Broken, Awkward, Incompetent, Mismatched Heroes: Why We Need Them in Stories

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I’m not sure what the umbrella term for these types of characters should be. Atypical heroes? Messy heroes?

Well, whatever the term, I adore them. And my love grows stronger every time I come across a protagonist who’s graduated from the academy of perfect heroes. You know–the shiny put-together ones. The ones whose mistakes are just tiny blips in their character designed to further the plot.

My first issue with those characters is that I’m kind of bored of them. Selfish, I know. But I think I’ve seen and read enough of them to last me a lifetime.

My second issue (and probably the more pertinent of the two because it goes beyond “Well, I think it’s boring, so YOU should think it’s boring too!”) is that they spearhead the idea that the only way to be a hero in your story–to win the battles, collect the friendships, score the romance, change the world for the better–is to be confident, bold, determined, to always know what to say at the right times, and have an emergency stash of witty quips in your pockets.

And if you occasionally say the wrong things or step out in the wrong direction? Well, hey, no worries! They’re nothing permanent! Your weaknesses only exist as temporary obstacles to overcome so you can scratch another notch on your Badass Post.

But what about the rest of us?

Because there are many faces to heroism and not all of them involve being extroverted or confident or even necessarily good. Maybe they’re a hero who has crippling shyness and social anxiety. Maybe they’re just not super into the idea of quests and adventures. Maybe they’re trying so hard to be perfect and unflappable that it’s breaking them from the inside out.

So some quick bullet points on why I love these characters and why I want to see more of them:

  • They’re relatable. I mean, that’s kind of the biggest reason, right? As humans we’re all messy and imperfect, and we like seeing that reflected in media.
  • They can force you to look at a well-worn genre from a new angle.Take The Adventure Zone podcast, for example. Thanks to a cast of lovable idiots who could have been pulled out of a sitcom, your typical D&D fantasy story turns into a feel-good, slice-of-life, goofball comedy of hilarious mistakes and equally hilarious successes.And Bright Sessions, which is another (incredible) fiction podcast and one that runs with the idea of superpowered people going to therapy. It’s most definitely scifi, but the characters aren’t your usual X-Men variety, in that they’re messy in every sense of the word and everyone’s dealing with something. It’s almost like a self-help guide disguised as a scifi story and I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.

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  • They show us that no matter who you are–how successful and powerful and magical–being a hero doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Having powers doesn’t preclude you from having doubts. Being strong doesn’t shield you from being broken. And there’s comfort to be found there. We can look at that and feel less alone in our struggles.

 

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Now let’s look at some of the specific character types and examples of them in media!

The Incompetent Hero

A story starring an incompetent hero doesn’t have to be a comedy of errors. Nor does it mean they should stay incompetent from beginning to end.

For me, it means being thrust into a position the character is wholly unprepared for and every step from there on is a hard, awkward learning process riddled with stumbling blocks and many steps backwards. And maybe it takes them a little longer to pick up on certain skills–things like politicking and swordplay don’t come overnight (or overweek or overmonth). Side characters may even have to help prop them up until they can stand on their own. And just as in real life, there’s nothing shameful about that.

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Sansa Stark from ASoIAF/GoT is the biggest example that comes to mind: a sheltered girl who likes pretty boys and the lure of the city and is very good at embroidery. A girl who’s thrown into a pit of vipers and tries her best to learn and survive.

Sansa has also unwittingly become the biggest example of the issue surrounding people’s response to these fish-out-of-water characters, usually the female ones–that they’re annoying and useless and whiny and “Why doesn’t she do x and y and z?” and “Arya is SO much better.” (On the flip side, if they’re “too competent” they’re called Mary Sues. Female characters just can’t catch a fucking break, can they?)

A character who’s bad at something doesn’t make them a bad character. It makes them normal. Relatable. Human. And while a quiet story about learning and survival may not be as a exciting for people as one with swordfights, it’s nonetheless a journey of courage and strength.

I find it interesting (read: frustrating) that WW2 fiction nowadays are often filled with fish-out-of-water heroes and readers gobble them up, and yet when it comes to speculative fiction–fantasy and scifi, especially–people have so little patience for them. Which kind of makes sense–different readership, different expectations–but also not at all, because shouldn’t we expect more incompetent characters in a world that demands that they win wars, fight/befriend dragons, and juggle fire balls all at the same time?

 

“I’m Fine (But Really, I’m Breaking Inside)” Hero

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I see the “I’m FINE” trait more often with side characters than main ones which is kind of a shame. The fun thing about these characters is that from the outside they resemble your typical heroes: proactive, capable, and confident. But peel back some layers and you start to see cracks, which then resolve into chasms.

These are characters who try so damn hard to project an aura of okayness, both to themselves and to others, that they can’t tell where the pretense ends and where their real feelings begin.

Karin Lowachee does this beautifully with Jos Musey in Warchild, as does Seth Dickinson with the indelible Baru Fisher in Baru Cormorant. And if you want non-speculative stories (because heroes can exist outside of SFF settings), Neil Josten in All for the Games series is another great example.

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“Baby, I’m a Fuck-Up” Hero

This part got LONG so I cut some of it out and will probably make a separate post on it at some point. But here’s the gist: we need more fictional characters who fuck up. It’s especially important nowadays when social media has us privy to every morsel of success your friends and family and random strangers have achieved. The amount of pressure that’s placed on young people to get the perfect grades, get accepted into this and that college, get ‘x’ number of degrees by the age ‘y’ is ridiculous and makes you feel like there’s zero room for mistakes. Either you walk that tightrope from end to end or you crash and burn. There’s no in-between. And seeing more of these kinds of heroes in media might have saved me an ambulance bill.

And people can say that’s giving fiction too much credit, but here’s the thing: art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a product of our world and it, in turn, feeds back into the world as a reflection of the things we want to see more of. And if we see more characters in books and movies and games who genuinely mess up and are made stronger for it, then that’s kind of an invitation to ourselves to be less fearful and more forgiving of our failures.

And I honestly believe that can save lives.

