Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Dec 18 2007

Eragon Review

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Eragon is one of the worst novels I’ve ever read.  But let’s look at the positive: how can Eragon improve your writing? It can help you identify and fix problems in character development, story structure and plotting. For example, let’s look at its characters.

1) Eragon

Eragon is the prototypical Chosen One. Unfortunately, he never really grows into something more than someone destined for great things.  Why does his dragon come to him?  Because he was destined to have a dragon.  Why does he decide to stop Emperor Palpatine, err, Galbatorix? Because he was destined to.  Why will he eventually get the girl and save the world… well, I could go on.

A strong character has traits that drive the plot. In His Majesty’s Dragon, Temeraire the dragon is a radical abolitionist and supporter of dragon rights, which leads him to (spoiler– hold your cursor here). That doesn’t feel contrived at all, because Temeraire’s morality clearly dictates that he should perform that action. This works because his character traits cause the plot. Temeraire is rebellious, so he should act rebelliously.

Eragon’s characters do not drive the plot. They act as the plot needs them to.  Eragon is a wuss, until he learns that he’s really a hero.  What causes that change?  His great destiny, apparently.  Being driven by destiny makes him passive. Let me show why that’s a problem.

Saphira (the dragon) comes to Eragon for no particular reason. Eragon doesn’t do anything to get his dragon. That wastes an opportunity to show us what he’s capable of, and why he deserves to have a dragon. His Majesty’s Dragon used the experience much more effectively. Captain Laurence’s ship captures Temeraire’s egg.  Instead of the dragon being an honor and privilege, the dragon is something the characters want to avoid. The unlucky handler will have to live away from civilization and work in a dangerous, filthy profession. The crew draws straws and a 14-year-old sailor draws the dragon. When Laurence sees that the kid is struggling with the dragon, he decides to sacrifice himself by taking the dragon instead.

This shows us several things about the characters. Lawrence is a compassionate and loyal leader.  He’s brave.  He was not passively destined or chosen to have a dragon– he chose to take Temeraire.  He has realistic concerns, like worrying about not ever being able to see a play again.  In short, Laurence is both heroic and relatable.  We even learn something about Temeraire: he has standards and cares who his partner is.  Unlike Saphira, we can relate to him as something more than just an animal.  My problem with Eragon is that there isn’t any reason Saphira comes to Eragon.  Worse, I can’t think of any reason that I would advise Saphira to pick Eragon.  He has no traits that suggest he would be a valuable partner.

2) Saphira

Temeraire from His Majesty’s Dragon is a fantastic example of how a side character can drive a plot and develop the main character. But Saphira is a case-study in cardboard.  Saphira makes most Pokemon look three-dimensional.

Consider the following: Pokemon (successfully???) characterizes Ash’s Charizard as lazy and disrespectful, which is fairly impressive given that he doesn’t say anything intelligible.  Saphira has every advantage but she is actually worse-characterized.

Strong characterization depends on readers being able to associate characters with key attributes. Han Solo is selfish but loveable. Charizard is lazy. Temeraire is idealistic and rebellious. Saphira is nothing but a flying pack animal.  

Wasting Saphira in this book was particularly egregious. She’s on the front cover, and the only selling point of Eragon is that the book has a dragon in it. If all the superheroes in Superhero Nation were as boring as she is, we’d have a real problem.

3) Brom/Murtagh

These characters came right out of Central Casting. Brom is the Friendly Storyteller and Murtagh is the Mysterious (But Friendly) Stranger. Both serve essentially the same role, to provide wisdom and insight to the brash and clueless Eragon. Conveniently enough, one enters as the other dies.

4) Galbatorix

I’ll preface this by acknowledging that I’m fond of many supervillains.  I write stories about them, too. So you might argue that it’s hypocritical for me to criticize Galbatorix for being one-dimensional. On the other hand, you could also argue that “wow, if even a superhero novelist thinks Eragon’s villains were superficial, they must have been truly awful.”  Indeed.

Galbatorix is the villain and he doesn’t have any motivation other than being EVIL. He’s like Green Goblin, but without the nifty armor. As far as cartoonish villains go, Galb is a particularly bad one. And not bad like Darth Vader was bad, but bad-like-Gigli bad.

There are two main ways to make a villain interesting.

