Whenever I do a review, those familiar with my blog know that I have a very consistent approach because I know what I like in stories, and I evaluate stories by what I like. I think the more someone works to understand what they like, they’re more likely to find books they enjoy and (if they aspire to be an author) write books they will enjoy.
What I decided to do today is provide examples on what books did particularly well in various categories.
Character: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I chose this specifically because of how divisive this book is in my opinion. I love it. I know people who hate it. The love and hate of this book is based entirely on how people feel about Kvothe. I think Kvothe is a brilliant character. He’s sympathetic, proactive, and highly competent. Now this is actually why a lot of people don’t like the book. He’s too perfect. I don’t think he’s a Mary Sue, but some do. Still the point is, this book hangs it hat on the main character.
Exposition: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. Every book needs exposition. Sooner or later, the author has to just tell the reader what’s going on. The trick is to make sure that writers show everything they can and lace the exposition through the story. Mistborn has an incredibly complex magic system, and the world it happens in has a deep history. This book never once beats up the reader with complicated blocks of exposition. There is one “education” scene, where Vin learns the basics of allomancy, but other than that, the book weaves what we need throughout the action.
Worldbuilding: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. If you’re wondering, yes, it was very hard to not include Sanderson here as well, but Eye of the World is another example. Great stories typically have worlds that feel real. Eye of the World establishes so much with culture, the magic system, the mythos, and the setting. It’s truly masterful worldbuilding, but it’s not just worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. There are books I feel that take worldbuilding too far. I don’t want to spend my life reading about the economic value of a whosit. This book balances intricate worldbuilding with the story to make the scene and universe believable.
Dialogue: Brother Odd by Dean Koontz. I’ve always been a fan of the dialogue in Koontz’s books, but I think this book is a text book for how dialogue is done. The conversations in this book are crisp and relevant, and each character has a distinct voice. Also, it’s a pretty amazing book.
Description: Betrayer’s Bane by Michael G. Manning. Honestly, I’m so finicky with description, this is hard for me. I think Timothy Zahn should also get some credit here, but Manning came to mind first, so here it is. This book has a lot of action and a lot of dramatic scenes. Manning artfully places strategic adjectives that bring a story to life without beating the reader to death with huge paragraphs of description.
There are many books that do many of these well. I don’t know that I can truly place a book here that does all of them well. I think a good book only has to do a majority of these well. I’ll even go so far as to say that, for me personally, I just need good character and low exposition, and I’ll probably like it. The point is, the more of these a writer pays attention to, the better the book will be.
As I’m not reading as quickly as I’d like, I don’t have a review for you all. That means I had to think about something on which I could discuss. I gave it some time, and as I was thinking about another project I’m taking on (super-secret, big possibilities), I started thinking about villains. I did a blog on villains a while back, but then I realized, I’m not actually a big fan of villains.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good conflict, but stick with me. I went back and thought about my favorite books of all time. Only one of them has any arguable main villains.
Beowulf: One might argue this has villains, and it does. But Beowulf fights several. To my recollection (and I’ll admit it’s been a long while) none of them have very complex back stories. Oh, there’s some information, but ultimately, they’re either the fodder Beowulf cuts through or the thing that finally takes him down. Grendel is the most discussed, but he’s dispatched fairly quickly in the book.
What Men Live By, by Leo Tolstoy: I promise you, there was no bad guy.
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson: So here we come to the “yes there was a villain” argument. Look, Ruin was the main antagonist. But Vin takes him on, and that’s that. Ruin wasn’t a mortal. He was this larger than life force that Vin had to elevate herself to take on (and I think there’s something there).
Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson: Again, the Dark One was the overall threat. Some may argue Ishamael was the “villain” of that story, but I simply don’t see it that way.
The Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey: No villain. A threat, a lager than life threat, but no villain.
This led me to an assertion. Great Books Need Great Villains. I think not. These are my five favorite books of all time, and the reason I love them has nothing to do with the villains. Do I think a great villain can make a book great? Yes, but I don’t think they’re mandatory. It really dawned on me as I was thinking about who my favorite villains are. The fact of the matter is I don’t have any. I’m actively sitting here thinking about books and who the MC faces in each of them, and I can’t even name one. Comics are different in that regard, but comics are meant to run for years, so you need a cast of villains to change things up.
