Characters Through the Ages (Well, through 70 Years)

I hope you are all well!

This week has been madness! As you know I’m a 6th grade English teacher. My school was on spring break. It got extended this week, but teachers were required to work from home. Wednesday we started to get information. Thursday we began frantically redesigning our lesson to go online and we started to contact parents. We spent hours and hours in various video calls to plan. It is now Saturday and I’m still working…all day. I’m sure you all are experiencing something like this too.

Because of all this madness, I knew yesterday was Friday, but didn’t make the connection that it was FRIDAY, the day I usually release my blog post. I had the post written; it just needed one more round of edits. So now you have it. I hope you enjoy this weird little post of my rambling observations.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s Series

When I was young, my mother didn’t care much about what I read, as long as I read something. She allowed me to read any of the books on her shelves. Because of this I read some books written long before I was born. I read a lot of authors who were big into women’s liberty and helped form my belief systems. I discovered amazing authors like Kathrine Kurtz (The Adept Series) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon and The Darkover Series) and Anne McCaffery (Dragon Riders of Pern). Unfortunately, I didn’t discover Ursula K. LeGuin (Wizard of EarthSea) until I was in my 20s.

Many of these authors are gone now, but they were masters at the craft and we can still learn a lot from them.

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Characters Through the Ages

Don’t worry. I’m not going to give you a giant history lesson. Just a small one, based on my reading experience. A few years ago, some friends of mine recommended that I read Caves of Steel and the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov. I knew that Asimov was an “old dude” when I was a kid even. I was reluctant to read them because of that, but I also knew he was the king of science fiction. I figured he had been proclaimed king for a reason. So I started with Caves of Steel.

I read it like a person starved of literature! I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed this story written in 1953. Yet it was so different from everything else I read. Then I went on to The Foundation Series (1951) and found it just as fascinating. Asimov was a master at writing. So now, I was on this kick. Next was Dune by Frank Herbert, and I, Robot by Asimov (No not the movie, the series of stories, which are only loosely based on the stories).

What I noticed about Asimov’s stories is that they are primarily Idea-based, not Character-based. I’m talking about the M.I.C.E. Quotient.

What is the M.I.C.E. Quotient?

Milieu- Story is centered on the setting.
Idea- Story is centered on an idea or a question. The story explores a What if scenario.
Character- Story is centered on a character and their growth over the course of the story.
Event- Story is centered on an event that disrupted the status quo in the lives of the characters.
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Even today many Science Fiction Novels are Idea-based stories, but will often have a Character Arc layer too. Asimov’s Foundation stories were pure Idea and Milieu. The main characters were merely lenses by which you could see his stories.

His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times on the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circled a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.

Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.

Gaal had waited for the first of those jumps with a little dread curled gently in his stomach, and it ended in nothing more than a trifling jar, a little internal kick which ceased an instant before he could be sure he had felt it. That was all.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov p. 1

All we know about Gaal is that he is a country boy and a scholar. I’ll admit that is an interesting juxtaposition, but we get little of the boy’s desires that would create a character arc. After the first section, he becomes nothing more than history.

The whole series had me in its grip the whole way. His idea explored in this series was vast and brilliant!

I love that his writing is so clear and so lacking in fluff. It makes the reading fast and enjoyable.

The man was a genius, literally. He wrote non-fiction books in every section of the Dewey System except one.

Today’s stories are almost all character-based. They might have Idea elements but they almost always contain a character arc. Not many of us are as brilliant as people like Asimov to write a story based on such a compelling idea as his, but we authors tend to understand people and relationships quite well. This is merely a different way to connect with the reader through our writing. It happens to be my favorite kind of story.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote character-based stories in 1968. The stories also explored ideas, as she did in The Left Hand of Darkness. This story is based on a society that was gender-fluid. I’ve not read this one yet but it is on my TBR because everything she wrote was amazing. I think this one was a character-based story because it is about the main character learning to deal with the culture clash of his society with the alien one. I’m curious to see if “gender-fluid” had the same meaning back when it was written as it does today.

What is your favorite kind of story?

Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event Stories?

Of course, as I said, these observations are based on my own experience. Your experience might be different.

Regardless of the decade though, there has always been two kinds of characterization. Next week we are going to discuss characterization.

I hope you learned something today or learned about a book you haven’t yet read. I know this post has a lot of old books in it but, they are timeless and old masters still have something to teach us.

If, however, you want something more modern, I have a list for you!

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