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Strategic Sympathy Reserves

Posted by | June 09, 2014 | Writing | 8 Comments

So a few months back, I wrote a blog-post about being tired of Fantasyland.

It’s all still true. I can count the fantasies I have read in the last six months on the fingers of one hand.

That said, ZOMG, The Goblin Emperor is amazing, go read it, I stayed up until three in the morning last night reading it, it is SO GOOD.

The main character, Maia, is just incredibly sympathetic. He is nice. I ached for this character, the way I ached for Aerin back in the day, the yes-I-would-be-this-person ache.

And this made me think that maybe, in my initial post about being jaded to so much fantasy as a setting, I had overlooked something.

Maybe part of my problem is that I am having a hard time finding fantasy characters I like.

It’s not like the old days, when all you needed was a bookish heroine and/or one who was not interested in pretty dresses and you had my immediate unswerving loyalty for the rest of the book. I am now past the point where any given persecuted teenage girl is automatically my soul-sister,* where the fact that your family/village/tribe just doesn’t understand you gives you a free pass to my sympathies.

I have not been willing to read books about awful people for a long time, because their awfulness is not the least bit interesting to me, but I am also starting to lose patience with standard fantasy people. All the interchangeable protagonists with interchangeable names. Yes, you’re scared, yes, your suffering is very important to YOU, but it’s not enough to suffer at me any more. You must be interesting while you are doing it.

Furthermore, god help you, I must like you. If I do not like you–not merely pity you, but like you–you are done.

(There are plenty of people who will argue for unlikeable protagonists, and that is great. I am not decreeing what future writing should be for all. I am saying, I don’t read those books. Because if I don’t like the character, I will not spend time with them. This is not to say that they are not valuable. Phillip K. Dick wrote some valuable stuff that should be appreciated. By people other than me. Because I hate all the characters in his books. A lot.**)

For this, I could be accused of a failure of empathy (and go ahead, feel free, I offer you my admission of my failure of empathy as a gift.) If I were a good person, or at least a sophisticated reader, undoubtedly I could relate to anyone. Any old barbarian warlord would do. I could put myself in the shoes of the entire cast of Game of Thrones instead of “On a good day Tyrion but generally nobody and actually I stopped reading awhile ago because I could not care less what happens to any of these awful, awful people.”*** I would pour myself into the personas of wise-cracking urban fantasy heroines with their hidden faerie underworlds and their nifty super-powers and their on-again off-again relationships with hunky muscled fill-in-the-blanks. I would play Angst Along With Elric. (Follow the bouncing Stormbringer!)

But I can’t, and I don’t. I have dumped out too much of my sympathy on whiny heroes and farmboys with destinies who throw stupid temper tantrums for no apparent reason. The Strategic Sympathy Reserves are running low and I do not consider it worth the environmental damage to start cracking open the Sympathetic Shale. I am just…tired of all these people.

It’s not that characters have to be me. I do not require thirty-seven-year-old divorced and remarried writer protagonists with a gardening bent, and if I did, I would be pretty disappointed by now.

But I would like to read more about people who are kind.

Not…y’know…not the lady-of-the-manor kindness you find in a lot of Regencies, not Tireless Social Reformer archetype, or Look How Selfless I Am, but just…kind.

I know it when I see it, anyhow.

You can do any horrible thing you want to them, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “Write me a nice book without conflict!”  Just…I look back at all the characters that I loved, really truly loved and who mattered–Aerin and Dr. Evan Wilson and Number Ten Ox and Brutha and Granny Weatherwax and Brother Cadfael and all the rest, and they were all good and most of them were kind (although it was a rather pointy kindness, at least in the case of Weatherwax.)

(Polite is also sadly lacking in many cases, as I may have lamented before.)

I am saying this badly, I think. I read back and there are huge holes where someone could shout things through, if they were so inclined. Perhaps I don’t know what I’m trying to say well enough to say it. I am not trying to shut up any character who is hard or angry, or tell any author that their characters have to be nice. No. If you need to write an angry and defiant character, write her. Someone will need that book, even if it isn’t me, or at least, isn’t me today.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t actually realize, until reading The Goblin Emperor, how much I was still willing to give to a book where the main character was so intensely sympathetic.

And it pointed up, in such sharp relief, how little I’ve been willing to give to a lot of fantasy books I’ve tried to read for a long time.

 

 

*Except at certain times of month for certain forms of comfort reading.

**Someone said to me once “They’re very human.” No, they’re very asshole. I know lots and lots of humans, and none of them behave like that. If they did, I would not hang around with them.

*Fine, I would prefer Arya not die, but given the series, the only way to do that is to stop reading.

