Tag Archives: plot

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! 🙂

What makes a good story?

BooksI spend more time reading than I probably should. There are many other things I ought to be doing: laundry, ironing, writing… I console myself with the thought that somebody-or-other said that to be good at writing, you should spend a lot of time reading.

This month, I haven’t been having much luck with books. I’ve started reading several, and ended up just not feeling the love. One book was so not-feeling-the-love that I gave up completely after 15% and resolved never to read anything by that author again (at least, until someone tells me he’s stopped doing the really annoying thing he’d started doing that has made me abandon a series six books in). Another, I kind of enjoyed, but couldn’t get into, and found myself distracted by something else.

Luckily, someone recommended that I read Radiance, by Grace Draven. I burned through that in a day or so and reviewed it. It was like being thrown a lifeline: suddenly, I was reading something that I enjoyed. All my mind was on the characters, and their predicament(s), not on how much left there was in the book, and how long it was going to take, and whether I really ought to go and do some ironing instead. And when the ironing starts sounding like a good bet, you know you’re not enjoying the book.

It did, however, make me start thinking about what makes a good story for me, personally.

  • Characters. Personally, I don’t like characters who are too nice. Maybe that’s because I’m just not a very nice person myself, but give me a character who’s at least a bit grey. I particularly loathe good, self-sacrificing heroines. A heroine I particularly like at the moment is Kim Harrison’s Peri Reed: Peri is a materialist. She likes expensive cars and expensive tech. She likes having a job that gives her power and influence, and she’s not into self-sacrifice. Personally, I think we have a few too many heroines who – regardless of how ‘kick ass’ they’re marketed – still go all goody-two-shoes and self-sacrificing at the drop of a hat. I think it’s because there’s still a lot of social conditioning over what ‘nice girls’ do and don’t do – and admitting to materialistic impulses (except when it comes to clothes and shoes) is a no-no.
  • Relationships. I like a romance story every now and then, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. One author I’m continually banging on about how brilliant he is, is Jim Butcher. His Dresden Files is one series I’d hate to give up – and one of the reasons the series is so good is because of the relationships Harry Dresden has with the supporting characters. The poor guy almost never gets laid, but Butcher has surrounded his MC with a circle of friends, enemies, acquaintances, and others who are all fully fleshed-out characters in their own right. This makes the stories much more  complex and multi-layered (insofar as a series based on noir detective fiction can be complex and multilayered). Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series is touted as the London equivalent of the Dresden Files, and I can see why. But – despite the fact that Alex Verus is English – I still much prefer Butcher’s books. The reason, I think, is that Alex, despite several books in the series, is pretty much still a lone wolf. It limits the stories, and besides, I find myself thinking that anybody with any sense who gets attacked as often as Alex Verus does should start building his own power bloc out of self-preservation if nothing else. But the lack of people in Alex’s life really makes the books feel a bit flat.
  • Emotional connection. I like a book where I feel I know the main character – their personality, their motivations. I abandoned a very well-regarded book recently because I just couldn’t connect to the main character. It was very well written and everything, and I could see why it gets such good reviews – but I just found myself not caring what happened. Book abandoned. On the other hand, Jim Butcher (again!) is great at emotional connection. Harry Dresden is definitely a bit of a prat at times (a lot of times in the earlier books!) but he’s very easy to make a connection with, even if you’d like that connection to be your fist and his teeth. Crucially, though, Butcher himself manages to write the books through Harry’s eyes, and still show Harry as being a bit of a prat whose prattishness makes him lose out to the less testosterone-poisoned persons around him. You may sometimes want to punch Harry, but you always care what happens to him.
  • Plot. To be fair, this is a bit of a strange one. For me, I think the characters are the most important thing. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn doesn’t have what I’d call a plot so much as it has a character arc, but I still really enjoyed the book. But whatever it is, it has to be coherent, and it has to make sense. If people do things, those things should be believable (bearing in mind that people are not always logical in real life). Also, don’t dangle things in front of the reader then fail to follow up. One of the things I disliked in The Late Scholar was the mention of a couple of land law/tax concepts that made me think there was going to be a really cool land-law/tax mystery. Then there just wasn’t. Those mentions were just left dangling, as if the author had thought of doing a cool land-law-tax mystery, then found the research to be too difficult/boring and given up.
  • Meta-plot. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of series: ones with a metaplot and ones without. The Dresden Files is one of those with a metaplot. Every book (after maybe the first one or two) advance the metaplot to some kind of conclusion that Butcher already has planned. One of the things that make the Dresden Files so brilliant is that you can see that Butcher has carefully plotted the route to the final destination. You read one of the later books, and you can see ideas and plot points that were carefully seeded several books earlier; seemingly minor events suddenly turn out to have been important. The alternative is the non-metaplot type, where the hero’s situation generally does a sort of reset-to-start between books: the classic example is the noir detective who is always poor, always on the brink of bankruptcy, and always single – if he ever gets the girl, she leaves him or dies. Both – metaplot or no metaplot – are valid options, although I prefer the former. However, if you are going to have a metaplot, you need to advance it. You can have a book where the metaplot takes a back seat (or appears to), but in general, each book should take the plot a measurable step towards resolution. Otherwise, readers start getting impatient and wondering what the hell is going on. Likewise, it’s useful if your readers can tell what the metaplot is. If you just appear to have all this stuff going on, people start to get confused.
  • Not stopping the story to add a sex scene/sermon. This is a deal-breaker for me. Sex scenes irritate me much less than being preached at, whatever that says about me. But if you’re going to add a sex scene, make it mean something. Otherwise, I will just skip it (because unless I’m in the mood for a sex scene, it will bore me), and you wrote all those words for nothing. And other readers might end up skipping the whole book, or even all your books. People are funny about sex that way. However, preaching is to me what explicit BDSM-orgy-erotica is to the Clean Romance reading market. If I detect it, not only will I skip that part, I will skip the entire rest of the book, rest of the series, and quite possibly the rest of the author’s work for the rest of my life. One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett, and at his height, he was a master at including political and social concepts in his books. But – at his height (he got a bit obvious later on) – he never preached. The message came through the plot, and through the characters’ actions, and was far more powerful for it. I cry every time I read the passage in Going Postal about John Dearheart’s name being kept alive in the overhead. I’ve never forgotten the way he laid out the unpleasantness of Jingoism and false nationalism in JingoNor his skewering of racism in Thud! and, to a lesser extent, SnuffNight Watch deals with the revolutions, and the hypocrisy of revolutionaries who find that they have not only the wrong kind of government, but also the wrong kind of People. I could go on and on about the important political and social concepts dealt with in Pratchett’s Discworld books. Many authors who wish to make a social or political point should go and read Pratchett, and realise that the best way to make an impression on your readers is not to harangue them, or preach at them, but instead to show them – through the actions and reactions of your characters – what you mean, and why it’s important.

