Warriors who don’t make war

OK. Calm now. Going to be slightly more coherent than in my last post.

The reviews of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms have thus far been mostly positive, which is phenomenal. (See last post for my typical reaction.) But I’m kind of glad for the occasional notes of critique that have cropped up amid all the praise. See, like all writers I’m still learning, constantly seeking to improve my skills in various areas. Part of that learning process is experimentation, which generally consists of me trying something weird and then seeing how readers react. The critical reviews are giving me an early taste of that reader reaction.

For example — the io9 review by Charlie Jane Anders mentioned Yeine’s passivity at certain points of the story. A couple of other reviews have mentioned the same. I won’t comment too much on this as yet, because the book’s not out and I don’t want to spoil it. But yes, as you can see from chapter 1, Yeine is very much the pawn of other people’s machinations throughout this book. She takes charge at certain points, but for me the fun part of writing 100K lay in essentially tossing its protagonist into a no-win scenario and seeing how she dealt with that. (What can I say? I’m a writer. We’re kind of evil.)

But I think what’s also happening with these criticisms is that I tried something new: Yeine is a warrior who never makes war.

Or at least, she doesn’t do it in any conventional sense. That’s the point. Yeine comes from a warrior culture. In her land, serious disputes are resolved in a straightforward and efficient manner: with a knife-fight. She’s pretty good at it, though we never see this. See, in Sky — the marvelous palace/city she travels to in chapter 1 — no one uses knives; even to carry one is considered the height of barbarism. The ways of Sky are not necessarily better, note; they may not stab each other every time they’re pissed off, but they do other things just as bad. (See chapter 2.) Yeine knows her survival could depend on her ability to play the game by Sky’s rules. This means she has no choice but to leash her warrior habits and find some other means of solving her problems. She must use her brains, in other words, not her brawn. (Not that she’s remotely brawny, but you get the idea.)

Problem is, this results in a character who, out of habit, draws her knife in tense moments… then puts the knife away. She learns of a military threat and must deal with it diplomatically, economically, logistically, even magically — but not militarily. It occurs to me (after these reviews) that this must be intensely frustrating to most fantasy readers, who are used to warriors making war, magicians making magic, thieves being all thievey, and so on. Yeine does eventually fight back, using the methods of her enemies; strength in Sky is all about having powerful friends. But that earlier whiff of impotence lingers.

What this means is that in future novels, if I force a character to act against her habits/background, I’m going to give her at least one chance to use the old habits before she has to stifle herself. That, I think, will make it clearer that she’s choosing to play by new rules — that she could kick ass if she needed to, using the methods with which she’s most familiar, but she’s purposefully chosen a different path. I don’t know if that will resolve the problem, but hey — like I said, I like to experiment. Time to change a variable.

So thanks, Charlie Jane; I think you just helped me become a better writer!

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2 Responses »

  1. That gap between a character’s capabilities and the situation in which they find themselves mired makes for interesting stories. Og the Barbarian, Slayer of the Skitterspider, maybe not so fascinating. Og the Barbarian, Slayer of the Skitterspider, who in order to track down the Idol of Odegra must join a traveling 3rd century BCE slapstick comedy troupe? That’s entertainment. I’m also reminded of the Greek stories about Achilles cross-dressing in order to escape going to the Trojan War…

    It occurs to me that the expectations you’re talking about (warriors make war, theives steal stuff) might come as much from fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons as from fantasy books: a 10th-level fighter character in such a game is very good at fighting, but very poor at doing anything else. Which, of course, means that a good GM will require such a character to think / talk her way out of situations as much as possible.

    Of course, if a character never gets to do something they’re introduced as being quite good at, then it can feel a little like one has left the gun hanging over the mantel without ever firing it.