Depth of Character

THERE ARE NO SPOILERS HERE:

A while ago I read the first two books in The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. I remember planning to write a blog post then on the author’s use of character, but somehow other topics rose to my attention. I am now three-quarters through the third, and just as enthralled.

Joe Abercrombie

Sometimes when I’m really enjoying a book, I’ll read a sentence or paragraph and just wonder: how can someone’s head be wired in such a way that they’d come up with that? Joe Abercrombie epitomizes this ability to keep it unique.

But it is his characters that amaze me. It is impossible to identify one protagonist – there are several. The danger in doing this is that each must be compelling or else the reader will flip through a section to return to the more favored characters. This does not happen with Abercrombie – each protagonist is capable of holding his or her own space. Their voices are completely different, backed by their own personal flaws and challenges. If you are looking for character tropes, this is simply not the place. If you want the perfect hero, look elsewhere. But perhaps because of their flaws, we can connect with them. For a medieval fantasy novel, or any similar sub genre, this is a brave move, but Abercrombie does it perfectly.

Characters Acerombie

Even minor characters manage to claim their unique places. All the Named Ones are memorable, one of Glokta’s muscle men has an incredible vocabulary, and there are so many more. It is to Abercrombie’s credit, that there are simply no throwaway characters. That is a testament of hard work. 

Another brave move is to break the rules. A member of the Berkeley Writers Group wrote a piece in which she includes considerable internal monologue, italicized to make it clear who is speaking. Her editor suggested cutting it as this is not conventional, But when she read this second version to the group, we lamented the intimacy we had with the character and the author feared the protagonist had lost her voice. 

Joe Abercrombie Quote

Abercrombie does this brilliantly with Glokta and his internal dialogue. If he just used it to show the character’s emotions, one could say there are other ways to achieve this – body language for example, but Abercrombie offers much more.

The best example is when he is trying to share the rumors of an imminent invasion and compares brilliantly his bosses’ leadership to a ship that sinks in a storm, interlacing the internal monologue to match the self-interested, derisive comments of his superior.

In addition, Abercrombie has the ability to offer such succinct lines that convey so much. There are a few examples here. 

Abercrombie Quote 2

What compelled me to write this blog post – I don’t usually review other authors – is the thrill I feel when I read someone who is expanding the craft. We often refer to the way we write as the craft (I think Stephen King was the man who introduced this to me) and we all look to improve the nuts and bolts of our work. When you take your own craft seriously, you look at the masters with awe and try to learn from them. 

In pass blogs I have mentioned such authors as Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Christopher Paolini, Terry Pratchett, as the masters of our genre. From my perspective, Joe Abercrombie can unapologetically take his place at the table.

Finally, thank you to those who are helping my new medieval fantasy manuscript, Kingfisher: Slave to Honor find a publisher by downloading a free copy. The publisher is interested, but I need you now to read  it (they are measuring how many pages you turn and whether you leave a review. It is very exciting and I thank you for your support.

Kingfisher Cover

Warmly,

Alon
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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls Of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions – all ebooks are 99c each for August. For all other eReaders, please click here.

Download a #FREE copy of Alon’s latest novel, Kingfisher: Slave to Honor, as publisher gauges interest – http://bit.ly/2sq72DG

More about the author at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

 

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Where is the Moral Line in YA Fiction?

Since I wrote Wycaan Master with my (then) 11-year-old son, I assumed that our story fitted the Young Adult genre. It is a coming-of-age novel, so I never gave it much thought. There is no clear sex or profanity, though race is a big issue in the first book.

Since I have become absorbed in the fantasy genre, I have begun to wonder where the line is drawn. As I continue to write the second and third books in the series, intimacy has developed between characters, sometimes direct and at other times implied. There has been plenty of violence and references to overindulgence in alcohol. Colleagues at my writers group have questioned whether I should be including these themes.

As I began to research this, I found a number of excellent sources regarding YA fiction in general. Heather Dunlevy-Scheerer has written an interesting article about the historical development of YA literature.

She lays out several characteristics that she took from someone called Niday (I couldn’t find a clear reference).

(1) a teenage (or young adult) protagonist

(2) first-person perspective

(3) adult characters in the background

(4) a limited number of characters

(5) a compressed time span and familiar setting

(6) current slang

(7) detailed descriptions of appearance and dress

(8) positive resolution

(9) few, if any, subplots

(10) an approximate length of 125 to 250 pages.

From a brief skimming of the Internet, it seems that the common thread in YA fiction is an adolescent, rather than an adult or child, protagonist. However, the subject matter and story lines of leading YA literature are relevant to the challenges of youth, and more edgier novels include themes such as identity, sexuality, science fiction, depression, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, money issues, race, familial struggles, and bullying.

April Dawn Wells suggests seventeen common traits of young adult novels. These include: “friendship, getting into trouble, interest in the opposite sex, money, divorce, single parents, remarriage, problems with parents, grandparents, younger siblings, concern over grades/school, popularity, puberty, race, death, neighborhood, and job/working.

There are a number of YA novels currently in print that are on the edgier sides, dealing with peer pressure, drugs, gangs, crime, violence, sexuality, incest, oral sex, and female/male rape.

The obvious criticism of these novels is that they encourage destructive or immoral behavior or at least bring them into the adolescent’s mind at too early an age. Countering this is the fact that teens will be better equipped to deal with real-life difficult situations and social issues because they have role models in the protagonists they have followed.

Where is the line drawn in amount and nature of such issues between appropriateness and inappropriateness in young-adult fiction? How can we keep literature as a relevant medium when the exposure of TV, computer games and Internet is almost not monitored and easily accessible? None of these mediums, in my opinion, can offer the depth of thought and emotion that a good book provides.

Now more than ever, YA literature needs to stay relevant. Maybe the adults (including parents of teens like myself) have to accept that we might be more uncomfortable with this than our children.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).