Tag Archives: characters

Why are male UF protagonists badass and female protagonists… not?

I have been noticing this for a while. Although we have all these ‘strong female protagonists’ in urban fantasy – to the level that an author friend of mine said it was nearly impossible to get a publisher interested in a book with a male protagonist – I’ve noticed a disturbing theme.

Giving the protagonist a personal stake in solving the problem is a recognised way of upping the tension in the book: you, the reader, care about what happens to the protagonist. If they are in personal danger, rather than simply solving an interesting intellectual puzzle, this makes the book more exciting.

So, when you look at Book 1 (and often later books too) in an urban fantasy series, you often find that the first problem the protagonist has to solve has some kind of personal element to it, or something from the protagonist’s past is going to come back to bite them (sometimes, in urban fantasy, literally).

So, let’s have a look at who we’ve got.

Men

  • Harry Dresden. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard foster-father/mentor (Justin DuMorne) with magic in a fair fight and then killed the monster DuMorne sent after him. Killing people with magic is against the Laws of the Magic, so the White Council is after him even though it was self-defence.
  • Alex Verus. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard fellow-apprentice and escaped from his black-wizard evil teacher. Now he just wants to be left alone to run a magic shop, but nobody believes he isn’t a black wizard himself (even though he isn’t), so he’s fair game.
  • Atticus O’Sullivan. Last of the Druids. Seriously badass. Currently running an occult shop (there’s a lot of that going around) and protecting a magic sword. Practically the first thing he does in Book 1 is to see off a whole bunch of attackers without much trouble.
  • Lucian (Lucy) Colt. Badass debt collector with an MA in Art History. Ends up even more badass when given a demon heart transplant, the alternative being death.
  • John Charming. Monster-hunter – until he got turned into a werewolf. Badass. Now runs a bar.

Women

  • Owl. Gets kicked off a PhD programme for talking about the supernatural, and then offends some vampires, thus needing to accept a job from a badass dragon in exchange for his protection, thus Book 1.
  • Elena Michaels. Werewolf… and trying to pretend to herself that she isn’t one.
  • Rachel Morgan. Starts the series with a price on her head because she breaks her employment contract without having the money to pay it off. Continually has to be rescued from the consequences of her own screw-ups by her co-workers.
  • Georgina Kincaid. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order succubus. Moons after male character, allegedly-sexy Seth, because she can’t have sex with him without ripping out his life force. (So I didn’t find Seth sexy at all. So sue me.)
  • Kitty Norville. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order werewolf. Although Kitty seriously improves over the series.
  • Luna Wilder. “Tough-as-nails” werewolf police officer… who can’t control herself around her chief suspect.
  • Meg Corbyn. Sweet, but needs protecting from everything.
  • Anita Blake. Necromancer with more ‘issues’ than the National Geographic.
  • Samantha Martin. Imp. Book 1 happens because she can’t control her hellhound and gets blackmailed into helping track a killer. Because, of course, nobody would do that unless forced to.
  • Alex Craft. She’s the family embarrassment. Has to be rescued from certain death by… Death.
  • Jade Crow. She’s on the run from a powerful sorcerer, and only wants to be safe and have a quiet life. Only gets involved in the plot because she is accused of dark magic and has to clear her name before she is executed.

Is it only me that thinks that these supposedly ‘strong’ female protagonists are often… not? They may be able to kick ass, but a common theme seems to be that they have got into the situation through their own stupidity and/or carelessness, or complications arise because of their lack of ability to control either their emotions, their hormones, or their power. They also frequently need rescuing by other characters, often (though not always) male.

Their motive for getting involved in the plot also tends to be self-protection: they’re threatened, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into it. Conversely, the men are more likely to act of their own volition to protect others.

Compare this to most of the male protagonists, who most definitely have their shit together. If they’re ‘outsiders’, it’s usually because they’ve Done The Right Thing, and the authorities are corrupt/blind/ignorant/stupid/all of the above. They don’t tend to need to be rescued by anyone else, and if they have issues, they don’t whine about them.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually enjoyed a lot of the series above with female protagonists; Kelley Armstrong, particularly, is one of my favourite authors (and for seriously badass, see Casey Duncan in City of the Lost). It’s just that I would really, really like to see a few more heroines who don’t need to be rescued, who don’t get themselves into stupid situations through their own idiocy/carelessness, aren’t running away from their problems, and who actually have their shit together. Why is that so hard?

