Today I’m going to talk about one of my major book pet-peeves: characters who intentionally lack personality so the reader can better imagine themselves in the character’s position. I’ve been thinking about this type of character a lot in the past week because I’ve been reading the first two books in the Xanth series by Piers Anthony. The main character in these books is Bink, a twenty-five year old man with almost no personality of his own. I’ve come to suspect this is done on purpose in order to allow readers to imagine themselves as explorers of the magical land of Xanth in place of Bink. This is a technique which is fairly common, but which I find incredibly annoying (there are reasons I’m not reading romance and chick-lit, and this is one of them.) Despite my personal dislike, this has led me to think a little more about how this type of character development is done successfully. This is what I’ve come up with:
A great way to create the illusion that the reader thinks exactly like the character, is to not have the character actually think. Instead, have the character ask rhetorical questions because this allows the reader to insert their own answers into the character’s mind. If the character then does the supremely obvious thing which anybody in that situation would do (or at least what the majority of readers would do,) even better! It will help to reinforce the idea that the reader is the character. While tempting one must resist the urge to go over the top with rhetorical questions though. Too many, too close together give away the trick, so use this one sparingly.
The character is completely average…
Or at least they claim to be because they also happen to be very modest. It’s difficult for most of us to imagine ourselves as genius, super athletes who happen to be devastatingly handsome, so be sure to mention how average the character is. Showing a few flaws and mistakes helps to reinforce this impression, but again, don’t overdo it. Too many flaws and the character starts to lose their appeal. The reader wants a character they can relate to, but make the character too human and they lose their fantastical appeal.
But actually, the character is completely extraordinary
Who actually wants to be average? Nobody! We all want to be badass wizards or expert warriors or, at the very least, super attractive. Instead, most of us spend half of our day sitting behind computer screens, clicking on pictures of silly cats. In Xanth, Bink routinely claims to be an average guy, yet based on the distances he can run/swim/climb he must be in significantly better shape than me, he has a powerful magical talent, every female character is physically attracted to him, and every male character is irrationally loyal to him. Despite claims to the contrary, his life is extraordinary in every way imaginable.
The character does something/lives somewhere awesome
Arguably, this is the most important criteria. More than being someone the reader wants to be, the character has to be doing something the reader wants to do. The character can be the most (subtly) awesome person in the world, if all they’re doing is cooking spaghetti – we’ll I can cook spaghetti all by myself. And I don’t even have to put in the extra brain power to imaging I’m someone else. If I’m cooking the world’s best spaghetti for Fabio on top of the Empire State Building (and that’s totally cool, security isn’t going to come any second and kick me out,) I might have to imagine I’m somebody else.
Why *I* don’t like this type of character
For the record, I despise Bink. I find him at best boring and at worst annoying. I’ve spent a little time thinking about why, and here’s what I came up with: 1) Rhetorical questions are another of my reading pet-peeves. A few I can tolerate, but my tolerance is low. 2) On a related note, I noticed all of the tricks I mentioned above pretty readily. When you realize the author is trying to trick you into breathing life into a character for them, it smashes the illusion. I suspect if I tired, I could suspend disbelief enough just-go-with-it, but I’m not interested in trying because… 3) It turns out I’m kind of lazy. I don’t actually want to imagine myself going to a fantasy world and slaying dragons. I want to hear the story of another person in a magical land slaying a dragon. I would like to imagine them as a fully formed person. Someone I could grab a beer and have a conversation with. Grabbing a beer and having a conversation with a clone of myself sounds like less fun.
Even though I dislike this particular type of character, I do recognize them as valid writing choice which, when executed properly, can engross readers. They are a particularly difficult type of character to pull off, however. If a writer is too sloppy in the execution the majority of readers will simply consider the character under-developed. Those writers who can create the sort of wish fulfillment these characters provide for readers typically make a career out of it because there are plenty of readers willing to go along for the ride.
Lyon’s Legacy is a novella written by Sandra Ulbrich Almazan about a woman named Joanna Lyon who goes back in time to steal DNA from her ancestor Sean Lyon, a (fictional) famous rock musician. Joanna’s uncle, and heir to the family fortune, bribes her into signing up for the mission to travel to an alternate Earth which happens to be about a century behind the timeline of Joanna’s own world. During the mission, Joanna must deal with her own feelings of inadequacy and her resentment towards her famous ancestor whose existence has shaped her life.
The portion of the book Joanna spends in 1950′s suburban America interacting with her ancestor was well done and entertaining. Unfortunately, the majority of the book took place in Joanna’s own time and these portions of the book I found much less interesting. Joanna’s conflict with her ancestor Sean, a teenager who is completely oblivious to her mixed feelings towards him, was funny and moving. The plot lines deriving from Joanna’s own time, her conflict with her uncle and a romance while in-route to the alternate Earth, felt forced and predictable.
