Smart People Talking: Lynette Noni

Lynette Noni at Brisbane Supanova 2015
Lynette Noni at Brisbane Supanova 2015

Lynette Noni is a YA fantasy author, starting her series The Medoran Chronicles with the first exciting installment, Akarnae.

Lynette was one of the writers that attended Supanova in Brisbane this year, and had audiences incredibly impressed with her natural charm and passion for reading and writing.

During her Impossible Quests panel, with Isobelle Carmody and Juliet Marillier, she joined in the conversations around character death, epic questing, and writing  great stories.

Impossible Quests Panel

Quests are what we want to achieve.

We all dream of being better than we currently are, of changing the world or making an important impact. Epic quests, especially, give us a chance to see people taking those stands, and changing their worlds.

I completely suck at plotting! I tend to have a start and finish if I’m lucky. As long as you have an idea of the whole arc, it’s fine.

What was great about this panel was the different ways each author approached their writing. If Isobelle is driving at night, guided by headlights and a hope for the best, and Juliet has a full map at her side, and has studied it closely so she knows what to expect, Lynette’s approach is more a spontaneous road trip. It’s not about making the quickest time or finding the short cuts (which Juliet has quite possibly found). It’s about going from A to B and letting the journey be the point.

Sometimes it’s good to leave some strands open for people to wonder about.

Readers add their own experiences and understandings of the world to every story they read. It’s why so many of us see the same characters in vastly different ways. I’ve spoken in the past about the way we relate to the characters that somehow reflect either our ideal self, or some element of the life journey we’ve been on. We also tend to dislike the characters that remind us of people we’re currently annoyed at (looking at you, Tony Stark in the ‘Civil War’ trailer).

One of the reasons people get so frustrated with film adaptations is that it’s impossible for the characters to meet everyone’s expectations of how a character should look and sound. Those are the things we fill in without giving it a moments thought. We have preconceived ideas of what heroes and villains sound like (have a look at how many British actors play villains, and how many heroes have American accents), but especially if we’re white, we’re also more likely to assume the hero is generally like us (which is one of the reasons why people get upset when the hero doesn’t meet the general norms of storytelling, and isn’t a straight white guy).

In the same way that readers love imagining a character, we are more than happy to fill in minor gaps with our own experience or understanding.

Judging by the poor reception to the Deathly Hallows epilogue, sometimes less is more when it comes to tying up the loose ends at the end of a story. Yet, judging by fan reactions from Sleep No More (Season 9, episode 9 of Doctor Who), we’re also not really fond of not having the big questions answered by the end of the story. There’s a line between leaving some strands open and readers feeling like there’s a gaping plot hole there- the problem is that the line’s width varies with the reader. Some people like more strands to explore, some like everything neatly packaged. It’s one of those things that you’ll never please everyone with.

The beauty of the story is in the challenges that arise when you don’t take the easy route.

There are two conversations here: Deus ex machina, and the heroes journey.

Deus ex machina is cheating. Don’t do it. Easy fixes to problems aren’t the answer, because they’re never satisfying. In the last post, I mentioned Juliet talking about the limitations of magic being important. Without them, everyone has infinite power and they can solve problems nearly effortlessly.

Which is boring. Really, really, boring.

But those restrictions need to make sense, the same way that a character choosing the harder route has to make sense. If only girls under the age of 16 can do something, I’ll want to know why, because that’s quite a specific age range, and besides, what happens when they have their sweet 16th?

If a character has a choice of two paths, I’ll want to know why they chose the path they did, and I’ll want it to make sense in the context of the story. A convenient ‘meh, let’s see what happens’ won’t always be enough to justify that choice, especially if it’s an area they know well, they’ve been warned away from, or if there are cartoonishly clear signs that it’s a really bad idea.

Juliet also talked about characters learning something by the end of the novel, and that’s important here, too. A quick, easy journey doesn’t create opportunities for emotional growth. There are no real lessons in getting what you want effortlessly (and it’s not really a quest, is it?)

The challenges you throw at your character test them, train them, and shape them into someone new. They teach that character how to transcend their limitations, and to believe in themselves more and more. Perhaps its a baptism of fire, and it’s nothing we’d ever wish on actual human beings, but those challenges, and those difficult journeys, make the potential victory so much sweeter.

Don’t go easy on them, because easy victories aren’t as memorable, and characters breezing through life aren’t, either.

When I know I’m gonna kill characters x, y, and z, I distance myself from them. Writers surprised by their character’s deaths equals reader surprise.

In a way, this goes in opposition to Juliet’s idea that loving the character makes it more likely that the reader loves them, too. But it’s incredibly telling about Lynette’s writing style. For her, knowing a character is going to die means the very real risk of signposting it, and not having the death have such an impact on readers. It’s probably a good idea to go back and check to see if you’ve inadvertently distanced yourself from the characters you knew were going to die in the story.

