Monday, November 03, 2008

Galactic Bachelor Number One

A recent blog by Heather Massey about one of my characters over at the Tor publishing house site (and they’re not even my publisher) not only made me all a-flutter but again made me realize that when I create my characters, I haven’t a clue in a bucket ::ka-ching to Paula L!:: about what works for readers and what doesn’t. Honest, I don’t, and I’m sure if I can get Rowena, Jacqueline, Cindy, Margaret, Susan and the rest of the SFF/SFR authors to chime in here, the general consensus would be that when creating our heroes, we are very much flying by the seat of our intergalactic pants.

It’s not that there aren’t guidelines—there are. There’ve been oodles of things written about what makes fictional characters successful. There are theories and charts about the alpha, beta, gamma and whatsis male protagonist and why those traits do or do not work. There are archetypes; most notably by Tami Cowden, who also breaks down heroes by trait, denoting them at the chief, the charmer, the lost soul, whatever.

The thing is, when you write SFF/SFR, the very genre itself adds a whole ‘nuther layer. And often a whole different slant.

When I created Detective Sergeant Theo Petrakos in The Down Home Zombie Blues, I could easily draw on “collective archetypes” because Theo—unlike my other characters—is from this planet, born in Florida in the good ol’ USA. Readers learned very quickly that Theo was 1) a homicide cop 2) divorced and 3) of Greek heritage. None of those things required great explanation. All are familiar concepts to readers. Readers know—thanks to television shows like The First 48, and less so to some of the CSI shows—what a homicide cop does, what the requirements and duties of the job are. Readers know—likely through personal or family experience—what it means to be divorced and living in the current day. They can guess with fair accuracy the kinds of experiences and emotions Theo’s been faced with because they’re things that the readers see on a daily basis.

Theo’s “one of us.”

Creating Branden Kel-Paten was a horse of a different color. Or in this case, a galactic bachelor of a different mindset.

First, let’s start by saying that yes, of course, there are similarities and commonalities. I’m still writing for an “Earth-based” readership. I have to present my characters—no matter how alien—in terms my readers can understand. And yes, love is love, hate is hate and fear is fear…or is it? When you take your characters out of the realm of the common and known, even those things can change.

Nowhere was this more true than with Gabriel Ross Sullivan, first in Gabriel’s Ghost and then in Shades of Dark (probably more so in Shades as I really put Sully through the paces in that book.) What Sully and Kel-Paten have in common is that the rejection they’d experienced in their lives had nothing whatsoever to do with something found here on our planet. Now, we can use analogies, and we can understand being rejected because you’re a shape shifting mutant or part cyborg because we have similar prejudices in our lives: we have racial prejudice, we have gender-preference prejudices, we have religious prejudices and more. So while, yes, we can understand the concept of rejection because of prejudice, we have no exact experience with what it’s like to be a Kyi or a bio-cybe. We can guess. We don’t really know.

All an author can do is bring the reader into the character’s world…and hope something resonates.

Which brings me back to the topic of building galactic bachelors.

It’s hard enough (ask any author) creating workable fictional male protagonists in contemporary or historical fiction. And both those genres are based on “the known” of our existence. It’s simply a lot tougher creating those same sexy, brave, attractive, likeable male protagonists in the unknown of SFF/SFR.

In her blog for Tor, Heather Massey states: “And I mustn’t fail to mention that Branden Kel-Paten is a virgin hero. All of that pent-up sexual energy, fueled by a cybernetically enhanced body? That’s hot.”

To be honest, I did not, at any moment, sit down with the intention of writing a virgin hero. I intended to showcase Kel-Paten’s struggle with his emotions (or lack of) but at no point was his experience (or lack of) with women a key factor in creating the character. However, judging not only from Heather’s blog but other blogs, reviews and yes, from fan mail, this whole virgin hero thing is something that floats a lot of readers’ boats. And not just female readers. I’ve a number of nice emails from male readers who appreciated that Kel-Paten could be a hero and inept. (I guess James Bond is a tough role model to live up to.)

Kel-Paten’s virginity grew out of his isolation, and his isolation grew out of the fact that he was a bio-cybe: too much machine to be accepted by humans, too much human to fit in with machines (not that there were others he could fit in with). He was isolated by being the only surviving (that he knows of) cybernetic experiment. He was in some ways like a galactic Pit Bull: his reputation of being lethal preceded him, and molded him and his experiences with others. He learned that being feared was something he could handle because it kept him out of the uncertain territory of being accepted and ultimately rejected.

All this I knew about him as I put him through his paces in scenes, as I let him—pardon the pun—flesh himself out for me.

I had no idea he was going to resonate so strongly with readers (though my agent delights in telling me, “I told you so”)

I have no idea why he resonates so strongly with readers. Yes, I understand the whole angst-thing. I understand we relate to and root for the underdog. But gosh-golly, there are shelves full of underdog heroes and heroines out there. Kel-Paten fans are of a particular die-hard breed.

And I don’t really honestly know why. Why does Kel-Paten engender such a strong response when Theo Petrakos—certainly a worthy hero!—doesn’t? (Not that Theo doesn’t have his fan club. He does. But not to the extent Kel-Paten has.) Rhis in Finders Keepers and Mack in An Accidental Goddess also have their devoted fans. But not like Kel-Paten. The only other hero who runs neck-and-neck with him is Sully.

