Tuesday, July 8, 2014

HPMoR and Character Plasticity

I had a strange weekend, by which I mean I did something I haven't done in years: I read a fanfic. Stop laughing, I found it through Hacker News and it really is good.

This is it: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The premise, which I will take from its page on Less Wrong, is thus: "the orphaned Harry Potter has been raised by a scientist stepfather and now has the equivalent rationalist skill of roughly an 18-year-old Eliezer [Eliezer Yudkowsky, the author whose pen name is LessWrong] or thereabouts, i.e., massively flawed but still pretty darned impressive. Naturally the hero's challenges have been stepped up in difficulty as well."

As I said above, I really enjoyed the parts that are up (it is on schedule to finish by the end of this year), but I did not immediately recommend it to everyone I know who has enjoyed the Harry Potter series (and some of the people I know self-identify as Potterheads). Why?

"Because it's not like the original," was my first reason. Yes, there are Harry and Dumbledore and Voldemort and the same characters, and it is set at Hogwarts, but the tone of the story and definitely the story arc are vastly different from the Harry Potter books that I grew up rereading. It is more skeptical and there's a lot of rather heavy material (see: The Stanford Prison Experiment arc). This is not a criticism, but it does mean that people who are really attached to the originals might not like some of the changes.

Some of the biggest changes, I found, were with the characterization. Most notably, Harry's: there is little of the red-blooded Gryffindor in the HPMoR Harry, though he is still an idealist who puts his friends first. And why should there be? Harry's personal storyline diverges right after the Boy-Who-Lived incident, so his entire childhood is different in HPMoR than from the original books. It would not be exaggerating to say that he is a different person.

Which, because I am a writer greedy to learn from others' craft, led to my second question: "What defines a particular character?"

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Because I am a teenager with occasional existential crises (the occasion: breathing), I think a lot about the problem of identity. See: You are You and Your, a college app essay I never used exploring what makes a person them.

Because characters are abstract models of people, the usual reasons come up: you are defined by your family, by your surroundings, by your past (because sentient creatures are not state functions). But for fictional characters, especially if you're writing them, it can be helpful to pull up one level of abstration and ask, "what key elements, if removed, will make a particular character not them anymore?"

I'm going to use HPMoR as an example, since it started me on this topic. I don't consider the Harry Potter in HPMoR as the Harry Potter of the original series, despite the name, because the canon Harry is the product not only of the prophecy and his past up to age one, but of his awful childhood and impulsiveness. Give him a stable and rational home life and he's not really the original Harry.

The Hermione Granger in HPMoR, on the other hand, is still recognizably Hermione: observant bookworm who hates failure and has got Harry's back. Even the Draco Malfoy in HPMoR is recognizably Malfoy, despite playing a somewhat different function than in the original story, because he's still a blood elitist who wants to prove himself to his father.

Now I'm going to take examples from my own work, as self-indulgent as that is, because I can at least hope to articulate the writer's choices in displacing a character from their story and setting of origin. Let us specify that this time, the question is "what attributes of a character must be true, even in a different setting/world, for that character to remain themself?"

Naturally this question lends itself best to AUs, or Alternate Universes, in which characters exist in a different universe from the original. Note the difference from the HPMoR example above.

The Utopia Project is one gigantic AU for the stuffed animals that my sister and friend and I used to play with as kids. When I wrote it, I always had to make changes--as we mentioned above, people are partially the product of their environment--but for any particular character I'd find some changes that I could not make, because if I changed that (or more likely, a combination of thats), then it wouldn't be the same character.

For example, one character in our "original storyline" was an assertive Texan girl, self-conscious about her weight, with a kind but occasionally overbearing attitude. (She was a Pikachu.) When faced with the task of transferring her to a dystopic future Europe, weight-sensitivity was out because in a time of famine, weight would not matter to that particular character. It wasn't an integral part of her, as it may be for some other character, but for this one, her insecurities had to hinge on other things. The motherliness, on the other hand, was indeed something that I couldn't change without making her someone else, so instead her attitude comes from being the de facto oldest sibling and part of a relatively wealthy family (noblesse oblige).

Ubermadchen kind of has an AU, in which the girls are participants in a pan-European fighting tournament. In the canon UM, something that is integral to each girl's character arc is their friendship with one another after being raised together in isolation from a hostile society. In the AU, where they meet one another after their formative years, that piece is removed by default.

But character arc is not the same as character, and I'm trying to think about how different sorts of environmental pressures could lead to the girls having similar personalities to their current ones (current meaning in 1777 Europe, the original storyline). This has led to some acceptance of the personal identity as black box, something intrinsic, such that I think, Marilla is a compassionate person rather than life experiences A, B, and C substitute for life experiences X, Y, and Z in making Marilla compassionate. Why? Because Marilla is compassionate, and that is such a key part of her person that I have to make her background fit that, instead of working forward.

Aside from as a thought experiment, how does this kind of thinking--creating AUs and seeing what happens when you drop your characters in them--help? In the Utopia Project, I got a novel.

But even though I don't really intend to develop the fighting-tournament-UM AU, I think it that creating the AU is useful because doing so forces you to identify which parts of the character are most important--which parts will not be left behind even in the jump to a different world. As someone whose stories are definitely character-based, I like this new perspective on the people in my stories. My approach toward UM definitely changed after I realized that Marilla would dye her hair blue.

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