It’s been a few weeks since I had a good ‘ol fashioned writing-based post, and since I’m in the middle of a few projects, and I don’t have any official news yet, I have the chance to take a look at what I feel is the most important part of any story …
If anyone interested in writing wants my humble advice, watch anime. It’s awesome for one. The other reason is that they always deliver a multitude of characters viewers love. Now I could go in a lot of directions, and I might actually do more than one post on this robust topic, but for now, I’m just going to focus on the general idea of what anime does with characters.
Deep, complex backgrounds: When I watch anime, I genuinely feel like the creators sat down for every character and wrote a story just for them. Any one of them could be the main character if they just got a bit more screen time. As if that’s not enough, the episodes use those complicated backgrounds to advance their MCs. This allows fans to grow closer to an
other cast member while still being connected to the hero. It’s honestly brilliant. Naruto does this best. Some may argue they go to this well too many times, and I’d have to agree, but inevitably, as Naruto interacts with characters, we learn more about both of them. This happens both in fights (Naruto VS Neji Hyuga and with team-ups (Sai’s arc). As they fight or work together, we learn more about the side characters, and as Naruto works with them he learns more, and we grow closer to him.
Clear motivations: Every character in anime has motivations and obstructions to those motivations. Good or evil, those characters strive for something. Sometimes they build conflict and suspense. Sometimes the motivations build sympathy. Both are essential. Let’s take a look at Mikasa Ackerman. She’s a fascinating character. She could want any number of things, but all she truly cares about is protecting Eren. This motivation is clear. So when Eren is in danger or pain, we know this causes Mikasa stress (sympathy). When people seek to harm or even just belittle Eren, we know this will create conflict.
Sympathy: One of my favorite things to do when talking anime with anyone is to talk about their favorite characters. My favorite books have that same feeling, but I can’t always do that with books. I can always do it with anime. The main reason for this is how sympathetic anime characters are. Anime does a fantastic job of making viewers feel for them. They do it through humor. (Ryuk. Sure, he’s evil, but people like him because he amuses them. Why else do people always think of him and apples?) They do it through conflict (Ichigo). They do it through relationships (Ed Elric). The writers use a variety of situationally dramatic settings to allow the viewer to grow sympathetic toward the characters.
So I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic, and I’m probably going to harp on a lot of this when I don’t have any news about my writing to offer. However, this is a good place to start.
When developing your characters, look for opportunities to consider these topics and how anime uses them to get those fans cosplaying. If you do, you might just see a few cosplay people pick one of your characters? (I’d love to see a Grimm or a Caden cosplay!)
I’m writing this post on my phone because for some reason, my computer has decided it hates WordPress. I’d rather post something as opposed to not. I think it’s important I post on schedule, so here I am, but I do ask for some leinency for lack of pictures and any other errors.
A while back, I posted about chracter sliders. I mentioned that characters need to grow, but today I want to warn against characters who only have a high value in one category.
I don’t think charaters like this work. If you have a character who is amazingly competent, it won’t matter if he’s unsympathetic or not proactive.
Some may argue characters have to be symoasympat, and I like those characters, but sympathy alone isn’t enough.
I wanted to try and explain this with a character study, but I simply can’t think of a character who only has one high-value characteristic. I’m honestly atill thinking, and I can’t name one.
So let’s assume you all agree with me that characters need to be sympathetic; what else should they be? Well, that’s the luxury of choice.
A proactive character would, I think, inspire characters and motivate readers to keep trying. This would be a character like Naruto.
A competent character would challenge the reader. He would force the reader to keep up while simultaneously frustrating readers with his tendency to not act. Doctor Strange is a good example here. He’s totally motivated by selfish reasons. By choosing to take action and help defend Earth, the reader is satisfied and excited by his involvement in the fight.
Why are two mandatory?
Well, let’s again assume most feeling characters just be proactive.
If he doesn’t do anything, the reader will lose interest, feeling as though the character won’t ever answer the call to action
If the reader is also incompetent, the reader will put the story down because even if that character decided to take action, he’d probably fail.
My point is a character can’t just be sympathetic, proactive, OR competent. There needs to be a second element to create tension during the rising action and satisfaction during the climax.
What are your thoughts? Can you name any one-dimensional characters?
Do stories need good villains? What makes a good villain? This is something I’m actually pondering as I start thinking about other projects (a post which you’ll all see on Saturday).
The first thing I thought of, however, was the relationship that heroes and villains have in stories. I think there are a lot of stories in which the relationship becomes a plot in itself, and that inspired this post. So let’s talk about a few of the more historic relationships:
Batman and The Joker: Batman is a hero who’s seemingly one bad day away from crossing the line, and The Joker seems to be the man who wants to push him over the edge. One of the things that makes Batman so compelling to me is his refusal to kill, especially in regard to Joker. What fascinates me most in this regard is that by being the man Batman refuses to kill, The Joker then becomes Batman’s very salvation.
I’ve been open about how I’m not a fan of DC, but the character I’ve always had the most interest in is Batman, and his relationship with The Joker is probably the most compelling aspect of the character. This was never more relevant than in The Killing Joke. It’s way darker than I would have liked, but it still shows that endless battle. This relationship is about temptation to me. I honestly think The Joker wants Batman to kill him, if only to show that every man could be brought below his morals.
