Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Characterization Should Surpass History

Characterization in fiction commands top attention. That's a given. Considering history in the mix is often overlooked. It should be more than avoiding the faux pas of placing a cellphone in the hands of a Roman soldier. Yes, my example is ludicrous, but it should make the point.

If your character is an every day worker in the contemporary United States, have you considered the work environment? There are cultural influences at work. In recent history, from the 1950s onward, there's been a dramatic shift with the emphasis originally on mechanization and automation that has brought us into a larger digital world. Management has been concerned with better methods, lower costs, higher output; but the workers may be concerned with the loss of individuality in that their contributions have been downgraded, i.e., the worker is more of a cog in a machine than an thinking, problem-solving member of a team.

In fiction there is a striving for conflict. Manager versus worker is a no-brainer. But for the fiction to be credible, there must be a recognition that the concepts of leadership have changed greatly since the 1950s. In the United States, from the beginning of the century to 1950, the leadership philosophy was that "leaders were born, not made." The leaders were charismatic. And fiction writers using this time period, then or now, must reflect that.

In portraying characters, the boss as a character was "king of the mountain" and his word trickled down to the workers in the valley. The boss set the goals and did so unilaterally. The whole scheme to be set out in fiction had to recognize this hierarchical model.

The system, whether ideal or not, seemed to work. The United States with six percent of the world's population, seven percent of the world's land mass, had almost fifty percent of the world's wealth.

Now, since 1950, the workplace has changed dramatically. The complexity of the task, at least in the worker's eye, is such that no one manager can either absorb or innately have enough knowledge to know everything. The worker may be told what to do, but he or she does have the necessary acceptance to believe in the unerring wisdom of the manager.

Fiction has to acknowledge, if not accept, that the whole concept of leadership in the United States has changed. Modern-day managers must act on the basis of getting the sanction and support of subordinates.

If your fiction presents a workplace with a very structure-centered, rule-centered manager, and the time is present day, that may stress the seams of reader credibility. Sure, such workplaces may exist, but if fiction is to present the extreme as the mainstream the necessary suspension of disbelief will be harder to obtain.

What is the fiction writer to do? If he or she portrays an outdated workplace, it's an uphill battle to win the reader. If he or she portrays the workplace as a modern day cooperative venture, the goal to increase tension and conflict is tamped down and bores the reader.

That there has been and will forever be conflict in the workplace between manager and worker can almost be taken as a given. If so, what to do?

If you want to have conflict and a problem arise, envision its ancestry. Look at the relationship between manager and worker. What would be their goals? The manager may be looking a more money. The worker might like more money, but maybe he desires respect for individual contribution. What started the conflict? Was it family? Hatfields and McCoys? Was the self-made manager envious of the college-educated upstart? Perhaps there was discrimination. Any kind will do.

Maybe there is a simple miscommunication or that the manager sees the situation one way and the worker, legitimately, sees it different. Comedy writing is full of these situations.

Fiction must delve deeper. The conflict is not that one person is the boss and the other person is the worker. Be more creative and create multi-dimensional characters. The dynamics of conflict in the workplace invade from all corners of human relationships. Strive to get past the historical framework to hook your reader and then keep your reader engaged with conflict between characters that transcends the original cardboard vision of the workplace.

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