Ten Best Fantasy Characters: The Plot Thickens

(Part 1 of the Countdown: 10, 9, 8)
(Part 2 of the Countdown: 7, 6, 5)

And we’re back! If you’ve been following our blog, you were probably starting to think that we were really never going to continue our series on the 10 Best Fantasy Characters. But we just took a little detour, and now here we are again. And just in time, too, because July Camp NaNoWriMo starts this week! No doubt we will be posting soon about our NaNo projects, but first, we’ve got three more of our favorite characters.

This week, we’ve got numbers four, three, and two. And honestly, we’re at the point now where any of these characters could, on a given day, be ranked number one. If we happened to be rereading the books in which he appears, for example, we’d probably put our number three selection at the top. So this is where organizing the list got really difficult for us. But as you’ve doubtless noticed, we’ve had a number of weeks to change out minds, and we’re still happy with the order we came up with.

Next week, assuming that we’re not terribly busy with Camp NaNo, we will finally reveal our top pick, the very greatest Fantasy character of all time. But first, here we are, counting down to number two.

4. Kvothe

Sounds like a solid plan to me.

Sounds like a solid plan to me.

A great character is often defined by his arc. Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles has one of the best through the first two books of the trilogy (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear). Rothfuss doesn’t just take his reader on Kvothe’s journey, but structures the novel so as to introduce the reader to Kvothe at both ends of the arc from the beginning. What follows is the painful, hilarious, and mysterious explanation of how the transformation occurred.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Another layer is sure to come for Kvothe in the frame story. This represents more of Rothfuss’s genius that so many storytellers never bother with. Frame story Kvothe, the broken down bar owner named Kote who has already become the Kingkiller of legend, has a story of his own. The frame isn’t merely narrative conceit, but a narrative of its own. Kvothe struggles and grows with a plot that continues to unfold as he relates the tale of his life.

And what a life. The impoverished orphan who seizes the opportunity to learn magic isn’t exactly a fresh trope in fantasy, but in Rothfuss’s hands, Kvothe doesn’t read like a collection of character traits we’ve seen a million times before. My favorite subversion comes when Kvothe believes Professor Elodin wants him to jump off a roof as some sort of test, and that the professor will save him. Instead of rescue, Kvothe gets broken bones for his troubles.

There’s still at least one more installment to the tale of Kvothe, yet we feel good about his placement at number 4. But given the fact we don’t love Book 2 Kvothe (who suddenly becomes impossibly good at everything) as much as we do Book 1, this is our leap of faith. Perhaps Elodin will be so kind as to catch us.

Whatever the case, Rothfuss’s mastery of character development in the current timeline and flashbacks is something S will be keeping in mind as she takes another pass at The Queen’s Tower this coming Camp NaNoWriMo. Her flashbacks have become their own story, and she wants the timelines to more complement rather than need each other.

3. Samwise Gamgee

Sometimes it helps to see important concepts represented visually.

Sometimes it helps to see important concepts represented visually.

Sam is one of the great sidekicks of fantasy literature. He’s part Sancho Panza and part British army batman, but he’s more than just Frodo’s Robin. Plenty of people consider Sam the real hero of The Lord of the Rings (see here for the argument that one of those people was Tolkien himself). Sam is dogged, decent, and loyal. He has a wealth of practical skills (like knowing the three uses of potatoes) and good sense that repeatedly help his social betters out of a jam. Sam is the commonest of common men. In a story where the hobbits represent ordinary people against a backdrop of mythic heroes, Sam stands in the same relation to the other hobbits that the hobbits stand in relation to the rest of the Fellowship.

He’s not just a bumpkin, though. He’s unusually self-reflective. He draws inspiration from “the great stories,” and wonders what sort of story will be told about him and Frodo someday. He also has one of the most interesting character arcs in the story. He goes from being a young gardener with a vague desire to “go and see elves and all,” to basically saving the world. Yes, it’s Gollum’s greed and poor sense of balance that finally put the ring in Mt. Doom, but Sam does more than anyone—even Frodo—to actually get it close enough for the Eucatastrophe to happen. He also manages to shrug off the temptation of the ring—something no one else in the story manages to do, except Tom Bombadil (who may not even count, because it’s not clear the ring has any effect on Tom at all). And it’s Sam’s self-reflection and self-knowledge that save him, his “plain hobbit-sense”: “The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.” Sam does what we all wish we would do, if we were in his position, and that’s why we love him.

What do we learn from him as writers? Well, Sam, like Neville Longbottom, is the unexpected and unheralded hero. He’s the Ur-Neville, if you will. As we mentioned when we talked about Neville, we’ve got a character in the Quartet who grows and develops and ends up being promoted from secondary character to sidekick, and from sidekick to hero. And as we revise, we hope to give her that same sense of humble self-awareness that makes Sam such a great hero.

