About a month ago, my friends and I went up to Edinburgh.
I had the best time. By some miracle the weather was amazing and we had glorious sunshine for all our trips to Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat and the Palace of Holyrood – which was just as well, as a lot of the museums we visited were crammedwith very creepy mannequins and I couldn’t have dealt with it in the dark. But it was a pretty hilly city, and we had to regularly refuel with tea and cake.
One of the places we went to was The Elephant House.
The Elephant House is a small café just opposite the National Museum of Scotland. It’s a little small, a little crowded, and the back room is filled with an eclectic assortment of chairs and tables, in a way that reminded me of going round someone’s house to see they’ve set up for a barbecue or something. I had a hot chocolate and my friends had some tea, and because we’re all used to London prices (a.k.a. “re-mortgage your house if you want another slice of cake” prices) we were all pretty happy with it.
But that wasn’t why we went. We went to The Elephant House because that is the place where JK Rowling wrote some of the early chapters of the Harry Potter series.
We had a full geek-out. We sat in the back room, by a window overlooking Edinburgh Castle, which was apparently the very place where the first draft of Harry Potter was actually written omigod you guys one of us could be sitting on the same chair as JK – and we were totally calm and mature adults about the whole thing. We didn’t even cry.
But the really nice thing was that we weren’t the only ones doing this. Our table was an old desk with working drawers. I pulled one open and found that it was crammed with letters, all written by visitors saying how much they loved Harry Potter. And that wasn’t all we found. Even the loos had been turned into a kind of shrine:
Harry Potter was a huge part of my childhood. I read all the books. I had the audiobooks too, and listened to them so often that to this day I can only hear the words in Stephen Fry’s voice. I’ve seen the movies, I’ve bought the merchandise, I’ve written fanfiction which (thankfully) is now dead and buried. But visiting The Elephant House really brought home the fact that it wasn’t just me. I got oddly emotional in those toilets, because it was so clear that people from all over the world had come to see the birthplace of Harry Potter in just the same way that I had done.
But Harry Potter wasn’t just a huge part of my childhood. It has also been a pretty constant feature of my adult life, and these experiences haven’t been quite so nice. The seventh book wasn’t the end of the franchise, though perhaps it should have been. Rowling’s efforts to continue the world of Hogwarts beyond that haven’t gone down so well. Her expansion of the wizarding world has been met with accusations of cultural appropriation. The follow-up play, The Cursed Child, was an incredible spectacle but, plot-wise, left a lot to be desired. And most disappointingly of all, Rowling has continued to support the casting of Johnny Depp in her Fantastic Beasts movie series: a man who tacitly admitted to domestic abuse in his official statement of separation from his now ex-wife, Amber Heard.
All of these things have changed the way I view JK Rowling and her series. Now, I’m much more sceptical of any new Harry Potter development. I’m less inclined to support a project just because it has Rowling’s involvement. Part of me wonders if, when I reminisce about the series, it’s not the books I’m nostalgic for but the way I felt when I first read them. They were an important part of my childhood, that’s true – but now, I am no longer a child.
Does this mean I don’t enjoy the series any more? If you mean the expanded HP universe, well, kinda. If you mean the original books, it’s a solid no. I still love those books. They were such an important part of my life that it would be kind of hard not to. Changing my mind about them would be almost like suddenly despising a childhood teddy. But it has made me look at them in a different light. Now I’m not afraid to look at them critically, or to share my (copious) opinions about them. I still enjoy them, but I can acknowledge that they have flaws, and that the author holds views that she and I don’t share. Despite everything that has happened since the final book was published, it was a formative series for me and I still appreciate having had it in my life.
And then, I left the toilets.
So if you’re ever in Edinburgh and want a cup of tea and a muse about children’s books, I can recommend popping along to The Elephant House. Perhaps you’ll pull a JK and inspiration will strike, and there’ll be different graffiti in the toilets the next time I go. Or maybe you’ll just sit at a table in the back room, pull open a drawer that you didn’t know was there, and you’ll find this:
Picture this. You’ve just picked up a copy of a classic book. It’s the kind of thing that people study in English lessons or write dissertations on. People you know can quote one or two of the lines off the cuff. There’s about seventy million adaptations of this thing, usually featuring Hollywood’s latest chiselled British darling as the leading man. Cultured and intelligent people read this book in tweed jackets and discuss it over port, and now that you have finally got a copy, you’ll be able to talk to them about it instead of sitting in the corner and hoarding all the cheese.
