Friday, April 1, 2011

Killer Kids

(Spoilers for THG through to MOCKINGJAY, and GONE.)

Harry Potter draws the line. Artemis Fowl wouldn’t dare. Even Draco Malfoy won’t go that far.

But Katniss Everdeen? She’ll shoot you straight in the heart.

(Or eye. Wherever.)

The golden rule of characterisation seems to be going out the window with your heart. Where once kids and killing were like gun-powder and soft-serve ice cream – an unsavoury and, frankly, unheard of combination – current YA sensations like THE HUNGER GAMES and Michael Grant’s GONE series have illustrated a rising trend of murderous teens in juvenile fiction. Here, kids – and not just any kids, but the protagonists themselves – the heroes – are directly and increasingly responsible for the deaths of other children.

THE HUNGER GAMES is easily the leading contender of this growing theme. Its premise necessitates slaughter, and its character’s ages – and its audience – declare the series’ determined portrayal of kids forced to kill. But other novels are following/mirroring THG’s lead with unflinching portrayals of teen violence. The GONE series is one example of this, with its LORD OF THE FLIES-meets-FRINGE-type premise a provocation to serious burns, (multiple) amputations and even unprovoked – if accidental – deaths. In a town that suddenly finds itself empty of everyone over the age of 15, the death toll by the first novel’s end stands around 20.

There are, of course, reasons given for the atrocities these teens commit: self-defence (the big one); uncontrollable powers; and faceless totalitarian governments demanding a televised teen bloodbath. For many of these killer kids, the choice is often kill-or-be-killed: assassination or survival. Like many real-life teens, adolescence ensures their worlds spin largely out of their control; in dystopic worlds, the measures these kids are forced to are not just believable but often understandable. The will to live trumps all – except, maybe, the need to save those we most care about: something Katniss Everdeen knows well.

For Katniss (at first), killing is about nothing more than self-defence and survival. Her kills in the initial Games are rarely self-initiated; most often she is returning fire to another tribute who is or has already threatened her own life. Her role in the Quarter Quell of CATCHING FIRE is even less pronounced (with only one death at her hands), though Katniss, now initiated into killing, speculates easily on which of her fellow tributes she could take when it came down to it. But by MOCKINGJAY, Katniss is ready for war, and the casualties that come with it; she demands the right to kill President Snow, but instead takes out Coin. Perhaps the most controversial moment of the series, however, comes as Katniss shoots an unnamed woman in the Capitol during the final attack; her kill is sudden and seemingly indiscriminate, born less out of self-defence than precaution and ease of motility. The kill marks a turning point for Katniss, and highlights an intriguing moral ambiguity over the blood on her hands. After all she’s been through and been forced to do, is it understandable – forgivable – for Katniss commit such an unprovoked act? Has she been ‘desensitised’ to death, and do we, as viewers of her journey, accept and understand this? Can we still be on her side after watching her kill without the shield of self-defence?

Katniss isn’t alone. Throughout THG series, almost every single character kills (or is at least responsible for the death of another). Katniss declares Gale’s role in Prim’s death – however indirect – has driven a chasm through their relationship forever. Intriguingly, though, Peeta is rarely positioned as responsible for another character’s death, even inside (either) arena: he only “finishes off” a tribute Cato has already mortally wounded, and Foxface dies accidentally, having eaten the poisoned berries that will later save both his and Katniss’ lives. Even in the Quarter Quell, Peeta only kills Brutus after seeing Brutus kill Chaff. Certainly, he has less blood on his hands than Katniss or even Gale. Does Peeta’s relative purity within the Games’ world emphasise certain unbreakable conceptions of male love interests – of heroism, of incorruptibility – that audiences continue to demand? Are these traits irreconcilable with murder – especially at the hands of a child?

For the latter question, the popularity of THE HUNGER GAMES seems to suggest otherwise. As does the growing number of books following (or mirroring) Suzanne Collin’s lead. Killer kids are no longer inconceivable, or even a deal breaker, especially in the surge of dystopia’s popularity. What we can take from THG, then, is the necessity of the discriminating kill – something performed only out of desperation, self-defence, or justified vengeance (a tricky topic). The controversial reception to Katniss’ MOCKINGJAY murder of the unnamed woman is a testimony to this.

Though Superman and Batman – and even Harry Potter – might disagree, YA lit and its readers are increasingly receptive to teens with a taste for blood. Do these protagonists, like Katniss and Peeta, redefine standards of heroism? Or does their reasoning behind the kill save their hero status to begin with?

And as a reader – do you ‘enjoy’, or are you intrigued by, this killer trend? Is its inclusion in young adult-aimed literature justified? Is it becoming ‘okay’ for kids to kill – when necessary?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Awards, Apologies and a Request...

Sorry, dear readers! It’s definitely been awhile. My life kind of exploded recently, leaving me suddenly and inexplicably with a lot less time to write, blog and re-watch Community. Life will hopefully calm down now, and I will endeavour to post with some regularity, at the very least.

In other, way more exciting news, the always-hilarious Margo at Urban Psychopomp has recently (okay, it was a month ago) gifted me with a blog award! (And in her most recent post she apologised for being a day late. Pfft!)

