Bridging the Gap Between the Expert and the Unknowledgeable

by Chantal Boudreau

Bruce Blake’s post on the unreliable narrator got me to thinking about narrators, or PoV characters, who are unreliable because of a lack of knowledge. Some readers are able to accept the character’s failing. Others find their narrow perspective hard to handle, especially if the reader is an expert in that area. Their ignorance, even if justified by circumstance, can be frustrating.

One example of this I ran into was when I had a test reader who worked in IT try out a story I had written involving technology gone wrong – a story where the protagonist was a technophobe and for the most part techno-illiterate. The character’s distaste for technology was a reasonable explanation as to why the protagonist had rejected the technology found in the story in the first place, which was an important component of the plot. My reader took issue with the main character’s technological ignorance, trying to impose his own understanding upon the unwary man (he should know this, he should expect that, he should be able to explain these things), even though as far as their technological knowledge base was concerned, they were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Technology was such a fundamental part of the reader’s identity that it created a disconnect between him and the protagonist that he just couldn’t circumvent.

I’ve seen this gap work the opposite way too, when a character is an expert and the reader lacks knowledge. I found this problem with Technicians and Scholars in my Fervor series and some of the more knowledgeable wizards in Masters and Renegades. The character gets excited about things that may not generate as much interest in the average person (think Sheldon talking physics to Penny in The Big Bang Theory) but his or her drive regarding a particular topic could be essential to the plot. As a writer, you may need to demonstrate that the character’s quest for knowledge can border on obsessive, but doing so can risk boring or even alienating the reader, so you have to tread cautiously.

So what can a writer do if this gap can’t be avoided? How does one bridge that gap for the reader while remaining true to the character and the story? How does a writer prevent that frustration or disinterest?

There are a few options. The first is being constantly aware that any difference is there. A writer can remind the reader of a character’s lack of knowledge through narrative or dialogue, at appropriate times, to reduce frustration. A writer can be conscious of when a learned character threatens to share to the point of an info dump. Listening to an expert blather on about a particular topic can put a less interested person to sleep.

Another option is to foil the gap with a secondary character – one more like the reader. That other character can point out an unknowledgeable character’s weaknesses with some sympathy or give the expert character a blank stare or a questioning look…or even a yawn… when they start going into too much detail. He or she can lend some understanding as to why the first character does what he or she does. This way, the impact of any knowledge gap on the reader is lessened.

As much as a writer wants the reader to get inside a character’s head and relate to them, this won’t always work when there is a significant knowledge gap between character and reader. Sometimes the relationship has to be sacrificed in part for the sake of realism. The character can still be likeable and may offer up other traits in common with the reader so they can sympathize with them to some degree, but there may always be at least a little disconnect on an intellectual level. That’s not necessarily a bad outcome. A writer will never be able to capture the full interest of every reader with every character. And sometimes lending a reader a new perspective is the whole point of the tale.

Just something to consider the next time a character in a story you’re reading makes you say: “why would he/she think that?”

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.

Playing the General

A lot of fantasy, and a lot of good, popular fantasy, focuses on the individual and/or the small group. As we saw in Autumn’s post (here) there are many different archetypes that may be included in a small group of adventurers out to complete a quest.

But not every story focuses on this facet of the story. In fact, there are a bunch of Epic Fantasies that turn this around on its head by focusing on the “General” and the large group action.

Now, this character doesn’t necessarily have to be a “General”, a King, a High Lord, an Admiral, or even a somewhat lesser ranked official or officer, just as long as they have some level of authority.

What separates the General from the Singular Hero is their responsibility and how they handle it. Like the Small Group dynamic, there are different kinds of Generals. Some of them will overlap with aspects of the small group, but others won’t.

1. The Field Commander (Lead from the Rear)

tywinWhen looking at possible roles for a “General”, the Field Commander’s job is the most daunting. It is their responsibility to orchestrate and coordinate the movements of an entire army on the battlefield. It is the Field Commander that gathers reports from all parts of his/her army and moves each piece in the way he/she thinks will best suit his/her goals.

Field Commanders very nearly never get their hands dirty. They sit in their tents, reading reports and moving markers across a map, trying to see their enemy’s moves before they happen and shield their own motives against discovery.

