Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sidekicks--Who Needs 'em?

I'm working on Seaborn today, trying to get the final revisions back to my editor. As I watch my heroine, Nes, trying to get through a particularly rough patch, it occurs to me why the whole kickass female thing is starting to strike me as way overdone. Yes, I believe women are as brave, as tough, and as ingenious as men in getting into and out of trouble, each in her own way. And yes, I don't want to read about wimpy females who have to be rescued all the time.

But... there is a limit to what your hero/heroine should be able to manage. What really bugs me about the overblown hero thing is when the guy/gal doesn't seem to need anyone else. The other characters are just there to make the reader feel reallllly good about the hero. The hero's flaws (if there are any) are so miniscule that they really don't matter to the outcome. Their sidekicks may be colorful and fun, but they often seem to exist just so the hero has someone to talk to. Bleh.

Give me a hero (or kickass heroine) with some real flaws, some fears, some character traits that won't win any prizes for congeniality or tact or best team player. Then give them sidekicks who challenge them as well as support them. In Seaborn, Nes, a daughter of the Water Clans, has one paralyzing fear that humiliates her, crops up whenever she least needs distraction, and affects even her relationships with people around her. It's terribly hard to be impressive when you're puking your guts out, and she knows it, which only makes her angrier. She so wants to prove what she can do, but there’s this phobia getting in her way. Haven't we all been there, wanting badly to impress, only to have some stupid fear or flaw or mistake crop up to kneecap us?

This is why I love supporting characters. Friendship is one of the most interesting and basic bonds between people. Watching strangers bond in a story is always satisfying; the hero’s journey, when well done, is built on trust and friendship and achievement by all the members of the party. I really want the hero to fail now and again to give everyone else a chance to shine. I want the lesser characters to contribute to the story and be important in their own right. Having just re-read Stephen King’s homage to friendship, “It,” I realize how strongly I am drawn to stories like that one that depend on a disparate cast of people with real strengths and weaknesses, who are challenged to pull their own weight and step up when it counts. Some will manage it; some will fail. This is the essential story, the one that goes way beyond fulfilling the quest. How boring Frodo would have been without Sam.

This melding of talents and strengths (and weaknesses), I think, is one of the things that makes the Harry Potter series so popular. Harry is not the brightest, most talented kid at Hogwarts, nor even the bravest (that honor goes to Neville). He depends on his friends to help him get through, as they depend on him to lead, to keep fighting, to give them heart in their worst moments. That is his strength, the hero’s strength, that I think many writers of heroic fiction forget. The current popular meme of the kickass loner who doesn’t really need anyone else to accomplish the mission, while fun to write and explore, is less interesting to me than the hero who both inspires and needs other people.

Hmm. Perhaps this is why the cast of the Masters of the Elements series keeps growing! I like watching what everyone else can contribute. Seaborn uses the skills of all four of the talented clans to get where it’s going. My heroes will have been “up the creek and over the mountain” before it’s done. And so will Nes, phobia and all--with a little help from her friends.

You can check out the first two books of the Masters of the Elements, Firedancer and Windrider to see what I'm talking about and to catch up on the series thus far. Firedancer was a finalist for the 2013 EPIC Award for Fantasy.  


Christie Maurer said...

Amen! I get so tired of the hero/ine who goes through heck and damnation, gets a concussion (from which s/he recovers in minutes), falls off a 100 ft. cliff without injury... I want my heroes and heroines to be REAL--like with a concussion one is dizzy for days; you'd spend time in the hospital for months after a 100 ft. fall--if you survived.
Ditto characters without flaws. Real people do have flaws. Even the saints did--many irritated the dickens out of their associates. Hero/ines should have something to overcome within themselves as well as in the world.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Elisabeth,

Indeed! When my heroes get hurt, they don't bounce back immediately, and sometimes the injury results in permanent life changes. When I take a character out of action it's for a good reason. I think many writers have never actually experienced a bad illness or injury and don't realize just how debilitating it really is. Or, they have an overblown idea of the hero's abilities, and do the "wave the hand" magic that somehow spills over into every aspect of his/her imaginary life.