After the fall
Posted August 14, 2010on:
I may have mentioned this once or twice on this blog, and elsewhere, but I like characters. I read books to see the characters grow, to be there as they stumble into danger and rise to the occasion, discover new capacities within themselves, or new uses for capacities they already knew about. I want to be there as they remake themselves because I’m trying to do the same thing and could really use some input. Remaking ourselves is what life’s all about.
So I must confess myself somewhat confused by stories that feature characters who start at the top. Usually bad things happen to them, or should. The character of Cyclops in the X-Men movies had this problem; he started at the top and had no place to go, so he was ultimately killed off . I’m told that the producer’s decision may also have been influenced by the fact that the actor who played the character took a part in a movie for rival DC Comics, but that’s just hearsay. No book should feature an fully developed alpha male as the star, simply because they’re useless from the story’s point of view, however sexy and titillating they may be for the reader. Becoming an alpha male is good, being an alpha male is not. I can think of only two books where the main character started and stayed at the top, yet maintained my interest as a character-based reader.
I was taking a class on Saints and Fools in Russian Literature, and we saw the movie Andrei Rublev, which is really good, BTW. In the course of the movie Rublev, a monk and Russia’s greatest iconographer, is involved in an attack by some Mongol soldiers, and kills one in defense of a girl. He considers this a sin and imposes upon himself a vow of silence that lasts for 12 years, at which point he witnesses a miracle which releases him from his vow. The professor in the class drew particular attention to the killing of the soldier. A saint starts out a sinner, and must include an epiphany, when God reveals himself to the the unknowing. This is hard to do when the man in question is already a holy man. He had to fall before he could rise.
Similarly, a hero in a novel, if he starts out at the top, should fall so that we can get to be witnesses to his rise. The Curse of Chalion is an excellent example of this. My own upcoming novel, St. Martin’s Moon, features a man at his lowest point, his recovery just beginning. I don’t think he would have been nearly as interesting, to me at least, if the story had started out with him on top and been merely a story of one of his adventures while on top. I’ve read such books and seen such movies, and while they may be exciting they’re not the sort of things I would read or view a second time. The best part, the becoming, is missing.
This is one of my concerns about sequels. The previous book ended with the hero on top. Where, then, do we start with a sequel? This is an argument for ensemble novels, where the hero of the first book can enjoy his HEA, and some lesser character can take center stage, like Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, for example. Or for a sudden expansion of the universe in which the hero operates (i.e., make the pond bigger so the fish is suddenly smaller). Otherwise the only other option is to bring the hero down again, and that’s depressing. I hate reading sequels where the HEA gets disrupted simply to have a second book.