Check it:

This lovely gift is imparted with the intention of being passed on. But – being fairly new to the blogosphere (do people even use that term anymore?) – I am shamefully unacquainted with many of the fantastic blogs out there. So! I am requesting some recommendations. Come at me with your favourite(s), s’il vous plait! Even better if they’re your own. Tell me what makes them great, so I can get in on the blog-loving too.

Thanks for sticking with me, even when I’m stuck somewhere else – and you can expect a return to LTLB’s haphazard posting soon.

PS. Extra apologies for adverb-overload in this post. It’s been awhile.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Literary Satisfaction and THE HUNGER GAMES

(Massive spoilers for THG all the way through to MOCKINGJAY. Before viewing this post, you are strongly advised to get your read on.)

Like many, I loved THE HUNGER GAMES. Suffering a severe case of premise-envy, the first novel stuck with me for days, particularly its unabashed and uncensored depiction of the inevitable slaughter – not to mention a female protagonist who actually did something. But CATCHING FIRE felt like a weakly plotted jumble of two distinctly different stories: the first half seemed desperate to establish the world’s most boring love triangle, until midway through the novel Collins went damn, this isn’t working, and threw them back into the arena for round two. (I swear Collins must be a total pantser.)

So when MOCKINGJAY rolled around, I was hoping for some redemption for this conceptually-exceptional series. After reading, though, I was confused for days as to how I felt about it. I was glad for the promise and execution of full-scale rebellion, and appreciated the moral ambiguity of many of MOCKINGJAY’s principle characters, not least our fiery heroine. On the other hand, the pacing got even weaker, and the plot even more flagging and disjointed – a flaw exacerbated by Katniss’ perpetual catalepsy. But it was the story’s dénouement that really had me confused – there was no happy ending! No real love story resolution, no satisfying resolution to Panemic dystopia!

No, I told myself, it was a good thing – realistic, reasonable, even, after everything these sixteen(!)-year-olds had been through and been forced to do. Collins was right not to plaster happy smiles on their faces and call it catharsis. Their lives had sucked. Of course, I reasoned, they were damaged. Broken. It was understandable.


I still hated the ending.

I get what Collins was trying to do – even if it was a little preachy – and I do understand it. But I still can’t get on board. I wanted a ‘happy’ ending, I realised. I wanted catharsis – for me and for Katniss. But instead Collins gave nothing: there was no redemption for the characters who had survived a war; no satisfaction, for Katniss or the reader.

And damnit, I wanted it! I wanted her to marry Peeta – to LOVE Peeta – and to have kids and grow old and find solace outside of her teenage years of war. I wanted hope for Katniss, and for her future. My dissatisfaction with MOCKINGJAY’s ending, and subsequent lack of ‘happy’, prompted me to an uncomfortable concern…

Am I a Wimpy Reader?

Surely not, I told myself. When it comes to (fictional) blood and guts, I’ve got no problem; one of my favourite keenest memories of Katniss’ first Hunger Games was the visual of the boy tribute spitting up blood all over Katniss’ face at the Cornucopia’s bloodbath. I applauded Peeta’s torture and psychotic break (something I know a lot of readers did not care for), particularly as it gave a previously thin character some personality. I was fascinated by THE HUNGER GAMES originally precisely because of its gory and fantastically creepy premise.

But, I have to admit… I wanted an ending that offered redemption. And MOCKINGJAY denied such a thing emphatically.

Perhaps it was obvious that such catharsis would be unlikely. Katniss’ trials, particularly throughout MOCKINGJAY, seem only to make her weaker, not stronger. She shuts down under the pressures placed upon her, turning later to addiction and suicide as the war dissolves her physical and mental strength. Katniss’ near-constant concussion emphasises this: she’s perpetually waking up post-conflict, having been knocked out (chemically or forcibly) during the battle, and hence rarely deals with any real action – especially during the second half of CATCHING FIRE and in MOCKINGJAY. Like her emotional relationships with Gale and Peeta, Katniss never truly has to deal with the consequences of her physical engagements; instead, she wakes up afterwards to be told of the fall-out. Aside from making her an increasingly ineffectual heroine, Katniss’ continual lack of consciousness creates a tell-don’t-show debacle that disrupts the book’s pacing and the reader’s interest.

Not all novels exist to give the reader a literary endorphin rush, and MOCKINGJAY is a testament to this. It is clear Collins did not intend for Katniss’ journey to result in a ‘happy’ conclusion. Like 1984, and like the Hunger Games themselves, its ending is brutal and unforgiving. MOCKINGJAY may be more moral than narrative – at times glaringly so – but its conclusion is resolute indeed: war is destructive, physically and emotionally… and often, there's no going back.

So, while I can’t say I overly enjoyed MOCKINGJAY, I do know I liked it. There is a difference, and it’s an important one. It works both ways, too, and its application to THE HUNGER GAMES world is particularly significant. In a series where children routinely slaughter each other, it may have been naïve to expect or even want a ‘happy’ ending. But does that mean we shouldn’t hold out hope for satisfaction from any conclusion? Is it bad (naïve/childish/wimpy) to want a happy ending?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Well-Intentioned Stupidity

Sometimes, people do stupid things for noble reasons.

Well-Intentioned Stupidity is a staple of fiction. A common affliction, its symptoms include unnecessary risk-taking, self-sacrifice and determined martyrdom – idiocy in the name of heroism.

