How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Desert journey

Photo by Jeff Jewiss on Unsplash

Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?

Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.

This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.

Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.

Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”

Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.

One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.

True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.

One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?

Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”

Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.

What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.

True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.

The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.

Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.

Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.

And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?

Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.

To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.

For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.

By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.

Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?

Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.

Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:

“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?

Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?

Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and] 

Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”

While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.

In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.

Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.

What’s In Your Leaf-Mould?

Today I open a new chapter in the life of this blog.

I’ve decided to newly commit myself to updating my blog. I’m really going to delve deep into the leaf-mould of my mind for new post ideas. Also, I plan to start writing articles for Medium in the hopes of making a bit of an income as a writer and growing my nonfiction portfolio.

As a result, you can expect more content about fiction writing techniques, particularly speculative fiction techniques, as well as the occasional reflection on whatever book I’m reading right now.

What is a leaf-mould, you might ask?

A leaf-mould is something like the sum of all the creative influences a mind gathers over the years. It is the fertile soil on which the imagination thrives.

The concept comes from J.R.R. Tolkien, who once wrote about The Lord of the Rings in a letter. He said that “one writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”

This was an inspirational quote that Jeanne Cavelos shared when I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016. It reminds us that creativity is an organic process that emerges like a living thing out of the soil.

Over the coming months, I hope to make this blog a repository for my leaf-mould. I also hope to become more serious in getting articles published. Posting may be slower at first as I find my wings, but after a while, I hope to be writing and posting for this blog every week.

Course Offered: Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing

specfic

Are you an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer? If so, I have good news!

I am teaching a speculative fiction writing workshop at the Thomas More Institute (3405 Atwater Avenue, Montreal) called “Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing.”

You will read selections from speculative fiction authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Charles de Lint, and China Miéville, while working on your own short story to be workshopped in class.

The 12-week course begins January 7th. Register for the course through the Thomas More Institute website. Questions may be directed to me at matthew.rettino@gmail.com.

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“The Pilgrim’s Yoke”

Professional Proofreading and Editing

“The Pilgrim’s Yoke”

Bards and Sages Quarterly October 2018 cover

I’m back from attending Can-Con 2018 in Ottawa and figured I’d officially announce that I’ve made my first story sale. Hurrah!

“The Pilgrim’s Yoke” is the story of a pilgrim who seeks the waters of life and is refused. I wrote it as a sort of deconstruction of the hero’s journey, while building on my personal experience of pilgrimage, dissatisfaction, and the indescribable nature of the numinous.

The story appeared in Bards & Sages Quarterly this October.

You can buy it from the following retailers:

Amazon / Amazon Kindle

Kobo

Smashwords

If you liked “The Pilgrim’s Yoke,” you can vote for it in the 2018 Readers’ Choice Awards!

I’d love to hear what you thought of the story and how it made you feel. Reply to this post with your feedback and I’ll be sure to respond to any questions you might have.

Archival Hauntings: A Review of The Bone Mother by David Demchuk

David Demchuk, who attended Montreal’s Blue Metropolis festival earlier this year, is the author of a Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated collection of horror short stories, The Bone Mother. This was quite an accomplishment for a horror writer, especially since writers of horror fiction are so often excluded from the literary mainstream. The Bone Mother, set in the interwar period in Eastern Europe, is inspired by Slavic folklore and the stunning and slightly disquieting photographic archive of Romanian photographer Costică Ascinte.

To get the word out about this marvelous, yet terrifying book, I wrote a review of The Bone Mother for NewMyths.com, which you can go read.

I won’t say much else about it here except that the book itself seemed to dovetail nicely with my Master’s thesis, which investigated, in part, what the difference between magic realism and fantasy set in the primary world is, if there exists a difference at all. Demchuk’s novel does serve to blur the lines, but at the Blue Metropolis, he was adamant in insisting The Bone Mother is not magic realism but straight-up horror.

Purchase The Bone Mother on the ChiZine Publications website.

 

 

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Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

It has been four months since I attended this year’s Congrès Boréal, so a write-up on the conference is probably overdue. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my impressions of my first foray into this predominantly French-language science fiction and fantasy convention.

Congrès Boréal is probably Québec’s main literary fantasy and science fiction convention. It was held in Montreal at the Masonic Temple on Sherbrooke Street last May. I attended to see some familiar faces–Jo Walton and Claude Lalumière were both participating in panels in the English stream–and to acquaint myself with the Francophone writers participating in the convention.

The first panel I attended was called “L’imaginaire a-t-il une langue? Différence culturelle dans l’imaginaire anglophone et francophone” (“Does the imagination have a language? Cultural differences in the anglophone and francophone imaginary.”) The panelists included Olivier Paquet, a science fiction writer from France, Patrick Senecal, a thriller/horror writer in the vein of Stephen King, and Marie Bilodeau, whose English novels have been translated into French.

The discussion was lively and interesting. While there is perhaps less difference between French and English science fiction and fantasy literature than might be assumed at first, the panelists did spot some general trends that mark some dramatic differences. For example, the panelists seemed to agree that sensuality, graphic violence, and unhappy endings are generally more acceptable to French-speaking audiences than to anglophone audiences. Perhaps this was result of old fashioned Anglo-Saxon puritanism, or the American love for Walt Disney-style happy endings. Either way, this traits seemed to me to mark the greatest difference.

Much Québécois horror is inspired from the European horror scene, which tends toward serial killer narratives more than, say, fantastic horror. However, as Paquet explained, pessimism is not the only story in France. The country that produced the scientific optimism associated with Jules Verne continues that tradition in its brand of science fiction that focuses more on sociological issues, as well as adventure.

One interesting idea that arose: language does not inherently carry the values of a society. Rather, culture does. The different traumas and schisms that define a society do have a much greater influence on national literature. For example, Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, remarked one of the panelists, is marked by the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. This echoes how French SF is marked by the policy of laïcité (state secularism), the origins of which go back to the French Revolution. There did seem to be truth to this observation, given how French-language SF is in a sense more “secular” in its embrace of violent and sexual themes that would religious people shiver. On the other hand, anglophone SF retains a more “puritanical” attitude in the literature it produces and censors, particularly in the United States.

This being said, certain attitudes to the French language itself do influence French SF. Patrick Senecal pointed out later in the discussion that French-language editors have a tendency to homogenize the different registers of the language, leading to less linguistic diversity. When editing dialogue, French publishers often edit out regional dialect in favour of “le Français internationale.” The result is a banal, grammatically correct French, where all characters sound the same. These editing decisions do not accommodate the regional French spoken in certain regions of Québec, for example, which leads to a more monovocal (as opposed to polyvocal) body of literature. This is not just unappealing; it’s unrealistic and unrepresentative of how French is actually spoken. As Senecal quipped, “Il n’y a personne qui parle comme Radio Canada!”

Congrès Boréal
Congrès Boréal was held at the Montreal Masonic Memorial Temple

It was fascinating to learn a little bit more about the French-language SF scene here in Québec. As a McGill student and a West Islander, I guess I’m a quintessential Anglo. I don’t read much in French. But perhaps the reason, aside from the language barrier (I read slow in French), is because I’ve never really sought out French literature I enjoy.

Back in March, I picked up Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings in Emmanuelle Chastellière’s French translation, La Chute de La Maison aux Fleches D’Argent. I’m still working through it, but I’ve managed to banish the disagreeable, singsong voice that used to play in my head whenever I would read French books. This voice is a relic from my high school experience reading in French and I’ve finally managed to suppress it. This greater maturity has helped me enjoy reading in French. Though I still have ways to go, breaking my self-imposed taboo has been one mark of progress.

I purchased several issues of Brins d’Éterinté at the con, a Quebec SF magazine, as a promise to myself to read more and expand my vocabulary. One issue had published a translation of a Helen Marshall story, which I certainly appreciated as a fan of her work. French SF writers tend to read English SF a lot more than anglophone writers read French SF, but maybe I can buck that trend. I was pleasantly surprised that several attractive revues SF were represented at the con, such as Clair/Obscure, Étranges Lectures (from France), and Horizons Imaginaries, a CEGEP Marianopolis-based publication which won a prize at the con.

