I've been tagged to take part in the My Main Character blog hop by John Ayliff, author of sci-fi novel Belt Three (coming from Harper Voyager next year). I'm really looking forward to this book being released – it sounds brilliant! If you missed John's behind-the-scenes introduction to his main character, Jonas, you can read it here.
The idea of this blog hop, as the name suggests, is to say a little bit about a book's main character. Yet I have a slight problem with this when it comes to Darkhaven. Because the truth is, Darkhaven doesn't have just one or two viewpoint characters. It has seven. And it's not even epic fantasy!*
I know, I know. I should have my author's membership card revoked.
Still, if I had to play favourites with my characters (which I don't like to do, because it makes them cranky) I guess Myrren Nightshade would be top of the list. So let's ignore the mutterings of the other six and focus on him.
People have been throwing the phrase 'strong female characters' around for years now, and yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what it means. So just to add to the melting pot of misapprehension, here's my contribution to the debate. Because as far as I can tell, there are two very fundamental aspects of the phrase that contribute to the general crossing of wires.
Earlier I was humming 'Mother Knows Best' from the Disney animated film Tangled (er, as you do) when it occurred to me that Rapunzel is pretty unique among Disney characters for having not one but two mothers. OK, so one of them is actually a passive-aggressive manipulator who stole Rapunzel to keep herself young, but it can't be said that Rapunzel lacks a mother figure in her life. Yet in general, being the mother of a Disney hero/heroine reduces your chances of actually being alive at the start of the movie to almost zero. Stepmother? You're safe, particularly if you can summon up an evil laugh. But mother? You'd be better off living in Midsomer.*
This got me thinking about my own characters - and yes, once again, they're a fairly motherless lot. Dawn Rising? The mothers of all five protagonists are either dead or unwillingly separated from their offspring. Darkhaven? Two dead mothers, one who abandoned her children, and the rest ... absent. Even in my YA project Arcana, the narrator's mother is dead and she has a stepmother (affectionately known as E.S., short for ... I'm sure you can figure it out). Yet fathers are much more prominent. True, some of them are dead, too, but many are present in their children's lives, influencing them for better or for worse.
And, of course, it's not just me. Look at some of the most popular books of the past decade or so. Harry Potter? The death of Harry's parents, but particularly his mother (who died for his sake), shapes the entire narrative. Twilight? The story starts with Bella leaving her mother to live with her father. The Hunger Games? Katniss has had to take on the role of mother to Prim because their own mother can no longer cope. The Da Vinci Code? Arguably the entire book is about a mother who has supposedly been excised from history ... yeah, I'm probably taking it a step too far with that one. Be that as it may, in the rest of the novels I've just mentioned, the mother's main influence comes from not being there any more.
So where have all the mothers gone? Why is the missing mother such an engrained fantasy trope?
Well, let me say straight away that there are exceptions. Pixar's film Brave was interesting because, at heart, it was the story of a mother and daughter mending their relationship. And A Song of Ice and Fire is notable for featuring several alive** and actively participating mothers; the maternal instinct is shown to be a strong and potentially dangerous force that has wide-reaching consequences. But the point is, these are exceptions. People comment on them, which means they're unusual. They only throw into sharper relief that gaping void where all the other mothers should be.
My feeling is that the trope is so pervasive because, on a fundamental psychological level, we can't conceive of anything more frightening than losing our mothers. Bad and abusive mothers notwithstanding, some key equation is built into our DNA that tells us Mother = Safety. And as we all know, a safe character is a boring character. Remove someone's mother, and you're removing an emotional comfort blanket. A missing mother - whether dead or simply not there - is fictional shorthand for all kinds of things, from forced self-reliance to a search for identity, but probably the core one is vulnerability. Whether it's as external as not having someone there to advise the character when they're making a stupid decision, or as internal as emotional self-sabotage, No Mother = Danger. Which is why, although I'd love to see some really strong mother-child relationships in fantasy fiction, I suspect there are plenty more motherless characters to come. After all, if you have that strong a relationship with your living, present, available-for-tea-and-sympathy mother then you can cope with anything life throws at you. And where's the fun in that?
