Friday, January 07, 2011
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?