On Specificity

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I was thinking today about a problem I have sometimes. It’s come up in pretty much everything I’ve ever written, throwing wrenches around when I’m least expecting it: I’ve got this interesting scene going on, with characters I’m interested in and a plot that’s going somewhere nifty, and all of a sudden I look at what I’ve been producing and realize that it’s terrible.

Which, all right, there are a lot of things that can result in bad writing. Most of the time, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m tired, or I haven’t planned things out very well, but a lot of the time I think it has something to do with specificity. The thing is, it’s fairly easy to come up with an interesting protagonist, home base, sidekick, fortress of solitude, whatever. The A plot and the B plot are usually fine too – that’s why I’m writing the novel.

But I find that no matter what story I’m telling, I ultimately end up at a point where I have to have characters going somewhere I wasn’t explicitly expecting, moving around in a large social setting, referencing past events, and all of a sudden, things start getting generic. A tavern with a bartender and wenches and ale, a manor with fastidious servants, uptight noblewomen who’d rather die than step in mud – or if you’re not in fantasy, maybe a girlfriend who assumes her guy’s cheating on her every time he looks at another woman. Whatever, it’s all the same thing, the kind of character tropes that show up everywhere, the kind of backdrops that get rolled in and out any time someone gets lazy. All of a sudden I’ve got my characters hanging out at Ye Olde Random Bar, talking with That Old Man With The Sword and the Wench With The Sad Brown Eyes, and there’s a reason I didn’t design those two in the first place. And then “the two of them bond” turns into “the two of them have the same conversation everyone has”, and again, there’s a reason I didn’t set out to write that when I was planning it at the beginning.

I think part of getting over that is just getting better at writing … but I’ve also developed a new rule to work with. Every time I’m setting out a scene, I’m now trying to explicitly say what makes my version of it different than the versions I’ve seen before. What about this bar’s design makes it My Bar as opposed to Anybody’s Bar? What makes this person distinct? What does that street smell like? The books that make the biggest impression on me – I’m thinking right now of Mistborn and The Lies of Locke Lamora – are the ones that take me somewhere I hadn’t been before. They’re the books that hand-paint each detail, the ones that put something surprising around every corner, even the corners that aren’t plot points.

If I’m going to make an evil empire, I’d probably better not give it a name that has lots of Vs and Ks and Js in it, because those are the letters everyone seems to throw around when they’re trying to make something kind of evil sounding, and I don’t want to get lost in the crowd. Meetings should maybe start happening in factories or warehouses or quays, instead of in the same five taverns. Not every town needs to have a square with four folksy buildings and a fountain. There’re probably a dozen more things I should start paying attention to, that I won’t notice until I realize I’ve gotten it wrong. In the meanwhile, I’ve got some noblemen to redesign.

Limbo time

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Second drafts are hard.

Well, back that up.

Getting to second drafts is hard.

I’m not sure if the stage I’m looking at now is the second draft, or maybe the first draft – I’ve heard a couple of writers refer to their utterly horrible first bits of writing as “zero drafts”, and that actually seems pretty fitting. I’ve got however many tens of thousands of words written about this place and these people and their plot, and absolutely none of it is useable – I mean, literally, none. I have a couple of scenes whose ideas might be reworkable, but I went into this idea half-cocked (NaNo may be great for putting words on pages, but it’s not particularly conducive to making sure you think everything through) and it turns out that my grand plan of “throw a couple of characters into a situation and see if they sink or swim” resulted in a lot of drowned characters.

Which is fine, I think.

There are probably as many ways to write a novel as there are aspiring novelists, maybe more – Neil Gaiman offered a lovely insight in the introduction of American Gods, in which he learned that rather than having figured out how to write a novel, he’d really only figured out how to write that novel. I’ve started a fair number of stories so far, some of which made it to the end of a draft, some of which never actually got words on pages, and I can safely say that I don’t yet know what’s the right way for me to go about it. In this case, I went with “take an idea, try to write it, discover in the writing of it that you were woefully underprepared, try to fix it before you write the next draft.”

Which is where I am now, where I’ve been for the last six months.

And it turns out that for me, this is a really scary place to be.

First drafts – zero drafts, what have you – are kind of like skiing for me. I’ve got this idea out in front of me, all pristine white snow and pretty little evergreens and a lake at the bottom, and I get to push off and all of a sudden there’s wind and excitement and no limits! Mistakes don’t matter: that’s what editing is for! Don’t know what to do? Hit someone in the head with a shovel! Kill someone! That doesn’t make sense with the original plotline? Whatever. Say it with me: that’s what editing is for.

Except that somewhere down the slope I start realizing that this isn’t so much a black diamond as an uncharted pocket of Mt Everest, and actually, I was never all that good at skiing anyway, and it turns out that that terrifying pixel yeti from that ski game back when I was a kid is looming over my shoulder and it doesn’t want to go away until editing. So I keep frantically writing, tying up threads everywhere I can, padding things out where they feel skimpy, until I finally make it gasping and half-dead in a heap against the tree at the bottom.

Stand up, dust off hands, go into the chalet for a nice hot chocolate, and get ready for that carrot I’ve been hanging in front of my nose for that entire terrifying glorious ride: editing.

The problem with editing is that there doesn’t seem to be one right way to do it, especially not for an aspiring first-timer. There’s probably a good reason for this – professional writers have agents and editors and publishers and people with jobs I’ve never even heard of, all working together to turn an idea into a printed volume, so the author isn’t working alone for the entire thing. Maybe most professionals have people they can turn to when they need to iron out kinks … maybe they don’t? The only way I’ll know is by getting there myself, and each experience is surely going to vary, and anyway, that’s not the point for me right now.

Right now, what matters is that while I can look to my role models to see how many hours a day they spend writing, or how many words they write per day, but I haven’t seen anything about what they do when they look at their first drafts and find something they’d be embarrassed to feed their dogs. As far as editing goes, as far as hail mary’s are concerned, I’ve been on my own.

I’ve done pretty well, I think – though I won’t really be able to tell until I start writing again and see what the slope looks like this time around. I’ve found plot holes and filled them, rounded out characters, fleshed out world elements and, above everything else, doubted.

It turns out that it’s a lot harder to feel like an author when you’re not writing. My family is incredibly supportive of my literary aspirations, but my mother hasn’t appeared to know what to do with a daughter who’s spent the last six months thinking furiously. My birthday wishes this year came with hopes for a lovely year – and a book, hint hint, and I can’t blame her, because I feel the same way. The urge to open up a new document and start writing has been almost more than I could handle, even though I’ve known that the story wasn’t ready. Every time someone’s asked me how the writing’s going, I’ve shrunk a little bit deeper into myself.

“I have no idea how the writing’s going, I’m not doing it anymore.”

Where I used to spend X hours a day writing Y words minimum, I’ve been spending the last six months staring fruitlessly at my computer screen trying to figure out someone’s motivation, or something’s power structure, only to have the latest piece fall into place while I’m in the shower, or in line at the grocery store, or trying to fall asleep. I get to my computer as soon as I can, write it down, look at the new plan, and stare at a wall some more.

