Monday, May 26, 2014

On Writing: The Problem with Sympathetic Characters

There's a problem with selective and omniscient Third Person, and that's that it creates too many sympathetic characters in the story and not enough conflict. But, Jacob, you might be thinking, when two people think they are in the right isn't that the very definition of conflict? Probably, but the fact is that it creates very confusing character dynamics.

There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but the fact is that when you refuse to have a true antagonist beyond a hive mind or group dynamic, there's a hard time for the reader to focus on who they are supposed to root for. I'm going to use a series that I have just finished re-reading, but not actually mention what book series it is. For two reasons, 1) I've already picked on it a few times and it really is a good book, and 2) because it carries over to a lot of other book series. That series is The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett

The first book begins with three main protagonists, not too bad, and an amorphous set of bad guys. At one point one of the characters is betrayed by his companion and an antagonist is created. Perfect. But, then that antagonist is added to the set of three from the first book and given a back-story to make him out to be a man of honor doing what he believes is right to save the world. Great, now we have four protagonists and an amorphous group of bad guys that are little more than beasts. Well, during the second book, the fourth protagonists wife is introduced as a rather bad person, so she is more of an antagonist, right? No, during the third book, the author focuses on how she is doing what she is doing out of love and honor and that she is actually a good person, too, despite the shady way she goes about it. So what do we do?

Well I still hate his wife. I still disagree with her husbands methods, and one of the protagonists is kind of a jerk, too, so I think I don't like him as well. Now the book has an amorphous set of bad guys who are supposed to be a bad guy, a ruler who is doing the right thing for the right reasons but in a rather despicable way, and a wife who is conniving and vicious but truly loves her husband. Who are we supposed to be rooting against again?

With the same problem as having too many perspectives, when you have too many sympathetic "villains" you disperse whatever conflict you might have among the characters of the book until in the end you have no conflict at all and you begin to wonder, "Why are these people fighting each other?" It's less evident for these characters because the reader can see how the problems started but as the reader you begin to wonder why these problems are coming along. Who started this problem and why aren't they talking? They talk about everything length...but nobody talks among themselves.

Where is the line in the sand drawn for books now. Plot driven books in the past, the ones that were bread and butter for me growing up, always had the clearly defined antagonist. The dragon that stole the mountain. The Wizard who kidnapped the Princess. The Emperor who was running things all along. Now, with character driven stories, everyone has to be sympathetic and it leaves me wondering, are there any bad guys left in the world?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Room with a View

What do you do when you fall so far behind? Honestly, this is a question I have no answer for. It is the one I pose because I don't believe there is an answer, and therefore it will not be the smart-ass query I pose this week. So, honestly, what do you do when you need to catch up?

There is no room for books on my main and secondary bookshelf, at least not for books. My cat, Sabin Rene Figaro Chavez Moore has found space enough to stare at me wide eyed and accusingly from time to time, but as far as authors and books, my main shelf has found its tenants and the place seems to be rent control. Jim Butcher has the top floor mostly to himself, though Rachel Aaron and Illona Andrews have stubbornly kept to their shared condo despite the, quote, unquote, misogyny from the former. Brom, on the other hand, has been caught sleeping in the penthouse staircase with a rolled duffle and a pack full of art supplies and no matter how many times we kick him out, or how many times we change the locks, he still somehow finds his way up there every 3rd Wednesday.

The second floor, though crowded, is a mystical sort of place full of pagans, idolaters and shapeshifters. Lev Grossman and Neil Gaiman are on good terms as far as neighbors go on the corner end of things while Thomas Sniegoski and Carrie Vaughn are quite chummy with Mark Zicree while he and his constant revolving door of roommates discuss the end of the world. And, right in the middle, having bought at least three different rooms all for herself, (and the massive amounts of parties she has to celebrate her success,) J. K. Rowling sits like a queen at throne in her contentment.

But, if my main shelf is like rent control condo's then my secondary shelf is more like a hostel. Well traveled, a little seedier than a hotel, and full of people who keep coming back because it's comfortable and nobody has killed them and stolen their wallets yet. Simon Green and Terry Goodkind, Stephen King and Margaret Weiss/Tracy Hickman. This place is for the glory and the ones that came and went and came again when I wasn't quite paying attention. I love them for their tenacity, but at any point they might be replaced by one that needs the space.

In the bedroom, serving multiple purposes, is the halfway house of bookshelves, of which I can name no names. Why? Because, I don't know who they are off the top of my head, and am too lazy to pick myself and my laptop up and run in there to name a few. That shelf is where books go to die slow deaths of disuse. Their drugs are simple but extreme: New York Times Best Sellers List and A Good Read by [Endorsement]. Like many famous people who visit these places, they were referred to by someone else famous, maybe even someone who can handle their vices like Stephen King or Ursula k. Le Guin, but didn't quite catch the mark.

