I wrote an article covering untouchable characters in general and why they are damaging to the medium, and diversity, but here I wanted to talk more specifically about the problem of main characters whose stories have no risk. No stakes. We’ve all see them. The characters that are so powerful, that have no weaknesses, we just know they’ll win no matter what. How many times have you watched a show or movie and said, “They won’t kill that character, they’re too important to the story.” Let me use a couple of comic book examples, since I’m fairly fond of them.
Marvel has this issue in spades. So does DC, but I never really read DC. Anyway, due to the nature of Marvel’s business model their characters are more like assets than characters. There’s a financial reason no one ever really dies in Marvel comics. Unfortunately it creates a storytelling problem. Take Wolverine, personally my favorite Marvel character. The guy heals from anything, including being launched into the sun (yes, that happened). He comes back from anything, and even when he dies, he isn’t dead. When you read a Wolverine comic (and really any Marvel comic) you know that no matter what, that character can’t die. At the end of the day there’s no stakes. No risk. No real reason to care about whatever danger our hero is in. Ultimately it’s one of the things that drove me to other comic companies with smaller print runs.
That’s just one problem that I want to look at here. Another is a character with no weaknesses. Take a couple of recent examples, Superman and Captain Marvel (the Marvel movie version). These two have been compared a lot after the recent Captain Marvel movie. One of the big critiques is Carol Danvers is too powerful, and has no weaknesses. “But that’s no different than Superman…” Wrong. Superman has two distinct weaknesses; humanity and kryptonite. Now that’s not to say those are great weaknesses, and they get used too often because that’s all you can really do with him, but they are there. For the movie version of Captain Marvel there are none. It begs the question again, why care? Once she pummels her enemies into submission, what’s next? She flew through an armored spacecraft, killing countless people (most of whom were probably just doing their jobs like mopping the latrines and cataloging spare parts), what’s next? What could really pose a threat to Captain Marvel? Those aren’t questions you want your readers asking.
So how to handle this? Should you really kill off your main character? Well…maybe not but if you accept it as a possibility it becomes easier to make the audience believe you will. Look at Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. At this point doesn’t anyone really believe any character is safe on either show (or in either book)? When did we stop saying “Oh, they won’t kill that character,” and start saying “Oh crap, they better not kill this character?” In both cases the writers have shown us that no one is safe. Even if they have a plan on who lives, it’s not an obvious one. In my first work, Wastelander, I maimed my hero right out of the gate. First scene, cut his arm right off. I didn’t have it that way to start, or threaten to do it and take it back. Our big bad warrior hero starts his journey almost losing a fight, and definitely losing a limb. I did that so that I knew, and the reader would know, that I wasn’t pulling any punches. I wanted to make sure that my readers would feel like Dez was in real danger the entire time.
This goes hand in hand with making sure your hero isn’t too powerful. The warrior who never loses a fight doesn’t make a good story. We all know the end, in most cases the hero eventually wins, but it’s the journey that matters. No one cares if the hero walks right to the main villain and knocks him out in one punch. This is especially true when dealing with magic and powers. You have to give your characters a weakness. There has to be a way for them to lose, even if they don’t. But, be prepared to make them lose. Make them lose a battle or two, stumble and fall along their path. Let the reader know that you’re willing to throw everything out the window and grind your protag into the dirt if that’s what it takes. It’s not just about throwing obstacles in their path, make some of those obstacles failure itself. The way a person overcomes failure tells a lot more about their character than how they deal with success.
Call me a cynic, but my immediate reaction to anyone charging independent authors for reviews is not positive. It comes off as distinctively predatory. There’s practical and possibly legal concerns here, as well as simply how it looks to readers when they find out (and eventually they will find out) that the review they just read was paid for. Why do I mean by all that? Is this the norm in the industry?
