Over the weekend, I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries by Charlaine Harris. (These are the books upon which the HBO TV show True Blood is based, but I think the books are better than the show — different, but in a good way.)
I won’t do an in-depth book review on the series right now, as I’m still in the midst of reading it. However, this series really has me thinking about one thing writing-wise, and I wanted to get some thoughts about that down while they are still fresh.
Reading this series, really got me thinking about what makes a good character.
It’s fairly inevitable that the Sookie Stackhouse series would get compared to the Anita Blake series written by Laurel K. Hamilton. They are both urban fantasy. Both include significant vampire and werewolf/shape shipfter action. Both involve vampires “coming out” as legal citizens of the United States. Both have strong female protagonists with supernatural abilities of their own, and both women have significant romantic relationships with other supernaturals over the course of the series.
Despite all these similarities, I find myself heartily preferring the Sookie Stackhouse books to the Anita Blake books — both the books themselves and the heroine. I started asking myself why this was, and when it gets down to it, it’s all about the main character. (There will be some points in this post that would be considered spoilerish if you have not read the series, but I’ll try not to get too specific.)
I read a lot of the Anita Blake books when I first discovered the series, and I really enjoyed it at first. However, as the series continued, my enjoyment in it began to wane. The focus of the series seemed to me to shift in a direction that just wasn’t to my personal taste. Even if you have not read the Anita Blake series, you may have heard it described as “erotic” or “sexy.” At the beginning, though there was a lot of sexual tension and romance, it wasn’t the focus — the focus was more on the plots and mysteries, as well as on Anita’s life. But, by the point where I finally gave up the series, it felt to me like the plot in the books was merely an excuse to allow Anita to have crazy supernatural sex with a huge harem of guys — the love triangle beween Anita, vampire Jean-Claude, and werewolfe Richard widened to include more vampires, more shifters (especially the werepanthers), and others.
My other problem came with Anita herself. Over the course of the novels (I gave up the series after reading Narcissus in Chains), she became more and more powerful — to, what seemed to me, an absurd degree. In the beginning, Anita was a normal woman who just happened to be an necromancer. She also had trained herself physically to be a vampire hunter. As the series went on, she gathered more and more powers and titles to add to her burgeoning collection — lupa of the werewolf pack, part of a triumverate of power with Jean Claude and Richard, alpha of the werepanther pack, etc., etc. And then she suddenly developed Jean Claude’s talent of drawing energy from sex (and getting weaker if she didn’t get said sex), which made things even crazier for her personally and for her huge amount of powers.
I liked Anita when she was a normal person with one significant power and some skills that she’d trained into herself by working hard. I didn’t like it when suddenly she was all-powerful.
Sookie Stackhouse starts out her series similar to Anita (I’m currently in the middle of Definitely Dead). She’s a normal girl, a barmaid in a restaurant, but she has one supernatural power to deal with. She’s a telepath. Then she meets Bill the vampire and discovers that she can’t read vampire minds — she is immediately intrigued because it is restful for her to be around Bill — she doesn’t constantly have to fight against being bombarded by stray thoughts.
Through her association with Bill, Sookie is introduced to the supernatural world (both the world of the recently legalized vampires and still underground supernatural creatures, like Weres, shifters, and fairies), and becomes embroiled in supernatural affairs.
Like Anita, Sookie is given some enhanced powers — the difference is, they don’t last. In Sookie’s world, humans gain power from drinking vampire blood — it enhances their strength and speed, their looks, and other abilities. However, the effect is temporary, based on how much she’s had and how old the vampire in question was. So, she has these abilities, but only for a while. Other than that, she never adds to her supernatural skills, though, over time, she does learn how to control her telepathy better and use it in new (and believable) ways, such as projecting thoughts to other telepaths (but not to regular Joes).
Also like Anita, Sookie becomes greatly in demand in the supernatural world. However, unlike Anita, the supernatural world doesn’t fall at Sookie’s feet. She’s dragged into it (or sometimes rushes into it head first), but she has to work for the acceptance that she gets there (and she is not always accepted).
For example, Sookie meets a werewolf named Alcide and they are attracted to each other. However, (1) they do not hop immediately into bed together and (2) Sookie does not gain any type of leadership position in his pack. She is named a “friend of the pack,” but that is because she alerts them to a problem in their territory and helps out a pack member who gets hit by a car. In fact, despite dancing around the issue for a couple of books, Sookie and Alcide never actually have a relationship. They are interested in each other, but each has a load of personal baggage (in the form of exes and other issues) that gets in the way, and the relationship is never even consumated.
Sookie does have a relationship with vampire Bill, and a couple of other supernatural guys are interested in her, but the interest is believable. I never wonder why all the guys are so taken with Sookie (like I did with Anita), and there are plenty of guys in the series who aren’t actually taken with her. Also, every supernatural guy Sookie meets does not automatically become her bedmate.
The difference between Antia and Sookie, I’ve decided, is the Mary Sue phenomenon. If you haven’t heard of a Mary Sue, this is a term that came from fanfiction writers. A Mary Sue is a character written into a story about an existing universe (Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always my fanfiction neighborhood of choice) who basically represents the author’s wish fullfillment. This character is instantly loved and embraced by the main characters of the existing universe — all the guys fall for her and all the girls want to be her best friend. Everything a Mary Sue does comes easy for him/her, and she gets everything that she wants in the end. And any “weakness” a Mary Sue has is usually a strength in disguise and never gives her much trouble.
As the series progressed, Anita felt more and more to me like a Mary Sue. Everything came too easily for her, too many guys liked her (without enough reason) and liked her so much that she was able to treat them like crap and they would still give her whatever she wanted. Her powers got exponentially stronger to an insane degree, and even her weaknesses just don’t seem that bad.
Sookie, however, doesn’t feel like a Mary Sue to me. She feels like a real, vibrant character of her own accord. She’s strong, but she has real weaknesses. She might have a selection of cute guys to be interested in, but she doesn’t get to have all of them. And the relationshpis she does have include real life issues and don’t always work out. She also has issues in her life that don’t magically get solved — like money problems, problems with her brother, and problems with the law. Sometimes she will find ways around them — like earning a significant sum of money using her house as a hide-out for a vampire on the run — but inevitably something will happen to set things back again — like a house fire resulting in a huge expenditure setting her finances back to ground zero.
The writing lesson I’m taking away from all this debate is a reminder of just how important characters are to a story. Without characters the reader can really invest in, they are more likely to stop reading (like I did with Anita Blake, whom I could no longer relate to). But a character a reader really likes becomes an old friend that they want to visit in every subsequent novel (like Sookie is for me — at least so far, I’ve got a few more books left to read).
Part of making characters that readers will like and identify with, in my opinion, is being willing to be hard on them. They need real obstacles to overcome. You can’t be too easy on your characters or there is no real struggle for them to go through and suddenly your character is a Mary Sue.
When I first started writing, I was way too nice to my characters, and the stories suffered for it. I still struggle with that, but I’m becoming much less benevolent to my characters as I mature as a writer.
If you enjoy urban fantasy and murder mysteries, I would definitely give the Sookie Stackhouse novels a chance. And if you like True Blood, I think that you’ll enjoy the books, as well.
Happy reading, watching, and writing, y’all!