Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Knife Test (or, What ONE PIECE Taught Me About Writing)

Years and years ago (five to be exact), I did a two part blog series on the sadly defunct author group blog The Magic District called "The Author Toolbox." These two posts contain some of my most fundamental writing beliefs, and while one, The Three Hooks got its own repost on this blog and a mention in 2k to 10k, the Knife Test got sadly left behind.

This must be remedied. For 12 novels now, the Knife Test has been a fundamental part of every character I've written. It's the first and last test for every character arc I create, and it's also a ton of fun to do. So, without further ado, I give you the (freshly updated!) Knife Test, my ultimate trial for any character who wants a place in my books.

The Knife Test

The Knife Test is something I put to all my characters. Nerd that I am, the idea comes from an anime called One Piece, which is just about the greatest show ever. If you can get past its cartoony nature and corny humor, there is an amazing story there. (And if you read my Eli Monpress books, you'll probably recognize a lot of themes. What can I say? Steal from the best!!)

In the show, there’s a character named Zoro whose dream is to be the greatest swordsman in the world. Around the end of season one, he comes across the actual greatest swordsman in the world, a man named Mihawk. Now, Zoro KNOWS he is too short for this ride, but he also knows that he might never get this chance again, so he challenges Mihawk to a duel. (Because, of course, the only way to be the greatest swordsman in the world is to beat the guy who’s already at the top.)

Mihawk refuses. He knows Zoro is way below him in skill. Dueling him would be a waste of everyone's time and most likely Zoro's life. When he sees how determined Zoro is, though, he agrees to fight him, but only with a small dagger.

Zoro is insulted. He has three swords, how you fight that with just a tiny dagger? Mihawk counters that the dagger is all he needs. Seeing that he's not going to get his duel any other way, Zoro reluctantly agrees and the fight begins. Zoro (who has been undefeated in the series up to this point) goes all out, but is still defeated in one stroke. The fight ends with Mihawk holding his tiny dagger lodged in Zoro’s chest. 

But even with a dagger in his chest, Zoro doesn't retreat. He just stands there, staring at his opponent. Confused, Mihawk says, “This dagger is an inch from your heart. Why don’t you step back? Do you want to die?”

Zoro looks him straight in the eye and says, “If I were to take even one step back, I’d never be able to stand before you again.”

“Yes," Mihawk says. "It’s called losing.”

And Zoro answers, “That’s why I can’t step back.”

Still probably my favorite fight of all time.

And that, that right there, is the knife test. When the knife is scraping your heart, what do you do? Do you play it safe, step back, and live? Or do you refuse to give up on your goals? Do you keep moving forward, even knowing you'll probably die? 

This is the ultimate test of conviction. All of my main characters have to pass it, and I have to understand (and more importantly, make the reader understand) why. I put my characters through this test in the initial world building stages, and then again over and over throughout the novel. It's the epitome of show versus tell. It’s not enough for Miranda to say she is dutiful. She has to prove over and over again in a dozen different ways that she will put herself on the line for her duty. She has to face that dagger every time, over and over, and never turn away.

I admire conviction in all people (who doesn't?), but I think it's especially important for characters, both the ones I write and the ones I look for in my pleasure reading. The Knife Test gives me a vehicle to show off that conviction. I don’t just say “Character X cares about Y more than his life”,  I make her prove it again and again. (Though, of course, I try not to actually kill the character, because then the story would be over!) 

Really, though, the mortality aspect of the test is immaterial. We all know the hero most likely isn’t going to actually die, but we love seeing how close he or she cuts it, and, even better, how on earth they’re ever going to get out of this mess. The Knife Test is just a tool for creating circumstances that test a character's mettle, a mental construct to help me wrap my brain around the tension and conflict needed for great character development. It's my way of asking "What does this character really stand for? What would they die for?" Because once you know what circumstance or person your character would walk into a knife for without regret, then you know that person inside and out. Once I've got that, all I have to do is put that character into my story and get out of their way.

Every writer has their own tricks, and this is one of my favorites. I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting. Thank you as always for reading, and I'll be back tomorrow with a brand new Writing Wednesday!


Nick Green said...

I'm not sure I buy this one. Not every convincing character would die for a cause, would they? Rincewind (say) wouldn't. And I'm not sure any real person would stand their ground with a knife in their chest.

Sam said...

Pratchett has said that Rincewind's job is "to meet more interesting people", saying that there is not much he can do with a character who's a coward and doesn't care who knows it. Pratchett noted that one of his major problems was that he has a "lack of an inner monologue".[4] from wikipedia on rincewind

Unknown said...

Great blog entry! I always find it fascinating to hear writing tips learned from anime. The shows often have such large casts of fleshed out characters with motivations. One Piece is of course one of them. I'll have to apply this trick to some of my own characters, maybe not everyone needs to pass the Knife Test, but if my main cast can- we'll be in good shape. :)

Nick Green said...

