As the Pact & Pattern series draws to a close, I think readers might be interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at some of my thought process in writing these books. One element of the series that I’m particularly proud of is its treatment of character, particularly its exploration of theme through dynamic characters whose perspectives shift and change across the narrative. The Pattern of the World, the final book in the trilogy, is particularly focused on this element – on characters coming to understand their world, and themselves, in new ways. Or, sometimes, failing to do so.
While I won’t talk about The Pattern of the World itself in this article (it is about a month out from release at time of writing, after all) I will outline the methodology I have used in my approach to character in the series, with some examples from the first and second books. For readers who’ve been with me from the beginning, hopefully this will stimulate some thought about the character arcs in The Hand of the Sun King and The Garden of Empire, and prime you to keep your eye out for these elements in The Pattern of the World. If you’ve yet to read the first two Pact & Pattern books, you can still read on, though might have some plot points and character arcs spoiled for you.
I’m generally a believer in the maxim, coined by William Faulkner, that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. There are certainly other things in my books than angst and internal agony, but the heart of a story lies in its characters, and the heart of the best characters, in my opinion, is internal conflict.
It is tempting, at this point, to launch into a lengthy diatribe on the notion that to be human is to be in some way dissatisfied with yourself, but I think that such a feeling may in fact be unique to novelists (or, perhaps, specific only to me). However, I do think most people will at some point in their life experience a profound internal conflict, a struggle of some sort between the self you are and the self you want to be. This struggle may occur as part of adolescence, or later in life when faced with difficult decisions, or crumbling relationships, or a failure to measure up to your own expectations, or a crisis of faith (in religion, or in government, or in the mission of their career). Perhaps an experience teaches you a profound moral lesson, one which, in order to be applied demands a change in career – your newfound sense of morality must now struggle against the comfort of stasis, the cost of leaving one path, and the difficulty of finding another. Two sides of the self – the new, morally enlightened self and the old, comfortable self – wrestle one another until one overcomes or some compromise is reached.
This may not happen to everyone, though I would argue it will happen to most thoughtful people at some point in their life (and we as readers would like to think of ourselves as thoughtful people). On reflection, some element of the self must change – but that realization is not enough. In my opinion, the best fiction reflects this struggle, “old world passing away while a new one struggles to be born” within a person’s heart.
War & Peace, one of my favorite novels and one of the best examples of dynamic characterization in the novel form, is focused almost exclusively on these sorts of character arcs. Pierre Bezukhov, the nearest thing the book has to a protagonist, exists in an almost constant state of self dissatisfaction. He begins the novel a drunkard, a gambler, and a rabble-rouser of the highest order. His introduction takes the form of two characters discussing his most recent stunt – strapping a police officer to a bear and hurling them both into the Moyka river. But he is also deeply thoughtful and sensitive, and knows that his behavior is absurd and foolish. After he comes into a sudden inheritance, Pierre spends nearly the rest of the novel trying to figure out what to do with it, how to become the sort of person who can effectively deploy his newfound wealth for the betterment of society – often stumbling along the way over his many vices and weaknesses. Almost every character in the novel faces a similar dilemma. There is a version of themself they want to be, but which they fail to measure up to, and their story explores their efforts to reconcile that incongruity.
Far be it from me to compare myself to Tolstoy, but in almost all of my writing I try to do the same thing, often as a way to explore and unpack my own internal struggles. In the case of the Pact & Pattern books, each point of view character represents a different lens on the same internal struggle – a struggle with complicity in wrongdoing. Each character, at some point in the story, for different reasons, performs acts – whether of direct violence or mere complicity in larger, harmful systems – that they come to perceive as wrong.
In The Hand of the Sun King, Alder’s arc in these terms is quite clear. In the first act of the novel, he decides to work for the very empire that has oppressed his homeland in exchange for a chance to fulfill his personal ambition of mastering magic. The story subsequently engages him to confront the harms of the empire, and ultimately his own complicity in those harms, as part of the process of returning to his identity as Foolish Cur. The later books push him to examine how he has been shaped by the time he spent in the empire’s service, and how that shaping reverberates and echoes through his attempts to solve problems – many of which he caused himself. The central question for Foolish Cur in The Pattern of the World moves beyond his complicity in the empire, and demands something even larger of him – an examination of his obsession with magic itself.
The other point of view characters – Pinion, Koro Ha, and Ral – experience similar confrontations. Each of their arcs is meant to in some way mirror, or invert, or highlight specific elements of Foolish Cur’s, attempting to present a view of the idea of complicity from many angles. I doubt that I have succeeded in doing so in a way that is as compelling to my readers as Pierre Bezukhov’s struggles are compelling to me (again, I am not, and will never be Tolstoy), but I hope, at the very least, that these characters and their struggles resonate with some of my readers, and help them to consider and reflect upon their own lives and their own struggles – the conflicts that have, at times, turned their own hearts against themselves.