Keep the pages turning

Chuck Wendig, author of the addictive, raunchy blog Terrible Minds wrote recently about story elements that keep the pages turning.  It got me thinking.  When I read, what is the #1 most important thing I look for in a book?  What will keep me engrossed way after it’s time to stop and cook dinner?  What will keep me up late at night, leaning close to the bedside lamp?

Well…there are a number of things that I value in a book.

Really beautiful writing, for instance.  Or maybe a fast, twisty-crazy plot.  Classic genre tropes given new life are a favorite, as are classic genre tropes done really, really well.  Darkness, danger, and protagonist imperilment can hook me, as can books that combine a romping story with a larger message.

But the one thing that will grab me, pull me in, and drag me along – no matter how many of those other elements are lacking – is a compelling character.  I’ll read just about anything that features a great character.  If I care about the protagonist (or the antagonist, or even a prominently featured secondary character), I’ll follow them through a sea of bad writing, cliched plotlines, dragging narration, or message-less brain candy — anywhere, just as long as I can get more of their thoughts, words, actions, and reactions.  Show me the world through the eyes of someone interesting.

Give me Anya Balanchine in all these things i’ve done, Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, Tyrion Lannister in the Songs of Ice & Fire series, Samwise and Gandalf in LOTR, Jane Eyre, or Humbert Humbert from Lolita.  Give me Chess Putnam and Sookie Stackhouse.  Hell, they don’t even have to be human.  Give me Fiver and Hazel in Watership Down.  Give me good characters and I’ll read every last word you have to write about them.  That’s a promise.

So, that’s it for me.  Characters.

How about you?  What element do you find the most compelling when you read?  What do you look for in a good book?  Do tell.  Writers everywhere want to know 🙂

Happy endings don’t come cheap

I watched a TV show last night while ironing shirts that really got me thinking about happy endings.  The show was one of those things you dig up on Hulu late at night after you’ve seen all the current episodes of Modern Family and Community.  A drama about an American and a Brit trying to make a go of a transoceanic relationship, it was canceled after only seven episodes.  And for good reason; each episode was more depressing and joyless than the one before.  

Yet I kept watching, because I thought I understood the rules:  rewards in fiction have to be earned; these characters would be tortured, put through every dramatic twist the writers could conceive, and only then would they get their happy ending.  Except they didn’t.  The show got canceled and we left the main characters at a low point in their relationship.

The show has been bugging and nagging at me ever since.  This morning I realized why.  Happy endings don’t just have to be earned by the characters, they have to be plausible, possible, and believable.  This was where the show had failed, and would have continued to fail even if it hadn’t been canceled.  The two main characters were all wrong for each other.  They were polar opposites in values, taste, friends, attitudes, and in their approach to relationships and family.  All they shared in common was the fact that both were attractive and wanted to sleep with each other; I could imagine no future for them that wouldn’t be filled with fights, recriminations, and heartbreak.  Basically, the show’s creators wrote two very interesting characters who had no business being together and then built an entire story around the premise that they belonged together.  Even if they’d made it to their happy ending, it would have felt false. 

Writers are told all the time that the conflict resolution in their stories has to be to earned.  This is true.  If you introduce a character with a desire line, give him or her a problem to solve, and then let them overcome that problem and get what they want without setbacks or costs, the reader is going to feel cheated (and rightly so).  But there’s more to it than this.  The resolution needs to be earned, but it also needs to be true and authentic with respect to the characters involved.  If you give your characters a happy ending that isn’t consistent with who they are, what they believe, and the choices they make, then it won’t matter if they’ve “earned” it or not. It will still ring hollow and leave the reader frustrated and dissatisfied.

This point seems quite obvious in hindsight, and it’s been floating around in the misty reaches of my brain for some time.  It just took some silly show to crystalize it for me.  Or perhaps I’m just trying to justify the several hours of my life I wasted watching television last night.  I guess sometimes it takes something trite to make you realize something important.  Ever had this happen to you?

