Don’t Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

You know a story has made it into cultural canon when it’s getting repackaged and updated in different versions. This has been especially common in YA fiction lately – Epic Reads came up with a spectacular chart of examples.

When you update a tale that lots of people know, it gives you a framework on which to construct your story. You can choose how closely to follow it, but readers do tend to have expectations based on what you’re retelling. Some stories require only one or two elements for their inspirations to be identified: an all-too-human monster brought to life by a scientist, ill-fated young lovers from warring families, a death-like sleep dispelled by a kiss. If, on the other hand, you’re retelling Jane Austen, readers are going to be looking for a much closer adherence to the original plot.

As a rule, the more high-concept the story – the more easily its appeal could be summed up by one snappy sentence – the looser your retelling can be without losing its connection to the original. Note that I say “its appeal” rather than “its plot.” You could sum up Alice in Wonderland by saying “young girl finds herself in a strange world of whimsical characters and nonsensical logic.” That’s accurate as regards the plot, but does little to describe the appeal of the story, which lies in the specific characters and weirdnesses of Wonderland. If you’re adapting Alice in Wonderland, readers will want to see your take on the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen.

Retelling a fairy tale, myth, or classic story has plenty of perks . . . and a few pitfalls. And if you know me, you know that a sentence like that is a lead-up to LIST-MAKING FUN TIME!

Benefits of Writing a Retelling:

  • People familiar with the original story have reason to be invested in your story before they even pick it up. They may wonder what your version of the Beast looks like, or be curious about how you handle the darkness of a Wuthering Heights-inspired tale. If your version has a twist of setting or circumstance, this can also make readers wonder: “How will The Little Mermaid be different if it’s gender-swapped?” “What kind of wolfish nemesis will Little Red Riding Hood encounter in space?”
  • Some people will pick up your book just because they love the source material SO MUCH. (I may or may not read pretty much anything that’s based on Alice in Wonderland.)
  • If you make it clear that this is a retelling, people are less likely to grouse that you’re being unoriginal. Of course, you should still be original. If your adaptation doesn’t bring anything new to the table – new and significant – then why should people want to read it?
  • You get to play around with your own version of a setting and characters you already have feelings about. Naturally, any writer has feelings about her/his own characters, but this is different. Change an element that always bothered you in the original story, or play up and expand on your favorite parts. Explore the themes the story deals with, or push its message in a new direction.

Of course, there are also Risks of Writing a Retelling:

  • While Reader A may love Peter Pan so much that she’ll devour anything based on it, Reader B may hate Peter Pan and refuse to even try any adaptation of it. (Plus, some readers may simply get tired of an oft-retold tale.)
  • And if Reader A does love Peter Pan that much, she may balk at of the changes you’ve made. After all, whatever you tweaked could be the thing she liked best about the original.
  • You’re setting yourself up to be compared not only with other retellings of the source material, but with the original work. If you can’t write swoon and snark, for example, tackling Pride and Prejudice may be ill-advised.

What are your favorite retellings? What story would you like to see adapted more often?

A Hottie by Any Other Name

So I’m reading another YA paranormal romance. I’m frequently disappointed by these, mostly for reasons that fall under the “romantic interest is a jerk” and/or “protagonist is a dopey pushover” categories, but I am convinced that these problems are not inherent to the genre. Just, you know, frequent pitfalls. Plus, this one is an Alice in Wonderland retelling, and I am a sucker for some Alice in Wonderland, y’all.

However, in this book – I’ll go ahead and tell you that it is Splintered by A. G. Howard, since you could probably figure it out – I’ve encountered a completely unrelated issue. It’s one that I’ve seen before in different books of various genres. It is the saddling of characters who are supposed to be romantic/sexy/attractive with names that are none of the above.

Is it shallow that I have so much trouble taking seriously our protagonist’s attraction to a guy named Jeb? JEB, you guys. His name is JEBEDIAH. I’m fairly confident in saying that no name that ends with “diah” is going to be loaded with sex appeal. As to the question “is it shallow,” quite possibly. But I’m not the only one who has this problem.

Years ago, I was at a writers’ conference in which a romance author on one of the panels told a story. Some time before, she had had another romance novel in the works, and was auctioning off the right to name its male lead. The proceeds would go to charity. Here is where the awkward starts: the winner of the auction was her father. Here is where the awkward gets worse: he wanted to name the male lead after himself. Here is where the author put her foot down: his name was Melvin.

Because, unfair as it might be to the Melvins of the world, you cannot, in modern-day America, slap that name on a character who is supposed to be swoonworthy. Hey, fiction doesn’t always mirror real life, and it doesn’t have to. Romance authors rarely give their male leads bad teeth, or have them catch icky diseases, even those those things happen in reality. There are things that writers have reason to want to avoid.

