Literary Fireworks

Happy July 4th a day early, everyone! And to our Canadian friends, Happy Canada Day two days late! Camp NaNo has started up again (there are sessions in both April and July), and if you haven’t signed up and started your writing project, you should go do that right now! It’s good fun, and it’s a good way to keep yourself from getting lazy in the summer. I mean, come on—it’s hot outside. You know you were just going to stay inside in the air conditioning anyway. You might as well write a novel while you’re there.

Thinking of writing and Independence Day (the actual holiday, not the movie), we decided to come up with a list of our top ten favorite and most influential American literary works. These are the novels, nonfiction, short stories, and plays that we read over and over, and use as points of reference in our own discussions of how to write well.

Here they are, alphabetical by author, because it would just be cruel to expect us to rank them:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee
Snap went the dragons! We quote this one all the time. It’s probably one of the most enjoyably quotable plays ever written. It’s our reference point for snappy, well-timed dialog. Also, believe it or not, watching the movie version of this on VHS was our first date.

“Sonny’s Blues” James Baldwin
“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” Baldwin’s masterful short story of jazz, addiction, loss, and family hasn’t lost a beat of its meaning. Even while feeling of its era, it has a timeless quality to strive for.

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
Poor Gatsby. His name has become a sort of shorthand for a certain kind of striving character who doesn’t realize that he’ll never quite fit in and who, invariably, has to die by the end. Stringer Bell from The Wire, for example, or a certain character from our Quartet who is far more morally admirable, but ultimately just as doomed.

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
Love and war have rarely felt so real and visceral. Hemingway’s sparse prose isn’t up everyone’s alley (heck, it isn’t always up ours), but this novel couldn’t be written any other way. Propulsive and emotional, this novel is great for studying pace and structure.

A Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
As we’ve mentioned before, George R. R. Martin is an absolute master of POV. Even if you think a character is irredeemable, once you see the world from his perspective, you understand and sympathize with him.

Long Day’s Journey into Night Eugene O’Neill
Gun to head, if asked to name American’s greatest writer, I (S) would answer Eugene O’Neill. No family is a bigger, more compelling mess than the Tyrones, and while each character is amazing on their own, there are endless lessons to be learned in how people who know each other too well interact. On top of it all, every line sings. “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.”

The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Prose as beautiful as any literary novel and worldbuilding to stand with the absolute best in fantasy, the tale of Kvothe, in the frame story and the past, is a masterful mix of mystery, humor, and just damned good storytelling. Watching Rothfuss layer the present, history, and myth is precisely the sort of thing we strive for in our most epic books. Is it Day 3 yet?

The Killer Angels Michael Shaara
Reading this is how we learned how to write battle scenes, basically. Also, it’s an excellent lesson in how to create sympathy for characters on both sides of the conflict, and how to create tension and drama even when the reader knows darn well how it’s all going to end.

The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman
Again, as with The Killer Angels, the outcome is never in doubt. But it’s a fascinating, page-turning read about how that outcome came to be. We drew a lot from this book about the start of World War I when we were writing the start of the war in the first book of the Quartet.

House of Mirth Edith Wharton
Is Lily Bart the female precursor to the likes of Jay Gatsby and Clyde Griffiths? We think she is. An American Anna Karenina, her fate seems so depressingly certain from the beginning, yet it’s a challenge to maintain a dry eye at the end. A challenge we happily lose. It’s the sort of focused character study I (S) am trying to tackle right now in my first modern, non-fantasy novel.

Honorable Mentions
In Cold Blood Truman Capote
As readable as any novel, Capote’s nonfiction gem is a lesson in understanding human beings. Or at least trying to.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather
Such a simple tale of a man literally with a mission, the writing is just gorgeous. It’s also a brilliant example of great archetypal storytelling, which I (S) would love to try some day.

An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser
To be blunt, if it weren’t for how the story gets really bogged down late at the trial, this one might have merited more than just an honorable mention. Even with that pacing issue, Clyde Griffiths’s attempts to find a better life, to get a little bit of the American Dream, is a heartbreaking character study about how striving can go terribly wrong.

Billy Budd Herman Melville
When I (J) was in law school, I took a seminar on “Theories of Justice” where we read this book. It’s a fascinating study in character and motivation. Like The Guns of August on a much smaller scale, it shows people being driven toward a tragic end that virtually no one actually wanted. That sort of tragic inevitability is something we’ve tried to show in a number of our books, particularly the third book of the Quartet.

Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
We’ve been rereading this one recently for S’s book club, so it’s been on our minds a lot. It’s hugely problematic for a variety of reasons, but it’s great for showing how to keep a romance going on the page when the couple are apart for most of the book. And it’s a masterclass in how to make a heroine sympathetic, even when she’s often not especially likable.

