Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unearned Specialness

As I've said (perhaps too often) before, I'm a reader before I'm a writer. So I tend to critique stories rather more from the stand of 'would I want to read this' than 'is this the way I would write this'. Not, I must note, from the stand of 'would a lot of people I don't know want to read this', because I can't claim that. For one thing, I find ungraceful or incorrect prose a serious stumbling block, and clearly many readers don't.
*insert obligatory Dan Brown / LKH jab here* But let's not get into the bestseller discussion this time. All I can contribute is that it seems to me the key to bestsellerdom is to appeal to people who don't usually read. The audience of people who read regularly is not large enough (and possibly too divided by genre) to create and sustain bestsellers.

Bear with me, because much of the thinking that follows is still shapeless. I'll try to clean it up as I go.

In a bookshop, I will put a book back if the back-cover copy says something like 'only s/he can save'. Or promises me that the character will discover his/her Destiny. Yes, this may be unfair, and I know as well as anyone that back-cover blurbs are as accurate as tabloid headlines.
But there's still a good chance that I'm being offered a story where the protagonist (or perhaps I should stay 'main character') is Special just because s/he is Special. The MC doesn't look Special, of course, and may be almost aggressively ordinary at first glance. But when danger and crisis hit the plot, and the MC is pushed to the brink, and all looks hopeless ....
*dramatic music*
the MC reaches inside him/herself and discovers an unguessed (but perhaps foreshadowed) power that s/he instinctively knows how to employ and that saves the day or at least the chapter.
If I have bought this book, it goes on the booksale pile right there.

Heck, I can understand the appeal of this trope. It's flat-out wish fulfilment, the dream that I, ordinary as I am, will when faced with crisis rise to the occasion and triumph. It's the 'mom lifts car off kid' myth. But the trope departs from the dream in two ways.
First, the character can keep on lifting cars for the rest of the book, with little or no training.
Second, only this character can lift cars, even if other characters have cars fall on their kids.
If everyone is special, no one is special (another reason why Specialness makes me twitch is that it's inherently non-egalitarian) so the best way to be Special is to prevent anyone else becoming Special. With the author on the MC's side, you get a few possible outcomes.
1) only the Designated Love Interest can also become Special
2) anyone else who becomes Special comes to a bad end or turns evil or both
3) no one else becomes Special, they just worship the MC.

Ah, but don't I have shelves full of books about exceptional characters? What about Simon Templar or Modesty Blaise? What about all those swordplay videos?
Hm. A constant of martial arts movies is the dreaded (okay, I love 'em) training sequence, usually involving pain and drudgery, even humiliation. Skill is paid for--earned. Modesty and Willy Garvin train daily, bruisingly, even after their 'retirement', and the debonair Saint puts time in to earn his marksmanship.
In other words, even those with natural talent have to work at it. The message is there if you want it: you could do this too, if you worked at it. Maybe not as well, but it can be done.

Jules Feiffer, in his 1965 essay "The Great Comic Book Heroes" notes that he 'couldn't stand' the boy sidekick characters attached to Batman, Green Arrow, etc. because he believed he had a chance of growing up to resemble the grownup heroes, but knew he couldn't ever be like Robin, Speedy, or Bucky, characters his own age and already astoundingly skilled. He knew the boy companions were intended for boy readers like him to identify with, but they didn't work as intended.
Likewise, while Unearned Specialness works for many readers, it doesn't work for me. Why? I admitted it was an appealing dream, so why do I resist it?

One reason is that it destroys suspense. (I'm working at not naming any specific books or authors, so I apologise for vagueness.) Once a character has reached inside himself and discovered his inner powers or had the plot whisper its secrets to him, my assumption is that he will deal with all subsequent challenges the same way. After all, who wouldn't? I don't need to read the rest of the book, unless I skip to the end to see what became of secondary characters I liked.
It makes me resent the MC on behalf of the other characters--this happens when I believe the narrative is engaged in special pleading for a particular character--who are being used to contrast with the MC's awesomeness instead of having their own aims in the story.
It prevents--for me--identification with the MC, because I can't suspend that disbelief. I can't believe in grabbing a special power out of thin air will happen for me, and if it did, it wouldn't make things easier. How can I share the rejoicing in a victory when I didn't share the struggle and uncertainty of earning it, because it wasn't earned?

