Should Books Acknowledge Their Own Plot Holes?

Last year while reading, I came across a couple books that acknowledged something that occurred in the book was illogical and left a gaping hole in the plot…then shrugged it off and moved along with the story with either a poor explanation or no explanation at all. I suppose the authors (and editors) felt the acknowledgment of the issues was a sufficient means of addressing them, better either than ignoring the plot holes or correcting them, but personally I was dissatisfied. I’ve written before about valuing logic in the books I read, and a nod to the fact that there was a lapse in logic, without actually fixing it, didn’t feel like enough for me.

In one of the books, the plot hole came when the protagonist decided to have a steamy sex scene with a guy she was not actually on good terms with (in fact, they were on terrible terms, and not in some sort of joking fake-enemies way). Pages after the scene, she herself reflects on the fact that it was really weird she decided to get intimate with a guy she hated so much, and then…nothing. The book moved on, and I was left wondering what on earth I’d just read. Was there a need for that sex scene? Is there a quota for romance novels, and it just had to occur??? Is some explanation going to be offered in the sequel? I have no idea, but I would have been happier if the protagonist had just remained righteously angry and not slept with the guy. In this case, just eliminating the scene would have kept the book running smoothly.

In another book, the plot hole was rather major; in fact, most of the plot hinges on the unlikely event and illogical explanation for it, which likely explains why the author didn’t fix it. In brief, much of the plot hinges on the character not knowing something that she should have easily been able to find out. In fact, she is researching the very subject…but never comes across the relevant information. Some characters note it is odd she didn’t find the (not really that rare) information and then carry on, plot hole noted and ignored. I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes because this simply does not make sense.

And the brief acknowledgment that it doesn’t make sense reads like the kind of half-hearted revisions I would sometimes make when professors pointed out gaps in my research papers in college. Maybe they would write feedback on a draft like, “What about the possibility the character didn’t do this out of charity but rather out of jealousy?” and then I’d “revise” my paper by writing two sentences starting with, “Some readers might think the character did this out of jealousy, but that’s not true because of [really brief reason]” instead of fully revising the paper to engage with the jealousy argument in-depth. My professors generally didn’t go for it, and I don’t go for it either as a reader.

Mostly I find it frustrating when authors acknowledge their own plot holes and then leave them because it indicates they know about the hole but think I, as the reader, won’t really care. Apparently the hole is egregious enough to note, to tell the reader, “Yes, I did in fact notice this problem! I didn’t completely overlook it!” But for some reason it’s not important enough to fix. They assume I, as the reader, will be too swept away by the rest of the story to truly care. There might be a gaping hole, but I can be trusted to buy the book and like it well enough anyway.

What are your thoughts? I think, in an ideal world, we’d all say that authors should fix the plot holes. But if they don’t, should they acknowledge them? Or gloss over them and hope no one notices?

Briana

Writing Rambles: Cultivating Ambiguity

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I have a vexed relationship with contemporary short stories.  Writing a short story is in many ways an entirely different skill from writing a novel, so when even my favorite, most-loved novelists contribute to a short story anthology, I usually end up disappointed with the results.  (And when Edgar Allan Poe, king of short stories, tries to write a novel, everyone ends up disappointed with the result.)  For a while I accepted this situation pretty much at face value.  I figured these authors didn’t focus on crafting short stories, so of course they weren’t as good at it as they were producing longer fiction.  They just needed more practice, which they were unlikely to get because once you’re a bestselling author, there’s little point in moving to the less-glamorous short story market these days.  But the more I thought about why I don’t like many of these stories, the more I began to realize there was a trend.

Perhaps it’s the Edgar Allan Poe influence, but a disproportionate amount of writers seem to believe that a short story has to be suspenseful; it has to be ambiguous.  But there are more and less effective ways of trying to twist your readers’ brains with ambiguity, and for it to work particularly well, the story often needs to be exceptionally clever.  Many stories stop short of cleverness and end up just being frustrating in one of three ways: 1) being so vague that it’s hard to imagine even the author had a clear conception of what was supposed to be happening in the story, 2) just not telling the reader the answer to whatever riddle/mystery/situation was set up, 3) suggesting two answers are possible when they’re clearly contradictory and both are illogical.

