October 15th 2009
The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest
I attended Albacon last weekend where, among other things, I participated in a pair of panels about Villains and Villainousness. The panels crystallized some thoughts I had about a book I finished recently and which have been floating around in my head ever since.
I won’t name the book, or the author. Though I am called Sam-Who-Likes-Nothing with good reason, my policy is never to rip anything unless it’s already important and popular enough that there is absolutely no chance my harrumphing will be paid attention to. Books are always a good thing, whether or not they’re to my taste.
And this series of books are very good in many ways. They’re well-written, with interesting settings and characters, and a fascinating magic system. The story is first rate, too, with the characters going through absolute hell along the way. But the books haven’t sold particularly well, despite critical raves.
I think I know why.
There’s been a movement in some fantasy circles recently calling for fantasy villains to be more interesting and well-rounded. That’s well and good – it’s much better to have a villain with understandable motives than one who’s simply diabolus ex machina. But the idea can be taken too far. If, instead of a protagonist and antagonist, a story is about a pair of antagonists, and neither is given any sort of moral, ethical, or accidental advantage to rouse a reader’s sympathy, then the reader often loses interest.
That’s what happens in these books. Despite being wonderful in so many ways, the story left me uncompelled because the writer spent so much time making the protagonists equally interesting. And equally sympathetic, too. But when both sides are absolutely noble and unselfish in their motives, and want the same thing, you wonder why they didn’t just sit down at the beginning of the book and talk through their differences.
With the antagonists so similar, there’s not nearly enough conflict in the story, at least not for my taste. Everyone is wrong, and everyone is right. And everyone is happy (and still alive, too) at the end despite the book having been set up as a tragedy.
Even tragedies have villains, regardless of the protagonist’s flaws.
It’s our job as writers to make the reader care about our books. Otherwise, why buy them?
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Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.
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