I’ve said this a bunch of times, give me proactive, sympathetic characters, and I’m probably going to love your story. I’m less invested as a reader to see if they’re proactive because they have to defeat evil or because they have to beat this one particular antagonist. That’s window dressing for me. Bob and Caught both have villains. I certainly hope they’re enjoyable villains, but I don’t mind a world where the heroes are the ones with whom my readers connect.
So this post, short but interesting, leads to a question. Where do you sit in relationship to villains? I understand the value of compelling villains. What I’m asking is do you only invest in stories that have a great villain? Compare your favorite books ever to this question. Tell me the villain of your favorite book or series. I’m honestly curious to know what you think.
It’s been a while since I did any character studies, so I thought this was a good time to do that. There’s a lot of demand out there these days for characters who “grow.” That term is used a lot but the better word is “change.” People like to see characters affected by their actions and evolve as a result of them. I’m still a big fan of neutral change arcs (K.M. Weiland’sCreating Character Arcs talks about this), but I have seen some character arcs that I just loved. Some I’ve already mentioned before, but I’d like to share with you some stories where you truly saw a character evolve as the story progressed.
Rand al’Thor from The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson: I’d argue this is my favorite arc of all time. It probably should be as it took 14 books to evolve. I don’t know that I’ve seen any other character grow, fall, and return to grace the way Rand does. He starts as a simple farm boy (yes, the most overused trope ever). But he’s just a boy whose biggest concern is dealing with a girl he’s pretty sure he’s going to marry. We see him afraid and avoid his calling for three books. Then we see him struggle with what it means to be what he becomes. Then we see him betrayed, and what that does to him. He falls all the way to darkness, nearly willing to end his own life. Then he becomes the leader and figure he’s meant to be, but that’s not the end. I won’t go farther than that. Even with spoilers, there are some things I just won’t discuss on a blog. But for people who want to study an arc of a character, I’d recommend you start here.
Dorian Ursuul from the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks: I’ve already spoken about his arc in terms of his fall from grace. He’s honestly a good, well-meaning man who’s put in a position that basically tempts him into becoming the monster he eventually becomes. I’m fascinated about the possibility of a story where this plot is more of a centerpiece of a novel. It’s rummaging around my head somewhere, but it’ll fall out at some point, and this character and story is why. It’s a beautiful negative change arc.
Tyrion from The Embers of Illeniel series by Michael G. Manning: The end of his arc was the best book I read last year, and that’s saying something. He gives Rand a run for his money in terms of quality (I give Rand the advantage because I like good guys to find their grace again), but this character’s arc is so enthralling. Every single thing he does that will make him a monster is understandable. The tragedy of its necessity is second only to the sadness I felt as I saw what those horrific necessities created.
Artemis Fowl from the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer: I have to make it a point to pick up this series again. I thought it ended, but I’m not sure I read all of the books. Even with what I read, his arc deserves to be here. Listen folks, this kid is a little turd in book one. Watching him interact and make friends and become a protector for those he originally sought to use was a real treat. It’s funny because the way I’m identifying these characters is by looking through my Goodreads books. I scrolled around until I stumbled upon the book and thought, “Oh yeah! His arc was fantastic!” He’s a character who starts out pretty bad (I mean it’s a young reader book), and then grows into someone truly selfless.
Emma from Emma by Jane Austen: I’m going to pause here to go off on a tiny tangent. Fans claim to demand great arcs, but if I’m being honest, I just don’t see many. Oh, I read a bunch of great stories. But most of the stories I read are about men who are tempted but don’t fall, men who are nice and stay nice, or men who are bad and stay bad. I’ll go over some of my favorite books where I just don’t see the arc. People can argue with me if they wish (I encourage debate), but I spent a solid hour going over all my books in my Goodreads and struggled to find five arcs where I could really point to a person who changed (even if only for a while in the book). Oh, they evolved. They learned a truth, but they didn’t actually CHANGE. There are other characters who truly change in other mediums. (Weiland does a bunch of character studies in her book.) But for my money, it’s tough to find those sweeping evolutionary arcs. Emma represents one of the originals. She’s a selfish woman who thinks she knows best how to do things. (Clueless was one of the best modern adaptations of a book I’ve ever seen. Seriously!) Regardless, she changes from a selfish person who THINKS she’s selfless, to a person who learns how to value others as people rather than objects. It’s honestly a solid arc.
