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In Defense of First Person Present

First person present tense is a much maligned point of view. Generally, on twitter polls that ask, “what’s your favorite point of view to read?” poor first person present tends to score near the bottom. I will be the first to admit that, until about a year ago, I too was a hater. What changed my mind? I decided to write an entire manuscript in first person present.

To defend this social pariah of a point of view, we first must understand why it is so hated. First of all, first person present tense is found overwhelmingly in young adult novels, and in the eyes of some, that is enough to condemn it. After all, young adult novels are by and large read and enjoyed by women, and we all know that books and media primarily consumed by women are often looked down upon as being lesser than. Not only that, but first person present has what I tend to think of as a sort of breathless quality that lends itself to angsty reflections. Lots of cringey fanfic is written in first person present. In the hands of less competent writers, first person present can also degenerate into aimless recitation of day to day events. In a present tense narrative, many authors seem to forget how to jump forward in time, and mistakenly believe they must narrate every single action or thought the character has, no matter how mundane.

So, there are some pitfalls to writing first person present, and when I first began writing my current manuscript, I was aware of them. In fact, I wrote the first chapter and sent it to my critique partner (the other half of this blog, Bruce) and asked him “does this work, or should I switch to a more conventional point of view?” Only after reassurance that the point of view was not going to hold my project back, I went ahead and wrote about 150,000 words in first person present, the most I have ever written in this particular point of view. Am I entirely converted, only to write in first person present now and forevermore? No. In fact, my next project I plan will be written in a very conventional third person limited past. But would I tackle first person present again? Yes! There are some real advantages to this point of view, and I have come to believe that it is largely undeserving of the poor reception it receives.

The first thing I noticed about writing first person present is that the writing came quickly and naturally. Perhaps because the point of view and tense mirror our own natural thought processes, the words tend to flow easily for me, from my fingers to the page. First person in general, for many writers, tends to be an “easier” point of view to write than third person. Writing in first person is akin to journaling, except instead of writing about yourself, you put yourself in the shoes of your characters and imagine how they might narrate their lives, what thoughts and observations they might have about the events that take place. While third person sometimes can be a bit laborious to write, first person is quicker. Now, that doesn’t mean that all of those words are quality words, and you may need to do a bit more editing on subsequent drafts. However, if you are the sort of writer who struggles to get words on the page and has yet to complete a whole draft, you might consider trying first person (past or present) because you’ll likely find the words flowing with relatively less effort than other points of view.

First person present is probably the most immediate of all points of view and tenses, which means you can get very close to your characters, and experience events as they are experiencing them. How close or far the narration is from the events taking place is called “narrative distance.” Many readers tend to prefer points of view that are close to those that are distant. While third person can be written with a close narrative distance, most first person narratives are, by necessity, the most close and intimate of all (with some exceptions – in The Great Gatsby, for instance, the first person narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the story of the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, creating a first person narration with a degree of narrative distance). If your manuscript is more character driven than plot driven, if the main conflicts of your narrative tend to be emotional conflicts rather than external conflicts, then a first person present tense narrative will give you greater access to your narrator’s emotions and feelings, which can make for a more compelling story.

While both of the above points can apply broadly to first person narratives in general, there is one point that is unique to present tense: it much easier for me to write lyrically in present tense. While in third person past I often struggle with the feeling that my prose falls a bit flat, in first person present I feel free to be as lyrical as I imagine my characters to be. Remember how I mentioned that first person present can have a sort of breathless quality? I realized, after writing for nearly a year in first person, that this quality does not have to be a negative thing. First person present is great for creating a character voice that is at once earnest, emotional, and reflective, and, because of the way my character sees the world, her reflections are more poetic than they are practical.

First person present, perhaps more than some other points of view and tenses, requires a delicate hand. It is very easy for the writer to become grammatically confused and switch tenses within the narrative. I’ve read books, particularly self-published books, in which misuse of first person present made the author’s writing appear amateurish. However, if this problem can be avoided by hiring a good editor, and writers who have a strong natural sense of grammar usually won’t have any problems. Overall, first person present has acquired a poor reputation I think partly due to snobbery and partly due to the received wisdom of the masses. After all, when advice like “avoid first person present” gets repeated often enough it has a tendency to become gospel, much like “show don’t tell,” and “avoid passive tense” – advice meant for novice writers as guidelines, but which were never meant to be definitive rules. First person present can be a lovely way to write, and if you’re thinking of using it, give it a try before you rule it out. You just may find yourself pleasantly surprised with the result.

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The Bad Boy Corollary to the Hateful Bastard Doctrine

Note: This discussion focuses mainly upon the bad boy in cis-het romance. While the trope may exist in non cis-het relationships, I purposely left that dynamic out of this discussion.

We all know the trope. Our plucky female main character has a nemesis, and boy is he ever a piece of crap. He’s casually insulting. He’s condescending. He’s emotionally unavailable, and more likely than not, he’s done some Very Bad Things in life — he’s maybe an assassin, or a hardened soldier who has lost the ability to feel, or maybe he’s a thief or a crime lord, or maybe he’s a self-indulgent royal used to getting his own way. He’s got flaws galore – he’s mean, maybe he has a drinking problem, or he sleeps around, or he’s selfish and narcissistic. He definitely doesn’t trust easily, and, more likely than not, he’s got a few traumatic skeletons in his closet. But he’s hot. And so, in spite of herself, our main character just can’t stop thinking about him. Eventually, the two move from hate, to grudging tolerance, to grudging friendship, and then, finally, love.