Perhaps working on my French can be my excuse to dig deeper in Quebec SF. In any case, the con was an eye-opening experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in attending. The next conference will be in Sherbrooke in 2019.

 

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An Occult Rebellion: a Review of The Flaw in the Stone by Cynthea Masson

The Flaw in the Stone by Cynthea MassonThe Flaw in the Stone, Cynthea Masson’s second novel in her Alchemists’ Council trilogy, explores the occult origins of the Rebel Branch’s revolution against the Alchemists’ Council. In a world where manuscript scholarship is the key to harmonizing the universe’s dimensions, the balance of power is about to be thrown off kilter.

Genevre, an outside world scribe currently inhabiting Flaw dimension, unlocks a forbidden text that will give the rebels an advantage over Council dimension for the first time in thousands of years. Seizing the opportunity, the High Azoth of the Rebel Branch, Dracaen, plans to use the long-forgotten alchemical formula to destroy the Lapis, the source of the Alchemists’ Council’s power. However, when his obsession becomes tyrannical, Cedar and Saule form a risky plan to unite rebels and alchemists, while preserving both free will and interdimensional balance. In choosing to switch allegiances, however, they risk the destruction of both worlds.

The story takes place over hundreds of years and across multiple dimensions without losing its intrigue. It carries the reader from the dark caverns of Flaw dimension to the bright gardens of Council dimension, as well as the outside-world protectorates of Vienna, Qingdao, and Santa Fe. Some scribes aligned with the alchemists become rebels, while some rebels become alchemists.

The complex allegiances are complicated further because The Flaw in the Stone develops several protagonists instead of focusing on one, as the first novel of the series did. The downside to having so many characters is less focus. However, the ethically complex problem of free will brings unity to the novel, since it is explored in different ways. Since any changes made to the Lapis in Council dimension affect all dimensions, the alchemists essentially control humanity and the outside world. Dracaen conscripts Melia and Jinjing to assist him in his plan to overthrow the Council in the name of preserving humanity’s freedom. However, in doing so, he compels both women to undergo an emotionally devastating alchemical ritual that will give the Rebel branch the upper hand. This leads them to question whether their commitment to Dracaen’s rebellion was really worth the cost.

Dracaen forces Melia to conceive an alchemical child, an entity of such power that he believes it will help the rebels destroy the Lapis. Melia feels “like a mere vessel, like a human alembic whose sole purpose was to incubate and then deliver a miracle child” (146). Her anxiety reveals not only her fear of pregnancy but her anger at being objectified. The power dynamic inherent in Dracaen’s relationship with Melia recalls recent public discussions about consent. This forced incubation, committed in the name of freedom, ironically makes Dracaen as tyrannical as the most dogmatic Council-dimension alchemists.

Historical allusions add poignancy to the Rebel branch’s revolt. Since changes to the Lapis affect the outside world, the Rebel branch’s attempt to eliminate it in 1914 more or less causes the First World War. In one memorable scene, Saule, Genevre, and Jinjing hide out in the Qingdao protectorate as the Japanese bombard the city, an allusion to the 1914 Siege of Tsingtao (Qingdao). Other historical events are alluded to implicitly. One attempt to eliminate the Flaw is said to have been “responsible for the Mongol Conquests” (188). Also, it is no coincidence that the novel begins in 1848, when a wave of social uprisings swept across Europe. Though this historical allusion is not explicitly developed, the date adds poignancy to the rebels’ struggle–perhaps an ironic poignancy, given that outside world events are only reflections of the harmony within Council dimension. Does this reduce the free agency of the human beings who participated in these events?

Masson’s scholarly knowledge of alchemical manuscripts lends the world she has constructed a certain authenticity. For example, she bases Ilex and Melia’s mutual conjunction upon the alchemical concept of the Rebis, a man and woman combined into a single individual. Her training as a medievalist comes across in her writing style, which is formal and academic.

The Flaw in the Stone fills in many of the unanswered questions readers are left with at the end of The Alchemists’ Council. In a pleasant surprise, the novel’s timeline continues into the twenty-first century, bringing the action up to date with the end of the first book and setting up the final book of the trilogy.

 

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