For most readers David Robertson’s The Barren Grounds will be in many ways a familiar stroll through something similar to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. But despite all the ways in which this new Candian book for young readers parallels the classic story, The Barren Grounds is a powerful challenge to European ways of knowing that challenges readers of all ages to think about their own role in colonialism and through, on the land. These are themes that the target age demographic of the book might not be able to articulate, and I don’t want to make the entire argument for what young readers may or may not get from the book here, but as older readers of a story meant for children there are surprising layers which challenge set perspectives of the world. In particular I was continuously struck by the ways in which notions of ‘plenty’ and ‘enough’ were recontextualized in unfamiliar ways.Read More »
There is nothing particularly wrong with young adult fiction, it makes readers out of people who might not otherwise pick up a book, but it does rely on a different set of tropes. The ‘magic pixie dream girl’ trope is one of many to becoming a mainstay in teen books and is also the subject of mocking from the wider literary world. Some of that mocking is well deserved as it speaks to the continuing unrealistic representations of young women in media, but other aspects are just traits that make characters interesting to read about – especially in the kind of light fantasy that dominates YA books. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater makes at least a marginal attempt to subvert this trope by having a cast of magic pixie dream boys instead. The boys are the compelling characters of the story and have the kinds of quirky, forceful personalities that are associated with the dream girl trope. Whether it is an intentional subversion or not, the Raven boys show off the best of a trope at the heart of many light fantasy books where traditional fantasy archetypes would seem out of place.Read More »
Characters looking into mirrors for the sake of the audience getting to know their appearance is a standard devise in film and literature. However even in the visual medium of portraiture there are artists who step beyond pure physicality of their subjects to bring the viewers into a deeper consideration of a person. These abstract portraits can be powerfully emotional and have a much fuller sense of a whole human because there is not easy mental image being formed. Works like Rebecca Belmore’s Mr. Luna are windows into deep personal relationships and demonstrate what is possible when an artist moves beyond traditional conceptions of portraiture. It is not unlike the deep inner life that stream of consciousness writing brings to classic books like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a young man. For the viewer or reader of such works the impact comes from the emotions and connections of the person being presented, not some meticulous description of physical characteristics.Read More »
Children in most fantasy fiction decidedly do not act their age but instead behave like adults whose appearance has just been adjusted for emotional impact. Most often this is in pursuit of giving the book a gritty or disturbing feel rather than an actual need for child characters. Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks is a shining example of this strategy and the incongruous ways the supposedly child characters behaved was a source of frustration throughout the entire book. There is a place for child characters, like in The Ender Series by Orson Scott Card where the setting and plot are truly dependent on the youth of the protagonists. Any mention of age in Way of Shadows is a source of immediate frustration and break in immersion which could have been solved either by letting go of the pretense of the character’s ages or by adopting a strategy more like the one in the Ender series.Read More »
No one is surprised when the advanced AI turns on its creators. At this point in the history of speculative fiction it is almost a given – so to make the villainous reveal satisfying the author needs to have constructed a believable character. Some authors pull this off well, not that their reveals are necessarily surprising, more so that they are satisfying for a reader. On the other hand, there are creators who very much lean into the trope and use it as a shorthand to take away from genuine character building. This shortcut taking is obvious in films like Avengers: Age of Ultron while books like Chuck Wendig’s Wanders make some attempt to mask their AIs in mystery. Convincing stories about rogue technology require character building and an awareness of audience in order to create an immersive believable narrative.Read More »
In gaming jargon, it’s called being overpowered but even if the discussion around fantasy literature lacks the vocabulary to pinpoint what makes certain book series loose their appeal, over powered characters are often at the heart of the issue. The way that fantasy stories tend to develop, both with larger plot points and the arc of the protagonists, often lead towards overpowered characters which then have to be somehow managed by their creators. J.K Rowling gave Harry that incredible power, but she also didn’t allow him to keep it – this was a well executed and mostly well liked as a strategy, but it is perhaps the obvious narrative choice. In contrast Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy gives Quentin near absolute power but rather than confiscating the power Grossman turns the narrative focus in such a way that it is not longer the great concern of the plot. The efficacy of these strategies is tied to the ways in which the authors tie magical ability to their character’s personality as well as the impact on the emotional moments of the story. It is a moment where the world building must integrate with the events of the text seamlessly and for maximum effect.
The culmination of this effect in the Harry Potter books is at the very end of the series as Harry fixes his own wand with the Elder Wand just before the end of the Deathly Hallows. It draws together world building elements that have been building since the moment Harry gains his wand in Ollivander’s and is told that his wand has a brother that will try and kill him through the irreparable damage to Ron’s wand in the second book and into the story of the terrible power of the Elder wand. Ultimately, Rowling is using these threads to bring a satisfying conclusion to the magic of her world without leaving Harry as some kind of god with a target on his back. There is no sense of loss when Harry chooses to set the Elder wand aside, rather she ties it to victory as that unlimited power is used to break the world building rules that made wands unfixable and give Harry a trophy of sorts. It is a masterful demonstration of what is possible when world building is well done and when the power that a character holds is well managed.