If you’re a fan of this dynamic, my intention is not to shame you. Confession here: I am a huge fan of the “enemies-to-lovers” trope and I’m a sucker for the “bad-boy” type. I had my own bad boy phase, and there are reasons why twenty-three year old me found my bad boy so attractive. He tapped into all of my own more reckless impulses, for one, and it was just plain fun for young me to tag along with him on wild adventures. He also, in true bad boy form, carried a fantastic amount of personal baggage that unlocked a well of empathy inside of me. In fiction, often our main character is the only one who can see the true goodness of the bad boy, the proverbial “heart of gold,” and I believed this whole-heartedly of my own relationship. And while there is a lot of hand-wringing in modern fiction about the harm this trope does, and how it teaches young women to accept abuse in relationships, I, like many young women who perhaps made some unwise relationship choices in youth, ultimately married a man who bore no resemblance to the bad boys of my past.

I am not one to say that any variations on the bad boy theme – enemies to lovers, the jerk with the heart of gold, the lovable rogue, and all of the seemingly endless variants – needs to perish. I’m rather fond of the trope myself, and, done well, it can lead to some great writing. The bad boy trope gives us not only the potential for some great romantic tension, it also usually leads to character growth, since being a hateful bastard is, as mentioned before, is generally not sustainable in the long run for a main character. However, authors (particularly authors writing for a Young Adult audience) need to tread carefully when writing their bad boys. Not only do you want to avoid writing a character that is an empty cliché, you want to avoid writing the dreaded problematic romance. While your enemies to lovers bad boy romance will probably always have its detractors, there are a few things you can do to make the romance a bit more palatable to readers.

Avoid One-Sided Meanness

Being mean sort of comes with the bad-boy territory, so readers will forgive you if your character acts like an asshole. What is less forgivable is if your female character is routinely the object of scorn and derision, takes the bad-boy’s meanness to heart, fails to defend herself, and yet falls in love with him anyway. Although the series is often criticized for glorifying bullying, Holly Black’s Folk of the Air, whose first and second books, The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King avoid this pitfall. The main character, Jude, who is tormented by Prince Cardan, is nearly as bad as Cardan is and, while she is at a magical disadvantage to the Prince, she is, throughout the first two books, portrayed as his equal in wit, and is capable as giving as good as she gets. Even before she truly comes into power, she antagonizes her would-be bullies and does not back down from the challenge. As the series progresses, both characters are shown to have major issues to work through, and struggle with being vulnerable with each other. It is unclear whether, in the end (the series’ finale does not release until this November) Cardan and Jude will finally learn to trust each other, but what is clear is that their relationship is, for the most part, a relationship of equals. While Jude one-ups Cardan on occasion, and he one-ups her in return, they each have power over the other (their feelings for each other making each of them vulnerable). This is a tried and true formula though, extending far into the literary canon. Pride and Prejudice is great example of this dynamic. Darcy is our arrogant jerk with a heart of gold, but intelligent, witty Elizabeth tells him exactly where he can shove it

It isn’t fun to read a story in which one character is bullied into submission by another character. What can be fun to read is a character who thinks that they have found an easy target, or who thinks that they are certainly the smartest cleverest person around, being put in their place. When the character’s expectations are subverted, fun things happen. This doesn’t mean that your female lead needs to be your typical female badass stereotype either – softer characters are just as capable of standing up for themselves and raining on someone’s meanness parade as bad-asses. This is a profoundly satisfying take on the bad-boy trope because not only is it great to see an asshole get their comeuppance, but it shows that the budding couple are on even ground. It is easier, and more pleasant, to imagine a future in these sorts of relationships, than it is to imagine one in the types relationships which result  in one party being  browbeaten into submission.

Avoid Lack of Consent and Physical Abuse

While an anti-hero main character may be able to come back from almost any sort of moral misstep, your romantic leads are different. The audience’s sympathy, in most cases, inherently lies with the main character, and if your bad-boy romantic lead is abusive towards the main character, the audience will never forgive him. In fact, some writers, knowing how hard it is for a love interest to come back from abuse, have written a character as abusive in order to kill of one side of a love-triangle relationship so thoroughly that even the most die-hard shippers must give up hope for their favorite couple. In Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, in which love-interest Tamlin becomes an abusive boyfriend, who throws things at and physically threatens his fiancé Feyre, in order to make room for bad-boy Rhysand. The irony is, of course, Rhysand himself, however, is pretty problematic, although Maas tries her best to rehab him in the second book of the series, it is hard for an astute reader to forget that this guy once drugged Feyre and forced her to dance half-naked for a roomful of people, and not only that, he also physically tortured her while she was injured in order to get her to accept a bargain. The book has many fans, but as an adult woman I can’t make excuses for a guy who roofies the woman he claims is his soulmate.

Consider this: if your characters were alive in today’s world, would your bad boy be criminally liable for his actions against his so-called loved one? Is this behavior that could land him in jail? If so, you’re not writing about romance, you’re writing about abuse. Physical abuse and rape aren’t light topics, and they’re not things that are easy to get past. If your bad boy is physically mistreating his love interest before they’re ever even a couple, why would she develop feelings for this man, and if she did would those feelings be healthy? Also consider – someone who hurts others so casually, or who thinks nothing of engaging on non-consensual behavior, may not be capable of engaging in a healthy and loving relationship, at least not without a lot of therapy.

Avoid Gaslighting, Humiliation, and Intimidation

Aside from physical abuse, gaslighting is probably one of the cruelest things a person can do to another person. Gaslighting is when a person makes another person question their version of reality, to the point that the person ultimately questions their own sanity. While enemies to lovers often involves manipulation (perhaps our hateful bastard initially set out to seduce our main character for his own nefarious purposes, but eventually the ruse became real love, he confesses to his ruse/his lover finds out, drama ensues), manipulation that crosses the line into psychological torture isn’t a comfortable read, nor is it something that should be considered swoon worthy. Take Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush Hush, whose protagonist, Nora, falls in love with a fallen-angel named Patch. Born in the Twilight era, Hush Hush is very of its time, and feels reminiscent of Twilight in many ways, except, if possible, the angel Patch is worse than vampire Edward. Not only are there some iffy moments in Hush Hush in terms of sexual consent, in the very first book Patch makes Nora question her sanity. He routinely manipulates her with his angel powers, sends her visions and hallucinations, and Nora herself claims that she is terrified of Patch, at one point she is even terrified that he might rape her. Patch humiliates her, threatens to kill her, and belittles her – he isn’t just mean, he’s awful.

