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Star Wars, Stackhouse, and The Walking Dead

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Chasing Azrael by Hazel ButlerSeveral aspects of my work seem to have collided this week, and so it seemed appropriate to blog about them. Chasing Azrael is doing well in the paid Amazon Kindle charts, rising to #12 in Fantasy Horror, #17 in Ghost Horror, and #57 in Urban Fantasy. Needless to say I’m very pleased with these numbers and hope they will continue to rise. In addition, the cover for book two in the Deathly Insanity series, Death Becomes Me, has been revealed, and I’m as happy with this as I am with the new cover for Chasing Azrael. If you’re wondering why Chasing Azrael‘s cover changed it’s really very simple – as it turns out, I hated it. Work is continuing apace on Death Becomes Me, and I’m also working on two short stories, one for Astrid Press‘s Nighteyes anthology, a collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction stories with wolf-related themes, the other for Tenebris Book‘s second fairy tale anthology, Shadows of the Oak. The latter is a follow up to last year’s Willow, Weep No More, featuring my own short story, ‘Grave’, as well as several other fabulous and wonderfully illustrated tales.

What do all these things have to do with each other?

Oddly enough, anti-heroism.

The novel and one of the short stories I am currently working on are both narrated by anti-heroes. Since anti-heroism is something that doesn’t get talked about a great deal, despite the fact we all seem to love a good anti-hero, I thought I would indulge my love of the bad-guys (and girls). If you don’t believe me consider how much everyone loves Han Solo, compared to Luke Skywalker. Luke is the hero of the films. Han is ostensibly only along for the ride because he gets paid (in the first instance) and then gets caught up in the action, not to mention his infatuation with Princess Leia. At one point he even leaves, deciding it’s all too complicated and dangerous, and that there’s nothing in it for him. He does come back, just in the nick of time, but the fact remains that his character – at least initially – is selfish and self-serving, and has no interest in doing anything that doesn’t directly benefit him. Luke on the other hand is the guy we’re all supposed to be rooting for – he’s fighting for the side of good, defending the weak, yada yada. He certainly never abandons his post because the going gets tough, even when he discovers that the Big Bad they’ve been fighting all this time is in fact his father, and not even when said father chops off one of his hands.

So why do we all love Han Solo so much?

HanSoloThere is no simple answer, but in essence it seems to boil down to taking a character who is inherently likable, but also flawed to the extent that they only act for their own benefit, giving them the opportunity to redeem themselves, and seeing if they can. The question on everyone’s lips when Han vanished was, ‘He’s not really gone has he?’. Well, yes, he had, but in the end he returns just in time to save Luke’s life. The role of the anti-hero is two-fold: it provides us with a character who is heroic and yet also realistic, and it allows for the unknown. People are not perfect, yet the majority of heroes are portrayed as being courageous, courteous, and moral to a fault. They often have no flaws, and the flaws they do have are usually superficial – they are clumsy, they’re oblivious when it comes to romance, they lack confidence yet somehow manage to act confidently… At times heroes can actually be sickening in their contrived ‘goodness’, so much so that people actually start to dislike them. They eventually become insufferable, especially if you are watching or reading about them over the course of a long series, as seen with Sookie Stackhouse, but we’ll get to that later. The anti-hero is something else entirely. They’re usually chock-full of flaws, and the more the better. These flaws aren’t small and superficial, but major and potentially dangerous for others. Such characters generally still fulfill many of the roles of the hero, and often times turn out to be the one who saves the day, but they usually do it for entirely selfish reasons. These are the bounty hunters, the vengeance-seekers, the sell-swords, and the power mongers.

To give a more up to date example, let’s turn to AMC’s The Walking Dead, and take a look at Daryl Dixon.

Daryl

Aaand, let’s look at him some more, because let’s face it…. damn.

(If you want to avoid spoilers from seasons 1-3, skip the next paragraph)

