Offence, Sympathy and Ordinariness


Shannon Hale posts on books that cause offence (and hopes hers will) and asks what offends readers: The Great Galley Giveaway

I’m offended by books that insult my intelligence: poorly written, poorly edited, poorly characterised, characters that are of course untrustworthy/malevolent/hypocritical/silly/fabulous because they are Jewish/Muslim/Christian/female/gay, etc. There are other books I prefer not to read because of their content, but I (almost always) put them down out of choice, not offence.


Jennifer Kesler on The Hathor Legacy has gone back for a second look at Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: Neverwhere: review, take two. I’m really glad she did this because there was some controversy and discussion about her first review and it was interesting to see the discussion there (Neil joined in) and see her new opinions on the book and how he treats the characters. What I found particularly interesting was that although she felt he treated the female characters with respect, she didn’t like them as much as the male characters, many of whom were either funny or sympathetic to other characters. That sort of sympathy/empathy is often held up as being a feature of female characters, and Jennifer replied that that could be seen as a role reversal in itself.


Again on the Hathor Legacy Jennifer writes on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and “[normalizing] the idea of a girl going on a quest by simply showing one without making an issue of her gender, without making her an exception to the rule that girls can’t quest”.

I do like it when people just do things without making issues out of them (that’s why my favourite movie is my favourite – ah, Chard!), but I was more struck by Jennifer’s comment that “Coraline is not special. She’s an ordinary kid with ordinary parents living in an ordinary home.” I’ve been thinking about how few heros (or heroines) seem to be around these days who don’t have magical powers, and this made me remember how much Coraline reminds me of Alice: unremarkable, unmagical, practical and sensible. And I do like heroines – and characters in general – like that. Alice in Wonderland’s slightly supercilious common sense, the remarkable scrapes E. Nesbit’s children get into (whether assisted by magic, as in The Enchanted Castle or Five Children and It, or entirely through their own efforts, as in The Story of the Treasure Seekers), the awful ordinariness of Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Clarence Scrubb and Jill Pole.

So many characters are extraordinary (often secretly so): secretly brilliant, magical, gifted, princesses, Destined, beautiful, inspired… I enjoy stories about people whose unique qualities eventually become recognised. But I also adore stories about utterly mundane people who manage to get by regardless: the dull, respectable heros, the plain practical heroines, the brave but not brilliant lassies, the smart but silly children, the lazy Jacks of the tales, all the people who are envious and proud and boring and irritating and who have adventures anyway, and change, and change the world.

Diana Wynne Jones, of course, manages to have it both ways: quite horribly human characters whose undiscovered abilities don’t necessarily make them or their extensive and awful families any better. And then, of course, she makes you love them anyway (sort of the opposite of Joss Whedon, who makes you love characters and then does awful things to them).

12 thoughts on “Offence, Sympathy and Ordinariness

  1. Thanks for the link!

    I’m still thinking about the issue of sympathy and trying to distill my instinctive reactions into words. I don’t like it when female characters are *defined* by their sympathy toward the male protagonist. But it also leaves me slightly “meh” when they seem oblivious to his feelings. Why? I keep coming back to early Stargate, when I loved Sam Carter for being nearly oblivious to other people’s feelings. What’s the difference between her and the women of Neverwhere? Just this: there is no Everyman character in SG-1 through which you see the show. It’s not any one character’s journey in the way that Neverwhere is. The very structure of Neverwhere *forces* me to evaluate and relate to characters from Richard’s perspective, whereas SG-1 doesn’t. So with SG-1, I adored Sam until they (IMO) altered her, and with Neverwhere, I enjoyed the female characters for many of the same reasons I had enjoyed Sam, but never quite developed the fondness that SG-1 allowed me to develop for Sam (for about 3 seasons). Hope that makes some sense.

    I like your points on ordinariness. I think there’s a bit of a myth that no one wants ordinary people in their stories, but I think it’s more that no one wants ordinary STORIES. Boring people can make for fascinating characters in the right story, and fascinating people can be very boring when the story relies on the characters’ special traits to get the audience past the dull spots.

