Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Character Web


. . .  She began crawling towards him on her knees, her arms out.  “Lieber Gott!  Look you, God, I’m telling him to run.  Do you see me - Gott?  Are you watching, do you see I don’t want to hurt anybody anymore, do you see? Oh Gott!   Please stop!”   She crushed her arms around herself and crumpled into a ball, weeping.
        Father Delmar left the bed and came over to her.  “Cut the drama, young lady.  That’s enough.”  As he put his hand on her shoulder, she screamed and jumped away, kicking her feet against him.  “Don’t touch me!  Don’t touch me!”
        He fell to his knees and took her by the shoulders.  “Stop it.  Just stop it.”
        “Don’t touch - ME!”  She screamed.  “My soul will rot in hell!  And you – may you rot in hell too.  Nasty man!  Wicked, nasty sonovabitch man, you!  I came to you; you are a man of God, you should help me, not tempt me to more sin.  Fuck you!  I trusted you with my soul!  You should have mercy on me.  I came to you with all my hope and on my knees like a beggar.  I’m not a beggar!  Ich bin nosferatu!   I’m Nixie the vampire!”
        He swung and with a sound like a gunshot slapped her face hard with the back of his hand.  She put her head between her knees and he held her, speaking into her ear.   “Now you listen to me, Nixie the fucking vampire. Listen.“ 
       Her shoulders writhed and she tried to twist away from him.
       “Listen.  Nixie – God is dead.”
       Her mouth fell open.  “No! Don’t say this.”
       “God is dead, Nixie.  There is no God.  God is a fairy tale, like this vampire shit you’re pulling.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry Nixie, but I have to tell you.  No one is going to save you or forgive you.  You’re waiting for a savior, but no one’s coming.   I wish there were.  God, how I wish there were because I need Him as much as you do.  There isn’t.”
       “That’s not true.”  She sat up straight and pointed an accusing finger in his face, her wet stained chin quivering.  “That’s not true.”
       “There is no God.  No one to forgive you.  You’re a whack job, honey.  You’re just as crazy as a mud bug. That’s all.  We’re all damned, no matter what.   I love you.   I’m sorry as hell for you and me both.”
       “You don’t believe in God.  That’s why you have no hope.”  She shook her head.  “Vater, vater, there is really a God; yes, yes, and He hates me and I need His forgiveness because I’m evil.  Please.  I just know there is, I’m proof there is.”
    “Because you’re a vampire?  Bullshit!”  Father Delmar seized her in one hand by the back of her neck and shoved her face down hard into the bedroom carpet. 
    “Smell that, kid.  That’s bullshit down there. Bullshit and mud.  That’s what the world’s made out of, Nixie - bullshit and mud.  You need to take this Vampirella crap and all your comic books and all your supermarket novels and bury them or shove them up your ass or something and get involved in the world.”  His voice was choking.  “It’s bullshit and mud down there but it’s all there is.” 
        He let go of her neck and lifted her gently, his hands cupping her face, looking into her eyes.  “I don’t like this world anymore than you do.  But you can’t run away from it.  It’s your world as long as you’re in it.  I got a gut ache from wishing, Nixie, you don’t know.   I wish I’d met you thirty years ago.  I’m tired too, I’m more crazy than you even.  Can you see that in me?  I’m not as bad as you think.  I paid a price for my faith, I really did, but God didn’t keep His end of the deal.  There’s no God for either of us, I’m sorry.”
        His throat tightened and he began to weep.  “I wish for both of us there was, but there isn’t.  There just isn’t.”  He melted into braying sobs and she held him close in her arms as he fell apart.  He put his arms around her and they leaned on each other and wept together. . . .

Nixie and Father Delmar from “The Dying Light”

I've been thinking recently about an excellent blog post by Remittance Girl on her web site on the subject of creating deliberately vacuous characters:

There is a view that some characters in the most commercially successful popular fiction (i.e. "Twilight", "50 Shades of Gray") are deliberately created as hollow shells that a reader can cast themselves into, like sticking your fingers inside a hand puppet. Either that or the characters were just so incompetently crafted a reader could fill them up with anything.

I dunno what to think.  RG definitely has a point.  These books are hideously successful and the authors have become hideously rich and popular overnight.  Sure I envy them.  We all secretly envy such writers and imagine they do not have a rich inner life like we do, but with that kind of money who needs one.  One is tempted to sniff "but will anybody be reading them a hundred years from now?"  No, probably not.  They probably won’t be reading any of my stuff either, but that's not why you write.  

