Friday, September 7, 2012

Making and breaking character rules

When I read books I'm always looking for how the author "did it" - how they developed memorable characters or great setting or exquisite plotting. But sometimes a book is just so darn good that I get so sucked into it I can't analyze it.

 I love that total immersion, but at the same time I wish I didn't have to go back and re-read it to figure out specific techniques the author used, so I can steal them utilize them in my own writing. 

That was the case with Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, a new YA fantasy that is really the most original story about dragons I've yet encountered. And I make a point of reading every dragon book I come across (I'm crazy about mythical creatures... just discovered that the new release, Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff, has a griffin as a principal character in a Japanese-style steampunk story - I am SOOOOOOO reading that book next!!!) (had to include a larger image of the cover so you could see the griffin). 

Ah, but back to Seraphina. I talked my longtime writing buddy, code name Lorvallis Scholar, into reading it so we could discuss it afterwards. We talked about the specific character-traits of these dragons: they are like winged versions of Vulcans, emotionless, intellectual, mathematical creatures, not so much obsessed with logic as with knowledge in general (and, unlike Vulcans, also have the tendency to bite off heads. Literally). 
This is who I'm voting for this year

Here's my favorite quote from Seraphina, that sums up the "rules" that define these dragons so well (I need to preface this by explaining that dragons can transform into a human body): 
Orma moved a pile of books off a stool for me but seated himself directly on another stack. This habit of his never ceased to amuse me. Dragons no longer hoarded gold; Comonot's reforms had outlawed it. For Orma and his generation, knowledge was treasure. As dragons through the ages had done, he gathered it and then he sat on it.
The dragons see no point in polite actions such as saying "hello" "good bye" "how are you" or "thank you." These a just a few examples of the rules that define dragon behavior. They are carefully constructed and adhered to throughout the book -

- until the last third of the book, when the main dragon character, Orma, proceeds to break the rules. Turns out, he really does have a heart that he tries to hide under his scaly hide. He's like a maladjusted Gandalf of dragons. 

And alongside Seraphina's character arc, Orma's character arc, developing from a cold, emotionless, loveless intellectual into a creature with a touch of compassion (and the first ever recorded dragon attempt at sarcasm), is one of the magnificent things about this book. 

So, my lesson learned from Seraphina:  make "rules" for your characters and spend the first half or two thirds of your book reinforcing them. And then have glorious fun breaking them! 

Oh my gosssssssssssssssssssssshhh (forgive the storm of s's) I loved this book!!! (even despite a few of its flaws - too many "garden of grotesques" scenes).  I want to include my entire Goodreads review here, but it is over 3000 words long! Will some of you PLEASE read this book so I can have more people to talk about it with????? (I promise I'll return the favor with one of your favorite books). 

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