Tag Archives: character arc

Tris Prior is more than just a buff, kick-butt character

divergent-poster-full I know that books typically have more depth than films, but YA fiction has tended toward the simplistic and straightforward rather than the complex and layered. Thus, I’ve written the last two posts on the Divergent film series, thinking that the books were not that much more complex than the books (see here and here). I was wrong. Or at least I am revising my thoughts based on the first of Veronica Roth’s novels in the series.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the book version of Divergent had a lot more going on than than a kick-butt heroine finding herself among the rubble of post-apocalyptic Chicago. Actually, the character of Tris Prior had a lot more going on. I have already written about how Tris is a much stronger heroine than Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games series. My belief if more firmly entrenched now that I’ve read Divergent.

Veronica Roth has given Tris a grand character arc that establishes her female protagonist as a deep thinker motivated by ideas. She just doesn’t want to be brave, she aspires to the nobility implied in selflessness for a higher cause. Hence, she carries the tattoos of both Dauntless, her chosen faction, and Abnegation, her family’s faction (which she never completely leaves emotionally). Indeed, her discovery and reconciliation of these “divergent” aspirations via her romantic relationship with fellow Dauntless faction member Four becomes a primary element of her identity as she leads the rebellion against Erudite. This is a far more subtle and meaningful transformation than that Katniss undergoes in the more survivalist focused Hunger Games.

Seeing Tris on this journey via Roth’s words was an unexpected pleasure, and elevates her to one of my favorite heroines in fiction.

Tortuga-Bay-RGB-96-01Other heroines worth reading in fiction? Try

 

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Where do good female characters come from?

TrisAllegiantposterWhile recently researching blog posts about the Divergent film series, I ran across a 2011 blog post from Veronica Roth, the author of the novels, that also discussed the origin of Tris Prior, her kick-butt female protogonist.  Many readers might think that Tris was always the center of the story, but not so! Here’s what Ms. Roth writes:

“…Divergent really happened when a bunch of these pieces of inspiration suddenly coalesced in my mind as I was writing, and I got about thirty pages of a story from Four’s perspective down, and then set it aside because it wasn’t so good. It was only when I discovered Beatrice that I was able to write the full book, four years later.”

The observation that caught my attention was that she had started writing Four’s (Tobias Eaton’s) story, not Tris’s. But it was boring so she stopped, and didn’t get back to it until four years later!

Pirate-of-Panther-Bay-RGB96Her experience is strikingly similar to mine when I was crafting The Pirate of Panther Bay back in 2000. At the time, I was writing a young-adult romance about pirates because I thought it would be exciting and different. The protogonist started out as a male. But after about 50 pages (I got further than Ms. Roth), I put the manuscript down because it was boring! My story was just another pirate trolling through the Caribbean for loot. Ugh.

I am not sure how Ms. Roth “found” Beatrice, but Isabella’s “birth” was actually quite analytical. Since I was writing fiction, and story turns on conflict, I asked myself what would happen if I made the pirate captain female? The story became much more interesting, because virtually any plot putting a woman at the center in a leadership position in the 1780s was going to create conflict and tension. This was particularly true on pirate ships where crews were superstitious and almost always banned women on their vessels. For Isabella to get on the boat in the first place, she would have to overcome significant hurdles. She would also have to be strong–she couldn’t be a stowaway or consort, or start out in a typical role. The path to the captaincy of a pirate ship simply couldn’t take that route.

More importantly, the conflicts created a fascinating story line that allowed me to really flesh out Isabella’s character as well as the major male protagonists. Each of the major characters had a dramatic arc and singular journey that would feed of each other. The results have been great, particularly in the most recent installment, Tortuga Bay.

I hope Veronica Roth talks more about the literary beginnings of Beatrice Prior. I found her character to be very similar to Isabella in terms of personality and temperament.

Now, if I can just get The Pirate of Panther Bay made into a major motion picture….

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Is Katniss Everdeen a strong female character?

