Friday, January 07, 2011

Changing Worlds

by Jennie Bentley/Bente Gallagher

I bet you thought I was going to talk about my book today, didn't you?

Yes, DIY-4, Mortar and Murder, was released on Tuesday. Yes, I'm having signings and doing guest blogs and such. Yes, I'm excited. However, today - inspired by Martha's post on Monday - I want to talk about someone else's character instead of my own.

See, I'm not the only author with a new book. One of my favorite writers of all time has a new book out, too, in one of my favorite series, about one of my all-time favorite characters.

The writer's name is Lois McMaster Bujold, and if you haven't read her books, you should. The latest novel is called CryoBurn and is the last in a long line of semi-soft science fiction books known as the Vorkosigan Saga, set on the planet Barrayar in the year 3000-odd. The first few books in the series, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, are about Aral Vorkosigan and his wife Cordelia, and then in The Warrior’s Apprentice, their son Miles takes over. And I mean that in the most literal way.
Miles is one of those characters who do that. As a recent review for CryoBurn says – you can go on Amazon and read it yourself – “Like many a Miles novel before it, it’s a fast-paced adventure wherein Miles happens to people, and their lives (and worlds) are skewed in his wake.”

I read that, and it got me to thinking. Do my characters do that? Do I write the kinds of characters who happen to people, and who change lives and worlds as a result?

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that sentiment expressed as relates to Miles, by the way. A character in one of the books says much the same thing. “I’ve had many subordinates over the years, who’ve turned in impeccable careers. Perfection takes no risks with itself, you see. Miles was many things, but never perfect. It was a privilege and a terror to command him, and I’m thankful and amazed we both got out alive. Ultimately his career ran aground in disaster. But before it ended, he changed worlds.”
All in all, I’m not sure I accomplish the same thing. Oh, my characters are just fine. People seem to like them. They’re strong enough and interesting enough to carry their books. But they don’t change lives and worlds. They’re not iconic. They don’t jump off the page and hit you between the eyes. They don’t make you laugh and cry and think. At least I don’t think they do.

And that’s my fault, for not creating the kind of character who can do that. For taking the easy way out. For skimming the surface and not delving deep to where the real issues are.
We all want our characters to be ‘good,’ don’t we? We want them to come across as beautiful. Even when they have flaws, the flaws tend to be endearing. We do our best to create perfection. But as the quote above says, and rightly so, perfection takes no risks with itself. And compelling characters are all about risk.

Miles isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. Physically, he’s about as far from leading man material as you can get. Less than five feet tall, hunch-backed and bowlegged, he’s reviled by his fellow – ignorant – Barrayarans as a mutant. His own grandfather tried to cut his throat at birth. His mind is brilliant, but his body is crippled, and an obstacle to everything he wants to accomplish. So he tries harder, and overcompensates to the point of obnoxiousness. He’s driven, he’s manic, he’s sometimes suicidal. He screws up all the time. He makes mistakes – and aren’t we all loath to make our characters do that? We don’t want them to look bad. We love them, so we don’t want bad things to happen to them. We don’t want them to embarrass themselves, or look less than – here’s that word again – perfect.

We want people to like them. People who read our books, as well as other characters within our books. We don’t want our protagonists to be unlikeable. So we play it safe. We want their friends and family to love them. Not to try to cut their infant throats. Not to wish them to be other than they are because they’re just too damned embarrassing to be around.

In the end, as the quote above says, Miles's career ran aground in disaster. Shot down in flames very much of his own making. The story of that is in a book called Memory, and if you'd like to try a Vorkosigan book, it's not a bad place to start. It's a mystery, for one thing, and I know we all like those. It's also a transitional book: it's Miles coming to terms with who he is, with his mistakes, and learning to go on. Or, if you want to start smaller, you can go HERE and look for Lois McMaster Bujold under authors, and you should be able to download a short story called Mountains of Mourning, which should give you a pretty good introduction to Miles and to Barrayar. It makes me cry every damn time I read it. I hope it has the same effect on you.

So what about you? Do you have any favorite book characters who change worlds? Yours or someone else's? Do you manage to create the kinds of characters who change lives and worlds in your own writing?


Joyce Tremel said...