Of course, for those of you (like me) who are mothers yourselves, this comes with an additional layer of scary - for two reasons. One, you are someone's safety. You are what stands as protector between your children and the world; you are what has to step aside, in the end, to let them grow up, whilst remaining the ever-present fallback. That's probably the biggest responsibility anyone can have. And two ... two, if you find yourself between the pages of a fantasy novel, chances are the author is going to kill you off to give your children a background of rich emotional trauma. Sorry. Don't say I didn't warn you.
* For those unfamiliar with Midsomer Murders, it's a UK detective series set in a quiet rural county in which every week, almost without fail, someone is murdered. Basically, if you live in Midsomer then, sooner or later, you're going to die a horrible and blackly comical death.
** At least to start with.
It's the fourth and final Sunday of the month, which means it's time for some writing-related musings. And where better to begin than at the beginning?
Conventional wisdom tells us that every book must open with a hook. It tells us that readers want to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and thrown straight into the action. It tells us that the first page is the most important one, and if the writer gets it wrong then the book is doomed. But in this case, does conventional wisdom really know what it's talking about?
Consider the oh-so-vital hook. A clever and well-crafted first line can indeed be a delightful thing. But does my decision on whether or not to keep reading depend solely on the opening sentence? No. Does that sentence have to contain something particularly unique or witty or nerve-racking in order for me to consider buying the book? No. And have I on occasion been put off by the overt hookiness of a first sentence – the feeling that I'm being manipulated by a writer who's all too aware of the conventional wisdom? Yes.
Of course, this last one may just be a result of writing myself and thereby having some familiarity with the tricks of the trade (though it could be argued that anything a reader is actively aware of a writer doing, craft-wise, is a failure of storytelling). But I'm pretty sure that as long as there's nothing glaringly wrong with the opening line, most people will read on – assuming they were interested enough in the book's cover or description or great reviews to pick it up in the first place.
And thus to being thrown straight into the action. The obvious tension here is between excitement and emotional investment. If a book opens with a man being chased by a big scary monster, well, big deal. It doesn't matter to me if an anonymous, faceless person gets eaten by a monster. But if the book opens with Bob, the last survivor of a plague that turns people into monsters, racing to escape the monster pack and get the cure to his infected daughter before she can be turned too … that's very different. Action is only gripping when it's happening to someone we have a reason to care about.
Take The Hunger Games, for instance. If it were to start where the 'action' starts, it would probably start with the reaping ceremony. But we only care that Prim's name is called at the end of Chapter 1 because we've seen how much she means to Katniss – and over the preceding chapter, we've already started to care about Katniss. Of course, if The Hunger Games spent its first ten chapters bringing Katniss to complete and detailed emotional life without anything actually happening, that would be no good either. It's the balance between emotion and action that makes it work.
This leads indirectly to the issue of the first page, because my feeling is that it's not so much the first page as the first chapter that matters. The first page tells you whether the author is able to write. The first chapter tells you whether you're actually enjoying it or not. And these days, with 'look inside' and 'try a sample', readers don't have to guess whether they'll like a book based on the cover and a quick glance through. They can read that whole first chapter before they part with their money.
I'll award conventional wisdom one out of three, here, in that the first page is pretty crucial. If it contains loads of errors or doesn't make sense or is just plain boring, that's it – reader gone. But it doesn't have to be jampacked with action and clever concepts, either … or at least, insofar as the word 'action' is taken literally. Because what the start of a book does need, apart from clean writing and good flow and all the other things that go without saying, is emotional action – and this is where that all-important reader investment comes in. The start of your book could just be a woman making a cup of tea and thinking about her day, but if you can make me care about her, I'll keep reading. Having a central character that a reader can instantly relate to is the biggest hook of all.
You may be wondering what's wrong with that. Surely having a beard is part of the very definition of a dwarf, just as being tall and ethereally beautiful is part of what defines an elf. But what I'm getting at with 'all dwarfs have beards' is one of the more unrealistic and frankly dangerous fantasy clichés: the notion that the members of any non-human race may be principally characterised by their homogeneity.