I have now seen all four Hunger Games movies and read all three books, and I am now doubting whether Katniss Everdeen’s character is worthy of ascending into the pantheon of strong female characters. Well, that might be too strong of an indictment, but I don’t think she makes into my top ten. This is a reluctant conclusion, but as a novelist who features young adults and women in ensemble stories, I think “strong characters” should have at least five characteristics:Mockingjaypart2

  1. Strong characters should have strong identities. Identities evolve, and characters don’t need to start out strong, but they need to end strong. They have to develop a sense of their own place in the world and how they relate to it. Moreover, this identity has to be recognized by their peers.
  2. Strong characters should relate to peers as a peer.  Self-doubt, even self-loathing, can be powerful tools for the novelist, and often provides tension that propels story. But at some point strong characters need to break out of their narcissism and begin relating to other characters, either as a leader or as a full-blown member of the team. Characters can be first among equals, but they still must operate on the same plane as those they interact with on a regular basis in the story.  
  3. Strong characters should make important choices. Making choices is what defines identity and character. The kinds of choices they make determine the character’s integrity and their honor. The choices do not necessarily have to be the right ones, but the character needs to make them, and they make choices only they can make. These choices propel the character arc and the story.
  4. Strong characters should take personal responsibility. Once these choices are made, the character has to accept the consequences, good or bad, of those choices. These consequences also serve as ways to propel the story, but a key test of a character’s integrity is how they handle the consequences. In most cases, the character has to restore balance, or re-establish some sense of fairness, in the world in which they operate.
  5. Strong characters should exhibit courage. Strong characters are self sacrificing in order to achieve something bigger than themselves. This is again one of the most powerful tools of a character. They can’t lay in hiding throughout the story. Without a doubt, a character can begin weak or cowardly, but they must evolve to a point where their self-sacrifice becomes a defining part of their story. Sometimes, the exhibition can be very small in the context of the story, but it has to be big in the context of the character.

How do I rate Katniss Everdeen along these five characteristics? She never quite achieves a state of self-fulfillment or identity. In fact, she retreats from the world and refuses to engage in it once her tasks are completed. The Hunger Games is very much a plot and setting driven book so the story is very existentialist; the characters are driven to act because of circumstances beyond their control. Thus, the characters are reacting and relating to their environment; they are not manipulating their environment.

Beyond this story-telling constraint, which appears to be intentional by author Suzanne Collins, Everdeen’s character is never in control. Even when it appears to the reader (and viewer) she is in control, she really is not. We never really get the sense that Katniss is her own woman–independent, strong willed, courageous, yes, but she’s not in control of her destiny. Not surprisingly, she plays defense, not offense. Even in a world in which defense is the only option, defensive strategies can be used offensively, but Katniss Everdeen is never that strategic. She leaves it to others to make these choices and take on the risks. In short, her choices do not drive the plot or the broader story. The exception might be in Mockingjay where she decides to go on her own to kill Snow, but even this is a weak form of decisionmaking and commitment. Her quest to kill Snow becomes driven by an existential drive for revenge and retribution, not a reflective choice about outcomes.

Moreover, Katniss’s ultimate goal is to return to her home with her family. When she returns to District 12 without her family, she is essentially forced to cope with the loss, but doesn’t exhibit any of the courage associated with overcoming the scars and wounds of the violence she has experienced. She is depressed, and she has nightmares, but these define her new reality. She never engages in the healing that is necessary to seize control of her life, and she is not challenged after the rebellion finally takes control. We are left with some hope at the end, but we don’t have a real sense she has come to grips with the ugly realities she was forced to confront. We don’t get a sense that her character is stronger or more complete than when she stepped into the Hunger Games for the first time.

