An Unkindness of Ghosts and the Unexpected Action
The main characters in Rivers Solomon's An Unkindness of Ghosts have been stuck on a spaceship for generations and brutally oppressed by those on higher decks with lighter skin. I'm not sure that the book ever calls it slavery, but people with dark skin are forced to work, not allowed to roam freely, and subject to extreme conditions, including deathly cold. They're beaten, raped, or killed for minor infractions or just a guard's whim.
There's a particular challenge in making the reader understand agency in characters so downtrodden. Their society treats them as less than human, takes away all power and choice. Yet the reader must know them as fully human and fully alive.
First, I should say the task is somewhat easier for POV characters. Aster is the main character, and, because we consistently learn her thoughts, we can see the way she makes choices despite the dangers she faces. Even when external freedoms are stripped from her, her brain is still alive and resisting.
It's more difficult when we can't directly access a character's thoughts.
But look at how Solomon shows us the agency of Giselle, Aster's close friend. The following scene happens early in the book, before know all that much about Giselle.
"Everything burns up sometime or another, even God Herself. That's how she made the Heavens. She a phoenix. Like me." To prove her point, Giselle ripped off a piece of her nightgown and held it over the uncovered flame until it came to light. The fire spat onto her hands as she cupped the burning fabric. Not once did she cry out or flinch from the pain. She reveled in the spiky peaks of flame.
"Enough," said Astor, and used the edge of the wool blanket to snuff out the flame in Giselle's hand.
"You killed it. It was alive and you killed it."
What a glorious way for Giselle to say, despite all this, "I exist! I matter!"
First, in burning her own hands, Giselle is making a choice. We might think it's a bad or painful or destructive choice, but it's hers. It's one of the few things she can do, and so she does it. That she acts makes us feel her will.
The choice is made more willful—and more revelatory of Giselle's agency—because Aster is surprised by it and even tries to stop it it. If non-POV characters only do what the POV character expects, they don't show us their particularities or their humanness. They seem more like puppets than people. Having a character break expectations can make them feel alive to the reader. We might not have access to their thought processes, but when they act counter to our own or to the POV character's, we intuit that that there are thoughts in that head.
I also just love how the language itself sparks life into Giselle. Look at how sharp that fire is. It's spitting and spiky peaks. I feel its heat, not warming but cutting. When these sensations are made to occur in my own body, I feel them with Giselle, further cementing the sense of her life force in my brain.
That it's fire Giselle uses to hurt herself is notable. The ship is facing a power outage, which plunges the lower decks into frigid temperatures. Aster has just returned from amputating a child's foot due to the cold.
And so Giselle's rebellion has another kind of meaning. Even if it doesn't improve her circumstance, we can see it as an act of self assertion and revolt against the current situation, the cold. Of course, we also see the desperation of it.
It makes sense for characters in horrific conditions to turn numb as a form of survival. But it also makes sense for them to seek whatever feeling they can get, to ward off the numbness, even if they can only do so through pain. And the reader, of course, must feel everything.
Beyond what we learn of Giselle's humanity, we're also being set up for Aster's later actions. Sometimes Aster is wise and thoughtful, planning her next steps carefully. But at other moments, she is impulsive and self-destructive. She makes choices that will foreseeably increase her pain and suffering.
The scene with Giselle helps the reader to interpret Aster's actions. They're not inconsistent but perfectly plausible for a person in her circumstances. Sometimes she must be careful. But other times she must be alive, and screw the consequences.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss, and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com.