Conflict-averse protagonists

It’s been a little while since I wrote about my own writing – sadly that’s because I haven’t been doing a huge amount of it. I’ll get back in the saddle soon I’m sure.

One of the problems is that I’m a little stuck in all of my usual go-to projects, and I don’t want to start something new as I’ve got so many juicy (albeit stalled) things under way already.

I can’t remember what I last posted about my novel A Calling-on Song so I’ll do a quick catch-up: I had it all nice and finished, sent it off to agents with no luck; I paid for a professional critique from one of the market leaders in such things; feedback was very useful and identified a few things which I’d been sort-of aware of and hoped had been buried beneath awesomeness.

The main issue highlighted was my main character, Robin. He still came across as too passive or stand-off-ish. One of the things this meant was that it’s unbelievable that the people who tag along with him and lend assistance would actually bother. This stems from the very initial draft and, rather than pluck the problem out and solve it, I wrote around it. I came up with motivations and reasons to excuse it all that fitted neatly into the narrative. Four drafts on and it’s much more daunting to tackle!

In the mornings before work I watch 20 minutes of a TV show. Over the years its been everything from an episode of The Simpsons or Friends to a smidge of The Wire to a variety of costume dramas. Right now I’m part way through a rewatch of Pushing Daisies, half-episode at a time. If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s not a big commitment as there were only 2 relatively short series. Just like Firefly it left me wanting much more, and just like Firefly it’s excellent.

The general premise is that the MC, a piemaker by trade, has the power to bring anything back to life with a touch. A second touch will permanently kill what was brought back. If something or someone is brought back for more than 60 seconds then something else close by will die in its place. He uses the power to help a private detective solve murders (obviously). The whole tone borrows very heavily from Amelie and it’s a lovely, romantic, funny and touching confection.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that the MC is very risk-averse, both physically and emotionally. He is stand-off-ish and often reactive rather than proactive. He wants, by and large, a normal life and to be left alone. And it works very well. This desire for a smooth ride causes tension among the other characters and, due to his use of his power, leads to secrets and intrigue. The characters that surround him are all very proactive, from the private detective starting new cases to the MC’s brought-back-to-life childhood sweetheart who wants to make the most of her new lease of life.

I’ve tried for a similar set up – my MC keeps the causes of some of his strange behaviour to himself, hoping his life will return to normal. Around him friends and colleagues poke and prod and investigate and suppose as they try to help or further their own agendas (or both). 

So why isn’t it working for me? 

A couple of considerations: maybe the critiquer is ‘wrong’. This is a dangerous door to open – disregarding what someone thinks of my novel is not something I intend to do, particularly if they’re a professional in the field! And it’s something I was deep down aware of to boot!

Perhaps its down to likeability? Despite his stand-off-ishness The Piemaker is very likeable thanks to a combination of both the script and performance. I may need to work on my MC, as I don’t have a top actor to rely on…

Another consideration is that the viewer doesn’t solely follow the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies. My novel is 3rd person, but we only follow the MC. Is this too much of a halfway house? Maybe committing to 1st person or pulling the ‘camera’ back to follow other characters would bring the dynamic that I’m lacking.

The Piemaker is pulled into scrapes partially because of his work with the detective. And he is only useful to the detective because of his power. My MC doesn’t really have a power or useful quality that his friends are lacking. So maybe that’s a key. They should need him for something as much as he ends up needing them…

There’s always the possibilty that it doesn’t work in Pushing Daisies. I mean, I love it of course. But it was cancelled after 2 short seasons so can’t have been wildly popular at the time. Could it be that I have a predilection for these kinds of characters, but popular appeal isn’t there?

And one final thought – maybe these kinds of characters are better suited to a visual medium. Characters who are ‘numb’ generally work better in film than on the page. Perhaps it’s the same for the risk-averse.

If you’ve got any suggestions of books featuring stand-off-ish characters trying desperately to cling to a normal life do let me know.

@BornToPootle

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Is Genre Fiction Reaching Critical Mass?

"...all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination..."

“…all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination…”

Interesting things are happening in SFF and other ‘genre’ fiction right now. Having been looked down on for decades (centuries?) it’s increasingly looking like mainstream cultural and critical acceptance is on the cards. Why do I think this? And why now?

