The Curse of the Whiny Protagonist

shutterstock_148391531I’ll never forget reading book 5 of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Suddenly, sunny, kind little Harry was a brooding teenager. I remember thinking that I didn’t like him as much anymore. I understood that he was evolving as a character, and part of being a teenager is embracing angst – especially if you’ve just witnessed first-hand the death of a classmate. But his likeability factor plummeted. Of course, in spite of this change, this book is still incredible. I cried at the end. But it always stayed with me as the one book in the series where Harry didn’t feel like Harry.

So you’d think I learned a lesson from reading that, but after sending the second book in The Conjurors Series to beta readers, everyone said the same thing. My protagonist, Valerie, was too angst-ridden. And as I re-read and made edits, I realized they were right. Low self-esteem is part of her character, but it was over-the-top. Maybe massive low self-doubt is a natural part of being a teenage girl, but it didn’t read well in a heroine.

That’s when I realized that we don’t want to read about people who are exactly like everyone we meet in daily life. We want heroines who are exceptional, who, in spite of their flaws, rise above petty concerns and are capable of a depth of compassion or bravery or intelligence that we hope we are capable of, but we know most people aren’t. Maybe this isn’t true for every genre, but I truly believe the best YA fantasy books I’ve read all adhere to this idea in their protagonist. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior – I could go on and on – all tap into the best versions of themselves under difficult circumstances.

That being said, I know this opinion isn’t one that everyone shares. The Twilight Series or even The Catcher in the Rye prove that you can be successful with a whiny protagonist who is written well. But I confess that these books are not on my favorites list. However, if you do love super-angsty protagonists, check out this Goodreads list on popular whiny protagonists – it gave me a good chuckle. It’s a definite counterpoint to the heroes I mentioned above, and proof that in the hands of a skilled writer, any protagonist can be compelling.

Of course, the danger is going to the opposite extreme and making protagonists too perfect – something that can be equally annoying. Finding that tricky balance with my own heroine is something that evolves with every chapter I write. Hopefully, after hundreds of hours of writing and edits, Valerie will come across as a real, but exceptional, teenage girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances who rises to the challenges she encounters.

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The Art of Foreshadowing

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” – Anton Chekov

shutterstock_90204550Being in the hands of a master of the craft of foreshadowing is one of the most rewarding parts of reading a great book. J.K. Rowling is such a master – there are incredible examples throughout the entire Harry Potter series. But by far my favorite is when we learn that Snape loved Harry’s mother in the final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Rowling knew in book one that this was coming and laid clues throughout her series, from the color of Harry’s eyes to the hatred Snape had for Harry’s father, that made the payoff in book seven incredibly rewarding. It was one of those moments as an author where I shake my head and consider giving up the craft in the face of such genius.

Another example of excellent foreshadowing that I recently read is in Kendra C. Highley’s Matt Archer series. (I’ll be interviewing her in July, for those who would like to hear more.) I don’t want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read her latest book, but she had a creative idea that I haven’t seen before. Her character has a vision of himself with a strange marking, like a magical tattoo. It’s foreshadowing when he has the vision, then again when he gets the mark, because we know that he’ll be having some crazy adventures soon.

We all can’t be Rowling, but I do try to incorporate good foreshadowing into my writing – which invariably involves intense planning for my entire series, rather than planning book by book. This is my favorite part of the writing process – creating the overarching plot and identifying where the payoffs of each storyline will occur. It makes me feel like the master of my own little universe. For some great basic information and tips on foreshadowing I also like the advice in this All Write – Fiction Advice blog post.

But in the actual implementation of little clues throughout my series, I am constantly second guessing myself – are the hints too obvious, or too obtuse? It’s hard to find a balance between ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and a little failed eye contact by a character at a key moment. What seems blatant to me as the author may be totally missed by an unsuspecting reader. So it’s critical that I have honest beta readers who can give me feedback.

Do you have any tips on how to implement foreshadowing well?

Read It and Weep (Literally)

shutterstock_102844172This week I killed off my first character, ever. It was difficult – even though I wasn’t super attached to him, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. After all, he was a good guy and under different circumstances maybe he could have lasted for another chapter or two. But after reminding myself that he was, in fact, a figment of my imagination, I was able to focus on the most important part. How to make his death compelling.

What is it that makes death truly gripping in great young adult fantasy writing? I remember crying when Sirius Black and Dumbledore died while reading J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series. And little Prim got a sniffle or two when I read Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy. But I wasn’t sad so much because the characters were gone, but rather because of the emotional toll it took on Harry and Katniss. It was their response that sparked the reaction in me.

