Tag Archives: Speculative Fiction

How to Introduce and Name a Cast of Characters

9 Aug

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the questions that will drive writers—and not just beginners—crazy is whether to name a character right away. You’ll hear and read different takes on this. Some journal editors say that they’ll put down a story that begins with he or she and not a name. But naming a character right away can feel odd. The reader doesn’t know this person. Who cares what his name is? The right answer (there isn’t one) is actually part of a larger problem of introducing characters. Do it well, and nobody cares if you start with he. Do it poorly, and that’s an easy way to write off your work.

A great example of introducing characters well (and handling their names) can be found in Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas. You can read read an excerpt from it at Tor.com. 

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a United States that, like the dystopia in the television show The Handmaid’s Tale, feels like a version of our current state of affairs if everything we fear might happen actually did. A big chunk of the novel is set in the American Midwest after some natural apocalypse has rendered the land mostly barren and a political apocalypse has made it run by militias who take their orders from a tyrant leader in Washington, D.C. In this scene, a low-level government bureaucrat has been sent to the area to hunt for an escaped prisoner, and we meet the militia men that she must deal with:

The militia were mostly white, generally stupid, and all scary. The kind of men you would avoid if you saw them on the street, especially if you were black and a woman. The midwestern ones were extra dangerous, because most of them seemed kind of nice when you first talked to them. Nice like the guy at church who smiles at you and offers you a brownie before he tells you how he is going to regulate your life.

Notice that we don’t have any names yet, nor any individuals. Instead, Brown shows us the militia as a generalized whole. The details come a few lines later:

The welcome party were a big ruddy guy in bulletproof brown overalls with built-in ammo pouches and the smell of cigarettes, and a little red-bearded guy dressed more like a run-down pastor than a militiaman, complete with a wooden cross hanging from his neck—and a big pistol on his belt. Turned out he was the doctor, Dr. Craven, and the big guy was the commander. Patrol Leader Koenig was the way the commander introduced himself, but then he said just call me Bob.

Before telling us the names of these guys, Brown shows us them: their complexions and clothing, how they smell, and what they resemble. Then we get their names. While this isn’t the only approach toward names and character introductions, it is a useful one to keep in mind. We’re more likely to remember these guys’ names because we’ve seen them and they’re memorable. Brown also makes their names easy to remember: Craven and just-call-me-Bob. Again, any name can be given to a character, but you want to set readers up to remember who they belong to. As a reader, it can be frustrating to stop in the middle of a scene and ask, “Who is that again?”

Brown follows this introduction with a paragraph about the militia compound:

The house was huge, on a big acreage, a suburban home converted to paramilitary command center. The walls were covered with big maps of the area, annoyed in black grease pencil and red marker. Tania saw photos of targets, some of them mug shots, others surveillance photos. Radios and computers and all manner of gear. Styrofoam cups and a big pile of beer cans in a corner. More guys who looked like Bob, other guys who were leaner and harder looking, and one Asian woman who looked toughest of all, even though she couldn’t have been much taller than five feet.

We’re back to seeing the militia as a single entity, not a group of individuals. All the guys look like Bob. Some are a little tougher looking, and one is a really tough Asian woman. She gets the extra distinguishing detail because she stands out in the crowd.

Very quickly, Brown has introduced a large cast of characters and shown us, through his descriptions, which ones we ought to pay close attention to and which ones should fade into the background—literally, since in the last paragraph the men are given the same status as radios and Styrofoam cups.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce characters and their names, using Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown as a model:

  1. Start with your characters as a group. Obviously, this means you’re writing a scene with more than two characters. Place them in one of the crowded places they’re likely to go. Who do they spend their time with? How might an insider describe that crowd? How might an outsider? Either way can work; it just depends on the circumstances of the scene and who is present. Don’t be afraid of generalizations. Use them to sketch out the broad outlines of who we’re about to meet.
  2. Narrow the group to a few individuals. Who is memorable? Or in charge? Or important? Use the natural progression of real-life introductions. We almost always see someone before we know their name, and we tend to notice a few details about them (but only a few; our minds have a limited ability to take in everything that’s going on in a given moment). What stands out about these particular characters, and what conclusions or comparisons might your insider or outsider draw about them. Brown uses the “run-down pastor” image, which is great because, like the group description, gives the reader a general idea of who this person is or how he appears to be.
  3. Name the characters. Do it quickly and as memorably as possible. Brown actually doubles down on Bob by having his outsider character immediately refer to him by name: “Where’s my prisoner, Bob?”
  4. Place the characters in their surroundings. There’s no rule that says we need to see place before characters. Sometimes that makes sense; other times it doesn’t. What’s important is that one set up the other. Brown’s description of the home focuses on the details that remind us who is staying there. Then, we see those characters as inhabitants of that place.
  5. Introduce the rest of the cast in terms of who we’ve met already. We’ve met Bob, and so Brown can say that the rest of the men are a bunch of Bob’s—and a few of them are tougher. Bob gives him a point of comparison. He also focuses on the character who stands out—the Asian woman in a sea of white men. So, when you’re rounding out your cast, introduce the characters the way we’d see them in real life: as similar to the first characters we met or different. 

The goal is to quickly and memorably introduce a cast of characters so that the story can move on to the scene they are apart of.

Good luck.

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An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

18 Aug
Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the speculative fiction novel House of Shattered Wings.

Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese computer and history geek who lives in Paris. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, ClarkesworldInterzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her trilogy Obsidian and Blood is set in Ancient Mexico, and her novel House of Shattered Wings is set in a post-Apocalyptic Paris and features Fallen angels, a washed-out alchemist and a former Vietnamese immortal with a grudge. She has won almost every science fiction and fantasy award possible: a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future.

