Posted January 15, 2011on:
I was just rereading one of my fave stories (The Deed of Paksenarrion, if you must know), and I came across a scene that was at once both a most favorite and next to least favorite. (Everything from her capture in Kolobia to her healing by the Kuakgan, the low point in her life, is my least favorite.) How can this be, you ask?
As many of my blog readers know (and if you don’t, there’s only, like, 73 of them out there so feel free to catch up), I am primarily interested in characters and their development. To my way of thinking, the plot and settings are simply the causes for them to grow and change, but the story should be about the characters, and the ways in which they grow and change based on the causes given. Navak, a lesser character from my Flame in the Bowl series, is a blustering youth presented with the sudden appearance of my hero and his party. How does he react? What does he become? Navak is actually one of my more favorite sudden characters, one I whipped up at the spur of the moment because I needed one, and I spent the rest of the book finding out who he was. While he remains a blustering person throughout, he becomes so much more, in part because I dreamcast him with the actor John Rhys-Davies, who I had originally seen in the miniseries Shogun. More recently he was Gimli in the LOTR movies.
Another theme I like is the idea of sudden self-awareness. In Unbinding the Stone Tarkas has such a moment when he casts his first spell. In A Warrior Made Janosec has such a moment when he tells his first story. However, these moments must be carefully set up in advance. They are twists in the story that you ought not see coming, but nonetheless feel that you should have, or at least make sense after it happens. Over on the LTWF blog they had a post recently about how this affects plot, but in my opinion what it does to character is worse, because characters are so much more central to a good story.
I’ve seen this happen many times, but in the Deed of Paksenarrion, there is a scene in which she is being tortured by the bad guys, over a period of several days. This is a crucible scene, where she is (figuratively and psychologically) melted down and recast in her final form as paladin. (Samwise on the slopes of Mount Doom is another.) Everything that has happened to her over the course of the story is brought out and thrown into the kettle. All of which is great, and necessary if she is to the hero she needs to be.
There is a block of text in the middle of this scene which literally spells out to the reader what is going on. It reminds me of those cartoons where some character with a squeaky voice appears at the end, and says, “Today, we learned…” It’s like the voiceovers in the bad version of Blade Runner. But it’s even worse than that. Paksenarrion is not shown in the course of the story as being a particularly insightful person. She describes herself later in the book as a very trusting person, one who goes where she is directed without worrying about where or why. An epiphany of this sort is about as beleivable as sneakers on a duck.
This is something of a common problem in plot-driven stories, where the solution to the crisis depends on some inner growth on the part of the characters. In Sam it was beleivable since he’d spent the entire book using the safety of the Shire as his motivation, and his career as a gardener made that idea of safety literal and tangible for him. None of the other characters in LOTR had that same connection to the world he was trying to save that Sam did, and one of them going through the same smelting wouldn’t have worked. In the Deed, while it is beleivable that Paksenarrion would come out the way she did, it is implausible that she would be aware of it.