So, there we go. I’m going to go back to reading The Death of the Necromancer, which I first read years ago. I just found out it was really cheap on Amazon Kindle, so I’ve got myself a Kindle copy. And it’s just as good now as it was then.

What do you think?

Review: Burned, by Benedict Jacka

Burned
Burned by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again, Alex Verus is up against it. He’s been sentenced to death, and has only a week in which to get the sentence reversed. And the sentence also applies to his “dependants” – Luna, Variam and Anne.

The book consists mostly of Alex trying to win votes to get the sentence reversed, and to remove the three young people from the list of his dependants so that they escape being collateral damage.
This was a quick read, and quite enjoyable. I do like the way Jacka has written Alex as someone who is not traditionally powerful, in the sense of being able to blow things up, but can still be very dangerous simply because of his ability to know what comes next. It’s an interesting demonstration of how power isn’t always synonymous with physical strength or force.

I also enjoyed the bits of book where Anne appeared – she’s my favourite character; she tries hard to be ethical and do the right thing – even when all she gets is hatred and suspicion. In some ways, I think she’s a more complex character than Alex. For me, she certainly more sympathetic. I could imagine going out for the evening with Anne and enjoying it.

On the other hand…

As another reviewer has pointed out, this whole book could have been condensed into a couple of chapters stuck on the front of the next book.

There are some substantial changes all around, so I do wonder if this book functions as a hiatus in the overarching plot to allow Jacka to move all his characters around into new positions for the next phase. It would certainly explain a lot.