In fact, it's not the physical details that worry me. Every species has certain key physical characteristics: humans walk on two legs, eagles fly, dragons breathe fire. So as far as I'm concerned, the dwarfs can keep their beards. But with these physical details tend to come a host of behavioural and psychological characteristics that are much harder to swallow when applied to the species as a whole: all dragons are wise, all elves are brilliant archers, all dwarfs love their beer. And fantasy writers don't stop there. Some even generalise about their own species (does 'all humans are short-sighted aggressive destroyers of the natural environment' sound familiar?).
Part of the problem seems to be a confusion between cultural and personality traits. Different human cultures have different traditions, beliefs and moral structures, so it's reasonable to assume that different sentient species would too. The framework through which a dragon views the world, for instance, is going to be very different from that of a human. But cultural standards are not the same as individual characteristics. The point about cultural standards is that the individuals who share them can examine them, question them and deviate from them to a greater or lesser extent. Giving an entire species a shared personality trait, on the other hand, assumes that everyone who is subject to the same cultural and environmental influences will end up the same kind of person – and that's where authors go wrong.
It's perfectly plausible that all members of a religion might salute the sun each evening to ensure it rises the next day. It's not so plausible that all those members would be identical in their level of belief in such a ritual. Successful worldbuilding requires a careful examination and understanding of which features of a race or species are cultural, and therefore may justifiably be applied across the entire group, and which are individual and therefore can't. As I said at the beginning, not doing this is dangerous. Why? Because it leads to lazy characterisation based on stereotyping and generalisation. And just as we wouldn't (or shouldn't) accept this for different human groups, we shouldn't accept it for different fantasy races.
"Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing."
– Stephen King, On Writing
All of us, at one time or another, have probably sat through the same English class. You know: the one where the teacher got you to write a paragraph describing an everyday object in new and unusual ways. The one where the difference between similes and metaphors was hammered out as laboriously as your homework on a Sunday afternoon.* The one where you had to come up with better synonyms for overused adverbs like 'quickly' and 'loudly'. (No-one told you that in ten years' time you would come to look upon all adverbs as a thing of evil.) At the end of the lesson, you left with a head full of purple prose and the vague feeling that you'd never be able to look at a cloud again without seeing sky-sheep grazing on an endless field of cornflowers, but you'd also absorbed one key message.
Description is Important.
What you probably didn't learn at school – or at least, I certainly didn't – was when and where to use these new-found skills in a piece of fiction. Personally, back then I was under the impression that the right thing to do was start a chapter with a nice long description to set the scene, before launching into the action. And indeed, I can remember reading plenty of books at the time that followed that kind of structure. If the description was too long then I'd skim it (being more interested in plot than beautiful words in those days), but nevertheless I thought it was the convention. Write the opening description, write the following action, then stitch the two together.
Whether that was true or not (and I think it becomes more so as you look further and further back in time), things have now changed. The move away from third-person omniscient and towards third-person limited – the tendency to stick to one character's viewpoint for the course of at least an entire scene, rather than hopping from person to person – means that this kind of description is usually no longer appropriate. The omniscient narrators of the past would describe a scene from their own perspective and with authorial asides to the reader; they had no problem intruding upon their own narrative. Today's writers, with close POV as their mantra, don't have that option. It feels artificial for a character to stand around describing the landscape for several paragraphs before getting on with whatever they're doing. Description has to be integrated into the character's other experiences and perceptions – and it has to be specific to that character.
Of course, this doesn't mean being able to write good descriptions is no longer important. In fact, it means the exact opposite. Authors can no longer indulge themselves in two pages of clever wordsmithery about exactly how dark and stormy the night was. Rather than being separated from the characters, description becomes part of them. In a close third-person or first-person novel, good description is both brief and idiosyncratic. It gives the reader a mental picture of what's being described, but it also reveals something about the character whose viewpoint it's written from. And that's actually a lot harder than the kind of description we learned at school.
