Characters can break

The last couple of weeks have been busy. There’s been the writing and the editing. There’s been family stuff and medical stuff. There has also been a lot of reading, most of which was for entertainment. There has also been recharging of the creative part of my mind — as well as beating my muse into something that, at least on the surface, looks like compliance.

It is the reading for enjoyment that sparked today’s post.

Last week, with my muse demanding I put aside the current wip to make some fairly detailed plot notes for something that hit me out of nowhere, I stepped back some and read. Over the course of two and a half days, I read eight or nine novels. One of them, Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge by Correia and Ringo, kept me up much too late. It was a fun read and shows what happens when two talented authors who care more about story than some artificial checklist. They created a story I want to continue, characters I loved reading about and left me smiling and laughing. Oh, and there are guns and things that go boom!

I also read a multi-book series by another author and found myself scratching my head and then shaking my head and, finally, realizing that I needed to finish reading the series not because I was enjoying it but because it showed how not to do something. In other words, it became a lesson in character development or, perhaps, un-development.

Let’s face it, if our readers don’t have a reason to care about our characters, it doesn’t matter how beautiful our prose happens to be. They don’t have to love the characters but they have to feel something for them. It can be hate. It can be fear. But they have to connect with them. If they don’t, and if you are writing genre fiction, you won’t keep those readers for long. More importantly, they will remember they didn’t connect with your characters the next time they see one of your books and possibly pass on it.

What happened with this particular series is the author started off creating characters who were engaging, competent and flawed. In other words, they were human. They had their strengths and their weaknesses. They had hopes and fears. They were, in other words, interesting.

In this particular case, the books could be classified as modern fantasy or romantic fantasies. Each book had male and female main characters. There was a common set of characters between the books with the leads being supporting characters in one book and then the leads in the next. When done properly, that makes for a strong series, not only for the reader but for the writer as well. For the reader, you have that sense of family. You already know and are invested in the characters. You want to know what happens to them, not only in the book where they are the leads but in the other books as well.

As a writer, if done properly, it means you don’t have to worry about making sure readers are reminded of the backstory in each book. Each book can stand on its own but you have characters that are, even as supporting characters, fully developed and who can hook new readers into going back and reader the earlier books. But done poorly it can cost you not only new readers but those who have been fans of the series.

In this case, it was done badly. After the third book, it felt as if the author was doing nothing more than retreading the worst parts of the plots of not only their first three books but also of every bad romance out there. This isn’t anything new, especially not in the romance genre. I could name any number of best selling authors in the genre and books where all they’ve done is change the names and locations and then dropped in the same plot used in other books they’ve written.

But, in this particular case, it was worse because the author broke the characters and not in a way where they were going to grow stronger or anything else in the process.

You can, as an author, break your characters. You can put them into situations that will be more than they can handle, or close to it. It will scar them, perhaps physically or maybe psychologically. If you do it properly, you will then show them digging their way out of whatever sort of hell you have put them through. They will relapse and they will be fragile. They will have temper tantrums and want to run away. But they will struggle, often with the help of a lover or a friend, to overcome. The person they are at the end of it is someone who has learned from what happened and who has, in one way or another, grown.

But when you begin a story, or a series, and your characters are strong, self-sufficient and willing and able to stand on their own, you don’t take all that away from them without cause.

Now, I am not one of these women who are going to get all up in arms because a man saves a woman in a story — at least not if it makes sense that he does so. But I will get perturbed if a woman goes from being able to stand on her own two feet to standing back and smiling and waiting patiently as her man goes off and does what she would have a book or two earlier, especially if there is no reason for her to do so. What changed? What took her from the take charge and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her man to waiting at home to find out if he lived or died?

I swear, in this series, even the strongest — and I don’t mean physically — of the women turned into someone who sat back and waited for the macho men to do their thing. Hell, I expected the guys to start beating their chests and the women to have the vapors. With each book that passed, the women became more helpless and the men more of a macho stereotype.

And it was all for no reason. If the author had kept with the tenor set in the first book, the women would have been partners with the men. Not all of them would have necessarily stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their man as he went striding into danger but she also wouldn’t have been waiting at home, passive and weak. They would have done something that fit their particular talents.

What happened instead was the books turned into stories about the guys banding together and the women banding together and then sex scenes. Oh, and if you have a woman who has been beaten and raped and violated in other ways, know what the psychological wounds might be before you have her jumping into bed with the macho mountain man. That almost sent my kindle flying across the room.

In other words, just as the rules of your world have to make sense and if you break those rules, you need to have laid the groundwork for it or your readers will lose faith in you, you have to do the same with your characters. You will lose readers if you break the mold you cast your characters from without giving a reasonable explanation. Not every character has to be strong and capable. But, if you have a character who starts out that way and who proves himself or herself during one book, don’t make them all but incapable of helping discuss tactics or standing up for themselves in the next — unless you give a reason for it and that reason had damned well better make sense.

