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?

A . . . Weighty Issue?

The Young Adult Library Services Association listserv, to which I subscribe, had an interesting round of discussion lately set off by this article, “YA Fatophobia”.

This all jumped out at me because there’d been some discussion a few months ago on YALSA about “fat pride.” It was the first time I’d heard the term, and I found it a bit problematic. I pretty much agree with one of the first YALSA responders to the “YA Fatophobia” article who, to paraphrase, says that she believes the focus should be on encouraging teens to be healthy, not to settle contentedly – let alone proudly – into habits that aren’t good for them. The YALSA poster says that she herself is overweight and that she’s long had weight issues connected less with genetics than with overeating and failing to exercise, and these are not behaviors she believes should be made okay for teens.

Let me say straight up that I’m aware that weight is often linked to genetics and that losing weight can be incredibly hard, and is harder for some people than others, which isn’t fair. Also, people are healthy at different weights. A teen can be a size 14 while having an active life and a nutritionally-balanced diet. It happens. But I don’t think this is the kind of overweight teen the article is discussing.

And the article makes some strong points. I agree that the covers of some of these books, like whitewashed covers on books with protagonists who are people of color, are shameful. If a publisher is willing to publish a book with a protagonist who is overweight, they should be willing to give it a cover that doesn’t feature a skinny model, or even an average-sized one. This kind of misrepresentation says that overweight people are taboo, that no one wants to see them, that even books that are about them have to pretend they’re not. And that’s a lot like bullying.

Naturally, I’m against bullying and shaming. Teens especially don’t need that from their books – as the article points out, they often turn to books in part to get away from the treatment they receive in real life. I certainly support the idea of books showing overweight teens as valuable people, with skills and friends and passions and all the things teens have, and not as fat jokes.

On the other hand, despite comparisons with whitewashed covers and with the treatment of characters in these other groups, being overweight, even with genetic components included, isn’t like being, say, queer, or a person of color, for two big reasons:

  1. It’s inherently a problem. Weighing significantly more (or less, of course, but I don’t think skinny characters have this problem in literature so much) than your healthy weight isn’t, well, healthy. It’s not something that’s a problem because ignorant, bigoted people might mess with you; it’s a problem because it increases your risk of heart problems, diabetes, and more. Because it can limit your ability to do and enjoy awesome things in life. And, yes, because jerky people might mess with you.
  2. There is an element of choice involved in whether a person stays that way.

I don’t mean to make light of the effort involved here. For teens, this can be an especially big problem, as they’re often not the ones making their own food and exercise decisions. I read an article last year by an eloquent boy who was, I believe, fourteen, and obese. He wanted to be healthier and to weigh less, but lived in an inner city and came from a family that could not afford a gym membership. After school, he came home to a house filled with fast-food takeout and, despite his requests for it, no produce. (His parents said fresh produce was too expensive and that the grocery stores that sold it were too far out of their way.)

What’s a young teen to do? He couldn’t drive and had no real source of income. Maybe he could start a low-cost exercise, like running, but then again, maybe his neighborhood isn’t safe, or he has to watch his siblings after school, or who knows what else. What I’m saying is that, for kids and teens, their weight may not always be something reasonably within their power to change. It shouldn’t, then, be treated as some kind of personal flaw, or even necessarily a life choice.

The article and the YALSA responders also say that overweight teens in YA fiction are often portrayed as binge eating, but without ever being diagnosed with an eating disorder, as if this is just something they do because they’re weak or disgusting. (Can you see an anorexic person being portrayed as someone who regularly makes him/herself throw up just because s/he’s weak and disgusting, with the disorder never being recognized over the course of a book?) Several YALSA listserv peeps who say they are overweight themselves were offended by the suggestion that people only get that way by snorking down boxes of Oreos in the dark. I don’t read a lot of realistic fiction, so I’ll take their collective word for it that these portrayals are overly frequent. I agree this is wrong. It fails to recognize what I suspect is the majority of problematically-overweight people, who simply have a diet that brings in a lot more calories than they’re burning off with physical activity.

