Characters Done Right: Scary MoFos

In honor of Halloween, for today’s Twin Thursday Rachel of Chicken-Scratch Plot and I are looking at fiction that honestly scares us. It’s been awhile, so I’m taking the opportunity to also do another of my Characters Done Right series. Be sure to follow the link at the top right to Rachel’s blog when you’re done here!

The character I picked for this isn’t a character so much as a machine: the killing devices in Lady Knight  by Tamora Pierce. It’s not that this book is necessarily a horror novel, per se, and to be honest there are probably things that I’ve read since which are–strictly speaking–scarier.

What made them stick with me after all these years, though, is that Pierce really sells these devices. They’re huge, hulking, nigh-unstoppable killing machines. They don’t feel fear. They don’t feel regret. They don’t discriminate. They simply wreak havoc, and all of the characters on-screen with them react appropriately, especially the protagonist. She’s tangibly, mind-fillingly terrified of these things. And, since I rely on the protagonist as my window to the narrative, this really puts the fear of what they’re experiencing in my belly.

That, more than the mechanics behind them or their place in the story, is what makes them stick with me. I talk a lot about making emotions physical to the reader, and it’s doubly important when you’re trying to evoke something as visceral as fear. Pierce does this with Kel as she’s looking at the killing devices. Brave as she is, just the sight of one of the creatures fills her with cold dread that only doubles the more we learn how they work and where they come from.

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Characters Done Right: The Animal Companion

Sorry for the suuuuper late Twin Thursday! I meant to do this one last week, and then, well, life. Never fear, though, I’m back on schedule. Sort of. Still trying to finagle work and writing and the upcoming Camp NaNo. But that’s neither here nor there.

For this week’s Twin Thursday, Rachel and I are looking at animal companions. Be sure to head over to Undivinelight and check hers out!

For this one, I’m going to be looking at two animals in particular, both from Tamora Pierce books. The first is Peachblossom, Kel’s horse from the Protector of the Small series, and the other is the hound Achoo from the Beka Cooper books

The primary thing that makes both of these animals stand out to me among the dozens of other animal companions that I’ve read over the years is that they are both distinct characters. Neither of them speaks–even though talking animals are a thing that exists in Tortall–but they don’t need words to have personality on the page. Even without Kel or Beka extrapolating on what their animal may be thinking or feeling, the reader knows. It’s in the way Peachblossom stamped a hoof or clicked his teeth, or Achoo sneezing when she picks up the scent. They’re not just a utilitarian dog or horse, and it shows.

Growing from that, they’re not just a decorative part of the story. They have an effect on the plot and the way it unfolds. I never got the feeling that, well, Kel needs a horse, so here you go. Think Bill the pony from The Lord of the Rings. It makes sense that the hobbits would have a pack animal on their journey, so he’s thrown into the story for a hundred pages or so and then vanishes. Peachblossom and Achoo, on the other hand, are part of the experience of their stories. For example, when Kel is insulted, Peachblossom comes to her defense and attacks the boy bullying her. That scene is still one of my favorites in all of Tortall.

And the last thing that makes these two characters memorable to me–because, really, they are characters, not just props–is that I have an emotional investment in them. I care about their safety, and I worry for them when bad things happen around or to them. This is probably the biggest defining factor of a successful animal companion to me: do I care about them? Am I impacted in some way by them?

 

Characters Done Right: Turning the Tables

I have a weak spot for betrayals in my fiction. There’s just something beautifully heartbreaking about beloved characters suddenly changing course. Whether I’m reading it, writing it, or watching it on TV, done right, it’s one of my absolute favorite things.

The key words being: done right. I’ve seen a lot of very poorly executed betrayals. You either see it coming a mile away or get to the end still scratching your head over why they would ever have done that. So, for my example of this character done to perfection, I’m going to be talking about Tunstall from Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper books.

For a good betrayal, I need three ingredients. The first of those is trust. Every good stab in the back starts with a seed of trust. I have to love the character who’s going to hurt me, but more importantly I have to feel that the protagonist loves them. That’s what makes the pain so delicious.

Pierce does this with Tunstall–the reader gets two full books with him before the event. We see his wit, his dogged determination, how deeply he cares for Beka and she for him. That, more than anything else, is what sells the end of his arc and puts me right in Beka’s skin, reeling right along with her.

The second thing I need is foreshadowing in the traitor’s character. A thing that they want but would never chase because it would mean going against the protagonist or their professed morals or goals. It has to be believable, though, and a thing that’s present in the narrative before the double-cross is brought to light. It’s especially important that, after the fact, the reader (and the protagonist) can look back and pick up on all those clues that something wasn’t right and throw the whole relationship into question.

With respect to Tunstall, I got this in spades. Once I finished the book, I literally sat there for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, going back through the story and rereading key scenes. The betrayal is right there on the page, present in every fiber of his character, and I still didn’t see it coming.

The third thing I need is a red herring. If the main character–and by extension the reader–has their attention focused on others, they take it for granted that their loved one is with them through thick and thin. It’s a simple ingredient, but it builds upon the idea of trust and foreshadowing. It creates an us-against-them mentality that makes the protagonist and the traitor seem to playing on the same side. It also makes the ulterior motive for the traitor easier to overlook.

In the case of Mastiff, there are two red herrings. Both are great characters, but we haven’t known or loved them for as long as we have Tunstall, so our–and Beka’s–focus is on them when we’re trying to suss out who the spy in the party might be. Tunstall easily fades into the background against these other two more overt possibilities.

