Some time ago I made a post on what I called Puppetmaster’s Syndrome. In it, I went on about how authors are gods in their own right and how writers often mistake this role of deity as giving them the authority to absolute control of their characters. When a writer is afflicted by Puppetmaster’s Syndrome, this writer seeks totalitarian control on every thought, action, aspect, and idea surrounding their characters. I mentioned how the most effective way to grow a character was to give them room to move on their own, rather than play god with them. But that got me thinking.
Was it possible for an affliction that is the total opposite of this to exist? Is it possible to take such a “hands off” approach to character that we end up ruining the people that we write? Does an environment like that even create the necessary requisites for a character to develop?
Well, after a few months of intensive research by the medical staff in
QuestingAuthor.com (i.e. me just sitting down and thinking about it for a time) we’ve discovered another disorder related to this dichotomy. Coining the term Blank Slate Disorder (BSD), we’ve been able to pinpoint this writing disease.
But before I get down to mocking the sheer concept of a blank slate character, we must first seek out a way to define this term clearly, along with dispelling common misconceptions that come with it, and we must also define what makes a character into a character.
It is beyond difficult to pinpoint where the line between a blank slate and an actual character actually begin. For the purposes of this article I feel that I must clarify that my opinion on this matter is fully subjective, but once you see the reasoning behind my opinions, I feel that we’ll reach an agreement. This is a rather touchy subject and due to the pure subjectivity behind it, I’d rather not mention any characters that I feel act in this manner.
First, let’s pin down a definition of a character. A character is not defined by description, traits, a plot, or the actions of other characters. What solely defines a character are the actions that they take and their motivations for performing such actions. With this definition down, we can already have an idea of what a blank slate character actually is. When this definition is taken at face value, a blank slate character would be a character that either has all the meaningful action performed for them, or characters that perform actions with no real motivations.
And this is where it gets rather complex.
A character that has all the world’s motivations but takes no meaningful action is a blank slate. A character that does all the story’s actions, but has little to no reason for doing them is also a blank slate. But then the confusion arises in the form of ‘What about characters with confused motivations?’ or ‘What about characters that take actions for other characters?’. In the former case, there’s a reason why I didn’t say that clear motivations were necessary. A character’s confusion can serve as an actually motivation, just like people trying to find their way in the world experiment with various things. For the latter, a character that takes actions for another character would have his own personal motivations for assisting that character.
Which is why under a looser interpretation of my rule, a blank slate is a character whom either does no meaningful action at all, a character with motivations that don’t match the scope of their actions, or a character with vague motivations that have no bearing on how he acts.
So the character would either be being dragged along by the plot or bending the plot in whatever way he wished to. And this is all because said character has the attributes that I mentioned.
But if it’s so negative to make a character like this, what reasoning is there behind making one? At least in the case of Puppetmaster’s Syndrome, you would have ended up creating a character, granted, a character limited by your vision of him, but a character is better than no character.
Yet there actually is a justification behind this way of thinking. People whom write in this fashion claim that they do so in order to turn the Blank Slate into a reader proxy. They feel that the best way to allow the reader to fit into the shoes of the characters that they are crafting is to leave an open space of sorts for the reader to jump into and pretend to be a part of the story. They feel that some wish to transplant their personality into the books that they read for the ultimate sense of immersion.
But this has rarely worked.
People almost invariably have an easier time relating to actual characters rather than some brick that’s being dragged along by the plot. Because the very act of creating a character for the purposes of making a reader fit into said character, actually has the opposing effect. A character that is just a blank slate serves to repulse whomever is reading your tale.
It’s very weird, but when you get down to the finer aspects you can see why it works the way that it does. When a character is a blank slate, you have essentially dehumanized that character to the point that there is no way to equate him/her as an actual agent in the story. In contrast, when we see a character we are automatically able to relate to them based on the fact that they act on their own agency, just like real human beings. Human beings with motivations, that take actions, and have their own opinions. Which is the opposite of a blank slate.
When we see a blank slate, rather than immerse us, it creates an “uncanny valley” effect. We see this character written into text, we their names plastered all over the book, and we can’t help but feel that this character is close to being human but is missing the very core of what makes a human being. Agency and feeling. And when you see this happen, your are instantly repulsed from that individual character. You can’t place yourself in that
character’s shoes, because that character contributes next to nothing in that story. Because that character, unlike you, is not human.
We don’t see some magical portal to another world when we see a blank slate character. All that we see is an inanimate brick being dragged along by a plot that would be virtually the same without their presence.
So while it is necessary to give a character space to grow, you can’t just drop them off in the world without guidance. I return to the parenting metaphor I had used previously. A child with overprotective parents will have little space to grow as an individual. It will be very easy to tell that this child was defined by the desires of his parents rather than just their guidance. But bad stuff happens on the other extreme. If we leave a child alone, there’s only a minor chance that they’ll develop for themselves. Most of the time, this would leave a child with the important roles of his parents vacant. And that child would develop as an empty husk in an indifferent world. A writer must not control, nor neglect their characters, they must guide them until they sprout into their own.
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.