Characters – With and Without Talents

The other day I received an inquiry from a reader who wanted to know why all of the protagonists of my series had “special” talents.  The immediate answer that came to mind was a question: Aren’t all protagonists special in some way or another?  Then… I got to thinking about that question… and came to a different realization… which I’ll get to in a moment.

But… first, and no, this won’t be a bad commercial, there’s a related development occurring across the Atlantic where Stephen Hunt, the author of The Court of the Air and other books, is taking on the venerable BBC for slighting fantasy and science fiction, because the BBC refused even to mention it in a special on genre fiction – after already suggesting by example that it wasn’t literary fiction, either. 

What does this have to do with characters with special talents?  Everything.  The question my reader raised underlies a basic difference, in general terms, between what is called “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction. Certainly in every “genre” I’ve read, the protagonists, and usually the villains, have some skill or skills superior to the average person.  Holmes, as an obvious example, has superior deductive skills, and in virtually every mystery novel, the mystery gets solved.  In the vast majority of thrillers, the good guys triumph, usually through superior skills. 

In most fantasy, the protagonists also have superior skills or talents, whether it’s the ability with magic, weapons, tactics, foresight, etc.  In my own writing, I don’t make a distinction between magical talents and other skills, nor do any of my protagonists have skills that others in their worlds do not have.  I will grant that some of my protagonists have honed their skills to a greater degree than most others, but that’s true of every skill in every world.  There’s always someone who’s better than the others, and whoever that someone may be, that person is usually the one who’s worked the hardest at it. Of course, in everyday life, the best don’t always win, for various reasons, but, as writer, I prefer not to write, generally, about the skilled “good guys” who are overcome by the greater number of idiots [although I have].

Several years ago, there was a heated discussion about whether Michael Crichton wrote science fiction, and one writer [I don’t remember who] made the observation that Crichton didn’t, because in SF science can be used for good or evil, and Crichton only posits its use in his books as evil or destructive.  And that is predominantly the case in a high percentage of so-called literary or “mainstream” [which is anything but, if sales numbers are considered] fiction.  In fact, so-called literary fiction has a high percentage of novels about people who are not skilled and who fail in some ways, if not spectacularly in many ways. 

While F&SF does have novels like that, and I’m certain a number of them are good, the majority of F&SF still offers characters with special skills or talents and at least a crumb or two of hope.  As an author, I certainly fall into that category, since I’d rather offer my characters – and readers – the hope of success through hard work, trials, and skill.  More to the point of the question my reader raised, so do most F&SF writers, and from what I’ve read in other genres, so do the majority of “genre” fiction authors.  There’s no question that this aspect of genre fiction could be called “unrealistic,” at least by the numbers, because in real life there are far more “failures” than successes, but what the “literary realists” seem to overlook is that often those numerous small failures are the basis for longer-term great success.  Even if they aren’t, exactly what is the point of focusing on and dissecting failure time and time again?  People generally don’t learn from other people’s failures, and most people, again given the sales figures, prefer more optimistic entertainment.

The more optimistic outlook might be one of the biggest differences between “mainstream/literary” fiction and genre fiction… and why genre fiction outsells so-called literary fiction by a considerable amount… except for the literary fiction that wins prizes, but most of those sales come because of the prize and not because of the fiction.

8 thoughts on “Characters – With and Without Talents”

  1. Patricia says:

    Dear Mr. Modesitt, Roald Dahl wrote a short story titled “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” where most fiction in the world is written by a supercomputer. Having recently read several bestselling literary fiction books in an effort to broaden my horizons, I think this story might have been true! You are right, the main reason I love the fantasy genre is because the protagonists, for the most part, possess the best possible qualities of human nature. They may face all sorts of difficulties but they tend to triumph over their enemies and obstacles using positive conduct and good morals. They often sacrifice themselves to do the right thing. They are, simply, “heros”. There is so much misery, suffering and injustice in the world that I see no need to spend my precious reading time immersing myself in more of it with literary fiction. You are so right that most sales of that garbage come either from publishers hyping it or awards by boards of stuffy snobs who think they are deeper and more highly evolved than the rest of us because they enjoy unhappy endings and flawed or morally bankrupt characters. Fantasy gives us characters who we can look up to and strive to be like. When I am faced with a moral dilemma it is more easily solved by thinking about what some of my favourite fantasy characters of all time would do. Harry Dresden for example. My personal policy is to avoid anything that is billed as “uplifting” – which I have found to be code for “horribly depressing”, or that is promoted as having won the such and such book prize. To all those who call fantasy “escapist fiction” and say reading anything enjoyable is a waste of time, I say “Go suck a lemon you miserable twit!”