Gandalf‘s death in J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings, however, didn’t move me in the same way. He was my favorite character in the series, but when he died I felt more like shrugging than crying. Maybe it was his age. Maybe it was because he died a victor and had led a full life. Of course, then he returns as Gandalf the White, and as happy as I was to see him, I was glad I hadn’t wasted any time grieving for him. So it’s safe to say that you won’t find any of my characters coming back from the grave.

As a reader, I like when an author isn’t afraid to kill off main characters. It makes me feel like no one is safe, which heightens the tension during the action scenes. Now I just have to work on writing the emotion of these moments well.

Do you have any suggestions about things to consider for writing about death in young adult fantasy?

Five Terrifying Young Adult Fantasy Villains

Over the past few weeks I’ve been creating the backstory for the villain of my series, The Conjurors. I want him to be believable, compelling, and frightening. For inspiration, I looked to the masters of young adult fantasy and considered which villains I found most captivating. Below are my top five.

Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

VoldemortJ.K. Rowling may not be the first author to use Hitler as a model for her super villain, but she is the most creative, in my opinion. Voldemort’s obsession with the purity of the wizard race, combined with his sociopathic childhood, make him both creepy and intensely threatening. Throughout the series no one was safe – not even civilians or children. When he whipped out his wand, my palms would sweat for whoever was at the other end of it. And let’s not forget his snake, Nagini. I think I’d rather submit to “Avada Kedavra” than be eaten by that enormous monster.

Metatron, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

A power-mad angel with almost unlimited powers, Metatron feels undefeatable in the His Dark Materials series. He uses the language of religion to create a dictatorship from heaven, where he can control human’s lives like puppets. Perhaps most chilling of all, he is even more powerful than The Authority, who is god in the series. Throughout the books, I found myself wondering how he could ever be taken down – but it was by his own weakness in the end, not someone more powerful than himself. My one gripe was that the hero and heroine of the story, both children, weren’t the ones to lead him to his doom.

Galbatorix, The Inheritance Cycle, Christopher Paolini

InheritanceCycleCoversUsing the souls of dead dragons to power his magic? Yikes! I have to give Paolini credit for finding one of the most original and sinister ways for a villain to derive his power. Galbatorix is absent for much of the series, but he is always talked about. This makes him more intimidating than if we were encountering him around every corner. And when Eragon does finally encounter the villain of the series, he doesn’t disappoint – he can possess people and, like Metatron, has to defeat himself because he is too powerful to be destroyed by anyone else.

Society, The Giver Quartet, Lois Lowry

TheGiverThe Giver was one of the most fascinating books that I read when I was younger, and Lowry has recently finished the series in 2012 with the final book, Son. In this series, it isn’t one villain who acts as the antagonist of the series, but rather society as a whole. The mob mentality of killing off those who are weak, and a conscious decision to shut off emotions, leads to very cold and clinical assessments of who should live and die. It’s a world where babies who cry too much are killed, having a disability can lead to execution, and it is up to children to be the moral compass for a society that has no idea that it is out of control. In this way the villain of the series is like the hydra – one head is cut off only to be replaced by two more.

Neferet, House of Night, P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

The House of Night series achieved something difficult when they created Neferet, a beautiful, powerful and charismatic vampyre who wants to instigate a war with humans. Part of Neferet’s appeal comes from the fact that she is so likeable at times – for a good part of the series you hope she can be turned around. She also has a great backstory that really makes you feel for her. I thoroughly enjoy a villain who I can sympathize with and isn’t pure evil. When the hero or heroine has to defeat someone they care about on some level, the stakes seem higher.

Did I miss your favorite YA fantasy villain?

Falling in Love on the Page

Picture1I’m writing the second book in my series, The Conjurors, and my main character is falling in love. Writing this in a way that feels real and conveys the power and passion of love when you’re 16 has been exceptionally hard for me to do well. If I keep it too minimal, readers won’t have an emotional investment in the relationship. But take it over the top, and it starts to feel like a cheesy romance novel.

Not to be controversial, but my one gripe with J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter (of which I’m a HUGE fan) was that I never felt invested in Harry and Ginny. Hermione and Ron, I was totally rooting for. But somehow I always felt like Harry deserved a more compelling love story.

At the other extreme, Stephanie Meyer‘s Twilight series hit a nerve with YA girls for the romance, but for the rest of us who were looking for more substance to the world and the action surrounding that story, the series was disappointing.

hungergamesSo how do writers find the right balance? I think that The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins did a great job of weaving a dynamic love triangle with a gripping story. It gave the series an emotional center that made the stakes higher and the consequences more poignant.

What YA books do you think have done an exceptional job with romance?