I recently ran into this issue with Among the Shadows: 13 Stories of Darkness and Light.  To be fair, this anthology was released around Halloween and was themed around “dark” tales, so there was particular incentive for creepy, ambiguous tales to be submitted.  However, many of them fell flat for me, despite the fact I loved the novels of several of the contributing authors.  A couple of the stories were standouts.  I especially enjoyed Lenore Appelhans’s “Panic Room.”  In a few short pages, she gave me a character, a plot, and enough world-building to make the story work.  Many of the other stories contented themselves with hazy world-building and inexplicable magic, as if writing a short story automatically excuses you from giving your readers context.

Yet this unanswerable ambiguity also makes its way into novels.  I’m somewhat of a black sheep for not loving The Accident Season, and though there were several reasons the novel was not my favorite, the illogical ending sealed the deal for me. [Spoilers ahead.]  The story simply wants to have its eat and eat it, too.  The ending isn’t just artfully unclear; it’s contradictory.  It tries to tell me that the “accident season” isn’t real at all and it’s all in the characters’ heads—but it also wants  me to believe there were supernatural forces at work.  So…some of the accidents were caused by “magic” but not all of them?  I frankly have no idea, but my reaction here is not thoughtful acknowledgment that we cannot have all the answers in the world; it’s frustration because the ending doesn’t make sense.

Total Recall (1990), in contrast, does the ambiguous ending well.  There are two possible interpretations of the move: Quaid is still in the dream-sequence, or he actually woke up at some point during the sequence and the story all really happened.  (Inception could be another example, though I think that movie gives broader hints at the end about which interpretation is correct.)  The key is here that both interpretations are logical—either of these things could reasonably have occurred, given the world-building, and there is enough evidence in the movie for a viewer to argue a case for either interpretation.  Both endings are equally believable.

I enjoy ambiguity, but it’s difficult to do well.  It takes cleverness and a solid set-up.  If one of the two presented options clearly isn’t right based on information or plot occurrences previously given in the story, the ending will fall flat.  If the story just cuts off, it’s not tantalizing or mysterious; it just looks as if the author didn’t have a possible explanation for the strangeness of the story in mind, which makes the whole thing less believable.  Creating ambiguity, it turns out, requires creating a lot of consistency in other areas of the story.  The goal isn’t to have no explanation, but rather to imply there is one, there could be one that works with the rules of the world, even if the readers don’t quite know what it is.

Briana

 

Three Things to Find Before You Write Your Memoir

 

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Find Your (Original) Story

If you’re thinking of writing a memoir, you probably already know you have an interesting story to tell. The next step is figuring out what’s different about your story, and how you’re going to pitch that difference to readers. If they’ve already read six chronicles of life-changing backpacking trips across Asia, what’s the hook that’s going to make them want to pick up yours?

Find Your Focus

When writing about your own life, it’s tempting to start at your birth and keep chugging along until the present-day. However, readers will be more interested if you stick to the most fascinating parts of your life. If your memoir is about your experience touring with a band in the 80’s, you’ll want to set the bulk of your book in that decade, since that’s where the action is. A reference to the fact you were given your first guitar at the age of six might be fitting, but you may not need to dedicate an entire chapter to how you learned to play.

Find Your Audience

Memoirs written by celebrities have a built-in audience, but who is going to be yours? Before you write, you need to decide. How much does your audience already know about baking, or the military, or what it’s like to dredge up ancient treasures from the bottom of the Pacific, and how much do you need to tell them about it? What tone are you going to use—confiding, witty, academic? Are readers going to find your stories as funny or wild as you do, or are some of these events of the “you had to be there to understand” type?

*Based on my experience evaluating manuscripts as a literary agency intern

Briana

Writing Rambles: How to Write a Compelling Romance

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Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.


Romance sells.  Plenty of authors have written what they deemed great stories, only for someone to suggest that, if they want the book to be better or more marketable or better-selling, they should add a love interest.  However, the trick isn’t as simple as just plopping a handsome bachelor or a charming young girl into the plot and adding some witty banter or moony-eyed looks, depending on the couple’s penchants.  Good romances, one readers can feel invested in, take time to build and require detail.  Below I list some elements I think contribute to a quality swoony romance.

The characters get to know each other.

There are times and places that audiences will accept insta-love: in Shakespeare, in fairy tales, and in Disney movies, for example.  In most cases, however, readers cannot “feel” a romance that grows out of nothing.  For many readers, the build-up and the sexual tension are as important to a fictional romance as the actual relationship.  Good authors (the ones who aren’t trying to take a cheap shortcut to love) know that their characters need to start out as friends, or enemies, or people who know each other in whatever capacity if their relationship is going to have any valid foundation.  And, accordingly, they write scenes where the characters meet, interact, and learn each other’s personalities before they jump straight into kissing.

