Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wide Sprawling Epic Casts

It's the nature of sci-fi and fantasy to go big, and big means a cast of "main" characters in the dozens, and hundreds of minor characters.  And, as much as I love that sort of thing, it is in this very aspect that a lot of said big, sprawling epics just lose me completely.

Because the writer doesn't necessarily get me to give a good damn about who these people are.

I'm going to pick on a specific example, in that it was one that didn't work for me, personally.  I know there are plenty of people who love it, of course, but I'm not one of them: The Honor Harrington Series.  Now, I liked the first book fine, and several of the subsequent books.  But over time it lost me, and I think a large part of that was the enormous sprawl.  The shear volume of characters involved is incredible, and I salute anyone who can keep track of all that.   Frankly, there wasn't a character I really connected to, really felt endeared to, besides Honor and Chief Harkness.  Chief Harkness is a minor character, but he was a lot of fun, and in In Enemy Hands, he plays a key role.*   Whenever one of those two characters were center stage, I enjoyed things.  When they weren't, not so much.  And even though Honor is the main character, she is not center stage a lot

The following book, Echoes of Honor, is structured in alternating sections-- one section details Honor, Harkness and others on a prison planet, the other section just... other stuff.  Slogging through those sections was rough, because I just didn't care about who was on the ruling council of Manticore or the People's Republic (especially since those people were A. relatively disposable, B. easily interchangeable and C. by design, horrible and stupid.)  Now, of course, in both cases, these are the "bad guys" of the novels, for all intents, and you're not supposed to "like" them.  But you should be able to enjoy them, and I didn't find any of that.  And, frankly, many of the characters I was supposed to "like" I didn't find particularly engaging, either. 

So, for me, HUGE parts of that book, as well as many other books in that series, lacked any hook.  These people could live or die, and I really didn't care, as long as they never had another meeting. 

Now, why didn't I care?  Was this my fault as audience, or the writer's fault?  I can take some of the blame, and I don't want to attack Mr. Weber in any way, but I think a lot of it has to lie on his shoulders.  As for why, I think it ties into what I talked about on Monday-- when it comes down to it, I don't think he believes in his antagonists.  By this, I mean, he sets them up as strawmen to fail.  When they argue their positions, it's usually a flawed, if not downright stupid argument.  They enact plans that the narrative tells us is doomed to failure.  They're not just playing checkers while Honor and her allies play chess; they're just flinging the checker pieces at her king and don't understand why that doesn't mean they win.

I'm exaggerating for effect, but the point stands: they aren't people, at least I don't feel the author believes in them as people.  And if they aren't people, I can't invest in them. 

And this ties into where I was going wrong with Shield.  My two main antagonists were weak.  One was a strawman of wrongness; whatever your personal political leanings are, imagine an absurdist, reductive take on that.  And the other one was a cynical user of the first one.  He might as well have a tattoo on his forehead: "I AM USING YOU AS MEANS TO MY OWN END".  That's not what I needed to make Shield an interesting book.  I needed these guys to be the heroes of their own stories.

One of my favorite bits in Thorn of Dentonhill involves only the antagonists.  It works, in my humble opinion, because I did my best to make them their own characters.  I haven't-- yet-- succeeded on that same level with my Shield antagonists.  Maybe I need to figure out what's the story is that they are the hero of. 


*- But even still, I had to go look that up.  The fact that the name of the character I liked the most who wasn't the title character wasn't in my brain signifies something.  It might be my failing memory.

No comments: