Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I Feel Pretty!

I read a lot of queries for fantasy novels. No, they don't come my way; I read them on various writing forums. I don't know if it's that fantasy writers use such forums more than other writers or if there are just that many more fantasy writers out there these days. I fear it's the latter. No real surprise there, after a decade of LOTR, Potter, and that vampire series. I just read another such query, and had a realization:

Special is hard to do. By Special I mean your main characters who discover they have magic powers, are elves, fey, vampires, werewolves, or whatever the term is that you've invented for them. I see a lot of neologism in this area. Special is Harry Potter, obviously.

Not-Special is easier. Not-Special is Frodo Baggins, an everyhobbit with a big problem to solve. Even better is Sam Gamgee, a hobbit of no advantage whatsoever who gets stuck helping with someone else's problem and makes it his own.

What is wrong with special? Why did I stop reading today's query letter the minute the teenage girl main character discovered that she was secretly Special, which happened in the first sentence? Why could I not even continue long enough to find out what this morning's neologism meant? One reason is that there are thousands of these Special teenage girls out there. Here is who she is:

A quiet girl, bookish, doesn't fit in with the popular crowd, probably has family trouble (missing parent is common). She's probably lower-middle class or poor, and doesn't have the latest cool electronic gadgets. Heck, she has no friends or only one who is an equivalent social pariah; who would she text? Often picked on at school, subject of ridicule, obviously uncomfortable with the relaxed sexual mores of the other students. Appearance-wise, she might wear glasses or be forced to wear hand-me-downs or charity-shop finds that don't fit. She's uncomfortable about her figure, which is quite nice. She'll have one flaw-that-isn't, like green eyes that are a little too big, or set too far apart, or an untamable cascade of chestnut-brown hair. You know, a real dog. If the author is extremely daring, this poor girl might be ten pounds overweight, which in these books means she's 120 lbs. at 5' 4".

And then her weird uncle who has been living in Paris but really was prowling the alleys of Eastern Europe shows up and tells her she's the crown princess of an empire of werewolves, or whatever. He may give her a Special ancient book or amulet just before disappearing or dying mysteriously.

I'm not saying there isn't an audience for this; there obviously is, but it's like the audience for romance novels that are utterly predictable: it's not a challenge, it's very hard to do in an interesting way, and there are a lot of us who wish it would go away.

So how do you make Special work? J.K. Rowling is the master of this. Was Harry Potter the average eleven-year-old when the series started? No, he wasn't. He had magic powers. Heck, he was the Boy Who Lived, Special among the Special. Her trick to Special is this:

Piling On.

Harry wasn't just like every other kid. He was essentially a slave to the Dursleys. Rowling's touch was comedic, but the situation was not. Harry was so far down in life that no reader envied his place in the world and every reader wanted to see the Dursleys get what was coming to them. By the time the first owl showed up we were all rooting for Harry. By the time Hagrid appeared, we were thrilled to hear that Harry was Special.

So there's one trick. If your Special character is specially burdened among the Not-Specials, you increase the chances that we'll cheer when their Specialness is revealed. The other method, which works less well, is to make the Specialness seem like something negative. Finding out you're part werewolf might be bad; I don't know, not my area. Why this doesn't work quite as well is that your readers like the idea of being part werewolf or they wouldn't have bought your book. And they know you're going to make it cool somehow. It's like the romance writer who says "he wasn't her sort of man at all! She hated him!" Yeah, yeah, get in bed.

The more successful approach is usually to go with Not Special. Your main character is not a werewolf. Not even a little bit! She isn't fey, isn't an elf, isn't a vampire, isn't a princess of anywhere in this world or the next. Neither is her weird uncle. He's just weird. She might find a magic ring, only for the love of god, don't make it a magic ring. And when you're creating her, please avoid making her "the novelist at the age of sixteen." Because yeah, I've seen that movie, too.

1 comment:

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