Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Preparing Your Vassals… er… Characters

Interesting title, isn't it? *grin* And just why would I want to refer to my characters as my "vassals"? It's quite simple, really. The word "vassal" means all of three things:

1. Dependent landholder in feudal society: (somebody who gave loyalty and homage to a feudal lord and received the right to occupy the lord's land and be protected by him.)

2. Slave: (a bondman or slave)


3. A Person or nation dependent on another: (a person, nation, or group that is dependent on or subordinate to another)

I like to use the third definition (although the other two aren't too far off the mark. ;D) reason being that my novel characters rely solely on me, and depend on me for their very existence… they wouldn't even have a story or a life if I hadn't made one up for them. And I don't say that in a pride-filled manner; it's a simple truth.

It's also true for all writers. Just think on it: where would your characters be if you hadn't created them? They'd be non-existent, wouldn't they? They'd have no purpose, no life… they probably wouldn't even have a name.

What's interesting is the fact that I could apply such a title to myself. After all, I am God's vassal… one of many. I would be nothing without Him. I wouldn't even be alive! I've learned that I have to depend on him if I want to live my life to my fullest extent, which is indeed what he wishes for me. He thought me up and knew all about who I would become and everything I would do in my life long before I was even conceived. What an interesting concept: God had a (very) detailed character sheet on me before he ever brought me into play. Wow! :)

But life tends to throw people curve balls, doesn't it? I mean, things don't always go the way you'd want them to if you could plan your life out for yourself. Bad things happen. They always do. People die and people get hurt and people live poor when they deserve better. Even "religious" people… even Christians. (Some might say 'especially Christians' but I'm not going to go there… not when I can recall all the horrible persecutions thrown at the Jewish people throughout history.) However, it's also true that these hardships seem to help develop a stronger sense of character in people; a more pronounced personality. It is my belief that without the trials, many people would never ever reach their full potential, and that would be a real shame.

Speaking of "Jewish people" and "trials", last Sunday's message at my church was about Esther and how God had chosen her to save his people from total destruction. The way the story played out wasn't your typical "Hero to the rescue" story (and by "typical" here, I am referring mostly to epic fantasy… LOTR, Narnia, Eregon and the like). There were no big, bad Generals with giant swords leading large hosts of soldiers to the rescue. No Dragons or Dragon Riders. There was just Esther, a normal girl leading a normal life before she was discovered by King Xerxes and made Queen. And like many of today's young adult women, she probably had a few self confidence issues. I haven't met a girl yet who doesn't.

The sermon mostly capitalized on the fact that saving her people would SEEM to be the real purpose of Esther's life, and the pastor said (in passing) that it's interesting how that one event was probably the most important thing to happen to Esther… the rest of her life couldn't have been nearly as significant, since none of it was really ever written about… <_<

Well, as much as I enjoyed the sermon for the most part, as a writer I whole-heartedly disagreed with that one statement, and I doodled a statement of my own in my Everything-Journal. My note simply read, "God does not use an unprepared vessel… he completely prepares his vessels before he uses them." And yes, in that statement I used the word "Vessel" which is slightly different from the word "vassal" and which would refer to something like a ship, or a container of some sort. Well, to God, I believe we are both a vassal and a vessel: we are vessels in the fact that we carry the good news of His love to share with all people… but we are also His vassals... we are dependent on Him to sustain our spiritual selves (and we are dependent on Him to care for our physical needs as well, probably more than a lot of people like to admit), much like how our characters are dependent on us writers. The simple truth is that you wouldn't put water in a vase if the vase had never been fired in the kiln and made water-proof, would you? You wouldn't use a broken cup to drink from without gluing the crack shut.

Well, it's the same with God. He makes sure that we are fully prepared – fire, glue and all – before He has us fulfill our true purposes in life. And I don't think that watching those purposes be fulfilled is half so interested (or nearly as painful) as watching the subject be prepared to fulfill the purpose. I'd rather watch the process of the clay being turned into a vase and that vase being put in a fiery kiln before I watch someone put water in the vase. I wonder how God prepared Esther's life for that one historical moment, long before we ever start reading about her story in the Bible… How did her life develop her as the woman who could and would save her people from destruction? Perhaps she didn't have the most exciting life before she became queen, but she went through trials of her own, I'm sure… she was orphaned at a young age and raised by her cousin who was a very devout Jew. It must have been an interesting child hood to say the least.

Now, as writers we should all apply the same lesson to our characters. Not that we should make them all devout Jews, or anything, but we SHOULD regard their development as just as important as their purposes or their climactic moments or their revelations. I just hate it when I read a book and the whole thing feels like there's no purpose or reason behind the MC's drive to do whatever it is he/she does in the story, don't you? And I especially hate it when the book comes to a climactic moment and the MC does something that seems totally out of character for them… either that, or they suddenly realize something that should have been made very obvious to them half a book before. That just drives me crazy! And it stems from a lack of good character development.

For Plot-first novelists, character development is something that takes a serious amount of time and effort, and sometimes many, many rewrites. I don't know whether you would call me a Plot-first novelist or a Character-first novelist, but I will tell you that only recently have I started to understand the true value of strong character development, and this during the fifth rewrite of SOTD. The very definition of the word "development" is "the process of change". When something then becomes "mature" it has actually become fully developed. Our characters must go through something similar. Before they can be mature enough in themselves both physically and mentally in order to confront their climactic moment, they must first go through a developing process which usually takes place over the course of the story. This is what is called "Character Arc" – the process of development and change for your character – and it's what makes a character seem more realistic and connect at a deeper level with your reader. Basically your story is, in essence, what you use to prepare your character for his trials. You don't just start the story and jump right into the climactic moment… you work up to the climax by developing your character through the series of events that forces your character to question and learn about himself/herself. And, during that process, you may find that you learn much much more about your character than you would have if you had just jumped right into the climactic moment.

So no, I don't believe that Esther's only important moment was when she saved her people from annihilation, and that her life before and after that event were basically irrelevant. As a writer, I would consider her life before King Xerxes' decree to be (if anything) even more intriguing than the event in itself, because her life before shows me how she grew into the heroic woman of the histories. God prepares his vassals before he uses them. We, as writers, should follow His example and do the same for our characters if we want them to be as believable and as deep as real people.


Galadriel said...

A very good post. I like it a lot

Adele Treskillard said...

Wow, good one, Nichole! :D I like the point about how everything shapes you for a purpose. And how that can be long and hard, but it's good to be shaped. Thanks for writing this!

Your friend in ink,


Jake said...

Great post! :)