I feel like I’ve done good work. I also feel like I haven’t been doing anything at all. The longer it went on, the more I’ve felt like I’m doing something wrong. Writers write, according to the inspirational background image I found however many years ago. If I’m not writing, am I not a writer? If the story I wanted to tell was a good one, was worth sharing, would I really have had to spend six months pounding it out of the horrible wreck I first wrote? My ideas are derivative. Nobody’s going to want to read a story I can’t even manage to think out properly.

I’m writing this down in part so that I have something I can look at when I next find myself here – because I’m pretty sure that this will happen again, though hopefully not quite the same way. I couldn’t find a rule book for this part of the process, so I’m setting my own mistakes and fears out so that next time, maybe I won’t feel quite so alone.

I think it’s normal to be scared – and I think that really, that’s what all of those doubts and voices really are. A bit of doubt is an important part of not being an arrogant ass, but doubt is also what fear looks like when it wants to be taken more seriously. Writing easy. It comes with an immediate payoff, a sense of gratification in the form of word counts that a planning phase simply can’t offer. But just writing isn’t enough, at least not for me.

The last six months have given me what I needed to turn something I could barely stand to look at into something I’m proud of again. When I turn the story over in my head, it holds up. I know there will be flaws, some of which I”ll catch in editing, some of which will probably make it through.

The point, though, at least for me, is that it was time well spent. The fear wasn’t a great use of my time, but the thinking and the planning and the questioning and the challenging were all important, because today I’m doing a runthrough of the outline with one of my first readers, and if that goes well, tomorrow I should be able to start writing.

Hopefully, the result of the next pass won’t tangle me up for as long as the first one did. With any luck, a lot of hard work, and a fair amount of skill, I’ll have something by the end of this that I’ll be able to share with people, that will help me get where I want to go.

Or maybe it won’t and I’ll have to do this a bunch more times before I get anywhere, and I’ll have a whole new set of theories and philosophies to spout by then.

Either way, I’m learning.

NaNoWriMo 2014 pt 1 – New Year, New Novel

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Well, it’s the end of October, and since I loathe Hallowe’en with an unholy passion that means that while everyone else gets to worry about costumes and parties and social lives, I’m plotting a new novel!

hammersboon

As always, I seem to be approaching it this year in a completely new way. The first time, I wrote randomly without a plan; then, I made a meticulously detailed plan that fell apart almost instantly. Last year, I gave myself a month to come up with as much detial as I could, treating it as seriously as I did my non-NaNo novels, which was an absolute disaster.

This year, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to do a NaNo novel at all, or if I was going to just rebel and just count 50,000 words towards my current project. And then one day I was watching a movie with a plot I’d seen before – businessman finds himself re-evaluating his life and his priorities after meeting the right sort of free-spirited dreamgirl – and I wondered how it would fit with my style of storytelling, if I could work it into a fantasy story at all.

About a week later, I had the urge out of nowhere to try and tell the story of an evil tyrannical fantasy regime, where the point of the story was something other than the heroes’ attempt to overthrow the villain. I understand, obviously, why so many stories with dynamic horrific villains make those villains the point of the tale, and just because you can write something doesn’t mean you should … but I don’t care, it sounded like fun.

I held the two ideas in parallel for about a week, and then all of a sudden things clicked together, and now apparently I’m writing the story of Minion Number 5, Assistant Chief of Personnel Distribution for the Divine Forces of the Lord of Dusk and Dawn. For the first and probably only time, I’m going to be introducing fantasy races into the story, and I’m going to bring in a merry band of heroes. None of it’s my style – I hate elves and dwarves, and the fighter-rogue-wizard setup is boring, and I’ve never found myself compelled to write the life story of an upper-middle class man struggling with upper-middle class angst.

But one of the things I’ve come to realize is that every story is worth telling – it’s just a question of telling it the right way. Anything can be interesting, and everyone has something worthwhile about them. If the story seems uninspired, it’s probably a good sign that I’m not looking at it the right way.

And all of a sudden I’m super psyched! I love my main character, a half-dwarf trying to pass as human, desperate to distance himself from the marginalized life of his father. The free-spirited elven tavernkeeper has a past, and if I write her right, she’ll have a purpose in the story beyond helping the main character find his true destiny. I want the leader of the band of heroes to be a boring jerk, which probably means I’ve got some work to do on his characterization – but I’ve got a week to make that happen.

I have absolutely no idea what’s going to come of this! It might turn out as bizarrely as last year’s, or maybe I’ll do it right this time and end up with a full novella when this is done. Probably somewhere in the middle, but what I do know is that I’m really excited!

What about everyone else? Is anyone else doing NaNo this year? Have you got your stories figured out? Anyone who wants to is welcome to add me – http://nanowrimo.org/participants/persekore

Good luck!

Thursday Quotables – A Memory of Light by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan

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I’ve been waiting for this to come up ever since I first discovered Thursday Quotables, hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies! The name of the game is to highlight an awesome quote or passage you’ve found in the last week, and this is kind of cheating, because I actually found the quote the first time I read the Wheel of Time series. But I didn’t know about the meme back then, and I’ve come back around to it now, so it’ll just have to do!

This one really speaks to me as a writer. Words are powerful, and they’re so easy to take for granted.

A Memory of Light

‘Exquisite’, Thom thought. That is the word. Unexpected, but true. Majestically exquisite. No. Not ‘majestically’. Let the word stand on its own. If it is the right word, it will work without help. If it’s the wrong word, adding other words to it will just make it seem desperate.

Gamergate, Women, and Unpopular Opinions

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It should surprise very few people who know me to hear that I’ve been keeping up with Gamergate. I’ve been trying to follow the story ever since I first heard about Zoe Quinn and the campaign that was started to ruin her life, and I keep feeling like I should be saying something about it.

I feel like I’m letting myself down every time I see another story about what a group of people are willing to do to terrorize the women they disagree with and stay silent. What’s going on right now is incredibly important, and incredibly brutal, and it’s not so much that something needs to be said – because people who know more than I do are already saying things – as that those things need to keep being said by as many people as are willing to say them, or nothing will change.

At the same time, I find myself struggling to figure out where to begin, because for me, Gamergate feels like it’s just one part of an ugly puzzle.

I’ve always known that the Gaming Community contained pockets of anger, hatred, and vitriol. It’s why I’ve only ever tried to play a multiplayer game once. The results didn’t surprise me, they won’t surprise anyone, though they hurt me deeply; from nearly the moment I joined the game I found myself subject to a torrent of verbal abuse on account of my newness. My team tried to kill me to keep me from ruining their game, told me to leave (though I had thought I was in a new-to-the-game zone). When someone messaged me, sounding friendly, asking for my A/S/L, I told them that I was a 21-year-old Canadian girl.

And wouldn’t you know it, people stopped calling me the “f%cking noob” and started calling me a whole lot of other things, of which “whore” was probably the nicest.

The take-home message: Being a new player in a multiplayer game is a sin; being a female gamer is even worse.

So it doesn’t really come as a surprise to me that these people who responded so angrily to my moderate-incompetence, which served to only inconvenience them, have taken that anger and let it boil over into death threats against women who actually challenge the status quo. It hurts me, though – particularly, oddly enough, because in many ways I have more in common with the gamers who do the threatening than I do with the women who receive the threats.