J and S


It was the best of times, etc…. 2015 Review

gun in your pocket

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis gets a smooch from Tom Burke as Athos in the BBC’s The Musketeers. My silly edit.

Tis the season of Top 10 Lists and the like, and while I don’t really quite have something like that to offer, I’ve been thinking I could do a little recap about where my mind was narratively speaking in 2015.

The Best: New (to me) TV

In 2015 I discovered four new TV shows that are destined to be shows I watch repeatedly for years to come and will be long-term touchstones when discussing fiction done right. It all began back at the beginning of the year when I discovered The 100. Set in a near post-apocalyptic future, the survivors of a nuclear war still living on a space station need to return to Earth and pray it’s habitable. Well, guess what? It sure is habitable, because there are folks who never left. It’s a thematically challenging, visually remarkable, and well-acted show. If CW, teens, and post-apocalypse usually turn you off, I understand, but if you’re ever going to make an exception, it should be this show.

Then at the end of May I found The Musketeers. Sigh! The BBC’s take on Dumas’s classic adventure tale is pretty much my favorite thing in the world right now. Which, of course, means 2016’s Season 3 is to be the show’s last. There’s simply nothing I don’t adore about this show: it looks great, I love the soundtrack, the stories are exciting, and I couldn’t love the cast more. Tom Burke’s Athos is destined to go down as one of my favorite TV characters ever.

Then once J could convince me to watch something other than The Musketeers endlessly, we found Halt and Catch Fire and Manhattan. For anyone who thinks I’ve sold my soul to the CW (which, frankly, has better programming than a lot of people give it credit for) and other lighter fare, here are two grown up period drams with complex characters and relationships. Watching the ever-changing dynamics between Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna on Halt as they navigate the tech industry of the 1980s has been a treat, the characters each growing, changing, receding as individuals and as part of groups. The relationships on Manhattan, a fictionalized account of the invention of the atomic bomb, are equally complex, and the intensely character-driven plot is constantly surprising. (I once referred to Manhattan as the “Imelda Marcos of TV–there’s always another shoe to drop.”)

The Worst: Movies

I am a notorious movie buff. But guess where I haven’t been all year? To be honest, what’s playing at the theater hasn’t interested me on the whole for the past two years. I’ll probably go see In the Heart of the Sea later this month, because I love a good nautical story, but that will be the first film I’ll have seen in the theater since, I think, American Sniper. I’ve caught up on some things on DVD, but I just can’t convince myself to go to the theater when there’s so much good TV to watch.

The Best: Fanfic

2015 will go down in history as the year I sold my soul to fanfic (not the CW). I started reading it, and as J predicted, I started writing it, and I freaking love it. I also love the crazy women at Twitter who first gave me fanfics. I think it started with SG (@wedsandsatnight) giving me what isn’t quite typical fanfic, rather one of R.A. Steffan’s wonderful The Queen’s Musketeers stories. And then somehow I fell in with Carrie (@Snowglory) and Canadian Garrison (@CdnGarrison) and the world of Archive of Our Own was opened to me, and well, let’s just say that wonderful writers like breathtaken, Teland, uena, and too many others to name, have made my reading life decidedly more interesting!

The Neglected: Traditional novels and nonfiction

To spend the amount of time I now spend reading fanfic, something had to go, and it wasn’t going to be television. Because the fanfic I want to read isn’t available on audiobook for the most part (although R.A. Steffan now has an audiobook!), I’ve continued listening to some traditional novels and nonfiction books, but as far as sitting down and reading a book I hold in my hands, even ones I hold on my tablet, well, that hasn’t happened much. Except for the books I read for my book club, which leads me to…

The Best: The House of Mirth

Hands down, Edith Wharton’s classic is the best book I’ve read this year. The language is beautiful without being pretentious (one of the hardest lines for an author to walk, in my opinion), Lily Bart is a phenomenal heroine, and I wept. That’s pretty much the trifecta for me to love a book. Over the years, I’d tried to read The Age of Innocence several times and never made it past the first chapter, so I’d written Wharton off as an author. But when a member of the book club enthusiastically requested we read House of Mirth, I couldn’t say no. I opened the book dreading it, and instead fell wildly in love.

The Best: My first fanfic

Again, for the sake of keeping JS Mawdsley separate from my fanfic pseudonym, I’d rather not provide a link to my work on AO3. However, when I think about my work as an author this past year, I think most fondly on my first fanfic story. I recently reread it to refresh my memory as I prepare to continue the series, and it’s not half bad. Add to that how much it made me enjoy writing again, and it really is the best of me as an author in 2015.

