Tue
Jul 27 2010 6:18pm

It’s All Charlaine’s Fault. (And Jim’s, Laurell’s, oh, and Joss Whedon’s)

I slept through the alarm this morning and it’s Charlaine Harris’ fault. You see, I love well-done urban fantasy. Yesterday, after work, I went and picked up a couple of her books and...well, let’s say I stayed up WAY past my bedtime. Nor is it the first time. I pick up a book, or tune into a show, and if it’s well done enough, time just passes me by.

So I started thinking, what makes me come back to a story or show again and again, as opposed to setting down the book or changing channels and feeling that I’ve wasted my time?

For me it all comes down to investing in the characters and situations.  And that hinges on believability.

Believability in fiction is hugely important. To quote Laurell K. Hamilton:  “...you have to be real enough on the real world for the reader to believe all the fantastic stuff. If you can’t make the reader believe your main character is lying in a hospital bed with real nurses and real doctors, then they’ll never buy the eternally-young, eternally-handsome, harem of supernatural warriors. It takes a very serious dose of reality to get readers to follow you to faerie land, and believe that they actually made the visit.”

One of the reasons I am a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is that Harry is so believable to me. He’s not perfect. He gets hurt. He screws up. And he lives in a world that is absolutely realistic. In Turn Coat for example, when he senses he’s being followed, he tries something that backfires to the point where he can’t function well enough to drive. His car jumps the curb. Other drivers honk. When he abandons his vehicle he observes that (a) it will be towed and impounded; and (b) that everyone probably thinks he’s drunk.

Or in another scene, in Small Favor, after one of the characters has been critically injured he describes, in detail, a hospital scene:

“Hospital waits are bad ones. The fact that they happen to pretty much all of us, sooner or later, doesn’t make them any less hideous. They’re always just a bit too cold. It always smells just a little bit too sharp and clean. It’s always quiet, so quiet that you can hear the flourescent lights—another constant, those lights—humming. Pretty much everyone else there is in the same bad predicament you are, and there isn’t much in the way of cheerful conversation.

“And there’s always a clock in sight. The clock has superpowers. It always seems to move too slowly. Look up at it and it will tell you the time. Look up an hour and a half later, and it will tell you two minutes have gone by...."

Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse is a telepath. She has a talent that, on the one hand, makes her valuable enough that the Queen of the Louisiana Vampires hires her to come to a vampire summit. On the other hand, that same talent labels her a freak among the “normal” residents of Bon Temps, made attending school hellish for her, and makes dating non-supernatural types practically impossible. The problems and her struggle to appear normal and fit into her society ring true to me.

In television, nearly anything by Joss Whedon will probably end up being a favorite of mine. Using humor, pop culture references, and shared experiences, he created a believable background for the television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is set primarily in Sunnydale High School.  Most people raised in the US share a wealth of high school experiences. Joss Whedon built on that beautifully. Buffy is the chosen, the slayer, the “one” from her generation. She also tries out for cheerleader, is awkward with guys, and has to work out a “round robin” of who she’s supposed to be staying with to fool her mom when she’s going to be out slaying all night. Early in the series, Giles, her watcher, wants her to use her intuition to pick out a vampire in The Bronze (the local hot spot). Instead, she spots him based on her fashion sense, checking out his clothes:

Giles: “It’s dated?”
Buffy: “It’s carbon dated.”

As I said, I love urban fantasy. And to me, believability is one of the keys to doing it well, in film, video, and print.


C.T. Adams began writing with Cathy Clamp in 1997. Together, they have published more than a dozen books; you can visit their website for the latest news, writing advice, and more.

8 comments
Alex Brown
1. AlexBrown
Which Harris book were you stuck reading? I've recently been working my way through her Harper Connelly series and that, unlike the Sookie Stackhouse series, has been keeping me up a lot at night...
April Vrugtman
2. dwndrgn
I agree with all that you said but I go further - I have to get the feeling that if I knew the main character in life, I'd like them. This is why I have difficulties reading the villain as the main character, or main characters that are plainly unlikeable (Thomas Covenant). But, they don't have to be perfect either - flaws are important, especially since we all have them.
DawsonS
3. DawsonS
The reality of the characters in Urban Fantasy is your readers/viewers gateway into the world you've created:

For people who struggle with that which is dark/evil/unlikable (such as dwndrgn) it's going to be hard to step through a gateway that creeps you out.

