John Hornor Jacobs on Character

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jhj_bio_photoJohn Hornor Jacobs’ first novel, Southern Gods, was published by Night Shade Books and shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award. His second novel, This Dark Earth, was published in J2012 by Simon & Schuster. His young adult series, The Incarcerado Trilogy comprised of The Twelve Fingered Boy, The Shibboleth, and The Conformity, is published by Lerner Books. His first fantasy series, The Incorruptibles will be published in Spring 2014 by Gollancz in the UK.  John is the co-founder of Needle: A Magazine of Noir and was the active creative director until fall 2012. He has a quartet of horror stories, Fierce As The Grave, available through Amazon.com on the Kindle platform. He’s represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.  You can learn more about John Hornor Jacobs on his website, johnhornorjacobs.com, or follow his lively conversation on Twitter @johnhornor and Facebook www.facebook.com/John.Hornor

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So, you’ve heard the old saying that there are no new stories, just ten we keep rehashing over and over? I’ve always had problems with that, for some reason. It always irked me a little that someone could render all of human storytelling down to ten (or seven, or five, or three) stories. 

And then, one day, a realization smacked me with a wet hand right across the chops – those who say there are only ten stories and we’re doomed to retell them over and over, well… they’re only talking about PLOT.

Character changes everything.

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 Okay, I’ll grant you that it’s possible that most stories, novels, and movies travel down well-worn paths – ruts in a muddy road. I don’t know how much of that has to do with the fact that much of what we read through-out life has been vetted by publishing houses and all their baggage of sales figures and ROI follows like a comet’s trail behind and consequently we, the reading public, tend to get more and more stories geared toward those tropes that look to be “hot” sellers. I don’t know why much of publishing remains opaque, even to me who’s entrenched in traditional publishing. It’s just one of those things I’ve got to deal with.

I do know that there’s been, for at least a century, an effort to codify human storytelling. (Check out this Periodic Table of Storytelling – http://designthroughstorytelling.net/periodic/)

Joseph Campbell did so with his “unified theory” or monomyth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth) of the Hero’s Journey in A Hero With A Thousand Faces. Some of you are rolling your eyes at this – it’s lit 101 stuff – but Campbell is important. He’s a major keystone to the idea that humanity has got narrative earworms stuck in our collective brains. Campbell was a big fan of Jungian psychological theory – the collective unconscious and all that.

Jung, baby. You can’t use the word “collective” without accidentally brushing his ass with your hand (which is surprisingly taut, for a psychologist – and dead guy).

The Hero’s Journey went something like this – SEPARATION, INITIATION, RETURN.

A hero is called to a journey or quest and leaves his community (separation). Once away from his community of origin, he becomes an initiate into a higher power through a series of trials (think Arthur gaining Excalibur; Bilbo not finding the One Ring but finding his ability to wield Sting and his own courage; think Luke Skywalker learning the force and becoming a Jedi Knight), and then the hero RETURNS to his community to grant it a boon. Campbell’s theories have spawned at least 15.283 million essays in colleges all over the world. Of those, I probably contributed, uh, 15 or 16. I don’t know my percentage of the whole because dammit I’m an English major for crying out loud. Leave math for the frickin’ math majors, willya?

But even before Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey (I did not say “specious theory” though I thought it) Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson attempted to classify much of human oral folklore tradition into a system. Here’s a fancy sentence for you: ““the identification of folk narratives through motif and/or tale type numbers has become an international sine qua non among bona fide folklorists.”

Those two spent a lot of time collating and categorizing all of the oral myths and lore of the world into one database. The Aarne-Thompson classification system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aarne%E2%80%93Thompson_classification_system). It was comprehensive as they could make it at the time – all cultural myths, recorded tales, folklore were classified into the system. The story database. Each story-type had a number.

Dragon-slayer myth? Number 300.*

Okay, all that aside. Thing is, people want to put stuff in tidy little boxes. To stack them in Tupperware in the freezer, right next to the severed head. And I’ll statethe_shibboleth_cover here for the record that one of the reasons why humans are the top predator (and ridiculously unchallenged at that) is that we are fucking masters at codifying and organizing our existence.

Why do we do it?

Because we want to dominate. Sad but true. Understanding is power. Power wears jackboots. Jackboots stomp necks.

So, let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.

What makes a coming of age novel, or revenge drama, or epic quest fantasy different from the next?

The people – or characters – that populate its pages.

Westlake’s Parker novels (revenge and heist story forms) wouldn’t be the same without the raw, brutal presence of the main character. The Lord of the Rings would be a milquetoast quest without the down-to-earth pragmatism of Bilbo and Frodo and Sam, or the mercurial wisdom of Gandalf. Die Hard would be boring without the self-deprecating humor of John McClain.

It’s characters that make stories unique, not plot.

In that sense, there are as many new stories as there are new characters.

So, here’s the hard part. How do you write compelling characters?

I think that for everyone, writing is a different process and we all strive to find our way to discovering our own. I can say, “The best way to write a character is to make them flawed,” or “real characters come to be known through adversity” and I believe both of those things. But they might not be true for you. Or you may interpret their purpose differently for me.

