I’ve loved my share of monsters.
As a reader, I mean. Usually, they’re the kind of monsters who kill bad people. But sometimes, even when they don’t, you can still understand them, empathize with them, and even connect with them, a topic that Colette and Nancy have touched on in their posts this month.
Then, I met a really nasty sort. A crippled torturer by the name of Sand dan Glokta who lurked within the pages of Joe Abercrombies First Law trilogy. Glokta is even one of the major PoV characters. He’s exactly the type of character that seems designed to be hated. Funny thing is, I didn’t hate him. In fact, he may be one of my favorite characters ever, and judging by discussions I’ve read online, I’m not alone.
The writer in me wants to know why Glokta is so compelling. On the surface, he seems indefensible. His sense of morality is anemic at best. Some of his victims may be deserving, but others are less so. There’s no obvious “save the cat” style scene early on to create likeability. Instead, I think Abercrombie uses a more subtle series of techniques that allows readers to connect with Glokta.
First, introspection. Immediately upon being introduced to Glokta we find him asking himself, why do I do it? This motif continues throughout his character arc. Many of us find ourselves, at some point in our lives, questioning what we’re doing, trying to figure out how we got there. Glokta’s inner reflections also give us hope that he might redeem himself still. That he might realize what he’s doing is wrong. They turn him from a monster to a flawed human.
Second, he’s understandable. Once a famed officer and accomplished duelist, Glokta was captured by his enemies and tortured for two years. The experience left him badly crippled and in constant pain. Returning home, he found himself turned away by many of his friends and left with few options, ended up joining the inquisition. Though we might find him morally repugnant, we can still imagine how bitter the world most look to Glokta, filtered through so much bitterness and pain, for we all have our own dark moments where we contemplate, if briefly, doing dark things.
Third, his enemies are worse than he is. The old adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is an adage for a reason. Glokta serves as antagonist to some truly vile people. In comparison, he seems downright heroic at times, as he fights against deeply rooted corruption and powerful organizations.
Fourth, Abercrombie makes deft use of authorial sleight-of-hand. Whereas we get many pages of Glokta reflecting on things and plotting against his enemies, torture is given relatively few, if any at all. Abercrombie often fades to black before the worst parts, especially early on in the series. This speaks to the power of editing. Just as in reality shows, real people can seem heroic or villainous depending on which few minutes of the day we see them, so can characters in books.
Fifth, tone. The world in the First Law is not a happy one. The novel sets different expectations from the start. The characters are all heavily flawed. There is no immaculate hero for us to set Glokta next to. His pain, his shades of gray, even his acts of evil, fit well within the world.
Not all readers will enjoy a character like Glokta. I’m sure more than a few are so repulsed by him that they wouldn’t finish the series. But, as Abercrombie and other authors like George R.R. Martin have shown, there’s clearly an audience for such characters. They take a great deal of mastery to write without alienating your entire readership, so I wouldn’t advise writing one lightly, but if you do, study Glokta carefully. And maybe you’ll find yourself loving a monster too.