Spoiler free summary: New Spring by Robert Jordan is the prequel novel to the Wheel of Time. Moiraine and Siuan are accepted of the White Tower. Soon, they will be Aes Sedai, but even sooner than that, ancient prophesies long feared come to pass. The Dragon has been reborn on the slope of Dragonmount, and they are two among a small handful of people who even know. Unfortunately, those who would take or kill the baby to help the shadow also know, and Moiraine must find the boy. She runs into a group of soldiers on her travels, but will they help her, or will they turn out to be more darkfriends leading her to certain death?
Character: I must be open and transparent here. This is at least the tenth time I’ve read this book. The characters are the reason this whole series is my second favorite (Dragonriders of Pern). This book elevated Moiraine for me, and while Siuan was never on my top list of favorites, this book allowed me to understand her better. Then, of course, there’s Lan, who steals the show. The characters are sympathetic and proactive. They have goals and flaws. They are why this saga is so special.
Exposition: This is probably where the book is a bit weaker. That’s not to say it’s terrible, but a world of this scope demands exposition. The other issue is that this book is first out of 15, but it was written much later in the series. The author was forced to act as if it was the first book, and that drags the pace even though the book is relatively short (especially when compared to other volumes in the series). So yes, it is excessive, but it’s not more than anyone should expect from a book setting up an entire world.
Worldbuilding: The reward for excessive exposition (see Dune, Dragonriders) is immaculate worldbuilding, and in my opinion, Wheel of Time has the best worldbuilding ever. I’ll mention this here even though this book isn’t the best one to mention it. Most fantasy stories I’ve read talk about other lands or nations, but they are vague mentions. This world is full of different places with customs an habits. In this book alone, we learn about White Tower politics and Shienar and Malkier. We meet people from those lands. We don’t just hear about them, we see them, and that’s setting aside Moiraine’s home nation of Cairhien, the matchstick for the entire saga.
Dialogue: As is the case with most of my favorites, this book has charming dialogue that doesn’t just expand the plot, but it reveals characters. Even their curses are unique to their nation or background.
Description: if anything slows down this story for me, it’s the sheer volume of description. The positive is that I can practically smell these characters. The down side is I have to slog through all of it. I feel like Jordan falls on the excessive, but he may just be the standard for an aspect of writing I’ve never really been particularly good at or interested in. I don’t know if it bothers other fans as much as it did bother me, but it does wonders for the imagination.
Overall: As an outrigger, this book fills in a lot of gaps that I wish we’d have seen fulfilled. As a prequel, it sets the stage. I start with this book when I re-read the series, but I wouldn’t recommend people new to the series start here. I’d read at least book one before going back (and I might recommend at least waiting until after The Dragon Reborn). That’s not because it isn’t good. Instead, there are surprises and treats that a reader gets from waiting to let this book add to the content rather than methodically play it out. Whatever you do, it’s a great book that really sets the standard for fantasy fiction.
As I’ve mentioned, I felt the need to re-read the Wheel of Time. I’ve also mentioned that Perrin is my favorite character.
Today, I thought I’d share with you the moment that happened. It’s not a big moment. It’s not anything that happens in Book 4, where Perrin truly shines. Instead, it’s this silly little quote tucked in the middle of Chapter 31 of The Great Hunt.
This was before people knew the big secret Rand had (I try to avoid spoilers when I can). Perrin and Mat knew, as did Verin. Verin was making a pointed comment at Rand.
“Perrin realized he was staring too, ‘Well, he did not fly,’ he said. ‘I don’t see any wings. Maybe he has more important things to tell us.'”
You see, this was a great divide for me. I actually hated Mat all the way through perhaps Book 5 or even a bit later. Mat was a fool, and he was hurtful to Rand when he needed a friend most. Perrin was clearly stricken, but there he was in this moment when everyone was making someone who was keeping the biggest, worst secret anyone could ever keep, and Perrin chose to be a faithful friend.
That was it. There were other cool things, and he has much bigger and more wonderful moments, but that little part right there was the part that made me look at him and see what a true friend is like.
I know it’s a bit silly, but I have my reasons.
I got picked on a lot as a kid. I probably deserved it if I’m being honest (well, no child deserves to be picked on, but if any child did, it would have been me). I can remember just wanting someone to stand up for me. I just wanted to be seen and feel valued. That moment even after all these years, resonates with me strongly in how much it means to stand up for someone.