WIS is often born out of the hero only having half the facts (or knowing them all but failing to put the pieces together); despair-fuelled powerlessness; or some kind of severe head trauma (I mean, I’m assuming). This stupidity is multiplied by the urgent drive to save loved ones and manifests itself in acts of increasingly critical stupidity – think telepathically inspired rescue ops, feeding-frenzy-fuelling self-harm, or simply ineffectual attacks on the Big Baddie as he bears down on your love interest.

It’s understandable. Wanting to help those you love is hardly a character defect. Also, I doubt anyone really wants to read about a self-interested unsympathetic slacker. It’s just that these noble idiots go about their missions in such life-threateningly stupid ways… it’s almost offensive to read (or watch).

Speaking of… let’s examine some of the worst offenders:

 - Elena in THE VAMPIRE DIARIES has always been high on the WIS hit list, particularly because she’s a human girl in a vamp world*: she wants to fight, too, but it’s hard when everyone else has super-strength and -speed and you haven’t even got school-enforced self-defence training to fall back on. This season, though, she’s been determined to off herself to spare her family, and unwilling to even try to save herself.
 - Harry saving Sirius (and in the process, getting him killed) in ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is pretty textbook.
 - Think Bella and that stupid rock in ECLIPSE.
 - aaand pretty much everything Nora does in HUSH, HUSH.

* There’s a reason the paranormal romance genre features disproportionately heavily here (even in this very short, biased list) – something which also makes it a contentious area for gender roles. Sometimes, it’s just not humanly possible for the (typically female) human protagonist to take on the supernatural evils of the love interest’s world. Naturally sidelined, these girls often get a lot of stick for a kind of damsel-in-distress routine. But let’s be realistic – not a lot of teenage girls are capable of holding their own against a super-strong, super-evil Big Baddie. (Then again, though, this is generally the reason I’m not a fan of the genre as a whole. These girls get no chance.)

Well-Intentioned Stupidity has its place, then, and is, in many circumstances, understandable. But is it just me, or is the WIS phenomenon TOTALLY ANNOYING? Sure, these protags may be compassionate and courageous, but isn’t their propensity to run headlong into (figuratively) burning buildings an insult to their intelligence – and the reader’s?

Maybe it’s just me, but give me a hero who can turn courage into tactics – or at least try the back entrance first – any day of the week.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Battle for Longevity in Literature

Dystopia vs. fantasy

Flavour of the month (year[s]?) dystopia is continuing to kill it in all forms of fiction. We’ve gone over the reasons for its success – from the universality of its themes to the intrinsic dystopia of our own world. But will this current success translate into longevity? Is it simply the ‘right place, right time’, or does dystopia’s popularity hint at a deeper understanding of personal struggles and a collective resistance?

One of the most powerful things fiction can offer is an escape. In reading, in viewing, and especially in writing, we make a (often unconscious) choice to spend time in another person’s world. For dystopia, this means escaping to a world less desirable than our own – perhaps to reassure us of our world’s perfect imperfectability, or to commiserate with our feelings of oppression and voicelessness.

For fantasy, however, it’s about an escape to a world beyond our means – and often our imagination. These worlds may be experiencing turmoil, upheaval, and even uprising, but their laws and physics remain a testament to human desire – for power, for recognition, for mental and physical freedoms. And it’s through these basic human desires that fantasy and dystopia find common genesis. Like dystopia, fantasy speaks, at its most basic level, to the human need for voice, choice and freedom. While dystopia exacerbates our common sentiments of subjugation and coercion, fantasy erases them, offering power and abilities beyond our human capabilities with which to fight for such freedom.

Despite these commonalities, the two genres attract different audiences and different levels of interest. To date, the success of fantasy in literature, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER (now replete with film adaptations), arguably outstrips that of prominent dystopian works like 1984 and THE HUNGER GAMES. A key reason for this, I think, is the audience fantasy reaches – from children to adults – whilst dystopia is more commonly associated with teenagers and YA, and often mislabelled as sci-fi by the uninitiated (and uninterested). Fantasy is generally easier to read, also, in the sense that it emphasises ‘uplifting’ ideas of freedom and power over dystopia’s favoured themes of oppression and control.

But the major reason, I believe, fantasy continues to outstrip dystopia – and probably always will – has to be the worlds behind these genres and issues. For all its adverbs, dialogue tags and Death Eater attacks, kids (of every age) still wait for a letter from Hogwarts. It’s an escape that has captured a generation and will ensnare many more, probably for decades. We read about Harry as much for his world as the plot. Voldemort or no Voldemort, we still want to live in Harry’s magical world. Can you say the same for 1984?

While we can’t judge the success of one for all, the success of such fantastic fiction emphasises the common desire for escape. However, it’s also safe to say basic human nature will never allow our world to become utopic, and its likely fiction will follow. Dystopia’s popularity is certainly in no danger, but it’s got a long way to go to catch up with fantasy.

(And seriously, Dumbledore – I’m still waiting on that letter.)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Writer's Troubles: The Pensieve Predicament

"This?  It is called a Pensieve," said Dumbledore.  "I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind."
"Er," said Harry, who couldn't truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.

I never knew what Dumbledore/J.K. Rowling meant either, until I started writing.

I’m a planner – in my writing, that is. Though my real life/bedroom/organisational skills are pretty chaotic, I’ve never had so much as an inkling towards pantsing a story. I like detail, foreshadowing, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots. For me, planning is the only way to go.