In this interview, de Bodard discusses mixed points of view, stories as social commentary, and the myth that technology and science are value neutral.

To read de Bodard’s story “Immersion” and an exercise on writing ideas into fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

Your story, “Immersion” is told from a mixed point of view: second person for the woman who cannot remove her immerser and third person for the woman who scorns the technology. The mix works: second person seems to really fit the dilemma faced by Agnes, and the third-person POV helps avoid confusion between the two narratives. But the mix also probably breaks one of those “rules” that occasionally pop up in writing workshops, something along the lines of “pick a point of view and stick with it.” How did you decide upon this mix? Was Agnes’ POV always told from second-person?

Aliette de Bodard

I’ve never been much of a person for following rules, actually—my motto is more “know why the rules exist so you can break them”. Seriously though, I think rules are very useful when you’re a beginner, mostly in order to leave you time to work on more “simple” things. I think of it as juggling. If you start out learning to juggle with six balls, you’re probably going to get discouraged; an easier way to go about it is to start with one ball, then add another one, etc. until you get to six. Rules are meant to “box” you in a bit, to make stories a little easier to write. But they can become strictures if you keep applying them without thinking on why they exist.

In this particular case, sticking with one POV makes sense in a short story, because you have little space, and shifting POVs too often risks making your story difficult to follow. It’s always been one of the more frustrating rules for me, though, because what you gain in clarify, you lose in subtlety: I think it makes for better, more balanced stories if you combine several points of view–it gives you several different views on the action or on things that characters might not be aware of. In the case of “Immersion”, it makes you understand the plight of Agnes better to see her both from within and from without. The story didn’t start out that way: I originally only had Quy’s point of view, but it wouldn’t gel until I found Agnes’s voice in second person.

Michael Noll

I recently read M. John Harrison’s Light trilogy, which features a character who is addicted to a chemically-induced dream reality. This same idea is present in “Immersion.” Agnes used the immerser to fit in with her husband’s social group but soon began to rely on it until she reached the point that removing it will kill her. Unlike in Harrison’s novels, though, the addiction in your story isn’t complete. The characters, even Agnes, are aware—if dimly—of their altered states. You capture this by showing Agnes half remembering phrases or caught between instincts that are truly remembered and those that are technology-induced. It’s a fine line that you must walk in almost every sentence—capturing warring impulses in a single mind. Did this voice simply come to you one day, or did you have to experiment to find a way to portray this dual state?

Aliette de Bodard

Agnes’s voice was pretty straightforward to write—though I’m not sure if I could sustain it for a full novel, since it’s a bit draining and a bit difficult to write a character like her, who’s not exactly sure which world she inhabits. I’ve always found it easier to write characters with a very large internal life, and she certainly fits the bill.

 Michael Noll

You’ve written some high-powered social commentary in the story. This is probably my favorite line: “It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” What I found impressive was how you integrated this commentary into the story. It doesn’t come out of nowhere or feel like the author intruding to tell the reader the moral. Instead, you attach it to the technology that is warping the characters’ lives. The technology, you write, “Takes existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative…Just like immersers take a given culture and parcel it out to you in a form you can relate to: language, gestures, customs, the whole package.” I wonder what came first: the commentary or the story it’s embedded within. How do you strike the balance between story and the things you want to say?

Aliette de Bodard

It really depends on the story! “Immersion” started out as mostly commentary: I wrote it after we came back from visiting my maternal family in Vietnam, and I saw firsthand the damages the Western mindset was still doing there. I always knew what I wanted to say with the story; and what took time was working out a setting and characters that would help me do this without seeming overly preachy (though every one has a different idea of what “preachy” means. I felt the story was very direct about postcolonial issues, perhaps too overtly so, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even see that aspect of it!).

Michael Noll

When I read about the immersers, I couldn’t help but think of our current technology, especially smart phones. Just as the immersers “take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms,” so do smart phones take complex processes like navigating space or killing time and flatten them into simple interactions with a screen. I’ve read enough Jaron Lanier to know how much of what we take for granted as “the way we interact with technology” is founded on particular assumptions made by a handful of early programmers and developers, who may or may not have had problematic assumptions about culture. What do you think? Does technology force people and cultures to interact within the paradigm of the technologically dominant culture?

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight "rules" for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight “rules” for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

I think there is a persistent myth that technology, like science, is value neutral because it simply reflects the way the universe works. The thing is, they’re both tools, and they’re both created in a cultural matrix that makes them what they are (the pursuit of science, and the way science revolutionised the world at the end of the 19th Century, for instance, is inextricably bound up with the rise of massive colonial empires and the plundering of resources from said empires). Perhaps even more so than science, technology is dependent on who created it and how they thought people would interact with it: a very simple example is that, on a lot of webpages and forms, the encoding is ASCII or some variant that doesn’t handle diacritics. That’s because the people who coded it were Anglophones, and didn’t think anyone would have a need for letters like “é”, “è”, etc. So when you have to type in something, you strip it of diacritics rather than have it come out as garbage text. And that’s a very simple example: now imagine this kind of mindset in, say, the use of a GPS, the use of a personal assistant, the coding of an AI. You see that there is something at work there that goes beyond lines of codes and electronics and whatnot; a set of assumptions that remain unquestioned and perpetuate a status quo. So, yes, definitely, there’s a paradigm that gets enforced when dealing with technology; and it’s a self-reinforcing one because people will then reject, say, any smart phone that doesn’t behave “sort of like an iPhone”–unless there’s some massive shift.

I’m not saying we’re locked in this; there are game changers, and there are people providing technology beyond the dominant paradigm and being very successful at it–but just that we have to be aware of this.

Originally published in March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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