Adventures in Reading: A Monumental Achievement or, When Bad Characters Do Worse

As someone hard at work writing a historical fiction novel, I’ve read a startlingly large number of research books.

Cover and spine of my worse-for-wear copy of The Pillars of the Earth. Over the course of reading, it eventually became a contest to see which would occur first: me reaching the end or the back cover falling off. The cover won.

Not all of them have been nonfiction.

I suspect that conducting research via fiction is something numerous writers do, and not just those writing historicals.

I’m sure almost every writer has consciously studied existing novels to see how others have handled any number of elements of writing craft, from as broad as character development to as concrete as the number of pages per chapter.

So it was, therefore, that I came to Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.  Reading this book fell under the purview of “research” for three reasons:

  1. I wanted to study the pacing of such a lengthy (973 pages) novel since my own WIP, though in two novels, will also be a long-ish tale
  2. I wanted to study Follett’s presentation and accuracy of historical details (for all that Pillars takes place about three-quarters of a century earlier than my WIP)
  3. I wanted to read the book before watching the Pillars of the Earth miniseries so I could critique the fidelity of the adaptation in preparation for when my WIP is someday turned into a film.

Cue delusion.

Although, it could happen.  Anything could happen.

I digress.

Pillars is the longest book I’ve read in the last twenty years (I read Stephen King’s It when I was 14).  And outside of The Bible, the Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (none of which I’ve read in their entirety), and Mary Gentle’s sci-fi/fantasy Ash: A Secret History (which is technically an omnibus of four separate titles), Pillars is the longest book I own.

It took me two months of obsessive-compulsive reading to get through Pillars.  After all, I’m on something of a timeline here with my New Year’s Resolution to read 12 books in 2013.  That’s a book a month(ish), and were it not for the fact I got through my last book – the YA sci-fi Shades of Earth – in a weekend, I would’ve been thrown a month off schedule.

Pillars is a story spanning 20 years of construction of a medieval cathedral in England amidst a backdrop of political wranglings, treachery, and war.  Finally reaching the end of the book rather felt like a monumental achievement in its own right.

Liking the (un)likeable

I liked Pillars.  But then, I was meant to, or at least to like the protagonists.  Follett made an obvious point of making the good characters unwaveringly good while the villains were the murdering, raping, backstabbing, despotic gum under your shoe.

Last Christmas, I was looking to buy a historical fiction novel for my dad.  The choice was between Pillars and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  Uncertain which to choose, I was given the following comparison by the bookseller:

With the characters in Pillars, it’s totally obvious who the good and bad guys are.  In Wolf Hall, all the characters are much more nuanced.

In Pillars, after a while, following the villains became a bit much.  Their ongoing despicable acts seemed motivated solely by a perverse desire to stick it to the good guy (who himself was very good and virtuous, even for a precocious monk).

I wanted to scream at the villains, “It’s been 20 years.  Get a life.  Get over it!”

I tend to prefer characters of the sort the bookseller described in Wolf Hall, both in reading and in writing.  In my novel-in-progress, I don’t think there is a single “good” character who doesn’t carry out at least one questionable act, and a single villain who doesn’t show a least a glimmer of hope for redemption.

The protagonist is particularly ambiguous and unrelenting, with distorted ideas about the nature of reciprocity and what she should do to achieve her salvation.

12 thoughts on “Adventures in Reading: A Monumental Achievement or, When Bad Characters Do Worse

  1. I read Ulysses by James Joyce last year, Janna, and it nearly killed me! I know a lot of people who have started it and never been able to finish so I was determined to finish it. A lot of it is brilliant and other parts are highly confusing. I’m not sure what next ‘big’ classic novel I’ll read, but maybe I’ll try Wolf Hall 😉


  2. There’s no way I can read a 900-page book anymore. I read It when It come out, and I finally got around to the extended version of The Stand a few years back, but that was the bookend on my long-book reading career. My mom often urges me to read Pillars of the Earth, but I just can’t see myself sitting through it. I particularly can’t stand two-dimensional bad guys, so you sealed the deal for me.


  3. I hesitate these days before starting an epic-sized book – I think I’m conscious of ‘so little time, so many books.’ And I think it’s got to be really good to hold the modern reader. I imagine you could take your Follett lessons from the first 100 pages, but there are so many other good writers out there to learn from and appreciate.


    • Yes, I was definitely conscious of the second book I could have been reading over my two months reading Pillars. Although overall, I did like it.

      Although it’s plot structure was somewhat repetitive for a book so long: the villains would strike out against the protagonists, all hope would seem to be lost, then from the ashes, the protagonists would devise an incredibly clever and plucky solution, make the bad guys look like idiots, and save the day. Over and over again. By about page 600, I was keen for a dramatic plot twist or turning point that never came.


  4. Totally agree about blurring the lines of good and evil. I like to both read and write characters that are not completely archetypal and predictable. It’s much more realistic this way, the bad guys do have a point, even if it’s misguided, and they do lose something. While the good guys are not perfect and will be required to perform questionable acts, and will make mistakes!

    Good luck with your WIP 🙂



    • Thanks, Rohan. Everyone is the hero of his/her own story. The bad guys don’t tend to consider themselves bad – just misunderstood or unpopular compared to the hero. Looking at it from that perspective, I find it very easy to at least empathize with the villains.


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