Sometimes, after watching a bad movie or reading a bad book, I like to think about what could improve it. If there was one thing I would change about the movie The Warriors, for example, I would have cast younger actors. Not even necessarily better actors, but younger.
As I read through Eragon, I wondered what might the the one thing I that could have been done differently to improve the book. Most of my complaints about the book were related to its characters. The majority of the cast just wasn’t interesting or sympathetic. But saying “make the characters suck less” is much too broad of a generalization. “Give Eragon a personality” is better, but I came upon something truly befitting the spirit of Eragon.
A formulaic story needs some formulaic improvement. As it stands, Eragon isn’t a well-developed character; he’s just reaction. To give him some depth and make him more relatable, my suggestion would have Eragon go through the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief. Eragon loses so much over the course of the book: his uncle, his home, and his mentor.
When Garrow and Brom are killed, Eragon cries a lot and tries to honor the deceased. Then he adds their names to the list of reasons to kill the Ra’zac. And…that’s kind of it.
But if you’ve ever lost someone that you care about, you know the grief doesn’t just go away. It’s surreal, there’s a pain you can’t describe, and it never really goes away. Not totally.
Or, as Lemony Snicket put it so perfectly:
It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus, and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.
It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.
We’ll start off with denial. To summarize, denial is when you can’t believe that the loss really happened. Suddenly your world is flipped upside down.
Denial can be over in hours; it can last for days. Looking back through the book, it seems like Eragon skips this stage entirely. In fairness, when Garrow and Brom die, there is a sense of urgency, and he can’t take the time to fully process what’s happened. And while we see him cry, we don’t see him shocked, or numb.
But let us see him turn ahead, thinking he saw Brom out of the corner of his eye. Let him believe, however falsely, that someday he can return to his home village a hero. Then the true weight of his loss becomes apparent and tangible to the reader.
Next in the Kubler-Ross stages of grief is Anger. Anger in grief can be directed at anyone and anything: yourself, your family, a co-worker, God. Since Eragon’s first instinct is to vow revenge on the Ra’zac who killed Garrow and Brom, he’s kind of got this one in the bag. But we could do more with it.
What if, instead of just vowing revenge, Eragon turns his anger towards Saphira? After all, without her, Garrow wouldn’t have been killed. Maybe if she hadn’t been so scared of the Ra’zac and stayed to fight them, he would still be alive. Or if she’d tried to fight them after she and Eragon were captured, instead of giving in? These are questions that Eragon will never know the answer to. He lashes out at his dragon, his closest companion who has done everything in her power to protect him. He blames her for their deaths, wants to send her away. But their minds are connected forever, all the while Saphira tries to remain close to Eragon, no matter how he claims he hates her. That is something that I would like to read.
Next, we move on to bargaining. Bargaining might be easier to understand from the perspective of someone who’s dying, or someone whose loved one is in the process of dying. “God, if you let me get out of this one, if you let me live until Christmas, if you give me a few more years, I’ll do whatever you want.” After a loss, bargaining can manifest itself in regrets and “if onlys”. If only I had prayed harder, if only I’d really given the doctors a piece of my mind, if only my actual dragon hadn’t run away or surrendered so quickly. This could easily feed into the hypothetical anger Eragon might have had towards Saphira nicely.
After bargaining is depression. This is probably what most people think of when they hear the word “grief”. Depression is sadness, but it also runs deeper than that. Depression is a feeling of hopelessness, where every day can be a struggle to get out of bed. It steals away your energy and replaces it with feelings of worthlessness. People tell you to keep your chin up, but you can’t see a way out.
Depression sucks, and it’s hard to shake. It’s also not often considered socially acceptable for men to express depression and sadness. In fact, it’s not uncommon for depression to manifest in men as anger, because anger is an “acceptable” emotion for men to display.
This would make adventuring pure hell. Eragon accepts that he and Saphira couldn’t do anything to save Garrow and Brom, and understand that there is nothing that can bring them back. He is apologetic for his anger at Saphira. But he begins to see himself as helpless. After all, he’s the first new Dragon Rider in decades, and yet he can’t protect a small village. Should he continue this journey, or just cut his losses and go somewhere no one can find him, away from the Empire? Every day is a struggle to continue towards the Varden. Because, surely, they’ll see how weak he is, that Saphira should have chosen someone else to be her Rider. He keeps these feelings of inadequacy quiet, but Saphira knows how they trouble him. Despite all the times he’s lashed out at her, she stands by him, reassuring him that she made the right choice, offering him the support he needs to get through this dark time.
As we come to the book’s climax, Eragon also begins to reach the stage of acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean that Eragon’s “okay” with his losses or has somehow overcome the pain of them. It means he acknowledges that Garrow, Brom, and that his life will have to go on without them. As he battles with the Varden against the Urgals, Eragon thanks Brom for his training and guidance, without which he wouldn’t have made it far. He can think of his home, knowing he can never truly return, but also knowing that when he fights against the Empire, he is fighting for Carvahall. When the battle is over, he can look back at all the things he’s learned, and will grow from it. After contact with Oromis, who will become Eragon’s next teacher, he is able to re-emerge from his grief know that there is a future.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I would improve Eragon.