The Vikings Are Coming
I watched the first season of ‘The Vikings’ over three nights. You could say that I munched it up, but it wasn’t plain sailing (no pun intended!) It took me a little while to get into the Viking mind-set; nothing to do with sets and scenery, clinker designed boats with dragon’s heads and men the size of giants, but everything to do with Viking barbarism. ‘Life is cheap’ doesn’t come close. Hacking and battering to death a group of defenceless monks on Lindisfarne in an early scene is, as a character states, like taking sweets from a baby. Perhaps it’s my sense of fair play, but where’s the fun in that? It was like watching a clutch of marauding psychopaths and these are the guys we’re supposed to be following, caring about and batting for, I thought with distaste. One episode in and I was actively praying that someone would rise up and give the Vikings one hell of a thrashing, preferably ripping their heads off. Based on first impressions, I didn’t much care for Ragnar Lothbrok either, which was something of a disappointment, particularly as I adored the Ragnar of Bernard Cornwell’s novels, (the series is not based on his work).
So what persuaded me to keep watching?
First impressions, I’ve discovered, can be entirely wrong. Ragnar, superbly portrayed by Travis Fimmel, a name so quirky I’m tempted to nick it for one of my novels, won me over and redeemed himself with one shining single act of kindness, (sparing a priest) his humorous approach to life, sense of adventure, and deep love of his family. Ragnar, a man of his time, is a guy who, if you’re very lucky, you might meet once in a lifetime. Moreover, Ragnar is the glue that sticks the story together.
In my day job I come across a lot of main protagonists. As I read crime fiction exclusively for work, main players tend to be detectives, lawyers, journalists, ex-Forces, ex-criminals and psychologists, although I’ve had the odd banker, social worker and, of course, the happy amateur caught up in a dastardly plot not of their making. The opportunity for stereotypes is legion. Booze, dodgy pasts, spouses and parents killed in accidents – vehicles are favourite candidates – pepper the crime fiction landscape and it takes a smart writer to create a main protagonist so memorable that they leap off the page and shout ‘Hello’ in your face. Whenever I come across these, I feel a little swell of pride in my chest because I know how hard the writer has worked in the creation. Whenever I think of my favourite writers, and I’m not talking exclusively about crime fiction in this regard, individual main protagonists always spring to mind. I almost feel as if I know them, which probably accounts for that weird sense of loss I get when I reach the end of a novel and it’s time to say goodbye.
How to convey this to a new writer – something I’m often asked to do. The following is my cobbled together list of ‘must have’ and ‘must not have’ attributes:
Main characters must have bags of tenacity and determination. Not being dogged enough is a big no-no. If your main protagonist would rather attend a garden party, pour another drink and light up, take his dog for a walk, or get laid instead of jumping to it and solving the case, nailing the murderer, nabbing the robber, cracking the code, unearthing the secret, then the reader will switch off.
Allied to the above: a character MUST care: Be warned: if your character doesn’t care, why should we?
Characters who seek to ‘educate’ are a personal pet hate and turn off. Writers often have strong views, absolutely fair enough, but beware of using your main protagonist as a mouthpiece to push them.
Don’t make your main guy too good! Forbid it for me to say that nice people are boring but when it comes to fiction, nice people don’t hold reader interest. Allow your character to have a few flaws so that he or she is more like you and me. Even James Bond has his vulnerable moments, usually in the form of women. This point comes with a note of caution: resist going down the booze/drugs/unhappy in love/screwed up childhood route for the simple reason that it’s been done to death. If, on the other hand, you can incorporate any of the above with a fresh twist, knock yourself out and go for it.
Whatever you do, if your character needs to be a crack shot in the climactic scene, or be able to hold his breath and swim underwater for 33 metres, don’t suddenly whack his talent in. Ensure that it’s mentioned earlier in the novel. I call this ‘foreshadowing’. As soon as the reader discovers that the main protagonist is a whiz on a computer, we know that those skills are going to come into play at the end, and maybe his or her life will depend on it.
An allied point, writers sometimes feel compelled to insert a character profile in one wallop. To be clear, it’s vital that a writer knows his character in detail, what makes him or her angry, sad, turns him on, turns him off, his likes, loves, hates and passions, the list is endless, but the trick is to use these pieces of knowledge and craft them in such a convincing way that the main protagonist is consistent within the context of his world and entirely knowable. Resist a slab of ‘pin your ears back, this is everything you need to know about him, from where and when he was born until the current moment in time.’ If ever a reader is going to switch off the light and go to sleep, it will be at this point. On that note, yawn; time to switch off the light…