What do you think? Is this an observer effect, or is it real? Is there something about female characters that makes authors – mostly female! – want to write them as less badass and more vulnerable than the men?

Addendum:

Jane Yellowrock, in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series. Definitely doesn’t need to be rescued. 🙂

Addendum 2:

Carro (see comments below) has noted Joanne Walker of the Urban Shaman books – an Irish/Cherokee cop and mechanic (and shaman, obviously) as another heroine who doesn’t have to be dragged into the plot at gunpoint. Proactivity rules! 🙂

Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!

Setting up the kill

Skull and crossbones pictureSometimes, it has to be admitted, a character’s only reason to be in the book at all is to die; their death is the event that pushes the protagonist into doing something, or not doing something. Or, even more depressingly, their purpose is simply to be cannon fodder.

There’s even a name for it – redshirt. A character who has no past, hardly any present, and a future that consists of a grave or – in science fiction – some particles or a burned mark on the floor. John Scalzi even wrote a book about what happens when these poor blokes realise what god (i.e., the author) has in mind for them.

Then there’s the guy (or girl) who isn’t quite the poor no-name walk-on character whose one role in life is to die, but is just as surely marked out for an untimely demise. You know the ones. The grizzled old cop who is a week away from retirement after forty years’ honourable service. The young man, or girl, who just got engaged, or just got married. Or, if a character manages to make it past the honeymoon period, the last few months of pregnancy can be deadly for both partners. Another sign of circling vultures is the character whose life has been irredeemably crap… until they meet the protagonist. Just now, things are starting to look up… until, guess what?

You can see it coming from the time the character first walks onto the page, and the author tells you about his retirement date, her pregnancy, his new fiancee. You just know that this character isn’t going to make it to the end of the book.

As a proto-author, I found myself asking how. How do you have that feeling that a character is destined for an early grave?

I came up with some rules:

  1. The character is at some point in their life where it would be especially cruel to kill them off (retirement, marriage, new baby etc).
  2. The character doesn’t get enough page time for us (the readers) to really bond with them.
  3. The author tells us a lot about the character rather than showing it. This one was quite interesting when I figured it out. Telling is a quick way of giving the reader a lot of information about a character without giving that character much page time.
  4. The character isn’t necessary to the plot.
  5. The character is actually inconvenient to the plot. The protagonist has either moved on, or needs to move on.

The whole thing spoils the book: the reader doesn’t connect with the character so well (because what’s the point – they’re only going to die), and may also feel annoyed because the author is trying to manipulate them. After all, what is introducing a fiancee (that you never otherwise meet) other than a cheap-and-easy way of attempting to increase the emotional payoff when you kill the character? To me, this smacks of clumsy writing.

The question is, how to avoid it?

George R. R. Martin does it brilliantly. All through A Game of Thrones (the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire), you think Ned Stark is going to be the series’ hero. Until – and if this is a spoiler, you must be the last person on earth to not have either read the books or seen the TV series – he gets executed at the end of the book.

Either Martin is a closet psycho and we should all be grateful that he turned out to be an author, so he can kill made-up people instead of real ones, or he’s a sadist who enjoys making people care and then killing off the object of their affections, or he’s just a really, really great author.

Whichever one it is, Martin makes all his characters real – he makes you care, then he swoops in for the kill, just when you’re not expecting it. Oh, he won’t kill X; X is too important to the story, and too great a character to lose…. oh.

This, I think, is his secret. You can’t tell who’s going to die because Martin treats all his characters the same (i.e., equally sadistically), so we get emotionally invested in all of them, even if we hate them and want them to die. In fact, Martin manages to reverse the “red-shirt” phenomenon, by introducing characters whom you want to see die a painful death even though you’ve got a nasty suspicion that Martin might let them survive (Joffrey, that’s you).

So in order to get the reader to invest in the character and be honestly shocked/sad/glad when a character dies, I think the author has to invest that time, thought and emotion first (or else fake it really well). If the author cares, the reader will too.

Power, weakness and vulnerability

The Drafter, Kim Harrison

The Drafter, Kim Harrison

I’ve just finished reading Kim Harrison’s new book, The DrafterAnd damn, it was good. I stayed up later than I should have reading it, and that hasn’t happened for a while. Harrison had me practically from the first page, and it was her main character – Peri Reed – that did it.