A story as intricately plotted as the HARRY POTTER series requires a lot of planning. So, I could always sympathise with J.K. Rowling on her Pensieve idea/wish, even if – like Harry – I’d never quite felt the kind of idea-overload that inspired it. And then, when I started writing for myself, I began to empathise, too. With the main plot and the sub-plot(s) and the villain and the hero and the love interest(s) and the mother/daddy issues running around in your head, things get a little crowded. And confusing. And sometimes just thinking about plotting leaves you needing to lie down.

J.K. Rowling, with her seven books, innumerable sub-plots and entire magical world, clearly understood the agony of the Pensieve Predicament (and so she created one for Dumbledore, that lucky, brilliant bastard). Often, you’re so focused on the main storyline, or the protagonist’s relationship(s), or your latest genius addition to the plot, you forget to add the key details necessary to get your heroes from (A) to (B). Other times, you’re so mentally exhausted by your plotting and planning that you just want it the heck out of your head – but not gone forever.

Enter the Pensieve… if only it was for real.

I’ve tried to overcome the PP without magical intervention. I write down every idea; I’ve got flowcharts galore. I keep a paper and pen beside my bed at night – because if I don’t get it out of my head, I’ll never sleep. I’ve been through 10 notebooks, 20 computer files, and a ream of A4 paper. And that’s only notes – I type every WIP.

Every little bit helps, even if it’s just to chart the evolution of your story. But, just like with her Pensieve idea, it’s JKR who has come up with the best solution I’ve seen so far – as evidenced in her HARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX mindmap.

I can’t lie – it’s pretty friggin’ amazing. Not to mention helpful. JKR lines up her main plot points with their simultaneous sub-plots in everything from the Order, the Prophecy, Harry’s love life and Hagrid’s giant problem. It’s a fairly early, rough draft – almost none of the chapter titles are the same, and Umbridge’s first name is Elvira (also, there’s something called “‘Missy’ shipkiss” which sounds amazing) – but the major plotlines of the novel are all present. Mostly, though, it’s an awesome example of thorough outlining. It’s also particularly handy for setting out each plot in their chronological sequence, and for visually mapping every simultaneous action.

Creating your own is even easier on a much-more-manipulable Excel spreadsheet, and I definitely recommend it. Outlining is also handy for breaking through writer’s block, working through plot holes, or – like the Pensieve – just getting it out of your head. Writing is more than a full-time enterprise; the words never quite go away. But this – and the following tricks – can help you clear a little headspace for the other important things in your life (like sleeping. Also, work/study, friends/family and significant others, but mostly just, you know, sleep):

-       try meditating – just clearing your head. Sit/lie down, focus on your breathing, and try not to think. (Especially helpful before bed.)
-       write a to-do list, with everything you want to accomplish today/tomorrow, and plan your time accordingly.
-       write down every idea as you think of it. That way, you won’t forget, and you won’t waste half of tomorrow’s allotted writing time trying to  remember it.
-       invent a Pensieve. Or at least ask Steve Jobs to give it a crack. (iPensieve, anyone?)

I know, JKR. I wish I had one too.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gender Roles: The Fine Line Between Special and Mary-Sue

(Apologies for the silence! We return to your irregularly-scheduled programming now… ish.)

(Also, spoilers! for MATCHED, THE HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT.)

Mary-Sues are a universal evil of the literary world (or, if you’re 13, a totally realistic and appealing character). They’re too pretty, too kind, too powerful, too smart, too ass-kicking. They never fail. They suck.

They are also, however, disproportionately common in female protagonist POVs, and difficult to avoid entirely. To an extent, all fiction offers at least some wish fulfilment. Even dystopic tales of subjugation and control diametrically emphasise freedom and resistance. Narrative progression ensures character development ensures change – and usually for the better. It’s why we read – because reading is an escape, always. Sometimes, you want to spend time with a character whose world is slightly more awesome than yours.

Then we have the opposite. Authors, terrified of getting stuck with the Mary-Sue shame-label, create characters who are simple, ordinary, average (like you and me. I mean, unless you’re a dragon-defeating warrior princess, in which case you should really be shopping for a new wand or whatever), who get dragged into events beyond their control and even their interest. But when these identifiable characters continue to refuse their Call to Action and resist involvement in the actual plot, things go from realistic to boring fast.

So here’s the conundrum: how do you make a character interesting enough to be worthy of a reader’s time and attention, but not so ridiculously amazing that their journey reads more like an author’s dream journal than a novel?

We can illustrate this dilemma with real-life literary examples. Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here, but some of the best examples of the Mary-Sue vs. Boring Betty debacle come from major debuts in recent YA history: think Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES, Cassia in MATCHED and (do I even need to say it?) Bella in TWILIGHT.

Let’s start off with the most recent – Ally Condie’s Cassia. She’s just a normal girl in a perfect world living out her pre-planned life to a tee – until she falls for the wrong guy. Let me preface this with a disclaimer: I did not enjoy MATCHED. (More on this later.) One of the biggest reasons for this was that I felt Cassia was just way too boring to devote an entire novel to. Sure, she rebels from the Society’s restrictions, but mostly in though – in her own head. She and Ky get together… and hold hands. Then she goes off and farms somewhere, planning to search out her lost love, with no ostensible plan.  I’m fairly sure Cassia’s primary character trait is boring.

