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A Word About Growth

This is a thought that has been on my mind lately, so I thought I’d say a few words about it.

I’ll attempt to avoid spoilers below, but there will be discussion of The Book of Deacon Series in general and the character of the Red Shadow in particular. If you have not finished reading the first three books of The Book of Deacon and haven’t read The Rise of the Red Shadow, you may encounter some spoilers.

Right now, I’m working on Rise of the Red Shadow 2. It has been eagerly requested by fans more or less since the release of the first Rise of the Red Shadow, and I can certainly understand why. Lain/Teyn/Leo/The Red Shadow is a popular and compelling character. People want more. But the issue is, The Rise of the Red Shadow was a prequel. Which makes The Rise of the Red Shadow 2 a sequel of a prequel. Now, I could discuss the marketing difficulties presented by trying to sell a book that should only be read by people who have read the spinoff prequel of a 10 year old series–it certainly weighs upon my mind as I chip away at this–but for the moment let’s ignore that. Structurally, an in-between-quel is a sticky wicket. In the case of a sequel, you know where the story begins, but not where it is going. In the case of a prequel, you know where the story ends, but not where it came from. For a sequel to a prequel, you know both where the story came from and where it is going. The bulk of the potential to surprise and intrigue the reader is removed. That’s challenging.

In and of itself, this isn’t an insurmountable goal. The sequel problem isn’t a problem at all, as after the first chapter of ANY book, you know where you started. The prequel problem is a little more tricky, but not overly so. After all, any good story is about the journey, not the destination. Experiencing the connection between points A and B is where the entertainment comes in. The problem, really, is a problem of character.

The Rise of the Red Shadow was about Lain. It was about where his story began, beginning effectively with his birth, and ending as he makes a decision to defend something he loves even if doing so deprives him of it. The story, in effect, takes Lain all the way from blank slate to the character we roughly expect from The Book of Deacon, set more than a century later. Not a lot of people realize that, by the way. The Book of Deacon is set LONG after the end of the Rise of the Red Shadow. This presents both opportunities and obstacles. The opportunities are clear. With a lot of time, there is a lot of chance for interesting things to occur. There are certain aspects to Lain’s life that we’ve yet to see take shape in the Rise of the Red Shadow. The obstacles come in the form of character growth. If Lain ends the Rise of the Red Shadow as the character we meet in the Book of Deacon… what does that mean for the character in the years between?

A character arc is a technically optional part of a story–insomuch as ANY part of a story is technically optional. You can make a fun, entertaining, well-constructed story where the main character learns nothing and doesn’t change. There are enough other aspects of a novel that can provide entertainment value that any one of them, or even several of them, can be absent or subdued so long as the others are good enough to make up for the missed opportunity. But the more good stuff there is, the more good stuff there is, so I always prefer to see at least some aspect of growth for the principle cast. Do I always succeed? Probably not. But that’s beside the point. The idea is, it SHOULD be there, and it is always my intention to put it there.

Character growth doesn’t need to be obvious. Drawing attention to it can actually feel a little forced, for example. A common-to-the-point-of-cliched way to illustrate character growth is to place the character in a similar situation at the beginning and end of an adventure and have them react differently thanks to the experiences they’ve had along the way. It’s, in fact, so common that it’s a part of the Hero’s Journey. “The Hero Returns Home, changed.” But like all cliches, it’s common because it’s good, it’s effective.

The problem with Lain is, I can’t do that. Lain has set his course through life at the end of the previous book, and when we next see him, he has clearly pursued that path through life. All of the unseen events are natural outcomes of that decision. He cannot grow in visible ways because we already know that he has not grown in visible ways.

There are ways around this. He can grow in subtle ways. Aspects of his life and identity which aren’t thoroughly explored in the Book of Deacon are still up for grabs. We can also see him attempt and fail to grow. Consider making changes but either be forced back to his old ways or choose his old ways. These can be done well, but also risks causing frustration and disappointment.

I won’t go into all of the solutions I’ve found, or all of the solutions there are, because doing so will spoil a book that won’t come out for quite some time. But I felt as though it, at least, was worth taking a moment do discuss why this book has been a years long riddle that continues to kick my butt.

As I finish this little essay, I realize I was ruminating on something and not actually progressing toward a vital, interesting conclusion. And if that’s not a microcosm for the very issue I set out to discuss, I don’t know what is.

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