  2. Anytime!

    Sam Carter’s oblivion was a distinct & distinguishing trait of Sam Carters, something you could actually like her for (although again playing off the stereotype of the sympathetic female character). General, widespread oblivion is a little too much like real life :) Being able to see into people’s heads is one of the pleasures of fiction – whether it is through authorial comment (older fiction) or ever-so-slightly supernatural empathy in characters or more revealing facial expressions so that everyone always seems to know what everyone else is feeling (newer fiction). I think the SG-1 approach can work in non-ensemble fiction. In Prydain the other characters are seen through Taran’s eyes and Eilonwy, if not oblivious, is often resolutely unsympathetic and I still like her (often for that). But it is again something peculiarly Eilonwy-esque, and not just a trait characters (or a group of characters) have.

    I want to reread Neverwhere (not that it takes much) to see if the character strike me the same way as they did you. I was having too much fun the first time through to evaluate it :)

    Re ordinariness: I agree.

  3. I’ve wondered about this ordinariness problem in juvenile fiction (awful name for it, but there we are) many times. If you have a thoroughly ordinary character, like Arthur in Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series, who finds the way to triumph over adversity and magic despite his ordinariness, that’s appealing because it means that ordinary old you can do the same thing. Yet having a character who has magical powers s/he never knew about until X event, like Harry Potter, brings inspiration to sad little children like me who were dying to be told they were actually very special in some secret way.

    Still, I think Lewis did it the best way; those kids changed from being ordinary to being extraordinary, through their experiences in Narnia, without discovering or being granted any magic powers. Which is how it happens in real life. (Without, sadly, the Narnia experiences.)

    There are probably layers of subtlety I’m missing here, as I’ve not heard of some of the series you all are talking about in this post.

  4. Another advantage Sam Carter had was that even though she wasn’t very sensitive to people’s feelings, we knew she’d live and die for her teammates. The women of Neverwhere don’t have that advantage, because that’s not how the story is structured. So yes, I think you’re right that obliviousness could work in a female character in a non-ensemble story, but I would need to see something like Sam’s dedication to her team in such a character to warm me up to her. And again, that’s just not the type of people who inhabit London Below, so the *only* way a character in NW was going to warm me up was if they showed some awareness of Richard’s feelings. They could be totally unsympathetic to the feelings, I just wanted to know that they were aware.

    Remember, my review was of the TV series and not the book. I *think* my impression of the book was more favorable toward the female characters.

    Crisitunity, wow. I never understood before why I disliked HP so intensely (I only saw the first movie, so everything I say is based on that). I don’t mind it when my characters have musical talent, high IQs, great athletic ability, or more Jedi potential than others. But I totally lose interest if I think the writer is saying that these people have an extra “sense” (for lack of a better word) the rest of us are lacking. I.E., in the 80s, I thought Luke had more Jedi potential than others, and that was cool, but when PM came out, it was obvious he thought only people with a certain genetic makeup could even touch the Force – and I lost all interest in my lifelong fandom. That was my reaction to HP – if magic was only for certain special people, then I didn’t care. Because even though I have a couple of “extraordinary” traits myself (intelligence and musical talent), I see determination as a bigger factor in how I’ve gotten through life.

    Hmm, not sure that makes sense. I’m going to be thinking on this for a while!

  5. Jennifer, it’s interesting to me that you and I are on opposite sides of this thing. I enjoy but sort of yawn at protagonists who get there by spit and gum, and am enraptured with the kind that are given a special gift. “I wish that were me” is what’s in my mind, I guess.

    Incidentally, I am a gigantic HP fan and I hated the first movie.

  6. In HP we don’t really get to see much of the ordinary world, so to an extent we have gifted and more ordinary characters, so I can watch it in that way, but I would really like to have seen more of the Muggles who get sideswiped by the story!

    I enjoy the occasional story of inborn magical gifts, but I tend to those of ordinary people given magical gifts of the access to hidden world/ chance to grow sort.

  7. Great post.

    From member, Max Lüthi’s book on fairy tales specified the hero/heroine’s ordinariness as one of the distinguishing marks of fairy tales. The hero/heroine sits down and cries when s/he is faced with a predicament, and it is only through the assistance of magical helpers (foxes, frogs, etc.) that s/he manages to overcome and pull through, and live happily ever after.

    To me, Coraline captures the very essence of what fairy tales are about but in modern dress.

  8. I can see I will have to read Lüthi, because I disagree with “the heroine sits down and cries”! In most of the fairy tales I have read, the hero or heroine strikes off on their own and either overcomes unassisted or gains magical assistance because of their persistance/wisdom/kindness/humility/bravado. Only a few exceptions immediately spring to mind (Cinderella is one), and occasionally characters with magical assistance are deprived of it (Goose Girl).

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