Friday, September 12, 2008

Does my character believe in his own values?

Well, so the cable guy has been and gone, and I'm online again. What a relief!

Today's topic is "values" - a.k.a. ideology or belief systems - and how they show up in characters. This is a particular pet peeve of mine, for two reasons. First, I see far too many stories in which characters run true to type - that whole thing where a character is (for example) a dwarf, so he believes in all the things dwarves do and acts like a dwarf in every way. Second, I see many stories in which characters will posture their beliefs by declaring them, either aloud or in internalization. This is the type where an oppressed character will say a la Monty Python, "Help! Help! I'm being repressed!" (In fact, dougsha mentioned this when I last talked about repressed characters.)

I had this moment while reading the Lord of the Rings, where I'd gotten through Fellowship and started into The Two Towers, and suddenly I felt like I'd seen Tolkien learn something - dare I say, much in the way I learn things as I continue to write in a world. In The Two Towers, Legolas goes beyond just acting his role in the main plot, and starts to make occasional offhand comments about what babies Gimli and Aragorn are. Have you ever noticed this? Suddenly he stops being a plot-contributor in the body of an elf, and starts dropping hints that yes, he really has been alive since the beginning of time!

When you believe in something, you don't usually go around declaring it to everyone you know, but what you believe shows in everything you do, like the diet you eat, or the way you treat objects, and how you define categories of people around you. Belief systems can give a character more than something to say. They can give him or her a way of moving. Of dressing. Of speaking. A belief system very often provides a set of metaphors by which that person understands everything in the world around.

Religion is only the obvious example. There are also cultural value sets - and when you're designing your world, don't forget that a population can contain multiple cultural groups, or that within cultural groups, people can enact their beliefs in different ways. They can even oppose the predominant model of their cultural group, like a man who wants to start a liberating revolution. But even as he opposes the value system, he will still think in its terms, using its metaphors, and accepting some of its basic assumptions while he rejects others.

I'm out of time for this morning, but this has given me some ideas of where to go next. Let me know if you have a favorite SF character who comes across as really grounded, because I'm thinking of taking on some examples and breaking them down.


  1. I'd suggest taking one of your favorite Le Guin characters as an example. Or a very well-known character from a major spec franchise.

    Thanks for giving me food for thought for my Hel's Bet rewrite. I am weaving the 2 secondary characters Darthy and Richard Head more deeply into the book and so I must think through their values.

  2. Good plan, Doug! Thanks for the tip - I'm happy to connect you to your identity.