Character Profiles: The Long-Lost …

She felt like she was talking to a scared animal, and her heart went out to him, much as it had gone out to Nugget when she’d found him as a puppy. Something about his face looked familiar – a thought that had never occurred to her before. She’d seen him bouncing through town, but she’d never really stopped and looked at the strange man before. She knew that he was prone to speaking gibberish to lampposts and attacking street signs, but she had never spoken to him. No one did. The Glipwood Township ignored him like a stray dog.

– Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

We’ve all seen them. They pop into stories, spring into books out of nowhere, leap out from behind the curtains onto the stage in mid-act.

The Long-Lost Relation. Long-lost fathers, long-lost mothers, long-lost children and brothers and sisters.

Even, on occasion, long-lost uncles. But it tends to be a rare occasion.

Contemporary stories use the device of the Long-Lost Relation shamelessly; fantasy and sci-fi stories use them just as shamelessly. I fancy, though, that the Absent Father and the Never Known Mother are more likely, in SF/F, to have a legitimate and even noble reason for their absence. Maybe they had their baby daughter hidden with fairies to protect her from an evil curse. Maybe they were under an evil curse themselves. Maybe they’ve been mouldering in somebody’s dungeon for the past decade.

And if the Absent Father – it’s usually the Absent Father – has a bad reason, it can be a very bad reason. Like, you know, he betrayed everyone he ever loved and everything he ever fought for to become a Dark Lord of the Sith, causing his Former Best Friend to spirit his children away and hide them beyond his evil clutches. (This ripples out, of course, to other Long-Lost Relation moments: the Epic Father Discovery, the Kinda-Convenient-But-We-Don’t-Care Sister Discovery, etc.)

That, you see, is why the Long-Lost Relation device is more fun in what they call speculative fiction: It’s far more likely there that the Long-Lost Relation is an epic villain. Or an epic hero. Or royalty.

To date, Andrew Peterson has in his Wingfeather Saga pulled the Long-Lost Relation ploy twice (surprising me, I confess, both times). We are holding our breath to see if he pulls it a final time in the last book, and having read the preview, we strongly suspect a Long-Lost Distant Cousin is involved somehow.

The Wingfeather Saga’s first revelation is so far the best – more surprising, more unique in what Long-Lost Relation was found, more unique in how he came to be lost so long. Not often is the Long-Lost Relation lost in plain sight, or found so reluctantly.

The Long-Lost Relation is popular because it aims at something universally understood, though rarely experienced – the shock and the emotional power of discovering a lost relative. The device lends itself to all kinds of fascinating and emotionally compelling situations, and no matter how many authors have used it, every author is entitled to make use of it himself.

Only one word of warning: Like other excellent things, the Long-Lost Relation must be used only sparingly. Every author may use it, but every author has a limit in how many times he should use it. George Lucas is out.

Character Profiles: The Spoiled Princess

Gleamdren sulked. She was good at sulking, whether she knew it or not. Her face fell naturally into all the right grooves, letting anyone with eyes know exactly what she thought, which was that the world was not behaving as it ought.
What was this fascination with mortal women? First, Rudiobus falling for the glamourized dragon (which, granted, only looked mortal) and now this! The Eanrin she knew wouldn’t be caught dead speaking to a mortal girl. He certainly wouldn’t drag one along on a noble quest! Was he going to start writing poetry in her honor too? Insufferable man.
And now even the Dragonwitch was enthralled by the little insect. Her dragon. Her captor.
– Anne Elisabeth Stengl, Starflower

Lady Gleamdren Gormlaith was cousin to the queen, the prettiest woman at court, and a renowned collector of suitors. A hundred suitors, all eager to court her, all melting like butter before her every word and gesture.

She was a Spoiled Princess. The Spoiled Princesses of fiction come in a variety of ways. Many of them are literal princesses. Others, like Gleamdren, are of high birth, but not quite that high. Some have reached their status (social and spoiled) through a father’s wealth. This last group crosses with the archetype of Little Rich Girl, and often Heiress, too.

Authors match this diversity of Spoiled Princesses with a diversity of uses for them. In the old fairy tales, they were often included as counterpoints to the Good Princess. A classic example of this is found in certain versions of Beauty and the Beast, where Beauty has two sisters who are rendered endlessly complaining by the loss of their father’s fortune. These Princesses are more moral points than anything else.

