Limyaael's Rants

Spunky Characters That Aren't Annoying

Written on 2004-12-17; Read the original post on LiveJournal

1) Show the spunkiness, don’t tell it. Although I mostly liked Kristen Britain’s first novel, Green Rider, I cringed when the heroine received the appellation “spunky.” It snapped me right out of the high fantasy mood that I need to be in to take some of the more conventional aspects of the book seriously. Green Rider was a debut, so it was forgivable, but I really hope that aspect changed in the second novel. (I haven’t read First Rider’s Call, so I don’t know if it did).

Many characteristics that writers tell, instead of show, about their hero/ines have one of two problems: the usual words are clichés (such as using the term “flame-haired” for a redhead) or they’re dumped in there by the narrative when they need to be shown through action (“intelligent green eyes,” courtesy of Sarah Douglass, remains my favorite example of that). Spunkiness suffers from both problems. Consider these words that may be seen as synonyms for spunky:

Spirited/high-spirited
Fiery
Peppery
Tempestuous
Tameless/untamed
Unbroken
Like a wild horse
Bubbly
Rebellious
Reckless
Streetwise

Like it or not, these words have a certain cachet by now. They sound like words found in book blurbs—especially romance novel book blurbs. Putting them in the text of the narrative itself may make the reader wince. It may snap the mood altogether, especially if you’re writing high fantasy. And it may, at worst, make your hero/ine sound exactly like every other character out there. Try showing that she’s “tempestuous” (for my money, that one’s the worst word on the list) instead of telling the reader outright. It’s hard to manage a telling that doesn’t sound stupid.

The second problem is that too often, but especially if the writer tells the reader that such-and-such a character is intelligent or brave or spunky or whatever, the character doesn’t fulfill the promise of the telling. We’re probably all familiar with “intelligent” characters who act like ninnies, “brave” characters whose response to any tragedy is to faint or cry, and “rebellious” characters whose idea of rebellion is not doing the chores their parents assign them.

So, show us through her actions instead. Show us that she’s clever—it doesn’t have to be through witticisms—and figures things out on her own. Show us that she enjoys puzzles, unlocks riddles if given enough time, keeps her hopes up and refuses to angst. Show us depths of a rebellion more severe than just not wearing gowns. If you have a male character, show us a young man doing the best he can with the troubles life’s piled on him, instead of relying on the mentor to solve everything for him or mouthing off to the Dark Lord, which two are often seen as signs of spunkiness, operating in terms of a logic that I don’t share. Spunkiness can be translated away from spunk, especially the more annoying aspects of it, and into something else. (See point 3).

2) (If you have a female character). Please skip the Sexist Scene. PLEASE. The Sexist Scene is my title for the seemingly obligatory moment in a medieval fantasy short story or novel with a heroine where someone jeers at the heroine for not being able to do things right because she’s a girl, or because women don’t do that, or because women are weak and stupid. Or the male character refuses to do something such as cook the food because that’s a woman’s job. The spunky heroine almost invariably responds with a tongue-lashing that makes the male characters repent. Occasionally, her mentor intervenes and gives the tongue-lashing for her.

Please stop it.

Not getting through? Fine.

PLEASE STOP IT.

The Sexist Scene usually does nothing except give the spunky heroine an excuse to talk back to somebody with no risk. We know the male character isn’t really going to hit her, because they usually have a prejudice against hitting girls—or, on the rare occasion he does, she’s better at fighting than he is, so he won’t hurt her. We know that the heroine isn’t going to be proven wrong, because she won’t fail at the task the boy contemptuously declares is “not for women,” and any speeches she makes are always correct. We know that any adults who are around will take the heroine’s part, unless they’re sexist pigs themselves, and then they’ll gape in awe.

I have read several stories both with and without Sexist Scenes, and each time I thought they worked better without. In four of the five cases, cutting the Sexist Scene out took no work at all; it had so little effect on the plot around it, was so extraneous, that removing it didn’t damage the story. (This is a Bad Sign, not a good one, just in case you’re confused). In the fifth case, the Sexist Scene was necessary only as a transition point, and rewriting the scene as a more ordinary argument worked wonders.

This is an overused but not very useful way for heroines to show off their spunkiness. Cut it.