Overall, although I think this is the weakest book in the series so far, there is still enough in it to make an enjoyable read, provided you are already invested in the series. Hopefully, the next book will see the plot back on track.

And the reason why I think Burned is the weakest in the series follows, but it’s spoilery so don’t scroll down if you don’t like spoilers.

I am also getting rather tired of everybody lining up to kill Alex. I mean, why? The guy just runs a magic shop. He’s hardly creating his own power bloc, so why are all these people – Light and Dark alike – so obsessed with him? The amount of time and resources being thrown at the Kill Alex Verus project is getting hard to believe without some indication of why all of these people feel it’s so important to either kill him or recruit him, rather than just ignore him. And where are the decent mages? Statistically speaking, Alex should have come across a few more of them who are not psychotic and/or amoral. The longer this series goes on, the more it becomes difficult to believe that Alex hasn’t managed to acquire more allies/friends.

 

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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.

Oh, Author, what have you done to me?

Labrador puppies: very cute!

Recently, I read the latest book in a series, and it left me feeling… betrayed. It’s as if you’d been using toilet paper all your life and enjoyed watching the adverts featuring happy Labrador puppies, and never realised – until now – that toilet paper was actually made of Labrador puppies, which were skinned alive and left to die in horrible agony to achieve that soft, strong feel. And after finding out about it, you never feel the same way about toilet paper ever again. In fact, you seriously consider not using it any more.

That’s how this book left me feeling.

I’m not saying it was a bad book. In fact, it was quite a good book. But it led me to reassess the main character’s words and actions throughout the rest of the series. I’d thought that she was a person who’d found herself in a position she hadn’t anticipated, and wouldn’t have asked for, but having found herself there had come to terms with it and made a good, happy life for herself.

Then this book comes along. And I find myself wondering, was she happy after all? Or was it just a facade, and she was really increasingly miserable and bitter all along? Was the whole series – which I’d regarded as clever and reasonably cheerful – built on this woman’s hidden misery?

It reminded me of a similar experience when I was a child and I realised that the Narnia books, with their stories of children discovering new worlds and having adventures (mostly the boys, admittedly), weren’t the exciting tales I’d thought. They were, instead, thinly-veiled Christian polemics and the ending was just plain sick (quite apart from the obvious Susan’s-going-to-hell-because-she-likes-lipstick thing, which says a lot more about C.S. Lewis and his attitude to women than it does about poor Susan). There’s something particularly nasty about a book that tries to make you think that three of the main characters dying in a train crash is a happy ending. Or, alternatively, that not having to grow up is a happy ending. But for me, the real shock was that the books were not what I had been led to expect. I’d thought I was having fun, and it turned out that I was being preached at. Silly me for not guessing earlier, I suppose.

There was also a fashion, in the 1980s or 90s, I think, for stories that ended “and s/he woke up and it was all a dream.” At which point, the reader mentally screams “You what? You put me through all that for nothing!” (And I admit that I did it at least once – in my English Language GCSE exam, I think – but it was because I’d run out of time and had to end the story somehow.)

The question becomes, then, when is it right for an author to do that (not counting exams)?

Obviously, a story is the author’s train set, and they can play with it however they want. But if you set up your story in one way, and then don’t deliver, your readers are going to be pretty shocked.

Shocked is sometimes a good thing; it means that author has succeeded in doing something that their readers didn’t predict. But could it have been predicted, or was it just sprung on the unsuspecting readers like an ambush?

Personally, I think that’s the difference between a good shock and a bad one.

Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy would probably be an example of the former. This is not a series I have read, or probably ever will: it chronicles Tris’ development towards understanding the true nature of self-sacrifice. I do not find a lifelong desire to sacrifice oneself for others to be an attractive personality trait, and I don’t really want to read about a young woman spending her life trying to figure out the best reasons for getting herself killed on behalf of others. However, that aside, from what I’ve read, the “switched on” reader should be able to see what Roth is setting up. Tris repeatedly tries to get herself killed, in a number of different ways and for different reasons, but each time she is saved. By the end of the third book, she understands that “sacrifice should come from love, strength and necessity”, and, as she has reached that pinnacle of understanding, Roth allows her to die.