The names that do and don’t work for a sexy character (or a scary character, or a cute character, etc.) vary from person to person and era to era. Some names may work or not work for a specific reader for reasons that have to do with that reader’s experiences. (“Jebediah” might just be a problem for me because I grew up in a small town in the South and didn’t really like the redneck culture I often encountered. To me, “Jeb” is a guy in dirty overalls who takes potshots at ‘possums.) Other names, however, have pretty broadly-held associations, at least for a given time period or a given culture. Which brings us to LIST TIME!

  1. Just Getting Older with Age – A name that was very popular a generation or two ago but isn’t now will feel like an “old” name – a “mom” name or a “grandparent” name – and probably not be sexy. Think Doris, Mildred, Clarence, or Lloyd, all common baby names in the 1920s. When Jane Eyre came out (slight spoilers maybe, but you’ve had since 1847 to read it), “Bertha” was a sexy foreign name. How many sexy Berthas do you read about now?
  2. Nobody Names Their Daughter Jezebel – Some names are strongly associated with specific people. Even if your male lead is German, you might think twice about naming him Adolf. The associations don’t necessarily even have to be negative. I once read a thriller in which the heroine’s supposedly sexy tough-guy husband was named Mickey. I just . . . Mickey is a mouse. He’s a mouse.
  3. “Bond. Jimmy Bond.” – Doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Sometimes it’s not the name itself, but what the character goes by. I can easily see a Robert as a romantic interest, but Bob? Not so much. And it’s not just about whether a name is attractive or not: there are other implications. If you want to write someone snooty, would he go by Lawrence or Larry? Augustin or Gus? What if you want to write someone very laid-back and casual?

I don’t intend this post to be mean! I feel the pain of real-life people who have these names. I myself have a first name that peaked in popularity between 1950 and 1955, over thirty years before I was born, so it always felt like a name for people my mom’s age. That’s part of why I go by an unrelated nickname. If I were writing a book set in the present, with a character my age, I probably wouldn’t give her a name like mine unless it was a plot point. Certainly my name does not evoke a “twentysomething” image, any more than Melvin evokes a “smoldering hottie” image.

You can, of course, give a character a contradictory name if you mean to play around with expectations or otherwise make a point with it. (See “plot point” in the paragraph above.) Maybe it’s an old family name. Maybe your character hates it – or loves it. Maybe she goes by something else, and her real name is an embarrassing secret.

Or maybe you just want to play it for laughs. I must take this opportunity to recommend the awesome Dickens-spoof radio series “Bleak Expectations,” which includes such wonderful names as Mr. Skinflint Parsimonius (“who was, ironically, the most generous of men”) and Mr. Gently Benevolent (“who was, ironically, a complete bastard”).

None of this is to say that real people can’t be sexy or silly or serious or anything else regardless of their names. It’s just one of the many things to consider when you’re putting together a fictional character. Names are neat! There’s so much you can do with them! They can really pull their weight, making readers assume or feel things about a character the moment she’s introduced. Just make sure you aren’t giving her a name that pulls its weight in the opposite direction of what you intend.

Favorite/least favorite names, fictional or otherwise? Other thoughts?

On Love Triangles and Fictional Gal Pals

I recently decided to have another go at reading some YA paranormal romance. There’s so much of it, and it’s so popular, that I thought there must be more of it I would like than I have thus far discovered. I do have luck sometimes – I enjoyed Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore, and I loved the sequel, Magic Under Stone. (I even drew fanart of the main characters – click the image twice to get the full size.) But otherwise, I’ve been largely unimpressed by most of the YA paranormal romance I’ve read, despite having the book suggestions of my coworker, who has read approximately every YA paranormal romance ever written.

This does relate to the title of the post! One thing I frequently notice in paranormal romance is that the protagonist either has no female friends or has female friends who are so awful that I wish the author had left them out. I get it: an intense romance (as these romances typically are) plus the worldbuilding required for the paranormal stuff takes a lot of space in a book. Most of the character development goes into the protagonist and the love interest. Oh, and maybe another love interest to form the third point of your standard-issue love triangle.

As an aside, some YA authors’ views on love triangles were recently compiled and discussed here. I generally fall into the “not a fan” category, though partly because I’m bitter that the guy I like is never the one the girl chooses. What’s wrong with a guy who’s sweet and not mysterious and arrogant? My favorite views presented here for and against love triangles:

Speaking for the prosecution, Gayle Forman, who has a lot to say on the topic, but I especially like this bit: “When you fall in love, you know who you love.” She admits that love triangles are a good way to build tension, but doesn’t think they are realistic.

