Worldbuilding Through Characterization
 

Worldbuilding Through Characterization

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One Way by S. J. Morden
 

One Way

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The Character Building of Peter V. Brett

Greetings, Fantasy-Faction readers! As one of the newest members of the team, I would like to take this opportunity to thank both the overlords of the site as well as you fine folks for the chance to rant regularly about the current state of awesomeness that is fantasy fiction.

Seriously, have you read this stuff? Of course you have, that’s why you’re here. Martin, Rothfuss, Brett, Sanderson, Hobb, Weeks, and so many others have made this such a fantastic time to be a fan of this genre.

Firstly, let me destroy all credibility by saying that I’m not a fan of GRRM. I know, I know, I’ll report to the dungeon immediately and await sentence. Before the quartering, please let me clarify that my not being a fan is simply a matter of personal taste, as I simply find it hard to slog through the intense scenes of violence and brutality. However, this does not mean I don’t respect him as an amazing writer! This man has changed fantasy like no one since Tolkien, and I definitely believe for the better. In particular he has spawned a number of writers who have followed in his bloody footsteps, creating their own worlds of dark and ‘adult’ themed fantasy.

Peter V. Brett, author of the Demon Cycle, is one such individual, and I would like to focus on his work today. Of all the new authors I have discovered in the last few years, Mr. Brett stands out not because he has the lyrical power of a Rothfuss, or the worldbuilding of a Sanderson, but because there is not an author out there who creates people more believable than Peter V. Brett.

A Living, Breathing, World

Fair, if late, warning that the following paragraphs assume you have read the first two books in The Demon Cycle (The Warded/Painted Man and The Desert Spear). If you have read #3, you are either lying or I hate you, because it’s not finished yet.

The world of Thesa is a dark place, threatened nightly by the demonic spirits known as ‘corelings.’ Only by hiding behind powerful wards every night can the ragged populace find any measure of safety.

This dark, claustrophobic setting breeds people of singular character. Fight-or-flight for these poor souls is all too often hide-or-die. Many people are broken husks, world-weary and hoping simply to see another dawn. This hopelessness drives many to cope in extreme, but very human, ways.

The key to Peter Brett’s writing is the simple fact that there are few, if any, ‘throwaway’ characters. Stereotypes like the typical jealous thug ex-fiancé, or the domineering and manipulative mother are developed in.

The Thug

Gared Cutter is a thuggish brute, fiercely jealous and possessive of Leesha. This sort of character is easy to write off, and often is very quickly. At first it seems that this will be the case with Gared as well. But as the story progresses, new layers of Gared are added, primarily through the influence of The Warded Man, Arlen Bales.

Gared soon becomes a key player as a bodyguard for Leesha and Rojer, but he never stops being a thuggish brute. He doesn’t develop some new unrealistic sensitivity or heart. He is simply a brute who has learned the error of his ways. He remains an angry, reactionary who prefers to pummel first and never ask questions. Brett stays true to the core of the character he created while presenting him in a new light to the reader. This makes Gared appear more and more human (even sympathetic) in our eyes, and very hard to dismiss despite his earlier actions.

The Manipulative Mother

The domineering parent is a staple of all literature, not just fantasy. In Elora Paper, Brett has created one to stand with the best (worst?) of the trope. A capricious, bitter, unfaithful, domineering, manipulative user, Elora typifies the worst virtues of a parent (ok, Harl Tanner is far worse, but that’s another article). Desperate to live vicariously through Leesha, Elora promises her daughter to Gared Cutter at a young age, while having a not-at-all-subtle-affair with Gared’s father, Steave.

In The Warded Man, it is ultimately the combination of Elora’s negative influence along with Bruna’s teaching that brings out the best in Leesha’s character. She stands up to her mother, eventually inspiring her beleaguered father to step up and force Elora to shape up under threat of divorce (which would cost Elora her status, Thesa being patriarchal and all). In this crowning moment of coming-of-age triumph is where most stories usually move on, leaving the reader with a sense of triumph along with our hero as a ‘villain’ has been ‘vanquished’.

