Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To the PAIN

Blame this one on Doc Rob. He asked me what errors irritated me the most when I read a book. What did I wish the author had done differently.

Of course, what I wish writers would do differently depends on the writer. The one that fails to let me into the story at all is bad word usage. There are people whose sense of word drives me insane. Sometimes I know why – for instance, a sing-song cadence or words that are too convoluted – sometimes I have no idea.

However, past that, most of the problems I have are with the handling of character. Yes, even the plot problems. Because characters are always at the center of my plot.

This ties in somewhat with Dave’s post on Monday. People might not want my catharsis or my pain, but they do, in a way, provided I disguise it, change it and make it relevant. And for that I need a character.

Other writers do this differently and write different types of characters. They write strong characters, accomplished characters. It doesn’t bother me when they write their characters. No, what makes me throw the book against the wall is when they write MY type of character. And do it wrong.

So, what is a Sarah type character, you ask? What do Thena and Tom and Kyrie and Rafiel and Peter from Soul of Fire have in common?

When I’m casting about for a character to carry a story I look for one thing: pain. Pain and an impossible dilemma. Tom, kicked out of the house too early, and having learned all the wrong things AND incapable of controlling the dragon. Thena, not even raised to be human and faced not only with saving her life, but adapting to a whole other world, all the while falling in love with someone who is not... easy to love.

I go where the pain is greatest, the drive pitted most unavailingly against the obstacle, and I write there. And when the character achieves catharsis, hopefully so does the reader – if not something they can translate to their own lives, at least something they can “feel” vicariously.

Some psychologists believe humans grow when they come to a dead end. They can’t progress along the path they’ve been going and they must change. (Which is why people who get everything handed to them never grow up.) I know – having experienced it – this process can happen vicariously when you get so wrapped up in the character’s growth that you live it too, a little.

Now, I’m not saying it needs to be all angst. My books tend to be a little angsty. Maybe it’s who I am. But for instance, Georgette Heyer manages this wonderfully without much angst at all. Take Sylvester, where the shy girl has learned to cope with life by retreating into her imagination. When her imagination gets into trouble and hurts the man she’s come to love (because she wrote a book in which she tuckerized him, if you haven’t read it) she has to accept her responsibility and deal with the real life consequences of her escapism. There is pain and growth in that, even though it’s all done with a light and humorous touch.

On the other hand, there’s a book I threw against the wall so hard, it stuck there. Not going to name the writer. Let’s just say she’s a bestseller. It starts out with one of the MOST fascinating characters I’ve ever read. Someone I couldn’t come up with – or haven’t, though I’m thinking of stealing him! – in a million years. This character is... let’s say... the ghost of a bad, bad man who was responsible for the death of hundreds of people. The thing is, by the time you find this out, you’ve already become attached to the character who is, in this persona, a young man, before he killed anyone, and doesn’t know what he grew up to do.

He is tormented and suffering and doesn’t know why. And as the other main character, who is falling in love with him, finds out, she is repulsed by who he really is.

There is great tension here, a great potential for catharsis and growth. So, what does the writer do? She has the ghost take over the body of a recently dead young man, about the same age. The memories and personality merge and NOTHING is resolved. On top of that, the dead young man wasn’t introduced before, died by accident, and has nothing to resolve. And his memories are foremost. So basically, she bait-and switched the character with the problem for one without.

This is the sort of thing that makes me throw the book against the wall. I bet you the author thought she was doing something “unexpected”. Yes, she was. It’s normally unexpected to cheat the reader out of the promised catharsis and redemption. It’s also bad. It lets all the air out of tires of tension and need for resolution that you’ve been building up.

It takes a “third, easy” and never before glimpsed path between the crushing cliffs of drive and obstacle.

It makes me want to say, with Juliet, “Dost thou leave me thus, unsatisfied?”

So, what things make you leave a book unsatisfied? How do books miss the mark for you? Now you think about it do they do it by taking the easy way out, via either character-interruptus or deux-ex-author? By inference, in which way do books find the mark for you? And which ones fulfill promises you didn’t even know they were making?

PS - Oh, yeah, I forgot to announce this. John and I are changing days for reasons of convenience, so from now on you get me on Saturdays and John on Wednesdays. Only, this week you get two of me. Aren't you lucky?


Jonathan D. Beer said...

I entirely agree with you Sarah; the vicarious emotional release and catharsis of resolution is one of the greatest things a novel can achieve for me, and one of the reasons I so voraciously devour books. And I understand your frustration when that release fails to materialise - reading is a very personal experience, I find. But one which can, delightfully, be shared.

C Kelsey said...

David Weber, in Wind Riders Oath, has a young female character run away to join a group of female warriors in order to avoid having her noble father be forced to marry her off politically. I hated it with a passion as soon as he started taking that direction. It's the authorial equivalent of having a five year old get mad and say he's running away to join the circus. Given how good and kind all the characters were portrayed, the running away never meshed for me. It's a great book, but that particular sequence ticks me off to the point that I can't re-read it. There is never a satisfactory conclusion to that emotional mess.