In a non-military setting, the Field Commander would be seen as the person who sends the small party on their quest. They have something that needs to be in order for the rest of their plan to be successful and they accomplish this through a mission given to a willing party.

A good example of a Field Commander is Tywin Lannister, from A Song of Ice and Fire. Tywin is not the sort to ride valiantly into battle and seek out the enemy face-to-face. Instead, he schemes and coordinates, plans and executes.

A challenge in writing the Field Commander is that there typically isn’t a lot of action to be had when you’re sitting at the back of the battle, watching things unfold. I have a character in my upcoming novel who fits this role and it was a struggle sometimes finding things to maintain interest. Interpersonal stress with advisors and the mental weight of the role are good ways to maintain tension and interest when writing these characters.

2. The Tactician (Lead from the Front)

tacticianThe Tactician, on the other hand, is going to be down in the mess of battle or the mud of the trenches, risking his/her life for the cause. Whether its a drive for personal glory, or an attempt to rally his/her men in a time of desperation, the Tactician feels right at home among the rank and file of the army.

Tacticians have a lot in common with the Hero (from Autumn’s post). They dash into battle without concern for themselves and lead their soldiers right into the heart of the fight. It is in the frenzy that they are most useful and at their best. They can see the ebb and flow of battle with their own eyes and, if they can take time away from killing an enemy, can micro-manage their forces with incredible precision.

This role is much more common in a lot of fantasy because it can still focus on the individual while they play a larger role in the fight. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings; Jaime Lannister Robb Stark from ASoIaF, all fit this role. They’re generals, but they lead their men rather than direct them.

3. The Strategist (Lead from the Middle)

king_in_forestStrategists are a much different breed than the Tacticians. They may still find themselves in the heat of battle, but when they do it is because they choice to fight, rather than felt the need to. Where a tactician makes adjustments on the fly, manipulating the flow of battle as it happens, the Strategist has planned everything out and knows what needs to be done.

The Planner and the Strategist find themselves in very much the same role. Both will lay out what needs to be done and will direct their assets towards the completion of the task. Strategists are methodical about how they will complete their task, sometimes to a fault. If there is a downfall with being a Strategist, it is that every plan must be fluid, because not even the best laid plans entirely survive first contact with the enemy.

Tyrion Lannister is definitely a Strategist. He lays things out and then waits for them to come to fruition; sometimes he finds himself at the sharp end of a weapon.

4. The King/Queen in the Castle

queenThe King/Queen in the Castle is much like the Field Commander, but on an even more grand scale. He/She manages the war, or the overall mission in a less-militant setting. The Field Commanders report to the King/Queen in the Castle and take their orders from him/her.

The King/Queen in the Castle truly sees the world on an epic scale. They don’t see the faces of their enemies or their allies, they see pawns on the playing board.

Sauron from Lord of the Rings is a fantastic example of this role. He sits in his mountain, pulling strings and manipulating armies on a vast scale.

 

In nearly every story some of the roles are present. They may not earn more than a mention as a hero and his small group set out on their journery, but they’re there, leading the rest of the world while our protagonist garners all of the glory 😉

What other roles do you see “Generals” fitting?

Time Will Tell

by Chantal Boudreau

I had a reader thank me the other day for including my gnomish character Cerissa June, or “Reeree” as she is better known, as a heroine in my Masters & Renegade fantasy series. “Finally, someone like me,” she said. “Someone my age – someone who thinks like I do.”

Cerissa June, you see, is a plump, middle-aged woman who prefers to think things through rather than act on impulse. She is intelligent and educated, having spent the better part of her life working as a schoolteacher, but she also has the experience and wisdom as a result of her advanced years, an advantage not shared by her younger wizard cohorts.

While you may see a grizzled veteran sidekick or mentor on occasion, the main characters in speculative fiction are rarely the very young, unless a story is intended for children, or older people. Perhaps because of a perceived need of a certain level of physical fitness, fantasy heroes don’t tend to be portly, disabled or anyone old enough to have grown children. This assumes that a story is always the result of an able-bodied younger adult going out to meet whatever trouble has arisen to cause the tale’s conflict. Realistically, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes trouble comes to the hero, landing in his or her path unexpectedly. Those who rise to the occasion may not be a strong, beautiful, twenty-something individual. It could just as easily be an awkward acne-afflicted teen or a fleshy and wrinkled elder who sees the need to act.