It’s quite brave for an author to kill off a main character, especially in young adult books, as dying isn’t usually on the menu. But, in the case of Divergent, Roth has spent the entire series setting up Tris’ death;  the clues are all right there: Tris wants to die, and she finally achieves it after three books of trying. It’s really the readers’ own expectations – i.e., that the heroines of young adult books should do the socially-expected thing and survive, get married, and have babies – that lead them up the garden path. Kudos to Roth, then, for making it work, for letting readers deceive themselves (despite all the evidence) into believing Tris will get over her obsession with self-sacrifice, or that Roth herself won’t have the guts to kill off her heroine.

On the other hand, you’ve got retcon.

In the series before the book I’ve just read (and which may have scarred me, if not for life, at least for the next month or two), there were no hints whatsoever of what the author pulled in The Last Book. She says she’d been holding onto the possibility of one revelation for years, and did nothing to deliberately confirm or deny. On the one hand, I can see why. On the other, as a reader, I feel betrayed.

Part of the fun of reading (for me) is to see if you can work out what’s coming up next. I love Jim Butcher for this, because you don’t see it going forwards, but you certainly see it looking back. Whenever he springs a surprise on you, you have all the fun of going back and seeing where he’s been carefully setting it up for the last seven books, and you didn’t spot it. So you always wonder, what’s he doing now? Can I guess what this book is setting up for seven books in the future? I don’t know whether Jim thinks his readers are smart enough to spot him doing it, or dumb enough that they won’t – or if he just doesn’t care either way, and only wants to write the best books that he can. But whatever the answer is, he never does the “Oh, that was happening all along – but just never ‘on page’.”

So, for me, the answer is always going to be, yes, do your best to surprise your readers. Do the stage magician thing, and fool them into thinking you’re doing one thing when you’re doing another, or get them looking in one direction while you hastily move things around to avoid having to actually saw your assistant in half (the paperwork would be ghastly, doing it the other way). But your readers should, I think, always be able to go back and see exactly how you fooled them, thereby getting double the fun out of the book.

But to do the “Oh, it was like that all along… didn’t I mention it?” is just wrong. To me, it’s lazy from a writing perspective because the author doesn’t have to do all the work of setting up the illusion (or even any forward planning at all, in particularly bad cases). And as a reader, I hate it because for really big changes, there should have been hints. It just doesn’t play for me, that an entire empire, or an entire relationship, could have been hiding in plain sight through several books without so much as a hint.

But then, that’s just my opinion. 🙂

The Ordinary Hero

This week, I read four books from two different series, both of which featured what I’ll call an ‘ordinary heroine’ – that is, someone who doesn’t use kick-ass powers, but is actually quite powerless (at least, in comparison to the characters around them). This is an Everyman sort of character; the ordinary Joe who steps up when the plot descends on him, wrecking his humdrum life, as opposed to someone who is already in a traditionally plot-prone position, such as a private investigator etc.

Written In Red by Anne Bishop

Written In Red by Anne Bishop

The first and second books were Written in Redthe first book in the Others series by Anne Bishop, and the follow-up book, Murder of Crows. In these books, Meg Corbyn isn’t quite an Ordinary Jo, because she can see the future when her skin is cut. However, that ability (in-universe, she’s a cassandra sangue – blood prophet) has meant she has been kept a prisoner for her whole life, forced to prophesy to make money for her captors. When she escapes, therefore, she has no life skills and no money. She therefore accepts a job as Human Liaison to the Courtyard in the town where she ends up. The Courtyard is where the supernatural creatures live, and in this world, the supernatural entities are in charge, and they eat humans.

Meg’s job is basically to be in charge of the post room, taking in deliveries and making sure that they get to the right place within the Courtyard, which actually appears to be quite a large compound. Human Liaisons don’t tend to last long – they either quit or get eaten, and even while alive they tend to be pretty uninterested in actually doing their job right.