What about you? What was the moment your favorite Wheel of Time character became your favorite.
So just a few days ago, I started reading New Spring by Robert Jordan with the intent to go all the way through the Wheel of Time.
First: It’s my second favorite series ever (Dragonriders of Pern). It’s one of only three series I’ve read multiple times (five if you count Mistborn and Stormlight separately, but I see them as one Cosmere saga). I realized that so many of the plot points had fallen out of my mind, and I don’t want that series to fade from memory. This is the beauty of books.
Second: It’s perfectly OK if you appreciate the Amazon series. I don’t. I think that series took pretty much everything I loved about Wheel of Time and perverted it by Episode Three or Four. Such an unfortunate tragedy demands I go back to the story that I love depicting the characters I love in the manner I came to love them for. Perhaps I’m being harsh. It’s better to say that I’m not of the opinion are for fans of the series. I then wonder why it was made, but the truth is obvious. This show is for people who didn’t read it. This is for a new audience. If you’re a fan of the show, and you’ve read the books, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Yes, I feel very strongly, but I’m willing to hear dissenting opinions.
So I’ll be listening to the audiobooks while driving to work and enjoying a story I’ve loved for nearly a decade now, and I’m relatively new to the fandom. I wanted to share this because I don’t actually re-read a lot of books. I tend to do this for ongoing series that force me to wait for the next installment (though I don’t expect I’ll do that for the Kingkiller Chronicles). I have to love to a powerful degree for a book if I’m going to read it multiple times.
This is more true for Wheel of Time. There’s so much depth and so many characters. I’ve read this series at least five times (and that’s a very low estimate). Each time I read it, I notice something I missed, so it feels fresh and wonderful to me. I don’t think I’ll ever absorb this series fully, but I’m going to enjoy trying.
So check back on the blog for the reviews. I don’t want you to think they’ll come quickly. I read every day, but it takes me a good long while to get through a book these days. Still, I’ll keep you up to date and maybe share something from time to time.
Wheel of Time is my second-favorite saga of all time. I joined the series after Knife of Dreams was out (though I started with Eye of the World), and I was hooked. I’ve read the whole series at least 14 times (1 time for each book in the series). There isn’t much news on the M.L.S. Weech front this week, so I thought I’d do a character study.
I’ve talked about character arcs a few times, and Rand is a fantastic analysis of character arc. Warning, there are spoilers here!
Characters need to grow: When we first meet Rand, we see a young man who thinks he knows how his life is going to go. He’s going to be a farmer, like his dad, and marry Egwene. He’s innocent. He’s naive. Eye of the World is essentially the story of a young man who must leave his home but desperately wants to return to it. The whole book is basically establishing Rand as a character living in ignorance (literally).
The Great Hunt forces Rand to act. Even in this book, Rand truly wants nothing more than to life to return to the way it was (a return to innocence). It is only his bond and desire to save his friend that keeps him on the path he needs to stay on. Which brings me to another point.
Characters need believable motivations: What else could keep a character moving along the plot line? Why would a character risk danger? In this case, Rand risks giving in to his power by putting himself on the Hunt. His loyalty to his friend is the motivation that makes us believe he’d do something he’d otherwise never do. The friendships established in the first book allow the reader to see that motivation.
The Dragon Reborn is such a clever tale for so many reason. Here we see Rand grow to accept who and what he is, and I don’t know that he has 5,000 words of screen time. We’re watching Rand grow from the perspective of those trying to catch up to him. This is the critical turning point. This is the book Rand realizes there is no returning to innocence. This book is Rand putting his fate to the test. He knows that only the Dragon Reborn could reclaim Callandor. I think this might be the book where people really fall in love with Rand. It seems weird to say, but this is the book where we see how heartbroken Rand is, and our hearts break with him. What do we learn about this?
Characters need to suffer: Sometimes, suffering can make us care for a character, and sometimes suffering can deepen how much we care. Either way, there must be conflict. In this book Rand is alone and struggling with nightmares and visits from Ba’alzamon. I have to admit, there was a large part of me that wanted it not to work. And that makes the story work.
The Shadow Rising is far more about Perrin than Rand. The scope of this series demands some books focus on one character more than others, and this is such a case.
