Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ender's Game and character building

Ender's Game and the subsequent books were important to me, not just as a smart, alienated teenager, but as a writer. The second point is less trodden into the ground, so let's go with that.

Han Qing-jao of the novel Xenocide was one of the only reasons I enjoyed that particular installment in the series. She's part of the nobility of the planet Path, a Chinese-inspired culture where nobility and meritocracy are comingled by means of genetic programming. The nobility of Path are known as the 'godspoken,' because along with brilliance, they are 'gifted' with crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that is understood as service to the gods.

In Xenocide, this was done deliberately by the government as a means of controlling their geniuses.

It was the first time I really noticed that many totalitarian shadow regimes - sometimes know as authors - cripple their characters in this way. Not all of them, and many times in novels starring primarily adults it's backstory and not current concern, but enough that I have a long and thorough and distressing list.

I understand part of the motivation for crippling characters. We want to want to write characters readers will want to connect to emotionally, because nothing's quite as satisfying as being told someone cried at something you wrote. A lot of the time, we do that by trying to create characters readers will not necessarily fall in love with, but will identify with.

Sometimes - often - this involves taking extraordinary characters and giving them quite notable flaws to make them seem more 'human.' Crippling flaws, usually. In the Enderverse, this is mostly shown through smart people having really, really awful lives. Like Ender, perpetually guilt-ridden over his xenocide. Like Virlomi, who's smart enough to set herself up as a religious figure for political power, and stupid enough to get caught up in her own hype and therefore totally useless. Like Bean, the most brilliant character in the series and so also with a genetic condition like severe giantism, which will cause his body to break down and eventually kill him horribly. And like Qing-jao, slave to her own brain.

The flaws are supposed to make them feel closer to hand, partly because real people go through things that suck, too, but partly - and this is the important bit - because writers want to make being spectacular in some highly visible way seem as if it has a price attached. Making people reading political space adventures and also wars feel better about not proceeding to start a religion or contribute to a new world order or discovering a new life form (and then going crazy, but we don't talk about that) encourages complacency.

Speculative fiction is about reaching out and exploring, and that shouldn't be just an authorial privilege. Remarkable characters don't have to be horribly flawed to be relatable, and achievement on a large scale doesn't have to be made out as sin or suffering.

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