Think, if you will, about the future of such a relationship. A relationship with a foundation built on terror, threats, and manipulation probably does not have a very healthy future. The rules of romance tend to state that if not a happily ever after, then the characters need at least a happy for now (note – other endings are possible, but then, writer, you’re not strictly writing a romance, you’re writing a tragedy, a comedy, etc.). Imagine how your characters are meant to achieve their happy ending if the very relationship itself has been traumatic. Bad-boy love interests work better when they are written in such a way as to inspire empathy, rather than fear. The very appeal of the bad boy is often uncovering the heart of gold underneath, but if uncovering that heart of gold is simply too much work, and results in actual emotional trauma for the main character, the reader may find little worth in that relationship.

The enemies to lovers and bad boy tropes often skirt the line of acceptable behavior, but remember, by having your main character ultimately fall in love with and have a happy ending with the bad-boy, any behavior the bad-boy displays is tacitly condoned by the main character. Put yourself in her shoes – how much would you accept from a love interest? Roofying is probably out, right? Would you put up with a man who hits you? Who threatens to kill you? Imagine you have a daughter – how would you feel if she told you that she was terrified of her boyfriend? You would want her to leave, right? That’s not a healthy romance, and should be no-one’s end game.

If intend to outright write an abusive relationship you’re not writing a romance, but rather exploring the nature of relationships and the human condition — perhaps in a tragic way, but the distinction between the two should be crystal clear to the reader. The relationship might be romanticized by the participants, but not by the writer. The caveat being, if you want to write a toxic or unhealthy relationship, then you must signal to the reader that the relationship is toxic. Perhaps the characters know this, perhaps they don’t, but it should be completely clear to the reader that this behavior is not healthy. Otherwise, reader, indulge in those lovely bad boys all you like, you’re certainly not alone in enjoying the type or the tropes that come with it.

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Writing Hateful Bastards: How Far is Too Far?

Recently someone in a writing group asked a question that amounted to “if my character is sort of racist, and doesn’t really change her views by the end, will readers still enjoy the book?”

The general consensus answers seemed to be “I would read that, go for it!” and “we like complicated characters!” However, I had a rather a few more reservations. I thought on this, and thought on it some more. You see, reader, I keep hearing people say that they like dark characters because they’re more realistic, more interesting, more fun. Your character can be a cold blooded killer, they say, a rapist, a racist, an overall bad-dude, and we will read it because we like flaws. Does the character have to change, and realize the error of their ways? Nope, they say, because in real life people don’t change,  so do your worst!

And, after thinking and thinking, I decided I wasn’t sure if I really believed that this was the case. Because despite what people in the writing group said, most successful anti-heroes have one thing in common, and that is that they manage, on some level, to get me to care about them. Perhaps they don’t have some grand epiphany, during which they realize the error of their way and turn over that new leaf,  perhaps they aren’t full of remorse, but on some level, they do struggle. The nature of these struggles may change — some may struggle with their own actions, some may struggle with their own nature, some may struggle with their own desires. Things are never too easy for these characters, and they do not avoid consequences for their actions. A character who struggles, and who brings us along for the ride, may be allowed a great many more sins than a character who blithely hurts others with no self-awareness or consequences.

So, are there any lines a protagonist cannot cross? The short answer seems to be a resounding “no.” Readers seem to have an almost infinite reserve of forgiveness for the skillfully created character. The longer answer, however, is, it depends, and perhaps, certain lines should only be crossed carefully, and by writers who are certain they have the skill to pull it off without triggering any proverbial land-mines.

Murder, for instance, seems relatively easy to forgive, particularly if the murder is done in self-defense or self-preservation, or in the name of protecting the protagonist’s loved ones. We can even forgive those who kill innocents, if the killer is say, an assassin (all in a day’s work?) or a soldier. Sometimes we can even forgive serial killers – Dexter anyone? But even our most murder-y protagonists have one thing in common, and that is that they understand and ultimately accept the consequences of their choices. Perhaps sometimes their mental health deteriorates – Tony Soprano famously sought out therapy for his job related stress and depression, and clearly struggled with balancing his life in the Mafia with his role as a father and husband. Sometimes they struggle to find meaning in an uncaring world. Our quintessential anti-hero, Meursalt in Camus’s The Stranger, who murdered someone in cold blood for no real reason whatsoever, is someone who feels frustration with the meaninglessness of life, and despair that no matter what he does, or how he feels, the universe is ultimately indifferent. The murder he commits isn’t excusable, but his despair is relate-able. Perhaps what it comes down to is that killing, is a line that many people can, on some level, imagine themselves crossing given the circumstances. When characters offer up mitigating circumstances, or even feelings of turmoil, we are able to accept these in a way, and offer up our sympathy, even if we may still condemn the act.

