Weaknesses

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OK, yesterday’s post was about the fact that I don’t like heights and a trip up the new ladder into the loft was definitely on the cards.

Well, I’m happy to be able to say (as you’ve probably guessed, since I’d be too ashamed to come back if I’d wussed out) that I did it. I climbed up (and obviously down) the ladder into the loft not once, but three times, today.

Small though that achievement might seem, it’s small-but-significant to me. Now I’ve done it (three times) I know I can do it again. My world has expanded, ever so slightly. I don’t say I’ve conquered the fear, but at least I know I can deal with it in this place. Have you ever experienced that? Or the converse – that you know you’ve wussed out of something and you’ve lost.

Anyway, to drag myself to the point. Thinking about my own weaknesses (especially in the matter of ladders) made me think about characters in books. So far, I don’t think I’ve encountered one with an irrational fear of heights. But weaknesses in book characters are pretty important, and deceptively hard to write.

On the one hand, if your character doesn’t have enough weaknesses, they come across as superhuman, and the reader can’t relate to them (or hates them out of sheer jealousy). On the other hand, if they have too many – or the wrong – weaknesses, they’re irritating.

So what are the right weaknesses? It’s kind of like a job interview, where they say “So, Ms Elliott, can you tell us one of your weaknesses?” and you’re supposed to say, “Well, I have this terrible tendency to work too hard,” or something like that. I know of someone who said “Actually, I’m a bit of a rat.” Oddly enough, he didn’t get the job.

I suppose you could think of your character being interviewed by the reader. How would they answer this question, and would the reader give them the job?

Of course, the thing about books is that if you write more than one in a series, the poor character has to keep getting interviewed for their own job, as if their employer is continually restructuring. Do their strengths and weaknesses continue to suit their current role? This is actually pretty important.

Take David Weber’s Honor Harrington series – I love this series and I devour every book as soon as it comes out. The main character, Honor Harrington, is a naval officer. In the first book of the series, she’s a starship commander; by the end, she’s a senior admiral. She’s a brilliant tactician and strategist, becomes an excellent politician, and is a nice person. Her major fault is lack of self-confidence, and a tendency to beat herself up over her perceived failures. Now, this works pretty well when she’s a more junior officer, but it’s neither worthy of respect nor even believable in a senior admiral. In fact, in the latest book, she’s in the middle of a speech along the lines of I-know-I-led-my-fleet-to-victory-but-I-should-have-been-able-to-save-all-the-innocent-people-on-the-other-side-too, when one of an allied star nation’s senior people gives her the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face and tells her to grow up; people die in wars, and it’s her job to keep her people alive, not the enemy’s. It would have been far more believable if Weber had shown Honor realising, as she grew more senior, that war is an inherently dangerous activity, and she will almost never be able to get through an action without casualties. It’s right to feel regret and grief for the dead – but it’s not appropriate for a senior officer to set herself unrealistic standards. This flaw spoils the books (but only a bit, because everything else about them is so good).

Laurell Hamilton is another author who has had (or is having) series-related problems. Her Anita Blake series started very well indeed, with her rather uptight and prudish protagonist thrust into the sexy world of vampires. Now, of course, Anita is well immersed in the vampire and shapeshifter worlds, and sex is very much part of her life. For quite a few books, we had to put up with Anita’s angst and temper tantrums as she refused to accept what her life had inevitably become, thus making life needlessly difficult for herself and everyone around her. Finally, however, Laurell is writing Anita accepting the changes and getting on with making her somewhat complicated life work. This is a great relief, since I, for one, was getting rather sick of all the whining. So what if your life hasn’t worked out how you planned? Write to the universe and complain. Then get up and move on.

On the other hand, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series is, for me, a demonstration of How It Should Be Done. At the beginning of the series, Harry is Chicago’s only wizard for hire – he’s in the Yellow Pages, under W – and he’s struggling to make the rent. In fact, he’s pretty much the stereotype of the detective-story private eye: tough, impecunious, and in possession of a Past but no girlfriend. We haven’t reached the end of the series, but Harry has grown in all sorts of directions. He’s matured, both in character and in power, and he’s learned that things aren’t quite as black and white as he thought. He’s not a lone wolf any more – he’s got responsibilities. He’s got an apprentice.

Butcher has resisted the temptation that many authors give in to – the temptation to reset their protagonist back to ‘start’ for the beginning of each book. If he gets the girl at the end of the last book, he’s lost her (somehow) by the beginning of the next. If he strikes it lucky financially, he loses it. He never learns from his mistakes. So there’s never any change in circumstances; the poor protagonist is always doomed to be strapped for cash, lonely, and in need of work. Some readers like this; it has the soothing ease of familiarity. Every book is pretty much the same as every other book. It’s like putting on the same pair of comfy slippers. However, other readers (myself amongst them) find this unsatisfying. [Plus, I don’t know about anyone else, but I start to feel sorry for the poor schmuck – just as he thinks he’s got his life on track finally, the author comes and takes it all away and sends him right back to where he started. No wonder so many of these characters seem to take to drink; if someone kept doing that to me, I would too.] It’s frustrating to think that the series isn’t ultimately going anywhere – it just goes round and round, with nothing really getting accomplished.

I guess this goes to show – again – that as an author, whatever you do, somebody isn’t going to like it!

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