Writing Right with Dmitri: Mis-Fitting your Characters

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Mis-Fitting Your Characters

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other
'Who cares for you?' said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) 'You're nothing but a pack of cards!'   – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Sometimes, our fictional characters seem like Alice in Wonderland: they're out of place. Why is that, we wonder? Mainly, it is a question of narrative necessity. If our characters aren't out of place, they don't notice things, they take them for granted. That makes it much harder on the author, who has to do all the noticing for the reader. This can get dreary for the writer, and boring for the audience.

A good, out-of-place character, though, is always commenting, always looking around. He/she can do the work for you, nice of him/her. Think about Data, that Star Trek android fish-out-of-water, ceaselessly observing, endlessly saying, in effect, 'Oh, that's what you life forms enjoy doing? I ask merely for information.' Think about Odo in Deep Space Nine, trying to figure out what the 'solids' find so compelling about their leisure activities. Think about Mr Spock's continuous murmur of 'Fascinating. . . ' He's 'our man on Star Base 275', the eternal Outsider as reporter.

'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here.'   – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The misfit can be a misfit because of an unusual quality: being the only male/female/ethnic minority/two-headed person on the block. This can give the character a unique perspective. In the film Francis Joins the WACS, Donald O'Connor plays the only man in a female army unit. Of course, his buddy, Francis the Talking Mule, has to come along and keep him company. Before you get too outraged, the mule, although male, is an ardent feminist, and so is O'Connor. Together, they aid the women in defeating sexism in the military (and General Chill Wills, who also plays the mule). Not bad for 1954.

Using an oddball character to observe 'ordinary' reality can give the author a perspective from which to enlighten the reader as to what's going on in that reality. Alternatively, you can use a straightforward, 'normal' character to observe the shift when everyone around him goes bonkers. Think Sheriff Jack Carter in Eureka.

Alice is a normal Victorian girl adrift in a world of pot-smoking caterpillars and megalomaniacal playing cards. On Deep Space Nine, Chief Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney) is practically the only normal person in a bizarre science-fiction universe filled with a policeman who turns gelatinous and sleeps in a bucket, alien soldiers who do not sleep at all, and officers who live in life-long symbiosis with intestinal parasites. He copes. Sure, his darts buddy turns out to be 'genetically enhanced' (don't go there), and his best maintenance man has oversized ears and eats grubs for lunch. His wife goes on a survey mission, has an accident, and hands the rest of her pregnancy over to an alien woman with a wrinkly nose (convenient, that). O'Brien has to deal with belligerent Klingons, manipulative Cardassians, and an uncorporeal being that possesses his wife in an attempt to destroy a group of aliens who live in a wormhole and are worshipped as local gods. All in a day's work for this long-suffering Dubliner.

The moral? The more normal your character, the weirder his surroundings seem – and the more you will torture him with conundra. Have some pity, and give the guy a few quirks of his own. At least, let him play Battle of Britain in the holosuite.

'Come, there's no use in crying like that!' said Alice to herself, rather sharply; 'I advise you to leave off this minute!'   – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Misfit characters are by nature more reflective than the other kind. If a young lady is the belle of the ball, or the queen bee of her high school, if she's the head cheerleader and dating the captain of the football team, then all's right with the world. What has she got to reflect on? Perhaps that is why several h2g2ers have expressed a dislike of Jane Austen's Emma. If, on the other hand, she feels like the only kid in her school who really 'gets' jazz/astrophysics/Romanian New Age cinema, then we've got somewhere to go.

Misfit characters, however, will inevitably feel sad, mistreated, and lonely. Be prepared to offer some support – perhaps a friend who understands, perhaps a pet, or a creative outlet. Remember, the reader's going to be pulling for this person, so let them win a few.

She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. 'But it's no use now,' thought poor Alice, 'to pretend to be two people! Why, there's hardly enough of me left to make ONE respectable person!'   – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Remember, too, that your misfit character, like all characters, is not made of cardboard. He's got feelings, and sometimes these feelings are hard to sort out. None of us is a one-note soul. We've got a melody, sure, but we've got harmonics, as well – overtones and undertones, themes that provide counterpoint in our minds and hearts. Like Alice, we're often fond of pretending to be two people.

That's not a bad thing. Not bad at all. We should care about all the people-within-people of our off-centre characters. A piece of gratuitous advice: after you've done your plot, go back and read your story/script/whatever as if for the first time. Ask yourself:

  • Do I like this person?
  • Do I feel empathy with this person?
  • Do I disapprove of this person's actions? If so, do I understand them?
  • Do I find this person unbearably irritating, and long to see the character get his comeuppance?

If the answer to the last question is 'yes', then Houston, we have a problem. Go back and give that character more facets. You've left out the harmonics.

After all, together, your cast of characters should make, if not a symphony, at least a good sonata.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

27.08.12 Front Page

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