Shocking Your Reader without Undermining Character
I think there is an important lesson that can be learned by examining a particular part of ACOWAR through the lens of a writer and exploring how, if it was approached from a different angle, it could solve some of the issues readers are having with characterization while still fulfilling what I believe Maas was hoping for.
Spoilers ahead. I’ve written this in a way that I hope will be clear even to those who have not read the book (or have no interest in doing so) for the sake of communicating my point. Cause in the end, this is less about the story and more about writing as a craft.
We’re going to talk about the Eris reveal.
The goal of that moment was pretty clear, based on how it was structured - Maas wanted to end the scene on the sudden, shocking revelation that Eris was the missing member of the Court of Nightmares meeting. She wanted a moment where you would gasp, go “wtf, what is he doing there?!” and then feel compelled to dive into the next chapter. It’s a very commonly used tool implemented by many writers.
For those unfamiliar - Eris is a man known for his cruelty. He has been established as taking part in the abuse of two characters that are both written as sympathetic and people that the protagonist cares about (Lucien and Mor). Mor is present at this meeting. It is instantly made clear that she was not informed that he was invited. The sight of him is extremely triggering and her emotional turmoil throughout the scene reinforces to the reader that Eris is a Really Bad Guy™. Not exactly something we needed reinforced, given that he tried to hunt down and capture/kill the protagonist earlier in that same book, but… ok.
So the goals of that moment were:
Surprise us with the reveal of Eris.
Make Mor’s reaction reinforce the sense that they are making a deal with the devil.
The thing is, this could have been achieved without having Rhys blindside Mor with Eris’s sudden appearance into the scene.
As these books are written from a first person POV - if Maas wants to surprise the reader, she has to make certain that it’s with something that Feyre either doesn’t know or carefully does not mention to the reader (the second one is a bit of a gamble, because if it isn’t done perfectly, it feels like a cop out). Having Eris’s entrance be a surprise is dependent on Feyre not knowing about it ahead of time - not Mor. There is no reason in terms of story structure to surprise Mor with that.
And if Maas had made it so that Mor learned off-screen that this was going to happen, then she could have used that to increase the tension before the reveal happens. Feyre can notice how stony-faced Mor looks, how straight-backed and mostly silent. Feyre thinks it’s just because she’s having to face her father (another one of her abusers) and yet something feels different. She’s seen Mor with her father before - seen her glare the man down, holding her composure. But Feyre notices there’s a slight tremble to her now. She’s rattled. She’s not only angry but frightened. And her eyes keep darting to the empty chair at the table, her lips pursed tightly, her brow furrowing as she’s clearly trying to school her features into not revealing what she’s thinking/feeling. And seeing this, even tiny little moments like this, would instantly get the reader wondering who will fill that empty seat. It will increase their anticipation for the reveal that they now know is coming. Mor is a warrior - she is not a woman who scares easily - so something that gets that reaction out of her must be terrifying. The Court of Nightmares is full of monsters - perhaps we’re about to meet one of them. Given the setting, you’d still never assume that it would be Eris - so the surprise would still hit the right mark.
So by choosing not to let Mor know - Maas not only made Rhys seem incredibly heartless concerning his friend’s feelings, she also passed up on a really good opportunity to play with the reader’s expectations.
And if Feyre was upset at being left in the dark (which is necessary in order to surprise the reader), Rhys and/or Mor could explain that Mor did not want anyone else to know. It would be made clear that Rhys came to her with the proposal to use Eris as an asset, explaining why it was so important, and even though every part of her is repulsed by the idea - she ultimately chose to agree - to protect Feyre’s secret and to gain an ally for the coming war. Because if Maas really wants to keep hammering on this idea that Rhys is all about choice - this would have been a perfect opportunity to do so. He gave Mor the choice whether or not they work with her abuser and it was her choice whether or not to tell the others.
I think the takeaway here is that when you’re editing a draft, it’s not just a matter of fixing typos or changing a few words around here and there. One should really examine the text to see if there are potential moments there that you didn’t see before in your outlining or first draft stage. Maas gave herself a really powerful tool - the ability to raise the stakes with a subtle detail that would not detract from the main action of the scene - and she failed to use it. Either this was a conscious choice (because she really wanted to feature retraumatizing Mor) or she simply did not see that she’d set herself up for something much more powerful that would have kept Rhys more in-character (or at least, more fitting with the sort of character she keeps telling us he is).
summary: Don’t involve yourself in the league of assassins and don’t fuck with the league of assassins. It’s a pretty easy concept, right? Well, it would have been if Felicity had known what she was meddling with. Now she has one of the league’s best assassins knocking down her door. chapter word count: 2144 chapters: 3/? a/n: two updates in one daaaaay i’m on a roll [guitar rift] okay but i’m not very good at writing Nyssa (or Ra’s for that matter) but i tried and I hope it’s okay. I actually had a lot of fun writing this chapter. ((The last line is my fave))
Felicity stirred in her sleep. Her head was pounding and her mind felt fuzzy. She could barely remember what happened. It was slowly coming back to her the more awake she became. She shifted, hearing the rattle of chains. It only took her another moment to realize the heaviness of her wrists. Her eyes fluttered open and she let out a long groan. Old chains bound her wrists together. No handcuffs here, these were heavy duty you’re-not-going-anywhere shackles.
“What the fuck,” she slurred, shaking her wrists and making the chains rattle.
“Do not move,” Al Sah-Him spoke from beside her.
She moved away from him, but the quick jolt made her head spin, “Oh god, I’m going to vomit.”
“I told you not to move.”
“I need a bathroom,” she looked up with blurry vision, “Or I’m going to puke on you.”
He grabbed her by the back of her shirt and pulled her to her feet.
“Oh yes that is helping,” she turned her head in his direction and audibly gagged.
“You are an utter nuisance,” he muttered, pushing her forward.
Erie looked to the man below her and licked her lips, feeling the orgasm rising within her rather quickly due to his size. She trembled and called that she was going to cum, wanting him to know how good he felt inaide of her.