*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.)