Be sure to also check out Rachel Serbicki’s take on betrayals at her blog!

Characters Done Right: Expertise Vs. Arrogance

People relate to a certain level of expertise. That’s no secret; it’s part of how we choose doctors, elect presidents, root for sports teams. It’s also a good part of what readers like in their protagonists and support characters. It gives them something to admire while also–especially in the case of the protagonist–being a bit of wish fulfillment.

There’s no shortage of examples of this done well: Harry Potter’s excellence at Quidditch; Katniss Everdeen’s marksmanship with a bow and arrow; Sherlock Holmes’s genius. It would be easy for them to become obnoxious if their skills were allowed to dominate the story, but the writers manage to avoid those pitfalls.

What makes them work is that they each have narrative tricks that keep them human. Harry is prone to making rash decisions, often with disastrous consequences. Katniss’s devotion to her little sister strikes a chord with the reader and establishes sympathy. Sherlock’s stories aren’t  told from his point of view but from Watson’s, so we get to see his difficulty relating to people and his struggles with addiction from an outside perspective.

Without that humanizing influence, you end up with a character like Kvothe from The Name of the Wind. Now, the book had other things going for it; I loved the setting, the feel of history that Rothfuss brought to the text, among other things. But I couldn’t for the life of me relate to Kvothe. To me, there was no softness to him, no moment of sympathy. The whole story was a list of all the incredible things he’d done and reasons he’s the best at anything he turns his mind to.

Which, I suppose, works for other readers. For my money, though, I like my genius with just a twist of humanity.

Characters Done Right: The Antagonist’s Arc

To me, no story is complete without a compelling antagonist, someone I can really hate. The most important part of it, though, is that they’re still believable while I’m hating them, that they have their own rich inner lives and motivations for whatever it is they’re doing. I’ve heard it said that the villain needs to be the hero of their own story, and I think that’s pretty accurate to both the antagonists that I love to read and the ones I love writing.

The next step, then, is making the antagonist have their own character arc, a progression from the beginning to the end of the story. For example, Voldemort is terrifying, yes, and of course he hits the first piece of advice strongly. He honestly believes that he’s on a mission to “purify” the witches and wizards of Britain, saving them from themselves. But he misses the second. Throughout all the million or so words of the Harry Potter series, he doesn’t really grow or change. He’s a static villain, which works for the story that JK Rowling set out to tell. But he doesn’t stay with me after the close of the book the way that Snape or even Draco do.

To give an illustration of the kind of arc I like to see, I want to contrast two antagonists from Tamora Pierce’s works. The first is Lord Wyldon from the Protector of the Small quartet. From the first page of the books, Wyldon is strongly opposed to Kel’s enrollment in page training. Not because he has anything against her personally but because of his commitment to tradition and his desire to train the best knights possible to protect the kingdom. He honestly believes that her presence in the castle will be a detriment to both Kel and to his other students, and so he uses every tool at his disposal to urge her to leave. Therein we have the first ingredient of a successful antagonist: a complex inner life and self-justification for the wrong that he’s doing.

The second part is what makes Wyldon stand out to me, though. Throughout the series, Kel chips away at his objections. She proves herself as capable as his other students, grudgingly earning his respect, and Wyldon slowly finds himself in her corner, leaving room for a more dire villain.

The other strong example  that I’ve pulled from Tamora Pierce’s work is Bennat Ladradun from Cold Fire. Ben is the polar opposite to Wyldon–he starts as one of the heroes. Then, slowly, for what he feels are good reasons, his moral compass starts to shift. He sets a fire, meaning it only as a training exercise for the firefighters he’s been  working with. Then he sets another, feeling that the city’s gotten lax in its response. Then another, and someone dies. His fires grow larger, the traps more deadly, and the excuses more paper-thin. Before Ben himself can realize what’s happened, he’s gone from a desire to help to a desire to kill.

It’s a terrifying thing to read the progression, to see someone so normal and respected become a monster. And it’s something I wish more authors would do, make their readers follow their villains deeper into the shadows that they’d thought possible, all in the name of what they feel is a good goal.

 

Characters Done Right: Rock and a Hard Place

For my twin post today with Rachel from Undivinelight, we’re looking at protagonists we love. Let me say, first, that this was a tough one for me. There are so many characters that I love for any number of reasons. I love Harry Potter. I love Katniss Everdeen. I love Artemis Fowl and Jackie Faber and so many others that I don’t think I could ever name them all, let alone try to rank them. But my greatest literary love has to be Keladry of Mindelan from Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet.

The thing about Kel–and the way that Pierce writes her–is this: she has to make hard choices. Several times throughout the books, the thing that Kel wants most (to win her shield; to be respected; to help in the fighting; to protect the people she cares about) is placed diametrically opposed to her morals and her sense of duty. To get one, she has to go against the other.

And, to Pierce’s credit, Kel honestly struggles with her decisions. For example, when her maid is kidnapped, Kel knows that it’s her responsibility as a noble to rescue her. But doing so means that she’ll miss her examinations, and that all the years of work she’s put in up to this point will be moot. But Lalasa needs her, so she does what she has to.

What makes this successful to me is that, even though it’s hard–both for Kel and for the reader–to see her push her dream aside, that inner conflict breathes life into the story. It makes Kel nuanced and complex. And it’s that tension, those rock and a hard place decisions, that make me love this series so much.