The quest isn’t just about defeating the bad guy.

As soon as your quest is only about defeating someone, it loses some of it’s potential power and impact. There needs to be more than a hero/villain smack down, because really, what’s the hero going to learn other than how to duck or throw a better punch?

We want to see the characters grow and change. We want to see them learn something, and become something greater than they were at the start of the story. Seeing them win Ultimate Smack Down might be satisfying for a moment, but is it really worth hundreds of pages of reading?

Tropes That Need to Die: Rant One

There are always going to be tropes that irk people- it’s the nature of the writing game that not everyone will love what you do. But there are some that get trotted out regularly that really need to be sent to the old tropes home to live out the rest of their lives well away from modern writing.

I’m guessing this will develop into a series, but for now, here are the big ticket, ‘hell no’ tropes that are doing my head in at the moment:

All women want babies

QI-short-answer

Uh, no. Not all women want to be mothers. And that’s totally alright. No one is being thrown out of the sisterhood for refusing to spawn. This trope on its own makes me ragey, because there’s more than enough proof out there that parenthood isn’t for everyone, and that women (like men) can live fulfilling, wonderful lives without becoming parents.

The problem is that the ‘baby crazy’ themed tropes are a remnant of very old, not that relevant ideas around what women are, and what they want. It doesn’t say it’s okay to want babies (which it is), so much as it makes it mandatory for the female characters to be focused on motherhood above all else. It reduces female characters down to one course of action, and when all of your female characters are all about aspiring to motherhood all the time, without any other focus or real sense of self, it’s a parody of a gender rather than a group of realistic and well-designed characters.

It’s shitty, lazy writing.

But worse is when it leads to the next trope:

Women go crazy/dark side in the pursuit of motherhood

loki smackdown

I kid you not, I read a novel this year where two women (who had up until that point had zero interest in having children) suddenly and inexplicably began acting out of character, becoming almost monstrous in their quest for motherhood. These otherwise reasonable human beings were suddenly demonic in their need to reproduce, pushing aside all of their morals and all of their earlier life achievements because BABIES.

They became such horrible people that instead of being sympathetic to their plight, I was furious that this was how women were being depicted in 2015. I was furious that it made a mockery of the experience of women who have struggled to conceive, who want children for reasons more honourable than ‘I’m bored’, ‘I’m lonely’, or my personal favourite, ‘how funny would it be if I got pregnant before my sister, who is devastated by her inability to have children?’

These are women I don’t understand, cannot relate to, and have never met in real life. I know women struggling with the realisation they may not be able to have children biologically. I know women struggling to conceive. They are hurt, they are vulnerable, but they aren’t turned into horrible people by an inability to conceive.

You’re pregnant? The love of your life might be your half-brother.

brave merida

I am really sad to say that all of these tropes showed up in the one book.

I know, right?

Occasionally these tropes are done well, and they’re heartbreaking and add depth to the story. But more often than not it’s a lazy way of skyrocketing the tension completely out of left field. There’s no rhyme or reason for it, no signposting that it could be a possibility. You get close to the happily ever after, and suddenly, there’s this random dose of conflict thrown in.

Even the trope of ‘In love? He might be your brother’ bugs me, because it’s a needless way of adding drama that rarely comes across well. But when a woman finds out she’s pregnant, then has to deal with that in the name of narrative conflict and tension?

Ugh. Just no. Unless you’re really, really careful, it comes across as though you’ve created this foetus for the sole intention of debating whether to abort it or not. There are very few authors who can keep from making it feel like they’re holding the foetus hostage until the audience cries enough.

This isn’t to say abortion should be a taboo subject- honest discussions about the decision to keep or terminate a pregnancy are important in the real world, and in fiction. But if you’re throwing random emotionally charged issues into a story for no real reason beyond making readers cry, and you’re not giving those subjects the time and attention they need to be honest, then just don’t. It’s not fair to drop emotional bombs on your characters, and then act as though it never happened or had no real consequences. If you’re going to tackle difficult subjects, it needs to be about more than shock value.

 

 

Smart People Talking: Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier
Juliet Marillier at Supanova 2015

Juliet Marillier is a beloved writer of historical fantasy, and the creator of such literary favourites as the Shadowfell, Sevenwaters, Blackthorn and Grim, Wildwood, Saga of the Light Isles, and the Bridei Chronicles.

Juliet was one of the writers at Brisbane’s 2015 Supanova Con, where she was an incredibly popular speaker. During her Impossible Quests panel, alongside Isobelle Carmody and Lynette Noni, she discussed quests, writing, and the subtle art of killing characters.

Impossible Quests Panel

A quest is anything you aspire to. It doesn’t have to be slaying dragons- quests come in all shapes and sizes. They’re all around us in the world we live in. Smaller scale stories are quests, too.