My personal creed regarding writing characters (your mileage may vary) is that any character must have (1) his or her own internal voice that is compelling to me as the narrator of their tale; (2) they must be real enough, full of compelling parts of guilt, shame, kindness, aggression, love, history, etc. that they will be, if not empathetic, then interesting to read about; (3) they should be possessed with enough desires, lusts, drives that will make them careen and cavort across the literary stage of my design, i.e. have motivations.

Look! I just codified the shit out of characters! That makes me feel good.

And POWERFUL.

You might notice that there are some implied requirements of me as an author. I am their God. Yes, their God – I have created them, dredged them from my subconscious, conjured them from my imagination – but I have certain duties to them as well. Some responsibilities as their parent. We have a covenant, Moses and I. They are my people and I am their God.

What could those responsibilities be?

My responsibilities to my characters are (1) I should be fearless in the depiction of their character. This has very little to do with appearance, garb, physical description. I doubt any reader has one whit of interest as to the exact shade of red lipstick some ingénue wears – they care about her capacity for emotion and action. For love or betrayal. That is the essence of her character and consequently, the essence of that part of my own subconscious from which I conjured her.

Pretty neat trick, that.

I am a pretty, pretty woman. But I’ll cut you.

(2) I should follow them down whatever path they lead me because only then am I truly discovering my own identity as a human and a writer.

Now, you might be scratching your head thinking this is some new age bullshit – and maybe it is – but I tell you, writing is a form of self-psychoanalysis and you’re dealing with the raw energies of your psyche. You should have a little fucking respect for the energy you’re playing with. Because, truly, that energy comes from YOU and is a part of you.

(3) Try to give each character the fate he or she deserves. Because these characters are my (or your) creation, I should try to work out a story arc for each that is suitable to their promise. Each character has a fitting end – it’s my job to try to find it. Or, rather, each character has an end and an emotional resonance appropriate to said end that is necessary.

(4) Find their voices and let them speak. On a macro-level, each character has a wavelength in your brain as their creator that vibrates – thrumming in the ether – and you have to listen hard enough to convey that as best you can. On the micro-level, this might comes through dialogue and action and description and tone, but on the whole, it’s a matter of listening (considering, thinking upon, pondering) to that character and allowing giving them voice. In a way, it’s like an actor finding his character.

The-Twelve-Fingered-Boy-coverThat’s about it. I’ve done what I said I hated, codified writing characters. Boom, taking the bus to Hypocrite Town (real place in Texas). There’s a bunch of minutiae – the style, tone, diction, and the line-by-line manner in which you deal with characters (think Homer’s constant refrain of “grey-eyed Athena”) – but on the whole, you have to be brave, dig down deep, and plumb the depths of your soul** to find new characters, and then, you’ll have written a new story.

I hope this helps.

Please direct all comments and complaints to the manager of this blog.

*Supposedly, the dragon-slayer myth occurs in almost every culture. True fact. Really. I’m not making this stuff up. Well. Not all of it. 72% of it is real. I think. Maybe.

**Or you can just pull it out of your ass. Hey, your uncle Jerry would make a great model for this pedantic village alderman! Your sister is the perfect inspiration for this crabby shopkeeper! Your mom has villain written all over her.

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10 comments to John Hornor Jacobs on Character

  • sagablessed

    Dear Blog Manager,
    Please bring this contributor back. 😉

    This was an very good post. In all seriousness, John, I liked rule #4 the best, and it is how I try to give voice to my characters.

  • *laughs* Your wish is my command – John will have another post here next Monday!

  • Marlie Harris

    *clapping till my hands hurt* I love this post. My favorite quote – “I doubt any reader has one whit of interest as to the exact shade of red lipstick some ingénue wears – they care about her capacity for emotion and action. For love or betrayal.”

    I am going back to my main character in my WIP and allow her emotions and actions to explode onto the page or slip silently in between it’s sheets. We’ll see.

    Thank you, John. And thank you, Misty, for granting our request!!

    M.

  • “I doubt any reader has one whit of interest as to the exact shade of red lipstick…”

    Cosplayers. I’m just sayin’. 😉

  • What Saga said! I really like your approach to this, John. And it is refreshing to think of the uniqueness of new stories, rather than to hear that it’s all the same. Thank you!

  • John, this was priceless. I’ll be back for more.
    Hmmm.
    I might add to the *god* part.
    We are our characters’ creator gods and our characters’ *sacrifice your babies to me* gods.
    We bringeth and we taketh away.
    And it’s the taking away that is the most fun.
    Oh dear. Now what did that say about my mental processes…?

  • Razziecat

    #3 is going on my list of “stuff I need to re-read and remember.” Because it puts into words something I’ve been trying to understand. :) And oh yes, these people who live in my head came from somewhere deep inside me….as scary as that might be, for some of them. Also, THANK YOU for saying that it’s all about the characters. To me, the most unusual, best-written plot ever is nothing without compelling characters.

  • quillet

    What Saga said! Excellent post. Excellent. And I really love nos. 2 and 3. I think 2 will lead to 3, actually, if you let it.

    (PS: Am I the only one who thought of Sherlock at the mention of a severed head in the freezer? Or maybe it’s just the quote that’s been on the masthead lately……)

  • John, great to see you here. Terrific post and so, so true. Character is where it’s at. Character makes the well worn seem fresh and new and exciting. Can’t wait to see what you have in store for us next week.

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