The characters have flaws.

It’s fun to imagine the perfect lover, so it’s probably pretty tempting to write one.  As long as you’re in the process of inventing people and worlds and crazy situations, you might as well give your protagonist the best, right?  That charming, intelligent young man or woman who couldn’t be more gorgeous?

Unfortunately, perfection is only passingly enchanting.  It’s satisfying for a daydream, but it is not sustainable long-term.  Readers will quickly tired of, or become annoyed with, a character who is so perfect he or she doesn’t seem real.  And when readers start questioning the realism of a love interest, they begin questioning the realism of the romance itself.

But there are reasons they are compatible.

Swoon-worthy romances involve characters who are not simply awesome on their own, but who somehow click and are made better together.  This goes back to point one, where the characters get to know each other, but they really need something in common: a hobby, a worldview, a personality trait.  They should not only talk about these common factors, but work on them together, so readers get to see their passions in action.

The relationship faces challenges.

Relationships need to grow if they are to remain relevant to the parties involved and interesting to readers.  The challenges the characters face can be either personal (relationship drama, one character’s struggles) or external (saving the world, surviving an apocalyptic wasteland), but they should face something together and come out the other side stronger.

There’s that one sweet moment.

Finally, successful romances are at least occasionally, well, romantic.  Neither character has to be a chronic sweet-talker or plan extravagant stunts, but it’s always great to see a love interest go out on a limb, or put their heart on the line.  When things get tough for the characters, they can always think back to that conversation or that moment, remember what someone was willing to do for them, and think, “Yes, I really am loved. “ And isn’t that attractive?

Conclusion

Romances come in all shapes and sizes.  Some love interests are sweet. Some are cocky.  Some relationships are fiery with passion.  Others are quiet and deep.  The one thing that seems to get readers invested in a romance, no matter the type, is being able to know the characters and follow them on their journey.  Readers want to see why characters have fallen in love, so they can root for them to succeed.

What do you like to see in a romance?

Briana

Preparing for Publishing Internship Interviews- Updated

Publishing Internship Interviews Sample Questions

Introduction

As the season for applying to summer publishing internships approaches, I thought I would share some of the interview questions I have been asked while applying to both internships and full-time jobs with publishers.  (Full disclosure: I have had one editorial internship with a major publisher and three internships with literary agents. No full time jobs yet, but I do have significant experience applying to these positions!)

I have written previous posts with my Top Ten Tips for Getting an Editorial Internships and my Top Ten Things I Learned As an Editorial Intern.  If you have any internship/publishing questions I haven’t answered, feel free to ask in the comments, or email me!

Interview Questions

First Interview

  • Why are you interested in [specific type of literature]?
  • Why are you interested in this publishing company?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • What are your favorite books?
  • What television shows do you like to watch?
  • What are you reading currently?
  • What is a recent book you read that you didn’t like?  Why?
  • How do you stay organized?
  • Are you detail-oriented?
  • Describe your ideal work environment.
  • What did you learn at your last internship?
  • Are you ok with doing a lot of administrative tasks?
  • Tell us about your blog.
  • Do you have any questions for us?

As you can see, the interview questions tend to include a mix of “standard” interview questions and questions specifically about books. Of course, you’ll want to demonstrate your interest in the company.  Tell them why you want to intern or work specifically at that company, with that imprint, not just why why want to work in the publishing industry in general.  You’ll also want to demonstrate that you read the books the specific imprint publishes. Be able to talk about a variety of books in the genre/category, and make sure you’re not only mentioning bestsellers.

First Interview (Academic Publishing Internship)

  • Read a manuscript proposal.  If you would like to acquire it, write a reader’s report to the editor explaining why.  If you would not, write a rejection letter addressed to the author.

Second Stage Interview (Children’s Editorial Internships and Literary Agencies)

  • Read manuscript and write a reader’s report.
  • Read manuscript and write a reader’s report and jacket copy.