Book Review: Beggars in Spain

I’m up early waiting for the sunrise in Arizona (it’s my last day here), so I thought I’d use this time in the dark wisely and post a book review of the latest novel I’ve finished:  Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress (1993, 438 pages, Science Fiction)

This book has been in the stack by my bedside for some time.  I’m not sure exactly why I didn’t want to read it, but something about the concept put me off.  So I kept passing it over.  What a mistake!  As soon as I opened the cover and read the first paragraph, Beggars in Spain sunk its story-hooks in me and refused to let go.

Beggars in Spain is a tale of biological advantages.  It poses the question: what would happen to society if some of it’s members never needed to sleep?  Kress primarily explores the economic and discriminatory aspects of Sleepers versus Sleepless (she dwells on the truism that humans love to hate each other and will use any difference as an excuse to do so), but she also plumbs the interior landscapes of her characters’ struggles.  This latter aspect grounds what might otherwise be a preachy science fictional social commentary and turns it into a fascinating exploration of what makes us human.

I’ve heard from friends who attended the Taos Toolbox workshop that Kress (who teaches there) emphasizes writing in scenes.  This now makes perfect sense to me, as she is a master of them.  Each one flings vivid characters at you, embroils them in interesting conflicts, and leaves you wondering what will happen next.  The result is the rapid turning of pages.  While the idea of Sleeplessness and the advantages it might confer (I don’t want to give away any plot points here) is interesting and integral to the plot, it is Kress’ deft touch with characters that kept me reading.  All of her characters are flawed – engaging and unlikeable in equal measure.  Reading about their adventures is a little like watching your friends and family — rooting for them when they make choices of which you approve and frowning with worry when they refuse your advice and head stubbornly down a path you see leading to ruin.

The tale stretches over several generations yet retains an intimate perspective, and Kress wraps up the conflict with a climax that makes sense within the narrative arc of the story but still feels like (somewhat) of a surprise.  The ending was not earth-shattering, but it was satisfying.  When I closed the book and set it down I felt that sense of loss a good book inspires – it was over and I could never again read it for the first time.

But you can.

Play it again, Sam. Or, why we reread

We’ve all done it: faced with a stack of unread books, we pick up an old, trusty one, its spine cracked and story long ago memorized.  We think, ‘ooh, maybe its time to reread this again!”

Why do certain books and series inspire us to reread them?  What is it that makes rereading a pleasure rather than a tiresome bore?

Since I’ve just tucked into the Harry Potter series for the third go-round, these questions are on my mind.  What possesses me to plow through thousands of pages after already having done it twice?  Upon reflection, I think I’ve lit on a few factors that make a book rereadable:

1. Books that are intricately plotted.

The Potter books provide a good example here.  While there are flaws with the writing – you can accuse it of being too simplistic, find repetitive descriptions, etc. – I argue Rowling is great at planting seeds for plot devices that won’t become important for several books.  The opal necklace used to curse one of the students in “Half Blood Prince” is first seen by Harry in Knockturn Alley in Book 2.  Also in Book 2, we learn Voldemort inadvertently transferred a part of himself into Harry when his curse rebounded, something that shapes the eventual denouement in the final book.  Either Rowling knew exactly what was going to happen (which would be incredible) or was very good at going back to mine earlier books for plot devices as she developed later portions of the story.  It’s delightful to reread and mine out these little treasures (yes, I am a nerd).

2.  Books that deliver excellent surprises

Well-crafted twists and turns are a treat to revisit.  What unfolded the first time as a series of deftly created surprises, reads the second or third time as a how-to demonstration.  Rereading, you can hunt for clues, wondering how you missed them the first time around.  Creating a good surprise is a keen authorial trick – you want the reader to feel that, rather than having been hoodwinked, the surprise is the very thing they wanted to happen all along but didn’t know it.  Not easy to do.  Stories pulling off the good surprise are fun to reread because we relish the surprise AND because we like to go back and see how it was done.

3. Books with really satisfying endings.

There are plenty of books I loved 99% of and hated the ending.  Endings are tough, it’s easy for them to fall short of expectations.  As an author, you have to bring all those plot threads together, balance the scales in a way that’s consistent with the characters and their prior behavior, create a sense of “aha!” (those tricky surprises) and satisfy the reader’s sense of justice.  So, when this is done properly, it’s just damn satisfying and you want to relish it again and again.