These days, we can no longer treat description as being distinct from a character's thoughts, dialogue or actions. When writing close POV, all these things stem from the character herself. Anything that's described is described for a reason: because it's what was important or noticeable to that character at the time. Someone who's in a strange place will observe all kinds of details, particularly those that differ from his previous experience. Someone who's afraid for her life will focus on what might have an impact on her chances of survival. Someone who's deeply upset may very well be more caught up in himself to the exclusion of the world around him. And so on. As for comparisons, take this: there was a metallic scraping sound, like a sword being drawn from its sheath. All well and good, you may say … unless the POV is that of the archetypal farmboy who's never seen (or heard) a sword in his life. In that case, even if you know it's a sword, he'd be much more likely to compare it to a chinking bridle or a piece of machinery.
In short, to all questions of description – what makes a good description? how frequently should I add them to my writing? how do I know if my descriptions are too florid or too sparse? – there is now a single answer: it depends whose viewpoint you're writing from. Know your characters inside out, and everything else will follow.
* See what I did there?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Take a short descriptive scene that's written from one character's point of view, and try writing it from the POV of another participant in that scene. How do the descriptions vary? Do the two people notice different things, or the same thing in different ways? Are the descriptions appropriate to their personalities and previous experiences?
Imagine a character whose defining feature is overwhelming niceness. He's polite, soft-spoken, never pushy. He makes an effort to get on well with others, even if he's tired or really hacked off at how his day has gone. He doesn't act cocky to cover up his insecurities or jump into a fistfight without trying to talk through the issues first. He always sees the other person's point of view. And in his spare time, he helps old ladies cross the street.
Want to read about this fine upstanding model of a man? I didn't think so.
See, as character traits go, niceness is probably the least prized. Because nice people are boring. They're bland. They're like semolina. We want our characters to come with a dash of arrogance and a sprinkling of bad temper. In fact, we want them to be more like our grumpy, sarky, prickly selves.
Or maybe that's just me.
Still, there's no denying that it's hard to relate to a person who's always nice. There's nothing to get a grip on, no handle to catch hold of. Part of this is our desire for realism, of course – few people can be nice all the time, and someone who is can feel uncomfortably like a saint rather than a real person. But it's more than that. We don't admire niceness. We admire the cutting retort and the clever one-liner. We admire people who break the rules and dare to do what we wouldn't. We want the characters we read about to be confident, witty, occasionally mean, sometimes selfish – and niceness doesn't come into it.
On the face of it, that seems a shame. After all, most of us appreciate it when someone is nice to us in real life. We wouldn't get very far if everyone we met went out of their way to be unpleasant. But the truth is that when we read, we're not thinking about how we'd like other people to behave towards us. We're thinking about how we'd like to behave ourselves. And I suspect that secretly, many of us would like to be a little more aggressive and a little less placatory than we really are. Hence the fascination of the antihero, the maverick, the rebel. In them we catch a glimpse of how we fondly imagine our own lives could be, if only we weren't so darn well-behaved.
And maybe there's a lesson to be learned here on a personal level. I've always worried about what other people think of me. Various experiences during my teenage years convinced me that being good at anything only gets you negative attention. And so, by the time I was an adult, I was stuck with the mindset that being pushy or showing others what I was capable of would somehow mean I wasn't a nice person.
But guess what? No-one likes nice.
So perhaps it's time for me to dust off my own trumpet and start blowing it again.
People often talk about the importance of strong characters in books. Fictional women, in particular, seem to be assessed on some kind of imaginary scale – the phrase 'strong female lead' gets thrown around like a balloon at a birthday party. But in my opinion, there are a host of common misconceptions as to what actually constitutes strength. Today I'm going to talk about a few of them and why they're nonsense.
1. Strength equates to physical strength (or some other talent).
Again, this particularly seems to be applied to female characters. Some people appear to believe that a strong woman ought to be able to wield a broadsword with the best of them. And indeed, a female warrior can be a strong character just as much as a male warrior can. But she won't be strong because of her fighting ability. Any character, male or female, is strong despite his/her physical attributes, not because of them.