Superman and Lex Luthor: I’m neither trying to go exclusively DC or comics for that matter, but this relationship is the absolute best example of this very phenomena. They are polar opposites. One has the power to do whatever he wants and doesn’t for the sake of who he wants to be and the people he cares about. The other has no physical power, yet still does whatever he wants because he doesn’t care about anyone. It’s just too perfect to leave out. I’ve had a lot of talks with friends about Smallville. Say what you want about the series as a whole, but I stand behind the first three seasons because that relationship and Lex’s progression into villainy was outstanding. Again, I’m not saying it was a great show for all its seasons, but if you want to study a relationship plot, watch that one.
In terms of comics, this is the most used technique. Xavier and Magneto. Wolverine and Sabertooth. Spider Man and the Green Goblin (or pretty much any of his villains). In terms of this relationship, comics are fish in a barrel.
Yes, I could mention a certain boy who lived, but I’ve seen a lot of people talk about him lately, and I want to give others a different point of view.
Abraham Setrakian and The Master: Before it was a TV show, the Strain was fascinating trilogy that took a horribly overdone idea and found a twist that I could get behind. This relationship is particularly fascinating because Setrakian is the obsessed killer in this. The Master is the aloof over powerful being. You could call it an inversion of Superman and Lex Luthor, and add a desire to kill, and you wouldn’t be far off. This relationship, however, brings a particular point to my argument.
In today’s world of literature, there aren’t many hero-villain relationships that are nearly as co-dependent as those found in comics. Like I said above, it’s fish in a barrel in comic books, but I have 312 books loaded on Goodreads (which is still much lower than the actual number of books I’ve read) and I had trouble finding examples in literature. Where are the man vs man conflicts? There are some subplots (Perrin vs Slayer comes to mind). But in high fantasy, the plots are larger than life.
I think this observation presents an opportunity for a creative author to bring a comic mainstay into literature. I’m not saying this plot device doesn’t exist at all in literature, but it’s not common in science fiction or fantasy. The plucky hero is always facing something larger than life. If you disagree, feel free to comment below.
One explanation to this might be the scope of the story. Comics can handle that sort of plot because they’re serial by nature. The fans can tune in next week (TV) or month (comics) and see that battle. But I find that odd because those conflicts can (and for me they do) get old. As fascinating as Batman V Joker is for me, I’m just annoyed by now. But imagine a conflict between characters who are complimentary in nature and symbiotic by design? I find that idea fascinating.
If Quintessential Editor could use a few of those greens he consumes so readily to help apply better terms, that would be amazing, but when discussing the contrast between the traditional hero and the flawed hero, I felt inspired (thanks Rough and Ready Fiction!) to offer a few case studies and offer my thoughts and opinions.
There are a lot of sources that describe a lot of hero archetypes. The reason I didn’t narrow down to one source is more because I don’t feel there’s a TON of consistency out there, so I’ll use the terms that make the most sense to me and you can decide on what terms you like best. I’m more interested in discussing my thoughts than I am determining the best terms in this regard.
The Traditional Hero: He’s the nice guy’s nice guy. He’s the white knight. The man of principle. He’s the example to follow. If you had a daughter, he’s the man you’d want to date her.
Case Study: Odd Thomas. I won’t lie. Odd Thomas was a very influential part of my writing The Journals of Bob Drifter. He’s such a great character. He’s honest, doesn’t cuss a lot. Heck, he even uses “sir” or “ma’am” when addressing people. He’s forced to act by circumstances, and sometimes he must do things he doesn’t want to do, but he’s a good guy, and no one can deny that. Bob is a traditional hero. He’s honest. He’s soft spoken. He’s even a little shy around women.
I’m more drawn to these heroes because a part of me honestly believes that fiction should strive to show humanity what it CAN be. This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate flawed heroes, enjoy books about flawed heroes, or write stories about them. When stretching to find new levels of skill, one must try new things, but my favorite books all have more traditional heroes.
The Flawed Hero: He’s the rebel. He’s the hero who’s a drunkard or killer. He’s the man who’s seen stuff in life and is just trying to get by. He’s the man you’d shoot if he showed up to ask your daughter out.
Case Study: Durzo Blint from The Night Angel Trilogy. I love him. He’s a great character, but he’s a jerk. He’s a whore-mongering, drinking killer. His motives are selfish, and his moral code is just about as messed up as it can be.
These characters (to a degree) feel more real to readers. They’re more relatable. So I don’t know how often I’ll try to psychoanalyze humanity as a whole, but I’m going to step out on that limb in this case. Most people, myself included, feel flawed. Everyone has “hot buttons” because those issues spark in people that which they most dislike in themselves. Where a traditional hero provides an example to follow, flawed heroes show readers it’s okay to not be “perfect” because you can still, and always, do something worthy of the term hero.
Let’s look at this in practice (an point out my hypocrisy at the same time): Superman vs Wolverine.
