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?
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.
Categories: Guest Post