I’m a feminist, but I don’t really participate in what I think of as feminist appreciation of culture. I read books about men going on adventures, I watch movies with minimal plots in which the women are dressed to look sexy, I play games where I run around shooting things whose only real crime usually amounts to ‘working for the wrong person or getting caught up in the wrong toxic disaster’. I frequently wish that women were doing more things in these pieces of entertainment I consume, and I’ll object to the use of rape as a tool for character development until I’m blue in the face, but from the outside, my feminism and my recreational pursuits seem fairly segregated from each other.

And fish. Sometimes I shoot fish.

I play violent video games. I’ve never played GTA, but I’ve played games that were similar. I play big-name big-ticket games, the same ones enjoyed by the men who want women out of their pastime. Most of my self-indulgent spending is split pretty much evenly between the buying of video games, and the buying of fashion dolls. I don’t think we’re so very different, the men and I, or at least I don’t think we have to be (except for the dolls).

But evidently they do – or, some of them do, because while we may all be getting tired of the contractual obligation to acknowledge that yes, #notallmen send death threats, I think I’d still rather err on the side of polite, open communication than risk seeming generalist.

Evidently, some men think that women don’t belong in their treehouse, and that a woman who dares to enter should be on her best behavior, that failing to do so in an online context should be met with abuse, the threat of violence, and real-world harrassment.

treehouse

Okay, if this is their treehouse, I can understand not wanting to share.

That’s bad enough. Really, that’s enough bad right there. I’d love to be able to say that it doesn’t get worse, but I can’t.

The problem isn’t just that a fragment of the gaming community has taken upon itself the mandate to ruin the lives of the women it doesn’t like. The problem is that as far as I can tell, this phenomenon itself is being viewed by the rest of our society as a little fringe problem.

Gamers have a history of being picked on. It’s only fairly recently that 58 percent of Americans have started playing video games (45 percent of those players being women). When I was a teenager, a “gamer” was someone who played Dungeons and Dragons, and there was a lot of media hype at the time wondering about the psychological dangers that D&D posed to its players. Gamers are still viewed with suspicion in the media; when someone kills people in a school or a theatre, the media starts wondering how many violent video games they played. Many people who play games today remember what it was like to be mocked for their hobby. Gamers were a minority, they were marginalized and persecuted.

So it must be hard have to set aside that mantle of oppression. It must be difficult for those people who can now celebrate their social power by playing Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed or Halo with their coworkers, who can exercise their financial power by purchasing a constantly-cycling series of systems and games, to realize that being a gamer doesn’t represent the same things that it used to. And it seems to be incredibly hard for the rest of the world to understand that this group of people they used to eye sideways now occupy more social space than the people who don’t like to unwind by throwing birds at pigs, or decapitating pirates.

Hard as it is, though, both sides need to understand that the world is changing. The subset of gamers who used to make up the entire group are now just a part – and while the opinions of the people who helped shape the culture are important, “I got here first” can’t be allowed to hold sway in the real world the way it did in the schoolyard.

And the opinions of a caustic, aggressive group of people shouldn’t be treated as the mutterings of a few angry nerds, no matter how small a percentage of gamers they make up.

Gamers aren’t the Other anymore. Gamers are people too, and when a group of people starts launching systematic attacks against another group of people, when someone in a group threatens violence or murder, we can’t afford to trivialize it.

I was thinking this morning about a story I read, about how Anita Sarkeesian was warned against speaking at Utah State University with the threat of a mass shooting, and how she eventually had to cancel because adequate security measures would not be provided for her. Guaranteeing that students can’t bring a concealed weapon into a room wherein mass murder has been explicitly threatened is, apparently, not something that we can do.

I wonder what had to be going through the minds of the people who made that decision. They couldn’t have believed that the threats were credible, or else how would they allow a room full of people to face that kind of danger. Did they think that an angry person has never before decided to murder women for what they dared to think?

I wanted to remind people about the Montreal Massacre, where in 1989 a young man walked into a school, separated the men and the women, and then shot the women in an attempt at “fighting feminism”. I wanted to say that this kind of manifest hatred has already taken the lives of at least fourteen people – but then I saw that I didn’t have to. The person who made the threat against Sarkeesian signed with the name Marc Lepine, the name of the shooter in the Montreal Massacre. Evidently, deliberately invoking the identity of a man who murdered women because of what they were doing in a school was insufficient to convince law enforcement to protect a woman, who was being threatened because of what she was doing in school.

montrealmas

These fourteen women were victims of the fight against feminism. Je me souviens.

I can only imagine how different the response might have been, if a Catholic organization were to have received threats from an individual identifying themselves as part of an Islamic hate group. Would concealed weapons still have been permitted in that context? I have an incredibly difficult time believing that they would.

What it boils down to is that somehow, society doesn’t seem to think that violence against women is a problem. Oh, people are aware that it happens – but not as much as women like to claim it does. Maybe it ties into an attempt to be positive? Accepting that a group of people are out to get women would require seeing women as a distinct group, rather than seeing them as part of ‘people’. I’ve heard it suggested that to single women out as the victims of specific violence is exactly the kind of thing that feminists are supposed to fight against, as though in order to be a good feminist I’m supposed to sit by and pretend that people weren’t out to get women just for being women. I’m supposed to accept that Facebook pages dedicated specifically to violence against women are “controversial humor“, not hate.

They’re not.

It’s not in our heads.

People are out to get women.

I follow John Scalzi’s blog, because he thinks a lot of interesting things and he’s not afraid to talk about them. I look at him and I see a part of what I want to achieve – he writes good novels, and he thinks good thoughts, and he puts himself out there when he thinks it’s important. I’ve seen what he gets in response: he seems to be mocked on a regular basis, for daring to speak for feminism, and he handles it with incredible grace. He also posted a picture of his house today, something my brain tells me would be an incredible risk for any woman with a controversial opinion. It feels like another part of the puzzle: men who provoke with what they say get derided, insulted, yelled at, threatened – women have campaigns launched against them. Men are hassled, women are forced to flee their homes for their own safety.

Women get attacked.

It’s hard not to think about this, as a woman who wants to write books. It’s hard not to see what a small but violent group of gamers is doing to the women who cross them, and wonder what might happen to me if I dare to speak my mind after (if? after!) my first book hits the shelves.

I want to work in an industry where it seems to be tacitly understood that men write books, and women write books for women and children. I want to work in an industry where the product is as much about the ideas as it is about the way they’re packaged, and almost as much about the author of those ideas as the thoughts themselves. I read Seanan McGuire’s explanation for why she won’t write rape, and how the simple fact that none of her female characters have been violently abused is interpreted by a reader as a lack of respect for her craft, rather than a sign of respect for her creations.

My characters will not get raped.

My characters will not all conform to social norms. I began the novel I’m currently writing with no intention to create an ‘alternative’ cast, and ended up with an asexual woman, a homosexual elderly man, a bisexual frat boy, and a heterosexual young woman as my four main protagonists. How many people will take issue with that?

How many of them will decide that I deserve to be punished for subjecting them to it? Or if I choose to speak my mind about why I make these decisions?

Somehow, if I ever achieve the level of success that Scalzi has earned, I doubt I will be in a position to feel safe posting pictures of my house.

