A few years ago, I attended a reception with the president and other faculty members of my university. One of these distinguished members asked the group of students what the best book we’d read recently was. Other students predictably mentioned classics or books that could be considered literary fiction, and I considered doing the same myself. Fahrenheit 451, maybe. Sherlock Holmes.
Instead, I told them that it was a middle-grade series called Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians.
Real highbrow, right?
Here’s the thing. The author, Brandon Sanderson, is a genius. (He’s also pure evil, as anyone who’s read this series or his other fantasy books knows). What he’s done with Alcatraz is create a series that can be enjoyed by the younger kids it’s directed to for its plot and humor, and by adults for the same things, but also for the character development. The character development. (*insert writer fangirl squeal*)
*MAJOR SPOILER WARNING GOING FORWARD*
Alcatraz Smedry is a thirteen year old kid who was abandoned by his parents and passed around the foster system his entire life. His social worker repeatedly told him that he’s worthless, and no one wanted to keep him in their home for very long. He might have found a place to settle, except that he has an extraordinary talent for breaking things. An actual capital ‘T’ Talent. All members of his bloodline have these Talents–things like being late, dancing terribly, and getting lost. These magic gifts can work in their advantage, though; imagine being able to arrive late to your own death or turning into a master martial artist when music turns on. Stuff like that. Alcatraz never learned to harness his breaking Talent, though, and so it often lashed out at inopportune moments. He broke the things that mattered most to his foster families in a subconscious attempt to push people away before they could leave him. (Exhibit A for brilliant character arcs–even after beginning to let people into his life, he constantly questions this decision, still believing he’ll always be abandoned.) Eventually he learns to control the Talent (sort of) and it aids his actions throughout the series in both a practical and symbolic way.
On Alcatraz’s thirteenth birthday, he receives an inheritance from his parents–the only thing he’s ever received from them besides his unfortunate prison name. On the same day, a grandfather he’s never met shows up to whisk him away from his current foster home, his inheritance is stolen by his social worker, and he gets shot at by a Librarian. Librarians, as the title suggests, are evil. They control all of the information presented to the people in our known world: the Hushlands. Alcatraz ends up learning that there is in fact a lot more to the world than he previously knew, including multiple hidden continents known as the Free Kingdoms, where he was born. His parents supposedly left him to be raised in the Hushlands to become the perfect spy against the Librarian forces so as to bring peace and knowledge to both the Hushlands and the Free Kingdoms. Except it turns out his father is an arrogant scientist whose ambitions would bring about the end of the world, and his mother is a Librarian who wants to prevent this from happening.
As you might expect, everything goes downhill from there.
These books are written in first-person from Alcatraz’s point of view–but not thirteen year old Alcatraz’s POV. Alcatraz is writing these books as his autobiography, years after the events that transpire. (By doing this, he also confirms that one of my favorite ships ends with them being married, and that just makes me happy.) He states blatantly that he wants to clear up the misconceptions about his life and the heroic deeds that all of the people in the Free Kingdoms believe he has committed. He wants to prove that he’s a fraud. That he’s a liar. That he’s arrogant. That he’s stupid. That he’s a coward.
Now, you see, the best way to show a reader that a character is not something is trying too hard to convince them that they are.
Alcatraz isn’t a fraud. He does everything people think he has. He saves the Free Kingdoms from the war being waged by the Librarians. He infiltrates the highest level of the Librarian strongholds and comes back alive. He delivers speeches that rouse the entirety of the Free Kingdoms to action (or, at least, those sympathetic to his cause).
Alcatraz isn’t a liar. At best, he withheld certain things when returning from his adventures, but he hasn’t lied. He is perhaps the most honest narrator you could find. He tells everything to you straight, pulling no punches. (Except that time when he claims to be a fish. But that’s to prove a point.)
Alcatraz isn’t arrogant. There are times when he lets the fame get to his head, true, but when he’s needed, he pulls back. He learns from his mistakes and changes. It’s that change that really proves that he isn’t a static, arrogant person deserving of shame.
