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March 19, 2010 / Chersti Nieveen

analysis: characterization in the queen of attolia

Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Warning: This analysis may contain spoilers. I take an in-depth look at what makes this book work and why. And it may only be helpful if you’ve actually read the book. However, continue reading at your own risk. For more information on the Friday Analysis, go here.

THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA by Megan Whalen Turner

Special warning: This is one series I strongly recommend reading the book and not anything else — it ruins the surprises. Even the jacket copy should be read after the book; especially if it is for the later books. Having said that: For the history of the books or more general information, click here. For a synopsis of the first book The Thief, click here. For a synopsis of this book, click here.

For this book, I want to cover CHARACTERIZATION. There are so many aspects of characterization, but I’m going to pull a few (of the many) examples that Megan uses in her book.

Pulling impatiently at her long skirts, she seated herself. “Eugenides has been arrested in Attolia,” she said to her ministers. “A tradesman has come with the news from the capital city. I asked the guard to bring him here.” She didn’t look at her minister of war as she spoke. Her counselors exchanged worried glances but wait patiently without speaking.

Eddis’s guard, as they secreted the Attolian in, watched him carefully in case he was less harmless than he appeared, but he only stood before the throne, nervously twisting the collar of his shirt. It was bad news that he’d brought, and he knew it. Having come so far to deliver it, hoping to be well paid, he was afraid of his reception.

“What do you know about the arrest of my Thief?” the queen asked, and the tradesman cleared his throat a few times before he spoke.

“They found him in the palace and drove him out through the town. He was outside the city walls before they caught him.”

“They arrested him outside the city? Was he injured?”

“They used dogs, Your Majesty.”

“I see,” said the queen, and the tradesman shuffled his feet nervously. “And how do you know it was my Thief?”

“The members of the guard said so in the whineshop. We all saw him arrested, at least I and my wife did, but it was the middle of the night, and we didn’t know who it might be, but the guards were talking the next day in the shop. They said it was the Thief of Eddis that the queen had caught and that. . .” The tradesman tapered off into embarrassed throat-clearing noises.

“Go on,” said the queen, quietly, struggling to appear nonthreatening when she wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled.

“They said she’s going to make him pay for taunting her, leaving things in the palace so she knows he’s been there.”

The queen’s eyes closed and opened slowly. It was Eugenides she wanted to shake until his teeth rattled.

. . .

When the tradesman was gone, she sat staring into the space and frowning. Her ministers waited while she thought.

“I was wrong to send him,” she said at sat. The admission was as much concession as she could make to the horror she felt at her mistake.

What works: This book as a whole is a masterpiece of rich characters.

Why it works: Megan knows so much more than she gives us in her stories. She sprinkles in the pieces the readers need to know, holding back the unimportant info so it doesn’t hold-up the story. Megan is a master of showing her characters emotions through their actions –you can SEE the tradesman’s nervousness, as well as Eddis’s own mixture of emotions–and allowing us to understand the characters better through their dialogue and decisions.

Hard Rule: Let your character move the story.

The novelist, Henry James, once said that “Character is plot.” This is a really important when it comes to good writing. More often than not, the characters are the ones who move the stories. While the overall plotline is influenced by the political scene in The Queen of Attolia, a lot of the plot is comprised of the consequences from the actions of the character. They act and react to what is going on the world around them.

Hard Rule: Let your characters bleed.

Megan isn’t afraid to hurt her characters. She lets their actions have consequences, so that the problems arise from the characters themselves. The characters make mistakes, just like a normal person, and sometimes they even learn from them or regret them later. Because she’s willing to let her characters bleed on the page (sometimes, very literally!) we get a better story and her characters are able to grow and develop. As Megan Whalen Turner said, “Well, it was inevitable that *something* bad would eventually happen to him, wasn’t it?  Because if he went on winning, it would be a very dull story, wouldn’t it?”

Hard Rule: Flesh out your characters.

This book is a great example of an author knowing more than she puts in the story. In an interview on Vivian’s blog Megan said, “It’s more important, I think, to know when I need to flesh them out less. The reader doesn’t really need to know the entire, plodding, story of Costis’s life. They need to know just enough to believe that the rest of his life is there, somewhere out of sight. The characters can go on living in our minds.” While it may not be important for you to know your protagonist’s favorite colors, it is important that you know why they do what they do. If your characters are real to you, then they will be real to your readers.

Bring it home: Interview your protagonist. Ask them whatever comes into your mind, and see where the conversation goes. And let me know how the interview goes! You could even post them here to let people enjoy. . .

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4 Comments

  1. Nikki Mantyla / Mar 19 2010 10:07 am

    I love her quote about it. I still remember reading that on Vivian’s blog when I first read the interview. I tend to want to be so efficient about everything that I avoid “wasting” time on anything that’s not going to go directly into the manuscript, but I’ve come to realize that it is true your characters will only be as real to the reader as they are to you. While I still don’t do character bios, I have started concentrating a lot more on the realism and likeability of my characters, making that a top priority.

    • Chersti Nieveen / Mar 22 2010 8:06 am

      Writing is such a journey, and it’s amazing what we discover along the way. I don’t necessarily do a bio for my characters — I usually just write down physical traits so I don’t ever confuse that point (like giving them two different eyes colors, which would be awesome only if they had colored contact lenses). But I don’t write until I know my main characters inside and out, and they are as real to me as a best friend. I guess it’s because then I actually care about the person and the story they are going to have me tell. 🙂

  2. wordknitter / Mar 24 2010 3:32 pm

    My character interview is up on my blog!

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