Insider 2-17-2012

One of the best things about working with the IK fiction as I do is the richness and diversity of the stories. To help you get the most out of them, I put together some tips for reading with an analytical eye.

Like any hobby, reading can be done quickly and lightly, or it can be an engaging and immersive undertaking. Each approach has its benefits. Often, we have both experiences with the same piece: we skim through it to get the gist of the character or catch up on the plot but then return to it later to pore over the details and consider how elements might be linked to other stories and characters in the setting. Much of the time it’s the realizations we make on a close reading that impact us the most—not just for what they are, but also because we can’t believe we didn’t see them the first time.

To spot those exciting details, you need to look beyond the basic elements of a story and evaluate every part in a greater context. Taken together, these pieces will give you a far better understanding of the story and its place in the setting than a simple read-through will.

Plot – Even what we think of as the most obvious element of a story—the plot—takes on a different hue when viewed from a larger perspective. Ask yourself questions as you absorb the story as well as when you’re done.

First and foremost, what happened? That’s not as simple of a question as it might appear; sometimes it’s actually more like “What appeared to have happened and what actually happened?” For example, did Deneghra help Haley in Wrath by warning her about Nemo being in peril, or did she merely get Haley out of the way for Cryx’s invasion of Point Bourne? Both things occurred, but what lies below the surface of those events?

Additionally, were the developments straightforward or unexpected? Who was involved? What are the ramifications for the greater storylines? In this example, Haley isn’t killed at Point Bourne and saves Nemo—but Point Bourne is overrun by Cryx, and Haley ends up poisoned. Even characters less manipulative than the wraith witch can play a part in something greater, and often a plot includes elements related to a past story as well as planting seeds for the future.

Narrator – It’s vital to consider the narrator carefully when trying to get the most out of a story. Even if the piece is written in the third person, as most of ours are, there is usually a central voice that guides and colors the story. Pay attention not only to what that voice tells you but also to what’s behind the veil. When Dr. Arkadius examines the combined Bethayne and Belphagor in the Legion force book, for example, the way he describes the event helps us understand who he himself is: “Dealing with an unfamiliar organism was inherently dangerous . . . , and he could not know what he might find within the creature. Allowing it to perish before he could pluck its marvelous secrets was unacceptable.” It’s the good doctor’s influence on the voice that shows both his scientific approach (when he labels Bethayne “an unfamiliar organism”) and his personal investment and excitement (when he considers “its marvelous secrets”). His personality enlivens the scene, making it more interesting, but we need to remember that such a perspective also colors the text we’re reading.

Consider where the narrator is coming from. Does he have his own agenda? What are his biases or blind spots and how do they affect the way he sees things? What political or ideological beliefs shape his decisions? How do his previous experiences inform his current situation? Can you trust that he’s describing things accurately? Can you even trust that he thinks he is? Just like in real life, you’ll be able to better understand why the narrator tells you the things he does once you understand something about who he is. (And just like in real life, sometimes you’ll realize you don’t know a character as well as you thought you did!)

Main Characters – Every character has a unique perspective, colored by their own experiences, upbringing (or lack thereof), values, goals, status, and so on, if you look closely enough. This applies to characters at every level of a story but is especially important to those in the spotlight. Within any group of characters who seem pretty much the same are some who believe more fervently, some who miss their spouses more, some who simply want to make it out of the wars alive, and maybe even a few who’d just as soon bleed out on a battlefield than spend another winter in Korsk. The richer the story, the more likely it contains extra information about the characters and events that will help you understand it better. It’s always a good idea to read the model entries for the characters you see crop up in a story, whether they are new characters or existing ones.

Who takes center stage in the story? (It’s not always who you think.) Who’s there but only in the background, and why? What do you know about these central characters? Is the situation that’s described unusual for them? What challenges do they face? Consider both the obvious obstacles of the plot and the characters’ personal and internal challenges: not only does Grissel need to get the trollkin to safe ground in Domination, she also has to preserve their hope in the future—as well as her own. (Also, she’s rather annoyed at Madrak for leaving her holding the bag for so long.)

By asking yourself these kinds of questions as you read, you’ll develop a clearer picture of both the events of the story and the characters that appear in it. You may even spot that one elusive clue that will make you realize how it all fits together—and that’s a payoff worth investing a little time.