So, moving on to what makes Meg the Ordinary Heroine. Despite her power of prophecy, she’s decidedly underpowered when living amongst vampires, wereanimals, a being that all the others are scared of, and elementals. However, she maintains her position as centre of the story not because she’s some kind of human MacGuffin, but because of her attributes as a person. She is the first Liaison to take the job seriously and actually do it right, and this means she becomes valuable to the fairly terrifying creatures living in the Courtyard. She also tries to go beyond just being a glorified post-girl, and tries to find solutions to problems – sometimes, due to her lack of experience of the real world, in innovative way. This leads to the supernatural creatures starting to see first Meg herself, and then other humans who work for the Courtyard, as something other than prey. Since she has been kept prisoner from birth, and has no experience of real life, the reader also gets to see Meg learning how to cope with the outside world – even deliberately trying out different types of music and writing down whether she likes them or not, for future reference.

Meg, however, remains decidedly underpowered. Her position within the plot depends on the relationships she forges with the other characters, and their reactions to her. We also get to learn more about the supenatural creatures by the way they react to Meg. By the end of book 1, she has changed the dynamic between the Courtyard and the human town, and further changes are afoot. In some ways, she is a catalyst for change rather than an agent of change – but the setup works very well. Meg learns and grows, and in Book 2, she is more confident, has consolidated her position, and is starting to use her power as a cassandra sangue to benefit her new friends and employers in the Courtyard.

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

The second pair of books were Dark Currents and Autumn Boneswhich are the first two books in Jacqueline Carey’s  Agent of Hel series.

The heroine of the Agent of Hel series is Daisy Johannsen, hellspawn – the offspring of a human mother and demon father. She lives in small-town Pemkowet, MI, which is one of the places which have a functioning underworld (this one being run by the Norse goddess Hel) and thus magic works and supernatural creatures exist. Daisy is a part-time file clerk with the Pemkowet police department, and for reasons which are not entirely clear, she is also Hel’s liaison with the mortal world and thus responsible for keeping the supernatural peace in Pemkowet. Although Daisy’s emotions can affect the world around her, if she embraces her demonic birthright, it will (we are told, although it’s unclear why) touch off Armageddon.

I really enjoyed the first book; Daisy was kind of ditzy and made a lot of mistakes, but she was dealing with her first real challenge as Hel’s liaison. The plot was pretty good, with some interesting moral ambiguities. Unfortunately, the second book didn’t live up to the standards set by the first book.

Unlike Meg Corbyn, Daisy Johannsen didn’t seem to have learned anything from the events of the first book – she was still ditzy, still careless, and still making stupid mistakes which put those around her in danger. Furthermore, since the Agent of Hel books are written in the first person, the reader doesn’t get to see anything from any other character’s point of view, or any scenes where Daisy is not present. This is a problem because with an ‘ordinary heroine’, since the main character’s powers aren’t making them the protagonist, it has to be character. Why do the other characters in the book let her take the lead, or take any notice of her at all? Why do they rally round? Why does she make a difference? Why, in fact, don’t they just ignore her and roll right over the top of her? Meg Corbyn did her best to help people, and we got to see her working out how to deal with real life (and werewolves). Daisy Johannsen, on the other hand, didn’t really seem to be making much of an effort at all.

On the romance front, being paranormal fantasy, there are the obligatory Hot Guys. One, in the case of Meg, and three in the case of Daisy. It was pretty easy to see what the Hot Guy saw in Meg: she was hard-working, loyal, caring, and sweet. With Daisy, it’s a lot harder. She didn’t seem to be very good at her job, didn’t seem to be interested in improving, didn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests other than watching old movies with her mother, and, all in all, seemed to be a bit of an idiot. What was making all these Hot Guys pant after her? I could believe one (no accounting for taste) but three? Daisy’s attitude to adversity pretty much seemed to be to ignore it until it went away, which it promptly did. She spent as much time worrying about which Hot Guy to choose as she did potential Zombie Apocalypse, which not only made me wonder about her priorities but also rather destroyed the pacing of the story.

Comparing the two, we have two heroines who are underpowered compared to the other supernatural characters in the book. Yet they each maintain a central role. In the case of Meg Corbyn, this is accomplished not only because of her own actions, but also because of the relationships she creates and maintains with the other characters, producing a domino effect of change which goes beyond anything she could have accomplished alone. In The Others, we therefore have a group of central characters tied to Meg, all of whom we get to know. Meg, however, remains the centre of the story about whom all of the others orbit. Meg also grows and develops throughout the two books, so while she starts Book 1 naive and pretty helpless, by the end of Book 2 she has greater agency – and we can look forward to more in Book 3, as she consolidates her position within the Courtyard and learns how and when to use her powers safely for the benefit of herself and her friends.