There was no way for Rowling to turn the series away from Harry as a hero or the Elder wand as a tool, but Lev Grossman’s Magicians is far less dependant on Quentin as savior so instead of placing limitations on him Grossman instead turns the reader away from Quentin’s arc. What makes Quentin successful as a narrator of Grossman’s world is his awe, and desire for absolute power without necessarily being a villain. Quentin’s awe made him a good student, it led him into Fillory and helped him become a magician for whom little if anything is out of reach. Early in the series Alice describes this state as the “wasteland of adult magic” and Grossman is faced with the challenge of creating tension in the conclusion to his trilogy even when his protagonist has few limitations. The solution that Grossman utilizes is not one of imposed restrictions on Quentin’s power, rather Quentin’s journey of magical learning begins to play second fiddle to the quests of those around him. While serving in a teacher role to Plum, the true protagonist of The Magician’s Land, Quentin’s power is far less of a concern. He has his own narrative arc in this book that considers how to use that virtually unlimited power but much of the character growth is centered on his place as mentor.
Both Rowling and Grossman are capitalizing on the elements of their world building that are unique and captivating for the reader in order to solve inevitable problems with over powered characters. Readers are still able to enjoy the connection between wizards, their wands, and the lore of the wizarding world at the end of the Deathly Hallows. There is a sense that these elements will continue to exist in balance with each other and that there may be future stories to come. Similarly, the joy of magical discovery is not lost in Grossman’s world even though Quentin is past the point at which his primary goal is the acquisition of skill and power because he is facing the new challenge of how to pass that power onto a student. Quentin takes his place in a chain of teachers and students that was obscured by his perspective in earlier books but is the bigger picture conclusion that the trilogy needed. These successes are built on the back of masterful world building by authors who take the time to consider the ways in which their world operates and how to use their own rules to shape characters who seem to have moved beyond limitations on their power.
Note: I have not watched the Magicians television show and am only speaking about the books.
Fictional characters can be just as annoying as regular people, and because a lot of fiction is constructed in such a way that the reader is stuck in the head of the narrator or protagonist these characters can almost be more aggravating than people in the real world. Authors must balance the creation of an entire fictional mind with the minds of their readers because if the gap between the reader’s knowledge and the characters is too large reading can become ponderous and unpleasant. Characters with eccentric interests or mind altering conditions make achieving this balance even more difficult as the reader is less likely to have an understanding of reality that lines up with the mind of narrator. In novels, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Mark Haddon and Reif Larsen respectively construct texts that draw the reader into the far-left field that is their narrator’s minds.
The narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime poses a very particular challenge to readers – Christopher lives with autism. He has a deep and abiding love of routine, the neighbour’s dog, math and prime numbers in particular. Most readers are likely not as reliant on routines nor are they likely to be fascinated by the intricacies of pure math principles but Haddon manages to make reading about them far from frustrating. He captures the earnestness of Christopher’s enjoyment of all these things in a way that is compelling to the reader even if the reader wouldn’t normally be interested in any of the areas that Christopher fixates on. The reader isn’t expected to come in with an outlook that lines up with Christopher’s, rather they become caught up in his mind because the author does not try and rationalize those interests to the perspective of a neurotypical person. Routine, the neighbour’s dog, and prime numbers are integral to the book because they are integral to Christopher who the reader inhabits.
T.S. has a very different experience with others than Christopher does. While Christopher is incapable of understanding the way, others operate because of his disability, T.S. knows that most people do not think the way he does and do not have same values. At times T.S. tries to justify his goals or couch his interests in such a way that they are more appealing for those around him which serves to better connect the reader to his love of maps. This is further supported by Larsen’s inclusion of relevant maps in the margins of the text, T.S. understands his world through mapping them and rather than just expecting the reader to accept that Larsen presents the maps in real time so that the reader can have the visceral experience of how their narrator’s mind works. Just as T.S. relies on his maps to process the world the reader begins to rely on the maps to process the mind of T.S.
Despite their opposing strategies, both Haddon and Larsen ultimately fall back on the strength of writing that is internally consistent. The earnestness of Christopher or the awareness of T.S. only work because at no point in their respective novels do those characteristics break. The reader is sucked into the worlds of these two characters because the incredibly even construction of the point of view characters doesn’t offer any alternate ways to view the events of the story. There are no gaps that remind the reader of the potentially absurd conclusions or values of the point of view character. Instead the reader is swept up in the perspective of the protagonist even though those characters are fixated on subjects the reader would normally find far from fascinating.
The creation of narrators that are eccentric but still accessible or enjoyable to a general readership can be done through any number of methods so long as the writing is consistent. Reading a narrator that is inconsistent is frustrating and draw attention to the unrelatable parts of their experience while characters whose perspective is even throughout the text helps draw the reader into the perspective of that character. Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet are built around point of view characters that could easily become very alienating for the reader but instead these authors construct and characters that are earnest or aware in a consistent way that draws the reader into their minds. There is a joy of being lost in the worlds of a character and both Mark Haddon and Reif Larsen succeed in creating that experience.