So, you read it. And it’s kind of disappointing.
This has happened to me too many times to count – especially the part where I eat cheese in a corner instead of joining in a conversation. I’ve read quite a few classic books and it’s very rare that they live up to the hype. Part of this is probably because hype is kind of everywhere now, and when you’re in the middle of a constant cycle of “This feels-wrenching drama will stop your heart and set your soul on fire” -style advertising, it can be very difficult to go into stuff believing that this heart-stopping, soul-searing experience is actually going to happen to you.
But it did also get me thinking. On my Strong Female Characters series, one of the things that came up most often for classic books was that when they were originally written, their characters were ground-breaking. Now that time has passed, they’re not. The way that we receive and interpret stories depends entirely on the context in which they are read, and this includes time and place. Meanings get lost over time. The definitions of words change over the years, and implications that might have been obvious to a historical reader are lost on a modern one. Similarly, readers bring new interpretations to historical texts because we are looking at those texts having grown up with ideas that hadn’t been conceived when they were first written. Context is everything.
Plots and clichés are an excellent example of how stories have changed over time. Modern readers expect different things from the things readers expected fifty years ago, let alone a hundred years ago. Ideas that were original and unsettling when they were first introduced have been used so often that the shine wears off and they become clichés.
We’ve all seen this cliché before – in fact, I had a lot of fun with it in one of my Book Recipe posts. A bunch of people are invited to a mysterious old house, there’s probably a murder or two, and our plucky detective eventually discovers that the culprit was the butler all along! What shock. What horror.
But it’s worth remembering that when this trope was first introduced, it wasactually shocking. Servants were not just people who came to a rich person’s house, sloshed some bleach in the toilet and then went home. They lived with them. They washed and dried their clothes. They cooked their food. They made their beds. They helped them dress. They helped them wash, sometimes, or helped them clean their teeth. It was incredibly difficult to have secrets from a servant, because you had to depend on them for so many things. The idea that the person who cleaned the lipstick off the collar of your shirt, who swept up the pieces of your mother’s favourite vase, who saw how many cigarette butts you left in the bottom of your ashtray could also be plotting your death – it’s kind of horrifying.
It’s not just clichés. What is acceptable in terms of plot has completely changed. This is something that dates way beyond the invention of the novel. In the original epic fantasies – stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf– storytellers would often take time out to send their heroes off on interesting little sidequests because they were fun and exciting. Sometimes these are pertinent to the plot, sometimes they’re completely irrelevant. Then, with the gradual move away from storytelling as a spoken form, there’s a trend to keep the plots more linear. You’ll still get little anecdotes off to one side sometimes, but generally these all serve a purpose for the story as a whole (probably because by this point editors had been invented). And then, later still, you have the move towards modernist fiction. In modernist fiction the idea of a plot can go completely out the window if that’s what the author wants. There’s more of a focus on mood, style and ideas, and most of the time that makes my head hurt a bit. We’ve come to expect different things from stories, and so we’ve rolled them out into new shapes.
This shifting definition of what is and what is not acceptable for a plot also affects characters too. Over the past few years there’s been a move towards stories that are more character-driven than plot-driven, and this changes what people expect from a protagonist. Stories where a character gets sent on a quest because of ~*Destiny*~ are slowly being replaced by stories where a character goes on a quest because they’ve decided to do it. It’s no good to have a protagonist who just sits around waiting for the plot to happen – much more compelling are protagonists who go and makethe plot happen for themselves. The classic example of this is the characters in fairy tales. When the stories were originally told the characters weren’t really much more than archetypes. You had your handsome prince, your wicked witch, your pure and beautiful girl, and that was about it. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of detail about the characters’ personalities. But when you look at modern adaptations of fairy tales, the characters tend to be a lot more fleshed out. Writers will make a lot more effort to give them goals, preferences and personalities so that they can move away from the archetype. The perfect example of this is Belle’s character in Beauty and the Beast. The Disney film went out of its way to establish Belle as a bookworm who felt isolated by having an interest that nobody in her village shared – something which is completely absent from the original fairy tale.