The other reason why the focus of fantasy stories may offer up younger adult protagonists is the belief that this is the type of character with whom the reader would identify. This isn’t necessarily so with adult fantasy, which appeals to a range of ages. My readers have included those as young as fifteen to people in their seventies. It would make sense for my fiction to reflect that variety.

And you also have to look at the span of a work. If your story takes place over decades, your protagonist will age and suffer the afflictions that accompany the loss of youth. My Snowy Barren Trilogy takes place over more than three decades and while some of the protagonists begin as youths who are just becoming adults, others are more mature initially. This means that those who survive to the end of the trilogy, in the violent, low-tech setting for the story, have grown old. Their hair has grayed, they aren’t as spry as they had been and some characters even die from old age rather than injury or illness. It makes sense considering the amount of time that passes.

That being said, the heroes in the tale don’t just stop being heroes because they get older. They may have to retire from participating in some of the physical aspects of the fight, because of new limitations, but that doesn’t stop them altogether. At one point in the tale, one of my heroes purposefully goes out recruiting the assistance of veteran warriors who have been discarded by another tribe because of their age. The protagonist, who is also older, recognizes their value in the conflict, even if their own people do not.

And I recognize the value of these characters as well. Including them adds dimension to your stories and allows for advantages and obstacles a younger adult character would be less likely to encounter. They have greater history to be explored and a different perspective than the one you would find in a younger generation – more life lessons learned to apply to the problem at hand. I think fantasy stories can benefit from age diversity just as much as non-speculative fiction can, and I’d like to see more of it myself.

The Challenging and the Challenged

To follow along with associated ideas from my last post where I discussed mental illness in fantasy, I wanted to address the lack of characters in fantasy with physical disabilities, or marginalized characters as some publishers describe them. While losing a limb, having a sense fail them or facing paralysis isn’t as unusual in the science fiction genre where technology exists to overcome such challenges – like prosthetic limbs that work as well or better than the one lost or regeneration tanks exist where one can simply regrow said limb – you don’t see as many major injuries resulting in disability in fantasy. You don’t tend to see many characters who have been disabled since birth in any speculative genre either (Robert J Sawyer’s WWW trilogy is an example of a story that addresses this with excellent characterization and research – the protagonist a blind teenage girl.)

This is unfortunate for a few reasons. Aside from the fact that challenging characters with one more sizable obstacle can make your story that much more interesting, in a fantasy world where technology is low-level or in some cases practically non-existent and the characters find themselves facing danger and potential injury or death on a regular basis, one would expect to see more battles ending with wounds having permanent effects. You are much more likely to see a character die in one of these battles than emerge with a lasting injury. Is that entirely realistic?

One could argue that in many fantasy worlds, magic is available to heal these kinds of injuries, or that a lack of decent medical treatment means these wounds will kill the injured party in the long run. That might be true in some cases, but not all, and what of the costs of any magic involved? Would that magic be readily and immediately available? If not, why aren’t there more battle-hardened veterans with hacked off limbs or lost eyes? Would disabled people always be relegated to the ranks of peasants and beggars?

I love adding these extra challenges to the mix. In my Snowy Barrens Trilogy, the shamans are required to take a physical “mark” as part of their initiation: missing thumbs, feet, eyes and even a split tongue that results in a speech impediment – injuries that cannot be healed or they lose their intended effect. I also have characters with supernatural injuries that cannot be healed properly by any means, including magic. As a result, they are left with a permanent limp, a paralyzed arm and a lack of speech, all the result of the type of dangers they face on a daily basis, dangers that have maimed them but not killed them. How they cope with these disabilities and how they function despite them add dimension to the tale. It even affects their relationships with other characters. Their situation makes them distinct.

In Fervor, the majority of the characters begin the series lacking one of their senses. My protagonist, Sam, is deaf and this proves problematic at times, despite being able to communicate telepathically. Other characters are badly injured later in the series during a nasty skirmish and some of the damage is permanent. Considering circumstances, it would seem pretty miraculous for everyone to escape unscathed, and I’m not big on building miracles into my stories. Just as I take issue with fantasy stories involving multiple lengthy battles where none of the heroes or prominent secondary characters ever die, I feel the same way about a lack of serious injuries.

