Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Greta van der Rol – The importance of characterisation @GretavdR

Establishing believable characters is just about the most important thing an author has to do when writing fiction. To make your characters convincing it’s absolutely essential to immerse them in a real world, even if it is imaginary. They have to behave in ways that make sense within their context. I learned that lesson particularly well when I wrote my historical fiction novel To Die a Dry Death. It is set in 1629, when the Dutch merchantman Batavia was wrecked on arid islands off the coast of Western Australia.

One of THE most difficult things for an author to deal with is to put the reader into the shoes of the people living in such a different world. Some reviewers noted how difficult it was to get their twenty-first century brains around the way people behaved in the seventeenth century.

  • The Netherlands in the seventeenth century was a regimented, structured society where class was everything.
  • The devil, hell, sea monsters and demons were all as real as outlaw motorcycle gangs today.
  • Women, even those from the upper classes, were second-class citizens, objects of desire, mothers of children, doers of housework. They had no say in anything outside the household.
  • Life was cheap. The death of an infant was par for the course. Even much, much later, parents thought nothing of giving a subsequent child the same name as one who had died.
  • Torture and executions were popular spectator sports.

All of those social facts had a bearing on the story and how it was written. Much as I would have liked to write that the women (in particular) fought back against their abusers, it just didn’t happen, and, more to the point in a work of fiction, it couldn‘t happen because of their social conditioning.

In a similar way, if we write about a future society, our characters must reflect the social mores we have established. In my Morgan Selwood books, set in the distant future, I have based the society on historical precedents. Admiral Ashkar Ravindra comes from a highly structured society where genetic engineering has made it impossible for people from the four classes to create offspring with a member of another class. Ravindra’s Manesai culture is derived from the Indian caste system. But even if it wasn’t, point a finger at any part of the world and you’ll find classes, castes and restrictions on marriage.

For instance, in Australian aboriginal society, young women had to marry someone from another clan, as described in this reference to ‘moieties’. 1629 Europe was much the same. The daughters of merchants would marry the sons of other merchants. Princes married princesses. Common serving men didn’t bother lusting after the daughter of the house. (Although, in male dominated societies, men in authority thought nothing of having a bit on the side with the serving wench.) And folks, this is still, by and large, true. I have simply taken one small step further in my science fiction and had idealistic genetic scientists make matches between classes childless. A place for everyone and everyone in their place.

Admiral Ravindra’s character is to some extent dictated by his role in society. He is a member of the Mirka, the military class, which provides Manesai society with its military people and its senior politicians. Since humans are essentially tribal and we love to belong to groups, the Mirka caste has evolved sub-castes and Ravindra is a member of the Darya, an elite group which produces most Manesai admirals. He’s wealthy, owning an estate on his home world, and he’s used to having his own way and being obeyed.

However, Ravindra is a little bit different. This comes out in Morgan’s Choice, because he’s the admiral sent out to the back blocks of Manesai space to investigate a few strange events. And later in the book we learn he has a tattoo. Mirka, most especially Darya, do not have tattoos. It’s considered common, something a mere trooper would do, not an officer and a gentleman. So I wrote a story, Ink, about how Ravindra acquired that tatt. On the way through, readers might learn a little more about Manesai society, and how Ravindra’s behaviour is grounded very much in who he is.

Those details are what makes characters interesting and three dimensional. Just remember that while the author must know all these things about the characters, it’s always wise to use the ice berg principle (30% above the water) and only tell the readers what they need to know.


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Genre - Science Fiction

Rating – PG-13

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