In Dragon and Slave, Her Thumbleness is one small step up the ladder – more unlikable than Beauty’s sisters, but also more of a character. A minor character, but at least she has the dignity of providing a vital plot point.

Gleamdren is a secondary character, entertaining and reasonably important to the story, but a clear step behind the main cast. She does not, as they say, experience personal growth. Yet sometimes the Spoiled Princess does experience growth; sometimes she is the heroine.

Demonstrating this – and also why the Little Rich Girl can so easily be the Spoiled Princess – is Charlotte, the English heiress of Masquerade. She gets to take center stage, and consequently endures the painful reckoning so necessary when the heroine is, however slightly or charmingly, a brat. Princess Una, the protagonist of Heartless, is charted a similar heroine’s journey.

I am also going to include, as an example of the Spoiled Princess, the princess who complained about the pea beneath her mattress, because that story has always annoyed me.

The archetype of Spoiled Princess, simple though it seems, may be shrunk or expanded to fill any role from a moral exclamation point to a heroine. You do not expect Spoiled Princesses to be much good, but they are – whether for humor, or for plot twists, or even for a story of redemption.

Character Profiles: The Too-Powerful Sidekick

She wanted to scream. There were so many blasted ships and no way to stop one little boat from escaping. Though she was terrified of the sea dragons, she prayed that they would rise from the water. She prayed for another of Artham’s sudden, dashing arrivals, but she knew he was on the other side of the Dark Sea.

– Andrew Peterson, The Monster in the Hollows

There are people who are both unshakably good and preternaturally strong. They are the ones who step forward, who always know what to do in the moment of crisis, who incur risk boldly and selflessly. If we’re lucky, we end up on their side. If we’re especially lucky, they end up our special protectors.

And then, before our names can be written in greatness in truly heroic adventures, they have to go away.

From King Arthur on down, the heroes of fantasy tales have often had a stronger, wiser personality behind or beside them. Then, before the danger gets truly epic, the strong one vanishes. This is the Too-Powerful Sidekick, the mentor or guardian or counselor who has to leave before the hero can come into his own.

Gandalf is a classic example. Tolkien found it necessary to separate him from Bilbo and the Dwarves before things got really dark in Mirkwood – and before they met Smaug. He had more important business to tend to, like driving out the Necromancer. So it was Bilbo’s turn to be the hero.

In Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf had no more important business, Tolkien had to devise other ways to keep the wizard away. First it was Saruman – or Frodo would have made it to Rivendell on time, far ahead of the Ringwraiths. Then it was the Balrog.

Then, a few chapters later, it was Aragorn’s turn. He had vowed to save Frodo “whether by life or death,” so Tolkien had to get rid of him, too. He is another Too-Powerful Sidekick. Even the other Hobbits, Merry and Pippin, had to broken off from Aragorn before they could have their moment. With him around, what would have been left for them to do?

And then there is Artham Wingfeather, Throne of Warden of Anniera, Peet the Sock Man. In every book Andrew Peterson had to detach him from the Wingfeather children in a new way.

In On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, it was Nia and Podo’s shunning that created the distance. They drove him away even after he saved the family, permitting them to fall again into troubles that, had the Sock Man been at hand, he would have fought away.

For North! Or Be Eaten something else was needed, so a Troll dragged Peet away and the Fangs locked him up in a cage. At the end of the book, he was reunited with his charges again. So, at the beginning of Monster in the Hollows, they had to separated again. This time, rather than have others pull or drive Artham away, Peterson finally gave him a reason to leave of his own accord. Though it could be contended that the decision was made, as they say, under duress.

If Artham had been allowed to hang around a few more chapters, he would have spared the Wingfeathers all sorts of troubles. That was the problem with him, as with all Too-Powerful Sidekicks: They save the heroes out of tight spots. But it’s only in tight spots that you can ever be heroic.