The Fires of Heaven has a victory of sorts, but it’s a tragic victory. Everything is thrown into chaos, and Rand must evolve from a character who has reluctantly accepted his fate to one who must take the path he has. There’s a lot that happens in this story. The first is that Rand actively pursues his role as the Dragon Reborn. He’s acquired a plan. He’s still untrusting of Moraine, and why should he be? She’s been manipulating him from the beginning. Sure, she was doing it for the sake of the world and for his own good, but it doesn’t make her actions less manipulative. Of course, the moment he starts trusting her is exactly the moment she “dies.”
Character must be isolated to grow: This isn’t the same as The Great Hunt. First, he didn’t want to be anywhere near Moraine to begin with. Here, Moraine became a crutch. In a way, she also would have been a hinderance. Like the power these characters wield, Rand isn’t something you can direct, only something you can channel. Taking Moraine in that way and at that time forces Rand to become a leader.
Characters need evolving goals: The first three books are all about Rand trying to return to where he wants to be. Fires gives Rand a new goal and a new motivation. We still see his innocence, characterized by his desire to prevent women from dying, and even in this, Rand must allow others to die. This hurts Rand. He desperately wants to protect others, especially women, so his goal becomes morbid rather than hopeful. This is the seed that was planted for his fall.
Lord of Chaos changes Rand, and not in a good way.
Characters need to devolve every bit as much as they need to evolve: Rand’s capture and torture take someone who’s been manipulated before and pushes it to the extreme, leading him to be suspicious and distrustful of everyone. This betrayal changes Rand from one morbidly marching toward doom to a weapon. This was the most important moment since Moraine came to visit the Two Rivers.
Characters need anchors: Min and Aviendha (I’ll never see the value in Elayne) serve critical roles here. They represent who Rand used to be. They serve to give Rand some connection of love and trust that he desperately needs where others only fear him or what he must do. Rand tries to avoid this in a few ways, but Min (my favorite of the three) refuses to leave his side.
A Crown of Swords is a darker book that shows Rand descending into darkness. he does things that are “right,” but his motivations and justifications begin to darken. This book, Rand (not the Dragon) receives power. That power, like always, begins to corrupt him. He starts to want to break away from his older person. Again, motivation is key. Love and trust leads to loss and betrayal, so here, we see Rand beginning to use people and seek power rather than protect.
The Path of Daggers is a tipping point. Rand is gobbling up nations and gaining power. His actions fill him with pride and hubris, leading him to a critical battle with the Seanchan.
Characters need to fail: Failures teach characters. Failures humble characters. This particular Failure shows how far Rand has fallen, and the scary thing is, he doesn’t learn from it. Instead, he’s insulted by the failure. He’s goes even bigger.
Winter’s Heart becomes a sort of crowning moment of arrogance for Rand. He and Nyaeve cleanse the Source. Armies attack. The world watches in horror, and Rand does the impossible. It doesn’t actually do anything for him. He’s still insane. So are the Asha’men. As amazing as this is, it only means future men won’t lose their minds. At best, those already tainted will be saved from going completely mad. Rand’s falling deeper into despair, and this huge act of awesome power is great, but ultimately doesn’t do anything for Rand. He still has his anchors in the form of Nyneave and Min (and a few others). They continue to support Rand, who desperately needs that protection and that loyalty.
Many people hate Crossroads of Twilight. The plot doesn’t move an inch. It’s essentially a whole book of people reacting to Winter’s Heart. I had the advantage of being able to read straight through it to the next book, but I can understand how people who had been reading since the ’90s and wanted to see what happens next might have felt. I don’t imagine New Spring helped much either. Sure it showed us some new information in terms of back story, but we’re still left eager to see what happens next.
Knife of Dreams continues to push Rand to the edge. Everything he tries fails. Everything he tries comes to disaster. Failure isn’t new to Rand at this point, but this is different.
Characters need to be humbled: Here Rand isn’t just humbled, he loses a hand and almost loses himself to Lews Therin. The secret about his insanity is revealed. Where Rand was willing to go into the darkness for people, now it’s proven that he’s worthy of fear and distrust. This is important to show how close to the edge he is.
Characters need to appear as though they might go the wrong way: This is such a powerful writer tool and one so rarely used. We never worried that Harry Potter might become a Death Eater. We never worry that Luke would join the Dark Side. Those are great stories, but here is where Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time shine. We begin to seriously fear Rand would go too far. At this point, our fear is small, but we’re just a tiny bit afraid that Rand will simply become a ruthless overlord. Him saving the world seems farther away than ever.
