Despite my rough start in learning to read, or perhaps because of it, my parents eagerly fed my hunger for stories and learning with a steady supply of new material. Extensive reading lead to an inquisitive nature, which I initially satisfied by seeking guidance and explanation from others. As I hit my teenage years and wallowed in my own brilliance for a decade, I spent more time reading to come to solutions on my own.
When you think about it, books are a great place to look for answers as they allow us to live via a proxy. Through the immersion into the point of view of the characters, we are able to experience the consequences of noble and horrible actions both, facing challenges and choices most of us will (thankfully) never encounter in the modern world. By walking a mile in a character’s shoes, we learn more of who we are and what we believe. As writers of speculative fiction, therefore, we must seek to explore and address life’s biggest mysteries in our own work.
One of the best examples of this I have read is Garth Nix’s treatment of the concept of death in the Old Kingdom Chronicles. The key to his success is how he makes his characters, and by extension the deeper issues, relatable.
Through the action of his protagonists, Nix uses adventure and exploration to hook his readers and draw them in. He then employs skilled characterization to establish reader empathy and deepen the immersion. By engaging the reader in these ways, Nix is able to establish a platform from which to deliver his deeper message.
It isn’t only the protagonists who are relatable, however. In the world of the Old Kingdom Chronicles, necromancers (most frequently the villains), use their power over death to gain prestige and influence in their world and to postpone their own ends. Look at the pyramids and other similar structures around the world. Does this sentiment seem familiar? Though making his villains relatable, Nix increases the sense of conflict and is able to demonstrate his themes more clearly.
The true brilliance is in Nix’s treatment of the concept of death as a piece of milieu. Death is intimidating and in many ways unreachable. By establishing death as another plane of existence the protagonists can enter by using their necromantic powers, Nix begins to simplify the large metaphysical question. Through extensive world building and description, Nix makes the abstract more concrete and relatable. He then utilizes the extended metaphor in his plots to address the themes of the morality of clinging to life and the necessity of letting go of both others and your own existence when the time comes.
In the end, it is the vehicle of our craft that allows writers to express our beliefs and points of view. If we do our job right, however, we do not simply provide answers. Instead, we provide a proxy for others to come to their own conclusions.Tags: Sequence 04: On the Shoulders of Giants