Character Study: Scimina

I decided to jump to this character after reading some recent reviews which noted that Scimina is the most two-dimensional character in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I agree with this characterization wholeheartedly. Cut for spoilers:

See, the way I see it — others’ mileage may vary — one of the staples of epic fantasy is clearly-delineated good and evil. Those goods and evils might be relative, as we see increasingly in modern epic fantasies (e.g., Brandon Sanderson’s Lord Ruler, Jacqueline Carey’s Satoris). But the heroine, at least, always thinks she’s on the side of the angels, and there’s always someone that she thinks of as the devil incarnate. And frequently there is a devil incarnate, quite literally. The Wheel of Time has its Dark One; The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant had Lord Foul. Sauron got fleshed out in The Silmarillon, but throughout the War of the Ring, Frodo never knew why the Big S was so bad. (Aragorn probably knew, but I’m not sure it mattered.) Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry had Rakoth Maugrim, who pretty much committed terrorism and rape and so forth Just Because, as far as I could tell. All the protagonists ever really know about these guys is that they’re evil and they have to die.

Thing was, in a novel chock full by dark gods (Nahadoth, and in a less-obviously-symbolic sense, Itempas), evil overlords (Dekarta), and sinister wizards (Viraine), I had a problem: all of them would have been the Usual Suspects for epic fantasy bad guy under ordinary circumstances. Nahadoth was the worst of these; quite literally a Dark Lord, he does things that should have made him absolute evil in the eyes of readers. Most of the world certainly regards him as such, given that he sank a continent and killed millions, Just Because. But much of my story hinged on none of these characters being truly evil, in the absolute moral sense of things. They all had reasons for the ugly things they did. Dekarta and Viraine were driven by their love/mourning for Kinneth. Nahadoth was driven by rage at his enslavement, and mourning for Enefa; Itempas by his love for and loss of Nahadoth. It’s hard, at least for me, to depict someone as evil if they’re capable of sorrow and regret.

So I needed there to be one absolute, unadulterated ratbastard in the story, and Scimina was it.

And to keep her absolutely evil, I needed to keep her relatively unknown. I don’t know her back story. Why she takes such pleasure in tormenting Naha, why she doesn’t love her twin brother, what’s her thing for leashes and torture — no clue. I suppose she must have loved Relad at some point; he certainly shows some remnants of love for her. But I don’t know what broke them apart. As for her relationship with the Nahadoth/Naha… I imagine all Arameri children are taught carefully how to command the Enefadeh, and they’re told why this care is necessary, complete with examples. So although they grow up privileged and powerful, they also grow up under the shadow of constant fear. My vague guess is that a person accustomed to power isn’t going to like experiencing fear, even in small measure. She’s going to find some way to prove to herself, symbolically or otherwise, that she is in control of that fear-object. I imagine she and Nahadoth have jousted before, and she knows how far she can push him — there’s a hint of this in the torture scene, when he says to her, “We had an agreement.” I have no idea what this agreement may have involved. But it seems to me that two such powerful people, even if one theoretically has power over the other, would have no choice but to establish boundaries and rules for their relationship, or neither would be able to function for constant fear of the other’s interference.

But this is all I know about her. It’s all Yeine needed to know. And it’s all either Yeine or I wanted to know, because it’s hard to plot another person’s death if you know them and understand them. (I don’t even think about what happened to her when the book ended, when Nahadoth took her away with him to the gods’ realm. I don’t like making my mind go into terrible places. I do it when I have to, but in this case I don’t. So I won’t.)

So, Scimina: evil Just Because.

14 thoughts on “Character Study: Scimina”

  1. Hi Nora!

    I’ve emailed you about this, and you replied in much the same vein as the above, but something about it all still doesn’t sit well with me. I’m going to try and express my dissatisfaction, but I bet it’s going to be hard to pin down, so please bear with me!

    Having read the above, I think I remain unconvinced because your impetus to create Scimina as she was stemmed from a desire to have a just plain evil character. You cite Sauron, Rakoth, The Dark One, etc, but they were all gods, and as such they worked as symbols of evil, manifestations of pure nastiness that needed no explanation. If a god is evil, well, that’s fine. They’re a god. Evil gods need no explanation.

    However, I don’t think this can extend to regular humans. While we don’t expect humanity in a god, we do in a person, and Scimina’s inhumanity is what rendered her two dimensional. As you noted, you have many evil characters in the novel, and they all work due to their inner conflicts, motivations, etc. We understood where they came from, even if we didn’t agree with them, and this made their evil comprehensible, nuanced, and three dimensional.

    Scimina, being but a symbol, stops being somebody I cared about. I didn’t care about her being beaten, because I knew she would be, and utterly. The moment you signaled her as the ‘true villain without redemption’, I knew she was going down, and that it was a matter of time. The other evil characters? Their fates were undecided, because real people always have the chance of redemption. Scimina had none, and so I simply didn’t care about her.

