1) Decide what place principles have in this visionary’s life. Many stories of revolution portray the downfall of principles--1984, of course, and other dystopias—or show the leader of a revolution hardening as he goes along. For example, he might not have originally wanted to kill anyone, but he’ll run into enemies who can only be handled by death. Or he’ll come to hate someone else enough to want to kill him. (I have to admit I find it disturbing that this change is usually portrayed as not only inevitable, but also cheer-worthy, with the mentor or wise old soldier commiserating with the leader and pointing out that he killed in self-defense/to protect others/whatever).
So. Are there some principles that won’t get abandoned, no matter what happens? Will someone relying on civil disobedience refuse to turn to violence? Will someone who swears that she only wants to restore her native language to the old borders of her native land stop at the border and not cross it? Or will there be points where the principles get tossed aside, usually for love? I find this tossing aside of principles immensely irritating, since so often it’s used to get a character out of a moral quandary.
Certainly someone can change as she goes along. She may get her principles scraped at by the real world, she may learn new factual knowledge that necessitates a change, she may have to make a compromise to get one thing she really wants. But this is where you want ethical complexity, not just, “Well, everyone hardens in war, so her killing whoever she has to is fine,” or “Well, of course love is more important than principles!” And visionary characters, since their vision drives and possesses them, and may introduce immense changes in the society whether or not they want it to—such as the inventor of a new machine who only intended to make daily chores easier, but finds his invention putting people out of their jobs—are excellent vehicles of moral complexity. If their vision is really ridiculously simple and not much trouble to implement, then why hasn’t anyone done it already? (Or you could write the story of someone with a simple vision that is a lot of trouble to implement. That’s neat).
2) Know what’s necessary to make this vision tempting. This may seem like backtracking a bit. On the other hand, when a visionary starts leading an armed revolution, there often isn’t much need to establish the reason that she’s doing it—beyond the personal reasons that she took up that path, as I mentioned in the first part of the essay. Got an oppressed group? Most readers won’t need much convincing that they’ll want their freedom. Got a new invention that could make people’s lives easier? Most readers will understand the temptation of that. Got a mission to free a country from the domination of foreign invaders? Well, of course.
It gets more complicated when you have visionaries who are campaigning for the spread of ideas, especially if those ideas are personal to them or ones that have no exact counterpart in our world. In that case, well, why? What makes this idea appealing? You can fall back on the visionary’s personal charisma, but, as I mentioned, that’s a dangerous answer in several ways. For one thing, it can come close to making the world into black and white, the visionary always right and her opponents always wrong. For another, it leads to the temptation to make the visionary clear-sighted about and in control of everything, not just her dream.
And, for the spread of an idea—well, what’s going to inspire people who hear about the idea secondhand, outside of the visionary’s charismatic presence? If she wants to encourage people to use a dead language, she’ll eventually want enough people speaking it that they can’t all sit in a circle around her and say the words. What are her students who go further out and teach the dead language to others going to say? Can they really carry enough of her spirit and fire with them to convince others on the basis of that alone? I doubt it.
So focus on the dead language instead. Why would re-learning it be a good thing? Does it have a connection to a people’s religious or ethnic or geographical heritage? How is it presented? As a secret mystical tradition being revived, as a means of resistance to an oppressive government, as a tool of academic learning? Who should learn it, and who is welcome to? How strict are “rules” about things like pronunciation, blending with living tongues, adding new words to the language? Your visionary will attract one group of people with a long-dead religious language written in mysterious inscriptions on tomb walls and believed to contain the secrets of the ages, and another with an “earthy,” “simple,” “good-old-home” language that was once spoken by the people of that land but which gradually lost precedence and honor to a conqueror’s tongue.
Try to make the vision genuinely compelling. If it’s extremely personal to the visionary, that’ll necessitate more character work than something like the dead language, of course.
3) Consider patience, good coalition-building skills, sympathy with the goals of others. Right, so we’re not taking about an armed fanatic who can barely take any time to listen to sane discussion of battle strategies. We’re talking about someone who really wants to establish her dead language again and is willing to do whatever it takes.
Patience and the ability to listen to and work with other people might be good skills for her to have. They’re often in short supply for leaders of revolutions, and, of course, if the world’s been reduced to two sides, Oppressed and Oppressors, Conquered and Conquerors, Right and Wrong, that kind of leader might fit his world perfectly.
But the visionary with her dead language doesn’t want the government coming after her, please. She just wants to convince people of the importance of speaking to and listening to and reading these ancient words again. She dreams of children learning it from their parents and growing up as native speakers. She thinks about classes, archaeological expeditions, village schools, copying of books, formation of dictionaries, translation of prominent texts.
Well, she’ll need to work with educators and parents and leaders of villages and archaeologists and owners of printing presses—or professional book copyists—and lexicographers and professional translators, won’t she? Some of those skills she could probably learn on her own or teach others; people who are interested in the language might start teaching it to their children just on her encouragement. But if the language is going to spread to more than a few people, she will need to get more than a few people interested, and explain why this language is a Good Thing.