2. Sand dan Glokta

The voice of experience.

The voice of experience. (http://www.firstlawcomic.com)

Glokta gets one of the best character introductions we’ve ever read in the first book of The First Law Trilogy. The reader meets this broken man as he curses the inventor of stairs. His gait is described as “Click, tap, pain,” as he hobbles along with his cane, stairs his greatest nemesis. But as twisted as Glokta’s body is, it has nothing on his sense of humor, and his narrative voice wins the reader over during the several pages it takes him to limp along to work. When he arrives, the reader is reminded that he was introduced as Inquisitor Glokta when he begins beating a man for information. It’s too late for the prisoner and too late for the reader. Joe Abercrombie has already made the reader sympathize with a man whose favorite interrogative technique involves a meat cleaver.

But Abercrombie owns his characters’ voices, and he is by no means done winning the reader over to Glokta. Contrary to that shambling introduction, this is not some old man, worn down by time. In fact, he is not terribly old, rather he was a prisoner of war for several years and this is how he returned. Before his capture, Glokta is the most dashing warrior in all the Union. Imagine all the Musketeers rolled together, and they aren’t as talented, stylish, and famous as Sand dan Glokta prior to the war. But when the previously most handsome and eligible bachelor in all the realm comes home missing every other tooth and barely able to walk, he is shunned. Inflicting the kind of torment he suffered on other people is the only option left open to him. So he takes it, never so completely cynical that he loses his desire to be good at something and respected for it.

The Best Fantasy Books forum poll that sparked the idea for this list ended with another Abercrombie character, Logen Nine Fingers, winning. The astute readers at that forum are not the first people to prefer Logen to the other characters of the First Law universe. But as much as we like Logen, because, say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s a damned compelling character, we prefer Glokta’s black humor and utter self-awareness.

What is there to learn from Glokta? J has forbidden S from reading Abercrombie when she’s writing, because she finds his level of brilliance so unattainable she might as well give up writing. But J assures her that in proper perspective, Glokta is a fascinating study in creating character sympathy through mastery of voice.

So there we go. See you soon with the long-anticipated Top Number 1 Best Ever Fantasy Character of All Time.

J and S

#PelvicSorcery

pelvic sorcery 7

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis on the BBC show The Musketeers.

Let me start by saying this might be the unlikeliest blog topic I’ve ever written on. List the most outrageous writerly topics, and I would have thought, before today, I would tackle any one of them before this one. But J and I had a two hour drive Sunday, and our most fruitful conversations often happen on the road. And on this trip we were discussing what I’ve learned from reading dirty fanfiction.

Fanfiction is not something I’ve read much of before. There is a rather excellent Harry Potter fanfic featuring Neville Longbottom during the events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I like, but that’s pretty much it for the fanfic I’ve read. And it isn’t at all erotic. So what compelled me to read some rather mature fanfic sent to me by some friends I met on Twitter?

Actually, let’s skip those details.

The significant point is that fanfic has a certain appeal. And I’m always interested in what makes a story appealing. As a writer, and a curious reader, for that matter, I want to know why a narrative works or doesn’t, and then I want to steal the good parts.

So, what have I learned reading dirty fanfiction? Let’s take a look. (Needless to say, frank sexual discussion ahead.)

Careful Insertion

If fanfic is famous for anything it might be how some authors literally insert him/herself into the story. It’s a problem I’ve seen even in the half dozen short story fanfics I’ve read recently, which I should add have all been set in The Musketeers universe. (Interesting aside: They could all technically be riffs on Dumas’s novels, but I suspect most writers and readers have been drawn to these characters at this moment, as I have, by the BBC show The Musketeers.) In some stories I’ve read, even when the only two characters in the story are those created by Dumas 170 years ago, the fanfic author is actually one of them. In other words, some authors so radically change an existing character, Aramis for example, that I suspect he is really a stand-in for said author.

I suspect this impulse doubles for a desire to have a reader surrogate in the story, which is often a useful tool. It’s why Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and a host of other fish out of water walk the fictional landscape. But I’m beginning to suspect that a reader surrogate might hinder some readers’ enjoyment of naughty fanfic, and having a strong outside presence is more about the author’s own pleasure. (Which, hey, that’s fine, if that’s what the author wants.)

But sometimes there’s a lack of a surrogate and the author is less present, and I think the old saying about porn movies helps explain it: men and women are both watching the women. Men for titillation, women to compare themselves unfavorably. I suspect this is one part of why a fair amount of homoerotic fanfiction is written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women. Even when one of the men is portrayed as having traditionally female characteristics (read: submissive and nurturing), no woman is finding herself wanting in comparison. Also, some women no doubt find it attractive for a man to show a softer side.