Character Profiles: Guardian Angel

It was at this moment that Peet the Sock Man leapt from the rim of the gully at top speed, his arms spread wide like wings. Janner watched his uncle with awe.
His socks had long since fallen away in shreds, cut to pieces by the talons at the end of his reddish forearms. Peet’s white hair trailed behind him; one of his eyebrows lay flat and low, the other arched like a curl of smoke; and in Peet’s eyes blazed a single purpose:
Protect. Protect. Protect.
What struck Janner most about his uncle in this moment was not the graceful leap through the air or the deadly, mysterious talons, but that amidst all the danger and panic, Artham P. Wingfeather’s gaze was fixed on him with what Janner knew to be a fierce affection.

– Andrew Peterson, North! Or Be Eaten

It began when the little girl kicked the Fang. Before it ended, whole armies came after the Wingfeather children. But fortunately, Peet the Sock Man – either bravely crazy or crazily brave – was always willing to stand between the Wingfeather children and armies.

He was their Guardian Angel. Andrew Peterson even gave him wings, a fitting – though probably unintentional – touch.

The Guardian role is not too often cast. Aslan sometimes acts like one – appearing to direct the heroes’ path, intervening when they finally can do nothing. No one in the Chronicles of Narnia really gets home without him. But in all that, he is not really being a Guardian Angel; he’s being a Jesus-figure.

In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn and his Rangers act as the Guardian Angels of Bree and the Shire – “sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.”

A less classic example, but still a true one, is the goose woman in The Wolf of Tebron. Although she never does physical violence on behalf of the hero, she watches over him and sets him on the right road. Her guardianship is one of wisdom, not strength.

The goose woman, like Aragorn and the Sock Man, is a Rejected Outsider. They all also cross with the Mysterious Yet Benevolent Stranger – with bonus points for being Not Dressed for Success: Do You Judge By Appearances?

What Aragorn and Artham are, but the goose woman is not, is a Too-Powerful Sidekick. This is why they are detached from the hero in surprisingly short order and sent to be Guardian Angels somewhere else.

It makes sense that the protector should be stronger than his charge. It even makes sense, in a way, that he should be unknown. But it’s a little strange that Guardian Angels are so often pariahs, cast off from society. Perhaps it helps them fulfill their role; perhaps it helps them get into it.

Guardian Angels are a noble breed, but they are most noble when they combine with the Pariah archetype. It may or may not be a burden to spend your life protecting people when you do it to applause; it’s always hard when you do it to misunderstanding and rejection. And yet Aragorn and Artham carried on, satisfied just in being the Guardian Angel.

Character Profiles: Rotten to the Core

And all that sat by the fire were sad,
Save Ogier, who was stern,
And his eyes hardened, even to stones,
As he took the harp in turn;

Earl Ogier of the Stone and Sling
Was odd to ear and sight,
Old he was, but his locks were red,
And jests were all the words he said
Yet he was sad at board and bed
And savage in the fight.

– G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

That night, among the campfires of the Danes, five men sang by the fire in turn – the rhymester without a home, King Guthrum, and his three earls. Harold sang of the prizes of war, Elf sang of Balder beautiful, and Ogier sang about hate.

The wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who would rend all gods and men,
Well if the old man’s heart hath still
Wheels sped of rage and roaring will,
Like cataracts to break down and kill,
Well for the old man then—

While there is one tall shrine to shake,
Or one live man to rend;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.

Ogier was Rotten to the Core.

Some villains are sympathetic; you can’t help feeling sorry for them, or you like them in spite of themselves. Some are even redeemed. Other villains are unchangeably evil, yet in some way admirable. Their courage, or persistence, or intelligence just rates it.

And some villains are Rotten to the Core. There’s nothing in them to excite admiration, or liking, or pity. They are not redeemed, nor is anybody rooting for them to be. When such villains get their comeuppance, it’s wonderfully satisfying.

Villains who are Rotten to the Core are among the dullest to ever stalk the annals of villainy. They are also among the best, generally when combined with other archetypes, such as the Scary Evil Villain. There was never anything remotely sympathetic about Sauron. He was evil! evil!, and we were all very happy to see him go. But while he lasted, he was an excellent villain – powerful, malevolent, and impersonal.

Ogier, too, was a fine villain in his own right. There was little to him besides nastiness, but it was nastiness with meaning.