Speaking for the defense, Carrie Ryan: “To me, a love triangle done right isn’t about a female character’s affections bouncing back and forth between two men, it’s about her internal struggle within herself as she figures out who she wants to be and what’s important to her.” So, it’s not about choosing who you want to be with, it’s about choosing who you want to be.

Anyway, back to the female friends of these triangulatin’ fiends. (Or fiend-daters, as the case sometimes is.) They’re often one-dimensional, largely due to how little page time they receive. They’re frequently unaware of the whole paranormal thing going on around their friends, which typically relegates them to even less story time. Indeed, they often serve little purpose aside from providing a chorus of praise for the main love interest’s hotness.

What really burns my cookies is when the female protagonist has friends who have, and encourage the protagonist to have, an unhealthy take on relationships. In one book I recently read, the girl was avoiding the supernatural guy. She was highly vocal about being uninterested in him. In fact, he seriously scared her! Yet her crowd of girlfriends, none of whom was differentiated enough for me to remember any names, constantly pushed her at him because he was (A) hot, and (B) interested in her. They invited the guy to eat lunch at their table, told the girl she was crazy for rejecting him, and even told the guy – in front of the girl! – “don’t worry, we’ll help you wear her down.” They just met this guy! He makes their friend uncomfortable, and not in a “strange new feelings awakening” way. Taking his side and pushing her to give him a chance is rotten friend behavior!

This isn’t the only time I’ve seen this from female supporting characters. In another paranormal romance, the protagonist’s mother asks why she won’t go ahead and date the arrogant, pushy vampire who’s pursuing her. After all, Mommy Dearest reasons, “he is attractive.” Then there’s my least favorite line from a paranormal romance that I’ve read so far: in response to Protagonist Girl asking whether Mysterious Paranormal Guy is always such a jerk, a girl who’s friends with Mysterious Paranormal Guy says yes, he is, “But that’s what makes him so damn sexy.” NO! No! Bad friends and relations!

Now, to draw out some kind of lesson that will make this a constructive post rather than just a rant. I guess what I’d say is, make the protagonist’s friends be her friends. Not cheerleaders for the romantic interest. Make them take, or at least attempt to understand, her side. If possible, it’s nice for the protagonist to have at least one friend who knows about the paranormal stuff, whether because she discovered it (think Willow from Buffy) or because she was part of the paranormal scene all along. Otherwise, their relationship is going to have a lot of holes and dishonesty. Or, more typically, the friend will simply be phased out of the book as the paranormal stuff and the romance get more important.

While I don’t want to name names with the books that made me mad, I will mention one YA paranormal romance that I think did a pretty good job with the female-friend thing: Warped by Maurissa Guibord. Protagonist Tessa has a close friend, Opal. When weird stuff starts happening to Tessa, she (here’s a novel idea) tells Opal about it. Opal thinks she’s crazy or joking at first, but is willing to at least humor her. So when fantastical things start happening, Opal realizes that Tessa was right – and becomes someone who can help out and support Tessa in the midst of freaky unicorn time-travel adventures.

Note: In theory, a platonic male friend could fill this role, but I have never ever ever seen this happen in a YA paranormal romance. The protagonist’s “platonic” male friend always turns out to be in love with her and become the third (and losing) point on the love triangle.

Any other examples of YA paranormal that doesn’t include friend fail? Other ideas about what makes or breaks a good gal pal in the genre?

All According to Plan

I went to a meeting of the local chapter of SCBWI the other day, and we workshopped a number of pieces different people had brought. One was a chapter from the middle of a longer work, ending with the protagonist forming a plan of action. I mentioned that, for the next chapter, the author would want to remember: only explain the plan to the reader if it isn’t going to work. The other members were all like, “Oh yeah! That’s true, but I hadn’t thought of it as an actual rule before!” So I thought it might be worth sharing with you lovely peoples.

(Note: I can’t take credit for coming up with this “rule.” I’ve seen it before, though I can’t think where, or I would credit the source. Possibly on TV Tropes somewhere?)

The inverse relationship between how successful a plan will be and how much readers should know about it beforehand makes a lot of sense. If the plan is going to fail, you want it explained first so that readers will see it failing. They’ll understand what’s going on, and they’ll want to read on as they anticipate the trouble this will mean for the architects of this failed strategy. If, on the other hand, the plan is going to work – well, in a movie, you might have the team leader say, “Listen, here’s what we’re going to do . . .” and then CUT AWAY, straight to the plan’s implementation. Either that, or the person who comes up with the scheme doesn’t share it with anyone in the first place. The reasoning here, as I see it, is twofold: you want to avoid repetition, and you don’t want to steal the thunder from the actual events when the strategy is put into action.

