I was writing in a forum and trying to figure out if there’s a simple way to summarize how characterization works in the Malazan series. It’s one aspect that is also criticized and matter of debate and so I think it’s all about the reader and his personal reaction to a different style. For some it works, for others it doesn’t.
One problem is that for books that are part of a specific genre readers come with very specific expectations, and so it’s not easy to make them accept different canons and structures, they will judge a book by comparing it to other books in the genre that are considered absolute points of reference. The quality of a book is then relative to its performance on those canons. Malazan has an ever harder time because its differences start already with the style of the writing. So it depends entirely on whether or not this style works for a certain reader or if instead one gets “bounced back”.
“Characterization” is one of those aspects where “innovation” or change or originality of approach isn’t usually welcome. A classic kind of characterization works well and achieves a lot of important functions. Most successful books, even if much different, have similar approaches to characterization. They can do it better or worse, but usually they follow similar structures. This is instead one aspect that Erikson does in a completely different way (or in a way that represents a minority).
In the Malazan series things aren’t driven by characters, but by scenes. Often scenes are linked thematically, and different characters relate to the same theme in their own different way. In most other fantasy, putting in the same group Tolkien, Martin and Jordan to quote three of the most visible, characters are established before plot. In Tolkien we get to know the Hobbits well before the story and the journey picks up. There’s the whole birthday scene, but also lots of “infodumps” about the quirky habits of the Hobbit and all the different families. Characters and story are well contextualized before they are set in movement. Jordan follows the structure closely, sets up the countryside village, its inhabitants and what will become main characters. You have a nice bucolic scene set up, including fundamental characterization, before things start to happen. Things are again properly and carefully contextualized so that the reader acquires a certain familiarity with them before “changes” arrive. Martin, even if completely different from both Jordan and Tolkien, also starts by contextualizing. Bran’s first chapter is a well written introduction to the whole Stark family, and before the chapter closes the reader will be already familiar with all the most important traits and characters that define the Starks. Here the plot moves already as part of the contextualization, but it’s all again measured on the reader. Even with the following chapters characters are introduced in a way that lets the reader develop familiarity, and things only move after the reader got hold of them.
As I said, this is the aspect that most sets Erikson’s writing style apart from most of everything else. It’s not much that the first book starts in “medias res”, or in a point in time that is already quite complicate. That’s a detail. The real difference is that no characters are contextualized as a deliberate choice. In Erikson’s books no character is closely followed, no character is carefully presented before the plot gets moving. We get scenes. Characters are part of scenes and they get swapped depending on the scene. We get glimpses of characterization, because even when there’s direct introspection it’s always closely related to the theme in that scene. We see specific characterization and reactions. We get flashes. What we do not get is the fully disclosed character that the reader familiarizes with and knows so well to consider like a close friend. This never happen. All characters, even those who appear more often and that are minutely developed, keep obscure aspects about their lives and thoughts. There is no spotlight that clears all shadows and offers a special status of clarity. This is immediately evident from the beginning of Gardens of the Moon, where Paran, in the scene where he goes in Gerrom to find out what happened with the missing girl and her father, even with direct introspection we only get hints, glimpses and suspicions about what Paran is thinking. There is no omniscient light poured into a character.
All this is not the result of a lack of strong characterization, even compared to books praised for it, it’s just a matter of different style. Characters in the Malazan series develop in the longer term, the more those slices of characterization build up to something more cohesive. The facets we see have plenty of depths, character never develop predictably and Erikson’s habit is about breaking patterns and expectations. Malazan has plenty of originality and depth, but it is nuanced and only comes out on a emergent level. It’s not straightforward and clear, it takes effort from the reader to put together the pieces of characterization. As is the case with everything else that makes this series.
Agreeing or not on the merit of characterization in the Malazan series, I think it’s still obvious to say that characters only relate to the specific scene and nothing else, and that this is a constant for the whole series and all characters involved. There’s a neutrality of approach that in the end delivers something powerfully authentic. Which is as far as you can go in the matter of characterization.