Peri is an elite government agent; she’s tiny, gorgeous, and can kick serious ass and travel through time just enough to correct mistakes. So far, so pedestrian. How many gorgeous kick-ass heroines do we have in urban fantasy/sci-fi now? Probably enough that it’s standing-room only. Peri, however, is different. When she changes history (“drafts”), not only she not remember the history she has wiped, but she can’t remember the new version either – and the memory loss can extend backwards, sometimes for months. Peri, in fact, has lost large chunks of her life that way. She nearly always keeps a pen on her person so that she can write notes to herself. She has her habits and routines, to give herself something to cling to when she doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing there. Her partner (“anchor”), Jack, is supposed to bring the memories back, at least partially, by telling her what happened – but for that, of course, he has to be present. So Peri is never alone, just in case she drafts and loses part of her memory that can’t be brought back.

Harrison says that she wrote The Drafter as her own commentary on Alzheimer’s Disease, in which sufferers gradually lose memories until they lose themselves entirely. On that level, it works brilliantly. Harrison shows Peri’s strategies for coping with the memory loss that goes with her profession; the routines, the precautions, and the little tactics to try to avoid letting anyone know that she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. We’ve probably all been in that conversation with someone who clearly recognises us, but we have no idea who they are: “I know I’ve met you before but I don’t know where or when.” For Peri, it’s not just the social embarrassment of being really bad with faces; she can lose months or years, and not recognise her own partner. So, from a reading point of view, The Drafter was a great story of a woman trying to solve a major problem while losing major – relevant – parts of her own life, and while being lied to, deceived, betrayed, and manipulated by practically everyone around her, with even the people nominally on her side taking ruthless advantage of her weakness.

From a writing point of view, The Drafter was just as interesting. Peri could have been yet another cookie-cutter action heroine, but by tying Peri’s weakness to her power, Harrison made her a whole lot more attention-grabbing. Giving the protagonist’s special advantage a matching price gives the protagonist a reason not to use their special power. If you can just wave your hand and fix the problem, why not do it? But if there’s a price involved, then the decision is that much harder; the protagonist – and the reader – have to be sure that the prize is worth the price they will have to pay. It ups the ante; in order to win, the protagonist will have to give something up that matters to them. How far will they go? At what point is the price of victory too high? Do you get to the point where the person with special powers is in the same position as mere ordinary mortals, because their special power has such a high price tag that they might as well not have it at all?

In the case of The Drafter, Peri’s special power almost comes full circle – she has abilities that most other people don’t, but the consequences make her into a pawn in other people’s schemes, easy to manipulate because her inability to remember her own past makes her reliant on others to remember for her, and to try to put her memory back together. Is her power a strength, or is it a weakness? Is she a player, or a pawn?

The ambiguity of Peri’s position has an effect on the way the rest of the story plays out. The usual structure of hero-and-sidekick(s) vs villain-and-sidekick(s) doesn’t work. Not only does Peri’s memory loss make it very difficult for her (and thus the reader) to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are, since they are all manipulating her for their own reasons, but her weakness means that the secondary characters have relatively greater power in the story.

It all adds up to a much more complex story than your average sci-fi thriller, and one that leaves you with something to think about long after you’ve finished the last page.

Review: Spell Blind

Spell Blind
Spell Blind by David B. Coe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I was going to enjoy this book within the first couple of pages; with a hiatus for doing work, I stayed up late to finish it.

Justis (Jay) Fearsson is an ex-cop turned PI, and his ability to do magic is not only an advantage in his line of work, but also the reason why he’s ex-, rather than just cop. Magic has a pretty steep price, but Fearsson is willing to pay it, and keep paying. This was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book – the ability to do magic was almost an addiction. Fearsson pursues magic even though he knows what it will do to him eventually – but, to him (though not to some others) it’s worth the price.

A serial killer who is also a powerful weremyste (sorcerer) is on the loose, killing a person every moon. Fearsson worked the case while he was a cop; his ex-partner, still on the case, needs his input when there is a new murder.

The action plays out over a few days, with much excitement and danger, and an increasing awareness that Fearsson is in way over his head (of course, it wouldn’t be a very exciting novel if he wasn’t).

