The Human Puzzle – Guest Post by Kaci Hill

KaciThe Human Puzzle

One of my favorite scenes is of a powerful lord who defies every cultural convention to save a slave, and in so doing declaring that a few hundred slaves are of equal value to one of their world’s priceless treasures.

Another involves a man who believes himself abandoned: imprisoned, mocked, tormented, and doomed to be made sport of until he dies, only to, in the end, when he’s had every possible thread of hope torn from him, realizes his master is standing right there, and he’s in the middle of being rescued and never knew it. Suddenly his pain and humiliation are forgotten.

A third is between a king and his best friend and counsel who’ve had a disagreement. The king refuses to listen to this man who crowned him and readies to set off on a trip that will kill him. As he boards his ship, his friend calls out and asks if he’s being left behind, to which the king melts and calls him onto the ship. (I cannot give you the names of the books; sorry. I don’t do spoilers. )

The best stories leave me an emotional wreck for weeks. They seep into the bone and consume from within. Those scenes cannot be explained; they can only be experienced. These scenes are magnificent because they hit all of the notes. My friend Ted calls them “watershed scenes” because they are the culmination of all the themes, emotional and relational points, and plot direction.  Everything prior rises up and converges upon them, and everything concealed is made plain.

Two things, specifically, seem to make this work: the complexities of the characters and the underpinnings of the story’s structure itself – and by that I mean more than just the collection of scenes, which is a bit like saying the collection of notes makes the scene. No, it’s more than that: the arrangement –  the length of time each note plays, what instruments play – makes the difference. A modernized version of “Amazing Grace” sounds much, much different than the earliest ones; and so it is with Story.

Similarly, simple, one-dimensional characters do have their place, but most of the time it’s the complicated ones who really attach themselves to the reader’ soul.  I was fascinated, for instance, at the contrast between Paris and Achilles in The Iliad. Achilles, as I said before, is known for his rage. But rage rarely exists by itself, and the whole point is that his rage stems from  his shunning, betrayal, and public humiliation.

Moreover, there’s plenty in the text to indicate he and Briseis really did come to love each other. (The woman throws herself on Patroclus’ body and laments his death, and then goes so far as to thank the man for making sure she wound up with Achilles. This is not a simple relationship, nor a simple man and woman.) By the end, it’s grief, not rage, that drives Achilles. Paris, on the other hand, for all of his supposed lovesick-puppy behavior, is short-tempered and violent to the point of unleashing it on anyone, including the people he supposedly loves.  In the end, Achilles holds his temper in check, not Paris. So Paris cannot be described as simply a lovesick princeling and Achilles cannot be described as simply a man with nothing but rage in his heart.

They aren’t the only ones. I’m reading Wheel of Time, in which I have realized a character who drove me insane for two and a half books can suddenly change my mind. Wheel of Time is interesting: The men and women don’t understand each other; the main characters don’t understand each other; and you may or may not ever get the other’s perspective. Everything about men and women appears to be broken so that they’re unable to work together as one unstoppable unit – and so I wonder, in book five, what book fourteen will bring.  I keep wondering, too, if the very fault people accuse the books of is the very thing that made it brilliant. Robert Jordan wasn’t perfect, but he nailed unredeemed human nature.

A complex character can drive you crazy and make you terrified they’re going to die – or, worse, turn their back on everything they’ve considered virtuous until now, shun the very core of who they are. One writer took a character I loved in book one and drove him all the way to the edge of the moral and ethical cliff to see if he’d jump off. The entirety of the second book asks what his bitter need for vindication is going to do, and we know if he takes it, it’ll destroy him – from that point he would become a hateful, despised character, and I’m not sure there would be any going back. Nope, I’m not going to tell you what he chooses.