How to Write a Reader’s Report for Your Application

If you’ve made it to the second round of an interview and are now being asked to write a reader’s report, congratulations!  In the best-case scenario, the publisher or literary agency will send you a sample of the type of report they’re looking for and other general instructions. (This is particularly helpful because different employers will want rather different lengths of reports and different information included. I’ve written six page reports for one internships and one page reports for others.)  If you aren’t given instructions, I suggest inquiring what they’re looking for. However, if the answer is vague or if (like me), you’re asked to write the report on the spot at an in-person interview, here’s some general advice:

Do Preliminary Research

If you’re applying to work with a specific imprint or a specific person, try to figure out their tastes.  As an intern or entry-level employee, you’re not generally being asked to give your personal opinion on a manuscript; you’re being asked whether the manuscript is something your supervisor would be interested in.  If your tastes don’t naturally coincide, you’re going to have to do your best to think like your supervisor, especially before they hire you.  I’ve been rejected from internships for essentially not having the “correct” opinion of the manuscript I was asked to write a sample reader’s report on.

So do some research. What manuscripts has your potential supervisor acquired before?  Have they done any interviews where they’ve stated what they are or are not looking for in a book? What types of books does their publishing house or agency generally acquire?  I’ve been given a manuscript for an internship application that was listed under “recent deals” on a blog post on the agency’s website and, in fact, had recently been published.  I tried to do the honest thing by telling the agency I knew the book had been sold to a major publisher and didn’t feel I could give an unbiased report on it (anyone who had done a Google search would know to write a positive reader’s report!), but the point is that you never know what useful information you’ll find.

Answer These Questions

But what should actually be in the report?  Again, the desired information will vary by potential employer. Some people are mostly interested in characters while others want to know if the plot is engaging.  However, if you haven’t been provided with particularly clear instructions on what the employer is expecting the report to look like, consider these categories:

  • Summary. The editor/agent will probably have a query letter with a summary of the manuscript. However, since they haven’t read the manuscript yet themselves (the point of a reader’s report is to give them a sense of whether they want to), it can help to give them your own, brief take on what the manuscript is about. This will also give them the information they need to follow your report, such as who the characters you’ll be referencing are.
  • Characters. What are the characters like?  Are they developed?  Do they have arcs? Or are they flat? If you want to make a statement on whether they’re “relatable” or “likable,” remember that these impressions can vary widely by reader.
  • Plot. Is it engaging?  Logical?  What is the pacing like?  How much of the plot is “action” and how much is “character development?”
  • Voice.  Who’s telling the story?  What is the voice like?  Is it appropriate for the character?  For instance, does a first person narrator who’s fifteen sound fifteen or do they sound fifty? Or is the author trying too hard to make them sound fifteen and using too much ridiculous slang?
  • Writing. What is the prose like?  This could be one of the most important points of the novel. Remember that, with a good editor, anyone could spruce up their plot or make their protagonist more developed. But if the prose is clunky, awkward, or just unsophisticated, that’s going to be difficult to fix.
  • Recommendation. Finally, make a clear recommendation. Do you think this is a clear winner your supervisor will definitely want to look at?  Do you think it has potential so your supervisor should look at it to give a more experienced evaluation of it?  Or is the manuscript not worth your supervisor’s time? If you feel you have enough insight into the industry/market to make further comments, you can also give your impression of whether you think the manuscript would sell. (For instance, maybe it’s a pretty well-written vampire romance, but that fad is past and it’s not remarkable enough to really find readers at this point in time, so you’re recommending a pass on the story but keeping the author in mind for future projects.)

Further Reading

If you’re still searching for a position to apply to, check out my other posts:

Have you applied for any publishing positions? What was your experience?

Writing Rambles: Editing

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Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.  If you enjoy this post, you can also check out Creating Description and Writing Fantasy Dialogue.


Most of us will at some point in our lives be requested to edit something—maybe not a book manuscript, but at least an essay, either as a peer-editing assignment for class or a simple favor asked by a friend.  Many people, however, are unaware of the time commitment that good editing takes (you know them, the ones who, at 10 p.m., send you their 15-page essay that’s due at midnight).   These people assume that “editing” simply means “proofreading.”  After all, in two hours, they have no time to fix anything more major than grammar.  Yet thorough editing requires so much more—multiple readings of the text, an understanding of its main themes, good writing ability on the part of the editor and the ability to respectfully balance criticism and praise.  After the role of the editor is completed, the process needs the willingness of the author to take constructive criticism in stride and put time and effort into making more than superficial changes to their work.

Below I outline a few basic steps for good editing. They’re guidelines, rather than rules, and can be rearranged or repeated as necessary for specific circumstances, but should give a good starting place for those looking to improve their informal editing skills.