Some wonderful examples of these characters include Millie Roper from The Arcadia Project series, who I would give my left arm for, and Mae Borowski from the game  Night in the Woods. She’s a pansexual college-dropout with depression, and I would happily give my other arm for her.

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Awkward, Antisocial, and Shy Hero

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Eliot of In Other Lands is unlike any other protagonist I’ve come across in YA fantasy. To be blunt, he starts out as a kind of a little shithead: he’s prickly and awkward, says the wrong things at the wrong times, makes the worst first impressions and consistently gets on people’s nerves. But it works because it doesn’t come from a place of “I’m doing this because I’m an asshole and want to fuck with people,” but rather, “I’m terrible with social interactions and I feel out of place in this world.”

And how beautiful and necessary is it to see a teenage hero who’s not all that nice?

These characters tell you that it’s okay that you don’t know what to say or how to act in certain situations. You’ll step on the wrong feet and piss people off and that’s fine because that’s life and you’ll learn from it (hopefully).

And seeing that kind of sentiment in media is such a weight off your back, you know? Especially when you’re young and still trying to figure yourself out.

 

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Murderbot from The Murderbot Diaries

People adore this series and for good reason. Personally it doesn’t do much new in terms of plot and worldbuilding (from what I’ve read so far anyway. I still have two books to go), but character-wise it’s everything. Because the story is all about murderbot, and murderbot would much rather spend its time alone watching dramas than interacting with a group of people. I mean, come on–an awkward, introverted protagonist in scifi? And an A.I. at that??

Why isn’t that more of a thing in fiction?

 

 

 

“Save the World? Sorry, I Can’t. I Have to Wash My Hair” Hero

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AKA reluctant heroes.

So, I have this weird attraction to the scenario of characters being offered the role of a  hero or Chosen One or whatever, and them responding with, “Thanks but no thanks” because they feel that there are more important things to worry about. Like, take some penniless college student trying to juggle six classes per semester along with a part-time job, and then one day a Chosen One Messenger bursts through their door yelling, “Guess what, Harry? Yer a–”

“Chosen One. Yeah, I know. And what’s the monthly salary on that?”

“Er, well. You’ll earn satisfaction in the knowledge that your actions will herald the salvation of– “

“Wow, tempting! But I think I’ll pass.”

“This isn’t an optional–“

“Plus, I’m not really Chosen One material, you know? I mean, the other day I dropped my Starbucks cup on the way to chem class and didn’t even bother to pick it up. I don’t think you want a litterer as the poster child for your quest, do you?”

“Well, it’s not–“

“Try the guy next door. He volunteers at the animal shelter or something so he’s, like, literally saving puppies and kittens in his spare time. There’s your Chosen One.”

“But–“

“Also, my name’s not Harry.”

…Ahem. Sorry, I got carried away.

But yes, reluctant heroes! Heroes who, for whatever reason–maybe because they’re afraid of fighting, maybe they’re super busy and this whole quest business is incredibly disruptive to their livelihood, maybe they just really like sleeping in during the weekends–aren’t all that enthused about their new role.

It’s not that they have a disdain for the continued survival of humanity. It’s just that, in their world, “continued survival of humanity” ranks a few entries below things like “Pass the ochem exam” and “Don’t mess up that date on Friday” and “Do something about the gnomes that are eating all the vegetables in the garden.”

I love them because they’re relatable and cathartic and exude Tired Millennial energy. And sometimes I feel like there’s an unspoken rule that SFF heroes need to be eager adrenaline junkies and glory hounds. And those are great! They’re fun! But not everyone wants to risk their lives to save the world. Not everyone wants to be kings and queens and politicians and insert themselves into every major event that shakes up a nation. Some people just want to live their lives peacefully in relative comfort, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Jalan from the
Red Queen’s War series is a great example of how such a character can be done well. At the start of the story, his life basically boils down to gorgeous women, good food, comfortable bed, and …that’s…about it. That’s the height of his aspiration. Well, until he gets dragged into a war against his will. Then he adds “Don’t die” to the list.

While Jalan grows as a person over the course of the series, he still remains true to who he is, in that he’s not going to be leading nations and giving inspirational speeches anytime soon. Yet he’s still, against all odds, a hero.

And I find that super endearing.

 

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And there you go! What are your thoughts on these characters? Send me all your juicy, juicy thoughts!

 

Fantasy Books & Games for Mental Health Awareness Month (Why I Need More Mental Health Rep in Adult Fantasy)

 

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May is Wyrd & Wonder and mental health awareness month, so it only makes sense to celebrate the 31st by smooshing them together into one post.

I meant to write this on Wednesday for Top 5 Wednesday, but I’ve been zonked out on allergy meds all week (one day the pharmaceuticals will develop a formula that doesn’t hit me like a freight train) and going to sleep at 6 and waking up at 3 AM.

So apologies in advance if I sound scattered and tired (however tired sounds like in a blog post).

But before we get started, I want to address something.

Hey, mainstream adult fantasy–epic fantasy, if we’re being particular–can we sit down and have a quick chat? It’ll only take a sec.

This is a topic that’s been a growing source of frustration for me in the last handful of years, and I’m going to bring it up again in another post soonish (hopefully) so I’ll keep it short and blunt today: why don’t more of your characters deal with mental health issues? 

Why aren’t your Chosen Ones having panic attacks and breakdowns? Why isn’t your merry band of misfits dealing with the mental fallout from battles and murders and facing monstrosities and just the general “holy fuck” factor that comes with trying to save the world? It seems to be an unspoken rule that therapists can’t exist in fantasy worlds, so how are these people getting out of bed every morning holding determination in one hand and eagerness in the other?

Why is trauma a temporary roadblock that you can gently remove and set aside so that the heroes can go on with doing hero things?

I’m sorry if I seem frustrated and/or bitter but I’m tired and mental health is a topic that means everything to me, and when paired with fantasy, the resulting story can be powerful and validating. And while that isn’t to say I don’t love seeing mental health reps in contemporary and horror and thriller and scifi–because I do, I love it a lot–fantasy can explore mental health from angles that other genres can’t.