While I’m not sure about books being what the article calls “fat-positive,” I would definitely agree that they should be fat-character-positive. From what I hear, some YA books are really doing pretty well at this already. The recent book The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, of which I’ve heard great things, features an overweight teen who solves a murder. He doesn’t glory in being overweight – my impression is that he’s a bit frustrated with it, but recognizes that unless he chooses to change his eating and exercise habits, it won’t change – but neither does he angst over it. It’s not what his story’s about.

If an overweight person doesn’t take steps toward healthier habits, it’s that person’s life, and no one has the right to harass him/her about it. But I don’t think books need to portray that as a totally fine choice with no possible consequences. Teens – like anyone – should be proud of who they are. They should be proud of their drawing ability, their loyalty to friends, their skill with the saxophone, their stamp collection, whatever. But I don’t think an unhealthy weight – whether come by through genetics, bingeing, or unwillingness to exercise – is something to be proud of.

Interesting . . .

Apparently there’s this guy, James Frey. Whose name I might have heard once or twice before. Who’s now doing . . . stuff . . . with YA books.

Specifically, Mr. Frey is gathering a stable of writers to write high-concept books in an attempt to produce the next commercially huge YA book phenomenon. The idea for one of these books can come from Mr. Frey or from the writer, but either way, in return for Mr. Frey’s contacts and support, these writers sign contracts that basically forfeit all of their rights to everything short of their DNA. They are then paid – get ready for it – $250 up front, and another $250 upon delivery of the book. They also get some percentage of all revenue minus expenses (with no audit or assurance that these numbers are actually based on anything). There’s another article here by a writer who almost joined this stable, chronicling his experiences.

In one incident in the second article, Mr. Frey tells the writer, while they are discussing a book concept, to think merchandising – in fact, to think Happy Meals.

Stables of writers working anonymously to create popular books are, of course, nothing new. (Nancy Drew, anyone?) Still, this level of commercialism astounds me. I’d almost be ready to shrug and say, “At least he’s honest about his intentions,” but honesty doesn’t make you immune from being a jerk. Naturally, no one forces writers to sign up for this endeavor, but the terms seem as contemptuous toward them as the whole enterprise seems toward, well, books.


Me, Having Opinions!

. . . and werewolves! If only.

I’ve been thinking, again, about women in fiction. Probably most or all of you are familiar with the Bechdel Test, but if you’re not, it’s a test for movies that can also be applied to books. To pass the Bechdel Test, a work must:

  1. include at least two female characters (sometimes taken to mean “with names/lines” – generally does not count “that maid in the background of the shot”)
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man.

The last bit is especially interesting to me because a story can fail it for at least two distinct reasons:

  1. The female characters are interested only in their relationships to men, what men think, what men think of them, etc.
  2. The only characters in the story doing something worth talking about are male ones.

(Me + HTML lists 4eva!)

So they can fail differently based in part on whether the female characters’ sole topic of conversation is men as a group or specific male characters. (I say “in part” because they can be talking about a specific male character and still fail the first way if all they have to say is, “Do you think he liiikes meee?”)

I’m thinking about this partly because I’m amazed at how many stories don’t pass, or barely pass, the first part of the Bechdel Test. They’ll have a male protagonist who has a female love interest, maybe a mom, and possibly either a sister or a female friend. I’m going to use movies to demonstrate this, mostly because it’s so easy to look at the ratios of women and men via the IMDB lists of top-billing actors. (I’m also going to use the term “gender” to mean a character’s sex. Just so you know.) For some reason, the two movies that immediately pop into my mind are Sherlock Holmes and Kung Foo Panda.

I liked both of these, but okay, the top billing actors of Sherlock Holmes are three women and twelve men. Of the women, two are love interests and one is the housekeeper. Yes, I realize that Irene Adler is cool and capable – though not too capable to be rescued multiple times by Holmes and outwitted by him in the end, of course! – but she still basically fills the role of romantic interest. I don’t think any two of these women even appear in the same scene, let alone speak to each other. I know this is a period piece, kiiinda, but come on.