So, what does this teach me as an author who tries not to insert herself too strongly in her work and isn’t necessarily planning on writing any homoerotic scenes in the near future? (Actually, that latter might not be true. One of the novels I’m contemplating revising for next month’s Camp NaNoWriMo has a homoerotic scene. Not terribly explicit, however. Anyhow, back to what I’ve learned.) An author needs to carefully consider adding a reader surrogate or other obviously outside force. As J points out, you need Luke Skywalker running around asking the questions the viewer has early in A New Hope, but that sort of behavior later on would be distracting in the extreme. In other words, he has to ask about lightsabers (not a euphemism) when the viewer doesn’t know what one is, not during the climactic battle (also not a euphemism, but I’ll own the double entendre).

In Late, Out Early
(That’s What She Said)

Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on writing is “in late, out early.” This simply means that scenes should start as late as possible and end before things become tedious. Now, I’m new to dirty fanfic, so my small sample may not be representative, but so far I’ve been happy with the amount of set up in the stories leading to the sex. Some, perhaps, lean a little too near the porno trope of “Pizza Boy Special Delivery.” As an example, they may have only a sentence or two to explain why Aramis has decided to stop by Athos’s room or some such. But I’m not sure I mind terribly. Let me be blunt—if I wanted a strong story and character development, I would watch the show again or read the books. Although a little more development can work, as it does in one story I read, which has a nice little adventure for Porthos and Aramis prior to their evening with a prostitute.

The fact their evening is spent with a professional is actually a nice example of “in late.” If these two gentlemen, for instance, went knocking on Constance’s door, the author would have a lot of explaining to do as to why they were there, and why Constance was suddenly acting in a way that she never would on the show. But in this story, Porthos and Aramis visit a prostitute who helped them earlier in the story, and the author has a low hurdle to clear explaining how their threesome occurs. And frankly, that’s fine by me.

But when do you need to spend a little more time explaining how events unfold? I suspect genre expectations play a roll. Two soldiers going to a prostitute needs less explanation in fanfiction than it would in literary fiction, where perhaps the reader would expect some inner monologue about guilt, homosexual overtones, excitement, or memories of his mother. This also makes me think about the place of secondary characters. Yes, characters should, whenever possible, have lives and personalities, but sometimes you just need the stable boy to be a stable boy, or a prostitute an experienced sexual practitioner who can realistically orchestrate a very sexy evening for two men.

Happy Endings

Again, let me just directly say something. Sure, you can have great stories and characters and all of that writerly stuff in your smutty fanfic. But above all, there needs to be smut. Good smut. In one story I read, I had a terrible time following precisely what was happening, and when you fail to make clear the defining attribute of your genre, you’re failing, full stop. (Aside: No, the smut wasn’t so gloriously complex I couldn’t understand. The writing made it impossible to follow the sex from Point A to Point B, as it were.)

Fanfic should fulfill a need, and I don’t necessarily mean just scratching a particular kinky itch. Even though I’m new to fanfic, I’ve been an obsessive consumer of fanvids since my days as a Battlestar Galactica fangirl a decade ago. One reason why I fell so hard for fanvids is that I shipped a non-canonical couple. (Laura/Lee forever!!!) Now, President Laura Roslin and Lee “Apollo” Adama were never going to have a romantic or sexual relationship on Ronald D. Moore’s gritty reimagining. But thanks to some talented fanvid makers, I could pretend. (A favorite example.)

Likewise, I doubt the makers of The Musketeers intend to have a canonical sexual relationship between any of the four male leads. Which is fine. To be honest, I don’t need any coupling between any of the Musketeers on the show, because I have to admit it would feel forced. On the other hand, fanfic comes with a higher suspension of disbelief, so with a little work, an author can convince an already willing reader to accept that D’Artagnan has a lot to learn from Athos in addition to sword play. (Okay, that was entirely intentional. I couldn’t help myself.)

As an aside, I should admit this wish fulfillment can also apply to canonical or near-canonical couples. For instance, Athos and Milady de Winter are married. They have shared some very steamy kisses on the show. But their relationship is equal parts lust, love, and loathing, and we have yet to see them have sex on the show in the present timeline. One of the blessings the downtime between seasons affords (and fanfic authors help fill) is what a friend of mine calls “imaginative space.” This means that between now and January 2016 when The Musketeers returns, I get the pleasure of imagining the scene in which Athos and Milady finally have angry, angry hate sex. And other people get to imagine, and possibly write, it, too. As I like to joke on Twitter (and this is how people started sending me links) #iwouldreadthatfanfic.