We fantasy writers are prone to loading our characters with rather unrealistic talents – whether those are perfect swordplay, skills in magic or an ability to see in the dark. I guess that's because the situations we put our characters into are correspondingly extreme compared to real life. But those talents don't define the character. Strength comes not from what we have, but from what we choose to do with it.
2. Strength means never being afraid, upset or otherwise emotionally vulnerable.
Maybe this is a cultural thing – and I guess this one gets applied more to men. (Sexist, I know, but we'll talk about that another time.) There's a perception that fear is weakness. That crying should be avoided at all costs. That grief is something to gloss over and move on from as quickly as possible.
In answer, I would simply say: it takes more strength to overcome your fear than never to feel any. The character who is not emotionally vulnerable is not human. Strength lies in feeling the vast range of emotions that life has to offer, but finding the courage to do what has to be done anyway.
3. Strength means always doing the right thing.
This is a tricky one. I'd love it if my characters always did the right thing, for the sake of their peace of mind if nothing else. But, of course, that's not what people are like. People are messy. They act for all sorts of reasons. And sometimes, even with the best of intentions, they get it wrong.
Again, it comes down to the same principle: there is more strength in failing, and being knocked down to your lowest point, and getting up and trying again, than there is in succeeding first time at everything. A strong character, for me, is one who has the weaknesses and frailties we all have – but despite that, keeps on trying and learning and changing. That's the kind of strength I'd like to have, and that's the kind of strength that interests me in fiction.
OK. Who here suffers from an irrational hatred of something or someone? A hatred so blind and all-consuming that you only have to see the object of it to start foaming at the mouth? A hatred that you can’t explain in logical terms – a hatred that is the exact opposite of love at first sight?
Yeah. Me too.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today. I’m here to talk about my perfectly reasonable hatred of character descriptions in books.
I’ll be gallivanting happily through my latest fictional adventure, caught up in the political machinations of the Zo’aran people or a race across the plains on dinosaur-back, or whatever, and then I’ll come across a sentence like ‘Xyantha pushed her flowing blonde hair back from her face and folded her slender arms’.
In one line, the book has lost all its joy for me and I want to give the author a good smack around the head.
First of all, no-one thinks of themselves in terms of their physical characteristics. An easy way to tell this is to rewrite the sentence in first person. “I pushed my flowing blonde hair back from my face and folded my slender arms.” I’d get some funny looks if I tried telling that story over a few drinks, and not just because flowing blonde hair would look pretty weird on me. As a general rule, the only time anyone ever notices their own appearance is when they look in a mirror. (But please, please don’t let your character look in a mirror. Not unless it’s important to the plot. And maybe not even then.)
Second, it strikes me as both lazy and self-indulgent on the part of the writer. Self-indulgent because there’s no denying that all writers fall in love with our characters. We know exactly what they look like, and we desperately want to share that with our readers so they can appreciate how dashing/beautiful/badass our darlings are. But let’s face it, author comrades: readers don’t give a damn. They’re far more interested in what the characters do. (When was the last time you decided you really liked a character because of his eye colour?) Which brings me to lazy: there are so many better ways of letting your reader know what your characters look like, without boring them with a shopping list of attributes. And the most obvious of these is only to describe a physical characteristic when another character has reason to notice it. That way, it’s a reaction – a character-revealing response – and not just a fact.
The exception, of course, is if the characteristic is a key part of the story – Xyantha wondering why she’s blonde when every other member of her family is dark. But in that case, the description of her blondeness wouldn’t be an intrusion by an author who wants us to know how awesome-looking Xyantha is; it would be a way to show important aspects of her character, her emotions and reactions. And that’s OK with me.
Of course, inevitably, in that particular case it would also turn out that Xyantha is not her parents’ child, but a half-elven orphan who is the heir to an ancient magical bloodline and destined to save the world. But that’s the subject of another rant entirely.