Abercrombie and Characters

A Quick Preface:

I’m writing these blogs because I want to vocalise what fantasy is, why I love it, some of my favourite concepts and subgenres and, most of all – as a tribute. To a genre that first awakened my imagination, that introduced me to myth and magic and wonder and mystery, to the beauty of otherworlds, to nobility and honour…To a genre that encouraged me to look outside the box, that taught me there was more to life than ugly family situations and mean streets.

It’s not to attack anyone 🙂 I just want to say that, since my, er, belligerence came through a tad strongly last time around, heh. Having said that, I’m belligerent by nature. Fantasy honestly changed my life and essentially underpins who I am in a major way. Accordingly, I intend to devote my life to it, whether by adding to it fictionally, or academically or both. Now! Dr. Phil moment over, let’s move on.

The Discussion:

Basically, I was talking with Jack the other day. He mentioned how he was thinking of making a substantive character change because he thought his protagonist was a whiny little wimp and not many people like them. It got me thinkin’ see, about characters and specifically, about Joe Abercrombie (author of the First Law series) and why his work in particular is amazing. Jack’s reasoning is that we need a reason to sympathise/empathise with the characters and he’s not wrong – there are no real wrongs or rights here and I think that’s half the point I want to make.

Too many people have this notion that characters must be a certain something. Too many writers out there subscribe to this notion, young and old. They mustn’t be whiners, they must be brave, they must be honourable, they must be the goodliest do-gooders of good in existence, they must strive for something, they must be sympathetic. No, no, no, no, no.

No, they don’t have to be anything.

This is all I want to illustrate, really. They can be anything, for sure, and it’s not unusual for someone to be brave to the point of selfless sainthood or to care about everyone and want to do good or to be worthy of sympathy or to be a victim simultaneously but it is entirely unusual for someone to be all of those things at once. How many wimps do you know? How many annoying people? How many that have qualities you dislike, but who you hang around with anyway?

I know a few people who are dicks, for instance, or, rather have been dicks to me on occasion but with whom I have such a long association (or friendship) that it doesn’t matter. I know some criminals, too, what of it? Half my family fit this bill. Do I hate them? No. Do I care any less about them? No. Would I hesitate to thrust myself in front of a bullet for any of them, because of some of those character flaws?

Well, maybe for some…Haha, no, actually I wouldn’t. And that is precisely the nature of the relationship you should form with your characters, both as a reader and a writer.

So, if you’re character is a bit of wimp, good! Who cares? No one, yet. Make them. Your character should be more than a single flaw or even a number of them; there are so many crooked characters that I love, that I hardly know where to begin listing them – your character should be, essentially, human. Do not change them on account of your audience or what you perceive they’ll want. Tell the story you want to tell and I promise you, you will be rewarded for it. In order to better demonstrate this I’m going to quote actor Mark Strong (occupation: actor, Body of Lies, Stardust, Sherlock Holmes, etc) paraphrasing Andrew Stanton (occupation: genius, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Wall-E):

I mean it looks phenomenal. His conception of it is extraordinary. I mean it’s “Avatar” type territory and I think the point I was making before about these Pixar guys are always wanting to be in the vanguard. They want to be leading from the front. They’re giving the public stories that the public don’t even know they want. I mean a story about a fish? A story about an old guy keeping his house? On paper, these must seem like, you know, how on earth are you going to carry those things off. Talking toys? Come on. But I think Andrew said they’re in the business of giving the public what they want before they know they want it.

(source: http://www.collider.com/2009/12/16/mark-stong-on-john-carter-of-mars-kick-ass-and-ridleys-scotts-robin-hood/ )

Pay attention, kids. This is the eye-opener, the revelation – your mystical audience? Don’t know shit. They don’t know what they’re going to like anymore than you do, so just go ahead and tell those stories, okay? This backs up my previous observation about plots and how the notion that there are cliché ones or bad ones out there, is farcical. There’s good writing and there’s bad and you never know what’s going to work.

Yes, those characters were all sympathetic in their own right, haha, but that’s because they’re Pixar and it’s for kids and…that’s not the point. It’s just that there are a zillion other options that aren’t being used because of the notion that characters *have* to be like that and they don’t. Savvy? So, let me bring in Mr. Joe Abercrombie.

Abercrombie and the Psychology of Violence

Ah, how I love this man. He is the relatively new author of The First Law series comprising The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings. His primary characters are as follows:

Inquisitor Glokta: A dazzling, handsome and filthy rich noble; a brilliant swordsman – that is to say, until his bravery (read: stupidity, recklessness) saw him lead a suicidal charge at the enemy during a war. As a ranking noble and officer, he was taken for questioning. He spent two years in the Ghurkish dungeons being tortured, finally returned to his home only after the war had spent itself but as a horrific wreck of a human being; with only a smattering of teeth left, who can barely walk, whose muscles are so horribly contorted and wracked that his every waking moment is agony….who, naturally, no one wants to associate with anymore.

