Monday, May 07, 2012

Active and Passive Characters in Literature

When I read "Rebecca" a couple of years ago, I was less than impressed by the weakness of the lead character. She basically spent the novel being buffetted by outrageous fortune, and spends most of the novel whining about how weak and stupid she is. I felt that what was needed was a good feminist (or even a mediocre one) to stand up for herself, to declare that, no, this was not right. That it wasn't right that her husband neglected her, that it wasn't right that the house was haunted by the memory of the ex-wife, and that the household staff damn well would respect her authoritah.

The root issue here was that the lead character was reactive, rather than proactive. She utterly failed to make any decisions; indeed, she failed to realise that she had any decisions to make.

When I read the "Soldier Son" trilogy, I likewise found myself extremely annoyed. There were huge numbers of words. Endless, endless words. And most of them consisted of the main character whining. But that trilogy was even worse. See, "the magic" had selected him to perform some great task, but he hadn't been informed what that task was. And whenever he failed to act as the magic wished (whether intentionally or otherwise) he would be punished. That was bad enough, but worse was to come - later in the trilogy, the lead character literally became a passenger in his own body; he literally couldn't take any meaningful action to affect the plot.

And, actually, almost any novel that features a long journey suffers from this problem - if the author isn't careful, the character's choices reduce down to just two: keep going or turn back. Where "turn back" isn't much of an option. And so, unless the journey itself is particularly interesting (spoiler alert: it probably isn't), then every word spent detailing that time is just wasted time. Skip to the end, please - what happens when they get there?

I was reminded of this when reading "A Dance With Dragons", the latest novel in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. Here, G.R.R. Martin takes his most interesting character, Tyrion, and puts him on a long journey from one court to another. Now, Tyrion was really interesting because he spent his time scheming and plotting, playing one faction against another, and generally being sarcastic. And even when he was a prisoner with, seemingly, no power at all, he was still fun because he could still find allies and weave plots.

But during this journey... well, he's on a boat. Then he's on a horse. Then he's on a boat. Oh, and now he's been diverted. Ah, now he's this close to his goal...

And we end up, somehow, with a thousand-page novel in which nothing happens. We waited five years for the fifth part of that story, or eight years for the continuation of Tyrion's part in the plot (he didn't appear in book four, due to writer's block), and we would have been better off just skipping the novel entirely and reading the plot summary on wikipedia instead.

(And even "Lord of the Rings" isn't immune to criticism here. The journey in "Fellowship..." is fine, since the characters have several choices and interesting debates ensue. But once Frodo and Sam are on their own in "The Two Towers", the story becomes much more limited. They endure, because they have little choice. When entire chapters can be boiled down to "swamp", it's maybe not for the best.)

Of course, it's possible that I'm over-sensitive to this. In RPGs, there is a concept of "railroading", where the player characters aren't given any real choices, but have to follow the pre-determined path. Of course, this is a concept that doesn't really apply to novels, since the author makes all the choices for the characters - every novel is a railroad on those terms. Still, there is a difference between a character who is active rather than passive. And just as you should write in an active rather than a passive voice (because it's more interesting), so too should authors try to write about characters who are active rather than passive, for exactly the same reason.

(Oh, and by the way, the issue with Tyrion is not the only thing that is wrong with "A Dance With Dragons", nor "A Song of Ice and Fire" as a whole. Basically, it's going exactly the same way as "Wheel of Time", with a plot that's quickly fragmenting, too many characters, and far too many words for not enough plot. My advice to people new to the series is to read the first three books, and then treat it as one of those great unfinished series.)

#15: "A Dance With Dragons: Dreams and Dust", by George R.R. Martin
#16: "A Dance With Dragons: After the Feast", by George R.R. Martin (Note that these two constitute a single novel, which was split into two volumes for the paperback release. Because of my "one cover/one book" rule, they count as two entries here.)
#17: "Pathfinder: The Wormwood Mutiny", by Richard Pett


Kezzie said...

Interesting points!!!

Cap'n Ric said...

do you not think that there is some inherent value in words being used to paint a picture rather than necessarily advancing the plot through the characters? The passages in The Two Towers, I would contend, are a beautiful and brilliantly-written picture and portrayal of the world that they're journeying through. It's important that you get a sense of the bleakness and difficulty of their journey because it affects them and their relationship and choices later on, whereas saying "they went through a swamp - it was bleak and difficult" doesn't quite do the same.

Steph/ven said...

There's a value in using some words to paint a picture, yes. And, in honesty, that section in LotR isn't too bad, although it is definitely the weakest part of the novel.

But there is also very definitely a question of pacing to consider, and too many modern authors (especially fantasy authors) seem to have forgotten this. And, of course, very few modern fantasies (in fact, virtually none) are as well-written as LotR.

Cap'n Ric said...

Yes. Writing words in a "look how clever I am and how big my book is" way is just annoying and ruins the pace. Writing words because they add to some aspect of the story (not necessarily the plot, as I argued above) is good; and I would argue that deliberately slowing the pace is, at times, a literary technique and so a justifiable move.

I suppose it's like music in films. If you notice it and have to ask why it's there then it has failed.