Here’s a good way to present a visionary as principled and in control of her vision. If she can stand to wait, to listen to rational argument against her position, and to do something other than explode in frustration when someone questions her, then she’s very far from a fanatic.
4) Decide how far she sees ahead. Does this visionary glimpse work going on after her lifetime is done? Or does she have a distinct timeline, perhaps even a series of Five-Year Plans?
Even a person with a great deal of inspiration and a great deal of patience might get edgy if she wanted to be able to establish a utopian community in ten years and seven years along not one of her backers has funded her and people are still bickering about whether to establish the community on someone’s country estate or across the sea on a newly discovered continent. However, she could also adjust her plan, and start thinking that maybe what she should do is raise the next generation to believe in her principles instead, principles so radically different from those of the founding society that they’ll be rattled into leaving. Or she might go to the backers and start demanding they put up or shut up. Or perhaps she’ll drop the principle about listening to absolutely everyone involved and push out the people who have pipe dreams of living undisturbed on a plateau somewhere.
Then you have the opposite extreme: the visionary who knows she’ll never live to see the end of what she’s doing, perhaps because her god told her so. However, then you’ve got to show why she’s sure this work will endure past her death. A movement based on charisma alone is really in trouble when its charismatic leader dies. (Hell, a political or business organization can get in trouble when it’s been overly based on a cult of personality). Is it Point 2 again and the vision is compelling enough to keep moving forward without her? Is it so deeply personal that just having someone remember it is enough? Is she one of those scary people serenely convinced that destiny bears her voice, and therefore she never doubts that her death is not the end? Religious visions are perhaps the ones that work best that way.
“Visionary” doesn’t necessarily imply far sight, after all. The visionary could be absolutely convinced that she’ll get something accomplished in ten years, but fear, rightly, what could happen if that “something” is stretched to encompass twenty.
5) Once again, don’t be afraid to let bad intentions exist in the world, even if your visionary has good ones. A bit of a repeat from point 6 in the previous essay, but, well, if you’ve got a character who does launch an armed revolution, it’s easier to see all the ways that could go wrong. If you’re dealing with a character who does want to do something like revive a dead language, there may be a temptation to write about this as a simple, pure, good thing, because the character herself doesn’t intend to kill anyone or change their way of life.
But there are objections that can be raised even to a dead language. Maybe the government doesn’t like it because they are aware, while the visionary is not, that this will encourage separatist ambitions on the part of the group that used to speak that language. Maybe there are some people who start identifying themselves as “important” and “special” and “intelligent” because they speak that language, and get into fights. Maybe there will be infights in families between parents who want to teach their children this new/old language and those who don’t. Maybe someone whose mother was from the group that used to speak that language and whose father was from the group that speaks the current language suddenly finds herself thrown into an identity conflict where none used to exist, because the two groups had blended well enough for there to be no racial or ethnic separation.
I don’t think there’s any way to avoid this—unless the visionary’s vision is so deeply personal that it never affects anyone else, and in that case, I don’t see why the story is greatly different from a story about someone’s personal healing from psychological wounds. Nor do I think the changing of the vision should be avoided, really. I mean, who wants to write about a vision that never causes any trouble and just happily and quietly takes over the world, where the only opponents are self-evidently stupid and wrong? I think it’d be boring—not simple, but simplistic.
6) Consider making the story one that doesn’t just focus on the visionary. If your story follows the protagonist as she goes from village to village and tries to persuade the mayors to set up schools for their children in this dead language, perhaps it has little conflict, or the conflict is all repetitive. Besides, you’re interested in seeing what happens when some of the people surrounding the protagonist start teaching their children this language. Or you want to see what happens when they go investigate the cave with the mysterious inscriptions that inspired the protagonist to bring back the language in the first place. Or you want to watch the beginning of darker things to come, as this movement starts providing a divisive sense of group identity.
Well, you don’t have to stay in first-person or third-person limited with your protagonist the entire time. Why? Just because she had the original vision doesn’t mean she can tell the whole story, that she’s the only important person in the story, or that she can give you the right tone all the way through.
There are dozens of ways to shift attention, of course. Perhaps you’ll start out with a few people who are drawn to the visionary and then grow in importance as the tale goes on. Perhaps there’s one person on the opposite side who will make this tale into a personal conflict. Perhaps you’ll choose half a dozen “typical situations” to show what happens as the vision gets into everybody’s lives—for example, one person whom this new invention relieves, one person who loses his job because of it, one person who gets rich helping to make the parts for it, and one person who is affected indirectly. Perhaps you’ll choose to do what I call a “pool story,” for lack of a better term for it, where the story starts off tightly centered around the protagonist and then gradually introduces more and more viewpoints, expanding around her as her vision expands, like a pool of water swamping plants that had stood on its banks. (These stories tend, unsurprisingly, to be really freaking long).
If you know you want to write about a vision instead of a visionary, or a revolution instead of a revolutionary, I think this is probably the best solution.
And the next essay will be on creating a history of ideas for your fantasy world, because I struggle with that often enough.