Micheal Cobley

Interstellar Tactics




Writer’s Anxiety: Characterisation

Anyone who’s read my facebook page will have noticed that I tend to rant on about politics – a lot. Well, I counter, we live in an age where what used to be called normal politics (where parties actually stood for different things rather than fine shades of the same thing) is becoming a distant memory. My irritation at the same old pro-market, pro-business policies fuses into a teeth-grinding rage at times, hence my facebook output. I’m thinking of renaming my FB page Rantbook.

But, let’s not forget – I am a writer of SF and fantasy as well, and the considerations intrinsic to the creative process have not, to be frank, garnered frequent mentions by yours truly. Which is why I thought I’d talk/ramble on a bit about my use of character.

Always a tricky thing for me, creating characters which are sufficiently distinct so that I know what role they play, and the reader can distinguish between them. My main failing in the Shadowkings books, I feel, was my inability to really define the characters; in retrospect they all seemed to be aspects of some common template, lacking the idiosyncracies and sharp flavours that make real characters leap off the page. Part of that problem was my fear of allowing the pace to drop, because my observations were that there is a trade-off between character explication and narrative pace, and the more text you devote to rounding out character, allowing them to breath, the less urgent and forward-driven the prose.

So when it came to writing the Humanity’s Fire trilogy I tried to think more deeply about character types, and about dialogue – and I found myself delving further into character motivations than I had previously. But still, there was that fear of boring the reader, of deadening expectations of excitement with navel-gazing and inner brooding. Again, in retrospect this anxiety led to having a few characters who were defined by their dialogue ticks rather than a genuine feel for their wholeness. Its not just ego that drives this worry, but also the admiration I experience when I read the writers I admire, Joe Abercrombie, Dave Wingrove, Lauren Beukes, George RR Martin, James Tiptree, from whose pages I come away both delighted in the ‘how did he/she do that?’ and gripped with envy and the resolve to reach for a similar benchmark.

And I cannot help but wonder if part of my discontents in this matter is the fact that I will never know if my characters DO work – I will never be able to read my work as if I were an innocent reader. It is really difficult to know if you have actually reached a benchmark worth reaching, because as the writer you can see the inside of the work. Anyone who’s seen any of those pictures taken from inside the Statue of Liberty will understand – the outer semblance of unity is underpinned by unseen frameworks and welded supports, which is how a final, pre-publication MS draft feels to me. I know where the joins are and where the surgery took place, so the launch, of a new book upon the raging seas of the readership really is a time of consternation, in a mild way.

And there’s the new book, Ancestral Machines, which is notable for the relatively limited number of characters compared to the previous two trilogies. This time out I have deliberately allowed the characters to speak, or brood inwardly, in order that definition of character becomes a stronger aspect. Does this mean that the pace is less frenetic than previously demonstrated? – possibly, but the setting and the background will I hope provide sufficient weirdness to keep the reader thinking, ‘what the heck happens next?’

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  4. Bioshock – Further Thoughts
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