As a writer, I think spending too much thought for which characters may be shipped by readers is a mistake. That way lies awkward fanservice or overcompensating to discourage it. Writing the characters an author wants and creating meaningful relationship between them seems to be the best goal. And that can include writing compelling will they/won’t they storylines for the relationships that are planned. For instance, when writing the My Private War series, J kept me invested in who his heroine would end up with. And I spent a fair amount of time between installments thinking about how the heroine might live happily ever after with the person I wanted her to be with. How did J do that?

One, he says that he knew how he intended to resolve his heroine’s love life. Knowing that, he could, two, invent new obstacles to keep them apart until ready. In my Oleg Omdahl series, I’m planning to have him consummate a relationship in book 3 I’ve been setting up since book 1. Hopefully in those first two books I’ll provide my readers with enough tension they feel inspired to pen some fanfic while waiting on me to reach the third book.

The End

And that’s what I’ve learned so far. Having read very little, I’m sure I’ll pick up more writerly tips as I go along. As I do, I’ll share all the observations I feel comfortable sharing, old, married, Midwestern lady that I am. 😉

S

Watch This Space….

coming_soon

Once again, Sunday has rolled around, and we’ve got a post coming up.

No, not the long-awaited continuation of our Best Fantasy Characters series, but something that just might be even better, if that were possible.  S is writing a blog explaining everything she has learned about writing from reading smutty Musketeers fanfic.  Of course, you can’t rush something that awesome, so she will be posting it sometime soon.  Tomorrow, perhaps.

In the meantime, Happy Father’s Day, Merry Solstice, and please accept our sincerest apologies, as conveyed by that titan of literary criticism, Harold Bloom:

Harold Bloom.cookie

J

Hypothetically Speaking…

Hypothetically speaking, S might possibly be working on my birthday present. I wouldn’t know anything about it, of course, but if I did, I imagine she might be writing me a short story depicting an important moment in the life of a major historical figure in Myrcian history—the guy who will be the protagonist of Magnificent Kingdom when we get around to writing that.

So, what I’m saying is that, once again, we’re going to have to put off our list of Best Fantasy Characters. Honestly, we really do mean to get back to that sooner or later.

What I’m doing this evening is to work on reference material. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve got files with background info on all the major countries of our ‘verse. But the problem is that it’s all very Myrcia-centric. That is to say, we know everything that a given country does that affects events in Myrcia, but we don’t know very much about what happens in those countries at other times. So I’m going through and trying to fill in some blanks about the big Empire to the north. It’s the country that Sabrina serves in My Private War, so I think having some more of the history worked out will help when we want to revise those books.

Anyway, that’s what we’re up to tonight. That and going down to the basement periodically to make sure it isn’t flooding from all the rain we’ve gotten today.

J

You Can Take My (MS) Word for It

We promise that we really are going to get around to finishing our series on the best characters in fantasy literature. But our best friend just came to visit, and of course that means that we spent basically no time at all working on our writing projects over the past week. And my birthday is coming up next week, so perhaps soon we’ll have more time on our hands.

Meanwhile, I’ve been playing around with the Office for Mac 2016 preview. You can install it alongside Office 2011, and it’s been fun seeing what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. I don’t use my Macbook Air quite so much anymore, particularly on vacation, when I don’t need to spend quite so much time outside the house.

I hear that "Lorum Ipsum" is quite a guy.

I hear that “Lorem Ipsum” is quite a guy.

I love the navigation pane there on the left. I just figured out how to make that show up in Office for Mac 2011; it’s a lot easier to use in the Windows version. But it’s an enormous time-saver when you’re looking through a 200 or 300 page Word document for that one certain time you used that one particular word. I can’t imagine what I’d do without that feature now.

Some people prefer other programs for writing, and more power to them. But personally I’ve always gotten along fine with MS Word. Here’s how I usually do it. (These screenshots are from my HP EliteBook, which is where I do most of my writing now.)

Every book I write has at least three files: one for the outline, one for the characters, and one for the text of the novel itself.

Not shown: blank space where the novel should be.

Not shown: blank space where the novel should be.

When I’m actually writing, I always have the text file open on one side of the screen, and the outline open on the other side. That way I can keep looking back and forth, checking to see that I’m not leaving something out, and keeping an eye on what’s coming up next.

Huh.  I thought she was taller than that.

Huh. I thought she was taller than that.

I keep the characters file open in the background, so I can switch to it whenever I need to check on the spelling of a character’s name, or remind myself where someone is from or how tall she might be. Other times, I have other files open, too, like our other books, if they have information that is important to the new story. We also have files for each of the various countries in our ‘verse. For Red Sand Girl, I kept open the file for the country where it takes place, so I could check the spelling of their various gods and goddesses and make sure I had the names right for their units of money.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to recently. We’ll be back soon with more about fantasy characters we like.

J