Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Character Development Novels

I love what I call "character development" novels. These are different, in my mind, from a character-driven plot, although they are similar. They are novels that follow a single character over a span of months or years. Think Jane Eyre, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Les Miserables. Usually, these novels actually focus on two people, the protagonist and an antagonist, and how their relationship changes over the years. In Jane Eyre, it was Jane and her Aunt Reed. In Tess, it was Tess and Alec d'Urberville. In Les Miserables, it was Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.

I learned a new word in researching this article, the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. However, I'm not specifically talking about a coming-of-age novel, which is why I included Les Miserables in my examples. Jean Valjean was over 40 when the novel starts. And Tess was a young woman. I never studied literature in college (at least not extensively), so if there's a specific word for what I'm talking about, I don't know it.

For today's post, I'm going to examine some more modern examples, all at least nominally speculative, and why I liked them: Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, Sheepfarmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Moon and The Book of Joby by Mark J. Ferrari.

Of all of these, Sheepfarmer's Daughter was probably the least expertly rendered. And yet, I loved it. A good reason why I loved it might be that I am from a military background and I loved the Basic Training scenes. Sergeant Stammel wasn't nearly tough enough, but then, my own Sarge was something of a softie as well, and his wife made us a cake for Christmas Day. (Yup, I was in Basic Training during Christmas.) Anyway, the novel opens when Paks runs away from marriage and joins the marines. Or rather, she joins a mercenary company owned by Duke Phelan. She feels honor-bound to pay her father back for her dowry, which did a great deal to help establish sympathy for her.

There's no clear villain up front. In fact, there's really no clear villain throughout the entire series. This novel is about Paks, and how she grew to become a living legend. She's not a great fighter and she's not terribly brilliant. But she's a good leader and people like her. So did I as a reader. I enjoyed watching Paks grow from a girl to a competent soldier and leader. This novel has everything except romance, because Paks is somewhat asexual. It has fierce friendship, deaths, magic, chases, being chased, battles, revenge and miracles. I have read it again and again, and I'm working on wearing out my second copy of this novel.

The Book of Joby came out last year and is about Joby's struggles with no one less than Satan, himself. As in the Devil. God and Satan have a bet that Satan will not be able to make Joby evil. And just as God turned Satan loose on Job in the Book of Job in the Bible, God gives Satan almost free rein over Joby.

I enjoyed reading about Joby the boy more than Joby the man. Joby the boy was a joyous creature, and he was able to thwart all of Satan's schemes without even knowing that he was fighting Satan. Eventually, Satan begins to persevere and he almost succeeds, until Joby stumbles on a little patch of heaven on earth--literally. Joby the man had serious issues, mostly because he couldn't seem to succeed at anything despite having significant ability. Imagine having the genius of Mozart but not succeeding at even being a church organist. Not making it into an amateur orchestra. I don't really do it justice here; it sounds like a trivial problem, but to actually live through it would be something else entirely.

It all comes to a head when Satan decides that all his minions are idiots, and that he will deal with Joby himself. And then--well, I'd hate to give away the ending, now wouldn't I?

I saved the best for last. Clan of the Cave Bear, which I've read dozens of times, is my favorite coming-of-age/character development novel. Ayla is only five at the start of the novel and she is given a villain right away, when a young man named Broud's manhood ceremony is overshadowed by the discovery of Ayla's unexpectedly strong totem spirit--that of the Cave Lion. This one scene sets the stage for the entire book. Broud hates her . . . but he is also one of the most important men in her life. And she is the most important woman in his life, whether he will admit it or not. One gets the impression that if Ayla had not come into Broud's life, then he might have turned out to be a fine man. However, I'm tempted to believe that if Ayla had not been there, then Broud would have found some other way to ruin his own life. Some people are just destined for trouble.

Ayla emotionally becomes a woman when she is only eight years old, and is a mother before she reaches her teenage years. When reading this novel, you live so tightly inside Ayla's head that you feel all her emotions right on queue. The author is a master at manipulating the reader's emotions. When the novel ends--if memory serves--she is only about fourteen or fifteen. The series continues with The Valley of Horses. I have not followed this series to the more recent volumes. Although I enjoyed The Valley of Horses, I felt that Jondalar, her love interest, was too deeply flawed for me to connect with. When the author attempted to make him get over all his prejudices, it simply didn't convince me.

Also worth mentioning are some other novels I've read recently that follow this sort of pattern: Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell (where you actually follow two protagonists) and the Queen of the Orcs series by Morgan Howell. I suspect that In the Eye of Heaven by David Keck will follow this pattern as well, but I have not finished reading that novel yet.

While I love breathless plots as much as anyone else, sometimes I just want to slow down and spend some time with a beloved character. These are usually the type of novels that I read again and again. In these cases, the thicker the book, the better, because I never want them to end.


Lisa said...

