Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

A footnote on characters: useful people to have around

I'll start this with a caveat: like any writing advice I give, it might not work for you, may contain nuts, and probably isn't valid in some states. But if it sheds light for you as a writer or a reader, that's great. You never know.

This is part of the ongoing thread on creating and writing characters. I'm more of a howdunnit and whydunnit writer than a whodunnit type, and when you couple that with a very tight third person POV technique, you have certain challenges, not least of which is relaying things the reader needs to know. There are certain character types I'm always happy to see show up in my stuff because I know they'll be a big help when I need to do that. Incidentally, this applies to all fiction; it's handy for games and comics too.

It's the character who isn't in any specific camp, i.e. almost an outside observer, or who knows so little about the situation that another character will have to explain stuff to them, or who has greater knowledge and needs to impart that to others. (Gamers will be familiar with the latter concept.). You've probably spotted that this instantly saves you from clunky exposition of the kind where two qualified experts who know perfectly well what's going on explain the bleedin' obvious to each other like an episode of CSI. There's quite a choice: child, alien, spy, reporter, doctor, dispatcher, sentient computer, and so on. They can all ask questions and observe things that fill in the information gaps the reader needs.

I don't recommend deliberately shoehorning this kind of character into a story, though, because if they don't fit naturally then the cracks will show up pretty fast. I always start from the position of working out what kinds of people would find themselves in a given place or situation. The character needs to grow naturally from the premise you've set up.

Sometimes people ask if I use certain types of characters because I happen to know at first hand how those characters operate in real life. Sometimes I do know exactly how outsider characters do their jobs (journalists) but sometimes I don't (psychologists) so it's not about writing what I know. In the G.I. Joe comics, Siren is the head of PR for COBRA, and that's a job (minus COBRA, naturally) that I've done. But her story in the series isn't about how she operates as a spin doc: that became irrelevant the moment that I realised that her story arc had to be about loyalties, about being a parent trying to be around for her increasingly alienated son. So if you're trying to identify an outsider/ observer character, it's not about the kind of job they do and if you have an insider understanding of it.

In the Wess'har books, I have the BBC journo Eddie Michallat, who was always handy for asking questions about why the two factions on the mission and the various aliens behaved the way they did. He's not the only character who could do that, of course, but he could generally provide that extra dimension or stand back and sum up the position that other characters found themselves in. He was the necessary outsider. In Going Grey, I have both the innocent kid who needs things explained to him, and the analytical outsider, Dru Lloyd, whose HR and psychology background enables her later in the book to fill in the gaps about the personal dynamics of the other characters.

And then there's BB.

Having said you shouldn't shoehorn a character type into a book, I realise that it's not always true. I recall walking down the road, deciding that I probably had to have an AI character in this new Halo trilogy I was due to write, and coming up with the core character of BB, Black Box, in the space of a 100 yards. (Yes, characters usually hit me very fast. They just step out the shadows, almost completely fully formed. It's weird, but like I've said, I have a lifetime's database of the human condition to draw on.)

As a smart AI, BB would be a necessary device on board ship, and a natural, expected part of the Halo universe. He could be everywhere at the same time and see everything the flesh-and-blood characters couldn't: that was his actual purpose in the canon, of course, the omnipresent intelligence required to run vast, complex spaceships. But when I sat down to write, BB evolved on the page and became the lynchpin of the entire trilogy, a key to the whole premise of Spartans and the attitudes and predicaments of all the characters around him. In the end, he was both the saviour of his human friends and oblivious of his own tragic origins.

So there's more to these outsider characters than just making exposition easier. They have to punch their own weight as people (alien, human, or inorganic) and be an integral part of the story. You won't always find them, or even need them, but in some kinds of stories, they're worth looking for and developing.