And both, yes, aren’t strangers to rejection by their worlds and cultures. (Worlds and cultures which, again yes, are unique to SFF/SFR. I don’t know if translating Kel-Paten’s story to, say, current day Alabama or Colorado, and making him, say, a Pagan or a Baptist or a Muslim or a Budhhist in a religiously-intolerant setting would carry the same weight or engender the same reaction from readers.)

But I don’t think it’s solely the rejection factor that makes readers resonate to these characters. If that were it, then all any author need do is create a character who’s faced rejection and she’d have an automatic best-seller.


So, see, we really don’t know what works with our characters. We have glimmerings. We had ideas. We scan our fan mails for some clues in hopes we can do it again. But we fully recognize that we might not be able to do it again in just that way.

Interestingly, I’m getting some very strong and positive feedback on the character of Admiral Philip Guthrie in my upcoming Hope’s Folly. I’ve had a number of beta-readers and bloggers who have, in the past, been solidly in Sully’s or Kel-Paten’s camps, tell me Philip has just zoomed up there in contention for the spot of Galactic Bachelor Number One.

“Hero: Admiral Philip Guthrie was totally not what I expected. After reading Gabriel’s Ghost, I thought stodgy was the best description for him. After Shades of Dark, he was a bit more interesting but not hero material to me. But in reading this book he became the "long-lost always-forever dream hero" one always hopes for but very rarely encounters.” (Aimless Ramblings)

“Hope's Folly is simply phenomenal. I absolutely did not want to put the story down. It had action, suspense, mystery, and passion.” (Kathy’s Review Corner)

And Philip is nothing at all like Kel-Paten or Sully. No rejection factor and he’s far from a virgin. But my beta-readers (and my agent and my editor) love him.
Which is why, as I told you at the beginning of this blog, I really have no clue what makes a good character into a great one in a science fiction romance.


HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, coming Feb. 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

“If we can’t do the impossible, then we need to at least be able to do the unexpected.” —Admiral Philip Guthrie


  1. Linnea,

    Speaking metaphorically my pants are full and slow-moving, more like a sloth's butt, covered in lichen and crawling with its own very special ecosystem of passengers.

    True. I've no idea what works for readers, and no great interest in looking in the rear view mirror to analyze and copy what worked for someone else.

    I go with what seems right to me. If I don't love my character, I don't see why I should expect anyone else to do so.

    Therefore, I'm flying without On-Star, and my Readers Digest road atlas is closed on the passenger seat beside me. I reserve the right to pull over and consult it.

    What I think I write are Regency novels of manners in outer space. I enjoy reading Georgette Heyer novels, and I'm sure they influence my own idea of what a hero should be.

    I have one officious virgin, one occasional loser who drinks and swears too much but dries out very well on a tropical island, and one jaded royal rake.

    They all have a sense of noblesse oblige, and are chivalrous at heart, although they may hide it well.

  2. A scarred hero half man, half machine? I'll try not to trip over myself as I rush to buy that book. Where have I been all this time?!

  3. Oh dear Linnea this is not helping, if an author like you has no clue where is the hope for the rest of us?
    So basing all my heroes on Dr Who just might not work? Damn!

  4. Natalie:

    Well, my Romantic Times Award winning novel, Dushau, features the male lead modeled on The Doctor.

    But then I'm a Tom Baker Doctor fan, and I use him a lot!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Nathalie said:

    A scarred hero half man, half machine? I'll try not to trip over myself as I rush to buy that book.

    Um, what she said. I'm with all those other fans who favor both Brenden and Sully. I think their appeal comes down to how Romances constantly address the idea of the "other."

    The aspect of "other" is played up so often in Romance, and it starts with gender. Since Romance as a genre places more importance on the heroine's POV, it's really a prolonged study of what makes men tick. Sure, we often get the hero's POV, but sometimes Romances are written in first person and when that happens it's always from the heroine's POV. I can't think of an example of that in reverse and would that really even be considered a Romance?

    We often see the h/h be very physically different from one another. Paranormal Romance amps this difference up by creating 7ft heroes with bulging muscles, but even Historicals do this with a blonde heroine and a raven-dark haired hero or a penniless orphan and a Duke.

    Paranormals and Science Fiction have a few extra tools to amp up this difference even more with vampires, werewolves, cyborgs, and telepaths. The one Historical-type hero who comes to my mind in this category is Erik from Phantom of the Opera. His unknowable otherness is portrayed first by his mask and second by his scars.

    Brenden has a lot of the Phantom in him. He's been shunned by others his whole life -- he just wants to be loved, is that so wrong? :) It says something about Sass that she can see through his scary exterior to the real person underneath. It also helps that the scary exterior is pretty darn hot.

    Sully's appeal for me is very similar to Brenden's -- but wait! This guy can read the heroine's mind! I think every woman finds that appealing on some level.

    The virgin hero, I think, appeals to women similarly to how a virgin heroine appeals to men. Sass is Brenden's first and only. There's a lot of power in that and it flips gender roles, which makes it even more exciting.

  6. Holy guacamole, am I late to the party or what?! No idea how I missed this post.

    Thanks for the shout-out, Linnea! I had loads of fun writing the piece on Kel-Paten, but he's such a kewl cat that it was almost effortless.

    I can't add much to the insightful comments above, except to say that I think a writer can only plan so much with a (breakout) story or character. At a certain point it becomes more than the sum of its parts, and that's what readers are connecting with.