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New Serfdom — Character Development

Developing Nolan Graves as a character is intertwined with the overall development of the novel. If you start out with a definite idea for a plot, then your characters have to be developed in a way that enables them to carry out that plot. What I’m finding, having started out with a vague idea rather than a plot, is that Nolan’s personality and his goals are leading the plot. Not only that, it’s Nolan’s development as a fully rounded human being that’s influencing the mood of the story.

Several things that I’ve read in the last couple of days have focused my attention on the problem of readers’ expectations, and whether the author should fulfill those expectations. The most important ones seem to be a happy, or reasonably happy ending, and some kind of redemption for characters who may be bad, but not irredeemably evil.

The New Serfdom is a dystopian novel which takes place during a period in human history when things are not getting better, and when there is little realistic hope that they will get better within the lifetimes of any of its characters. Forces have been set in motion which are not in humans’ control. Climate change is continuing to wreak havoc, and the most that’s possible is adaptation and survival. The question is: what kind of adaptation, and what kind of survival?

Nolan Graves acceptance of his inheritance — the ownership of a holding and the people who live on it, is based on his sense of responsibility. There’s no way to predict the future, and very little chance to influence it. All he can do is protect his people from the worst effects of social breakdown, and try to give the next generation a chance to survive and make things better. To do that, he has to take full responsibility for his actions, even when those actions go against his own grain as a human being. He has his hated memories of his father’s “reign” as a model of what he never wants to become.

Two events take place in the book that force him to make hideous choices. A convict-slave kills another convict. Later, a woman tries to kill Graves and instead seriously wounds Ira, his aide and adopted son. The decision is his as to what punishment is appropriate in each case, and who should carry out the punishments. The only reasonable punishment for the convict is execution because the holding can’t function as a prison. But Nolan must still decide wether he has the right to delegate or the responsibility to carry out the execution himself.

The second problem is more difficult. Executing the woman can look like revenge for a personal attack. And she has a husband and two children on the hold. How will their loyalty to the hold and to Nolan be affected if she’s killed? Finally, if the decision is for execution, who will carry it out? My original thinking was to have Nolan decide to eject her from the hold and let her make a life elsewhere. But Nolan and his primary staff consider her too dangerous to go free. The second idea was to eject her, and ask Onetti to have one of his men kill her later. Nolan knows this would be the decision of a coward.

Ultimately, Nolan has to make hard choices and then live with the consequences of those choices. There is no happy ending for him, only the continued struggle to reconcile his personal ethics with his obligations to his people and to an uncertain human future.

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3 Comments

  1. This is indeed a tricky situation, but isn’t it the creation of tight corners and difficult decisions that gives the reader the greatest sense of completion once resolved?

    By the way, speaking of slavery, have you read The Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell? I’m not quite halfway through the book, just now, but it has a very interesting look at future slavery. You might enjoy it.

    • But sometimes the resolution of difficult decisions is to leave more things unresolved. It isn’t even a matter of a happy ending, but no real ending at all. That’s how life is most of the time, but maybe that’s why readers generally prefer an ending that is really a resolution with all the loose ends neatly tied up.

      The Cloud Atlas keeps coming to my attention, but I haven’t actually read any reviews or had any reason to pursue. I’ll check it out now. Thanks.

  2. interesting story.

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