Adult Reader vs. Middle Grade Book: Inkheart

Certain books, you’re bound to love. Others, you can’t help but hate. And some, you find you just couldn’t care less about. If you read my Reading Challenge Wrap-Up from Wednesday, you probably think that Inkheart falls in the middle category. It certainly felt that way sometimes as I read the book. But then I was thinking about it, and I realized it wasn’t hatred but rather frustration at the book’s concept that was, in a way, flawed from the start.

Before diving into the post, I’m going to go ahead and issue my usual warning: spoilers abound. Inkheart has been out for over a decade, and it already had a crappy movie adaptation, so I’m going to assume if you were going to read it, you’d have done so by now.

I was sorely tempted to turn this into a rant post, because it’s very rare that I find a book that I feel passionately about, negatively so at least, and there’s nothing more fun than tearing a bad book to pieces talking about supposedly superior hypotheticals. It doesn’t really benefit anyone. Instead, I’m going to make Inkheart’s core issues as abstract as possible to theoretically help my writer audience sidestep making similar…blunders, I guess.

Establish place.

If your character is going to be moving around in your narrative, it’s important to have a concrete starting point before you move them. Most of Inkheart takes place in Italy. Southern Italy, if I remember correctly. It takes Mo and Meggie about a day’s drive to reach Elinor, and Capricorn’s village is not particularly far away from that. However, my first assumption was that Meggie and Mo lived in America. I don’t remember the book taking place in Italy, and that could just be chalked up to forgetfulness and the assumption that any book taking place in modern times takes place in my own country unless stated otherwise. But all the reader is told about Mo’s house is that it is a drive away from Elinor’s. We don’t know if it is also in Italy or in another country altogether. We don’t even know what direction they drove. It’s a small thing, but then again, it should also be an easy fix.

Understand character education and maturity.

Whether a character is schooled or not, whether they’re well-read or not, will affect how they think, talk, and act, at least to a certain extent. Meggie is twelve. Cornelia Funke does at least establish this in the first or second chapter, and even before it is said, we get the feeling she is young. However, as a character, Meggie makes me feel conflicted. Being a well-read kid should have made her act at least a little older than she actually was, but while she was admittedly very brave during what was supposed to be a scary time, there was a pervasive feel through the book that Meggie’s maturity level matched someone a few years younger, rather than older.

I mean I get it. Writing books about kids is not easy because they’re growing and learning and maturing much faster than adults. I don’t think I’ve ever really read a character that was supposed to be, say, 25 but read like a 22- or a 23-year-old. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that, kid or adult, an education will probably make them sound and act more mature, but with the kid, it’ll be a lot more obvious.

Know the “contemporary” thinkers and writers.

There are always people who are thinking and reading and writing, even in the medieval setting that most traditional fantasy is set within. Even though it is obviously not to the extent of what we have now, there would still be philosophers writing about how they see the world, and bards going around telling stories. Yet Inkheart was determined to convince that no one pays attention to a book’s author because they assume the author is long dead.

I was thinking about it, and I wanted to give Capricorn and his men the benefit of the doubt. They come from a world based off of medieval Italy, so considering the expenses needed to make books, it’s more understandable that Capricorn and his men would immediately jump to the conclusion that Fenoglio, the author of the fictional Inkheart book, couldn’t be the author because obviously the author was dead. But that sort of thinking implies that there aren’t epics in Capricorn’s world, and, like, what a sad setting it would be to live in a world where there aren’t people telling stories.

This is not something that is particularly important for most narratives. You probably don’t need to have a list of philosophical thinkers to reference, at least not for your average fantasy novel. But stories are and always have been a vital organ in the body that is human civilization, and it’s important to at least be aware of what stories might be shared and by whom.

Back up the antagonist’s reputation through action.

If the antagonist is supposed to have the blackest of hearts and the vilest of tendencies, it is not enough to just say so. If a character is supposed to be violent and destructive, give them moment when they are violent and destructive. And if a character is supposed to be afraid for their life because they are put in the hands of some psychopathic villain, the villain had better hash out more than just a small scratch.

This was one of the biggest flaws of Inkheart. Perhaps the most threatening displays of power from Capricorn is the unapologetic destruction of every single copy of the fictional Inkheart save one. Everything else is second-hand information at best. He is not directly responsible for the burning of Elinor’s books. His men are armed with guns but the worst they ever inflict is a graze to the head. Basta, Capricorn’s right-hand man, loves knives, yet the worst he inflicts is giving Mo a minor scratch.

Inkheart is a MG novel. It’s a fair desire to keep things kid-friendly, and a true psycopathic character probably isn’t kid friendly. But it does not help your narrative to declaw your villain, so to speak, because then they just appear a bit cartoonish. The choice is ultimately between accepting the fact that your villian will have to do some villainous things, or giving them some sort of moral constraints that prevent them from doing anything particularly vile.

Consider resources.

It costs money to lead people, especially gangs. You have to pay them for whatever work they do under your name, you have to pay for those servants that help keep your decrepit town liveable, you have to pay for ammunition and guns (well, I guess Capricorn wouldn’t have to, but they have to come from somewhere). And this issue is connected to the last.

I think we as readers are supposed to assume he used the same tactics from the fictional Inkheart to gain money and power in the “real world.” Arson, murder, bribes, and so forth. He had started off poor in his world, same as he would have been the day he was read into Mo’s. But there’s a big difference: Mo’s world has police and prisons that are not the same as what Capricorn would have dealt with in his world. And, sure, I can believe he has found ways to continue earning revenue to pay for the men he’s recruited and the police he needs to bribe.

But in those early days? Not so. If he robbed people and businesses to get those first bits of cash, why wasn’t he caught by the police then? It was just him and Basta; if the police arrested them both for their crimes, who was going to threaten them and their families? Even if the police only arrested Capricorn (because we both know if they arrested Basta, Capricorn would have left him to rot), Basta would have had no way of gathering the intel needed to pressure the police to let Capricorn go. This book should have ended before it even began.

A Thought Experiment.

Taking into consideration that the biggest problem was the antagonist, and considering what it was about the antagonist that was problematic, I was able to figure out one way the book could have been written to remove those problematic elements while keeping the core concepts of the story.

It’s been nine years since Capricorn, Basta, and Dustfinger were read from their world. The two former characters have been evading the law, trying to gain money and wealth, to little avail. Every time they make a move to get more money, it very nearly ends in complete and utter failure. By happenstance, Capricorn finds another man who can read words to life, Darius, but even the threat of Basta’s knife can’t make him do it properly. Capricorn’s got his henchmen, but they still have to hide out in some broken down empty village. A village, when the whole world should belong to him.

He’d had plenty of time to consider it, and he knows that part of what gave him so much power back in his own world is his old friend “the Shadow,” an immortal, invincible creature that surely even Mo’s world could not defeat. With the Shadow by his side, he could take over this world as is his due. But first he needs Mo. He sends his henchmen out to find the reader, and to bring every single copy of Inkheart to him; best not to take chances that someone else will ruin his schemes by reading up other characters. Then Capricorn, suspecting Dustfinger knows where Mo is, promises him that Mo will read him back into Inkheart if only Dustfinger can bring Mo to him. And once Mo’s in his grasp, it’s only a matter of time before the world realizes they should have feared Capricorn from the start.

With this concept, Capricorn has actual motives beyond just being destructive and terrifying. He can still want to stay in Mo’s world, he can still need Mo’s reading, and he can still destroy all copies of Inkheart save one in order to see his goals through. His willingness to do whatever it takes to get Mo and the book is suddenly a hundred times more compelling and raises far fewer questions.

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