Daryl DixonDaryl is in many ways the Han Solo of The Walking Dead. When we first meet him, his motives are entirely selfish, and while he’s not the gigantic douchebag his brother is, he’s still rough around the edges. Gradually, he becomes a member of the group and even appears to look to Rick – the hero of the series – as a kind of mentor. That doesn’t keep him from doing things his own way though. In season two he spends a great deal of time looking for Sophia, far more than anyone else, despite the fact everyone is determined to find her. He seems almost obsessive about it. We could take this in the same light we take Rick’s determination to find the lost child alive – they’re going to really struggle to continue after such a loss etc. But Daryl isn’t motivated by concerns for group morale or even, really, concern for a lost child. It’s not like he was close to her. As far as we’re aware he’s barely spoken to her, and in fact he probably says more to her in the time he’s running around the woods shouting ‘Sophia!’ than he did the whole time she was alive and part of the group. So why the obsession? The answer is revealed in hallucinations he has of his brother, the aforementioned douchebag, as we learn that Daryl’s childhood was less than idyllic. He had nobody growing up, apart from his brother, and his brother often abandoned him. The thought of a small, frightened child, alone in the forest with walkers, is more than his traumatised psyche can handle. He goes looking for Sophia, not so much to save Sophia, but to save himself. And ultimately, despite the fact they fail to save Sophia, Daryl’s actions while searching for her do in fact save him. The relationship he forms with Carol, Sophia’s mother, who had her own share of trauma even before she lost her daughter, proves to be his salvation, and from that point on, Daryl really begins to emerge as bona fide hero. He’s still rough around the edges, but honestly, that’s how we like him. Han Solo is similarly a bit of a rogue. While admittedly cleaner than Daryl, he’s still ruggedly handsome and prone to doing and saying the unexpected, unlike Luke, who is boyish in his handsome good looks, and reacts exactly as one would expect a person to react. When Leia tells Han that she loves him, we expect him to respond with something along the lines of ‘I love you too’. This is what Luke would say, and what most heroes in that situation would say. Not Han though, oh no, his only response before being frozen in carbonite is ‘I know’, demonstrating his general attitude towards Leia: he likes her, but finds her cold and unresponsive, yet it is the very fact she resists his charms (which presumably work very easily on a lot of women) that makes him like her so much. He wants her, but he doesn’t quite know how to deal with her.

God damn, the arrogance!

And yet, it’s part of what makes Han so appealing.

Final Front Cover SmallThe relevance of this to my current writing is quite simple. In Death Becomes Me we step away from Andee, the narrator for book one, and meet Evelynn. I was discussing the plot and the character of Evelynn with a friend of mine at my writing group the other day, and they were enjoying the concept, but slightly worried about the fact that certain elements make Evelynn unlikable. Her motives are selfish. Her actions at times cause other people pain and she seems, for the most part, oblivious to that, because she’s so wrapped up in her own problems. Evelynn is, without a doubt, an anti-hero (or anti-heroine). Throughout the narrative there are several points where her actions and reactions could come across as unsympathetic, and make the reader dislike her as a character. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in general when your novel is narrated in first person, and it is the protagonist who may be disliked, it needs to be handled carefully. Evelynn has a lot of redeeming qualities, and she has a sympathetic back story, which helps – like Daryl, her childhood has shaped who she has become as an adult and, as such, we can at least understand why she acts the way she does, even if we can’t always condone it. The difficulty I am having in writing the character is striking that perfect balance – including enough of her selfishness and self-absorption to portray the character I have in my head, but also showing enough of her good qualities to allow the reader to like her despite these very obvious, and at times almost unforgivable, flaws. The conclusion I have reached is a very strange one. In fairness it might be down to my insatiable attraction to the bad boy, something my editor reprimanded me for while working Chasing Azrael, because she hates Josh, while I adore him.

If given the choice between the squeaky clean hero, and the rough and tumble, often filthy dirty, anti-hero, I’ll take the latter every time.

Nobody wanted Leia to end up with Luke, even before they found out they were twins. There is a deleted scene between Luke and Leia in which Luke is trying to tell her how he feels and almost kisses her. Leia’s kinda pissed off after the conversation she’s just had with Han (another deleted scene) and she almost falls for it, but then basically runs away, before chewing Luke out for leaving her too. She’s not really mad at him though. She’s mad at Han. And when she finally does kiss Luke, it’s not because she likes him, but because she’s trying to prove a point to Han, who’s standing right next to her.

Sookie_(TB)

I take great comfort in this fact, as it gives me hope that people will find my own anti-heroes and heroines as likable as I do. I’ve had a few people who’ve read Chasing Azrael comment on Andee, and her role as the heroine. I mentioned Sookie Stackhouse earlier, I’m going to return to that point now. Generally speaking I like Sookie, however by the time I’d reached book five in Charlainne’s Harris’s series, I was sick to death of her – note, I wasn’t sick of the series, or the plots, or the other characters, I was simply sick of Sookie. She reached a point where she was making the same comments over and again from book to book, always describing certain characters in a certain way when they appeared for the first time in a book, always making reference to her infernal ‘Word A Day’ calendar whenever she used a word containing more than two syllables, flitting between romantic interests quicker than I could keep up with (although for the most part this was necessary for the plot and keeping the romance readers interested and had little to do with characterisation), and generally being very dim about everything.

