So last week I read The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes. It’s a glorious tale of scheming and adventure described by a heck of a lot of goodreads reviewers as a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Dungeons and Dragons. I think it’s a pretty solid nutshell to put the novel in, and if that sort of thing sounds like your bag and you enjoy clever writing I would highly recommend it.
There was just one thing that bugged me while I was reading the book, and it was a thing that took me almost the entire novel to figure out. When it finally came to me, I realized it was something I’ve seen before, and maybe it’s worth talking about on a bit of a larger scale.
Characters are the heart of a story. Oh, having a plot’s important, but it’s never enough to say “a group of people do X, Y, Z”; everyone’s unique, and everyone will handle a situation in their own way. It’s only by putting the right characters in the right places that an author can really make their readers connect with the mechanics of the plot. Nobody wants to read the stirring adventures of a bunch of overused, faceless cliches, so the writers who know what they’re doing dig deep and find ways to make each name and face shine on its own merit. Great characters are the ones who are their own people, who stand in their own right, who linger in your mind like an old friend.
But when you start focusing too hard on the special snowflake that is a new character, it can be easy to lose track of the fact that once they leave your head, they’re not going to be existing in a vacuum. Readers approach books the way they approach anything in life: with two or three dozen trunks of preconceptions and prejudices, and the ability to make snap judgement at the drop of a hat.
I don’t know how much time you’ve got to make a first impression with a character. Maybe it’s a sentence, maybe you get a paragraph, some generous readers might even hold off on making their assumptions for a chapter. Inevitably, though, they’re going to start forming a picture in their mind exactly the same way they decide whether or not they like the receptionist at the dentist’s office or the old man on the bus. They’ll know everything they think they need to know long before you’ve had a chance to explain the character’s rich, compelling backstory.
This is where expectations come in.
On the surface, it sounds like it would be lovely if we could keep readers from bringing their own cast of characters, both real and fictional, to the table each time they open a new book. Authors could sketch pure, untainted landscapes, cast their characters out like brilliant stars in the night sky. The air would be crisp and fresh and nobody would wonder if the brilliant detective was another cheap Sherlock Holmes knockoff or ask how many times they were going to be required to sit through someone’s re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet (this time with vampires who do not sparkle, we promise).
The problem, of course, is that without the expectations, authors would have to spend the first forty thousand words of every work explaining the basics – and then they’d have to go on explaining every single step of the way, and the magic of the story would get lost in the sucking mire of pedantry. “This is Doug. Doug is large and broad-shouldered, and doesn’t have a strong academic history. We can presume that the five or six boys standing behind him are doing so out of a combination of genuine malice, and a fear of finding themselves ostracized for speaking out against their leader.”
It’s ridiculous, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, and it’s probably a large contributor to editors saying that high word counts don’t necessarily indicate good books.
Since people are going to decide they know what’s going on anyway, the trick is to work within their expectations. Of course there will be variations from reader to reader, but predicting what your likely audience is going to read into your characters is part of being a writer. Creating a memorable character is all about mixing the perfect blend of familiar features with surprising twists or subversions – the popular athlete who secretly loves watching old black and white musicals with his mother, the grizzled one-eyed mercenary with the successful shipping business back home, the golden-haired kindergarten teacher who can’t be bothered to string together three nice words for her own daughter.
Stick too close to the expected, and the character won’t do much more than fill a role. They’ll be familiar, comfortable, and forgettable, and often that can be a good thing; a rich, relatable, forgettable background helps add depth to a world, even if you’re not writing speculative fiction. Get the balance just right, and your cast will jump and bubble and scintillate.
And if you get it wrong, prepare for bizarre disaster.
My problem with the Palace Job came in the form of one character.
He was a virgin, though not ashamed of it, he didn’t drink and had no desire to. He held pretty much every authority figure in reverence, and believed almost anything anyone told him, because Wizards are Wise and people shouldn’t lie. He was clumsy, and blushed and flustered when he dropped things – which he did a lot. It took him an entire book to realize that his close friend and protector might not have been 100% honest with him all of the time. He expressed no interest, when an attractive woman made it blatantly clear that she wanted to have sex with him.
He was also a sixteen year old farmhand.
Now, there are plausible scenarios wherein a sixteen year old farmhand could have all of those traits. Maybe his farm was strangely puritan, or maybe his entire region was. Maybe alcohol was banned, or maybe he’d had a close relationship with a priest when he was younger and held on to the morals and values he was taught all the way through his adolescence. Maybe that’s just who he was, and everyone around him decided to protect his strange naivete.
Unfortunately, the book didn’t ever offer any explanation for why a strapping sixteen year old boy was behaving more like he was twelve.
It felt like the author was torn between the character he wanted to create – sweet, innocent, adorably bumbling – and the character he needed to perform certain plot-related tasks – someone old enough and strong enough to be a useful fighter and fill the role of Party Tank. Unfortunately for the poor farmboy, rather than trying to actually blend the two images, Weekes apparently just decided to stick the traits of the first onto the body of the other, without addressing the fact that the end result was a giant exception to pretty much every behavioral rule for sixteen year olds, boys, farmhands, and tanks.
Reading it left me with a strangely uncomfortable taste in my mouth. Because I hadn’t been given another explanation, my brain was free to decide that the boy had been abused, and I’m pretty sure that the impression that gave me wasn’t the one Weekes was originally trying to create when he wrote the character.
Of course, mileage can and will vary. I’m sure plenty of people had no problem with the boy, came up with their own justifications or just ignored it in general.
But for me, it came as an important reminder: you only get that one chance to make a first impression, so you might as well work with your readers, not against them.
There was indeed someone at the woman’s desk – a small blond someone, even. But Anne-Marie was skinny in a ferrety sort of way, her features sharp, eyes slightly beady, and her hair was a gold so pale it was nearly white.
The woman sitting there now was at least ten years younger than Anne-Marie, and her hair was the color of honey. Her eyes were hazel, her mough wide and generous, and she had the kind of body that spoke of working out, but only to keep the right parts lean and toned, not to build real muscle.
Leigh glanced to her wrists, which were circled with dozens of little bracelets but no bands, and then to the lapel of her jacket, which did indeed have a pin – a flower, not the avices’ crossed scroll and sword. A teardrop hung on a chain at the hollow of her throat, shining strangely in the light, and Leigh couldn’t tell for the life of her what it was made of. She wasn’t an avice, but the shiver of adrenaline through her system was all the confirmation Leigh needed to know that she was dangerous. Avices weren’t the only ones with the training to be subtle, or deadly. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that for all no one else could do exactly what she and her fellows did, they didn’t sit at the top of the food chain.
The woman stood quickly, with grace that looked like it had come from training, and flashed Leigh a smile.
“Can I help you?” Leigh asked. Her own face remained blank as she continued her inspection of the stranger. Business suit, skirt to the knees, four inch pumps she obviously knew how to move in. A visitor’s badge was pinned to the bottom of her slate-grey jacket. She was tucking something into a large black shoulder bag, though her body blocked most of the movement an concealed exactly what it is she was hiding away.
“Oh, I hope so.” She spoke with the musical, slightly nasal accent of someone with roots in the Commonwealth, though Leigh knew the language was still spoken in Pinnacle and to a lesser degree in Gerrespont, the two governances originally founded by Commonwealth settlers back in the day.
“I was looking for …” The strange woman broke off and rummaged in her back, emerging with a small square of yellow paper. “Is that Reginald Southerland? The Deputy Minister of Finance?”
Leigh came all of the way out of her office, closed the door behind her. She folded her arms.
“That’s the name of the deputy minister,” she said.
“Well, that’s something,” said the woman. “This is my first time in city hall, and I got turned around. I had been hoping that someone here might have a map.”
She moved around the desk as she spoke, like Leigh might somehow forget that she’d found her sitting where she had absolutely no right to be sitting.
“There’s an information desk near the front door,” Leigh said. She moved away from the door to intercept the woman, stopped when she was close enough to read the name printed on the visitor’s badge. Gabrielle Fletcher, the name was no more familiar than the face. “You could have asked them where you needed to go when you got your badge printed.”
Gabrielle’s smile widened. She looked pleased with herself, somehow.
“Oh, I did ask,” she said. “The men at the desk were very helpful, but I thought I’d followed it well enough that I didn’t need a map. Apparently, I was wrong.”
There was none of the embarrassment in her demeanor that should have been there; Leigh might have been dressed casually, but her own badge was banded with violet at the bottom, a clear indication of the highest level of security clearance. Nobody liked looking like an absent-minded idiot in front of people with the power to kick them out on their heels, but rather than seeming abashed or anxious, Gabrielle Fletcher’s smile almost seemed to hold a challenge.
Leigh felt her hackles rise instantly. She took a breath, to keep it from showing in her body. Gabrielle’s hazel gaze was intense, and canny. Not, Leigh thought, the sort of person who missed very much.
“Well,” Leigh said, “as soon as you return whatever it was you just put in your purse, I can escort you to Deputy Minister Southerland’s office.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose. She looked, if anything, more pleased than she had a moment before.
“What, this?” She reached into her large bag and pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer. “I’ve had a bit of a cold. I didn’t want to get germs on the desk.” She offered the bottle out on an open palm, smile predatory.
Leigh rolled her eyes, and made no move to take it.
Strangely, she didn’t get the impression that the short, perfectly-toned woman was lying.
She did get the distinct impression that she was being played, though, and that was worse.