“The Choices We Made” and the importance of questions in a novel

The sky outside is a blanketed ceiling of soft, white-grey clouds, and all I can think about is why won’t the freaking internet connect? My computer seems to have decided that WIFI is its sworn enemy, meaning that I can’t utilise the holy power of YouTube as I attempt to write. It’s Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in the café at Booths supermarket in Penrith, and I am very close to screaming about my stupid computer and the stupid WIFI. But instead of screaming, I’m going to write (and upload this blog later, when I’m at home and have internet which actually works properly).

Today is the second day of May, but the clouds, and the Lana Del Rey music in my headphones, and the fizzy sweetness of Fentimans “curiosity cola” make it feel like winter. Winter is the season I most love to write about. The depth of clouds and the chill that you can almost taste in the air reaches a level of evocativeness which sunlight cannot quite muster, and that is what I want to write about. I want to write words like the cold which slices right through to your bones, I want to write words which cut and scratch and burn. I don’t want my books to speak softly, I want them to dig deep into the depths of shattered souls and make them vomit up the last dregs of apathy. I want to write books that make people feel, and make them question, and make them ache. Because, otherwise, what’s the point in writing at all?

The novel I’m writing at the moment, THE CHOICES WE MADE, is a winter novel. Not in setting, as such (although it begins in the depths of December), but in narrative. It is always winter inside my main character’s mind. Her name is Katerina, and she is forged in frost and wrapped in ice. She is not a hero. She is not quite a villain. She thrives on her brokenness, and survives because of her fear.

When I wrote CONSEQUENCE, AMEND, and TRANSCEND, I created characters that were a little too “good”, too “perfect”. Even Phoenix, who I consider to be vastly imperfect, was still short, slim, and relatively attractive. And don’t even get me started on Kai. He spends 2 out of 3 books not having any flaws! What kind of a writer am I? Don’t get me wrong, I love those characters to pieces, but if I’d written them at the age I am now, I would have written them differently. Novels should make people question the standards of society, not blindly uphold them.

Katerina could not be considered “perfect” on any level. She is selfish, she is destructive, she is cruel, she betrays the people she loves, and she is loyal only to herself. And on top of that, my favourite things about her: her weight increases dramatically over the course of the novel (she is my first protagonist who isn’t slim), she is not beautiful – she is just average looking – and she doesn’t have a hybrid eye colour such as turquoise (Persephone), or ice-blue (the Tsar), and she doesn’t have a strong moral conscience or a need to save the world.

The idea for THE CHOICES WE MADE came to me when I was reading a book about the Siege of Leningrad (before A Levels stole from me my love of history). There was this photograph in the book, and it was of a corpse, being dragged on a sled down a street laden with filthy snow. I was drawn into that image, drawn into its story. But it wasn’t the corpse, or the person dragging it, that I was interested in. I was interested in a world where such a thing could become the normality.

RIAN_archive_324_In_besieged_Leningrad-1

Normally, when I write a novel, the characters come first: before the storyline, before the setting, before everything. With THE CHOICES WE MADE, I created the world before I created the story. I knew I wasn’t going to set it in Leningrad, because a historical setting can be limiting to the nature of the plot, and I didn’t really fancy doing tons of research. So instead, I created the fictional city of Villenguard. I spent about nine days creating as many details as possible about the fictional country Rouskaya, where the novel was set. During those nine days, I also created the character of Katerina.

I originally intended Katerina to be a “good” character, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my five years of novel writing, it’s that any character worth writing about will have the last laugh when it comes to the plot. And Katerina certainly did.

You see, the idea of a city damaged by siege wasn’t the only concept stuck in my head. A question had been bugging me for quite a while: why haven’t there been any female dictators? It’s kind of sexist, I think. Who’s to say that women can’t be brutal and callous and evil? Why do men get to have total power, but women don’t? As I thought about the concept of a female dictator, and the concept of my city, Villenguard, the ideas began to mingle, and the novel took a turn I hadn’t been expecting.

Since writing AMEND, I’ve wondered: what makes people sympathise with a character? I, as the author, found AMEND a struggle, so what did readers think about it? Did Melinoe have any redeeming qualities, or did people finish reading it merely to find out what happened to the other characters? Katerina isn’t like Melinoe. She’s not evil in a way that disgusts people (not that I would consider Melinoe evil). Her evil is a downward spiral, a loss of sanity, a loss of humanity, and to me, it’s beautiful.

At the beginning of THE CHOICES WE MADE, Katerina is definitely a sympathetic character. Her change is gradual. The journey from selfless to selfish is fragmented, tiny shards of self-interest piercing her goodness. And suddenly there’s a shift, and she’s no longer good, and she becomes utterly consumed by a need for power. It’s the struggle between selfless and selfish that I most love to write about.

Throughout THE CHOICES WE MADE, there is the sustained metaphor of “the abyss” that Katerina is always on the edge of, the abyss which threatens to devour her. I think it’s this abyss which gives Katerina her voice, because she spends the entire novel attempting to claw herself away from it, yet she craves the abyss more than anything, because it will end her fear, and when that is gone, she will have nothing left. There is nothing that literature can make more beautiful than pain.

In my Three Stages trilogy, I focused so much on the plot, and the characters, that I didn’t spend much time on description. In THE CHOICES WE MADE, description is everything, setting is everything, emotion is everything, and they are all intertwined. Everything around her comes to represent Katerina’s struggle for power. The sky is desperation, the ground beneath her is her sacrifice, crumbs of bread falling to the floor are her hatred for herself. Katerina is lost in her world, slowly ingested by the insatiable hunger of her own desperation. The effect of this, I hope, is that the lines of hero and villain are blurred, and a reader can no longer tell which Katerina is (because I certainly can’t tell).

I want people reading this novel to question Katerina’s motives, question her reasoning, question her character. I want people to wonder why they’re on her side (if they are). I want people to question what it means to be good.
And if the reader is on Katerina’s side, is it merely because the story is told through her eyes? Are good and evil anything more than perspective?