Two People You Might Meet in Fiction

Fellow #1: Hi, I’m a scoundrely rogue! The heroine will meet me first and be put off by my bad manners.

Fellow #2: I’m a polite and respectful gent who’s not afraid to express romantic interest in the heroine.

Fellow #1: Soon, though, you’ll learn that I have a HEART OF GOLD! This means that I’ll do something brave and self-sacrificing, but I still won’t stop being rude and inappropriate. Don’t worry, though – the heroine will come to find it charming.

Fellow #2: Meanwhile, my kindness will be revealed as a ruse. I’m actually straight-up evil. Doesn’t that make the first guy look good?

(Honestly, though, I see these two types so often that it starts to make me mistrust any male character who actually seems . . . well-behaved. Kind of unfortunate.)

“Tis But a Flesh Wound!”

I just finished reading a nifty YA novel! There was a lot to like, but I had a few minor issues with the writing. On the plus side, reading a novel with problems lets you see the mechanics of story better, sometimes, than a reading a novel where it all comes together wonderfully. When everything in a story works, you don’t see the parts, just the glorious whole. But when there’s a glitch somewhere, you can often see what went wrong, and that tells you something about what to do and not do in your own writing.

In this particular instance, I noticed an issue I’ve often seen before: the author seems to forget things that have happened to the protagonist and should be continuing to affect him. Physical things, like injuries or being wet or dirty. The first-person protagonist of this novel gets hurt a lot, and unless his injuries have plot significance, they seem to fade very quickly from his awareness. Not only that, other characters don’t comment on them. It’s as if they never happened.

Here are a few things the protagonist does during one particularly eventful day in the book, when most of the climactic action takes place. In order of occurrence, he:

  • gets thrown against walls by super-strong evil robots (several times)
  • throws up
  • burns his hand on hot machinery
  • is hurled across a twenty-foot-wide chasm onto a rock ledge, where he lands “chin first” and scrapes up the whole front of his body
  • hikes through the woods in the rain
  • gets swept down a frigidly cold river
  • slips in blood and gets it on himself
  • runs, runs, runs from the scary robots
  • gets tied up so tightly he can hardly breathe and hung upside-down over a burning room

There’s probably more I’m forgetting. Oh, also, by the end of all this, it’s evening, and he hasn’t eaten or drunk anything all day.

The author does a good job remembering that our hero is wet after his dip in the river, and the burned hand comes up later when he’s thinking of his love interest, who he was helping when he got burned. Other than that, though, he doesn’t act like a guy who’s been battered and shredded and exhausted. Nor do other characters look at him and go “DID YOU GET RUN OVER BY A LAWNMOWER OMG.”

Young, healthy people, like our sixteen-year-old protagonist, heal pretty quickly, but this is all in one day. And yes, for most of that day, he’d be running on adrenaline and maybe not noticing his pain, injuries, bloodied appearance, etc. But he’d notice it later, and other people would notice it when they looked at him. When a writer isn’t consistent on this stuff, it’s hard to stay immersed in the protagonist’s point of view. It creates an empathy gap.

But take heart! I bring you an editing tool to help make sure that when your characters get hurt, they stay hurt! (Or wet, or dirty, or paint-spattered, or whatever.) Right up until they logically shouldn’t be hurt anymore!

human outline 1

This image is available for free download here, along with some other templates of the human body. I recommend you just take it off of this post, though, as I cleaned up the lines a bit from the original.

Got a character who’s about to have a rough day? Why not print one of these handy outlines and draw on it to give yourself a visual reminder of what’s happened to her? (The body shape won’t match every character, of course – even without accounting for those who aren’t human – but it’s a start.) You can use it to keep track of the character’s appearance (“You’re covered in mud!”). You can also make note of injuries that might not be visible, but should still affect the character. For instance, if she’s wrenched her shoulder badly, you might shade it in red to remind you that she’s going to keep feeling that awhile, especially if she tries to climb or throw something with that arm.

