My weak spots

Admit it, you have some, too: those narrative motifs, character types, etc. that you just roll over for. Even if they’re cheesy, even if the story around them isn’t that great, you’re a sucker for them, because they hit whatever unknown button lies deep within your heart.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of mine:

Sibling dynamics. This is my favorite flavor of family relationship. Brothers and sisters, twins, friends so close they might as well be siblings — I’m there. No idea why, but these things aren’t always rational. Maybe because it’s more of a relationship of equals than parent-child setups are, and siblings have usually known each other from such a young age that it allows for a huge amount of depth. Whatever the reason, if you give me siblings, you’ve already got a hook in me.

All growed up and ready to kick butt. I go all squishy inside for the moment when the young generation gets a chance to prove themselves, to step up and handle adult challenges even if they are not yet adults themselves. The DA in the later Harry Potter books, and most of the cast of Ender’s Game, remind me that “adulthood” is a movable threshold, dependent on circumstances. Kids who grow up in tough circumstances may be ready for the big leagues way earlier than you would expect.

We knew each other back in the day. I also go all squishy for stories that have an older generation with a complicated history, especially if they’re the protagonists of an earlier series. Harry Potter, again, with the Marauders and Snape and that whole lot; also Tamora Pierce’s later Tortall books, where Alanna and Jonathan and Gary and the rest are running around doing the grown-up thing on the edges of the plot. I love the depth that can add: even if they play a minor role in the story, my imagination gets to fill in their motivations and reactions, because I know them so well.

You didn’t know he was [X], did you? Characters with a hidden and unexpected layer. Sometimes this is the Undercover Cop story, where it turns out so-and-so isn’t a bad guy after all. Sometimes it’s a dark secret coming out. It’s such an odd little thing, but I get a little chill in the movie U-571 when one of the sailors starts speaking German, because within the context of the times, it’s like he’s suddenly revealed himself to be The Enemy in disguise, and I can’t help but think how the guys around him would react to that. It can be a good layer or a bad one, but the existence and sudden revelation of it is what gets me in the gut.

Villains Unite! Ohhhh yeah. This might be the king of them all. Circumstances force enemies to work together toward a common goal. There’s a scene in The X-Files that I swear is there just for viewers like me, where the show puts Mulder and Scully and Skinner and the Lone Gunmen and Krycek and Marita all in a room together, working out a solution to their problems. Or Snape and Sirius having to shake hands in Harry Potter. You lose points if the conflict that separated them is fake (one side hates the other for bad or wrong-headed reasons — see: the Spiderman movies); no, I want them to legitimately hate each other . . . and have to work together anyway. Give me that, and I’ll follow you just about anywhere.

Your mileage, of course, will vary. What makes one viewer sit up and beg like a puppy will irritate another. But what are your weak spots? What narrative tricks get you every time?

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  1. 1. MD

    Stoic characters with troubled pasts that haunt them despite their best efforts to move past it). Or stoic characters caught in the inevitable wheel of destiny.

    Every. Time.

    And I’m totally with you on “Villains Unite.”

  2. 2. Laura Reeve

    Villains unite — make those enemies work together against a greater evil/problem! I can’t get away from this in my own novels, and I’ll groan when authors don’t take advantage of this possibility in novels I’m reading. It’s an automatic grabber for me and I’ll keep reading to see how characters handle the challenge.

  3. 3. Cialti

    For me, it’s school settings. Love it. Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall series, Harry Potter, etc.

  4. 4. Kate Elliott

    Friendships. Real, strong, meaningful friendships. With humor makes it even better.

    Also, the outcast child/teen who no one appreciates and/or who is kicked around. I can’t always read these, depending on the text, but the emotional hook has a strong chance of grabbing me.

  5. 5. Soni

    I love those fringe-surfing, independent, under the radar, lone wolf, black market protags, myself, like the lead characters in Gibson’s “Neuromancer” or Lawrence Block’s “Burglar” series.

    Also, I fall hard for the masterfully practical and pragmatic McGyver-meets-John-Wayne type pitted against the world, a la Sterling’s The Change series (Dies the Fire, et al).

    Finally, you can’t go wrong with British mysteries and ‘slody alien sci-fi.

    [Really, give me any apocalyptic or cyberpunk plot and I'm in.]

  6. 6. Megaera

    Swift, smart repartee, a la Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Where the two people have a History, and down deep care about and respect each other, but damned if they’re going to admit that to anyone, least of all each other.

    Even better if they’ve got to work together to make the plot come out right in the end.

    Oh, and if you’re going to give me a series, I’m a sucker for the kind where people actually grow and change and age over the course of the books, and don’t pull a Nancy Drew/Stephanie Plum where they forever exist in a single year of their lives.

  7. 7. Adam Heine

    I love the highly trained, super-cool protag (sometimes with a dark history) who can do awesome things, but sometimes hates doing it. Jason Bourne in the Bourne Identity. Sam Vimes in Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Riddick in Pitch Black. John Preston in Equilibrium.

    Also (possibly related to Villains Unite!) the powerful sub-villain who ultimately turns against the greater villain. Darth Vader. Zuko from Avatar. Zabuza from Naruto.

  8. 8. bob charters

    Often, a story of mine will have one character who’s a bit too good to be true — too much of a saint, or too much [something], but usually, he/she will die like a martyr, but in doing so, open some door or other that couldn’t have opened otherwise. The rest of the characters have to make it the rest of the way with their imperfections, following the guiding light.

    Twins have appeared in a few of mine as well. However, I don’t feel the need to do ‘comedy of errors’ or other mix-ups that often infest such stories, because I got that out of my system with my first one (never been published), a very tall story called TWINS.

    The “hidden and unexpected layer” bit — I actually taught my Creative Writing students (high school) that a good element of a plot is the ‘discovery’ element, where Harry Potter realises who his parents were and who he himself is, where Frodo realises that the ring sitting in the desk drawer is actully the One Ring of power etc… I wouldn’t call that a weak spot.

    I suppose, though, they could be ‘weak spots’ if they make our stories too predictable.

  9. 9. Ryan Viergutz

    Give me a character repenting for his dark past, a reserved femme fatale, backstabbings left and right, disturbing surreal imagery and global conspiracies, and I’m in even if the story doesn’t really make sense.

    I’m picky, but disturbing surrealism can make many things entertaining.

  10. 10. Chiya

    Recently I’ve taken a liking to characters like Snape from Harry Potter – the ones that have a back story but don’t tell it easily. The stoic character who you see a little bit of emotion from, and in the end…..well if you haven’t read HP and the Deathly Hallows I won’t give it away for you. I also like how ambiguous and troubled he is.

    If I were a writer, I’d totally be jealous of JK Rowling – not so much because of the castle and success, but because of Snape (and the other characters).

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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