And finally, there’s the issue of a fresh perspective. Those who are able-bodied have a certain way of looking at the world, but how might that change if you had to tackle obstacles from a different angle because of differing circumstances. Like in my yet-to-be-published dark fantasy short story where my protagonist is hearing impaired:

“The building shivered all around Pierre Belanger, as if winter’s bite had given it chills. He could sense it in his own bones as much as he could feel it in the weathered wood that surrounded him, an ominous tremor that set him on edge. It might not have bothered him quite as much if the scent of death didn’t hang in the air, an unhealthy sourness that he could taste if he breathed too deeply.

He had been trying to rest, but sleep didn’t come very easily. He didn’t have to hear the wind howling outside to know a storm raged there. Everyone took it for granted that such sounds didn’t bother him, but they were wrong. Just because the roars of the wind did not torment his ears, he still was aware they were there.

Pierre was about to roll over and burrow his way deeper into his moth-eaten blankets when a newly arrived light caught his eye. He raised himself up onto his elbows to see who had entered. He could barely make out Phillipe LeTour’s face in the flitting shadows from the candle, but he could see that the man’s expression was grim. He knew that meant only one thing. Matthieu’s condition had worsened.

Phillipe did not need to walk over and tug on Pierre’s sleeve to urge him to follow. Pierre threw off his blankets and struggled into his boots as quickly as he could manage, despite being tormented by fatigue and by the frosty sting to the air. Matthieu was his world at the settlement, both his only friend and his only family on Île Sainte-Croix. If he lost Matthieu, he would be more than just lonely. He would be more isolated than he had ever been before in his life.”

A hearing–impaired protagonist, he looks at the world differently and the writer’s challenge is to do that character’s perspective justice. That means focusing on the things he would be more aware of through his other senses and finding ways to communicate without regular speech.

So I put out my own challenge to other writers…how about giving this type of marginalized characters a chance to carry your story? You could be pleasantly surprised by the results.

All Speakers Great and Small: The Non-Human Narrator

Having a central character who is not human is certainly not unheard of in genre novels. I can easily think of a few fantasy tales with creature protagonists. Tad Williams “Tailchaser’s Song,” and Richard Adams “Watership Down” and “The Plague Dogs” are the first to come to mind. “Sirius” by Olaf Stapledon is another. While having an animal as a protagonist can be difficult at times when writing in third person, it is an even greater challenge if you choose to present the story in first person.

My latest NaNoWriMo project does exactly that. The story, a post-apocalyptic tale that looks at the world after it has been devastated by a biological warfare agent gone wild, is told from the perspective of one of the few survivors – a crow named Ash. He’s not an ordinary crow, either. His plumage makes him a bit of an outcast because it is a sooty grey rather than black, he is smaller and less imposing than the majority of his brethren, and his role prior to the apocalypse was as “translator” for his murder because he is clever and has developed a talent for understand the human or “no-wings” tongue, English in this case.

Writing from an animal point of view presents a few obstacles. If you write too much from a bestial perspective, the story could become incomprehensible. Your human reader needs something he or she can relate to; otherwise, there’s not much point to reading the story. Sure, it may be novel and surreal at first, but this can get tedious after a point. If you write too much from a humanistic perspective, there’s not much point to choosing an animal narrator to begin with, and you’ll lose that sense of realism, even if the story makes a lot more sense as a result.

I chose to aim for a happy medium. Having my protagonist understand human language, think more in human terms than a typical crow, but still apply very distinct crow nuances to his perspective of the tale, means I can have the best of both worlds. He can make sense of the dialogue of his human companions, but he can’t speak to them directly (he can speak with other crows.) He uses those humans to make sense of what is happening because he would not be able to on his own.

On the other hand, he attributes things “crow” to everything he experiences. Birds are “winged ones”, with crows being “his kind”, other animals are “four-legs” and humans, because they walk on two feet like birds, are “no-wings”. All homes are considered “nests” and he makes references to fledgelings , nestlings and murders. Because he has flight, he can do things that no human narrator could do without magic. Many of his actions are influenced by instinct and he has a clear connection to nature.