The Worst: The Queen’s Tower revision

I will finish revising this book, dammit. Just not in 2015. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you need to write fanfic instead.

So, narratively speaking, that was my year. Hope you had a good one!


Ten Best Fantasy Characters: The Final Reckoning

(Part 1 of the Countdown: 10, 9, 8)
(Part 2 of the Countdown: 7, 6, 5)
(Part 3 of the Countdown: 4, 3, 2)

Here we are, at long last, to finish our countdown of the ten best characters in fantasy.  This coming week, we’ll be headed to Indianapolis for Gen Con 2015, so we wanted to make sure we got this written and posted before we get caught up in planning our road trip, and packing, and finishing up our projects for July Camp NaNoWriMo, and so on.

If you missed our earlier posts, check out the links at the top.  But if you’ve been with us from the beginning, here’s a reminder of how things stand so far:

10 Vin, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.
She shows how to make a character sympathetic, even if she’s born with superhero powers.

9 Neville Longbottom, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
He’s a secondary character, but he’s still got a fantastic arc all his own.

8 Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series.
She’s “plucky done right”—an active heroine who feels believably smart for her age.

7 Jaime Lannister, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
He seems like a terrible human being…until you get inside his head.   Then you sympathize in spite of yourself.

6 Eowyn, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
She longs to prove herself, even though she’s a girl.  And boy, does she end up proving herself.

5 Peter “Littlefinger” Baelish, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
We have no idea what secret game he’s playing, and that’s what makes him fascinating.

4 Kvothe, from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles.
We meet him at either end of his character arc, and he’s fascinating in both places.

3 Samwise Gamgee, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
He’s not just a sidekick; he’s the real hero of the books.

2 Sand dan Glokta, from Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy.
He shows how a writer can create sympathy for even the most unpleasant character through mastery of voice.

And so, at long last, here’s the number one, very best fantasy character of all time:

Lucy Pevensie

We happily admit that we enjoy reading characters who are complex, flawed, and not always terribly heroic. And yet, sometimes you just want a character to do the right thing, for the right reasons. Sometimes you want to love a character unapologetically, and to even be more like that character. Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia is precisely that kind of character. Written flawlessly by CS Lewis, Lucy is not just a character we wish we could be, but a character we actually could be. She is heroic in ways a little girl can be; her defining trait her unalterable belief. She heals the sick and inspires the frightened, and she even forgives her brother Edmund when he betrays what she believes in so fiercely.

And yet, she is never the annoying, cloying, precocious child she could be. She is polite and decent, and frankly, you rather want to give her a hug, even if you aren’t normally one for children. Lewis makes you love her for her bravery and kindness, when it would have been so easy to make the reader roll his eyes and think, “No kid is this freaking good.” Through the Chronicles of Narnia, we get to watch her grow, and even once she is too old for Narnia, we know that she doesn’t lose her faith, that, instead, she inspires that same faith in others.

So, what do we learn from this amazing girl? Most importantly that depending on the tone and theme of the story, it is absolutely acceptable to write a truly heroic protagonist. The world is sometimes gray and evil and all of the things we read George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie for. But it is also overflowing with decency and good people who believe in their hearts that doing right by other people is the only way to live life. Heroic characters don’t have to be boring or annoying. They can be interesting and aspirational and entirely real for all of that.

So what have we learned from this list?

First of all, execution is everything.
You can make a torturer sympathetic if you make him funny enough.  You can give a character superhero powers if you show us how she struggles to learn how to use them.  You can make your heroine a good little girl who does all the right things, and if you can make her charming enough, the reader will love her, rather than want to throttle her.  Any of the characters on this list could have been insufferable in the hands of lesser writers.  In many ways, though, Lucy is the trickiest of the lot, which is why she’s on top.

Second, everyone likes an unlikely hero.
Sure, Aragorn and Harry Potter are awesome, and if you were betting on who would win a fight, they would be the safe choices.  But sometimes you need a character who becomes a hero more or less out of nowhere.  It’s just so satisfying when Neville turns out to be awesome, or when Sam saves Frodo, or when Eowyn kills the Witch King, because we can remember, as readers, when they didn’t seem to have a lot going for them.

Third, even villains can be sympathetic.  
It’s tempting as a writer to think of the antagonist as merely an obstacle for the hero.  Somebody has to cause problems and setbacks, or the story is going to be both dull and short.  But everyone is the hero of his own story, and Jaime Lannister and Glokta remind us that even the worst people need to have, from their point of view, some justification for what they do.