The problems with Sookie’s character don’t end there; for six books she is a squeaky clean, ultra polite, struggling-to-get-by heroine who falls in love, has her heart broken, and then bounces from one guy to another for several books because it was – as far as I can tell – the only way Harris could keep the series interesting from a new character stand point. I can’t comment on the later books because I haven’t read them yet. In some ways you might see her as the perfect heroine – beautiful, smart, selfless, vulnerable, and constantly trying to do the right thing. And yet… she’s unbelievably annoying. She makes the same stupid blunders repeatedly, and she often only succeeds in saving the day by chance, or by virtue of supernaturals stepping in, who come to her aid because they are all, inexplicably, instantly, drawn to her and want to do whatever she needs. Claudine, who first introduces the reader to fairies and later turns out to be Sookie’s fairy godmother, is randomly inserted in book four, and it is not until book six that Sookie’s fairy blood is revealed. I may well be completely wrong, but it seems possible Harris introduced the notion that Sookie had fairy blood as an ex deus machina to explain why everyone is so obsessed with her, because it had become completely unrealistic, and also incredibly dull. The quirks that made Sookie so likable in book one quickly became very annoying, not because the character remained the same, but because in each and every novel, Harris drives home these character traits in exactly the same way. The Word A Day calendar really is the breaking point for me here, because it just wasn’t necessary. It was included to explain how a waitress from the South who had never attended University could have a reasonable vocabulary and narrate the story with the competency that she does. That’s the only reason it’s in there. Heaven forbid you simply portray her as a character who reads a lot (which, in fact, Harris does AS WELL). This one small thing, that is supposed to make Sookie’s character believable, actually undermines her, right from the first book, and goes on to become a repeated annoyance in each and every subsequent book, because Harris just won’t let it go.

Conscious of this, I am eager for feedback on Andee, not just because I want to know how book one went over, but also because I want to know how to correct those aspects of her personality that people found insufferable. I was conscious when writing Chasing Azrael that she is, in some ways, ‘too perfect’. By that I do not mean that my writing or characterisation are perfect, but that her life is too neat. She’s wealthy thanks to a substantial inheritance from her parents, she’s very intelligent, she’s musical and plays not only the piano but also the cello, she’s petite, she’s pretty, she’s a good cook…. I balanced this with some fairly deep flaws: she has no social skills, she comes across as being very strange, not only because she can see dead people, but because she’s a Goth and doesn’t bother making any excuses for that fact. In a sense, she purposefully isolates herself because she knows some people resent her for the things she has and who she is. She has very few friends. You can, in fact, literally count them on one hand, and the only reason she manages to retain those friends is because they make the effort. So, yes, Andee may outwardly exude perfection (at least by some people’s standards), but she has enough flaws lurking beneath that porcelain surface to sink the Titanic.

And yet, she’s still a hero(ine).

Andee TilbrookAndee’s motives throughout the novel are pure. At the start of the narrative she is mired in depression and seriously contemplating suicide. She’s retreated even further away from those few people in her life than usual, and she has absolutely no interest in the real world. She cares about nothing but James, her late husband, who she still interacts with, in the form of a ghost, another reason death is so alluring. She wants to die so she can be reunited with the man she loves. She manages to set that aside however, and drag herself back to reality, when her friends are threatened. Andee is able to put aside her own personal desires so that she can help her friends. Her motives are selfless. They are made even more selfless by the fact you can’t even say she wants to protect those friends so much because she has so few of them and can’t afford to lose even one – Andee at this point has no desire to continue living. She wants to abandon them and go to James. If they died, it would actually work in her favour, because they would then be with her in the realm of the dead.

That is who guides us through the events of book one. In book two, however, we have Evelynn, a very different character indeed, although on a superficial level the two are similar – they are both obsessed with men who are out of reach. Unlike Andee, Evelynn’s obsession with Luke is not something she can set aside. It rules her whole life. Everything she does is geared towards the goal of finding him, and she doesn’t care what she has to do in order to achieve it. In some regards, she also doesn’t care who gets hurt so that she can achieve it, and it is this that truly marks her as the anti-hero. While it is not usually the case that she knowingly hurts others, but more that she’s so caught up in her obsession that she’s oblivious to the pain it’s causing, this nevertheless makes her – and her story – very different indeed. The other fundamental difference between Andee and Evelynn is that while Andee was lost in the ghostly presence of her husband, and forced to return to the real world, Evelynn is oblivious to the fact the supernatural exists, until Luke vanishes, plunging her into a deeply dark and disturbing world she knows virtually nothing about. In such situations, clinging to the one bit of reality you have is understandable, and actions that would in other situations make a character seem incomprehensible are suddenly acceptable. Thus, Daryl remains loyal to his brother, the douchebag, despite the fact everyone else in the group, his new-found friends, despise him. Daryl also returns from his hunt for Sophia beaten, broken, bleeding, with a string of ears from dead walkers around his neck, having obviously gone half-way over to the dark side in order to survive. He still hasn’t succeeded in his goal – Sophia is still missing – and the first thing that happens when he gets back to the others is that one of them shoots him in the face.

Nice.