That was the brilliance of the writer, though: in a small-scale story of the tormented underdog, we’d be rooting for the character to take matters into his own hand, unmask his villain for what he is, and have his revenge. But no. We’re given the bigger picture, which says that  this man is so narrow-sighted and ignorant that what might be a celebrated act is, in truth, juvenile and bitter treachery. He’s broken, and he’s hurt, so to a point we can accept it, but the longer the story goes, the more the reader dreads his fall and realizes it really might be over.

Just by way of a teaser, Bryan did something similar to Phoenix, those of you who haven’t read. I’m not saying what, though. Page one made me love him; a little later made me worry; even later made my heart sick.

So, what do you think? What characters did you fall in love with? Which made you angry, excited, and grief-stricken all in one book? Which ones can’t be boiled down to one word?

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Author Bio: Kaci Hill

Kaci has always been a storyteller and student in search of a teacher. Alongside writing fiction, she is a substitute teacher, tutor, freelance editor, and volunteer in the church bookstore and youth group. Though she has always told stories and writing, as a child she learned by imitation, and her true pursuit of writing as a career was not until after high school. She grew up reading Christian supernatural fiction, mysteries, and suspense, and in college was introduced to the world of sci-fi and fantasy.

During her secondary education, she has had the pleasure of befriending fellow authors who both taught and encouraged her no matter what stage of the writing process she was in. She has written multiple books, two of which are co-written and published, co-written two screenplays, and had the privilege of editing for several authors, both published and unpublished.

Online, she can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Life in the Veil.

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10 replies

  1. Ooh, yes, I know this well.
    Prince Lionheart, from The Tales of Goldstone Wood (particularly the books Heartless, Veiled Rose, and Moonblood), is one of those characters. Anne Elisabeth Stengl does a wonderful job of getting you attached to a character, and then… (I’m not giving spoilers either. Ha! 😛 )

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    • Lionheart definitely fits in that category. But so do a lot of Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s characters. 😉

      I know there are other complex characters I love, but at the moment, I can’t recall which ones. Perhaps more on the side of contempt (but never solidly there) are characters like Semiramis whose loyalties are confusing. You’re never sure whether to trust her or hate her.

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    • I love Tales of Goldstone Wood! They are a perfect example of lovable characters and understandable plot struggles. 😀 Can’t wait to read Golden Daughter…

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  2. Jerry B Jenkins and Chris Fabry do that well in their series The Wormling. I’ve always found particular interest in stories where the hero is so brought down by the villain that there seems to be no hope. That’s really when the mettle of a person is tested, and if they hold true to their beliefs by taking the consequences for their stand. Sacrifices of the protagonist, especially when they give themselves up for others, have always made me stop and think if I was in that situation could I do that? It’s amazing the emotional effect some books can have if they’re written right.

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  3. Complex doesn’t have to mean double-minded, either. One of my favorite types of complex characters is a man of ideals who is in a situation that complicates what it means to hold to those ideals: Captain America and Coulson from the mcu, for example.

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    • Great point! I think it’s really easy to fall into that misconception, too, because for whatever reason it’s easier to write double-minded or morally-off-center character than one who is both good and complex.

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  4. Right off the bat, it’s hard to pick chars that have pulled at me a lot lately, at least in terms of books. I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like to lately. I think with books I tend to feel emotion based more on situations than characters themselves. If the characters are going through a situation that reminds me of one I’ve been through or that would affect me a lot if I had gone through it, I may very well feel angry, sad, whatever.

    Other than that, I think what makes me react to a character is a combination of complexity, how interesting they are and whether I can understand and identify with something about them. I suppose a character’s flaws and how they deal with them is something that affects me as well. Seeing someone who doesn’t completely likeable or able to make perfect choices all the time but still fights to be the best person they can resonates with me.

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  5. Characters whom I truly get attached to are the ones with a huge moral struggle, who are forced to lean on God in the most desperate way possible. I love it when they are forced into secrecy, and must decide who to trust and who to fear. That is what my star project (the Sacrifice Trilogy) is all about. A good example of a strong moral struggle is in The Swords of the Six by Scott Appleton. 🙂

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