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 was reading a conversation on social media about people who complain about problematic (Gods I hate that word) characters and why those people need to move along. Basically, villains, bad people, awful people, exist in entertainment media for a reason. That guy’s a jerk because it’s necessary for the story, not because the writer wants to be a jerk to people. It’s true. When people complain about, say the awful relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn, they’re right to find that to be a problem. There’s a reason it is, and there’s a reason it exists. But, you have people that find that sort of thing interesting, even appealing. There are memes out there showing those two characters with the caption: “Relationship goals”. No idea why anyone would want to be in that sort of relationship, but it’s out there.
The point of the original conversation was that this is not the writer’s fault. It’s not. If you have an issue with seeing evil characters in entertainment, you may need to reexamine your hobbies. But, this did make me think about why we are fascinated by villains, or often find them more interesting than the heroes. It’s often true, but why? And, I don’t think it has to do with a failure to make the hero interesting.
Take Star Wars as an example. The hero, Luke, is definitely a popular character, if the reaction to his story in The Last Jedi is any indication. But, in the entire trilogy who seems to be the most popular characters overall? Darth Vader and Boba Fett. Boba Fett, a throw away character with hardly any lines is arguably the most popular character from the original trilogy. Why? This guy looked cool, sure, but we know nothing about him. I think that’s part of the draw though. This guy we knew nothing about spawned some of the most valuable action figures, popular cosplay, and interesting mythology in the entire saga.
I think part of it has to do with how we are as people. It’s easy to relate to a hero. I think, in general, when faced with a choice between good and bad we’d go with good. It’s normal, expected, and frankly not that interesting. We are drawn to things we don’t understand, scared by them, intrigued by them and we find them interesting. Look how popular true crime shows, and documentaries about serial killers are. We don’t get why they do it, so it intrigues us. Why does an evil guy or gal do what they do? What drives them? We can’t wrap our brains around what would cause someone to do it, so it fascinates us. Oh, that guy over there saved some kids from a burning bus? Sure, that makes total sense. Who wouldn’t try to save some kids. That jedi there took his light saber and murdered a whole class of kids? What? How the hell? I can’t even imagine how someone would be capable. So we want to know more.
So, I guess the point is, for the sake of being a writer don’t get discouraged if your readers like your bad guy more than your hero. As long as they don’t hate your hero, you’re probably doing something right. If you make an intriguing villain, that just means you’ve written a character with more depth than, “Hey look at me, I’m the evil bad dude put here so the hero had something to do.”
I saw a meme about this topic this past weekend, which doesn’t really deserve more attention to be shared here. Like a lot of memes it takes a complex issue and boils it down to a very simple-minded ‘gotcha’ statement that’s supposed to be humorous. It dealt with the premise that male authors think that strong female characters have to suffer some sort of trauma to be strong. There’s this pervasive belief in some circles that female characters, or even underrepresented characters in general should be protected from negative experiences in literature. That if a male writer puts his female characters through any sort of traumatic experience that we do it for some nefarious reason, or because we are bad writers.
First and foremost, this is not everyone. I don’t believe it’s even remotely a large portion of the reading community that feels this way, but it is a loud part of the community. They’re the people who won’t bat an eye if thousands of male throw-away characters are killed in a war as part of the story, but touch one hair on a female character’s head and suddenly we have an issue. There are creators and writers that feel this way, so it can influence others. I firmly believe this will kill diversity in stories because many authors will just stop trying. At the end of the day some people just won’t be happy, no matter what you do. For example, the developer of the game Rimworld had several trans folk help write the backstories for trans characters in the game, but even that wasn’t good enough.
So, the point. As a new author myself this leaves me with a lot of conflicting feelings when I see that. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. I get the sense that, no matter what I do, it won’t be right with some people. It’s a truth we have to accept as creators. No matter what, some people will dislike our work. Some people are even likely to hate it, and take it as far as accusing us of all sorts of social crimes for it. It’s unavoidable, but we can’t let that stop us from doing what we do. We have stories to tell, stories that will work for some people. Learn as best we can to make those stories great for the people that will appreciate them. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t let the loudest few deprive everyone else of good stories.
