By David Flin
George MacDonald Fraser caught the tone exactly right in The Pyrates, when describing Ben Avery. “The sight of him was enough to make ordinary men feel that they were wearing odd socks, and women to go weak at the knees … His finely-chiseled features bespoke both the man of action and the philosopher, their youthful lines tempered by a maturity beyond his years; there was beneath his composed exterior a hint of steely power … Besides being gorgeous, he had a starred First from Oxford, could do the hundred in evens, played the guitar to admiration, helped old women across the street, said his prayers, read Virgil and Aristophanes for fun, and generally made the Admirable Crichton look like an illiterate slob.”
MacDonald Fraser did this deliberately, making fun of those central characters who do not have any flaws, and are perfect in every respect. Other authors do something similar because they are so in love with the character that they cannot conceive of any flaws that the character might have. Perhaps the classic example in fiction is Lord Peter Wimsey, the creation of Dorothy L Sayers.
Sayers was so much in love with the character that she even wrote herself into the story so that she could have a romance with him. Wimsey was a paragon of all the virtues, skilled at everything he turned his hand to. When he took up advertising, he was better at coming up with advertising campaigns than people who worked in the trade; although he was a son of the 15th Duke of Denver, he seems to have an uncanny knack of understanding ordinary working class people; he played cricket for Oxford University, where he got a First, naturally. He served and survived as a junior officer on the Western Front throughout the entire war. He is, like MacDonald Fraser’s Ben Avery, ridiculously perfect.
It’s boring. And yet a number of authors do seem to pile on the wish-fulfilment when writing about a character that clearly becomes a fascination for the author. The character gains unexplained abilities as the story progresses; they start off as skilled in hand-hand combat, then they need to travel, and they suddenly have previously unmentioned language skills. There’s a need to develop improvised weapons, and out of the hat comes the most amazing weaponsmith skills. Oh, and they also turn out to be superb at off-road driving, and incredibly well read about whatever subject happens to be under discussion, and obviously, they are completely irresistible to members of the opposite sex, they’ve somehow learned how to fly a plane, they understand the intricacies of camouflage, they’re obviously never sea- or air-sick, and the reader gets to hate the character more and more.
Story-telling is about creating a challenge for the central characters. If you have a character so skilled, then there is no tension involved in any challenge that they might come up against. In this situation, you need to limit the character in some other way. There are various ways that this can be done, and many of them can be found in comic books of super-powered characters, as might be expected, given that we are – in effect – dealing with super-powered characters in these sorts of tales.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility Internal constraints, often moral ones, are a big theme in comics. Many heroes have a specific code, such as Batman’s No-Kill policy. The tension here doesn’t come from whether Batman will win in a fight against ordinary thugs – that’s a foregone conclusion. The tension is on whether or not he can retain his moral code during the struggle.
It’s often an essential part of the villain’s plan; not to defeat the hero, but to get the hero to break a self-imposed code of ethics, to create self-doubt in the hero’s mind, and hence make the hero easier to defeat in the next phase of the villain’s dastardly plan.
Do It For Me. If the story isn’t about the physical threat to the central character, then one alternative is that it is about how the super-powered central character relates to and reacts with the normal people in their life. Spiderman has Mary-Jane and Aunt May to worry about; Batman has Alfred; Superman has Lois Lane.
Whatever the precise nature of the relationship, the reader has a connection with the character through these normal friends and relations. It’s difficult for a reader to relate to an over-powered character; wish-fulfilment will only get you so far. A normal friend of the character gives the reader that connection. Captain Marvel (comic version, not the film) had Rick Jones, and the list goes on.
It grounds the character. Perhaps more importantly, it grounds the author. As a writer, when your focus is on a character with skills, there can always be a temptation to engage in an arms race, and increase skill levels or add in brand-new skills (look, he can perform emergency tracheotomies as well). By constantly having to come back to normal people, this tendency can be kept in check; the author is made aware of the growing skill differential.
If you won’t, then society will.
If you write about over-powered characters, and don’t want them to have moral codes that limit their actions, and you don’t want to have grounding normal characters around (perhaps because the focus is set on a team of super-powered agents akin to the A-Team), then you have the option of introducing limiting factors imposed by the outside world. For example, the X-Men are mutants, and are badly regarded by humanity as a result.
