I was recently visiting Nancy Kelly Allen’s blog and found some excellent advice on critiquing a manuscript. I must admit however, I was drawn to Nancy’s advice on the main character.
Is the main character active in carrying the plot forward? The main character should be responsible for solving the problem or reaching the goal. Uncle Hamm or an older brother should not step in and save the character that is experiencing the trouble.
This advice I have heard before. I don’t recall which blog I read it on but the author explained that the problem with book 6 or the Harry Potter series was that Harry was spending all of his time trying to win a sporting trophy rather than trying to solve any of his problems. In point of fact, Dumbledore deliberately kept Harry in the dark about what most of those problems were which meant that the reader was cheated out of a possibly more interesting story than the one we were delivered.
The fact that I’ve heard this advice before didn’t stop me from sitting and going ‘oh’. Mostly because it is one of thousands of things that when you think about it should be obvious but sometimes when you are looking at a draft completely eludes you until someone else points it out. It helps to be reminded, often, and it is a really important point.
Linking back to Harry Potter, one of my biggest problems with the series was that Harry was given the starring role in the first book but was almost the least interesting character in it. Hermione solved most of the problems while Ron randomly ran into things that may have helped and occasionally Harry would do something pretty stupid that turned out to be good. Harsh, but at the time that was how I saw it. The second book in the series was even worse as far as establishing Harry as the hero. Even in a coma Hermione was more useful than Harry turned out to be. She gave him the vital clue that made everything in the conclusion possible.
I actually do like the Harry Potter books and I’m not pulling them to pieces, just the main character who was always a little underwhelming to me.
Thanks Nancy for reminding us of this excellent advice.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about character recently?
I love watching old movies. The good guys all wear white or at least tan and other pale colours and manage to keep their hair in perfect formation (maybe one strand will blow across their face) and they save the day with minimal loss and pain. Perfect feel good moment. I hate reading stories like this though.
Maybe it is because I look for different things from the movies I watch to the books I read. Movies can have a terrible story, bad acting, awful effects, it doesn’t matter as long as I’m being entertained. Yes, I prefer movies that actually have a story and good actors, the effects can go either way, but entertainment is all that is required. From books, I expect far more. I expect an intelligent and intriguing story and characters with depth that draw me in. I expect that the good guy won’t just be good because he’s (she’s) written that way but that they are actually given some sort of purpose and motivation.
My favourite protagonists when I read, have flaws. Massive and horrible character flaws usually. While I love reading David Eddings stories (the Elenium Trilogy is amazing) there is only one David Eddings character that ever made my list of favourite characters and that was Althalus. All of his other heroes are good because they are good and work together because it is the right thing to do. Althalus on the other hand was a thief and was coerced by a goddess disguised as a cat into saving the world. That appealed to me on a number of levels.
People in real life are never all good or all bad. And they aren’t the same in every situation and around different groups of people. I think characters in stories should reflect that to an extent.
That said, just going entirely the opposite direction and having an anti-hero can feel a bit old as well.
Who is your favourite good guy and why?
I’m on holidays at the moment but I’m reposting some of the more popular posts from my old blog, Darkened Jade. If you leave a comment I’ll be sure to catch up with you when I get back.
Those following me on twitter will probably remember that I saw ‘Land of the Lost’ on the weekend and was somewhat less than impressed with it. To be perfectly honest I hated it, and I probably would have walked out if not for the fact that I had bought a frozen coke and it would have been a waste.
My problem with ‘Land of the Lost’ is the same as the problem I have when I read a lot of drafts for stories. Instead of some sort of plan or cohesive idea that is explored within the text, one random event after another is squished together, pasted and held by improbability, and linked only by chance.
Caution – spoilers ahead.
For instance, early in the movie, Will Ferrell’s character meets a young scientist who respects his theories and inspires him to get on with inventing the time travelling device. Fair enough. She found out about him at college and tracked him down. No problem believing that.
Then she returns the next day to find him in a sugar coma. After his response to her the day before, why she returns is never adequately explained, but fair enough. She decides to have a second go and there she is.
They travel into an alternate dimension, by means of a waterfall, which makes no apparent sense (but there have been worse ways to travel between worlds so I will let it go), somehow they survive and are now stumbling through a desert (what happened to the waterfall) where they encounter a group of ape people sacrificing another ape person.
After saving the sacrifice they then chase him, to fall through a pit of sand to land upon a pile of bones. Lots of falling and landing in random places without any real point or link, other then the writers decided they were bored with the old set and couldn’t be bothered writing some kind of transition.
And on it goes.
The part that made me want to walk out was when the writers clearly decided the bit with the dinosaur was getting old, and suddenly our ‘hero’ receives a psychic message from an injured lizard man in a tunic seeking help.
This is very much akin to dropping a clown from the sky and saying ‘ah-ha, the story goes this way’ and waving your arms vigorously in front of the audience and hoping they are too caught up with that ‘wacky’ gags to care, only we aren’t because the script is flat, the acting mediocre and the best performance is delivered by a computer generated t-rex.
Now, I don’t expect a lot of story from a comedy. A loose sketch of characters in a basic setting with a barely plausible context will usually do, as long as it keeps heading in some sort of coherent direction.
Incidentally, foreshadowing is an important writing technique. ‘Land of the Lost’ demonstrates how not to use it, with their “If you don’t make it – it’s your own damn vault” poster at the beginning of the movie, and the line used during the confrontation with the T-rex. This is not foreshadowing, this is a desperate attempt for the writers to remind us that at some stage in the story, there was a point to all the ridiculousness.
As far as cheap laughs, the movie does have them, but that is about the only thing I found to recommend it.
And here’s the link if you haven’t yet checked out the blurb or excerpt for Death’s Daughter.