Today’s post is my third inspired by Orson Scott Card’s book Characters & Viewpoint. As I’ve said in my other two posts, this is a fantastic book. Highly recommended for fiction writers.
In chapter five Card asks the question, “What kind of story are you telling?” He then categorizes various stories with what he calls “The MICE quotient.” Here’s a quote from Card:
“It is a mistake to think that “good characterization” is the same thing in every work of fiction. Different kinds of stories require different kinds of characters.
But what are the different kinds of stories? Forget about publishing genres… Instead we’ll look at four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. It is the balance among these factors that determines what sort of characterization a story must have, should have, or can have.”
The four factors make up the acronym MICE.
M – Milieu stories
I – Idea stories
C – Character stories
E – Event stories
Card then contends that usually a given story will feature one of these elements more heavily than others, and that Character stories are the dominant type of story in our culture today.
I’m not going to explain all four factors here (you really should read the book!), but rather I’ll focus on one factor: Milieu.
A while back I mentioned on this blog that I’m reading through Orson Scott Card’s book, “Characters and Viewpoint.” It’s a fantastic read. I’m taking my time with it and really trying to absorb all of the ideas. (If you’re a fiction writer, I highly recommend getting a hold of a copy.)
I was reading it today and he touched on a subject that I’ve debated with numerous writers before: Should we write popular fiction? Is there really merit in that? Worse still, is it okay to write “just to make money” and please people? If someone does, are they bad writers or bad for doing it?
Here’s a quote from Card’s book, chapter two:
“Our objective as storytellers and writers isn’t to make money – there are faster and easier ways of doing that. Our objective is to change people by putting our stories in their memory; to make the world better by bringing other people face-to-face with reality, or giving them a vision of hope, or whatever other form our truth telling might take. You want the widest possible audience to receive this message; when you use your best skills to open up your story to other readers, you aren’t “pandering to the masses,” you’re freely giving your best gifts. If your stories happen to reach a very wide audience then yes, money will come. But it isn’t the money that makes the work worth doing; too many of us make too little for that to be the motive that pulls us along.”
Well said, Mr. Card.
I recently finished reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It’s the first of his novels that I’ve read (and it has been on my ‘to-read’ list for ages). It is Card’s break out book, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. He has since published a series of books featuring the character “Ender” (a nickname for Andrew) as well as a number of other series.
Ender’s Game is part Harry Potter, part Hunger Games, and part Tron. Though, it’s fair to say that all of those stories borrowed from Ender rather than the other way around. The earliest copyright date listed in my edition is 1977, so Card’s book preceded the stories I just listed by more than a few years.
Ender Wiggin lives in a future earth in which families are allowed to have only two children a piece. Third children, like Ender, are permissible only by the government, and only if they need them as soldiers. Ender is a social outcast (a “third,” which is a bad thing) but unusually brilliant. At a young age he’s taken by the government to Battle School and trained as a soldier. The human race had faced near extinction against the Buggers (a giant insect-like race that wanted to invade the planet) in recent history. Though the Buggers were defeated there is still a threat that they might one day return. The government is therefore proactive in its search for new military leaders and Ender is one of their best candidates.
Most of the book takes place in the Battle School. We see Ender grow up a few years while he’s there. He experiences some of the normal “coming of age” trials that you might expect, but it’s all set against the backdrop of a boot camp-like military school for kids. Unlike The Hunger Games these kids aren’t fighting to their deaths. They use video games and a simulation room for their practice battles. (This room is something like the Star Trek “holo deck” or the “Danger Room” from X-Men comic books.) I was glad it wasn’t a book about kids killing other kids. (That was one thing about the The Hunger Games that just didn’t sit well with me.)
This week I started reading Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. After thumbing through it in a Barnes and Noble for twenty minutes, and then later reading reviews on Amazon about it, and then again going back to Barnes and Noble to do more thumbing I finally decided to invest. It looks like a fantastic book that will challenge me to think deeply about the characters I’m creating. I plan to read this book slowly. I want all of Card’s wisdom to seep in deeply.
Chapter 1 contains a quote on the first page that made me excited to be a fiction writer:
“That part of what fiction is for – to give better understanding of human nature and human behavior than anyone can ever get in life.”
The rest of chapter 1 answers the question: What is a character? I didn’t even finish reading the whole chapter before I put the book down and started jotting notes about the protagonists in two stories I’m working on know. Here’s Card’s list from chapter 1, along with some quotes from the book to help explain the idea.
A character is:
- What he/she does – “People become, in our minds, what we see them do.”
- Someone with motive – “Motive is what gives moral value to a character’s acts….A character is what he does, ye – but even more, a character is what he means to do.”
- Someone with a past – “People are what they have done, and what has been done to them.”
- Someone with a reputation – “Whether his reputation is deserved or not, however, it must be taken into account. Part of a character’s identity is what others say about him.”
- Someone who is stereotyped by others, and someone who may themselves have stereotypes of others – “As storytellers we can’t stop our readers from making stereotype judgments. In fact, we count on them. … That’s part of the poser of stereotypes – they set up expectations so you can surprise your reader.”
- Someone who has a network of relationships (i.e. our characters will talk to their spouses differently than they talk to their co-workers, or the cashier at the bank) – “One of the most startling and effective devices in fiction [is] to take characters out of one setting and put them in another, where different facets of their personality come to the fore.”
- Someone with habits and patterns – “Habits not only make the character more realistic, but also open up story possibilities.”
- Someone with talents and abilities – “Your readers will also perk up when a fictional character turns out to be unusually good at something.”
- Someone with tastes and preferences – “Real people have preferences, and so should fictional characters. Not only do such tastes help the reader feel like he knows the character better, they also open up possibilities within the story.”
- Someone with a unique physical description – “A person’s body is certainly an important part of who he is … [but] … Far too many writers – especially beginners – think that a physical description of a character is characterization.”
Case Study: Rose Miersma
Rose is the main character in a short story I’m working on currently. I call her a “main character” because I’m not sure yet if she’s a hero or a villain and calling her a “protagonist” seems to heroic. I’ve decided to take the above bullet points and try to define each one of them for Rose.