great characters are just three sliders away
The usually entertaining and always brief team at Writing Excuses were playing around a while ago with the idea of character development, especially as applied to fantasy. In a few of their fifteen-minute podcasts—“Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.”—they proposed the idea of a three-pronged model of attributes that make up each character. You can, of course, argue about which three attributes to look at. They chose competence, proactivity, and sympathy, but could have easily chosen vulnerability, or creativity, or any number of other traits.
But I liked the ones they chose, and immediately began looking at how they might apply to familiar fantasy genre characters. Imagine, if you will, the Character Factory App, designed for children of writers (who obviously don’t have time to tell stories to their own kids). It opens quite simply to a screen where there are three sliders labeled Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy that go from 0 to 100. Set your sliders, push “go” and a little door next to the levers opens to reveal your new character.
Obviously, the first attempt would set all three to 100 because why the heck not? Out steps The Mary-Sue—gorgeous, intelligent, friendly, insightful, and with endlessly perfect hair. Of course, we hate her. All by itself, the Sympathy lever starts to dive for the basement. Hmm… let’s mess with those levers a bit.
- How about we move competence way down, and lower proactivity as well, but leave sympathy at 100? Out steps Harry Potter. As a wizard, he’s incompetent at best, an abused orphan living in a closet under the stairs, relying on the ever-resourceful
Mary SueI mean Hermione Granger to save his wand.
- Or we could set Competence at 100, with Sympathy a bit lower, and proactivity set to mid-level at best. It’s Batman. I know—at first he seems the perfect Mary-Sue, with all sliders up there. But just as Sympathy starts to dip, we realize that he’s an orphan with a dark past—the only way faster than orphans to increase sympathy levels is to have him rescue a puppy—and also that like all good superheroes, Batman simply reacts to situations as they arise. Of course, in order for that to be compelling and not a total yawn, he needs that most essential of characters—the supervillain. And that brings us to…
- The sliders set at 100 for Competence and Proactivity. Sympathy level is in the toilet. Who you gonna get? Darth Vader, of course. And opposite him? The low-competence, totally reactive (low proactivity), high-sympathy orphan farm boy, Luke Skywalker. Interestingly, as Luke’s competence increases over the course of the films, his sympathy level drops. Vader’s revealed role as his father not only causes his sympathy levels to inch up but also depresses his competence.
- Or you could have characters where competence and proactivity are at 100 but sympathy is low such as Dr. Gregory House (who is as much a fantasy as his namesake, Sherlock Holmes.) Even with them, however, the sympathy level is still in the game because of reflected liking we see in Dr. Watson or House’s various friends and colleagues.
- You could even have an extremely high-competence/high proactivity non-villain such as James Bond. In the opening credits of every 007 film, all his moves are a choreographed dance of perfection that would make any Mary-Sue blush. It isn’t until a bit later in each story—as we see him occasionally fail to save someone or make errors—that the sympathy level goes up enough for us to care one way or another about him.
In short? The changes in characters’ slider levels are what drives the plot. If your main character is a Superman who has all levers at the top right from the get-go, they have no room for growth and it becomes difficult to root for them or take any particular satisfaction in their success. Thus you need correspondingly awesome super-villains to oppose your character in a completely plot-driven story.
On the other hand, if the characters’ sympathy/competence/proactivity levels are set at low points at the beginning of the story and go up over the course of events, you have a character-driven tale that leaves plenty of room for growth and for surmounting conflicts. It’s my favorite approach, and I was delighted to find a perfect example in this week’s review for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team: The Viper and the Urchin.
The Viper and the Urchin is fast-paced, exciting, and simply entertaining.
Being Damsport’s most elegant assassin is hard work. There’s tailoring to consider, devilish poisons to concoct, secret identities to maintain… But most importantly, Longinus must keep his fear of blood hidden or his reputation will be ruined. So when Rory, a scrawny urchin girl, threatens to expose his phobia unless he teaches her swordsmanship, he has no choice but to comply.