Perhaps not unreasonably, ordinary people aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of people potentially able to level small cities wandering around with no real checks on what they can do. This very tension provides many plot opportunities.
Or there’s the very traditional Dirty Dozen route, of convicted prisoners with the necessary skills being given a chance to redeem themselves in a dangerous mission. If you go down this route, then the genre requirement is pretty much established that over half – and more typically all but one or two – die in carrying out the mission. Redemption is possible, but it has to come at a high price, or else it is pretty meaningless.
It’s also the case that if you’re going down the Dirty Dozen/Magnificent Seven route, then you should take account of the fact that you’re putting together a team of what are – at base – demonstrable psychopaths with no friends. That’s why they were in prison awaiting execution in the first place. How much teamwork, realistically, is such a group going to achieve? In the Dirty Dozen, the Telly Savalas character got side-tracked during the mission – in accordance with the obsession defined for the character – and that ended up throwing the plan out of kilter, and that resulted in the deaths of many of the team.
Put simply: stone-cold solo psychopathic killers do not generally work well in a team set-up. I'm amazed I have to write that, but I've seen too many such "Teams" that seem to operate with any hitch.
However, as an author, you might not be interested in intricacies of interactions, and just want to have a bunch of over-powered maniacs operating without any friends, moral code, and hidden away from society. It’s not really my cup of tea, but such action thrillers are a staple of a certain genre.
But you still need to introduce some tension into the situation. How do you do that?
Beef-up the villains. If all that you are interested in writing about is the action between the protagonists (and at this point, I refuse to call them heroes) and the antagonists, then you have to make the antagonists a credible threat.
They can be smart, giving the protagonists serious difficulties in coming up with something. Not a childishly simple tactical puzzle to solve, like how to get past a single defence line, which the reader can solve before the end of the describing sentence, but something that is going to stretch the braincells.
They can be super-skilled, to much the same level as the protagonists. If the central protagonist can fire two heavy machine guns, one in each hand while running through incoming fire, and hit two different targets with each gun, then someone from the other side needs to be able to do the same.
They can be supremely well-equipped, far beyond that available to the protagonist.
In general terms, if there is to be any reader tension in the outcome, you need two of these three. Generally, authors who have reached this stage are, to put it kindly, tactically inept, so they have major difficulties making the antagonists fight in a smart manner. But please, as the very least, don’t make the antagonists as thick as pig shit.
Find me somebody to love. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t able to achieve this, and you don’t want to set up tense action scenes, then you’ve got precisely one trick left. You have to somehow give the protagonist a personality that the reader can get invested in. Despite everything, the reader has to love the protagonist.
George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman is an example of this. Flashman is not overburdened with moral scruples, has few long-term companions on his adventures, there is never any tension in the action, and society rarely imposes any significant limits on his actions. And yet MacDonald Fraser manages to give Flashman just enough charm to enable the reader to regard the character as almost a lovable rogue, rather than as an unpleasant piece of work.
The downside is that this takes seriously good writing ability to pull off. If I had that level of ability, I would be writing this from my yacht off Monaco, sipping vintage champagne, and surrounded by incredibly photogenic young people. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not. I also suspect that if you’re reading this, then you probably aren’t yet amongst the elite of writers.
However, if you can pull this off, you can rescue the story. Good luck with that.
None of the above. There are any number of books where none of the above apply. The focus of these books is on descriptions of how various opponents and innocent bystanders get butchered by the protagonist, and everyone other than the central characters exist simply to be targets to be disposed of while the author types with one hand.
You’ll typically find extensive descriptions on the hardware carried by the protagonist, who’ll generally give his (it’s almost always a him) favourite gun a name. Be warned; the gun will have more personality than anything in the story.
Other than that, you’ll get action sequences that range from implausible to utterly comical, with antagonists whose sole raison d’etre is to stay still while the protagonist performs carefully described violence upon them, ending their futile existence with as much graphic descriptions as the author can manage.
I gather such books sell. However, I can’t really describe the process of putting together such a book as writing, as it is mere regurgitation of formulaic plots and characters.
There’s one other aspect about such books. The antagonists are invariably mind-numbingly stupid. They exist only to be killed, and the author isn’t going to invest the time to think through anything they might come up with.
My next article will look at ways you can avoid having villains who have less brains than the large blunt object they carry.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow