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All Fantasy Authors Are Mass Murderers

Red Tide Written by Marc Turner

Pull up a chair, I could use some advice. The thing is, I’m in middle of writing the next book in my Chronicles of the Exile series, and I’m having trouble with a character. She–or he–is one of my favorites in the series. But in typical fashion, she has contrived to put her neck on the headsman’s block, and the axe is hovering. Her death makes most sense in light of the events to this point. So why am I hesitating?

Perhaps it is natural to do so. I’ve spent years dreaming up and developing my main characters. If I could slaughter one of them and feel nothing, what would that say about how they were written? After all, if I didn’t like them, I would have changed them. And if I don’t care for my characters, how can I expect other people to?

As a narrative tool, I can see the value of killing characters. I remember reading about the death of a certain main character in George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones. I couldn’t believe it when he was killed. I had to re-read the relevant passage several times, because I was sure I must have misinterpreted something. Like most of Martin’s readers, I suspect I fell into the trap of thinking the character in question was untouchable. So when Martin put him in danger, I wasn’t too concerned. And then he died. After I’d picked my jaw off the floor, it dawned on me that no one in the series was safe. So when Martin next put another of his characters in peril, you can bet I took him seriously.

Then along came the Red Wedding, and I had to reappraise my expectations all over again.

Are there right and wrong ways to kill a character? I’m a big fan of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. The title of the seventh book, Reaper’s Gale, is a fair warning that not everyone will be walking into the sunset at the end. But the death of one particular character (I won’t say who) hit me hard. It wasn’t that he was my favourite in the book. Rather, it was the manner of his passing. By the time he died, the events of the story were all but concluded. The character had overcome huge odds. He was even in a budding romance, and had promised to return to his beloved. (In retrospect, I should have known from that point that he was destined to die.) Then out of the blue he was stabbed in the back. It felt so…meaningless.

Reading that sentence back, it seems an absurd thing to say. What is it that gives any death “meaning”? And why should every character go out with a drumroll and a blaze of sorcery? That would be unrealistic. In a recent interview, George RR Martin claimed that it is dishonest not to show how war kills heroes as easily as it kills minor characters. “You don’t get to live forever,” he said, “just because you are a cute kid, or the hero’s best friend, or the hero.”

I agree with that. But I still feel a writer needs to be careful with the lives of his or her characters. I have read books over the years where it felt like the death of a character was engineered for no other purpose than to shock. I have also read books that were spoiled – or at least soured – by the death of an important character. Yes, there were other characters to continue the fight, but the story just wasn’t the same afterwards. I can’t help thinking that some characters are too important to lose. Would A Game of Thrones be the same without Tyrion? Surely Martin would never kill him, would he?

Actually, I take that back. Wouldn’t want to tempt fate, after all.

So where does that leave my own character with her head currently on the block? In an uncomfortable spot, I’m afraid to say. Given the circumstances of the book, her death is the most credible outcome. Anything less would seem, to use Martin’s word, dishonest. If you’ve read my novels, you’ll know I’m not afraid to wield the axe when it is necessary. In this instance, killing the character feels right, and maybe gut feel is all an author has to go on in the end.

I’ve experienced that sensation before when I’ve bid goodbye to characters. On the one hand, I was sad to see them go. On the other hand, their death scenes ended up being among my favorites in the relevant book. If handled sensitively, the passing of a character has the potential to invoke a strong emotional response in the reader, and is that not the primary goal in dramatic fiction?

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What Makes a Character (Un)Sympathetic?

Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner
Written by Marc Turner

When reading reviews of my debut, When the Heavens Fall, I’m always curious to find out which character was the reader’s favourite. My book features four point-of-view characters: two women and two men. They are all very different people, ranging from the steadfast but spirit-possessed prince, Ebon, to the hedonistic and charmingly ruthless priestess, Romany. There might just be a consensus forming as to who is the most popular, but even when readers agree on their favourite character, they rarely agree on the others.

