Discover more from Barbarian Grunge
Character Driven Stories: a Look at Lee Sarpel’s Razor Strike
Razor Strike, by Lee Sarpel, is a cyberpunk novel about the relationship between two well-meaning characters with violent careers. One of them, Trez, is dealing with a financial situation that drives her towards dangerous jobs, and the other, Eric, is worried about her and wants to save her. The story is completely character-driven and unfolds naturally from these two seeds.
What stood out to me about this book was how distinct the experience of reading it was.
With most books, it feels like I’m in a story and like I need to put in the time to move forward in that story. Or, failing that, move on to a different book. When reading Razor Strike, it felt instead like I was visiting a relaxing, interesting place that I wanted to return to regularly over the course of a few months. When I wasn’t reading the book, if I thought about the book, I wasn’t always wondering what would happen next so much as thinking warmly about the characters and wondering whether I should visit them again soon.
I’m having trouble describing this.
Reading Razor Strike felt like having friends or neighbours who you care about but who you don’t see every day. Two of them are forming a relationship, and you really want it to work out. Despite caring how this will turn out, you don’t go visit them every day to get an update; you continue to live your life. Then, once in a while, you check in to see if there have been any developments, and you really hope for good news. But their lives are hard, and complicated, so the news often isn’t good, but you root for them to be doing better next time you see them. And you worry about them sometimes. Maybe you even lose a bit of sleep over it (see below).
By contrast, many other books feel like you are in a panic to keep up with things.
Typical books aim for a different, more intense, reading experience, maybe something like this: you have friends or neighbours who are in a crisis and you have to rush over to their house every time you have a spare moment to keep an eye on things because one of them is laying bleeding on the floor and apparently somebody shot out the windows, spilling glass shards all over the floor, and icy wind is blowing in, and this bleeding person, whose breath is coming out as fog, is going to freeze to death before the ambulance arrives, so you want to board up the windows but you don’t have time to because there’s smoke filling the building and the kitchen is on fire and you need to make sure the flames don’t spread…
Which is good, but it’s a completely different experience. The first is more pleasant, with the most potential to be deeply unnerving, while the second is more urgent.
Potential for Tension
The story feels very real. That means, most of the time, that things are not going crazy. However, because it feels so convincing, when something bad might happen, or does happen, it can hit a lot harder.
The book had a nice ending in a way but the characters had to live with a few consequences, and had some continuing life stress to look forward to, and although nothing was about to explode, I felt a mild panic for hours (or days?) afterwards and had trouble sleeping.
This is after all the story of Trez and her impossible responsibilities pushing her beyond her physical and emotional limits, so when the ending isn’t the end of their troubles… it felt a little too familiar and hit me hard.
This wouldn’t have been possible in a less character driven, less realistic story.
You don’t feel urgently like you need to babysit your characters because their drama won’t come until they choose to act—the drama waits for them, because they’re the ones who are causing it. This is the opposite of the timetables of events I use in dnd to make sure the game moves forward whenever the players stop acting.
The plot has no contrivance, which I can’t say is common. Ie, the characters never break character to make the plot more convenient.
The story was fully outlined, despite flowing very naturally from character decisions (I asked)
Trez is appealing because she doesn’t act to make her people or the reader happy. She acts at odds with other characters and confounds them—and for a good reason. She’s a killing machine, but that’s deemphasized, and instead the focus is on how she’s a woman with emotions and with needs and who is doing her best and at the end of her rope. She’s really strong but is likely to accidentally kill herself soon. Vulnerable but strong
The push to work at the cost of your health reminds me a little too much of a personal situation. The setting feels right, but is not emphasized. I enjoyed the dynamic of strikers using drug cocktails at unsustainable degrees makes for an interesting world
characters are surprisingly compassionate towards each other. What creates conflict is conflicting life situations and larger forces, not random hostility
I think it might be the most distinct, memorable novel I read this year due to how character driven it was
As always, if you liked this article, make sure to like and subscribe. And if you’re a SubStack author yourself, there’s nothing I find more flattering and helpful than a recommendation. It really makes a big difference