As if being saddled with a dirty, grammatically incorrect girl isn’t bad enough, a copycat assassin begins to imitate Longinus’ kills and threatens both his and Rory’s lives. Arguments have to be set aside, and Longinus and Rory are forced to work together to unmask and stop the copycat. But darker forces than they realise are at play, and with time running out, the unlikely duo find themselves the last line of defence against a powerful enemy who seeks to bring the city of Damsport to its knees.
I was thinking of the three sliding variants of character development—competence, proactivity, and sympathy—as I read The Viper and the Urchin, author Celine Jeanjean’s debut novel. Based on the blurb, I agreed to do a review, but I was nervous. Her novel had a terrific premise—a master assassin who can’t handle the sight of blood—and was in the steampunk/fantasy genre I love. I needn’t have worried.
From my email:
I just had to tell you… I have a TON of other books ahead of The Viper and the Urchin in my TBR queue. But I stayed up last night to read it anyway because I read the opening pages and I was hooked. What an incredibly fun read!
So where did Celine set the Sympathy/Competence/Proactivity sliders for her two main characters?
- Longinus: “Damsport’s most elegant assassin”, seems to be a shallow dandy, obsessed with appearances and fame. Even as he’s stalking his next victim, he’s communing with an invisible muse, composing the elegant sentences that will convey the image he so desperately wants the world to see. At first, he seems supremely competent and fairly proactive when it comes to his career of professional assassin. Our sympathy levels are darn low here. Only… there’s a showstopper hole in the middle of all his expertise and planning. He can’t take the sight, or even the thought, of blood. At the same time, the saving graces of humor and wit are more engaging with each page, while his slowly revealed backstory sends our sympathy levels soaring.
- Rory: a scrawny, smelly urchin, she’s a “master of the game of survival”, and she has a plan. Okay, “blackmail the highly-trained killer” might not be the best plan, but Rory is willing to put in the effort it will take to pull it off. On the face of things, you’d think her sympathy level would be high too—she’s an orphan who lives on the streets. Except…she’s just so competent at being an urchin, that it’s hard to work up a lot of sympathy for her fate. She’s highly-proactive in her quest to achieve the goal she set for herself of becoming a master swords-woman like the Scarred Woman she met when she was a little girl. But like Longinus, there’s a hole at the center of all that. The competence she seeks is threatened by her sympathy for a fellow underdog. “Nothing good ever came out of meddling in other people’s business, but she hated seeing an underdog get beaten up.”
What you soon realize is that these two characters who seem different in almost every possible way— from education and birth to status and wealth—are actually very similar. And when they combine their talents, all their character sliders go up as they fill in each other’s gaps.
I can’t tell you how much fun it was to see the seemingly-disparate Longinus and Rory forced by circumstances and then a reluctantly-acknowledged but sincere affection into combining into a formidable force. And when they have to use their coalition against the single most formative figure in either of their pasts, it’s perfectly magical. When you combine that with the brilliant world-building and especially with the rapid-fire snarky humor and pace, you have an absolutely remarkable first novel. The side characters (especially the intriguing Rafe, who complacently suggests, “I could be your sidekick, you know. Or your love interest. There’s always a sidekick and a love interest in stories.”) are each swiftly but perfectly drawn.
Author Celine Jeanjean has a firm but dead-on touch with the story arc. She finishes off the existing villains, and explains the mysteries. But all those character-driven clues to the bigger backstory leave readers hungry for more adventure, and especially more time with these completely intriguing characters. Of course, I’d give The Viper and the Urchin five out of five stars. In fact, my only complaint is that we have to wait so long for the sequel.
I reviewed The Viper and the Urchin: A Novel of Steampunk Adventure (Bloodless Assassin Mysteries Book 1) by Celine Jeanjean for Rosie’s Book Review Team.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*
- Book Title: The Viper and the Urchin: A Novel of Steampunk Adventure (Bloodless Assassin Mysteries Book 1)
- Author: Celine Jeanjean
- Genre: Steampunk/Fantasy
- Publisher: Amazon Digital
- Length: 309 pages
- Release Date: July 27, 2015
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