So you can read my books

Friday, December 9, 2011

GOOD GUYS ARE BAD NEWS ... for your novel

{ I had to start my post with a photo of a bad girl to counterbalance the good guy subject matter.

Ah, not buying that? Didn't think so. It was worth a try.}

"Good guys are boring?," I said earlier tonight.

Nickie, my co-worker, nodded sagely. "Yep. Boooooring."

We'd been talking my disenchantment with Sookie in the TRUE BLOOD novels.

Bill, her first lover, had suffered near death twice for her, but she is attracked to sociopath vampire, Eric.

"Vampire Bill is boring while Eric is just bad and sexy."

"Uh, he tore apart a guy who was just trying to escape being chained in a cellar. And then, he got upset when the man's blood ruined his hair's highlighting."

Nickie giggled, "That was so cute."

"What if the guy had been your kid brother? Still cute?"

"Oh that guy was a jerk. He had it coming."

"And the two little children Eric looked down as munchies toward the end of season two? Did they have it coming?"

"Oh, you're as boring as vampire Bill." And Nickie hurried off to read the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel.

Our conversation got me thinking on how difficult it is to write a non-boring hero or heroine.

But being good boring? Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, once wrote : "Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile, I caught hell for."

I don't know about you, but that's pretty much how it's been for me.

So Niki and actors who moan that good guys are boring don't really mean boring in the obvious sense.

As writers we have to look at heroes through the reader's eyes. And what do they want of their heroes?

To live vicariously through them.

And who wants to suffer through routine living second-hand? We get enough of that up close and personal. Our failure with heroes is that we make them routine.

What do the readers want from the hero of the novel they're reading?

To live dangerously and to have fun through them by :

Dialogue :

How often have you been stung in a situation, only to come up with the perfect comeback HOURS after the fact?

Think CON-AIR when

Cameron Poe says to agent Larkin : "Sorry boss, but there's only two men I trust. One of them's me. The other's not you."

Or with Robert B. Parker when Spenser says :

"...You have any suggestions, make them. I'm in charge but humble. No need to salute when you see me."
Fraser said, "Mind if we snicker every once in a while behind your back?"
"Hell, no," I said. "Everyone else does."
— Robert B. Parker (The Widening Gyre)

Or when Spenser walks into a TV station's boardroom to see three lawyers sitting on a couch beside one another.

"Which one of you speaks no evil?," I asked. (A Savage Place)

{Side-bar} :

University professor turned writer, Robert B. Parker, had thought-provoking things to say about writers, literature, and life :

“It was not just that Ross Macdonald taught us how to write; he did something much more, he taught us how to read, and how to think about life, and maybe, in some small, but mattering way, how to live.”

"Being a professor and working are not the same thing. The academic community is composed largely of nitwits. If I may generalize. People who don't know very much about what matters very much, who view life through literature rather than the other way around.”

“The advantage of writing a series is that it probably replicates, for lack of a better word, real life more than most fiction because most people have a history and know people and come and go and you have a chance to play with the characters and not just the protagonist.

It gives you the opportunity to develop--lapsing back into academe for a moment--a whole fictive world. Gee, I love saying that now, just keeping my hand in. Fictive world!.”

"I sit down every day and write five pages on my computer. At some point I found that not outlining worked better than outlining. The outline had become something of a limitation more than it was a support.

When I did the Raymond Chandler book, Poodle Springs, which was in the late eighties, I was trying to do it as Chandler did it, and since Chandler didn't outline then I thought I won't outline.

If you read Chandler closely you can see that he didn't outline. What the hell happened to that chauffeur? I would recommend to the beginning writer that they should outline because they probably don't have enough self-confidence yet.

But I've been writing now since 1971 and I know that I can think it up. I know it will come."

"It's tempting to say the Ph.D. didn't have an effect, but it's not so. I think whatever resonance I may be able to achieve is in part simply from the amount of reading and learning that I acquired along the way."

But I digress ...

What, besides saying snappy dialogue, do readers want to do through their heroes?

To do the extraordinary.

Even if it is in ordinary circumstances. Spit in the eye of the bully. Tweak the nose of a snobbish boss.

Take this scenario :

A tired stone mason sits at a bar run by one of his few friends. Another man sits down beside him. He never looks at our hero, but he pushes a thick manila envelope over to him.

He whispers, "Ten thousand now. Ten thousand after she's dead."

He gets up and slowly walks away. Our hero hurriedly opens the envelope. Sure enough there is the money. And a blown-up photo of a woman from her driver's license.

Our hero gets up to follow the man to see if he can get the license plate number of his car to give to the police. The man is already outside -- getting into a police car.

What does our hero do? What would you do? And so starts the Dean Koontz novel, THE GOOD GUY. (Hey, I couldn't resist.)

There is a hero inside all of us ...

if we only know where to look. There is a magentism to your hero of your novel ... if you know where to look.

And where is that?

In your heart, my friend. In your heart.



  1. I think the real danger is in writing the hero that has no sympathetic qualities, things that help us relate to them and make us feel like they're human. There are no perfect people and there should be no perfect characters. Great post!

  2. I actually think about these kinds of things a lot.
    The good guy doesn't have to be psycho or bad to be exciting (that's a whole other issue for women who are attracted to abuse)--but they have to be imperfect and they have to take risks.
    As writers we sometimes have to let bad things happen to them and let them fail on some level-- but a true hero will bounce back. Like ROCKY. (=

  3. Shit Roland; that first video had me crying. I gotta watch this movie . .

    An excellent post Dear. A lot of thought provoking concepts.

    OMG; my post about you is in your sidebar :) Thanks.


  4. Heather :
    There is a great book, SAVE THE CAT, by the late screenwriter Blake Snyder. In it, he also wrote what you did -- there has to be a moment early on in your novel of movie where the MC draws in the heart of the reader or audience in some form or fashion in a "Save The Cat" act. You will stick with a hero or heroine that you know deep down is a good person or has a heart.

    Jo :
    Too true. All too often writers (and those falling in lust) mistake cool for character. All my heroes and heroines have a caring heart (though they may mask it out of self-preservation or misplaced pride).

    Victor Standish, while seemingly brash, is desparately lonely. And having risked life and limb for food & shelter, he has no qualms in risking them for the love he has never had with the Victorian ghoul, Alice Wentworth. And can we say he is wrong when we risk the same for much less? Thanks for writing on my wall and visiting & chatting here. It means a lot, Roland

    Donna :
    Yes, that first movie is a must-see for me, too. Though I may wait for DVD so I can fast-forward through the parts that make me cry! I am such a softie!

    Yes! You have become my resident expert on me! LOL. You are famous or infamous :-)

  5. Characters are indeed tricky and I'm a believer that the hero is only as good as his villain. Take Harry Potter, without Voldemort he won't be forced to push his capabilities and be the wizard that he is.

    Villains makes the heroes shine and they keep them on their toes, making them believe in themselves and do unbelievable feats. Like Victor Standish wouldn't have thought he can turn himself to mist at that point of his "transformation" if the situation didn't force him to do it.

    Ergo, it's the villains who makes the heroes exciting. The heroes respond to the stimulus set by the bad guys, they STOP the bad guy so the villain leads the direction of the story.

    Remember Face/Off? Best example of the good/bad guy balance.

  6. Braine :
    Yes, exactly : evil makes good look better. LOL. I smiled when you mentioned Victor Standish and Maija. I hope reading his adventures wasn't too painful. :-)

    Hollywood has fallen into the trap of letting the villain lead the direction of the story. But the Ancient Greek dramatists asserted that character pre-determined destiny. Classices like MACBETH, SILAS MARNER, LORD JIM, and THE OLD MAN & THE SEA all utilize that concept.

    FACE OFF was indeed a great hero/villain counterpoint, wasn't it?

    Thanks for visiting and caring enough to talk awhile. Roland

  7. you're right that readers don't want ordinary, because they live it every day. Being daring and bold is difficult because of repercussions. But in fiction, we can allow the ordinary guy to do something risky. And readers enjoy the ride.

  8. Alex :
    You're right. Readers don't limp from reading about leaping from a speeding car to cement! Roland

  9. I always think about Beaowulf when I get into hero-analysis.

    Brash. Bolden. Cocky. Effective. Human.

    About the only place a "perfect" character belongs is as a deity, or some other mentor-ish sort of character. The hero must have flaws, because we have flaws.

    True Grit, which I recently analyzed with my children, doing a book v. movie comparison, is a prime example! Rooster is a raging alcoholic, and the girl, gads, I forget her name, she is condescending, stubborn, and arrogant. The Texan is downright comical.

    And yet we love them all.

    Those are heroes. Those are humans. Those are people we relate to.

    - Eric

  10. Eric :
    You're right.You cannot be brave without feeling fear and then overcoming. To be heroic is to be human and triumphing despite (or because of) your flaws.

    Even Merlin was not a perfect character, though a mentor. We cannot relate to perfect characters. They are teflon to which our imaginations will not stick! LOL. Great that you did a movie versus book comparison of TRUE GRIT with your children! :-)