Posts Tagged ‘Peter V Brett’

So the antihero is firmly established in all corners of literature, film, and storytelling what-have-you. They’re the gruff, but lovable, people who cut corners and kicks asses but overall their karmic balance tilts towards the good. Eventually. The antihero is flawed, troubled, and screwed up a little bit. They’re a type, though, and have become a trope in their own right. Unless someone is mucking around with the trope, we know the antihero is ok even if they bust heads and break laws. They’re chaotic good to use the convenient DnD alignment chart.

I could rattle off all sorts of examples of the antihero in our genre in any medium. I’ve even got some examples on this here blog.

But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about.

Antiheroes can still be likeable. What do you do when you’re reading a book and you don’t like the characters?

A lot of times, it means you put the book down and pick up the next one. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a huge To Read Pile and a To Buy List a mile long. The physical books I have in my To Read Pile are actually as tall as my kid. That doesn’t count anything on my Nook. It’s easy to just cycle out to the next book.

How can the writer still hook people even if their readers can’t stand their characters? This has been on my mind a lot because the godpunk novel I’m writing right now has a screwed up protag that drinks away her problems.

I’ve had this happen a few times, and not really with books I expected. Chuck Wendig‘s Miriam Black, Diana Rowland‘s Angel Crawford and Lee Collins‘ Cara Oglesby all start out as deeply flawed, screwed up people. Some of them remain this way. (At least as far as I’ve read, out of date on all three series) I never disliked any of them though even though it’s almost expected a little bit when you’ve got characters that are so messed up.

desertspearThe characters I didn’t like were Peter Brett‘s Jardir, Myke Cole‘s Harlequin and Delilah Dawson‘s Ahnastasia.

This blog post has been stewing in my head for a long time and I think I’ve finally twigged on to why I still consider all their books absolutely flipping fantastic anyways.

First and foremost, they’re all great writers. All the other parts of the books are expertly crafted. Worldbuilding, plot, supporting cast… all the set dressing is there to let the protags shine. Cole’s militarized magic has the plausibility to draw in readers. Dawson’s alternate world steampunk vampires are a fully realized mishmash of genres that are ripe for exploring. Brett’s got the sprawl, in both plot and worldbuilding, to support the massive tomes he writes. I’ve talked about all three authors around here frequently because these traits in their writing are the same kinds of traits I want to hone in my own. If anyone is looking for examples to act as torch bearers to level up their own work, you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Set dressing is fantastic, but character is where things happen. I wrote about Jardir last year when I read The Desert Spear. I think he’s a serious asshole. Even though Brett’s sprawling series has a lot of POV characters, Jardir is set up against who I consider the primary POV. It’s easy for him to come off as a bit of a backstabber. And he does. And I never warmed up to him. Eventually though, I understood him, even if I still didn’t like him. I knew why Jardir had to stand opposite of Arlen. Now, I actually like Arlen but the course of the novel is better when the lines between protagonist and antagonist are blurred.

breachzone-usCole does something very similar with Harlequin in his third book, Breach Zone. In the earlier books, he is at odds with the hero. Each of the first two of Cole’s books had different protags, so I wasn’t surprised that Breach Zone would. I did think it was an interesting choice to go with Harlequin though. Everyone is the hero of their own story, right? He always came off as a stuffed shirt kind of guy in the first two books. He’s not bad, not really. To me, Harlequin was the Bill Lumburg of the Shadow Ops universe. He was the middle management guy that got through the day by being a bit of a pain in the ass to the people around him. If Oscar Britton had a red stapler, Harlequin would have taken it.

Harlequin ended up being awesome by the end of Breach Zone. Cole leveled up his writing and that book is really a romance novel disguised as military fantasy. (Romance hiding in SF is a blog post for another day by the way) In one of the two threads in Breach Zone, we get to see how Harlequin became the super by the book guy. The state of his mind isn’t what I thought it would be in the past tense thread. When he was handed the tough situations, he found refuge in the rules. The rules aren’t his end all be all, they become his shield and he becomes much more human for it.