On the flip side, I struggle with characters that are too sweet. "Nice" is hard for me to relate to (boy, I'm starting to sound like an awful guy...), so it's not a good gateway into an Urban Fantasy world for me.

What Joss Whedon does over and over is provide an ensemble cast that creates multiple doorways into the world he's created. That way, you can provide a doorway that's appealing for everyone (or most folks, at least). Ask Buffy fans who their favorite character is, they won't even have to pause to think- that was their doorway into the wider world of the Buffyverse.

I'd say that the most successful Urban Fantasy works out there have an ensemble cast that provide a variety of ways to relate to the material.
Rachel Hyland
4. RachelHyland
DawsonS @ 3

I see what you're saying, but I wonder how "ensemble" a cast can truly be in a novel? So much Urban Fantasy is told in a first person narrative, where if you don't connect with the voice of the story then there is no other doorway into the world. TV, in general, is more of a "please all the people all the time" proposition (look at the inclusion of tweener Dawn in Buffy's Season 4!), whereas these types of books are by their very nature more targeted, and necessarily so. And yet no one could consider them unsuccessful.

One thing I personally like about Sookie, for example, is that her voice is so distinctive in the genre: she's just so uncomplicated. Her prose is... well... prosaic, at best; she's not one for poetical periods or innovative metaphor; she details mundane chores like washing dishes as lovingly as she does finding a body; she thinks "refute" is an esoteric word. She's utterly charming. But there are those who dislike her simple discourse intensely, yet suffer through it to get to the essence of the books: the story. They dislike the medium, but like the message; they don't need to relate to Sookie (or first person narrators like her), they merely need to tolerate her. Yes, the characters through which we receive the tale are important, but perhaps the fantastical plots and outlandish versions of reality can be moreso?

(N.B. My favorite Buffy character is unquestionably Xander.)
Alex Brown
5. AlexBrown
RachelHyland @ 4: Dawn was actually a teenager, not a tween (she was a fresher in high school) when she showed up in Buffy and it was the studios attempt to recapture some of the younger teen demographic because most of Buffy's fanbase (like me) had aged out of that demo. And Michelle Trachtenberg was a studio choice, not necessarily a Joss Whedon choice, though the character of a sister was his. She was originally written as older than Michelle.

You also make a good point about how so much of UF/PR is written in first person and I just realized I think that's what generally turns me off about those two subgenres. I'm a big fan of omniscient third person. If you do it well then it's like being in the heads of your characters but not at the same time. It allows for more dramatic irony, ambiguity, and complexity. I don't want to relate to characters. That's not the point. The point is to see a person or group of people and how they interact with their world. I don't care if we'd be BFFs or not.

So, yeah, I agree with you. Sookie irritates the hell outta me, but I like the overarching story enough to plough through it. Harper is more street wise than Sookie, but I still don't really care about her, but I do like the story she's involved in.

And yeah, Xander is DRATW. Especially when he's palling around with Dracula...and when he's Commando Xander...and when he's got his evil twin :)
Rachel Hyland
6. RachelHyland
Milo1313 @ 5

Thank you for the correction: "tweener" should have read "tweener-friendly". And hey, don't get me wrong, I liked Dawn. I liked her as the Key, I liked her as a troubled and troublesome teen, I liked her when she turned into a giant in the Buffy Season 8 comics, and I even like her still, now that she's dating Xander. But, yeah, she was definitely thrown into the show to make the most of that "ensemble" hook thing that DawsonS was talking about. And you just can't do that in a first person-centric book series.

What I like about first person perspective is that there is always a definite tone. Whether it be MaryJanice Davidson's snarky and vulgar Queen Betsy or Stephenie Meyer's earnest and winsome Bella or P. N. Elrod's 30's-era wisecracking Jack Fleming, the tone a character takes does away with pages and pages of exposition and gives you an insight into exactly the kind of story you should expect from the outset. I definitely think humorous UF and PR work best in first person. I can't imagine The Dresden Files without Harry's distinctive mindvoice, for example.

Sidenote: I didn't really care about Harper either, nor Tolliver at all, yet I loved that series. Maybe it's the difference between being likeable and being interesting. A character (or, indeed, a person) doesn't have to be the one to be the other.