There are other lines, however, that we have a harder time sympathizing with, particularly if we have a certain sort of faith in our own moral alignment. Rape, for instance, is hard to imagine as being motivated by anything other than pure selfish desire (in fact, literary theorist William Flesch suggests that our very interest in a narrative arises primarily from our desire to ascertain whether each character has inherently selfish or altruistic motives for their driving action). Unlike murder, rape is singularly unjustifiable, and it is nearly impossible to muster any sort of sympathy for a rapist, no matter how conflicted the rapist may be. And yet, Alex, the anti-hero protagonist of Burgess’ seminal novel, A Clockwork Orange, is a violent serial-rapist who knows, intellectually, that what he is doing is wrong, and yet does it anyway. While we do not forgive Alex, the way his “reform” is handled does make us pity him. Burgess’ first person narrative invites the reader into the world of a severely disturbed young man, a child really, carefully building trust between the narrator and the reader. This makes it hard for us to witness Alex’s torturous punishment, and on some level we may even find ourselves wishing he could somehow escape, even if it meant a return to his old ways. Reading A Clockwork Orange is an ultimate exercise in cognitive dissonance for any thoughtful reader – we know we should despise Alex, but somehow we don’t, not quite.

Violence against children is similarly hard to forgive – children, after all, are particularly vulnerable and our very nature tells us to protect them, not hurt them. There is something repulsive to the soul about people who hurt children, and it is no surprise that, when you read news stories involving deliberate (and sometimes even accidental) harm to children, the comments sections are often filled with people who firmly believe that the deepest pits of hell are still too good for someone who would hurt a child. Is harm to a child a line that cannot be crossed? Not every author seems to think so. George R.R. Martin famously had incestuous twin Jaime Lannister push a child out of a window, and then later went on to write for Jaime perhaps one of fantasy’s greatest redemption arcs, taking a universally loathed character and turning him into someone we actually sympathize with and even root for. Martin’s Jaime is revealed to be a broken man who has lost his faith in the institutions and people to whom he was previously devoted – including his sister-lover, the woman who inspired the act of attempted Child-murder. Once a idealistic and devoted young knight, Jaime was eventually universally reviled for what he considered his greatest act – murdering the abusive, murderous mad king. Later, Lannister’s devil-may-care attitude is revealed to be a façade hiding a much deeper sense of self-loathing. The further Jaime grows, the more he distances himself from his sister, the more his regrets for his past actions begin to surface, and Jaime himself begins to hope that he might regain his lost honor. It is hard not to sympathize with this character who actively wants to do better and who tries to distance himself from the people and mindsets that caused him to lose his altruism.

Indeed, perhaps in the hands of a skillful enough writer, there truly is no line that cannot be crossed. And indeed, one harsh reality many of us writers must face is that sometimes we aren’t quite ready, as writers, to tackle the book we want to write. When an amateur writer in writer’s group says that she’s writing an unrepentant racist, a child murderer, or a rapist, my first reaction is generally to cringe rather than say “go for it!” While it is not out of the realm of possibility that the writer may manipulate the reader’s emotions so skillfully that even the most hateful bastards will be redeemable, it is unlikely that an amateur writer will accomplish this feat. More likely than not the writer might succeed in creating a hateful bastard, but will fail in making this person sympathetic enough for the reader to actually give a damn whether said bastard succeeds or fails, lives or dies.

Sympathy isn’t about likability. Characters do not have to be likable, but in order for the reader to invest in the story, we do have to care about what happens to them. At the heart of every story is a character with a goal, and certain people or circumstances that get in the way of that goal. So, how are you, writer, going to make readers care about whether or not your hateful baster gets his way or not? Because if the readers do not care, they will not finish your book.  And while you do not have to create likable characters, you do have to create characters that are worthy of our care – in other words, sympathetic. What makes your characters worthy of our care? Do we see some small flicker of humanity deep in their broken and tortured souls? Do we simply pity them? Does their humorous and personable voice make them likable against all odds? When creating your unrepentant racist or your serial killer protagonist or your heartless assassin, these are the questions the writer must ask.

Further, you must ask yourself, with all the humility you can muster, is this the right story for me to write right now? It is perfectly alright to save your more ambitious stories for later in your writing experience, when your skills are more developed, and when you have a firmer grasp on how you might do these characters justice. Whatever you choose, know that there will be people who will find your characters actions to be beyond the pale no matter what, and that all of your hard work at redemption will, occasionally, all be for naught. But, then, as my co-blogger Bruce often remarks, no one ever said this writing stuff was supposed to be easy.

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Morally Grey, or Just an Asshole?

The appeal of morally grey anti-heroes is easy to understand – characters with flaws – real flaws, big flaws, flaws that sometimes cause them to do awful things – are realer than characters who always act morally all of the time. After all, most real people make mistakes, and sometimes we even make big ones. We might not, most of us anyhow, be as flawed as Tony Soprano, or Arya in A Song of Ice and Fire, but we struggle too. so naturally, we want to read about characters who also struggle, not perfect heroes to whom everything comes easily. Creating characters who sometimes cross the line into amorality, or even immorality, while also making sure those same characters elicit the reader’s sympathy is no easy task either, and astute readers know it, and will applaud the story that makes them feel for someone they should hate. However, characters who act without any regard whatsoever for others, or any sort of awareness of the consequences of their actions, are hard to get behind. As readers, we enjoy seeing characters struggle, but we do not enjoy seeing assholes get a free pass. Writing these types of characters takes a delicate hand, because it is easy to go too far in creating a character whose actions are simply unredeemable, or, alternately, to try too hard to find sympathetic motivations for character behavior. Below are a few common errors that writers make that make the motivations behind characters’ bad behavior feel instead more like excuses.

The Tragic Childhood

Creating sympathy in morally grey characters is not necessarily simply a matter of giving them a childhood trauma – an abusive mother, an absent father – particularly if the morally grey character mistreats those closest to them. While trauma is terrible, it does not excuse abusive behavior, not ever. We see this particularly often in the young adult market, in which a “bad-boy” love interest treats the object of his affection terribly and yet, when a tragic backstory is revealed, all is forgiven by the love interest, and the expectation is that the reader will forgive this character too. After all, haven’t they suffered? In reality, we don’t usually care why people treat us terribly, what we care about is whether they recognize their behavior as wrong and take steps to correct it. Knowing about the character’s tragic past is important because the character cannot heal if they don’t acknowledge the root of their actions, it is important for the reader because it adds depth to a character, just as any backstory does. However, other characters (and the readers) are under no obligation to forgive a character for poor behavior because of this tragic backstory. Beware of using a sad story to fish for sympathy when your character has not yet done any of the hard work towards redemption. Keep in mind too, plenty of people have tragic and traumatic childhoods and yet do not grow into abusive adults and teenagers, so a traumatic childhood alone isn’t going to get your character off the hook.

