Tag Archives: Writing; Characterization

The Power of Three for Characterisation

Recently, the number three has been haunting my writing and reading: tripartite goddesses, ‘Love, Death and Robots’, Kathleen Jennings musing on story structure, three act plays, and so forth. I have been reading ‘How to write’ books by Diana Wynne Jones, Angela Slatter (rereading), Kate Wilhelm, among others, and I’ve come across a clever way to define a character, using the power of three – Three different viewpoints.

When you are first coming to grips with a character, have three different people describe them. The first one loves them, be they a lover, a child, a parent, a sibling, or a close friend of the character. Let this love influence their description. The second one loathes or hates them, and so they see this character from a different perspective, with their hatred colouring their description. Lastly, have someone meet the character for the first time character , and so they have little urge to have emotions tinge their opinions.

This contrasts to my usual technique, which is to ‘interview’ the character for their personality traits, like and dislikes, and personal history. This isn’t defining the character by their own traits so much as how others perceive them. So, you get less of their internal life and more of how they interact with other people. It makes my story telling flow better when I know how my characters interact. Feel free to try this out for yourself.

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Filed under Characterization, The Writing Life, writing, Writing Experiment, Writing Style

Trying to Explain the Unexplainable: A Steampunk Perspective

I want to start this blog article with a personal story that has very little to do with Steampunk, but it will help illuminate the point I am trying to make.

This happened over twenty years ago, in the first year after my eldest daughter was born. I used to take her for a walk on every fine day, in her pram or in her sling, so that we both got out into the air and sunshine. On this day, I was walking along Ipswich Road, a main street in Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, Australia. We had never had any issues with these strolls, right up until a bunch of hooligans in a car threw a beer bottle at my feet, where it smashed into smithereens. We were trapped in a field of glass shards, while the car drove off. I was panicked at first, making sure that done of the glass had ending up in the pram with my darling. Then I lifted the entire pram and gingerly tiptoed my way through the razor-sharp glass fragments until well past the last glittering splinter, so that I wouldn’t end up with lacerated pram wheels.

To this day, I don’t know if those young men threw the bottle with deliberate intent. I’d like to believe that they were just unthinking, rather than cruel. Surely no one would target a baby in a pram? But part of me wonders if that was the whole point for them, that as a new mother I would have represented everything they were trying to avoid: adult responsibilities, the chains of marriage, the loss of freedom that comes with having children. However, there was no shout of derision as they threw their bottle, which would back up my ‘thoughtless’ theory.

The point I am making here – as writers, we tend to explain away everything that happens in our stories. But in real life, things happen randomly that we can’t explain. There are mysteries that remain unanswered until the day we die. As much as writers prefer to write about order, there is chaos  and randomness in the world.

Because of this reality, I always try to add some mystery and randomness deliberately in my narratives. I try not to explain away every single incident, which allows readers to make their own speculations and draw their own conclusions. Of course, I have to make explanation for anything important to the plot, but not everything need be a brick in your Steampunk narrative. There is room for decoration.

As an example, look to Terry Pratchett’s ‘Nation’. The main event in the novel, the tsunami, is never explained away. It just happens, and the characters have to deal with it. Of course, the characters come up with their own explanations for why they were deluged, the wrath of gods being favourite, but this is never confirmed or denied explicitly. It was an ‘act of god’ in the insurance sense …

Bad things happen to good people, and often through no fault of their own. Every story needs conflict. But every now and again, let the plot wander where it will.

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Filed under Historical Personage, Personal experience, Plot, Steampunk, Stereotypes

The Mad Scientist: why I hate this stereotype.

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‘Steamboy’ is generally labelled as a Steampunk anime. I find the animation of the gadgets delightful. However, I find the movie’s portrayal of scientists problematical. Every scientist in the movie is in someway mad and/or bad, and not in a sexy, Byronic way. They are all too emotional, or driven, or just plan evil … in other words, IRRATIONAL!

This seems to be a major stereotype that no one is prepared to acknowledge these days. Scientists in the news are always seen to have an ‘agenda’. They are making it up about climate change (though WHY anyone would do that is beyond me), they are supporting Big Pharma and not researching cures for diseases, they are going to blow up the world with the Large Hadron Collider. It is true that some scientists have their research funded by unethical companies, and that some scientists just get it wrong. But the average scientist, a normal personal like you or me, is the most typical of the breed, and are not ‘mad’ in any way shape or form. So why is this stereotype so prevalent?

Part of the problem started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll, both very popular characters in Science Fiction. Both men started off well-intentioned, but their research did nothing to create death and destruction, including the destruction of both these fictional scientists. I am certain the popularity of their stories encouraged the formation of the ‘mad’ scientist stereotype.

I see the stereotype as a strong indicator of the distrust of ‘head over heart’. It is a prevalent theme underlying our society and culture.  Eggheads don’t think like us, so they don’t feel like us either. That makes them ‘Other’, and automatically untrustworthy.

I hate this. Scientists have provided us with every thing that makes life sweet: modern medicine, entertainment in the form of movies & television & the Internet, easy assess to communication, education and information, and so sooth. That is why I always try to portray scientists as people: good, bad and in need of someone to love.

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