Never in Any Real Danger

The other day I engaged in an activity that my wife deplores – I read another review of one my books, of Arms-Commander – and came across yet another common mistake made by both professional and amateur reviewers all too often.  The reviewer in question made the statement that, because of her abilities, Saryn was never in any real danger.  Outside of the fact that she gets rather banged up and almost dies upon several occasions, this reviewer and others – and not just in reviewing my books, by the way – fail to understand that great ability does not guarantee surviving inherently dangerous combat and occupational situations.

Since I do happen to know a bit about flying, I’ll begin with an example from that field.

The greatest combat pilot in the world is still partly at the mercy of mechanical failure, the elements, his/her own failures in judgment, unforeseen circumstances, and luck on the part of an opposing pilot.  As a matter of fact, in World War II, roughly half of all aircraft fatalities occurred in non-combat situations.  The same sets of factors occur anytime anyone of ability is involved in a dangerous situation.  Even the best mountain climbers get killed, and that’s without anyone shooting at them.  In a sword fight, blades can shatter, get caught on something for a moment at an inappropriate time, or the superior fighter can slip on sand or oil – or be distracted in some fashion or another.

Those who are best will also attempt to set up situations where their exposure to the unpredictable is minimized… as does Saryn, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not in danger every time they go into a battle or combat.  Then think about the fact that, as a matter of fact, even everyday life in the good old USA has a significant element of danger, when you consider that over 40,000 people die annually in auto-related accidents, and that there are something like 15,000 homicides a year.

In the case of someone like Saryn, whose forces are outnumbered, the best strategy is always to divide and conquer, to attack in ways and with methods that maximize her strengths and neutralize the enemy’s.  She does so… but that doesn’t mean she’s not in danger, as her various injuries and wounds prove… as do the deaths of hundreds of her supporters and allies also prove.

Well… perhaps the reviewer didn’t get the sense that she could be killed. If injuries, wounds, near-death, the deaths of those closer to her, and lots of close calls won’t convince a reader, then the only thing that will is her own death.  But that creates a bit of a problem, because most readers want the hero or heroine to prevail against great odds.  Like it or not, that means that most protagonists will survive, especially in, frankly, commercially successful books, and, as an author, I really can’t afford to write commercially unsuccessful books.  The only question is how badly the protagonists are injured and under what circumstances.  As one of my offspring once observed, “You need to abuse your characters a lot.”  But abuse doesn’t mean that an author has to slaughter 90% of the characters to prove danger.  Even 5-10% death rates suggest dangerous situations.

So… any reviewer who claims that a protagonist who survives trials and tribulations and almost dies along the way is never really in danger is not only an idiot, but hasn’t had much real world experience… because, for any character, death can be just around the corner, just as it is in real life.

16 thoughts on “Never in Any Real Danger”

  1. Jim says:

    The Romans created the term “decimate” in that it was the very draconian punishment for a military unit of having 1 in 10 men put to death. It is commonly used nowadays to indicate a horrendous casualty rate of 10%. So I agree with you totally that situations where that kind of casualty rate is occurring has to be considered pretty serious!

    I would also have to think that killing off your protagonists as a regular thing might be closer to the reality for normal people, but if you are writing about singular people, might they not have a decent chance of surviving?

    1. Singular people do indeed have a greater chance of surviving, and as an author, I write about the singular people who do survive. I’ve also written about singular characters, if in secondary roles, who don’t survive.

  2. Lee Modesitt III says:

    I think I said “you need to abuse your characters a lot *more.*”

    You then went and wrote the two JimJoy novels and I shut my mouth on that subject. :-).

  3. Jim 2 (to avoid confusion) says:

    Most people, even those who believe they do because they train in martial arts, don’t understand the reality of a fight. They believe that real fights are pretty, like a scene from a movie or tv show — when the truth is that it’s generally anything but. You do a good job of capturing that in your novels, in my opinion.

    Specifically, I never got the impression in Arms-Commander that Saryn was ever (and I do mean EVER) in a particularly safe situation. Especially when she went into combat.

  4. Mikor says:

    Well, you did kill off Anna and Trystin. Anna in particular, got a pretty raw deal — lost her children, and never really had a new family.