Yep…I’m going the comic book route. Superman fights for truth, justice, and the American way. Wolverine is a killer. Now, based on my above comments, you’d think I like Superman, right? Wrong. I hate Superman. But in this we find the complexity of art. I don’t hate superman because he helps old ladies cross the street or reminds people that “flying is still statistically the safest way to travel.” I hate Superman because he’s TOO perfect. He’s (arguably) the most powerful character in comics. I don’t mind a person who has all these morals. What I mind about Superman is the fact that I just don’t ever feel he’s in danger. He’s not one for whom I worry because I don’t think he’ll ever be taken down. I don’t read the comics too much, but I hear he’s been “flawed” in some regard. I like Wolverine because (immortal thought he may be), I’ve seen him lose fights. I’ve seen him fail. And failure is a key part of gaining sympathy.
It’s the setbacks characters face that create the tension readers feel when they try anything. These setbacks don’t have to mean failure, but they are important.
So my problem with what I feel is the overabundance of flawed heroes isn’t people genuinely have flaws. It’s that some readers argue there aren’t nice guys out there. I served for 10 years in the Navy. Some of the kindest, most “Superman” type people I’ve ever met (Quintessential Editor among them) are Sailors. Corey will give you the shirt off his back while asking if you need a pair of pants. He’ll give everything he can for people in general. He’s capable of right and wrong like any human, but if I have a son one day, I’d be pretty proud if he grows up to be like Corey.
I have other friends. I have friends that my other friends ask why they’re still my friends. I obviously won’t name one. But if I were to judge people and withhold my friendship because they’ve done things I don’t like, I’d be pretty short on friends.
So what’s my point?
The most times I hear arguments regarding these two types of heroes, they’re arguing principles when what I think they’re really discussing is the unreal reaction to events. This was a major point of discussion with my editor about Sal in Caught. He goes through some seriously bad stuff, and just keeps plugging along heroically. At least, he did in the last draft of the book. In this draft, the issues he faces causes him to doubt himself.
I don’t actually care what type of hero anyone writes, but MOST readers want realism. They want character who reacts to situations. Let’s do another case study.
(SPOILER ALERT FOR DOCTOR WHO..YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED)
Doctor Who: In the episode entitled “The Doctor’s Daughter,” the doctor meets, grows to care for and loses a genetic clone of himself that seems like a “daughter.” The fanboy in me chuckles a bit because I actually remember the doctor’s initial reaction to Jenny (I believe the word “abomination” was used, but I could be wrong). Tennant is (from my informal, passive observation) commonly regarded as the “best” modern doctor. He still does the “good guy” thing in the end. He shows mercy. He’s still the better man, but the viewers see his temptation. They see his desire to do wrong, and he chooses to do right. THIS is what makes characters compelling. It’s seeing characters tested that make them sympathetic. But test a character too much, and the reader will become annoyed. The writers’ skill in having the doctor do “good” and “bad” is what makes him feel real in a lot of cases. Tennant’s doctor is the greatest example of this. He’ll be the better man when Jenny dies, but then kill a bunch of people if they don’t heed his warning.
I shifted Sal’s timeline not because he was “too good” a guy, but because he receives a lot of negative stimulation without any of those events affecting his personality. I still feel strongly it’s okay to have characters who “don’t break.” Those characters who never shift their morals because those morals define them are important. Ultimately, Sal’s the same “person” he was in every draft of Caught. But his responses to what he goes through shifted to account for those events.
I think some people like “flawed” heroes because it’s easier to believe a flawed man can do right on occasion than it is to believe a man can swear never to kill, no matter how many sidekicks, women, friends and associates die because you refuse to kill a man. (I’m looking at YOU Batman!)
So let’s talk about the caped crusader while we’re at it. Am I mad at Batman for never killing Joker (at least he didn’t when I last glanced at the DC universe. Again, I’m not a fan of that industry)? If you want REALISM, how does a mass murderer commit any crime and not inevitably be put to death by the legal system?
(NOTE) Look, I’m not here to start political debates. I won’t share my opinion on the death penalty any more than I’ll approve comments which do the same. This is a writing blog. The above comment was made because the death penalty exists regardless of the existence or absence of my approval.
What we should strive for as authors are AUTHENTIC characters. If you want a white hat, help old ladies cross the road, shining smile, never lies character, go for it. If you want a drinking, abusive, thieving character, go for it! But when SOMETHING happens to SOMEONE, that person reacts. I think readers have more problems with authenticity than moral values of characters.
What do you all think? Which do you all prefer? Feel free to throw your comments below. (For the record, Doctor Who is a FLAWED character. Come on people, even if you know the events of “The Day of the Doctor” he still knowingly killed an entire species.)
Spolier Free Summary: A Halo of Mushroomsis Andrew Hiller’s second published novel. (NOTE: Hiller did a story about me on his blog which I talked bout in my blog about My Journey So Far.) It’s about Derik a magical healer from another land who carries with him a very special mushroom. If I’m being honest, the cover leaves a lot to be desired. I implore you to ignore the cover and read the book as it’s a treat. It reminded me of Pratchett’s Discworld Series. I’ve mentioned a few times I’m a huge fan of Tiffany Aching’s saga, but not such a fan of The Color of Magic. This book has the traits of both books that I do like, and I feel fans of Pratchett would at least (if not enjoy) appreciate Mushrooms. In the book, Derik has to find the right location to plant his magic mushroom all while earning a dollar and avoiding cats and monsters who are hunting him down for stealing the magic spud.