The ratio of Kung Fu Panda is two women to thirteen men. Yeah. And this one doesn’t have the excuse of being any kind of period piece, because it establishes that its setting is one in which female characters can become kung fu masters without anyone batting an eye. Of course, the master of the kung fu masters is male. As is the old mentor. And the villain. And the hero. Naturally.

The interesting thing about this latter movie is that – with no romance or gender-related elements in the movie – you could say that the sexes of the characters doesn’t matter. Or shouldn’t matter, anyway. I’d agree. But when eighty-seven percent of the characters are one gender, that story hasn’t been written as if gender didn’t matter. You think the writer was flipping a coin for the characters’ genders? I somehow doubt it.

Well, gawsh, there must be movies that skew more toward women in casting. Let’s try looking up, oh, Pride and Prejudice, BBC version.

Twenty-four women, seventeen men. (That’s still just top billing. It’s a longer list.)

Hunh. Well, women in the majority, but nothing like eighty-seven percent. Um . . . Charlie’s Angels?

Four women, eleven men.

I should note, in case anyone wonders, that I have not been picking and choosing movies based on what fits my argument here. These are all of the movies I checked on.

I think a lot of this has less to do with explicit, active sexism (“a woman can’t be a credible villain!”) than to do with mental defaults. I read somewhere the excellent point that, in our culture, a smiley face – two dots and a curve, like 🙂 – is assumed to be male unless you put eyelashes on it. Similarly, I think when someone says, “the protagonist” or “the villain,” a lot of people assume they’re hearing about a male character.

A bit of this probably has to do with male writers, and is simply a result of projecting. A few months ago, my mom was reading aloud from a newspaper article about a murder in the area, while I and a male friend listened. When she finished, she glanced over it and remarked that the article had never given the victim’s gender, saying only, “a student.” My friend and I realized at the same time that, while I’d assumed a female victim, he’d assumed a male one.

On the other hand, someone could really stand to check this stuff. I feel like books and movies focused largely on female characters tend to still contain a lot of male ones. How many can you think of that would fail a male version of the Bechdel Test?

*Tries to remember the Pride and Prejudice guys talking about things other than women*

Okay, maybe one. But not a lot. And outside of romance plots, hardly any, whereas tons of genres tend toward skewing in the opposite direction.

This occurred to me in part because I’ve been making a conscious effort to have balance in my current novel. (Which, as I haven’t mentioned it yet, is tentatively titled Looking Like Lani.) With every character whose gender isn’t important to the plot, I ask myself, “What if this character were female?” The result is a lot more female characters than many of my stories have. It’s far from devoid of male characters – indeed, I suspect it has a more realistic sex ratio than a lot of fantasy stories do, at least within the realms of their named/speaking characters – but it’s an interesting thing to consider because I realize that, to some extent, I was defaulting to male.

Period-esque fantasy can do this to you. Whether it’s, “who’s driving the carriage?” or, “who’s ruling the country?” we’re swamped with examples, historical and fictional, in which the answer is, “a man.” Indeed, I think that it can be easier to catch yourself doing this with the highest positions, and some fantasies throw in a queen by way of addressing this. These authors probably go to bed feeling very feminist, never mind that the entire female population of their fantasy world seems to be Her Majesty, the hero’s romantic interest, and a few tavern wenches. The hero and his friends, the mayor of town, the innkeeper, the folks in the stables and herding the sheep and serving in the army and strumming the lyre and casting the spells and, of course, being in charge of things at every level below Her Majesty – that’s often a big boys’ club.

(Lots of positions still available for women in the fields of: being the hero’s romantic interest, healing, having babies, wenching at taverns, being kidnapped, being rescued, and dying. The ideal applicant will have skills in several of these areas.)

Hopefully I don’t sound too bitter about this, because I don’t really feel that way. On an individual level, I feel like this is easy to fix once you’re aware of it, and I’m enjoying working on it in my current novel.