  5. Linda van der Pal says:

    I guess to satisfy people like that reviewer, you have to be a Stephen King or a George R.R. Martin, who kill off a lot of their main characters. 🙂 (Although, that same reviewer might have something to complain about that too.)

    P.S. I love the captcha on your site!

  6. R. Hamilton says:

    Beyond the commercial alone, few readers would return to an author that more than very occasionally asked for the level of reader investment in a character that reasonably three-dimensional lead characters usually get, and then killed them off.

    For me, that’s doubly hard to take when it seems either pointless or capricious on the one hand or inevitable on the other, or unless the story leaves one with some sense of hope for the world it created or of lasting accomplishment on the part of the terminated character.

    Our own stories of life exist while we’re here, and if there’s anything after (or before) that, we can’t typically know. Probably we don’t want to be reminded of our own mortality or that of those close to us when we reach the end of a story.

    I think that given that a number of your lead characters in various stories suffered intermittent blindness, deafness, or shortened lives as a consequence of their heroic deeds, you’re quite entitled to have a few survive to look forward to more than that, especially when the total losses and fates of lesser characters still make it clear that all action (or inaction, presumably) may well bear a heavy cost.

    In the real world, ascribing meaning to any particular event is always a subjective and chancy thing, often revealing more about the individual or culture assigning that meaning than about what it was assigned to, and subject to further drift with the distance of time. That too, you capture better than most.

    There’s a book I’d recommend to the reviewer; it’s pure propaganda, and properly depressing in the end (assuming that’s what they view as proper). It’s called “Level 7”. I read that when I was maybe ten (big mistake), and was almost sick for a weekend thereafter. I’m sure that’s the sort of impact they’d think was appropriate to their view of what all who don’t sit in a circle singing kum-ba-yah (in an eco-friendly way, of course) should be portrayed as suffering.

  7. Sam says:

    I think the issue is more about the illusion of jeopardy than the reality of it.

    On an intellectual level a reader may know there is no way that a character can die because they’re the main character.

    However some prose can draw the reader in and have them so engaged it breaks down their defences so that in the moment they are worried/concerned about what is going to happen the main character even though they know that if the character dies it’s the end of the story and there’s still 200 pages of the book left.

    George R.R. Martin has the benefit with his Song of Ice and Fire series of having multiple point-of-view characters. This means he can kill some of them off and still continue his story.

    Given that most of Mr. Modesitt’s books – that I’ve read at least – tend to be written from the point-of-view of a single character he doesn’t really have that luxury.

    When I was a child one of my favourite TV shows was Doctor Who – still is actually. It both enthralled and terrified me. I was always scared about what was going to happen to the Doctor or his companions and yet through the entire 30 year run of the series only 1 of the Doctor’s companions ever died. I knew this as I got into the show towards the end of it’s run and there were plenty of books about the making of the show and it’s history that I borrowed from my local library. I even read novelizations of many of the stories before I ever saw them on television. And yet even knowing what happened in a story the show still managed to scare me.

    Not so much these days as I’m mostly desensitized but I can still appreciate the scariness of them on an intellectual level.

  8. I read Level 7 years ago… and it is indeed one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      I think it was only on the bookshelf that I climbed back then as an example of writing (I hesitate to give it the benefit of the word “literature”) that so thoroughly manipulates the reader; certainly, while nobody could regard what it described as desirable, the propaganda aspect was NOT in line with anything my parents would have agreed with.

      But now, I think it was self-defeating to go so far. Anything even a ten year old recognized as propaganda, just by feeling so _used_ for having read it to the end, is likelier to encourage intense resentment of the book and its author than to leave one feeling that the scenario it describes is all too possible. _Effective_ propaganda, I think, would not leave one aware of having been manipulated, or at least not resenting it. I have occasionally read other post-apocalyptic sorts of stories (if reluctantly, given that experience), and a number of them managed to simply let the cautionary element speak for itself and instead explore such hope as could be salvaged. Norton’s “Star Man’s Son” (aka “Daybreak: 2250AD”), or Brin’s “The Postman”, or even Tucker’s “The Long Loud Silence” if to a lesser degree, suggest that hope and cooperation or character or even pragmatism can salvage something.

