June 10, 2014

Lagertha: Characters I Wish I'd Written

Strong, multi-dimensional characters are one of the best ways that writers can engage readers and keep them hooked on their stories.

As a reader and consumer of pop culture, I've liked a lot of different characters who engage me in different ways, but it's rare when I encounter a character that I think of as a friend or someone I connect with in a personal way. When I meet that kind of character, I emotionally engage at a deeper level. A few examples include Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, Jane in Jane Eyre, Elinor Dashwood from the film version of Sense and Sensibility (1995), and Mal and Zoe in Firelfy.

Most recently, I’ve been kind of obsessed by Lagertha, played by Katheryn Winnick, in Vikings on the History Channel.
She’s particularly interesting because she’s based on a real person, but there’s a lot of fictionalizing and incorporating legends and traits of other women from the time period. Personally, I think this is great because the fictional version is probably more interesting than the actual person was, and writers have done an amazing job of making her a must-see character.

So, let's do a kick rundown of Lagertha's character through Seasons One (I’ve tried to minimize spoilers, but there are a few along the way. Sorry).

1. She's a beautiful, happy, hard-working wife and mother. She's also feisty and sexual and has great relationships with those around her.

2. She is also a legendary shieldmaiden. She’s a warrior who everybody knows and respects and even fears. She can—and does—beat anyone who tries to harm her or her family.

Let’s stop there for a minute. Within the first few episodes, we see that she’s a fighter. She’s strong and opinionated and lethal. But she’s also sweet and compassionate. Over the years, writers have often tried to overcorrect perceived weaknesses in women by making them into badass, bitchy, warriors who wear tight black leather and either dominate men or sleep with them to get what they want. Dr. Christina Rowley calls this trend “a ‘hyper-feminine’ spectacle of sexuality that must ‘compensate’ for her warrior characteristics” (Gendered Space, 320).

But Lagertha doesn’t do that. She isn’t over-sexed. She isn’t mean and power-hungry. She’s kind and decent. She’s feminine and empowered. None of those traits should ever be mutually exclusive, but they often are in fiction. The writers of Lagertha have combined just the right amount of soft and edgy traits to make her well rounded, multi-dimensional, and oh-so-likeable.

3. She’s also suffering from fertility issues. Together she and her husband Ragnar have a son and daughter, but they both want more children. For a Viking leader, nothing is more important than sons. They will fight with him; they will follow him to battle and inherit his lands and titles (although not exclusively boys in Viking culture—more on that in the 2nd season); they convey his strength and worth. For Lagertha, not being able to provide that for Ragnar is devastating. She feels like a failure.

4. Ragnar dethrones the earl, making him and Lagertha the power couple. She becomes pregnant. She has everything she thought she wanted.

5. BUT, she is also worried. She knows that Ragnar has a restless spirit. He wants to travel the world and conquer. He wants more, more, more. She worries what that will mean for her.

6. She miscarries. Ragnar leaves, taking their son with him to explore and conquer. She is left to deal with a plague that starts wiping out their village. She is sad, alone, and scared. And then, in what I believe is one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen on TV ever, she loses her daughter the same moment she is losing her husband. I’ll let you watch it to see how.

This was the season finale, and I had such a strong reaction to it that I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. By that point, Lagertha was someone I loved and felt a human connection to, so when she experienced so much loss and her greatest fears were realized, it was devastating for me as a viewer.

In Season Two, Lagertha goes on to make hard choices. I didn’t always agree with them, but I understood why she made them because her character was so fully developed, they made sense for her. The writers would have been cheating if they'd written her any other way. She reinvents herself in important ways, making the most of her strengths without losing sight of her tragedies and losses. 

So, who cares? 

Well, as a writer, I’m always trying to figure out what makes amazing characters work. Of course there are as many character types as there are ways to write them, but my takeaway from Lagertha is that writers can keep readers engaged by implementing the following traits in their characters:

·      They’re normal/relatable. They have traits or roles that we can identify with in our own lives.
·      They have strengths. There’s something powerful or unique about them that makes us want to be more like them.
·      They have flaws or weaknesses or handicaps or obstacles. We can identify with their heartaches and their attempts to overcome something hard.
·      They have victories. They know successes and joys, and as readers, we love celebrating those with them.
·      They define themselves by interactions with other characters. They aren’t in a bubble. They’re affected—positively and negatively—by those they love. They have fears and hopes and know how their own fulfillment can be dependent on other peoples’ choices.
·      They have setbacks. Fiction is all about tension, and tension is all about kicking the characters when they’re down. If it hurts readers that we as writers are causing our characters pain, then we’re doing our job right.
·      They redefine themselves. They don’t wallow or stay in a slump. At least not forever. For likeable, relatable characters, they have to pull themselves out at some point and rethink where they fit and why.
·      They become a new, stronger, better character. This doesn’t always happen (especially in literary fiction), but in genre fiction we like the sense of closure. That somehow all of the trials that the characters have gone through have not been in vain. They become something different. Their character arc is based on them evolving and emerging, at least internally, victorious.

There is a whole cast of interesting characters in this series.

Ragnar, Lagertha’s husband, is great with kids. He loves deeply and passionately. He spares people he is expected to massacre. In many ways, he inverts expectations of Viking brutality. But, he does other things that I hate him for. His brother Rollo means well. He’s loyal and can be compassionate. But he’s also greedy and traitorous and keeps screwing up—he rapes, he murders, he turns on his brother. But I can empathize with his jealousy and remorse, which makes me occasionally root for him.