But this cuts both ways. As expectations move forward, some characters are going to get left behind. Details about characters are lost because modern readers aren’t reading literature in the same context as it was written. Take, for example, the first mention we have of Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. We’re told that when he was seen about town he was wearing a blue coat, and we don’t get any more detail than that. For the modern reader, this illustrates the gossipy nature of Mrs Bennet and not much else. But for the Regency reader this was a pertinent detail. Blue dye was expensive and not many people wore it. The coat itself is a piece of outerwear and worn in the daytime, so it wouldn’t be the fanciest piece in Mr Bingley’s wardrobe. The fact that Mr Bingley’s coat he wears for slouching about town is blue would have spoken volumes to the Regency reader – it’s signalling that he has mad stacks of cash.
But it’s not just the minor details that get lost in translation. What constituted a radical and ground-breaking character a few centuries ago is now seen as old hat. This is particularly obvious in female characters, as the social and political capital of women has changed so much over the past few hundred years. When she was first introduced to readers, Lizzie Bennet was radical by anybody’s standards. She was cheeky, she got her clothes dirty, she turned down a marriage proposal from a man she didn’t love. But two hundred years on these things aren’t radical any more. They’re normal. Modern readers go into Pride and Prejudiceexpecting a character who’s radical and game-changing, and meet someone who is pretty conventional by today’s standards. It’s not hard to see why some people might find this disappointing.
…I’m kidding. But it is a question that’s worth asking. How come some stories have lasted for centuries while others have been forgotten?
I don’t have a definite answer, but this is what I think. Let’s jump back to fairy tales for a moment. Yes, they’re vague, and yes, the characters are basically fill-in-the-blanks exercises. In this case, that’s what works in their favour. As the detail just isn’t there, this means the reader, listener or writer can fill it in themselves. It’s easy to make a new adaptation of a fairy tale because the basic shape of the story isn’t tethered to time, place or the personality of its characters. Cinderella can be a cyborg, Snow White can be a vampire, Red Riding Hood can be a werewolf (and yes, all those stories do exist). These are stories that have got legs.
More complex stories are harder to preserve because so much of a story’s meaning is enmeshed in a social and cultural context. I talked about this briefly in my worldbuilding post so do look there for more detail, but what’s important to remember is this: what informs a setting also informs its characters. This applies as much to historical fiction as it does to fantasy epics. Stories written hundreds of years ago are caught up in a framework of cultural norms and societal beliefs that probably isn’t there any more. This is why editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen novels so often come with big wodges of footnotes at the back – they’re crammed with references that modern audiences just wouldn’t get without some serious background reading. Going in blind would be like showing a doge meme to someone from the 1500s and expecting to get a laugh. At best, you’d get a ‘sayest thou what?’ and at worst, you’d get burned as a witch.
But obviously, more complex stories do last. We’ve got Shakespeare’s plays, we’ve got The Iliad, we’ve got The Journey to the West. Countless stories have outlived their authors and gone on to become beloved classics for generations of readers. There’s no hard and fast reason as to why this is. It isn’t just good writing, compelling characters and an interesting plot that makes a story get remembered. You’ll still need all those things, but there’s always something else in the mix as well – some mysterious alchemy that lets good mature into great. I don’t know what this is. If I did, I’d probably have my own island or something.
Context is everything. Unless the details of a time and place are meticulously preserved, as Shakespearean scholars have done, then modern readers will miss something and the original meaning will slip away. But modern readers bring their own contexts too, and can shed new light on old stories. Adaptations aren’t always a way for an author or a movie studio to make a quick buck: done right they can be a thoughtful and compelling examination of something we thought we knew. Readers and audiences have new opportunities to see familiar stories with fresh eyes, and that’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps that’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the impact of these stories when they really were new.
Stories that have lasted have something in them that speaks to people regardless of time and place. It can be anything from a feeling to a turn of phrase. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s description of loss in MacDuff’s speech from Macbeththat speaks to you, or maybe it’s Cinderella’s message that no matter how bad things may get, things will, one day, turn out all right. Whichever classic you pick, there’s something there that has spoken to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. And whether you like or dislike the actual story, it’s always worth acknowledging that that is truly extraordinary.
There’s nothing quite like a good setting. Previously on this blog I’ve talked about characters and clichés, and that hasn’t really left a lot of time to talk about the other elements of a good story. Setting is one of them. It’s easy to forget that the right setting for a novel can transform it, elevating the events of the plot into something really special. Rebecca would be nothing without the vast, chilly halls of Manderley. Dracula would not be nearly so frightening if the Count’s castle was a three-room flat in east Croydon.