I do love a well-told third person tale, and there can be no doubt it affords more opportunity for a big picture appreciation of the story, but I find I don't like it when I actively hate the main protagonist -- and it's easier to really hate the protagonist in a third person narrative than in a first. dwndrgn mentioned Thomas Covenant, and he's a very good example. (Donaldson's exhausting, isn't he?) Another is Nicholas Seafort in David Feintuch's soul-sucking Seafort Saga, and even Ender Wiggin in the later Enderverse books is no prize. But that's when the likeable vs. interesting thing comes back into play. I may not like them, or even like that I hate them, but they still interest me, so I read on.

DRATW! Ah, the power of Fillion! (A man both likeable and interesting.)
DawsonS
7. C. Martinez
Even in the most abstract fantasy novel, there must be some level of credibility. Your characters should have vaguely pronounceable names, even in the mythical land of faeries and unicorns. I’ve thumbed through far too many published fantasy novels with an entire glossary of names and places lovingly inserted before the list of chapters that prove exactly what Ms. Adams has to say about urban fantasy: don’t take the patience of your readers for granted. The willing suspension of disbelief only applies to the extraordinary. Yes, we want to be carried away into the exciting world of magic and mayhem that the author has created just for this occasion. But are we willing to put up with ill-conceived plots and radically underdeveloped characters? Certainly not.I agree wholeheartedly that Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton perform their duties as urban fantasy authors admirably. Their portrayals of a world fully furnished with supernatural creatures that go bump in the night (not in the day, as some less grounded writers might have you believe) were so vivid that I often started at the realization that vampires did not semi-peacefully co-exist with humans, werewolves and witches. (Don’t forget zombies.)To touch on the point that Rachel Hyland made, I can’t imagine reading an urban fantasy that was told to me by a narrator that I could not relate to in some form or fashion. So in that case, believability can be a subjective issue. Though I enjoyed the Sookie novels, I did occasionally find her actions unfathomable, if not out of character. On the other hand, Anita’s gun-toting habits and slightly unconventional perspective on dating didn’t bother me in the slightest. Of course, when we get down to brass tacks, both narrators succeeded in creating worlds that we as readers could nearly call our own.
Even in the most abstract fantasy novel, there must be some level of credibility. Your characters should have vaguely pronounceable names, even in the mythical land of faeries and unicorns. I’ve thumbed through far too many published fantasy novels with an entire glossary of names and places lovingly inserted before the list of chapters that prove exactly what Ms. Adams has to say about urban fantasy: don’t take the patience of your readers for granted. The willing suspension of disbelief only applies to the extraordinary. Yes, we want to be carried away into the exciting world of magic and mayhem that the author has created just for this occasion. But are we willing to put up with ill-conceived plots and radically underdeveloped characters? Certainly not.I agree wholeheartedly that Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton perform their duties as urban fantasy authors admirably. Their portrayals of a world fully furnished with supernatural creatures that go bump in the night (not in the day, as some less grounded writers might have you believe) were so vivid that I often started at the realization that vampires did not semi-peacefully co-exist with humans, werewolves and witches. (Don’t forget zombies.)To touch on the point that Rachel Hyland made, I can’t imagine reading an urban fantasy that was told to me by a narrator that I could not relate to in some form or fashion. So in that case, believability can be a subjective issue. Though I enjoyed the Sookie novels, I did occasionally find her actions unfathomable, if not out of character. On the other hand, Anita’s gun-toting habits and slightly unconventional perspective on dating didn’t bother me in the slightest. Of course, when we get down to brass tacks, both narrators succeeded in creating worlds that we as readers could nearly call our own.
DawsonS
8. Zazreil
To bad Laurell forgot her own advice and started to write bad porn instead. Why bother with plot or characterization when you can just toss another body or two or forty into the bedroom and release another book? It's not even, clever, funny, innovative, sensous or Hot! Nor is it trying to make the rape or near rape scenes disturbing. Just throw another body on. Got news for Laurell more intense hotter sex does not mean more bodies. Its like reading about a snake mating ball and just as boring. I can find better porn, heck better urban fantasy on the web for free! And it won't be such an obvious Mary Sue either!

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