Hippoi Athanatoi

WorldCon: Day 2 - Part 1

We settled into bed for approximately 7 hours of sleep and woke up feeling rather refreshed. I was in the shower when the fire alarm went off, which was annoying. It was obvious that it was a false alarm, and Linda didn’t feel like going out into the chilly Glaswegian morning in sleeping clothes, so I just trundled down by myself. I saw SKD chatting with Sophelia, and Caress of Cersei showed up as well. She had had only four hours of sleep—the party had continued until 3 or 4 in the morning— and said that the exact same thing had happened the previous morning. I grumbled about people not knowing how to keep their breakfast from being burned, and eventually we were let back up. Later a manager went up to sternly tell us that Linda should have gone downstairs. Understandable, but very annoying—we could smell the burned whatever on our floor, and saw no great reason to worry more about a non-existent fire than the possibility of catching a cold. Oh well. After this we determined to get up by 7-ish each day to make sure that we managed to be fully dressed in case another breakfast fire alarm happened (it didn’t, and it seems in retrospect that it took a little away from our ability to stay up to the wee hours).

We went to the Hilton and took in our first panel, “Creating a Character for the Screen or the Page”, at 1:00 PM. David Gerrold was scheduled but could not make it. This left George, Lauren McLaughlin (who, like George, has worked in Hollywood and published fiction), and moderator Craig Miller (involved in the entertainment industry since 1976, and wrote the on-going children’s program Pocket Dragon Adventures which ran in the U.K. until recently). In introducing himself, George said that he had spent “10 years in Hollywood, for my sins,” which got a laugh. At the outset, George said that he believed that there was no distinction to be made between creating a character for screen or page—a character is a character. Yes, the mediums can bring different means of looking at characters—fiction can be much more internal than film (because things like narration are frowned upon as old-fashioned)—but the process is essentially the same. While actors (and, presumably, directors) can contribute to how that character appears in the final product, it’s the screenwriter who lays it out.

Lauren disagreed somewhat, saying that to her a screenplay and the characters who populate them are really bare bones blueprints. My understanding of this was that the characters were, in some sense, notional for the initial writer—so much is done on set to fill those characters out, by the writer(s), actors, director, etc.—but I may have misunderstood the point. GRRM did not agree, saying that in his experience he approached writing characters for both mediums in the exact same way; he understood that others would flesh it out in their own way, but he had a distinct notion of what his characters were supposed to be like when he created them.

At some point after this, Lauren made the statement that to her, “Character is story. Character is crisis.” It’s in a moment of crisis that one’s true personality can come out. That’s why films (and novels) are concerned much more with extraordinary events than the mundane, day-to-day doings of people. George, I think, expanded on this by talking about how characters that are memorable are not deep but broadly drawn. This allows the reader/viewer to project onto them the qualities they desire, because there’s nothing to contradict them. According to GRRM, in the ultimate analysis we are all sort of the same—and that’s not interesting. “Real” characters aren’t memorable, because they’re just us—but a character like Sherlock Holmes or Superman, who’s an inch thick but pushed to an extreme, captivates the audience. A member of the audience argued that, in fact, Dr. Watson was the primary character of the Holmes story. George said that while it was true we hear much more of Watson’s thoughts and views, since he’s the narrator, they’re not called the “Doctor Watson” stories. This is also where “pointed” versus “rounded” characters were discussed.

I believe this is also where George went on to the familiar point about characters who just sparked fan interest, for no obvious good reason except that they were cool. He gave his anecdote about The Howler (Wild Cards) who was created with the specific purpose of being killed off into the series, and who never had more than one line, but had a fan club. Why? No idea. Boba Fett was brought up in this context, and George mentioned that Tytos Blackwood was one character fans kept asking about, probably just because of his yellow armor and raven feather cloak.

Craig Miller discussed the way plot and character intersect. He cited Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones shows up on a cliff with a bazooka and threatens to blow up the Ark if Belloq did not hand over Marion. The Nazis were prepared to do this, until Belloq said that he knew what sort of man Jones was, because they were the same—they were only passing through history, but the Ark was history. Now, that’s where character and plot intersect—imagine if it was Indiana Schwarzenegger, and you’d have had a very different movie simply because of what different character facets may bring to a story.

George was asked about the process of creating characters for Beauty and the Beast, specifically why Father seemed so much more interesting than Vincent. He explained that Vincent didn’t have a lot of experiences in his life—because of his appearance—and while they did try to fill him out more later in the series, he was what he was. Father, however, had had a life above ground and had many things happen to him, which they were able to hint at here and there, which gave him a fuller and more “lived-in” appearance as a character.

George also mentioned at some point that he had 19 POV characters right now (we are assuming this is counting A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons together) in the course of discussion.  Around here, I believe someone in the audience suggested that the panel hadn’t been about what they expected—it didn’t get into the nitty-gritty details of how you developed and created a character—so the panelists tried to oblige her. Craig stated that characters required something familiar for people to identify with, after an audience member asked about how you create characters people will be interested in. George expanded, saying that characters and their viewpoint is something you draw from all sorts of sources—you draw from history, friends, public figures, and so on. But most importantly, you draw from yourself: ” Not to get too existential, but the only person you really know is yourself.” Everyone experiences the world through their own eyes, and his perspective of the panel was different from Craig’s which was different from someone in the audience and so on. So keep in mind how a character’s personality affects how they see the world and how they respond to it.

Thomas Covenant was briefly brought up. Craig Miller hated it and gave up after 100 pages. I’ve heard a report that George said he hated Covenant, which may be true, but I didn’t get the sense that this meant he hated the series. Certainly, he seems to have read it all. In any case, Covenant was briefly discussed, and my own impression was that of the panelists, George was the one defending it. Heh. Linda (go her!) actually brought up the point that she feels that a lot of readers felt as Craig did because of their expectations, which Donaldson refused to meet—when you read a story about a present day character pushed into a fantasy world, the reader expects to be able to identify with them because, with roles reversed, of course they’d save the world and get the princess, etc. But Covenant refused to do that—he could not let himself believe what was happening, for fear of his life.

The final point I have regards whether characters ever get away from a writer and demand attention. George said it does happen that characters stand up and cry out for attention, but he tries to smack them down (chuckles followed that). He admits he can sometimes get too interested in his characters, because he always remembers that each character is the hero of his or her own story.  He does try to think of little details for even the most minor of characters—for example, a guard whose feet are killing him—just to give that sense that there’s more to them than there really is. The panel wrapped up after this, although Linda and I hung around to chat with George a little. We mentioned to him that we thought Catelyn was a character of his whom people often complained about because of how “real” she seemed to be—she had many facets, some good and some negative. In conjunction, Linda brought up how Sansa was often accused of whining because of her unhappiness. GRRM was actually pretty strong in his rebuttal—it seems he hears this often—by saying that he considers whining to be purely verbal. A character can’t whine to themselves—they can only whine to others. Does Catelyn think a lot of dark and unhappy thoughts? Yes. But if she doesn’t verbalize them—which she doesn’t—then she doesn’t whine. A lot of people have problems in their lives which they don’t share with anyone else, yet no one calls them whiners. He feels readers should try to keep in mind that internal monologue and external dialog can be two very different things, and that the nature of that difference can be very illuminating regarding a character.

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