Setting is a hugely important part of writing. In fantasy and sci-fi, the term gets all fancy and becomes ‘worldbuilding’, although it’s essentially the same concept. There’s just more of it, because instead of telling the reader where your characters are, you also have to tell the reader why they’re all holding laser swords and why it was a bad idea for them to steal the unicorn’s bouquet on a full moon. Worldbuilding can be one of the most memorable things about fiction. It can take on a life of its own, allowing the setting to be examined and discussed apart from the characters who inhabit it.
The basic elements of setting and worldbuilding are pretty similar. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you still need to know where your characters are standing. Broadly speaking this can cover a lot of different elements – culture, geography, climate and the physical layout of the scene would all come under this umbrella. These elements make a story convincing regardless of its genre. They get included in most stories that aren’t about two characters having conversations in featureless white rooms. Of course, rather than just having big lumps of description sitting around uselessly these can then be used to reflect mood and create atmosphere within the story. As a general rule of thumb this is true of both setting and worldbuilding – the only real difference between the two is that in worldbuilding, the author tends to make more of it up.
So – how do you actually go about creating a rich and compelling setting? Description. While it can get quite frustrating to pause the action and set the scene, it’s impossible to have a complex and detailed setting without settling in for a paragraph of description every now and then. But when it’s done well it doesn’t feel like a pause. In some of the best fantasy settings – like Middle Earth, Discworld and Hogwarts – this scene-setting feels more like an opportunity to explore than something that has to be skimmed over.
Real talk: this is super hard.
Obviously writing is pretty tricky to begin with, but worldbuilding is a whole other level. Setting a scene can be difficult, but if it is set in some variation of the real world it’s easier for the reader to make assumptions based on the details of the scene. For example, if a writer describes a group of people all in black heading for a church, the reader is likely to assume that they’re heading to a funeral. It doesn’t always have to be the case – in fact, turning assumptions on their heads is one of the most fun things an author can do – but the assumptions have to be there for that to happen, and details from the setting is what plant such ideas in the readers’ minds. You have none of those connections to rely on if you’re building a fictional world. If writing is like learning a new language, then putting a fictional world together is like making up your own language from scratch.
There’s a couple of forms this tends to take.
The Pocket Universe
These are fictional universes that have their bases in the real world in some capacity. This is where you’d find stories that diverged from the real-world timeline – where the Titanic never sank, or where the Germans won the Second World War. This is also where you’d find stories about worlds within the normal world, such as Harry Potter – stories about unusual societies that have been kept secret and are stumbled across by some hapless protagonist.
Pocket universes have a lot of benefits. As they are rooted in the real world, it’s easy for the writer to draw on a lot of common cultural touchpoints, which requires less explaining to the reader. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time making up fictional animals for your characters to eat, or describing the odd clothes they wear, you don’t have to – you can cut straight to the plot. However, they’ve got a lot of drawbacks as well. Rooting your pocket universe in the real world will usually mean that at some point, you’ll have to deal with all the boring parts of reality. This pops up a lot in the Harry Potter universe, when everybody wonders why wizards don’t have formal education for their kids before the age of eleven. In alternate histories pocket universes present another problem – the vast amounts of research a writer has to do to make them convincing. It’s not enough for an author to say that the Germans won the war: readers will want to know how, and when, and who is alive now and who isn’t, and whether the Sixties still got to happen. Don’t write one of these unless you’re prepared to hit the books.
A Whole New World
This is the other kind of worldbuilding and it’s exactly what it sounds like. These are the fictional universes that have no link to the real world whatsoever. They can be inspired by real-world societies, and often a lot of them are, but they are emphatically not on Planet Earth in any kind of capacity. This is where you’d find a lot of fantasy stories – anything from Game of Thrones to Discworld to the entire works of Tolkien – and some sci-fi stuff as well.
Starting from scratch also has its own particular set of benefits. As an author you have complete creative freedom: anything goes. Terry Pratchett proved this when he created the Discworld – the planet is a giant flat disc, supported by four massive elephants all standing on the back of a cosmic turtle swimming through space. As I said, anything goes. It’s also easier to suspend disbelief. The lack of cultural touchpoints works in your favour here, as the reader isn’t automatically comparing it to things they’re already familiar with. However, these also have drawbacks. Making up a fictional world from scratch is so much work. You have to come up with vast amounts of detail, most of which may never make it into the finished book but you just need to know they’re there. You’ve got to establish your own cultural touchpoints and make these clear to the reader, but you’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t seem stilted or weird. And you’ve got to make all of this completely watertight, because there is nothing readers (and editors) love more than poking holes in things.
