Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bullets vs. Bonding -- Balancing action and characterization in pulp fiction


Or bonding?

 Anyone who is a fan of the genre knows how much pulp is defined by the action-oriented plots. That's a given. We get it, and we've beat that dead horse so hard it already got back up for a few hard-boiled western sequel novels.


Is there room for the characterization that is so often maligned in this fast-paced genre?

And if not, what separates the Angel Dares (from Christa Faust's Money Shot and Choke Hold) from the Lance Stars (from Bobby Nash's Lance Star: Sky Ranger anthologies) from the Rook (from Barry Reese's series). Without character development, wouldn't all these two-fisted, bullet-evading heroes and heroines just be generic replicas of other archetypes?

Well, to go straight to the horses' mouths, I asked several of New Pulp's leading creators.

Why is (or isn't) characterization important in pulp fiction?

Bill Craig: Characterization is very important in Pulp. You need characters that the reader can either A. Identify with, or B. care about.  With Hardluck Hannigan, he is an easy character for people to do both with, because who hasn't had runs of exceptionally bad luck?  And as a result they can relate, but people also get concerned for him and his merry band and the relationships between them.

Mark Halegua: Characterization is important in a pulp story, but action and fast pace are more important. 

Ian Watson: If I'm honest I don't usually set out to write pulp fiction, unless that's the brief (as when I'm asked to write an existing character in the style of their original stories). Making it "pulp" comes way down the list of my priorities, after enjoying writing it, telling a good story, engaging readers, doing something original, using language properly etc. If the end product meets somebody's definition of pulp thereafter then so be it. Fortunately my natural style tends to favour the characteristics defined nowadays as pulp fiction.

Writing good and proper characterisation comes way above writing something to fit the pulp definition in my book(s).

But I'd argue that pulp is mostly about dragging a visceral, emotional investment and response from readers. It's page-turning, edge-of-your seat stuff designed to get you to buy the next installment. It's written to make you laugh, cry, shiver, cheer, boo, whatever. If it's grabbing you and dragging you along at 1000 mph and making your pulse increase then it's probably pulp. To that end we use all kinds of plot devices and literary techniques, from innocent-in-peril and blackhearted-villain-must-not-triumph through to compressed language narratives and rollercoaster shock plotting. And we use characterisation.

Characterisation, as others have argued, makes the reader care about the situation. We care for the innocent in peril. We despise the blackhearted villain who must not triumph, even when we see nuanced motivation from his tragic flaws and shattered past. It's a principal tool for grabbing reader attention, for twisting the heartstings, ramping up the tension, magnifying the fun. And never underestimate the value of banter in making a pulp story zing along.

Like many of Marvel's early characters, Dr Doom would be a fine pulp villain. What puts him on the cusp between the traditional pulp science-baddie with a death ray and a new pulp enemy with a twisted past informing his villainy are his love for his kingdom, Latveria, his torment over his mother's soul, his sense of honour and obligation that makes his word his bond even to his adversaries, and his grandiose sensibilities. That's a vein of characterisation that magnifies his pulpiness, not diminishes it. 

Nancy Hansen: I don't think I've ever written an appealing story that had main characters I didn't invest some effort into creating. It doesn't matter what I'm writing, the important people in the story have to resonate with me in some way. Even the villainous types have to be strongly delineated and have motives I can understand. Good characterization makes the story unforgettable, as we tend to live vicariously through their adventures.

How much character development is too much in pulp fiction?

Bill Craig: When the character does so much soul-searching or philosophizing that it bogs down the plot, that is too much.  Sure, Hannigan worries about his actions, but it is because he knows that as a leader, what he does can affect the group for better or worse. Perhaps I should say he realizes that there will be consequences.  That was a lesson he learned early and fast in his career.

Mark Halegua
: Characterization tends to slow the pace of stories, so it's done at a superficial level.  Good guy vs bad guy.  A few mentions here and there about why they are good and bad and then the action takes hold. 

Ian Watson: Amongst the literary shifts that have happened in the last five hundred years, and even in the century since the start of pulp's golden age, is the expectation of readers to understand why characters behave as they do. In retelling some of King Arthur's stories for modern readers I've had to fill in the gaps that Sir Thomas Malory and his contemporaries didn't feel the need to address, the whys to go along with the what various characters do. These days "he did it because he was bad" or "she fell into his arms because he'd rescued her" don't always cut it. Our audience expects a little more motivation - and that comes from characterisation.

 Like many other elements of pulp, characterisation can be abbreviated, stylised, and codified. It can be "off the shelf" stereotype motivations for the whore with the heart of gold who a man done wrong or a world-weary wanderer blowing into town with a dark past and a holster-ful of trouble, but its still a fundamental part of the writing genre. Like other elements of the pulp toolkit it can be minimised or excluded, but for most of us in most of our stories, anything from a dash to a huge helping of characterisation forms a valuable ingredient of what we serve up.

Nancy Hansen: When it gets to be too much is when the story gets lost in the details. In pulp, you need a plot that moves quickly. Things need to happen, it has to be exciting, and adventurous. If you slow that rapid-fire action down too far because a character is having a navel-examining moment of introspection that lasts through six paragraphs, you killed the story and ultimately the reader's interest.
Bill Craig, author of The Jack Riley Adventures: Valley of Death, Mayan Gold, Dead Run, Pirate's Blood, The Child Stealers, and The Mummy's Tomb; as well as numerous other stories. (See link on the right under Heavy Hitters.)

Mark Halegua, creator and writer of the Red Badge in Mystery Men (and Women).  

Ian Watson, author of numerous novels of SF, Fantasy, and Horror followed, and 9 story collections. His stories have been finalists for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and widely anthologised.

Nancy Hansen, staff writer and editor at Pro Se Productions.