Real Consequences make for Developing Heroic Virtue in Characters
Here’s a common story in literature: A rebellious child goes against the wishes of a parent. As a result, this child causes all kinds of troubles for the family and society. This story is present within two stories I enjoyed reading, both with a female protagonist who is twelve years old.
In Aru Shah and the End of Times by Roshani Choksi, Aru’s rebellion, plus her tendency to lie and stretch the truth, causes cosmic disaster. In the beginning, Aru stretches the truth about a specific artifact in order to impress her friends. In doing this, she also disobeys her mother by handling the artifact. Almost immediately, this action has a clear consequence for her friends, her mother, and for the universe. Then, she is assigned a quest to reverse the micro and cosmic consequences her actions have caused. Though her disobedience was the cause of this major cosmic disruption, she is given the chance to redeem herself and set things right. Through this quest, she is able to overcome some of her character flaws and demonstrate true heroic virtue. She also learns valuable lessons about lying, obedience to her mother, and staying within the natural order established by society and the universe.
Author, Minda Klasky sets out to tell a similar story in Keara’s Raven: Escape. When she runs away from her village and joins a traveling group of performers, twelve-year-old Keara disobeys and embarrasses her mother by breaking from societal and religious tradition. Thus, the story becomes about her hiding from the authorities. She is motivated by two desires. One, she is fascinated by the idea of being a part of this performance troupe. Two, she seeks to avoid having to go through the rite of passage every child her age must perform in order to become an adult. That, and she will face severe punishment if she is tracked down and caught. Throughout the story, she makes a few mistakes that draw the watchful eye of the authorities upon the troupe. But, the troupe’s leader covers for her. Once she is safe, he expects her to earn her keep if she wishes to remain under the troupe’s protection. She submits to his authority and manages to earn his trust and the troupe’s protection. Though this should be a lesson in obedience, it comes across as more of a lesson in pragmatism. Ultimately, she is on the run from those who seek to set her back on the right path as ordered by the religion that holds the very fabric of this society together. In the end, the apparent lesson is one in honesty, but she only tells the truth because her actions set her on a course of events that ultimately paint her in a corner. In order to continue to hide, she is forced to confide in her patron and protector.
Given the storylines, one would expect that Aru and Keara would both equally miss home and the mother who they disobeyed. While this is the case for Aru, who worries about her mother and the fate of the world constantly, this is not the case with Keara. There are a few passing moments in Keara’s Raven where she has a passing thought of her mother. But, it is very clear that she has traded one family for another. In only a few months, Keara is willing to call this strange group of performers her family even though it is still incredibly clear to her that she doesn’t really fit in with them either. Ironically, the whole existence of the performance troupe is to honor society’s religious traditions by performing plays.
While the subtitle Escape, suites the story in Keara’s Raven, the message being communicated is something to the effect of It’s okay to lie and disobey a rule you think is stupid. I put it in this way because a twelve-year-old does not possess the capacity to make a sound judgment about an established rule or tradition, especially one that is as woven in the fabric of her cultural and religious practices. Let’s say for a moment that the practice she decides she shouldn’t adhere to is stupid. Does she possess the experience and wisdom to not only question this practice, but also do something about it? Her actions following her escape suggest she possesses neither wisdom nor experience. She continues to be immature, she continues to question established group norms, and she only submits to authority out of the need for protection. Essentially, she trades in one parent figure for another, who, by the end of the story, happens to share her views. While this should redeem the story, it doesn’t. Keara’s mother is still left entirely alone in the village. The reader can only begin to imagine the emotional, social, and financial loss her mother must be experiencing. Keara’s decision to escape presents a potential “end of time” for her mother, but the reader is only left to speculate as this is never addressed in the book.
While Keara seems to be motivated by a selfish desire to escape tradition and growing up, Aru Shah realizes the gravity of her error. Aru is clearly motivated by a desire to set things right. Aru, throughout the story, continues to stretch the truth and outright lie even when she is on a quest that requires her to demonstrate true heroic virtue. However, this quest does force her to tear down the facade and get real, especially when her lies alienate her new-found friend and fellow Pandava incarnation. Indeed, while on the quest, Aru’s lying puts her and her quest partner in a whole heap of trouble. So, like Keara, Aru does continue to make mistakes. But, unlike Keara, Aru learns from each mistake and grows in virtue. At several points, she is even able to use her talent for stretching the truth in such a way that she is able to do a whole lot of good.
In literature, it is necessary to have flawed characters, especially when those characters are heroic. Aru Shah is a quintessential example of such a character. Her flaws lead to decisions that result in the inciting incident in the story and in opportunities for her to turn these flaws into strengths. Throughout the story, Aru must deal with the consequences of her disobedience and her lying. Aru makes amends and is able to return to her mother, who she so desperately misses and worries about throughout her entire quest. On the other hand, Keara is equally flawed and her flaws lead to the inciting incident. But, Keara’s actions lead to absolutely no opportunity for redemption. Instead, Keara’s character remains relatively static. While she gains skills through her participation in the performing troupe, she doesn’t grow as a character. How could she? She remains hidden, and she is never required to face the consequences of her actions. Indeed, it is not really clear that her actions have any consequences.
And that’s my point. Negative actions rooted in lying, disobedience, or rebellion have negative consequences. Family or society is charged with punishing the offender, or punishment comes in the form of natural law. Aruh Shaw’s actions result in natural consequences. She must make amends and set the world right. Because she does this willingly, she develops personal virtue. Keara’s actions should result in natural consequences, but she finds a troupe that is willing to shield her from both the societal and natural laws that would result in natural consequences. Keara, I might concede, generally feels the loss of family even when she finds a new tribe. But that’s about as far as her remorse takes her. She doesn’t feel bad for hurting her mother or her village because she never sees the natural consequences for doing so. Perhaps the universe will visit upon her these consequences in future books, but Keara’s Raven: Escape doesn’t hint at this idea in the way Aruh Shaw: End of Times does.
A book should be able to stand alone, satisfactorily completing a character’s arc. Aruh is clearly changed by her experience. In the future, she will be more careful about how she “stretches the truth”, she will be more obedient to her mother, and she will be well-prepared for her next adventure. Aruh is likely to further develop in virtue and rise to become more heroic in further stories. Keara doesn’t seem to have been changed by her experiences. If anything, her experiences further reinforce the idea that she should run and hide when faced with doing something she doesn’t want to do. While Aruh is clearly ready for her next adventure, Keara will have to learn the art of deception and play-acting if she is to continue to survive. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope for Keara to develop any heroic virtue in future stories.