So. Which is better? That depends: on your preferences, on the story you’re trying to tell, on the kind of readers you’re writing for. These things would also affect the level of detail you go into when setting the scene. But no matter which one you choose, the most important thing to remember is this: it doesn’t stop at description.
One of my favourite kinds of worldbuilding is when an author can do it through their characters. It’s a lovely way of integrating scene-setting with character development. Characters are products of their worlds, therefore their thoughts, actions and beliefs are a part of worldbuilding. This is particularly important in historical fiction. Choice of language can make or break both the scene-setting and the character’s internal monologue – if an author picks a phrase that sounds too modern, it can completely smash the readers’ suspension of disbelief. In historical fiction this presents its own set of problems as of course, modern and historical thoughts and beliefs are wildly divergent.
One of the easiest ways to illustrate this is the way that historical fiction treats corsets. I was talking about this with my colleague the other day (thanks, Cat) as we’ve both worked on historical fiction before. Corsets in fiction have become more symbolic than anything else. They’re something for the feisty heroine to cast aside before she becomes a pirate or rides off into the sunset. But this wouldn’t work in reality. Corsets were structural underwear and all the rest of a woman’s clothes were designed on the assumption that a corset would be worn. They make you stand and move differently and if you’d worn one all your life, taking it off would feel really strange. Casting the corset aside is a nice piece of authorial shorthand – look at how emancipated our female lead is! – but without it all the seams of her clothes are in the wrong places, everything is scratchy and she’s going to get terrible back pain from having to use underdeveloped muscles all of a sudden.
My point is this: clothes are worldbuilding. The way characters think about clothes is worldbuilding. The way they care for their clothes is worldbuilding, and so is what the clothes are made of. Worldbuilding is not just about describing landscape and weather – it’s about clothes, food, slang, morality, social norms, marriage, relationships – I could go on. In short it’s about how characters fit into a setting as a context, and how that context affects them. Take, for example, Terry Pratchett’s description of the dwarves of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett’s dwarves only acknowledge one gender, and thus most of the dwarves in the Discworld series present as male. When one of them decides she wants to present as female, it causes a massive cultural uproar, going against centuries of dwarf lore and tradition which go on to affect later books in the series. This introduces the reader to a whole new section of Discworld society, the factions within it, the conflict this brings about and how this manifests to other characters. This is very detailed worldbuilding, and it’s all done without a landscape in sight.
Worldbuilding is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of work, careful thought and research, all of which can really get in the way when you just want to jump to the plot. But it also helps make better stories. When the characters and the setting work in tandem, that’s when the setting feels the most vivid and a book really comes alive. It makes for rich and rewarding stories that a reader will remember. Despite all the hard work, I think it’s always worth it.
So most of you already know about my Strong Female Characters series. That’s over and done with now, and it was a lot of fun, but the series had its drawbacks. The ten-question formula was helpful but didn’t cover everything, and often encouraged me to be a bit on the harsh side. I often wound up being quite harsh about characters I really like in the interest of putting out some sensible criticism.
Well, no more of that! These are the ten female characters I just really like. There’s no real criticism going on here, I just think they’re great.
Miss Phryne Fisher
A.k.a. the female James Bond, Phryne Fisher is the lead character in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian series about a lady detective in the 1920s. It’s a long-running series of books which was made into a TV series a few years ago and she is just great. There is nothing she can’t do – whether that’s burlesque, directing a movie or being a racecar driver for a little bit. In all honesty she’s probably a Mary Sue but I like her so much I just don’t care. It’s really refreshing to see a female character who can turn her hand to anything in the same vein as male super-spies – with the added bonus that she is so clearly having a great time doing it.
I’ll try and be brief as she’s had a proper blog post. Even though she didn’t pass my test I still love Marion. She certainly has her flaws but that’s never stopped me from liking her as a character. She’s crass and full of life, and when things don’t work out for her she keeps trying anyway. Full credit to Karen Allen for her performance – she provides a lot of Marion’s charm and it wouldn’t be the same without her.