First Read-Through

The first read-through is usually just that—a read-through.  The editor should move through the text to get a general impression of what it is trying to do.  If grammar mistakes are minor, this could be the time to correct them, as long as it doesn’t interrupt the flow of reading.  If there are many, proofreading should be saved for later.

After the first reading, the editor should jot down notes.  Consider these questions:

  • Overall impressions.  What things stood out immediately during reading—either things that worked for the text or things that need to be improved?
  • What was the main point of the work?  If it is an essay, what is the thesis?  If a book, what is the plotline and where is the emphasis?  Is the story mostly about plot or mostly about a character’s personal development?
  • What is the intended audience of the work?
  • What is the voice?
  • For fiction: What is the ratio of action to character development? For nonfiction: What is the ratio of original thoughts to quotations or citations of others’ research?
  • What are some first impressions about how the work can better reach its goal?

Second Read-Through

If the grammar is so inaccurate that understanding the text is actually difficult, this could be the time for proofreading. Depending on how responsible the editor is for proofreading, he or she could send the essay or manuscript back with a simple note to the effect of, “The text should be proofread carefully,” or he or she can do the job him or herself.

If proofreading is unnecessary at this point, the second read-through should be a more in-depth reading than the first.  The editor looks for the major issues he or she noticed in the first reading and takes more detailed notes, including practical ways these issues could be improved.  He or she notices new things in the text and gets a better understanding of the work in general.  Jotting down pages numbers is helpful.

Commenting

Here the editor either offers informal comments (for school essay) or writes a more formal editorial letter (for manuscripts).

Commentary should always open with the positives aspects of the work because 1) there probably are some and 2) it can help prevent authors from feeling crushed.

The body of the commentary outlines the major parts of the text than can be improved and, importantly, suggests ways the author can fix them.  Anyone can make a statement like, “The romance in the book is boring and sounds fake.”  It takes a good editor, one with good writing skills him or herself, to suggest ways the author might fix this.  More scenes with the two characters alone, perhaps?  More time of them getting to know each other before they fall in love?  An even better might be more detailed in these suggestions: Perhaps the characters can get to know each in the second chapter of the book.  Consider adding a scene in when everyone else leaves the restaurant and they’re left alone at the table.  Right now, they awkwardly leave in order to avoid each other, but what would happen if they stayed and talked?  Of course, authors are free to disregard editorial suggestions, but it helps to give them some concrete ideas to ponder.

The conclusion of the commentary highlights more positives of the text.  If something works, the editor wants the author to know so he or she keeps doing it.  An editor, depending on his or her relationship with the author, might also through in some encouraging words: I know I’ve given you a lot to think about, but I think your book is shaping up beautifully so far, and I know you’re up to the challenge of improving it!  Ending on a high note keeps people happy and is a reminder that the commentary is supposed to be helpful, not just poor criticism.

Third Read-Through

This is for line edits. After an author has edited the main points discussed above, it’s time to get detailed.  An editor can suggest the rewording of specific sentences, better transition sentences between paragraphs or chapters, etc.  This is also a good time for proofreading.  Even if the text was proofread before, the author deleted text and added new text, and these changes need to be proofread as well.

Celebrate!

The text is awesome now, so it’s time for the author and editor to celebrate the results of their hard work!

Many thanks to the editors I met during my internship last summer (company still unnamed!) for giving me insight into the process and ideas of what to look for in a text while editing!

Writing Rambles: Description

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Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.  If you like this post, check out our most popular posts: Writing Fantasy Dialogue and Three Things to Find Before You Write Your Memoir.


“Show, don’t tell” is a staple of modern writing advice.  Writers are supposed to describe characters and settings and things and hope that their descriptions are good enough that readers form the desired conclusions.  A home is comfortable because of the crackling fire and warm braided rugs, not because the author informed the reader, “This was the most comfortable home imaginable.”

This approach to writing is, generally speaking, quite admirable.  I hesitate to say this is the “correct” way to write or that readers should never “tell” anything, but a good description is both informative and fun to read.   However, description can be a huge pitfall for writers, as well as a huge bore to readers, if done poorly.  Below are some characteristics of the descriptions I like to read.  Feel free to express your thoughts on the topic in the comments!

Good Description Adds Something to the Story

Description should not be filler, but instead should operate as an important piece of a narrative.  It can help readers build a mental image for something or someone that is somehow important to the plot, such as laying out the terrain that questing characters will have to cross.  It can also help creative a mood for the entire novel, or for a single scene.