The Gathering Storm brings all of this to a head. Rand is again betrayed. Rand is again hurt. Rand becomes convinced that ruthlessness and death are all his options. He seems to have lost all his faith in people and in the world. This is most obvious when he not only kills a woman, he erases her from existence and then (apparently) does the same thing to an entire building. Is it effective? Ironically, no. The whole idea of his abusive, excessive actions was to catch his enemy off guard, and it fails. Rand falls farther than ever, until he encounters his father for the first time since this saga began.
Characters need to remember their original motivations/who they are: There’s an argument that characters need to change. I prefer grow. Rand is clearly a different man than he was. He’s harder. He’s wiser. At this point he’s more sly and mistrusting. But he’s still motivated by love. In desperation, Rand returns to Dragonmount to seemingly end his own life, and then he realizes the beautiful potential in the world. Sure, one may fail over and over again, but each new opportunity is a chance to get it right. That return to hope is what saves the day and leads us to the new Rand.
Through Towers of Midnight (far more about Matt) and into A Memory of Light, we see the changed Rand. He has accepted that he is both Lews Therin and Rand. He has accepted that suffering is a part of life, but he has returned to hope. His encounter with his father and his love for his friends (and other forms of love) has become his anchor. Rather than morbidly thinking about getting the Last Battle over with, Rand instead looks to the future.
We still see the change. He’s certainly never pushed around by any woman again. He’s not manipulated. He’s powerful, but now humility and loss has tempered his ego in to wisdom.
Those are the things that made him ready for the Last Battle. We see the battle end, and Rand is a new man. Rather than going home (who can ever go home again?), he sets out to see the world through new eyes (literally). The boy who only wanted to stay home and live a quiet life has now left to live a life of exploration and adventure.
Rand is a beautiful character in an equally beautiful saga. Just writing this post makes me want to read the saga again (maybe not this year because a new Stormlight book is coming). I just thought that analyzing this story gave so much insight to how to craft great characters into great stories. I hope you found this post helpful.
A while back, I wrote a song dedicated to Wheel of Time. The recording isn’t anything near studio quality, but hey, why not? Enjoy!
I love to read. It’s relaxing, and a good book can captivate even a whole generation. Just look at Harry Potter. That series flat out made reading “cool” again, but time is just too short. I read before work. I read before bed. I read in the bath just to give myself time to read.
But I don’t get through my TBR list nearly as quickly as I’d like. This leads me to audio books. The main reason I love audio book is that they let me read more. I listen to audiobooks when I drive to and from work and pretty much whenever I drive around. This gives me about two to three hours of reading more than I would have. I like a good car karaoke on occasion, but I inevitably want to find out what happens next in whatever story I’m reading at the moment. This extra time can help me either blast through a book I’m reading or get through another book I wouldn’t normally have time to read.
Here are a few other reasons audio books really make my day:
1: It lets me re-read books I love: A number of the sagas I love are large. I think the shortest series I like is four (main) books. So audiobooks let me refresh my mind on previous books before the newest book comes out. It also lets me go back and read entire sagas I love.
2: A good narrator can make a story even better: I have favorite narrators. James Marsters, Kate Reading, Michael Kramer, and Wil Wheaton to name a few. They bring the story to life. Now, I have friends who assert the voice actors in their head are better than the other narrators, but I just love hearing a story come to life. Now, when I read Wheel of Time, I hear Michael and Kate’s voices.
2a. A good narrator can make a book I wouldn’t like a book I loved. I did a review on The Chaos Walking Trilogy. It’s written in first-person present tense, which I would have never read (let alone written) in a book. But when a friend recommended the series, I fell in love with it mostly because of the voice actors. I later was inspired by that series to try writing in that style (Sojourn in Captivity).
3. It’s a safe way to try a book you wouldn’t normally try: So one complaint I get with audiobooks is that, “I can’t pay attention to it.” I’ve found that a good one can really hold my attention. But a boring (or even bad) book can be made far less painful in audio form because I can mentally check out here and there. Then there are the other books. I tried the first book in the Demon Cycle because I liked a short story Peter V. Brett did in an anthology. I tried it via audio because if I didn’t like it, I could just tune out here and there, and listen for the highlights. But I loved it!
