After 3 years of working on a multi-perspective series, I’m now beginning work on a single-perspective, stand-alone novel. This is the first time that I’ve really worked on a self-contained book. Even as a teenager, I wrote manuscripts that were designed to burst into a glorious series. Steeped in the work of David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Mercedes Lackey, I craved stories that resisted closure, stories that could explore the arc of an inexhaustible world. As a graduate student, I came to study series television (particularly shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Farscape), and this only fuelled my desire to write a beautifully mutating story that would occupy me for years, perhaps decades.
As a genre, fantasy tends to ignite when you place it in series form. Umberto Eco has written about this as a kind of productive stasis, a celebration of “sameness” that nonetheless allows for delightfully nuanced adjustments. The story changes as you tell it, distending, molten, but certain familiar marks remain the same. With the proliferation of Netflix, I’d argue that the series has become our most recognizable and crucial form of storytelling, a steady ascendence that betrays its own history in shows like Penny Dreadful. Most fantasy writers craft stories in series. Two notable exceptions are Neil Gaiman and Guy Gavriel Kay, who often write duets or stand-alones (take Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic as an example, or Gaiman’s American Gods/Anansi Boys, which actually have very little to do with each other as novels, in spite of being set in the same world). Lev Grossman intended The Magicians to be a stand-alone work, and was surprised when his publisher asked for a sequel. As it stands, writing a single novel in a genre focused on series-work is a gamble.
The success of George R.R. Martin’s work has produced a hunger for multi-perspective storytelling in an epic register, and telling the self-contained story of a single character has become an oddball thing to do. Rather than complete immersion within an endlessly various world, you get a precise but temporary view into the mind of a single character. Neither strategy is “better”–they both tell satisfying stories–but the limited perspective is sort of like moving in with someone. You see them all the time, and their motivations become curious, even frustrating. When I was working on the Occult Special Investigator series, I limited myself to Tess’s perspective, but she was always interacting with a broad cast of supporting characters. This new book is about a triangular relationship between three friends, and the main character is in a situation that forces him to take stock, to analyze–there’s no escaping from his behaviour and its consequences. This process has made me think about how we craft character, especially when you’re limited to one perspective.
The topic comes up often in my creative writing classes, and quickly, we find that our notions of a “strong character” tend to be contradictory. During the “Reinventing the Heroi(ine)” panel at C2E2, we talked about that infamous phrase, “strong female character.” Charlaine Harris noted that female characters used to be confined to particular types, as if they were equations in need of balancing. If they were strong (read: willful), they also had to be mean. If they were sensitive, they also had to be passive. Male characters could be all of these things, so long as they saved the day. As Gail Simone has stated, a female character’s strength derives not from brute physical force, but from being a full-spectrum human, neither wholly one thing nor another. Red Sonja is physically strong, but she can also be empathetic, contradictory. In the SF show Farscape, one of John Crichton’s most powerful qualities is his ability to cry (he jokingly tells his son that “Crichtons don’t cry…often,” while crying). The problem remains that male heroes gain a kind of cultural cache when they demonstrate feelings, while female heroes are often criticized for being too masculine, or too feminine, based on a sliding scale of gender competency.
One of the most interesting things about a show like Orphan Black (aside from Tatiana Maslany’s breathtaking performance) is its refusal to present simply one type of female character. We have the scientist experiencing a crisis of faith; the soccer-mom willing to kill to protect her family; the businesswoman who resents how she’s been positioned; even an ostensible sister who turns out to be a trans man. The show consistently reinforces the fact that there is no single heroine, no “default” femininity. Rather than competing with each other, the women in the show form a community and work together–a surprisingly rare image on television. All of this is a long way of saying that, when you’re working with a single character, avoid reaching for “strong” archetypes. It’s natural to contain multitudes. What you want to know is: what do they want and what do they fear? Not always, but often, these drives run along the same path. It’s impossible to know how a character will react in every situation, because they’re people, and they surprise you (just yesterday, a character veered left when he was supposed to veer right, and I raised an eyebrow, but then kept writing). You also have to figure out what makes this character separate from you.
