No matter how good a story is it won’t get any traction if the characters just don’t work. It’s a tad disappointing when a really good setting, environment and story are ruined by substandard characters. It could be all manner of sins from their treatment by the author or lack thereof or the believability of their actions or their wooden delivery etc. the end result is the same. One of my favourite authors has two recurring flaws with regard to his characters. His books are material I read whenever I just want to have fun, have the urge to jump onto a horse, sword raised and gallop towards the sun. They are brainless, good rollicking fun but often I look back after, surveying the carnage we’ve left in our wake (I say we, as in the characters and I) and I can’t get over the jarring feeling I get when I pass a glance at a key characters or some passing persona because much like Bizarro they seem to be mirror opposites of the true idealised version of their characters. David Eddings has written the bestselling high fantasy series’ The Belgariad and The Elenium. I love this man’s work, it certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and definitely not for those who expect substance from their literature but I can pick up any of his books and just wile away a few hours. His first problem however is that his key characters are nigh on invincible. Not at any point are you worried about their wellbeing, not one iota. It could be Sparhawk and crew facing a horde of off planet creature summoned by the god Cyrgon or Belgarion sneaking into the mountain where the dark god Torak lay waiting for him – you were never worried about them or their companions. There is no anxiety, no suspense just a set of set pieces to move the story along to its inevitable end. Perhaps that is why I enjoy them so and can pick them at any point and know that I will have good clean fun for a few hours. On the other hand I’m quite sure the added adrenaline due to worry gives a greater payoff at the denouement so I’d love to have it in there. Another similar problem to this is having your main character be good at everything and I mean absolutely everything. Admittedly more often than not there is an attempt to explain it away as them being a child prodigy or some chosen one or some other set piece but it’s one thing being brilliant and another akin to godhood. Patrick Rothfuss has that problem with his character Kvothe who is the lead for my favourite ongoing fantasy series at present – from the Kingkiller Chronicles (The Name of The Wind and The Wiseman’s Fear). What makes it even more jarring is that the story is a narration of Kvothe’s life, told to you by Kvothe as an accounting of his life’s deeds and a very short life too at a point at which he is clearly vulnerable, powerless and trying to stay unnoticed. Yet in his narration he talks of picking up a language in 3 days, building great things, playing music that brought rooms to tears, doing great magic and having dalliances with mythical creatures – all things that require prodigious talent to master just one let alone all and all before Kvothe’s 18th summer. It beggars belief and Rothfuss isn’t isolated with this particular problem, surveying the high fantasy landscape in particular you realize that this is somewhat pandemic of the genre.
The opposite of this is my pet gripe about Robin Hobb’s work. She absolutely loathes her characters to the point I’m so disgusted I’ve banned her work in my library. My friends know not to mention her or stop before I’m reduced into a quivering mass of righteous indignation, frothing at the mouth waiting to be released so I can vent, rage and generally be insufferable for a bit. I’ve ranted before about her work but I’ve never quite expressed my great disdain of her treatment of her characters on this platform. She absolutely revels in giving her characters everything and then systematically stripping them of it all. Then when they reach rock bottom she gives them a little hope, a bone if you will, and in the next book takes that and what you couldn’t think they had to give away. After I read the Soldier Son Trilogy and her treatment of Nevare Burvelle I’ve completely failed to read another of her books despite the strong efforts of my friends who are fans, particularly of the Fitz trilogies. I can’t because the other works of hers that I’ve read although not as bad still treat her characters shabbily. I get it, life is hard and times we have to show it but its one thing highlighting the tragedy and futileness of some of our lives and another to be vindictive about it. I read her work and I can feel her enjoyment of their misery and for that I can’t read her books anymore.
The second of Eddings’ sins is that his characterization of particular characters and societies is somewhat racist (see as examples The Desert Storm by Peter V Brett, Feist, Canavan, Williams). This too is another problem that is somewhat pandemic in fantasy and sci-fi in general. It’s as if the at some point they all decided that world creation was boring and the simplistic and reductionist portrayals of existing Earth cultures would suffice. A lot of stereotypes abound and at times it isn’t a problem and times even helpful but often enough you cringe at the depiction and wonder aloud how they thought that was a good idea. This moves beyond moves beyond books and to movies and TV too, case in point Michael Bay with the ghetto rides in Transformers 3, Chuck Lorre and Raj in The Big Bang Theory and George Lucas with Jar Jar Binks in Star War, Disney and the market scene in Aladdin etc., the list is endless. Truthfully, you get over it, at times you don’t even notice and many times it adds value and makes things simpler but often too it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.
I’d wanted to avoid bringing George R.R. Martin into this but it couldn’t be done. His problem is similar to that of Hobb, the shabby treatment of his character but his is unique because it’s brought not because he hates his characters (I still think hates women though- here and here) but his inability to plot the story means his characters go through tribulations that aren’t really necessary. It also means he keeps using the method of building up a character and then killing them off and starting afresh. I don’t mind the deaths, I actually like a death or two but in the service of good plot development. One person who seems to have handled that rather well is J.K Rowling whose final 3 books were a continuous trip to the boneyard but they all served a purpose. It was often heart wrenching and unbelievable in that it wasn’t expected but the emotion it lent to the story and their influence on what was around them made them great. By the end of the series not only Dumbledore was dead but so too were the whole set of Harry’s parents’ friends- Remus, Sirius, Peter, so too was Snape the guy we all loved to hate but were in awe of at the end, whose whole drive was the death of another character – Lily. Even the death of the Creevy brothers had significance, the sheer waste of it all and was probably the most depressing, to Fred and the rending of a pairing that was complete and special. The fact that the horcruxes required death to be made resulted in death being such a central theme of the Potter Universe yet not one of them was trivialized. In the end, only the death of Voldemort seemed incidental, it had to happen and happened because of all that had occurred. Rowling might have excelled at handling death but the true master class on character development she gave was not on death but rather how she handled Snape. Right from the off he was a character you were expected to loathe and he seemed to give you reason to. He saved Harry from Quill so you gave him some leeway but he remained a prat so you weren’t too keen on him. His obvious loathing of Lupin and Sirius didn’t engender him into our good graces either but Dumbledore trusted him so you let it slide. The discovery that James was a bit of a big head and bullied Snape made you sympathize with him even if you still didn’t like him. But then he killed Dumbledore and nothing could save him from your rage, if we could we would have split the world so we could have our vengeance. And then that last payoff that made everything make sense and we respected him, we wished him back, we were a little in awe and we actually liked him, we could never love him because that ship had long passed but darn it we liked him.
See here for another post on pet peeves in literature and publishing.