Memoir is a type of quest, because the author is on a journey to learn or achieve something of immense value to them, and potentially to the people around them, too.

It’s been mentioned in the Isobelle Carmody post about this panel, but if someone is deeply invested in something, and/or on a journey to learn, grow, and change, then they’re on a quest, regardless of the genre you’re reading.

Quests are a big decision.

Quests aren’t simple, quick to achieve tasks with no emotional investment. The characters are taking a huge leap of faith by accepting the quest, and risking something in the attempt. Perhaps one of the reasons the Hobbit is so popular is because we can all relate to Bilbo’s reluctance to agree to that risk.

If a character isn’t scared, there should be a reason for that beyond ‘he’s brave’. Bravery isn’t an absence of fear. Absence of fear tends to be a psychological/neurological  issue, a lie, ignorance, or foolishness. If a character isn’t emotionally invested, why are they there?

I can’t think of any characters on a quest without any emotional investment in the journey. Gamora wants to stop Thanos. Drax wants revenge against Ronan. Rocket, as much as he plays the uncaring s.o.b, isn’t prepared to leave his friend behind even if it gets him killed. As much as Rocket tries to hide his affection, and as gruff as he is, the audience gets to see cracks in the armour, and his softer side. Sure, he’s not exactly invested in saving the universe at first, his focus is on his friend’s safety (and isn’t that a common theme?), but he’s also the first one to find a way to protect innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

It can be fun to play with the exterior persona, and the actual personality. And quests give writers a fantastic opportunity to do so.

Particularly for newish writers, a common difficulty is getting bogged down in the middle. That’s why having a basic framework can be helpful.

Though not all writers work the same way, if you’re struggling to get through the middle of the story, then it can be useful to have a basic understanding of the steps you need to take to get from the start of the story to the end.

If Isobelle’s writing style is like driving at night, seeing only what’s in the sights of the headlights, then Juliet is a proponent of at least sketching a rough map on a napkin before you start driving.

I need to know quite a lot about the plot and where the characters are going.

Juliet calls herself an arch-plotter, because she’s quite detailed in her planning work. She uses cards, and different colours to differentiate between the various narrators in her stories. She believes that it’s harder to get writer’s block when you have a list of scenes or chapters you need to write, and know what has to happen within them.

Another upside to detailed plotting is that there’s less revision at the end. Those of us with a meandering, exploratory first draft have a lot of work required to smooth it into shape. Plotters like Juliet don’t have as much work to get their draft into shape, because they’ve already figured out the basics.

Juliet’s writing routine is to write three chapters, edit them, and then move on to the next three chapters.

A lot of quests in real life are misguided (look at the Crusades). A quest is not necessarily a good thing, so you need a note of learning at the end. Life isn’t perfect. Maybe it’s the getting of wisdom: the satisfaction that someone has learned something.

Not all quests are good, and not all quests are being done for the right reasons. That super secret organisation your character is aligned with? How do they know they’re trustworthy? What would happen to your character if it turned out they’d been secretly working for the enemy (think Agents of SHIELD, or Alias)? What if they realised they had innocent blood on their hands?

People do a lot of horrible things for a lot of dodgy reasons. The thing is, even if we think those reasons are stupid, they make total sense to the person who believes in them. Sometimes, though, we start off believing those reasons and ideas. They make total sense to us, even if other people don’t seem to get it. But eventually (hopefully) we start to question, and doubt, and eventually turn away from those ideas. That journey towards understanding is a quest. Characters that never learn from their mistakes, or question anything in their lives, get boring very quickly.

Characters don’t have to just learn the psychologically healthy lessons. If they’ve been betrayed, they may not learn a particularly healthy lesson from it. Maybe they stop trusting anyone. Maybe they stop being so compassionate for a while. Or maybe they learn to be more careful in their choice of people to trust. It depends on the character’s personality, and their emotional investment in what happened.

Isobelle talked about the quest as an impossible ideal, and Juliet agreed with that idea. To her, if you can’t truly bring eternal peace, then it’s vitally important that your character at least takes some measure of wisdom with them as they return home.

Using magic to get characters out of trouble all the time is sloppy writing.

Don’t do it. Magic needs limits and boundaries to be effective in storytelling. If it can do everything, there’s no story to tell because the issue could be solved in a matter of moments with very little effort.

Done well, the death of a character that you love is a heart breaker for readers.

Writing the deaths of characters you love is painful, but necessary. But if you love your character, and are invested in them, there’s a good chance that it’s reflected in your writing, and the reader is invested, too.

The character deaths with the most impact are the particularly tragic ones (oftentimes this gets seen as ‘babies and animals’, but think about Lily Evans- we never really knew her as a character, but the idea of this woman standing over her baby and refusing to allow him to be harmed makes for a visceral, heartbreaking scene), or the deaths of characters you love or relate to.