Basically, you want to avoid either of the following situations:

  • Someone explains, either to other characters or to the reader via the description of her thought process, that she is going to borrow her sister’s car, rob a bank, drive to Vegas, bribe a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnap a white lion. She then borrows her sister’s car, robs a bank, drives to Vegas, bribes a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnaps a white lion.
  • Someone is planning to borrow her sister’s car, rob a bank, drive to Vegas, bribe a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnap a white lion, but never informs the reader, so the reader doesn’t see the significance of the situation when her sister’s car won’t start.

(Of course, this all assumes that the strategizing party is either the POV character or someone who would communicate her scheme to the POV character. We don’t get to be privy to everyone’s plans all the time.)

This can, of course, lead to a funny meta situation when you’re reading or watching a movie and someone starts laying out a detailed plan. You can assume with some confidence that things are not going to shake out that way.

Exceptions? Thoughts? Diabolical schemes?

Do Your Parents Know You’re Saving the World?

That’s right, I mean you, character in a YA or middle-grade novel. Do your parents know you’re out fighting evil at this time of night? And/or solving mysteries, and/or romancing and being romanced?

Of course they don’t. Because they’re either dead or wholly irresponsible.

These are sentiments you’ve probably seen before: the pitiful plight of parents in a lot of YA and MG books. My sense is that parental survival rates are up in these stories, but this means that authors have had to come up with other ways to keep those pesky adults out of their kids’ hair. Because a present, responsible parent is unlikely to allow a kid or teen to do dangerous and exciting – or especially romantic – things. Plus, if our protagonist has an adult to back her or him up in difficult situations, that drains a lot of tension. This isn’t to say that NOBODY in the realm of YA and MG has an active, non-clueless (clueful?) parent. It’s just saying that parents like this are approximately as common as two-headed snakes. Which are a thing, you know, but not a thing you see every day.

What struck me recently is that many writers seem to use different professions as shorthand for the ways in which their characters’ parents aren’t there for them. It’s always stood out to me when characters have artist parents, for example, because they tend to behave in a certain way that does not tally with my own experience having two parents who are both visual artists and extremely down-to-earth and practical. Then, I noticed that artists weren’t the only ones being picked on. So without further ado, let’s decode a few parental professions!

Artist – Extremely common. The Artist parent is basically an adult child. She wafts dreamily through life with paint smudges on her face. She loves her child and will occasionally offer emotional support and valuable, if flaky-sounding, insight, but she also relies on others to do basic things for her. You get the impression that, if left alone for too long, the Artist parent might forget to eat. Then, when her hunger became intense enough to prompt her notice, she would discover that the only thing in the refrigerator is a pair of high heels because some fleeting, forgotten impulse inspired her to put them there last week on a bed of now-wilted lettuce. She would consider going to the store for more food, but be unable to find the car keys. Things would not end well. Example: Grace’s mother in Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater.

(Note that this is true only for artist parents. An artist love interest will not be flaky, but deep. He will see the world in ways no one else does and have a beautiful soul. Example: Wes in The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, Noah in Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan.)

Blue-Collar Worker – This parent is typically a tough-love type when around and awake, but that’s not often, since he works long hours at a menial job and then falls asleep fast on returning home. The book’s protagonist will be grateful and feel guilty that the Blue-Collar – usually a single parent – is working so hard to support them, but is also likely to sometimes be embarrassed about him, and feel ashamed for feeling that way. Example: Thom’s dad in Hero by Perry Moore.

Businessperson – Ah, the classic. Realistic, yet vague. This parent will have an office or, if rich, a study, in the home and also one outside of the home, and will only be seen outside of these two places when traveling from one to the other. The home office will likely be forbidden to others, especially when the parent is not there. If so, it will contain important information that the kid or teen featured in the story will need.

Doctor – Much like the Businessperson, but this parent will either be more sympathetic (if she works long hours because she just care so much about helping people, leading her to come home mentally and physically exhausted) or evil (if she is evil). Either way, she will not be supervising her offspring effectively.

Lawyer – Again, like the Businessperson, only in addition to the home office and work office, he will sometimes appear in court. The case itself is unlikely to actually be covered in the novel, but the Lawyer will be even less available to his child or children immediately before going to court, because he will have to pull all-nighters to prepare.

Politician – This parent is the political leader, or wannabe political leader, of a country, kingdom, or large community of some kind. For this reason, she will be too busy overseeing affairs of state and/or clinging to power and/or running for office to spend much one-on-one time with a kid. She will be aloof and unapproachable. She may also see her child as a pawn. Side effects of having this parent include a desperate need to prove oneself. Examples: Cleopatra in Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Shecter, Claudia’s dad in Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Samantha’s mom in My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick. (Incidentally, how great a name is “Huntley Fitzpatrick”?)

