Saturday, October 20, 2012

Killing off a character and genre requirements.

Is there a right way or a wrong way to kill off a character? One of the great moral questions of the ages.

Of course not. When John Wayne dies at the end of ‘Cowboys,’ or when we discover that Bruce Willis has been dead right from the start, (“I see dead people…” –Haley Joel Osmont,) as in ‘Sixth Sense,’ in my opinion that was exactly the right thing to do from the plot’s perspective.

…and how the writer dealt with it was sheer genius.

Not every story needs to have a recently-deceased protag, and in the western genre in general, a living protagonist is preferable. It leads to a more romantic conclusion, and it allows for justice to be dealt to the antagonist. You need someone to ride off into the sunset. You need what the Navy calls ‘a warm body.’ Almost anyone will do. They just have to be awake and able to sit a horse.

The real question, I think, is in how many genre requirements we might successfully dispense with. In a romance, could a person be in love with a ghost? I would have to say yes, and in fact I seem to recall that it’s been done before. Do they have to be in love? Must they kiss at some point in the book? A romance where no one loved or pined for someone would be a pretty hard sell. I think it might be universally reviled. Love, or ‘romance,’ a word much misunderstood by males in a general sense, is the real protagonist in a romance. The characters are pretty symbolic in a Freudian way. They are plastic figures in a doll house, limited only by the imagination of the child playing with them. But certain things are expected of them by the readers.

In writing history, could we dispense with certain facts? I would have to say yes, as in ‘Heaven Is Too Far Away,’ I basically took known history and personalized it. Tucker is a fictional character. He has a lot of opinions, but couldn’t possibly have known much of what he states in the memoir except from the perspective of hindsight. It’s just another way of telling the story, or rather a story, of WW I, and what it ultimately did to a lot of people who otherwise started off in a kind of innocence. Can a WW I book be about innocence? Yeah, in some small way it can. Of course, in a much larger way it is about the loss of that innocence. There is a big dose of cynicism running through that book. That cynicism is the result of Tucker’s experiences at a young and impressionable age. Don’t forget he comes from a certain specific background. In a very human way, his experiences are unique.

In my books and stories I have killed off characters by means of bombs, rockets, missiles, machine guns, small arms, grenades, knives, swords, bows and arrows, giant mutant salamanders, they’ve been killed by guillotine and by disemboweling…the list goes on but my mind wanders. On the plus side, they seem to fall in love a lot. Some of them have quite a few friends and family. They care about each other for one reason or another. In spite of what’s been said above, I’m fairly gentle with characters—I’ve seen worse. What we write says a lot about us, that’s for sure. Fiction is a condensation of our views on the world, isn’t it? It’s a different way of saying things that maybe need to be said.

The most interesting characters are the ones that develop into someone different over the course of a story. I find the novel a lot easier to do that with. There’s simply more room inside of it. It really doesn’t matter what the genre is. A protagonist will always be challenged, irrespective of genre. The writer will also be challenged, no matter what the genre. It’s part of the game.

Lest this become all too generalized in terms of the typical blog post, let me also say that science fiction as a genre is about more than just ‘the literature of ideas.’

Science fiction should and must ask the great hypothetical moral questions. We should be the first ones doing that, if it is our job to look at society and technology and to try to extrapolate what might be just around the corner.

Here’s a quick example. Let us assume that some little girl born in our lifetimes will live forever. Let us also assume that she is just the first, and that whatever treatment she had will over time become available to the vast majority of humans. After three generations, the last of the untreated, surely the most miserable of humankind down through the ages, for they at least will know that they could have been saved, (except it was just too expensive, or it came slightly too late,) will die off. They will all be gone, and everyone born after that will be essentially immortal barring accident, murder, suicide, or war.

Let us assume as a baseline moral premise that abortion is immoral and that the use of condoms is immoral under any and all circumstances. This is not a moral question. It is a moral conclusion, one drawn or held by fairly large numbers of people.

Would family planning or any form of contraception, however we might choose to define it or what we might include in the category, still be immoral under the new set of human circumstances?

To kill someone, is to take the remainder of their lives, one assumption might be that an immortal life has more ‘intrinsic value,’ for want of a better term, than a life of a mere seventy or eighty years.

Which is worse, i.e., less moral?

Should we outlaw birth control and abortion, and simply dispose of excess humanity by warring over matters of speculative theological opinion? Should we try to maintain stable population numbers, barely fluctuating statistically, in order to manage societal resources? The questions are tougher to answer than to formulate. An immortal world is one where all moral questions have to be asked again.

Another genre requirement for science fiction is some discernable scientific extrapolation. This is considered to be near term, as what the world might look like in five thousand years is considered by some to be inconceivable.

If I want to keep writing science fiction, then I had better start asking some tough questions. It’s a requirement of the genre—like love in a romance, or ‘justice’ in a western.

Other than that, I shall answer all of your questions for fifty cents. (Each.)

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