Feb 05 2010

Characterization discussion: Internal Logic

Published by at 2:47 am under callie,characterization,steve,Writing

(crossposted from Words Words Words)

Among the many and ongoing interesting discussions at our home, we’ve been talking about the concept we’re calling “internal logic” for a character. Internal logic here means that, among other things: an action that to an outside observer appears irrational, wrong, or evil, from the internal viewpoint of the character will be a justified, logical, and right action to make. It’s a useful thing to examine for most characters, but especially helpful in creating believable antagonists in a story.

Tolkien got around the need to deeply explore this by creating a world where evil really did exist, and some creatures did things because they were bad evil things to do. In this sort of scenario, you don’t have to worry too much about internal consistency for a antagonist’s actions as long as you have the formula “evil is good”. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s many imitators have generally not done as well as he did, and these days most people who encounter the Evil Overlord stereotype are likely to assign a label of “campy” “trite” or “overdone” to whichever story has the latest iteration of the trope.

Another loophole to spending a lot of time with discovering a character’s internal logic is the “Rendezvous with Rama” effect. For those of you who haven’t read or don’t remember the original story *spoiler alert skip to the next paragraph* an alien ship passes through our solar system, refuels from our sun, and departs. We send a ship out from Earth to explore the large alien ship, see lots of really interesting things, and learn nothing much about the aliens who created the ship. It’s the ultimate story in creating aliens with very alien motives that have little to nothing to do with humans except in passing.*end of spoilers*

Similarly, in Steve’s book Issola, the Jenoine are massively powerful and very alien, doing things that from the view of both the reader and the characters are hard to understand. Since that’s rather the point, we don’t really need to understand further about the Jenoine’s internal viewpoint.

With both of these examples, the unfathomability is the point of both the alien ship and the Jenoine. With characters that come closer to human-like actions and understandings, internal logic considerations become more of a factor. The world from the outside-looking-in and the inside-looking-out are often far different for people, and even for non-POV characters you might need to know something about their internal motivations. So how do you depict this?

One of my own characters tends to organize their environment in ways that to my first impressions seem counter-intuitive. It’s not a way that I would organize things, and sometimes doesn’t seem to make logical sense from my perspective. However, when I ask myself “why would [said character] arrange their things in that way?” I nearly always have an answer that comes to mind that makes sense from the viewpoint and life experiences of the character. Even if the internal explanation for the room arrangement doesn’t make it directly onto the written page, the fact that I as the writer understand why the character does a certain thing means that it’s more likely to reflect that knowledge in little bits of characterization throughout the story that will bring that understanding to the reader.

Read the rest of the entry where Steve shares his thoughts over on our household blog, Words Words Words. You can comment either here or there.

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