Trophy Wife – I do not remember ever reading a YA or MG book that included a trophy husband as a father, so for now will assume this is a women-only gig. This parent is shallow and self-absorbed, and may be manipulating her husband. She is quite likely to actually be a stepparent, one who kind of sketches out the book’s protagonist, who is likely closer to her age than her husband is. If she is into charity work, there will be a slightly bitter contrast between her involvement with her charity of choice and her lack of involvement with any kids or teens living under her roof. Examples: Cassel’s mom in Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy, Suzume’s mother in Shadows on the Moon by Zoë Marriott.

Writer – You’d think they’d get off easy in novels, wouldn’t you? After all, studies show that nearly one hundred percent of novelists are writers. But no. The Writer parent – a very common parent type – is a combination of the Artist parent and the Businessperson. He has only one office, which is at home, and rarely ventures outside of it. He cares about his progeny, but doesn’t often put in an appearance to prove it, and is likely to be more than a little whimsical and impractical. Example: Auden’s father in Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen. And, come to think of it, Remy’s mother in This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen. It’s like Sarah Dessen hates writers or something.

I would love to see some kind of study on the most popular parental professions in YA and MG books. Do you have any others to add to the list?

In the Beginning

I’ve read a lot of articles, blog posts, and rants about how to begin – and, perhaps more common, how not to begin – a novel. Beginnings are more broadly relevant to writers than many other topics. After all, we do not yet have the technology to create novels without them. So I’ve been browsing a few of the aforementioned articles, found some common ground, and made some conclusions. So let’s have them! With liberal bolding of text! Because it’s the weekend!

But before we get to a list – you didn’t think I was going to do this without a list, did you? – I’ll mention a tip I got from a creative writing professor once. She said to never start a story with your protagonist alone. I don’t think she meant “never” in the sense of actually never, Taylor Swiftian never-ever-ever-ever, so much as “never start a story with your protagonist alone without considering whether things would be more interesting with a little interaction or conflict between her/him and someone else.” Certainly the presence of another character lends itself to dialog, and, as author Chuck Wendig says in his post on novel beginnings, “Dialog is sugar. Dialog is sweet.”

So, on to the list! Things I’ve seen or heard time and again about that tricky art, starting your novel out right:

  1. Thou shalt not start with thy protagonist waking up. Most especially waking up from a dream, waking up and looking in the mirror, or waking up on some particularly exciting day. (In the case of the latter, start with the part of the day that’s actually exciting.) Waking up from a dream and brushing her long wavy auburn hair in the mirror while reassuring herself about the first day of space academy is right out. This is largely because people mostly wake up roughly the same way and do roughly the same things in the morning. There are exceptions, of course. If your character is awakened at midnight because her house is on fire, that’s different. If she wakes up in a strange place, that’s different. But if she wakes up to her mom calling her for breakfast, that’s a foul.
  2. Beware prologues. There are good uses for them, but, as author K. M. Weiland points out in a nice article detailing four pitfalls of starting a novel, a prologue typically requires readers to invest in your story twice, often with different characters and/or taking place at very different times. Is the reader going to get attached to characters in the prologue only to lose track of them in Chapter One? Will the prologue hint at interesting events that are then skipped over as the first chapter begins ten years later? It may also be full of backstory that you would do better to work into the novel in other ways.
  3. Don’t be so set on starting in media res that you skimp on important details. Your reader should get a feel for the protagonist – not her waves of auburn hair, necessarily, but her general age, species, and societal status – and the setting, all pretty early on. Conflict is good, but jumping directly into a battle is no good if we have no idea what the battle is about or who any of the people fighting are. If you start with action, be careful to give the reader an understanding of the stakes and a reason to care.
  4. Conversely, don’t start by describing weather.
  5. Make sure your beginning conveys your voice. If it’s a funny story, start funny. If it’s gothic, start gothic. (Just don’t, according to literary agent Darley Anderson, start with a description of the moon. This oddly specific, but apparently very common, opener is number three on her ongoing list of “11 Ways Not to Start Your Novel”.)

There are exceptions to all of these. The Hunger Games starts with Katniss waking up. This post by author Kristin Lamb about the good and evil in prologuing points out that, while Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone doesn’t actually begin with a prologue, it easily could have: that would have been a good way to separate baby Harry’s arrival at the Dursleys’ from the continuation of the story years later. (I don’t think many readers would be frustrated at the skipped time – I, for one, am okay with missing out on the adventures of infant Harry, which presumably involve sleeping and crying.) But, as with any writing “rules,” you should know the reasons they’re there and what you’re doing before you break one.