And I just–I don’t understand why that isn’t taken advantage of more often.

Writing multi-volume fantasy epics has never really been an aspiration for me when I was younger. I adore reading them, sure, but my projects always leaned more towards…Guillermo del Toro crossed with Markus Zusak.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the one thing that’ll push me into drafting an epic fantasy would be the lack of depressed protagonists in these stories.

Because at the end of the day, you try to create the things you want to see more of in the world and hope that by doing so you’ll help foster an ecosystem where more such creations can take root and grow and maybe become the norm.

So yeah…good chat, adult fantasy! Same time next week? 😀

 

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

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Rep: PTSD, Depression

The Light Between Worlds is the portal fantasy I always wanted and finally got–a spiritual continuation of Narnia and every portal fantasy that has ever ended with the protagonists returning to the real world. The author doesn’t hold back on showing the ugliness of depression and the mental toll it takes on the people who have to watch you go through it.

One of the hardest and most rewarding books I’ve ever read.

 

 

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

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Rep: Eating disorder

This book is important for several reasons:

1) It talks about eating disorders and body image from the perspective of a teenage boy, which is super rare in fiction.

2) It made me acknowledge things about myself that I never really wanted to acknowledge. You can read about the details in the review here, if you want. It’s a post I’m glad I’d written because the process was…cathartic, in a clobbered-with-a-sledgehammer sort of way. But occasionally I think back on it and get the urge to trash it because, holy hell, it’s so awfully personal. (Some good news, though: I’m 6 pounds up from last year. That doesn’t sound like much but considering where I started from, I’ll take it).

Also, I’ve seen complaints that Miller’s narrative romanticizes the act of starving. But I can’t imagine anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder to read this and be like, “Yeah, this is the handbook for getting skinny.” I think readers can recognize the mental gymnastics we go through to convince ourselves into self-harming (which starving ultimately is) and Miller makes it crystal clear that Matt’s actions aren’t ideal.

 

Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb

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Rep: Depression, PTSD, and more

If you want a prime example of how mental health can and should be addressed in high/epic fantasy, look no further. Depression, PTSD, self-esteem issues, suicide ideation–Hobb tackles all with absolute mastery (and I’m shocked and disappointed that the series didn’t spawn more high/epic fantasy books with similar themes). The series also has the best depiction of chronic loneliness I’ve come across in fiction. The kind that has no rhyme or reason and shadows you for years and years and years, waiting for moments when you’re most vulnerable. That’s a very hard thing get across in any story, and the fact that she does it in a fantasy one (across nine volumes) is remarkable.

 

The Hollow Folk series by Gregory Ashe

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Rep: Depression

I er, think I’ve actually run out of words to describe these books.

If you’ve read any of my dissertations reviews, you know how much the series means to me. Gregory Ashe draws on his own experiences with depression and slips them into his main character and the result is painful but so, so spot-on.

 

Arcadia Project Trilogy by Mishell Baker

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Rep: Bipolar Disorder and more

Ninety percent of the characters in this series is a mess and that’s what makes them so great.

Arcadia Project is an ownvoices urban fantasy, and the author does a wonderful job of explaining BPD through her MC while also crafting a unique and entertaining story about faes and Hollywood and the messiness of relationships.

 

The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

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Rep: Depression (I think)

I just realized I’ve never talked about this book before on the blog which is crazy because it’s one of my favourite YA books released in the last two years. Memory Trees is all about female relationships–mothers and daughters, sisters, best friends, girlfriends–and the story puts a spotlight the MC’s mother and her mental illness and the events surrounding her hospitalization, which I thought was explored really well.

And okay, calling it a fantasy book is kind of an eyebrow-raising move because for most of it the only fantasy is in the way that Wallace approaches the story–as a dreamy inter-generational fable. The rest of it is a mix of contemporary, mystery, and historical fiction. But I swear, the magical stuff does rear its head at the end; you just have to squint to catch it.

 

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

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Rep: The entirety of DSM-5

I’m uh, actually not too sure if this belongs here?

On one hand, I’m not kidding with the DSM-5 thing. Fletcher’s series has the most comprehensive exploration of mental illnesses–from kleptomania to schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder–I’ve ever seen in speculative fiction.

But I don’t know if I would call them representations, per se. In the Manifest Delusions world, your delusions give you power–so the more ill you are, the greater your control over reality. It’s similar to The Art of Starving in that sense, except this doesn’t address those issues from a positive, “This is how you can heal” perspective.

 

Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire

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Rep: PTSD and more

I’m two books behind on the series, but Wayward Children is another portal fantasy story that deals with the trauma of being sent back to the real world, and just the general hardships that come with…well, living, and being different.

 

Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron

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Rep: Agoraphobia, Anxiety, and more

Oh look, another portal fantasy! Says something about the subgenre, doesn’t it?

What I really loved about this story is that it features a father who is dealing with severe mental health issues (agoraphobia) and that’s not something I often find in fiction; it’s usually the mother figures who are depressed and ill and on medication. And Sophie Cameron talks about his illness in a really empathetic light, which is even rarer, so massive kudos to her for that.

 

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Now for the video games!

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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Rep: Psychosis, Depression

Hellblade is many things.

It’s the most candid look at psychosis (with auditory and visual hallucinations) I’ve seen in any fictional media.

It’s an example of how to go about representing mental disorders you don’t have personal experience with–doing thorough research and consulting mental health professionals and people who do have experiences with them.

It’s the story of a woman who makes her descent into Hel (literally and figuratively) at a time in her life when darkness is all that is seemingly left.

It’s one of my favourite games of all time, and it’s the one game that made me cry from beginning to end. (I cried so, so much)

I can’t begin tell you how grateful I am that Hellblade exists and that I had the opportunity to experience it. Senua’s story is one I’ll carry around for the rest of my life and I 100% would have gotten this quote tattooed if it’d been a bit shorter:

Never forget what it is like to see the world as a child, Senua: where every autumn leaf is a work of art; every rolling cloud, a moving picture; every day a new story. We too emerge from this magic, like a wave from the ocean, only to return back to the sea. Do not mourn the waves, the leaves and the clouds. Because even in darkness the wonder and beauty of the world never leaves. It’s always there, just waiting to be seen again.