Had Rick gone on a rampage like this and returned in such a manner and so garbed, the others would be repulsed. But for Daryl, it’s acceptable, it’s his nature, it’s how he survives. Nobody truly questions it, the only comment is that they should hide the ears from the new people in the group, who don’t know him well enough yet to understand it. Rick doing likewise would have meant a fundamental change to his character – he may have physically survived the incident, but he would no longer be the hero. Indeed when he does do something out of character at the end of season two, and kills Sean to protect the group, they are not grateful, but repulsed by what he’s done, and find it difficult to come to terms with it – even Daryl, who would likely have killed Sean himself without issue, struggles to understand how Rick could have done it.

Why? Because Rick is the hero, and Daryl is the Anti-Hero.

Stories usually need a wide range of characters if they are to stand the test of time, in particular if you are trying to write epic works or series. Note that all the examples I’m using here are from series – be they film, television, or literature. If your narrator remains the same in each of your books, you may keep the same core of supporting characters, but you change the ones on the periphery from book to book. This is why most heroes have a sidekick or two. You have your detective, you have his assistant or team, you may also have a superintendent, a secretary, and a specialist or two who cameo, but other than that the characters are different from book to book, film to film, episode to episode. This is necessary, or your readers/viewers will get bored. The wider the scope of your story is, the more characters you need to bear the weight of it. The Deathly Insanity books are, individually, little different from most standalone supernatural tales. There’s the protagonist, antagonist(s), a mystery or two, and some form of jeopardy. You begin the book with questions and end it with answers. The concept I had for this series however was somewhat wider than that. As a whole, the plot and character arcs are massive, and I knew from the beginning there was no way I was going to fit it all into one book, or even a trilogy of books. I also knew that it was going to require a lot of different characters, most of whom are very different and many of whom are very complicated. To me, it made sense to introduce the most complex ones in their own individual books, as they navigated the aspects of the plot arcs that related most directly to them. Consequently books one and two have different narrators, as they take place at different times and in different places. Book three, Twisted Sister (which I began last November for NaNoWriMo and have blogged about previously), will see the introduction of twins Summer and Winter de Vere, who will share the role of narrator throughout the novel. Book four returns to Andee, book five to Evelynn, and so on and so forth. Despite this there isn’t a single book – with the obvious exception of book one – that doesn’t involve at least one character who has already appeared in a previous book. The plots overlap, and eventually become so entwined that most of the characters will be present in the final three books. Along the way you learn more about the overall world as a whole, have more questions raised about that world, in general, and have some of your existing world-related questions from previous books answered.

With so many narrators, there was one thing I knew from the start: I could not write each book in the voice of a hero, for the same reason Charlaine Harris should never have mentioned that infernal Word A Day calendar.

It’s boring.

Sookie StackhouseIt’s also pointless – the majority of readers can accept the fact that a person can educate herself, to a reasonable extent, through reading and, in this day and age, the internet and television. One does not have to attend university in order to be intelligent, literary, eloquent or even verbose. Expecting readers to accept, on the other hand, that a person can gain the ability to think, rationalise, and speak, with a reasonably degree of intelligence, literacy, and eloquence, and an extended vocabulary, simply by looking at a calendar once a day and reading Romance novels (Romance novels), is ridiculous. Strickly speaking I have nothing against the Romance genre but it’s hardly known for its scintillating prose.

This is why I find myself writing in the voices of heroes, anti-heroes, misguided villains, and out-and-out bad guys (or gals), and attempting to give my reader a new perspective, in each novel, on the same world. I hope this pays off, and readers enjoy the result. Unfortunately I’m going to have to wait until book two hits the shelves next year to find out what you all think of Evelynn, but if you have any comments on Andee – or any of the characters – do please let me know.

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2 Comments

  1. I loved this post! Anti-heroes are definitely more interesting than heroes. Heroes tend to be all surface, whereas anti-heroes have layers. Having said that, I think it’s possible to write a character who would be classed as a true hero but has enough genuine flaws to make him/her realistic – flaws that go beyond the ‘clumsy’ or ‘clueless in love’ (which as you say are both irritating and not real flaws at all) without quite getting into anti-hero territory.

    I think you did a great job balancing Andee, by the way. Probably because a lot of what would appear to make her ‘perfect’ is superficial – wealth, beauty, even talent – whereas her ‘flaws’ are much more internal, part of her fundamental personality. It’s the internal life of a character that makes her interesting, and you definitely achieve that. I’m looking forward to reading about Evelynn :-)

    • Thanks A.F.E. :) Andee was a little difficult to balance, I found at the start when I was first writing her that a lot of people were blinded by the – as you say – superficial qualities that make her and her life appear perfect, and completely missed everything else that was going on which was, of course, the whole point of the story. I’m having the opposite trouble with Evelynn at the moment. I look forward to your opinion on her 😀

      Glad you enjoyed the post :)

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