Having failed to finish the appalling Alchemystic by Anton Strout (which I reviewed – or ranted about – yesterday), it prompts today’s post.
Having thought about the book’s many shortcomings (in my opinion), I think its worst failing was the lack of struggle. The characters were unsympathetic and/or insipid, the storyline was questionable (although the basic premise was interesting), and the author had obviously done zero research (or logical thinking). However, what really killed it for me was the lack of emotion.
I’m not talking about people weeping and wailing all over the place; I’m talking about a lack of struggle. In pretty much every book I have ever read, there is struggle. Usually more than one kind. In Jane Eyre, Jane is struggling to make a living in an uncaring world. She is struggling to assert her independence. She is struggling against her attraction to her employer, Mr Rochester. Mr Rochester is struggling to keep the existence of his first wife a secret. Various matchmaking mamas are struggling to get Mr Rochester married to their daughters, and Mr Rochester is intent on evading them.
And so on.
These people are having to overcome adversity, and it’s not easy. At some point, I read an author saying something along the lines of ‘writing consists of figuring out the worst thing you can do to a character, and then doing it’. I read another author saying that every character should want something – even if it’s only a glass of water.
In Alchemystic, things seemed to come rather too easily to Lexi, the protagonist. She was also rather unemotional – her brother is killed, and she’s not bothered; she doesn’t have a good relationship with her parents, but she’s irritated rather than disturbed, worried, or saddened, let alone bereft or devastated. Of course, she could have been intended to be a sociopathic anti-hero type (which would have been interesting) but she wasn’t. She came across, to me, as a self-centred, spoiled rich brat. Fine; I’ve got no objection to that. But then she has to start learning about her dead grandfather’s magic, and she manages to find his spell books and get going without much trouble. Her two friends turn out to both have useful skills (rather too deus-ex-machina useful, if you ask me), and everything goes rather too smoothly. If she’d had to work a bit for her discoveries, then it would have been a much better book – even with such unappealing characters. There would have been some tension, something to keep the reader on the edge of the seat.
There would also be some potential for personal growth on the part of the characters. Isn’t that what we, as readers, want to see? We see Jane Eyre growing from the clever, but disregarded, niece of a rich woman into a self-possessed young woman who is a worthy wife for Edward Rochester (in a won’t let him walk all over her sense). Rochester grows from being selfish and arrogant enough to think that he can break the law with impunity, to a realisation that a) this is not the case, and b) he can’t get whatever he wants by demanding or paying for it – certainly not a life-partnership with such a woman as Jane.
In Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books (yes, him again), Harry grows from the rather irresponsible, footloose-and-fancy-free (in a sense) lone operator in Storm Front to a front-line fighter in the shadow war against the Black Council in the later books. He has grown in power, expertise, and maturity. His personal growth and development has been bought in blood and peril and loss over the course of the series, and it’s watching Harry struggle through the obstacles that Butcher puts in his way that keeps readers coming back for more.
Even with characters we quite like, a book isn’t that interesting without putting the protagonist through the mill, at least a bit – whether physically or emotionally. Look at James Bond: emotional/psychological development nil (or almost nil), but the number of times the man gets beaten up, tortured, or has to perform feats of superhuman endurance, is enough to reduce a lesser man to a nervous wreck regardless. Even though Bond is the suave, sophisticated, debonair hero guaranteed to appeal to men and women alike, the books wouldn’t be any good if he didn’t have to work for his eventual victory and assignation with the latest Bond Girl. We know Bond is going to come out on top eventually, but we’re on the edge of our seats in between the interview with M at the beginning and the final showdown.
So, in conclusion, the secret to writing a really good book seems to be in being really horrible to your poor defenceless characters. However, before proceeding, read Critical Analysis in Tanya Huff’s Blood Bank…