Let’s Kill the Virginal Virgins and the Dastardly Dirtbags

Okay, I am not among the legions of Game of Throne fans. I’ve only read 3-4 chapters of the first book and watched a few episodes of the HBO series. Never could get into it. I’m not sure why, since I love fantasy – give me sword and sorcery any day, baby! And George R. R. Martin seems like a fine writer. Maybe it is just not the right time in my life to read/watch that series. It’s happened before. I used to not be able to read Stephen King (too much swearing and too much violence) yet I just finished The Dark Half and felt no qualms with either the prevalent language or the violent skullduggery.

Now, I came to Stephen King through his memoir On Writing – fell in love with him more like! – and perhaps the same will happen between me and Martin. I was reading his interview in Vanity Fair this morning and came across his description of his “gray characters.” I’ll let Martin speak for himself:

“I try to create these fully fleshed, gray characters that have ambiguities and conflicts within themselves, so they’re not heroes and they’re not villains. One of my favorite characters – and I love Lord of the Rings; don’t make it sound like I’m bashing Tolkien here, ‘cause it’s like my favorite book of all time – but my favorite Tolkien character in Lord of the Rings is Boromir, because he’s the grayest of the characters, and he’s the one who really struggles with the ring and ultimately succumbs to it, but then dies heroically. You see, he has both good and evil in him… Real people are complex. Real people surprise us and they do different things on different days.”

This made me think of why I can’t stand to read romance novels anymore. The protagonists in romance novels are all so… perfect. Beautiful, smart, caring, warm, brave heroine meets loyal, honorable (though often tormented) handsome, sexy hero. There’s nary a fault between the two of them so the author is forced to manufacture misunderstandings in order to create conflict. On the reverse side of the character coin, there are characters I just cannot stand! I see this more in movies, but occasionally I’ve come across it in writing. These are people so selfish, so greedy and manipulative that, should you meet them in real life, you would be tempted to label them as sociopaths – and these are supposed to be the heroes of the story!

Whenever I sit down to write, I feel a little nervous about greeting my characters again. What if they’ve morphed into insufferable bores? What if I’ve refined them so much that they are now white sugar instead of the earthy brown organic stuff? Or, conversely, what if I’ve given them SO many faults they aren’t even likable anymore? How do you walk that delicate balance between characters evil and saccharine – to, in short, create HUMAN characters? My weakness is in making my antagonists too one-dimensional, too bad.

Related to this is a lamentable trend in writing – that seems to be dying at last – not to inflict true harm on main characters. A heroine might get slapped once in a while. A hero suffers a black-eye here, a flesh wound there. But many times I feel disappointed by an author’s choice to pull back just when he/she has put a character in a truly untenable situation. It’s not exactly deus ex machina, per se but more a glossing over of the bad situation. I mentioned this to a writing buddy of mine recently. I love my characters but, damn it, I say pile on the misery! Not melodramatically, let me be clear. But if the story calls for one of my characters to have a leg cut off, THAT. LEG. COMES. OFF. If the story demands one of my heroes to commit murder, than I will cheerily put the murder weapon in his/her hand. Then, comes the up hill battle of proving that my hero/heroine is still WORTHY of that title. That he/she still has the goods – despite handicaps and felonious acts – to hobble through the rest of the story as a hero or heroine, or at least enable others to in his/her place.

As pretentious as Bono can sometimes seem, I think he says it best: “My heroes are the ones who survived doing it wrong, who made mistakes, but recovered from them.”

Ying and Yang, baby!

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