    That’s what I had a problem with. In making her a symbol, in giving her no depth, no real personality or humanity, I lost all interest in her, and a central conflict of the novel lost interest for me as a result. I read 100k to see what happened to Yeine and Nahadoth, to see how Yeine matured and changed with the goddess within her, to experience my other favorite characters, to see if Yeine would survive the machinations of her enemies–but not to see Scimina fall.

    Ok, this is turning into an essay, sorry! So I guess I’ll leave you with a question: what prompted you to believe you needed an absolutely evil character?

  2. Hi Phil,

    I’m going to disagree with the first part of your premise — evil gods function as a symbol in some epic fantasy works (notably those influenced by Christianity), but not all. In most epic fantasies, these “embodiments of evil” are actually people, with complete identities of their own — we just don’t know them. Rakoth Maugrim had a complete identity, for example, which we were given a glimpse of through his son. But even that was just a glimpse; we saw him mostly through the lens of Darien’s longing for a father/place in the world and flirtation with evil. (It’s been a very long time since I read Fionavar, but if I recall, Darien was essentially a potential “Maugrim lite”, and readers were meant to see through him that Maugrim must’ve made a similar choice at some point.) Satoris most certainly was complete; he was a sympathetic and tragic figure, ultimately. The Lord Ruler too, though I don’t think he was remotely sympathetic. And in two of those three cases (Satoris being almost too much of an exception; he’s a meta-analysis of these kinds of dark lords, deliberately intended to show that they’ve all got lives and three dimensions whether we see it or not), we knew very little about these evil characters, beyond the fact that they were evil and needed to die.

    My trilogy is populated with gods who are not only humanlike, but who repeatedly state that they exist as reflections of humanity (e.g., mortals are created in their image, and this goes both ways). So the gods are human in my world. The humans are human in my world. No one’s just a symbol and everything is relative, and no one is absolutely evil. Which means that the only way to make any person seem absolute is to remove the point of relativism: knowledge. Or empathy, maybe. The world thinks of Itempas as good and wonderful because they don’t know the full story about him, and thus can’t empathize with whatever made him the way he is. Likewise, Yeine thinks of Scimina as hideous and evil because she doesn’t know the full story about her. The difference is that Itempas’ full story mattered to the plot, and Scimina’s did not. So one gets full examination — there will be more of Itempas in book 2 — and the other does not. Since, ultimately, Scimina wasn’t really the book’s antagonist and the story really wasn’t about putting Yeine on the throne, I was OK with that.

    And I didn’t believe I needed an absolutely evil character. I didn’t suddenly notice there wasn’t one and frantically insert her! :) It’s just that I don’t believe every character in a story needs a full psych profile — and traditionally, the bad guys in epic fantasy haven’t gotten one. I didn’t see any reason to change that. :)

  3. Sorry–didn’t mean to intimate that all evil gods serve as symbols of evil, but just that only evil gods can.

    And I in turn am going to have to disagree with you on Rakoth, at any rate! He came from outside the Tapestry, was never born, simply showed up one day as a truly evil force and began to make war. Never any intimations of personality beyond jealousy, hatred and the desire to subjugate. Damien had the potential not to become another Rakoth, but the most powerful of his servants; he could have wielded incredible power but never would have matched his father, and thus I don’t think he gives us any insight into his dad. He was an excruciatingly poignant example of a character in the balance, but I don’t think his narrative in any way humanized or created empathy for Rakoth himself. Thus I think Rakoth is firmly in the Evil God of Evil camp, and never had a ‘real’ identity in the sense we humans could ever understand :P

    As for Sauron, while he may have more personality in the Simarillion, in LotR he clearly doesn’t; he just shows up to wage war, hates the elves, wants to crush everybody and ruin the tea party. Again, I think he serves in LotR as a rather two dimensional character, a force of evil, a prime mover for all the bad guys without much depth himself. Same with Perimal Darkling in The God Stalker series, etc.

    Anyway, I’ll leave off badgering you any further. If you simply felt that Scimina didn’t need to be understood, and were content to have your readers perceive her as a villainess through and through, than that’s that. I’ve clearly registered my POV, and there’s no point in belaboring it :P

    Btw, I loved that about your book–how perceptions shaped people’s realities, how the gods were given form by how the people viewed them, how all that power was in turn subject to the viewpoint of the people who worshiped them. How Nahadoth can’t help but be shaped by Yeine’s expectations, no matter how she tries to accept him as he is. And I’m really excited to see how Itempas evolves and grows in Book 2, so you set him up perfectly for that. *grin*

  4. I have to admit that Scimina was just far too crazy to make a plausible heir for Dekarta. Cruelty isn’t the sole quality that a successful dictatorial ruler requires.
    And yes, she was scheming too, but that’s still not enough as she gave every indication of getting totally out of bounds as soon as Dekarta’s control over her was gone. I mean, Dekarta seemed much more in command of his mental faculties than, say, Tiberius in his last years, so why should he pick a wannabe Caligula for a heir?

