WHAT DOES SHE SEE IN HIM? WHEN AN AUTHOR LOVES A CHARACTER TOO MUCH

the immortals cover

Recently I read a book I was really hoping to love.  The book is called The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky, it came out in February, and the description on the cover flap (and in the reviews) was really intriguing. Selena, a woman in modern day New York, stays off the radar, acting as a vigilante for women who have been wronged by men. She is not what she seems, though: she is actually an ancient Greek goddess “slumming” it as a human being in the aftermath of the twilight of the Greek gods and goddesses. In her former life, she was Artemis, the hunter, the virgin protector of the innocent, the goddess of the hunt (and she had a lot of other attributes which you find out in the course of the book).  Early in the book, however, she is called to the scene of the terrible and grotesque murder of a young woman who called upon her in her old name. It turns out to be the first in a series of murders patterned (loosely) on the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, and Selena/Artemis becomes more and more involved in trying to find out who’s behind these murders and why they’re being committed.  Along the way, she interacts with her twin, Apollo (now Paul, a rock star), and Hades and Proserpina, Dionysius and Hermes.  There’s a certain amount of fun in seeing how these ancient gods and goddesses have changed themselves to survive and stay mostly hidden in plain sight in the modern world, and the mystery Artemis is trying to solve is intriguing. Not to mention that Artemis isn’t the usual Greek goddess people choose as a character; she’s less well-known and less overexposed and more interesting as a result.

BUT.  But but but, she is not the only character and not even the only main character. There is a male protagonist, Theo, a classics professor who was the one-time lover of the first dead woman, and he joins with Artemis in trying to solve the mystery.  Half of the book is from his point of view and the other half is from hers.

He is a terrible character. He’s a college professor who’s loved by all his students but hated by the “establishment,” the evil administrators of the college and of his department. He is brilliant and always has the right answer, and he is so hot and such a wonderful person that of course Artemis (a goddess, remember, and one who was known for being chaste and not being interested in men, with the one exception of Orion) falls in love with him.  

Let’s see, what other tropes do we have here?  We have the righteous and brilliant outsider who tells the police what’s really going on, based on his expertise, and the police don’t listen to him and instead decide that he knows these things because he’s really the murderer, so they arrest him and harass him instead of going after the real bad guys, who he already identified for them.  Clearly Theo, for all his purported brilliance and knowledge of popular culture, has never read a police procedural mystery or seen a cop television show or movie, since he expects the police to take his wild theories seriously based on nothing more than his word.

We have the straight hero who’s so wonderful that even a woman who has no sexual interest in men (whether she’s gay or asexual doesn’t matter here) falls in love with him and is willing to change everything about herself to get it on with him. If you’re going to have a goddess fall in love with a mortal man, at least choose a goddess who has done that sort of thing before: Athena (who doesn’t show up in this book, surprisingly), or Aphrodite (ditto).

It’s a sadly common problem: the author really loves a character and gives him or her nothing but good characteristics.  When people oppose that character, they’re doing so for evil motives, often because that character is right and they know it.  When an author has one character say to another character, “You are the most brilliant man I know,” and the first character means it without irony or sarcasm, the author has crossed the line into character worship, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no way to get back to an interesting character from there.  The same thing happened with Spencer in the later books in that series by the late Robert Parker. When Spencer’s lady love turned to him and said something like “You are your own Holy Grail,” I just stopped reading the series.  Inspector Lynley, in Elizabeth George’s books, suffered from the same too perfect, too right to be real syndrome.

In the case of The Immortals, finally Theo was too much for me. I read to the end of the book (and there was the really obnoxious Disney thing where a character is killed and then brought back to life, which is another of my personal bugbears) to find out who was responsible (the author pulled a clever switch where you thought one character was the bad guy and discovered it was someone else entirely) and how the matter would be resolved, but the relationship between Theo and Selena left such a bad taste in my mouth that if there were a sequel to this book, I wouldn’t want to read it.

Books of advice for writers always tell writers to make sure a character is real and flawed, someone who’s not always right, someone who makes mistakes and suffers for them, someone who changes from the beginning of the book to the end.  As far as I’m concerned, if an author fails to follow that advice, that’s one author I’m going to avoid in the future.

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