Very thoughtful post. The first character who came to my mind was Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He may not have changed the world, but he certainly tried. He made a small impact on hatred and prejudice. Sometimes that's enough.

PatRemick said...

Enjoyed this post -- very thought-provoking. I am mulling my responses... :)

Gina said...

Jennie -
I haven't read any of the Miles books - not much of a science fiction fan - but he sounds intriguing.
Joyce - I agree about Atticus Finch. The iconic scene that comes to mind is from the movie, when he sits outside the jail with a lamp, a law book and a gun - the righteous man who puts himself between justice and chaos - but then it takes a little child to reason with the angry mob.
As far my own favorite world changing characters go, it has to be everyone in the Harry Potter books. Harry himself, and Snape, Lily and Dumbledore, Hagrid and Voldemort . . .

Jennie Bentley said...

Good choice, Joyce! Yep, Atticus Finch sure changed a few lives, didn't he? In and out of the book.

PatR... I'm looking forward to hearing what - or who - you come up with!

Jennie Bentley said...

Gina - agree absolutely about Harry Potter. I'm not much of a science fiction fan either, actually - the only SF I read is LMB and Linnea Sinclair - but this isn't that kind of science fiction. The Vorkosigan books are incredible character studies, and the science stuff blends so well into the stories that you don't really notice it too much. It's more prevalent in some books than others, but it's never really the focus of the books. The stories are always about the people even when SF is part of the background. LMB also writes fantasy, however, and it sounds like you enjoy that. Maybe try The Curse of Chalion? It has another of those non-leading-man leading men... And if you like the writing, which I can pretty much guarantee that you will, maybe you'll move on to Miles later.

Gina said...

Jennie -
I don't mind the science stuff in science fiction - it's the having to learn an entirely new cultural context for every series that gets to me. I can't even figure out the culture I'm living in half the time! I haven't had the energy for that since I used to read Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. [Now, there's a great writer! The Mists of Avalon remains one of my all time favorite books.]

Jennie Bentley said...

Gina, I tried Marion Zimmer Bradley and found the books confusing. Maybe that's just me. Don't you have to learn new cultures in fantasy, too, though? Those tend to be harder for me. At least SF is our own culture, mostly, just developed by a few thousand years.

My word verifiction was decent. Seriously!

Gina said...

Jennie -
The present word verification is "warmism" which sounds like a nice creed to follow on a cold winter day like today.

Patg said...

I've read Lois and Marion's books. All okay, but they slide too often into fantasy, so I'd never call them SF in the purest form. Asimov and Heinlein had a major affect on me as a reader, however Brin and Niven are my world builders of choice--and I mean big, huge world building, galaxy changing, worlds of aliens and cultures. You really have to pay attention when reading them, they do not slide along. However, rarely are the characters as indepthly studied unless it is part of a series. OTOH, world building and thought provoking are the Dragons of Pern books. A long, thoughtful series that only has interesting character studies in what is considered the young adult book of the series. Lest you believe this is fantasy ala all the other dragon books out there, FORGET IT. This is the stuff of science, that starts in the middle, projects forward before slamming you back to the beginning. But if you don't read the whole series, you never feel a major part of the world.
So, world building is most definitely different that thought provocking and life changing characters. I've loved way too many characters in my time to choose, and choosing Atticus over all the other characters in that book is too simple. Every single one of them can send you off into a cloud of deep thinking for hours.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say Francis Crawford of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles. Talk about a brilliant, driven, suicidal, world altering character. Definitely leading man material, but very hard to like at times. His charisma draws so many people to him, often with tragic results, but everyone swept up in his world is transformed in some way--good or bad--and a fortunate few even manage to stay alive. :-) I still haven't gotten around to reading the Vorkosigan series, although "Cordelia's Honor" is on my shelf; one of these days I'll take the plunge. And Bente, I wanted to let you know "Mortar and Murder" had the honor of being the first book I downloaded to the new Kindle I got for Christmas.

Great post!

Your "old" Amelia list sib,

kourtneyheintz said...

I agree with Gina, the first world changing characters that pop into my mind are from Harry Potter. Though as a child Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Alice from Alice in Wonderland were my heros. They made me believe anything was possible if I refused to give up. :)