Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
June 2009

How to Create a Series Hero

I am one of those readers who loves a series. When I was a teenager, I read all of the Perry Mason mysteries in one summer. I loved Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Horatio Hornblower. I loved Asimov's robot series, when I found them, in high school. As a younger child, I loved Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series and C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, although I got frustrated sometimes when the main characters weren't the Pevinses, the way I wanted them to always be. Minor characters taking over the book annoyed me. I wanted the main heroes (or heroines) to be always in the limelight. They were heroes and heroines for a reason; they were most heroic. I liked them best, and I didn't really like the stories of minor characters coming into their own or evil characters turning good.

Now as an adult, I have added to my list of favorite series characters: Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan, Robin Hobb's Fitz Farseer, Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, Orson Scott Card's Ender Wiggin, David Feintuch's Nick Seafort, and Megan Whalen Turner's Eugenides. Because I write the kinds of stories I love to read, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about what it is that is similar in these characters that makes me willing to buy every book ever written about them, and that makes me think up stories about them in my own head sometimes, even though I know that realistically, I can never expect to earn any money from such a project. I just love the characters, so I can't help it.

First of all, a hero is a character who has power, but is not the king or the ultimate power in the situation. This is not what I would have expected when I first started reading these stories, which is the reason that when I first wrote stories about my heroes, they tended to be the king or the prince or something similar. In fact, Robin Hobb's Fitz is the bastard grandson of the king and can never inherit. Yet he finds a way to make a difference. The fool calls him the "catalyst," the "changer," because he alters history for the whole world. But he doesn't do it openly. Ender Wiggin is a kid, and he is always put in situations in which he cannot possibly do well (yet does). Eugenides isn't in the line of succession for the crown, but he is related to royalty and he is The Queen's Thief. He knows what the court is about, but he doesn't take it very seriously. Nick Seafort is just a teenager when the series starts, in a nothing ship with a nothing captain. But when events come down, he is there, and he takes control. Harry Dresden is just a minor wizard trying to get by in Chicago, trying to escape the White Council's edicts -- until he becomes one of them, but a renegade one of them. Miles Vorkosigan is the cousin of the king, but has no wish to become king himself, and can't even get into the Imperial Academy because of his handicaps. He has to go off-world to do anything important. At least, that is how things start.

These heroes are also the kind of characters who do not accept defeat. They keep trying, no matter how much they have lost, no matter what the stakes are. There is something in them (and the author has to give us enough of a backstory for us to believe this) that makes them keep going on, no matter how much pain they are in. And when this story ends, we have to believe that they are not going to retire before the next story begins. Some writers, like Bujold, let their characters change, so that one story is adventure, then another is a romance, then another a mystery. The Horatio Hornblower series is all about naval battles, and the format for the stories is much the same. But Miles Vorkosigan as a character has an inner core that remains the same. He has honor; he loves his home planet no matter how much he hates it; he has a father whose reputation he must live up to. Fitz Farseer has a set role to play, and the first three books seem to be the end of it. Except that he is such a great character that Hobb brings him back for a new trilogy. You can't let a character like that die or even fade away into the night. Ender grows up for Speaker for the Dead, but he is still Ender at heart, and the new books in the series let us see the change more gradually from childhood to adulthood.

A trait that I think has been made too much of in series heroes, but which does occur, is the idea of destiny, or the unique magic or power that these characters have. Perhaps this is just my taste, but I tend to prefer characters who are just ordinary Joes, who I can aspire to be like even without any power. I don't mind it when it turns out that gradually, we learn that there is an inheritance of some kind of magic, that this character is special. But I want to find it out later rather than earlier. Or at least I want to feel like whatever special power this character will come into, it is balanced by the ordinariness of the situations that they find themselves in (think of Harry Potter with the Dursleys -- no matter what he does at Hogwarts, he still has to go back to them during the summer and this is part of what we love about him. He is like us, despite that scar on his forehead.) I want to feel like what makes this character heroic is his own choices and not his inheritance. Why do I want this? Because I want to believe that there is something heroic in me, as well. I want to believe that I can make the hard choices that will make a difference in the world. Hey, this is fantasy, isn't it? And that's the fantasy I want to live in.

Another important part of these stories is the early history of loss. Fitz Farseer's story begins with the loss of his mother. He cannot even remember her face. The loss of that part of his history is what defines him from the first. Miles Vorkosigan is handicapped before he is even born, and he loses his grandfather's love and respect then. In some sense, the whole series is set in motion by his desire to prove that he is worth his grandfather's love. Even when old Piotr is dead, he still wants to please him because he has internalized this loss. Harry Dresden? Mother died before he can remember. His father died when he was very young. Then Harry himself kills his uncle. He is thrust into a world of war before he is ready, and forced to cope with the way it affects everything. He sees the world in black and white more than we do, and maybe that is another thing we like about series characters. They are able to make decisions clearly in ways that we cannot. Even in difficult situations like the ones Ender Wiggin faces (whose story begins with the death of a school bully, the guilt of which he must live with the rest of his life), he makes choices immediately and even if he regrets some of them later, we still admire that he makes the choice. These characters start with loss and each book hurts them further by adding to their losses. It is part of the series that dear friends (or sometimes enemies) will die each time, and the hero must accept this new loss and go on.