We are introduced to Glokta a little after this moment in his history, when he found the only home that made sense to him, the only place that would have him, were the Inquisitors   — His Majesty’s very own torturers. After all, who better understands torture than he? This man’s bitterness, his wry observations, his questioning of why he bothers going on, why he does what he does, all of this and more are fascinating.

He’s a terrible person, sickening to one and all, and the things he does…Well. Is he a savoury character? No. Is he brave? Hm. No, vain to the point of idiocy once and reckless, yes – they were what led him to charge that fateful day, just another fool who thought he was immortal. And after that? No, still not. Though he has gained a certain fearlessness due to his utter lack of regard for his life now.

Is he sympathetic? Yes and no. We get a better sense of who he was through another character, Jezal Luther, who is essentially a younger, better looking, and even more vain version of Glokta (as he once was) and you think to yourself – you deserve everything you got, you were a prick and a buffoon then and given where you ended up and what you do for a living, deserve some more. And yet, the world is bleak here, the characters around him even worse, the society and culture in which he grew up is so conceited that it in itself encouraged those aspects of his character.

Does he persevere? Yes. Does he redeem himself? Yes. To a degree, since he does everything to save his own skin and at times, that meant having to save others (when he was put in charge of a besieged city, for instance) say one thing for him, say he’s competent and good at what he does.

Did I come to love him? Haha, yes – crooked bastard, he did actually serve justice in tracking down criminals, if anything he was too diligent in his pursuit of that. And more importantly, he was absolutely hilarious. All of Abercrombie’s work is filled with a savage, dark, gleeful humour from which nothing is spared. If you spend any length of time with a character as intimately as you must with him, you will come to care about them, if not to love, then at least an interest in what happens to them at the end, how their journey resolves. What I enjoyed about Abercrombie’s work is that he explored the psychology of violence in every way, it was really great to read.

Logan Ninefingers or The Bloody Nine: A huge, brutish barbarian from the North. His name is legend in the North, his savagery unparalleled, he inspires fear everywhere he goes – to those that don’t know him by appearance alone (he’s incredibly ugly, scarred in every which way it’s possible) and to those that do by the history that precedes him. He travels with a band of the most reviled men in the land.

Black Dow, known as such because it was said you never saw him coming but you knew where’d been by the black skies he left behind him (he had a penchant for burning villages, apparently) and because he left more dead behind him than the plague. Dogman. Threetrees. Harding Grim. And so on, each with as long a history of violence and blood as long as the Bloody Nine.  Each of them Named Men (men that have earned a “Name” in battle) worthy of having their own band. What binds them all together? Logan defeated them all, at some stage, in single combat. And let them live, when he could’ve and should’ve killed them.

Logan doesn’t actually like killing. He just happens to be better at it than all of those on the opposing side. He doesn’t kill children, he’s not deliberately violent to anyone, he’s not angry by nature – he’s actually quite calm, giving some the impression of a placid, slow giant (an impression that gets them killed more often than not) –he’s not fearless, quite the opposite, he’s always afraid, the moment you’re not he thinks, is the moment you’re a dead man – it keeps him on his feet and more, once you’ve had a sword shoved in you once or twice, you really really really don’t want it to happen again.

He is not owned by his actions – just because he’s a killer, just because there are more dead bodies to his name than others, doesn’t mean everything he does reflects that, in fact, unless on a field of battle (and barring the physical evidence, the scars etc) he’s a whole other person. Ribald, with a grim sense of humour, yes, sure. Determined. Yes. Lucky? More than anything.

The piss and shit and fear – the reality of war is portrayed so very, very well in this series. And Logan’s a great example. If you’ve got a good character unlike these guys, great, but they tend to be, without fault, Straight Characters. Characters that are so clear cut and utterly consistent with that goodness as to be completely unreasonable. Good guys can be assholes. They’re not always good. Sometimes they can be downright cowardly. Bad guys aren’t always bad. Bad guys can have families, too. They can be downright nice on occasion.

Depends on who they’re talking to. It’s all about relativity. How a character reacts should be relative to the situation and the people around them – they shouldn’t always have the same reaction. More importantly, they shouldn’t always know what they’re doing. So many characters seem to have it all figured out, and what’s with that? I’m going to take a line from the song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” –

“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know, at 22, didn’t know what to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40 year old’s I know, still don’t.”

I think we need a little more uncertainty in our characters, we need a few more flaws. What I enjoy most about Crooked Characters, whose lives can’t be neatly packaged into a category (despite my flawed attempt here, which, I must say, isn’t that great to begin with haha – these characters won’t live and breathe for you, in all their completeness, until you read them for yourself, until you hear them speak for themselves). To put it another way – we need less black and white characters and a whole lotta grey. We are all grey. That’s life. Some people in this world appear to be solid white, sometimes, and some people appear to be solid black – the reality is that if you think this about anyone, you do not know them well enough.

