When Characters Take The Wheel

by Marko Kloos

I don’t usually dispense advice about writing. That’s because I know that every writer’s process is different, and I have barely figured out what works for me. That said, the subject will come up on occasion on Twitter or from audience questions at convention panels, and the questions from fans and new writers tend to be the same.

One of the recurring discussions concerns the relationship between character and plot. Which of those is more important to a good story? The smart-ass, reflexive answer is “both”, of course–the perfect book has deep, compelling characters and a superbly intricate, original, and compelling plot.

That said, sometimes you have to come off the fence on one side or the other, and on this subject I have to side with “character”. For me, an interesting and well-crafted character will carry me through a novel with a middling plot, but the reverse is not true–if I don’t give a hoot about the cardboard protagonist and his friends from central fiction trope casting, the most intricate plot in the world will not save the book for me. I like it when a character drives the plot, not when the plot holds the character by the marionette strings and makes them do what they do because the plot demands it.

This is the Wild Cards blog, so you probably suspected I would tie this subject into the Wild Cards world. (If so, your suspicion was absolutely correct.) When I write my own SF series, I come up with a general plot first, and then I chart a course for my established characters to navigate the waypoints they have to hit to make the general plot work. Sometimes they want to take detours and not listen to the GPS, and the plot wanders a bit off the original outline, but that’s why I don’t plot in intricate detail ahead of time because it feels too much like putting a straitjacket onto my characters. I know where I want to start, I know roughly how it needs to end, and I know the waypoints they have to pass along the way, the tentpole events of the plot.

When I started writing for Wild Cards, however, I found that something was different about the way I approached coming up with the stories. 

It all started with my first Wild Cards character, Khan. He’s a fun guy to write. His Wild Card turned him into a 300-pound half-tiger. He has claws, teeth, feline senses and reflexes, and great physical strength. He’s the perfect photogenic bruiser. But I didn’t want to turn him into yet another brooding bad-ass like, say, Wolverine or Batman. In order to not be a trope, Khan had to have a different background. So I made the pre-mutation Khan a scrawny kid named Samir from a rough neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, the son of a Punjabi shopkeeper and a Polish mother. Young Samir has an abusive father and a sister that he adores, and the event that triggers the turning of his card and eventually shapes him into Khan occurs when his father puts a beating on Samir’s sister for the first time.

It’s a general idea in the Wild Cards world that the mutations that manifest themselves in an afflicted individual (if you’re lucky enough to draw an ace or a joker instead of a Black Queen) are somehow tied to the subconscious of the afflicted. So with Khan, my template was a nerdy, scrawny, bullied, and regularly abused bookworm who loves his little sister more than anyone else in the world. When George signed off on the character and he became officially a part of the canon, I had to find something exciting for him to do. For the first time, I had a character before I had a plot. So I thought about what kind of story would be interesting to tell from his perspective. What do you do in the world when you turn from a skinny, bullied kid who loves books into someone who can lift a metric ton and beat up a cage full of MMA fighters without getting your heart rate up above “light jog to the mailbox” rate?

Some people would abuse their new powers, pay back their bullies, get into all sorts of trouble with the law, or seek fame and status. But the core of Khan’s personality was still little Samir, who knows exactly what it feels like when you get cornered in an alleyway by bigger and stronger boys and beaten up over the few bucks you were going to spend on candy and a comic book at the corner bodega. But he’s also a human being and a young adult when the change into Khan is complete, and he wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to turn his new abilities into money and leave-me-alone status somehow. So I had him go to work for his uncle, who has friends in the Polish mob who always have use for dependable hired muscle. A guy with Khan’s abilities will make his mark quickly, and because he looks flashy, he graduates from being a mob bodyguard to being photogenic security for celebrities and high rollers. But because of his personal sense of ethics, he has his own code, a dislike of abusers and bullies, so there are things that he just won’t do for money. He’ll carve up a room full of bad guys if they try to harm his client even if the client is a bit of a shitbag and probably deserves it, but Khan won’t harm someone who is defenseless or undeserving. So Samir took his new powers, became a high-paid mob and celebrity bodyguard, and his story just kind of unfolded from this confluence of ability and character. The character took charge of the stories I told about him and bent the narrative in ways that were consistent with his nature.

For my next Wild Cards character, Archimedes (who appears in our first British volume, KNAVES OVER QUEENS), I set out to intentionally create an anti-Khan. Rory Campbell is everything Khan isn’t. He’s quiet, kind of boring, physically unimposing, and his Wild Cards power is very utilitarian and un-sexy. (He can direct EMP energy and disable or destroy anything with electronics in it.) His talent doesn’t make for good Superhero Weekly photo spreads, but it’s militarily useful, so the Royal Navy commissions him as a force multiplier. Luck would have it that he goes off to the Falkland Islands on his very first assignment, where he helps to influence the outcome of the conflict.

And the same thing happened with Rory/Archimedes–his background informed the way I told his story. He’s the sort of guy who just wants to do his job quietly and then retire to a small cottage and collect stamps, and I had him tromping across the Falklands in a shooting war with the SAS and the Royal Marines, a situation that is completely unnatural for him. He’s not a fighter, he doesn’t relish conflict, but he wants to contribute and save lives, and the way the story pans out is more of a reflection on the experience of war and the effects it has on the minds of the people who are ordered to fight. His story has a very different tone and flavor than it would have if I had put Khan in his shoes. Once again, the character decided how to bend the plot based on the background I had given him.

Cover graphic for story by Markos\ Kloos: Woman juggling Spheres

Then there’s T.K., the teenage protagonist featured in the Wild Cards novelette “How To Move Spheres And Influence People” on Tor.com. She was sort of a one-off because her character just popped into my head one day and wouldn’t leave me alone until I had written her story, and it was one of those rare and magical moments when the character practically takes over the keyboard and writes her own tale. Her origin somewhat mirrors that of Khan, but only in the broadest strokes. She’s a teenager from a privileged background with a physical disability who discovers one day that she has an amazing new power that vaults her from the sort of second-class human status her snooty classmates have assigned her to a globally known superhero. And again, her background informs the plot and bends it in ways that shape around the character, not the other way around.

That’s what makes the Wild Cards world so much fun, and that’s why I enjoy writing stories in it: it’s heavily character-driven by design. We set up a scenario or event, and then half a dozen Wild Cards writers or more take a stab at it and bring different perspectives to the event, their characters reacting in different ways and looking at the picture through a specific lens, then making use of their unique abilities to address the problem in a way that’s consistent with their personalities. Turns out that not only does character drives plot, when everything goes right (and you got lucky with imagining your fictional friends), character creates plot.