So, while Everdeen certainly has several characteristics of a strong female character, she doesn’t exhibit the character or the arc in the story that elevates her to the level of a strong female character or, for that matter, a character that should be emulated or become a role model. Here’s a brief summary of my scoring of Katniss Everdeen as a heroine along these criteria:  

Strong Protagonist Check List
Characteristic

Katniss Everdeen

Strong identity

weak

Relate to peers as a peer

weak

Make important choices

medium

Take personal responsibility

strong

Exhibit courage

strong

Just for fun, and because this is a blog that highlights my professional journey as a writer, I thought I would rate my four principal heroines (I have others) along the same criteria. I’ve taken a look at Nicole Klaas, the CEO of NP Enterprises in St. Nic, Inc., Isabella the escaped slave turned pirate captain in The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay, middle-school bully Maria from Renegade, and the strong-willed Lucy who tries to save her friend Luke from bullies in their school in A Warrior’s Soul. Here are the results: 

Nicole Klaas

Isabella

Maria

Lucy

Characteristic

St. Nic, Inc,

(2014

Panther Bay/

Tortuga Bay

(2014/2015)

Renegade

(2011)

A Warrior’s Soul

(2010)

Strong identity

strong

medium/strong strong

strong

Relate to peers as a peer

strong

medium/strong strong

strong

Make important choices

strong

strong/strong strong

strong

Take personal responsibility

strong

strong/strong strong

medium

Exhibit courage

strong

strong/strong strong

medium

Interestingly, my strongest characters are Nicole Klaas and Maria. Both of these novels won literary prizes. Renegade won second place in the children’s chapter book division of the Seven Hills Literary Competition. St. Nic, Inc. won second place in the Published Mainstream/Literary Category in the Royal Palm Literary Awards. I have taken my own advice to heart, however, and Isabella has evolved into quite a heroine as she takes her crew into the maelstrom of a nascent slave revolt in Port-au-Prince in Tortuga Bay (published in 2015).

While I am disappointed that Katniss Everdeen doesn’t score higher along these criteria, The Hunger Games books remain very engaging reads. I recommend them for their quick pace, anti-violence, anti-war message even though Katniss Everdeen’s character arc is shallow. She is definitely brave and skilled, but she falls short of the leadership qualities and understanding of her own identity that would take her to the top of my list.

Now for shameless self-promotion: get free shipping & handling if you buy any of my books from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing through December 30, 2015! Use the coupon code STNIC.

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Game of Thrones and rape as a plot device

By SR Staley

A virtual firestorm of debate erupted last month over a rape scene in the popular HBO show “Game of Thrones,” a long-running series based on George R.R. Martin‘s weighty fantasy novels “A Song of Fire and Ice.” I haven’t seen the specific episode, or the scene, but the controversy appears to be over a creative decision by the producers & writers at HBO to make a rape scene between two characters a central event out of a minor one in the books.  Martin has responded on his blog by noting that creative differences between film, television, and books have a long history. This, of course, is not controversial and we’ve blogged on these differences before (see here , here, and here).GameofThronesCast

What is more controversial, or at least worth discussing further, is the role that sexual violence and rape play in storytelling. Martin is quoted in the Guardian newspaper as saying “I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”

Does the pursuit of drama and conflict justify using rape and sexual violence as a plot device? Is rape just a plot device? I’ve struggled with this very question because my novels often deal with sexual violence in some form or another. Systemic rape during slavery is an essential part of the backstory for Isabella in The Pirate of Panther Bayand a motivator for her drive for personal freedom as a pirate. The existential threat to Maria in Renegade is the use of sexual violence and rape to destroy her, physically and emotionally. So, I am very careful to think about how sexual violence and rape figure into the story line and development of my characters. At first blush, I found Martin’s comments flippant and remarkably insensitive.

Of course, rape and sexual violence work as plot devices only to the extent they cause conflict. Ironically, in the value system of Game of Thrones (and most societies before the Enlightenment and emergence of humanism), rape and sexual violence were “normal,” or at least insufficiently deviant to create the conflict that propels story. The fact that readers and viewers are responding to the rape scene in disbelief, anger, and horror because of its depravity is a sign of social and cultural progress. So, in the sense of creating conflict among contemporary readers, rape and sexual violence can be an effective plot device.