First off, it may be the norm. Big publishing houses, with giant marketing budgets, may be paying for reviews. There’s a reason that may be a problem; we’ll talk about that in a few. From the perspective of an independent author though, that’s highly predatory. What do we, as indie authors, want more than anything else? To feel like we have succeeded as real authors right? We all measure that in different ways, but a couple of the biggest factors is sales, and positive commentary. Think about it, how good does it feel to get a glowing review on Amazon? You’ve probably submitted your book to a hundred agents, got rejected, decided to self publish and you get that first positive reinforcement. It’s like a drug, isn’t it? And here, these guys, these reviewers are selling that drug. One of the most recent offers I got through a Twitter DM…$1,000 for lifetime membership to Booktasters. That’s by far the most expensive offer I’ve seen.
Let’s take one of the more ‘reasonable’ ones and look at it from a financial perspective. I could have had my book, Embers of Liberty, reviewed for $50.00. That’s a lot cheaper than the one above, but honestly is it worth it? Most of us have a profit margin of about $3-5 for sales on Amazon. That review would have to generate at least ten sales to pay for itself, before it even started making me any money. That $50.00 is a table at a show, where I could sell ten or more books. I could use that money to buy almost ten more author copies to sell at those shows. Now, I don’t think that these reviewers are being intentionally predatory, not all of them at least. But they are neglecting to consider the financial burden of those of us who jump into these waters on our own. There’s more than just financial concerns here, however.
One site I bumped into had a free review policy, but you could pay to get to the front of the line. No disclosure there either, and when I asked they told me that their reviews are always fair and honest. I’m easy to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they are going into it with a mind to be fair, and a lot of times they probably are, but if an author with money can pay to guarantee a review you’ve left fair behind. Even then, the reader has to take it on faith that the review is fair and honest and that’s hard to do when some very important information is left out of the equation.
In the U.S. we have laws concerning truth in advertising to protect consumers. The FTC is responsible for monitoring and possibly investigating misleading practices by advertisers. This includes bloggers, and does cover things like whether you have a personal connection to the company or individual you are reviewing, or if you’re being paid by them. A lot of these reviewers say, “Well, you’re not paying for the review, you’re paying for membership to our service.” That’s clever, but it’s also shady. This is one of the reasons I don’t do long form reviews of books anymore. While I can claim that there’s no bias to my review, the reader has to put a lot of faith in someone doing reviews of their competition. Are they a friend I’m trying to help out, or a competitor that spurned me at a show and I’m trying to throw them under the bus? Even when I do quick reviews on Amazon or social media I will point out if I know the author, and i keep it pretty much just to whether I liked it or not and briefly why.
What does this mean for authors? Well, as far as I can tell the person being reviewed, or company whose product is being reviewed, has no ethical obligation under the Truth in Advertising Act. But, if consumers catch wind that a reviewer isn’t being ethical it could blow back on you if you aren’t careful. I do reviews for video games, and when that whole mess blew up a few years ago around the ethical (or not) practices of the games media some developers were caught in the crossfire for participating, and encouraging the behavior. Do you want your brand associated with a media outlet that looks like they may be deceiving consumers, intentionally or unintentionally?
So, what can we do?
Authors, look at the site that you’re submitting your work to review. Are there any disclaimers on the site or on the articles? The FTC requires the disclosure to be prominent and easy to find. Preferably at the top of the article that has the disclosure. Are they wanting money, but no disclosure in sight? You may want to ask is they disclose the payment, and if they don’t, I wouldn’t submit to them. Again, you are under no legal or ethical obligation that I can find, but how does that image sit with you?
Readers, yes, anyone who is reading reviews should be educated in this too. Are you reading reviews from a site that may be giving preferential treatment to authors? Like the one I mentioned above there are some that do free reviews, but if you want a guaranteed review you have to pay, and no disclosure. Are you getting fair information to make your buying decisions? They tell us they do fair, unbiased reviews even when they’re paid, but is it fair and unbiased if you can pay to get to the front of the line?
Reviewers and journalists, because yes, you are journalists. Legally speaking, if you use a platform to disseminate information regularly, like a blog, vlog, newspaper, etc. you are a journalist and subject to the same laws and ethical standards. Also the same protections. You need to disclose anything that could have an impact on your review, even if it doesn’t. Do you know the author outside of the basic networking contact? If you’ve spent time with them outside of a professional setting, or have known them personally for years you need to disclose that. Did you get paid by the author to do that review? Yup, disclose that too. Even something as trivial as whether you bought the book, or were given a review copy, should be in there. Disclose it right at the top. Does it hurt the flow of your review? Maybe, but it will garner you respect from your readers.