4. Books with beloved characters.

Some books we reread not because the story itself was anything special, but because of the character(s).  A character you want to spend time with, even if it means retreading their old adventures, is a rare treasure.  Here I think of Sookie Stackhouse in the first few novels of the Southern Vampire series (not to be confused with the whining, annoying Sookie of the later books or the girl in the TV show…not having a TV, I’ve not seen True Blood).

5. And, finally, there’s the sheer comfort of reading a story that you know is going to delight you. There’s no anxiety it might turn out poorly.  You know the plot isn’t going to fall apart halfway through or that the characters will do something you just can’t forgive.

So, what books can you just not seem to put down?  For me it’s classics like the Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, as an odd outlier, a funny old book called The Eight, by Katherine Neville.  What about you?

At what cost victory?

**Warning: this post contains spoilers about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows**

Like much of America, I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this weekend, and, despite my grim determination not to, I got choked up at the death of Dobby.  I’d read the books, so I knew it was coming, but I just couldn’t help myself.  In addition to clearing out my tear ducts, Dobby’s death also got me thinking about the cost of the hero’s victory.

In real life our achievements always come with a cost.  You can’t become a marathon runner without putting in the time and enduring injury.  You wouldn’t expect to win a war without loss of life or resources.  If you want to walk on the moon, you have to accept the risk that your space shuttle might explode and kill you on take-off.  If your dream is to become a writer, you have to endure a fair amount of rejection and self-loathing along the way.  Nothing worth doing or having comes for free.

As in life, so in art.  Whatever it is our characters are trying to achieve, we as authors must make them pay a price to get it.  The tricky bit, though, is figuring out the appropriate cost.  Over the course of her seven book journey with Harry and friends, J.K. Rowling kills off several major characters close to Harry, including (among others) Cedric Diggory, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad Eye Moody, Hedwig, Dobby, Remus Lupin, Colin Creevey, and Fred Weasley.  George Weasley has his ear cursed off and Harry himself “dies” in order to destroy the Horcrux inside him.

All in all, a pretty hefty toll, I think–enough to reflect the dangerous nature of the war against Voldemort but not so much as to feel that Harry ultimately failed by not ending the reign of the Death Eaters sooner.  Some of the deaths had more impact than others (and reactions to them vary from reader to reader), but because it’s freshest in my mind – thanks to movie magic – I want to reflect briefly on Dobby’s death.

I think making Dobby’s life one of the costs of Harry’s fight against Voldemort was clever (and even a bit manipulative).  Dobby was beloved by many readers but wasn’t a main character, and because his character was child-like, his death felt especially cruel.  At the same time, Rowling had established that it was Dobby’s greatest wish to protect Harry.  Thus, because Dobby died protecting Harry–and in so doing thwarted the plans of the Death Eaters–the reader can find meaning in Dobby’s death.  It’s a cost, yes, and one that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings and amplifies the villainous nature of Bellatrix (as if we need more of that). But it’s not the kind of cost that will profoundly effect Harry for the rest of his life or create a serious setback along his road to success.  It motivates Harry without making him bitter or vindictive.  The same can be said for many of the other deaths in the books (with the possible exception of Dumbledore).

This is clearly one route to go.  Kill off beloved but non-essential characters (extra points if they die making a sacrifice for the hero or his/her quest).  Another commonly tread route is to open the story with the death of someone close to the protagonist and set the narrative up as a revenge plot.  Think of every Jean Claude van Damme movie ever made: “they killed my wife and child/brother/father/best friend and I will hunt them down!”  The Harry Potter books incorporate this device (to an extent) with the death of his parents.  Another example that comes to mind is Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, which focuses on a particularly brutal revenge story following the death of the protagonist’s brother.

The hero’s cost, however, need not come in the form of lives lost.  It could be some part of their principles or morals they must abandon in order to achieve their goal, a dream they turn away from in favor of pursuing the villain, or the dreams and principles their friends might sacrifice in order to help them.  The cost could also come in the form of unintended consequences the hero’s actions have on those not directly involved in the central conflict.  Whatever damage you leverage against your hero, the price paid needs to reflect both the mood and message of the story and the protagonist’s character arc.