How does this even happen?

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I think one day, when people are asking me about my Process, this is going to be a day I remember.

I had a plan for the novel that I’m writing right now. I have a scene-by-scene outline, and each scene has bullet points of what I need it to contain, and I work linearly – start at Part One, Chapter One, and move on from there. This novel has two distinct plotlines, and each of those plotlines has multiple elements. The element I’m currently trying to address is the hunt for the person responsible for a series of deaths, which the protagonist believes are the beginning of some kind of conspiracy.

According to my outline, after having done some research into the causes of death for the three victims, the protagonist goes to speak with the family of one dead person, and discovers that yes, there is foul play going on. She learns the possible identity of someone responsible, and spends the rest of her thread trying to track this person down. Except that as I was sitting there looking at my outline, I realised that there have been a lot of fairly calm meetings in this section, and that since I’m trying to write a fantasy novel, maybe I want to get a little bit more excitement going. I am personally a fan of political fantasy, and don’t mind scene after scene of machinations, but just because something can be worth reading without being terribly thrilling doesn’t mean it might not be better with a bit more life.

So I decided that instead of interviewing the woman who had died of cancer, my protagonist would investigate the area in which a man had been killed by random acts of violence. I chose to have him be reported killed in a gang conflict, only because I thought that muggings were overused, and so I sent my protagonist to visit a bar where she might be able to talk to someone who knew about the gang situation in the relevant time.

I had intended it to be simple. She speaks to a person, says “I hear the victim was killed in gang conflict”. The person says “ah, no, he was not. You would do better to investigate this suspicious person who was walking around”. She goes off to investigate, and the novel moves on.

Instead, I find my informant saying “There was no gang conflict at the time – but, we all think it’s far more likely that a rival gang knew he was associated with us, and killed him to make a point. Oh, and by the way, suspicious person, if you absolutely have to, but we think it’s highly unlikely.”

All of a sudden, I’m scrambling to come up with names for various gangs, figure out where they’re based, what their styles and motivations are. Instead of wandering off to her home base, my protagonist is now going to have to go and follow this trail, and instead of another series of quiet meetings, I think I’m going to be spending a chunk of this book exploring the dark underbelly that is the local magic gangs. I’ll have to rework everything else, so that this doesn’t overshadow other important plot elements, and so that other parts of this particular plot thread still tie in where they need to. I have a gang leader, now, and I know his face and his history, and I’m going to have to come up with ways for him to be relevant later on because he deserves better than to be a one-shot set piece.

I think it will make a much better story, in the end.

We’ll see how it goes, unless someone would like to put me out of my misery first!

Leigh spun around to see one of the wooden tables fall to the ground in smoldering pieces. The mugs that had been sitting on it lay on the floor, a glittering lake of glass and beer. Most of the men were on their feet, though one was rising and one sprawled awkwardly on the floor, swearing viciously.

“Cheating bastard!” one of the standing men yelled, lean and grey and grizzled. The two factions had moved to separate themselves, glaring at each other across the smoking remains of the red team’s table. “If you didn’t want people to know the truth, you shouldn’t have introduced us to your mother! I -”

He cut off abruptly as a burly man standing among the green supporters, the man who Leigh had seen creating the initial little flame, made a powerful one-handed throwing gesture. Fire bloomed in his fingers, no loner the size of a coin, and crashed with a violent hiss and a plume of smoke into the spilled beer at the other man’s feet.

“Don’t you say a word!” the burly man said, raising his hand again, fingers tensed as though holding onto an invisible ball.

The lean man cursed and jumped back from the attack, and the man who had fallen hurried to get to his feet and out of the way. Far from looking cowed, though, the lean man sneered. He dashed a hand through the air, a casual dismissive slap, and the puddle of beer swelled up, shooting a spray into the burly man’s face.

“You come into this place and think you can make all the rules now, Darron? Little pup thinks he’s a wolf, with his big strong muscles and his fireballs!” He laughed, and the men around him joined him.

Darron lunged. In an instant, the space where the tables had been morphed into a chaotic mess of bodies and flailing limbs. A burst of orange erupted in the middle of the brawl and someone cried out before it died out with a wet hiss. The television crackled and flashed, then the picture cut to black. Energy crackled in the air, and with a shouted oath from someone inside the tangle, every surface within five feet of the group was suddenly coated in a thin layer of ice.

Characterization 2: Great Expectations

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So last week I read The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes. It’s a glorious tale of scheming and adventure described by a heck of a lot of goodreads reviewers as a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Dungeons and Dragons. I think it’s a pretty solid nutshell to put the novel in, and if that sort of thing sounds like your bag and you enjoy clever writing I would highly recommend it.

There was just one thing that bugged me while I was reading the book, and it was a thing that took me almost the entire novel to figure out. When it finally came to me, I realized it was something I’ve seen before, and maybe it’s worth talking about on a bit of a larger scale.

Characters are the heart of a story. Oh, having a plot’s important, but it’s never enough to say “a group of people do X, Y, Z”; everyone’s unique, and everyone will handle a situation in their own way. It’s only by putting the right characters in the right places that an author can really make their readers connect with the mechanics of the plot. Nobody wants to read the stirring adventures of a bunch of overused, faceless cliches, so the writers who know what they’re doing dig deep and find ways to make each name and face shine on its own merit. Great characters are the ones who are their own people, who stand in their own right, who linger in your mind like an old friend.

But when you start focusing too hard on the special snowflake that is a new character, it can be easy to lose track of the fact that once they leave your head, they’re not going to be existing in a vacuum.  Readers approach books the way they approach anything in life: with two or three dozen trunks of preconceptions and prejudices, and the ability to make snap judgement at the drop of a hat.

I don’t know how much time you’ve got to make a first impression with a character. Maybe it’s a sentence, maybe you get a paragraph, some generous readers might even hold off on making their assumptions for a chapter. Inevitably, though, they’re going to start forming a picture in their mind exactly the same way they decide whether or not they like the receptionist at the dentist’s office or the old man on the bus. They’ll know everything they think they need to know long before you’ve had a chance to explain the character’s rich, compelling backstory.

Durg Beefsteak has wanted to be a professional flutist ever since he first heard his mother play. He’s classically trained in four instruments, and wonders why everyone’s so obsessed with his sword.

This is where expectations come in.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be lovely if we could keep readers from bringing their own cast of characters, both real and fictional, to the table each time they open a new book. Authors could sketch pure, untainted landscapes, cast their characters out like brilliant stars in the night sky. The air would be crisp and fresh and nobody would wonder if the brilliant detective was another cheap Sherlock Holmes knockoff or ask how many times they were going to be required to sit through someone’s re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet (this time with vampires who do not sparkle, we promise).

The problem, of course, is that without the expectations, authors would have to spend the first forty thousand words of every work explaining the basics – and then they’d have to go on explaining every single step of the way, and the magic of the story would get lost in the sucking mire of pedantry. “This is Doug. Doug is large and broad-shouldered, and doesn’t have a strong academic history. We can presume that the five or six boys standing behind him are doing so out of a combination of genuine malice, and a fear of finding themselves ostracized for speaking out against their leader.”