Sam, Rincewind was just the most obvious example. I would say that the majority of characters would fail the Knife Test. Surely it can apply only to what you might call 'The Determinators' - characters like James Bond, Rocky, Rambo, The Doctor, or the Terminator himself. That steely determination defines them, and that's all very well. But EVERY main character? No, that's absurd. You can't make fiction work if EVERY main character would always refuse to back down in the face of death. You would end up with constant stalemate.

You can be a strong character and still have weaknesses. What's described here isn't strength, it's more like a kind of psychopathy. Sometimes the most interesting and powerful scenes for any character are when they give up on their obsessions, accept their limitations and find a new path. That's development.

Nick Green said...

p.s. Could not a feckless, cowardly, selfish and shallow rogue also make a fantastic protagonist? They would probably require some sort of redeeming moment where they defy previous expectations, but that would still fall far short of passing the Knife Test. Food for thought...

Rachel Aaron said...

I'm loving all the anti-heroes you guys are putting up! But while I think you're right that a feckless, cowardly rogue could make a good protagonist in the right hands (Rincewind certainly did), that's not the kind of character I personally like to write or read. They might not all start out with it, but all of my people eventually develop intense conviction. I love stories of significant personal action where one person can stand up and--by not giving up or backing down--change the world. Those kind of stories require intense, personal, lives-on-the-line conviction, and the Knife Test is a big part of how I draw that out of them.

But all writers are different! If this isn't how you like your characters, that's totally cool. Different strokes for different folks! But if you like the anime-style hardcore "I'll change the world or die trying" characters like I do, then the Knife Test above is a great tool to produce those kind of people.

Carrie said...

This is interesting. I do think every great protagonist can pass the knife test. It doesn't have to be a literal, physical death they're willing to endure--it can be emotional, spiritual, etc. After all, if your protag can just walk away from their goal, you don't have story with any stakes in it.

Nick Green said...

Okay, I think I see the underlying case for it. I just might suggest a softer way of describing it. Call this one the Water Test, maybe.

I think that every properly drawn character (not just a classic hero) has something in them that is fundamental to them, which will be left over even if everything else is dissolved away. So maybe you can imagine that the character is a fizzy tablet that you drop into water, and all the extraneous stuff about them, their casual interests, their likes and dislikes, their job and their preoccupations, all dissolve away in the water... (the water represents the pressures they'll face in the story); but after all those are gone, there is an insoluble residue left over, which will never dissolve no matter how much you stir the glass... and that residue is what defines the character. It needn't be heroic, it needn't even be good, but it's irreducible. Take that away, and the character is no more.

All characters need that, I think. And if you look closely even Rincewind has it. He discovers there is one thing he truly cares about, which is being able to live his feckless life as he wants. Ironically, he'll fight to defend his right to be a lazy coward, because he recognises that he does in fact care about his home.

manderelee said...

This is really interesting, and I'm really glad to see the anime example!

I had to think about this for a little while, and I do admit that most characters that I love have very strong conviction -- it's probably a necessary aspect of conflict, like Carrie was saying.

But I also think Nick Green has a point. Sometimes, a character's own death isn't even the *worst* thing that they consider could happen, so it sort of makes for a weaker knife test, if they don't really care about dying. However, there could be other things at stake, like for example, someone else's life, or thousands of life, or the destruction of the entire human race. Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist (to follow the trend of anime examples) comes to mind. Sure, Edward would be willing to risk his life to attain his goal of obtaining his limbs and brother back, but the stakes are increased only when he realizes that trying to achieve that goal could actually result in his friends' deaths, and possibly everyone in his country.

So yeah, I think conviction is clear when a character is willing to pursue his goals despite the risk of losing incredibly valuable things, but what the valuable thing is doesn't necessarily have to be their lives. And of course, the most satisfactory outcome is when a character is able to get what they want without simultaneously losing what they care about most.

Aaron Lopez said...

Nick Green,

I think the Knife Test (or as you said Water Test) can apply to cowardly people, insecure people. Aunt Petunia from the Harry Potter series is a brilliant example of this in her final encounter with Harry.

If you remember, they were together for one last time, before Harry was about to save the entire world (and possibly die trying at that point). Petunia would never see her nephew again, and as much as she despised him, it was her flesh and blood. In the narrative, J.K Rowling writes that Petunia was about to say something to Harry after Vernon and Dudley left, almost a hint of affection, love, or... something. We don't know what it was, because she jerked her head and walked away after her family.

The proverbial escape of mercy and forgiveness was held at Petunia, but she took the knife anyway.

I'm not signed up to Pottermore, but apparently Rowling has recently written a new entry as to why the Dursleys are the way they are.

Btw Rachel, big fan of your stuff! Your writing is absolutely fantastic!

Unknown said...

i actually think about Scooby and shaggy a lot. I think they are great examples of the sort of anti heroes who would face their greatest fears for something every time. The key, IMO to these kinds of characters is that their "something to die for" is something everyone else takes for granted or thinks of as normal. Food, for shaggy and scooby, or for Doc Holliday in the movie Tombstone, someone who didn't seem to have any principles, it was his one friend, Wyatt Earp. I think this is a great way to think about character.

And sometes, it turns out the story you are telling is the story of the character discovering what their very own knife test last stand is.