The last two ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions at the British Library were devoted to comics/graphic novels and Gothic fiction. The BFI have a sweeping Sci Fi season on at the moment. The BBC are getting in on the act and have sci fI documentaries playing right now. And then there was this speech from Ursula K Le Guin (and if you haven’t read her Left Hand of Darkness I suggest you stop reading this right now and get a copy).

I’ve written briefly about Interstellar already and, whatever you may think of it, there’s surely no denying it’s great to see a slab of grown up sci fi reaching a wide audience – not just robots slugging each other in the face for once. And on TV Game of Thrones has become the one to rule them all.

That’s why I think it’s happening now, but where has it come from? What’s driving it? I wonder if it’s not linked back to the phenomenon that is/was Harry Potter. The generation that were kids when the first book came out are grown up now. And through their teenage years and into early adulthood they followed Harry’s saga, with Lord of the Rings punctuating it on the big screen (along with the Potter adaptations themselves of course). It was an adolescence defined by fantastical fiction, some of the most successful ever, and it has led to an fantasy-literate adult audience broader than ever before.

That’s my theory at any rate, and I’m sure there are many other ways to spin it – capitalism following one genre success to make more money maybe, or the internet uniting disparate fantasy fans into a collective force, or something in the times we’re living through making fantasy and sci-fi appealing as either carriers for metaphor or escapism from the global recession.

I’ll post something more about Harry Potter soon, but what do you think? Do you think genre fiction is ascending to its rightful place alongside ‘literary’ fiction? If so, what’s your theory?

@BornToPootle

Breaking Breaking Bad

Rather than focus on the novel I’m trying to get published, I thought I’d write something about the other novel I’m working on at the moment.

I wrote three quarters of the first draft a little while ago, and am wading through the redrafting process of the first quarter at the moment. I’m trying a different approach with the redrafting, one that I’ve nicked from Joe Hill, so it plainly works for someone. The idea is that, rather than redraft the whole shebang, you break it down into quarters (and have a read of this chap’s site about story structure if you want to define those quarters – he’s ace) and then, once you’ve redrafted the first quarter, you put it away for a while. Then you redraft the first quarter again and also the second quarter. Then put it away. Then redraft the first quarter, second quarter and third quarter etc etc… The idea being that the beginning will be so rock solid by the time you’re getting to the end that everything should fall into place.

The process was going ok – I’d redrafted the first quarter and set it aside for a while. Now I’ve picked it up again though, I’m struggling to find the excitement in it. Sure, after the crazy world changing events at the end of the first quarter there’s plenty of excitement, and my characters have all the standard stuff they need from the get go – goals, stakes and obstacles – but something was lacking. Fortunately though, I just spent three weeks addicted to Breaking Bad.

Right. So how is that useful? Isn’t it just a distraction from getting any writing done? Well yes in a way, but also it’s incredibly inspiring. I may be a bit late to the Breaking Bad love-in, but it’s gone straight to the top three of my all time favourite shows, alongside Firefly and The West Wing. All different, but all awesome. Anyway, as both my wife and I write, we often spend some time trying to analyse books, shows and films we’ve had a strong reaction to (either negative or positive) and so we spent an evening talking through what made the show work so damn well.

Turns out there are a lot of things that make it great. But the one that’s helped me out is this: Walter White is the obstacle for pretty much all the other major characters. How cool is that? It means that every character is instantly brought into conflict with the protagonist. Sure, there are some external obstacles too, but by and large it’s Walter who causes all the other characters’ headaches.

How’s that useful? In my first quarter my main three characters are school kids still. They’ve all got various obstacles, from religious nutjob parents to abusive homes to starting school for the first time ever at sixteen. One of the three is a bully and the others the bullied. When, after a few scenes, they are brought together by a shared experience they get a common goal, and despite all the external forces acting against them it feels a little too easy from then on, at least until the really weird stuff starts happening and their allegiances crumble. From the outset I’ve known that the characters have different agendas for wanting this goal, but what I’m only now putting into place is that these agendas are directly conflicting. So rather than forming a cohesive trio combating external forces, they are now also in conflict with each other. They are each others’ obstacle to achieving this shared goal. Instantly more exciting. Instantly more fun to write.

Right, I’ve run out of Breaking Bad so no excuse not get novelling. Or rewatching Breaking Bad…