Then we have Katniss, whose name should be your first tip-off to her Mary-Sue undertones. Not so fast, though – Katniss is complex, self-reliant and, well, kind of a bitch. However, she’s also preternaturally and prodigiously talented with a bow and arrow, gifted with a beautiful singing voice and – like Bella – she’s got the ~secret pretty~ thing nailed. Katniss is primped and preened in every single book, adored by viewers who don’t actually want to see her die (shocker), and given the nickname ‘The Girl on Fire’.

But then MOCKINGJAY happens.

The beautiful, ass-kicking, heart-breaking Katniss gets scarred, tortured and develops a pretty serious morphling addiction. She kills again – this time, almost indiscriminately – and resists, resists, resists getting sucked into a war she wants no part of (even though it’s against the regime who stuck her in an arena to kill off other kids. Que?). She spends most of her time in a coma. MOCKINGJAY is about a war whose leader doesn’t want to fight. In losing interest (and often consciousness), Katniss ensures we lose ours too.

Bella brings up the rear, and the winning Mary-Sue position – possibly of all time. Has there ever been an author with such blatant self-inserting intentions?  Bella is adored by the boys at her new school, equally hated by the girls, and the only girl in a hundred years to catch the eye of ridonkulously handsome vamp Edward. When her vamps her in return, she turns out to be the best of them all. Possibly the most annoying thing about Bella-Sue is her unrelenting denial of any and all of these traits. Is she modest or stupid? Either way, they could’ve renamed the stereotype after Bella when Meyer was done with her.

So how do you find the balance? It takes practice and revision. It also requires neutrality. Not everyone will love your character; not everyone will have disliked Cassia like I did. Instead of making your character likeable, make them compelling. Someone whose world and experiences you’d be happy to follow, for good or bad.

And remember: if you’re planning on experimenting with a new character, get tested first.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Utopian Moment of YA Dystopia

YA is having a golden moment – and so is the dystopia genre. Dystopian novels are burning up the bestseller list, scoring seven-figure advances and captivating (or perhaps terrifying) readers, young and old alike. The question of what is driving the genre’s success is inevitable; its answer, however, is less certain.

Dystopic worlds, in their simplest form, are about the dispersion of power and its inherent inequality. It’s no surprise, then, that today’s teens – so often at the mercy of parents, teachers and the dominant ideologies of their societies – are connecting with the characters inhabiting the controlled, oppressed worlds of their favourite books. As they recognise elements of our own world within these societies – from an overreliance and acceptance of invasive technology to political, social and environmental instabilities – they also recognise their own adolescent struggles in the trials of these characters. It’s such struggles that both shape dystopian YA and form the basis for its popularity.

What is it teenagers want? At a time when they are beginning to explore life outside the world childhood has confined them to, as they become better aware of politics and world affairs and the environment and The Man, teens desire a voice to express their own perspectives. (And they will take it any way they can get it; social networking is the new soapbox, and teens have rarely been more empowered.) As advertising and the internet offers them everything and nothing, they want real choice, and not just between sneakers and heels, or Facebook and Twitter. They crave, above all, freedom.

And so they see themselves in dystopia’s creations: in Katniss’s struggle for freedom from the Capitol’s control throughout THE HUNGER GAMES; in Cassia’s complete deprivation of choice in MATCHED; and or the suppression of dissenting voices in THE SILENCED. Real-life teens may not undergo the operations, bloodbaths, pre-arranged marriages and various other tortures of their favourite protagonists, but in dystopian YA, ‘what-if’ becomes window to a new (and perhaps potential) world – one where choice is often demanded of the MC, even if physical freedom doesn’t seem to be on the cards. And, crucially, teens get behind their protagonists because they fight. Dystopian worlds are never static; the protagonist endures the trials of their own dystopic world because they choose to fight for a new one. Dystopian encompasses despair and hope, choice and coercion, submission and rebellion, depicted via characters who (in slightly-altered circumstances) undergo many of the same basic struggles as us.

Teens don’t just see themselves; they see their world. Dystopia holds the pull of something all too real. In our global society, where technology is omnipresent and seemingly omniscient, and the word reality demands inverted commas, teens can find the world at their fingertips and inside their heads. It’s accessible and controlling both. Reading affords an escape and, in the dystopian genre especially, is often a reminder that our world is not as bad as it has the potential to be (just ask 1984). It is a narrative of warning, and of optimism. And it highlights that indelible truth: no world ever exists without some discontent, some unequal power dispersion, least of all our own. Dystopia emphasises the perfect imperfectability of independent thought, and hence of people, as well as the price we – and our characters – can pay for it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gender Roles: Girls with Purpose

Gender in all forms of fiction is, and always has been, a contentious issue. Girls in YA get hit pretty hard: they are declared too wimpy, or too brash; they are damsels in distress or punch-first-ask-later, without-weakness warriors. An effective middle ground character is hard to find and even harder to write. Every writer – not just those in YA – must struggle with this conundrum, and it’s a difficult balance to attain. 

What makes a strong but realistic female character, then? Here’s the hard part: there’s no one defining answer. It’s not simply the ability to take part in the action or to punch danger in the cojones. Strength is about resolution – determination and perseverance. It’s about having the ability to make a choice and making it, no matter how difficult the outcome. And that goes for every character, regardless of gender.

