As you can see from the date, I’m a day late with this post. No excuse for that, or no good one. Need to do better.
I did finish Sharon Kay Penman’s historical fiction, The Land Beyond The Sea. This is a magnificent book, the story of the downfall of Outremer, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Like all of Penman’s works, her exhaustive research into the topic shows both in the detail of the settings and the historical accuracy of the events that she describes. These are coupled with the terrific way she has brought a huge cast of characters to life. These range from Baldwin IV, the leper king of Jerusalem, who is presented as someone who could be the lead in a Greek tragedy, to numerous minor characters rescued from the dustbin of history. They all feel like real people, most of whom make frightfully myopic decisions about matters of existential importance and they either ignore the overall picture or talk themselves into believing they are taking it into account. You can see how they get to the actions they take as you realize that this is what the real people did. Penman references observers who were there for the dramatic scenes of both Reynald and Balian with Saladin – she points out in her note that is the way these happened – and they come across as perfectly in keeping with the way the characters have acted throughout the story. The one exception, I suppose, is de Ridefort, but he may well have been a one-dimensional individual in real life with no redeeming features. As you can tell, I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. You do not need to be a fan of historical fiction, or this period, to enjoy it.
Reading this work makes me wonder about the task of creating what we like to call three-dimensional characters. How do we move a character from – as reviewers are wont to say – being cardboard or two-dimensional to being someone who appears real? Some of it, I am sure, is a function of the scale of the work. Many older science fiction works are much shorter than today’s books and there is simply less room to flesh out the characters. Whether a book is plot-driven rather than character-driven matters, too. It is also more than simply having back-story for a character, although I think that is necessary. You can’t understand a character’s actions unless you understand where they have come from. Seeing a tug of war on decisions in a character’s head is also important. Certainly, these are points I need to think about since I’m in the middle of a draft. That and don’t be late!