As the latest draft of my WIP sits with its editor, it’s also sitting in the back of my brain, sort of simmering. So I seem to be seeing different types of heroes everywhere I read, even when I’m not (consciously) looking for them. I’ve heard people talk about unsympathetic characters/narrators, but I don’t know that I’ve ever run across a hero I really didn’t like, certainly not one I kept reading about.
Until I started Marie Lu’s The Young Elites, the first book in the trilogy of the same name. (Books 2 and 3 are The Rose Society and The Midnight Star, respectively.) Adelina Amouteru is the main character of all three books. At first, because I am a worrier, I wondered if I was right that she was unsympathetic, or–as I was feeling–actually very unlikable. I wondered if that was Marie Lu’s intent. But the further I read, the more convinced I was that–yes–Lu did this on purpose. (Also, I googled around a bit and found interviews like this one, where it is clear that Lu saw herself as developing and writing a villain–a villain who, in my opinion, is also the hero.) Adelina is definitely the hero of the series. She is active, makes things happen, changes the world around her, and–ultimately–does go through a pretty huge learning arc.
As I realized what Lu was doing, I found myself asking one question over and over as I turned the pages: Why am I still reading? Not in a bad way–Adelina’s story is very well written. It’s action-packed, dramatic, and it does a pretty great job painting the wide range of dynamics between the various characters. But I asked, because–honestly–I really didn’t like Adelina. She is–for much of Book 1, all of Book 2, and a big part of Book 3–self-centered, paranoid, and cruel. But I didn’t want to put down her story and stop reading. I was rooting for her.
I think Lu did several things to get me (okay, us) there.
- She lets us see Adelina for a series of scenes before she discovers her abilities as a Young Elite. In those scenes, we see glimpses of Adelina’s focus on herself and her anger at those who neglect or abuse her. But we see her primarily as vulnerable and powerless, necessarily fearful and self-protective.
- Lu gives Adelina some very big, very real reasons for focusing so much on herself, for feeling angry and vengeful. Because Adelina has been “marked” by the blood fever and has no (apparent) useful powers, she is in turn ignored and abused by her father, harrassed and tormented by her society. Lu draws these scenes with strength, starting the first book by getting the reader on her hero’s side.
- Lu creates a downside for Adelina’s abilities. Adelina’s power is to create illusions, and the strength of that power is fed by anger, fear, and conflict. As she progresses through the story, these powers start to take a toll (trying to avoid spoilers here, bear with me!). Her illusions begin to spiral out of her control, showing her the image of her dead father following her around. They feed her paranoia–she is accompanied by increasingly frequent whispers in her mind, telling her that her friends want to abandon her, or to take her strength for themselves, or simply to kill her. By writing Adeline’s story in first person and giving us direct access to the whispers, we see the forces still acting against Adelina, even as her own actions get more violent, more abusive, and more unlikeable with every page.
As I got deeper into the story, toward the end of Book 2, I started–also–getting curious about whether and how Lu was going to bring Adelina out of her villain state. I kind of thought she had to, because, well, hero’s change. And I was pretty convinced, even in the midst of Adelina being really horrible, that she was the story’s hero. And Lu did it. Not too many spoilers here, but Lu takes Adelina deep into the isolation that cruelty and paranoia build around her, then creates a very strong reason for her to force herself out of that isolation and for the friends she has pushed away to invite her back into their company. And then Lu continues to place them all in situations where support, connection, and even some kind of renewed respect and caring start to be rebuilt, in all of the characters. (I did feel a few times that Adelina pushed away the whispering voices a bit too easily in this stage, considering how quickly she gave into them earlier in the story, but this was just a tiny question as I read, and it didn’t take me out of the story or out of accepting Adelina’s growth at the end.)
So back to that question of why I kept reading. I could say it was because I was being analytic and I wanted to figure out all the things I’ve just talked about. But that wasn’t it. I kept reading, because–while Adelina does get really unlikable, especially deep in the middle of the story–she never becomes unsympathetic. By giving us a believable foundation for all the nastiness Adelina commits, by showing that some of her fear and paranoia is based in reality and reason, by continuing the fine thread of her intentions along with her actions…Lu kept me sympathizing with Adelina from beginning to end.
And that is one way to build a hero.