The overall impression I got as I read the series was that the author had gotten tired of it and of the characters. By the end, it felt as if the books were being written on autopilot. If an author doesn’t care about the characters or plot, the readers most likely won’t either. No one wins then. To be honest, the only reasons I kept reading after the fourth book was because I wanted to see if the author managed to right the course and because the author was very good at developing the third layer of characters — the shopkeepers and neighbors, etc. —  and setting.

Just as it becomes boring to read a series where the main character is either a Mary Sue or someone so perfect he or she can make no mistakes, it becomes frustrating to see characters you came to care about turning into something that is nothing more than a pale shadow of what they were. As authors, we need to keep that in mind, just as we need to remember that if the writing feels like it is becoming rote, we need to step back and take a long hard look at our work and decide what has gone wrong. Yes, wrong because that sort of writing rarely has emotion in it and genre fiction demands emotion, whether it is fear or that sense of soaring to the stars. We have to engage with our words. If we don’t, we will lose the reader.

And now for some self-promo:

Now that my muse has been satisfied regarding the new plot it infected me with, I am back toworking on Dagger of Elanna, the sequel to Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1).

War is coming. The peace and security of the Ardean Imperium is threatened from within and without. The members of the Order of Arelion are sworn to protect the Imperium and enforce the Codes. But the enemy operates in the shadows, corrupting where it can and killing when that fails.

Fallon Mevarel, knight of the Order of Arelion, carried information vital to prevent civil war from breaking out. Cait was nothing, or so she had been told. She was property, to be used and abused until her owner tired of her. What neither Cait nor Fallon knew was that the gods had plans for her, plans that required Fallon to delay his mission.

Plans within plans, plots put in motion long ago, all converge on Cait. She may be destined for greatness, but only if she can stay alive long enough.

Like all my other books, Sword is available for purchase or for download through the Kindle Unlimited program.

 

28 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, WRITING

28 responses to “Characters can break

  1. I realize this sounds strange, but it’s not fair to a character to leave them broken. Yes, he or she (or it – sci-fi and fantasy) had all of H-ll’s half-acre dumped on his head. And is coming out of traction to find his stuff on the lawn because he missed a rent payment. (True story. When the rest of us in the complex found out, we took up a collection, paid the bill, and he didn’t know until much later.) But it’s not fair to him to deny him the chance to recover, grow, and come out stronger – not necessarily physically, but in other ways. UNLESS, and this is a big unless, he chooses NOT to grow. There are some characters who won’t. I tend to think of them as the horrible warnings.

    • I agree completely. What really bothered me in the series I reference is there was no reason for the change in characterization. The series would have been better had the characters grown and not regressed into caricatures of what they started out being.

      • I had that happen in a mystery series. The MC was intelligent and competent, but has crawled back home to lick her wounds after a divorce. But she rose to the occasion and let the competence out. Three books later and she’s not just dumb, but she’s a passive observer. I don’t know what happened. Writer lost interest might be the best explanation.

  2. Hmmm. Sometimes the breaking is the story. Phillip Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”, for example, ends with the main character broken and the reader understanding that he won’t ever get better. Not a happy story, certainly, but a very powerful one.

    • Exactly. And when it is the story, the reader is forewarned, at least if the author foreshadows. More than that, the breaking doesn’t break the rules of the world where the character exists. However, changing a character’s personality without explanation and without warning is the way to break not only the character but the reader’s trust with you, the author. That is what happened with this particular series.

  3. I must write a really weird way, because my characters simply don’t do stuff ‘they’ don’t want to do.

    I’ll introduce a scenario or a reaction to something by a character, and write along for a little while, and the whole thing just isn’t working at all. That character just isn’t being written doing something they would do, and the longer I keep going the dumber it gets. It’s broken.

    So I go back and take out the thing that’s making it stupid, then the story resumes forward progress.

    Lots of times I see authors have a character do something because its necessary for the plot, and it seems jarring because to me, that person would never do that thing that’s been done. A lot of these urban fantasies have characters jumping into bed with the monster or the ghost or whatever, and I’m shaking my head. That heroine would never stoop to doing that guy, she’s supposed to be All That, she can have whoever she wants by whistling and pointing. “You. Yes, you. C’mere.” Super hot magic girl gets stuck with the werewolf dude? Never happen.

    Also there seems to be a lot of hate-sex between exs out there in Bookland. Who does that? Plot be damned, she’s not hooking up with the loser ex that she hates. It breaks the story when you put stuff like that in.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      That makes me think of a PNR series with characters who are mahou shoujo in their twenties.

