I’ve been trying to get through Martha Wells’s City of Bones for a while now, mainly because it’s got a blasted-out desert setting with Old Ruines, bugs, mutants, and pirates, which sounded a lot like GW’s world to me, and I wanted to see how somebody else handled that sort of setting.
And yea, you know, the world’s cool and all, but it lacks a certain richness, mostly due to the writing style, and, worst offense of all – the characters are completely unlikable. I really don’t care if either of them live or die, and they just aren’t interesting.
There are great prose writers and great story writers, and if you’re great at story or great at prose, I’ll read you (I think writers like Catherynne Valente are great at prose, and writers like Stephen King are great at story – I’ll read both, but for different reasons, and I’ll get different things out of them), but great story means I need to enjoy reading about the characters. I want to be invested. It’s not that they have to be likable: they just have to interesting.
Though SF/F has come a long way with it’s female characters, they tend to suffer a similiar fate shared by their male counterparts, which is that they end up getting two or three character traits assigned to them, and in the same way a bad actor starts raising their voice during a particularly emotional scene as if to say “LOOK AT ME, I’M ACTING!!!!” these characters display their formulaic template of “plucky heroine” traits: stomp their feet, clench their fists, tug their braids, and then verbally spar with the Brooding Hero who doesn’t get laid because he’s “misunderstood,” and then we move on.
The thing with this sort of set up – plucky heroine & brooding hero – is that that template *can work.* And when it *does* work – when it’s done well – you can create characters people really love (Mal & Inara of Firefly, Alanna & her Thief King in the Alanna books, that Kushiel’s Dart chick and the brooding celibate warrior guy in the first of the Kushiel books, etc); you know, the sort of characters people like to write slash fiction about. heh heh
The problem is when people get lazy, and they reach for that “plucky heroine” template and just scribble somebody in, like this Elen character in City of Bones. When she’s feeling strong emotion, when we’re given a scene meant to illustrate how Plucky & Independent she is, she does one of those clench-my-fists-and-stomp-my-foot things that I find really annoying. You see the same problem with Nynaveave in the Jordan books. When she feels particularly plucky, she’ll tug her braid and stomp her foot, and then you know she means business! (this is amusing the first couple of times in book one. By book six, you want her to die quickly and suddenly; you hope a tree will fall on her).
I wonder how much of this is just plain cardboard character writing and how much of it is just seeing a lot of people rush to write Strong, Plucky Heroines without really knowing how to do that because most mainstream literature was about Brooding Male Heroes. The template you *did* drawn from that had strong female characters was romance, and I’m wondering how many of those Plucky Space Opera Heroines were originally conceived as pure Romance heroines.
So you end up with these women characters who may be smart and spunky, but they’re pretty childish and vulnerable, too (again, how much of this is just poor and/or lazy writing?). After all, if she was *too* capable, and governed her emotions a little more diplomatically, then she wouldn’t *really* be a female character, she’d just be a Guy in Drag.
I guess I’ve just never bought the idea that a fully realized female character who didn’t act like a fourteen year old at thirty-five was “a guy in drag.”