These are the main reasons I love audiobooks, and, since I didn’t know what else I wanted to ramble about in today’s post, I thought I’d try to convince readers to give them a try. May I humbly suggest The Journals of Bob Drifter, Caught, The Power of Words, or Repressed? If you sign up for Audible, you get a free credit, and I can’t do more than offer you a free book.
First a few notes: For starters, I have the files for the Sojourn in Captivity audio book. I’m reviewing them now. The (very early) results seem wonderful.
Next: My wife an I are officially trying to have a child. This required a surgery to reconnect her tubes (which had been done during her previous marriage). The surgery went well, and I’d just like to take a moment and thank God for that. She and I both truly wanted to have more children, and we’re grateful the door is open. Her recovery has us both growing (code word for frustrated, which is actually why I’m doing this topic today). She’s stir crazy, and my routine is shot. Her number one comfort is being outgoing and doing things, which she can’t. My number one comfort is routine and consistency, which is nonexistent when I’m working and running a house.
But I truly mean it when I say this helps us grow. You see, I aspire to have a boring life. I love the idea that tomorrow will be just like today. (Not at all my wife’s idea of a good day, but in this case opposites attract). It’s all fine and good for a person to like what he likes, but if we don’t experience pain, we don’t grow. No one wants to read about the guy who encountered no stress and overcame nothing.
When we encounter struggles, it changes us. Pain helps us grow. No, I don’t look forward to it, but I’m better when it’s over. Our characters are the same way.
A lot of my favorite characters are characters who suffered plenty: Rand from Wheel of Time suffered a ton (as did my favorite character in that series, Perrin). I’d say these characters are the extremes in terms of my top three series ever. Still, all my favorite books (personally) feature characters who truly struggled.
Here’s the next part to why this is so important. The readers or viewers must believe the characters might fail. I often have playful (yet also serious) arguments with a friend of mine (Hi Terry!) regarding why I honestly don’t care for DC. The characters are too powerful. They have near Olympian power. Sure, Marvel has some OP characters, but most DC characters are of a ridiculous power level. I’m not afraid for them. I’m not in the least bit worried they won’t win the fight or meet their goal. This makes the story boring. If you want readers interested in your story, you need to convince the reader that character might fail. This is all the more difficult to do because most readers expect a happy ending. They anticipate that, so it’s such an art to instill an honest sense of fear of failure for the character.
The wife and I don’t hate Jodie Whittaker or her Doctor, but we really couldn’t get into her first season. Now, other than Matt Smith (who remains the greatest Doctor ever), I hated every first season of every doctor. I think the writers take time to figure out the new Doctor just like the new Doctor (in the story) takes a minute to figure him or herself out. But we couldn’t get into it. Then something occurred to me: She never lost. Yes, the grandma died (was it the first episode?), but there wasn’t a connection. In fact, I’m of the opinion that character was pretty expendable. Why? Guess:
She was happy.
The only good thing a happy character can do in a story is die. They have no struggle, and therefore they have no interest. The most interesting thing that could happen is to see this wonderful, happy character die, thus causing all the other characters to become even more interesting as they try to adjust to life after happy character.
Most of my readers who I talk to during conventions often ask me about the characters who die. We talk about this a little. The one character I get the most (playful) anger with killing (no spoilers) was the character who was happy. But that character’s death shook the readers and gave them an emotional jolt. This loss affected not only the readers, but the characters around the the dearly departed.
So I had some interest, but then life got consistent for the Doctor. Then things got easy. I can think of a few instances when there was great opportunity for this Doctor to face true loss on a couple different stages, and the writers didn’t take the plunge. But you can only put Lois Lane on the train tracks so many times before the readers don’t even care anymore. Sooner or later, that engine needs to plow over Lois, or the “act” gets boring. That’s what I feel happened with this latest season of Doctor Who.
So I wanted to throw out those ideas when I had a moment. Hopefully things calm down for me. (I really do appreciate growth, but I miss my routine something fierce right now, and my wife is going to go out of her mind if I can’t take her out next week.)
What do you all think? Do you have a story you realize you didn’t like so much for this reason? Do you disagree?
I’m making my way through my TBR pile, and I noticed something in a book that drew my attention. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s probably not a good thing. I’ll keep things vague because there’s enough bad pub out there regarding books, and I’m not in any way trying to bash anyone. However, we can look at what some people do and make notes.