And then there’s Siggy and Floki and Bjorn and so many others. I could go on all day. If you haven’t seen the series, it’s worth checking out. Watch the characters—so many of them are complex and interesting and relatable.

What about you? Do you have your own Lagertha—a character who you’ve connected/identified with deeply? For you, what qualities should characters have in order to be engaging?

June 3, 2014

LDStorymakers 2014

LDStorymakers is one of my favorite conferences. It's always well organized, has tons of really fun, nice people, and it is attended and taught by a lot of authors that I admire. This year’s conference was no exception. But rather than give you a travelogue, here are a few of the highlights for me, in no particular order:

1. Publication Primer Group
The day before each conference, they offer the option to workshop a completed novel with a critique group and a published author. I’ve always had a good experience with this, but this year was awesome. All of the participants in our group were really good writers, and more importantly (to me), excellent critique givers. Our group leader was Jennifer Shaw Wolf, who writes great contemporary YA. She was genuine and down-to-earth, and she gave really solid advice about writing mechanics and querying.

Sarah Hunter Hyatt was a bonus. She came with Jennifer on a book tour, and we were lucky enough to have her sit in and offer some excellent advice from the perspective of someone who works in publishing.  

The other three participants were all fantastic writers whose work I can’t wait to see published. I have no doubt that all of them will make it someday.

2. Tweets of the Keynote 
I thrive on awkward moments, so I was sad to learn that I’d missed one of the best ones of the century by skipping out on the keynote. Although I had to leave for family reasons, I checked in at the conference hashtag to read updates. The Twitter feed was going crazy with the bizarre and offensive things being said in the keynote address, so I spent the evening riveted to my phone. I was intrigued by the tweets themselves, but even more so wondering how things were going to go the next day when the speaker taught a session to a room full of people who had been saying horrible things about him online. I was torn between laughing at the tweets and praying that the keynote speaker wasn’t into Twitter.

3. Brandon Sanderson
I’ve taken a class from Sanderson before, and even though his genre of writing isn’t my favorite, I think he’s one of the best teachers out there. He’s analytical enough to know what works and why. He’s smart and talented. He’s humble and gracious. He’s funny and engaging. I could listen to him talk about writing all day long. Every time I hear him speak, I feel like anything is possible in my own writing.

I have this secret plan to someday become so successful that he’ll want to be my best friend. He is seriously a good person.

4. Jordan McCollum
I’d never heard of McCollum. I took her class because there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to take at that time slot, and she blew me away. Like Sanderson, she’s analytical—this woman had spreadsheets to track every part of her writing process—she was a good teacher, and her ideas and methods were just plain smart. I ran out of the class so I could get to the bookstore and buy all of her books on writing before I had to be somewhere, and then I took another class of hers the next day. It was equally impressive. To be honest, I’m probably not organized enough to use all of her methods, but there are many that I will try, and her books on character arcs and character sympathy are pure gold.

She was my favorite new discovery of the conference.

5. Agent Workshop
This year they had a fun new feature where you could sign up for a critique workshop with an agent instead of pitching to them. It was a couple of hours, and you got the query and first ten pages of each participant. This was great because you had a lot more time to spend with agents than is typical, and the query samples provided concrete examples of what will make them stop reading or keep them going. It was pretty enlightening.

The one problem that I ran into was a personal one.

My query basically said:
My novel is a mash-up of X (popular film) + Y (classic novel). Well, apparently the film was involved in a lawsuit for plagiarizing a novel I hadn't heard of—a novel that just so happens to be represented by the agent running the workshop. So, completely by accident and against all odds, I hit an agent rage button with the very first line of my query. Awesome.

It didn't get too much better after that, but my CP (who was also in the class) did say, "I think he hated yours less than some of the others." So there is that.

Still, it was a really good experience. The agent was intelligent, kind, and asked a lot of great questions about all of the manuscripts. It was a priceless experience in learning about agent/query expectations.

6. J. Scott Savage
I always love classes on horror writing. If I had one complaint about the conference, it’s that they don’t really seem to do a lot of panels on horror, and when they do, they’re fairly tame and about LDS horror, which is its own strange genre.

This year, Savage did a great class on horror. He went into so much detail on creating scenes and moods and tension. It was stuff that was great for horror, but it was also applicable to a lot of different genres. It was one of my favorite classes of the conference.

7. How I impressed a NYC agent
There’s an agent I was excited to meet because I stalk her on Twitter, and she seems smart and nice and interesting. Well, I did get to brush shoulders with her, but not in the way I’d imagined.

To attend the conference, I ditched my baby for three days. I'm still breastfeeding, so every few hours I would sneak into the restroom, hide in a stall, and pump and dump. I tried to be discreet as I went to the sink to rinse out the breast pump. Of course, the second I turned on the water, someone came up beside me to wash their hands. I looked over and it was THE agent. She looked down at the pump in my hands and froze. She looked at my face, said, “Oh,” and curled up her lip like it was something disgusting before spinning and leaving.

And that, my friends, is how you impress the NYC crowd.

She was nice in the panels though, and I’m still a big fan.

What about you? What are your favorite conferences? Any smart, funny, or embarrassing conference moments that stand out?