I Did it All for You!

We’ve all read this story: Our anti-hero, let’s call him Bob, has done some pretty bad things, despicable things even, but, as we learn more about Bob’s story, it turns out that the bad things he did were really done because he was trying to protect Kevin, the man he loves. Bob feels bad about said actions, but he really had no choice, see? He was only doing what he had to do. He may have taken agency away from Kevin, he may have killed innocents, he may have betrayed trust – but it was all done to protect Kevin, and what’s more, Kevin better appreciate it. Of all of the copout excuses for morally grey behavior, this one is probably my least favorite because it creates a great false dichotomy between choosing the moral path, and keeping others safe, which is rarely realistic. On top of that, it is incredibly manipulative – Kevin can’t really reject Bob now, can he, not after Bob has given up his very morality for Kevin’s sake? It paints sacrificing one’s morality as the ultimate act of love, which it isn’t. Ultimate acts of love treat our loved ones as equals and partners, and do not require us to make terrible decisions on their behalf. Furthermore, often, when we sacrifice our morality we are doing it for much more selfish reasons, so ask yourself some questions. Did your character really do it all for someone else, or did your character gain anything personally from their actions? Were there really no other options? If Bob  had discussed the situation Kevin beforehand, what would Kevin have said? If you can’t answer these questions, perhaps you need to rethink your character’s motivation.

Addiction

Don’t misunderstand — addiction can be compelling, and a great many books, shows, and films have tackled the subject and done it well. Addiction can, in itself, be a way to show your character’s struggles to do the right thing, and addiction can certainly make people act in amoral and immoral ways. Addiction is also hard to overcome, and can wreak havoc on a person’s life, and can be a source of great personal tragedy. What addiction is not, however, is an excuse to treat others poorly. If you want to write a character with addiction, and still maintain sympathy for this character, it is imperative that this character not get a free pass due to their struggles. This is mostly addressed through how other characters react to your character struggling with addiction, but it can also be addressed by the addicted character too. Does the character feel remorse when their actions harm others? Does the character want to change? Does the character try to change, but ultimately fails? A character with an addiction who has no interest in changing can make for a great tragic character, but that character is also going to cause a world of hurt for their loved ones, so how do the characters react to this? Does your addicted character care about the people they hurt? If they know their actions cause hurt to others and they simply don’t care and do it anyway, it will be very hard for your reader to muster any sympathy for them. Further, beware of perpetuating damaging ideas that the loved ones of a person suffering from addiction somehow are responsible for saving that person, or even that someone else can, in fact, save someone from addiction.

Mental Illness

Similar to addiction, mental illness is a realistic situation that can add nuance to characters. People with mental illnesses exist in the world, and they also deserve representation. However, even people with mental illnesses do not want to see those illnesses treated as catch-all excuses for hurting others. My husband, for example, struggles with depression. Sometimes his depression causes him to say hurtful things, but he has never asked me to accept him saying hurtful things to him just because he suffers from depression. When his depression has caused him to say hurtful things, he acknowledges it, and apologizes.  I may forgive him, but I don’t give him a free pass, instead, I ask him to work on himself and try harder next time not to be hurtful. Because there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding mental illness, it is a topic that needs to be handled particularly carefully, and should never be used simply as a plot device. And remember, mentally ill people can still be jerks. Have your other characters call them out on their jerkiness if they deserve it. Don’t send the message that just because someone is mentally ill that the people around them have to put up with all manner of abusive behavior.  Your other characters can be understanding, and they might even be more tolerant than they would be with a non-mentally ill person, but they should have their limits too. And if your character is just too involved and cannot see how the mentally ill character is crossing the line, introduce another character who can. And remember, you can also write mentally ill characters who are not abusive too. In fact, “madness” as a motivation for immoral acts is more than a bit overdone.

Revenge

While revenge is a valid motivation for a character, beware that readers generally have a limited tolerance for the extent to which they will accept revenge as an excuse for a character’s amoral or immoral behavior. Generally, watching a character wallow in misery due to some past wrong done to them is not particularly interesting unless the character is on a path towards acceptance, if not forgiveness. Revenge can work in the short term, but in the long term, a character that holds onto revenge, particularly if that revenge is directed anywhere other than at the people who directly caused your character harm, your reader is going to lose sympathy. Personally, next to “I did it all for you,” revenge is one of my least favorite character motivators simply because it is so unsustainable. How long can you hold a grudge? Let’s say you can hold a grudge pretty long — can you hold it for years? Decades? And how many of us go from relatively well-adjusted people to single-minded revenge driven killers just because of one tragedy? Lots of people experience loss without turning to revenge, so what is it about your character that makes him choose this particular path? Personally, I like to think about the afterwards. Let’s say your character gets revenge, what next? Do they live life on the straight and narrow? Do they feel guilty because they’ve perpetuated a vicious cycle? These are the more interesting questions to ask of a revenge-motivated character. But keep in mind — revenge generally isn’t a good look for anyone. While we might feel sad for a character whose husband and child were slaughtered, that sympathy is going to be fairly limited if your character never shows any growth.

