And Now For Something Completely Different

A couple weeks ago, just before my anniversary, a younger co-worker asked a few relationship related questions.  In effect, she was asking for relationship advice, in a broad, non-specific context.  The incident got me thinking about relationships and relationship advice in general.  Thus, this post.

I don’t like giving relationship advice.  I’m not comfortable being asked for relationship advice.  And I’m not going to give any here.

I’ll explain why.

Ultimately, almost all relationship advice—particularly that found in magazines, advice columns, and relationship sites—is generally useless.

I say this with some caveats, notably the “If you see these signs, then you’re probably in an abusive relationship and should run very fast” advice.

But, I think most relationship advice is useless because all romantic relationships are different.  Regardless of the issue, we like to believe there is one “fix-it” solution, whether we’re talking about romantic relationships, writing papers, or economics.  But, there is no single, perfect solution to any issue, just like there is no one perfect formula for writing an A paper in university.  Every romantic relationship is different, what works for me and my spouse probably won’t work for another couple, or the third couple across the way.  There are so many variables in play in any couple—from personal history to philosophies, education levels to family relations—that affect a romantic relationship that it’s impossible to generalize with any given couple.

In the end, though, I think romantic relationships are built on three things: friendship, attraction, and shared interests.  And the first two of those are great examples of the differences that mark romantic relationships.

Most of us have a variety of friends.  And we don’t interact the same way with all of them.  For instance, I have a couple friends with whom I went to primary school (and later secondary school), who know me in different ways than the friends I first met in secondary school or university (ex. they’ve known me since I was 6 or 7 years old).  I also have friends whom I first met in graduate school (at 24 years old), and we have a different relationship than I do with my friends from secondary school.  Then there are the friends I’ve made in the last ten years, mostly through aikido training.  Because we know each other from a martial arts practice, and generally see each other a couple times a week, often less depending on schedules, we have a rather different relationship.  There are things that we talk about that we wouldn’t, necessarily, with friends we’ve known through other venues, or people who are mutual friends with our spouses.

In the case of attraction, we all find ourselves attracted to a variety of individuals.  And the reasons for attraction are often not the same.  For instance, a person may find Chris Evans, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman attractive, or Julia Roberts, Alyssa Milano, and Jennifer Lawrence.  Different things draw the person to each of those individuals (and, yes, I know I’ve “dated” myself a bit with my choices there, I’m cool with that).  What attracts the individual is not the same in each case, just like no two romantic relationships are the same.

For me, this sense of differences, uniqueness even, is why being asked for relationship advice is a tricky situation.  I find myself thinking: what kind of personality types are involved, what shared interests are there, what attracts these two to each other . . . there are too many factors that differentiate the questioner’s experience and relationship from my own.

In a way,  I suppose this is something for writers and readers to consider as well, for character development, as every character is going to be, or has been, involved in family, friendship, professional, and romantic relationships.

Who is This About?: How Many Protagonists?

I thought I’d start off the return to worldbuilding posts with something about character first.  Specifically, how many main characters.  As usual, my examples will be limited to fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi sources.

One is the Loneliest Number

Using a lone protagonist is favored by some authors because it helps narrow the reader’s focus.  Both reader and author get to know the character better and in more depth, with less confusion and surface reads than a large cast.  On one level, this is easier because only one protagonist background, appearance, and personality needs to be created and developed.  On another hand, it is very focused and limits the potential number of plotlines and timing of actions/plot to some degree.  But, a lone protagonist allows for more introspection, while also limiting the number of lenses through which the readers see the world.  Good examples include: Michael Moorcock (Elric), Jim Butcher (Dresden), Harry Harrison (Stainless Steel Rat), and Kat Richardson (Greywalker).

Two Can be as Bad as One

Adding a second protagonist allows the writer to show more character development through their  relationship—whether they are mentor-student, partners, lovers, siblings, or whatever.  However, this also means that twice as many characters need to be developed and the character relationship needs to be thought out and developed, potentially over many years of shared personal history.  The big upside, for some writers, to a pair of protagonists is that it allows a greater frequency of dialogue versus introspection and presents a wider range of data sources.  Good examples include Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser, friends and partners), Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels and Curran Lenart, adversaries turned engaged to be married), Rick Riordan (Carter and Sadie Kane, siblings), and Steven Brust (Vlad Taltos and Loiosh, witch and familiar).

