Sustaining character

Whew.  Had bronchitis last week, had to miss out on seeing the whooping cranes.  I tried coming in to do work twice, and was told by officemates to go home in no uncertain terms.  Eventually, I bowed to their judgment.  Now I’m playing catch up, so of course I write a blog post.  To, um, get back in the habit of writing.  Yeah.

A couple weeks ago, I hosted book club.  We read Wool by Hugh Howey – which I keep wanting to call Howl – and all had thoughts about the book. 

Howey originally self-published Wool as a series of short stories that garnered some praise and attention, which were eventually picked up by a major publisher to be collected as a single book.  The five sections – each its own short story – are very distinct.  One book-clubber described the book as “post-apocalyptic mystery” which is as good a description as any.  I devoured the first three sections, then stalled out on the last two.  It took awhile for me to figure out why, but I think I’ve nailed it down.

Each of the first three sections has a very strong point of view, tight third person narrative.  We see through the main characters’ eyes.  Each section has a different narrator, but we are privy to their thoughts and perceptions of the world.  We only know as much as they do.  These parts are gripping.  I wanted to figure out the mysteries that each character confronted as much as they did.  And Jules is great – a female hypercompetent mechanic turned detective?  Sign me up.  The last two parts, however, begin opening to more points of view.  The events aren’t as grounded in one particular characters’ experience, but we see what happens from multiple places.  Suddenly, the book feels a lot less like a character pushing through obstacles to figure out a mystery, and more like there are Important Things Happening that the author Wants to Happen.  Plot takes over, at the sacrifice of a strong character worldview.  And everyone in the book club immediately lost interest.

I think a lot of authors and stories do this.  The Hunger Games is a perfect example.  I loved the first book.  The second book was good, if repetitive.  The third book, however, no longer felt like Katniss's story.  It was the story of Panem, and it is difficult to identify with an entire nation.  Suzanne Collins is hardly alone, though.  I love Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books (and Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille).  But one of them I refuse to re-read, because its…well, there’s a revolution, and Vlad’s wife is heavily involved, and the whole story is very plotty.  Nothing is untrue to the characters, but I still could not quite buy into the premise.  And I like revolution!  I grew up in a good Marxist household, after all.  

Revolutions are hard to pull off.  In the real world, or in writing.  I just re-read Guards! Guards! By Terry Pratchett – another all time favorite – and there’s a quote by the Patrician that I think is fitting. 

“You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people.  And you’re good at that, I’ll grant you.  But the trouble is that it’s the only thing you’re good at.  One day it’s ringing bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it’s everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no one’s been taking out the trash.  Because the bad people know how to plan.  It’s part of the specification, you might say.  Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world.  The good people don’t seem to have the knack.”

I don’t necessarily believe this – I’m cynical, but not quite that cynical.  But Pratchett has a point – the plan for what happens after the aristocracy or tyrant or plutocracy is displaced never quite coalesces.  I cannot think of a story where the author sells me on this.  And it tends to be particularly weak when the story starts as centering on one character, then tries to expand.  Dystopian stories, post-apocalyptic narratives, social upheaval.  They’re amongst my favorite premises, but too often feel unfinished.

A counter might be George R.R. Martin’s books.  You can hardly get more plot-driven than those.  I need post-it notes to keep track of events and characters.  Those work, though, because we are never wedded to just one viewpoint.  There are multiple strands that we follow from the very beginning.  Martin never tries to get you to buy into what is happening from just Tyrion’s perspective, or just Dany’s.  He also includes Arya and The Onion Knight and Cersei and Brienne and Stannos and dozens of others.  It is a big picture view of the world, told through many smaller stories. 

And that is where Wool falls flat, ultimately.  We buy into one person’s world – Holston, Jahns or Juliette.  Then we lose our connection with one character, and are asked to expand to multiple at a time.  Our expectations are no longer met.

Two conclusions, then, that I think are applicable to all writing.  First, character rules all.  People want to read about people, and they want a sense of who those people are.  Even in science writing, write about a person, and imbue them with personality, ambition, choice, goals.  Readers will forgive much if the characters stay true.  Second, the writer has a contract with the reader.  They set up certain expectations of narrative, approach.  Breach the contract, and there are no guarantees the reader will stay with you.    Twists and turns in plot are forgivable, even appreciated.  Abrupt, unexpected changes in voice are not.