Take Richard Klukinsky “The Ice Man” – one of the worst serial killers in America’s history, by his own count, he believes he’s killed upward of 200 people; not because he was evil, he did it for money mostly, but also, because he needed to push himself to the furthest extremes (chainsawing someone in half, watching someone get eaten slowly by rats) simply as a critical self-analysis in which he desired to know what it would take to make him feel something, anything. He was, no doubt, quite monstrous – but logical and intelligent and more, he had a family. A wife he occasionally abused, but who he loved (he once gave her a knife, turned his back and said, go for it. Kill me. You’re the only one I’ll let close – and she couldn’t do it) and children which he loved and raised well.

No matter how monstrous his actions, to some people, he’s not a monster. To some he’s just a father, just a brother, just another guy. No one is completely black or white. No one. Also, though the notion of having sympathetic characters or characters we can empathise with is all well and good, avoid making your character a victim just for the sake for it. Avoid them having some horrible childhood – people are plenty screwed up without that. And some people with horrible childhoods come out fine with it and stronger for it.

Now, this is the best thing that Abercrombie did, for sure — he gave the readers objectivity. Seldom are we presented with such – you are given a perspective or three and that’s about it, from whom you gain an understanding of what’s happening in the world and how it affects the people in question. At the end of his characters journey and, at times, through it – there were moments, jarring little snippets that showed you how wrong that perspective could be, how skewed each person’s understanding of what drives them to do what they do, is.

I don’t want to ruin the books for you, mind, so I won’t point out in what way – but of course, each of the characters in his grim world believe themselves right in what they do, of course each of them has their own light and shade; but we are given snippets in which to see their actions from the other side’s POV and this, this wonderful, absurd thing gives us choice. Suddenly every proceeding action and event that took place, or that we learned of in retrospect, is put into question.

It allows us to be the judge of their actions and I ask you: how often have you come across a character who wasn’t already judged by the author and placed in a corresponding plotline?

His characters, his humour, his casual disregard for certain conventions and the wicked fashion in which he subverts others; his cracking pace; his wonderful exploration of violence (societal, individual, noble, poor, warrior -every level of violence, domestic and otherwise) and perspective – all this and more make him a definitive part of the New Wave. I mentioned his characters not because they are the best examples of not being black or white – though they’re pretty damn good and I probably didn’t do a good enough job showing that – well, I don’t have a book’s length, heh –but because of their oddity and the way they stick out.

Should you read his novels? Fuck yes! Another distinctive part of the New Wave of Fantasy (by the way, this Wave I mention, this grim change, it kinda applies to most mainstream story-telling right now – think about it; shows like Dexter are examples of this) is length – this new brand also tends to be shorter; previously length was almost perceived as some sort of necessity or a qualification.

Where does this man stand within the genre? He stands at the forefront, among the best without doubt, both old and new. It’s great, quick, dark, witty — this, actually, is something that is standing out more and more, humour, a particular kind of morbid, black comedy which I think is fantastic. I don’t mean to make these stories, these characters out to be oppressive in any way; it can seem so when presented in flat blocks of information but understand that it doesn’t come across that way, bits and pieces are revealed as you go along and it’s humour that alleviates it all, as well as brilliant action scenes, frantic pacing, great adventure and yes, even the occasional romance. None of this is exceptionally different from what came before –

Remember Rand Al’Thor? The protagonist of the Wheel of Time, which I mentioned in my previous blog. He’s firmly the good guy in the series, destined to save the world and all that jazz, but his gradual insanity, distance from those around him once counted as friends and growing excessive violence are evidence of his shade. Here’s an example of how one man’s drive, nay, zeal to get the job done, to do good, causes as much harm as it does betterment. The difference lies in the fact that a) his course is clear and openly marked from the get-go and b) his enemy and his servants are pure evil. No two ways about it. (Except for Verin! One teeny niggling thing that recently occurred which I can’t go into and no one but a fan would get anyway).

So, characters are the difference, is what I’m getting at. Their rambling lives and the nature of random chaos which afflicts them in the shape of spiralling happenstance; Corruption as Human Error; and the lack of evil as a true or sentient force in the world. Well, I think I sorta, maybe, kinda got the point across — do whatever you want with your characters. Do not be afraid of audiences, do not cater to what they previously or supposedly accepted, cater only to your story. Don’t be afraid of your characters getting their hands dirty. I for one am happy in the muck because everything outside is as substantial as the air not being breathed. That’ll be all for now, methinks.


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Filed under Authors, Characters, Fantasy

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