The Battle of the Great Ambivalence

Have you ever warred with your own apathy?

Apathetic cat feels… it doesn’t matter.

As some of you may remember, I’ve been trying to read The Wheel of Time and to watch Angel.

I haven’t really succeeded at either. I get excited in individual chapters or episodes, but somehow I reach a stopping point and never go back. It’s kind of getting to the point where I wonder why I’m even bothering.

It’s not the characters, because I like some of them… though definitely not all. And it’s not the plot, at least not entirely, because sometimes I enjoy it. But feeling like I should read or watch something just isn’t cutting it anymore.

What’s your breaking point? How little can you care before you just can’t carry on?

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Unlikable Main Characters

I usually write this blog as a writer, but today I’m going to put my reader hat on and pose a question to all my fellow readers out there.

Do you have your silly hat?

What do you, as a reader, do when you realize you hate the main character of a book?

I usually like unlikable characters. I’m a fan of Scarlett O’Hara and I always preferred Henry Crawford to that ninny, goody-two-shoes Edmund Bertram. But both Henry and Scarlett have a roguish charm that redeems them—they may not be the nicest people around, but they sure are fun.

Sometimes, though, protagonists end up with no redeeming qualities.

You may know that for the last six months (at least) I’ve been engaged in a slow slog through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. It’s a journey with a lot of ups and downs: sometimes I end up sitting in bed, reading way past the point when I should be asleep, and other times I have to force myself to finish the hundred-page prologue before calling the book a dead loss.

So far, though, I’ve managed not to give up. Jordan’s books follow a pretty clear pattern. They start out at a creeping pace, dragging through a very long prologue that often features characters who won’t star in the rest of the novel, then entering the pace of the book itself, which is somewhere at a fast walk or a trot. Then, at about 70-percent, they hit a run, and lots of things happen. This momentum usually carries me into the next book, where I hit a wall in the form of prologue.

It feels a little masochistic sometimes.

A couple of days ago, I started the aptly-named The Path of Daggers. I was really ready to find and actually use the latest MacGuffin, and the first third of the book finally fulfilled that promise. But then I reached approximately 46% of the Kindle edition, and I quit caring.

Why?

A hairy monster of a protagonist, also known as Rand al’Thor.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Rand is our shepherd turned chosen-by-prophecy king of the world. He’s also sitting dancing on the fence between sanity and madness. He’s very, very angry. But he’s not particularly funny or sweet or caring. (There’s no Whedon-villain whimsy here.)

In short, he has no more redeeming qualities. The farmboy we met in Eye of the World has long since been subsumed by a bitter, wounded man with powers that are destroying him.

To defend Jordan, he’s actually worked this (lightly) into the plot by having a secondary character point it out, point out that if Rand doesn’t lighten up soon, he’ll end up destroying the world in a fit of temper.

I just don’t care, though. I don’t even want to slog through Rand’s chapters to find out what main plot events will happen. I like some of the characters, but unfortunately, the main character is kind of an insurmountable obstacle.

So what’s a reader to do?

I said I would complete this challenge, and I will read all of this series. But how do I survive Rand? My soon-to-be husband’s solution in books like this is just skip the chapters with the hated character, but I’m a little too OCD to actually do that… and since Rand is the epicenter of this epic, I can’t really skip him without missing something vital.

What would you do, reader? How do you read books with unlikable main characters?

Magic: Empowering or Addictive?

Why has the addiction to magic become a theme in books and television?

The obvious example is Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In season six, magic becomes a clear metaphor for drugs, and Willow is the down-and-out addict. With episode titles like “Smashed,” “Wrecked,” and “Gone,” I don’t think you could argue that the show isn’t drawing a comparison between the high gained from using magic and the high achieved from drugs.

You see it elsewhere, too. I’m in the middle of The Fires of Heaven, book 5 of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and several characters are exhibiting signs of magical addiction. Jordan builds it right into the world: the more of the One Power you draw, the more you want to draw, until you still or kill yourself. That’s pretty grim. And if you ask me, at this point in the series, Egwene is exhibiting all the early signs of addition. She can’t get enough of using the power, she constantly wants to learn more, she’s abusing the little authority she has, and she’s reckless in using her power and her authority. (And if you give me any spoilers from the rest of the series, I’ll thump you, because I’m actually quite enjoying this series this go-round.)

Look at the Harry Potter series, too. At some point in one of the books—and I’m kicking myself because I can’t find the quote—someone says that Dumbledore could have done the things Voldemort did, but wouldn’t. Voldemort and Dumbledore perhaps have equally strong abilities, but Voldemort became addicted to his own power. Dumbledore drifted that way a bit in his youth, but he never actually let the magic overwhelm his humanity.

So why does this happen? Why has addiction to magic become a trope?

1. Magic is your basic mind-altering substance. Magic is the ability to use your will to alter the world around you. It’s the ultimate trip—one minute you’re in a club full of goofy guys hitting on you, the next you’re in a room full of dancing sheep and soap bubbles that won’t pop. The world around you is foreign, beautiful, and titillating… and under your control.

2. Magic gives formerly “weak” characters power. Characters like Willow Rosenberg, Egwene al’Vere, and Tom Riddle typically come from middling or even weak backgrounds. Magic gives the no-name character a name, a gift that makes her special and even better than other characters. It’s a cheap trick, though, giving a character a gift that makes him suddenly better than all the rest, with no consequences. It probably follows that…

3. Magic is power, so addiction to magic is addiction to power. That formerly weak character finds herself in an authority position, able to do things that no other character can. It goes to her head. Suddenly Tom Riddle, insignificant orphan, finds himself able to scare those around him, and the next thing you know, he’s Moldy-Voldy, able to make other wizards tremble with a mere look. Willow finds herself the most powerful witch in the world, so powerful she could destroy it just to end its pain. That has to feel good, rather like waking up and discovering you’re a god.