Finally, reviewers, remember you are there to review the book, not the person. If you are unable to separate the two I would advise giving it a pass. Review bombing and trolling is a huge problem, especially in the indie scene. People who dislike a person’s politics, ethnicity, lifestyle, or sexual orientation will go to Amazon or Goodreads and, without having even read the work, will give it a scathing review based entirely on their opinion of the author. If you’ve had a public disagreement with an author, or made negative statements about them on social media, you may also want to pass on that review. Even if you do your best to be honest, your readers may have a hard time accepting that.
I know this is a bit late, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I first seriously considered becoming an author. I’ve spent the last couple of months editing and proofing the next release so the holidays were extra busy and I didn’t get to sit down and write this before now. At least I’m getting it out before the end of 2018.
My family celebrates Christmas more out of tradition than for religious reasons. Our holiday is Yule. That’s when my Wife and I, and our son, do our presents and such. We have a lot of family members who do Christmas, and we still do dinner on the 25th, and presents at the in-laws on Christmas Eve. It’s tradition, and it doesn’t do any harm to do so. Just like it doesn’t do any harm to hear Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Yule, Happy Kwanzaa, or any other cheerful greeting this time of year. It is another human being wishing you a happy day on one of their own most cherished holidays. We need more of that.
Because of my hobbies, and work, I spend a lot of time online. I’m on several social media platforms so I see a lot of ugliness. People treat each other pretty poorly online and it’s easy to get lost in that. It’s easy to look at that and think that the whole world is like that. I challenge everyone to flip that thinking though. Go outside, turn off the news and social media, and look around. You’ll find the world outside your window does not reflect the world on the screen.
Take Twitter for example, where it’s said 88% of online trolling happens. There’s an estimated 69 Million users in the U.S. That’s about 21% of the population of the country. That includes businesses, government entities, and non-profit organizations. Even if you factored all of them into the equation that means if you went outside and met 10 people only two of them would be a Twitter user (if you ignore variables that’s the most basic way of looking at it I know.) How many of those users on Twitter are awful people online really? I’m sure someone’s ran the numbers but anecdotally it’s very few. It can seem like a lot when the same people do it over and over but honestly of the 2,000 plus followers I have, the amount of hate I see is very minimal. Go outside and observe real people in the real world and I think you’ll find the handful of screaming infants on social media are really that, a handful. In the grand scheme of things they are an insignificant drop in the bucket. That goes for the awful stories in the media, the hateful posts about politics, and the trolls in fandoms.
There has to be a greater point here right? Not just me ranting about trolls on social media. There is. We, as individuals, need to start remembering that we aren’t the only people in the world and our ideas aren’t the only other ideas out there. We let our loyalty to our tribe (party, group, fandom, whatever) get in the way of our humanity. We let influencers convince us that our tribe is the only right tribe, and everyone else is the enemy. We forget that they are all people when we reduce them to words and ideas pulled out of context. We dehumanize them to make it easier to hate them. We let these influencers convince us to shun family and life-long friends because we don’t share their ideas.
So get to the point old man! Yes, the point is look around you, not at your phone, or your laptop, or your TV. Don’t let the trolls and haters convince you, with their behavior, that the world is some dark wasteland of hate and anger. Meet your neighbors, the regulars at your local bar, and the people you see every day when you get coffee. Talk to them, don’t listen to what other people have to say about them. Look at how people behave in the real world. If you see an old lady that needs help with her groceries, do you ask her if she’s a Republican or Democrat first? If you see a guy in a wheel chair struggling with a door, do you ask if he’s a feminist before you open it for him? That guy that handed you the dollar you dropped in the checkout line, did he ask who you voted for before giving it back to you? I bet if you dropped your assumptions, filtered out all the media BS, and actually got to know people you might be surprised at how little the world is represented by what we see online.
A few month’s back I was honored to be asked by Rey Clark to speak with her about writing, character development and world building. Here’s our talk.