In the case of Daisy Johannsen, the same growth doesn’t happen. She’s as hapless at the end of Book 2 as she is at the beginning of Book 1. This is frustrating, because she never seems to learn from he mistakes, or to start to really take responsibility. The Armageddon thing, which is never explained, precludes her using her hellspawn powers, and many problems in both books are solved by other, more powerful characters, coming to the rescue (often because Daisy’s ditziness has created the dangerous situation in the first place). Although Daisy manages to have sex with two different men, both men are so two-dimensional that we don’t know what they see in her, and even Daisy doesn’t seem to have any interesting thoughts about them other than “he’s sexy”. Even an Ordinary Heroine has to grow and develop throughout the book/series – whether that’s power, skill, relationships, whatever. There has to be change. So Daisy not only fails to step up and really start to take responsibility as Hel’s liaison, but she also doesn’t grow as a person. Such a shallow, ditzy main character has neither the depth nor the grit to sustain an interesting plot over two books, so the plot of the second book fails. Or, possibly, if the plot had been better, Daisy would have had to develop some depth of character in order to deal with it.

The Ordinary Heroine (or hero) is one of the most difficult to write, because the character doesn’t have special powers to carry the plot and justify their central place in it. They have to have enough – well – character to make it believable that other, more conventionally powerful characters will follow their lead, or at least take notice of them. Even if they start out being pretty useless, they have to learn from their mistakes and use whatever skills or powers they do have to the best of their ability. Failing this, the story will start to come apart, or readers will lose interest in, or be frustrated by, a protagonist who does not seem to justify the way the other characters act towards her.

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Feedback: Bad is the new Good

Today, I had a short but thought-provoking conversation with a colleague.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but he told me that his wife was keen on watching The Apprentice – I got the impression that this was mostly because (as a teaching assistant) she enjoyed watching arrogant young people getting what was coming to them for once.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that the various candidates are divided into teams and given tasks to do. Gradually, their numbers are whittled down until only one is left, who wins the prize of getting to work with Alan Sugar. However, in one particular show, which involved designing a posh pudding and selling it (how hard can it be to sell cake?), the team that came last was given a particularly excoriating assessment of their failure.

“But we did market research!” they said (or so I was told). “And lots of people said our pudding was wonderful!”

Aha,” said Lord Sugar. “You shouldn’t be listening to the people who say it’s wonderful – you should be listening to the negative comments.”

And Lord Sugar, when you think about it, is exactly right.

The feedback we want to hear is that our product (whether it’s cake or a book) is amazing, wonderful, and so on. We don’t want to hear that our book is tedious trash with cardboard characters and a nonsensical plot.

But it’s necessary to be brave and listen to the negative feedback, because those are the people who are pinpointing potential weaknesses. You can never please all of the people all of the time, no matter how hard you try (one look at the reviews on Amazon will tell you that), but if you’ve got several people all telling you that your main character is as dull as dishwater and they don’t care what happens to him or her as long as the story ends soon, it’s a fair bet you need to make some changes.

Good feedback is great for the ego – but it’s the negative feedback that tells you where you need to improve.

Authors I admire: Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is one of my favourite authors. Nobody is going to accuse him of writing great literature, but his books are damn good fun. However, what I admire most about his books is not the characters, or the world-building (though they’re both pretty good) – it’s the plotting.

With Butcher’s books, I can tell that he has plotted not only each book, but the whole series, in advance. Little incidents in earlier books turn out to be important in later books. Major characters don’t just show up; they’re hinted at earlier.

Take Butcher’s latest book, Skin Game (Harry Dresden book 15). One of the new characters in it, who turns out to be quite important, and whom there are signs that we will see more of – was foreshadowed in an earlier book. Not in any obvious way, but the groundwork for believing in him as a character had already been laid. So we, as readers, already have a conceptual slot to put him in, and we also have some background knowledge that fleshes out the character without Butcher having to do any tedious explaining.

