Monday, March 18, 2013

Does Easy Sell?

A criticism some reviewers offer of my two novels is that the protagonists have it too easy, that there is never any serious doubt that they will ultimately win. It is, on the whole, a fair criticism. Part of the reason may be that I am an optimist, and so find it hard to believe in really bad outcomes even in my fictional worlds. I tried to fix the problem in the final section of Harald, my first novel, by reorganizing the sequence of events so that the bad guys appear to be winning until near the end, but it does not seem to have worked very well.

Considered as a literary judgement, the criticism is legitimate, but I am wondering whether it is also a legitimate criticism if the objective is not to write well but to sell. Part of the reason people read fiction is to imagine themselves as the protagonist. Imagining yourself as smarter, stronger, faster, in all important ways better than all the people around you may be a base pleasure, but for a lot of people it is a pleasure. Make a protagonist like that, and it is hard to make it plausible to the reader that he might lose.

For a particularly successful example, consider Superman. Strong, bullet proof, fast—he can even fly. Surely part of his success came from readers wanting to imagine themselves like that. One consequence was that, in order to provide him with threats adequate to support a halfway interesting plot, the writers had to introduce a variety of kludges to the story line, of which the most famous was Kryptonite.

I have never studied the pattern of best selling fiction; my impression is that much of it—The Lord of the Rings would be a striking exception—consists of books I probably would not much enjoy reading. But I wonder how much of it shares my fault and, unlike my novels, is successful as a result.


Mark said...

It's really a catch-22. In the back of his mind any reader is going to know that the hero will overcome any obstacles and win, unless the author really goes out of his way to show he's writing in a universe where evil beats good.

Rebecca Friedman said...

Winning isn't everything, though. Suppose the good guys win... but not everyone makes it?

I don't like that kind of story, but I know people who love them. A mixture of greater victory and lesser tragedy gives you a bittersweet ending... or simply enough tragedy near the beginning of a long work to show it -can- go wrong, and people you like -can- die, can add a sense of uncertainty. Some people like that. I don't, but some people do.

Maxim said...

A counter-example to the "easy sells" theory is the very popular Game of Thrones series, in which a large proportion (but so far not all) of the protagonists die.

Personally, I love stories like that. I think the main reason is that I *feel more* for the characters if they're truly fighting uphill battles and likely dying. That seems honorable somehow. If I'm certain they won't die, then it seems like they're just flaunting their smarts and strength. On occasion I'll even start rooting for the underdog anatagonists.

One the other hand, most stories I'm aware of do fit the "easy sells" theory, so probably there is just diversity of tastes on this.

David Friedman said...

There's one of Leslie Charteris' Saint books where the hero, in an apparently hopeless situation, points out to the villains that they can't kill him, since he's the hero and the hero always wins. Pretty clearly, it's the author joking with the readers--as well as a consistent part of the plot, given the Saint's personality.

Wayne Conrad said...

I haven't read both, but I did find that Harald lacked tension not just in the final outcome but in the events leading up to it. When I come to like a character (I do like Harald), I want to see him ground up in the story a little to see what he's really made of.

Seth MacLeod said...

There are two series that I really enjoyed, one "easy" and the other "hard". The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett isn't meant to test the hero against impossible odds where he might die. The books are just plain fun. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher certainly do test the hero, and people do die throughout the series. I thoroughly enjoyed both series (though I never finished the Discworld series; so many books), and I think that as long as the plot makes sense and is enjoyable, it doesn't matter much one way or the other whether the hero has it easy or hard.

Tibor said...

I absolutely agree with Maxim. As a matter of fact, I'd wanted to write pretty much the exact same comment before I read his.

The thrill of Game of Thrones is that you never know what will happen to the protagonists and so you get more "sucked into" the story. A similar, but less extreme pattern happens in Sapkowski's Witcher.

And I share the "antagonist sympathies" sometimes as well in the books that just make it too easy for the "good guys" to win - while in Game of Thrones you really have to hate the bad guys - they actually might (and do) kill "your heroes".

Also a thing I really like is when the characters are simply not plain good or plain evil (that is a lot in Sapkowski). Sure, some are the "worse" and some are "better", but none are entirely "one-dimensional".

But I might be an exception on this - I really did not enjoy Lord of the Rings very much. Exactly for those two reasons - the good guys are just good guys (well, there is some "corruption" done by the rings but that is still just the evil force making someone do something), the bad guys are bad guys and it is clear from the very beginning that the good guys win.

Or perhaps it is also another thing - LOTR set up a paradigm of a fantasy world that has become a cliché over the century (elves, dwarves and so on). It had to be wonderful back then, but I got to read it (even though before the films were made) when I was familiar with all those other books and games that used the same pattern. I love fantasy that is different - Game of Thrones with not too much magic, no elves and dwarves, Sapkowski with his elves being pretty much as sinister as the human kings, or a game called Planescape:Torment (based on the DnD planescape universe) which is just delightfully strange and wierd (also no elves and dwarves but different interesting alien beings, multiple dimensions through which pretty much everyone regularly travels and so on).