Character: There are three main characters in this book, though it focuses on Derik. The other two characters are Imani, a baker, and Lara, a scientist. The characters are real enough, with decent identity and progress, but for my money, I think the most of Imani. Derik is the most well rounded of the characters, and we get a lot of insight into him, but Imani grows on the reader. Lara has some very interesting aspects, but I felt like her characters had some missed opportunities. What I feel makes this book stand out about these characters is that while they each individually may be lacking, this is a pretty strong ensemble cast. I realize as I write this that while I wish each character was more fleshed out, I moved through this book because of the way they interact with one another. For those who read my blog on plotting, this was a pretty effective relationship plot, and it’s honestly the strongest part of the book. These characters know Derik as a man trying to do something nice or right. They bond over their desire to help him.
Exposition: The exposition of this book is a little on the heavy side. There are a few segments where I feel Hiller is giving scope to the book, but I don’t think I personally needed it. Though there are patches of over exposition, they don’t slow the pace or enjoyment of the book.
Worldbuilding: I’d say this is the weakest area of the book. The magic system here doesn’t make a ton of sense. Now…I have to explain that I’m a fan of either (1) books that have a sense of wonder in which the magic is a complication or (2) books that have well understood (even if complex) magic systems that are part of the resolution. This book maintains a sense of wonder, but I felt that cost something at the end. However, it wasn’t something that brought the book too far down as the reader has enough understanding of how the worlds work to believe what’s happening. Once the reader understand the effects of the “Poms,” things flow pretty well. Now, I just said the exposition here was heavy, and how does one explain a magic system with out more of what was already a lot of exposition? So I see the sense in limiting the explanations to what the readers must have.
Dialogue: There’s a scene near the end of the book between Imani and one of her regular customers that I felt was a sign of a next level from Hiller. I wouldn’t begrudge an editor telling him to delete it, but it was strong writing that helped reveal the character. We see this again when Derik talks to a character referred to as Baba. Those two scenes are great examples of how dialogue can move a plot and define a character.
Description: I’m not as over the moon about description as some. It shows in my own writing, and it’s something I’m working on because I understand it’s something readers look for. With that said, I couldn’t tell you what any of the characters look like. The clearest memory I have is of a certain car that got great mileage without a lot of gas. There’s a lizard I can remember clearly as well. This didn’t bother me at all because of how much less invested I am in that sort of thing, but I evaluate the quality of description based on how much I can remember a day or so after reading the book. There are a few characteristics about Imani and Derik I can recall, but that’s about it. For my money, it didn’t bother me at all, but readers who want down to the thread count descriptions may find this element of the book lacking.
Overall: I want to go back to what I said earlier. A lot of the readers who enjoy the Discworld saga find a charm in the satire and melting pot of ideas. For me, this book has that sort of feel to me. The charm in my opinion is Derek’s sense of wonder in our world. I think that’s the main reason I enjoy it so much. Hiller shows our world from the point of view of someone from another world, and it made me feel more magic in our every day corner of the known universe. The ending was a cliffhanger, which I don’t generally like, but it did satisfy the plot of the book while pointedly indicating what I hope is a equally endearing sequel.
Recently I posted a blog about how I develop characters. While doing that, I talked about how in in character files, I outline each character’s progression. This is commonly called plotting. You use structures to develop each character’s through-line. In the post mentioned above, I discussed the need for each character to be their own main character. I also mentioned they need more than one plot.
The bulk of my plotting terms come from Brandon Sanderson’s online lectures. I may have altered some terms because they make more sense for me that way, but those have the bulk of the structures I use.
As I grow, I consider other options, but this is a solid list. Essentially what it boils down to is asking yourself, “How are my readers going to know my character is growing.” Reminder: Regression is a form of growth.
I always knew about the Three Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey. The Journals of Bob Drifter follows a three act cycle. The “Matt breakdown” of this is: Introduce Hero. Make life suck. Resolve issues established in Act Two.
Rather than rehash what is already covered brilliantly in the links above, I thought I’d do what I love best, and provide you with some examples. I call these case studies. I learn best by looking at what others have done and seeing how it applies to what I’m trying to accomplish.
Corey Truax covered the heroes’ journey quite well, and Star Wars is a textbook example. Corey’s breakdown and Episode 4 are more than enough to go on.
Mystery: If your character is trying to learn something, you’re writing a mystery. It could be who killed John Doe or what’s wrong with the water in Ladonis. (I made those up to give you examples, so if you find something I accidentally touched on, I didn’t mean it.) Now, I’ve sung Sanderson’s praises a lot, so I feel talking about Elantris would be a bit unfair here. Let’s give someone else a little credit. Redshirts by John Scalzi is type of mystery. It’s hilarious. It’s obviously a parody (I’ll track down my review and post it on the new blog soon). The point is, the main character is trying to figure out what exactly is going on. I loved this book, but what pushed me through it was each clue the main character had to get him to realize what was happening. One of the main plotlines for my sixth book (New Utopia) is a mystery. Sanderson mentions Big Problem plots. I sort of lump this in with mystery as whatever they’re trying to do, they still have to figure out how to do it.