DeviantArt image by Forbis

4. Magic is somehow tied to sexual liberation. Okay, I know we talk about Freud quite a bit around here, but before you run screaming, hear me out. Willow only becomes extremely powerful after meeting her fellow-witch girlfriend Tara. The relaxation of her sexual inhibitions is almost directly related to the increase of her powers. Egwene thought she would grow up and marry Rand, but as she sees the world and realizes her powers, she also realizes that she doesn’t love him “that” way. She gets progressively more powerful as she severs ties to her old self and allows herself to develop new, womanly loves.

5. More accurately, though, magic is tied to self-actualization. As a character discovers herself, she discovers her power. Magic is a metaphor for our own internal strength, and just as we can run away with vanity or self-loathing, we can be overcome by the allure of our own magical power.

I think this last bit is true. Magic is part of a person, not a drug—and perhaps the idea of magic as a mind-altering, negative substance is why you can find Neo-Pagans upset at Whedon’s metaphor. And it’s disturbing to think about: our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.

So what do you think, readers? Why do writers love the magic addiction trope? What are some other reasons characters might get addicted to magic?

Favorite Characters

What do our favorite characters say about us?

No, not behind our backs, silly person. They’re fictional! I mean, why do we like the characters that we, as individuals, like? Is it because we can relate to our favorite character? Is it because they’re someone we’d like to be friends with? Or is it some ineffable combination of reasons that we’ll never know?

I got to thinking about this while reading The Wheel of Time books. I think I quit the series the first time in part because a character I really liked (Perrin) became involved with a character I really disliked (Faile). But what about those imaginary people gave me a strong enough opinion to even care who they dated? …other than a book-character crush, which I totally had (have?) on Perrin.

Take Anya. She’s my favorite character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Sorry for all the Buffy references lately. I’m still sick in bed and having a marathon.) But why is she my favorite? I’m not exactly “newly human and strangely literal.” I have no experience working as a vengeance demon, though I do understand her penchant for retail work—though I don’t love money as much as she does. She’s a damn good singer and scared of bunnies, which makes me giggle. And she’s very pretty, but I don’t really have a crush on her. She is very funny, and funny in a way I can appreciate. 
 
But Xander’s funny, too, as are most of the characters. So why does Anya appeal to me more than the rest?
 
Meanwhile, my fiance likes Giles (probably because he can relate to Giles) and Willow (she’s a cute, funny redhead). Maybe you like Tara, reader, or someone else entirely.
 
How about Star Wars? I never really liked Han Solo, even though everyone else seems to find him completely cool. Even when I was twelve I thought he was an arrogant, irresponsible jerk—sometimes you just can’t change a first impression. I loved Luke, though, and not in a “he’s dreamy” way. I pretty much wanted to be him, but, you know, female.
 
So it that the winning combination, then? A mix of traits we like and traits we admire? I don’t really think so, because frequently we like the baddies more than the good characters. Evil Angel is much more fun than regular Angel, after all.
 
Any thoughts? What makes your favorite characters your favorites?

Fictional Smarty-Pants Are Annoying, Too

If you’ve seen my GoodReads widget, you know I’m engaged on the long slog epic journey through the Wheel of Time mess series.

I poke fun, but actually I’m kind of enjoying it. Book-by-book, they’re addictive once you’ve settled in, and the story is the immersive, sink-your-teeth-into-it type that we fantasy readers love.

But Jordan uses a plot trick that really irks me.

Thirty or forty pages into every book, an exciting event occurs, and some smarty-pants character has to explain that this is one way the High Muckety-Muck’s Prophecy of Doom and Glory will be fulfilled. Smarty-Pants then tells Questing Character that he or she must go to Some Random Place, seek the Mystical Golden Eggbeater of Power, and then kill a lot of people.

A shrubbery!

It’s much akin to the Knights Who Say Ni sending King Arthur to fetch a shrubbery. Do it if you want to advance the plot!

There has to be a better way to do this. I realize that you can’t plant every plot device in the first book (Man, I wish you could!), and that subplots—or even the plots of individual books in a larger series—often revolve around a MacGuffin simply because an author needs characters to get a certain piece of the puzzle before they can carry on.

I can’t just blame Jordan for this. Loads of fantasy novels (especially epic fantasy) do it. You could even argue that the treasure-quest in The Hobbit is just a drawn-out way to get the One Ring to Bilbo and then to Frodo. I don’t completely object to this type of plotting: after all, we read stories as much for the journey as for the ending.

I can object, though, to authors making one particular character into the sole source of information. (Moiraine, Hermione, I’m looking at you.) It irks the characters in the book to be bossed around by a single person, and it irks me to read it.

Let characters learn information on their own! Let them seek and discover! That’s way more interesting than a lecture from Ms. Smarty-Pants. I think urban fantasy novels tend to do a better job with this, perhaps because they’re often formulated as mysteries, perhaps because they’re shorter. Think about how often Harry Dresden falls into one horrible situation after another, just because he doesn’t (always) have a character who can give him all the information he needs—and that’s a compelling read, because we get to put the pieces together with him. Plus, it’s fun to see how he’ll get out of his next scrape.

My tactic (and it’s a cheap ploy) is to scatter the info-dumps among many characters. This character moves in high society, so he would know about this. That character is a fairy, so she probably knows about that.

When providing information, how do you avoid writing smarty-pants characters?