My Soft Spots

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

Admit it, you have some, too: those narrative motifs, character types, etc. that you just roll over for. Even if they’re cheesy, even if the story around them isn’t that great, you’re a sucker for them, because they hit whatever unknown button lies deep within your heart.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of mine:

Sibling dynamics. This is my favorite flavor of family relationship. Brothers and sisters, twins, friends so close they might as well be siblings — I’m there. No idea why, but these things aren’t always rational. Maybe because it’s more of a relationship of equals than parent-child setups are, and siblings have usually known each other from such a young age that it allows for a huge amount of depth. Whatever the reason, if you give me siblings, you’ve already got a hook in me.

All growed up and ready to kick butt. I go all squishy inside for the moment when the young generation gets a chance to prove themselves, to step up and handle adult challenges even if they are not yet adults themselves. The DA in the later Harry Potter books, and most of the cast of Ender’s Game, remind me that “adulthood” is a movable threshold, dependent on circumstances. Kids who grow up in tough circumstances may be ready for the big leagues way earlier than you would expect.

We knew each other back in the day. I also go all squishy for stories that have an older generation with a complicated history, especially if they’re the protagonists of an earlier series. Harry Potter, again, with the Marauders and Snape and that whole lot; also Tamora Pierce’s later Tortall books, where Alanna and Jonathan and Gary and the rest are running around doing the grown-up thing on the edges of the plot. I love the depth that can add: even if they play a minor role in the story, my imagination gets to fill in their motivations and reactions, because I know them so well.

You didn’t know he was [X], did you? Characters with a hidden and unexpected layer. Sometimes this is the Undercover Cop story, where it turns out so-and-so isn’t a bad guy after all. Sometimes it’s a dark secret coming out. It’s such an odd little thing, but I get a little chill in the movie U-571 when one of the sailors starts speaking German, because within the context of the times, it’s like he’s suddenly revealed himself to be The Enemy in disguise, and I can’t help but think how the guys around him would react to that. It can be a good layer or a bad one, but the existence and sudden revelation of it is what gets me in the gut.

Villains Unite! Ohhhh yeah. This might be the king of them all. Circumstances force enemies to work together toward a common goal. There’s a scene in The X-Files that I swear is there just for viewers like me, where the show puts Mulder and Scully and Skinner and the Lone Gunmen and Krycek and Marita all in a room together, working out a solution to their problems. Or Snape and Sirius having to shake hands in Harry Potter. You lose points if the conflict that separated them is fake (one side hates the other for bad or wrong-headed reasons — see: the Spiderman movies); no, I want them to legitimately hate each other . . . and have to work together anyway. Give me that, and I’ll follow you just about anywhere.

Your mileage, of course, will vary. What makes one viewer sit up and beg like a puppy will irritate another. But what are your weak spots? What narrative tricks get you every time? Knowing the answers to that can be very useful.