September 25, 2011

Slice of PIE: WHY Do We Like Harry Potter?

…or Miles Vorkosigan, Lessa of Pern, Frodo Baggins, Honor Harrington, Paul Muad’Dib or Podkayne of Mars?

The cop-out answer would be that we “just do for our various reasons”. But as a writer, I need to go deeper than that. To this end, I’ve read a half-dozen books on how to create characters. Nancy Kress’ book, DYNAMIC CHARACTERS is on my shelf downstairs; as are Orson Scott Card’s HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY and CHARACTER AND VIEWPOINT; THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS by Ben Bova; WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS by Lee Wyndam; and my most recent purchase, BREATHING LIFE INTO YOUR CHARACTERS by Rachel Ballon.

All of them have given me at least ONE thing I can do to create realistic characters. Some have given more. That new one – in which the practicing clinical psychologist/writing coach posits that where a psychotherapist can through intense questioning and listening, tease apart the soul and mind of a client and then suggest healing strategies they might try; a writer can reverse the process and create realistic, living characters -- hasn't done much for me.

I haven’t found it particularly helpful up to this point (about half-way through when I stopped…) While I am sure that its claims to success are valid, I noticed that while the author has coached dozens of people to success, she’s never written a best-seller herself. I’m sure this is great for some writers – I am probably not one of them.

I’m still left with the question of why we like Harry, Miles, Lessa, Frodo, Honor, Paul and Podkayne. Is it that the authors (JK, Lois, Anne, JRR, David, Frank and Robert) worked out extensive character sketches of each of our favorites? Truth be told, I haven’t found evidence for that in my reading. None of them talk about reverse psychoanalyzing the characters from scratch. At least one of them tells the story that her character simply appeared in her head after which she outlined his entire educational experience. Then she wrote it.

I fiddled with this for a long time before I finally started to tease free some sort of answer. It might be best illustrated by something I wrote in the cover of one of the books ten years ago: “I read and reread these books. What compelled me? Why does Miles – an imaginary character so draw me now? Because Miles is unsure of himself – even when he succeeds, he wonders, deep down inside, if it was an accident; fate moving him; God’s hand – anything but his own actions, instincts and training. ANYTHING but his own competence. Mistakes he takes perfectly in stride because he EXPECTS to make horrible blunders and expects to learn from them. He owns them. But when he succeeds, then it has to be SOMETHING else – luck, fate, whatever – but NOT HIM. That’s how I feel…”

Six words – “incompetent, accidentally successful” and “how I feel” – encompass what it means to create character. What, was Paul Muad’Dib incompetent? Yes, in many contexts he was. Lessa of Pern, heroine of an age, accidentally successful? Yes, several times over. Frodo incompetent? HOW was the Ring of Power finally destroyed?

Characters who deeply doubt their competence are people I can connect with very easily because I feel that way often.

What of people who do not doubt their competence? Perhaps they are NOT readers because they don't NEED to be…


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