There are good ways and bad ways to handle trauma with characters. The idea that trauma, suffering, grief, and all sorts of negative experience makes strong characters is based in reality, no matter what some silly meme says. No one gets strong skipping through life without struggling or facing any sort of adversity. Strong people are built by how they handle the hard parts of life. Losing a loved one, being assaulted, terrified for one’s life, being bullied are all aspects of life that will make or break a person. No one is ever reminiscing about the tough time they had binging Netflix on the couch and how it shaped their perspective on life. No real person anyway.
Before we get to the good and the bad, I want to talk about the ugly. The idea that we authors hurt our characters ‘just because’ and that it’s easy for some of us is ridiculous in my opinion. Because I’m a man doesn’t give me some callous perspective on my female characters that makes it easy to put them through hardship. That’s what some people actually think and it’s beyond false. Out of necessity, we learn everything we can about our characters. We find out their dreams, hopes, loves, and hates. We learn what makes they get out of bed in the morning and why they cry at night. We know some of them better than we know ourselves. For most authors our characters become just as real as the people around us. When I know that a hard part is coming up for one of my characters I dread the writing of it. I love writing, but that part of it sucks. We know it has to happen, that we have to do it, and there’s nothing pleasant about it at all. The idea that it’s easy for me to make one of my female characters suffer, because I’m a guy, is insulting really. That’s the ugly part of writing. The knowledge that these people we create, that come from our own hearts and minds, will have to go through terrible things sometimes and we’ll be the ones doing it to them.
The bad ways to handle trauma all boil down to one thing. Pointlessness. Without a doubt, if your stories involve suffering, danger, and hardship you should never have a character that is immune to that. Your reader won’t care about a character if they know they’ll never be in any danger. If all your characters are hurting, scared, or suffering, and you keep one character ‘safe’ the whole time they’ll notice. But, on the flip side it has to mean something. Their pain should not be without meaning. If a character gets hurt it should have an impact on their development and the story. It should lead to their own growth as much as the progression of the plot. If they suffer a serious trauma and it doesn’t affect their personality or development then it was pointless and your readers will notice. Bad things happen to people for no reason, it’s just a fact of life. Fiction must include hardship to feel real to the reader, but it doesn’t make a good story when bad things happen to your characters for no reason.
Handling trauma and suffering well depends entirely on your genre and target audience. You don’t want a graphic description of sexual assault in a young adult novel. When handled well the event will be sympathetic to readers that may have experience with similar trauma. I’m not saying use trigger warnings, unless that’s your thing, but recognize that some readers may have trouble with the scene. Don’t make it unnecessarily long or detailed in its description. Less is definitely more in some cases. Also remember that this will change your character, for good or ill, but it should shape them going forward through the story. Victims of crimes, people who have lost family members, and those who have gone through war are not the same when they come out of it. Their view of the world has changed, as does their view of other people. The type of character you are building will determine what that change is.
Bottom line, the world is a dark place. It has a lot of good but we can’t ignore the bad. It won’t go away if we never explore it in our writing. A book where nothing but good things happen to people isn’t a very interesting book to read. Your readers will expect a realistic world and that will involve, at some point, hurting your characters. As a reader, know that this isn’t easy for us. As a writer, don’t avoid it because some people out there say it shouldn’t happen. We have to be honest to the story, our characters, and up front with the reader. Don’t coddle any of them because it’s difficult or you’ll come off as fake and people sniff out fake from a long way off.
When Heroes Rise is my second book, a collection of short stories I’ve written over the years mostly set in the world of Thelos. The setting is one that will be used in a future fantasy series that’s currently in the works. It is available now on Amazon in paperback with a Kindle version coming soon.