I guess there is nothing surprising in this. We don’t all like the same characters in books just as we don’t all like the same people in life. What did surprise me, though, was the degree to which readers could disagree on the “merits” of a particular character. Take Romany, for example. Fantasy Book Review said the following about her: “Intelligent, cunning, immensely likeable, her affable irritation and eventual humanity in the face of the maelstrom of uber-fantasy is remarkably levelling.” A different reviewer, though, went so far as to call her evil. She can’t be both, can she? And if not, who is “right” about her?Image credit Diana Hirsch

It’s an important question for an author to consider. When I’m reading, if I don’t care about what happens to a book’s characters then I put the book down. I want a reason to cheer the characters on. In the “traditional” fantasy that I read as a teen, the writer tended to have an easier job of providing that reason because of the black and white complexion of their worlds. The protagonist was the Chosen One, the antagonist was the Dark Lord, and you’re never going to struggle to choose who to root for between those two, are you?

I prefer characters that are shades of grey, and grey certainly seems to be in fashion nowadays in epic fantasy. Take George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, for example. When we first meet Jaime he is having sex with his sister and pushing a boy to his probable death from a tower window, but he has grown into one of my favourite characters. At times it can be hard in Martin’s books to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Actually that’s not quite true—you can tell the good guys apart on account of the fact that they’re all dead.

I like characters that have to battle against inner demons. I like characters that are facing decisions where the answers are far from clear, and where the consequences aren’t always what you expect. And what could be wrong with adding a few flaws to your characters, right? Think of your friends, your spouse, your parents. Are any of those people wholly without fault? Does that stop you caring about them?

Sometimes flaws can make your characters more sympathetic to a reader for a whole host of reasons. Generally, though, I think the more faults you give your characters, the harder it can be to win the reader’s sympathy for them. But it can be done. Consider Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire series. The main character, Jorg, is a thirteen-year-old sociopath, yet I still found myself rooting for him. What was it about Jorg that made me willing to spend time with him? What is the key to making an otherwise unsympathetic character sympathetic?

I asked Mark Lawrence that question in an interview I did with him earlier this year. His answer was: “Possibly it’s not caring whether you do [make them sympathetic] or not. I just aim to make characters interesting. Sympathy is over-rated.” Lawrence’s Jorg is certainly a fascinating character. Because of his age, I wanted to know the hows and whys of who he is. In Prince of Thorns, we learn that Jorg has been irreparably scarred from witnessing the murder of his mother and brother. This does not excuse the things he does in his pursuit of revenge, but at least it goes some way towards explaining them. And understanding an unsympathetic character is, I would argue, the first step to empathising with them. Would the readers who enjoyed Prince of Thorns have liked the book so much if they hadn’t been given that insight into Jorg’s background?

Another quality that might redeem an otherwise unsympathetic character is honesty. I’ve written elsewhere about the positive changes in Jaime’s character that take place during A Storm of Swords on his journey with Brienne to King’s Landing. But I also want to mention the scene where he is sitting in White Sword Tower reading The Book of the Brothers. There, he remembers the time when he was with Ser Arthur Dayne, and he fought and killed the outlaw known as the Smiling Knight. “And me, that boy I was… When did he die, I wonder?… That boy had wanted to be Ser Arthur Dayne, but someplace along the way he had become the Smiling Knight instead.”

Image credit Ivan BliznetsovJaime is honest about his faults, and with that honesty comes a sense that he wants to do better. He might stumble and fall on the road to redemption, but at least he is heading in the right direction. We are much more likely to sympathise with such a character, than one who refuses to acknowledge his shortcomings. Honesty is a technique I used to evoke sympathy for one of my characters, Parolla, in When the Heavens Fall. Parolla’s background is a mystery at the start of the book, but in time we learn that her parentage has left her with tainted blood. Sometimes the power carried on that blood slips her leash, but she never uses it as an excuse for her actions. Indeed, she tries to fight against her blood’s call, even as the darkness inside her begins to consume her.

A third consideration is humour. I recall reading an interview by Joe Abercrombie in which he said that people will forgive a lot in someone who can make them laugh. I agree. My favourite character in Abercrombie’s The First Law series, Glokta, is a ruthless torturer. He’s also very funny, and that made the scenes in which he features enjoyable to read. In Glokta’s case, the humour is often doubly appealing because it is self-deprecating. That indicates modesty, together with a sense of the honesty I referred to above.