A final word of advice: don’t be afraid to write a character that is simply a human being struggling to always do the right thing.  We don’t always need a fancy backstory or a convoluted reason for the character’s actions. Even people with relatively “normal” childhoods, or pasts without any obvious traumas can still make mistakes and act in amoral or even immoral ways. While you can explain actions in a number of ways, sympathy comes, above all else, from making sure your characters themselves understand the nature of their actions. Make sure your characters recognize their own faults, and struggle with them, struggle to make the right choices, or struggle to somehow right past wrongs. Characters who don’t recognize their own faults aren’t morally grey, they’re just assholes, no matter how many excuses they make.

 

Next week I will discuss how far a character can go before they lose all reader support. Are there any lines a character simply cannot cross if the author wants that character to remain sympathetic?

Uncategorized

Diaspora, Appropriation, and Authenticity

Recently Disney released a preview for the new live action Mulan movie. Mulan is, of course, based upon the Ballad of Hua Mulan, a Chinese legend, the first written account of which dates back to roughly the 5th – 6th century. Hua Mulan, a girl who shows filial piety by taking her ailing father’s place and fighting as a soldier, is a beloved folk hero, is well-known to Chinese all over the world. When Disney created the animated film in 1998 it was perhaps the first time a Chinese folk story became well known to audiences worldwide.

Astute viewers of the live-action preview noticed something interesting about the setting – amidst the sweeping landscapes, a Hakka (ke-jia in Mandarin) tulou, or roundhouse, is visible. On Twitter, some grumbled about authenticity, as Mulan’s story certainly did not originate in Fujian, or anywhere in south China. In fact, if Disney intended to make an entirely authentic Mulan, then Mulan herself woul td likely not even be Han Chinese, but rather Xianbei, a semi-nomadic group that ruled northern China during the time the ballad was written. In the ballad, Mulan herself uses the term ke-han, which means “khan,” when she refers to the emperor. This corresponds with how the Xianbei emperors styled themselves. It is even possible that Mulan was not Chinese at all, but a story borrowed from some Central Asian group, the original long since lost to time. 

Nevertheless, ask anyone in China, and depending on their level of education and interest in history, you might hear that Hua Mulan was certainly Han Chinese. Some will tell you she was likely a northern nomad of some sort (I posed this question to my own husband, and to his credit, he knew she was likely not Han). One thing they will all agree upon is that, regardless of where the story originated, Mulan is a Chinese story. Her story has been told in Han households, in ethnic Hmong households, in Vietnamese-Chinese households, in Chinese-American households, and yes, in Hakka households.

Chinese culture is a culture of diaspora, in fact, one of the most widespread diasporas in all of history. Chinese people live in nearly every corner of the earth, and, as communities, they tend to retain at least some of their home culture, bringing it with them no matter where they go. Diaspora makes the ideas of authenticity, of ownership of culture, and ultimately, cultural appropriation, tricky things indeed. Which culture lays claim to the Ballad of Hua Mulan? Which telling, as the story was told and retold, over years, over centuries, over millennia, is the true telling, when even the earliest written record of the ballad is certainly not the original – that was most likely lost to time, as so many stories in our ancient oral traditions were? If a Hakka child who grew up hearing the story of Hua Mulan, envisioning Hua Mulan in her own image, feels represented by a Mulan living in a tulou, is that wrong? In chasing authenticity, eager to assign ownership to culture, myths, legends and stories, do we exclude those cultures of diaspora, of mixing and blending?

Chinese culture is not, despite misconceptions to the contrary, a mono-culture. Nor was it, historically, particularly secluded until late imperial times. Chinese culture was expansive, a culture of conquest, a culture of trade, a culture of exchange. Even today, in modern China, there are Russians who live in China, not as immigrants, but as native-born Chinese. They speak fluent Chinese, their children attend Chinese schools, and they often have never stepped foot into Russia’s borders. China recognizes “Russian” as one of its fifty-six ethnic minorities. So then, are the Russian folk stories these Russian-Chinese tell, not also Chinese stories? If not, why not? How do we define the ownership of stories when the very essence of culture itself, and some cultures much moreso than others, is an ill-defined thing, something shifting and changing  throughout history as people move about the world and come into contact with one another.

I admit to having a personal stake in this question. As many of my readers know, I spent sixteen years living in China during my early adulthood and middle age. I left the United States when George W. Bush was still president, and returned during the Trump administration. I missed out on the Obama years entirely, and when I left the United States to live in China, Twitter had not even been invented yet, nor had Smartphones, or Netflix. Amazon was strictly for buying books, and books were never digital. That is to say, in many ways, I came of age in China, and by the time I returned to the USA I no longer knew how to be a proper American. Although I can never call myself Chinese, in many ways, Chinese culture is also my culture, as much as my students who immigrated to the United States as college students can call American culture theirs (and of course they can). I married in China and performed ke-tou to our ancestors and toasted every relative in the village and endured raunchy nao dong fang customs. My children were born in China, and I followed Chinese birth taboos when they were born. I know that you never eat ice-cream when you’re on your period, you always wear house-slippers inside, and you don’t write people’s names using red-ink. These aren’t simply cultural tidbits that I’ve learned through research, I live these things. After sixteen years, these customs, this culture, became my culture.

Back in China, when my friends would complain about foreigners, they’d say to me, “not you, of course, you don’t count. You’re one of us.” They were happy to grant me insider status, something not easily granted, but which, once earned, is something your friends will constantly boast about on your behalf: “This is Jessica, and don’t mind her white appearance, she’s Chinese in her bones,” they would say. Of course, I would laugh this off – I’d never actually claim to be Chinese, even if citizenship were possible (and for all intents and purposes, it isn’t), but the intent was acknowledgement of my experience. And even so, my experience as a migrant living in China was not that of a Chinese person born in China. It was nearer to that experience than that of someone who has never set foot in China at all, but the subculture I occupied in China was indeed distinct.

