Monday, February 16, 2009

My Teeth Twinkle

My Teeth Twinkle with Alma Alexander, Darragh Metzger, Christine Morgan and Maggie Bonham

I knew that a lot of writers considered heroes passe', but I had a different pov.  I'm married to a hero with more virtues than you can shake a stick at.  So when I arrived, I knew pretty well how I'd start out.  As expected, the other panelists scoffed a bit at 'perfect' heroes and how unbelievable they are and boring, etc.  Then I brought up how real heroes feel real pain, fail, struggle, and how their morality and ideals cost them (sometimes dearly.)  The tone of the panel changed a bit, especially since I had Alma Alexander on my side (to an extent) because she knows my DH and realized what I was talking about.  We began defining which led to a discussion of the difference between a good guy and an untouchable perfect darling, and I began learning, which is one of the fun parts of being a panelist.  Panels can be about the brainstorming, and this is definitely one of those.
There's a difference between a 'perfect' hero and a guy who does the right things, fights hard, loves hard, and doesn't have a dark past or skeletons in his closet.  The darling hero defeats every villain, crashes through every obstacle, and does it without breaking a sweat or a hair out of place.  Often the obstacles s/he faces aren't on his (or her) level; they're no match for the might of the darling hero.  *That's* what's boring.  
Now, some authors deal with an otherwise unstoppable hero by developing an equal or even more powerful villain or insurmountable problem. This is the superhero route, though they aren't always called superhero stories.  In a way, Gandalf vs. Saruman is a superhero/supervillain story.  Gandalf can otherwise plow through just about any obstacle.  Tolkien had to put a balrog, a fellow wizard, and the Witch King in Gandalf's way before Gandalf broke a sweat.  It's different than a darling hero, and it can be a fascinating read.  I loved The Dark Knight movie.  That worked for me.

Personally, I prefer a morally principled hero who will not cross certain lines, who won't cheat on his spouse, and who won't call in sick to work unless he's actually sick.  Boring?  Well, when it seems like he's the only one who cares, the only one willing to put his ass on the line to speak out against bureaucratic bs, and the only one who doesn't want to go to the strip club because the drinks are overpriced and he prefers to watch his wife dance, thank you, it can get pretty lonely.  In fact, it can get dangerous.  Remember the 'okay, on three, everyone charge' type stuff going into a fight?  What if your character is the only one who goes on three? 
Being good, even great, even the best in combat, or science, or whatever doesn't always save the day.  In the real world there are insurmountable problems.  Try kicking cancer's ass sometime.  How about stopping a line of tanks from plowing into a village by yourself?  How about dealing with bad intelligence, or someone outright lying to you about something being one way when it's another?  Real heroes fail, and they get hurt, often badly, not just by the thing they're fighting but the consequences of their failure, and also the consequences of success.  Sometimes, no matter what you do, there are widows and orphans, and a real hero feels that pain.  

Everyone who looks at a too-good-to-be heroine might think no one is that smart, that beautiful, that accomplished.  Having a beautiful, smart and physically powerful character can absolutely be annoying in fiction, but only if that character is protected, only if that character doesn't suffer from the sense that she's resented, or always the one asked to do one more thing, the one everyone borrows money from.  It can not only be lonely, but frustrating.  If the heroine walks on stage and everyone gazes at her with worship, lust and awe, the reader is going to roll their eyes.  But think about what really happens, not on those 'grand entrances' but day to day.  Sleezebags at the bar trying to pick her up with cheesy lines and offers to buy a drink.  The boss that keeps coming up with reasons not to promote her.  Seen through her own eyes, she may not consider herself beautiful at all.  She may wake up in the morning, stare at the mirror and wonder how she can face another day on the battlefield when what she really wants to do is try to negotiate a surrender before every blessed soul in her army is killed over a land grab. 

Writing about teams of these people can be fun as well.  Being the go-to team can lead to more than their share of adventure, but believe me, not only can it get tiring, but they can suffer from bad press, back-stabbing from all quarters, undermining, and a desire to take a long vacation but feel like they can't or the world will fall apart without them.  Think rock stars have it tough with the lack of privacy, and the hero worship?  Try fame, unrealistic expectations and worship on when lives are at stake.  Top that with their bosses micromanaging them, telling them 'how' to do something, when they all know that will only get them all killed.  And if they succeed their way, they're in trouble, again, as always, and come out looking like the bad guys.

The short of it is: provide conflict, make it hurt, have failures, and use that goodness against the hero.  Force your hero to make hard choices, and give him that same sense of isolation that our real world heroes--the dedicated cops, caring firemen, tireless doctors, etc.--often face as they stand alone in a sea of apathy, bureaucracy, greed, selfishness, envy and Monday morning quarterbacking.  (That last one is especially frustrating.)  Just don't forget to give them an occasional bright spot, like the gratitude of a child, the help of a good samaritan in a time of need, or a moment of peace under a starlit sky, or they'll break like so many of our real heroes break and end up alcoholics, hermits or suicides.  Somehow I doubt the readers will complain that your hero is too perfect if you write it like that.  