All that being said, I think one of the most important things to keep in mind, when making use of a non-human narrator, is that you should do your research. I did significant research on crows before even starting my outline because I wanted my narrator’s behaviour to be as realistic as possible. That meant knowing how crows live, their mating habits, their relationship to their environment and things that are important to their survival in the wild. If you are using a non-human narrator and you are ignorant of these kinds of facts, it will be easy to flub details in your story. If you value realism in your speculative fiction, research will be essential for this narrative approach.

Considering I rarely write in first person and this is my first attempt at a first person novel, this choice is admittedly an unusual one. At the same time, I think it adds a new dimension to the story and provides an extra source of interest for the reader.

After all, doesn’t the idea of a crow’s-eye view of a post-apocalyptic future pique your curiosity?

The not-so-secret formula for a great story

by Autumn M. Birt

I have this idea for a story: a character starts off doing okay, then their world falls apart but eventually they overcome their problems and succeed.

Ok, so it sounds really basic that way, doesn’t it? A story can’t be that simple. But in essence, maybe it is. Can you tell me what story I was describing above. How about what story I’m NOT writing about?

Many writers site that all story ideas are recycled. Nothing is truly original – old ideas are just put together in different ways with new characters. Though perhaps it is not just the plots that are revamped. What if there is a formula to the creation of a truly great story? And it is pretty well used?

storytellerIf you haven’t read this article, The Art and Science of Good Story Telling, I highly recommend it. There is so much in there that I love and could happily blog about. How cool is it that a reader really wrapped up in a good book actually experiences the thrills, smells, and sights in their mind as if they are experiencing it? Who wouldn’t want to be able to write a story like that?!

But it was the second part of the article, the formula Kurt Vonnegut puts forth, that really captured my attention. An actual formula to writing a kick-ass story and heck, it is plottable? Really?

I’m an English/Studio Art major that also just happens to have a science degree. And if you trace my history WAY back, I actually studied lasers for a time (independently while all the other high school students were locked in their classrooms even, BWAHAHAHAHAHAH). I actually love math and graphs. It is sad, I know. And um, well, I actually graphed the characters to my epic fantasy novel, Born of Water, while I was first writing it about five years ago. Graphs are sort-of art related…when you use pretty colors. 🙂

Unlike Kurt’s good fortune versus bad fortune, I actually looked at the emotional well-being of my characters, which is their response to the events in the novel. The highs and lows are a reflection of how well they overcome obstacles. After re-doing the graphs (in pretty colors), I can see they are far more volatile than simple fortune. On the other hand, this is also epic fantasy and I’m obviously interested in psycho-analyzing my character’s mental health while sending them on perilous quests and constantly risking their lives. THAT could make the graphs a little…manic?

Though Born of Water starts with four main characters, it is Niri’s desire to save Ria’s life that creates the journey. When I graphed how Niri and Ria faired during the novel together, well you can see it for yourself in the graph above on the right. It doesn’t quite fit the easy curve that Kurt drew, but their are a few elements in common. If I smoothed out Niri’s line especially. When you throw in all five characters (counting Darag who is picked up half way through), it looks far more chaotic!

IMAGE_0FF7A9D8-FDE9-485E-8AB0-BDF27C4BA6BFIMAGE_108F7B48-CAF1-4B18-8D7F-62C34B6BDEA0.

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However, there is still a trend. Everyone starts in good spirits, experiences something devastating and, in the end, rises above the challenges. Well, everyone starts off okay except for Ty. There were times in Born of Water AND Rule of Fire, that I think Ty is on his own journey.

Rule of Fire has its own level of chaos as the ‘main’ characters tick up to seven. Ack! But in this book, characters break off to meet challenges in smaller groups (lest I go insane keeping track of them). Of course, they start off together and meet up again. But when I break things down into two graphs, the action and responses (and how two characters can affect each other) becomes more apparent. Looking at the precipitous drop at the end for a few of the characters makes me start to appreciate where the term “cliff hanger” comes from…!