Fearsson’s love interest, I liked. Other reviewer(s) didn’t, but I found her to be exactly the sort of woman who would do well with him: smart, driven, honourable, and not willing to take any crap from him or anyone else, but also capable of having fun. She’s got her own priorities, and (thank you, David B. Coe) she doesn’t gratuitously interfere in Fearsson’s investigation or put herself or him in danger through being an idiot.

For that matter, Fearsson’s ex-partner, Kona (nicknamed after the coffee, because that’s what she always drinks) Shaw, was another great character. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Coe has a gay black policewoman without waving a big flag saying “Hey! Diversity credentials!” Kona is who she is, and the most important thing about her is that she’s a really good policewoman and a really good friend to Fearsson – not her race or her sexuality, which are very much in the background. She’s in the book to do her job, not to be a representative character.

Coe also managed the ending very well. I was wondering how he would do it, given how deep the doo-doo was in which Fearsson was swimming/drowning. Since there’s a second book in the series, it’s obvious that he must survive – but how? The way Coe did it, in the end, I found was very satisfying – no massive stroke of luck, no sudden wild inspiration, “It’s a million-to-one chance but it might just work…” Just… a good way of doing it.

So, all in all, an excellent start to a series. I’m going to start reading the second book, His Father’s Eyes, which just came out recently. I want to know what happens next…

View all my reviews

Character connections

I haven’t had much time lately for either reading or writing – I’ve quit one job with long hours and low pay, and got a better one with less work, more money, and a better doughnut quotient. Hence lack of blog, complete lack of any writing, and hardly any reading.

One book I have been reading, though, has made me think about connecting with characters – both the connection between the character and the reader, and between the characters in the book.

I was really looking forward to reading this book: it seemed like a really interesting premise. The main character is a prostitute in a sort of alternative steampunk 19th-century America, and – as was pointed out in another blog – that’s the kind of character who generally exists as wallpaper. Prostitutes tend to either get walk-on roles for local colour, or get killed. They don’t really appear in many books as characters in their own right (although there are some: J.D. Robb’s Charles Monroe, a male “licensed companion” in her Dallas books, for one). So I was looking forward to reading one as a main character. When I got into the book, I also discovered that she was a lesbian. Also unusual – although getting less so nowadays – unless you deliberately go looking.

However, I didn’t find myself getting really into the story, to the extent that I kept putting it down. I still haven’t finished it – I moved on to reading something else instead. Now, when a book really grabs me, I tend to devour it in one sitting (with an ebook reader, eating isn’t an obstacle at all, and sleeping takes second place). But not this one: it just didn’t grab me. So I wondered why not.

Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care enough about the main character to keep reading. I just didn’t feel that connection to her. To take an example at the opposite end of the scale, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books are one-sitting reads. I also have them all as audiobooks. Harry Dresden can be a bit annoying at times, but I do kind of like him. Even if I sometimes want to smack him, I care what happens to him. He’s also an interesting enough narrator that he keeps the story going at a cracking pace (Butcher’s habit of ending every chapter on a cliffhanger probably doesn’t hurt, either). Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books also have protagonists that keep me reading: the world-weary and wounded Cazaril in Curse of Chalion and the embittered Ista in Paladin of Souls.

If I look at the protagonists who did make me care, they are not limited by gender, age, or sexual orientation. Harry is – at the beginning of the series – a young, male, white heterosexual wizard. Ista is in her forties, a white widow and mother. In Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, the main character (Peter Grant) is young, male, heterosexual and mixed race. Vanyel in Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage books was white, very young, gay, and male. I didn’t particularly like him, but he was a compelling enough protagonist for me to read all three books straight, one after the other.

So why didn’t the character in the book I haven’t finished grab me? Thinking about it, I think it was because the author just didn’t tell me – or show me – enough about her to let me get to know her as a person. I know she’s a prostitute because it was pretty much the only career option open to her, but I don’t know how she really feels about it. I don’t know what the life involves. I know she’s a lesbian (or bisexual), but I don’t know whether the girl she falls in love with in the book is her first, or whether she’s always been attracted to girls. I don’t know whether homosexuality is acceptable in her world, or whether she’s taking a big risk if she lets her sexuality be known. She’s sixteen in the book, but to me she came across as older – in her twenties, at least. Is that because of the life she’s led, or is it just that the author didn’t make her voice young enough?