Three is a Magic Number

The triple protagonist is a favorite of young adult and paranormal romance writers, mostly because it provides inherent conflict and drama within the character relationships.  The triangle lets the character relationships slide between preferences for everyone involved.  Most appearances, at least in YA and paranormal romance, seem to be male-male-female.  Some benefits to the trio are that it allows for immediate relationship building, or establishment, and presents various sources of information.  Unfortunately, it has become a bit cliché, though there are some who play with the conventions.  Good examples include: J.K. Rowling (Harry, Hermione, and Ron, school friends at first), Cassandra Claire & Holly Black (Callum, Tamara, and Aaron, school friends), and Jaye Wells (Adam, Sabina, and Gighul, friends, lovers—Adam & Sabina; not a lovers’ triangle, though, partially due to Gighul being a demon).

Two Twos

A number of writers, particularly for TV, consider four to be the ideal protagonist number.  One of the biggest advantages is that four is a pair of twos.  The core four person team can be featured, but can also split off into two pairs.  This maintains the interaction while pursuing two concurrent plotlines or sequences with no single character having to act alone or be left out.  The quartet also allows a wide range of skill sets and backgrounds without getting out of hand.  Good examples include: Stargate SG-1 (Jack, Sam, T’ealc, Daniel), Stargate Atlantis (Sheppard, McKay, Teyla, and Ronon), and classic tabletop FRPGs (the fighter, rogue, cleric, mage adventuring party).

Everyone Gets a Part!

The ensemble cast of protagonists works best for epics and long term stories—ex. the five year mission or year long quest.  It provides a lot of different perspectives, but can also cause reader confusion and characters can be drowned out by other characters.  It also keeps the writer from having to produce 300,000+ words all from one character’s point of view.  The ensemble can also add complexity, show complexity, and allow for several concurrent plotlines and action sequences.  Good examples include: J.R.R. Tolkien (The Fellowship), George R.R. Martin (every single person living in Westeros and half the residents of the Free Cities), Battlestar Galactica (the Galactica’s crew), Star Trek (the crew of the Enterprises, DS9, and Voyager), and Babylon 5 (the station command staff plus key alien ambassadors & their staff).

Point of View

Even with two, four, twenty protagonists, it is entirely possible to retain a single point of view.  In fact, this is common in order to preserve both reader and writer sanity.  Sometimes it can be interesting to switch things up, though.  For example, Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles switches point of view every chapter—Carter gets the odd chapters, Sadie gets the even numbered ones, or vice versa; Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus has an ensemble of protagonists, each of whom narrates a chapter, before cycling back through (or he decides which character’s voice would be best for narrating a given chapter).

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Metaphoric Glue: Team Building

“They just need time . . . You gave them something better, a common enemy.”
-Agent Coulson, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

In fiction, we like to work with disparate groups. We enjoy writing and reading about characters from a seemingly random array of backgrounds coming together. On one hand, this lets us explore human relations. On another, it creates drama and tension. It’s also fairly realistic. But no group can work as disunited, arguing, individuals forever. Eventually, they need to come together and use some teamwork. In short stories, novellas, and stand alone novels, we typically don’t have the space for long term team development, the time referred to by Coulson above, so we often use the trope of the common enemy (or common sacrifice) to speed up the process.

Some genres and media are better suited to the long term method of team building than others. For example, the Avengers and X-Men comics were very good at this. Ultimately, the team members learn to work together and even respect each other, even if they don’t agree or don’t like each other. And this comes with time. Leverage does this well too, since the team doesn’t get a significant common enemy until at least a season into the series. Star Trek: TNG and DS9 are also good examples. Both series took a couple seasons before the characters and cast hit their stride and really became a team. Babylon 5 is also a good example, since most of the fifth season “team” didn’t really start to come together until the third or fourth season.

The common enemy approach is also quite common. Obviously Agents noted above, which builds out of the Avengers movieverse, where the tactic is used via Coulson and Nick Fury. Farscape is another good example, the completely random assortment of species, backgrounds, social classes, and everything else is initially held together solely by the threat of Peacekeeper retaliation, in the form of Craise then Scorpius. The Fellowship of the Ring is another classic example in that it wouldn’t exist if the threat of Sauron wasn’t there. The Council of Elrond that created the Fellowship wouldn’t have been convened without Sauron.

In fiction, the common enemy can be a great method of forcing a team together. It creates unity quickly and most works of fiction don’t last long enough to cause problems. In reality, the common enemy is also used quite a bit, typically in the form of the Us versus Them language and mentality. We see this all over the place, throughout history – the view of Jews during the Middle Ages, the Nazis, Israel’s relation with Palestine, the Cold War. If a society, for example, relies on the common enemy to create unity in the long term, it starts to cause problems. We see McCarthyism, we see censorship (see Ray Bradbury), we see the U.S. in the last couple decades since the end of the Cold War (since then, a certain segment of the population has been seeking a new Other as enemy; it most recently tried terrorism, but that’s too nebulous, not concrete enough to be a good, unifying common enemy).