In The Ballad of the White Horse, the struggle between the Danes and British is part of, and symbolic for, the long war between Christianity and paganism. The Danes are pagans; they are almost paganism. Harold – the youth “the new wine of war sent wild” – exulted in the lawless strength of the Danes and boasted they would “enjoy the world, the whole huge world a toy”. Elf, the minstrel, sang beautifully the sadness of his pagan world. Guthrum, the conqueror who “read lines in Latin books when all the north was dark”, was intellectual, and atheistic, and despaired.

And Ogier, with his vision of the last eclipse and the gods behind the gods, was nihilistic, full of rage and hatred – rotten to the core.

Character Profiles: The Expository Sidekick

“Oh,” he said, with emphasis. “Oh – you don’t think it necessary; then,” and he added the words with great clearness and deliberation, “then, Mr. Ellis Shorter, I can only say that I would like to see you without your whiskers.”

And at these words I also rose to my feet, for the great tragedy of my life had come. Splendid and exciting as life was in continued contact with an intellect like Basil’s, I had always the feeling that that splendour and excitement were on the borderland of sanity. He lived perpetually near the vision of the reason of things which makes men lose their reason. And I felt of his insanity as men feel of the death of friends with heart disease. It might come anywhere, in a field, in a hansom cab, looking at a sunset, smoking a cigarette. At the very moment of delivering a judgment for the salvation of a fellow creature, Basil Grant had gone mad.

Your whiskers,” he cried, advancing with blazing eyes. “Give me your whiskers. And your bald head.”

The Club of Queer Trades, by G. K. Chesterton

His name was Swinburne, but his friends called him the Cherub. This, he said, was due to the “roseate and youthful appearance I presented in my declining years. I only hope the spirits in the better world have as good dinners as I have.”

And yet he was a man who had odd adventures, and had them regularly. He went to strange places in London, and to strange places outside it. One dark evening he climbed halfway up a tree in a deserted heath, for reasons he never did know. He followed strangers, and chased strangers, and occasionally pinned them to the ground.

There are many complex explanations for these actions, and a single simple one. Swinburne did all these things because he was around Basil Grant. Basil lived under the suspicion of being mad, and the world seemed to go mad around him. So his friend Swinburne passed through tale after tale of The Club of Queer Trades, a puzzled narrator of puzzling events.

He was an Expository Sidekick. Although the whole story is told through his “I”, he is not the subject – an unusual thing. Expository Sidekicks are a rare specimen. Generally they come paired with an Incomprehensible Genius, the real star. Let the sad truth be told: An Expository Sidekick is a character created as a literary device; he is a way to tell the story.

The most famous Expository Sidekick is undoubtedly Dr. Watson. He is, unlike Sherlock Holmes, a fairly normal person. As such, he performs two vital services for the story.

In the first place, he – like Swinburne – walks through the story going, What? This is what the reader feels and is meant to feel. It is helpful to have a character who feels the same. It makes the reader’s confusion about what is happening less a reaction to the story and more a participation in it. And then, on the reader’s behalf, Watson (and Swinburne) will demand – and get – an explanation.

In the second place, Dr. Watson is like every Expository Sidekick in that he can narrate and do it well. The Incomprehensible Genius – Holmes or Basil Grant – is not really fit to be a viewpoint character. His thought processes are in essence foreign. Sherlock Holmes and Basil Grant solve mysteries, but they are mysteries themselves. It would be hard, if the story related their thoughts directly, to preserve how incredible their minds are – let alone how mysterious. The Expository Sidekick is created to be the filter, witness to the geniuses and chronicler of them.

The Expository Sidekick is not usually complete without the Incomprehensible Genius – but far, far less is the Incomprehensible Genius complete without the Expository Sidekick. In this, too, the last shall be first, that though the Expository Sidekicks are more forgettable, they are utterly indispensable.

Character Profiles: The Suave Villain

What sharp little eyes you have, my dear.

– Lord Archelaeus Burleigh, The Skin Map

Archelaeus Burleigh was an earl – rich, refined, well-dressed, every inch an aristocrat. He was a great traveler, too, and a man of books. As may be expected, he was very reasonable, in the sense that he generally gave people a chance to join his side before he killed them.

