Old Dogs and Dead Horses: Feeeelings Oh No No

You think I wanted you to come here? You think your attention is valuable to me, reader? You think I need you? Well, you’re right, you smug jerk. *sniff* Are you happy now? Huh?! I hope so, because we’re going to talk about men with balls of steel, iron visages and the emotional range of a rabid Saltwater crocodile, and you need to be in a good mood to fight off how damn depressing these fellows are.

There’s a bit of an ongoing trend in writing where certain people think a good hero only needs to be strong. It’s more of a problem in the games industry, but I’ve read more than a few books with the same issue. Now, even the Greeks, who you may be aware are the first people to use the word ‘hero’- as opposed to Gyros, which I assume the Etruscans devised as a stiff ‘fuck you Heracles!’- even the Greeks tried to attach more traits to their heroes than that. I don’t necessarily think you should write your heroes in the Greek style, what with the sad lowering of the collective tolerance for people being assholes in writing, but it definitely doesn’t hurt for those heroes to be, er, how do I put this, people. Written example time!

***

The tavern’s door slammed open, rattling on its hinges and knocking over several patrons, and a frigid winter gust swept flakes of snow into the room. Those inside jumped to their feet, brandishing notched daggers and crooked staves. Then, as a towering figure stomped into the room, caressed the hilt of the massive sword on his back, and glared around, the lot of them slumped back down. His black hair was long, filthy and matted, the icicles beading on his brow didn’t bother him in the least, and every muscle on his body stood out like a rock from an ice sheet. The barbarian unclasped his fur cloak and caught it in one beef-slab of a hand. He stomped to the nearest table and settled his mountainous frame in a chair with another crash. He caught the nearest serving wench by the arm as she passed, ignoring her shriek.
“Mead. Now.” The girl nodding mutely and rushed off. She returned a moment later, set the mead down and left before the giant could get any ideas.
His name was Gormeg the Bulk. He wasn’t here to make friends. He wasn’t here to talk. He was here to heed the call. At length he sensed a man moving behind him; Gormeg didn’t move. He waited for the other to come round to the front. A scrawny runt wearing over-polished leather and two metal bracers stepped in front of him and sat down in the opposite chair.
“You come here often?” The boy asked.
“No.” Gormeg glared at him. “Are you the one they sent?”
“Shit, don’t just ask that!” the boy hissed, leaning forward. “What part of ‘be quiet and discrete’ do you not understand?”
“The discrete part. Never heard that word,” Gormeg said. He wanted to split the boy in half for using it.

***

Do you like this guy? I sure don’t. He’s not even really an asshole as such, just angry and boring. Admittedly it’s a little unfair to make him the most cliche fantasy character of all- beefy barbarian swordsmen are so 1990- and things have definitely gotten a lot better in that department, but I’m not about to spend a ton of time getting original on some guy who’s just supposed to tell you what I think you should avoid. But rather than trashing this guy, what can I do to make him interesting? Well, how about this:

***

 The tavern’s door slammed open and a hulking man darted inside, his sword’s hilt catching on the top of the frame as he whirled around and latched it shut again. He chafed his heavy arms all the way to the nearest table and sat down with a hard thud.The snow in his dark hair was melting already, and the strands looked oddly fine and clean. He smiled sheepishly and shrugged at the glaring faces. He wasn’t really in love with cold either- tolerating something was a far cry from liking it.
“Sorry about the wind,” he said, grinning through icicles at one of the serving girls. He reached into a pouch at his side and fished out a single silver coin. “This good enough for a night’s rest?” The girl nodded, dumbfounded. The barbarian produced more coins with his right hand while trying to unlimber his sword with the left. “Get that catch for me, would you? Can’t do it one handed.” The girl complied, and squeaked when the sword- still in its scabbard, of course- clanked free and thonked to the stained floors. She stared at him in shock, mouth working to form apologies that she hadn’t the breath to make. By way of disarming the situation, Gormeg burst out laughing. “Damn, girl, don’t look so frightened! I’ve put this old blade through worse than that!” He counted out a few coppers from the pile he’d made and handed them over. “A leg of mutton or something close, and a good portion of ale. Do me a favor and ask your boss if anyone’s looking for a man called Gormeg the Bulk. Send ’em over here if they are.”

Without waiting for a response, Gormeg hefted out his journal and and the special reinforced quill he used- clad in bronze spines because he always gripped them too damn tightly, the normal feathers just broke. He’d gotten as far as noon today and the encounter with the overly-protective farmer when a scrawny youth- with the shiniest, most embroidered leather he’d ever seen- skidded down the stairs and slid into the chair opposite him. The boy’s scraggly hair billowed around his glasses, and his eyes were wild with panic. He leaned in entirely too close for comfort and started,
“What the hell are you thinking, using your name-”
“Calm down, boy. You didn’t provide me any less obvious means to contact you and my request was hardly unusual. You’re the one making a scene,” Gormeg whispered, flicking his eyes to the sides and the staring patrons all around them. “Barkeeps aren’t the prying sort. He might mention it to his friends, but that’s all.” Gormeg cocked an eyebrow. “Or are your friends doing this for attention after all?”

***

Better, yes? Our barbarian is actually downright civil, which frankly makes more sense for a man from places where the only thing staving off a fight to the death is politeness- and remember, a fight to the death if a waste of energy if you could’ve avoided it, energy you need to survive blizzards. Gormeg pays for his food, apologizes for his mistakes, and he can write. He acts like a freaking human being. None of this stuff is hard to do, nor is it going to somehow make him seem less impressive when he bludgeons a mountain giant to death with a log later in the book. But you can make your barbarian a complete scumbag if you like, there’s no one stopping you. What you should be trying to do is make your barbarian an interesting digression from all the other ones.

It’s all well and good to say you’re going to make your character tough, but not every story needs a tough character and none of them benefit from a major character whose only trait is ‘tough’. There’s nothing people like to make fun of quite so much as a two-dimensional character, and men who do nothing but emote about their endless toughness and anger are the favorite targets. Women who do the same thing would be equal favorites, except that there seems to be a much smaller portion of writers that can comprehend the idea of a strong woman and make her a two-dimensional psychopath, though there are definitely some of those writers out there.

This applies to every genre of fiction. “Hardass’ is not a detailed character summary, it’s a single aspect of a whole personality that needs to be supplemented with others. Are we talking a moralistic hardass or a hardass who beats down grocery story clerks to see if some of them gasp in agony at higher pitches than others? Is this hardass oddly disarming or does he immediately give everyone the notice that their asses belong to his foot? For that matter, is he logical about his hardassedness or is he the kind of hardass who would actually, physically write that notice up and pin it to somebody’s derriere? Is he an introspective hardass who understands how stupid and funny it gets in very short order to refer to himself as a hardass, or a hardass with no self awareness who thinks the word was invented just so it could be applied to him? Whether he’s in space or sifting through a dragon’s treasure, whether he’s meeting his enemies in an open field or an asteroid field, this hardass of ours needs to have a way of looking at and responding to the world that separates him from other characters. Otherwise, he’s just a flatass.

Well, good article, I think we’re done here!

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