8 Comments

  • Escher says:

    I’m SO with you on Game of Thrones. I stopped reading somewhere in the middle of the second book, not by decision, but just because there was always something more interesting than picking it up again and suddenly it’s six months later and I realize that I really don’t care enough to crack the thing open again. I guess I lost interest when all the heroic protagonists got killed off and those left weren’t showing any particular signs of growing into the role.

    This is the second time I’ve heard Number Ten Ox mentioned, so I guess I’m gonna have to read those books soon.

  • The first thing that leapt to mind here is “Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” series. Gods and Muses, I don’t know how I managed to drag myself through that awfulness. The completely unlikeable hero doesn’t get a clue until 6 pages from the end of the last book, and that may be because he got shoved aside for a even more unlikeable heroine halfway through. I have thieved shamelessly from the setting for Roleplaying games, but I will never read so much as a paragraph of that story ever again. A friend showed me that the author did do enjoyable work, so I’ve forgiven him .
    When I started Wheel of time, and halfway through the second book I asked the person I was borrowing it from “Does it ever go anywhere?” No? Well you can have it back now, I’m not reading anymore of it. It wasn’t worth reading more of it just to thieve from the setting for a roleplaying game. I’ve gotten better at avoiding stories with unlikeable “heroes” since then. – Have managed to completely avoid Game of Thrones. Yes, I know it has a huge fan base – So does John Norman’s Gor series.

  • Pat says:

    > any given persecuted teenage girl is automatically my soul-sister

    One could take this as a good sign – there are now enough developed female characters in the genre that we can pick the kind ones to identify with.

  • Escher says:

    Yeah, Wheel of Time is one of those things where the whole story could’ve been done in half the space — or less! — if the author hadn’t been so enamored of his own world-building.

    I mean, yes, world building is important in a fantasy novel, but only so long as it doesn’t distract from the actual story. WoT is almost the opposite; sometimes it feels like the story is only there as a framework on which to hang intimate descriptions of places, people, and cultures.

    Rand is semi-unlikeable for a lot of the story (mostly in the mopey-whiny form), but fortunately his co-stars are much more likeable, and grow into really awesome people. Unfortunately it takes way too many books for that to happen, so while I ultimately like the overarching narrative, I would never recommend these books to anyone because it’s too many thousands of pages for what you get.

    When I started out there were five books in the series, and while they were doorstoppers, I figured the end was coming up soon. (For pete’s sake, the last two books at the time were called “The Shadow Rising” and “The Fires of Heaven”, and “The Lord of Chaos” was about to come out, which certainly sounds like the final apocalyptic battle…) And then it went on and on and ON and I only finished the danged things because I’d invested so much time at that point that I wanted to know where it was all going (and while the end was okay, it was pretty predictable and wasn’t really worth it all).

  • Scribblegoat says:

    This is actually an interesting way of thinking through what draws me back to a genre I’ve mostly abandoned. I’ve been re-reading the books I actually distinctly remember from my “IF IT’S UNDER FANTASY AT THE PAPERBACK EXCHANGE I WILL READ IT” stage, and the two that have really emerged for me are the Pratchett witch books (sometimes you just have to fix things because you can and they need to be fixed) and Ian McDowell’s “Mordred’s Curse,” in which the protagonist has this appealing much-too-smart-and-educated-for-his-own-good teenage-boyness that lets you realize he exacerbates his own problems, but his general attitude toward the world works for me, and I think this is why: He hates everyone else for good reasons. It probably says terrible things about me that my standard for “worthwhile character” seems to be “intelligently echoes my sentiments about other characters,” but there you go.

    I recently read Holly Black’s “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown,” though, and it actually fits this quite well: the characters you’re supposed to have any interest in or sympathy for are, to a one, the characters who take it for granted that they will help the people around them when they need it. There’s a very explicit “this cool person is cool because I trust them with a child” moment, and that gave the book a resonance for me that went way beyond the “hey, I’ll read anything about a mentally ill philanthropist vampire paired with an overprotective, vampire-hating oldest sibling with a penchant for drama.”

  • Ah, Brother Cadfael. In times of trouble in my teenage years he would come to me and give me mental hugs. Yes. Kind is one of my big things for fictional people, and one of my biggest things for real people too, incidentally.

    I’m guessing you’ve read Lois McMaster Bujold. Her protagonists are usually kind and empathetic. Cazaril from Curse of Chalion. I love that man so much.

  • Interesting – These are some of the reasons I loved Digger. Filled with characters you cared about and would love to meet.
    Of the web comics, there are many filled with obnoxious characters. The ones I read mostly have some good ‘people’ in there too.
    Even Schlock Mercenary – many good and kind characters.
    I read one of the Thomas Covenant books and part of another – and I have no desire to read any more. I was vaguely curious to see where it would go. But not enough to read it.
    – and my condolences about the town/development. That is a truly awful prospect. Can you arrange (require?) all traffic to go the other way and zone everything else around with a max population density of – maybe five people per acre?

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