There are other ways to provoke sympathy for a character, such as making them relatable to the reader, or vulnerable, or just setting them at odds with a character they like even less! There is a danger, though, in trying to make your characters too sympathetic. As my editor once put it, in seeking to make a character more likeable you might strip them of their “edge”. Taken to extremes, you could end up with a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu, too perfect to be realistic or interesting. And, of course, a change that makes a character more appealing to one reader might make them less appealing to another.

A lot is down to a reader’s individual preferences, which is why we should be careful against equating “I didn’t like this character” with “This character is a poor character”. It’s also why I’m so surprised when I hear someone pronounce that a particular character is “unlikeable”, as if the final decision were theirs.

So now it’s over to you. Which is the most disagreeable character you have found yourself rooting for in a book, and what was it that made you sympathise with them?

Buy Dragon Hunters today:
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Follow Marc Turner on Twitter at @MarcJTurner and on his website.

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Sneak Peek: Dragon Hunters

Dragon Hunters by Marc TurnerOnce a year on Dragon Day the fabled Dragon Gate is raised to allow a sea dragon pass from the Southern Wastes into the Sabian Sea. There, it will be hunted by the Storm Lords, a fellowship of powerful water-mages who rule an empire called the Storm Isles. But this year someone forgot to tell the dragon which is the hunter and which the hunted.

The second book in The Chronicles of the Exiled by Marc Turner, Dragon Hunters follows Emira Imerle Polivar and others intent on destroying the Storm Lord dynasty. As the Storm Lords assemble in Olaire in answer to a mysterious summons, they become the targets of assassins working for an unknown enemy. When Imerle initiates a planned coup, the enemy makes use of the chaos created to show its hand. Please enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER 1

THE TIME had come for Senar Sol to learn his fate.

The Guardian had known it as soon as the bolts of his cell door were thrown back, for this was the first time it had happened in all the months he had been imprisoned. He pushed himself to his feet, found his legs were trembling. How long had he been a captive? How long since he’d stepped through the Merigan portal and swapped Emperor Avallon Delamar’s knife at his back for a sword at his throat? The best part of a year, he realized, for through the bars across his room’s window he had seen autumn, winter, spring, and much of summer pass by. As the weeks of his imprisonment had turned into months, he’d begun to wonder if his jailers would just leave him there to rot. But then why had they kept passing food and water through the grille of his cell door? Why bother keeping him alive at all?

(more…)

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Cover Reveal: Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner

Tor Books is proud to present the cover of Dragon Hunters, book two in Marc Turner’s The Chronicles of the Exile series! Here’s what the author had to say about the cover, from artist Greg Manchess:

“Wow, that is stunning! I saw some pencil sketches of the cover a few months ago, but kudos to Greg Manchess for producing a final image that really captures the drama and threat of the book. I love how the waterline view makes the dragon loom higher. I also love how the creature seems to be staring at you rather than at the unfortunate souls on the ship. Hard to believe, looking at that cover, that the dragon is the one that’s being hunted. Perhaps someone should remind the creature of that fact.”

DragonHunters-comp

About Dragon Hunters: Once a year on Dragon Day the fabled Dragon Gate is raised to let a sea dragon pass into the Sabian Sea. There, it will be hunted by the Storm Lords, a fellowship of powerful water-mages who rule an empire called the Storm Isles.

Emira Imerle Polivar is coming to the end of her tenure as leader of the Storm Lords, but she has no intention of standing down graciously. As part of her plot to hold onto power, she instructs an order of priests known as the Chameleons to sabotage the Dragon Gate. There’s just one problem: that will require them to infiltrate an impregnable citadel that houses the gate’s mechanism—a feat that has never been accomplished before.

But Imerle is not the only one intent on destroying the Storm Lord dynasty. As the Storm Lords assemble in answer to a mysterious summons, they become the targets of assassins working for an unknown enemy. And when Imerle sets her scheme in motion, that enemy uses the ensuing chaos to play its hand.

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