A W.I.P. Around the Workshop: The Entangled Character

We are constructing a character together as the words appear on the page right now. The character is a version of me.

A glowing blue sketched outline of a face and hand on the dappled surface of water.

“Like Joan of Arc, I’m hearing voices!”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

Let me tell you a story about me. But it’s not about me, it’s about a character, who could be me if you squint and turn sideways.

Character creation feels, in a way, to be a God-like rush. I have made man in my image! Fear me, for I am a benevolent ruler of the page! But, for many writers, characters haunt the stories we write, and writing becomes a constant discovery of the people squeezed inside our brain. I do not want to seem irresponsible of the story, I have some control, but writing good characters means allowing them, and the story, to breathe.

Let’s talk about it. If you think about it, we are constructing a character together as the words appear on the page right now. The character is a version of me. What’s interesting is that there will inevitably be slight differences between constructions of my character, due to your understanding of language and tone and the disparities between our experiences on this floating rock. That’s one of the great things about character. The character changes and proliferates innumerably with each interaction with a reader, no matter how small. The character becomes alive through the mind and interaction; it inserts itself within the context of your own life and community, your logic creates it and regarding this essay, creates me.

However, there are western tropes in characters that need to be addressed in a way that is constructive and critical. I want to talk about the hero. We often fall back on the hero, or the active protagonist, as a communal touchstone. They make storytelling easier, as they have clear goals and actively seek out your delicately hanging plot hooks. Still, they also come from a violent history.

But let’s go back further, to gathering berries, nuts, seeds, weaving netting, coming back with slabs of animal meat to our communities. People worked infrequently for subsistence, hours were left inert and stories were birthed from these moments of stillness—in dance, music and oral tradition. There is little excitement in gathering berries, but there is within the killing of the sabre-toothed tiger. Its slathering mouth and the blood that pours from wounds—that is what makes the story. Right?

What in the world does this have to do with character? Well, you can’t have a seed gatherer as the tiger killer; it’s just not feasible. We need someone who will set out to kill this tiger to aid their community and receive honour. They are the hero with their spear, with their sword and with their gun. The community weave together to support the violent hero—with their intellect, their witty sidekick one-liners and their labour. They are us. They are the characters who refuse linearity and haunt the future, their desires to survive continue to this day.

It is possibly time to lay those reflective weapons upon the ground and turn back to our seed gatherers and feel the earth between our fingers. However, if we are to do this in our stories, we become uncombative. We bend instead of stride forward. We fear and turn away from the villain (if there is a villain). We are running from the story; our characters become the recipient of the story rather than the initiator. They become a passive protagonist. A fearful creature, look away now writers! Fear them!

But we’ve heard the story of the sword time and time again. It slices and bites and chews and pricks. I feel like we’ve all picked up on the rather phallic symbols, but to be explicit and for clarity: the hero character is a particularly male construction; it is the penetrator of story reality—the missionary position of storytelling.

There’s something intriguing about a character forced to face the plot. One who has to screw their courage to the sticking place and work through hardship. They are us when we face tragedy, hardship and heartbreak, issues that we did not seek out. But there’s nothing heroic about facing these troubles. It’s just something you have to do to survive. A relatable tale. Survive, then tell stories and laugh with your friends at the pub. You’re not a hero; you’re not Gilgamesh. Instead, you are the life story that has haunted our histories for centuries but has been left, for the majority, untold within western canon. Your characters can be the life story. Not the killing story. The death-end-story.

Excerpt from Over-Under, by Emma-Grace Clarke

We’re here. The heavy scent of chlorine sits in the back of Josiah’s sinuses and the water is a glinting mercury under the sun. Crows sit upon the corrugated roof of the lifesaver’s empty tower, they caw to a syncopated tune, watching the food in the hands of humans. Henry Ove soared from above him, glistening upon his descent and sends a cascading splatter of droplets across the sky as he slammed into the water of the pool. Cheers followed him from the diving platform. His face warps for a moment in just before the surface tension of the water breaks, Josiah is entranced, watching the boy’s nose take on a gel-like quality for a spilt second before he breaches into the warm air, shaking out his hair and laughing.

Rivulets of water crawl down his body as Henry pulls himself from the pool. He’s rakish and pale as a northern river rock. Josiah looks away, focussing on the white-rusted chain link fence he leans against, running his finger across the grooves.

“Are you going up?” Henry asks, walking over. His feet slap on the concrete leaving dark marks behind him. Mel is watching him from behind and her sandwich is finished now. Josiah wants to deck her, he scratches his neck instead.

“Naw,” Josiah replies. He turns to glance at the shadow of the diving board. “Not my thing.”

Henry shrugs a little, “What is though dude?”

Josiah gives a mimicking shrug and Henry doesn’t have enough social tack not to tut at that. Josiah wants to consume him, possibly absorb him through the touch of skin and he feels awful looking at the boy’s body now, the movement of muscle under skin, building and disappearing with movement. He wants to peel the boy. Not for any other reason than that he can, that such a despicable act is possible. He could go mad at anyone. The police would be called – witnesses – and then he would be in prison. Safe and alone with a nice schedule and no decisions to be made.

He smiles.

“I dunno, man. What’s a thing? I’m pretty good at trig.”

Henry laughs, deep and rumbly. “You’re such a freak Jose,” he says. “It’s the cool thing about you. You just don’t care.”

Josiah is a bit affronted at that, like Henry is any different. “I care. I care about a lot of things.”

“Just not yourself much?”

He shrugs again and looks to the rippling water. “Eh, not particularly. People though, sometimes.” He nearly choaks on it, it’s a little too close. Mel is making her way around the pool, smiling at the kids in floaties and waving at a few of the mummies.

Henry shakes his head. His teeth are so white and gums so pink. His friends are calling him now, a few of them have jumped in since he did, sending water arcing through the air.

Josiah lets go of the chain link and holds out his hand. Henry takes him and hauls him to his feet. Mel sits in the tower again, he can feel the burn of her eyes. She’s got a book in her hand but he can’t make out the title.

Jumping from the platform sends his mind soaring out of his body. The flab of his stomach moves to his chest, and he wonders for a split second about how he looks, how his bathers fit around his butt and if Mel is still watching. The crows take flight, cutting shadows across the sun’s sterilising light.

He’s embalmed in the water; he doesn’t feel the impact but the kiss of bubbles against his skin tingles.

He could drown if he wanted to.

- -

Okay. That’s nice and all. But how is that helpful? Don’t we need heroes? I can feel the crosshairs of Kevin Feige now. We need conflict.

I say no. Or at least the narrative and your characters should be more than the summation of conflict. The number of times my friends talked about wishing for more interpersonal interactions within their favourite Marvel films borders on ridiculous. To reduce the narrative to purely conflict is absurd and dehumanising. Take this to your characters, shape them beyond what they can do for your story, think about what they want at their base: survival, love, community. What we all want.

But it is a laborious task to weave a story like this. For spear is easy to throw and move through temporal space in a linear line but gathering the nuts and seeds for a community is a tedious task; mundane, coiling, immortal and beautiful. This flattening of the character field shies away from individualism and rejects a narrative world with humanity at the centre. But it allows us to engage with a real, a webbing of the universe where we live and die together in a network of people, birds, ants who have stories to tell. It is the story that does not end, for there is always another gatherer. Always another you.

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