For my own part, I would add, “Don’t have a gimmicky ‘hook’ as your first line.” Your story has to live up to – ideally, surpass – its beginning. To me, a first sentence that punches me with shock value tends to read “trying too hard.” It’s also a gamble: while you deserve major props if you can fulfill the promise of a crazy first line, it’s easy to fall short, and that means that you disappoint your reader, which is probably not your goal. Probably.

A couple more posts on the topic:

Know any more good tips or posts on the topic? Got any ways that you particularly like, or don’t like, to see a story begin?

Being Reasonable

I just read this very interesting blog post about female warriors and how to realistically write a fantasy world in which they are common. Its approach, which I find useful and thought-provoking, is to examine why so many cultures through history don’t have lots of female warriors. To summarize:

(1) The reason is NOT because of physical strength. I’ve always detested this ridiculous claim. Sure, the average woman is less strong than the average man, but there are plenty of women who are stronger than plenty of men. And that’s even assuming that all areas of battle rely on brute strength, which is simply not the case.

(2) A much more logical reason why the situation developed: for much of our species’ history, any given group of humans grew in power and security proportionally to the size of the group. A larger band could send more people to war – and then, unlike now, pure numbers were likely to make the crucial difference in a battle. So sending women into dangerous situations made less sense because women were far more necessary in maintaining and increasing population. As the blog’s author points out, if half of a group’s women are killed, then the next generation born will be half the size of the last one. (We’re assuming that the women killed include half of the ones who would otherwise be reproducing. Of course, in many bands of early humans, this would basically be all of the women of reproductive age.) If, on the other hand, half the men are killed in battle, the next generation could go a long way toward repopulating the group.

So women were excluded from battle for reasons which, while once practical if a community wanted to survive, are now totally vestigial. Still, the population issue may be relevant in many fantasy worlds, so the author addresses some ways in which writers might design worlds that need not bow to these reasons and exclude women from combat.

I appreciate the author’s approach because I think it is vital to be able to distinguish reason from justification. My mom used to tell me that there is a difference between a reason and an excuse: an excuse excuses a behavior, making it okay, while a reason explains why it happened but doesn’t, in itself, justify anything. Things usually happen for one or more reasons, but often have no excuse. Most people would agree that it’s important to understand the reasons that a bad thing happens – that way, you may be able to prevent it, or at least know when it is likely to happen again.

I feel the same way about basically anything that a writer does that makes her fantasy world different from the real world. The fantasy world, and the writing, will likely benefit if the writer is aware of what has to be different in her setup so that this new world order will make sense. For this reason, I’m especially interested in work-arounds that allow fantasy worlds to be free of sexism, homophobia, etc. without becoming unrealistic utopias. Because I don’t want a world free of problems – that would be boring to read about – but frankly, I am sick to death of girls having to dress up as boys if they want to fight. As a fan of equality, I’d like to read more stories that have that as a basic premise, but as a fan of logic, I’d like for the equality to make sense.

Of course, figuring all this out is also an exciting opportunity to add depth and uniqueness to your worldbuilding! For example, if you want to write a fantasy world without homophobia (ooh me me, I do, I do!), you have to work backwards from some of the reasons (not excuses!) for homophobia’s existence in our world, and figure out how each reason doesn’t exist or doesn’t cause problems in your world. For example, one issue you might encounter is confusion about how inheritance works for gay couples, especially those who stand to pass on titles and power as well as possessions. How will this be addressed in your fantasy world? If a country’s queen marries the girl of her dreams, who will be the next queen or king of that country? Is there a strong adoption system? If so, how is a child chosen for such an important family? Does the child need to be a blood relation? Or maybe the rule of this country isn’t inherited at all – maybe the queen came to power through combat, or was elected, or was chosen in some kind of magical selection ceremony.

Conversely, I wish many authors would look at the ways in which their worlds are similar to ours (or to their own experiences), and see whether it really makes sense for the reasons behind a certain quality of our own world to also exist in the fantasy world. Perhaps different reasons exist that cause the same effect. Or maybe the author just hasn’t thought about it. I think this is the likely explanation for the many fantasy worlds in which the great majority of people are pale-skinned, often with light eyes and hair. Do they all live in worlds that are perpetually cloudy, causing them to evolve in a way that allows maximum absorption of vitamin D? Did they all evolve in one or a few such areas, then spread over the rest of the fantasy world in a conquering wave, desperate to escape the fantasy equivalent of Siberia? Is magic somehow involved in their coloration? Or is it just that the author primarily knows, interacts with, and reads about white people, and most of the characters s/he comes up with tend to be white?

Have you dealt with manipulating causation to achieve your ends logically when writing fantasy? What are some things you’ve changed in order to make a particular quality of your world make sense?

Oh, But Before That . . .