 

Night in the Woods

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Rep: Depression, disassociation

(Or as like to call it, Millenials: The Game)

I think there are three different lenses with which you can look at Night in the Woods:

1) A mystery/horror/fantasy story with cute (and queer) anthropomorphic animal characters getting caught up in strange happenings around town, all the while trying to navigate the murky waters of friendship, family, and romance.

2) A very pointed commentary on the state of capitalism suffocating small towns and older generations who would sacrifice their youth to maintain status quo and save their town from a broken economy that they helped dismantle in the first place.

3) A stark yet empathetic exploration of depression and existential crises from the PoV of young adults in their early 20’s.

…Or all three at the same time. That works too!

 

The Missing: J. J Macfield and the Field of Dreams

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Here’s a crazy rundown of the first 15-ish minutes of this game:

You’re a college girl named J.J. and you and your best friend/maybe-girlfriend Emily are camping out on an island having a great time. But things black out and the next thing you know Emily has disappeared and you’re running through the island desperately searching for her. Then you get struck by lightning and die, but a moose doctor comes and resurrects you, so all’s good. Then you start getting text messages from the stuffed toy you’ve been carrying around (the stuffed toy that got destroyed in the lightning–so presumably it’s sending you messages from whatever afterlife toys get sent to). Meanwhile, Emily is still nowhere to be found.

…I’ll give you a second to soak that in.

Would it then surprise you to know that it offers one of most beautiful explorations of identity and self-acceptance I’ve come across in gaming?

The Missing is made by SWERY (aka Hidetaka Suehiro), and his games tend to be on the…trippy side. Bizarre and peppered with pop-culture references and off-beat humour, you love them or hate them.

I’m firmly in the former category. They’re not technical marvels, the controls can be wonky, the story dives into the nonsensical, but they’re never boring and there’s something incredibly endearing about them. (It helps that he’s an absolute sweetheart on social media)

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Yes, that is SWERY. Yes, he is amazing.

Well, this jumps over “endearing” into “empowering” and “validating.”

The problem I have with media that explores mental health and LGBTQ+ issues is that they sometimes explore the pain side and kind of leave it at that. No closure. What stories like The Missing offer is that end piece–the sorely-needed ray of hope that yes, you can find peace and healing and come out on the other side stronger.

While I can’t personally speak for one of the representations that SWERY dives into (spoiler: transgender rep), other players can vouch that yes, he gets it right.

Please. Go play it. Or watch a playthrough/walkthrough of it.

 

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In Defence of Romance: What it Can Do in a Fantasy Story (Or ANY Story)

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Today is the start of Wyrd & Wonder (hosted by Lisa, Jorie, and imyril), a month dedicated to the celebration of all things fantastical. Look forward to essay posts, lists, reviews, and more.

Let’s get started!

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“But Kathy, who’s going out of their way to attack romance in fantasy?”

Well, no one in particular. But I’ve always come across people–both on the internet and in real life–who look at romance in fantasy with a kind of…disdain, and it’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. And with some of the recent complaints about Arya’s character development in GoT, I thought, why not, I’ll write a post on the topic.

So to be clear, I have zero problem with people disliking romance or criticizing the romance they find in stories (I mean, I criticize them all the time). Romance isn’t the end-all-be-all–the holy grail for which we have to plan our lives around–and I ADORE books that focus on passionate friendships often more than the romance-centric ones.

But passionate friendships that are as intimate as romance are few and far between in fiction. Because, I don’t know–a lot of people seem to have the idea that close intimacy between two or more people can only exist within the boundaries of sex and romance. (Which is patently untrue. *points to me and my best friend*) That’s why I usually turn to romance when I want my “intense interpersonal dynamic” fix. (This is a whole separate topic for another day.)

So my problem isn’t with the words “I don’t like romance in fantasy.”

My problem is with people who say “I don’t like romance in fantasy” in a tone they also use with phrases like, “I don’t like YA” and, “I only like literary fiction.” Like they expect a medal–or at the very least, an enthusiastic applause—for their abstinence. People who seem to believe that having any kind of romance in a fantasy makes it automatically inferior to ones that don’t, and the mention of romance in a blurb equivalent to a giant biohazard sticker on the cover. And most damningly: people who make others feel bad for liking it in the genre.

That’s how you get my hackles up.

So dear friends, lovers, and people of indiscriminate relations, it’s time to break out the candles and rose petals–we’re going to have a little chat about romance and what it can do in a fantasy story.

(And obviously these points also apply outside of fantasy. But everything’s better with dragons and magic–romance especially. It is known.)

*Presses ‘Play’ on 10-Hour Careless Whisper Sax Loop*

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Romance as a Whole

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Let’s start out big and talk a little about the romance genre as a whole.

I’m of the opinion that every genre has something to offer to other genres–a lesson you can take away as both a reader and a writer–and the romance genre at its best offers character dynamics, the push and pull between two or more individuals. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted and playful “will they or won’t they”. Other times it’s a more intense tug-of-war of differing values a la Pride and Prejudice.

Does it suffer from tropes that are overused and/or harmful? Absolutely. But it’s nothing more than what plagues every genre of literature.

Are the stories realistic? Sometimes no. Sometimes hell no. But growing up in a conservative household had made me go through a mess of reticence and recklessness about sex and shame about kink, and romance books helped me make peace with some of that. So screw realism. Sometimes I just want my Happily Ever After.

 

Romance as Worldbuilding

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This right here is a patch of grass.

And as far as patches of grass go, it’s not a bad one. There’s bits of green mixed in with the yellows and the browns, which is great because variety’s always a plus. So one might even call it nice and pretty.

The problem is that I’m going to forget about this patch of grass as soon as I come across another patch of grass with a tantalizing green/yellow/brown scheme. Because I’m shallow like that. And at the end of the day, it’s a patch of grass, not the floor of Buckingham Palace.