In another incident, a character does something appallingly stupid, meaning that a whole bunch of assumptions that readers have made over previous books suddenly have to be junked. Now, when some authors do that, it’s really disappointing. You feel cheated. The author has suddenly changed direction on you with no warning, and that’s just wrong. But when Butcher does it, once you’ve got over the shock, you sit back and you think “Yeah…. he’s absolutely right.” Because this particular incident made me re-evaluate that character, and made me realise that I’d been wrong (and so had everyone else) all along. That what I’d expected would happen wouldn’t have been the right thing at all. That the stupid thing that the character does was not the result of Butcher needing a sudden plot change and sacrificing readers’ expectations for the quick fix, but entirely due to the fact that Butcher knows those characters and his world a lot better than his readers do. The incident to which I refer did not end up making me feel betrayed, but instead made me realise that I’d been wrong about that character all along – and that the ‘stupid thing’ was actually inevitable. The character would have done it, or something like it, sooner or later. In some ways, that moment of revelation was one of the best parts of the book.

This beautiful plotting means that you never have one of those “WTF???” moments, as a major baddie suddenly appears out of nowhere, or the series as a whole gradually veers off course (and possibly over a narrative cliff). Instead, you not only have a great story, but – as you read the series – you get to sit back and admire the sheer artistry of what Butcher is doing with the series as a whole. Everything interlocks, like a puzzle. There are no flabby bits flopping around looking significant at first but turning out to be irrelevant. It’s tight; it’s efficient. It works. Things move on, move forward.

He’s also subtle. You don’t get big flashing lights that say “Hey! Small but significant point here!” It’s only after he gets to the denouement that you figure out where all the little signposts were. Not only does this preserve the excitement of the books because you can’t always predict what’s going to happen next, but you also get to re-enjoy previous books as you realise the true significance of bits to which you hadn’t really paid much attention.

Butcher’s Dresden Files is the best demonstration I can think of that careful plotting means that a series of books is greater than simply the sum of its parts. And you know what? Spotting the hooks in Skin Game makes me want to read the next book just to find out what they mean…

Who’s your audience?

I subscribe to the Writer’s Digest free emails (I don’t actually pay for stuff – how much money do you think I have?). Sometimes, I read it and think “What, really, give your heroes some believable faults and your villains some good points so they’ll seem a bit more human? I never would have thought of that…”

But yesterday, there was an email that really made me think, and I told my husband about it, and made him think too. It was this one – about whether you should write for yourself, or for the reader. To some extent, it’s a no-brainer: you should always write for the person who is going to be reading it. If that’s only going to be you, then write for yourself. If, someday, you hope someone else will read your stuff, then you’d better factor them in too.

But what really made me think was how specific the author of that post got – his strategy was to make a sort of ‘ideal reader’ character in his mind, and write the book for her. And I think that’s a really good idea, because it forces you to focus.

Commenters on the article objected, and suggested that if that’s what you were going to do, then why not just write for yourself – or for someone you knew? It comes down to the same thing in the end – you’re writing for one person, who standards for the population of readers you hope to attract.

But, thinking about it, it’s not the same thing at all. It’s all about how specific you are. If you write for yourself, then you’re being very specific indeed – there’s no-one who knows more about what you like than you do. And you know all your little quirks and idiosyncrasies (even if you don’t recognise them). So by writing for yourself, you’re effectively writing for the only person in the world who fits that description. If you write for someone you know, you still know quite a bit about them, and real people have all sorts of little quirks, so you’re still narrowing your focus.

But if you make up a character, you can make him or her into a sort of everyman. Lawyers know about this: law is full of these people – the ‘Reasonable Man’, the ‘Moron in a Hurry’, the ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’, ‘Equity’s Darling’. They are cardboard cutout sort of people who each stand in for a population. We know some of their characteristics, but they don’t have individual quirks because their function is not to be individuals. Your made up character isn’t a real person: he or she is the shadowy Reasonable Reader, with just enough of a personality to perform one single function: that of keeping your book focused and on track.

So my project for this week is to work out who, and what, my Reasonable Reader is. And thank goodness that article was published now rather than in six months’ time. Lucky, lucky, lucky…