  9. Chionesu says:

    Wow. I almost gagged when I read this. The whole point of reading books where the protagonist’s (as well as other characters’) innermost thoughts and perspectives are revealed is to experience the scene from said perspective as well as their mental and emotional state.

    To have reviewed Arms-Commander from a meta-narrative perspective rather than by the narrative from the point of view of the character’s involved is simply baffling and laughable, especially at this level of literary work. It shows a definite level of detachment from a world, story, and cast of characters developed to draw the reader in based on the same level of plausibility with which one interacts in the real world.

    Having said all that: is there another installation forthcoming in this series 🙂

    1. I do have plans for another Recluce novel, but I won’t be able to get around to writing it until I’ve finished the Imager Portfolio novel I’m currently working on and then a science fiction novel.

  10. Ryan Jackson says:

    To the thought of a protagonist meeting death. It can be done from time to time, but as you said, we don’t want that to happen. Heck, I’ve been stunned, unhappy, even momentarilty angry when one of my favorate secondary or tertiary characters die. In fact in your third Imager book I had to put it down and walk away for a while when a certain event hit Imageisle. I chalk it up to your skills as an author that I get that attached to characters who aren’t the main points of the story. I’m not sure I’d really want you to repeatedly let the “heroes” perish.

    As for the skill = invincibility. You put it well but I thought I’d share a story about one of my hobbies. Maybe not a story but some observations. I’m in the SCA, I study medieval weaponry as a martial art. Myself and about four others are legitimately good enough that we haven’t lost a one on one fight in years except against each other.

    The SCA thrives on big melee style scenarios of combat. We enjoy these, they’re fun, they’re epic. And because it’s a sport, not an actual fight we can enjoy the artistry and skill that comes with these weapons. On various days we have done things like hold a bridge by ourselves. Or advance as a distraction to a side point to pull enemy reserves away from a real target. We get good camp fire stories from these. We usually have very impressive showings of it. We have NEVER “lived” through a single one of these attempted. They always ended with us “dead” on the field. It didn’t matter how good we were, when you put four people against 30-40, even with terrain as an advantage. We’re going to lose.

    And for the story itself, this is where I actually learned that luck destroys skill sometimes. It was a “ship to ship” style fight. I was pushing across a plank between the two “ships” I lose my weapon (slipped and dropped it). I, what to this day I still chalk up to luck, yanked a spare blade out of an opponents belt. Drew cut across him, pushed my way onto the deck feeling very very proud of how good I was doing, how unbeatable I was. And got “Shot” in the face (rapier uses rubber band guns firing surgical tubing, hurts, but nothing real dangerous). That taught me that no matter how good I am I can be beat. And that taught me that standing out as REALLY good makes you a target.

    If I was somehow on the opposing forces involving Saryn’s story, I’d hold a small unit of the best armsmen I could find. Wait for her to toss out a few of her swords at other units, let he get a bit forward and then close. Not saying I’d win or anything, but you can’t tell me that tactic wouldn’t work. Heck it almost did in the end of your 5th SpellSong book.

    And thus ends the rambling post, not sure why but people making these type of claims against you tend to get me in the typing mood.

  11. Elle says:

    I have read a lot of your books. If the main characters were in the habit of dying that would NOT have been true. I would have stopped reading your books the first time you killed off someone I really liked. As it is I have bought my own copies of a lot of them. All the Recluce books in fact. I haven’t actually done a revue of any of them yet. I’m sure that will change eventually. I’m planning a reread in the next month or so!

  12. Griffin says:

    The review is a bit silly.

    Stepping off the curb to get across the street is dangerous, especially if you are not trained to do it after having looked both ways. Tales detailing such simple activities are rarely exciting, however.

    So, we read about the powerful, singular individual who is trained to do even more dangerous things, like war-fighting, or police work, or magicians, because it’s more exciting than the simple things we can do for ourselves. Just because the protagonist makes it across their particular ‘street’ alive, should not diminish the adventure.

  13. Matt says:

    When it comes to people who review books, as a profession, I tend to tweak the quote from H.L Mencken.

    Those who can — do. Those who can’t — review.

    I prefer to read the book and develop my own opinions. And in my opinion…”so far so good, can’t wait for the next one”.

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