Try Fail: I tried to make this a sub plot as well because the character is trying to achieve something. The mystery would be how to do it, but what makes this plot stand alone better for me is the fact that you don’t actually need a large objective. I use this more for character than plot. Grimm is essentially a try fail plot in The Journals of Bob Drifter. If Grimm didn’t get closer to his ultimate objective, there’d be no tension, and his conflict with Bob would feel meaningless. My takeaway here is that the more a person fails to do something, the more surprising it is when the character succeeds. Now I’ve peddled my book several times over, so let’s talk about another book. Fade to Black byTim McBain is a more “problem” based thing, but what kept me reading was the fact that I wanted to know if the main character’s new approach was going to work.
Travelog: Sanderson mentions a few in the link I gave you, and I’ll elaborate on one of those. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan does a lot for me as a reader, but it also teaches me a lot. I was 90 pages into it and wanted to shout at my brother for recommending it, but he’d ordered me to read the first 100 pages, and so I did. If I use my analytical eye, I can find out why. Readers want to know the story is moving. The first 100 pages of The Eye of the World is all character introduction. Now, when I read book 13, and Sanderson tied back to that first 100 pages, it brought tears to my eyes (I’ll talk about endings in a future blog). So why was I so frustrated? The Eye of the World is essentially group of people trying to get somewhere. You have a map in the book that tells you where you are as a reader. The destinations change as well, but you always know you’re moving because the characters are striving to get somewhere. The first 100 pages of Eye of the World might frustrate readers because the characters don’t move. That 100 pages sets up the other 14 books (counting the prequel). They’re important and even cherished, but as a stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t have wanted to finish it had I not been ordered too. I’m glad I did. But the book moves much faster as we follow the characters and where they go.
Relationship Plot: I was about to sing C.L. Schneider’s praises again, but I feel if I’m too heavy handed, I’m not giving you readers enough material to read. I want to give a lot of books some credit. I haven’t spoken about the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer, and this is a good spot to do so. Here, you’d have to read the first three books to analyze the plot I’m talking about, the relationship is between Artemis and the magical creatures. The most used plot is “People meet and don’t like each other; then they get to know each other and fall in love.” There are many types of love, but the story could be about the breakdown in a relationship too. (Remember, where I say progress, change might be a better term).
Time Bomb: This can be quite literal or not. Essentially this device is in effect when you put a limit on something. Murder mysteries do it well. Every time you pick up a murder mystery, you want the hero to find the villain before someone else dies. It’s subtle there. It’s a lot more literal in Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. Thread is going to fall any day now, and Pern doesn’t have enough dragons. The second part of New Utopia (which will become its own book after I revise it) has one of these.
What I wanted to do with this post is show you the types of plots that are out there and give you a few examples to study up with. I hope it helps.
I’m very glad I had the chance to finish this book last week. I’d been excited to read the final book in the trilogy, and I wasn’t disappointed. To remind you all what’s happened so far, please check out my review of Magic-Price land my review of Magic-Scars.
Spoiler Free Summary: Magic-Borne is the final book in the Crown of Stones trilogy. It takes place pretty soon after the events of Magic-Scars. Ian is trying to solve the mystery of his scars, save a loved one, defeat his father, and find a way to bring peace to the land. We get a lot of questions answered and the readers will get a complete resolution, which is all any reader of a series can ask for these days.
Character: Ian is still amazing. His arch shows a lot of progress from the character we met in Price. He shines more in this book. I’ll admit I missed some of the other characters who, while still in the book, didn’t get as much air time as I’d have liked, but Ian is, and should be, why people are reading the series. In my review of the last book, I’d noted I would have liked more from them, but I think pulling back a bit was a sound decision. Jarryd had some major impact moments that showed his evolution in some pretty powerful ways, but the rest of the characters simply don’t get a lot of face time. It’s understandable given the ending, but I won’t lie that I wished they had a bigger role.
Exposition: This is about the same as the last book. Schneider has a knack for blending exposition with description to help the reader avoid large blocks of data dumping. I almost never notice the exposition in her work.
Worldbuilding: So what I have to do here is admit that if someone shouts that the ending “seems” convenient (or at least the plot device that brings about the end), I couldn’t get too angry because I’d understand what they see. I’d like to argue though that what Schneider did here is not MUCH different (if not even done better) than what McCaffrey did in Dragon Riders of Pern. Before anyone throws stuff at me, realize I’m only drawing a correlation between plot devices.
Pern is my favorite series (by a lot) and will always be. But if the plot device in that series didn’t bother you, the plot device in this one shouldn’t either. Schneider did a great job closing all the loops here and letting the readers learn about a complex magic system as they needed to. She sets up the ending to be complete and fulfilling while simultaneously leaving the door open for more books from that world.