3) Try representing spunkiness as optimism instead. One reason I think spunky characters annoy so many people—they certainly do me—if not done properly is that along with the good side of spunkiness, the energy and courage and creativity, comes the bad side, the quick temper and recklessness and tendency to judge on little or no evidence. Most authors don’t seem inclined to let their spunky characters get hurt, so they build things into the book that protect them against the possible negative aspects of their personalities, like everyone standing around drop-jawed or humbled at the character’s judgments instead of getting angry (although see point 4). It’s very, very easy to tip over into authorial cheating on this, or for the author to get so in love with their snappy, quirky character that they don’t realize how much she annoys other people.

If we make spunkiness into optimism instead, though…

Ah-ha.

We’ve all known optimistic people who do occasionally get worn-down, but get out of the funk. It’s not any supernatural cheerfulness or cleverness that lets them do so. It’s the ability to see past the disaster, reason out new paths, and remind themselves that “This too shall pass” or some variant of it. Eventually, they swing back towards hope again.

Changing the spunky character into an optimistic one can alter all sorts of things. For one thing, the author is no longer laboring to live up to “spunky!” and all the stereotypes that go with it. For another, he might well be willing to have that hero of his recover from his angst by sheer hard work, or she might be willing to let her heroine have a very good idea on how to avert a battle but spend a few months, book-time, achieving it instead of a few days. And finally, optimism is more easily countered than sheer spunk (see point 5). A lot of people seem to have decided that spunk means someone is indomitable. They can’t be held down for long, because that would be unrealistic.

Change the label—you can call it something else, too, like “hopeful” or “determined” or “ambitious”—and the thing can change.

4) Let her “good” qualities also become flaws. If you want a character that’s spunky come hell or high water, then you have to hurt her—just like any other character. And she has to have personality traits that will not benefit her all the time—just like any other character.

“Double-edged flaws,” those are that vices or virtues depending on the situation, are wonderful writing and character development tools, but too often the writer turns them so that only one edge shows, and uses them that way all the time. For spunky characters, their quick guesses are always true, their optimism is always right and never annoys the people around them, their “witticisms” make everyone else just stare at them, their tempers never prompt them into angry actions that hurt other people, and their “rebelliousness” is always justified because, oh my god, my parents were going to make me wear dresses!!! Or my father wanted me to be a mage and not a fighter!!! Or the other kids never had a point about me being an irritating little snot, they were just jealous!!!

Show those flaws hurting the character and the people around her. Does she never jump to conclusions? Does she never make a tense situation worse than it already is by being a smart-aleck, or charging into the fight, and, because of her actions, getting someone else wounded or even killed? Does she never become overconfident and think she has more skill than she does, only to get her ass kicked by a superior opponent? (Remember the saw: “Age and cunning beat youth and stupidity every time.”) This doesn’t have to happen on every page, or every chapter. In fact, it might be more devastating to let the character get along without problems for a while, then have her rashness or swiftness shoot the most important decision or situation in the book to hell and chaos. Getting someone killed under her command is more devastating and more likely to pound the lesson home than just getting her wrist slapped for sticking her hand in a fire.

5) Counter the spunk. And yes, there are ways it can be done.

-Slam the character with some devastating lesson, as above. Not the kind of torture or suffering or loss that will only reinforce her more annoying traits, but something that actually challenges and changes her. (One reason many fantasy characters seem not to change is that the author can hit them with angst, they reflect for a while, and then they go on as if the angst had never happened).
-Put a character around her who wants some different goal—but is just as clever, just as quick-tempered, just as enduring. Then, make that character something other than the heroine’s rival to be overthrown and proven wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG. I’ve seen a few fantasy novels that had equally “spunky” heroines and rivals, but in the end, the rival was always represented as the annoying one who only thought she was clever, while the heroine really was. Try not favoring your darling so highly and see what happens.
-Put a character with the heroine whom she will never match in at least one way. Perhaps she’s a powerful mage, but not the most powerful mage in the world. Perhaps that woman has a secret and the heroine’s never going to learn it. (The audience might). Perhaps the heroine is witty, but this person is snarky, and every attempt to win a banter exchange ends in a draw. Perhaps the heroine becomes very good with a sword, but her mentor is still better, and doesn’t scruple to let her know it. Perhaps this person has flaws the heroine doesn’t, but also has virtues that the heroine can only watch in envy.
-Take something away from the heroine that she really and truly values. Don’t give it back, either. There’s a bad trend of “reversing” fantasy sacrifices, such as having the heroine’s true love die and then her realizing he wasn’t really her true love, of course not, she loves this man she just met much more. Don’t do that, and let the heroine win while always feeling a vague and nagging dissatisfaction in the back of her mind.

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