Just because Dobby’s death got me thinking about costs doesn’t mean I’ve figured out all the answers.  What are your thoughts on striking the right balance between costs and achievements?  What factors go into determining how high a price the protagonist should pay for his/her victory to feel earned?

Yes, but is it realistic?

Lately, I’ve been pondering the role of grit and realism in the fantasy genre.  How little is too little?  Is there such a thing as too much?  And what does “realism” mean when it comes to fantasy, anyway?

It’s Joe Abercrombie’s “Best Served Cold” that got me thinking about this in the first place.  For those who haven’t read it, or who aren’t familiar with his excellent First Law series, Abercrombie populates his tales with characters real enough to make you despair for the fate of humanity.  Whether they’re obsessed, driven, or shiftless, his characters are pretty much all self-centered, deeply flawed, and prone to violence.  Their adventures make for good, if sometimes bleak, reading, but his books have also made me wonder if there’s such a thing as too much realism.

If Tolkein’s misty elves and noble kings-in-exile are at one end of the “realism” spectrum, then Abercrombie’s characters fall at the far, far distant extreme.  You may get pulled along by his stories, immersed in his highly believable worlds, and even come to root for certain of the characters, but there’s little chance you’d actually want to spend time with any of them.  They are, by and large, not nice people.

This very fact, of course, is what makes Abercrombie’s characters so human – they’re jealous and petty and do spiteful things.  They act against their own interests because they just can help it.  They almost never change themselves for the better and almost always resolve their problems by running away, stabbing someone in the back, or just stabbing someone, period.  We read about them and we recognize the baser, less lovable parts of ourselves.

This kind of writing, let’s be honest, is rare in the fantasy genre.  I mean, most of the stuff out there falls into the “brave band of heroes” camp, without reflecting much on who the heroes are slaughtering (after all, they’re the good guys, so it must be justified).  So, there’s an important place for Abercrombie’s kind of fiction.  But sometimes I wonder if he’s left out the most human elements of all from his characters.  Sure, his books have a smattering of forgiveness and loyalty, the occasional shred of redemption, and even a rare hint that people are capable of loving someone other than themselves.  But such aspects of human nature are few and far between.

Is that realism?  I don’t know, but I really hope not.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Abercrombie’s books and I will continue to devour them when they’re released.  But I don’t think they’re realistic.

I guess some people might find it odd to pair the ideas of “realism” and “fantasy” at all.  By definition, fantasy is the unreal, is that which we imagine.  But the best fantasy strives to make its imaginary worlds feel like they could be real places and its characters act in the complex and often contradictory ways that real humans do.

Consider George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire.  Here are characters that (to me) feel realistic.  The conniving and murderous are still capable of love, even if that love is twisted.  The honorable and brave can be stubborn and blind, their nobility dooming both themselves and others to death.  Jealousy can lead to kindness, love to betrayal.  Nor are these characters free of the mundane realities of being living animals.  They eat and vomit and shit and suffer and screw–and Martin’s descriptions of these acts leave nothing to the imagination.  You believe his characters are experiencing what they do not because he tells you, but because he shows you with unrelentingly realistic prose.  Martin, of course, is not alone in writing this kind of fiction.  Of the things I’ve read recently, both Steven Erikson’s Malazan series and David Anthony Durham’s “Acacia” both come to mind.

Personally, I’m of two minds about how to incorporate realism into my writing.  On the one hand, I have a generally low opinion of humanity as a whole.  Our history reflects poorly on us, unless war and violence against the weak is what we’re striving for.  And yet, we’re obviously capable of creating beautiful things, too.  Plus, on an individual level, people may be cruel one minute and commit breathtaking acts of self-sacrifice, kindness, and love the next.  We engage in both groan-inducing predictability and devilish unpredictability.

It’s possible that we err in focusing only on characters here.  This may be as much about world-building as character-building.  Perhaps our worlds should better reflect the rapaciousness of humankind and our characters better embody the contradictory and stutter-stop urges towards a more noble ideal.

What do you think?  Are Martin and others like him hitting the right notes of realism for you, or do you prefer Abercrombie’s grittier fare?  Can our characters have some good sprinkled in with their bad and still feel real?  Do we need to be careful of over-emphasizing nuanced “realer than real” characters at the expense of building honest-feeling worlds?