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Strategic Sympathy Reserves

So a few months back, I wrote a blog-post about being tired of Fantasyland.

It's all still true. I can count the fantasies I have read in the last six months on the fingers of one hand.

That said, ZOMG, The Goblin Emperor is amazing, go read it, I stayed up until three in the morning last night reading it, it is SO GOOD.

The main character, Maia, is just incredibly sympathetic. He is nice. I ached for this character, the way I ached for Aerin back in the day, the yes-I-would-be-this-person ache.

And this made me think that maybe, in my initial post about being jaded to so much fantasy as a setting, I had overlooked something.

Maybe part of my problem is that I am having a hard time finding fantasy characters I like.

It's not like the old days, when all you needed was a bookish heroine and/or one who was not interested in pretty dresses and you had my immediate unswerving loyalty for the rest of the book. I am now past the point where any given persecuted teenage girl is automatically my soul-sister,* where the fact that your family/village/tribe just doesn't understand you gives you a free pass to my sympathies.

I have not been willing to read books about awful people for a long time, because their awfulness is not the least bit interesting to me, but I am also starting to lose patience with standard fantasy people. All the interchangeable protagonists with interchangeable names. Yes, you're scared, yes, your suffering is very important to YOU, but it's not enough to suffer at me any more. You must be interesting while you are doing it.

Furthermore, god help you, I must like you. If I do not like you--not merely pity you, but like you--you are done.

(There are plenty of people who will argue for unlikeable protagonists, and that is great. I am not decreeing what future writing should be for all. I am saying, I don't read those books. Because if I don't like the character, I will not spend time with them. This is not to say that they are not valuable. Phillip K. Dick wrote some valuable stuff that should be appreciated. By people other than me. Because I hate all the characters in his books. A lot.**)

For this, I could be accused of a failure of empathy (and go ahead, feel free, I offer you my admission of my failure of empathy as a gift.) If I were a good person, or at least a sophisticated reader, undoubtedly I could relate to anyone. Any old barbarian warlord would do. I could put myself in the shoes of the entire cast of Game of Thrones instead of "On a good day Tyrion but generally nobody and actually I stopped reading awhile ago because I could not care less what happens to any of these awful, awful people."*** I would pour myself into the personas of wise-cracking urban fantasy heroines with their hidden faerie underworlds and their nifty super-powers and their on-again off-again relationships with hunky muscled fill-in-the-blanks. I would play Angst Along With Elric. (Follow the bouncing Stormbringer!)

But I can't, and I don't. I have dumped out too much of my sympathy on whiny heroes and farmboys with destinies who throw stupid temper tantrums for no apparent reason. The Strategic Sympathy Reserves are running low and I do not consider it worth the environmental damage to start cracking open the Sympathetic Shale. I am just...tired of all these people.

It's not that characters have to be me. I do not require thirty-seven-year-old divorced and remarried writer protagonists with a gardening bent, and if I did, I would be pretty disappointed by now.

But I would like to read more about people who are kind.

Not...y'know...not the lady-of-the-manor kindness you find in a lot of Regencies, not Tireless Social Reformer archetype, or Look How Selfless I Am, but just...kind.

I know it when I see it, anyhow.

You can do any horrible thing you want to them, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying "Write me a nice book without conflict!"  Just...I look back at all the characters that I loved, really truly loved and who mattered--Aerin and Dr. Evan Wilson and Number Ten Ox and Brutha and Granny Weatherwax and Brother Cadfael and all the rest, and they were all good and most of them were kind (although it was a rather pointy kindness, at least in the case of Weatherwax.)

(Polite is also sadly lacking in many cases, as I may have lamented before.)

I am saying this badly, I think. I read back and there are huge holes where someone could shout things through, if they were so inclined. Perhaps I don't know what I'm trying to say well enough to say it. I am not trying to shut up any character who is hard or angry, or tell any author that their characters have to be nice. No. If you need to write an angry and defiant character, write her. Someone will need that book, even if it isn't me, or at least, isn't me today.

Maybe what I'm trying to say is that I didn't actually realize, until reading The Goblin Emperor, how much I was still willing to give to a book where the main character was so intensely sympathetic.

And it pointed up, in such sharp relief, how little I've been willing to give to a lot of fantasy books I've tried to read for a long time.