We have a main character who has a sidekick. This sidekick is loyal and steadfast. My argument is this character might have reached the point to where that steadfastness is not only hard to believe, but has become boring because no matter what the main character puts that sidekick through, the character simply keeps being this amazingly helpful, understanding person.
While I’ve recently come to believe that conflict in stories is a must, and I think authors should find as many opportunities for conflict as possible, I’m not in any way saying there needs to be some sort of fight scene or argument in every scene. Sometimes you need tension. Sometimes you need support. The thing is though, no one can be stalwart and reliable 100 percent of the time.
From a human perspective, even lifelong friends get frustrated with one another. My brother-and-I are such close friends and so well regarded, that family members have on occasion asked one of us what we wanted and then bought it for the other. When I go shopping, I just buy something I really want and give it to him. That doesn’t mean we’ve never fought. From that same perspective, friendships are tested through adversity. The point in live isn’t to always agree and support each other. Support is a thing, but support doesn’t always imply, helping or (more importantly) rolling with whatever the MC wants.
From a writer’s perspective, any author should be seriously worried when character reactions or actions become predictable. Predictable characters are boring, and boring characters lead to unread books.
Disagree? Let’s take a look at some of the most famous “friends” in fiction or entertainment:
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Didn’t we all see Civil War? I mean, the movie made metaphorical-astro-bucks in theaters. Wasn’t that story (in movies and comics) all about putting allies at odds? That sort of conflict takes this analogy a little farther than I want though. What about the most loyal sidekick ever?
Samwise Gamgee: The guy tagged along with Frodo through everything. Some may Sam is the actual protagonist of the story. while I think he was the hero, he wasn’t the protagonist. The protagonist in any story is the one who has a clear goal and encounters obstacles. The main goal of Lord of the Rings? Destroy the ring. Yes, Sam just wanted to protect his friend, but it’s not as neat as those wearing fond remembrance glasses think. For starters, Sam didn’t hear about the tale and shout, “Frodo can’t go unless I do!” In fact, he was caught eavesdropping and ordered to follow Frodo. The very beginning of their journey wasn’t based on friendship and support; it was based on Sam being yanked into this mess because of being nosey.
Yes, Sam was stalwart through perhaps 95% of the whole story, but there was rising conflict and an eventual clash of wills and break-up. Sure it was short lived, but Sam and Frodo argued about Gollum, which ended in Sam saying he can’t support this path. Yes, he returned, but that return as all the more heroic because the audience understood and believed how frustrating it would be.
So writers, I’m not saying the friends or sidekicks of the story need to argue at every page or end up on opposite sides of the conflict, but no one real or fictitious, can walk in the shadow of an MC and not encore some of the emotional strain, turmoil, and resentment the MC encounters.
Writers should be aware of what the MC is putting that sidekick through, and respect that those challenges have a toll on that friend. Every Robin ever has had some major conflict with Batman. Sometimes it was a conflict to earn a place beside him, and sometimes it was a more literal conflict. No one liked Jason Todd until he came back and tried took on Batman.
There’s another side. There are characters who get boring for the opposite reason. They almost never seem willing to support or help out that MC. Mat Cauthon was a very hot and cold character for me. I frankly resented him sometimes for how quickly he was ready to abandon Rand and how stubborn he was about pretty much doing anything. I understand part of this was an aspect of his arc and his fatal flaw, but he infuriated me, and there were times when I just wasn’t interested in him because I didn’t want to read another ten pages about how he wanted to avoid the situation. That said, I absolutely bawled when he mentioned a certain prank from way back in Eye of the World (I’d really appreciate anyone who remembers what that animal was by the way. I can’t seem to recall it. Might be time to read that series again.) Mat ended up working for me because he inevitably was loyal. He fought it every step of the way, but he did come through in the end.
Consider this as you write. Tension and conflict, even between the closest characters, can make that relationship stronger.
Do you remember 1980s cartoons? A lot of them are being remade, but I remember a day when villains were just bad guys who did bad things. I’m still a fan of those villains in the right circumstance. Horror movies (most of them) follow that format still.
However, over the last, I’d say, ten years, readers and moviegoers have had a higher standard. They want sympathetic villains. Now, this isn’t exactly a “new” trend. I’d even admit that most great stories had sympathetic villains. Now, I know I’ve talked about sympathy sliders, but in this case I honestly mean villains I understood and felt a connection to.
