From hero to villain in one easy slide…
When I reviewed the first volume of Celine Jeanjean’s sword and
sorcery steampunk series, I decided to subject her characters to the model proposed by the usually entertaining and always brief team at Writing Excuses. 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. She’s the epitome of competence, obviously proactive, confident that everyone will love her, and… 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 more.
- How about we move competence way down, and lower proactivity as well, but leave sympathy at 100? We’ve made a 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. Hello, 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, waiting for the bat signal instead of looking for crime. 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 the villain’s sympathy levels to inch up but also depresses his competence until—with his final sacrificial act—he’s actually redeemed. He ends up (well, his ghost anyway) on Team Hero.
- 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? It’s the changes in characters’ slider levels that drive the plot. If your main character is an unequivocally-good 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 either need corresponding unequivocally-evil supervillains to oppose your character in a completely plot-driven story, or you need to move a slider to engage readers** with your characters.
**[HINT: Orphans are always a good shortcut to moving that sympathy slider. Batman is orphaned when his parents are murdered. Superman is also an orphan, forced to live a lie in the person of Clark Kent. Possibly the most dangerous job in literary history is to be the parent of a hero. James Bond, Mr. Darcy, Harry Potter, Hamlet—the orphaned hero list is endless. Okay, okay: I know Hamlet’s melancholy maneuvering is instrumental in finishing up the orphaning process by disposing of his mother the queen. But he achieves full orphanhood in the end.]
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 book review for The Slave City, book 3 in Celine Jeanjean’s The Viper and The Urchin series.
A complicated mission.
A team of misfits that just don’t get along.
What could possibly go wrong?
A skinny pickpocket with dreadlocks and a big attitude.
A foppish assassin with a fear of blood.
An elite fighter, master of the sardonic raised eyebrow.
A smuggler with a drinking problem and a propensity for brawling.
And a no-nonsense, heavily tattooed machinist, trying to keep them all in line.
Free a Damsian inventor kept prisoner in the distant city of Azyr.
Spark a rebellion to remove the half-mad tyrant ruling the place, and while they’re at it, end slavery in Azyr.
And do it all without getting killed, shackled into slavery, or arguing.
The latter is proving most problematic.
This latest installment of The Viper and the Urchin series will make you have fun. Lots of fun.
My Review: 5 stars out of 5 for The Slave City: Steampunk, humour, and adventure (The Viper and the Urchin Book 3)
When I began reviewing this series, I looked at the characters in terms of three sliding scales: competence, proactivity, and sympathy. At first Longinus—the elegant, mysterious assassin—seems to be supremely competent, proactively controlling his life and choices, if (as a poisoner) he’s somewhat unsympathetic. While Rory, the street urchin, is at the mercy of a pitiless world, an orphan whose dire circumstances should demand our sympathy.
Only…Longinus has a showstopper flaw for an assassin: he faints at the sight of blood. Not only does that punch holes in his competence and proactivity, but it immediately sends our sympathy levels soaring. Rory, on the other hand, is just so darn competent at being an urchin. Taking proactive control of her own destiny—even if “blackmail the assassin into making her his apprentice” might not seem the ideal strategy—she simply gets on with accomplishing her goal of becoming a master swordswoman.
The newest release in the series, The Slave City, is set a fantastically well-imagined world of sword and steam-powered sorcery, with both Longinus and Rory starting again at half-mast for all three sliders. Under the firm control of the Marchioness and her daughter, they aren’t able to act proactively, nor can they follow their profession (freelance assassins). Both are questioning their own physical competence as well—Longinus because he’s epically seasick as they sail to Azir, and Rory because her life goal of becoming a master swordswoman is facing defeat due to her slight build. But both have also been defined in a significant way by the enemy they faced in earlier books. With no immediate enemy in sight, Rory and Longinus are each looking for their purpose and goals.
The problem faced by authors of any series is that if you vanquish the enemy in each book, how do you move the series forward? There are two main ways to accomplish this, and author Celine Jeanjean does both. First,you could have the villain (in this case, Longinus’ evil sister Myran) vanquished but not dead yet, spinning off like Darth Vader in his escape shuttle to recuperate and plot again. Second, you could have your heroes take on an even bigger evil—in this case, slavery.
Their group has been drafted to mount a rescue mission to the slaver-nation of Azir in hopes of retrieving a Damsian machinist rumored to be working on an invention to enable his slaver captors to greatly expand their human trafficking. Stunned to find themselves honestly employed by The Old Girl (Marchioness of the city-state of Damsport), Rory and Longinus are now part of the classic adventure-trope, the five-man-band. If you look at another trope-defining example, Star Wars, their roles are the following:
- The Leader (Luke Skywalker): Rory, the skinny former urchin and now Logninus’ apprentice assassin is part of the team sent to the slaver stronghold Azyr to rescue a fellow Damsian.
- The Lancer (Han Solo): Cruikshank, the genius machinist, is Rory’s direct opposite—tall, muscular, older, a thoughtful and meticulous planner who is nominally in charge of the mission.
- The Big Guy (Chewbacca): Adelma, the hard-drinking captain of a smuggler ship is a massively powerful rage-machine tempered by three loves: drinking, her baby son, and her smuggling ship.
- The Smart Guy (R2-D2 and C-3PO): Longinus, the elegant clotheshorse, is actually the assassin known as the Viper. His weakness at the sight of blood means he’s devoted his considerable and deadly intelligence to becoming a master poisoner.
- The Chick (Princess Leia): Rafe, the aristocrat and master soldier, informs a frankly skeptical Rory that he’s her “love interest” and thus appoints himself her sidekick.
As the five members of their little band attempt their rescue mission, they are forced first to confront, then to experience, and ultimately to aid the uneasy coalition attempting revolution against the evils of the slavers. By defining their real opponent—the institution of slavery—as the ultimate evil, any actions the team takes against slavers are by definition morally imperative, and a signal to let the body count begin.
Once you are enslaved, you have no moral obligation to the people who have enslaved you. In enslaving you they have freed you of all moral obligation because the nature of their enslavement of you says that you are without humanity, without manhood, without womanhood, without dignity and anything you do to get those things back is morally justified.—Dr. John Henrik Clarke
Of course, that all adds up to a darker story than previous volumes. But the humor and banter between the members of the team keep things entertaining. Luckily, their enemies hadn’t read the Evil Overlord List. (“#4. Shooting is not too good for my enemies. #36 .I will not imprison members of the same party in the same cell block, let alone the same cell…” etc.). Thus in their evil headquarters prisoners were kept together, potential hostages thoughtfully stashed nearby, useful dark corners abound to lurk in, and there are plenty of opportunities for strategic things they could blow up—all while Rafe banters about being the love interest, Rory searches for a new signature weapon, and clothes-horse Longinus sticks out “…like a whore in a convent, with his teal silk shirt, burnt-orange trousers, and hat with an elaborate teal-and-orange feather arrangement.”
As always, even as the individual characters’ sliders move, the entertainment of the adventure created in this series stays at the very top of the scale. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to readers looking for a fantasy quest with complex characters, a fantastically imagined world, a quirky team, and plenty of humor.
*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.*