This strength requires sacrifice, objectives and desire. To keep getting up after getting knocked down, (all) characters need purpose – a reason to. They need ambitions, interests – goals that drive them outside of the central quest. And these simple characteristics are missing in a scary amount of female YA leads today.

Perhaps this issue is simplest to illustrate through a gendered comparison. When it comes to the male leads of HARRY POTTER and THE DEMON’S LEXICON, Harry and Nick each have several interests exclusive from their overall quest in each novel: Harry plays Quidditch and leads clandestine magical defence groups; Nick practices stabbing things and putting the moves on girls. They have goals and ambitions, and a drive to succeed in what they do. Conversely, girls like MATCHED’s Cassia or Nora in HUSH, HUSH seemingly struggle to define themselves outside of the boys they fall in love with and the obstacles standing in the way of that love. They express little to no indication of future career pursuits or even current extra-curriculars.

Sometimes, an imitation of such interests is offered in the form of a fierce, even self-sacrificing desire to protect family members or friends, such as that which seemingly defines THE VAMPIRE DIARIES’ Elena. While this desire is noble and admirable, it is almost always the female character’s defining and only trait. (Compare this to Harry, who is capable of both defending his friends and staying upright on a broomstick.) For female MCs, this protective interest seems to become an inherently maternal/matriarchal role that they exist to fulfil. Alongside this desire, no other interest can compete: it negates the need for ambition or even hobbies, and the female character is purportedly complete.

People will always have aspirations, even when the odds are stacked against them. So, too, must female MCs. And some of them do: think the studious, perfectionist and fiercely competitive Hermione, who will not compromise her intellectuality to score a date with Ron; or Mae in THE DEMON’S LEXICON, whose literary and fashion interests speak of neuroses and individualism both. Both girls have interests outside the quest, but both also display the aforementioned protective instinct over their friends and family. This instinct does not compromise their individuality precisely because it does not define them. They do; they choose who they are and who they will be.

Such choice is a central feature in the lives and relative strengths of two popular YA protagonists: Bella Swan in TWILIGHT and Katniss Everdeen in THE HUNGER GAMES. Katniss and Bella are, of course, very different characters: Katniss shoots forest game to feed her subsisting family; and Bella microwaves pizza for her man-child father. (Both girls do possess an inability to choose between love interests, but that’s another story.) It’s easy to see how the self-sufficient, capable Katniss appears an inherently ‘stronger’ character than Bella, the ultimate damsel in distress for sincerity-starved 21st Century tweens; and yet what defines them is not their relative ass-kicking abilities, but their choices… or lack thereof. This is what Laura Miller espouses so succinctly in her comparison of these female leads:

One thing you can say about Bella Swan, though: She knows what she wants. For the two books leading up to "Mockingjay," Katniss acts decisively and often effectively, but only when she's backed into a corner. […] "I'm not just a piece in their game," is her habitual refrain, but except for a few climactic and highly circumscribed moments, she's often just that. What does Katniss really want? It's hard to say.

Yes, Katniss may shoot to kill, and Bella’s incessant whining can make you want to kill yourself, but Katniss’ relative passivity throughout THE HUNGER GAMES series (especially MOCKINGJAY) ultimately negates her physical strength, and even her desire to protective those she loves. When faced with a difficult choice, such as furthering her role in a destructive war (she wants no part of), Katniss simply shuts down – much as Bella does when Edward abandons her. Without choosing, and without subsequent determination, Katniss and Bella are both lost amongst the physical and mental wars raging around them, ineffective and purposeless.

Characters need strength to make these choices, and to follow through with them. They need goals and ambitions that make such difficult choices worth the risk, and the determination to see these goals through when they are constantly knocked down. Their purpose, as characters and as humans, is what makes them strong.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Call to Action Comparisons

The Call to Action (or Adventure, if you’re Joseph Campbell) refers to the exact moment when the character first learns everything they know of their world is about to change. The Call to Action is not, therefore, the moment a character learns of their specific quest and the obstacles to its achievement. It’s a journey, an exposition: the Call may involve initiation into a new world, or the emergence of a new threat in an old one.

The Call is a key, inciting incident (as it is also known) in both genre and literary fiction. For Clay Jensen, it’s the package on his doorstep; for Rose Hathaway, it’s being yanked back to the vamp world she thought she’d left behind. Either way, the Call is life changing. Regardless of whether they (initially) take the offer up or not, the character will never be the same after the Call is made.

The Call comes early: Tracy Marchini argues the Call should be evident within the first chapter. Not all stories adhere to this, and with mixed results. We can explore the effectiveness of an early Call to Action by comparing the recent dystopian efforts THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, and MATCHED by Ally Condie.

 - Call to Action: “It’s Primrose Everdeen.”
 - When? Last line, first chapter. Textbook.
 - Is the Call Refused? No way – Katniss knows at once she’ll be taking her sister’s place.
 - Effective? Very. After a (fairly boring) first chapter, we’re in. Katniss’ world is changed, and she’s signed up for slaughter. (Also, the swiftness of the Call makes up for some of the boring.) 

