Monday, June 17, 2013

World-building in Collaborators: Add Some Characters

The central inspiration for Collaborators – that individuals respond in a variety of complex and contradictory ways to a situation of occupation and resistance – immediately suggested many types of characters: the rebel, the idealist, the opportunist, the political player, the merchant willing to sell to anyone if the profit is high enough, sadist who exploits the powerlessness of others for his own gratification, the ambitious person who doesn’t care who his allies are, the negotiator, the peace-maker, the patriot.

These are all interesting roles, offering scope for compelling confrontations, but they are not in themselves characters. They’re slots into which characters might fit at any given time, as those characters progress along their own life story arcs. The temptation is to take such a slot, insert a character, and then have him behave in that way and only in that way throughout the story. This is the classic “spear-carrier,” whose only function is to come onstage, carry his spear (or throw it, or make a speech, or die in some plot-appropriate way), and then disappear. He might have a few warts or wrinkles or a bit of backstory, but only in service to his predetermined function.

Effective characters work in just the opposite way. They go about their lives in their idiosyncratic ways, with their own histories and families, dreams and neuroses. Interesting as these might be, they do not in themselves constitute a dramatic plot, only a series of linked episodes. Then something – whether it’s an internal event like a new goal or an external one like an invasion by a space-faring race – catapults the character into a dramatic course of action. The overall problem/crisis/goal informs and shapes the character’s choices, but at the same time the character – her personality, history, viewpoint, relationships – drives the action in a unique way.  So I needed to find out who some of these characters were, both alien and Terran, throw them into an escalating situation, and see what they did with it.

One of the first characters to speak to me arose from an unexpected source. I never knew either of my paternal grandparents, for both had perished in the lawlessness and pogroms in the Ukraine shortly after the first World War. My father told me about  how his mother ran a bookstore that was the center of intellectual (and revolutionary!) thought in their village, how when that village was destroyed, she kept her two children alive as they wandered the countryside for two years, going from one cousin’s house to another but never staying very long. He spoke of her courage, her idealism, and her unfailing love. Some piece of her, or her-as-remembered, stayed with me, and I wondered if I could create a character with that strength and devotion to her children. I began to write about Hayke, who opens the book as he lies in a field with his two children, gazing up at the stars and wondering what these star-people might be like. Hayke had other ideas about what his life was like besides merely following in my grandmother’s footsteps, and everything changed once it became clear to me that the alien race – the Bandari – were gender-fluid. Hayke, like my grandmother, was a widow (using the term generically to include both sexes), and one of his children was born of his own body, but the other of his dead spouse’s, and he told me he felt an especial tenderness for the latter child.

The other Bandari announced themselves as the storyline took shape. Alon and Birre, the young lovers, presented a wonderful way to bring the reader into the world of how Bandari form families, with the added dimension that they come from different religious traditions, so there are conflicts not only between the native race and humans, but even within the pair-bonds of the characters. As events proceeded, with the cycle of violence escalating, each became radicalized in a different way, according to my initial concept that not only do people respond in a variety of ways, but their perceptions and decisions change with experience and evolving circumstances.

Even though the ground action takes place in an area roughly the size of Western Europe and most of the characters live or come from Chacarre, I didn’t want all the national territories to be the same. I wanted differences in language, dress, attitudes toward authority, etc., between Chacarre and its rival, Erlind, and also within Chacarre itself. Every once in a while, a new character would surprise me, like Na-chee-nal with his “barbarian” vigor and his smelly woolen vest, or Lexis, the dangerously repressed academic poet.

The Terrans presented a different challenge because in many ways, they were more homogeneous than the Bandari. They inhabit a single spacecraft and although there is a natural division between crew and scientific personnel, for the most part their goals are shared and their hierarchies are well-defined. Left unchecked, that’s a recipe for boring, so I added some friction, a few divergent motives, a highly stressed environment . . . and into this walked Dr. Vera Eisenstein, genius. Most of the inspiration for her character came from the women engineers and physicists I’d gotten to know (thank you, Society of Women Engineers!) She doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, she cares far more about science than diplomacy, she’s simply too good at what she does to disregard, and her mind never stays still. I had a ball cooping her up in the infirmary and watching what kind of trouble she’d get into, but I didn’t realize at first that she would become a pivotal character, one capable of acting for the greatest good despite the depth of her loss. I’d been thinking about her passion in terms of science, not in terms of her capacity for love nor in terms of her ruthless commitment to understanding everything she sees around her, whether it is a problem in laser spectroscopy or alien psychology or the nature of her own grief.

Oh, and should this pique your interest, you can find the book at Amazon and Goodreads and in trade paperback at other online booksellers.

Next up: Sex? Did She Say Sex? Creating a Gender-Fluid Race

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