But. Plop onto it two characters who are in love, or in the process of being in love, or  don’t know (or like) each other very much and are doing that weird shuffling dance where they’re trying to figure each other out, and this patch of grass becomes something very special.

Maybe it’s where a knight from one kingdom and a farmer from another laid down to stargaze and share their cultures’ interpretations of the constellations. And amidst that, maybe there were gazes held just a bit too long and shoulders touching, and then not touching, and then touching again.

And the patch of grass becomes the site of something new and delicate.

Or maybe it’s where an asshole elven mage told you how beautiful you were and then dumped you because he has a greater purpose to fulfill and you’re too much of a distraction.

And the patch of grass becomes a field of heartbreak.

The same principle applies to more elaborate worldbuilding. As humans we remember and latch onto information that have strong emotional significance. So if two characters are doing the courtship dance and worldbuilding details gets mixed up in it, that shit’s going to stick in our brains.

It’s not rocket science. It’s neuroscience.

So worldbuilding isn’t just about how much interesting history and politics you can cram into a single book. It’s about making them seem real to the readers. It’s about making us care–making us see more than ancient stone buildings and paragraphs of dry info scrawled in a hefty tome. And what better way to achieve that than through romance?

Romance can assign meaning to meaningless information. It helps add texture and weight and depth to a world that might otherwise seem like a set of cardboard props. Pretty cardboard props, but still cardboard props.

 

Deeper Exploration & Development of the Protagonist

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Which isn’t to say platonic relationships don’t also do this, but the paths to a person’s heart are many (maybe infinite) and varied, and romance can offer a route of a different flavour than, say, friendship.

And I think it gets particularly interesting with unlikeable protagonists.

Because sometimes romance softens a character, scrubbing away at their hard sarcastic edges. It grabs at vulnerabilities and drags them out onto the surface, allowing us to see layers to them that we wouldn’t see otherwise.

Let’s take a grumpy asshole protagonist with a cocky attitude and a distaste for social interactions. No grumpy asshole protagonist would care if Jim the Barkeeper tells them, “You gotta change your ways.” And we don’t care because, well…it’s Jim the Barkeeper. He’s been given maybe ten pages’ worth of screen time and there’s a 70% chance that he’ll end up dead by the end of the book. So his opinion has about as much weight as the dead flies gathering on his countertops.

But if Love Interest #1 says it? Or implies it? That makes things a teeny bit more complicated. It might even force them to examine aspects of themselves that aren’t all that nice and take the slow, reluctant steps to be better.

Romance can also give strength to a character. A sense of purpose they never had before–a belief that maybe, just maybe, they can do this. They can defeat this monster horde. They can lead this army to victory. They can stand in front of the court and deliver a speech that could prevent a war.

I mean, I can go on for weeks. The possibilities are endless and that’s what makes it so damn fun.

 

Creates & Enhances Interpersonal Conflicts


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This is where we talk about the famous/infamous enemies-to-lovers.

My definition of enemies-to-lovers isn’t “two people who wanted to slit each other’s throats 30 minutes ago are now so deeply in love you can see tiny hearts orbiting them.” That’s just…no. And “I hate you but I love you” isn’t something I find particularly interesting, either. My definition is more along the lines of “two people with clashing values and opinions clash, and then slowly come to find understanding and shared affection.” (Which admittedly doesn’t sound as exciting as “I hate you but I love you”)

When done right this trope can be explosive. Because there are few better ways to create compelling, dramatic conflict between two characters than to have them challenge each other every step of the way. One pushes and the other pushes back. And somewhere amidst all that shoving they’ve mapped the contours of each other’s hearts and explored more of their crevices than anyone else ever has. Somewhere along the way a shove became a bump, which became a touch, became a caress.

So how do you go from two jagged pieces scraping against each other into shapes that curl together? What beliefs have changed? Which values have been discarded? In what ways have they made each other better? And if one of them is the villain of the story, what does that mean for their long-term goals?

I can’t begin to describe how infinitely fascinating I find that process. I could write and star in a one-person musical dedicated to how much I love it–especially in fantasy stories because the stakes are usually so much higher.

Enemies-to-lovers underscores the idea that people can learn to understand one another. That despite all our differences, we have the ability to admit mistakes and empathize and push each other to become more complex beings. And that’s a beautiful thing to see in any genre.

 

Romance as a Beacon of Light in a World of Dark

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The Sacred Band of Thebes was an Ancient Greek military unit comprised of 150 male couples. They were responsible for several crucial victories against the Spartan army–which at the time was like kicking a grizzly in the teeth and getting away with it–and the speculation behind their creation boils down to the idea that people fight with greater courage when they’re at their lovers’ side. That in the darkest hours of the battle, with everything going to hell, their love would give them strength to push forward.

Basically, their whole existence was about staring death in the face with light in their eyes. Which leads to my favourite example of what romance can do in fantasy: bringing light to a spot of dark.

Fantasy stories can get very dark very quick, and both the readers and the characters need reasons as to why they should continue, why any of it matters. With danger and horror looming around every corner, you want to cling to whatever hope and goodness you can find, and romance can offer a hell of a lot of hope. (It’s the same reason why we love seeing romance in World War II stories)

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The Song of Achilles and Girls of Paper and Fire do this brilliantly. Both stories position their romance in the middle of brutal, horrific, soul-draining situations. In both stories the romance becomes a spot of salvation.

And do you know which subgenre I’m convinced benefits the most from romance? Grimdark. And not the “gritty” kind of romance. Not the kind that’s angry and/or borderline abusive. I’m talking about the genuinely good ones–the sweet, passionate ones that make your eyes mist and your hair curl. It’s all about contrast, you see. Our brain is evolved to pick out details that break up monotony, so all that goodness just makes the grim and dark grimmer and darker, and vice versa.

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An example of this would be Ed McDonald’s Blackwing, which surprised and delighted me with a romance that felt fragile in many respects but also honest and heartfelt in a way that stood out beautifully against the rest of the story (which was unsurprisingly grim).