  1. Ideological power—when the audience vaguely sympathizes with the villain’s objective (separate from his means).  This worked particularly well in The Rock, for example.
  2. Badassery—a combination of swagger, flavor and/or whupass.

Galb had neither of these, but the best villains usually have both.  For example, Darth Vader and Doctor Octopus are obviously badass, but Darth Vader is also ideologically powerful because his villainy stemmed from a noble desire to create order. Doctor Octopus (in the movie) wanted to vindicate what his wife died for.  And he had 6 arms.

Cliché fantasy races

The author of Eragon stole his elves and dwarves so blatantly from Lord of the Rings that Tolkien should have been credited as a co-author. Many fantasy novels draw on Tolkien’s conventions, but usually they try to make up for that by adding their own spin to the source material.  For example, if you were writing a book set at a magical university like Hogwarts, you could make it feel fresh by using a new perspective.  Instead of focusing on a precocious young wizard, maybe you’d look at the teachers or the administrators or campus security or the admissions office instead.  Eragon doesn’t do anything like that.  It ends up feeling like LOTR fanfiction.  With Pokemon.

I could say more, but you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to Eragon.  This book and its sequel* are best enjoyed as an expensive alternative to firewood.

*It has two sequels, but I’ve only been unfortunate enough to read the first.

80 responses so far

Nov 16 2007

New Sidebar Category: Writing Case Studies

Hello. In addition to my normal articles on writing, I now have Writing Case Studies.  Each entry will review a book and then describe what writers should take away from what worked and what didn’t from the book.

This makes it a bit easier to describe problems/successes in characterization and plotting that might otherwise be abstract.

So far I have:

I’d really appreciate if you’d like to suggest any novels, particularly ones with superheroes or high fantasy generally.  I focus on those kinds of novels because they often have the same challenges and audience expectations as Superhero Nation.

  • Creating a world more or less by scratch
  • Making a fantastic world serious enough that people won’t hear your premise and groan
  • Combining action and non-action components into a workable whole.

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Nov 15 2007

A Writer’s Review of Soon I Will Be Invincible

SIWBI is a first novel about a cyborg and her superhero team trying to stop a supervillain from taking over the world. Although it has redeeming qualities and the author is clearly very talented, I would recommend it only for writers.

Other reviews have been mixed. Here are some Amazon excerpts.

  • “This book reads more like a first draft than a published work.”
  • “This excellent novel reminds me more than anything of The Unforgiven in its deconstruction and reconstruction of its genre.”
  • “Most dismayingly, the two narrators sound remarkably similar, except that Fatale’s utterly flat sections lack the occasional moments of inspiration that sparingly pepper Dr. Impossible’s narrative.”
  • “Absolutely delightful.”
  • “The heroes don’t even take part in the fight that beats Impossible, yet the book wants you to feel like they’ve proved themselves at the end.”

SIWBI is not awful. It was, however, poorly executed and suffers from many flaws common to first novels.

Characterization

Within the first thirty pages we were introduced to nineteen named characters and three super-groups. Most of the characters parrot a popular comic book character but without any kind of new angle, sort of like fan-fiction but with new names. These characters are so thinly-developed that you can only differentiate them by remembering who’s a ripoff of Superman and who’s Batman. For example, let me run down the eight (!) main characters.

1) Fatale. She’s the main protagonist and one of the two narrators. She’s a female cyborg and former NSA assassin, very much like Black Widow. That wouldn’t have been a problem, if the author had provided any personal spin or commentary or improvement on BW. Without those, the best she could have been was BW fan-fiction. She didn’t even get that far. Instead, she does remarkably little throughout the story. Instead of affecting the plot and making things happen, she does a lot of watching and ruminating, but neither her perspective nor her voice are interesting.

2) Dr. Impossible. He’s the villain and the other narrator. He comes closer to parodying Dr. Doom, which is a plus. Early on, his voice was engaging. Nonetheless, he still wasn’t nearly developed enough to drive a story.

3) Blackwolf, one of Fatale’s teammates. He’s a millionaire (or billionaire?*) martial-artist without any superpowers. He’s a clumsy homage to Batman, but a Batman with a curious penchant for waiting around as things happen. Even Batman fan-fiction wouldn’t inflict that on us. Shouldn’t he be, umm… Solving crimes? Running down leads? Figuring out Lily’s secret identity? Epic fight scenes? Emotionally scarring Robin?
*Pages 20 and 61 disagree.