      I suspect your observations are of that part of the market where Romance becomes pornography. As far as I can tell, this is the first rule for writing pornography: You can get away with anything so long as it serves the fetish of your target audience.

      • There’s a lot of these ‘magical girl’ demon hunter type series where the main character ends up jumping everything in sight, animal, vegetable or mineral. Which would be fine, except the MC is female, LIBERATED with a capital LIB!!!! and so forth, all the proper check boxes ticked off. Except she turns to water when a Real Man (dead or alive, doesn’t seem to matter) casts his Male Gaze on her.

        Leaving me sitting there, knocked out of the story every couple of chapters, rolling my eyes and yelling at the book. It’s one of those “pick a side!” things.

        If she’s going to screw her way through the character list, can she really be all dewy, dainty and swooning maiden, plus Super Magic Bitch, plus Victim of the Male Hegemony? All at the same time? But there they are, writing it, and it is painful to read. Character massively broken.

        But it gets published! And there’s a shelf full of it! Which leaves me at “WTF is up with that?”

        • And the question, as writers, is if you have an idea/story with the non-sex base premise (Female demon hunter/monster hunter) will the audience primed to expect the sex wall your book if it isn’t there?

          • wyrdbard, it really depends on a couple of things, starting with your cover. Use a more UF cover than PNR cover and that starts cuing them that this isn’t PNR necessarily. Another is what your blurb says and what key words you use when you list it. My UF series has a female protag and it was either the second or third book before any sex happened. Even now, the sex is minimal and usually off-screen because it isn’t integral to the plot. A trad published example would be the Jane Yellowrock series by Faith Hunter. There is a little sex in the books but not much, especially when you consider how many books and short stories Hunter has written in the series.

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          It’s the kink they are chasing.

          Use that critical mindset of yours on other types of porn, and you’ll have other complaints that keep you from enjoying it as a piece of realistic quality storytelling.

    • Not published yet, but I’ve run into that issue with a character on occasion. One was so stubborn I finally ended up setting the story aside and writing a couple of vignettes involving that character and one of the other primaries just to build up a good mental idea of how they should behave.

      I figure I might compile a stack of those vignettes and release them as a little free ebook in between releases in the future, just to not completely waste the effort.

      • Welcome to my life. I had to step away for almost a week from the current wip to make story notes and character notes for a book I didn’t even know I was going to write. As for what to do with those vignettes, you might surprise yourself. I’ll lay odds the day will come when they become part of a longer work. At least that’s what seems to happen a lot with me.

        • Already happened. I’d started work on a book in some downtime, got about thirty pages in and it just felt like I was playing with puppets. I’d had an idea for a possible prequel to the story from the start, decided to do a little sketching on the prequel to see if I couldn’t set the tone of the world better that way, and now I’m working full-time on the prequel while the other book is gathering dust.

          I’ll probably go back to it some day, but I think the style I had in mind is a little beyond my skill set for now.

    • Phantom, your characters must be related to mine. I swear my characters are the most stubborn, bull-headed creations ever. When I try to write something they don’t want to do, they stand there in the forefront of my brain, glaring, tapping a foot — or slapping a bat in one hand — and just say “nope. That’s not gonna happen.” I simply can’t write a main character or main supporting character doing something just to check of some artificial tickler list of “must haves” in a story.

      • *Grin* I tried to write a Gothic romance short story once. Rada Ni Drako marched in, told the protagonist to get over himself and grow a pair, and took the story in the wrong direction. I swear, some days . . .

        • LOL. I have an alt. history/historical fantasy/whatever about halfway written. Why is it halfway written? Because the character who was supposed to die — and become the reason why the main character does certain things — refuses to die. In fact, she stands there, hands on hips, the “mother” look on her face (you know the look I mean. The one you mother can give you that turns you into a pile of quivering, apologetic jello even though you don’t know what you did wrong.) as she tells me she is NOT dying. She will NOT leave her children in the dire straits I was writing them into. Nope, not gonna happen and she is doing this in Russian which makes it even worse. There really are times I hate my characters. VBEG

          • Yes! _Hubris_. First novel I wrote as a novel. The reporter. He was supposed to drown in the tsunami. Tarkeela was supposed to be the bad guy. Reporter gives me one of THOSE looks and says in effect, “Just how stupid do you think I am? I may not know what’s going on but I’m following everyone else climbing to the high ground. When 150,000 people start moving in the same direction, it’s time to leave.” And Tarkeela gave me the middle talon and did his own thing. *mumble mumble stupid lizards mutter*

      • Mine just raises an eyebrow at me. She’s very proper. 🙂

      • ..my characters are the most stubborn, bull-headed creations ever.

        Moo.