Today's post is by Patti O'Shea, author of the Gineal series for Tor Romance (per the covers above), as well as science fiction romances from Leisure Love Spell. Patti O'Shea has won nine awards for her writing and been nominated for many more. Her books have appeared on the Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, and Borders bestseller lists and have earned starred reviews in prestigious publications such as Booklist. The Chicago Tribune calls IN TWILIGHT'S SHADOW, "Non-stop action, magic-laced suspense ."
"No One Roots for the Terminator: Realisitic (and Sympathetic) Kick-Butt Characters in a Paranormal World" by Patti O'Shea
One of the things that sometimes gets lost in the push to write strong, kick-butt characters is the fact that everyone is vulnerable in some way and that includes supernatural characters in a paranormal world. Or as the saying goes: Even Superman has Kryptonite. As a reader, I'm not interested in a heroine who's perfect or the hero without a flaw. At the end of a book, I want to see characters who've changed and grown and how can that happen if there is no real vulnerability?
Case in point, The Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title role and his character is the epitome of kick-butt. But who watched the movie and cheered for the relentless cyborg? The answer is pretty much no one. The audience is rooting for Sarah and Kyle, both of whom have weaknesses that go beyond the fact that they're human.
Kyle travels to a world that he's unfamiliar with and he makes mistakes like telling Sarah he's from the future. He's also vulnerable emotionally. We discover later that he fell in love with Sarah before he ever met her and he came across time for her.
Then there's Sarah. She's an ordinary woman living an ordinary life until events explode around her. It's Kyle who saves her and he tells her about the future, that she's the one who taught her son to fight, to make plastic explosives, and to hide from the enemy. She doesn't believe it and with good reason–the Sarah who starts out on this adventure doesn't seem to have the kick-butt determination that Kyle says she does.
But she does have strength.
She doesn't realize herself just how much, but as the story progresses, she learns. And she grows. At the end of the film, Sarah is alone against the terminator. There is no one who can help her, she has to save herself. What's left of the cyborg is coming after her, pulling itself along with its fingertips and its not giving up. She pushes the button to compress her would-be killer, and as the red light of its eye finally blinks out, the audience can relax. We know Sarah is safe and we know she is the kick-butt woman who Kyle talked about and admired.
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day we see she's progressed even more. Sarah is in a mental hospital for the criminally insane and she's working out in her cell, staying ready to protect her son. By now, she is the ultimate kick-butt heroine, but she still has vulnerabilities and that's what makes her a character audiences want to cheer on.
The other interesting point is that in T2 Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a good terminator, one that's been programmed to help Sarah and Sarah's son. So how did the script writers make a character that was nearly unbeatable into someone we can root for? They created a more advanced model, one that is so far beyond
One of the biggest mistakes I think writers make is that when they write a kick-butt character, they create a kind of softened version of the terminator. Or in an effort to add some vulnerability, they'll give the hero or heroine an issue to deal with, but if it can be pulled out of the story without impacting the scenes or the character, then it's not a real complication.
For example, in The Terminator Kyle is vulnerable because he's in love with Sarah before he meets her. If his feelings are removed from the script, it changes the entire movie. Maybe he'll still come across time because he's fighting for the survival of the human race, but will he make the same choices once he's here? Will he risk himself so completely for her?
My opinion is probably not. His feelings shape his actions.
When I wrote my own ultimate kick-butt heroine (Ryne Frasier from In the Midnight Hour), her never-say-die attitude is her weakness. Ryne is a magic-wielding troubleshooter who doesn't give up and doesn't give in, fighting past the point of good sense because she needs to prove something to herself, namely that she isn't going to become evil like her mentor. Her every action is predicated on her fear that she's destined to fall to the dark forces and it's something that Ryne's former mentor exploits for her own benefit.
This can't be removed from the story without changing the entire course of the book and that's how it should be. Real vulnerabilities play a role in the decisions made and they should. After all, that's how it works in real life.
Three-dimensional kick-butt heroes and heroines need flaws–true flaws that make an impact on who they are. If they don't have them, the characters come across as flat, or worse yet, as cartoons. Real-life people have insecurities, doubts, fears, dreams, hopes, and things about themselves that they want to change. Characters–especially kick-butt characters–need all this, too.