Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rewards and NPCs

Hi gang! A proper post today, a rarity in these dark and troubling times. Why are they dark and troubling? Well, to be honest, it seems our awards systems are broken, and while a full post on the state of SF when it comes to shortlists like Clarke and Hugo will have to wait for another time, reading Strange Horizons' review of the Clarke shortlist brought out a very disappointing fact to me.

Many writers still don't seem to realize how important side characters are. The NPCs of the story: the shopkeeper, the army general, the kid from down the street. The love interest! The mentor! The "Non-Protagonist Characters."

I'm especially going to talk about the love interest today, because it's still sadly clear that many male authors don't know how or why women fall in love with men. I certainly don't understand how anyone could love me but that doesn't stop me from understanding the concept. The Clarke list, of which I have only read Dark Eden seems to be full of them. The relationship in Dark Eden is at least somewhat plausible, but it doesn't really fit here because the love interest is also a protagonist, though a clearly secondary one. But many of the other relationships in the Clarke books, and in many other SF (especially the sort of "adventure" SF or post-apoc) novels seem to be based on the idea that the protagonist has "won" the love of that character.

Video games are not books, and you do not write a video game like a book. But at the same time, you do. A video game, for our sakes in this conversation specifically an RPG (though that is a loose, loose label now)  is written for an audience of one, and is written so that the player feels engaged and that their actions have a driving affect in the world of the game. You want to reward them when they do good things so that they will want to do more good things or cool things. The player should feel so invested in the story and in completing all the things you have offered as rewards that they will go through tremendous hurdles to accomplish their goals. After all, that's the game. (The gameplay has to be fun, too, but a bad story can ruin even a fun game.)

When you're writing a book, you are writing to an audience of one, but there's no interactivity. The protagonist of the story is no longer directly controlled by the audience; their actions are set regardless of whether the reader turns the pages or not. But whether or not you have gameplay and interactivity, you still have rewards. The reader is supposed to feel invested in the character and begin to empathize with them as you follow them along their journey. In this way, they aren't playing, but they are expending effort, and you need to reward them.

Here's where we come back to NPCs. They're almost always the reward. Sure, the hero finds the sword or their parent's lost amulet or that old letter or whatever, but the most satisfying rewards are those that involve human relationships. What better than true love and happiness as a reward?

Many books like to provide a love interest as either a goal ("Your princess is in another castle"), a sidekick or (I believe more rarely) as antagonists. Any way you have them, their eventual true love, the culmination of their relationship, is often as or more important than the resolution of the plot.

(I think Neil Gaiman likes to end romances in his books because it's like killing the protagonist, but without the killing the protagonist part. You get the same emotional punch, but you can write a sequel. *cough cough* Graveyard Book *cough cough*)

It's all well and good to have love be a reward for the protagonist for his/her trials and tribulations, but that love interest needs to be actually interested and interesting. What I see far too often is an attractive but tough woman "who wants it her way" who ends up submitting herself to the male protagonist because he's just so heroically great. It's a clear indication of a boy trying to write a woman, but still not actually self-aware of what misogyny really is, and how much of it is in their own perspectives. Worse are the women who are just there to be a sex reward, who don't save themselves or make their own decisions or actually really exist. They are cardboard cutouts of women with (if the author is at least descriptive) plush breasts and fleshlights installed.

Other NPCs are often cartoon cutouts that follow the PC around that the writer thinks the story needs: the comic relief, the hard-ass boss, even the antagonist is often just a cartoon. It's so critical to remember that every character is their own person. If you are writing a book and trying to make it real, fill it with real people. Real people can smell fake people a mile away. That's why it's actually difficult to pass a Turing test. People are filled with emotional complexities and contradictions, and those can all work to your advantage, but only if you know the people you are writing. When you focus solely on your PC and surround them with foil-thin foils that turn into presents once the PC gets far enough into the story, you lose out.

A good relationship can make or ruin a story. Take the movie Lockout, which I like to call "Escape from Space." It is an old story, so much so that they made this movie previously, with Escape from New York, and Escape from LA and Save the President's daughter, Studly "America" McMan. You  knew pretty much every single plot point that was going to occur in this movie right from the beginning. The science was risible, and the action only decent. But what saved this movie was character acting and the relationship between the manly hero and the president's daughter. The characters all had their own motivations and were allowed to act on them, even the deranged psychopath. The romance between the hero and the Pres' daughter doesn't climax onscreen, but it is implied afterwords in an actual, healthy manner. If this movie had had good science and an original plot, it would have been incredible. As it was, it was enjoyable.

It takes more than a plot and a protagonist to make a story. It takes a world. It takes people.


  1. Great post! I believe I could probably rant forever about female (side) characters in stories, but I shan't. Instead, I shall continue to work on all my side characters ^__^'

  2. The danger for me is that if I develop my side characters too much, they start demanding their own books. I like to think of this as a sign that I'm doing something right...

  3. I actually have the problem right now of one of my peripheral characters becoming too important. My alpha reader, as I like to call her, keeps slapping my wrists. "Is he important or isn't he? WELL???" But then I have other characters that I meant to be more important but that keep fading further and further back. Darn characters, running around doing whatever they want!

  4. That's the key then, isn't it, to strike that balance. The side characters are people, but they aren't the protagonist -- the world doesn't revolve around them, literally. We follow protagonists because interesting things happen to them in ways that they do not to us (or maybe do, depending on how non-fiction or real world fiction you get) but the point is that they are more important than a regular person, are more interesting. A side character should have their own motivations and story, but it shouldn't be so strong that it takes away from your novel. Reign in those naughty NPCs -- they can't hog the stage! XD