  2. Bob Howard says:

    I generally read scifi and fantasy as pure escapism–a brief respite from the far more mundane reality that most of us face day to day. I’m looking for believable characters who behave in extraordinary fashion in exotic settings that allow me to experience a truly unique world. I have read and enjoyed, or maybe “appreciated” is better, novels like those you mentioned that dwelt on failure or striving for victory that remained beyond the grasp of the hero, but truly, who wants to read that stuff over and over?…I want to feel hopeful, at the very least, and ideally to find myself closing the cover at the end of a great read with a smile on my face.

    All of that is why I like your stories and return to re-read them so regularly. You present believable, fully-realized characters who do possess above average capabilities but these are, as you said, products equally of native ability and hard work. The worlds you create are innovative, but logically constructed and complex, and the plots incorporate the science or magic of those worlds while still addressing the human themes common to all good fiction. Succes through native skill, perserverance and courage in facing serious challenges and a willingness to pay whatever price is required to win the day–that’s what draws me in.

    In the end, the special gifts your characters may possess are very much secondary to their inner strengths, and that is what makes them so compelling.

  3. Ryan Jackson says:

    Not a direct address to what was written, but more regarding the question originally posed.

    I have to ask. Are all of your characters possessing special talents? You already pointed out that the skills the protagonists have are held by others as well, but even then, only some of your protagonists are on the high end unstoppable side.

    Recluse as an example, sure you have Creslin, Cerryl and Nylan who are nigh unstoppable if they have any time to prep or act. But not all of them are like. My favorate of the series is probably Lorn, a man who’s powers as a mage are incredibly limited and weak compared to most any other chaos wielder in the series. But he triumphs because he’s tactically brilliant, willing to think outside the box, and knows how to utilize his limited abilities. Similar arguements can be made for Saryn, Rahl, Kharl and Justin. They’re not unstoppable or holding incredible power, they’re just smart and apply what they have well. As you said, working hard.

    And as an aside I have a small question I don’t expect an answer to. In your Hamorian books you focus on Rahl, someone who begins his trials suffering from a great deal of unthinking arrogance. His name is shared with a certain character from another literary work and I’m curious if that was at all deliberate or just a happy coincidence.

  4. That was total coincidence. If I’d thought about it, I might have changed the name, because I’m not terribly fond of that particular series [slight understatement] and only read the first book because of a certain necessity.

  5. Sam says:

    This original question is actually in line with my thinking from time to time.

    I think perhaps where I ultimately think your protagonists tend to be exceptional is their character. In your Imager series a character said of Rhenn that he never made the same mistake twice. This is actually a trait that seemingly underlies most of your protagonists to a certain extent.

    However it seems to me that humans may be exceptionally gifted/talented and hard-working ultimately rising to the pinnacle of their chosen field and still be prone to vices and errors of judgment. Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods are two examples that spring to mind.

  6. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’d say they have their blind spots. It’s just not the usual vice or weakness we expect to see. Using earlier examples. Lorn suffers under the idea that he can and should be responsible for everyone, he plays judge, jury, and executioner repeatedly, even in his youth. These traits happen to help him, but in other sets of circumstances, or where his father couldn’t run interferance in the earlier years, this trait would have caused him great harm.

    Rahl, as mentioned above, suffers a great deal of unthinking arrogance. Some things come easily so he assumes he’s inately superior for a long period of time. Combine that with his demand that people need to focus on him, teach him, explain to him. Even at the end of his arc when he’s matured, become an adult and taken some measure of power, he still has an unthinking “Why is everyone being so hard on me, what did I do wrong? Why won’t they just leave me alone?” thing going. It plauges him the entire series.

    And in a last example is Lerris. The mistake of not paying close enough attention, thinking through what he was doing gets him exiled. Later on he makes similar actions over and over again, he goes on instinct and applies as much force as he can to solve the problem. It keeps causing him grief until near the end of his second book when he finally starts listening and thinking more. And he still missed things because he wasn’t paying attention.

  7. Sam says:

    I suppose what I meant was that they don’t really make the same mistakes twice. In real life though smart people can be stupid and moreso knowingly stupid in their actions.

  8. Grant Edmunds says:

    I think of it this way: We tell stories of extreme trials that result in extreme triumphs. When someone triumphs despite horrible odds it is usually (read always) through some greater than normal effort, and greater than normal effort in the face of greater than normal trials will always combine to bring out special talents. Also, an unusual talent of some kind can be a good way to make your character interesting, as can an unusual disability, if you combine them both… but that’s a different discussion.

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