A Session with Robert Herzog
It isn’t always so obvious, but a week in June, 2016 powerfully conveys an awareness of living through moments that are indeed history, that will resonate downstream with real consequences, such as:
- Brexit and the unsettling of a major world order
- the Democratic Congressional sit-in over guns
- the continued sense of why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders attract support
What these happenings convey to me is a heightened sense that history goes through cycles. And an awareness of the impact of or on the players who are either captured by or contribute to creating these cycles.
History alternates through ages of reaction and pro-action. The era we inhabit seems to be more of the former. We’re not only not building great public works or institutions, we’re also letting the existing ones decay and break down. Dissatisfaction dominates public spaces, fear and loathing over what is trumps seeking what could be. Societies aren’t anticipating great issues; they’re waiting for them to crash down on them. We replace building new icons for Carl Icahns looking to exploit the old ones.
Characters in fiction go through the same cycles. First, something happens. They weren’t prepared for it, or are overwhelmed by it. Then they try to do something about it:
- Shit happens
- The character is affected
- The character reacts (generally not optimally, unless it’s a Tom Clancy always-get-it-right-the-first-time kind of character)
- The character suffers consequences
- The character despairs (and we along with them, because the problem seems intractable, insurmountable)
- Finally, the character takes action, and pulls us cathartically along with them
Of course, the solution to one problem often creates the next problem, such as in classic science fiction, a series of Isaac Asimov puzzles on how to survive on Mars, as iterated recently in the movie The Martian. A book may encapsulate and compress many such cycles.
In my novel, A World Between, the central characters are confronted with an increasingly baffling series of circumstances: hearing about and seeing for themselves that parts of the earth – jungle, beach, mountain, canyon – are seemingly vanishing.
David Altaforce, the scientist at the heart of trying to understand a phenomenon which becomes more threatening the more people look into it, tries at first to deal with it rationally, without judgment, dispassionately examining an interesting problem to solve. Much to the irritation of Susan Corporell, a UN field worker who understands far better than David the real world impact of actions and consequences.
Characters move through time. Their actions convey their conditions and intent over time, so they are in fact not three-dimensional, as traditionally described, but four-dimensional. From Howard Bloom in Ulysses to Nick Carraway in Gatsby to Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, they are not static. Whether they are impinged on by internal demons or external events or a combination of the two – and those are the very best characters – they process and act within the historical cycle.
So over time, David tries to comprehend what force is causing the disappearances. Whether it’s some natural phenomenon, is driven by somebody, or even if, as his colleague Sebastian Driscoll suggests, it may have godlike origins. Trying to cope with these oddities leads the characters to increasingly dangerous situations – they watch as a bird disappears into a void; they nearly get pulled into a massive disturbance in the Grand Canyon while trying to observe it from a helicopter.
David runs out of scientific ways to figure out what’s going on, and it is Susan who guides him past that point of despair by suggesting they look for whomever could be responsible for shattering reality so sharply. And when they get an inkling, they come up with an experiment to push back at the malevolent force they’ve uncovered. Davis is excited, Susan ecstatic as she stands on the beach while they create a collision that in theory should force the conversion of matter back to its physical state.
It all goes terribly wrong with disastrous results, leaving David in further despair, now not only seemingly unable to fight back and restore the earth, but also overcome with a numbing, paralyzing grief. Getting him back into the fight is essential for the planet’s very survival, and from this groundwork the next parts of the story unfold.
As readers, we often don’t understand our own lives with the clarity we can see from the view above a good author provides. Generally, we’re swimming in our river just trying to keep our heads afloat – it takes someone standing on the shore to get perspective, to see the framework we are paddling in. So the pleasure, and with the greatest characters – the Hamlets – the increased understanding of our own situations, our expressions of the human conditions clarified through theirs, stems from watching a great character become affected, react, act, live with and try to impact the consequences. Heroes and villains alike share this essential human movement, propelling their bodies through time to create great 4D characters.
By thinking through characters as they evolve over time, you can pull the reader along with the character on the journey you’ve created for them. That can create a powerful connection between your work and the reader, the kind they think about, come back to, bring up in conversations. If you think about those characters that resonate with you, and look at them through the lens of four dimensions, bodies moving through time, changing, pulling us along with them, you can see they really are 4D, not the conventional 3D that we refer to them as.
Here are a couple of exercises to propel you on the way to creating great four dimensional characters, who in turn will resonate with those who read about them.
Take a major current event, and define a person who, because of their background, interests, psychology, recent events in their own lives, feels affected by the event. Describe how they react to the event, emotionally and/or in action (even seemingly “thoughtless” action) and how these reactions in turn make them feel – impotence of agency, frustration or empowered.
Take your character and the event from Exercise 1 and now have your character take action in response to those events, expanding beyond anything they’ve done before, their habitual comfort zone, driven by rage or a sense of equity, a memory connecting them to something in their past resonating in this moment, driving them to try to change the future, either on a small scale, their own life or the lives of those around them, or seeking a broader, structural or societal change.
As Hamlet said, “The World is out of joint. Oh cursed spite that I was ever born to set it right.”