Characters With Room to Grow

Preparing for the release of The Queen of Izmoroz

Every writer has pet peeves, and I’m no exception. For me, it’s lack of character growth. I won’t say a story is bad if the characters don’t change markedly in some way, but I will say it is not a story I am likely to find satisfying.

When I began writing The Goddess War trilogy, one thing I really wanted to accomplish was to present profound, yet convincing character growth. I wanted my protagonists, Sonya and Sebastian, to experience dynamic change from the first book to the third. I wanted the reader to look at these two character at the end of the story and find them barely recognizable from the people they met at the beginning. And yet I also wanted that transformation to be authentic to the character’s experience from one chapter to the next so that it never felt forced. In other words, they had to earn it.

In order to give them some room to grow, I decided to make Sonya and Sebastian teenagers. As some of you know, I used to write YA novels, and the endless appeal of that age group is their openness to change and growth. They are, as Cory Doctorow once called them, "Nature’s Daredevils”. This means they can do wondrous and unexpected things. It also means they are capable of spectacularly bad decisions. In The Ranger of Marzanna, this is exacerbated by the fact that Sebastian was born with near limitless magical ability (albeit at a terrible cost), and Sonya has been granted extraordinary powers by a death goddess. So when they screw up, they really screw up. Not just their own lives, but the lives of many.

By the end of Ranger, Sebastian’s choices have put him more or less into the role of antagonist, although he’s still too hurt and confused to see it. And Sonya…well, the reader is privy to a few conversations at the end of the book that she is not, and so she really has no idea what’s in store for her.

So part of The Queen of Izmoroz is about Sonya and Sebastian grappling with the fallout from the choices they made in Ranger. For Sebastian, it’s something of a redemption arc, which I hope will be as much of a relief to read as it was to write. For Sonya, the change is far more complex, as she is disabused of a great many of her assumptions and naiveté, and must learn that good intentions sometimes just aren’t enough. She will have to decide what to do with her newly acquired wisdom and in the end perhaps not even her beloved death goddess will be able to help her.

Of course there are other kinds of character growth besides “screw up badly, then learn from mistakes”. Galina, who is the same age as the siblings, experiences a completely different kind of growth—a gradual awakening in which she discovers little by little her own value and the value of those around her. It helps that’s she ridiculously intelligent. I do enjoy writing exceptional characters, and I decided her intellectual prowess should equal Sonya’s physical prowess and Sebastian’s magical prowess. She moves from sheltered noble to rebel insurgent fairly swiftly in Ranger, but for all her bluster she still undervalues herself. It’s only when confronted with profound injustice in Queen that she finally comes into her own.

There is sometimes a moment when a character’s growth is crystallized in a scene or bit of dialogue. It’s usually a very small moment, perhaps unimportant to the larger story.

Throughout the first book, and for a large portion of the second, Galina is constantly quoting people. Writers, poets, playwrights, politicians—her internal database of literary advice is so extensive that I ended up composing a “Galina’s library” list to keep track of all the people and works (fictional, of course) that she was drawing from, just to make sure there was some consistency. She would pull one of these wise quotes from her prodigious memory whenever she was feeling unsure and longing for some advice.

But there is this moment toward the end of The Queen of Izmoroz when that changes. Galina and her ever-faithful maid and confidant, Masha, are standing among the ruins of Les, the town that Galina’s ex-fiancee Sebastian destroyed in the previous book. And Masha asks her a question:

“Why this place?” She gestured to the collapsed buildings and gaping cracks in the square. “Why gather everyone in this broken, ghost of a city?”

“Ghosts,” said Galina, “are a symbol of our past failures and our longing to correct them.”

“That’s very fine, miss,” said Masha. “Who said it?”

“I did, Masha. Just now.” 

The scene goes on from there straight to the gathering. This bit of dialogue is such a tiny shift that if you blink, you might miss it. But this is the moment when, after always seeking answers from others, Galina finally looks to herself.

Speaking of growth, I’ve already shared the amazing cover for The Queen of Izmoroz in a previous newsletter. But the artist, Magali Villeneuve, was kind enough to provide some early color samples with a few different looks they were considering. I have so little ability when it comes to visual art, that I’m always in awe of this kind of stuff.

They ultimately went with option C, and for representing a sweeping epic fantasy called The Goddess War, I think it was the right way to go. But there is also something in option A that just screams Galina to me. Option C is how others might see Galina, but option A is how she sees herself.

Anyway, there is one other major character that I haven’t mentioned, and that of course is Jorge. But observations on the growth of the youngest son of Señor Arturo Elhuyar will have to wait.

Listen

Here’s an album I played a lot while writing The Queen of Izmoroz, especially the chapters in Galina’s point of view. It’s by Polish neo-classical musician Hania Rani and it’s called Esja. Good for a quiet, contemplative evening staring out the window at the rain.