Stop Repeating Yourself – SPI Files

So, we finally get to the  SPI Files novels. The series includes “Lucky Charms” (a short in the Night Shift anthology), The Grendel Affair, The Dragon Conspiracy, The Brimstone Deception, The Ghoul Vendetta, and The Myth Manifestation which came out in January.  They concern the adventures of Makenna Fraiser, Seer and agent for Supernatural Protection and Investigations, an agency protecting supernaturals in New York City. These are the books I started reading and they’re definately an improvement on her first series.

Aside. I really dig the covers on these. Excellent sense of motion and hints to the plot. Great colors. Consistent across the series. 🙂

    

The one gripe I have with this series is Shearin’s habbit of re-using descriptions of her characters. Almost every time a minor character is introduced they get the same description. And – worse – they almost always get the same joke. Every damn time.

Here’s an example of the first descriptions for the character Yasha:

In “Lucky Charms” (short 0.5 in the Night Shift anthology) :

“This is Yasha Kazakov,” Ian said from beside me. “He’ll be our driver and backup.”

I turned in the direction Ian indicated, extended my hand and froze.

Yasha Kazakov was a werewolf.

At least that was the aura my seer vision showed me. Though, believe it or not, that wasn’t why I was staring. I’d seen werewolves before; I’d just never seen one carrying a massive .45 in a shoulder rig, and wearing fatigues and a T-shirt that read: “Don’t run, you’ll only die tired.”

And if that wasn’t enough – and it was plenty – he was big, somewhere between six foot seven and Sasquatch. His hair was brown trying real hard to be red. Add the werewolf aura my seer vision showed me, and Yasha Kazakov was well over seven feet tall.

“In a city where there are more supernatural perps than parking spaces, having reliable drop-off and pick-up guys a must-have,” Ian told me. “And there’s no one better at turning a rampaging monster into a hood ornament.”

In The Grendel Affair (book 1) – “Yasha was one of SPI’s drivers and trackers. In a city where at any given time there were more supernatural baddies than available parking spaces, having a reliable drop-off and pick-up guy was a necessity. Even better was one who had no problem with turning a rampaging monster into a hood ornament. And should a simple collar turn into a cluster, Yasha was always more than happy to take the fight beyond the driver’s seat- especially during the full moon. Yasha Kazakov was a werewolf.”

In The Brimstone Deception (book 3) – “Yasha Kazakov was our driver. Catching supernatural bad guys was easier than finding a parking space in New York. A driver who wasn’t shy about throwing his weight around was a must. Yasha was also a nearly hundred-year-old werewolf, but he didn’t look any older than Ian.”

And in the Myth Manifestation (book 5) – “Yasha Kazakov was an SPI driver who was my and Ian’s unofficial partner – and official best friend. The Russian werewolf saw to it that Ian and I got where we needed to go – and could make a safe getaway when we needed to leave fast. And if Yasha could break any New York traffic laws in doing his duty, all the better. If he also got to use some bad guys as speed bumps for his beloved Suburban, that qualified at the best workday ever. In his opinion, monsters made the best hood ornaments.”

And that’s about all we learn about Yasha as a person throughout the series. He’s Russian. He loves his car. He drives like a maniac. He’s a werewolf. That first description of him in the anthology is the most detailed we ever get. We get hints that he is interested in another character by the fifth book. But he doesn’t exactly have anything beyond his function of driving the main characters around, sounding Russian, and being muscle when called for.

This is basically true for all of her supporting cast. Same shallow description for each person. Almost the exact same joke. Every time.

Repeating descriptions I could almost live with. What gets me is the jokes. It is just bad comedy. It’s like that one kid in school who found something funny to say and said it over and over until everyone was sick and tired of it.

We actually learned this in a standup comedy class I took in college. A punch line is really only funny the first time it’s told. Afterwards you have to add new information, or subvert the original joke to make it funny in a new way. It’s the same principal as explaining a joke makes it no longer funny.

Here, Shearin does it twice with two separate quips, there’s the “bad guys and parking spaces” one and the “hood ornaments” one. Admitedly by the time she reaches the fifth book, the situation is improving. Which is why I’m still reading them.

As a counter example of how to do this right here’s Ilona Andrews describing the weremongoose lawyer Barabas. Notice how they also appear to tell the same joke each time.

In Magic Bleeds (Kate Daniels series book 4) the first book in which he’s introduced: The man was of average height and built like a young lightweight boxer: ridiculously toned but without any bulk. Those guys were wicked fast. You’d think you could take one out, and then you’d be waking up on the nice cold floor. His face was sharp-featured and his hair blazed bright red. It was a wonder he didn’t set the room on fire.

In Magic Slays (book 5): Barabas waited for me by the desk, slim, dapper, and wearing an ironic smile. The first thing you noticed about Barabas was his hair. Cut short on the sides and the back, it was about an inch and a half long on top of his head, and he brushed it and rubbed gel in it until the entire inch and a half stood on end, like the hackles on a pissed-off dog. It was also bright, firey red. He looked like his head was on fire.

In Magic Breaks (book 7): He sauntered in, moving with casual elegance. No matter what he wore, Barabas always managed to project an air of urbane, civilized polish that came with a sharp edge. Tall, lean, and pale, he had fire-bright red hair that stuck out from his head in a forest of agressive spikes. If he ever frosted his hair blue, he’d look like a gas burner. And if someone looked at me the wrong way, he’d rip right through his civilized veneer and become a maniac tornado of razer claws and dagger fangs. One messed with a wereongoose at one’s peril.

These quotes don’t really give you a good of a picture of how well these descriptions are integrated. The descriptions mostly come in the middle of dialouge. In all except the first case Barabas has already spoken, made a joke that reveals his character, and Kate (the main character) has responded before she describes him. In the first case he talks and makes his character revealing joke immediately after the description in a one page conversation discussing his reason for being assigned to Kate’s team.

So what keeps these quips fresh? It’s all in the language. We’ve got:

  • “…his hair blazed bright red. It was a wonder he didn’t set the room on fire.”
  • “It was also bright, firey red. He looked like his head was on fire.”
  • “If he ever frosted his hair blue, he’d look like a gas burner.”

Instead of nearly the same language used in almost the same way each time, here we have variations on a theme. The imagery is the same – Barabas has fiery-red hair. The language is different. Every single time.

Yasha and Barabas both serve important plot functions for their series. But Barabas comes off as a whole person, while Yasha ends up being something of a characticture of himself. Barabas grows as the series progresses. We learn new details about him each time we meet him.

Also noteworthy is the type of language each author is using. Yasha gets a very concrete description: his job, his ethnicity, his height, his joke. Barabas is described moving, his build is described, his manner of dress, his attitude. We get a fuller picture of him because the POV character sees a different aspect of him each time. Frankly, Barabas sounds more dangerous than Yasha because his dangerousness is all implied. And he is a character we care deeply about because we learn new aspects of his character each time we meet him.

So, today’s takeaway is: pay attention when you’re describing characters in a series. When you introduce them again, don’t make the same damn joke in the same way. Your returning readers will thank you.

This is part two of an accidental three-part series on the works of Lisa Shearin. Part 1 is on her Raine Benares books, Part 2 is on her Tamnais Nathrach books.

Have an opinion? Think I’m just wrong? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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