Alcatraz isn’t stupid. He’s actually highly intelligent and charismatic, even if he covers up that fact with snark and sarcasm most of the time. And he’s also a kid. He is a thirteen year old kid who gets sucked into a world that he doesn’t understand and practically forced into a leadership position he is unprepared for. He expects himself to be perfect, not make any mistakes, and not let anyone get hurt. And because that doesn’t happen, he considers himself an idiot.
And Alcatraz isn’t a coward. When it matters, he throws himself into the front lines. He makes the difficult choices that need to be made–even if his friends might be hurt. That isn’t cowardice. That’s becoming a leader.
He has a single argument that he believes proves all of these things, though. When he was about to be sacrificed on an altar of outdated encyclopedias, he lets his father die in his place. Worse, he chooses his father to die in his place. At the end of that chapter he writes, “Deep down, in that moment of crisis, I didn’t want to die. I can tell myself it was because I thought it would waste more of their time to take me off the altar and put him there instead. But in the end, I just didn’t want to die.” To him, this doesn’t justify what he did. It’s not a plea for forgiveness. It is the capstone of his self-hatred.
It doesn’t matter to him that his father did offer himself to be sacrificed instead of Alcatraz. In his mind, he murdered his own father that day, and the guilt has eaten him alive for years. He is tormented to such a point that he feels the need to set the record straight and confess everything. Because what else can he do?
Alcatraz tries to cover up his guilt through much of the first few books. He has this mask of sarcasm and humor that he uses to protect himself (a bit like Shawn Spencer in Psych, honestly, but that’s another debate). The humor gets more and more ridiculous as the stories progress, too. He has to escalate–even to the point of footnotes*–in order to continue protecting his emotions and, in a way, protecting the readers. But he drops it all in the chapters leading to his father’s death. No snark. No jokes. He confesses that he’s stalling, not wanting to write the ending. And once it happens… that’s it. That’s the end of his story. He and his friends escape the library, leaving behind his grandfather who had been shot in the head, and his father who lies as a sacrifice on an altar.
That’s not something you just get over. Especially when you think it’s your fault.
What Sanderson does is create a character who is so human and broken and guilt-wracked that whenever he breaches the facade of humor, it hits like a knife in the gut.
There’s a scene in book 3 where we see this more prominently than anywhere else up to then. At the climax of the book, the main characters are captured by the Librarians, and Alcatraz takes the beginning of the chapter to address the reader, saying,
“We’re getting near the end, and I’m tired of putting on a show for you. I’ve tried to prove that I’m arrogant and selfish, but I just don’t think you’re buying it. … I am not a god. I am not a hero. I can’t be what you want me to be. I can’t save people, or protect them, because I can’t even save myself! I am a murderer. Do you understand? I KILLED HIM.”
I remember that the first time I read this passage, I just kind of sat there for a moment in shock. It was so different from the rest of the book thus far, and not only did it grab my attention as a mystery yet to be revealed (it takes two more books to figure out what he’s talking about), but it started to change my perception of the character. It shines a new light on the a times rather juvenile humor. It is the first time you start to critically evaluate these statements he’s making about himself. It makes you wonder if they’re actually true.
The books geared toward younger audiences need more complex characters like these. Because these are the books that you can read throughout your lifetime, with a new perception of the story each time you read it. Sanderson doesn’t talk down to the younger readers–but he also includes themes that powerfully hit older readers (and if you’re a writer, the writer jokes and references are superb).
The best kind of book is the one that makes you think. You keep coming back to it once you’re done, analyzing what you just read, kicking yourself over missing little bits of foreshadowing. There’s a reason I’m writing this article, after all.
Now, unfortunately, we have to wait for book 6. And once that’s out, it’s going to be a whole different story. Because this isn’t the end, no matter what Alcatraz claims, and we as readers know that this isn’t the end of his arc.
*They’re hilarious and pointless and I love them.
(And here’s my citation so Brandon Sanderson doesn’t sue me–you know, just in case)
Sanderson, B. Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians. Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC, 2016.