August Li’s The Kitchen Boy

April 7, 2016

August Li's The Kitchen Boy

Hi everybody. I’m August (Gus) Li, here at the blog today to talk about my novella The Kitchen Boy.

If you’ve read much of my work, you probably know I like to put a lot of pressure on my characters to see how dealing with conflict will force them to adapt and hopefully grow. In a lot of my books, characters face large-scale battles, conspiracies, assassinations, and powerful magic. I took a little bit of a different approach to this book. There’s still magic, and there’s political intrigue, some fights, and a body count. There are characters with selfish motivations, and there are betrayals. But the main conflict for my main character, Yoli, is internal, which leads to the topic I’m interested in exploring.

Does personal interest have a place in romance?

It’s easy to say no, that of course a character should put aside personal pursuits to chase love, to sacrifice selfish goals for the greater prize of a lasting connection with another person. But I like to poke around in the gray areas where things aren’t so simple. Love and partnership is a wonderful thing to have, but is there a point when its price is too high? What if a character must give up a lucrative career to be with another, or leave his homeland? Do we as readers cheer, or do we have to wonder if he made the right decision? What makes it a fair trade for the character who is giving something up? What does the love interest have to provide to balance the scales?

Or, as is the case in my book, what if the character is given a choice between loyalty to the man he loves and safety, freedom from being hurt, having his basic needs met, and the opportunity to realize his dream? It sounds too good to be true, and, in a way, it is, but walking away will make his life much easier and more comfortable. It might even mean the difference between life and death. It’s an interesting conflict to explore, because the desire to find love is such a basic and compelling one. But self-preservation is also a strong need. And not every character is a tragic hero who would rather die than lose they person he loves. Some characters are more practical. Some characters have also learned from experience that they have to look out for themselves.

As my character finds out, loyalty is lovely as a concept, but can become messy in practice. He wants to be an idealist, to stick to his beliefs no matter the opposition, but he also wants a future, and he wants that future to include enough to eat and the chance to do something he finds fulfilling. He’s put in a position where he must make an impossible choice. You’ll have to read the book to see how he reconciles everything, but does a certain amount of self-interest make for a bad romance protagonist?

Nobody likes a self-absorbed jerk who only cares about himself, but personally, I also don’t like a character without his own interests, without an investment in his own success, or who doesn’t use his agency to ensure a satisfying outcome for himself. I don’t like a character who only cares about what his love interest wants, at the expense of his own wishes and goals.  Most characters are never forced into a situation where they must, in absolute terms, choose between one and the other, but putting them there makes their most basic personality rise to the surface. As a writer, moving that dial between selfish jerk and doormat is a delicate balancing act. Push it too far, and the result is an unlikable character—no one cares about his success because he really doesn’t deserve it. Wiggle it in the other direction, and you end up with a character who lacks believability at best, comes across kind of deluded and pathetic at worst. Most people have a strong survival instinct, but most people also want to be loved—and to see those they love thrive. If they cannot have it both ways, what do they do?

So how do you like your protagonists? Self-sacrificing idealists or practical people who look out for themselves? It’s somewhere in between for me. Do you prefer characters that lean more one way or the other? What lines can a character not cross without losing your affection?

Check out The Kitchen Boy today!

KitchenBoyFS

Blurb:

Kitchen servant Yoli is one of only three men who know a carefully guarded secret about High Commander Koehen, the brilliant general who united their lands against a common invader. The enemy wants that secret, and they are willing to use either kindness or cruelty to obtain it.

Yoli must decide if his loyalties lie with the commander, who has shown him more affection than anyone in Yoli’s life, or with his own best interests. High Commander Koehen’s attention is capricious at best—he summons Yoli only when it is convenient for him, and Yoli knows there’s little hope of a future together. Is a glimmer of a hope for love worth sacrificing a chance for prosperity beyond his wildest dreams?

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