I read the first chapter of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo for #FirstChapterFriday and enjoyed it so much that I decided to read the rest of the book. I loved it and, as I can never turn off my editor brain, I pulled out two great storytelling lessons this book has to teach writers.
1. Don’t use a false start
I gave the first chapter of Six of Crows a high score for #FirstChapterFriday because it was a stellar opening. I liked what happened, but I also liked the POV character, Joost, and his budding relationship with Anya.
I sympathised with Joost from the beginning. I liked him, and he liked Anya and was getting up the courage to ask her out and I wanted to see him succeed. When she was imprisoned and given an experimental drug, I wanted to see Joost try to rescue her.
I’d also read the blurb, so I knew this book was about rescuing someone. I knew Joost wasn’t the main character, but I assumed he would be part of a crew that would rescue Anya. The first chapter made this promise to me by focusing so much on Joost, Anya, and their relationship.
But that’s not what Six of Crows is about.
The end of chapter one was the end of Joost and Anya. The chapter introduced the reader to the story world and the central problem, and it was crucial, but only half of the content was relevant. The relationship between Joost and Anya had no purpose.
It was irritating to discover that Joost and Anya would take no more part in the story after chapter one. The beginning made me feel sympathetic for Joost and hopeful about his relationship with Anya. That’s not what I got, so I feel like chapter one wasted my time and misled me (not in a good way).
I wish I’d met Kaz (the protagonist) and the Wraith much earlier, because once I met them, I was in. Instead, I had to waste time reading about and starting to like someone who had no role in the story whatsoever. When I reread this book (and I will), I know I’ll skip the entire first chapter because it’s a false beginning. The important info could have been delivered without Joost’s crush on Anya.
2. How to develop a character that readers want to see succeed
I don’t remember ever being so eager to see a character succeed. I’ve got a gazillion favourite characters but I tend to read the sort of books with stakes like “I have to succeed or I’ll die” or “my family will die” or “the world will end” and there’s not as much emotional payoff at the end of the book because the characters return to their status quo, a little wiser and a little broken, but without having gained anything substantial.
I liked Kaz Brekker, protagonist of Six of Crows, from his first appearance, but as his character developed, I found myself actually rooting for him. It was a much better feeling than just enjoying the ride with characters that I like.
Maximise the first impression
Kaz was the right combination of witty, bad-ass and authoritative to keep me interested in his first scene, but what I liked best was that he’s good at what he does. In his first scene, Kaz lives up to what the blurb says he is: a criminal prodigy. His intelligence impressed me. I didn’t care about him yet, I didn’t want to see him succeed yet, but I liked him. I wanted to know what other strokes of ingenuity I had to look forward to.
Saving the world is dull
As I said, I’ve read a lot of books with big stakes that aren’t personal. These are enjoyable books, but I connect less with characters who lay it all on the line to save the entire world than characters who have a deeply personal stake in what they do. Sure, Frodo Baggins wants to save the Shire because he lives there, but Sam Gamgee wants to marry Rosie Cotton.
That’s why I was over the moon when Kaz was asked to jump in Six of Crows and he said “How much will you pay me?”.
Further, even Kaz’s motivation is personal. He doesn’t consider taking on this impossible but high-paying job because he loves the world, or even because he’s greedy. He considers taking on this impossible but high-paying job because he’s got a debt to pay. And apparently it’s a big one.
Take note that at this point (p. 55), I don’t know the details of that debt. All I know is that a desire to pay a debt, rather than a desire to save the world, is what motivates this character. This personal interest raises my interest in Kaz and makes me, the reader, want to know more about the debt. I’m not rooting for him just yet, but I am interested in the outcome of his success because that outcome is more than just his continued existence.
Balance flaws with strengths
Kaz is a thief, he’s violent and he’s got a reputation for a willingness to do anything for nothing. He’s also intelligent, doesn’t gloat, and has strokes of honesty.
There’s a limit to how far “criminal prodigy” can get you before it becomes unsympathetic. Balancing Kaz’s bad qualities with a few good things keeps the reader interested enough to keep reading for now.
I can’t stand info dumps. I hate paragraph after paragraph of the writer explaining to me why a character does what they do, thinks the way they think and feels the way they feel. I don’t need to know it all at once and I don’t want to know it all at once.
In Six of Crows, Kaz’s motivation is given to the reader piece by piece (or should I say brick by brick?). First, he wants money. Then, he wants money to fund his revenge and pay off his debt to someone named Jordie. Then, he wants money to fund a scheme to destroy someone named Pekka Rollins brick by brick to avenge Jordie. Then, much much later, he wants money to fund a scheme to destroy Pekka Rollins because Pekka Rollins killed Joride, Kaz’s brother. Bardugo gives away only enough to keep the reader interested in Kaz’s story at a given time. When that interest starts to run out, she gives more information. This keeps things fresh for the reader.
Flaws are more than just bad characteristics
Flaws and weaknesses are worthless if they don’t hinder your protagonist’s progression through the story. Without this hindrance, there’s no internal conflict. There’s no dire need for the protagonist to overcome their weaknesses.
Towards the end of the second act of Six of Crows, Kaz has a moment of weakness as the crew are trying to kick off their plan. He freezes, his movements become awkward, and he struggles to do what he does best. Finally, he passes out. This is because in the progression of the story, he’s forced to face his phobia.
Tragic backstory doesn’t make a character sympathetic
It’s what your character does about their tragic backstory that a reader connects with.
After Kaz passes out, the reader is clued in as to why. In doing so, we find out exactly how Pekka Rollins is responsible for Jordie’s death and how Kaz came to be the criminal that he is. The reader will surely feel sorry for Kaz about what happened to him and his brother, but it’s his choices that make this moment so important.
Had this horrible stuff happened to Kaz and led him to becoming a petty criminal because of his circumstances, his actions might have been understood but never justified. The reader could feel sorry for him, but that doesn’t mean that they’d want what he wants.
Instead of becoming a victim of his circumstances, Kaz vows to avenge his brother. After Bardugo takes the reader on a journey through Kaz’s past, allowing them to experience what Kaz experienced, revenge is something they can get on board with. In this moment, the relationship between Kaz and the reader changes from “I’m sorry that happened to you” to “Yeah f*ck that guy. Let’s get revenge”. I want to see Kaz succeed. I want him to get his revenge. So, I will keep reading this book.
Make your character his own enemy
Complex characters have multiple wants, needs and goals, which can give way to obstacles. In Six of Crows, the core of the protagonist’s character is his motivation to avenge his brother. This drives everything he does, including his decision to take on the job that becomes the story of this book. Taking down Pekka Rollins is Kaz’s long-term goal. His medium-term goal is to complete this job to take him one step closer to realising his long-term goal.
There’s a moment in the third act when an opportunity arises for Kaz to jump the gun and go for his long-term goal. The problem is that doing so threatens the medium-term goal for everyone and won’t bring about the same satisfaction as it would should Kaz complete his medium-term goal first. Bardugo writes this moment brilliantly, keeping the reader in suspense as they wonder where Kaz is, why he’s going against the plan, and if he’s going to sabotage the whole thing for everyone else. It’s a moment that both challenges his character to make him more realistic, and increases the tension by making the reader wonder if he’s going to succeed in this story after all.
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