Have you run into this in your reading (or your writing)?

Actually Nice Guys, or, Team Peeta Forever

Real talk, y’all: I am Team Peeta for life.

I have oodles of respect for the people who respond to the whole Peeta/Gale divide with “Team Katniss!” But though I admire and like Katniss herself, when I read the trilogy, I was desperate for her to get with Peeta. I so rarely get to watch a heroine – especially a YA heroine, double-especially one in a genre other than realistic fiction – choose to be with a guy like him. A guy who’s not macho or alpha, who doesn’t seem concerned with whether his strengths and weaknesses align with those that are commonly considered “masculine.” A guy who lets the girl be the strong one in ways in which girls rarely get to be the strong one.

(Yes, I’m assuming a guy-girl relationship here. Most of the couples I’ve read about are straight, and the whole issue becomes less pronounced, or at least different, with gay couples.)

Peeta is a communicator. He’s empathetic. He has oratory skills and baking skills (baking skills are key, guys). He’s not a fighter, and in the context of the Hunger Games, this puts him at a definite disadvantage. But Peeta isn’t useless, no matter how many times he falls down in the Catching Fire movie. He’s less equipped for the arena than Katniss, and he knows this, and it doesn’t bother him.

I don’t have anything against Gale, per se. I just find him uninteresting. That is to say, he interests me as much as any other character in the world Collins has created, which is a lot, because I like her writing, but to me, Gale is a lot like the romantic interests of SO MANY dystopias and paranormal romances. (I think the guys have more of a tendency to be alpha males in those genres because the worlds they’re in are so dangerous. Maybe some authors fear that their male leads will seem weak or worthless if they can’t defend themselves, let alone their girlfriends.) He has the fighting and survival skills. He smolders. When he sees something he wants, whether it’s to kiss Katniss or to Fight the Power, he throws himself at it, even if he’s sometimes unlikely to succeed and may jeopardize himself and others in the process. He’s a Man of Action.

My YA heroine gal pals have dated Gale a lot. Together, we’ve done some swooning over his heroics; I’ve done some eye-rolling over his aggressiveness. Not that he’s not ever fun, but frankly, he’s not my type.

Peeta, though! Peeta is a rare thing. He’s a well-spoken sweetheart who is just as heroically willing to sacrifice himself for Katniss, but who would do it in a way that’s based on cleverness, not facepunching. And he doesn’t feel threatened by Katniss being a badass, so you know he’s never going to pull a Riley Finn on her.

RileyFinn 1
Not pictured: a guy worth dating.

Not that sweetheart guys don’t appear in these books. It’s just that usually, they’re the losers in the inevitable love triangles. Happily, I have found a few other YA books with romances that feature guys who I find swoony a la Peeta. (I’m not going to list realistic fiction, because I find the romantic interests there to be more varied than the arrogant-and-dangerous-alpha-hottie so common in paranormal YA or the damaged-but-smexy-alpha-hottie so common in YA dystopias. I’ll just say that for realistic fiction with a romance, my go-to is Sarah Dessen.)

Anyway, examples!

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones – My favorite book of all time. Howl is arrogant and moody, but these things are more “comical flaw that Sophie can deal with” rather than “just part of his charm.” He’s also a self-described coward – but brave enough to go into danger when someone he cares about needs him. And he’s funny.

Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore – A big part of the reason I like this book and its sequel so much is the fact that it’s a paranormal romance in which the guy, Erris, isn’t ooooh, so dangerous. (Nor is his role to be the protector of the girl from other things that are ooooh, so dangerous.) He’s actually less of a rescuer-type than a rescuee. But he’s kind, and his emotions feel like a real person’s rather than like the facial expressions of Batman.

The Selection and sequels by Kiera Cass – Um, spoilers? As far as which guy America chooses in the love triangle? I was so happy to see her pick sweet Maxon over pushy Aspen.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater – Sam is more an artsy type than a macho type. He’s got a traumatic past, but he has the optimism to still hope for a happily-ever-after.