The author appears to know a thing or two about biology and was able to write a relatively convincing lab tech as the main protagonist. Some of the scenes with Joanna working in the lab seemed to be written down to me, like they were written to appeal to what non-scientists think a scientist should be doing. The biology of the book seemed reasonable for a near future society, but the developments in physics lost me a little bit. Sure, any time travel book is going to need to employ some hand-waving in the physics department, but I think the level of science should match up and the relatively minor advances in biology were contrasted with major advances in applied physics. It made the world building feel a little off.
Overall, this was a short read and some parts flew by, while some parts were painfully slow. Not bad, but not my favorite November read either.
National Novel Writing Month is drawing to a close. I will end the month having written a little over 30,000 words which puts me far short of the 50,000 word goal. For me, that’s not too bad. I may not have formally won NaNoWriMo, but I have written at least 500 words everyday, and I got to participate in a wonderful writing community.
To all those people who won NaNoWriMo: Congratulations!
And to all the other people like me who end up falling short of the goal: take heart! Even though I didn’t finish, participating in NaNoWriMo and making a commitment to write everyday has improved my writing. Whether you want to write novels, short stories, a blog, or just need to write emails, devoting time to writing will help to improve your craft.
NaNoWriMo is intended to be a difficult, shock to the system, and it doesn’t work well for everybody. Writing is a skill, a skill we all use throughout the marathon that is life. Being able to do a month long 50,000 word sprint is great, but if you didn’t win, don’t let it discourage you out of writing. Keep telling your story, one word at a time. I will!
Deadhouse Gates is the second book in The Malazan book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson (my review of the first book, Gardens of the Moon, can be found here.) This book follows events on the Seven Cities subcontinent as a revolt to throw off the yoke of the Malazan Empire takes hold in the territory. A few of the main characters from the first book reappear in this book, but the majority of the characters are new additions to the series as their stories take center stage.
I was a little disappointed that the majority of the main characters from the first book stayed in Darujhistan and did not make an appearance in this book. Switching to a new continent with a largely new cast of characters was a little bit alarming because I, once again, had a whole new litany of people and places to learn all about. Although fortunately, the beginning of Deadhouse Gates was no where near as confusing as the beginning of Gardens of the Moon. As with the first book, I found the detailed world building of the series impressive.
For me, the highlight of this book was the story arc involving Coltaine, the Malazan Fist (general) in charge of the evacuation of Malazan loyalists from the Seven Cities. This plot line is pretty graphic and depressing. It gives a realistic sense of how refugee movements might have been handled in wars throughout human history. Coltaine is bound by honor and duty to escort the civilians to the last reaming Malazan strong hold, while his enemies seek to destroy ever Malazan on the continent. The battles in this plot line, as depicted through the point of view of the Imperial Historian Duiker, give a powerful impression of how the conflict progresses.
As with the previous book, I did feel the character development was a bit uneven. While the relationships and motivations created for some of the characters felt very real and moving, some came off as a little artificial to me. Overall, I felt the writing improved in Deadhouse Gates, and I thought, in general, Deadhouse Gates was a better book than Gardens of the Moon. I look forward to continuing the series with Memories of Ice and hope the upward trend continues.
I read (or I think I read) all of the dystopian books on NPR’s top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books list in the past two months, and I took a little time off from the list to read and review a few other dystopian novels: The Divergent Series, Dust, Ready Player One, The Slynx, Armed Camps, and Why Call Them Back from Heaven? But now it’s time to move on with the list.
My plan is to continue with the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, I finished the second book of the series, Deadhouse Gates, over the weekend and will post a review shortly. Otherwise, I will continue with my original methodology of reading up the list from book #100 to book #1. Which actually means I’ll be reading a few books from item #99 on the list – because I’ve been really bad about adhering to my original plan – the Xanth Series. I have an omnibus volume which contains the first three books of the Xanth series, and truth be told, I suspect that might be all I read of the series.
Why? A few reasons: 1) A part of my rational for picking the NPR list was that it did not contain young adult or children’s books. I’m not sure how Xanth sneaked onto the list, but I would consider it a young adult series. 2) I read the first book of the series A Spell for Chameleon back in middle school and didn’t like it very much then. The reasons I wasn’t particularly found of it aren’t the kind of reason you grow out of with age so I suspect I still won’t like it. 3) Several people I know who are also avid fantasy readers, some of whom have read a significant portion of the Xanth series, have suggested I skip the series entirely. Combining these factors, I’ve come up with the plan of making a token effort by reading and reviewing the first three books before moving on. If I really enjoy the first three I might put a little more effort into the series, but I’m not likely to commit myself to reading all 36 books unless I’m enthralled. Anyway, that’s the plan for now.