It turns out Brett is not finished with Elora, though. She doesn’t simply slink into the background. Instead, as the story progresses, she develops into something of an ally to Leesha, though it is clear Elora has not changed at all. She is still a schemer, still trying to live vicariously through her daughter. The difference now is that Leesha has earned her mother’s respect, and she chooses the pragmatic course of becoming something of an advisor during Leesha’s ‘diplomatic’ relations with the Krasians. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is clearly Elora’s philosophy, and her unique worldview becomes invaluable to Leesha, and soon there is a clear and mutual respect, if not affection, between mother and daughter.

What’s Next?

The above are only two examples of Peter Brett’s enthralling storytelling. I haven’t even mentioned the brilliant development of Renna Tanner, who could be the entire subject of an article! The world and the corelings are secondary to the characters. For Mr. Brett, there are no ‘wasted characters.’ Everyone in his world has their own story to tell, and returning to develop characters thought forgotten serves to reinforce the idea that Thesa is a dying world, ravaged by demons, and there are only so many people left. I think I can very brazenly speak for a good lot of my new colleagues when I say that Peter V. Brett is a must read for fantasy fiction fans, and also when I say, hurry up with book 3!

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar Jared says:

    That’s a really interesting take on Brett’s work. I’m a middling fan of his work (found first book enticing but problematic & the second one a barely-mitigated disaster), but, off the top of my head, I’d say his strength is in the world-building and not the characters.

    As you note, it is good that he doesn’t have throwaway characters, but I think many are well-defined stereotypes rather than unique individuals. The women, in particular, are disappointing, but his Middle Eastern analogues have also received some criticism (fairly, I believe).

    The world, however, is spectacular. Post-apocalyptic, dying earth, amazing system of magic, all well-integrated into the society and culture… I love the landscape and think it really absorbs the reader.

  2. Avatar Overlord says:

    Brilliant article Jesse – what a debut 😉

    Have to say that Brett is one of my favourite writers today. I loved book 1 and thought book 2 really, really exploded the whole series in terms of scope for future novels.

    From what I have been told, book 3 brings us another POV too – so that will be amazing… things will only get bigger and better I am sure 😀

  3. Avatar Jesse says:

    Ah my friend, we both tip our hands. You are a middling fan, I am a huge fan, so it would only make sense that we would differ in our opinions. I appreciate your feedback. Thank you for commenting!

  4. Good post. These are secondary characters you’ve discussed, are not the main characters, but a part of their direct support groups. To some extent we expect this amount of depth in quality fiction.

    Personally, what separates the great writers from the good is the quality of minor characters, and Brett’s don’t suffer from lack of depth as many do. He doesn’t fill the room with cardboard cutouts and cliches, which is the main reason why Thesa feels so real. Even other townspeople, council members, and gate guards have degrees of personality and a sense of individualism. They might only appear for a moment or a few, but he wrings the most out of each one as if they all have detailed backgrounds.

    That’s something every writer should strive for.
    Cheers,
    @DavidJFortier

  5. Avatar Marek says:

    Whoa, great article but a bit too short for me… Can I expect some more articles on the subject or it’s standalone?
    Hope not cuz’ this is good 🙂
    By the way, I’m great fan of Brett and the world he created 🙂
    Just can’t wait for the third book… I don’t think I’ll even wait for version in my native lang’ – as I compared original and polish version – translation seems to be quite poor unfortunately…

  6. Avatar Khaldun says:

    While I am a big fan of Peter V Brett, I’m sure that even he would agree that he doesn’t have the same lyrical quality as Rothfuss or the worldbuilding of Sanderson. I think as big of a fan as I am of Brett, I can’t agree that he creates the most vivid, realistic characters. GRRM has that honour, in my books. Despite appearing onscreen but a few times in the entire SOIAF series, The Mountain That Rides is a person that quite simply feels real. Not sure why I’m even writing this except to agree to disagree on a few fronts.
    Great first article though 🙂

  7. Avatar kiwi365 says:

    Great article, i particularly liked the way Brett developed the Krasians, he could easily have just made them the bad guys, mindless brutes bent on destruction but he humanized them and even made me a little sympathetic to their cause. Brilliant. Characters like Hasik and Abban are brilliantly developed.

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