This entire post originally was conceived a few weeks ago, when I was talking with friends. And then I started to think about it some more as I’ve read a few books (Night Circus and the soon-to-be-reviewed The Borrower especially). I began to think about why characters are so important in the making of a good novel, and why some novels fail to stick the landing when their characters fail.
Perhaps one of the most important things is that the character changes. Let’s create a fictional character (kind of ironic since all characters are fictional) and call her Sally. If Sally were to sit back and let all of the action happen to her, and not react at all, it would make for a very boring novel. She could be assailed with vampires, werewolves, zombies, and monsters calling at her door, but if she sits and lets everything happen with no change, that’s boring. She does not grow and consequently neither does her story. Without change, we read a straight line. But with some sort of change, small or not, we are given the tiniest bit of visual interest. With more change and reactions, Sally begins to become real.
Scottish philosopher David Hume best described a human’s unwitting need to change:
I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collections of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying their perceptions. Our thoughts are still more variable. And all our other senses and powers contribute to this change.
Basically, Hume is saying that with each moment that passes, we change who we are. These changes may not be drastic, and most will pass without our even recognizing the change. But if we as humans change with every passing second, then those characters who do not seem more aloof and unrealistic. They are not only unexciting, but also without the grounding realism that modern readers look for, even if they are reading fantasy.
This is one reason I liked books such as The Hunger Games, Matched, and The Chosen One. Our three protagonists (Katniss, Cassia, and Kyra [the choosing of three protagonists with hard K sound-names was just noticed and unintentional]) have to deal with three very different worlds. Each girl was raised knowing that their lives would turn out one way, and each found a way to strive for more, but mostly to change their circumstances. Katniss begins the series hard and closed to anything save for her sister. By the end, she has let herself feel more than she ever imagined. Cassia dutifully followed in the steps of the Society, but begins to question her freedoms. She takes small steps throughout the novel to get to the end, but they are vital to the large leap she will inevitably take. Kyra opens the novel knowing that her world needs to change, but too afraid to take the necessary steps. But her awareness leads her to the goal of escape, no matter how bittersweet. Each girl began the novel in one place, and ended it somewhere else. Katniss perhaps changed the least, but her changes felt deeper and resonated just as strongly with the reader.
I would say another important aspect for Sally is that she must feel real. Sally cannot be perfect, in other words. No one would want to read her story because no one would relate to her. It is ok to have an aspirational character, but even Gandalf and Aragorn had their flaws. Flaws ground the character much like their progression does. No human is perfect, even if we feel that we are at times. And if we are writing and reading stories about humans (or elves or vampires or fae or shape shifters), then we as humans want to see a bit of ourselves in them. I mentioned in my review of Night Circus that the story would have been far stronger with stronger characters. I did not feel much sympathy for Celia or for Marco simply because they were hard for me to relate to (dangling preposition!). After all their trials, they still felt distant and rather the same as they started. This was also the problem with The Iron Witch. Donna never felt like she got it, whatever lesson she was supposed to learn. And even after all the things she saw, I wasn’t sure she had made any change to herself.
The only passive character that ever worked (of the books I’ve read) was Shadow in American Gods. He might be passive for about 80% of the novel, but he makes a lot of waves after he has shaken himself awake. It only works because Shadow has just lost his wife and been released from prison. His passivity fits with a man who is grieving and relearning how to choose for himself. And yet, even Shadow changes in the end.
If you have a villain in your story, it is also good practice to have him be not wholly bad. Wholly bad villains simply feel like a caricature. After all, even the mean, nastly old lady down the street probably gives old clothes to the homeless or bakes for her grandkids. Just as Sally can’t be all good, neither can Jafar (I know, I know) be all bad. Heck, even Voldemort wasn’t completely evil. After all, he agreed to save Lily Potter because Snape was in love with her. Sure, Voldy killed her in the end, but he was willing to spare the life if it had been more convenient. (This was the only redeeming quality I could come up with, however. And Jo Rowling is about the only author I know who can get away with this evil of a villain and still have it feel real. Comment if you can think of other good qualities for poor Voldy.)
To recap: Sally needs to learn something or to change in some little way; Sally also needs to have flaws; Sally cannot be passive in her own story; Jafar cannot be totally evil. If the protagonist is flat, there is not much there to see or read.
I referenced this novel in a previous post, discussing the hype surrounding a new author. I wish that I had loved it, that I had been completely overwhelmed by the book, because the writing itself was simply gorgeous. For a woman who mostly worked as an artist, Morgenstern has a wonderful way with words. Unfortunately, it takes more than pretty sentences to create a novel.
As I read a book for review, I make notes. I make notes mostly because I will not remember all of my reactions later, and then I am frustrated when I sit down to write about the book. One of my reactions about a third of the way through the book went like this: “I feel as though I am eating candy: pretty packaging, but no substance.” It did get better, and then fell off again.
The basic premise of this book is a bit hard, because honestly, the main character is the circus. Basically, two magicians decide to pit their students against each other. Hector pits his own daughter Celia against an undecided opponent. Alexander goes to find an orphan and comes away with Marco. The children are raised and taught in two very different kinds of ways. Both do their fair share of traveling, and both learn magic. When they are approximately 19 and 17, the competition begins, in the form of a night circus. We jump around, seeing the different ways the circus enchants its visitors, and watch as Marco and Celia try to outdo each other, but really are falling in love with the other throughout the game.