“You say there’s nothing of woman about you? You aren’t some painted vase, delicate and useless. You’re a fucking lioness. The strongest damn thing that ever lived. There’s nothing of you but woman.”

I do feel like I have to defend the honour of painted vases everywhere–they’re far from useless–but you get the point.

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Some closing thoughts: I think we can all agree that bad romance in fantasy can be very bad. Hair-pulling, eye-rolling, I-need-to-throw-this-book-at-the-nearest-wall kind of bad.

But when it’s good?

When it’s good it’s like standing at the edge of dawn and seeing the world exhale. It’s like feeling too big to fit inside your skin and you’re spilling everywhere into everything.

It’s like–

Well, it’s like falling in love.

*Presses ‘Stop’*

 

Blogger Recognition Award – A 6 Month Anniversary On Which I Attempt to Give Advice on Blogging and Life

Blogger Recognition award

I was nominated by Gerry from The BookNook UK for the Blogger Recognition Award about a month ago! Gerry ranks among post-it notes and cinnamon buns with cream cheese as one of the more awesome things that exist in this world, so go shower her with love.

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide a link to their blog
  • Write a post to show your award
  • Give a brief story of how your blog started
  • Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers
  • Select 15 other bloggers you’d like to give this award to
  • Comment on each blog and let them know you’ve nominated them, providing a link to the post you’ve created

This was meant to be a whole separate post in June, but then I realized July is the 6-month anniversary for this blog and so I thought, “What better way to celebrate a half-anniversary than foisting terrible advice onto people?”

So here goes!

Origin

The story of my blog getting started is astoundingly dull and short, and I’ve mentioned it twice already (here and on a post that I can’t remember the name of), so today I’ll just talk a little about the series of events that snowballed into its inception.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, reading and writing had been two massive parts of my life. Then university came and the latter half of my undergrad soon became my lowest point. I don’t want to get into massively triggering details because this is supposed to be an anniversary celebration post, but most days it was like crawling to the edge of an abyss and wondering if today was the day that I finally had the energy to tip myself over. And so I stopped reading and writing for the most part.

Then I came across Robin Hobb’s books. And it won’t be an exaggeration to say that they saved my life. (I’m 100% sure that if I ever get the mind-numbing pleasure of meeting Robin in real life, I’ll break down sobbing and they’ll have to wheel me out in a gurney and everyone will be traumatized by the experience).

So after reading through every book Robin had published up to then, I thought:

I want to read more of this.

And then a year later:

I want to write like this.

And the goalpost just kept moving forward, tiny bit by tiny bit.

Up to now. (Sometimes it’s the small victories that matter the most)

So I’ve been blogging for just six months. I’m a small, waddling toddler trying to duke it out with the heavyweights. And today I’m here to dispense some of the wisdom that I’ve gained in my very, very short life.

I imagine all the veterans reading this right now are doing so with an indulgent smile, like they’re humouring the antics of a 8 year-old who came home from school one day declaring they’ve discovered the secrets of the universe.

“Yeah okay, kid, let’s see what you’ve got.”

Right. No pressure.

Well, I don’t claim to have stumbled upon the secrets of the blogsphere, let alone the universe. The internet freaks me out half the time and most days I’m just tripping over my feet hoping I don’t break anything when I hit the ground.

So my advice are as much an advice as they are reminders to myself. I can’t promise they’ll help you become the most successful blogger to have ever blogged. I can’t even promise that they’re good advice. But maybe they’ll help you feel a little better about yourself and make you smile or cringe (or both–I’ll take both).

 

1. Write your posts however the way you want to

Seems like a no-brainer, yeah? But I’ve seen a few people worrying about finding their “blogging voice,” so I’m guessing it’s not an uncommon problem people face.

Well, there’s no one way to write a blog post. I mean, there’s no one way to write, period.

You can be as informal or formal as you want. Use gifs and emojis to your heart’s content! Gifs and emojis are unprofessional, they say? Fuck that. The vast majority of you are doing this for free. The idea of someone caring enough about a book to write an entire post on it–gif-riddled or otherwise–is professional enough for me.

And not every post needs to be in contention for the next Nobel prize for literature or whatever pseudo-prizes they give out to bloggers (here I’m very much lecturing to myself). There are no English teachers or profs looming over your shoulder checking to see that your independent clauses are sufficiently independent and docking marks for overabundant use of semi-colons.

So use this opportunity to stick a middle-finger at your 11th Grade English teacher who kept scribbling on the margins of your paper, “This sounds good but STOP USING SO MANY SENTENCE FRAGMENTS” (FFS they were creative writing papers, Mr. Wallace). Because two of the greatest joys of being an adult:

1) Ice cream for dinner
2) ALL the sentence fragments, baby (unless you’re writing formal papers)

One thing that I keep in mind when writing reviews or any other posts is, “What would make me keep reading this?” For some it’ll be humour, for others it’ll be a super formal essay-style. Everyone has different tastes and you can’t please them all. So write in a way that pleases you.

And go wild! Experiment! Loosen up!

If you want write your reviews in verse, go for it!

You want to try rap lyrics? Heck yes!

I mean, hell, Captain’s Quarters writes like a pirate! (It’s pretty awesome)

Or if you don’t want to do anything super fancy, then don’t. Just write. And as long as you’re getting your thoughts across, I promise you no one will care about grammar errors or typos.

And if it takes you months and months to get settled into a style you’re happy with, that’s perfectly fine too. I imagine blogging is as much of journey in itself, with its high and low moments that sometimes mirror the trajectory of your real life and other times have an entire life of its own. And if you’re enjoying yourself, your readers will be right there riding the crazy train with you.

 

2. You’re never too big or too small to show kindness

“Kathy, if I wanted a fortune cookie’s worth of all sap and no substance, I’d have cracked open, well, a fortune cookie.”

First of all, once in a blue moon, those cookies give you fortunes that aren’t completely asinine.

Second of all, I don’t know why so much of our society has decided that kindness is something worth belittling. That it’s a show of weakness and naivete–a giving of all in exchange for nothing. I’m not saying that kindness is the answer to every woe that exists in this world–a sort of a deus ex machina–but it does make for a more fulfilling day-to-day life. And that applies to blogging as well.