I just read a book that was billed as a companion to another book I’d read, but which turned out to be sort of a prequel. That is, it includes the origin of the villain who’s villainizing around in Book I’d Already Read.

(Just for the sake of simplicity, let’s go ahead and call the first book I read “Graceling by Kristin Cashore” and the prequel “Fire“. Purely random. But, you know, through pure random chance, there may be some major spoilers of those two books ahead. You know, it’s possible.)

So, in Graceling, we have Leck, an adult villain of misty origins. I was very interested to see that Fire included, as one of several antagonists, a character who became more and more clearly the child Leck. I was curious about his background, and also about how the book would handle the fact that Leck, despite being a terrible, murdery-type person, could not be killed off or otherwise permanently dealt with as one generally expects villains to be.

This made me think a lot about the potential and the limitations of prequels. I haven’t read a lot of them. My impression is that direct prequels, sharing many characters or important characters and plotlines, are fairly uncommon. That makes a lot of sense, given that the author would have written the original book with the intention of having its setup stand alone. Besides, as I mentioned above, a prequel means the challenge of writing a book with a satisfying conclusion that still leaves things open for the events of the following story.

Since I was thinking about this while reading this book we’re calling Fire, I thought I’d lay out a few things I noticed that seemed to make the whole prequel situation work pretty well in this instance.

  1. Graceling included a villain whose background was unexplained. This left a clear and significant way for the stories to be tied together. Bonus points for the fact that Leck in Graceling is missing an eye – a useful trait in a world where dangerous Gracelings like himself are identified by their mismatched eye colors – and that makes the reader of Fire keen to discover the story behind the injury.
  2. The books take place in different countries. The author didn’t have to worry about what a lot of the other characters in Graceling should be up to in Fire, because they didn’t appear.
  3. Leck is just one of several antagonists in Fire. Indeed, I think that the real villain of the story might be war. Because of this, it seems more important that Leck be rendered no longer a threat than that we get the satisfaction of a really personal, permanent comeuppance for him. It also might help that, creepy and horrible as he is, Leck is a kid in Fire, and many readers likely do not expect a child to be explicitly killed off, even if he is a villain.

Fire does a great job establishing how awful Leck is. He murders Fire’s best childhood friend – a major character whose death I didn’t see coming – and, oh yeah, also his own doting father. At the same time, as I said, Leck isn’t the Big Bad of Fire. His defeat is the almost-slightly-groanworthy classic non-death of falling into a chasm, which is basically the same as toppling over a cliff, and everyone knows that the cliffs of fictional landscapes are bizarrely non-deadly. Vis-a-vis cliff death, and maybe death in general, the informed reader’s mantra is, “Body, or it didn’t happen.” But in Fire, this is acceptable, because the defeat of Leck isn’t the point. In Graceling, killing Leck means they’ve won. (Though there’s a lot more plot to wrap up, what with romance and such.) In Fire, getting rid of Leck just means Fire is free to rejoin her friends and help bolster their forces against the coming war for their kingdom.

The takeaway here is, the less evil or the less important a villain is, the less is expected – required – to happen to him. (Remember Voldemort being completely destroyed while Draco doesn’t even get locked up?)

Reaching a satisfying conclusion in a prequel does involve special challenges when that prequel includes the same villain as the next (previous?) book. To look at some possible routes authors can take, we return to Listland, because I love it there.

  • Show the villain just starting out in the prequel, and don’t make her bad enough or central enough to require that she get comeuppance in that book in order for readers to be satisfied. You could do this by not making her villainous at all – picture Harvey Dent appearing in Batman Begins, if that were a prequel to The Dark Knight rather than being made first. Or you can be hardcore like Fire and make the villain really bad, but not the Big Bad.
  • End with the villain locked up, exiled, etc. This is a great way out if your baddie is not yet bad enough to clearly merit being offed by a hero. Prisons can always be escaped, and incarceration can be an interesting element in your baddie’s backstory.
  • Do the fake death, like Fire does. I would not recommend this if your villain actually is the Big Bad of the prequel. You should know up front that many readers are not going to believe in the death unless they see it. Even if they do believe it, they may resent that the story’s villain didn’t get a worthy, dramatic death scene – which is going to be hard to pull off if the character isn’t really dead.

There are plenty of other options. If your original book allows it, I think it would be very cool to end a prequel with a minor villain who seems reformed but who, as is seen in the following book, was actually just biding her time and scheming, waiting to become a major villain.

What prequels have you read, and how do they tie into the stories they precede?

And, in unrelated linksys, I like Pixar’s rules of storytelling, especially number nine, which I hadn’t thought of before.

I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really Really Want . . .