At sunset Emily sat in the lookout room. It was flooded with soft splendour. Outside, in sky and trees, were delicate tintings and aerial sounds. Down in the garden Daffy was chasing dead leaves along the red walks. The sight of his sleek, striped sides, the grace of his movements, gave her pleasure–as did the beautiful, even, glossy furrows of the ploughed fields beyond the lane, and the first faint white star in the crystal-green sky. (Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery)

Good Description Describes Something Real

Have you ever read a piece of amateur creative writing, where the descriptions were incredibly over-the-top because the writer was more interested in being “creative” than in actually describing something?  Perhaps falling in love was like “entering a multi-faceted vortex of pulsing and psychedelic feeling.”  Which hardly means anything at all.  Description does not need to be literal, but it should evoke an image or feeling that readers can understand.

She moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx.  (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor)

Good Descriptions Are Interesting and Well-Written

A boring description is one that should that should have been cut.  In the first place, it may be boring because it broke Guideline 1: It is not important to the story in any way, so no one cares.  It is possible, however, that it is relevant, but that it is too long, too detailed, and or just phrased plain language.

As mentioned in Guideline 2, a description only really needs to be an image.  Saying a character looks “like an angel” can be effective (assuming readers react as desired and work under the assumption that angels are beautiful) because it allows readers to conjure their own, individual images of perfect beauty.  No one is disappointed here, or mentally arguing that the freckles on a character are not an asset.  Sketching in some details, of course, can help and is perfectly appropriate, but two pages on the girl’s pert nose, with one nostril slightly larger than the other, and her luscious emerald eyes specked with minute flecks of gold is just going to lose people.

The best descriptions are often an idea, rather than a written photograph.

I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed! Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.  (The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien)

Writing Rambles: Should YA Characters Be Role Models?

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Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.  If you like this post, check out our most popular: Writing Fantasy Dialogue and In Defense of YA.


If one enters into enough book discussions or reads enough book reviews, it becomes apparent that criticizing protagonists—particularly YA protagonists—for not having the “right” personality type is common.  These criticisms can range from simple complaints that the character is annoying or unlikeable to passionate arguments for why the character is a terrible example for readers everywhere, and that the book featuring such a disgrace should have never been published.

Readers certainly have a right to hold and to voice such opinions.  I, too, have protested characters I thought were bad role models (or have objected to some of their actions, if not to the character as a whole).  I, like most readers, air these grievances because I believe that the books we give young people—or any people—matter.  Books can change lives and save lives.  They can shape readers’ philosophies and characters, often lastingly.  Books are both beautiful and dangerous things.

Nonetheless, I think bad characters, characters who make bad decisions, and characters with “weak” personalities are important for readers to experience.

Do Authors Have a Duty to Present Good Morals?

When considering whether certain characters, character actions, or whole books should be condemned, one of the first questions that naturally arises is whether authors even have a duty to write good characters, or ones who in some way move from making the wrong decisions to the right ones.

Such a question requires moral considerations—and it will be difficult for readers to come to a consensus.  Whether there exists an absolute morality in the first place, and then what that morality asks us to do, have been long debated.  There is not really space to address the topics here.  So, maybe it turns out that authors are free to write whatever types of characters they wish and owe the populace nothing in terms of morals or good examples.  Yet, I think there is generally some form of natural agreement between readers and writers that this is not so.

Writers tend to be readers.  As such, they understand the powers that books hold.  They understand that books influence thoughts and lives.  And I think most do not take that power lightly.  Most, particularly those interested in writing for a young audience, probably have some intention of writing stories that will be an influence for good—not didactic stories, but ones that help readers live just a little better, whether it be through demonstrating that they are not alone, showing them ways to handle difficult situations, or even just giving them a story that is beautiful and proves art is wonderful and there are good things in the world.

Ideas of Role Models Are Different

The problem is: readers, writers, and people all have different ideas of what is “right.”

Currently, one of the most maligned character types is the female who is too passive, or just not as kick-ass as Katniss, Katsa, or Celaena.  This, in the end, is simply a preference.  Although some readers have argued that more passive characters actually are bad examples for teen girls because they do not teach them proper independence and how to break out of what they view as outdated gender roles, it is hard to take this 100% seriously.  More likely, many people just find intense characters more interesting.  Yet these readers should understand that other readers might find those characters off-putting and overly aggressive and enjoy reading about other protagonists.

