Without further ado:
One of my favorite writers of all time has a new book out, in one of my favorite series, about one of my all-time favorite characters.
The writer is Lois McMaster Bujold, and the novel is called CryoBurn. It’s the last in a long line of semi-soft science fiction books known as the Vorkosigan Saga, set on the planet Barrayar in the year 3000-odd. The first few books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, are about Aral Vorkosigan and his wife Cordelia, and then in The Warrior’s Apprentice, their son Miles takes over. And I mean that in the most literal way.
Miles is one of those characters who do that. As a recent review for CryoBurn says – you can go on Amazon and read it yourself – “Like many a Miles novel before it, it’s a fast-paced adventure wherein Miles happens to people, and their lives (and worlds) are skewed in his wake.”
I read that, and it got me to thinking about my own characters. Do they do that? Do I write the kinds of characters who happen to people, and who change lives and worlds as a result?
It’s not the first time I’ve heard that sentiment expressed as relates to Miles, by the way. A character in one of the books says much the same thing. “I’ve had many subordinates over the years, who’ve turned in impeccable careers. Perfection takes no risks with itself, you see. Miles was many things, but never perfect. It was a privilege and a terror to command him, and I’m thankful and amazed we both got out alive. Ultimately his career ran aground in disaster. But before it ended, he changed worlds.”
All in all, I’m not sure I accomplish the same thing. Oh, my characters are just fine. People seem to like them. They’re strong enough and interesting enough to carry their books. But they don’t change lives and worlds. They’re not iconic. They don’t jump off the page and hit you between the eyes. They don’t make you laugh and cry and think. At least I don’t think they do.
And that’s my fault, for not creating the kind of character who can do that. For taking the easy way out. For skimming the surface and not delving deep to where the real issues are.
We all want our characters to be ‘good,’ don’t we? We want them to come across as beautiful. Even when they have flaws, the flaws tend to be endearing. We do our best to create perfection. But as the quote above says, perfection takes no risks with itself. And compelling characters are all about risk.
Miles isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. Physically, he’s about as far from leading man material as you can get. Less than five feet tall, hunch-backed and bowlegged, he’s reviled by his fellow – ignorant – Barrayarans as a mutant. His own grandfather tried to cut his throat at birth. His mind is brilliant, but his body is crippled, and an obstacle to everything he wants to accomplish. So he tries harder, to the point of obnoxiousness. He’s driven, he’s manic, he’s sometimes suicidal. He screws up all the time. He makes mistakes – and aren’t we all loath to make our characters do that? We don’t want them to look bad. We love them, so we don’t want bad things to happen to them. We don’t want them to embarrass themselves, or look less than – here’s that word again – perfect.
We want people to like them. People who read our books, as well as other characters within our books. We don’t want our protagonists to be unlikeable. So we play it safe. We want their friends and family to love them. Not to try to cut their infant throats. Not to wish them to be other than they are because they’re just too damned embarrassing to be around.
Miles has a cousin named Ivan, who is everything Miles isn’t: tall, handsome, and a ladies man. Miles is a little envious of Ivan, and always has been. Ivan, on the other hand, wouldn’t want to be Miles for anything in the world – and I’m not sure I can blame him. But this passage from the book A Civil Campaign – Miles in love; scary thought – really says it all, if you’ll bear with me. It makes me cry every single time I read it, and I want to share it with you because it says so much, not just about Miles, but about Miles’s effect on the people around him, and about the kind of character that can be created by a writer who isn’t afraid of making their protagonist larger than life and at the same time so very human. This is Miles from Ivan’s point of view, with all his flaws and all his contradictions, with every quality that makes him who he is, and with Ivan’s conflicting emotions about it.
Enjoy. She’s a hell of a writer.
“Damn that smile. Was it Ivan’s fault, that he had been born undamaged while his cousin had been born crippled? No, blast it. It was bloody bungled politics that had wrecked him, and you’d think it would be a lesson to him, but no. Demonstrably, even sniper fire couldn’t stop the hyperactive little git. In between inspiring you to strangle him with your bare hands, he could make you proud enough to cry. At least, Ivan had taken care no one could see his face, when he’d watched from the Council floor as Miles had taken his Auditor’s oath with that terrifying intensity, before all the assembled panoply of Barrayar last Winterfair. So small, so wrecked, so obnoxious. So incandescent. Give the people a light, and they’ll follow it anywhere. Did Miles know how dangerous he was?
And the little paranoid actually believed Ivan had the magic to entice any woman Miles really wanted away from him. His fears were more flattering to Ivan than he would ever let on. But Miles had so few humilities, it seemed almost a sin to take this one away from him. Bad for his soul, eh.”
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So what about you? Have any favorite characters who fit the bill? Care to share?