4) Corefire (Superman/Reed Richards). Corefire is dead at the book’s start and still affects the plot more than any of the other heroes. His death makes more things happen than most of the characters do while alive. No, really.

5) Damsel (Wonderwoman). I can’t remember her doing anything but throwing up. I don’t know why they have this character.

6) Feral is Beast, minus the intelligence. He sounds like every other character, bizarrely like a high school student. (“This is all geek stuff”). If anyone needed a distinct voice, I’d say it’d be the mutant lab experiment.

7-9) Mr. Mystic (any magical hero), Elphin (a female Sir Justin), and Rainbow Triumph (Dazzler).

Fatale’s group has eight characters, hardly any of whom do anything. You might wonder what does happen. We learn a lot about another supergroup that has literally no bearing on Dr. Impossible’s villainous plot. Dr. Impossible gets beat up by another supervillain, who just lets him go and then never shows up again.

Inexplicably, we learn the origin story of one of the other supergroup’s heroes. Incidentally, it’s an enjoyable and funny play on the Chronicles of Narnia. But the only reason the author could have possibly wanted to spend a chapter on that character is to set up a sequel. I think it was a significant misuse of space. There were eight main protagonists. Surely one of them deserved that space more than a character whose only purpose was to set up a sequel. One excellent way to set up a sequel—perhaps the best way—is to develop characters that are interesting enough that we want to see more. DC/Marvel fan-fiction? Not so much.

Lack of Originality and Flavor

SIWBI looked so promising. The title and cover are outlandishly fun. The first few chapters felt fresh. But the last 80% of the book is painfully bland.

The plot went like this.

  1. The villain starts his evil plot.
  2. The heroes try to stop him but fail.
  3. The villain raises the stakes.
  4. The heroes stop the villain in the final climax.

Isn’t there supposed to be something more? For example, the Incredibles and Spiderman had interesting themes about specialness and responsibility. The Matrix and X-Men 2 had great action. SIWBI had boring action scenes (even for a novel) and, if there were any notable themes, I missed them completely.

Perhaps most notably, the villain’s grand plan is just absolutely lame. At one point, Impossible teases us by musing about his past attempts to seize world power with armies of mushrooms and termites and stuff. Termite armies would have been epic compared to this.

It wasn’t just the villain’s plot and the action. Pretty much everything about this story’s world was forgettable. Generic. Me-too. If I could use an example, I think there are 4 ways for a superhero story to show (or not show) how its superheroes interact with the government.

Model 1: The government’s missing. The hero ties up criminals and presumably the cops come along later, but we never see them. Or maybe the story mentions that the government has deputized the heroes, which is a generic way to make the characters feel more sympathetic than vigilantes without getting bogged down in politics.

Model 2: The government is a mild antagonist, like the cops that get in Spiderman’s way. This gives the heroes an obstacle to overcome.

Model 3: The government is a villain, like in X-Men. This gives stories a more ideological edge, but can be interesting because it takes more finesse to handle a hostile government than a hostile villain. (You can’t just randomly stab cops, unless you’re Wolverine).

Model 4: Very rarely, the government is a protagonist. The Hood uses two minor FBI agents and The Taxman Must Die rocks out with an IRS agent transferred to a super-crime unit.

SIWBI goes for option 1, mentioning that the government’s okay with the heroes doing their thing. That’s fine, if generic. Maybe no one else cares about the government!  But it feels like every aspect of SIWBI is the equivalent of option 1 writing, an easy and conventional way to build a comic book world. You can’t develop every aspect of your world, but no aspect of this world is notable.

Narration and Voice
Each chapter was narrated by either Fatale or Dr. Impossible. They monologue a lot. Sometimes SIWBI’s monologues parody comic books, but usually they felt like weak storytelling. More importantly, Fatale is a poor choice for a narrator.

  1. Her back-story is cliché. She’s an injury victim-turned-cyborg, concerned about remaining human despite having mechanical parts. Boohoohoo.
  2. She’s new and doesn’t know what’s going on. That wouldn’t be a problem if introducing her to the world immersed us at the same time. It worked much better for Harry Potter and Frodo.
  3. She has no unique impact on the plot. Except for her inexperience, she brings literally nothing to the plot that other characters couldn’t replace.
  4. Even though she’s a cyborg superheroine, her voice was frequently hard to distinguish from a male megalomaniac supervillain. These characters should not have sounded at all alike.

