Everyone Wants Something

In good fiction, it’s clearly true: Dexter wants to kill his victims; Emma Woodhouse wants to avoid marriage; and Tom Builder wants to build a cathedral. A key aspect of a fictional character’s life is their driving desire: it’s almost Platonic. They’ve a purpose to fulfill and often approach it with singular drive that borders on obsession. Tension and conflict arise in their setbacks, but with turn of the story’s cycle, they move a bit closer to their goal.

Lately I’ve been diving into books that have long needed reading. Ken Follett’s the Pillars of the Earth finally came to the top of the stack, and like Wonder Boys, it’s another book I wish I’d read years ago. Follett has one of the strongest voices I’ve encountered, and as I continue to read through George R.R. Martin’s catalog, I find myself comparing them. Follett fully distills his characters down to their desires, and the wheel of the story turns, with the characters achieving a milestone towards their goal before getting subjected to a hard knockdown with a long recovery period.

Tom Builder, the book’s first point of view character, reminded me of Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead: one individual struggling against a world of chaos which works in concert to pull him down. But Follett doesn’t limit our point of view (POV) to Tom. He slips from one POV to another with the deftest handling I’ve seen. One character spies another on the road and we transition with a clean break to the second character. Where Martin has drawn his story out to an inevitable seven volumes, Follett’s tale is self-contained, and I have to admire the neat wrap up. While they are two different genres, I feel any author can pick up some good mechanical tips from Follett. One advantage of the self-contained book is that I didn’t grow weary of the story cycle. Even a little time spent in the antagonist’s head was interesting, whereas with Martin I feel that his fourth book in the series, a Feast for Crows, is largely spent with individuals who I’m less interested in. Martin remains a master, but I lack the grudging admiration for Queen Cersei that I felt for Tyrion, an antagonist in previous volumes. Follett puts us in the head of his antagonist and while it’s a vile place, I was immediately struck but the clear lack of intelligence and self-awareness of the villain. There’s never any confusion about whose head we’re in. In writing about master craftsmen, Follett displays some remarkable skill of his own.

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