Jo Walton (papersky) wrote,

Characters, Complicity and Caring: My Wiscon Speech

I've been thinking recently about the way readers come to be in sympathy with characters in a story. This is something that isn't talked about much, and when it is it seems to be in terms of how to manipulate the reader. Indeed, I stopped reading Orson Scott Card for a different reason than the reason everyone else stopped reading him -- long ago he said in a book on how to write that you get reader sympathy by taking a sympathetic character, preferably a child, and doing something terrible to them, like for instance torturing them. Once I knew he was doing this on purpose it was like "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain", I couldn't enjoy reading because I felt manipulated. Also, torturing children? Really? That's the only way to make me care? I don't think so.

Yet... we do care about characters when we read books. And the writer is doing something to make us care. There's something going on there, and it doesn't have to be a cynical thing. Indeed, the main failure mode of fiction for me is if I don't care about the characters. If you ever see me nitpicking worldbuilding and pointing out plot holes they're either really egregious or else the real problem is that I didn't care about the characters and I was poking at other things. Go to somebody else to hear about what's wrong with the windmills in _Red Mars_ or the carnivorous aliens in _The Sparrow_, my problem with both books is with characters not acting like people. If I care about the characters I'll overlook or forgive almost anything else. So what makes me care about the characters? Why do I care so much about Therem Harth rem i'r Estraven that I was prepared to fight a duel for his honour the other day, while I find the protagonist of The Sparrow ludicrous? It definitely isn't how much they suffer. Nobody suffers more than that Jesuit priest in The Sparrow -- what was his name again? (That's another bad sign, if I can't remember their names.)

What Le Guin does with Estraven is actually interestingly Platonic -- she shows us a truly admirable character from inside and outside and makes us wish to emulate him, or at least be his friend. Estraven has been the top person on my list of "fictional characters I'd invite to a dinner party" for decades. (Throwing gender balance right out of the window...) But Estraven takes a long time to get to know, especially for Genly Ai, our Earth-human "normal" character in _The Left Hand of Darkness_. There's a long ramp up to caring, but I really do care. I think this is an unusual approach, and it resembles my spear-point theory -- the writer can build the spear for a long time and when they eventually drive it home so that a little bit of point goes in a long way. But you have to keep reading while that spear is getting built, you don't have any reason to care the first second, the first word. Estraven doesnm't start of especially sympathetic, from Genly's point of view. But as Genly comes to know Estraven so do we, so that by the end we really care.

There's another technique people talk about, which I touched on with Genly being the "normal" character. They say you should have everyperson characters so that readers can see themselves as them. I've been rolling my eyes at that since I was a child -- how limited do those people really think I am? Maybe some people like this, but I'm much more likely to be interested by a weird character, an unusual voice. Indeed, that's a much better way of getting me -- strange and fascinating will always grab me, whatever it is. Offer me "The king was pregnant" and I want to know more. I am intrigued. This is a way of getting me to read on -- get me to have questions I want answered. There's another whole technique there, where the writer gets the reader to have lots of questions and ratchets them up, answering some of them but always leading on with more. This works really well the first time I read something, but there has to be something more for me to come back to a book, because on the second read I know the answers, and I still need to care. There are also writers who are much better with questions than answers, so you read on wondering and then find the answers relatively unsatisfying. Those are books I won't pick up again. Tepper's early work is like that for me. I love her questions, but not her answers.

There's another standard technique which I call jeopardy. The writer shows the character in danger, threatened, with something at stake. The reader doesn't have any reason to care yet, but the idea is that the stakes on their own will make the reader sympathetic. The spaceship is going to fall into the sun! The barbarians are coming, duck! This can work, but it can also backfire badly. If you show me characters in a situation of high excitement in the first paragraph before I have any reason to know them or care about them, I will yawn. Barbarians, huh? So what? The danger itself isn't enough, the spearpoint without the spear doesn't go through. And actually even when I do care about the characters constantly putting them on a knife edge when they always pull through will start to bore me if I don't really believe in the jeopardy. Actually killing off a major character isn't something most writers do lightly, and killing off the redshirt characters while the major characters survive makes things worse, not better. Of course, you can get away with this a lot more if you do kill off characters that nobody would expect to die, characters the reader likes and cares about. There's another problem with making people care with jeopardy though -- if that's all you have, you have to keep upping the stakes, and it can become ludicrous. Jeopardy is a good servant but a bad master.