Jealousy is an easy thing to get caught up in as a blogger (as in every area of life)–especially when you see people getting all the physical ARCs and all the followers. And that’s perfectly normal! Jealousy is a common and valid emotion that you don’t need to be ashamed of. The problem arises when you deny it and/or when you let it mutate into resentment and bitterness.

So focus on yourself and focus on the qualities that make these other bloggers so great. Is that always easy? GOD, no. Sometimes your brain is like a dog that just flops down in the middle of the street and refuses to budge. So you gotta haul it up and painstakingly drag it along the direction that you want it to go–which in this case is the Road of Kindness and Generosity.


But pretty much everyone I’ve interacted with in the blogging world have been wonderful thus far, so you won’t have to reach far to find something nice to say about them. And whether they have 20 followers or 2000, a short comment of “Hey, I enjoy this thing that you’re making! Keep going, you beautiful butterfly, you!” can make all the difference in the world.

And in the words of Justin McElroy, “There’s no narrative to your life, no arc, no reward for achieving all the things you want. That kind of thinking is a recipe for a you-centric world view and is a very lonely road. Focus instead on the role you play in the stories of others…Putting others first with a cheerful heart isn’t easy, but because of that, even the smallest acts can leave an incalculable impact.”

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So to those who have ever read, commented, or skimmed my posts and went “Eh, I guess that wasn’t a half-bad read,” thank you for making this experience as incredible as it has been. Here’s to six months more. ❤️

I’ll nominate Vera from Unfiltered Tales, Maddie from Munch Reviews, Consu from Paper-Eyed Girl, Kaleena from Reader Voracious, Kristin from Kristin Kraves Books (None of you are obligated to do it!), and anyone else who feels like taking a shot at advice-giving!

Then and Now: “Strong Female Characters”

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This idea for a blog post came to me while I was half asleep in bed. It sounded genius then and didn’t seem all too bad in sober daylight, either.

Then and Now is going to be an infrequent series (read: I’ll write one whenever my lazy brain feels like it), and it’s basically going to be a way for me to recount my changing tastes when it comes to fiction. We all have characters that we loved when we were 14 but can’t stand as adults. This is a way to examine the why’s of that change–is it just a matter of growing older and having more experience, or is there something more? Every aspect of what makes a story a story–from settings and character traits to plot tropes–is fair game.

And because I don’t make anything easy for myself in life, I’m going to start off with a possibly controversial topic: “Strong Female Characters.”

When I was 13 and pint-sized, I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness books and Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, and my whole world shifted on its axis. The idea of plucky young girls wielding swords and walking around in male-dominated settings with casual confidence lit a fuse inside of me. I browsed the YA shelves from A to Z, desperately searching for books that offered similar characters. I would literally Google “YA fantasy with strong female protagonist” and devour all the recommendations.

Now, though? I grimace whenever a book touts “strong female characters” as its main selling point. It’s not that I have a problem with female characters being depicted as strong. It’s the way that the phrase is interpreted by writers and the media as a whole. The way it suggests that there’s only one way to be a strong woman–a genderbent version of a typical male hero. Physically strong or capable, talented, charming, and often snarky. And ultimately bland.

Partly, I think it’s a direct reaction to the way female characters were portrayed in media for so long–as love interests, as damsels in distress, as a long-legged maiden whose sole existence is to be a reward for the dashing male protagonist. But partly it’s also a slightly evolved variation of the male gaze. “Badass” women in skin-tight outfits, brandishing swords or guns. A titillation for men who want a little danger and oomf to go along with the long legs and cleavage. We see this countless times on the cover of paranormal books that star female protagonists. In 2012, SFF author Jim Hines sacrificed his poor body in order to reenact some of the more ridiculous poses women are seen doing in fantasy covers. The results were interesting to say the least (go check out the rest of his blog posts on women in covers here–they’re fun, insightful and brilliant).

Jim pose

We also see it in video games, with ones like Metal Gear Solid 5 touting out its female soldiers in a bikini and a pair of fashionably-ripped tights because, according to game developer Hideo Kojima, she breathes through her skin (yes, you read that right).

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I mean, just SAY that you want her to look sexy, dude.

And when it’s not a matter of the male gaze, it’s a case of many writers forgetting (or ignoring) that while strong and capable is all well and good, that can’t be all that a woman is–because a real woman has fears and weaknesses. It’s a case of swerving so far into the opposite direction of the damsel in distress, to “badass heroine,” and bypassing this massive, largely-unexplored territory in between the two extremes.

Finally, I think it’s also a mixture of all of these: men and women want to see physically strong female characters kicking down doors and wiping out enemies with casual flicks of their wrists. But maybe for different reasons–women love seeing physically strong women who can go toe-to-toe with their male co-casts; and men just enjoy asskickery in general (according to my friends, at least–male readers, feel free to weigh in).

So what led to this shift in perspective? One simple reason would be that I just gained more real-life experience. I met many different, incredible women during my undergrad years–many of whom were shy, soft-spoken, or non-athletic but I would still consider some of the strongest people I’ve encountered.

But it’s not until Vanessa Ives from Penny Dreadful came into the picture that I could pinpoint what was missing in these “strong female characters.” In my humble opinion, Vanessa is singularly the most complex female character to have walked on television and also happens to be my all-time favourite female protagonist in any media.

In the first episode, she’s the definition of what people would call “strong female character”– she’s confidence and cool and she strides through the world like she rules it.
But as the season goes on we see these layers stripped away. We see her oscillating from a terrified, guilt-ridden young woman to a goddess cloaked in sexuality and anger. We see her devotion to Catholicism war with her fascination and love with the occult. We see her hate herself even as she loves those who mirror her faults.

She’s frailty and strength both.

She’s a woman.

Period.