It’s ridiculous, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, and it’s probably a large contributor to editors saying that high word counts don’t necessarily indicate good books.

Since people are going to decide they know what’s going on anyway, the trick is to work within their expectations. Of course there will be variations from reader to reader, but predicting what your likely audience is going to read into your characters is part of being a writer. Creating a memorable character is all about mixing the perfect blend of familiar features with surprising twists or subversions – the popular athlete who secretly loves watching old black and white musicals with his mother, the grizzled one-eyed mercenary with the successful shipping business back home, the golden-haired kindergarten teacher who can’t be bothered to string together three nice words for her own daughter.

Stick too close to the expected, and the character won’t do much more than fill a role. They’ll be familiar, comfortable, and forgettable, and often that can be a good thing; a rich, relatable, forgettable background helps add depth to a world, even if you’re not writing speculative fiction. Get the balance just right, and your cast will jump and bubble and scintillate.

And if you get it wrong, prepare for bizarre disaster.

My problem with the Palace Job came in the form of one character.

He was a virgin, though not ashamed of it, he didn’t drink and had no desire to. He held pretty much every authority figure in reverence, and believed almost anything anyone told him, because Wizards are Wise and people shouldn’t lie. He was clumsy, and blushed and flustered when he dropped things – which he did a lot. It took him an entire book to realize that his close friend and protector might not have been 100% honest with him all of the time. He expressed no interest, when an attractive woman made it blatantly clear that she wanted to have sex with him.

He was also a sixteen year old farmhand.

Now, there are plausible scenarios wherein a sixteen year old farmhand could have all of those traits. Maybe his farm was strangely puritan, or maybe his entire region was. Maybe alcohol was banned, or maybe he’d had a close relationship with a priest when he was younger and held on to the morals and values he was taught all the way through his adolescence. Maybe that’s just who he was, and everyone around him decided to protect his strange naivete.

Unfortunately, the book didn’t ever offer any explanation for why a strapping sixteen year old boy was behaving more like he was twelve.

It felt like the author was torn between the character he wanted to create – sweet, innocent, adorably bumbling – and the character he needed to perform certain plot-related tasks – someone old enough and strong enough to be a useful fighter and fill the role of Party Tank. Unfortunately for the poor farmboy, rather than trying to actually blend the two images, Weekes apparently just decided to stick the traits of the first onto the body of the other, without addressing the fact that the end result was a giant exception to pretty much every behavioral rule for sixteen year olds, boys, farmhands, and tanks.

Reading it left me with a strangely uncomfortable taste in my mouth. Because I hadn’t been given another explanation, my brain was free to decide that the boy had been abused, and I’m pretty sure that the impression that gave me wasn’t the one Weekes was originally trying to create when he wrote the character.

Of course, mileage can and will vary. I’m sure plenty of people had no problem with the boy, came up with their own justifications or just ignored it in general.

But for me, it came as an important reminder: you only get that one chance to make a first impression, so you might as well work with your readers, not against them.

There was indeed someone at the woman’s desk – a small blond someone, even. But Anne-Marie was skinny in a ferrety sort of way, her features sharp, eyes slightly beady, and her hair was a gold so pale it was nearly white.

 The woman sitting there now was at least ten years younger than Anne-Marie, and her hair was the color of honey. Her eyes were hazel, her mough wide and generous, and she had the kind of body that spoke of working out, but only to keep the right parts lean and toned, not to build real muscle.

 Leigh glanced to her wrists, which were circled with dozens of little bracelets but no bands, and then to the lapel of her jacket, which did indeed have a pin – a flower, not the avices’ crossed scroll and sword. A teardrop hung on a chain at the hollow of her throat, shining strangely in the light, and Leigh couldn’t tell for the life of her what it was made of. She wasn’t an avice, but the shiver of adrenaline through her system was all the confirmation Leigh needed to know that she was dangerous. Avices weren’t the only ones with the training to be subtle, or deadly. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that for all no one else could do exactly what she and her fellows did, they didn’t sit at the top of the food chain.

 The woman stood quickly, with grace that looked like it had come from training, and flashed Leigh a smile.

 “Can I help you?” Leigh asked. Her own face remained blank as she continued her inspection of the stranger. Business suit, skirt to the knees, four inch pumps she obviously knew how to move in. A visitor’s badge was pinned to the bottom of her slate-grey jacket. She was tucking something into a large black shoulder bag, though her body blocked most of the movement an concealed exactly what it is she was hiding away.

 “Oh, I hope so.” She spoke with the musical, slightly nasal accent of someone with roots in the Commonwealth, though Leigh knew the language was still spoken in Pinnacle and to a lesser degree in Gerrespont, the two governances originally founded by Commonwealth settlers back in the day.

 “I was looking for …” The strange woman broke off and rummaged in her back, emerging with a small square of yellow paper. “Is that Reginald Southerland? The Deputy Minister of Finance?”

 Leigh came all of the way out of her office, closed the door behind her. She folded her arms.

 “That’s the name of the deputy minister,” she said.

 “Well, that’s something,” said the woman. “This is my first time in city hall, and I got turned around. I had been hoping that someone here might have a map.”

 She moved around the desk as she spoke, like Leigh might somehow forget that she’d found her sitting where she had absolutely no right to be sitting.

 “There’s an information desk near the front door,” Leigh said. She moved away from the door to intercept the woman, stopped when she was close enough to read the name printed on the visitor’s badge. Gabrielle Fletcher, the name was no more familiar than the face. “You could have asked them where you needed to go when you got your badge printed.”

 Gabrielle’s smile widened. She looked pleased with herself, somehow.

 “Oh, I did ask,” she said. “The men at the desk were very helpful, but I thought I’d followed it well enough that I didn’t need a map. Apparently, I was wrong.”

 There was none of the embarrassment in her demeanor that should have been there; Leigh might have been dressed casually, but her own badge was banded with violet at the bottom, a clear indication of the highest level of security clearance. Nobody liked looking like an absent-minded idiot in front of people with the power to kick them out on their heels, but rather than seeming abashed or anxious, Gabrielle Fletcher’s smile almost seemed to hold a challenge.

 Leigh felt her hackles rise instantly. She took a breath, to keep it from showing in her body. Gabrielle’s hazel gaze was intense, and canny. Not, Leigh thought, the sort of person who missed very much.

 “Well,” Leigh said, “as soon as you return whatever it was you just put in your purse, I can escort you to Deputy Minister Southerland’s office.”

 Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose. She looked, if anything, more pleased than she had a moment before.

 “What, this?” She reached into her large bag and pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer. “I’ve had a bit of a cold. I didn’t want to get germs on the desk.” She offered the bottle out on an open palm, smile predatory.

 Leigh rolled her eyes, and made no move to take it.

 Strangely, she didn’t get the impression that the short, perfectly-toned woman was lying.

 She did get the distinct impression that she was being played, though, and that was worse.

Top Ten Tuesdays – Romances That Make Me Swoon

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It’s that time again! The Broke and the Bookish have thrown down the Valentine’s gauntlet with the top ten books that make you swoon. Well, I’m not really a hearts and roses kind of reader – I’ll cry at the drop of a hat, for sentiment or generosity or loss, but books don’t generally make me flutter. I am, however, a sucker for a well-written romantic subplot. So, with no further ado, I’m probably more pleased than I should be to present my ten favourite romances.