There were a few chapters where I read through a page or two and found that I had actually mistaken the identity of the narrator. In one case, it took five pages.

Your readers should know quickly and without any doubt who is narrating each chapter. My rule of thumb would be that it shouldn’t take more than two paragraphs.

For example, here are a few ways to help readers keep the narrators apart.

  1. Write the narrator’s name right below the chapter title. This is 100% effective, though unsubtle.
  2. Use demographic cues. If the narrator mentions how her arm reminds her of a 1950s radiator, we can guess she’s a cyborg rather than a supervillain. If his tail swishes, we know he’s not human. Readers might miss these cues, but they draw the reader into the story more.
  3. Give them distinct voices! Making your characters sound different is definitely doable. It’s difficult, but it gets past the symptoms of voice confusion and addresses the problem, that your characterization and voice need work.

SIWBI attempted to identify the narrator by putting a graphic about the size of a gumball at each chapter’s start, a laser pistol for Impossible and an eye for Fatale. These graphics were too small to notice and I’m not sure why I would associate a laser pistol with a supervillain instead of a cyborg, or an eye with a cyborg instead of a villain.

All of the characters tended to sound alike. Here’s a multiple choice test: Who delivers these quotes from Soon I Will Be Invincible? Your choices are A) a mutant cat created in a lab accident, B) a genius millionaire gymnast-turned-businessman, and C) a whiny teen idol. (This should be easy, right?)

  • “Maybe you should be at work, then. Spend some time on the streets.”
  • “He always looks fine. I know you two kept in touch.”
  • “Darkness? Crime, you mean.”
  • “This is all geek stuff.”
  • “You honestly think there’s something behind this.”
  • “We haven’t seen a serious threat for almost a year. I’m almost bored.”

The first four are A and the last two are B. If you’re wondering why a mutated cat would use phrases like “geek stuff,” you’re not the only one. Notice that none of these lines actually came from the whiny teen idol, but pretty much all of them could have come from her.

Bloated Cast

I would recommend bringing in only as many characters as necessary. Each extra character is a liability.

  1. Each new character makes it harder for readers to keep track of the other characters.
  2. You have less time and space to develop each character.
  3. Adding characters leads quickly to superficial and underdeveloped relationships.
  4. Bloated casts ruin fight scenes. A book’s fight scenes are hard enough to visualize with two fighters, let alone SIWBI’s 7. (If you want to write epic fight scenes with many extras, could I suggest screenwriting?)

To paraphrase, redundant characters are reader kryptonite and should be removed. But how do we identify those characters? Generally, any character whose function/role in the plot can be performed by other characters can be axed.

SIWBI hit readers with eight characters whose only purpose was to represent a superhero archetype. For example, Mystic is the magical superhero and Feral is the mutated animal superhero. That’s not enough reason to add characters! Even if these characters were used well for parody/commentary– and they certainly were not– extra characters dilute every other character. If you absolutely needed characters like Feral or Elphin or Mr. Mystic to parody their respective archetypes, then it would make more sense to mention them as bit characters once or twice, rather than as Fatale’s teammates. That would have saved space for the few characters that did affect the plot.

I think SIWBI would have been much smoother and more coherent with only 3-4 characters on the superhero team.

  1. Fatale (or your favorite narrator; I prefer Lily).
  2. Someone to represent life before Fatale showed up (probably Damsel)
  3. Someone that can develop the narrator, usually by playing the foil or providing comic relief.

That leaves us with a core of three protagonists: the main character, status quo, and the foil. That’s elegant and flexible. You can go Harry-Hermione-Ron or Laurence-British society-Temeraire, for example. Three is easy, but a “core” of eight protagonists is completely unworkable. Depending on how you define “character” (such as minimum number of lines), I don’t know if His Majesty’s Dragon even has eight characters.

56 responses so far

Oct 25 2007

Book Review, Empire of Ivory

This article will review Empire of Ivory (the fourth book of the Temeraire series) and focus on what beginning novelists should take away from it to improve their own skill.

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