Aliette de Bodard: The Character At The Heart Of The Book

Aliette de Bodard is one of those authors whose talent will destroy any sense of self you have, which means you really have no choice but to jump in and be taken away by the power of her prose. She wanted to come by and talk about the nature of character inside fiction — and how the world is seen through their lens, and how the character is seen by the reader.

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In a modern genre book, the protagonist is an important notion: working out who they are (and who the antagonist are) are a major part of most writing advice books I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them: in addition to the ones I got out of the library, I own an entire bookshelf of the stuff ranging from Le Guin’s Steering the Boat to more technical stuff like Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles and Ends). The protagonist is the driving strength of the plot (or of a plot strand): they might be reacting to the antagonist’s ploys in the beginning, but by the end, they’re clearly in charge and they’re clearly steering things.

With The House of Shattered Wings, I ended up doing something a little different.

I didn’t exactly set out to do it. The novel is set within a Paris devastated by a major spell-war, where magical factions, the Great Houses, now fight over the ruins. Magic in this universe is powered by Fallen angels — they tumble from the Heavens, bloodied and amnesiac, and make their way through the world as best as they can –more often than not, they join a House and become indispensable to it.

My idea was to explore this universe via three characters in the same House: one would be the head of the House, one would be a little further down the scale, with interest in magic but little in politics, and one would be a newcomer, a newly born Fallen angel who would be the perfect vessel to explore this universe, since she’d be discovering it at the same time as the reader. She’d also be headstrong and impulsive, and pushing forward a lot of the plot with her decisions.

Except that. Hum. It turns out that I really can’t write amnesiac characters. Not when the amnesia is total, and the character had no prior life to speak of, at least none that they will remember, or that will affect their interactions with others. I need something to cling to, something to help me get into the character; and it turns out that with me, that something is character history. I made several attempts at writing the character, but they all fell flat.

I still liked the idea, though. Really, really liked it and couldn’t quite let go of it — except that it clearly wasn’t working.

Until I had the proverbial light-bulb going off in my head–what I needed wasn’t so much an ingénue; as an outsider: someone to whom the system wasn’t natural or inbred, but odd and repellent at the same time. This is how I ended up with my third point-of-view character: Philippe, a Vietnamese ex-Immortal dragged away from his home, conscripted to fight in the spell-war, and now stranded in Paris and doing his best to survive in a world that was fundamentally and irretrievably hostile to him (and not entirely happy about the situation, to say the least!).

The other character, though — Isabelle, my naive Fallen angel — is still here. The book opens with her Fall over Paris, and she’s the one thread that connects every plot line. She remains, in many ways, the protagonist: the one who initiates things and drags people, willing or unwilling, behind her. She’s the heart of the book, but you only ever see her through other people’s eyes.

It was a very interesting thing to do, actually — because it enabled me to do another thing I’ve always wanted to try, which was to show the different facets of a character. We all act differently with different people (think, for instance, how different a king would be to a peasant vs the same king to his mother. Or how loving and kind the Dark Lord can be with his family, vs the face he actually presents to the people he’s conquered).

In this case, since the reader is never in Isabelle’s head, you can only ever guess at what she’s thinking. You build an aggregate picture from everyone around her, and they all have a slightly different perception of her: hopelessly naive, headstrong beyond prudence, generous to a fault; a weapon to be used against other Houses, a gifted student in magic and alchemy; a friend and fellow outsider within the House. She’s one of the prime plot movers, but she’s always at a remove–weaving in and out of the narration, always at the centre but never fully encompassed.

It’s a mostly classic trick; in this case, it makes her more alluring and more compelling, I think, than she would have been as an amnesiac. And her counterpart, Philippe, ends up doing a lot of the heavy lifting I’d foreseen for getting exposition across, except he’s mostly doing it by pointing out both how the system works and how inherently unfair it is to people like him — resentment and anger making for great emotions around which to anchor the plot (and the character).

The other thing I found interesting with doing this was getting the narration away from the character who would have been the natural “Chosen One” — the one slowly learning about their powers and having unique abilities. In this particular case, with Philippe, I wanted to explore what it meant to be away from this classical narrative centre: Philippe doesn’t have any nascent powers (if anything, his are waning); he doesn’t receive any particular favours or help or signs, but simply tries to stay alive as best as he can (and his best bet would actually be away from the maelstrom that is Isabelle!). It was a lot of working against the expected narrative in my head, but I think it makes for something slightly different, and a point of view that is both unexpected and fresh.