I feel this has become the standard. What I’ve tried to do is think about situations where the reader demands a connection to the villain as opposed to those situations where they don’t care so much.
This is honestly just me musing on the subject, and I’d be interested to hear your comments below.
My thesis: The more they see the villain, the more the reader wants to understand him.
Jon Doe from Se7en. He’s the shadow in the dark. He’s the mysterious monster who we never even see until the last act of the movie. So when we finally come face to face, he’s a monster. That’s because this story is about Somerset and Mills. We get to know them. We care for them. A lot of mysteries follow this format (of course some don’t). The point is, I’ve never once talked to anyone about this movie and heard that person say, “that movie was terrible. I really couldn’t understand John Doe’s motivation.” That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but we don’t see him a lot, so we really don’t care what his side is. We just want Mills to put that gun down.
As I think, I’d posit that this style is most common in mysteries and thrillers. When the capture of the villain is the main plot thread. Again, there are exceptions, but the point is you can have a huge hit with a villain no one understands, so long as we don’t have to keep interacting with him. Short fiction where the bad guy is one to be chased and captured seems acceptable.
This is less true with larger works. It’s rare in epic fantasy to have a villain who isn’t at least understandable. But let’s take a look at two huge successes and see what distinguishes them.
The Lord of the Rings:
Sure, we understand the motivation. Get the ring; rule the world. But it’s not like we find ourselves ever feeling for the great eye do we? Also note, that eye and all his minions have less than ten percent of the story. This does a few things. It amps up the mystery and the threat. In fact, Wheel of Time shows us that the more we see the villain, the less imposing they are. In Eye of the World, Myrddraal are just horrifying. But after a few more books, we’re not so afraid of them anymore. We only THOUGHT they were imposing, but the Forsaken! Sure, in books 2-5. Now what Jordan did with that problem is he made them more sympathetic. So the Myrddrall are just made to be minions. The Forsaken, however, begin to get personal chapters, strife and pain. I love the series, but I can admit this was a bit hit or miss. The point is, the reader learns about them, and there’s opportunity for some degree of understanding.
Here’s where I admit that I’m struggling to think of a case where the villain is known. They’re out there, but it’s a challenge. The challenge is because while there is opposition to the main character, that opposition isn’t the main threat of the book. The main opposition isn’t seen much. The less we see them, the less we care (and I’d even argue want) to understand them.
I’m currently look at Best Fantasy Books HQ’s list of the best-selling fantasy series of all time, and I’d argue that while there is opposition to the main character, the main threat is still mostly unknown.
Harry Potter: We don’t see that V guy (no way I’m trying to spell that name) in the flesh until the fourth book. Sure we know about him, but we don’t really build a bond do we? Was anyone I’m unaware of sitting there going, “Well, I really think he has an argument for why he should be in power”? Nope. Sure, we could argue some affection for Draco, and did anyone not cry when Snape said, “Always”? But they weren’t “the main threat.”
Lord of the Rings: Discussed above.
Chronicles of Narnia: Well, it depends on which book you talk about, but in the ones I can remember, that there “main villain” was pretty much only showing up when it was time for the showdown.
Wheel of Time: Discussed above.
Discworld: I’ve only read one book. I’m sorry folks. It just didn’t grab me.
A Song of Ice and Fire: Anyone on team White Walker? Yes, there are many evil, hateful people in that book, and we know their motivations. We even understand most of them. However, that Night King is THE bad guy, and no one has posted a single meme asking “why don’t we know more about why he’s trying to ruin the world?”
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Luke, I believe, dies a hero. Kronos (the big bad) is there to scare people and get beat in the last book.
Inheritance Cycle: Murtagh is a tragic character, but he’s a victim and a pawn. Galbatorix? We saw him at the end for like, a second.
So, after careful consideration and research, I’ve formed a new thesis, especially when it comes to antagonists and big bads.
Conclusion: Fantasy sagas have two forms of opposition. 1) A sympathetic opposition. A character whom we feel something for as the series progresses. (Examples: Draco, Vader, Murtagh.) 2) a “big bad.” This is a force or evil we don’t see until the end unless it’s to threaten the hero and make him feel very small. (examples: Kronos, The Emperor, Galbatorix. Voldemort, (HEY! I spelled it right!))
