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.