~

1. Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache {The Three Pines Mysteries – Louise Penny}

It seems sort of fitting that the first item on the list for me isn’t some big, showy, good-looking duo who swoon and strip sensually for the camera – as it were. What makes a good romance for me has always had very little to do with how shiny the people’s hair is, or how toned their abs are (not that I’ll complain about a nice body); the important part is how the partners connect, and how well that connection is passed on from the writer’s mind to the reader’s heart. Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are a middle-aged couple that give me hope for the possible future of all couples everywhere. They’ve been together for decades, and they’ve had their trials, but there is no doubt for me that they love each other as much as it is possible for two people to love each other. They talk, and they tease, they support each other in hard times and they challenge each other, and they’re just really freaking cute, and I’ll be lucky if I have half of what they do when I’m fifty.

~

2. Rodrigo and Miranda Belmonte {The Lions of Al-RassanGuy Gavriel Kay}

This is another couple who laid their foundations long before the beginning of their book. Rodrigo is a warrior, modeled loosely after El Cid, and he spends most of this novel away from home on one adventure or another. Sure, he’s mostly surrounded by men, but that doesn’t stop him from entangling himself with a charming, vivacious woman who captures his heart – he acknowledges it openly later in the book. And yet, somehow, the relationship he has with his wife back home is one of the stronger threads winding through this story. Miranda is one hell of a woman, intelligent and brave and fierce, unafraid of fighting for her home and her family and her husband, and their marriage delights me because it’s one of love, and longing, and trust. Rodrigo makes it clear that though he may love two women (and yay, we need more books that show this as a possibility) he’s not willing to go against the promise he made. He doesn’t seem to view it as a burden, but a choice he happily made – and their reunion, when they do briefly intersect, was a delightful glimpse into a passionate love affair that two children and some grey hairs did nothing to dampen.

~

3. Jehane bet Ishak and Ammar ibn Khairan {The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay}

Okay, so I really just adore all of the romances in this book. If Rodrigo and Miranda were the fire in the hearth, Jehane and Ammar were the literary brushfire. Both are brilliant, both are independent and capable, and both were willing, if with some difficulty, to admit that there was something missing in their lives that so far only the other had been able to properly fill. I think what appealed to me most about this romance was that both Jehane and Ammar had had experiences with other partners before. In fact, each had relationships during the course of the book, and neither of them were the sort to be a fool for love. I suppose the blind leap into passion is nice, but I prefer watching the playful, intelligent build, the dance of wits that doesn’t have to burn hotter than reason because when the sun comes up, both parties know that they’ll still think the night was worthwhile. Also, Ammar is a poet, and one of those men you meet sometimes in fiction who has a knack for saying the right thing and not saying the right thing, and I think I might have fallen a little bit in love with him.

(An honourable mention at the end of this goes out to Jehane and Ammar and Rodrigo, and to Guy Gavriel Kay for being willing to explore the idea that people might love more than one person at the same time without it being the grounds for a hideous love triangle arc. Jehane loves both men, and Rodrigo loves Jehane and Miranda, and if other things hadn’t gotten in the way I think there might have been a place for all of them to figure something out between them. Part of the reason I cried at the end.)

~

4. Veralidaine Sarrasri and Numair Salmalin {The Immortals – Tamora Pierce}

This romance made me starry-eyed when I first read it – and it might or might not have summoned a couple of hearts and butterflies when I reread the Immortals series last summer. I fell in love with Numair basically instantly. He’s competent, and intelligent, and thoughtful, and kind, and dreamy, and that on its own might have been enough. When you add in the way he interacts with Daine, though … I normally don’t go for the student-teacher romance. I find the discrepancy of experience between the two almost always turns me off, but somehow Pierce managed to craft a romance narrative that flowed through from a professorial or fraternal affection into romance in such a way that I bought it. Numair cares deeply for Daine, and while her occasional bursts of juvenile reaction frustrated me, she’s willing to invest so much trust and hope in him it’s almost heartbreaking. While I stopped reading Pierce after the first Kel book, the glimpse we got of Daine and Numair being quietly, comfortably, adorably together in the background just confirmed for me how wonderful they are together.

~

5. Alanna and George Cooper {Tortall-verse – Tamora Pierce}

I think we were supposed to root for Jonathan in the beginning of the Lioness series, but George had my heart from the beginning. I’ve always been a fan of romance that comes out of friendship; every real relationship I’ve ever had as come out of at least a year of solid friendship, and the better ones have a foundation of two or three years on which the passion was built. Maybe I should credit my appreciation of that style to this couple, who stood by each other through thick and thin for years. Every time someone complains about how nice guys don’t get shown the appreciation they deserve (sex) I kind of want to drag them to George by their ears. Here is a man who learned he was in love with a woman, and saw that she wasn’t ready for him and accepted it, and her choices. He stood by her, was there for her when she needed a friend, and while he had no problem cuffing her on the back of the head and reminding her that he wanted her, he did it on her schedule. Alanna didn’t play the most conventional role in their courting – her lack of comfort with her femininity was a major plot point in the series – but I think that’s what made me so happy for them, in the end, and what made her and George work so well. She didn’t have to be a blushing, ballgowned beauty, and he didn’t have to be titled or respectable: when the time was right, they found each other, and were able to accept each other for exactly who and what they were.

~

6. Amelia Peabody Emerson and Radcliffe Emerson – {The Amelia Peabody series – Elizabeth Peters}

I adored these two when I was a teenager, and although I haven’t read the series in ages, they still hold a fond place in my heart. I think it has something to do with the way that these two fiercely stubborn people are able to wind themselves around each other while holding onto their essential, individual sparks; Peabody is blunt, opinionated, fearless, and not even remotely afraid of a challenge. Emerson is about as stubborn as she is, and they’re both a little bit silly about it, and it was absolutely delightful reading their sparring match cum marriage. This is one couple who managed to have children without turning into boring, doting parents, a couple that really made the marriage a partnership of mind and body rather than an institution. Love comes in many shapes and sizes, and these two prove that you don’t have to sand off all the rough edges in order to earn it.

~

7. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes {The Mary Russell series – Laurie R. King}

I’m noticing a recurring theme here: my favourite couples tend to be those who favour marriages of the minds, and Russell and Holmes are no exception. Again, the whole teacher-student dynamic tends to frustrate me, and I’m also not hugely keen on stories where an author takes someone they expect me to like and then throws them at their new character. It often comes across like they’re trying to force me to like their baby by making someone else like them, and I don’t like being played. Russell and Holmes, though, are an exception on just about every level. The bond formed between them is one that took many forms over the five years between meeting and marriage, and their relationship is founded in equal parts on shared experiences, and a shared brilliance. What really makes the pairing ring true for me, though, aren’t any of the exciting bursts of intellectual passion or even the incredibly rare moments of physicality between the two. It’s the little moments, two knocks on the door frame, a touch of a hand in a quiet moment, a word or a look or a breath that manages to speak volumes about the extent to which these two people care about each other. Russell and Holmes’ relationship is built in the spaces between moments, in quiet and calm and fear and hope, and it’s beautiful.