So I guess the bottom line is that I’m bored and tired of strong, 100% capable male characters and I’m equally bored of strong, 100% capable female characters. For me, “strong female characters” are ones who aren’t written with just a single label in mind–a damsel, a soldier, a princess, an assassin. The ones who are treated as normal people with human struggles and inner demons. You don’t need to wave around a sword, skulk around dark alleys brandishing knives, or make snarky quips to be strong. There are infinite shades of strength. And weaknesses are a part of it.

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Now I pass the mic over to you. I absolutely love discussing these kinds of things (you’ll have to bash me over the head to get me to stop once I start going), so feel free to add your own thoughts and point out things I may not have considered.

Or you can just yell at me. I’m open to that too.

 

Undertaking the Heroine’s Journey in Fantasy Books

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The Hero’s Journey. We all know it. We’ve seen it played out countless times–from the classic Greek myths to more modern stories like Star Wars, The Lord of the Ring, Eragon, and the game Journey.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell was the first to propose the archetype. Seeing a common pattern across various mythologies, he suggested the term “monomyth” and broke it down into 17 stages. The gist? Hero receives a quest (usually by some higher being) and leaves the comfort of his home to venture out into the wide world. The hero encounters a mentor and a ragtag band of companions on the way and, through a series of tests, becomes stronger. He succeeds in his goal and returns to the mundane world to share his wisdom and power.

Okay. Simple enough. But what about the Heroine’s Journey?

What about the experiences that pertain to women? Because while the hero’s journey can be undergone by anyone, it has a definite masculine taste and is most often associated with male characters. I mean, one of the stages is named “The Woman As Temptress.” (*raises eyebrow*)

Many people scoffed at the mere notion of a heroine’s journey. Campbell himself had reportedly said in an interview, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” (Which, if true, is enough to make you sprain your eyeballs from rolling them so hard).

Undeterred, women in the past couple of decades have come forward with their own model of the heroine’s journey. But my absolute favourite would have to be Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s interpretation, as outlined in her book, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.

The Heroine's Journey Chart

“The feminine journey is a journey in which the hero gathers the courage to face death and endure the transformation toward being reborn as a complete being in charge of her own life.”

The gist of Schmidt’s version is this: the protagonist starts out living in what they believe is a perfect life. Then something, or someone, shatters their bubble. They are yanked away from their former life–either literally or metaphorically–and they realize they must take some kind of action. Trials and tribulations follow and they fall into some dark times but crawl out of it in the end with the help of others. Fears and baddies are faced, the day is won, and the heroine returns home with a better understanding of themselves and the world.

The important difference between this and the hero’s journey is that the heroine, at some point in their journey, has to fall (Stage 6 – Death). A moment where everything goes to hell and the heroine is left dejected, defeated, and lost. Then, in stage 7 (Support), they realize that they can’t do this alone, that it’s okay to accept the help of others. This is a reaffirming of bonds between the heroine and their companion(s). And with it comes newfound strength and resolve to face their fears.

Another major difference is that the ultimate goal of a Heroine’s Journey isn’t external. It’s not the search of the holy grail or the defeating of a big bad evil. It’s a wholly personal one–an exploration of the inner self; the acceptance of one’s strengths; the proving of oneself to oneself. All that happens on the way, like facing a big bad evil, are just stepping stones.

It’s a story structure that I find myself loving more and more as I grow older. So today I showcase some fantasy stories that I think are great examples of this archetype (note: as with the hero’s journey, heroine’s journey can be undergone by anyone regardless of gender):

1. The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy by Robin Hobb

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The life of FitzChivalry Farseer as a whole can be seen as a heroine’s journey, but I think the structure is most easily evident in the final trilogy. In Fool’s Assassin, Fitz starts out with his loving wife and his adopted children in their beautiful country estate. But, as you learn learn throughout the course of the Realm of the Elderlings series, nothing is ever easy. Things–bad, terrible things–happen and Fitz must undertake his most harrowing journey yet. Fitz has never been able to easily accept love and help from those around him, and his struggles to find himself in a world that is so confusingly hostile has always been the main focus of the series for me. These struggles remain up until the very end of Assassin’s Fate, a point in which all truths are revealed and the circle is closed shut.

2. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the ForestMost of Juliet Marillier’s stories fit the bill, honestly, but Daughter of the Forest remains my favourite of hers. Sorcha is the only daughter in the Sevenwaters family. Though ignored by her father, she is wholly loved by her six brothers and her life at the Sevenwaters estate is more or less idyllic. Then a jealous stepmother steps into the picture and turns her brothers into swans. This curse will only be broken if Sorcha can make six shirts out of nettle plants and remain silent through the duration of the task. Thus begins her quest– an arduous one with many enemies and many friends.

It’s worth noting that while she finds love and support in Red, the British lord who finds her and takes her to Britain, at no point does he swoop in and carry her on his back. The journey is all Sorcha’s–all the pain and losses and tribulations. But while her inner strength is ultimately hers to uncover, it’s not done without the help of a warm hand holding onto hers.

3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted

Uprooted tells the tale of Agnieszka who is unwitting taken from the comfort of her small village to the home of the Dragon, a powerful wizard who keeps the valley safe from the dark forces of the Woods. In her journey, Agnieszka transforms from an awkward village girl who is ignorant of her magical gifts to a young woman with confidence in her abilities and the knowledge that compassion and understanding are some of the greatest weapons one can have in the face of hatred and anger.

4. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls
There’s no sweeping epic journey in A Monster Calls. At least, not of a physical kind–most of the story is set either in the protagonist’s house or his grandmother’s. But emotionally, it is a tale to rival any epic fantasy.

Connor is thirteen years old and dealing with the fact that his mother has terminal cancer and that a tree monster has taken to visiting him at night. The monster makes a deal: it will tell Connor three stories and at the end of the third, Connor will tell his own.

It’s a strange and sad story. And what I love most about it is that, at the end of it all, Connor’s main support comes from the unlikeliest of places.

Letting go can be a form of strength. And Connor’s journey is about realizing that.

 

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I’m always on the lookout for stories that follow this pattern–and there are a lot of them out there–so feel free to comment with your recommendations and suggestions for other books (of any genre) that you would include on this list.