However, emotion and its causes are extremely important for a character to feel "real". Emotions of characters bring out the messy stuff of a world.

Amanda Green said...

How do books miss the mark for me? Introduce a character and make me care for him and then the character goes "off stage" never to reappear again. That's one thing that bothers me. But what really gets me -- and seems to be happening more and more over the last few years -- is the almost abrupt manner in which books are ending. Authors spend hundreds of pages building up toward the climax of the book -- quit snickering, Kate -- and then, in 10 pages or less, they tie up all the loose ends, reveal the bad guy, and everyone lives happily ever after (or die and live in eternal damnation). It leaves me with the impression that the author suddenly realized that she had reached her word count and wasn't going to go over it by a single syllable.

But what really drives me over the edge are series that just go on so long they become a caricature of what they had once been. That not only disenchants me with the series but with the author as well.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I share your frustration with that trend, Amanda. One author in particular that I have read extensively has a habit of doing that. The story will build nicely, some good action, interesting characters, and then it climbs to a brilliant crese- oh! Oh. It ended. How unsatisfying.

Endings, for me, are key to ensuring a story, or anything fictional for that matter, delivers. If I go to the movies and the ending goes out with a whimper rather than a bang, while I might remember the good parts of the film the ultimate impression I'll have will be "it disappointed".

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


this is why when I'm exhausted or emotionally overwrought I can't read fiction. There isn't enough emotional space to "engage."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I think I either didn't read that book or can't remember it. (There's a hole about the time I fell and hit my head.) I'll have to look it up to judge for myself.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It will interest you to know -- or maybe not -- that the abrupt ending is due to a new theory of writing. I first saw it appear in books around the mid nineties. How to books, I mean. And editors, of course, believe how to books.
I don't know. I take the pages I think are left to the end and consciously double them.

C Kelsey said...


It was the last Bahzell book (which is another grump). ;)

Anonymous said...


I didn't have a problem with the runaway. She was simply removing herself from being used as a lever to attack her father.

The problem I have with that series is that DW has so many series running that he is slow on some, and on this one, has nearly quit.

C Kelsey said...


There's just something about it as a solution that drives me up a wall.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


when one book is being written, another ISN'T being written. Sad arythmetic...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I suspect it's the "run away to be a warrior." I know that DW inevitably will have done it better than most, but it is still somewhat of a cliche. Not that we don't use those.

Francis Turner said...

Over on the LM Bujold list (now there's a writer who always uses the right words) we've been discussing being "bounced" out of books.

One thing that gets me to bounce is when someone we like a lot starts doing something self-destructively stupid. Miles at the start of Memory is the classic LMB example but there are plenty in other books. I hate it when you have this person whom you have built some kind of rapport and relationship with and who seems perfectly reasonable who then goes and does something unbelievably dumb....

C Kelsey said...


That may be part of it. It just feels like it's too easy of a solution to a classic literary problem. I would like to have seen a different, non-cliche, solution.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I suppose saying "But people do do that" is no excuse. I know I don't hold it as an excuse in my own case because life does not have to be logical, fiction does.

Anonymous said...


The problem with an author having multiple series is that it slows down the progression of each series. I think there's a point where too much time elapses between books and the readers lose that hunger for the next one. They don't remember enough to care any more, and that's something a writer has to avoid like the plague.

I think series need to be enough offset so that one ends as another builds up and perhaps a third starts.

Mind you, I wouldn't mind finding myself in that position.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I really hate it when characters in books and movies do stupid things.

I annoy my kids because we'll get a movie out and it will be an action adventure eg. Cloverfield.

The characters are using the sewer to escape across the city and suddenly the rats start running past them, going the way they are going.

'Watch out,' I said. 'Something really bad has scared the rats. Run!'

And of course the characters didn't get it. Is it just because I've seen too many disaster movies?

Chris McMahon said...

Topping the list for me has to be an unsatisfying ending, and poorly worked plot. Often books with great hooks and a good forward momentum will fall dreadfully flat - the curse of the pantster.

I also get frustrated when the initial hook or promise shown in the characters is not borne out - I get furious when I find out the author has done this deliberately to mess with reader expectations. Too clever by half. Plus its no longer a functioning story.

Stephen Simmons said...

The things that annoy me most are "overly convenient" plot devices, characters failing to notice things that any rational person in their situation would be incapable of overlooking, and people who utterly fail to carry the abilities/ technology/ magic/ what-have-you with which they have endowed their characters to their logical conclusions.

Case in point: In the fourth Harry Potter book, why go to all the trouble to rig the contest? The impostor could have grabbed Harry during any trip into the village and apparated ...