I don’t feel this is an absolute. However, I do feel it is the standard. I once did a post about the symbiotic nature of heroes and villains, but those are in series and comics where the main conflict is the bond between those characters.
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).
As I write this, I’m stricken by a loss the world suffered. I won’t discuss it other than to mention the role that women can play in stories. I was basically raised in a house full of women. I had a few brothers that stayed with me on occasion, but the ratio in my house was always at least 2:1.
My mom raised me by herself for five years, and during those five years, I wasn’t very helpful to her. Because I know how strong the women in my life are, I look for female characters who are strong. There are different types of strength, and I’ll get to those, but for me, I hate any story that portrays a woman as anything other than a character who happens to be female. (For the record, I feel this way about religion, color, and ethnicity as well. Stories about race issues or religious issues are important, I’ll even write a few.) There’s a difference between a book about (in this case) women’s issues and a book that simply thinks women need men to exist.
There’s the Bechdel Test. But this only ensures the women have something to talk about. It’s a good test to put your characters through to prevent the issue I’m discussing, but I have a different challenge.
Develop your character. Determine everything you want to determine, then flip a coin to determine gender. Gender has a role in character. Men react differently in certain situations than women, but I’ve found that some stereotypes are mitigated when gender was determined after archetype and function in a story.
There are some amazing female characters in the world. Some that come to mind right away:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Who I may want to argue is the greatest female character of all time).
Egwene al’Vere from The Wheel of Time
Vin from Mistborn (Who may give Buffy a run for her money, but I’d still argue Buffy would win…okay…I’ll have to post a blog about that in the future).
Lessa from Dragonriders of Pern.
I could go on, but I just wanted to throw out a few things to consider.
The Bechdel Test has its limits both good and bad. Imagine a book about a woman who’s an assassin. She goes through the whole book killing bad guys and just being awesome. I’d probably love this book, but it fails the Bechdel test. There’s not even a second woman for the first to talk to.
My adaptation to this is that if you have women (or a woman) in the story, make them characters. You’ll never make everyone happy, but the first thing to do to ensure you have (we’ll call them) non-weak women in your story is to give them a role in said story.
The Next step is then to give them strength. Now, all of the above characters are extremes. They’re LITERALLY strong women. They could kill people, but that’s not the only type of strength. It is one way. And if you’re working on an action fantasy story, ask yourself, “Is the only reason this character isn’t a girl because I’m a guy?” But if you’re writing science fiction and there isn’t a “magic system” of sorts, don’t worry. Other ways to make those characters strong exist.
The Mentor Archetype: I’ve recently given Supergirl a second chance. I’m glad I did. That show’s pilot was still one of the worst I’ve ever seen, and I have issues with some of the on-the-nose “cause” plots. But I submit to you this:
The strongest female character in that show is Cat Grant.
Supergirl (Kara) has all these powers, but notice how heavily she relies on every other character in the show (particularly Cat) to move forward in the plot. In fact, the only time she’s “strong” is when she’s fighting. (Yes, that’s a pretty mean thing to say, but I watched the first season, and that’s true). Now, Kara has her moments. She finds out who’s responsible for a certain death, and that scene is amazingly strong. She’s not weak, I’m just saying Cat is far stronger as a character.
Cat is who the women on that show want to be. Cat is who everyone turns to for advice. Cat is the one who gets people moving. They still deal with a lot of issues, but they’re issues that are unique to her character, not her gender.
Writers, it’s fine to make women “super” but that doesn’t actually make them strong. Strength, in my opinion, isn’t a measure of power. Power, is a measurement of physical capability. It’s my opinion that strength is demonstrated when one’s power is lacking, but one finds a way to succeed regardless. So don’t think “give them superpowers” is the answer. Instead, give them a role in the plot that isn’t “love interest.”
Cat is the mentor in this scenario.
Other non-super, but still strong, female characters include:
Cindy Thomas (from The Women’s Murder Club series)
Karrin Murphy (A great character study in and of herself)
Stormy Llewellyn (from Odd Thomas)
My point is that character should be strong regardless of their attributes. I’ve posted blogs about developing characters and evaluating their progress. In light of recent events though I felt this post might be particularly effective. No, I didn’t mention that character or the woman who played her. She, quite frankly, requires no mention. She altered generations.