So the obscure apprentice writer asks himself – how can I at least avoid creating vacuous characters?  How do I fill them with soul?

From a craft viewpoint, there are a lot of busy things going on in the above scene. The story, “The Dying Light” is told from Father Delmar's viewpoint.  Delmar is a Catholic priest who has secretly lost his faith and become an atheist, though he goes through the motions as a professional priest..  When he encounters Nixie in his confession booth one night, she is an anonymous voice on the other side of the screen, wretched and  spiritually devastated after the events in the story "The Lady and the Unicorn".   Nixie challenges his cynicism in every way with her longing for redemption and the quest to regain her connection to humanity.  Simply she tells him plainly she is a "nosferatu", and consistent with his rejection of all supernatural things, including God, he denies her up front and thinks she's crazy though he’s concerned about her claims to have murdered uncounted numbers of people over the years.  The dirty secret is that Delmar is suicidal and this murderous  "little moon maid" who has landed on his doorstep in the dead of night may be just the ticket.

These are two very different people who profoundly affect each other.  We learn of them through setting up  a craft element called "the character web".

Characters, vacuous or otherwise, do not exist in a vacuum.  Just like "real" people, characters express themselves in a web of experience and interaction with other people.  Its through the interaction with others that the character is defined to the reader, its through the character web that we experience all different sides of a personality.  We know best who Nixie is or who Delmar is by the violent collision of hope and despair they bring out in each other and by the ways in which they try to use each other for their own ends.  One of the things implied in my vampire mythology is that my vampires instinctively provoke darkness in people.  Just being in the same room with Nixie has a way of dragging up the sad things inside of you.  If you think about it, you probably know people like this.  Nixie is a Typhoid Mary of the soul and being around her can make whatever is bugging you way worse.

A couple of years ago Lisabet and I had a dialogue (I loved those dialogues!) about the nature of villains and heroes.  For now, it’s better to revert to Aristotle’s terms "protagonist" (hero) and "antagonist" (against the hero).   Father Delmar is nobody's idea of a hero, and Nixie isn't exactly a villain.  But its their collision of personalities that causes their characters to emerge and experience change in the context of the story.  Nixie fervently believes in God ("No one has faith like the damned.") and Delmar has lost faith in his despair over the human condition.  In the shaping of a character web, the antagonist should mirror the protagonist in some basic way, they should recognize in each other a common connection or goal - Nixie and Delmar both have serious problems with God - but should be different enough to throw each other into a stark contrast that would not exist without each other.  We understand Delmar through Nixie.  We understand Nixie through Delmar.  You don’t need a lot of characters, but you need enough to knock sparks off each other, sparks bright enough to illuminate them.  This is what a good character web can accomplish, and the best way to go about it is to find the deepest conflict your characters can fight over. 

From the beginning we are always taught "show don’t tell", and most of the time this is true, but why is it true?  If the reader infers from words and actions what is in the characters heart, which is of course the way we do it in "real" life with people we know, it has more impact because he/she is being invited into the creative act.  You’re inviting the reader to get up and dance.  Writing the words "Nixie was furious with Father Delmar for not believing she was a vampire." is okay, but you can feel how flat it lays on the page.  The reader doesn’t own the idea, it’s been forced on them.  If a character drinks a bottle of beer its lazy to say “The beer was delicious.”  You should find a way for the reader to taste it, you need to invite them to the dance.  If we witness Nixie shaking her finger in his face and screaming accusations and curses at him the reader owns the conclusion he/she draws from the character’s behavior - Nixie is furious at Delmar.  When mild mannered Delmar turns around and belts her a good one, we see how deeply he is provoked and scarred by her words, and especially by her hope.  We are witnesses.  When a reader owns an idea, or an emotion, or especially in erotic writing a physical sensation, it has far more power than simply being stated by the writer.  This is the clockwork of the character web. 


  1. Garce,

    This is one of the best explanations of "show don't tell" that I've seen anywhere.

    And you're right - antagonist and protagonist mirror each other. They've got to be opposites that still share some deep commonality.

  2. Hi Lisabet!

    As you know I'm a craft freak and I think about these things a lot. I wish I could have written more or a little better but I got a late start this time.



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