Of course, I’ll never know the experience of a Chinese person in the United States. I cannot. I can watch as my children undergo those experiences, and as my husband does, for those experiences are based as much on race as upon culture, but I am an observer, not a participant. No one in America sees that side of me that came of age in China. They cannot. To them, someone who looks like me could not possibly belong to that culture. In my own writing, could not presume to write about the Chinese-American experience, for that experience is not my own. But in my writing, I do write about China, because China is my experience. If I write about a historical China, I am drawing upon a history that was, for the majority of my adult life, the most important history in my world. I looked at maps that put Asia front and center and read books that contained a sentence or two about the American revolution but chapters and chapters on the Tang and Song dynasties. If we are to write what we know, then China is what I know. It is quite nearly the entirety of what I know.

Cultural identity is not something fixed in time and place, belonging only to one set of people always and forevermore. This is hard for many Americans, who are, after-all, a relatively static people, not much prone to venturing outside of their own borders, to quite grasp. They tend to apply strict boundaries to cultures, whether it is “America, love it or leave it” rhetoric demanding strict loyalty to a jingoistic idea of American identity, or liberal ideology demanding cultural authenticity while failing to recognize that authenticity is a meaningless concept (the starry-eyed backpackers who would travel to China and be disappointed to see Starbucks. “Where’s the real China?” they would ask, as if the China they were seeing was somehow a pale imitation, fake, canned China, inauthentic.). Those whose families have ventured out in search of new homelands, whose people have been conquered, whose cultures have scattered, or who, like me, have scattered themselves outside of their homelands, know that culture grows in the heart. It is experienced firsthand, not dictated by blood. A Hakka child can claim Mulan as her own hero, and a Chinese-American child can claim Martin Luther King Jr. hers and I can claim Wu Zetian as mine. That is the beauty of cultural diaspora.

 

Characters, Diversity, General Writing, Worldbuilding

Virtue Signalling versus Writing with Virtue

I strive to be a sensitive writer. Like most writers, I stress about whether my stories do justice to the people and places they portray. I want the people who read my stories to read then and take away something positive, and I hate the idea that my stories may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or depictions of marginalized communities, or perpetuate negative tropes that we as readers and consumers of media have become more and more aware of over the past twenty or so years. Sometimes, as a white cis woman, I find myself wanting my own writing to scream on my behalf, at the top of its lungs: I am one of the good ones!

But when writing does this, at the expense of organic story development, it is, at best, empty virtue signaling, a sign that the writer cares more about appearing to be the right kind of storyteller than in telling a cohesive story, and at worse offensive in its own right, a tone-deaf declaration of the writer’s supposed proper attitudes rather than a demonstration of true ally-ship. How can a writer weave ideology into the story seamlessly without having ideology taking over the narrative or worse, giving the impression that the writer cares more about being perceived as the write kind of writer than they do about writing the right kind of story? Here are three points to consider:

Character’s attitudes should be based upon their backgrounds and experience. Whether your characters are closed minded bigots or open and accepting, their attitudes can’t appear out of nowhere just to have an excuse for the writer to show off their own political or social attitudes. In my current work in progress, I have a lesbian character living in a society that is relatively homophobic. She is the main character’s best friend, and the main character knows about her sexuality and is very accepting. So how would a character who grew up in a homophobic society, with traditional parents reinforcing that society’s traditional values, end up being accepting of her friend’s sexuality? Personal experience. My main character was once forced into a marriage that she didn’t want, and it had disastrous results for her personally. Since then, she has always hated the idea of anyone not having the right to choose who they love. Gradually, from her own experience, her attitudes became more accepting.

Character attitudes come from their background, which is different from your background as an author. If you want your character to embody certain progressive ideals, then make sure they have personal history that supports this. This is less important in modern contemporary fiction, because our own world is full of diverse beliefs and attitudes, any of which could influence our characters, but it is very important to consider in fantasy, particularly medieval or pre-industrial fantasy. If your world is a typical medieval world but your main character embodies modern progressive ideals with no backstory to back these up, you run the risk of creating an empty vessel for your beliefs and not a fully developed character.

Worldbuilding needs to be internally consistent with its history and culture. In our world the dominance of heteronormative marriage practices, including patrilineal hereditary monarchy, arranged marriage, arose out of patriarchal views that saw women as property. Although eventually most human cultures mostly moved past the point where women were literally bought and sold, this was the starting point for many human cultures. If you want to create a quasi-medieval culture where, for instance, people can marry whomever they want, then you need to create a world that supports that right down to its very foundations, not a patriarchal Medieval Europe with magic.

I found a great example in the recent YA book Lady Smoke, by Laura Sebastian. In a part of the book where Sebastian is introducing royalty from several neighboring kingdoms as potential suitors and suitresses for the main character, she included a culture in which “marriage wasn’t limited to being between men and women.” One character explains to the main character that this kingdom isn’t a matriarchy OR a patriarchy. Heirs are chosen and adopted by the current ruler as children. Since producing children wasn’t the goal of marriage, and rule wasn’t decided through the male line, who married who became irrelevant. And this wasn’t the product of pages and pages of explanation or worldbuilding, it was a couple of lines of dialogue, but it added a hint of realism, showing a world that was both progressive but logically consistent. In fantasy circles you’ll often hear the refrain repeated, “it’s fantasy, write whatever you want? Why recreate the prejudices of our world in your fantasy world?” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment! However, too many writers take the easy way out with worldbuilding, creating social  The cultural norms of our own world did not appear at random, but rather grew out of historical and social factors, so make sure that whatever norms exist in your world are logically consistent.

