On characters

Greetings! It’s now only a few weeks until the official release (10th November) of Human Resources on ebook, in paperback and in hardback! Please favour me and pre-order a copy. I happen to think it’s not half bad and would do a very nice job as a wonky-table prop or as a coaster.

To celebrate the release I’m going to do a series of blog-posts about different aspects of the novel; first off, here’s a little ramble about Character. In the weeks that follow I’ll write about things like plot, setting and POV – and maybe even more, depending on whether I can think of anything else. If you want me to look at anything in particular, please comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@robintriggs – not so hard, really) and I’ll see what I can do.

Big thanks to Fiona Glass – a lovely person and top class author – for the inspiration for these posts.

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Let’s get one thing straight straight off. Human Resources is the sequel to Night Shift and, as such, features some of the same characters. Primary amongst these is our point-of-view character, Anders Nordvelt.

I don’t want to go into great detail about him as you’ll all know him from the first novel. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of me in him; socially awkward, with unresolved mental health issues, an observer as much as a participant, he’s an unusual protagonist and it’s all my fault.

I never realised this at the time of writing, of course. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I never knew what I was doing.

The supporting cast of Night Shift – those that survived – make their reappearances in Human Resources. They are, however, joined by a new cast of characters that all bring their own neuroses, obsessions and paranoias.

The story revolves around the growth of the isolated mining base from the first novel into a city and the problems that brings. Thus we have an Executive Committee that have their own motives; a new security service – headed by Anders – that are trying to work out how to enforce laws never tested in the field; and a population of immigrant labourers, not all of whom want to be in Antarctica in the first place.

How do I come up with my characters? In a variety of different ways. Some, like the executive committee, came in the initial worldbuilding prep – I knew I needed a ‘ruling class’ and thus there had to be people to occupy these roles. Others, like my own personal favourite, Sergeant Bartelli, came more spur-of-the-moment: I needed a policeman and he arrived more-or-less fully-formed in my head just in time to fill the role I’d created.

Then there’s the in-between characters like Shakil Mithu, unwilling immigrant and rebel leader. He’s a big personality and prime suspect in the murder of… but I don’t want to give too much away. For now let me just say that he’s an example of a character that I had to come up with before setting pen to paper; he’s a plot-character, integral to the story. But he didn’t really come alive until I reached him in the story and had circumstances and other characters for him to play off.

Most characters arrived before or during the first draft, and stayed fairly constant. Others were created – or at least significantly retooled – in the editing. Sergeant Nascimento was a late arrival, whilst Engineer Prashad and Professor Holloway both underwent significant revision in later drafts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have no set way of creating characters for a novel. I don’t sit down and draft in-depth character sheets for everyone; I don’t have everyone set before I put pen to paper for the first time. Some key figures I have pre-prepped but it’s often the ones who take me by surprise, who come from somewhere deep in the subconscious, that I end up falling furthest for. Yet others take work and require multiple drafts before they ‘fit’ properly.

Human Resources is a combination of all of these and it took time for me to get it right. For me the genius is in the editing, not in the first-drafting.

I’m always more interested in the Everyman rather than superheroes, the sidekick more than the main event. I like the underdog and favour the dogged rather than the inspired and the influence of film noir over me has far exceeded the amount I’ve actually seen.

Valentin Demchenko

That gives me free rein to create a cast of flawed and – hopefully – realistic characters.

Next week – Plot!              

I invented the Wii

I invented the Wii.

Alright, that’s not entirely true. But I did come up with something surprisingly similar in Chivalry a year or two before the console was released. I also predicted the London riots. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the concept of geostationary orbit.

Yes, we live in interesting times. Technology is developing so quickly that it seems like some idle thought that might make a cute idea for a story is suddenly there on the high street a month or so later. It’s annoying: we missed the moment. What might have been visionary had we been published just a little earlier is now old hat.  No point getting wound up about it. It’s just the way of the world.

But this is an amazing age. It seems as if there never have been so many possible futures. The Cold War paranoia of the 1950s and 60s, that inspired so many seminal authors, has been replaced with a general uncertainty. Are we heading for Utopia or for dystopia? The fear of mutually assured destruction has diminished somewhat and has been replaced by so many questions. Now the villain’s not the Soviets but the planet itself.

All this is fantastic for authors. Never has there been so much inspiration all around. It makes for hard work, of course – all the probability paths, stretching out ahead of us: which do we chose? Which are dead ends? But it’s hard for a writer of speculative fiction to go on the internet or switch on the news and not see something to play with.

How will social media develop in the future? Will we need to leave our homes again? Will military drones and spy-planes become the robotic killers we all fear, or will they be remotely controlled by humans? Either way there are stories there. How will technology affect development, both individually and as a society?

Buggered if I know. But it’s good fun to speculate, even better to take one of these threads and run with it and create your own personal future. Which is, in essence, all that science-fiction is. The only rule is that you have to be consistent within the world you’ve built.

I reckon it’s pretty clear that, just like the classic 50s sci-fi, a lot of the societies created by modern authors will be proved to be ‘wrong’. Remember all the robots that we though would be strolling around today? The underground cities of Asimov? The post-nuclear wasteland that was all that was left of the old world? My favourite ‘error’ of those novels was the way that everyone, every single person, smoked cigarettes – even in worlds set some three hundred years in the future.

Of course, this doesn’t make 50s science-fiction any less memorable and enjoyable. Science-fiction (and, for once, I am including my preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ here) is perhaps the most philosophical of genres. The whole point is to create an imagined future, and that, almost by definition, involves a philosophical viewpoint. And that view almost always reflects to society in which it was written. Thus the McCarthyite terror of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Of course, it’s much, much harder to see these themes at the time. We need hindsight to provide perspective, to filter out the ‘noise’ of other genres and of the many, many exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps the 10s (I assume that’s what we’ll call this decade; I’ve not actually heard anyone use it yet) will prove to be the era without a theme. Perhaps there are just so many possibilities that we end up with a spaghetti-plate of twisting ideas that defy classification. Perhaps the ‘theme’ will be a lack of unification, just a plethora of different thoughts without any sort of commonality. Or maybe we’ll see an age that responds to global austerity by producing a weight of dystopian hells. Or the opposite as we imagine a better world ahead.

As for me, it’s too early in my career to really self-analyse. If there is a common thread in my writing, then I guess it’s one of the ‘odd man out’; and that in itself is influenced by the culture of the 1950s. Not science fiction, but film noir. I’ve never really got on with the perfect protagonist. It’s the Everyman who fascinates me; the idea that it could be you. That anyone can affect the world if thrust into the right (or wrong) situation.

Maybe that’s a reflection of my own subconscious desire to be special, to be different. Am I just revealing my own insecurities through my writing? No idea. I wonder if all this musing, this self-reflective whimsy, is part of what makes me a writer. It’s all what if..? what if…? what if..?

And there’s no better starting point for a story.