*Except at certain times of month for certain forms of comfort reading.

**Someone said to me once "They're very human." No, they're very asshole. I know lots and lots of humans, and none of them behave like that. If they did, I would not hang around with them.

*Fine, I would prefer Arya not die, but given the series, the only way to do that is to stop reading.


Is that "Dr. Evan Wilson" of Uhura's Song</>? I thought I was the only one who adored that book!

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Honestly I have the same issue with TV shows. I cannot watch shows where stupid people make bad decisions all the time. I realized one of the things I like about Bones is that it is about a bunch of really smart people who do their best and of course they're not perfect but they act like normal rational mostly well adjusted people would act in the circumstances given, (not counting some of the throw-away interns.)

Just out of interest, Ms. Native Plant Lady, what kind of nutshell is that? Because one of my Reading Issues fits into it so well it might have come right of it.

Also, like many others who have or will read this, I am so stealing "Strategic Sympathy Reserves" and "Sympathetic Shale". Because reasons, is why.

I am so with you--though I like wisecracking urban fantasy heroines, when the wisecracking is good-natured and well-meaning, more S1 Buffy and less S6--especially on Martin.

And on the difference between human and asshole. Human foibles? Fine and good. People I wouldn't stay in the room with for five minutes? Not people I want to spend a whole book--let alone a whole series--rooting for.

I am currently out of book, and the library next to the park where I was just about to go jogging has a copy on the shelf. I know what I'm reading next.

ETA: Or would be, had I not forgotten that it's Sunday. Dammit. *makes a note to get to the other library tomorrow*

Edited at 2014-06-09 01:01 am (UTC)

Yes, thank you! I've been trying to say something along these lines for a while and not expressing it very well. I'm sick of the notion that having a likeable protagonist means the story/book/film/whatever is weak, while having an unlikeable protagonist means it's Deep and Great Literature. Fooey! If there isn't a character that I like, that I want to see succeed, then I'm not going to like the thing, and I probably won't finish reading/watching the thing. Give me a protagonist that is human and flawed but still kind and likeable, and I will read/watch the thing, many times, and recommend it to all my friends!

Granny Weatherwax is kind, though she doesn't like to admit it. She's not the easiest person for most people to be around, but for someone like Nanny Ogg, who knows her well and isn't intimidated, she's a good person to be around. And she is kind and decent. She just takes absolutely no nonsense from anyone. Which is why I love her and want to be her when I'm an old woman.

And the other matriarch of similar no-nonsense attitude and innate kindness of nature that I want to be as an old woman is, of course, Boneclaw Mother.

I think all of Terry Pratchett's protagonists are basically good, decent people. He managed to pull off a kindly DEATH, for goodness sakes!

That's one of the reasons I love PTerry's books: they have heart.

OMG OMG OMG YES -- Katherine Addison, AKA Sarah Monette, is such a talented writer!!

I am delighted to see her getting more love -- I'm still deeply disappointed that the first two books of her Doctrine of Labyrinths series are out of print and not available as e-books due to publisher shenanigans (which is why she's now writing under a different name), because they're *so good* . . . and it's hard to recommend something that's difficult to obtain.

(I wouldn't say that Felix is kind, although Mildmay is, some of the time -- he's certainly compassionate. They're closer to the tortured-fantasy-hero types than I think you'd necessarily enjoy, given your sympathy fatigue, but they're very *interesting* people, and they learn and grow and fuck up and are at least understandable, even when Felix is being a porcupine. Not a literal one -- more like a porcupine-tarantula who has the ability to fling irritating hairs.)

Whether or not they're to your taste, I really loved the books, and I've enjoyed her short fiction as well ("The Bone Key" is a very strong anthology with a central main character throughout, and the "Boojum" short stories, co-written with Elizabeth Bear, combine Lovecraft, space travel, and Lewis Carroll in very interesting ways.)

I'd been meaning to pick up "The Goblin Emperor" next, so thank you for reminding me that I was at my tipping point about it!

* * *

In regard to losing patience with fantasy protagonists who are unsympathetic and throw tantrums and act illogically -- agreed. I'll still read certain things if it has the right hooks for me, but I'm definitely not reading fantasy as comprehensively and nonjudgmentally as I did when I was younger. I've had enough of dealing with People Being Idiots In Real Life that I don't need them in my escapist fiction, kthx.