A really good example of jeopardy done well is Butler's Dawn -- it begins with a human female rescued from a disastrous war on Earth alone on a spaceship with aliens. But it actually starts "Alive! Still alive. Alive... again." That's good writing -- way to grab me in five words, three of them the same one repeated!

Then there's complicity. I recently saw the original UK version of "House of Cards", and then soon after the US version. This clarified something for me. The US version didn't mess up any of the things I thought it would... it messed up different things. The UK version doesn't waste a second, it's about as tight as something can be, and the US version sprawls all over the place. But the huge difference is that Ian Richardson's Francis Urquhart is charming, he seduces the viewer into going along with him. Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood in the US version is a jerk. I would never have said I'd found Urquhart loveable if I hadn't seen Underwood and realised that the real difference is how my sympathies are being placed. Urquhart addresses the viewer directly in Richard III style, but unlike Richard III as usually played, Urquhart confides in us, he flatters us, he smiles at us and we want him to succeed. He makes us complicit in what he is doing right up to the point at the end when we have gone along way too far with him and then he turns on us. It's a remarkably powerful piece of art and I recommend it.

This issue of reader complicity is interesting to me because it's not the usual way of getting sympathy so it's a new angle at looking at it. It made me think of unlikeable characters that we like anyway -- Humbert Humbert in Lolita in first person addressing us directly and weaving webs of words. Robert Graves's Claudius, Gene Wolfe's Severian. Most of my examples are first person, or theatrically addressing us across the footlights. In first person it's easy to reach out directly to the reader. George R.R. Martin does it in third -- very close third, admittedly, but still in third. One of the great things in A Song of Ice and Fire is how Martin gives us characters that are unlikeable and then puts us in their heads and makes us sympathise. Sometimes he does it by making them different from inside than the way they looked from outside. Other times he does it with new information about their motivation. But in A Dance With Dragons he made me sympathise again with a character I'd really come to hate. And how did he do this? By torturing him! I can't believe we're back to that! Martin did it by showing us from inside what it means to be broken and try to come back from that. But it's the same technique.

Then I thought about Heinlein. Heinlein had a very interesting writing technique which really can be considered the prose equivalent of Urquhart looking down through the bannistairs and raising an eyebrow at us. Heinlein often wrote as if he was letting the readers into the secret. It doesn't matter what the secret is, the important thing is the tone of voice that's sharing it. Heinlein doesn't patronize, doesn't impart the information from on high, he lets us in on it. He makes the reader feel included -- let in on how things really work, and with an implicitly excluded set of others who don't know. There are a lot of things wrong with Heinlein, but I find him insanely readable, and it's this tone that does it. Whether he's writing in first or third he opens the text up and lets the reader in. When I've talked about Heinlein on Tor.com I've called this a "confiding" tone. Heinlein confides in the reader, he doesn't inform us of the way his worlds work. He confides it to us. And then he talks about the imagined science fictional aspects of his world from the point of view of characters who take it all for granted and expects us to be clever enough to work it out -- as we are. And we are flattered that we are.

And I'm back to writers manipulating readers, aren't I?

But what's wrong with it?

I mean if it's cold and calculated it sounds revolting, but really if it's to the benefit of art then what's wrong with it? Writers do want readers to care about their characters, their stories, their worlds. Having techniques for doing that isn't any different from having techniques for anything else. It just sounds so awful.

The way I think about this when I'm writing it's as if I'm shaping a bas relief from the inside -- the reader's going to be looking at it from the outside, and from a little distance away. There's clear space between the outside of the bas relief and the reader, and all I can control is how far and where the bas relief goes out. So it's useful to me to know where the reader is likely to be standing, and what kinds of angles they're likely to be viewing it from.