Dialogue: I’d say the dialogue in Scars was better. There were scenes and arguments in Borne that felt a little quick for me. As I write this, I’d have to say Scars was my favorite in the series on a lot of fronts. That doesn’t take away from what this book is and could be. The biggest difference stylistically was the pace of the dialogue. Even the amount of dialogue felt a bit more rushed in this book. This was not to a degree as to degrade the quality, just not the same crips, visceral dialogue we saw in Scars. It’s still a great book. I just felt this was a weaker element of the book.
Description: I mentioned problems with how I saw characters in the review for Scars, and Schneider followed up her novel with much more character description. Her extra attention to smaller character details made the book that much more visceral than the last. I thought this was a great blend between setting, scene, and character description. This was an improvement from Scars to Borne.
A note on content: I don’t think this book is as explicit as Scars. There are some adult scenes in this book too. This still serves as a plot device as intimacy is a theme that shifts through each book. Where as with straight romance (note, I’ve only read two), you tend to see scenes like this for the sake of scenes like this. Here, you get steam and impact for the character. That’s something I appreciate.
Overall: I stand by my opinion that Scars is the best of the three, but this book is a very satisfying and complete conclusion to a great story. Where Scars upped the drama and the emotion, Borne lets us slip into the the resolution like a warm bath. I appreciate how this story tied up all the loose ends and let us leave this world feeling as if we’ve seen all there is to see, for now. This also holds true to how I usually feel about trilogies. I tend to like the second act best because that’s where the most drama is. That makes this book a perfect conclusion. No, it’s not the most exciting book because it can’t be. A reader has to leave a story knowing there’s nothing more (in a manner of speaking) to be seen from this arc. Borne does that. If Schneider ever decides to go back, I’m going to be immensely pleased. This was a sold, complete, well told story with an amazing protagonist and a fascinating twist on a few old tropes.
I honestly love character studies. I started them in high school and learned how to write by doing case studies. Just as I was pondering this very post, I ran into Adam’s blog post about how villains become villains.
I’ve grown up spoiled with stories. I’ve gotten to read, watch, and listen to a ton of great stories in a litany of formats. The most common trend I see these days is the sympathetic villain. Perhaps a more accurate term in this case is a “relatable” villain. Let’s face it, people just don’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll be a horrible person today.” People are motivated to take action.
This got me thinking about a character study I’d like to share with you. The most fascinating villainy turn I saw was linked to a phrase of mine. “The Devil isn’t the monster, he’s your best friend.” I hope the Lord understands my metaphor and his worshipers don’t judge. Let me explain the theory. I don’t think the devil is one who threatens and yells. It’s far easier to ENCOURAGE sin. So that’s the meaning. The guy who says, “Why not? Everyone else does it? Why not? Who’s it really hurting.” Temptation is the enemy of faith, and those “reasonable” steps away from what one should do is how that highway to Hell gets paved. Now, I promise, this isn’t a theological post. It just sets up this amazing story arch.
Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy is great just to read and enjoy, but I invite you to read it (or even better read it again) and pay close attention to Dorian Ursuul. His arch is amazing. You see. He’s a good guy. He has his struggles. He even has this intense desire to step away from the fearful reputation of his father. He’s a good guy right? Well…sure. But let’s try to avoid spoilers as much as we can.
The first thing that happens is he has to take the position his father had. It’s all fine and good to CLAIM to want to be benevolent and kind, but that doesn’t always work out in practice when you’re in charge. Dorian starts by hating himself and making concessions as to why it’s “necessary.” Indeed, as a reader, I found myself noting that, “yeah, what are his options?” Quite frankly his option was to live the bad guy or die a man of principle. Who doesn’t understand that?
What Weeks does masterfully is up the anti. Dorian does something else that isn’t’ very nice, but he has his reason. Then he does something slightly worse. By the time he makes his fifth or sixth “bad” decision, the readers have come to see him as having “gone bad.” Even if his reason is the most noble on the surface. This proves what I said above. Villains descend into darkness. I have a book on my own inspired by that very premise.
This arch is all about how power corrupts. As Dorian progresses, he makes every decision for a number of reasons, some of which make perfect sense. His descent was gradual and unfortunate.
This is a POWERFUL storytelling tool I’m surprised hasn’t ben made more useful in fiction. It makes the villain sympathetic more than a plot devise. I won’t lie. The main character, “Grimm,” in The Journals of Bob Drifter, is a plot device. I don’t hate any storytelling techniques on it’s surface. I’m simply trying to provide writers a tool for an underused structure they may want to consider.
I hope the example I gave makes sense. I really fight to avoid spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, you should JUST to follow THAT character’s story line. It’s amazing storytelling.
So I read a blog from Quintessential Editor a few days ago in which we discussed character or conflict. He and I may (I’m actually not sure) disagree on what makes a book great. I’ll vote character every time, and I have my reasons, but the blog inspired me to offer my view on what turns out to be how I evaluate characters.
I love Writing Excuses. It’s a great podcast, and they did a podcast a few years ago (back when I had the luxury of listening every week) that helped me understand why I like books. I’ve said it a few times. I like sympathetic, proactive characters. The podcast to which I’m referring is the one on character sliders. In it, they discuss how to evaluate characters by Sympathy, Competency, and Proactivity.
I’ll let you listen to the podcast for the explanation because they’re awesome, hugely successful authors, and I’m an Indie guy trying to find my way in the world. I will make one argument.
