Clout or Doubt

by Chantal Boudreau

Power, or lack thereof, can decide where a story will carry a character, or even where a character will carry a story. All you have to do is think about a classic story and reverse the position of power of the protagonist to see what I’m talking about.

If Bilbo Baggins had been an influential, confident and heroic hobbit member of the nobility instead of a humble ordinary member of the shire with little influence to speak of, think of how that would have changed his story. He probably wouldn’t have been selected to play the role of “thief,” too important for such a lowly and suspect role. Had he gone along, he would have had enough political clout and wealth to travel with the dwarves well-guarded and unimpeded. More than likely, he may have decided to keep his nose out of the entire affair for diplomatic reasons and been able to stand his ground on the matter in the face of coercion from Gandalf and the other questers. He certainly wouldn’t have let the dwarves push their way into his home and ransack his kitchen.

On the other hand, look at the tale of King Midas and the Golden Touch. Part of the heft of the story comes from depicting the King as greedy despite vast wealth, a man elevated who has that much farther to fall than say a successful merchant or tradesperson experiencing the same greed and consequence. Perched on his high roost, he manages to lose everything without actually losing his wealth and the message as a result carries more meaning and greater impact – a lesson on appreciating what we have and recognizing the true value of things in life. A lowly servant stricken with the same affliction wouldn’t carry the same warning. He would be more likely to already value what he possessed and while he might opt for a golden touch, it would be out of despair and real need. It would make the reader more sympathetic to his plight and poor choice, marring the message in the process.

When writing a story I try to consider how the protagonist’s position of power will play into the story. Sometimes it will be important to build on power as the character becomes more competent and confident, so it makes sense to start them at the bottom. This way, there is more room to depict the character’s struggle and rise. It also helps to get the reader on board, rooting for a character who has received an unfair lot in life but who persists thanks to a heroic spirit and a resilient nature. It’s a great way to build investment. This is commonly seen in stories involving reluctant heroes like Bilbo or what I like to refer to as the “mouse that roars” type of hero, like Anna in my novel Prisoners of Fate – characters who don’t recognize their own potential for power until the pressure is on.

Other times it is important to allow a character a lofty position at the start. They already have wealth, status, strength or political power and are either abusing these things or failing to appreciate them. More common in tragedies, it serves the purposes of allowing for a greater decline and a demonstration of hubris, like Midas. This is why Far-Runner in my Snowy Barrens trilogy begins that story with so much. He has friends who support him, status within the tribe and physical adeptness. When the incident happens that begins his decent into madness and powerlessness, he is set for a comeuppance, a punitive counter to his jealousy and arrogance.

It all comes down to what a writer is trying to say with their story. A character is a vehicle and choosing the right position of power for that character will drive the point home more effectively. If the writer makes the right choice, the story will be that much better for it.

Defining Evil

by Chantal Boudreau

In honour of Halloween, I’m doing another blog spot on the importance of the presentation of evil in a tale and of the nature of villains. Writers face a difficult challenge with the initial conceptualization of the antagonist of their tale: how despicable should they make that villain – on a standalone basis as well as relative to their protagonist, who might be walking a blurry grey line – and how exactly do they plan on defining evil? After all, evil comes in a variety of forms and what might be considered evil by some might not seem so terrible to others. Do you show bias based on your own experiences and cultural background or do you aim for something more universally accepted? It’s an enigma with no clear answer.

I’ve dabbled with different levels of sympathy in my villains, a variety of perspectives and motivations and a wide array of power levels. A weaker villain can still be effective if they are properly insidious and the protagonist is both malleable and corruptible. Iago, for example, doesn’t wield that much power, but he seizes opportunity to exploit Othello’s weaknesses.

An abundantly powerful villain can appear far too overwhelming, and their defeat improbable, unless the protagonist has access to comparable power to counter their efforts. In my “Casualties of War,” the heroes face an avatar with magic and skills far beyond their own. However, the fact that there exists a lack of balance of power as far as Lady Finesse is concerned does not distort the story for a few reasons. The first, and most important, is the fact that she is not the primary evil. She is merely an offshoot of the main plot, someone who toys with the characters for her own sadistic pleasure, the greater evil being the wizards who initiate the trouble the heroes face and those who perpetuate it by refusing to help the victims of that trouble. Those villains are more human and comparable in power to the heroes.

As well, her interference is offset by the influence of divine beings working on the side of good. This returns the conflict to the hands of the mortals who have to fight it out on more down-to-earth terms.

In “Prisoners of Fate,” where the villain has gained access to the combined supernatural powers of their world as well as a demonic one, instead of reducing the villain’s incredible power level, I chose to escalate the protagonists’ power level by means of access to a divine artefact. This way I could leave the villain’s power as originally defined, but still provide balance, enough to allow the possibility that the battle could swing either way.

I think my preference lies with defining my evil as closer to human. A more alien evil is easier to hate, but is harder to relate to. The best struggles are the one that hit closest to home, where while the reader may not agree with what the villain is doing, they can identify with them to some degree and understand where their motivation is coming from – villains like the bullies in my Fervor series and my Snowy Barren Trilogy, or ones like the twins in my yet to be released fourth book in my Masters & Renegades series, “Victims of Circumstance,” as much victims as villains themselves.

I thought I’d close with a little excerpt to show what I mean, a glimpse at what makes that evil more tangible and real:

“We have received word that there is another heir. He or she doesn’t travel alone, and they are likely three days, or thereabouts, ahead of us,” Regina informed her mentor.

“That will alter your course of action, but only slightly. You must seek out this third heir, find a way to earn his or her trust, and then eliminate this other heir to make sure that their claim does not supersede your own. If they are of a noble mother, you will likely lose your bid to be monarch of Seaforest.”

“We understand, mistress.”

“Where is Stefano?” the dark lady inquired, her violet eyes glowing with supernatural light.

“He is indisposed at the moment,” the young woman replied, her cheeks flushing slightly.

“You remember what we discussed,” Finesse whispered. “If he becomes too much of a liability, you are to dispose of him. I don’t trust him to do what’s required of him. If he proves to be unreliable, as I suspect he will, he will not serve his purpose. He’ll just get in your way.”

“I know,” Regina replied in a hushed voice, struggling to hide her extreme distaste at this idea. As much as she despised his boorish behaviour and his hedonistic tendencies, he was her twin brother and she still loved him. If push came to shove, however, she would do whatever would be necessary to ensure that their plan was a successful one.

“Report back to me as soon as you have more information on the other heir, and it is safe to do so,” the avatar instructed.

“I will, Lady Finesse.” Regina allowed the image to fade. She glanced back at her brother who was lying spread eagle on the bed, the pillow across his face.

“You can’t keep doing things like this, Stef,” she said softly. “You’ll jeopardize everything that we have worked for. I can’t protect you if she ever decides that you have gone too far.”

He pulled the pillow off his face and sat up, giving her an angry stare.

“I never asked for your protection. I don’t need your protection. You aren’t much more than a silly little girl. What would make you think that I would need you to protect me?”

Happy Halloween everyone!