You know one piece of writing advice I see all the time? It’s that one that says that your protagonist must have a clear goal that s/he desperately desires, and the conflict must come from obstacles between her/him and that goal.

To that I say: Maybe.

Honestly, I’ve seen this particular nugget everywhere. I saw it again today, in this article on three-act structure. But recently I’ve really thought about it, and I just don’t think it’s always the case. Many characters in great stories do not have singular, readily-apparent goals. I might even say that it’s more common for them to be just trying to muddle along, to live their lives, to move toward what makes them happy and away from what makes them unhappy. Sure, those things are themselves goals, but rarely do I feel that a protagonist wants them desperately, or that, if asked, she would identify “living a normal, happy life” as her truest desire.

Naturally, some genres lend themselves more to characters who do have clear wants.


(Although many mysteries, like the one I’m currently reading and enjoying, feature amateur sleuths who don’t really want to be involved in their cases at all, and end up solving them not because they have a burning need to know, but because it’s the only way to get the whole murdery business out of their hair so they can continue with their lives.)

Many children’s books, especially the very early ones (picture books, easy readers) feature characters who seem to care about nothing else but staying up late, or getting a puppy, or whatever else is dictated by their titles. Take your best educated guess: what does the protagonist want in the book Dinosaur vs. Bedtime? How about The Pigeon Wants a Puppy?

It’s easy to find a quest novel wherein the protagonist single-mindedly pursues one goal. And when I say single-mindedly, I don’t mean that every single action and spoken line moves her toward that goal, only that it’s clear what her aim is through the book. If you asked her what she wants most to achieve, she could tell you. But again, this is not all novels – far from it.

[Get ready: I’m about to pull the Harry Potter card once again.]

Looking at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, what does Harry want most? Sure, he’d like to have friends. When he finds out about Hogwarts, he wants to go there and to fit in with the other kids. When he finds out about Voldy, he’s pretty keen not to get murdered by him. But mostly, he’s – I’m going to just say it – reactive.

I’ve had at least one creative writing professor get very frowny-faced over characters who reacted rather than acted, but you know what? It’s common! Even among awesome characters! Lizzie Bennett isn’t like, “Look out world, I know what I want and I’m going to go get it!” No, she’s like, “Doo de doo, rollin’ along with my wacky family, and oh! These newcomers to our neighborhood are interesting. And oh! Jane is sick – let me go care for her. And oh! I’ve been invited places, let me go visit them.” Etc.

Part of this plays into my theory that heroes – which is often, though not always, synonymous with “protagonists” – react. Villains are the ones who act. Batman can’t save Gotham if no one threatens it first. Does this make Batman a weak character? Nah. In fact, you could argue that protecting Gotham is his big, overarching goal, and making himself into a person who can protect it is the action he takes that predates the villains’ seemingly inciting action.

Which, in a usually-less-dramatic way, plays into the motivations of many other characters: they want, as I said before, to live their lives. They have spent their energy becoming who they are, and now want to continue their natural trajectories. Sometimes that trajectory is “get back to normal,” as with the protagonist of the mystery I’m now reading (Big Boned by Meg Cabot). Other times, it might mean, “make the best of a new, unfamiliar situation and try to find happiness in it” (Harry Potter, I’m looking at you).

So I guess that it really comes down to whether you’re willing to accept the motivation I’ve just described as a character’s Big Goal. I tend not to think it is, largely because I don’t think the character in question would see it that way. I think that if you asked Harry Potter in Year One what his biggest goal was, depending on when in the year it was, he might say “to win this Quidditch match” (clearly not the overarching goal of the book) or “not to get killed, I guess” (closer, but he only even develops this goal as a reaction to threats around him).

Basically, what I’m saying is that if you ask yourself, “What is my character’s overarching, driving desire in this book?” and don’t come up with anything more clear-cut than, “To handle the stuff that’s happening to her, and try to achieve good outcomes,” I think that’s okay. Lots of characters are, to the best of my interpretive ability, motivated this way. Not unlike lots of real people. It’s good to have clearer goals in mind for individual scenes (here’s where “win this Quidditch match” comes in), and they should tie into the character’s larger story, but as far as the Big Goal, I’d say not to worry about it too much.

Disagreement? Agreement? Heckling?

And Another!

Another review on No Flying No Tights, that is! With another listing on MangaBlog!

In other news, reading a popular YA novel and having some doubts as to whether it’s possible to foreshadow the identity of a character who has amnesia without telegraphing said identity. So you have a young man who doesn’t know who he is and has only brief flashes of memory from his childhood? And you also have the oh-so-brief mention of a prince who *mysteriously died as a child*? Nice try.

[If he turns out not to be the prince, I will issue an apology. Also, pigs will take to the skies and the mythical netherworld will experience a cold snap.]