It’s one thing to make a character’s background mysterious, or to drip-feed the details to the reader to avoid an information-dump, but if you go too far the other way, you risk not giving the reader enough information about the character to make the reader care. A major way of letting the reader get to know the character seems to be to let the reader know what the character is thinking; after all, if you’re inside someone’s head, you’re going to get to know them pretty quick. However, if you can’t do that, another way is to show the reader how the character interacts with the other characters in the book. In the book I’m reading at the moment, there’s a lot of action, but not a great deal of people just interacting on a day-to-day basis: “Look out! He’s got a gun!” really doesn’t tell you much about anyone. However, “Hey, he’s got a Purdey side-by-side – get a load of that!” conveys a lot more (principally that the speaker can identify a Purdey side-by-side, assumes the listener knows what one is, and thinks that a Purdey side-by-side is the shotgun equivalent of Colin Firth. And how the other character responds tells you even more: “Yeah, whatever,” or “What? Where? Get out of the way and let me look!”

And if I don’t know much about a character, I can’t connect to them, and I’m not going to care what happens to them enough to spend precious minutes of my life reading about it. I’m going to do something I care about more, like the washing up, or the ironing.

So I’ll go back to the book – eventually. It’s got enough of my interest that I’ll devote a few more minutes to it. Just… not right now. And, having been disappointed once, I’m less likely to read any more of that author’s work in future.

Character inter-relationships

I’ve just finished reading Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series – the first three, anyway; number four isn’t due out until August 2013.

The premise of the Alex Verus books is that the protagonist (Alex Verus) is a mage. He runs a little magic shop and after running away from his dark-mage master when he was an apprentice, isn’t in good odour with either dark mages or the Light Mages of the Council. He gets mixed up in magical stuff that is way beyond his league, and comes out on top. Hence the books.

Now, for fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, this might sound very familiar. Evil master, tick. Escape from said evil master, tick. Authority issues, tick. Low-level job not in line with expectations of magical community, tick… It’s obvious that Jacka is a Butcher fan (and who could blame him?) – apart from anything else, in the first book Alex (it’s written in the first person) refers to ‘one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under ‘Wizard’, though that’s probably an urban legend’.

OK, so is Alex Verus a good British version of Harry Dresden?

Unfortunately, not quite, at least from the storytelling perspective. That’s not to say the books aren’t good – I enjoyed them enough to read three of them in two days (hooray for instantly-downloadable ebooks). But I think the Dresden Files are better than good, and for me, the Alex Verus books aren’t quite in the same league.

I did spend some time after I finished the last one thinking about why. What does Harry have that Alex doesn’t?

The answer, for me, was relationships.

Now, don’t run away with the idea that I’m all about touchy-feely stuff. This is not the case; I like action and plenty of it. And there’s action in spades in the Alex Verus books. But relationships are not just about characters sitting around discussing how they feel, and displaying more angst than a sixth-form college (Laurel Hamilton…). Relationships between characters in a book give the narrative width and depth.

If you think about it, a plot pretty much goes from A to B. There may be subplots, but these are more like side-roads, which may or may not loop back to the main road. They don’t interfere with the forward motion of the narrative. And although the plot may not be straightforward, by the nature of plots, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But a good book, like a good journey, is not just about the road. It’s also about the scenery.

Relationships between the characters provide scenery; Harry Dresden’s relationship with the cop Karrin Murphy provides added texture to the Dresden books – even in book one, it’s clear that they have a history together that informs the way they interact. Harry is very much part of a world of other characters, all with their own stories beyond the ways in which their lives touch Harry’s. From the first scene in which we meet Murphy, we know that she’s a martial artist, a feminist (kind of), and willing to do anything she has to in order to get her job done. Later on in the series, we learn more about her background – her family, her ex-husband, and so on. And it’s the same with other secondary characters; they are fully rounded people and we readers get to know a little about them.

With Jacka’s Alex Verus books, it’s very different. The most important secondary character is Luna, who is introduced in the first book – and we learn almost nothing about her over three books, except that she’s under a hereditary curse. What we do learn about her is almost entirely plot-related – we know that she can’t be close to people and can’t have pets because of her curse; we don’t know what she does for a living or what her hobbies are, or even whether her parents are alive or dead. When it comes to other characters, we know even less: they walk on stage, they contribute to the plot, and they walk off: strictly business.