Characters must interact with their world in realistic ways. Let’s say you create a world in which arranged marriage is the norm – common in many quasi-medieval fantasy worlds. If your characters resist arranged marriages and choose to marry for love or other reasons, what are the consequences? If they avoid consequences entirely, your reader will have a hard time suspending disbelief. Let’s say your world has slavery, but your main character is completely opposed to slavery and wants to dismantle the system and free all the slaves. How will the world react to this? George R.R. Martin actually handles this quite skillfully when Daenerys frees the slaves of Essos she has a very hard time handling the former slave owners, and as soon as she leaves, they’re pretty much right back to their old ways. It is great to have a character that fights for the rights of others, but those fights are rarely easily won. Just look at our own society – still feeling the effects of slavery over 150 years after slavery ended. Don’t make things too easy on your characters in order to showcase your own personal feelings about the issues. As Chairman Mao once said, “revolution is not a dinner party.” Your characters can change their world, or change their own place within the world, but the change should have lasting and serious repercussions.

Ultimately, stories can be a great way to showcase our own ideals and attitudes. The best stories are often indeed the stories that have a political or social message, and sometimes those messages are overt, not subtle. The artist can also be an activist, but the artist must never forget her duty is not just to the message, but to the art as well.  Orwell’s classic 1984 is not just an ant-fascist screed, but a good, compelling story. More recently, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give spotlights police brutality, but at its core is the of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. Just as our beliefs do not exist for the sake of performing them for others, our works should be more than displays of our own virtue, signals that we stand on the “correct” side of the political and social divides that characterize modern life. Ultimately, our stories have to be able to stand on their own as stories and not rely on the virtue of the message to prop them up and avoid criticism. Weave your message into your story in a natural and skillful way and no one will know where the story ends and the message begins — one will be entirely indistinguishable from the other.

 

Critiquing, General Writing

Working with What Is on the Page (and not with what isn’t)

“Test readers, however useful in some areas (spelling! grammar! continuity! O please yes!) can become a hazard when they begin, on the basis of incomplete information, trying in all good faith to help you to write some other book than the one you intend.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold

This quote applies equally for test readers, beta readers, alpha readers, and critique partners. When I teach creative writing, one lesson I give my students is how to be an effective critique partner. One of the lessons is “evaluate the story on its own terms.” That is, don’t critique the writer for not writing the story you wish he or she were writing, but accept the premise of the story, the internal logic of the story, and evaluate it based upon the values, the world and the rules the author has laid out. If you don’t like those fundamental things, you shouldn’t be working with that book or author, because you’re never going to give the author the sort of advice they need.

I would never agree to critique, for example, a military thriller and then tell the author that they should write it more like The Things They Carried. Just because I prefer lyrical literary anti-war war stories to action packed bro-drama doesn’t mean that the writer must write the former, but it does mean that if I can’t be objective about my preferences, maybe I shouldn’t critique the latter. I wouldn’t read a story written from soft-spoken character X’s point of view and suggest that cynical and sarcastic character Y is actually a better main character because I personally prefer cynical sarcastic main characters (I might, however, suggest how to make soft spoken character X a more compelling character, if that was a trouble spot). I wouldn’t tell someone who has a very direct and two the point style that I wish they would write in a more poetic way.

Agreeing to critique someone’s work, particularly in a long-term mutual partnership, should be based upon respect for that person as a writer, and an assumption that they have made their basic story and style choices for a reason. Unless they’ve specifically asked for a certain kind of critique, you must respect that their choices might not be your own choices but that their storytelling and their writing style is their own, and these choices are theirs to make. You can tell someone what is and what isn’t working, and suggest how it might work better within the set parameters of the story, but you shouldn’t bring your own assumptions to the table and suggest an entirely different story from the one the author is trying to tell.

This happens a lot more often than you might think. A well-meaning critique partner says “well, I liked the story, but it would be better with a romance.” If a publisher is saying, this book won’t sell without romance, that’s one thing, but as a critique partner you can assume that the author knows that romance is an option, and has chosen not to include a romance for their own reasons.  Perhaps a lack of romance will sink the project in the end, and that would be a pity, but it doesn’t change the fact that if the author had wanted there to be a romance, there would have been a romance?

So how do you know, which aspects of the story are part of the story’s own terms? Think about the terms of the story as the blueprints for a house. An architect has designed a house, and while the house is being built, you might make some minor tweaks here and there, you might even change some of the materials used to build the house. You can change the decorations of the house, change all of the fixtures, the trim, the color – but you cannot change the basic structure of the house without compromising the whole thing. So it goes with a story. A writer builds a story with a world, characters, a POV, a basic premise, and a rough plot. Details might need to be tweaked along the way, but just as we wouldn’t ask an architect to change an adobe house into a log cabin, we shouldn’t tell a writer his story would be better if it had Vampires and Werewolves. If the author wanted Vampires and Werewolves, they would be there already.

But what if the basic building blocks of the story really are posing a problem? You help the character solve the problem while remaining within the parameters of the story. Once you’ve ruled out the problem is your own personal and subjective preference (if I simply prefer books with a romantic subplot, that’s my problem, not the author’s), ask yourself, what is really the problem here? If I am suggesting sarcastic character Y makes a better main character than character X, what I’m really saying is that character X is weak, and his character needs to come across better on the page. If I think a book would be better with vampires and werewolves, what do I really want to say about this book? Certainly you’ve enjoyed books without vampires and werewolves in the past, so the lack of vampires and werewolves can’t really be the problem. Perhaps the world-building is flat? Perhaps the plot lacks sufficient stakes (pun intended)? Whatever the case may be, help the author solve that problem within the terms of the story. It can almost certainly be done.

And of course, sometimes the author is specifically asking for a certain type of feedback (“tell me if you think this would work better in first person POV instead of third?” or “I am feeling Y more than X these days, tell me if you think Y should be the main character?”), in which case none of the above is applicable. But here’s the thing? If you’re being asked for that sort of a critique, you’ll know it.