So there you go. I’d love to hear your thoughts on arcs. Please don’t misunderstand. There are a lot of books I love (I thought about putting Vin on her list, but she evolved pretty quickly in my opinion) where I didn’t really notice an arc, but I won’t deny that some of these stories are genuinely great because of the way the characters evolve (or devolve). If you think you got another good one, please post it below in the comments for discussion or study.
My favorite thing about the blog so far is the inspiration I see from comments to older posts. I’m glad you all enjoy character studies as much as I do, and when I talked about “flawed” vs “Traditional heroes, you all gave me some great ideas.
The first idea I wanted to tackle was the idea of a hero, and what makes one heroic. I thought about this for some time, and decided it came down to sacrifice, courage, and loyalty. For my character study, I’m going to say I’d like my hero (regardless of his flaws or perfections) have all three of these if you look hard enough.
So since I have three traits, I should highlight three characters right? Makes sense to me at least. So without much more ado, here are three characters that I think are fantastic heroes because they exemplify these traits. BUT as a special aside, NONE of these characters are (at least regarded) as the main character of their stories. This means Sam is out from Lord of the Rings because I honestly think he is the hero of that book.
Perrin Aybara is absolutely my favorite character from Wheel of Time. Oh Rand is awesome and Mat is fun (and he has my name, so he has to be awesome right?), but Perrin’s heroics are worthy of study. (Look, Rand is easily a hero, but he’s too easy).
Sacrifice: He didn’t sacrifice his family. He LOST his family, but that doesn’t actually make one heroic. Not in my standing anyway. Instead, what he sacrificed was the simple life he always wanted. Through the whole saga he wants his wife and a simple life. This is exceptionally heroic as most people don’t long for that, especially in fantasy. Most characters dream of adventure and discovery, but Perrin just wants to be a blacksmith. He gave that up to be the man he knew he had to be. He continued to do so even thought it cost him.
Courage: Here’s where Perrin may fall short a bit in relation to the other two heroes I cover, but he still has it. No. I’m not talking about facing trollocs or whitecloaks. I’m talking about facing a part of himself that he doesn’t like. Look anyone can face external dangers. Fight or flight kicks in, and a man has to defend himself. That’s not (in and of itself) courage. It’s self preservation. Perrin faces his identity as a wolfbrother. He’s lived his whole life taught to believe wolves are evil, and THEN he realizes he’s becoming one (or like one). He doesn’t necessarily want to embrace this part of his life. Instead, he chooses to. He has reasons, but he doesn’t just face this part of himself out of self preservation or even to save his friends. He does so because he must.
Loyalty: This is where Perrin has the title. Rand frequently puts Perrin in the most danger. He even forces Perrin to go back home to deal with events in Book 4 that Rand can’t deal with. Rand has his reasons, but Perrin never fails to support Rand. He’s the first to try and understand Rand. He’s the one who goes home to defend it. He’s the one who steps up.
Xander Harris is the only character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer who doesn’t grow into something more. Heck even Dawn gets training as a slayer. Xander is just a guy.
Sacrifice: So where Perrin has some obvious areas of sacrifice. The question, if my criteria hold up, is what did Xander give up? This is tough because Xander is actually a pretty selfish character. Sure he LOSES people, but what does he let go of that he would have if he’d stepped away from the Scooby Gang? I thought about it, and nearly changed characters when it dawned on me. What he gave up was any chance to be special. Most people want a chance to shine.
Most people want a chance to be in the lime light or be seen as important. Xander happily plays third or forth fiddle to a group of people that become exponentially more powerful and unique than he is. There was an adorable episode in Season 3 where all he wants to do is help. He KNOWS something’s going on, but everyone sort of shuns him away. He also finds his power there. In that same episode he sacrifices the opportunity to be exceptional just to be a part of something greater than himself. Go watch that episode and see how he eventually turns that to an advantage. Every progressing season he stays back. He is the normal, consistent part of life for individuals that are so much more. This becomes the need he fills for the team.
Courage: This is more on the nose than I’d like. But when his sacrifice is his choice to remain normal in a paranormal world, he’s also choosing to willingly put himself in danger when he’s always out of his league. It’s different from Perrin. Perrin faces his own fears because he’s bigger and stronger. Then he gets more powerful. Xander doesn’t have those advantages. All he has is the willingness to put himself in harms way over and over again just to stay near those he loves.
