The other day I reread the classic YA novel The Hero and The Crown for the first time in about fifteen years. My original copy had gotten badly damaged and for years I'd held onto it out of sentiment instead of replacing it with a copy I could actually, you know, read.
Well, after undertaking a massive reorg of my bookshelves, I finally did what I should have done all those years ago – I replaced the book and reread it.
As a teenager, I'd greatly admired the prose – in fact that was what I'd prized most about the book. And I'd loved the protagonist Aerin, who was a real anomaly back then.
Nowadays you can't throw a rock without hitting a carbon copy Katniss, but back then girls in fantasy fiction were almost all princesses, maybe a healer and/or sorceress if you were lucky. (I am not talking about other classics from this era, but of inferior books that crowded the library shelves a few decades ago and have since gone out of print.) Heck I'd even argue that Aerin is an anomaly now, due to her unusually complex yet well-defined character. So it was with these qualities in mind that I reread the book.
I'd remembered correctly that the book was well written, that Aerin was a fascinating yet relatable girl. But there was something amazing about The Hero and The Crown that I'd not noticed when I read the book as a kid, something that leapt out to my now-trained eye. It is this: The Hero and The Crown is perfectly constructed. It is impeccably constructed.
I'm gonna run through it real quick (mild/moderate spoilers that shouldn't deter enjoyment of the book).
Aerin, the young protagonist, has a high position at court but is not respected, in fact she is barely tolerated because of her parentage. Because of this parentage she has no magic, something that should have manifested before puberty. A more powerful cousin teases Aerin into eating a plant that almost kills her, but over two years she fights her way back to a sound mind by developing an interest in reading – and a sound body by caring for an abandoned horse.
While reading Aerin discovers an old, inaccurate recipe for an ointment of fire resistance. She obsessively tests and retests the recipe, searching for the correct proportions of herbs. Taking these actions, and finding success in them, makes her forget about her lonely, anxious life. Aerin becomes more and more confident in who she is–so much so that she starts to challenge the others and find her place in the world. Winning many small victories makes her emboldened. She challenges a mighty enemy, an ancient dragon, and wins, but at horrific cost, being burned nearly to death.
Aerin must change again, enrich herself again by learning magic, or die from her wounds. Then she must face the worst enemy yet, a member of her family from the "bad" side of her tree, who knows far more magic than she. In the meantime Aerin has two separate love interests (!), but the way she relates to them changes as she changes.
Why did I write all that out?
Because there's the classic pattern of a plot, right there, very clearly, and it's especially well done in this book because the protagonist's internal and external struggles are always in interplay.
- The flawed protagonist endures a small suffering, based on her internal flaws.
- She rallies, finds unique ways to grow and move past the suffering. Some of the flaws diminish, some remain, or new flaws (overconfidence, haste) pop up.
- She strikes out, enjoys a few successes,
- then a catastrophic failure.
- She rallies again, in a logically related yet different way.
- She transforms again, dispensing a few more flaws (although one still remains),
- and finally faces the true antagonist.
This is the classic construction of a genre novel. Aerin's internal pain and conflict has to be worked out for her to face her external obstacles. This is true growth, not just leveling up.
Since we're talking about construction I'd also like to note that the proportions of The Hero and The Crown are well balanced: the denouement (which I didn't mention in detail because massive spoilers) is not hasty, but deals with all remaining lose threads with a fair and even hand.
I think we novice and journeymen writers tend to barrel through the denouement at top speed. This is usually a mistake. THatC is a slim volume you can read in an afternoon, but nothing is rushed. Everything receives its proper weight.
All aspiring genre writers need to read this book multiple times. Once to enjoy it, and then to study it.