~

8. Vanion and Sephrenia {The Elenium and the Tamuli – David Eddings}

These two were not the main subject of the books in which they appeared, and I think that’s why I’m so fond of them. The quiet love between them is a major theme in the first three books, a secret that wasn’t a secret that grew and grew until at one point, the two of them were simply unwilling to not be together as a couple. A priest from an order of religious knights and the high priestess of a goddess from a rival religion, both of them were forbidden from entering into a relationship with the other … and it’s not that neither of them cared. It was just that neither of them could believe that their gods could possibly have a problem with them, because that’s how important their love was, and it turned out they were right. They were willing to quietly defy two major religions and offend dozens if not hundreds of powerful figures, and they did it without a second thought, while the main characters were off having their epic quest. I don’t often find myself truly admiring the courage of fictional characters, but I’ll take my hat off to these two.

~

9. Sabriel and Touchstone {The Abhorsen Series – Garth Nyx}

This relationship rivaled Numair and Daine for the Most Significant Fictional Pairing Of My Childhood, and I honestly can’t explain why. Touchstone was sort of weird, deeply influenced by trauma, and Sabriel was desperately trying to figure out how to save a world she didn’t really understand while coming to terms with her father’s sort-of-Death. Neither of them was exactly thinking straight, and they were both caught up in a lot of heavy emotion, so it’s sort of inevitable that they turned to each other when things got rough. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the simple, clean inevitability of it won me over? I don’t know, all I know is as soon as you mention the two of them I find myself smiling a strange little smile, and wanting to draw kisses.

~

10. Phèdre no Delaunay de Montrève and Joscelin Verreuil – {Kushiel’s Legacy – Jacqueline Carey}

I didn’t want to like these two. The book so desperately wanted me to, part of me was dead set on opposing it just out of sheer stubbornness. Joscelin is too beautiful and too tragic, and Phèdre is basically a walking drama magnet, and then you go and add a love-crossed curse from the gods and it should be horrible. I don’t blame anyone who finds them cloying, or overwrought, I really don’t.

But so help me, my heart goes out to these two each and every time. I think it has something to do with the lengths each of them was willing to go for the other, for good and for ill. They argue in the course of their series, they struggle. They put each other through hell, both accidentally and out of spitefulness, defensiveness, pride. On the other hand, they each prove willing to endure the unendurable for each other. They might be destined for the most epic romance of all time, but they didn’t just get it handed on a silver platter.  Their love might be as beautiful as they are, but they’ve had to work for it. Each was offered a dozen chances to turn away, give in, take an easy road. Each struggled with that choice, and each actually went as far as taking the first steps – not something romances often have the guts to show. In the end, they came back to each other, aware of the costs and willing to pay, and all of the toil and the sacrifices and the pure intentional effort they put in creates something incredibly valuable in the end. If love is what you make of it, these two’ve forged some kind of indomitable sky-castle, and I find myself crumbling before its might every time.

The Sisters of Saint Avice had never meant to forsake their lives of quiet prayer and contemplation in favor of violence and counterintelligence, but any real religious figure would say that only the angels can know in advance what god will ask of them. The legend went that the Sisters had been quartered in a little abbey out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere north in the Commonwealth, and they’d never quite been able to convince their chapter-house exactly how infested with bandits and brigands the region was. Given the choice between being pillaged and slaughtered on a semi-regular basis or learning how to defend themselves, the sisters decided to turn from God’s scroll to his sword.

Over the course of the next three hundred years, woman after woman was sent to the abbey of Saint Avice. Woman after woman learned how to use the weapons that god gave her, hand and elbow and foot and mind, to keep herself alive against the damned persistent masses of heathen barbarians who seemed incapable of just giving up and going home.

It didn’t take long for the locals in nearby villages to recognize the potential solution to their frequent bandit problems. Slowly at first, and then in greater numbers, young sons and even daughters of craftsmen and farmers started appearing at the doors of the abbey. They brought coin when they could, grain or blankets or in one memorable case a cow when they couldn’t. They came humbly, not quite sure what they were asking for, exactly, other than a means to protect their families.

Characterization 1: Something about Mary

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Let it be known that my vacation is officially over!

I hadn’t actually intended to take a break from this blog, but between NaNo, the holidays, and prepwork for the novel I’m working on now, I suppose this thing ended up taking an unfortunate backseat. On the one hand, it’s been time well spent – I’m almost 40,000 words into this novel and my life is pretty much under control, which is always a nice feeling. On the other hand, blogging is like any other work, and an extended period of time spent not practicing the skills is never useful.

I’ve had a couple of thoughts in the past two months, and I’ve got a nice little Evernote document about things that might be worth writing about, if I can remember how to do it anymore. Whether it’s a question of what I’ve been reading what I’ve been writing, or maybe just fate, most of the notions I’ve been playing with lately have to do with characters and characterization.

Characters are the heart of the story, and I feel like far too often they end up getting overlooked or butchered by their writers in the name of either scriptural folly or ‘the good of the plot’.

But before I can start thinking about how to treat characters, the strengths and weaknesses I see in my own writing and in other people’s, I have to get something off of my chest:

I have a huge problem with Mary Sues.

From http://piratemonkeysinc.com/art.php

Pictured: the secret second form of 1/3 of all fandom characters, apparently.

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Top Ten Tuesdays – Worlds I Never Want To Live In

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The blog, she lives! And, true to form, rather than contributing one of the couple of Blog Ideas I have written down, I’m jumping in with Top Ten Tuesdays, by the Broke and the Bookish! I adore this week’s theme – it’s been interesting taking a look at the series I adore and imagining how utterly terrible it would be to join the adventures.

All of these stories already have their heroes and their gods, so for the purposes of this blog I’m imagining what it would be like to join in as “a normal person”, whatever that looks like in any given universe. No world-saving for me, just a girl trying to get by.

In no particular order, then: The Top Ten Fictional Worlds that I NEVER Want To Live In:



harrysue

1. Dresdenverse – The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher

On the surface, the world Jim Butcher created seems kind of fantastic: magic exists, supernatural creatures walk among us, anything is possible. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t look quite as pleasant from the point of view anyone who isn’t a wizard. If you don’t happen to be one of the few powerful supernatural entities, you’d have to deal with the fact that your entire world is really just a battlefield for more distinct types of baddies than I can conveniently count. If the fae aren’t fighting a war, the vampires are trying to make a name for themselves. Wizards don’t really care much for regular mundanes, and most other people seem to think of them as little more than food.  About the best thing I could hope for in this world would be to be ignored by everyone interesting. Worst case scenario, I see something I shouldn’t and go insane, or end up in service to some kind of big crazy evil for the rest of my life …



By Inkthinker

2. The United Isles – The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

In this world, a small percentage of the population are somehow magically imbued with the ability to make their chalk drawings come to life. The United Isles (of America) are also under attack from a horde of evil chalk creatures who seem to want to devour everything. Everyone who’s able to bring drawings to life is drafted into military service, sending their drawings against the attacking monsters. Everyone else … well, I guess they just sort of hope that the Rithmatists don’t lose, because if they do, they’re all screwed. I’m not sure which would be worse, having to sit helplessly, or having to live your entire life knowing that you’re the only thing standing between your country and certain destruction at the hands of murderous doodles.



themaze

3.  The Maze – The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

The world is a plague-filled sun-blasted wasteland, wherein the cleverest children are thrown into a giant death maze to see if they have what it takes to become the subjects of further experimentation.