So the whole “amnesiac character” didn’t quite work out like I originally envisioned, but I think the book is much, much stronger for it!

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Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: her short fiction has garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. She blogs, reviews fiction and writes recipes for Franco-Vietnamese food at http://www.aliettedebodard.com.

Her newest is The House of Shattered Wings:

Multi-award winning author Aliette de Bodard, brings her story of the War in Heaven to Paris, igniting the City of Light in a fantasy of divine power and deep conspiracy…

In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the aftermath of a Great War between arcane powers. The Grand Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes and rubble and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those that survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once grand capital.

Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation — or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires falls, so may the city itself.

Aliette de Bodard: Website | Twitter

House of Shattered Wings: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

21 comments

  • Actually, I more see the novel as being centered around the three “younger” protagonists (including Philippe in that) with Selene as House Head on a “higher” level. More of a layer cake structure to your characters.

    • Paul: interesting… For me Philippe isn’t “younger”, just more anarchist 🙂 (he’s actually, I think, the oldest of the characters in terms of age, but because of his checkered history he’s also the one least bound by any kind of strictures).
      Selene gave me a lot of trouble because, while I absolutely needed her for the novel, in the first third or so of the novel, while the plot is merely rumbles of possible trouble, she has nothing to do except her usual business (mainly meetings and a lot of day-to-day business of the House).

  • There are existing, established books where the narrator is not the main character. The Great Gatsby is one. In The Book Thief the narrator is Death. Can’t think of any others. I wrote a short story once where the main character never actually appeared and never spoke! The story is called Uncle Tom (The narrator is a peeping tom, but the main character is the girl being watched). It was published in Noir Nation #3.

    • JJ Toner: I’m sure there’s quite a lot of them–Holmes and Watson also come to mind! (I can’t think of others right off the bat, but I’m sure I will at some point).
      And ooh. That sounds like a nice challenge! Did you find like you continually ran against expectations and the story felt “wrong” in your head while writing it? (I had issues with that when writing the book)

  • Oh! One of my favorite series does this! Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy. Jaenelle is the heart of everything, but it’s told from the POVs of the men surrounding her, so you end up feeling as though you know her intimately but have never been inside her head. I have full faith this method can work. Aliette, your world sounds fascinating and I can’t wait to try it!

    • Yes! I was thinking the exact same thing. I do remember reading one Amazon reviewer’s take that Jaenelle “didn’t appear fully fleshed out.” However, that particular review never mentioned the fact that she is not a POV character; I imagine the reader didn’t pick up on it and so didn’t like having to piece together Jaenelle’s character based on the perceptions of the other characters.

      But I myself love the Black Jewels trilogy and am all the more intrigued by House of Shattered Wings (which is one of the BEST titles I’ve ever heard) because of the similarity! Adding to my to-read list.

  • I can’t wait to read this. I love worldbuilding like this! Especially when the author chooses to incorporate existing political/historical tensions.

    The idea of only seeing the protagonist through other people reminds of the way you never see Helen of Troy except how other characters describe her. It’s an interesting technique. Although in this case you’ve gone one better because Isabelle isn’t some powerless victim! (Did I just say you did better than Homer – yes I did, dammit.)

    Looking forward to this one!

  • I too, can relate. I have a WIP with a similar POV style. I have a quiet crusading knight trying to get home after the Fall of Acre, eventually getting swept up in the political unrest in the Zurich region of Switzerland. I knew from the start though that telling his journey through his eyes wasn’t going to be a lot of fun to read, where questions of faith and humanity mix with PTSD: lots and lots of ugly internal monologues. So, instead I have three other characters to reflect his progress, the captain of the ship who gets him to France from the Holy Land, a tanner’s apprentice the crusader saves from bandits and semi-adopts as his squire, and then his brother the count’s widow who is forced to sell off their lands and facing the remainder of her life in a nunnery. He’s become a much more compelling person to follow on his road to redemption. At least, he’s more fun to write through those other eyes.

    Paris sounds like the perfect setting for your story to play out in. All those gargoyles and gothic cathedrals, and ruins…Excellent choice. Looking forward to reading it!

  • *doesn’t even finish the post*

    SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! *hands fistful of cash*

    Sorry, that felt rude, but holy hell do I want to read this book now. And it’s rare for me to want to read a book about angels.

    I shall now read the rest of the post and learn from you. Thanks for sharing so much! Point of view has always been fickle with me as well and this insight is enlightening and helpful 🙂

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