When I read something I love, I can’t just enjoy it. I have to study it. Pull it apart to see what worked. Put it together again just to see if I can do it too.
It’s how I process and it’s how I learn. And it’s something I did recently with a new favorite series, Red Rising.
Though there were a number of areas I dug through, I’ll just stick with three of them for now.
The prose is fascinating. On the surface, some sections tend to be ‘telling-heavy’ instead of focusing on showing. Except the telling is done with such a focus on Darrow’s voice that we are being ‘shown’ things about him, and that showing is sometimes more important than the event or emotions we’re being told about. It’s a great study on how to use telling well.
Darrow’s voice isn’t just personal though. It’s rough. It’s raw and vivid and filled word choices focusing on that rawness and fear.
For this series, the author focused on the bodily reactions to fear and horror, then used those word choices in regards to larger descriptions.
Exploding ships vomit fire into space. Aircraft piss streams of bullets. Life leaks into a void. While the wording is sometimes cruder than I would use for my own audience, it’s not vulgar. It’s an intentional choice of words establishing the terror and lack of control Darrow feels.
It’s also a great example of how descriptions and emotions can weave together seamlessly.
Last, but not least, is how much the author trusts the reader when it comes to intentional gaps in information.
The horrors of war are shown in fast, snappy detail but when it comes to personal trauma and violence, the prose slows down. It sidesteps and veils the killing blow.
Not to soften the emotions, because if anything the implications give the scene more weight. But some events are so heavy even Darrow refuses to look on or think about them fully.
And, in the silence, the reader knows and feels what is happening more clearly than if they’d been told all the details.
The Red Rising characters (at least most of them) are some of the most realistic and human I’ve met in a story world.
It took me a bit to piece together why. Sure, they all have raw, vivid voices. They have distinct personalities. They have quirks. But so do lots of other characters.
The key to the realism of these characters, especially Darrow, was the way the author built up conflicting emotions and beliefs.
Characters, both good and bad, started out by acting according to deeply embedded worldviews. But, as trauma, choices, and experience built over them, new surface layers held different emotions that sometimes contradicted what they’d always been taught.
Sometimes characters acted on belief instead of emotion. Sometimes they acted in passion. Sometimes they acted to change based on a maturing view of what they believed to be right.
And sometimes they were wrong.
All of this, mixed with a constantly shifting yet realistic chaos of sorrow, trauma, consequences, choices, and growing maturity worked together to create unforgeable, raw characters I loved.
Nothing is ever easy. We expect this in a book.
Red Rising takes disasters to a whole new level.
Each thematic mistake is followed by disaster. Each plan fails in some way. Each victory comes coupled with unexpected consequences.
Each plan shifts in the middle as new, unexpected variables are added.
Many stories, however, follow a fairly linear plan. Sure, things happen. There are walls to climb over and pits to clamber out of, but the story keeps moving forward.
Red Rising’s path, on the other hand, is shaped like the zigzag of a lightning bolt. Yes, it reaches the ending we were all cheering for, but when we get there it looks nothing like what we expected.
With each disaster, the smaller goals of the characters shift. With each new plan, the direction we thought we were going changes just a little. With each impossible solution, the characters find a third option that takes risks and raises stakes in a manner both readers and other characters didn’t expect.
There’s more. So much more. But I’ll cut myself short for today.
If you think Red Rising will suit your tastes, I recommend reading it. If not, read other books. Keep growing. Keep learning. (And remember, if you want to get my newsletter with monthly writing tips, you can sign up here!)
What recent book did you love, and what did you learn about writing while reading it? Let me know in the comments below!