And finally, good trumps evil.  
Yes, horrid characters can be horribly fascinating (we were both bummed when Hannibal was canceled).  But there’s a limit to how much of that you can take.  Even the best villainous antiheroes are, in the end, a bit like ice cream or whiskey: a little is great, but if you have too much, you end up feeling sick and slightly ashamed of yourself.  That’s probably the main reason why Lucy Pevensie is at the top of this list, rather than Glokta.  Lucy is the sort of person you wish you could be; Glokta just isn’t.

So there we are: our ten best list.  Hopefully we’ll have more updates on our Camp NaNo projects.  And if we’re really motivated, we might even have a post from Gen Con.


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. (

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

Ten Best Fantasy Characters: The Saga Continues

(Part 1 of the Countdown)

Forty percent of this list is comprised of women. It actually would have been quite easy for it to be half, especially seeing how seriously we considered Arya Stark, but we didn’t want the characters from Westros overrunning the list, so with some real regret, we had to leave her off. However, we do have two characters from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and one of our favorite women this week. The two men may actually be the two characters in fantasy we have spent the most time discussing; two of the fictional characters we have discussed most, full stop, in fact. Whatever nitpicks we may have with Martin’s series, his place as a modern master of character has never been in doubt since we first picked up A Game of Thrones. His skill at vivid character description as well as his knack at building sympathy for the questionably moral are worth every writers’ time to study, whatever genre they write. As for the woman in this week’s installment, she is the touchstone we use whenever discussing female characters in fantasy. She is our byword for what a woman in epic fantasy ought to be.

7. Jaime Lannister


Whenever we talk about character POV, we almost always end up talking about characters from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. You think you know one of his characters, and then, almost invariably, when you get a chapter from that character’s POV, everything changes. Jaime is really the poster boy for this. He’s in an incestuous relationship with his sister, he’s widely despised for breaking his oath and killing the old king, and he pushes a little boy out a window the first time we meet him. He seems completely irredeemable—almost too villainous to be believed. But then you see the world from his perspective, and, while you don’t exactly forgive him, you understand him. You even start to sympathize with him. Someday when we get around to finishing Magnificent Kingdom, we’re going to be thinking a lot about Jaime and this wide contrast between the way he is seen and the way he sees himself. One of the main characters of Magnificent Kingdom is going to be a wizard, Kuhlbert, who becomes known to later history as a terrible villain. But even many of his enemies at the time recognize he was honestly always trying to do the right thing.

6. Eowyn

I am no bro
Writing female characters can be fraught with political booby-traps. Does she have agency? Does your novel pass the Bechdel test? Is she a damsel in distress, a man with boobs, a male fantasy? Sometimes it feels as though the hardest thing to do is leave all the potential cultural baggage at the door and just write a great character who happens to be female. We can’t track it down, but we both remember reading years ago an article discussing how lucky Tolkien was to be writing The Lord of the Rings before the feminist movement of the 1960s, because it allowed Eowyn to simply be, without stress of tackling what being a shield maiden says about equal pay and whatnot. However one puts it, there is a naturalness to the character, making Eowyn entirely female, entirely strong, and utterly fascinating. She also expresses a desire not often attributed to women, and yet felt by many—the desire to be tested physically. It is a trait at the heart of traditional masculinity, but to deny that many women also feel the urge to show physical courage is to miss an important impulse in many women. In fact, when discussing the similarities of the seemingly very different female POV characters in the Quartet, we often quote Eowyn’s most telling line:
“What do you fear, lady?” he (Aragorn) asked.
“A cage,” she (Eowyn) said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
That’s an answer most people would associate with a man, and yet, it is imperative to remember that Eowyn is no man. And it is, in fact, the mission statement of both our female leads in the Quartet.

5. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish


Littlefinger is one of the most intriguing characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, and he’s certainly the most interesting character to have never had a POV chapter.  At one point in A Storm of Swords, he tells Sansa Stark, “Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next.  Sometimes the best way to baffle them is to make moves that have no purpose, or even seem to work against you.”  And that is exactly why he is such a fascinating character.  You’re never quite sure where he stands.  You never know what deeper game he might be playing, but you’re positive he must be playing one.  In fact, in spite of the fact that one of the things Martin does so well is to make you sympathize with a character by showing you that character’s POV, we actually hope we never get to see the world from Littlefinger’s perspective.  It would spoil the mystery.  If you saw the world through his eyes, you’d have to know what he was thinking and what he was planning.  And what fun would that be?  In our own writing, we have a rather Littlefinger-like character named Konrad.  His role at the beginning of the Quartet is pretty ambiguous—is he on our heroes’ side or not?  Later it becomes clearer that if he’s on anyone’s side, it’s his own.  He makes several cameo appearances in My Private War, and he’s scheduled to show up in one of the upcoming Oleg Omdahl mysteries.  But we’re probably never going to write from his point of view, simply because it’s so much more fun to keep the reader guessing about his motives.