 - Call to Action: (is there one? I’m not so sure. For argument’s sake, let’s say it is when) Cassia sees Ky’s face flash on her screen – and she begins to question her perfect Society.
 - When? MATCHED takes forever to get to anywhere vaguely exciting, let alone this first Call. The bit with Ky’s face comes in at the end of chapter three (when I’m ready to gnaw my own arm off, or at least quit reading).
 - Is the Call refused? Big time. For the most part, Cassia wants to believe the Society’s excuses, and that Xander’s her real match. Her doubts creep in somewhere around the fifth and sixth chapters.
 - Effective? No.

The extent to which a character is already ingrained within the story’s dominant world will also influence the type and timing of the Call. If a character knows nothing of the world in which their quest will take shape, their Call to Action will also form their introduction to this new world (and require more information, sometimes leading to its delay). If a character is already fully ingrained in this world at the story’s exposition, their Call will come in the form of a new threat or complication to this established way of life.

We’ll illustrate this dichotomy by examining the Calls within two fantasy texts: HARRY POTTER & THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE by JK Rowling, and Sarah Rees Brennan’s THE DEMON’S LEXICON.

 - Initiate or immersed? The Boy Who Lived is pretty much clueless as to the magical world existing around him.
 - Call to Action: Built up to by several (hundred) persistent and creepily addressed letters, Harry’s initiation comes via a half-giant knocking down his door.  
 - When? Hagrid rocks up at the end of the third chapter, and spells it all out (yeah, I did) in the fourth.
 - Is the Call refused? There’s a bit of dithering over funds and dubious magical abilities, but overall, Harry’s pretty happy to get the hell out of Dursleyville.
 - Effective? Given the amount of backstory to be dealt with, as well as a first chapter that should really be a prologue, I’d say yes. It comes as late (if not later) as in MATCHED, but it’s the plot points dotted through these early chapters of THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE – You-Know-Who’s departure, chats with snakes and especially those letters – that keep readers interested until the Call is made. (But then again, we all know I’m biased.)

 - Initiate or immersed? Nick’s old hat – been there, stabbed that.
 - Call to Action: Mae and her demonically doomed brother, Jamie, arrive at Nick and Alan’s place to request some magical assistance.
 - When? At the second chapter’s end.
 - Is the Call refused? Nick can’t tell Mae and Jamie to get lost fast enough. Definite yes.
 - Can be confused with: the First Plot Point – which, here, is not the revelation of Jamie’s demon marking but Alan’s. The FPP introduces the character to their quest, often through the removal of choice (a key factor in the Call to Action, below). The character becomes aware of the goal they must achieve, and at least some of the difficulties that stand in their way. For Nick, it’s when his brother – the one person he can’t stand to lose – is threatened, and Nick knows he’ll do anything to keep Alan safe.
 - Effective: yes, though less impactive.

Another thing to consider is the relation between the Call and choice. As noted above, the character has the ability to choose between accepting the Call and refusing it. Refusal can indicate anything from selfishness or immaturity to denial or self-preservation. Often, the First Plot Point will remove this choice from the equation, by making the odds life threatening instead of life changing (as with Nick, Alan, Jamie and Mae). The Call to Action represents not obligation but opportunity – for both character and reader.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Trendwatch: Lame Names in YA

This is on the lesser end of notoriety, but one thing I’ve been noticing a lot lately – especially in YA – is a tendency towards ambiguous, one word monikers for whichever dystopian society/totalitarian government is out to get the protag(s) this week. You know the kind I’m talking about – THE HUNGER GAMES has the Capitol; MATCHED has the Society; THE GIVER has the Community. Associated departments and developments follow a similar pattern: the Districts, a Match, the Power; even whole titles are becoming monothematic (and sometimes monosyllabic) affairs.

Of course, you could argue these uncomplicated names are meant as a comment on where our world is headed: a minimalistic future in which extraneous words are eradicated (doubleplusungood!).

Or you could call it a total lame-out.

I get the impetus behind these simple names and labels, I do. They’re short, (can be) evocative and are handy for keeping your reader in the dark about these organisations’ true intentions. They can also be an easy option when you’re first mapping out your work and it’s the first name that pops out of your head and onto your paper/screen (and it’s already four in the morning. Oh, that initial inspirational rush). Sometimes, those names just stick.

But when an author takes the time to create a new name, a name that’s vivid and expressive and memorable, it shows. And it works. One of the best and most memorable for me is V FOR VENDETTA’s totalitarian government Norsefire (a name so brilliantly evocative I’m still trying to figure out a way to semi-plagiarise it), which employs mythic and elemental imagery to evoke themes of destruction, war, control and passion. The name suggests real-life totalitarian regimes, and its accompanying slogans, like ‘Strength through Unity. Unity Through Faith’, share similarities of cadence with Orwell’s 1984 coda, ‘War is Peace. Slavery is Freedom. Ignorance is Strength’. This concept is continued through the series’ simple but never simplistic names for its secret police (the Finger) and divisions (the ‘Eye’ visual surveillance department, the ‘Ear’ for audio surveillance, the ‘Hand’ for agents, the ‘Nose’ for the police department and the ‘Mouth’ propaganda division).

For me, it’s specificity over simplicity any day.

Do you agree? Does this mini-trend of unadorned and unspecific names speak of a minimalistic future, or authorial laziness? What are your favourite names, and what category would they belong to?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Using & Abusing Your Characters - Pt. 2

Stupidity and torture

It’s a well-established inevitability of fiction that some characters are too stupid to live. From an inability to connect the most obvious of clues, to keeping the kind of secrets that would have solved the central conflict two hundred pages ago, or plain old falling for the villain’s trap every single time, it can sometimes feel like stupidity is a literary contagion.