To be fair, Alex Verus has some pretty serious issues with trust – due to his treatment at the hands of his evil ex-apprentice-master – so we can excuse him for not having many (any?) friends, or even cordial business relationships (like Harry Dresden’s with Murphy). But when Luna is introduced, shouldn’t we know a little more about her?

Now, the problem with first-person narrative (to which I’ve alluded before) is that the reader only knows what the protagonist tells him/her. And if the protagonist doesn’t know things… neither does the reader. This can work in a story’s favour, but it can be a serious disadvantage. If Alex Verus keeps his distance from other characters, and so can’t describe them to the reader, then those other characters are going to seem rather flat.

Even in books two and three, when Alex is interacting with Luna on a regular basis, and presumably they do talk (off-stage) about non-business topics, we still don’t get any information about Luna as a fully-rounded person. It’s almost as if she doesn’t even exist off-stage. And Luna is the character second in importance to Alex. We get even less information about other characters; Alex’s relationships with most people seem to be at the level of business-strangers – like one’s relationship with the counter assistant at the dry-cleaning shop.

What’s missing, therefore, is personality. Butcher is good at writing minor characters with personality; Harry is at the centre of a web of relationships, some of them long-term and some only for the duration of the current book. But he interacts with other characters in ways that are not wholly plot-oriented. His world is gloriously technicolour. In contrast, Alex Verus’ world seems to be black and white, his connections to other characters mostly brief and businesslike, with no interest or insight into them as people in their own right, with their own stories, rather than as bit-part players in his.

That’s my opinion, anyway. I invite you to read the books and see if you agree with me; I’d be interested to know.

Heroes, antiheroes, and others – the good, the bad, and the ugly

OK, this post is more opinionated stuff on books. I seem to be accumulating writers – not that I object in any way, you understand. I’m just saying. Still, if you’re all out there listening, I’m going to keep talking. My ego can take it…

Now, usually, your main character – your protagonist (you see, I do know some of the proper words) – is usually a hero type. You know, good, kind, wise, strong, handsome, etc, etc.

Your classic anti-hero has a lot of the characteristics of the villain, (antisocial, cold, cynical, etc) but he seems to be on the side of good. At least mostly. Willingly or not.

Then you’ve got the ordinary-joe, the ordinary (or thinks he’s ordinary) guy who is dropped into a decidedly not-normal situation and has to deal with it, and be the hero and save the world.

A couple of novellas I’ve read recently have brought this into focus for me. One of the most memorable of them was Retribution by Cameron Haley, in Harvest Moon. The protagonist is the classic anti-hero. She’s a gangster sorceress with no problem offing anyone who crosses her – just as a matter of business – and she likes the way she is. However, it’s quite clear in the novella that Domino – our protagonist – has her own moral code. When a pair of cops gets mixed up in her life, she puts her own life at risk to save them because she didn’t consider it was right that they should suffer for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some readers, however, didn’t like her at all, and didn’t seem to have seen her actions in this light, simply seeing her as a cold-hearted sociopath.

In the same collection, Mercedes Lackey’s protagonist, Moira, was a much more traditional heroine: good, brave, ethical, loyal to her king and country, and willing to risk all in the king’s service. I found her rather sappy. Now, don’t get the idea that I don’t like Lackey’s writing – I do. But Moira just seemed too nice, too good, too clever, too talented, just…. too. (Besides, I’ve worn mail and I’ve used a sword. You might well be able to hide a mail shirt under your dress but only if you think your maid won’t notice the rust and/or oil marks, and only if nobody is going to notice that not only do you suddenly jingle slightly as you walk, but also you seem to have put on quite a lot of flesh. And using a sword isn’t as easy as they make it look.)

The third novella was Banshee Cries by C.E. Murphy in Winter Moon. Joanne Walker (born Siobhan Walkingstick) is the protagonist, and she’s very much the ordinary-joe type protagonist, except that she does have extraordinary abilities she has only recently found out about. As I’ve remarked in my review of it, she seems to spend most of her time whining and trying to ignore the obvious. I found her frustrating in the extreme, and I just yearned to slap her and tell her to get over herself and grow up.

