Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Authorial Sadism

What a topic for a first post!

**Spoiler warning for any random people who might be reading Carol Berg.**

So, last night as I'm plugging along through my "OMG I have time for braincandy, gimme some good high fantasy" reading, the question occured to me, can an author be too sadistic to their characters. I'm currently reading Guardians of the Keep by Carol Berg. It's the second book in a series. In the first book, we met the main character Seri, who was a typical protagonist for Berg -- rather older than eighteen, flawed, and the owner of an extremely tragic past. Ten years before the story opened, Seri's husband was burnt at the stake for the practice of sorcery and then her infant son was murdered by her brother because he just might inherit magical ability. This isn't at all uncommon for Berg, whose characters have typically suffered through a mental, if not also physical hell (Seri had gotten off rather easily, she wasn't enslaved, nor had she been locked in a prison cell having her fingers systematically broke for ten years). By the end of the story, things look a bit brighter for Seri, although not perfect (this is something I admire in Berg's writing, things rarely end perfectly, just improved). She's been able to forgive her brother (who was manipulated by evil exterior forces beyond anyone's control, of course), which it doesn't heal the loss of her son seems to provide her with some closure, and her husband's soul (that's to good exterior forces meddling in the affairs of mundane humans) has been reincarnated, and gets to kick major ass saving not one, but two worlds from exterior evil sources beyond anyone's control. Now if he only didn't have amnesia -- but the meddling good exterior forces are working on this problem.

Moving on to book two. Husband finally remembers Seri. Unforntunately, due to the circumstances under which he remembers her, he goes completely nutty and offs himself. Poor Seri gets to watch this episode through a window. Futhermore, her son was actually swapped at birth with her brother's son, so the kid she thought was her nephew is actually her son and he's been kidnapped by the evil exterior forces. (And, yes, we did have a "Luke, I am your father." moment of sorts.) Seri hasn't had a mental break yet, but my god!

So can an author simply be too sadistic to their characters?

Berg's case is different from the average sadist author. For one thing, she's a good writer. Sure there are cliches, and she does use her own set of stock characters. But she writes well, and she writes convincely. I care about her characters, and futhermore, they are real, flawed people. Not all of Seri's problems are based in the fact that the fates of the world hate her. She frequently makes things worse on herself through pride or through anger. Her characters also grow and are changed by the shit that they live through, rather than simply enduring it to show how strong they are or how evil the bad guys really are (*cough* Terry Goodkind *cough*). But, occasionally, it would be nice to have something good happen to the characters I like.

On one hand, no story can be entirely positive. I love the definition of plot as get your character up a tree, throw things at her, and then get her back down. Something has to go wrong. Characters need to make mistakes, and they need to suffer the consequences of making a mistake. Characters should lose some of the time -- especially in a genre like fantasy, where things tend ot magically work out for the protagonist.

On the other, writing is for an audience. And when the audience is rather attached to a character (through good writing) throwing things at the protagonist relentlessly can become painful for the audience, particularly when there doesn't seem to be a reason -- plotwise -- for the pain.

Oh well, I'm not done with the book, so perhaps there is a good reason for the further beating of poor Seri. I hope.

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