A great series character tends to be a loner. There are characters who have deep friendships and sometimes romances, but the friendships are tenuous. We readers know that any real friend of the hero is bound to be killed off in the next book, because, well, that's how it goes. It's dangerous standing next to the guy everyone wants to kill. Harry Dresden found his brother Thomas, a vampire, and we believed that he could control his terrible thirst for blood. Until the last book came out, and Thomas can no longer be trusted. That's just the way that it is, for real heroes, I think. And a romance? Tricky to make it last long. For one thing, women tend not to want to be left to raise children by themselves. For another, once a single romance is allowed to become permanent, then there are a lot of fun opportunities missed in later books in the series for more romantic tension. I will say that Megan Whalen Turner handles this in a brilliant way that I have never seen before. Gen becomes King to Attolia's Queen, and the action never stops. But he does it inside the palace. I think he is a bit more limited. We'll see what happens in the next book in the series. Ender can only keep Jane as his friend because everyone else dies around him, not because of wars, but because of space travel. Fitz and Nick Seafort both end their lives (or so it seems) in miserable isolation because they have used up everyone they know in their great cause.

Villains are an important part of any good series. There has to be a strong enough villain to stand against the growing strength of the hero. In the TV series, The Mentalist, for example, my husband and I were watching the first season finale and I kept reminding myself that we wouldn't see the villain in this episode because it was simply too early to have any hope of finding him. It has to be strung out over multiple seasons. Harry Potter has to fight multiple incarnations of Voldemort, each one more powerful than before. But there are series in which there is simply a new villain in each episode. In that case, you don't have the problem of making the reader (or viewer) feel manipulated because the villain will always be out of reach. It can be annoying to have a whole novel focus on finding a villain who slips away in the end. As a writer, I think you need to be careful to be sure that something has been defeated, that the villain has a piece of him chipped away, even if in the next book his anger makes him rise again worse than before.

A final aspect of a series character is that they have problems with authority. Rules don't apply to the hero of a series. I don't know if this is partly an American way of seeing the world. Lois Bujold argues that most sf books are political fantasies about the individual versus the system. I think she's right. Look at Harry Dresden. Even when he becomes a member of the White Council, he isn't really a member. He has to remain an outsider, willing to stretch rules for his protégée, or he just isn't Harry Dresden. Cops who are series characters face difficulties because they break the rules. How long will they remain cops? P.I.'s are easier, since they have fewer rules to deal with. But they can have their licenses revoked, too. Harry Potter has to disobey the increasingly stupid rules the Ministry of Magic places on students because he is truly fighting evil far more than any student wizard should. This further leads to isolation for the main character. Not only can he not have any close friends, but he also cannot be part of a community. Because communities have rules, written or unwritten, and eventually any community would cast out someone who broke rules as often as these heroes do. Though we fantasize about the freedom of being these characters, the truth is, we wouldn't actually allow them to be part of our communities, either. Not in real life, anyway. We would probably diagnose these characters as having a mental illness and send them to a psychiatrist for hero complex, get them medicated, and then see if they're happier. They probably would be. Happiness isn't for the hero. Happiness comes with peace, and a hero isn't at peace with his place. He is needed, and most heroes at one point or another say that they wish they didn't have to do what they do. But they can't stop themselves. When it comes down to it, that's who they are.

Now a point about the length of a series. We've all read (or watched) series that have gone on too long. A great series character becomes larger than life in his exploits. And while it lasts, we love it. But there comes a point beyond which a writer cannot keep raising the stakes, finding bigger and badder villains for the hero to battle against, and where it feels like the world has been saved too many times already. Sometimes we have just been left too many times on the edge of our seats at the end of a book that can't quite end anything because there will be another book coming out in exactly one year's time. I think that then it is time to say good bye to a hero, for a reader and for the writer. Sometimes it is possible to resurrect a hero in a new form of life, as when Bujold lets Miles become an Imperial Auditor. But I am not sure the series has continued to hold up the same quality as it once had. Captain Kirk, wearing a toupee and a girdle, is just not as believable out on the planet as he once was. And Captain Kirk (or Admiral) is just not as interesting behind a desk. It is time for other characters to take the story, or for the story to be reinvented.

One of the things I wonder about as I look over my list of favorite series characters is why there are no female characters on the list. I do not think I am prejudiced against female characters. There are a few series out there with female characters (Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison, for example). But this is a new phenomenon, within the last ten years or so. Why didn't they exist before then? Is it because women get married and that's the end of their adventures? They have children and then they are yoked to the life of the home? Even Bujold, whose Cordelia I love, lets her step out of the limelight because of Miles. This may have been a purely commercial choice (although I doubt it). I have heard more than one publisher tell me that they are looking for fantasy with a male protagonist like Harry Potter. A female one won't do. The old adage about girls being willing to read about boys and boys not being willing to read about girls is still out there. I think it's time to change that.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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