Monday, December 10, 2012

Letting Characters Speak for Themselves

I am nearly finished with a series by Michael Sullivan called Riyria Revelations. I am not much of a fantasy reader, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this series, mostly (I think) because his story does not completely rely on magic, but instead uses it on occasion to help the characters. Overall, the characters do most of the work themselves.

But the real reason I am posting today is to praise his technique. Not only is the story really enjoyable, but it is also well written. I have a lot of respect for Sullivan because he is a self-taught writer, having learned from the masters. And who are better teachers than that?

He gets so many things right that I could go on for pages and pages. But I won't.

My focus today is how he deals with info dumps. At some point or another, we all have to provide more information to our reader for him/her to fully grasp our story. The tricky part is integrating it into the story rather than making it feel like a "dump" of information.

Sullivan is masterful at this, but I'm going to describe one place in particular that I was especially impressed with.

His story is set in approximately medieval times (as many fantasy stories are). At one point, he describes a hunt using falcons and hawks. Now a less experienced writer would easily bog the story down in technical definitions and explanations, but Sullivan lets his characters explain the event for him. And what is most impressive is that it doesn't sound forced, out of character, or unnatural.

He has a character named Amilia that, through a series of events, has recently been made a noblewoman. When we first met her, she was a scullery maid. For her first time, she is attending a hunt, and she is absolutely terrified. It's her first time on a horse, first time riding side-saddle, first time trying to impress a man, a first time doing a whole bunch of things. Sullivan lets her educate the readers as she educates herself.

The handler steps up and asks her what kind of bird she would like to use for the hunt. She flounders and asks what he would recommend. Having never been asked that before, he recites traditions indicating such-and-such bird is usually used for this rank or that rank, etc. Still unsure which to pick, she is grateful when another noblewoman steps in and says, "She will be using Murderess."

The handler brings a glove and then the bird, and Amilia is terrified. She has no idea what to do with the creature or how to participate in the hunt, not to mention the bird's gigantic talons. Enter, the beau of the story, who happens to be a knight. And conveniently, he had not planned on participating in the hunt, so he had left his own bird at home. Thus he can focus all his attention on Amilia and teaching her what to do.

I think the other strategy Sullivan uses that makes this scene so effective is how he plays on both the technical information, and the emotions of Amilia as it progresses. We see her fear of making a fool of herself both in front of all the other nobles, and in front of this particular knight, whom she loves. We see her struggle to hang on to the horse (and even falls off backwards at one point) and is uncomfortable and unstable in the side-saddle position. We see her terror of being gouged/ by the bird, then her wonder at how relatively light the animal is. We see her fear of killing her bird when it lands in the water. Finally, we see her excitement as she shows off her two or three quail she caught. And the whole time we are experiencing this event with Amilia, various other more knowledgeable characters are explaining to her (and thus to the reader) what to do and how the hunt works.

Brilliant. Just brilliant. If only we could all write so fluidly...