Paperback price: $9.99
Experience tales of sacrifice, bravery, and honor throughout the ages of the mystical world of Thelos. From primitive elven clans to savage wasteland wanderers, When Heroes Rise will take you on new adventures across a world unlike any you’ve seen before. You’ll explore this world through the eyes of those who struggle every day to survive it, and protect those they love. Heroes from all walks of life, and some who are not even people, will show how far one can go for loyalty, love, and honor. Their pain and sacrifice lay the groundwork for future tales yet untold, but coming soon.
This collection of shorts features stories from the early life of Snowdove, an elven woman who will face adversity and trauma before leaving her people to find her place in the world. You will witness pure love in the only story set on Earth, as an old man bargains with death for the chance to say goodbye. And five tales of Thelos’ distant future after the world is destroyed by the folly of man, and people must scrape out a life in the Wasteland left behind.
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.
I’m in the middle of editing When Heroes Rise, something I wish I had done more of with Embers, and I’m reminded again of what we all probably feel is the worst part of this dream job. I liken writing to climbing a mountain. You have a set begging, and a destination you can see in the distance. You have a plan, but you really don’t know what changes you’ll encounter on the trail on your way up. Your path will change, you’ll hit rockfalls and have to reroute, and all manner of obstacles will give you headaches. It’s a tough climb, and the accomplishment one feels when it’s over is indescribable.
Then comes the editing. The time when you look at that mountain and have to climb it again, sometimes more than once, but you have to find a better way to do it. You’ve already seen the views, so they aren’t quite as exciting. You become familiar with every switchback and tree, every boulder and shallow cave. You have been to the top, so the next time you get there it isn’t quite as exciting. You climb it again hoping that you won’t have to climb it too many more times, but knowing you will.
When you’re finally done, it really is all worth it, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy. It may not be as physically demanding as climbing a real mountain, but it will leave you exhausted. Then when you’re done, set your sights on the next peak.
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.
It’s appropriate that my first post is about my first strange experience as a published author. Yes, I do have a couple of shorts that I published a few years back, but my dream was always to have a tangible book that I could pick up, that others could pick up. Embers of Liberty is that first book.
Anyway, we were having some plumbing done in the house and the handy-man we hired said that line, “So I hear you’re an author.” It was the first person I didn’t know who’d talked about it and it set me back a bit. Of course he’d heard it from his wife, who is a vendor at the same shop as mine, but it was still strange. I’m thing it has to do with imposter syndrome, which is a very real thing you start to feel when you produce something like art or writing.
It was quite the surreal experience. Next to seeing people post pictures of my book and talk about reading it. It’s everything I’ve wanted since I started writing, but it still feels strange. I felt awkward talking about it, something I hope passes because I want to have to talk about it for quite some time.
Mainly I’m writing this to let everyone else know that this feeling is normal. I don’t know if it every really goes away, but I think we creative types all deal with it to some extent. Just part of the process I guess.
Embers of Liberty is my debut novel, and a labor of love over the last few years. I released it on October 11th of 2018 and it is available now on Amazon.com in paperback, with a Kindle version coming soon.
Paperback price: $14.99 US
John Evermann’s world never changes. He goes to the same assigned job every day. He lives in the same house his family was placed in years ago. He picks up their weekly rations on Friday, and watches the same federally approved news broadcasts every night after dinner. Everything is as it is dictated to be, from the number on the back of his work jacket to the permanent curfew that keeps everyone safely in doors. Everyone has what they need to survive, and everyone contributes. It’s a perfect life, for some. It’s not enough for John and his friends.
America is torn apart from civil war after the rise of a tyrannical President. The Republic of Texas lies to the west, a shining beacon of freedom. When the most radical authoritarian policies are passed some states followed Texas into secession, clinging to the legacy of the Founders. That is where John looked for the future of his family and the friends who came to rely on him. A land of choice and liberty. A place where his children can grow up to be who they want, not who they’re told. They just have to get there.