And discworld is entertaining probably again because it is wierd - (and also written in a great funny way).

jimbino said...

That's what makes classical Greek epics and tragedies so fun. Hercules, Jason, Ulysses, and Oedipus are great heroes but flawed. It is not so important who wins; it's the struggle one has to endure.

In my book, "judgement" is a British variant of "judgment." Furthermore, the engineers who invented kluges were no doubt the first to spell it wrong.

kludge = judge = fudge = budge = sludge = nudge. On the other hand: kluge = huge = luge = rouge

Anonymous said...

I liked Harald. Would I have liked it better if he'd had it easier? Two ways of making the hero's exploits easier entertain me: 1) Bertie Wooster, where obstacles and villains would never injure a reader so clever and brave as me, and 2) Conan, where I am so busy reading about Conan's astonishing swordstrokes and battle-sleights that I never have time to fear. Harald never faces Bertie Wooster's aunts bellowing like mastodon to mastodon across his primeval swamps; Harald's enemies are more serious. Harald never spends a chapter single-handedly assassinating a whole regiment of his enemies, either. I don't think he'd enjoy it, should the occasion arise. Harald is not a moral imbecile. Conan is a fun moral imbecile. Every character in 'The Song of Ice and Fire' is an unfun moral imbecile. At least for the first fifty pages, when I got bored and quit reading. Imbecility spreads. So does smarts; why I like Harald.

I think 'kludge' is Polish for 'key'. The Poles who broke Enigma gave the Brits the 'key', and also convinced Bletchley Park that Polak Dudaks are velly clevvah peebles, and early computer slang used Bletchley Park slang to sound smart.

Lex Spoon said...

I felt Star Trek New Generation made things too easy. The Enterprise had an amazing computer, a teleporter, a replicator, a holodeck, and massive armament. Oh, and also, it had engineers like MacGiver.

No problem except Q seemed like a real threat, and he's only a threat because he's even more ridiculously overpowered. I liked Star Trek NG for the settings, but I constantly felt that the heroes had it easy.

Also agreed with others that Terry Pratchett is an unusual example of being a good seller of "easy". He just pushes other angles. Not every good book has to be an *action* adventure.

Anarchist Chossid said...

That’s why GRR Martin’s books are interesting to read. You never know when your favorite character may be killed.

But in general, I think, people want characters who struggle. I think people would rather associate with characters that have proper virtues rather than those that have it easy. Taky Tyrion Lannister as an instance.

Of course, if life is complete hell for the character throughout the series, it’s not going to be fun to read either.

Unknown said...

Some stories sell because the characters struggle. Some stories sell because the reader can live vicariously through an idealized protagonist. Harald's selling point isn't primarily either of those things. In Harald, the protagonist is presented with a geo-political puzzle. The main source of reading pleasure is the chance to see how Harald solves that puzzle.

Put another way ... Superman appeals to your inner child, Song of Ice and Fire appeals to your inner poet, and Harald appeals to your inner economist.

Anonymous said...

To the people mentioning Game of Thrones drawing you into the story because the characters might die, the reason is simple. In GoT the cast is composed of multiple characters, whereas in a lot of fiction there is only one or perhaps a few main characters. If there is just one main character you can't kill him in order to show the reader you're serious about the characters dying. This becomes much easier with a large cast of a few dozen or even hundred characters. Going back to the Superman analogies, in the film Superman Lois dies and Superman has to save her... but I had a hard time really caring about it that much. Sure Lois dying is bad, but she didn't really feel like a main character, so her death didn't feel that dramatic in the same way Superman's would have.

David Friedman said...


"inner economist."

Thanks for that. I'm not sure how many readers saw what the essential problems were that Harald faced. First, how to win a civil war without killing any significant number of people on either side, second how to transform James into the king he needed to be, and third how to raise and supply an army with the support of neither tax revenue nor feudal obligations.

Or that one of the central themes of the book was the difference between the centralized, table of organization, view of society that James was working from and the decentralized, network of relationships, that was how Harald saw the world.

William Friedman said...

So, I'm actually one of the people who dislikes easy, because I like being surprised. If I can predict what is going to happen in the next fifty pages, I have no reason to read those pages. If there's some risk that a likable character might die, or that some really clever one-liner will make me laugh, or that the author has a solution to the mystery better than the one I could come up with, I have a reason to keep on reading.

The problem with 'easy' is when there's no other good hook. In Salamander, I very much liked the characters in the sense of watching them bounce off each other, and I wanted to see whether Kieron would end up more on the good side than on the bad side. I didn't find that to be the case in Harald, and didn't finish the book.

It is worth noting that my favorite television series, Doctor Who, never really threatens to kill off the Doctor - you know he'll be fine, not so much because he's the hero but because he's a deliberately mythic figure - but his Companions you know will retire or die within a couple seasons, so you *do* need to be worried about them, and so I stay watching.


Eitan said...