In Dawson’s Blud books, they are interconnected and set in the same world. There is overlap with characters and history but the books aren’t reliant on one another. In the second Blud book, Wicked as She Wants, Ahnastasia is a completely new character and the sole POV character. There is no luxury of her having a past. She comes out of the box (ha! literally!) as someone I really would not want to be involved with. This is aside from the fact that Ahnastasia is a bludwoman who would consider me breakfast. She is 100% a spoiled princess. True story. She’s a blud princess of Muscovy and all the pretentious snobbery that comes from said spoiled, sheltered life.

wickedasshewantsBy the end of the book, I want to high five Ahna for the awesome things that she does. Dawson nails the slow burn of Ahna’s character arc. There’s never any prophetic moment when Ahna changed her outlook on life and the people around her. It hit me somewhere around the two-thirds mark that “Wow, she’s been kind of awesome for a while now.” I am sitting here trying to think of another book where the slow burn was written with such a deft touch but I seriously can’t think of one. Dawson had nothing else to prop up Ahna while she was being a jerk. There were no other POV characters and there were no other timeline threads. Ahna has one, single, linear character arc. As I’m sitting here thinking of the mechanics of that from the Writer / Analysis point of view rather than my Reader point of view, I am all the most impressed by it.

I think it is worth noting, that with all three of these authors, Brett, Cole and Dawson, I had read previous books of theirs. To a certain extent, they earned the benefit of the doubt. I liked their writing already so that “you have 50 pages to hook me” gets a bit of a fudge factor. Not that I wasn’t hooked by any of the books in question. They already built up reader trust before throwing down characters that I wouldn’t like.

So where do all these examples leave me and anyone else writing “problematic” protagonists?

Well, character arc is key. Ahna, Jardir and Harlequin were not the same people from the beginnings to the end. You can have great characters, but if they’re stagnant, that means the plot of whatever you just wrote didn’t really have any stakes or agency to it. Hook the reader and then let the plot change the character. With a problematic, troublesome, or just plain unlikeable character, there is a lot more riding on that change. The plot becomes more critical because each bump in the narrative needs to shift the character down that arc a little more forcefully. The supporting cast and their attitudes to the protagonists cast a sharper reflection on how that arc is progressing.

I think following that change in a character is a big pay off to the reader. You’ve gone through three hundred pages and bam! Results. Find the treasure? Get the man? Save the world? Yeah, cool and all, but we’ve all read that story a thousand times. How did the treasure change someone. What had to happen to get the man? Did saving the world come at the expense of someone’s soul?

That’s what readers really want, I think, deep down inside.

Now that this has topped 1400 words and I’ve spent a large chunk of my afternoon noodling about characters I didn’t like when I opened the book on page one, I’m hitting that point where I realize how picking apart what works with these books will help my own writing. I’m seeing more of the missteps I took with the now dead Amity I tried to shop around. More importantly, I’m seeing what direction I need to head in to find the right steps for the book I’m working on now.

When I was in film school, the old adage was a quote from one of my favorite directors, Sam Fuller, “You gotta have story!” Picture a 70 year old with big glasses chomping on a cigar with a raspy yell when you say that quote. Storytelling is storytelling, no matter the medium, I used to always think. And it’s true. In a novel, you need a plot, but the more I write, the more I’m seeing it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Where the story comes from matters a lot more in a novel where you can, quite literally, be inside someone’s head with all their thoughts, dreams and desires.

I hope that conclusion can help people level up their own work. I think it will help mine. But hey, this hasn’t all been 1700 words of thinking out loud. Go read those books I talked about. Even if you don’t need examples to help level up your work, screwed up, problematic, difficult and unlikeable characters make for good reading. Why?

Because they gotta have story.

The Desert Spear

Posted: April 18, 2013 in Reading
Tags: , ,

I’ve been on a fantasy kick with my reading the last few weeks. I think it’s been to counter all the space pirates in my writing. Next up, sequel time! It seems everything is part of a series now and stand alones just don’t happen anymore. That’s a mixed bag, especially when you don’t read the series back to back to back (et cetera). But there’s a comfort of the known quantity, particularly when the first was so enjoyable.

Enter The Desert Spear by Peter V Brett.

Back of the Book shenanigans are happening right now! (Note, that I am reading the back of the book for the first time as I type this. It was completely a “Yay! Book two! That’s all I need to know” moment.)

