Reflection on Character: Malian of Night
Recently I was asked, ‘what makes Malian, your main character in The Heir of Night, unique in epic fantasy? And what makes a hero, anyway?’ (No, this didn’t arise out of the “Heroes” Mind Meld on Sf Signal—but it could have done!)
My initial response was ‘aargh, the pressure’—not just of an example, but of encapsulating what is often the slow delicate process of character evolution. And Malian’s character did evolve over many years, from long before I first put pen to paper: sometimes in small increments, occasionally in giant leaps. I have spoken elsewhere of the similar emergence of the Wall of Night world: from around the age of 10 I had a vision of a rugged, shadowy, wind-blasted environment, and the concept of a youthful female protagonist within that world developed at much the same time.
Although both the world and the character have evolved considerably from those first principles, the notion that Malian should initially be a youthful protagonist has remained unchanged. In the first book—of four in the series—she is thirteen, while Kalan, the second protagonist, is fourteen. Although this may seem young to us, thirteen and fourteen year olds have been regarded as adult or near adult through much of history (Shakespeare’s Juliet, for example, is fourteen; marriageable age at that time.)
In the second book, The Gathering of the Lost, the characters are five years older, but I feel that the initial age of the two central characters, at the cusp between childhood and adult responsibility, is important because it is one where—although not yet independent agents—most of us are making choices: about who we are, what beliefs and values we subscribe to, and whether we buy into the status quo or desire change.
In the case of Malian and Kalan, these choices are not just personal but reflect the issues at stake in their wider society, known as the Derai—a people who believe they champion good, but are divided by prejudice, suspicion and fear.
A number of elements define Malian’s character. Firstly, she is not a rebel. Many epic heroes begin by either denying or being unaware of their leadership role (i.e, their destiny), whereas Malian has been born and raised as Heir of Night. Rather than rebelling against her responsibilities, or questioning why the hard yards should fall to her, Malian always accepts that they do. One of her primary character drivers, in fact, is her commitment and dedication to the Derai cause.
Her rebellion, if you can call it that, arises because she believes the path the Derai are following, and expect her to follow too, no longer serves their cause. This dedication to a higher duty, and to service above self, is an important aspect of what makes a hero in fantasy. Often the hero comes to the moment of acceptance late in the story, rather than early, but there is almost always a point at which that choice is made—like Rek taking on the role of Earl of Bronze and the defence of Dros Delnoch in David Gemmell’s Legend, or Aerin, in The Hero and the Crown, deciding to become a dragon fighter.
In short, Malian’s acceptance of duty is simply the foundation of her character: the story lies in her refusal to blindly accept any or all of the baggage attached to it. Like many other fantasy heroes, she’s brave and powerful—but her true superpower is that she is also clever and insightful. While she does have mentors and advisers, many of them potent characters in their own right, she still makes her own decisions and is determined to act on events, not just be buffeted by them.
The main point about Malian though, is that she doesn’t act on them stupidly. This is a world in which the foolish die quickly, so she has to learn to weigh the odds and take risks—because this is also a world where playing it safe is not an option either.
Committed, responsible, brave, powerful, smart: Malian of Night is a character who stands in the mythic tradition of Beowulf and Mulan, and the literary inheritance of Aragorn and Mara of the Acoma. Seen in those terms (and returnng to the original questions), perhaps she is not ‘unique’—but she nonetheless speaks with an authentic and distinctive voice.
Malian brings two further qualities to the character mix, which although present in the heroic tradition are not universal in epic fantasy. These qualities are a sense of justice and empathy for others. To decide for yourself where she might have learned them in the harsh and narrow Derai world, you may just have to take the plunge and immerse yourself in The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost.
And of course, right now I’m beavering away on Daughter of Blood, The Wall of Night Book Three.
This post is a reprise of an article I wrote for the Orbit blog when the mass market edition of The Heir of Night was published in the UK, but it fits with the character series I've been writing, so I hope you'll enjoy.