Sarah, I think I understand what you mean about "your" type of character. And that's the character I find myself most often drawn to. Like Samwise Gamgee, terrified and utterly unsuited to the task but incapable of leaving Frodo's side. Or Menolly, in the Dragonriders books, punished by her parents for her music, the one things she loved most in life ...

Kate said...

Chris K - actually I thought the whole female warriors thing was lame-as when I read that book. Classic example of plotting-by-demented-gamemaster and why one shouldn't do it.

Of course, being Weber, he handled the whole thing a lot better than most (as in, the book didn't get an immediate lesson in flying), but it was still disappointing.

I utterly detest characterization by numbers. Authors who pick out a list of "traits" and endow a character with them without any context then move said character like they're playing chess-on-drugs... ::shudders:: If I want purely intellectual exercise I'll read non-fiction. For fiction I want characters I can care about - like the ones Sarah writes, and Dave writes, and... (I think you can guess the rest)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I wouldn't mind being in that position myself...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I like to have COMPETENT characters, too. And I don't like them outright stupid. But... depending on the character's experience...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris M

YES! See, even if you are a pantser, you NEED to fulfill your promises to the reader. I took a workshop where they told me "always pick the third ending" and I find this frustrating. I don't read to be SURPRISED. Great if I am, but most of the time I want the story to end the way we saw coming. The fun is getting there.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I used to write "beautiful, doomed adolescents" now I tend to write fractured people holding themselves together by force of will.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Could be worse. Phil Dick plotted via the i-ching and I recently heard of a writer who plots using the tarot. :-P Does very well, too.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah asked - "And which ones fulfill promises you didn’t even know they were making?"

Ah the hard questions, preciousss. We hates them we does. The trouble is if they're that good you probably didn't even realise you were being promised and rewarded. I actually think you hit one peripherally with this statement -

"I don't read to be SURPRISED. Great if I am, but most of the time I want the story to end the way we saw coming. The fun is getting there."

When you've touched genius is when you ARE surprised but that is followed by the palm of the hand against your forehead and the reader saying "Now WHY didn't I see that coming? It's SO obvious!"
(It's something I tried to do in THE FORLORN and in RATS BATS & VATS. And yes, I learned it from Agatha Christie. It's a trick even in murder mystery that you can only pull just so often.) If you've loved getting there too... that's GOOD writing

Francis Turner said...

When you've touched genius is when you ARE surprised but that is followed by the palm of the hand against your forehead and the reader saying "Now WHY didn't I see that coming? It's SO obvious!"

and that's why I forgive Lois for Miles' idiocy at the start of Memory. The ending (and the evil mastermind) are obvious in retrospect but not until you've got there.

Oh and I reckon you managed it pretty well at the end of Dragon's Ring

Kate said...


You're one of the very few authors who consistently manages that. The Forlorn, RBV (both of them), Dragon's Ring... The information is there but it's so well placed that we readers have to be really on the ball to figure out what it means beforehand.

Pratchett (of course) is another one. So is Sarah.

And now having set off massive embarrassment in Tasmania and Colorado with that comment, I shall return my focus to the job :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


That's what I aim for, but...

And yes, the surprise isn't for everyone. When it comes, it's wonderful.

But yeah, it absolutely SHOULDN'T feel like it came out of the left field, which is what many people try to do. I don't want to go "Uh, what the?" when I finish a book.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Didn't he? "Pretty well" indeed.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Actually Kate, I think you set off massive laughter in Tasmania and Colorado. I can swear for Colorado, at least.

Pratchett and me, yeah, there's a set of two... Dave and Pratchett is much closer. (Actually the shark bait (not enough stamps yet, dave!) was amazed unca Monka (revolting nickname) didn't outsell Pratchett. So he's MUCH closer.)

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, I really am worried about the shark-bait's impared judgement.

Kate do you know what happens when two tsunamis of embarassment meet mid-ocean? A new crustal fracture, that's what. Look what you've done!

Seriously I think this left of field sudden surprise thing is rather like humor (and the failure of editors to grasp that it's hard to write well and consequently rare - but very successful when it works). At one stage some humor did well. So every aquiring editor and his dog bought 'funny'- which mostly wasn't. And they flopped. So now instead they steer around even good stuff (like our Kate's con stories) with extreme caution. Somehow the idea that 'twist-in-the-tail stories work really well took root in the aquisitional collective mind. Which they do... Only, like humor, they work really well if your name is Pratchett and you do it well, with adequate foreshadowing and lots hidden-in-plain-sight, and red herrings that in hindsight are obviously just that. It's technique, and like any technique if it is done well with a skilled hand, it's actually darn near invisible. (which, um, suggests that certain people who should have seen it... didn't see it at all.) So now we have a rash of illogical twists for the sake of twists. And in 5 years time, twists are suddenly going to be 'don't touch'.