Sanderson explains that Sympathy is the “how likable a character is.” He’s my Yoda in every regard, but I don’t know that’s true. I think Sympathy (at least to me) is how strongly I feel about the character. Whatever the emotion, if I feel it strongly, I’m drawn to the character. The formula works regardless, but I see sympathy as “strength of emotional reaction” and not strictly “likable.”
What I thought I could add or build from this wonderful tool was how to use it when writing a book. I don’t see this as a character development tool myself. Rather, I try to anticipate how readers will see the character. I’m editing Caught still, so I’d like to use Sal. In the previous draft, he was proactive and sympathetic.
My editor and I disagreed on his arc. What I wish I’d argued then is that he wasn’t actually very competent. He tried several times and several ways to do something before he gained more power. His argument, in the interest of being fair, was that Sal struggled and failed so many times, and never reacted to those failures.
I kept this in mind while revising. I kept in in mind while writing for the other characters as well. I want my readers to say two things when they read my books. “I (feel strongly) about his characters” and “they’re always moving.” I hope they hate the characters I want them to hate, and I hope they love the characters I mean for them to love, but as long as they feel strongly, I feel I’ve succeeded.
So how do you do this? Well, I’m sure there’s a lot of ways, but this is my own spin. At each major plot point (for me, this is when I check my outline), look at your character and see how the plot point might have effected each of these traits. Every time a character fails, he or she seems less competent. Some fans hate incompetent characters. I’m actually not one of them.
Case study: Naruto is a moron. He’s a goof, who’s just winging it. He can’t do a single normal jutsu and really only has the one major trick. But look at how hard he works! Look at how much he cares about his comrades? Look at how he struggles to maintain his bonds. In fact, each time he wins, it’s usually DESPITE his competence. Still, if he NEVER learned anything, he’d eventually get boring. So at certain points, he becomes ever so much less stupid. This is how we see his progression as a character. Don’t mistake progression as moving forward.
Case study: Rand al’Thor is one of my favorite characters ever. In fact, I’d like to compare him to Ichigo from Bleach. I feel Rand works more because there’s more progression. Ichigo gets more powerful. He’s competent, proactive and sympathetic, and he never really changes. Rand becomes all the more compelling because as he becomes more powerful (and we’ll have to discuss something soon), he becomes more isolated and less sympathetic. So you see, he devolves in sympathy as he evolves in power.
Is power a slider? For me it is. Because competence, to me, is the character’s success rate. But there are several characters who win a lot, but still don’t feel very powerful. The first that comes to mind is Ender Wiggin. He’s incredibly sympathetic, competent, and proactive. But none of that matters because he’s supposed to fight an alien race that the human race has feared for generations. Power is a factor in a lot of things, and conflict can be the gauge by which you measure it. So why do I consider it a slider? Because it can be used as a source of conflict in itself, not just a resolution to conflict.
Now that I’ve done a few case studies, let’s turn that microscope on myself. While writing Bob, I was very concerned about the first act because the conflict is subtle. Most reviews regard the first act as the best, which makes me feel good I didn’t cut it from the book. In the first act, Bob is sympathetic and proactive. His proactivity is what causes the conflict. Police notice him, and now he has to evade them. He’s not very competent. He doesn’t know anything about his job. He doesn’t know how to avoid police. He’s not even very good at covering his tracks. This leads to the climax of part one.
When I got to Part 2, I checked up on Bob’s sliders. Sympathy 100% Proactivity 100% Competence: 30% (I’m probably being nice). Power 50%. This might surprise people. While Bob talks about how “useless” his powers are, he’s still comparatively more powerful than most of the characters in Part 1. In Part 2, I introduce Grimm. Now he’s very competent, very proactive. How sympathetic is he? I HOPE readers say they hate him, but I can’t pretend to know. There’s hardly any feedback on him though, so that leads me to believe I miscalculated here. So he’s not sympathetic at all. (otherwise, readers would have said something about him by now). I can learn from this. But what he DOES do, is make Bob seem LESS powerful. That also makes him seem LESS competent. So the progress for Bob is actually devolving and not evolving.
In Part 3, I make Bob more competent. I do this by showing him learn. I had to bring in the “mentor” archetype. I had to give Bob a few wins. This made it so when he got to the final conflict, he looked like he stood a chance.
That’s how I use the sliders. If I ever felt like my sympathy or proactivity values were slipping, I adjusted for it. I encourage authors to do these checks. When you hand the book to beta readers, ask them to send a chapter by chapter evaluation using whatever sliders you use to evaluate the character, then compare those to your own assessment. If they’re the same, I’d say you’re doing it right. If they’re different, that’s when it’s time to find out what you’re missing.
I’ve never really cared much for competent characters. They bore me. Oh there are a lot of characters that I love that are ALSO competent, but for my money, if a character doesn’t make me feel and isn’t doing anything, I hate the story. That doesn’t mean EVERYONE will. Know your genre.