In shaping the bas relief from the inside I'm not trying to do anything to the reader. I'm reaching out into the space between us. They're standing on their side. Reading is a participatory experience. They bring who they are. Nothing is going to work for everyone. I'm writing it inside me and they're reading it inside them, I'm doing what I'm doing and they're experiencing what they're experiencing, but the art is happening in that space between. That clear space is the space where the reader and I are collaborating. There's a whole lot I can't control -- I can't control anything but the inside of the bas relief. I can't control the previous life of the reader and how that's going to interact with how the reader sees the story. I can't select my reader -- well, I *could*, but it would be a bit limiting. When I'm writing I'm generally trying to write things that are going to work for a broad spectrum of people. But I don't try to write for everyone. When Among Others came out people kept asking me if it worked for non-genre readers, and I was absolutely flummoxed. Nobody ever asked me that before, about my other books. It was a fantasy novel. I never thought of it being read as anything else, being read by people who would think the magic wasn't real within the context of the story. Why would they think it should be? They weren't in my spectrum of imagined readers. Fortunately it kind of worked for them anyway. Mostly.

We've probably all had the experience of giving a great genre book to a non-genre reader and having them completely fail to understand it because they were lacking the set of genre reading protocols. When I think of where the reader will be standing I think of a reader who has those protocols, who won't try to think that everything is a metaphor. I think of a reader who is prepared to think about what's going on, an intelligent reader who pays attention. And I imagine a reader of this time and from this culture. I don't think very much about how to shape the story for somebody from the futrure, or somebody from a compltely different culture. I'd make very different choices if I was thinking about them -- I'd have to explain different things. They'd take different things for granted. This isn't to say somebody from the future or another culture can't get anything out of my bas relief, the same as the readers not expecting fantasy got something, but not what I expected. They'll be looking at it from a different angle than I expect. It might not look at alll the way I expected it to look from there. They'd either have to do some work to read it from where I expect the reader to be, the same way I have to when I read a book from another culture that has no idea what looks weird to me.

But I expect a mostly US reader, even though I'm not American. This is because until recently I've only been published in the US. But I was being interviewed when _Among Others_ came out in Britain and they asked where I was from, and I started to say "The South Wales mining Valleys" and I realised that for a UK context I could just say "The Valleys" and the rest was implicit. For a US context I'd say it all, because I wouldn't expect the reader to know. That's the kind of thing I mean.

I first had this thought about bas reliefs and where the reader is standing during a flamewar on a Trollope mailing list. It had divided violently on the question of footnotes. Some of the participants loved them and others hated them. I myself tend to hate them in fiction, they interrupt the flow, and all they ever give you are worldbuilding spoilers. But reading what other people were saying I figured out that they wanted them because they were providing them with a kind of scaffolding to stand on that brought them nearer to where the original readers would have been. I hate it when I read "Mary got into the carriage(1)" and I stop and turn to the note and it says "A horse drawn conveyance". But if you really didn't know? The original reader would have known -- Trollope's implied reader. And those people wanted the footnotes to be in that position -- not reading it as a text from an alien world the way I do, but getting as close to the original reader's position as they could. I then played with this difference of where the reader is a lot when I was writing Tooth and Claw. I had a perfectly good idea that the real reader was going to approve of cooked meat and disapprove of cannibalism but the narrator was of course assuming the opposite, so that was fun.

When I think about this whole thing I'm conflicted. As a reader, I certainly want to care about the characters. And as I writer I want my readers to care about them. But I don't want to feel manipulated, and I don't want to feel that I am manipulating people -- and mostly I don't feel that as a writer, even when I am thinking about these things. The bas relief metaphor works for me, but it's a metaphor. I've been thinking about these techniques and how they work because that's useful. I hope this is useful and interesting to you too, and I'd be happy to talk to anyone about any of this later -- but especially about complicity and how Estraven is awesome.
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