that, when he was young, 'Zakath was betrayed by someone he loved. After dreadful retribution was vested upon them, he discovered to his horror that the entire plot had been a complete fabrication of his deadliest enemy.

This is the kind of back story almost every character needs to have. In Crossed Swords, my characters pass through inns and beat hell out of bandits and other bad guys. I refer to these blokes as "third spear bearer on the left." They aren't terribly important to the story. The only thing we need to know about the innkeeper in Pelar is that he's slovenly, keeps a rancid tavern, and has no idea what customer service is until Dave physically threatens him. He's literally on two pages of the book. There's no real need to write his backstory. Now, if the plot of XS brings our happy adventurers back to his inn and he gets further involved in the story, then it might be necessary to flesh him out. Right now, though, he's just a woodcut.

On the other hand, General Gmorkyn is a lot more than a revisit of Lord Soth from Weis and Hickman's Dragonlance. Yes, he's dead. Yes, he's my version of a Death Knight.

However, General Gmorkyn is a battlefield leader, while Soth prefers to play politics and engage only major players directly in combat (Which is not to say that he doesn't lead troops or engage in battles when he needs to do so.). Gmorkyn delights in slaughtering the weak and helpless because it increases his personal power through his ability to create the Zime from the corpses of people he kills with his own hand. Soth prefers not to waste his time fighting those he considers animals.

Soth fell from grace because of his lust for an elven maid. He is redeemed by his love for her. Gmorkyn, without giving away his backstory... didn't.

For any character that is going to spend more than five pages in my writing, or is going to appear in a short story, I want to know the answers to at least four of the following six questions:

1) What is this character's greatest wish? (This may change throughout the story-- in fact, for a character to grow it probably should.)
2) What is this character's greatest fear? (This may also change throughout the story-- in fact, for a character to grow it probably should.)
3) What is the most recent highly positive thing to happen to this character (from his or her point of view.)? This alone can tell you a lot about the character. For a high school boy, it might be that he just got laid. For a sinister mage, it might be that his greatest enemy just suffered a dark defeat.
4) What is the most recent highly negative thing to happen to this character (from his or her point of view.)? Perhaps a courtier lost face before the king, or a samurai discovered that his son fled from battle.
5) What is the best thing to ever happen to this person?
6) What is the worst thing to ever happen to this person?

Take a look at my most recent short fiction, Awakening. Caleb Watkins, the young man in the story, is the only character. Before I wrote the actual story, I answered the first four questions:

1) Caleb Watkins's greatest wish is to become a professional baseball player. Deep inside, he knows that this probably won't happen because he doesn't have the arm to compete above the college level.

2) Caleb's greatest fear is that he will sustain an injury that will cost him his ability to play baseball.

3) The most recent positive thing that happened to Caleb was getting the cast removed from his left arm. Not only does it make it easier to sleep, but the arm seems to have healed properly and once he gets his strength back he should still be able to hit for the fence.

4) The most recent negative thing that Caleb experienced was breaking the radius of his left arm when he forward slid into second at an off season camp and came down with his wrist under him. The twelve weeks in the cast and two weeks of physical therapy cost him the rest of the camp, but thankfully have not interfered with his sophomore season.

If you go on to read the story, you'll see elements from this characterization used to round out what would otherwise be a very flat character. In less than 700 words, from the story alone, you can see that Caleb is a teenager who loves baseball so much that a school administrator uses it as a threat to enforce the tardy rules of the school-- and it even works because it alters where he keeps his alarm clock.

You also know that Caleb sleeps on his right side because of a habit that formed from having his arm in a cast. This not only helps round him out and make him human, it also gives me a place to put the monster-- most teenagers put one side of their bed against the wall to open up floor space in their room. If Caleb's left side of the bed is against the wall, then he has to be lying on his right in order to see the eyes open.

Little details like this are part of the reason why Stephen King's work is so powerful. King creates characters with real life flaws and motivations. We really, really care when Pennywise tears off Eddie's arm in It because we've grown to see Eds as a real person, flawed like us and perfect like us.

Where Eddings is so great in his early work is that even his flat characters have some of those flaws. Silk is a sarcastic thief who is in love with his uncle's wife, and who lies, cheats, steals, and murders, but won't deal in drugs with Sadi. Belgarath is a single-minded force for the Prophecy of Light who spends literally generations in the grossest kind of drunken debauchery. Furthermore, Belgarath thinks nothing of waylaying complete strangers and clubbing them unconscious or even murdering them just to get regional dress to move around in without being discovered.

Where Eddings fumbles from 2002 onward is in his inability to work beyond those roles. His dialogue through most of his works after that date is stilted and cliche, and his characters are boring rehashes of the same archtypes.

I was greatly saddened to hear that David Eddings passed away last year, and that his wife, Leigh, whom he loved to distraction, had preceded him in 2007. For all that I think his later work is horrible, I can't deny that I was very fortunate. You see, I was growing up at the same time that Belgarion was. When he stood on Greldik's ship and screamed at his Aunt Pol "You're not even human any more!" I was embroiled in my own adolescent arguments with my parents, who just didn't understand me, either. As each new book came out and chronicled Garion's exploits and growth, I tried to take to heart the lessons he learned as well.

In a very real way, I owe much of who I am today to Belgarion's example and the lessons Eddings presented in his books.

David Eddings (July 7, 1931 – June 2, 2009)
Write on!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
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