Friday, July 20, 2018

Telling the Reader that Your Character is Epic

Recently, I read a novel about a woman who suddenly became queen after growing up in near-isolation, and her struggles to keep her throne and her life.  Most of the book was from her point of view, but maybe two-thirds of the way through, we switched to a pair of minor character’s POV for a page-long exchange that went about like this:

Character 1: Our queen’s pretty epic, isn’t she?
Character 2: She sure is!
Character 1: It’s wonderful how she’s going to save us all.
Character 2: It sure is!  Gosh, I’m glad she’s epic!

This didn’t ruin the book for me (the queen’s convenient new superpowers saving everything at the end did that), but it did make me start thinking—What’s the best way to make your character epic?  Because although this clunky attempt failed utterly, I have seen it done well and in multiple different ways, including:

Inconvenient acknowledgement of epicness
Villain acknowledgement: In the second book of Lois McMaster Bujold’s marvelous Vorkosigan series, The Vor Game, an antagonist recognizes Miles from the previous book.  He acknowledges Miles’s ability to talk his way out of any situation . . . and so orders his men to cut out Miles’s tongue if Miles says anything. 

Ally acknowledgement: Similarly, Miles gets into various scraps because people recognize his ability to get them out . . . and assume he’s coming to help him when he’s really trying to just pass innocuously through.  But once they beg him for help, he feels he’s obliged to do so . . .

In both situations, Miles looks epic . . . but naturally and thrillingly so.

Awkward and/or painful acknowledgement of epicness
I’m thinking here especially of a book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  The reader is used to seeing Harry Dresden scrape through encounters with beings far more powerful than he.  Since the books are entirely from his first-person POV, we see his fear and effort and luck.  It seems natural.  Then, at one or two points, a couple of his allies tell him how scary he is because he’s so powerful and always seems to win . . .

(Something similar happens to the titular Alex Verus in Benedict Jacka’s books, when a character points out to Verus that people who go up against him almost always end up dead.)

So we get great characterization and plot advancement while being told that Harry and Alex are epic.  And again, it feels natural.  It makes us more sympathetic to the protagonist—not less (and definitely not disgusted, as I felt about the queen after the ham-fisted attempt at epicness described above).

Untrue acknowledgement of epicness
My favorite example of this is actually from a film—Galaxy Quest.  In it, Alan Rickman’s character has a fanboy who tells him over and over how epic he is, until he just has to live up to that epicness.  (Come to think of it, this happens to some extent to all our main characters in that film.)  It’s inconvenient, embarrassing, and ridiculous—and pretty darn epic.


I don’t think it’s essential to tell the audience flat out that your character is epic, but I do believe that it can be done effectively and pleasingly while preserving good writing, advancing the story, and thrilling the reader.

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