So what does this mean?

For me, the ordinary vanilla hero can sometimes come across as a bit of a goody two-shoes. A bit too perfect. It’s not very admirable, but I find that quite hard to identify with, and definitely hard to like. These are not the kind of people I would go down to the pub with, so why would I read a book about them? After all, that takes even longer…

A vanilla hero can actually be quite difficult to write, I think, and not have readers just aching for another character to dump them on their backside in the mud. You’ve got to make them just human enough not to make the rest of us jealous. There’s a thin line between someone you look up to, and someone who really needs to have a frog put in their bed.

Antiheroes, now, they’ve got a whole different set of problems. They get better dialogue (just think the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Alan Rickman, in Robin Hood – the one with Kevin Costner as Robin) but here you risk sliding into Villain territory, and alienating your loyal readers by presenting them with a protagonist they think should have been drowned at birth. Get it really wrong, and your readers will be rooting for the villain of the piece rather than your anti-hero.

In some ways, though, the ordinary-joe protagonist is probably the hardest to get right. Is he really ordinary, or is he special but thinks he’s ordinary? If the former, how is he going to cope with the events you (the author) are going to throw at him? C.J. Box’s character Joe Pickett is a good example of this – all the poor guy wants is to do his job as a game warden, and be a good husband and father to his wife and daughters. Then C.J. Box comes along and wrecks his life. Repeatedly. Luckily, Joe is more-or-less equal to pretty much everything the evil author can throw at him, even though solving the problems dropped on his head costs him dearly. In the books I’ve read, I’ve found Joe pretty realistic – he’s a decent guy (with a level-headed wife) and although he is no superhero he is determined to do what he knows to be right, because he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t. But with the ordinary-joe protagonist, you have to be careful that you don’t let him metamorphose into a Hero while you’re not looking. Your readers will feel betrayed if you allow this sneaky behaviour to take place; after all, it’s not very heroic to pretend to be just one of the guys until all Hell breaks loose. Who knows what else this guy was hiding? He is obviously not trustworthy if he would deceive his friends and neighbours that way. (If he’s a real Hero all along and just pretending to be an ordinary-joe to hide from Nameless Enemies, this is OK.)

The protagonist who thinks they’re ordinary until they turn out to have special powers or some such thing (special-joe, for short), can be equally difficult to write, especially in the early stages. How are they going to cope with their new specialness? Harry Potter seems to just take it in stride, pretty much, although since he’s in a kids’ book there’s a limit to the amount of angst that he’s allowed. Joanne Walker, as above, is at the other end of the scale, and seems to have enough angst not only for herself and Harry, but everyone else as well. She whinges and whines and drags her feet and generally lets everybody know how much she doesn’t want this power and she’s determined to ignore it until it goes away, regardless of the potential consequences to the people around her (if she gets eaten by an invisible demon, I don’t care). Somehow, the author has got to get the balance between “Oh, I’m a wizard… that’s interesting.. what’s for tea?” and spoilt-brat tantrums or logic-and-evidence-defying denial. While it’s unrealistic for someone to accept the complete rearrangement of their worldview with little more than a shrug, it’s equally unrealistic for a character to go completely the other way. To say nothing of being really annoying.

However, for myself, whatever category the protagonist falls under, the most important thing is that I care what happens to them. In a good way – that is, I want them to succeed in their endeavours, survive the end of the book, and be happy. And I’m willing to invest an hour or two of my life in finding out how that happens. If I really don’t like the protagonist, I may read the book in the hope that he (or she) gets gacked, but probably not. I’ll probably just bin not only the book, but the author as well. I do have my black list – the list of authors whose work I would not read if the alternative was the Yellow Pages. Authors whose work I’ve enjoyed before tend to stay off the black list, even if I don’t enjoy one of their books, at least until I’ve decided that their writing style has completely changed to something I don’t like (I haven’t quite given up on Laurell Hamilton – yet), but new authors don’t get that courtesy. If I don’t like the first book, the second book doesn’t even get a chance.

That’s mean, you say? That’s not fair?

Damn straight it’s not fair. Life is not fair. And the life of a new author is doubly unfair because there are so many others out there, all jostling for the attention of readers. We only have so many hours a day to dedicate to reading – so you’d better make it worth my while…