But, good stories need more than plot devices. The plot points must move the story and characters forward. This appears to be the essence of the objections to the rape scene in the episode in Season Five of Game of Thrones. On the one hand, rape and sexual violence is a normal part of the story and plot lines. Martin correctly reminds us that his stories are intended portray a medieval world accurately. But this show is not a documentary; it’s a narrative story. The creative question is: Do these scenes move the story and characters forward? Or are they devices used merely to hook viewers through shock?

If they move the characters and stories forward, then rape (and misogyny) serve a creative purpose and are justifiable in the context of the story and storytelling. The decision should not just be about drama and conflict; it should be about story. The writer’s role is to ensure plot points move the characters down the right paths for the story, whether they move into darkness or into light. I can only hope the writers of Game of Thrones have thought through the plot implications, and the system rape and sexual violence isn’t just a plot device to hook viewers through shock.

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What “The Equalizer” film told me about character development

I often gauge a movie’s value by whether it stimulates my thinking as a writer and storyteller.  The Equalizer, the action film starring Denzel Washington, provided a welcome and unexpected opportunity to explore this. I’m a fan of the action/adventure genre anyway–all four of my novels fall into this genre, most recently St. Nic, Inc.–but I’ve become somewhat jaded by recent superhero (e.g., Superman, Wolverine, Lucy), super monster (e.g., Godzilla), and martial-arts action films (e.g., Ninja Assassin, 47 Ronin), that showcase special effects and gore over storytelling and character development. This is not the case with “The Equalizer.” Indeed, I saw just the opposite on the silver screen.

This movie, unlike other blockbusters, folds character development into the plot and at least tries to strike a balance between the two. (This is good because the plot–hero avenges injustice–is a bit tired.) But, for me, this film stood out for three reasons:

  1. The production values were very high. Sweeping vistas of Boston (one of my favorite cities), artistic camera work focused on characters and action, and the attention to the human aesthetic of the plot were top notch. This wasn’t all computer animated action. Time was spent to frame shots creatively and in ways that help tell the story. In fact, the opening sequence of shots itself does a fine job of providing important initial backstory to the lead character as an unassuming loner.
  2. Denzel Washington. Need I say more? Well, yes. A lesser actor would have made the lead character–Robert McCall–two dimensional and predictable. Even though we know how the movie will end, the character evolves at key points, and empathy is established early. Given the graphic gore level in the film, this is critical for keeping a good story flowing; we (as viewers) cannot be overwhelmed with the blood and mayhem or we lose site of the story.
  3. The producers and director. They didn’t let the genre or familiar cinematic tropes swamp character development and story structure to create suspense. They also made sure they didn’t waste the talents of Mr. Washington. While I still believe the gore was a bit too much, the bloody mayhem is important to understand McCall’s evolution as a character and how, in the end, he retains his humanity. The deaths of the bad guys have meaning, even if the gore seems gratuitous as times. We see how McCall’s own past changes the way he relates to the people he must eventually dispatch in pursuit of a higher good. This isn’t just a revenge flick, a familiar trope for these types of movies.

At the end of the movie, I found myself wanting to go back to Boston, one of my favorite cities, despite the blood and mayhem.

In the end, the producers and director recognized how the visually oriented medium of film could be used to convey character development. Audiences are brought into the story through character and then the plot is paced well enough to keep us involved.

Thus, “The Equalizer” is a rare example of a film that allowed me to think about my own approach to interweaving character development with plot can enrich the story and keep the pace moving quickly.

I think I see a new, distinctly American franchise in the future. We need a working class hero, with working class methods, a haunting and exotic past, and the maturity of someone who has seen and reflected on the world. Now, if Denzel just used more Akido, Judo and ninjutsu (or To-Shin Do), we’d also see why age isn’t as important in neutralizing threats as many people may think.

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“A Warrior’s Soul” Now Available for Ordering!

I’m pleased to announce that A Warrior’s Soul, my new novel, is now availiable for pre-publication ordering! You can purchase it at the regular retail price at the Wheatmark Book Store, or at a 25 percent discount through June 20, 2011 at the Dayton Quest Center’s on-line book store.

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