Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our Unmasking Colorful Storytelling series, which explores the virtues of Fawkes by Nadine Brandes. You can read the first installment here. Beware that this article and its companions will contain plot spoilers.
Sometimes a book’s theme is straightforward. Eustace is sucked into a painting and learns humility. Henry York crawls through a cupboard and learns bravery. Parvin Blackwater crosses the wall and learns to trust God. But the path to transformation isn’t always that simple. Characters may need to wander through labyrinths of tyranny, persecution, murder, neglect, and revenge.
In Fawkes, the hero, Thomas, is a Keeper. Keepers are a persecuted religious group who must hide their beliefs and color powers to avoid imprisonment and hanging. To increase the turmoil, England is overrun by a plague—ostensibly caused by the king’s reign—that turns people to stone. The longer the king lives, the more innocent people who die. Thomas’s father has a plan: Assassinate King James and put a Keeper on the throne. But hundreds of parliament members, courtiers, pages, and servants will be massacred in the explosion. Thomas must navigate the controversy and settle on the right course of action.
The situation evades easy solutions. The answer can’t be stated in a sentence or enacted without developing empathy for everyone involved. Multi-faceted issues like this are an area where stories can shine. Why? Because stories shouldn’t pelt readers with a theoretical (or even theological) answer to a question until they finally respond to the pressure. Stories influence readers by showing the outcomes of character choices on a reap-what-you-sow basis. Fawkes demonstrates how to accomplish this in practice.
Step #1: Connecting Readers with Authentic Characters
To misquote George Bailey, “[These characters] you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this [story].” Not only that, but readers laugh and cry through them. Emotions power your story, and characters are the conduits. Flat and unrelatable archetypes will unplug readers.
The world isn’t full of sterling heroes and dastardly villains. Energize your story with characters who feel, think, and act human, whose backstories and beliefs lead to different consequences. Depict flawed characters who are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances and either succeed or fail at making wise decisions. Use realistic, genuine characters to help readers connect to (and understand) your story.
Creating Empathetic Foils
Fawkes addresses tyranny through a cast of characters who have diverse stances on the problem. They each serve as a foil to Thomas, who (eventually) embodies the approach Nadine is advocating.
Guy Fawkes is convinced that killing King James is the only way to save the Keepers. Even when Dee “miraculously” heals Thomas of the Stone Plague, Guy says he will continue with the assassination because “it will release Keepers from oppression and execution.”
Thomas Percy, Guy’s coconspirator, craves revenge. King James promised Percy that he would protect Keepers once he assumed the throne, but he’s done nothing except persecute and slaughter them.
Baron Monteagle lacks a reason to harm the king. The baron isn’t a wicked or even cruel man, but he’s an Igniter, and the king’s persecution doesn’t affect him. He’s self-centered, so all of his movement in the story is indifferent to the silent war between Keepers and Igniters.
Henry Monteagle doesn’t have any murderous intentions toward the king, but not out of honor. He assists the man who spread the Stone Plague, so I have no doubt that Henry wouldn’t hesitate to behead the king if necessary. Instead, Henry has his own problems (he can’t control colors), so he uses the suffering of others to further his own cause. If he were the target of the persecution, he would fight it (or, more likely, recant his erroneous beliefs), but that’s not the case.
Emma Areben objects to violence, displays concern for others (much like Guy Fawkes), and pursues justice through moral means. She tries to rescue a black child from hanging by paying his debt instead of mobbing and killing the soldiers.
These characters handle tyranny in a variety of ways (especially when lives are in danger), and they’re each motivated slightly differently. Once you’ve personified all the potential answers, you can move on to craft a story that points to the correct solution in all its nuanced glory.
Representing Flawed Perspectives Fairly
Readers become emotionally invested in characters, not plots or decorated morals. You have to be fair or you’ll risk disengaging readers with a straw-man argument. They should be able to see parts of themselves in the characters and empathize with their struggles.
The bad guys (especially the ones who typify the common but wrong solutions) need to appear noble. Guy Fawkes was conflicted and distracted and a poor father, but he tried and he cared. Baron Monteagle didn’t confront the issues in his culture like he should have, but he adopted a helpless child (Emma) and raised her well.
Step #2: Teaching Readers Through Natural Outcomes
Once you’ve positioned your characters, you need to pick one to represent the true answer that will win in the end. In most cases, this character will be the hero, but even if it isn’t, you can identify the best candidate by following a biblical, reap-what-you-sow model. Let’s return to Fawkes for examples.
Guy’s murder plot can’t be justified even with admirable intentions, and it catches up to him. But his heart was focused on helping others, and he ultimately gives and receives forgiveness. His death is a hard pill to swallow, especially since readers glimpsed the hope of the gospel blossoming in his soul. Although his mortal end is sad, readers know his eternal end is happy.
Percy, on the other hand, dies by the sword, alone, and without hope of a future.
Baron Monteagle doesn’t engage in the story except in the interest of self-image, and he fades into the background. His lesson is clear enough: If you don’t intervene when evil is rampant, you won’t be invited when the heroes take their final bow.
Henry Monteagle’s selfish beliefs and actions estrange him from everyone.
Emma’s law-abiding keeps her alive, but her compassion gets her freedom and a boyfriend. (Seriously, that’s what happens.)
Rewarding or punishing characters for their behavior is one of the most effective ways to impact readers without preaching at them. If Nadine had written the story so that Percy slipped off the hook or Guy never found grace, it wouldn’t have rung as true. Poetic justice is a reflection of real life. God is not mocked. What a man sows, he shall also reap.
Writing Explosive Stories
Individual characters are ideal for communicating morals because religious and political groups are often wrong. If you insist that small government is better, you might accidentally encourage anarchy. If you shout that god is great, Muslims might nod. Truth is not relative, but slogans such as “tyranny is evil” are unlikely to move readers unless they witness the oppression and how people combat or cope with it.
In Fawkes, Nadine avoids taking sides. Some Keepers are devoted and honorable (even if their views are false), and some Igniters are self-serving and intolerable. Well-meaning people can be on the wrong side of an argument, and imperfections exist even among the righteous. If you portray this dichotomy through empathetic characters, your stories will break through biases to teach difficult truths with not only grace and tact, but gunpowder and stone plagues too.
Return on Friday to read Maddie Morrow’s thoughts on how a misguided hero like Thomas Fawkes can deepen a story. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your perspective. What are some of the best examples of stories that intertwine characters and theme effectively?
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong coauthor, Megan.