Kindness, compassion, and courtesy are immensely underrated, and should feature more prominently in fiction and in real life, frankly.

And, yes -- as interesting as I found the meta-plot of "Game of Thrones" to be, I found the characters to be so unremittingly vile (even the exceptions were still . . . difficult . . . at times) that I just stopped caring what happened to them. Reading the series became a slog, and I own the most recent book but haven't cracked it.

I may read them beginning-to-end when the final volume is FINALLY published (assuming it ever gets written) . . . or I may not.

GRRM really lost me with the level of brutality and OMG GRIMDARK ATMOSPHERE and vividly-described mutilation and rape and death in battle . . . I will say that there is technically a strength in showing what happens to the "little people" when nobles go to war, the kind of devastation that it does to the citizenry, but . . . maybe I didn't need that object lesson, honestly. I already knew that, so it wasn't news to me.

But, yes! Goblin Emperor! Kindness! Absolutely! :D

-- A <3

You're summing up why I gave up on GoT after the first book. It's hard to care what will happen to people when it's obvious that something horrible will happen to them. At least in the show it's over in a couple minutes instead of having to slog through dozens of pages of horror.

You just nailed the reason I stopped watching Breaking Bad, Sopranos, and The Wire. For some reason I'm sticking with GoT, I think because it has some redeeming characters (and well done CGI dragons make up for a lot).

I quite enjoyed Blood Song for its flawed protagonist who was still decent (and also his cranky-as horse).

I noticed your brief collaboration with haikujaguar on Twitter, and I think if you want actual kind and sympathetic characters in your fantasies, I would recommend hers.

I'd in particular recommend some specific ones, like Aphorisms, Stone Knives, and... Hmmm. Okay, my favorite of the Pelted short stories is "Second." (...not sure that Even the Wingless would be a good first-book if looking for kindness. I mean, yeah, some grows, but it kind of starts off... um... yes, well. >_> )

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
aaah, Number Ten Ox! <3

::hugs and dancing::

it's such a wonderful set of books <3 I wish there had been more.

I am hearing a lot of good things about the Goblin Emperor but I had such a distressing experience reading the first Sarah Monette book that I am extremely wary of going there.

Have you read The Golem and the Djinni? Its quite dense and a bit literary but is quite atmospheric for the period and there are lots of little human interactions I think you might enjoy

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/08/book-review-the-golem-and-the-djinni-by-helene-wecker

I agree, too many interchangeable cookiecutter characters these days, I find it particularly prevalent in the urban fantasy genre. Really struggle to find unique takes on the kickass heroine.

I was about to complain that everyone keeps talking about this book but my library doesn't have it, but it appears that the place where I was first told about it spelled the author's name wrong and actually they do, so whee!

I gave up reading GOT too. You are not alone in wanting characters not to be a^^holes and to have redeeming characteristics.

I've grown tired of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series precisely because the protagonists all come out the same.


Fairly early in that series I noticed that chapter two or three would be where you got the background info dump--which would come in the form of the main character feeling sorry for herself about how hard her life is.

Those extended bouts of protagonist self-pity were one of the reasons I cut back on those books. If the character is already pitying herself, the pity job is handled, and I don't need to do it.


I haven't read Fantasy in quite a while too.
The Woodcutter is about the only one. It brings up just about every fairy tale character and figures out a different reason as to why they are doing some of their standard things. The main character has to do all these heroic things… but he just wants to get back to his cabin and his wife.

A friend asked me why I didn't watch a very popular sit-com. I told them that I found all the people/attitudes/and situations in it detestable and given my choice, I wouldn't invite any of those people into my home. Why would I want to spend an hour a week in their presence?

Edited at 2014-06-09 01:56 am (UTC)

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Have you ever read any of Lawrence Watt-Evans' Ethshar stories? Sometimes I think the most fantastical aspect of the setting is how nice and reasonable the inhabitants are.

Same goes for Lawrence's other books. The sanity in them is astounding, greatly recommended.
He's got a sort of serialised manual kickstarter thing going on on his website for the latest Ethshar novel, for a solid taster. http://www.ethshar.com/ishtascompanion01.html

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