This week I read two dystopian novels from the 1960′s, Why Call Them Back from Heaven? by Clifford Simak and Armed Camps by Kit Reed.Here are a few quick thoughts and impressions about the two books. Both of these books where suggested to me by Joachim Boaz who writes Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations a blog dedicated to science fiction from 1940′s-1970′s.
Why Call Them Back from Heaven?
Why Call Them Back from Heaven? by Clifford Simak was originally published in 1967. It’s a dystopian story with an interesting concept. Cryogenics has become a massive movement which nearly everybody participates in. Most people have their bodies frozen at the time of death in order to be revived at a later date. The Forever Center is in charge of this process and people who participate leave their wealth in the hands of Forever Center at the time of their death. Allowing the company to invest the money and use it to carry out research in order to make reviving all their patrons a reality. When the people are revived, Forever Center will return the money, but Forever Center hasn’t started reviving people yet. Instead, it has become the dominate economic force on the globe and the de facto owner of every government on the planet.
I found the concept of this book very interesting, but it did let me down a little bit. There are two parallel plots in the book, an action-adventure type plot following Daniel Frost – the man in charge of PR at Forever Center who gets charged with a crime he didn’t commit for accidentally uncovering something he shouldn’t have – and a metaphysical type plot which deals with some of the philosophical ramifications of life in this dystopian future. I liked the world building and the metaphysical plot was interesting; unfortunately I thought the action-adventure plot was kind of boring and forced. The resolution of this plot line was very strange as well, and not at all what I was expecting. An interesting idea, but the execution of the story fell flat for me.
Armed Camps by Kit Reed was originally published in 1969 and it is set in the near future (i.e. some unspecified time after 1969, but before 2002.) The story is an alternating first person point of view narrative told by Danny, a former soldier who is being horribly punished for some unknown (to the reader) crime, and Anne, a woman who experiences a major mental breakdown in the beginning of the book and spends the remainder of the story trying to put the pieces back together. In this vision of the future, the United States has been locked in a state of constant war for years (decades?) and this has taken a major toll on the country. Moral is very low among the public, the economic impacts of constant war seem to be gutting the country, and most young men who are able to fight are drafted, many never to return.
This was a different sort of novel from what I’ve been reading. The story is clearly making an anti-Vietnam War statement and has a strong social message. Since I wasn’t alive at the time, I only have history lessons to guide me and suspect some of the Vietnam specific messages and symbolism of this book may have gone over my head. I had some difficulty getting started with this book because it was hard to tell what was going on in the beginning. Anne is her least sane as the book opens, and the details of Danny’s punishment are opaque initially . On the positive side, this book has the best executed alternating first person point of view narrator scheme I’ve ever encountered, and the ending was an unexpected reveal. Overall, I liked this book, I thought it was well written with an interesting message.
The holidays are coming and, IMHO, there’s no better gift in the world than the gift of books. I prefer to sit on my butt until the last minute, say December 22nd or so, then dash through overcrowded stores on an epic quest to avoid car accidents. But let’s pretend you’re more responsible than me and like to have a shopping plan all lined up before Black Friday.
Unfortunately, you’ve got someone on your list, and you have no idea what to get them. Maybe there an avid reader already, or maybe you’re trying to convert them to reading, regardless, you’d still like to pick up a book they’ll actually read. If there interests lie in the science fiction and fantasy genres, I’ve have a few suggestions.
You’re buying for a young lady…
Who loved Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Divergent Series, but hasn’t wandered too far of the bestsellers list. I’d suggest Cinder by Marissa Meyer a book which reimagines the story of Cinderella with androids and cyborgs. The Selection by Kiera Cass a story about a girl who gets chosen to participate in a competition to become the next queen. Or the Vampire Academy Series by Richelle Mead.
I’d rather buy something that isn’t YA…
Fine. Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold is a space opera with all the action and romance of a YA novel, but a little more grown up. Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is a Jane Austen-esque story, but with magic. And if the gift recipient really likes vampires, you might try a classic like Dracula or Interview with A Vampire.
You’re buying for a young man…
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline would make a great gift for anyone who likes video games and 80′s trivia. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson the story of a boy seeking revenge for his father’s death in a world filled with magic. Or Vicious by Victoria Schwab a story of competing super villains.
Again, not YA…
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey is a near future space opera with a Firefly-like cast. For a fantasy lover try Homeland, the first book in the Drizzt series by R.A. Salvatore. And The Androids Dream by John Scalzi is another space opera, where the opening chapter is basically all one big poop joke.
I know they love Game of Thrones…
Ah, dark and gritty epic fantasy, believe it or not there are tons of other series in this genre. Try The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch a book about a master thief, his biggest con, and the aftermath. The Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, the first book in the Malazan book of the fallen series. If you’re looking for a slightly shorter series try The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.
What about 50 Shades of Grey…
What about a stand alone novel?
