Throne of Glass is currently my favorite epic fantasy series. While I wouldn’t say the books are perfect, one aspect of them blows me away:
Ironically, these characters are somewhat controversial among readers (especially the main character, Celaena). But, love them or hate them, it’s hard to deny that Throne of Glass‘s cast is unique, memorable, and bound to leave an impression on you.
I decided to dissect these books to find out why the characters became so alive for me, and why they inspire such passionate reactions in readers. Here are five lessons I learned from my study.
1. Create empathy.
I’ll admit: I can’t relate to Celaena at all. At first, she even annoyed me. Aside from being a ruthless assassin, she’s a girl who ardently loves clothes, shoes, and food (three things I care far less about than the average person). She’s self-absorbed and obnoxiously over-confident (whereas I’ve always been more awkward and only minimally concerned with appearances). She does love books, but it almost felt like an insult. How could she have this one thing very similar to me when everything else about her is totally opposite? How dare she!
And yet, even though I couldn’t find a single trait (save for book loving) about Celaena that remotely resembled me, I still came to care about her deeply. Why? After digging, I found three reasons:
a) I admire her.
Even though Celeana is brutal, cruel, and not always honorable, she has a strength to her, and a resilience in the face of horrible trauma, that I find admirable. In situations where others might buckle and break, she presses through. She does not give up; she does not let her spirit be broken. Because of this, I find something in her I can look up to.
b) She’s funny.
Okay, she has a dirty mouth and sometimes no filter or gentleness at all, but her wit and attitude is incredibly entertaining. It’s hard to be annoyed with her when I’m laughing at her bold and snarky banter.
c) I felt sad for her.
Beneath the brutality and unwavering confidence, Celaena houses deep pain. She has a dark past filled with horrible trauma and unspeakable loss. But I had a profound revelation: I didn’t connect with Celaena simply because her heart was aching, but because other characters ached for her. When Chaol or Dorian felt compassion for her, or wanted to comfort her, it legitimized her pain and made me want to do the same. Seeing one character care for another made me want to care for that character, too.
2. Contrast character types.
One of the wildly entertaining aspects of Throne of Glass is the character interactions. The way they tease each other, bicker, and banter not only makes for very quotable dialog, but it ensures that there’s never a dull moment when certain characters are in the same room.
And why is this? Because these characters have carefully crafted personalities that play off of each other perfectly.
Let’s look at a few of them for comparison:
Chaol: Steady. Matter-of-fact. Dutiful. Man of few words. Compassionate.
Dorian: Witty. Fun-loving. Intelligent. Idealist. Dreamer. Courageous.
Celaena: Snarky. Loud personality. Overly self-confident. Witty. Intelligent.
Right off the bat, you can see how these personalities clash and mesh so deliciously. Dorian and Celaena tease each other and are equals in wit and charm; Chaol is often the butt of their jokes, in part because he can’t keep up with their banter, in part because he’s so serious and they can’t resist.
Throw romance in the mix, and these relationships just get that much more interesting.
The first book of the series, which arguably lacked in terms of plot and originality (something Maas very much fixed in the sequels), had me coming back just for the character relationships. They literally make the series.
3. Add character flaws.
None of the characters in Throne of Glass are perfect. In fact, the vast majority of them are broken people with tragic backstories, like Celaena. (And if they don’t have a painful history… good news, characters!! Your author is Sarah J. Maas, which means you’re going to experience agony of heart sooner or later!)
Because the characters are flawed, they feel more like real people. And just as sharing your heart with a friend strengthens the bond between you, so the unveiling of these characters’ imperfect, aching hearts forges a deeper connection between them and the readers.
Here are some traits for comparison:
Chaol: He is a bit slow to make important realizations. Sometimes his sense of duty blinds him to truth and righteousness. He makes poor decisions and beats himself up for it afterwards.
Dorian: He yearns for something more; he craves adventure and purpose. He feels stifled by his role as a prince. There is an ache to him that we just want to be fixed. We want him to be happy.
Celaena: Beneath the mask, she houses deep pain, dark secrets, and a cowardice that holds her back from addressing her true calling… at least, at first.
4. Give your characters space to recover.
**Warning: I mention what could be a minor spoiler in this section. You may want to skip over it if you haven’t read the series yet!**
I think a lot of writers (myself included!) make the mistake of putting their characters through horrible, traumatic experiences, but then give them little time to recover before moving them on to the next event. The plot is moving quickly, and we don’t want to stop to have characters grieve or deal with post-traumatic stress.
Maas does not make that mistake. In Crown of Midnight, the second installment of the series, Celaena experiences a terrible tragedy. It takes her an entire book (Heir of Fire) to recover. Most of the time she is listless, depressed, passive, and honestly a frustrating character to read about, but it was necessary. Her brokenness made her infinitely more realistic, and when she finally did find healing at the end of the book – not just for the trauma in Heir of Fire, but for most of the trauma she had experienced throughout her life – it made that transformation all the more powerful, stirring, and inspiring.
There are consequences and repercussions to tormenting your characters; it will affect them. You have to give them time to react and grieve, if you want readers to believe your story.
5. Let your characters grow.
This final point is very important, especially for YA fiction. Tell me, if you’re an adult now, how different are you from when you were a teenager? Or, if you’re a teenager now, how different are you from when you were a kid?
Growing up isn’t just a time when we mature, become more confident, and add numbers to our age. It’s a process of figuring out who we are. And everyone who grows up has to ask themselves the age-old question: “Who am I?” Usually it takes years to answer, and the answer is never simple. But by the end of the process, we’re never the same.
If you’re writing about teenagers, and you’re going to follow their journey as they grow older, you have to expect that they will change drastically. Celaena is a completely different person by the end of Book 4 (Queen of Shadows), as a 19-year-old queen who has faced her identity and is ready to change the world, than she was in the prequel, The Assassin’s Blade, where she was basically a selfish, bratty, spoiled, rebellious 16-year-old who wanted to run as far away from her responsibilities as possible. Even though she changes dramatically, she’s still the same character at her core. She’s just improved. Matured. As readers, we experience her transition slowly, much as she does, so it’s easy for us to adjust.
If you’re going to write about a teenager, don’t just figure out who they are now, but who they will become. Who will they grow up to be? What events will shape them into that person? Then, write about that journey.
What do you think of the characters from Throne of Glass? Have you applied any of these lessons to your own characters? Let me know in the comments below!