If you like Tolkien and want to read a book where the protagonist really doesn't have it easy and the narrative is laced with tragedy, read "The Children of Húrin". It's a posthumously published story based on JRR Tolkien's writings on the elder days and edited by his son Christopher. Tragedy may not be as fun but it is often much more beautiful and subtle.

sbloch said...

I find it curious that nobody has yet mentioned Harry Potter, which I liked for much this reason. In the first book, you find that likeable characters aren't necessarily good guys, nor vice versa. In the second, a major character is seriously injured and out of commission. In the third, a sympathetic (albeit minor) character dies. And so on, the harm coming ever closer to Job himself. There's no doubt that Voldemort will be beaten in the end, but there's considerable suspense about who will be left to celebrate.

By contrast, Harry Harrison's books have left me feeling unclean: the protagonist succeeds at everything he tries. Of course, this "guilty pleasure" phenomenon perhaps confirms David's point about what sells :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of easy, and I loathe things like A Game of Thrones or the Greek epics and tragedies that other commenters here like. I get enough horror and tragedy when reading about real life, and so I don't need more in my entertainment thankyouverymuch.

So "the protagonists had it easy" isn't among the problems I see in your novels. Characters being too much alike in speech patterns and personality, clumsiness in the dialog tags making it hard to follow who said what, being too cryptic about what is going on (or what had happened in the past), whiplash when scenes and points of view change without warning...

But not the protagonists having thing go too easily for them. They're highly competent and intelligent people dealing with unusually difficult tasks, and that's something I find fun to read about, even when - or especially when - the competent characters aren't finding themselves in over their heads.

Unknown said...


"Characters being too much alike in speech patterns ..."

I actually thought that Harald's speech pattern was distinguished by short, declarative sentences. He doesn't waste a word which, I think, is the point.

David Friedman said...

Re Harald:

I'm happy with Harald's speech pattern, which was indeed deliberate. But I let too much of it spill over onto other characters, which I think is a legitimate criticism.

With regard to Anonymous' comment "being too cryptic about what is going on," I would be interested in examples. As the author, I know more about the world than the story shows, but I try to deliberately show or obscure information for plot purposes, so it's useful to know what does or doesn't work. My favorite review (on Amazon) of Salamander is one which makes it clear that the author of the review got a particular scene where I wasn't sure if I was being too subtle or not.

David Friedman said...

P.S. on cryptic

One puzzle in Harald, which I don't think occurred to me when writing it but which I think I now know the answer to, is who is Elaina's father. If I ever finish the sequel that I started and then abandoned to write Salamander I expect it will come up.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Harald, I don't share any of the complaints that I've seen raised, however I didn't read it - I listened to your podcasts of the chapters. I haven't listened to many audio books, but it was by far the most enjoyable.

"I'm happy with Harald's speech pattern, which was indeed deliberate. But I let too much of it spill over onto other characters, which I think is a legitimate criticism."

With the podcasts, I don't recall having spillover issues, but that can be attributed to how you voiced each character. Also in that universe, I would expect some speech pattern similarities between characters of the same kin and their close comrades, just as in real life.


Regarding whether or not 'easy' sells, the easy answer would be yes but I also think the how/when/where aspects of the story are incredibly important.

For instance Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars have very similar recipes:
young-male protagonist (parents removed) living with relative, (Frodo, Harry, Luke)
wise mentor/guide, (Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-wan)
supernatural help, (One Ring, Magic, The Force)
a rule-everything villain, (Sauron, Voldemort, Palpatine)
and a flawed character seeking redemption (Gollum, Snape, Anakin)

Anybody can write a story with all of those traits and still produce a bad novel. What makes those stories appeal to large audiences are the way the story is written/told, the setting of the story, character development and the various plots and subplots that move the story forward.

Sadly another determining factor for success is appeasing the gatekeeper (editor, publisher, distributor, etc); Harry Potter would have been rejected had it not been for the daughter of the editor. Would that franchise have been nearly as successful if JKR went the self or independent publishing route?...probably not. Just having the gatekeeper seal of approval makes the work much more marketable.

Patrick R. Sullivan said...

'There's one of Leslie Charteris' Saint books where the hero, in an apparently hopeless situation, points out to the villains that they can't kill him, since he's the hero and the hero always wins.'

A joke recycled in an episode of the James Garner series, 'The Rockford Files'. Spoken by Tom Selleck as 'Lance White, Private Eye'.

RKN said...

There's one of Leslie Charteris' Saint books where the hero, in an apparently hopeless situation, points out to the villains that they can't kill him, since he's the hero and the hero always wins. Pretty clearly, it's the author joking with the readers--as well as a consistent part of the plot, given the Saint's personality.

While not a perfect example, this sounds to me like a form of the literary device referred to as authorial intrusion, where the character in a story momentarily steps out of the story to speak directly to the reader.

A frequently used device in so-called meta fiction; see John Barth, for example.

StefanoC said...

I'd like to point at this: (it's from Pixar, and they know a thing about what "sells".

The points I find more appropriate to the discussion:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.