Thursday, February 23, 2012

World Building vs. Character Building

Today I'm going to follow up on my earlier post about The Year of the Flood. I had talked about Atwood's world building, which is immersive and draws me right in. She doesn't info dump, but rather, she gives little glimpses to draw you in. It's like the world-building peep show. On the second page of the book, one of the main characters, Toby, is looking out at her surroundings:

"She lifts her binoculars, scanning from left to right. The driveway, with its lumirose borders, untidy now as frayed hairbrushes, their purple glow fading in the strengthening light. The western entrance, done in adobe-style solarskin, the snarl of tangled cars outside the gate...There's a fourth minivan farther along the drive, crashed into a tree: there used to be an arm hanging out of the window, but it's gone now."

She doesn't bother explaining things. She raises questions, "What's a lumirose? Why is there an arm?" and moves on. For a reader like me, it grabs me right off. I get curious. So, why do I find The Year of the Flood easy to put down? The characters and plot don't grab me.

Most of the book is focused on flashback. We start with a post-apocalyptic setting, and the most fun parts of post-apocalyptic fiction are wandering the world, seeing the carnage, and watching the characters overcome the wasteland's challenges. Flashback takes all of the fun out of it. We start with everybody being dead. Then, it goes back years to a storyline that is, honestly, pretty dry. We see both characters' lives before the flood, and for both, it involves little of their own conflict and a lot of them observing other people.

The questions I come to for characters are: What's at stake? What do they stand to gain or lose? What's important to them? Or, put another way: Why should I care? I know both of the main characters survived the disaster. Everybody they had conflicts with before is presumed dead, so there are no reasons to assume that the big adversary from a decade earlier is about to resurface, especially since she spends hardly any time in the present once she gets past the first few pages. I made it to page 215 and I'm bored with the flashbacks. The past isn't interesting unless it affects the present, and there have only been maybe 15 of those 215 pages that have anything to do with the present. Those 15 pages are mostly world-building pages, too. The closest the present has come to conflict is that one of the characters had a run in with some wild pigs and might be running low on food some time in the next few months. That's fine as conflict to get you warmed up in the beginning, but when does it get bigger and more urgent than that?

To sum up: The Year of the Flood has left me high and dry. I want to care, but I don't. I like the world, but an interesting world isn't enough to get me through 400+ pages.

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