IMAGE_421714AA-9C95-44E1-A6CE-2822D30D84A6IMAGE_069EBB84-0907-46E8-9DEC-AC58A8418D12IMAGE_CF45F8BE-2074-4375-994D-A2E40C033614So, what does all this mean? Sure, it is fun to graph out characters and action, realizing how they relate (well, its fun for me). But do I really think that the “formula” for a great story is all that is needed? Tweak everything to a strong wave pattern and voila, I’ve got a best seller?

Um, no.

Maybe I should say, ‘oh, if only!’ But without good characterization, solid world building (considering I write fantasy), oh heck, even awesome editing, and a sprinkling of unique or really-well-worked ideas…it just won’t be even a good story. Keeping the idea for a tried-and-well-loved flow of fortune in mind while writing isn’t going to hurt, but it isn’t going to win any contests on its own either!

Besides, I can think of a very well loved and frequently read, revamped, and copied story that doesn’t fit that graph. Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, maybe tragedies have a different graph. Perhaps each genre really has its perfect flow? What do you think? Does “the formula” work? What are some other classics that break the mold?

– Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy novel Born of Water and its Novel Companion and, most recently, the compilation of adventure travel stories Danger Peligros! All are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and other retailers of e-novels. Her next novel, Rule of Fire, will be available JUNE 21. You can also find her online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page and on Goodreads.

 

Offering up the Underdog

by Chantal Boudreau

I’m in the middle of working on a post-apocalyptic novel at the moment, Sifting the Ashes, and one of the main characters has me thinking about just how much I enjoy writing underdog characters. Shannon is the type of woman you wouldn’t necessarily expect to survive a calamity. She’s the quiet, studious sort, socially awkward and happy to throw herself into work, a little underdeveloped on the physical side. To both her good fortune and her misfortune, she proves to be immune to the bio-engineered illness that kills ninety-seven percent of the population, decimating civilization. She’s also an easy victim to the remaining survivors fighting violently for survival, and she knows it. At the beginning of the story, she has been holing herself up in her basement apartment with scavenged supplies and stolen library books, just trying to ignore what’s going on in the outside world. And she manages just fine this way, until trouble comes to her.

Despite the fact that Shannon is not a strong character, she still wants to survive and it’s that gumption and the willingness to face her fears that keeps her going even when things look terribly grim. I find myself really liking the character even if I wouldn’t consider her a good example of how one should handle a similar situation. She makes plenty of mistakes, often barely scraping through the bad tangles she lands herself in. She’s ultimately human, her flaws are endearing in a way, and it’s difficult not to root for her.

I think that’s the whole point to the underdog character.

They are not a “proper” hero, their weaknesses outweigh their strengths, the odds are stacked against them – you could even say they are bordering on pitiful. But they make you want them to win, partially because there’s something about them that makes you feel for them and partially because despite everything working against them, they’re not willing to give up.

This kind of character proliferates itself throughout my writing, sometimes as a secondary character but more often as a main character. Fawn, in my Snowy Barrens Trilogy is an underdog, a pacifist and social outcast who can’t seem to catch a break. In my Masters & Renegades series, the intro novel, Magic University, is teeming with underdogs and misfits. Casualties of War, the second book, introduces possibly my favourite underdog, Clayton. He is a gawky young man, low on self-esteem, who mistrusts others and is tormented by precognition. In the soon to be released third book, Prisoners of Fate, there is Anna, who seems to be a perpetual underachiever, despite strong potential, and she remains shy and mousy even with the urging (and sometimes bullying) from her mentor to develop more of a presence.

Even Sam, my protagonist in the Fervor series, plays the role of underdog, subject to the Scholars’ manipulations and bullying from the Controls.

So I admit it, I’m addicted to the underdog character – but why wouldn’t I be? Compare them with the standard hero who has the skills, strengths and resources to meet whatever mishaps and villainy the writer throws their way. Where’s the challenge in that? I honestly sort of want to see those types of protagonists fail, because they had it so good in the first place.

And maybe I feel this way because I identify best with the underdog myself. I’m certainly nowhere near perfect in any way, shape or form. You’ll find a lot more readers out there that have lived that kind of life as opposed to being stunningly beautiful, gracefully athletic and charismatically brilliant – all rolled into one.

Right?