The sun ins setting on humanity. The night now belongs to voracious demons that prey upon a dwindling population forced to cower behind half-forgotten symbols of power. Legends tell of a Deliver: a general who once bound all mankind into a single force that defeated the demons. But is the return of the Deliverer just another myth? Perhaps not. Out of the desert rides Ahmann Jardir, who has forged the desert tribes into a demon-killing army. He has proclaimed himself Shar’Dama Ka, the Deliverer, and he carries ancient weapons – a spear and a crown – that give credence to his claim. But the Northerners claim their own Deliverer: the Warded Man, a dark, forbidding figure. Once, the Shar’Dama Ka and the Warded Man were friends. Now they are fierce adversaries. Yet as old allegiances are tested and fresh alliances forged, all are unaware of the appearance of a new breed of demon, more intelligent – and deadly – than any that have come before.

Remember the first book, The Warded Man? The things I talked about over in that post were mostly how the book sprawled and felt like Act One rather than a full on story arc. Yeah the sprawl continues here. Some of the stuff that wasn’t really resolved from the first book, gets addressed here and solved in its own way. And as the author is currently writing the fourth book, there’s plenty that doesn’t get fixed by the end of page 638. The sprawl was still handled well in Spear so I’m ok with it. In fact, if anything, the sprawl is even more widespread. The first book had three POVs, this one has seven. Gutsy move, Mr. Brett.

And it was a tough sell in the front end of Spear. The first 200ish pages are all Jardir. He was a non-POV character in Warded Man. Pay attention to the dates in Jardir’s chapters because they overlap with some of the events of Warded Man. Just like the three characters from the first book, we get to see Shar’Dama Ka’s childhood. (Also Abban, but he doesn’t get a POV in Spear until the last third) At first I groaned a bit when it went back to his childhood. After chapter one, I totally thought Jardir was a giant asshole. The kneejerk reaction to an asshole’s childhood is “Ok, the author wants the sympathy card in play.” Jardir and his Krasians do some really horrible things as part of their war with the North. (Everyone goes to war with the North… someday someone’s going to go Southeast)

So Jardir was a tough sell for 200 pages before we jump to another POV, not to mention all the times we swing back there. He is the titular Desert Spear in a figurative sense and he does wield the literal Desert Spear. By the end I still thought he was an asshole. But I still couldn’t put the book down. It can’t be easy to make a jerk so enjoyable to read.

Even without Jardir, the storyline of the series has moved to darker places. One of the new POVs is Renna. She was a non-POV character from Arlen’s (the actual Warded Man) who showed up early in the first book and frankly, I forgot all about her until her chapters started showing up. She’s on the wrong end of a battered, brutal, incestuous and unconsented relationship. It gets heavy and uncomfortable, but it’s all for the greater good of the story. You have to know where Renna started from to really appreciate where she ends up. By the end of the book, she became one of my more favorite characters. Her story arc in The Demon Cycle isn’t anywhere near over, but damn, the potential she has is amazing.

Grimdark is one of those things all over the SF world lately and I’ve certainly gone on a lot about how Spear is darker than the first book. Don’t even start to call this grimdark. That term has a gratuitous connotation to it. Everything here is story and character driven. There’s a mindset of “If the characters aren’t put through the worst, how can we know if they’re at their best?” Everything balances out. There’s no doom and gloom just for the sake of doom and gloom.

One aspect of the game which was cranked up a notch with Spear are the corelings, the demons. In the first book there were just a few elemental types, rock, wood, flame… I don’t remember if we saw more than that. Sand probably as Arlen went to the desert. There are glimpses of more, like the giant river demons that look like toads. I want to see even more of all these new demons but at the same time, even the glimpses show off the layers of world building present even if I don’t get to see it all unfold in front of me. I’ve said plenty of times, I like me some world building.

So overall, just like the first book, The Desert Spear left me wanting more. Enough gets resolved within it that I never felt frustrated as I raced along to the ending, but there is so much more waiting to be tapped into for this series. I want to know where Renna’s character is going. I want Abban, the ludicrously rich Krasian merchant in his society’s lowest cast, to get more POV chapters. And I know Jardir’s scheming wife, Inevera, is on the cover of the next book so I would think she becomes a POV character.

Isn’t that the best thing a book can do though? You can microanalyze all you want but if a book sticks around in your head leaving you wanting more, there’s not much more it can do. Read this series. Spear will stick with you even more than Warded Man.