    Nor do I think that fantasy requires absolutely evil characters. Maybe not everybody needs to be explained, but it is nice when everybody of some importance is 3-dimensional. Unless they are ineffable evil gods and such.

    BTW, Sauron didn’t get much more characterization in Silmarillion – beyond him being a shape-shifter at the time, with fondness of turning into giant wolves and bats and feeding his enemies to wolves we didn’t learn much about him there ;).
    But then, I never felt that Tolkien’s depiction of the Dark side and it’s motivations was one of his strengths… Too bad that it was one of the aspects of his work that has been copied most assiduously.

  5. I agree largely with the above comments. I don’t think Scimina needed to be made sympathetic — “Oh, she’s crazy and evil because when she was a little girl Relad locked her in a closet with Naha..” or something like that — but she did need to be made more interesting, and she wasn’t. She was just the cackling evil bitch-harpy who lived to torment anyone with even an iota of decency, and therefore we knew she was a dead woman from the moment she appeared. And she never really served any purpose in the story except to be the Most Evil Person In the Book.

    Also, echoing what Isilel says, I think that made her and Dekarta both weaker characters. When Yeine speculated as to why Dekarta had named her an heir, she reflected that for all Dekarta knew, she was insane and/or an idiot and would bring the empire to ruin. I thought that was a very good point. Of course, we learn that Dekarta never had any intention of Yeine having a shot at the throne. Yet Scimina clearly was completely insane, if not an idiot, and would be the worst possible ruler. So I was left wondering why Dekarta (who, as ruthless and evil as he was himself, at least had some traces of honor and good sense) would just sit back and allow it.

  6. I understand and agree ;)
    Some if thus is the mystery; answers to every possible question that can be raised become Encyclopedias (or 20 book epic-series). The book has to end somewhere.

  7. Verrrry belated on this, Isilel; sorry.

    Scimina has more qualities than cruelty. This is obvious in the speed with which she’s able to muster allies in High North, push through a war petition without anyone the wiser, and silence Ras Onchi when the old woman says too much. Relad does muster a counter-strategy; both of the twins are competent to rule. But Relad is just competent, while Scimina is a bit more than that.

    Thing is, this is a first-person story, so we know only what Yeine knows. And Yeine knew her for all of two weeks, during which finding out Scimina’s life story was kind of low on her priority list.

    Personally, I think Tolkien did a good job of handling evil. I’m fascinated by the story of the Kinslayings, for example, and I would characterize much of what happened re this as evil. Most readers consider only his Satan-surrogate Sauron evil, though — probably because we’re meant to, as his created mythology is Christian at its root. Also because he seems to have liked the Elves and considered them capable of redemption. They got more detail (LOTS more) to justify this.

  8. Amadan,

    And she never really served any purpose in the story except to be the Most Evil Person In the Book.

    This is true. And that was indeed (part of) her purpose. Though I don’t think she was the Most Evil; I would classify Dekarta as such. He’s just more sympathetic.

    But I do take to heart that she wasn’t interesting; that’s fair. Of course, I found her interesting, personally — but of course, not everybody’s going to feel the same way about everything. :)

    Why do you think Scimina was insane/an idiot? She made reasonable choices, wasn’t delusional, and would have won if she’d had a better understanding of how Yeine thinks. (But then, she only had 2 weeks in which to get to know her enemy.) Having a taste for kinky nonconsensual sex and being an asshole doesn’t make one crazy or stupid — just unlikeable.

  9. Just finished the book, loved it.

    While it will mean nothing to anyone unfamiliar with the series, Scimina struck as nothing so much as a near-image of Azula from ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender.” This isn’t a critique because A) Azula isn’t a paen of original characterization herself and B) Scimina plays her role really well. I just found it quite interesting how the one character’s image kept flashing in front of my mind’s eye when reading of the other.

    In any case: very much looking forward to book two. Thanks again.

  10. I agree with you Jemisin. Scimina would have made a good ruler. She was good at crushing her enemies (Yeine, Relad). She had manage to “play” with Nahadoth for years and stayed alive all through it (no messing up commands on her part. I bet she worded them all so well a lawyer couldn’t find a way around them). She even quickly found out Yeine’s weakness, acted on it, and throughly defeated her rival in a matter of two weeks (which couldn’t have been easy). Though she was two dimensional in a sense I could totally understand, living how she did, why she was the way she was. If you have a choice between crushing your enemies or dying beneath their feet which would you choose? Thus as Dekarta’s heir she had to be ruthless if she wanted to live. It was either inherit the throne or die for most of her life. So she became the evil person we all love to hate.

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