Stay tuned for characters 4-2 next week!

J and S

Ten Best Fantasy Characters: The Beginning

For people who love reading and discussing fantasy, Best Fantasy Books is a wonderful website for learning more about the genre and finding recommendations, and their forum provides a great place to meet fellow readers and watch hours of your life slip away. Right now they are in the midst of a tournament to select the best fantasy character ever, and this little contest got us talking about our favorite characters. More specifically, it got us talking Tuesday evening as we arrived at an informal meet up with some folks from our writers group. One of the members of the group immediately said, “You need to blog about this.” Turns out, she is absolutely correct!

So here we are to start counting down our 10 favorite fantasy characters. Tonight, we bring you characters 10-8 and in the coming weeks, we’ll not just rank but discuss what we find so intriguing about these characters and what they have meant to our writing.

As we came up with our list, we considered a number of factors, such as complexity and admirableness.  But all the characters on this list have two things in common: they have spurred multiple discussions between the two of us, and they are characters we genuinely enjoy reading about.  In practically every discussion we ever have about what makes a hero heroic, we eventually end up talking about our number 9 and 3 choices.  Whenever we talk about writing realistic female protagonists, we always use the girls who appear at number 10, 8, and 6 as examples.  We practically couldn’t discuss how to make a villain sympathetic without making reference to the gentlemen who are numbers 7 and 2.

So here they are, counting down from number 10:

10. Vin


When we started writing fantasy, we both began reading more modern fantasy and getting tips from the wonderful podcast, Writing Excuses. Pretty soon it became clear that we had to pick up Brandon Sanderson, and we couldn’t be more glad that we did. We started our journey with Sanderson where many people do, the Mistborn Trilogy. What most people take away from this series, and Sanderson in general, is that it has a remarkably complex and fascinating magic system. Actually, systems, plural, all revolving around the effects metal has on some people’s bodies. Now, while we appreciate the magic in Mistborn, what we like even more is Vin. A street urchin attached to a second rate gang, Vin is parentless, friendless, beaten, and unloved. But in spite of this, she never loses her spirit, and when Kelsier arrives in her life, she’s ready to earn her change. You see, Vin, like Kelsier, is Mistborn, meaning that she can ingest metals to essentially become a kickass superhero. And she works her butt off, further earning everything she gets as a magical warrior. This kind of development, where a lead character is blessed with not just powers, but powers outstripping just about everyone else, can make it tough to sympathize with the character. But watching Vin get a lot in life that she deserves is a treat we are certainly trying to replicate with the hero of the Quartet, Bertie.

9. Neville Longbottom


The great thing about Neville is that he never truly gets discouraged, no matter how bad things get for him—and they get pretty bad. His parents have lost their minds and can’t even recognize him, he’s hopeless in class, and even his friends think he’s a bit of a dork. But he keeps plugging away, no matter what. And in the end, he’s the character who has the longest arc in the whole Harry Potter series. We get to watch him grow into a genuine badass. He starts as the kid who can’t find his pet toad. He ends as the guy who stands up to Voldemort even after they all think Harry is dead and they’ve lost. As authors, it’s very easy to concentrate on the protagonist to the detriment of the other characters. But even secondary characters, like Neville, can have compelling personal arcs. In the Quartet, one of our secondary characters, Tynble, develops in a very similar way to Neville. She starts out a bit hopeless, and the main characters don’t pay much attention at all to her. But in the end—not to give any spoilers—she becomes incredibly important.

8. Tiffany Aching


A few years ago, we listened to the audio book of Wee Free Men together, and we loved it. Tiffany, as S has put it, is “plucky done right.” She is an active heroine; in spite of her youth, she takes responsibility for saving the world, or at least her little corner of it. You just can’t help rooting for her to win. She’s smart, but she’s smart in a totally believable way that will feel terribly familiar to anyone who was a precocious reader as a kid. She’s read the dictionary all the way through, for example, and knows all sorts of big words, but doesn’t know how to pronounce them. A smart, plucky, active heroine is easier to like than one who simply reacts to things around her. In A Glass of Sand and Stars, for example, one of the main characters, Ollie, is a girl who dresses as a boy to attend a medieval university. Then she risks it all and reveals her real identity in order to get what she wants. It’s far more interesting than if she just sits around, waiting to get caught.

So there you go.  Stay tuned for numbers 7, 6, and 5!

J and S