I'll leave you with Cyrano de Bergerac (paraphrased):  
Now, who are these--a thousand thronged about me?  I know you well--you are all ancient foes; Falsehood!  Compromise!  Cowardice!  Shall I make terms?  No, never!  There is Folly too!  I knew that in the end you'd lay me low.  No matter.  Let me fight! and fight! and fight!  You snatch them all away--laurel and rose!  Snatch on!  One thing is left in spite of you, Which I take with me: and this very night, when I shall cross the threshold of God's house, and enter, bowing low, this I shall take, despite you, without wrinkle, without spot--and that is--my stainless soldier's crest. [Also has been translated brilliantly to 'my panache' by Anthony Burgess] (translation by Howard Thayer Kingsbury)

Educational side note--panache originally described a white plume or sash carried by nobles, and the pride with which they wore it turned it into a symbol of the qualities we now call panache.


sophie said...

I like this.

But it also tells me why I like reading biographies. Nonfiction.

I read mostly YA and just recently I've been a little irritated by faulty (less than perfect morals or very depressed) main characters. There is a point where authors go too close to realism, I think - if you're reading for pure escapism (from boredom or depression) it doesn't help if the character is being beaten down beyond probability of a happy ending, or is very vulnerable.
If that's what I want, I'll read non-fiction.

It's just an impression from recent reading, but ultra-realism with all the pimples seems to be what's getting published in the noughties.

Kami said...

What gets my panties in a twist are supposedly perfect or near-perfect characters who have something bad happen and then they whine or curl up and want to die. They don't actually pick themselves up and go onward. Then their friends come to comfort them and the whining continues about how no one understands them or truly loves/cares about them (hello, friends here trying to help, what are they, mashed potatoes?) and how they're all alone. These things might work for angsty teenagers who will read the books while they listen to sad songs and feel like they themselves are the character. Then they can wallow in how mean and cruel the world is while being in their minds a perfect character who has the adoration of some supernatural being (in paranormal romance, for example) or whatever and get something out of it. But for those of us who aren't angsty teenagers, we'd like a little actual courage and protagging, please! Thank you! And maybe not so much of the alcoholic/bastard to women/bitch to men/asshole/selfish/warty thing going on. I'd like to read about someone I'd really admire in real life, or even be in real life, and my standards are pretty high thanks very much! I don't require perfection by any means, but I expect an honest effort, you know?

So yeah. It takes all kinds of fiction to make the world go round, and I do enjoy anti-heroes (which are their own separate thing and don't fall under the darling with a black hat on) but it seems that real heroes are few and far between lately. I'd like to see some of them come back.

anghara said...

What gets my panties in a twist are supposedly perfect or near-perfect characters who have something bad happen and then they whine or curl up and want to die. They don't actually pick themselves up and go onward. Then their friends come to comfort them and the whining continues about how no one understands them or truly loves/cares about them (hello, friends here trying to help, what are they, mashed potatoes?) and how they're all alone.

Yes. That. Word.

I enjoyed that panel. And it was good to be on your side [grin]

Kami said...

Great to be on your side too! Heh. Very good panel. I learned lots.

The Moody Minstrel said...

What do you call a hero who (in theory at least) has more than enough power to overwhelm his enemies, but who is unable to defeat them in the end simply because they render him irrelevant and ignore him?

Kami said...

I don't have a name for that character trope. I could probably come up with something on the fly ...

My counter question is where's the resolution? Or is that the resolution? The enemy wins? That can be set up to work. I think I've talked about how having a down note on an otherwise positive ending (the good guys win but it costs the hero his arm, the girl, whatever.) You can also have a down ending but with a spark of hope--the resistance fights on, the bad guys are revealed as a hollow shell, what have you.

One of the reasons I enjoyed V for Vendetta is that the ending was pretty close to a perfect balance of up and down. It's still a dark world, and there's profound loss, but there's hope and a sense of freedom and no one knows how long it will last. Coolness.

A super-powerful character who can effectively be ignored and marginalized by his/her enemies can work, but it would require some serious plot gymnastics to keep the situation from being perpetually static and wallow-y. The hero can develop a grass roots movement, or the hero can just go blow away the bad guys. And there's the rub--the reader will constantly be asking why doesn't this hero just go blow away the bad guys and take the consequences for the good of all? Why is s/he beating around the bush when the bad guys are so bad? Or, conversely, if the bad guys aren't bad enough to act against, then where's the story? Where's the real conflict?

Ideally a protagonist/antagonist relationship is a dance; constant adaptation and a push for creative solutions just to stay in the game. Winning should take everything one or the other side has to bring to bear, and the opposing team should rush to meet that all out effort with its own. It sounds like both the antagonists and the protagonist in your situation are locked, and/or complacent and/or not trying very hard. This can work effectively as setting within which the 'player' characters move, but as a story itself, it'll need a lot more. To return to the V for Vendetta example, both sides struggled to gain the upper hand, using every resource they could muster, plus they planned ahead and spun spun spun their platforms constantly trying to shape public opinion. The big difference between V and the situation you're describing is that V counter-moved against the terrorist label--he refused to let himself be dismissed in any way.

Real politics aren't static. Sometimes they move slowly, but in story terms rather than make our readers wait, we accelerate or exaggerate, kind of like stop motion photography of a flower blooming, to reveal the overall motion and story.

Politics in storytelling can be powerful and interesting, but only if there's action. Otherwise, I believe it serves best as a backdrop, as in Orwell's 1984.