Yeah, I think that kind of covers it.


4. Oz – The Wizard of Oz, by Frank L. Baum

… I’ve got no clever explanation for this one. Oz has freaked me out from the very beginning. A bunch of creepy races with talking animals who’ve been convinced not to talk, where the most powerful person is a fake? That doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the woman with the creepy swapping heads, and the rollerskate stilt men, and the part where there’s a village of china people.


5.  Panem – The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I think at this point if I have to explain why I don’t want to live in this world, I worry about you all.


6. Idris, &c – The Mortal Instruments, by Cassandra Clare

There’s a magical invisible country in the middle of Europe which has somehow never been discovered. It is home to a group of human-angel halfbreeds who spend their time alternately protecting humanity from demons and ignoring humanity altogether. Humanity’s protectors are out of touch with daily life, seem largely indifferent to everything outside of their own little magical borders, and they’re less governed than they are occasionally guided by counsel that pays no more attention to the larger context than anyone else. Their laws are arbitrary and only occasionally enforced. Justice seems to be the domain of one individual inquisitor, who has no oversight, checks, or balances. This universe also provides one of many examples of a world in which children only seem to have to sit through a minimal academic education, before they’re considered to be mini-adults and sent into practical magical training. It’s no wonder the government’s suffering, if none of its members ever had to master critical thinking.


7. The End of the Lane – The Ocean at the End Of The Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Even now, I’m not quite sure why this world unsettles me as much as it does. The world Gaiman shows in this novel is very similar to the real world, which is part of what makes the story so compelling … but the subtle differences disturbed me on a fundamental level. In this world, ancient forces exist in the quiet little corners, minding their own business and engaging in their little squabbles. They’re largely inaccessible to humanity in general, except when the occasional window opens and someone catches a glimpse of something they shouldn’t. While this might seem charming, what it means that those few people who cross the wrong threshold have absolutely no one they can talk to. The standard prejudices and misconceptions exist, but the likelihood of encountering something that goes bump in the night has increased thousandfold. And because the magic is hidden, the odds are that any creature you run into won’t be tame, or bear any resemblance to something you’ve seen on TV. You’re either oblivious, or trapped in a situation beyond your comprehension with little to no chance for acceptance or support.


8.  Elantris – Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

Part of what I think I enjoy about Sanderson is the way he can take a world and break it; watching the characters try to survive in the mess he’s left them is always fascinating, and I love seeing the various ways beautiful fantasy lands can be twisted and warped. In this case, a blessing that used to turn a fraction of the population into gods was broken one day, leaving all of the gods stuck as never-healing, undying monsters. If that weren’t bad enough, the world is hovering on the edge of being dominated by a militant religious sect, whose priests will stop at nothing to convert and conquer the heretic lands. Living by Elantris means facing the constant threat of waking up one day and finding out that you’ve been turned into a zombie, or else discovering that the priests have come to convert you to the worship of their god-king by the sword, if necessary. At least there’s an interesting merit-based system of nobility, so there’s that.


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9. Partialverse – Partials, by Dan Wells

This might be my biases showing, but I’ve never really found that scifi works out too well for random citizens trying to live a normal life here on earth.

In this case, a technological advance years ago resulted in a race of android super-soldiers who were engineered to fight humanity’s wars for it. At some point, the soldiers decided they didn’t really like being slaves, and they supposedly unleashed a virus that killed 99.99% of the human race and kills every newborn child within a few days of birth. When the novel begins, humanity is desperately searching for a cure to the disease, while preparing itself to fight against a race of inhuman killing machines. To make matters worse, since humanity is a dying breed, all women are legally obligated to get pregnant as often as possible, in hopes of giving birth to the miracle baby who will be immune to the disease. I could endure the war and the fear, but any world that wants to turn me into a walking incubator just creeps the everloving hell out of me.


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10. The Wizarding World – Harry Potter, by J K Rowling

I loved reading these books, and I’ve enjoyed writing in the universe, but good lords is this world messed up? A random percentage of the world has magic, and the way they decided to deal with life was to lock themselves away in a hidden world behind the world, where they then proceed to ignore as much of our reality as they possibly can. Even assuming you’re lucky enough to be born a witch or wizard, and therefore not subject to just being a victim of a random act of magic, life is still bleak and terrifying. As far as we can see, education in the wizarding world goes until the student is 17, at which point they seem to be directed straight into a career in politics, law enforcement, education, or professional sports. Within the only school we see, most of the subjects are designed to give young wizards a practical magical education, with little or no attention paid to such basic necessities as math, literacy, or home ec. It’s no wonder the ministry is incompetent, if half of its members were shipped there straight out of high school with no real understanding of how to think critically, do basic math, or prepare and edit standardized documents.

Also, you know, the part where they rely on the honour system as the only thing standing between you and some random kid with a pointystick, and a killing curse.

Siobhan shook her head briefly, and started again from the beginning.

“I don’t quite know what happened last night. It’s all sort of a blur, and I”m not sure I even want to remember all of it, but … I know I was in bad shape. The last thing I can remember is falling off of the highway, and I don’t think that sort of thing is normally very good for someone.”

She looked down at herself, clean and neat, and then back up at the woman.

“I sort of expected to wake up dead this morning,” she said, managing this time to ignore it when Alton abruptly looked over at her. “Or at least, in a lot of pain. I don’t know exactly what you did, but … thank you.”

If it was harder than it should have been to say that without shuddering at the idea of it, well. She’d managed.

For a moment, Donna didn’t respond – to chide, or demure, or wonder what a random coed was doing on a highway in order to in a position to fall off in the first place. She gave Siobhan a long, steady look that seemed to contain more than it had any right to, and then tipped her head slightly to one side in acknowledgment.

“I didn’t really have to do very much,” she said. “I’ve never been much of a healer. You’d already mended the worst of it on your own, before Sam even found you.”

It was Siobhan’s turn to hesitate.

“I don’t understand,” she said – the truth, although she was developing unsettling suppositions.

“He lives out in the woods a little ways out from town,” Donna said. “He found you while he was out, and brought you here. Don’t worry, he’s a lovely man.”

“No, no.” Siobhan held up a hand. “Not him. What do you mean, I’d mended the worst of it?”

Donna opened her mouth as though to speak, then closed it. She narrowed her eyes slightly, used one finger to tug down the specatcles she was wearing until she could examine Siobhan over them. Her gaze rested for a long time on Siobhan’s face, before flicking down to her chest. That was going to take some getting used to, Siobhan thought, fighting the urge to blush.

“You’re from Ramport,” Donna said finally.

“Yes.”

“Is this your first time out of the city?”

Siobhan frowned.

“No offence,” she said, “but I’m not really sure why I should answer that.”

Alton had moved away until he was standing just behind Donna, easily visible even when Siobhan wasn’t trying to look at him. He folded his arms, and cocked his head.

“You said you wanted answers,” he said. “You might want to try giving a little.”