Here is where we have problems. Morgenstern is more concerned with the circus than with her characters. We open with a second person (really?!) narration of yourself wandering through the circus. We are entranced, awed by the different things, and she has a way of making you feel as if you are almost there. You can almost smell the carameled apples, taste the smoke and cool night air. And yet, you are not the main character in this story. I think that Celia and Marco are supposed to be. But we spend so little time with them, that half way through the book, you start to wonder if this book will have any real story to it.
The central love story is forbidden and passionate. Supposedly. I definitely felt as if it were forbidden, and the tents the two magicians built for each other were certainly marvelous acts of love. Perhaps it is because the story jumps from narrator to narrator, within different times, that it makes it so hard to follow just what is happening. I am not saying that all novels need to be chronological, but even with her dates at the beginning of the chapters, I was having a hard time figuring out what events took place first. This affects the love story a great deal, since we are never really sure how much time they actually spend together. When Celia and Marco are together, you can sense that they want the other, but it is hard to believe that the feeling runs so deep since you spend so little time with them.
Ultimately, the climax of the novel and its resolution feel a bit underwhelming to me. That could be the lack of effective buildup. (At least Morgenstern has a climax, unlike a certain YA novel where the narrator is unconscious for it, so we miss out on it entirely. If you know what book I’m talking about, a gold star for you!)
Here is the hard thing about classifying the book. Morgenstern really can manipulate words. They are engrossing and you are pulled in to the magic of the circus, but as soon as you come up for air, you realize that there is no meat to the story. There could be. It has the bones for something even greater, and that is why it could make a fantastic film (although Summit bought the rights, and their history in adaptations is not a great one). I can understand why there was some hype to this book, I just wish that it had not fallen short of its potential.
I do want to share a quote from the book, simply because it is about stories and writing, and I wish only that I could ever write something that would fall into this category:
Someone needs to tell those tales [. . .] There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. (381)
I forgot to touch on something in this post. When the book was beginning to be publicized, a lot of people were hoping for a sort of Harry Potter phenomenon. After all, the book world gets a boost when something like that hits our shelves. I can completely understand why reviewers and publishers thought Night Circus had the legs to do so. Despite its flaws, you become entranced by the circus and you want to be a part of it. Morgenstern does a masterful job of transporting you there (partly through her second-person pieces that still somewhat baffle me). The thing that publishers forgot was that it was not just the world of Harry Potter that we all fell in love with. It was first and foremost Harry himself. And Ron, Hermione, Fred & George, Dumbledore, Dobby, and so many other wonderful characters. We loved Harry’s world because of who was in it as much as what was in it. So yes, Les Cirque des Reves might have enchanted readers, but without a character to be your friend in that world, there is no reason to escape our own.
While this blog will review fiction, it will also serve as a place to talk about the world of fiction. I have already done some of that, but I am about to jump off the diving board and into the pool of the publishing world. Make sure to strap on your floaties.
We all know that hard-copy books are in trouble. Borders is closing (while simultaneously expanding my personal library), Barnes and Noble is not doing so peachy, and there are countless people turning to Ebooks instead. So when the following Wall Street Journal article came through on my Twitter feed, I was wondering just how many people are going to lose money on this gamble. Of course, it may take off, too.
Since Harry Potter broke just about every record in the book (movies as well as books), publishers have been looking for the next phenomenon. Some people thought they had found it in the Twilight “saga”. (It truly pains me to call it that, because a saga is a Norse myth of some substance, not at all like these novels. But they can’t call it a quadrilogy.) While Twilight has made a bunch of money, it has not found the same universal acceptance. Most people reject it and its power lies in the hands of fourteen year-old girls and their crazy Twihard moms. But I will not spend an entire post bashing Twilight, if only because my own mother will bug me about it later. So publishers continue to look for the next success, and Doubleday think they have found it with a debut author.
Erin Morgenstern’s novel is called Night Circus and focuses on two young magicians who must compete against each other in a night-time circus. And of course they fall in love. Because that is what sells novels. And it’s the forbidden love that Summit Entertainment has been touting to Twihards, since they have purchased the rights to the film already. The book hasn’t even come out yet, and the film rights are already purchased.
I understand that this book could potentially be huge. But the WSJ article divulges that some bookstores are planning for the release of this book. Some are doing huge (surely expensive) release parties with circus themes. Others have purchased huge volumes of the book, causing the publisher to print 50,000 more on their first run than originally planned. Morgenstern even went to ComicCon to promote it.
While she is living every author’s dream, I think she’s living the nightmare, too. With so much expected out of her first book, it not only puts pressure on her to write more explosive novels, but it puts pressure on her first novel. How can she be assured that the novel will actually sell? If it were me, I would worry about being the biggest flop in history – you’ve built up all this hype and the only way to go is down.
While I would understand this sort of reaction if it were Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) writing a new book, or especially if it were J.K. Rowling’s new novel, I have a hard time fathoming it for someone whose work has not yet been tested. Some books may have all the winning formulas, but never take off. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Rowling got a huge advance. She had struggled to publish for years and was immensely grateful for the chance she got. Harry Potter grew organically, and it was never something that felt shoved down your throat. Of course, you might disagree if you were a little late to the game on the series, but there was not this kind of pressure or flustering over The Sorcerer’s Stone.
While the book has gotten some good pre-release reviews on Amazon, who’s to say just how magical it will be? The release date is set for September 13, so it will not be long before we shall see if all this advanced hype will pay off or not. Of course I will read it simply because I am curious, and maybe Doubleday is smart in that regard. They have created curiosity, someone like me writes a little blog about it, word spreads, and the curiosity continues to grow. Maybe the publishers know what they are doing after all.
But what do you think, dear reader? Is this overkill, or might we all be sitting around in a year or so waiting to see the midnight premiere of Night Circus in cinemas?