With a single perspective, there’s always the temptation to just start writing yourself into the story. This actually requires a fair bit of vigilance, and it’s why I always recommend thinking about what makes this perspective different from your own. It’s normal for your own concerns to bleed into the narrative, but whoever this person is, they still need to remain distinct. Give them a quality that you don’t possess, a fear that doesn’t concern you, a desire that doesn’t eat at you. Something that forces you into more abstract thinking, until you can imagine yourself riding the bus with them, studying them surreptitiously from your seat, as you pretend to listen to music. Since I’m currently re-reading American Gods, I’ve been thinking about that novel’s protagonist, Shadow. His name alone might be cringe-worthy, but because you aren’t hit with some kind of etymological backstory early on (“they call me Shadow because of my swift blade”), it’s never distracting, just a mild point of curiosity. He’s an ex-con, which gives him a perspective on America that’s under-represented in this kind of story. We know that he isn’t white, but his ethnic background remains a mystery for most of the book–various people try to guess his ancestry, sometimes in earnest, sometimes to patronize him, but Shadow won’t talk about it.
He’s a physically imposing man, capable of violence, but that’s more a function of his body type than his psyche. His ex-wife calls him “Puppy,” and when he ends up giving a ride to a teenage girl–in a scene that could go in several directions–all he does is talk about Herodotus. Knowing these things doesn’t necessarily give you a read on who Shadow is, and that’s sort of the point. He’s contradictory. His appearance tells you nothing about his personality, and his history of incarceration is a highly specific one that says very little about who he might be. Shadow works as a “framing” character, someone to digest events for the reader, because he’s often confused. But he also has some hard-bitten life experience, and this gives him a certain flexibility as a protagonist. One of Gaiman’s strengths as a storyteller, in my opinion, has always been his ability to place ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances which test their morality in complex ways. With Shadow, he introduces a protagonist who refuses to be confined to a single story. Judgments tend to slide off him. As a male “hero,” he’s damaged. When he displays physical desire, it tends to be quotidian rather than erotic (such as when he thinks about watching pornography on Pay-Per-View, then decides that he doesn’t really feel like watching other people have sex). He isn’t “relatable” (a frustrating term), because his experiences are specific, but as readers we don’t mind traveling with him. That may be the mark of a successful protagonist–a good companion on a road trip. He doesn’t overwhelm the action, but he does react to it, sometimes in ways that we wouldn’t expect.
What I find compelling about Shadow is that he doesn’t have immediately obvious echoes in other characters that I’ve read about. He isn’t the “hapless guy” thrown into a fantasy world, but neither is he the earnest champion. Like Crichton, he cries, gets scared, makes the wrong decisions. His physical strength is rarely an asset–he fails at being a bodyguard on a number of occasions. The first time I read American Gods, I was frustrated by what I saw as a lack of female characters. It’s an epic book, and most of the interactions are between men. But the second time around, I can see that Gaiman includes a number of intriguing women: there’s Laura, who rescues Shadow more than once; Sam, a Native American teen, whose independent narrative crosses his without being subsumed; a trio of unearthly sisters who put him in his place; even Kali, who’s portrayed as a dignified older woman. Some are feminine, some masculine, some immortal. It would be a leap to call Shadow a feminist, but he does engage with each of these women respectfully.
This brings me back to our discussion at the C2E2 panel. If you want to write a convincing protagonist, male or female, the point is to make them several things rather than just one. Don’t base your female protagonist on a kickass heroine in an action film, unless she’s actually an interesting kickass heroine. You don’t have to sacrifice empathy for strength, or vice versa. Along the same lines, one of the truly magical things about books–rather than TV shows–is that books can accurately reflect various body types. Shadow isn’t a chiselled male pinup: he’s a big guy, perhaps gone a bit to seed, attractive to some but fairly unremarkable to most. As much as I love Buffy, a strong/sensitive heroine does not have to look like her. They can look like Deputy Molly Solverson from Fargo, Peggy Olson from Mad Men, Cookie Lyon from Empire. In the end, we forget the heroes who weren’t dynamic or clever, but we remember the people who were more than puzzle pieces, whose flaws and desires called to our own. Maybe one day, I will fulfill my dream of writing a protagonist who resembles Julia Sugarbaker in every conceivable way.