So a little while ago I reviewed The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman, a book that finally allowed me to put my finger on why, as a whole, the series failed (because the worldbuilding’s poor, the characterization is nonexistent, the dialogue is stultifying, and because there is, foremost and overall, a critical lack of creative imagination.) But this book bothered me and it kept niggling at my brain looking for a solution.
[We pause here to say FU WordPress for deleting half of my post.]
It’s really quite easy to make a cliched plot with a predictable storyline and half-assed worldbuilding nonetheless be gripping and readable, and the trick lies in three things: by making the 1) characters 2) interact with this plot in 3) understandable, predictable, realistic, or characteristic fashion. See any number of romance novels, but more particularly, see Beauty by Robin McKinley, or see the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. Neither of these have anything particularly unexpected going on in the plot department. Beauty is literally a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (with horses). But because Beauty/Honor is someone we care about and the Beast promptly becomes one as well, their story becomes important. The Kate Daniels books never have anything spectacular going on in the plot department, but because Kate herself
To break that down a bit more: 1) you have to have characters such that the audience cares what happens to them and is invested in seeing what they are going to do. 2) Your characters have to have enough self-determination and agency that they not mere paper dolls moved around by the authorial whims of the plot dictates. They have to be able to decide to do things, and these things should have an effect on what happens next. 3) Their decisions should be made for relatable, sympathetic, or merely just understandable reasons.
This doesn’t mean that everybody has to be likable, or that everyone has to have their backstory spelled out in detail. It does mean that the author needs to know what their reasons are for doing what they do. But how? People are hard! I don’t know why they do things?!
That’s where the one simple trick comes in. Ready?
Figure out what your character wants. I’ve seen this described as “what does your character want to do with their glass of water.”–everybody wants something. Frodo wants to dump his glass of water into a volcano. Aragorn wants to marry his glass of water and has to be crowned King in order to do so. (Golly, this metaphor is a bit unwieldy, isn’t it?) Beauty wants to save her family. Kate Daniels wants to make money and bone Curran. Wanda wants to be happy with her lover, Vision. Luke wants to rescue his father.
But that’s only step one. Step two is (are you ready?): figure out what personality trait (not plot point –those are external factors. We’re going for internal factors here) is going to help or hinder them from accomplishing it. One of my characters, Morgan, wants freedom from her strictured upbringing. A trait that might help her achieve this is: that she’s stubborn and finishes what she starts. A personality trait that is going to hinder this is that: she’s selfish. Her self-centeredness causes her to make a series of decisions which ultimately leads to negative, long-term consequences. Here’s another: Cade wants to protect his clan/family. He’s a cunning warrior. But he dislikes people and therefore it is hard for him to gain allies or trust them. His clan loses ground. Here’s another. Corinnius wants to overthrow the corrupt hierarchy that governs his world. He’s idealistic and hopeful. But he’s internalized rules of the society that he would destroy and fears to take the necessary steps. He doesn’t move forward with what he wants to do; he half-asses everything else that he does do, because his heart is not in it and he doubts and sometimes hates himself.
Back to The Dark Archive. Fixing Irene and Kai is a hopeless proposition. They’ve had seven books and they’re both still paper puppets. But some of the new characters might still be salvaged. In text, Shan Yuan is Kai’s older brother and bullies him; he ignores and bullies Catherine, the Fae trainee, as well. He’s critical, unhelpful, and envious. Now, there is a reason provided–that he wants Kai’s position as Dragon-Library-Fae liaison–but it really isn’t enough because it exists in a vacuum of personality that makes it seem that Shan Yuan’s only purpose in story or out of it is to be a bully who makes life harder for all other characters. (A trope I particularly detest.)
Here’s how to fix it. Shan Yuan is critical of his younger brother because: he feels a sense of superiority and proprietorship over Kai, whom he (thinks of himself as) has raised. Shan Yuan wants the job because: he feels deserves it more than his little brother. Shan Yuan wants the results that the power and prestige will get him. Now, everyone wants power and prestige for its own sake, but why not do something unexpected instead? What if Shan Yuan wants kids and has no chance of being assigned a wife until he has gained more importance and a higher position, such as being the liaison between dragons and chaos. What if Shan Yuan isn’t a warrior or a courtier?–just someone who likes teaching people and explaining things.
The character trait that would or ought to prevent him is: that he’s not patient or tolerant or mature enough to be trusted with children. –as per his interactions with Catherine, a teenaged Fae. His initial inability to recognize her as “kid” rather than “Fae scum” could, over the course of the book, be corrected. That’s what we call “character development” and it’s highly regarded.
So, anyhow, to sum up: have characters want things and maybe not be able to get them.