Try The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman a retelling of The Jungle Book, with ghosts instead of animals. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern a magical competition set in a circus. Or a classic like Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
I think they’ve read all of those…
Those are a few suggestions from me to you. Hopefully the helped! What books would you suggest? Have anything to add to the list, go ahead and recommend away in the comments!
This week I took a break from NPR’s top 100 to read a three other books. Two of them, The Slinx and Ancillary Justice were book club picks for November, and the third book, Ready Player One fits into my dystopia theme. I wanted to do quick written reviews on these three books, so here it goes.
This book was the November pick for the International Reads book club on Goodreads. The Slynx is a dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel set in Moscow roughly three hundred years in the future. A mysterious Blast occurred at some point in the last three hundred years, and this Blast wiped out the majority of human civilization. It also lead to various Consequences, both for the surviving humans and the world around them. Some people sprot an extra limb, or extra fingers, or a tail, while radiation has affected other plants and animals in the world as well making many human dietary staples unfit for consumption.
The story follows Benedikt a Golubuchik (little guy) who works as a scribe copying books written by The Great Murza. The society around Benedikt is feudal and his status as a Golubchik means he is free (not a serf,) but his government job just allows him to scrape by without starving or freezing to death. On impulse, Benedikt purposes to an attractive co-worker, Olenka one of the Murzas. She agrees and after the wedding Benedikt’s life changes forever.
The Slynx is a bleak vision of the future with a lot of dark imagery and dark humor which had me laughing out loud. The story is deeply rooted in Russian culture and literature. Because I read the book in translation and not in the native Russian, I felt this ended up hurting the story somewhat. There were many times were words had double meanings or where there was a play on words and while the translator did a good job trying to preserve those qualities, they didn’t all carry over from one language to another. While I liked both the first half and the second half of the book, the two parts seemed to have very little to do with each other, and I was a bit confused about why so much information was laid out in the beginning of the book which seemed to have little impact on the end of the book. Despite a few hiccups, I still enjoyed The Slynx and would recommend it to other dystopia fans looking to broaden their horizons by reading works in translation.
This book was the November pick for the Sword and Laser book club on Goodreads. Ancillary Justice is written form the first person point of view of Berq, an artificial intelligence who was a part of a collective consciousness. Berq had a whole ship and thousands of bodies, but now she only has one body. Berq is set on revenge against those who destroyed the rest of her, and the book follows her journey.
This book is a space opera with many well-known science fiction themes and ideas which Leckie is able to make her own. I liked how Berq was portrayed and thought her point of view added to the story, however, some readers might find the prose to be overly expository and a bit strange. For me, this seemed like a good way to portray an AI character. The world building is extensive and I particularly liked the details pertaining to the Radch empire. This book is the first book in a series, and the major downside for me was that it felt like the first book in a series. The plot built very slowly in the beginning, and the ending seemed to open more doors than it closed. Overall, I found this book very enjoyable and would recommend it to other science fiction nuts like myself.
In the not-too-distant future, humanity runs out of fossil fuels sparking the great energy crisis. This forces the majority of people to move into overcrowded cities where poverty and disease are rampant. Despite humanities problems, nobody is very intent on fixing them because of the OASIS. A virtual reality system which allows people to be anyone and do anything, a complete escape from the dreary reality around them. When the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday dies, he leaves behind an eccentric message. The first person to find and complete a series of Easter Eggs hidden inside the OASIS will receive his fortune and a controlling interest in the company which owns OASIS. Wade Watts, a poverty stricken teenager from Oklahoma City, is one of many to take up the challenge, but he happens to be the first person to reach any level of success.
James Halliday left behind clues for would be seekers of his Easter Egg, and his love of 1980′s pop culture features heavily in the tasks. I liked the constant 80′s references and found moments of this book to be extremely funny. The detailed world building of the OASIS itself was interesting and it made a unique setting for most of the books action. Unfortunately, the world building of the world outside the OASIS was substantially weaker, and Ready Player One suffered from the classic book weakness of having a flimsy villain. IOI, the company which controls most of the internet outside of the OASIS is the antagonist for most of the book. The absolute personification of evil, I found IOI to be ridiculous and totally over the top. Despite these weaknesses, I did enjoy reading Ready Player One and would recommend it for those with a weakness for 80′s trivia, video games, and/or plots with teenagers fighting the man.
I am participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m already fairly far behind. I have 13,500 words written so far in the month and the goal for the end of the day today is 25,000. So that’s not going to happen. Perhaps I’ll be able to hit a few good writing days and catch myself back up, but I doubt it. My plan now is to write everyday and continue on at my own pace. I’ll eventually finish what I’m writing, even if I don’t finish until sometime in December. I figure finishing a novel length work will be a win for me even if I don’t manage to do it in a month.