Loyalty: He takes a knock here, but not a big one. Let’s put this elephant on the table. He hates Angel and wants to kill him. Maybe even still. BUT, when he CHOOSES to see good in a person, he’s untouchable. He brings Willow back. What helps his loyalty shine here is how fierce he is with it. He hates who he hates, and loves who he loves. He’s as true as the North Star, and he doesn’t shift. Even his tolerance of characters he’d rather see take a stake to the heart is based on his friends’ desire to see them protected (though again, Angel makes this hard to justify).
My final character is one I’m proud of myself for. This is mostly because, again, it’s easy to point out the hero of the story. They’re usually the ones on the cover. But my point is what makes a person heroic, and is it always the main character? In this case, how about Charity Carpenter from the Dresden Files. (Love you Waldo, but you have a (INSER COPYRIGHT) as you’re a (INSERT SPOILER) now. Don’t freak. I’m not saying he’s NOT a hero. But he was already rewarded as one, so I don’t have to defend him.) Charity though, she’s fascinating to look at under this light.
Sacrifice: I’m in the Navy, and I’m a coward. I chose to avoid a certain problem rather than ever face it. But let someone you love put himself or herself in danger time and time again. It’s harder than ACTUALLY putting yourself in danger. (Any of my service members want to argue?) She gives up her husband for years, and THEN has to let her daughter go. She also sacrifices the VERY power that would make her able to fight, and she lets this power go to be a mom.
Courage: I’m going to double tap this. Facing danger, easy. Letting those you love PUT themselves in danger? Nope. I can’t do that. I’d rather take on the entire magical world by myself with a slingshot and a prayer (no offense to that guy who fought a giant) than let someone I love come anywhere near danger.
Loyalty: Where Xander is loyal to a fault, Charity’s loyalty shines despite her wishes. She lets Harry in her life (and those of her children) because of Michael. In point of fact, she, though begrudgingly, allows Harry to remain in that family despite every reason to turn him away. THEN she agrees to watch over his child. Loyalty isn’t always shown by being there when your needed. Sometimes loyalty is putting up with a person you’d rather not just because someone you cared about asks you to. This is where Charity shines. No, she doesn’t exactly like it, and that much is obvious, but she still does it.
What do you all think? Do I have too many qualifications? Not enough? What would you add? What would you let go? Feel free to comment below. Or, offer other characters (I left a bajillion out).
So I often talk about a lot of books and things of that note, but a few people have asked me about my favorites, and I thought now was as good a time as any to share a few with you. I’m probably already talked about these in one way or another, but I think it’s a good idea to have them all in one spot. After considering my options, I’ve decided to give you my top five, because everyone likes a good countdown. These are my all-time favorite. They are books I’ve read more than once simply because I love them.
Note: I talk a lot about a lot of writers, and they’re all amazing. This is my top five ever. These are the books that I’d drag out of a burning building (and that’s saying something since we’re actually talking about 28 books in reality). This isn’t to say I don’t like others. I even love some. But these are the ones I love most.
5) Beowulf: Probably the first book I was ever made to read in school that made me realize that books existed that I actually liked. There’s a lot here in this story. Beowulf is probably why I’m drawn to the types of characters to which I’m drawn. I created a role playing character named in his honor.
4)What Men Live By, by Leo Tolstoy: This is actually a short story, but any anthology of his work that includes this story is something I’ll read more than once. I’m a huge fan of Tolstoy. I usually find a way to weave him into my books, (including The Journals of Bob Drifter). This story strikes a lot of chords with me, and is actually a very good case study for character and foreshadowing. The message of this book is what drew me in. I’ve loved it since the first day I read it.
3) Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson: I’ll confess. I read this because I learned that Sanderson was finishing the Wheel of Time (see below). I wanted to get to know him so I would just judge him on what he “didn’t do that I thought Jordan WOULD do.” So I read his blog when he spoke about Jordan’s passing. That alone helped me see what a good man he was. Then I read Mistborn. Game over! He’s the best in the business. He’s a brilliant writer and an amazing individual in the community of authors. On my list of “writers whom I drop what I’m reading for,” he’s number one.
2) The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan: I’ve read this series no less than eight times. It’s a huge story with so many wonderful characters. I actually think readers are VERY polarized with Jordan and his work, but I love the series and can’t wait to see it in live action if it ever actually happens.
1) The Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey: This has been my favorite series for decades. I fell in love with Ruth. I love the Master Harper. It’s one of a few books I freely confess to openly weeping over while reading. It’s so beautiful and touching. The drama between characters just pulls in the reader. The covers are simply amazing. Every time someone asks, “If I want good fantasy, where do I start reading?” This is my answer.