Once a week I would go out, less frequently these days, and go to the bookstore, a little place right down the street that no longer exists in reality, and pick out three or four books. I would give each a turn, and 7 times out of 10 it would pan out well and I'd have another spot open for rent. These days, all but the very lucky have been moved directly to the halfway house in my room, next to my bed, in it's place of shame where they are set aside but not quite forgotten in all but names...I should light a candle for them, maybe.

Now it has been several months since I have gone book shopping. Under the guise of waiting for good books to catch up, but really just trying to find the time to read, and not just the occasional audiobook, I have gone without for too long. Where do I go from here?

I could, in all fairness, pick up a book in my favorite, still running series. Perhaps try to find some space for Butcher to expand or maybe one of my less needy tenants in the main building. Or, I could always check out the hostel and see what those workhorses like Green or Kadrey are working on. The fear, and the excitement comes in the same flavor, though less severe in consequence, as Russian Roulette. Will it be the safe click of a good book that I collect, or will it be the last heat and pressure I hear of a dud before that bullet cracks my skull and I'm forced to resign myself to fate of needing a bigger halfway house to share my shame.

...and yes I know that final analogy didn't make sense. Shush!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Did J.K. Rowling Jump the Gun or the Shark

I actually really don’t like J. K. Rowling right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Harry Potter series. I think it’s one of the most brilliantly written, paced, and involved books of the century. Not only is it timeless because it takes place in a time out of time, but it grows with you as a reader. You don’t look at the book and think, “This book is for little kids,” you think instead that it is part of a whole with characters that grow up with you. But, at the moment that Rowling said that Harry and Hermione were meant to be together instead of her and Ron, I actually wanted to smack someone or break something.
This is what we in the world like to call a gimmick. Sales for Rowling’s books are never going to go down but the people from the older generation don’t need to get it anymore because the book has been read. That means that in another ten years when the Harry Potter books become a part of nostalgia again, another series will be out already to take the place and Harry Potter will, in all possibility, be relegated to the bargain bin. In this case, Rowling might have jumped the gun because she made her move too soon to pick up publicity. Let me put it clearer.
Let’s say that Rowling hadn't made the introduction and ten years after the last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, (2021 to be exact,) the sales from her books are starting to wane off. Three different generations have finished the series (those who read the books as they were coming out, those that watched them as the movies were coming out, and those that decided to see what all the hype was about after the movies,) and now there’s nothing left but to reread. New series have come out in the meantime, and now Harry Potter has been displaced by some nameless fantasy series of the generation. Sales are slacking because everyone who likes Harry Potter has read it already and those that haven’t have the new fantasy series to read instead. So what does Rowling do? She can’t start a new series, it’s been over ten years and the characters are grown and moved on: Pottermore kind of killed that road anyway. Well, if you’re smart, you laid out a gimmick, or you create one. Harry and Hermione were meant to be together. Honest! Go look in the books.
Well now, all the fans of the books are going to start rereading the books to find those subtle clues, and those that don’t have them anymore will need to go out and buy new copies. But, that’s not all, people who never had the inclination to read the series because they are in love with “James Dainer and the Prince of Twilight” or some junk like that, are now hearing all sorts of interesting things about this Harry Potter fellow. Well! Now sales are tripling, the market is flush with people who want those books, and what’s more, people will want to be watching those movies, too. Collecting wands and action figures and posters will become the thing to do again and not only has Rowling reinvigorated her story, but she’s bringing fantastical fiction to a new generation of readers.

Instead, Rowling has jumped the gun by three years of nostalgia for the 7th book, and rather than reinvigorating the story, she is playing into the trend of a new generation of lesser books like Twilight, Hunger Games (which is still good, but not Harry Potter good,) and other sappy fantasy series by introducing the Love Triangle. Because, that’s what Harry Potter was never about. While Ron and Hermione had their spats, and it was always joked about that Harry and Hermione were dating, Ron was a good man and Ginny was devoted to Harry from day one. There was never anyone else and saying that you wanted to do something but didn't doesn't change the facts of reality. All of these people going around looking for evidence that Harry and Hermione are supposed to be there are going to find it. Why? Because devoted friendship and love are easily mistaken by the thin lines of romance, and the Harry Potter books, meant for young adults and up, was never about the romance. It was there from time to time but the focus of the Harry Potter books was and will always be about the trials and tribulations of a boy who was born to do great things and who lost much in the doing.