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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Why You Should Be Hard on Your Characters: Power Porn, Part 1

Hello hello!

Well, as always, this is motivated by a few of the manus I've been seeing, and frankly, by fixing up one of my own works. Why do we pat our characters on the back so much, going to unreasonable lengths to talk about them as 'better'? This isn't always just about characters--their houses, their cars, their favorite cafes--they're

I said when I first started this blog that I'd avoid too many technique blogs, but frankly, I like analysing this stuff, and I also didn't expect to become a professional editor,, so I hope you guys are still enjoying this. Do let me know in the comments.

Moving along, let's talk about a bad, bad habit of both film and literary media: the pat on the back. There's a few ways to do this, and I'd like to mention the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let's get to it! We'll start with analysing the essence of badassery.

Success is sexy: power porn  

I'm not going to lie, I really like the new trend of 'competence porn' or 'power porn'. I don't care particularly about the sex, though that is commonly a big feature. No, what interests me, and millions of other viewers, is the political machinations and the use of expertise to accomplish wonderful, unbelieveable things. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, the Warhammer 40K Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell, Banksters by Nic Wilson--those are just a few titles I've enjoyed that tend to veer into this area. Other examples would be my beloved favorites Les Liasons Dangereuses by Du Laclos, The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevski. All of these feature men (and sometimes women, though female-led power porn is rare) who manipulate, scheme, and use their intellect and social influence to accomplish their goals. As mentioned, sex is usually a big part, though revenge is also a popular motivation. I suspect Wolf of Wall Street belongs to the genre, though I haven't seen it yet.

What's the big deal? 

In addition to wonderful writing and cinematography, as well as superb acting (in the movies, anyway) all of these tend to focus on anti-hero characters. Most of them are evil or chaotic in terms of their alignment (sometimes chaotic evil, too).

The risk, the danger, the power imbalances, and often, the oceans of money, all have an intoxicating effect. We, the audience, are complicit in character's actions. Just reading/watching these stories makes one feel more like a badass, and I think that's a vital part of the allure. Everyone loves a bad boy/girl/person, a badass, and that's a blog of its own. So, readers/viewers get both the thrill of feeling cool and the closeness to someone cool. And, obviously, there's the whole BDSM aspect of control, consent, and the rest of it. Danger is another big part, and it's one of the reasons why so many people faint over these characters--even a cuddly character like The Doctor can turn on a dime and drop all pretense of sanity.

The other thing is that currently, we're in a pretty dark place with politics. Evil, frankly, is easier to believe in than good--not unlike that dark period we went through with entertainment in the eighties. Everyone' disillusioned. Furthermore, good characters have become caricatured, and evil and morally grey ones have grown more nuanced and numerous. There's more freedom with a dark character, and that is the other reason they're kind of everywhere right now.

David Tennant/the 10th Doctor has some of the best crazy faces.

Still not seeing a problem here...

The problem comes from the implementation of this. The way characters are made cool and powerful should be through their actions, but presentation is a huge part of the equation as well. When a character dismounts a flaming motorcycle, kisses someone, then walks into a room wearing a suit and reels off something brilliant, you know they're cool because you're getting that message from the writers. The problem comes in when the character's actions don't fit their presentation. Other characters are often part of the presentation, talking up your protagonist, but if the protag whines, simpers, shrugs, and smirks their way around (I hate the word 'smirk' and every character who does it ends up on my hit list, by the way) instead of doing useful things, there's narrative dissonance. The other issue is talking your characters up.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not impressed. 

We have a badass over here...or not. 

Having a character who is supposed to be SUPA KEWEL--and fails at it--can completely ruin a book. Make sure you minimize talk and maximize actions. Show, don't tell us that your character is cool. Have them do something badass, don't spend time with everyone else mentioning 'that awesome thing' they did. This involves taking a hard look at your character, and that's not always fun, but avoiding it leads to limp noodles. Sure, a bit of talking up is okay, but it's better to have a character show off without help from their friends. Too much foreshadowing or too many side details, and you lose the moment. I mentioned the 10th Doctor above because one of the writing issues Russell T. Davies has is talking his protagonists up too much, even when he just uses other characters' reactions to show off the protags' badassfulness. And that, ultimately, hurt the series more than few times; I can't count the number of times that excessive 'you know, our character's a total badass' speeches or scenes have acted as a buzzkill in books I've edited. Hamlet's whole spiel at the end of his famous 'to be or not to be' soliloquy is very apropos--

"And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard, their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action." 


Of course, no Magpie blog post would be complete without solutions. This one is simple but poses a few hidden difficulties--the issue is to avoid too much foreshadowing. Character foreshadowing is a much more advanced technique than people think it is, because it requires a lot of balance. You have to tease your audience without giving too much away. Co-star reactions are important, but too many, and you can set up unreasonable expectations. Even showing your character's badassery instead of telling the audience can get kind of annoying. The key is moderation and a keen feel for self-parody. You may need a second set of eyes to make sure the character is truly badass but not a caricature. And, as always, avoid writing a self-insert cool character, because that will throw your judgement out the window.

We'll explore the really vital part of this in the second half of the blog. Stay tuned!

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

1 comment:

  1. I like these technique blogs, and would be happy to keep seeing them.

    To me, it always seemed like the whole trend of dark and edgy characters came about as a backlash against protagonists who are too idealized and goody-goody. While characters like those are dull to read about and watch, I like how you've pointed out that things can just as easily go wrong on the opposite end of the spectrum too.


As always, be excellent unto others, and don't be a dick.