I think Jane Eyre was between her and Ed. I don't recall her having much of a conflict with her Aunt Reed. Jane was a forgiving soul and didn't hold a grudge. I felt the biggest conflict was within herself.
I LOVED the work by the Bronte sisters!

Tia Nevitt said...

I was thinking long-term book-length conflicts, and Aunt Reed held onto her hate no matter what Jane did. She tried to make some things right before she died, but wasn't having any part of a true reconciliation.

Lisa said...

But Aunt Reed was out of the picture and Jane didn't seem to 'think'about her much (if any) when she wasn't living with.
Maybe it was on low, simmering on the back burner? :-)

Kate said...

I loved Clan of the Cave Bear! The depth of emotion and character development is incredible - as well as the full descriptions and detail of the world around Ayla.
Definitely worth reading over and over again!

Mihai A. said...

I love characters that are well build. It gives me a greater sense of involvement in the novel.
And if I recall exactly from the classics I think that David Copperfield also match your character article.

Tia Nevitt said...

Lisa, maybe you're right. For some reason, I thought of her when I wrote this.

Kate, I HAVE read it over and over . . . although it has been several years since my last rereading.

Dark Wolf, it probably would, but unfortunately I never finished that novel. Other works by Dickens? Yes. That one? no.

Robert said...

You need to read Jacqueline Carey or Robin Hobb if you haven't already. Masters of character development...

Anonymous said...

Sherwood Smith, especially her more recent Inda, is also very good at character development.

Some of Charles de Lint's Newford books tie in well together, and having a familiar character pop in is like when you spot someone you know in a crowd. Although for him it's more of a mosaic of character development since there are so many.

Anonymous said...

The book I'm revising now might be called a character development novel. The other character that the book follows the relationship between isn't the antagonist, though. Anyway, an interesting post. I've never read Clan of the Cave Bear. It's been on my list, but now that I know more about it, I'll definitely have to check it out.

Tia Nevitt said...

Katie, I loved it. I read it many times in my teens and 20s, and I think I would still enjoy rereading it today. Hmm . . . I don't think I currently have a copy.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Yeah, you'll love Robin Hobb. She's still one of my favourites for character development over a long period of time.

By the way, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (a sort of homage to The Jungle Book, but with a human boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard), is one I think you'll like when it comes out.

Apart from the fact that Gaiman is brilliant, his main character, Bod ("Nobody") we see in chapter 1 at 18 months, and then each chapter is like a period of 8 months or so later. At chapter 4, we see Bod at 8 years old. In the final chapter he's 16.

I've just finished listening to Gaiman read chapter 4 (on you tube) and it is amazing. I won't feel the slightest bit ashamed of reading this children's book.

*End unnecessary pimpage!* ;)


Tia Nevitt said...

Neil Gaiman intrigues me because he's written so many different types of novels. I hesitate to say it, but I have not read any of his novels yet. I was kind of away from fantasy for a while, when my daughter was younger, and I only read books that my friends foisted onto me. Which is how I started reading mysteries.

Anyway, I have yet to check out any of these newer authors that everyone has mentioned.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I hadn't read any until recently, either. Although American Gods is the one that won all the awards, I do prefer, Neverwhere. That's quite sweet, and funny. Stardust is brilliant, also. And written in a kind of old-fashioned Victorian style, that one.

Perhaps unusually for me, I tend to prefer his novels that are more like that. I hesitate to say it, but those works of his are more beautiful IMO.

With regards to your article on the sense of wonder, he's an author who always makes me wonder when I read his books. Characterisations are brilliant. Yep, Stardust would be my recommended starting place.

Nancy Beck said...

A good reason why I loved [Sheepfarmers' Daughter] might be that I am from a military background and I loved the Basic Training scenes.

That's because Elizabeth Moon is also from a military background - surprise! - she was a Marine. ;-)

Neil Gaiman - I've read 2 of his books so far. Well, I tried to get through American Gods, but I couldn't stand it. Some god wanting to bed down everything that comes his way and way too many product placements for me.

You might want to try Neverwhere. It's set in the London Underground (the Tubes), and it hooked me from the get-go.

Carole McDonnell said...

Hi Tia:

I've read this post for the past three days and didn't comment. Sorry about that. Thanks for mentioning Wind Follower.

Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys is a really good one to read, I hear. I too haven't read him but everyone thinks he's a genius so maybe I should pick it up.

Bildungsroman. Ah love the word. I think one of the best of these is supposedly Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. I have yet to read it. I swear I have got to get back to reading fiction. Have turned into a non-fiction reader in the past years.

Have a great weekend.

Lisa said...

I read Anansi Boys, and because I enjoyed it so much, then I read American Gods! I think American Gods went on a bit too long, but I still enjoyed it.
My sister also loves Clan of the Cave Bears and has suggested that I read it for years!
Maybe I'll get it from that cool place that allows you to check out books for free for 2 weeks :-)