First, I'll tell you what this isn't. It's not a review of the book. I liked it. Don't get me wrong. I had to return it to the library half-read as someone else had booked it but I went and got it back in the end. Still, I don't really think you need yet another actual review of a book. I think what you want to know is about how a story does something really right or really wrong. In this instance, I want to talk about something Robin Hobb did really well (and generally does well - check out the Liveship Traders and Rain Wild Chronicles to see examples).
The Rain Wild Chronicles is an interesting exercise in writing a drama set in a fantasy setting without recourse to battles and frequent set-piece events. There's a group of very well-drawn individuals on a barge setting out to guide a group of disabled dragons to the legendary city of Kelsingra. There's a few set-piece events, such as gallators (poisonous alligators) and floods, but really they're just there to provide additional conflict to the group. Robin Hobb certainly doesn't rely on that sort of external conflict to keep the novel going. Instead, it's that internal and interpersonal conflict which can be enflamed by the odd external set-piece event that really drives the novel.
How does she do it?
Well-developed personalities ensure that certain clashes will be inevitable. Robin Hobb does her best to drive such characters together to ensure the clashes happen. Characters who can't get along are kept in close proximity by the claustrophobic environments of the barge and small boats and this environmental constraint heats things up. She's not timid about their reactions, either. Even if the reaction is unpleasant. Even if it's unkind and cruel and shows the bad side of a character, she will hold to it if it is something the character is likely to do. Part of the chronicle's charm is simply watching how the various characters tangle and untangle themselves. Its a character study and a sociological study rolled into one and the unpredictability of it all is what keeps reader interest. Who will react to that? How will they react to that? Where is this going? The actual destination, Kelsingra, falls into the background as a legendary McGuffin while the humans and dragons' personalities take center stage.
How do you do it?
It seems like she puts a lot of thought into the various ways a character might react, in order to find the reaction that rings true the most (and provides for an additional layer of conflict or resolution of conflict). Now, whether you're an outliner or a guess-writer (I'm the latter), odds are that you've found it difficult to create character reactions that really zing. I mean, normally the first reaction we grasp if the expected one and that can fall a little flat when the characters' quirks could take the reaction in a whole new and interesting way. I think I've said it somewhere on this blog before: When your character encounters something important, brainstorm a list of possible reactions and pick one of the least expected yet in character option that works for you. Just by brainstorming, you'll open your mind to unlimited possibilities.
Another technique is to create a web of personalities. Put a name in the middle of a page and then draw radiating spikes. At the end of each spike, put each other character. Then write along the spike the feelings one character has for the other. Or you could create a mind map of conflict, using multiple radiating spikes to really explore the various conflicts surrounding a character.
A third technique is to list each character's name and brainstorm a list of secrets, pet peeves, goals, and motivations. Just see what the list says and then prune a few of the options or take a look at what you've written to see if you could make it a little more complex. For example, if one character's goal is to be respected, then they'll probably get along more with someone who gives them compliments than someone who points out all their failings. However, what if it was the other way around? What if the character needs to know they're respected, and so appreciates someone who is so forthright and grudging with compliments that each compliment must be earned. Someone who compliments them often might be thought insincere - even if the complimenter is telling the truth. i.e. "Of course my father says I'm a good guy, he's a push over. My grandfather, on the other hand, always tells it like it is.... He's the one worth talking to."
Hope that's helpful!
Before you leave, do any of you have any additional ideas, tricks and methods to deepen the character interplay so that even their simple reactions to each other are enough to keep us interested?