Burleigh was a Suave Villain. Suave Villains are an interesting breed. They are taken as being more intelligent than their uncouth cousins – henchmen, enforcers, hot-tempered leaders of the pack. They’re also taken as being more evil. I don’t know why. Maybe the hot blood of angry, aggressive villains is at least mammalian, but the cold-hearted cunning of the Suave Villain is definitely reptilian.

There’s an irony in such characters that lends them depth. Burleigh was educated, urbane, at the top of society; the Suave Villain is by definition a master of the conventions of civilization. He is also, by definition, lawless. His manners may be the height of etiquette, but his philosophy is the philosophy of the jungle. Outwardly, a civilized man; inwardly, tearing up the roots of civilization.

A similar contrast is found in characters such as Gaston and Jadis: beautiful on the outside, ugly on the inside. These characters illustrate the superficiality of good looks. Maybe characters like Burleigh illustrate the superficiality of what they call “good breeding” – all that smooth comportment through society, always knowing the right thing to say, the right thing to wear, the right fork to use.

Many, many people have been coated with this lacquer of civilization without it ever touching their souls. These are garden variety snobs and egotists and selfish people – and, just now and then, Suave Villains. The Suave Villain’s hands may be dirty, sometimes even bloody, but his fingernails are very clean.

CSFF Blog Tour: Character Profiles: The Autobiographical Insert

I sighed and put my head down on the steering wheel. “I hate shrinks. But I guess I could take you to see Dr. van Pelt.” I had to start seeing Dr. van Pelt after my first book, Imaginary Jesus, came out. With all the hallucinations of Jesus and time travel and talking donkeys, my boss thought it would be wise for me to get some professional help, even though I had explained to him numerous times that those were just literary devices. Nevertheless, he had insisted that I visit Dr. van Pelt. I didn’t like her that much.

– Matt Mikalatos, Night of the Living Dead Christian

We would all be peeved if our bosses made us go to therapy. But for Matt Mikalatos, at least, there was some benefit. Not that it cured him of strange literary devices, but it did allow him to give ready help to a werewolf looking for a psychiatrist. And, in the back seat, a zombie, a mad scientist, and an android listened.

Matt Mikalatos was an unusually blatant Autobiographical Insert. You read Matt Mikalatos’ novels about how Matt Mikalatos got counsel from a talking donkey, and chased his imaginary Jesus around Portland, and went church-hunting with a werewolf; normal things may be mixed in, but they lose the ratio war to the strange things. And still, somehow, you get the feeling sometimes that Matt Mikalatos is writing himself.

All authors insert, at one time or another, an opinion, or a religious conviction, or a personal experience; some give their protagonist their own personality traits, or one of their struggles. Many characters have a little of their author, and some have a lot. Usually, though, they have their own names.

And Matt Mikalatos is, believe it or not, the second exception to this rule that I’ve seen. The first is Oliver North, who briefly appeared in his novel Mission Compromised. Oliver North, writing in the third-person, referred to himself as “North”.

The Autobiographical Insert is usually more subtle – sometimes so subtle you don’t even notice it. But in some degree or other, it’s always there. Every author, good or bad, pours himself into his novel; naturally it spills over into the characters, too.

And speaking of what authors insert … Matt described Dr. van Pelt – to whom he took his werewolf friend – like this: “She was crabby. All the time. But on the plus side, she was surprisingly inexpensive.” And when he poured into her waiting room with his friends (“the mother lode of wackos needing counseling”): “She came storming out of her office and demanded to know why I hadn’t made an appointment. She had her dark hair up in a bun and that same blue dress that she always wore. It must be her work dress or something.”

The only other van Pelts I know of are Lucy and Linus. And “crabby” was the word that defined Lucy. She also had a psychiatrist’s practice that was very inexpensive – only a nickel a session – and her hair was dark, and she always wore that blue dress …

Matt Mikalatos is clever. The author, I mean.

Character Profiles: The Crazy Person who Knows Something

“So … do we call you Peet?” Janner asked, fishing for more answers to his mounting questions. “Is that your real name?”

The Sock Man stirred the boiling pot with a long wooden spoon and didn’t answer.

The Igibys stared at him in an awkward silence.

“What’s a real name?” Peet said finally. He pointed the spoon at Janner. “Is Janner Igiby your real name?”

“Yes sir.”

“Is it?”

– Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

Small town, boys. Crazy people hear lots of things. – Peet the Sock Man

Peet the Sock Man was crazy. You knew it from the moment you saw him – a ragged man with a haggard face and filthy knitted stockings on his hands. He talked gibberish to lampposts and attacked street signs, but for all that he was harmless. Even to street signs, which tended to have the best of whatever contests the Sock Man challenged them to.

The Glipwood townspeople often saw him in town. Sometimes he skipped through with a stick in his mouth, or with one eye shut. Sometimes they saw him juggling buckets by the cliffs, or walking on his hands while chanting nonsense rhymes.

But nobody ever talked to him.

When Janner Igiby finally did, he heard – even if he did not recognize – the first ringing of a truth that overturned his world.

Peet the Sock Man was a Crazy Person who Knows Something.

Crazy People who Know Something are loads of fun*. They’re usually an unknown quantity, and always an unstable one. The right of such characters is unconventional behavior; the purpose is mystery and sometimes even amusement.

Frequently – maybe even usually – the Crazy Person is not actually crazy. The reputation of madness is created by misunderstanding or even malice. Sometimes it’s just eccentricity mistaken for insanity – for the line between the two, though real, can grow very fine.

And sometimes – as with the Sock Man – the insanity is genuine. I’ve seen this less. A truly mad, yet knowing, person is a harder balance, a more demanding character. It’s not always simple to write a character who has lost his mind, but not all of it – insanity leavened with sanity. Peet, accurately enough, called himself crazy. But he wouldn’t have known he was crazy unless he was at least somewhat sane.

Whether mad in reputation or in fact, the Crazy Person always does Know Something. You wonder how. You wonder what – being crazy or just strange – he’s going to do about it.

* In fiction, anyway

Character Profiles: The Masked Hero

We’ve come to save you. This man in the ridiculous black costume – ”

“It art not ridiculous, thou pigeony person!”

” – is the Florid Sword. Or you can call him Gammon, like I do.”

– Andrew Peterson, The Monster in the Hollows

The Florid Sword was a dashing hero in black, jumping down from rooftops to skewer Fangs and foil Stranders. As a rule, Stranders need foiling and Fangs need skewering. That so few volunteer for the job is a pity, though not a wonder. This is especially true in the case of the Fangs. Fangs may be stupider than Stranders, but they are also crueler, and they have armies behind them – and the fist of the Nameless One. People usually submitted.

The Florid Sword rebelled. Under the blackness of night and his own clothes, with a quick blade and cat-like grace, he gave a sliver of justice to an oppressed people. Mysterious and anonymous behind his mask, rumors about him ran far.

He was a Masked Hero. Unquestionably, a man has reason to disguise himself in his double life as an outlaw – even when, like Gammon, he is an outlaw in his primary life, too. It’s a wonderfully solid excuse for a grown man to run around in a costume and say things like, “The Florid Sword hath run you through like unto a bolt of iron lightning piercing the watery depths of the Mighty Blapp, may she run wide and muddy all the days of mine own life!”

It’s also a good excuse for an author to have a character exclaim: “I seest only children in the sights I see with mine seeing eyes!” But it must be said that Andrew Peterson is unique in making such dialogue an advantage of the Masked Hero.

Other advantages he finds in the Masked Hero are typical – stock, even. First among them is all the romance and swashbuckling glory of the hero whose face no one knows. Second is playing the mystery of who is behind the mask. Zorro, the perfection of the Masked Hero, began as that sort of drama. The climax of The Curse of Capistrano was when Zorro was revealed to the readers to be Don Diego. A few of them had probably guessed it already, but until then no one knew.

Now everybody knows. Now the drama of Zorro is in watching him try to keep his secret while enemies and friends alike try to uncover it. This is the second way of mining story gold from a Masked Hero. I think it is also the more common one, and probably the more popular.

The Masked Hero is never too far from a cliche, but it’s a good cliche. Something in him makes the imagination leap. Human beings love a secret, after all, and the face behind the mask is a delicious one. Who doesn’t like to see the Masked Hero finally unmasked? And who, knowing the secret, doesn’t like to watch characters try to discover it?

Who wouldn’t like to step out of their ordinary lives, put on a dashing costume, and run into the night to perform daring and heroic deeds?