That leads me to my last point. The Mary Sue character. Corey would be awesome and tell you where that term came from, I just learned it an moved on. (The difference between a gardner and an architect if I’ve ever seen one). A Mary Sue is a character that is the most compelling, most powerful, most proactive, most competent character ever. Dear God, do I hate those characters. I argue that if a character is too powerful and too competent, the sympathy bar naturally slides down for me. It’s a risk writers take. But here’s my twist:
Mary Sues don’t happen when all the bars are maxed; they happen when all the bars are equal.
I get this from photography. I picked up that wonderful skill in the Navy, and I’ll love it for the rest of my life. In terms of light, if you have equal values of red, blue, and green, you get gray. You can have 20% of each, or 100% of each. (Zero..well..then you don’t have any color, so that’s black, which, according to Batman is a very, very, very, dark gray). I find characters feel like Mary Sues when all values are equal, no matter those values.
Character study: Rey. She’s not that sympathetic. Really. She’s just out there in the desert chilling. You LEARN to care for her, but that’s not the first hour of the movie I saw. She’s competent, but everyone but me remembers how she got captured (like a chump) and messed up the doors (like a fool) when they were first aboard the Falcon. If I evaluate Rey right after meeting Han, I’d say she’d measure out at: Sympathy 10% Competence 10% Power 10% and Proactivity 10%. Remember, Finn is the one who gets her to move. She wanted to go home through the first half of the movie.
Her arc SEEMS Suish (trademark M.L.S. Weech) because she processes equally across all sliders throughout the movie. She gains more power and competence. This makes her more proactive and sympathetic. I love the movie. I don’t mind Rey, but I don’t love her either, because she essentially sat around the desert until someone forced her to move, and even then she didn’t do much until she got captured. Watch the movie, let me know if you think I’m wrong.
So that’s it. Try it on your book. Toss me a few character studies. Let’s make a game of it. Until then, thanks for reading.
Spoiler Free Summary: Doomedis a story about Madison Spencer, who is dead, but that doesn’t stop her from posting blogs about her fight with the Devil. She’s trying to prevent the end of the world, which is pretty hard because everyone seems determined to run toward just that, and they’re doing so in her name.
A note on content and content warning. Not only is this book designed for adults, I must admit that this has some aspects of tone and conduct that strike me the wrong way. While this affected MY enjoyment of the book, it does not diminish the quality of the writer or it’s narrative. This is important for me to say because I developed this new review format to be objective. The reasons I struggled with the book have more to do with my own past and my own issues than it does with why this book might be of interest to other readers. That said, readers with an aversion to certain sexual situations may want to speak to a friend who’s read this book before reading it themselves.
Character: Madison is actually a very sympathetic character. Her situation is tragic for a great many reasons, and as the plot progresses, her story only becomes that much more compelling. There are a few other cute side characters here and there, but Madison drives this story. I’m unsure of some of her motivations, and this is an issue because they shift the plot forward when I’m not sure why she’d do such a thing, but the bulk of her actions make up for one issue that may be more a result from having to step away from reading than the actual plot of the book. Even if there is an issue, it doesn’t degrade Madison’s overall sympathy. This book is in first-person narrative, and that gives us a lot of insight. It’s also written in a sort of “blog” style, which is cool to see, and if the reader pays attention, there are some small easter eggs here and there.
Exposition: This backfired in my opinion. There are breaks in this narrative from an alternative perspective. Those breaks didn’t do much for me in any way, and really only confused me. It’s not to say that breaks in narrative NEVER work, but to date, I’ve only seen this done well a few times. I mention it here because those breaks are for exposition. I comprehend what it’s doing, but all of that information comes back to light in Madison’s narrative. There isn’t a lot of it, but I don’t know that there needed to be any.
Worldbuilding: This is a pretty deep world when I consider all the forces working together. The wolrdbuilding is a strength in this book because everything builds on everything else. It’s set in modern-day earth, but I’m not talking about the “physical” world. I’m talking about Madison’s world and how it works. Each time we gain more understanding in how she exists, we learn more about how the forces against her have been moving.
Dialogue: The dialogue in this book is crisp and witty. Madison’s tone is darkly optimistic, and that’s something I enjoyed a lot. Not all of the dialogue is that good. Madison’s parents were a lull for me in pretty much any scene they were in, but the dialogue between Madison and her grandmother was amazing. Each character had a unique voice, and Palahniuk did a great job shifting those tones not from his perspective, but from Madison’s.
Description: A friend (Hi Woody!) gave me this book because I continue to assert description as a weakness of mine. In terms of using this book to analyze and practice the art of description in narrative, this book was a great choice. Palahniuk’s style and description adds a texture to the story that goes beyond just “knowing what was in the scene.” Where some authors use scene out of obligation, Palahniuk uses it as a tool and even a plot device. I’m grateful my friend gave me something like this to study.
Overall: Fans of dark comedy will enjoy this book, though I didn’t find a lot of it funny. It’s not graphic or controversial (I think) for the sake of shock value, at least not in my opinion. The cliffhanger ending didn’t endear itself to me either. This book covers a few very important concepts. The blending of setting, circumstance, and character makes for some very powerful drama. It’s satirically funny at times and poignantly tragic in others. Some of the characters frustrated me because I simply don’t find them believable, but Palahniuk works with characters like that.