Still, there are often more serious issues at stake in YA literature.  Prominent ones include romantic relationships and the portrayal of sex and drugs.  Even here, however, there is room for debate.  Opinions on these matters vary in real people as much as they do in characters.  An author who portrays teenagers having frequent casual sex is as likely to believe she is providing good role models as one whose characters are waiting for marriage. 

The Need for “Bad” Characters and Bad Decisions

First, YA (and every book group or genre) needs a variety of characters just to remain interesting.  No one actually wants to read hundreds of books about the same personality.  Although it sounds odd to state that a sarcastic, kickass heroine could be boring—she could, if she were the only character one ever had the pleasure to meet.

Second, different character types appeal to different reader types.  Readers who find characters with low self-esteem annoying, for example, have probably always been fortunate enough to know confidence.  Yet they should understand that other readers do have low self-esteem and that they can relate to and benefit from reading a story about someone like them.  Reading about a shy character, an abused character, a generally passive character who ultimately achieves good things can help readers who are like those characters learn how to live their own lives more fully.

Intent Is Different From Representation

Nonetheless, readers are entitled—and I believe should be encouraged—to judge characters, character actions, and even books by their own personal morals.  If one believes books can teach readers how to live, it does not only make sense, but is also incredibly important, to read and recommend books one thinks provide the best examples and messages.

It is worth noting, however, that there is a difference between representing a character with flaws and approving of those flaws.  A “good” story might have a character overcome a bad personality trait or learn from his or her poor decisions—but it does not have to.   A reader’s objection to a book, therefore, should not be that characters do stupid, unlikeable, or immoral things, but that something about the book suggests that these things are actually good ideas.

Unfortunately, an author’s “intentions” are always a gray area.  Yet there are times where the “message” is often another subliminal state of understanding between reader and writer.  This is one of the primary reasons many readers object to books like Twilight, which many have argued portrays an abusive romantic relationship.  It is not merely that such a relationship exists in the book, or the fact that Bella does not come to her senses and deliver a monologue to her teen fans about the dangers of such relationships.  The problem is that something about the tone of the book glorifies the relationship and presents it as desirable.  Of course Meyers never inserts an authorial voice and says, “This is the type of boyfriend you should look for.”  She does, however, present Edward as the perfect boyfriend.  She is obviously expecting readers to swoon and not to write lengthy blog posts examining his controlling behavior.

It is the glorification or approval of bad characters or decisions that should be the greater basis for character condemnation, not the mere fact that a character makes poor life choices.

Conclusions

Readers have a wide variety of tastes, personalities, and moral compasses.  This fact alone can explain why there is—and needs to be—a variety of characters and character life styles in young adult literature.  Most would agree, however, that it is important for authors and publishers to provide a young audience with books that inspire their readers to become better people even as they tell a fantastic story.  Readers have the right, and arguably a responsibility, to support books they think send positive messages and to condemn ones they believe send poor ones.  Nonetheless, I think it makes more sense to condemn those books that seem to be actively promoting or encouraging bad behaviors rather than ones that simply include characters who make decisions with which a reader personally disagrees.

What are your thoughts? Should YA characters be role models? Do lessons need to be clearly stated? Must bad protagonists learn a lesson by the end of the book?

Writing Rambles: Writing Fantasy Dialogue

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Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.


I am an avid reader of fantasy and an enthusiastic student of the Middle Ages, which means I tend to gravitate towards books set in “old” or pseudo-medieval worlds.  A lot can, and has been, written about how authors should approach this type of world-building. Much of it, however, seems to focus on historical aspects.  I would like to argue that dialogue is equally important to creating a believable (not necessarily “accurate”) setting.

Unfortunately, a number of fantasy novels feature rather ridiculous sounding dialogue.  I mentioned this problem in a few recent reviews, and I had similar misgivings while readingeven more fantasy. (I am withholding specific titles because I see no reason to insult the poor books a second time.)  My unease inspired me to ponder what makes “good” fantasy dialogue and what makes it bad.

Common Issue 1: Lack of Knowledge about the English Language

Many authors appear to be unaware of the rich history of the English language, and thus helplessly mix words and speech patterns from different time periods in order to create something “medieval.”  Unfortunately, the most common result is a random type of language that was never spoken anywhere.

