ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.
Writing Diagnostic #5: let’s explore how a change in point of view makes a villain better than good and his antagonists better than evil.
Finding a new series is not easy so I get super excited when I come across one I might like…still I find it smart to approach cautiously. So when I ran across Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, Shadows of the Apt series, namely book one: Empire in Black and Gold I had to read most of the first chapter just to be sure…and was totally captured by the characters and the opening gambit. Wow, I thought, I normally don’t like fantasy books solely about war but this really seems like a series I could get into. Did you see where I slipped in my gaffe? Yup, I read MOST of the first chapter. Aaghhh, most! Before you judge me, go read most of the first chapter on Amazon… see what I mean…sounds good, right?
Characters draw you into the story. When we are teased with compelling men and women only to find it a bait and switch trap…yup, we are not pleased. While my favorite character was killed perhaps yours lived. My great disappointment though spoke to a strength in the work: the races. I talk about why racial diversity in this work is a powerful draw here. In this series the world is populated by insect-kinden. Each kinden is gifted by an ability and traits related to the insect after which they are named, but are wholly humanoid. I found the various races highly creative and both Empire in Black and Gold and Dragonfly Falling were worth the read simply to experience them.
Despite this the characters were the weakest part of the story for me, quickly followed by the plot. So why is the series worth saving if everything is so ho-hum…?
Stenwold Maker‘s friends die so he can spread the word about the wasp empire. He epitomizes a Beetle-kinden. Stocky & trundling he persistently creates a network of resisters behind the scenes as the only Lowland spymaster. While he works as a statesman to loyally protect his city, Collegium, from making the same mistakes of other fallen cities.
The problem: on paper he should make an unusual and fascinating main character. I found reading about him to be ineffective, bumbling and shallow. I struggled to root for him as he too epitomized his people.
Cheerwell Maker is Sten’s niece and more than anything wants to be a part of her uncle’s life. As another Beetle-kinden Che is stocky and plain and treated about as well as you’d think a stocky and plain person is treated. This causes massive self-doubt and isn’t helped by the way her uncle excludes her.
The problem: I couldn’t relate to her until “the action” got started, i.e. we lingered too long on her status quo. The way she was presented simply made me dislike Sten more. As far as heroes go, she’s the best we start off with.
Tynisa is Sten’s half Spider-, half Mantis-kinden ward who he treats as a daughter. Presented as this beautiful and charming rival to whom Che whom has no hope of rivaling.
The problem: she contributes to your dislike of Sten when we don’t need any more dislike of him and it’s hard to get over the way she’s initially presented. She’s really a lot more complex with her half-blood but instead of leading with that conflict we wait for her father, Tisamon, to turn up to delve into her feelings. Her place is waiting for another book it seems.
Prince Salme “Salma” Dien is a Dragonfly-kinden nobleman and one of Sten’s spies. A male version of Tynisa he knows full well what the Empire is up to as his people have already been subdued.
The problem: Again he is presented as extremely shallow and while you feel he has possibilities they are never fully realized. As a dragonfly, one of my favorite bugs, I though he would pop ability and trait wise. Disappointed expectations make it hard to commit to his romance novel plot.
Totho rounds out the group as one of Sten’s students, another half-breed, this time Ant- and Beetle-kinden. He wants to be great but is only distinguished by his love-lorn passion for Che.
The problem: Actually he’s a brilliant artificer with a war loving twist from his Ant parent. Loved that, but we don’t see any of this until Dragonfly Falling. A jealous fool does not a character make. He did eventually become my hero, but I wanted him to stay with the evil Drephos and at least be less pathetic than what he had been up to this point.
You can see the pattern now, can’t you? Yes, the way the characters were presented. I beat this drum a lot but character sympathy is so important. We don’t have to love everyone from the get go, but please, that doesn’t mean make them pathetic. At least connect us to the characters so that we feel they’re redeemable so when they do develop we care what is happening with them.
The plot is not such a problem as the characters. Many of the details were well imagined with loads of possibilities. The problem boils down to Tchaikovsky taking these details and heading back into well-known territory. Empire of Black and Gold boils down to a rescue mission with a cool foray into a creepy forest. While he didn’t use his best elements well and relied on the contrived too much, at least the way he split the group worked.
In Dragonfly Falling, he did better plot wise because we experienced different aspects of the start of a war through the different character eyes. In this way he took stereotypical plot and ran it through a personal experience which helps ho-hum plot a great degree.
The off-putting aspect in this book was this strange subplot with a dragonfly royal. She was a cool character and somewhat intriguing but really had nothing to do with any of the main characters. So at the end when we should have gotten a pay off from her character we were severely disappointed. I expected her to have some connection to Salma as they share a background. He could have at least shed a light on why she was included in the story.
The plot problems: we have major creativity that is not presented in a creative way with added story-lines that have no connection to the central characters.
I have a solution! The villain.
Thalric is a wasp-kinden and a major in the Rekef, the secret organization that really runs the Empire’s military, he’s basically Stenwold for the villains. He’s a true spymaster with all the good intentions, morality and focus…the only problem is he’s totally loyal to the empire.
So we have many problems but turns out the solution is simple…present Thalric as the protagonist and the protagonists as his antagonists.
Why would that work? First, Thalric is the best written of all the characters. You feel for the conflict between his personal ideals and his nation’s ideals in which he represents. He’s one of the few characters whose kinden plays little into his character except to put him squarely on the villain side. Which is a rather important detail. It also makes him highly relatable by any and every reader.
Second, by making Thalric the protagonist and central character from which to introduce all other characters we eliminate the need to present Sten, Che, Tynisa, Salma and Totho at all. When we come upon them in the action is when we meet them. We can see their flaws while also witnessing them rise above their status quo. This presents the “good” characters in a better light.
This presents a dichotomy about whether these “antagonists” are even worth saving. It softens the contrivance of Thalric being on the wrong side and switching to the right side. It builds in the reader a sympathy for the good side as seen through Thalric’s point of view. We needed this sympathy for Sten, Che, Tynisa, Salma and Totho. I believe it would have achieved Tchaikovsky’s aims of utilizing a unique point of view centered around characters of realistic morality.
Well, what about the true villain of the book? Really the secondary villain in Empire in Black and Gold would make an awesome main villain. Being able to take on anyone’s face, male or female, has it’s benefits and makes one a massive opponent. In Dragonfly Falling this villain character, Scyla, becomes more an opportunist villain than on any real side so why not just start out with her as such from the beginning?
By changing the point of views we also have an opportunity to delve deeper into the plot. When we have unusual point of views on ho-hum characters we can take them out of their safety zones and really explore their characters.
Tchaikovsky did really well having degrees of good and bad people. The main characters are so flawed as to be almost not worth saving while the main villain has such promise you want him to succeed. At least the villain villains are such that you want them taken down at any cost. For all it’s faults there is something compelling about the Shadows of the Apt series. Certainly the battles play a large part in making the world feel real, whether on a personal scale or on an army scale, especially in Dragonfly Falling.
When a writer finds what really works well in their work they should run with it. Yes, even when rooting for the villain is better than good. At heart all an audience wants is a compelling point of view. Tchaikovsky’s world worked, really worked. The insect-kinden are incredible. Now if only we could root for the good guys as well.