It ties in to the Mary Sue dilemma, well-discussed by Marie Brennan here. How to write an active, effective female character without her being tagged as a Mary Sue?
The big first step, in my opinion, is to not make her naturally talented unless she does the work to back it up. Even people with perfect pitch have to learn to read music, have to learn breath control, have to practice.
Second is to allow her to fail, and to fail through her own lacks, not because of the machinations of an enemy. If she fails early in the story, I am put on alert that she may not succeed later, I become concerned for her success, I begin to root for her.
Third, but by no means least, is to allow good characters to dislike or be indifferent to her, to have their own aims that don't concern her. One character that I quite liked for herself lost my sympathy when I realised that all other characters alliances could be determined by what they thought of her: anyone who disparaged her was later revealed as EEEEEvilll. (An alternative is for anyone who disparages to be forced to admit how wrong they were.)

Naturally I had these points in mind while I was writing Mylla in The Willow Knot, but I'm not sure those cogitations would be of particular interest, what with it being unpublished and all. Also this post is fairly long already. And has no pictures to enliven it.

The daydream of becoming unexpectedly powerful or wealthy or beautiful or famous and coming back to show all those people who were mean before--it's an appealing daydream to the star of it, but other people's daydreams are like other people's dreams: from outside they're boring and incoherent narratives. So the appeal relies on whether the reader can put herself into that starring role. Most of the time, I can't.
Which leads into another half-thought-out topic, using a quote from one of my 3-Day Novels: "Who are you in the story you are told?"
I'll see if I can put that one together more elegantly next month.


Terri-Lynne said...

Woman, your version of inelegance puts most of us to shame!

One of the deal-breakers on a back cover blurb--for me--is the words, "Tour de force." When that praise is given, I automatically roll my eyes, and if I'm on the fense about the book, it gets put back. I know--that's very strange. But those words tend to be attached to a specific kind of book that, like George Clooney movies, leave me wondering why it was such a sensation.

I hope I accomplished what I set out to do with Ethen (in Finder.) He's not the fine, upstanding fellow in the beginning, and neither is he in the end, and neither is he in ATNL. One of my beta readers wanted him to be a bit nobler. It was hard to root for him if he was always going to go the wrong way. That's what I wanted--I wanted readers to root for him even though he was still choosing the wrong path at every turn. He chose well on the occasions it mattered most. I hope. :)

batgirl said...

Oh, my grammar will always be okay, but does the essay hang together when I'm thinking with my keyboard?
I'm only a little way into Finder (revisions eat my braaaaiinnn) but I think you've done an exemplary job with both Ethen and Z.

I think I know what you mean about 'tour de force' - it can easily mean self-indulgent showing-off.

Terri-Lynne said...

YES! That's exactly it. "Tour de force" often ends up being a book wherein an author is quite taken with oneself. Possibly rightfully so! But when it comes across in the writing--ugh.

Oh! Yay! You're reading it! I hope you like it. (And if you don't, lying is permissible in this case. Hehehehee!)

Zoƫ Marriott said...

This creates definite food for thought, as I know that I've given my characters Unearned Specialness before, usually at a moment of crisis early in the story. But I usually follow this up with training, suffering and failures. So hopefully that makes it slightly more palatable. Very good essay, B.!

batgirl said...

Thanks! Your excellent essay on diversity has inspired me to get back to the writing-related essays I'd been putting off.

Specialness can be earned upfront or after the first instance, and I think your heroines work hard enough and make enough mistakes that the suspense is maintained.

batgirl said...

For some reason I'm getting a lot of comment spam on this post. Fortunately, blogger catches it all.

Spammers, go away!