His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
In my first post, I blogged about how I rejected Code Name Verity because, while it had a great hook, that’s simply not enough; a book must follow up the hook with a reason for the reader to care.
Ok, great. Gotcha. A reason to care. But, from a technical standpoint, what does a reason to care consist of? And how do you know if you’ve given your readers an adequate one?
There are a lot of possible answers. But one of the most powerful ways of making your readers care is giving them someone to care about.
That’s what Naomi Novik does in His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book in her justly famous Temeraire series. It’s narrated by William Laurence, captain of a British Naval ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and Novik lets us know exactly who he is with efficiency on p. 2, after Laurence has captured a French ship:
Many of [the French sailors] lay dead or dying upon the deck; he shook his head at the waste and eyed the French captain with disapproval; the man should never have offered battle… he ought to have done better by his men than to bring them into so hopeless an action.…
He hooked the captain’s sword on his belt; he did not think the man deserved the compliment of having it returned, though ordinarily he would have done so.
Two things are important here: Laurence’s individuality, and his virtue. His sternness, attention to ceremony, and martial viewpoint comprise the first; they make you feel as though you have met a real, nuanced person. His compassion and his sense of a captain’s duties comprise the second; they make you feel as though the person you have met is worth knowing.
Together these things give the reader someone to care about. Now, all the writer has to do is get him in trouble.
That’s what happens as the sample continues. In short order, Laurence will discover that in capturing the French ship, he has also captured a dragon egg, which will shortly hatch. It becomes clear that one of his officers must attempt to harness the dragon, becoming its rider and ending that man’s Naval career. And when the young man selected for the task proves unequal to it, it is Laurence’s sad duty to step into his place.
And throughout all this, Laurence’s individuality and virtue are fully on display, particularly in the way that he sees it as his duty to sacrifice his own intended future to secure the hatchling for Britain’s war effort. And thus, when the sample leaves off, although the plot is still in its opening stages (indeed, nothing has happened that isn’t revealed on the back cover copy), we are deeply invested in Laurence and in what will happen to him. We care.
So, broken down into a mathematical formula, that leaves us with:
(Individuality + Virtue) + Difficulty = A Reason to Care.
I like math. And also, Temeraire.