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill – Romantic lead Pesto is earnest, caring, and accomplished in his area of expertise. Heroine Bug is more athletic and more aggressive than he is. The fact that this doesn’t bother him only adds to his charm.

If you have suggestions for books with this kind of romantic interest, I would LOVE to hear them! Otherwise, authors of the world: more, please?

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?

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?

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?

In Memoriam and Celebration

When I heard about Sharyn November’s blog tour celebrating Diana Wynne Jones (take the tour here – I highly recommend it), and I heard it was open for submissions, I knew I would have to participate. The dates available at this point were in early May, when I would be just recovering from a whirlwind trip through two states, but this was two steps below unimportant. This celebration is bigger than that. Diana Wynne Jones was a phenomenally talented woman who was also tremendously kind.

To prove the former description, one needs look no further than any of her books. Even those widely considered not to be her best still contain wonders. DWJ seemed to work with a different toolbox than other writers – one equipped with the best turns of phrase, the most memorable scenes, the funniest jokes, and – perhaps most of all – the most lifelike characters. DWJ seemed to be capable of writing only complex characters, making them wrenchingly sympathetic or otherworldly and inhuman as their stations demanded, but always making them just who they ought to be – who they need to be. Her storytelling creates people who seem inevitably themselves.

Indeed, I have always found DWJ’s characters to be so much livelier than most authors’ that it suggests she created them in some entirely different way. Many people have heard some variation of the story of a master sculptor whose secret turns out, to the horror of all, to consist of making her works out of real people covered in plaster. This, with a less macabre spin, has always been my impression of DWJ’s methods. While most writers are trying to put together characters who seem lifelike, here is an author who simply locates the appropriate people (“people” in a general sense, one that includes centaurs, robots, and ghosts) and pops them into her stories. (Once there, of course, they thrive considerably better than the plaster-coated victims of our mad sculptor.)

Some of this may be DWJ’s well-known habit of basing characters on real people, but if basis on a real person were all it took to create fabulous characters, then every biography ever written would be a breathtaking work of genius. Due credit must be given to the empathy and consideration DWJ needed to tell us just the things about a person that made that person real – and not just real, but someone you felt was your friend, or found deeply frightening, or rather wished would marry you. (I’ve been waiting since I was eight years old, Howl, you dog.)

As to Diana Wynne Jones’ kindness, I am lucky enough to have experienced it personally in the summer of 2007. I had sent her fan letters – one of the things I’m most glad to have done – and she responded, which fact caused me almost life-threatening levels of excitement and gratitude. Then, realizing that my summer study-abroad in Bath was only twelve miles from DWJ’s home in Bristol, I wrote to ask whether I might take her out to lunch or basically meet her in any possible way. I seriously considered offering to clean her house, if that would get me within squee-ing distance of my favorite author of all time. In the end, I had the sense not to go that far, but was still terrified I had crossed a line into creepyland. Upon reaching my study-abroad housing in Bath, I found a letter waiting for me. Diana Wynne Jones had written to say that I “must come to tea.”

I wrote a description of my visit on the day it occurred, my whole body still vibrating slightly with excitement as I typed it, and that description appears in my post on DWJ’s death. So I won’t reiterate the whole experience, but I will say that it was one of the most thrilling afternoons of my life. It was, like the reply letters she sent me, personal. This was not DWJ putting on her “graciously receiving another rabid fan” face, signing a few books, smiling and nodding while I gushed about my love for her work. This was a woman who engaged with me – a twenty-one-year-old American who might or might not have squeaked audibly when she opened the front door.