So this is short and sweet, but I thought I’d share. I’ll probably drop a few more favorite five every now and then. What are your favorite five stories of all time? Post in the comments below. I’m always looking for books to add to my TBR list.
Under my new book review format, I talk about how much I enjoy characters. That got me thinking about character sympathy, why it’s important and how to manipulate the reader’s sympathy for a character.
One reference for how to adjust sympathy is Writing Excuses. They’re more successful than I am, and they’re also better at this than I am. The linked podcast addresses the how. They reference another podcast that explains why you don’t have to have sympathetic characters. That’s true. There are reasons to have unsympathetic characters, but I’m not a fan of them. They exist in The Journals of Bob Drifter, but that doesn’t mean I was overly happy about their existence, only aware of their necessity.
What is a sympathetic character. There are a few differing opinions, but I’m going to selfishly hover in my realm of opinions. While some feel sympathetic characters are those readers feel sad for, I don’t necessarily leave it at that. When I talk about sympathetic characters, I’m speaking specifically on characters readers have a strong emotional response to. A character my readers hate (if that’s what I wanted them to feel) is every bit as important as a character my readers love. When I get feedback from beta readers, my worst fear is I’ll ask, “what did you think about Character X?” and the readers will respond with, “Who?” That’s a much bigger problem to me.
One of my betas for Journals hates Richard. When she told me why, I smiled, and said, “Sorry, but that’s exactly what I wanted you to feel.” The degree to which readers hate Richard is one thing, but if they hate him for the same reason my beta hated him, I did my job right. Characters can’t be completely rage worthy any more than they can be completely sympathetic. The masters (who in my opinion are George R.R. Martin and Peter V. Brett) can make you hate a character and then a book later, make you at least understand them. This particular ability allows you to have an extra arch with your characters.
A great example for how to do this? Believe it or not, the WWE. I haven’t watched wrestling in years, but think about it. Shawn Michaels went from hero to villain to hero to goof to hero and all the way around again. Readers look for growth in character, and that’s another term that might be misleading. Sometimes failure tests a character’s metal, and it’s okay for that character to regress. Why?
Now we come to the main purpose of this particular blog. We’re all human. Just on the drive to my brother’s house we talked about what it is to be human. I don’t think people are good or bad. I think they’re people. Sometimes they do good things, sometimes they do horrible things. I know I have. So the most realistic characters react to their environment. I have a few characters who don’t change. I like those characters. I like those who no matter the test, they alway pass. I like the other characters too. I think House, M.D. was a great example here. What kept me watching that show was the thought that, “Maybe this episode, he’ll do the decent thing.” Nope. Never did. It’s the same trick Charlie Brown kept falling for. He’ll never kick the ball and House will never be a compassionate person. (You can argue the end of that series with me in the comments if you want.)
Those characters are unique, but they can get boring quickly. I’ve failed in my life, so I look for characters who have flaws, but are generally decent folk. One of the more common compliments I get for Journals is Bob. He’s a good, white-hat, guy. He has his slumps, but he’s consistently kind and compassionate, and that makes him sympathetic when he’s faced with tragedy. Others don’t like him because he’s too nice. I think the world is just about done with antiheroes, then again, maybe not. I think it’s an archetype like any other. Use tools for a reason.
You don’t need a raging alcoholic day-care sitter any more than you need an incredibly pious prostitute. That sort of extreme can seem forced and/or contrived. Strive instead for people who feel real. All my favorite books have at least one character I genuinely feel some connection too. It’s the part of me I see in those characters that makes me want to see what happens to them. I think this is something to strive for in writing.
That makes me want to close with a few (in no particular order) characters I found very sympathetic. They area also some of my favorite characters in fiction. They are:
Perrin Aybara from Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.
All of these characters have great emotional range. Sometimes, they do things that make me proud, other times, I’m angry with them for how they handle a situation. I could have gone on, but I just wanted to give you all a few characters I felt have the qualities I look for when I’m reading. You can feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
In summary: A sympathetic character is someone the reader feels something for. They should be realistic by sometimes failing tests of character. They can be “bad” or “good” as a whole, but no one is all of any one thing. (except for a few carefully chosen characters, which I feel need to be offset by other members in the cast.)
I hope this gives you some insight into what I shoot for when I write. If you think you’ve found something I missed, or you just have a good resource to share, let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading,