Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Doing It Like The Ancient Greeks

*Okay, before I go on to my long waited post, I must set the rules to give away a prize, since I had promised it last week and forgot (sorry.)

Those non-members of MGC who make comments on this post shall have their names put in a hat – probably older boy’s size nine hat, just to make it roomy – from which we shall have number two son, or perhaps one of the cats withdraw a name, which will qualify to win a fantabulous supercralifagilistic, all cotton, steel clad, bullet proof t-shirt with the cover to Darkship Thieves on it. (Only I’m lying about the steel clad and bullet proof, so don’t be silly.) Rush forth. Don’t all comment at the same time. The winner shall be announced here same bat time, same bat channel, next Wednesday*

Now, I know what you’re thinking when you look at that title. Yes, the lady in the back, with the chewing gum, (I hope you brought enough for everyone!) I heard that remark. Yes, I have been writing a lot of sex in No Other Wish But His (the Story of Kathryn Howard). No, this post is not about sex. No, you’re not allowed to slink off now. If you’re very, very good I might post a little bit of Kay Ho at some future unspecified time.

Now – coff – for the title of this post. I think I have mentioned that when I first started writing, the only texts on writing I had ever seen were Aristotle’s Poetica and the like. So I started off guided by those and acquired a lot of nonsense habits as a result. Such as for instance, I took my definition of scene from theater. Scene is when someone enters or leaves the stage.

What this meant in practicality is that my chapters, which were to me the equivalent of scenes, could go on forever and ever and I didn’t know how to transition between units of action. Say I had to characters and they were both going upstairs to see the king. I didn’t realize I could just cut from their decision, use some linking thing like "when they entered the throne room" and/or leave a blank line and move on to the fun bit. No. I took them up the stairs step by step by painful step, as if each step were poisoned. And yes, I had read books in the past. Good books, too. But I hadn’t yet learned to discard instruction for direct observation. I was being a good Portuguese girl. (Yes, I know. It’s hard to believe I ever was, but I assure you it’s true. She’s in there somewhere, under a lot of chocolate.)

However, some of what I learned was very good, such as where to start a book – in media res – which probably saved me the common beginner mistake of fumbling through pages and pages of exposition before the real story begins.

But where the teaching was invaluable – and where it touches on our discussion of characters and underdogs – is when it comes to the people about whom the story should be written.

The Greeks believed – and we’ve had a comment about that – that only noblemen were worthy of being the subject of stories. Though they didn’t mean exactly noblemen. They meant "people who matter" which in their time, was almost interchangeable. (I’ll note as a side excursion that though this is not my favored type of character, noblemen seem to still do very well, even in the US, particularly in fantasy but also in Space Opera. We like to know, I think, that the character written about can affect things and make a difference.)

Because we live in different times, and also because I have known my share of real aristocrats, whose lives are too circumscribed by circumstance to be interesting, I prefer to have my heros be "common people" or exceptional people but of whatever passes for normal origin in those days. (Yes, Athena in Darkship Thieves is an exception, but only in a way.) However, I took to heart the idea that these normal people should be able to effect change in their circumstances.

To affect their circumstances, these people need to be built in the Greek way – stop giggling, you! – that means that they have to be built up as better than normal humans, almost like the gods. Now, to ensure they weren’t like the gods, the Greeks would imbue each of their creations with a single flaw, which in turn was supposed to bring about their downfall and the catharsis of the play.

Now, I don’t believe that every book must end badly to bring about a catharsis, but my characters seem to be very much on the Greek Model. Supermen with a fatal flaw. In the end, when they fight against their circumstances or the injustice in the world or whatever, they need to fight their own flaw that brought them into that situation so they can escape it (instead of being whomped by it, which I don’t find much fun at all and brings about the whole idea of fate, etc.)

Though they were aristocrats – had to be, according to Greek notions – these heros didn’t have it easy. They were exceptional, yes, but their challenges matched their... uh... endowments. (I did say to stop giggling!) Think of Oedipus, who clearly had it within him to be a great fighter and govern a city – since he ends up doing just that – but who starts life as very much the underdog, with pierced feet and abandoned by the way side, then raised by shepherds. (As for what his fatal flaw is, we could debate that and it depends on the author of the particular play. You want to discuss it talk to my younger son who is fascinated by Greek Drama.)

For me the easiest example of these flawed supermen is Heinlein’s work, though in some of the earlier ones the flaw was edited out, notably from Puppet Masters which is one of those I find much better in the later re-edition, which shows us the character’s insecurity and the fact that he thinks his father is the REAL superman. It is only when he conquers that sense of inferiority and insecurity that he can start solving the problem of the book and stop flailing.

Can anyone else think of "supermen" who are also underdogs, particularly in science fiction and fantasy? What is your favorite match up of exceptional ability and exceptionally negative circumstances? How much is too much? At what point do you say come on? (Uphill, in snow, both ways, and dogs gnawed both our feet off, and that’s if you were lucky enough to have feet. Most of us had these flippers, and they were frozen to the ground – you know what I mean.) For extra credit, how is the lack of a flaw in character related to flaws in plot – or how can they encourage one particular flaw in plotting that can lead the reader to say "come on!" What is your pet peeve in developing flawed characters?

(Oh, and above, I uploaded photograpic proof that I was once a good Portuguese girl. I was nine or ten in that picture and yes, the picture is correct, I was insanely furious at mom for wrestling me out of my t-shirt and shorts and into that ridiculous getup. :) Okay, maybe NOT such a good Portuguese girl.)


Anton Gully said...

"Can anyone else think of "supermen" who are also underdogs, particularly in science fiction and fantasy? "

Elric. Dude was clearly doomed from the start but it was never a good idea to cross him.

(NB, Dave - Elric STARTED out as the Prince of a powerful, though waning, Empire, and I would still consider him an underdog.)

matapam said...

I suppose it's a matter of where in a Character's life you start writing or reading about him or her. Before or after they achieve Superman status.

Merry and Pippin are definitely underdogs, in a roguish, mischievous, youthful fashion. When they return, they are warriors, and kick hobbit butt and know all the names already. Reading just a sequel based on the pair of them would give you a very different opinion of the pair.

Completely off topic: LOTR is on my mind because your youthful picture reminded me of Orlando Bloom. Are you a Dark Elf, perchance?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Um... people who raised me would tell you I was a "dark something." Particularly after the incident where they had to take my slingshot away. And most people keep telling me I'm not "quite human." ;)
It's the polka dot bow, isn't it?

matapam said...

The bow definitely adds to the unworldly look. But the eyebrows and the stare are perfect Legolas.

My childhood pictures are plagued by my mother's insistence on cutting my bangs the night before. Always too short, and generally crooked.

Francis said...

Heinlein's Friday is without doubt a superwoman. Top IQ, olympic record breaking athletic build and sexy to boot.

But she has this flaw that she continually undersells herself because she's a genetically engineered Artifcial Person not a "real human". And in fact in some places she is legally discrimminated against too. So yes she's a superwoman underdog (underbitch?)

Kate said...


His virtues are also his flaws - honest, trusting, open, krisma out the wazoo. He seems to be overcoming them lately, though.

Anonymous said...

"Can anyone else think of "supermen" who are also underdogs, particularly in science fiction and fantasy? What is your favorite match up of exceptional ability and exceptionally negative circumstances?"- Sarah Hoyt

First character I thought of was Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan. He's an absolute genius with a terrific "charisma jamming field," to quote his cousin, and a nobleman by birth, but with an incredibly fragile body because of a gas attack before he was born. To make matters worse, on his planet, people with obvious genetic/ birth defects were discriminated against a lot, so much of Miles' energy is tied up in the early books trying to get people to accept someone who they considered a "mutie."


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam, I call that my "Joan of Arc" picture, because of the zeal-burned countenance. I THINK it was the year I read my first SF -- Have Spacesuit. I read it because my brother said I was a character in it. I didn't realize until I read it again with the kids that last year that he was right. I WAS Peewee.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Absolutely, and it's a perfect example of how the flaw is used in the plotting. She fubs several situations because of her lack of self confidence and can only become what she's meant to be when she accepts/understands herself as human.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yeah, in a way. Same with that bizarre thing about being a dwarf who's six feet tall. But to me the real superman in the book is Vimes, and he's flawed as hell. From chip in shoulder over his origins to his drinking, to his general cynicism, he's handicaped as hell. IN fact, I think he's a good example of what someone -- wang zheng? -- was talking about. "Functional/insane." He is functional by holding on to a few well-defined parameters that help him keep his insanity under lock and key.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I was wondering when Miles would come up. Of course, you are correct.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, Pam, incidentally, I often wonder how I lived through my Pee Wee phase without someone drowning me in the bath tub.

While on that -- sort of -- I know I'm the woman who has said that she'd never wanted to work in anyone else's world. I have too many worlds of my own pushing on head and causing odd bulges.

But I'd give a limb, even a typing one, and perhaps real heart's blood, to be allowed to write Pee Wee and Kip as adults... Alas, I never had the nerve to ask Mrs. Heinlein if I might attempt it... I doubt she'd have let me, mind you, but I wish I'd had the nerve to ASK.

Amanda Green said...

Nah, Sarah, that's not your Joan of Arc picture. That's the picture where you are warning everyone not to try to keep you in Portugal. Or was it the one where you were warning your brother not to try to take away your Heinlein books? [VBG]

Sanford Begley said...

I'd say that any Heinlein character had a similar major flaw. Naivete' or however it's spelled. Even L. Long and Kettlebelly are in many ways wide eyed innocents

Jim McCoy said...

Can anyone else think of "supermen" who are also underdogs, particularly in science fiction and fantasy? "

If you go back to the beginning of the series, Honor Harrington fits this bill.

Think back to On Basilisk Station, where she has her first command. Her direct superior is a noble who tried to rape her at the academy. She ends up in a fight, outclassed by her enemy after that same superior abandons her. Of course, that same superior (why can I not think of his name ATM?) had failed in his attempt. She beat the garbage out of him. She had no title to start out with in the series either. She also managed to win. But she STARTED OUT as the underdog.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Jim -- I love OBS. I would say DW has by and large kept the odds matched to the super hero. But she is a very believable character too, for a superwoman. She does have her "internal weak spots" that she perceives if others don't.

Mike said...

"What is your pet peeve in developing flawed characters?"

He was the CEO of a large company, so he was a pervert/rapist/etc.

This "rationale" for evil seems to be used in a number of stories -- and while I am certain that CEOs and other bureaucrats do fall prey to the ills of humanity, it isn't simply because they have a position or money. If you want them to be bad guys, give them a motive. Or even better, think of it in the old mystery terms -- opportunity, means, motive. Make sure all of those align before you assert that Joe is bad to the bone.

WangZheng259 said...

I think the flaw can be part of the circumstances.

I've mentioned a time traveller to prerevolutionary Russia story I've done some work on. The time traveller is a stupidly powerful supernatural being with a knowledge of medicine (including ways to develop the method to safely use blood factors to treat hemophilia), technology, organization (including secret police work), and an extensive knowledge of Russian history, especially of the relevent time period. (This knowledge is to the level of having seen pretty much /all/ the relevant extant sources, and having done fairly complette forensic examinations of mass graves, along with some other archeological work.) The problem is that she is trying to overhaul the institutions of Imperial Russia, while still following her cultural imperatives and taboos, which forbid mind control and require some measure of complete truth in the pursuit of such things. It is 1908, nobody knows her from Eve, and there is a very short period of time to get into a position to do something, implement the hemophilia treatment, repair the secret police, reform the diplomatic system, and have these take effect in time. Of course, I don't understand human relationships well enough to know if I have properly found a difficult enough situation, and I need to do more reasearch on the personalities involved.

I also have a setting with a polity that creates exceptionally powerful 'super soldiers'. However, the ones that are at full power are always used against a specific less powerful but unkillable enemy on disadvantageous ground. They tend to be used to destruction. (The enemies had been cleared off of the advantageous earlier, but it is possible at any time for someone to make the enemies more powerful.) Only those soldiers so crippled to the point that they do not unbalance the story they are in will be seen away from their zone of conflict.

Shiki of Tsukihime has a power which enables him to directly kill things by ending their 'concept of existence'. This is useful as he tends to cross paths with some of the setting's more unkillable vampires. One, it tends to be bad for his physical and mental health. Two, there is a lot of really nasty things in the backstory. Three, some of the possible endings are not nice.

Son Goku from Dragonball, and Dragonball Z, and Sun Wukong who he is based off of. The weakest fighters in Dragonball Z end up able to destroy the planet, and they fight opponents who can match or exceed them. As for the original Handsome Monkey King, he didn't get the title Great Sage Equal to Heaven for nothing. Heaven tried to kill him once, but ended up making him stronger. His vanity did cause him to be tricked into wearing a cursed crown which could cause him pain on command.

The Arisians and the Eddorians from Lensmen. Eddore is populated by control freaks, which limits their organizational capacity. Their Alienness, compared to everyone else, might be part of the reason their human systems are flawed compared to those of Arisia. (sp?) The Arisians have lost their zest for life, essentially, and cannot grow their own society to a point that it can compete with Eddore. Thus the Arisians must grow the societies of Civilization and work with them as friends.

WangZheng259 said...

It becomes difficult when the flaws or sources of emotional issues are too statistically improbable, they contradict each other, they are not real flaws, or when one might expect the cumulative effects to have different effects then are displayed. For example, if someone is raped/abused ten or more independent times, then either such is more common in the population, which shouldn't be treated as a special property of the character, or the author may be twisting statistical probabilities too far. I never knew my father and my father hit me would be a problem. I'm too awesome is not a real problem, and I would not like it as a reader. If a person survives getting cut up by spirits over and over again, one might expect some psychological pain tolerence to develop. How many of those who experience many bad things constantly experience each new bad thing to the fullest, while still being able to feel as bad about each previous bit of baggage? One would expect some to break, some to toughen in response, and some to look on the bright side as well.

If a character is built without flaws, whether in general or in relation to the situation and the goals they are persuing, they are likely incomplete tools. Characters are made out of data stored in our brains. For the set of all data that can be part of a character, some are flaws, some are flaws in some set of circumstances, and some are other things. Artifically constraining the dataset produces distorted characters. I don't know enough about good plotting to say how distorted characters affect things. I would think that they would be harder to handle as tools. If they are considered flaws, why might a character without unhappiness, fears, obsessions or strong desires do anything? If you can get a grip on a 'flawless', might it not be more prone to turn in your hand?

I don't know that I have any pet peeves. I do think many of my own characters tend towards fanaticism of one stripe or another, but that may be more a reflection of myself, what I admire, and what I dislike then anything deliberate. A person in a situation where their abilities and disabilities make the thing a certain success or certain failure for all tests just isn't interesting. Even if you know how you want it to end, find the events that can be altered and how. Sell the readers interest in those that are unknown to the character, or that can change, and focus on the variables that determine the result.

WangZheng259 said...

Vimes is a good example of functional insane. 'That is not my Cow.' Looking at some of the other characters, I see somewhat of a different definition than I was using.

Chris McMahon said...

I think most of the characters I have enjoyed have been outsiders or underdogs with strength and capability. I guess a few of the David Gemmell heroes have been all but *unbeatable* in battle, yet you never get the sense that they are superhuman -- merely willing to go further and be more committed than anyone else -- more a case of 'who dares wins'.
The unconquerable genius type characters generally turn me off, as they are rarely balanced. Anton pipped me at the post on Elric - what a great example!

matapam said...

Almost all of Andre Norton's heroes start out as underdogs. They're the orphan, the odd ball, the clumsy, scared, junior member of the unpopular team. A few of her fantasy characters are older, but most are young and inexperienced.

Dane Thorson of the Free Trader books was a favorite of mine,so clumsy and self-doubting. Ross Murdock of the Time Traders series, juvenile delinquent paired up with a college professor, handed a spear and sent back in time where he finds some ticked off Space Aliens.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You'll get an amen from this congregation. Heck, two.

I stopped reading a very popular mystery series -- not saying which, but it has "the cat" in the title -- because the murderer was ALWAYS the factory owner or the big heiress or something. Again, not saying that rich people don't commit crimes, but heck, so do poor people. Making it part of your manikean view of the world cheats the readers -- i.e., they know who it's going to be from the beginning, why bother -- and more importantly is a violation of the rules of fiction, to wit "fiction must always be more plausible than reality." Reality, thank heavens, treats all humans as equally flawed, money or no. :)

Michelle in Colorado Springs said...

Right now Connor Grey from Unshapely Things by Mark Del Franco comes to mind. Mainly because I just finished reading it. Although it is a kind of Superman in reverse. He goes from being an all powerful druid to someone with little to no magic.

Tamora Pierce's Keladry of Mindelan also works. As the only female to go though formal training to become a knight in over 300 years she has a lot against her.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Wang Zheng, absolutely. A character without flaws is, by itself a flawed tool. Although it would be interesting to make a character's lack of flaws his flaw. Like Carrot, but played for real. I would bet he would end up dead.

Michelle -- You're not dead! (yes, I know I should talk.) I'll have to check those out. I'm way behind on my reading for fun.

Anonymous said...

I've thought of another character for the list: Tavi from Jim Butcher's Codex Alera. He's the "furyless freak" (total lack of magic that EVERYBODY else has, to the point where he can't even turn on the water or lights because they are all magically controlled) for the first three books and when he finally develops some magic in the later two, it's nothing to write home about. BUT, he's VERY, VERY good at getting the most out of what talents he does have and using is friends and allies abilities cunningly. My favorite quote from the series comes from the middle of the third book, as it really does distill the essence of Tavi. His friend says, "Your plan is insane. _You_ are insane. I'll need some _pants_!"

Tavi and Miles really aren't all that dissimilar.

"Lady" Dawn

anr1963 said...

The early Honor Harrington was very skilled but plagued by insecurity and a fear of men. Overcoming these was a ten book project as she rose to the rank of Admiral and acquired (and lost) a lover.