Of course, in many cases this kind of idiocy is not in fact idiocy at all: it’s curiosity, trust, gallantry or even love. Moreover, the occasional blunder is a reflection of human nature: we are human; we do stupid things, and so should our characters. And it’s this kind of humanity that is often necessary to drive the plot – and your characters – forward.

But, in the worst offenses, it’s only too easy to see how curiosity becomes stupidity – and with disastrous results. HUSH, HUSH follows on from the TWILIGHT measure of ‘dreamy’ (read: nightmare) male leads, though admittedly, far more blatantly. Nora pushes-and-pulls the semi-psychotic Patch through the better half of the book. She’s also stupid enough to be best friends with the self-absorbed, use-her-friendly Vee.
Example: On almost every level, Patch terrified me. But deep down, I didn’t think he was going to kill me.
(And that’s good enough for a teenage girl!)

At the other end of the spectrum (ie. not self-induced) is torture – the pain, drama and conflict characters undergo throughout the plot that drives them to their final confrontation with the big baddie, or to the break-up-before-make-up of their relationship. As every orphaned YA protagonist will tell you, it’s the torture these characters endure that drives them to revenge, shapes their relationships and builds them into heroes.

When you spend so much time with your own characters, however, attachment is inevitable. Torture and stupidity can become difficult to inflict on your beloved protagonist(s). And yet both devices are often essential to the conflicts that spur on the storyline and shape our characters – whether they be unintelligent or just plain unlucky.

Do you find it difficult to inflict torture or stupidity on your characters? If so, which do you find harder? And do you think the stupidity that leads characters to go outside and check on that weird noise is warranted, or a get-to-the-plot-point cop-out?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Using & Abusing Your Characters - Pt. 1

Character as function

When it comes to the construction of characters, their backgrounds, interactions and choices will vary depending on whether a story is character-driven (as in commercial or literary fiction, like Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE) or plot-central (as in genre fiction, like fantasy or dystopian – think THE HUNGER GAMES). Whilst the former emphasises conflict through emotional interaction, with real-life issues like birth, death and heartbreak often driving the story, the latter is centred around enemies and quests, and the character’s internal struggles must take a backseat to these external goals.

(Of course, no story can be defined as wholly character- or plot-driven; what makes a novel successful is striking a balance of the two that complements its characters’ emotional progressions [or handicaps] and interactions. Many works straddle this line, particularly within the paranormal romance genre.)

In this way, plot-driven stories require their characters to be more than fully realised human beings (or angels/demons/super-powered, mild-mannered, thinly-veiled Christ figures): they are tools for the advancement of the plot, and for the readers’ comprehension of it. To highlight this concept of character serving as function, we’ll look at two plot-driven genre texts: the HARRY POTTER series and Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION.

Harry, as both the series’ protagonist and magical world initiate, serves as a tool for the reader to experience and learn about the world he is drawn into, functioning as the reader proxy. Through Harry and his external quest – specifically, in the first book, to protect the Philosopher’s Stone – we are introduced to Hogwarts and to Lord Voldemort, around which Harry’s emotional conflicts (including his parents’ deaths, at the hands of Voldemort) are shaped. More importantly, Harry, the initiate, has a character – a function – from whom to source answers to the questions his initiation raises. As such, Dumbledore (the instructor) and Hermione (the informer) can be seen as two of the most important characters, plot-wise, throughout the HP series. Both provide Harry with direct and indirect answers and information that are often key to his external quests – whether it be overcoming Voldemort or chasing down the Hallows. Hermione and Dumbledore complement each other as functions: in Hermione, Harry finds less authority but better access, whilst Dumbledore has more authority but with limited access.

INCEPTION, similarly, employs this initiate-informer dichotomy to guide its viewers through Nolan’s often-complicated dream world. (Somewhere on the web I saw this described as “holding the viewer’s hand”, which I think is a good description. The plot is complicated but well delineated, and we are left questioning things long enough to be curious but not too long as to become frustrated.) Whilst Cobb, as the instructor and protagonist of the film, is key to our comprehension of the world of subconscious espionage, it is Ariadne who facilitates the revealing of such information, simply by asking – by functioning as the initiate (and hence, again, the viewer proxy).

The major difference between the two is the relative initiation of the protagonist in each, with Harry totally clueless to the magical world’s existence and Cobb fully immersed in his. Hence, Ariadne is necessary in INCEPTION to act as the initiate and to be guided through the dream world by other characters, those already initiated (like Cobb).

Both initiate and instructor are key character functions for dispensing information, for drawing the reader into the world you’ve created, and most significantly, for advancing the plot. Without Hermione, Harry and Ron would likely have ended up as snake-bait or squished by a murderous plant; without Dumbledore, Voldemort would have pwnd half of Europe by now and Harry would still be lying in a forest (sans heartbeat); without Ariadne, we’d have even less of a clue what the eff is happening in Cobb’s subconscious. Complicated plots require double the work from your characters: their questions and knowledge must drive the story from conflict to conflict, from clue to clue. We need both initiate and instructor to answer our questions and to ask them for us.