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.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2011: New Beginnings, New Blog

Hello to the interniverse!

Welcome to Literature to Learn By, where 'like' is an endangered term and all novels are in the firing line. Instead of labelling books as simply 'good' or 'bad', we'll look at which characters, story lines and worlds make them effective, evocative or less than enthralling.

However, LTLB is in not a review site: instead, we'll compare texts by their relative themes, plots and characters, and work to find out exactly what makes one more effective (not better) than another. Most importantly, we'll focus on how you can apply these lessons to your own writing.

While this blog will focus predominantly on YA fiction, we'll also be deconstructing various films and TV shows, as unflinchingly as possible. (With one disclaimer: as a child of the Harry Potter generation, it's fairly likely I'll never see past the awesome to deliver a fair critique - so don't expect anything unbiased.)

Here's hoping 2011 has some lessons to teach.