As I’m going through this DIY MFA process and inhaling as many books as possible, I’ve started watching for good examples of technique. I just finished Chuck Wendig’s cyberpunk adventure, Zeroes, and discovered a fantastic example of building characters that readers care about.
In some ways, Zeroes is a straight forward Scoobie-gang adventure, but with hackers. It’s such a good read because you end up really caring about the members of said Scoobie gang. That means I want to pick the whole thing apart with a scalpel and reveal the dark, squishy secrets of creating people for your stories that readers will give a damn about.
I mentioned hte other day that I was digging on the team building montage at the beginning of Zeroes, and hoping to learn something new about managing so many narrative threads. Of course, this story ended up being a totally different structure than the parallel timelines in Calaban’s War. In Zeroes, the team is assembled in quick succession, and their individual threads are welded together into a single narrative. The meat of the first act is how these very different people stop hating each other’s guts and learn to work together on a common cause.
In the first few chapters, as the team is being assembled, we see each of the hackers in their native context. It’s a quick view into who they are, what they care about and what their priorities are. One character is in the middle of showing his impoverished mom the very nice house he bought her with money from hacking scams; another is trying to help a resistance cell in a Middle Eastern country. They are established in their lives, and we feel what has just been disrupted by being recruited to the project. Each of those chapters gets a follow scene where they are each interviewed and threatened with prison and some form of exposure that will lead to each character’s greatest fear. It’s kind of a one-two punch to set up who everyone is and what they have to lose.
You aren’t surprised when the feminist Syrian and the old conspiracy nut hate each other at first sight. The dynamics make sense, and also create the first set of challenges the group has to navigate and overcome. To get away from the project intact, they need each other’s broad range of skills.
Each character is constantly navigating conflicts between the needs of this increasingly cohesive group, and what from their old life they want to protect. This has the reader right there with each character, wincing with empathy and rooting for them when things get hairy. Having experienced each of these characters growing together and becoming friends, your gut wrenches with the whole team when something horrible happens to one of them.
I think the lessons here are:
- Define your characters as early as possible
- Teams of characters need to grow and change in tandem
- Everyone needs a personal conflict with the common goal of the team
- Twist the empathy knobs in your reader’s brain by doing awful things to at least one member of the team, after everyone has grown to care about each other.
I’ll be watching for this pattern going forward. I may also revisit a story I abandoned ages ago, because I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the group dynamics. I can feel the warmth from the lightbulb currently glowing above my head.