Over the years, I’ve honed what I now call my three-chapter sniff test. Basically, if I can’t find anything or anyone to care about by chapter three, there’s a huge chance that I’m not going to care about the story as a whole. And I’m usually right. It doesn’t have to be a something big like the main character or the plot. Really, it can be any aspect of the story, from one interesting plot point to a minute worldbuilding detail. In fact, the main reason why I was so taken by Ready Player One – to the point where I literally did not notice the problematic main character, the flimsy plot, and dumb dumb dumb action scenes – was because I fell hard and fast for the concept of OASIS.
Ultimately, readers are looking for one thing when they’re reading a book: a reason to care. It’s a simple enough requirement but anyone who’s ever dabbled in fiction writing will tell you that it’s extremely difficult to execute. Which is why I was so enamored with Helen Scheuerer’s Heart of Mist on the very first chapter alone. In such a short period of time, I cared about Bleak, the tough as nails, aloof main character who, for all intents and purposes, should have made me recoil. I’ve consumed enough media to know how… iffy these types of female characters, especially YA heroines, can be portrayed so I think I was rightly wary. I mean, tough-talking, ostracized, female character, with a pining conventionally attractive childhood friend to boot? Sounds like 80% of the heroines in the genre, let’s be honest.
However I soon learned that while Bleak might seem like the standard no-shits-given main character with a tragic past in a YA fantasy, she’s far from the typical cardboard cutout “badass” heroine.
Our first scene with Bleak is of her waking up in the village square from a drunken stupor, regretting the previous night’s failed excursion. As Bleak staggers her way through the marketplace, we learn that she’s an alcoholic and, worse still, an orphan. The villagers are disgusted by her for those two reasons. Bleak does her best to blend in, to ignore everyone and just continue on her way. When she’s accosted by a
walking piece of shi former acquaintance, it’s revealed that Bleak has the unfortunate ability of reading minds. Everything starts to click into place. Bleak’s reliance/addiction of alcohol isn’t just a random one-off quirk (and I’ve read enough books with characters with that and less), but a way to deaden her ability to hear people’s vile thoughts about her. Her cold and aloof exterior isn’t just some superficial character flaw but were traits that she had no choice but to adapt in order to survive. Her actions, her determination to find a “cure” for her condition, even her decision to push away her childhood friend who only wanted to help her (and god knows how badly she needed help), they all stemmed from years of hiding and suffering from her affliction.
Those first few scenes with Bleak told us enough about her character to not only spark our interest in the story but also care about this strange girl with a huge chip on her shoulder. In just a few pages, Heart of Mist succeeded better than the 20-minute exposition dumpster fire of Suicide Squad (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Empathizing with Bleak, a young woman trying to make it through life even though the odds are totally against her, was pretty easy. I cared about Bleak and what was going to happen to her. I cared about her because she was just so human and so vulnerable. Yet she’s also an active character, driven to improve her situation, even at the cost of her reputation (not that she had much). She’s far from the perfect main character – Bleak is a pickpocket, a skill she honed along to fund her solitary lifestyle – but that’s what made her so real, so compelling. Her introduction couldn’t have been more perfect.
And yes, I am still talking about the first chapter.
Now, there are plenty of other reasons why I loved Heart of Mist, however, this isn’t a review so much as a discussion on what I believe really made the novel so enjoyable and heartfelt. Empathy. Besides Bleak, most of the main characters were empathetic. More importantly, all of them were written with empathy and written so well that it was impossible for me not to love all of them. Even Commander “Questionable Morals” Swinton.
Relatability or even likability aren’t necessary in creating great characters. You don’t even have to agree with a character’s ideals and morals to root for them. Case in point, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. If your character stirs empathy from readers, the character can be as reckless, as brutal, as outrageous as you can make them and still readers will keep flipping the pages. Case in point, Commander “What the Hell Are You Doing, Stop, STOP YOU IDIOT” Swinton.
Screenwriting legend Robert McKee said that “(in writing empathetic characters) the principle is we empathize with characters whose humanity echoes of our own.” Characters can have personalities completely the opposite of our own and experiences wholly foreign to ours (like in most fantasy books), but as long as they have even just one positive human quality that people can recognize in themselves, no matter how faintly, readers can empathize with that character.
To further explain this, let me give you an example of what I believe transgressed this basic principle of writing with empathy. Eliza and Her Monsters. Yes, I harped on about that book last year but I still can’t get over so much wasted potential. In theory, I should have empathized with Eliza Mirk more than any character I’ve encountered in any fictional work last year but the opposite could not be more true. Yes, I recognized myself in Eliza – a quiet loner who just wants to spend her days with her head in the clouds – but there wasn’t anything about Eliza to empathize with, strangely enough. To borrow a visual from Heart of Mist, we’re only ever on the surface level of Eliza’s psyche when we should have gone deeper and deeper throughout the book. We were never invited to the room where her core memories, the ones that shaped her as a person, are kept. She felt more like a husk of a character and by the time she showed signs of being an actual human person, it was too late. I was already firmly detached from the story.
In contrast, Henri – the Valian matriarch, an adamant traditionalist, and hardened warrior – should have been a difficult character for me to identify with but I did. Because Henri wasn’t just the sum of her titles or character quirks, she was a young woman determined to keep her people and her culture safe. She suffered self-doubt and was constantly terrified of not being strong enough and good enough for Valia. And, really, who hasn’t felt something like that? Questioned their own skills, doubted their decisions no matter what?
When we’re with Henri, we understand what she’s going through. While I’ve never had to lead a legendary clan of warriors, I do know what it’s like to drown in insecurity but refusing to verbalize any of my doubts for fear of affecting team morale. My experience doesn’t hold a candle to Henri’s but the faint echo is more than enough for me to understand and feel her plight, and I’m sure other readers experienced the same too.
The same goes for the rest of the POV characters in the book. Dash, the ten-year-old stablemaster’s son, is a rumbustious kid who wants to prove to everyone that he’s capable of more than people believe. Swinton, the Commander of the King’s Army, is a morally gray character with a mysterious past, determined to keep his secret (and himself) safe. These fundamentally different characters are both driven by something to push themselves to their limits, and those are qualities that are easy to identify with.
Heart of Mist’s greatest strength lies in its characters that felt so much like real people. Their inner conflict drove a wedge between them and their friends and family. We might not always agree with their actions but we get why they would do certain things and act certain ways. Real people don’t always do the right thing or make the right decision. Real people do what they believe is good, which may not necessarily be good for everyone else.
Moreover, as an empath, I felt deeply connected to the story in a way that I haven’t really felt for any other book in recent years. It’s strange and a little bit silly of me to say that but it’s true. I genuinely felt like I was in the story because of how well written everything was. Heart of Mist has, for lack of a better word for it, heart. Sure, it’s got a great story, set in a fantastic world with a cohesive magic system, but it’s the realness of the characters that really got me.
[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook copy of Heart of Mist and an eARC of Reign of Mist in exchange for an honest review of the upcoming second book. I wasn’t required to write anything for Heart of Mist but I loved it too much not to write this meandering ramble.]