One author approach (the easiest) to the language situation is to eliminate contractions from dialogue in order to make characters sound more formal and therefore “old tymey-ish.”  Or something.  In general, however, the characters only sound absurdly stilted to the modern reader.  The author inevitably recognizes this and begins slowly introducing contractions, until the characters sometimes use them and sometimes do not—leading them to sound occasionally stilted and always confused.  This is a bad approach.

The second novice approach is to use words that “sound old,” which is inherently a subjective technique from the start.  The problems arise when authors, as noted above, do not have a clear conception of what words were used in the time period they are attempting to write. Randomly adding an –st suffix to verbs and using phrases found in Shakespeare is not the best way to write “medieval” language.  To clarify:

  • Old English/Anglo-Saxon (450-1100) Example text: Beowulf
    “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena   in gear-dagum….”
  • Middle English (1100-1500) Example text: The Canterbury Tales
    “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote.…”
  • Early Modern English (1500-1800) Example text: Shakespeare’s plays
    “This above all: to thine own self be true….”
  • Late Modern English (1800-present)

At all times, it is best to at least pick one time period and stick to it.  It is more forgivable for “medieval” characters to sound always modern or always Shakespearean, instead of awkwardly blending eras together.  Which leads to the next point:

Common Issue 2: Lack of Consistency

Consistency is important on both the sentence and the novel structure level.  If characters are using “old” language, each sentence should sound “old” in its entirety.  Writing something you would say and then replacing “you” with “thou” is not overly believable.

On the novel level, the style of the narrative should match the style of the dialogue.  “Old” language sounds stranger when directly contrasted with modern language.  The problem is exacerbated in books that purport to be first person narratives.  Why would a character write his or her own story in modern English and then talk to other characters in sentences like, “Where goest thou anon, lord father?”  This bizarrely implies that the character naturally thinks in modern language and must translate his or her own thoughts into more appropriate, “older” speech before conversing with anyone in his or her world.  And this really only makes sense in books like Incarceron where the society is purposely striving to live as though they are in a previous time period.

It is possible to make almost any type of writing style work, but it has to be consistent.  Great medieval fantasy can be written without any attempt to sound medieval at all.

Doing It Right: Tolkien As Example

Throughout this post I have referred to “old” language, using quotation marks.  By doing so, I wish to indicate that it is possible to write something that sounds accurately medieval without using actual Middle English.  Although I would support that as an interesting artistic choice, and some medievalists would be with me, the book would probably not sell well to a popular audience.  Thankfully, there are other options.

One of the best examples of authors who used “old” language:  J. R. R. Tolkien.

Admittedly, Tolkien held two advantages over the average author.  He was both a linguist and a medievalist by profession.  He was intensely interested in the use of words and in the Middle Ages, and was able to use his knowledge to work backwards with language, occasionally inventing words that sound appropriately antiquated to the modern reader but which never really existed.  (See The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary for an extensive discussion of this topic.)   Tolkien was highly familiar with the medieval tales and language that inspired him, and so was able to recreate the feel of them believably.

The above claims could be used to bolster some readers’ complaints that Tolkien is difficult to read.  (What?!  He’s playing with words!)  Yet a closer look at his text indicates that very often, Tolkien uses word order and sentence structure to create formal language.  His writing does not sound ridiculous because he does not spray his pages with “anon,” “yonder,” and “hark.”  An example of a beautiful passage:

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”

Tolkien also, in contrast to the “unintelligible writing” complaint, has moments in his prose that sound very modernly British.  The key to his writing is that he mixes this modern language with the “fantasy” language to create a style he uses consistently throughout his work.  The Lord of the Rings sounds real because it sounds just old enough to seem appropriate to its setting and just modern enough that it does not strike readers as overly odd.

Quick Tips for Writing Fantasy or Historical Dialogue

  • Read books from the era you want to emulate. Get a sense of how people really talked then.
  • Use “old” language judiciously.  You don’t have to make every word sound old or fantastical; you just need to have the flavor of old language.
  • Don’t mix language types. Don’t have the protagonist think in modern English and try to speak in Shakespearean English. Be consistent so people won’t notice dis junctions in the language.
  • Consider changing your sentence structure rather than your vocabulary. Think about whether reordering your sentence can make it sound more formal or “older” rather than trying to sprinkle in stereotypical terms like “hark” and “doth.”
  • Read your work out loud.  Can you speak the sentences you’ve written without stumbling over them or sound ridiculous?

What’s your best advice for writing fantasy or historically inspired dialogue? What are some books you think get this dialogue right?