But then, why should I be surprised? Because Diana Wynne Jones engaged with people all the time. Indeed, she still does, because that is how books work. Even after her death, Diana Wynne Jones can tell you a story. And each of her stories glows with another level of kindness – one that says, “Children of divorced parents, victims of war, neglected kids, people who are sometimes selfish or stubborn – they are worth writing about and worth reading about. They are whole people, not just the shadows of their experiences.” Her elevation of all kinds of characters – not to reverent heights, but to the status of full individuals – puts me in mind of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Diana Wynne Jones often wrote about people who were poor. She wrote about people who were tired, who had been through wars and suffering and familial misery. She wrote about them with truth, sympathy, and love, and she raised her own lamp: hope, both for the characters and for readers who empathized with them.


Well, would you look at that. I came to this thinking I would write a bit about my favorite Diana Wynne Jones book, Howl’s Moving Castle. I would confess how, in my early readings, I thought Wales was another made-up fantasy place that just happened to rather resemble our world. I would tell the story of my admitting to DWJ my crush on Howl, at which she laughed and then mused that a great number of her readers seemed to develop crushes on either Howl or Chrestomanci – it seemed, in general, to be Howl for the younger set, Chrestomanci for older fans. (I have theories on this related to Howl’s recklessness and Chrestomanci’s relative stability – well, as much stability as a man can have who disappears whenever anyone anywhere says his title three times.) I can really get going on Howl’s Moving Castle. I seem, however, to have equated Diana Wynne Jones with my country’s foremost symbol of freedom, a beacon intended to welcome people to a new place of wondrous possibility. I’m now feeling hard-pressed to top myself.

Part of me thinks I may have gotten carried away, but another part says no, that’s actually quite right. Here’s to Diana Wynne Jones, whose books continue to shine a light in the world for readers everywhere.

“Wow, You Too?”

I’m on a book discussion listserv for the Young Adult Library Services Association. Recently, we had a thread going about how common heterochromia is in works of fiction – and man, it’s all over the place. This got me thinking about unusual conditions and how they’re often more common in fiction than in real life. (Considering that a major character in The Dogwatchers has albinism, my own work is no exception.)

Since most fictional worlds are independent of one another, one tends to assume that, unless otherwise stated, each world has roughly the same incidence of such conditions as the real world. Still, it’s kind of funny to think, say, how many more characters with albinism I’ve read about than I’ve met. Or probably even seen. There’s an even bigger gap for heterochromia – I’ve only ever met one person that I can think of who had it (and it wasn’t obvious, e.g. one blue eye and one brown, but more of a one green/one hazel thing).

In some stories, these things are the result of magic or other supernatural forces. This can change their significance in the story – a person’s natural heterochromia might be used as a symbol for some kind of internal conflict, whereas maaagical heterochromia might have more practical implications (“The blue eye sees your thoughts!”), or be otherwise telling (“She’s been like that ever since the spell backfired. We don’t know what else might have changed”).

The way I see it, there are four big reasons why certain rare conditions appear commonly in characters in fiction. And – here it comes – KA-LIST!

  1. Because it’s symbolic. This came up in the YALSA listserv’s discussion of heterochromia, which could probably win an award among rare physical characteristics for Most Potential for Symbolism.
  2. Because it’s the point. It may not be the point of the whole character, or of the whole story, but the author genuinely wants to explore some aspect of the lives of people with this condition, or the condition is otherwise responsible for the character’s being in the story.
  3. Because it happens. Some argue that, in the same way that you should never have to justify a character being a certain gender, orientation, race, etc., you shouldn’t have to have a reason that the character has a more unusual descriptor. Others argue that this is an excuse to use rare characteristics as gimmicks. I think that, like many things in writing, it’s all in how it’s handled. (Vague enough for you?)
  4. Because it’s cool. This may be a secondary motive for an author who would more readily cite one of the other reasons.

(This is assuming that the state in question is still rare in the world of the book. If it’s, say, a futuristic novel in which people readily alter their eye colors or the whole world has for some reason become albinistic, all bets are off.)

I know there are conditions besides albinism and heterochromia that pop up way more frequently in fiction than real life, but I’m blanking on them. Anyone?