Surely this one shouldn’t come as surprise. Blog post is here for more detail but the crux of the matter is this: I love seeing a crabby old woman save the day on a regular basis. Granny is sharp, spiky and judgemental, but, y’know, in a really good way. She’s the best and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
The Other Mother
I never did a post on the Other Mother – I dressed up as her instead. For the uninitiated: she is the villain in Coraline, where she spends most of the novel trying to persuade a little girl to sew buttons over her eyes. I would’ve liked to have done a blog post on her but I quickly realised it just wasn’t possible – we just don’t know anything about her, apart from the fact that she’s an eldritch abomination. But for me the mystery is part of her charm. What is she? Where did she come from? I want Neil Gaiman to tell me, but not in a way that’s too scary or I’ll get nightmares.
Hands down my favourite Avatar character. I did a blog post on her – do look if you’re interested, as I’ll be keeping this one brief. Toph is loud, rude, boisterous and over-confident and it’s just great. She’s one of the most powerful characters in the series and she knows it, and she’s also consistently hilarious into the bargain.
The best Sailor Scout, hands down. In some ways she’s very traditional: she’s a great cook, cleans and organises her home herself, and wants to get married and open a cake and flower shop when she’s older. But she’s also a badass warrior with electricity powers, a great martial artist and one of the most physically strong characters on the show. She’s a really interesting combination of masculine and feminine traits, which is what I really like about Sailor Moon – being girly doesn’t mean you can’t be strong.
April is one of my favourite characters on Parks and Recreation because she’s just so weird. She’s almost like the missing member of the Addams family – quirky, morbid and immature, which makes her moments of sincerity something really special. I really love how playful she can be while at the same time being really odd. Also, Janet Snakehole and Burt Macklin is the best couple’s costume ever, hands down.
I’ve done a blog post on our Bridget so I’ll try and keep it brief. Long story short I really identify with her particular brand of cringing embarrassment, especially when flirting. She’s the kind of everywoman I can really get behind, which is to say one that’s based on common experiences rather than common traits. As a young woman working in publishing, I relate to her on a molecular level.
Baby Jane Hudson
The creepier female lead in the 1960s classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson is a former child star caring for her wheelchair-bound sister, who went on to become a much bigger movie star before getting in a car accident. There’s all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the movie about sisterhood, Hollywood and femininity but the crux of it all comes down to Jane. Her decision to try and restart her career – reviving her old Shirley-Temple-style act when she’s in her fifties or sixties – is a fascinating look at what the pressures of fame can do to someone, and what happens when women get boxed into a particular kind of femininity that they can’t shake off.
The best politician in America. Again, I did a blog post so I’ll be brief, but I just think Leslie is great. She’s enthusiastic, competitive, wholesome in a way that I don’t find irritating – I just love her.
I was originally going to keep this list to ten characters but then I went to see Black Panther. AND IT WAS GREAT. Shuri, Wakanda’s irreverent tech genius, is my favourite character, hands down, but all the female characters in the film are interesting, well-developed and compelling. But Shuri’s the best one. Obviously.
And there you have it! A short list of my favourite female characters – and frankly, it was really difficult to keep it short. There’s just so many to choose from!
I spend a lot of time talking about fiction on this blog but it’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually say much about what I’m reading.
Time to fix that!
A quick note about my reading habits before we jump in. As some of you may know I work in publishing, so I end up having to read a lot of books and submissions as a part of my job. Sometimes this feels like work, and sometimes it doesn’t. I read during my commute (public transport FTW), evenings and weekends, but I also listen to audiobooks a lot too, so I’m often following the thread of a story while I’m cleaning, cooking or writing up my Russian notes. I’ll read most kinds of fiction but for non-fiction, I tend to stick to popular history.
Basically, I eat books.
So here’s a short list of some books that have really stuck with me over the past few months. There’s no real timeframe because I’m a dangerous maverick. Here’s what I’ve been eating recently:
The Bear and The Nightingaleby Katherine Arden
Set in Medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a young girl who can see the creatures of Russian folklore. A couple of strange figures watch over her as she grows up, and while she gets into a few scrapes this is by and large fine until a priest shows up. With a sinister being in the forest starting to wake up, and with the priest telling the villagers not to believe in superstition, the tension ratchets up until it all comes crashing together.
Holy Hell, do I love this book.
The scene-setting is fantastic. There’s so many little details that bring the setting to life, from the food the characters eat to the names they call each other. It’s a retelling of a traditional Russian fairy tale which pulls off a very difficult balancing act: keeping the elements of a fairy tale while giving its characters distinct personality. Also, it has some really interesting stuff to say about gender roles and the clash between traditional beliefs and organised religion, and I am 100% here for all of them. I’ve also read the sequel, but as that only came out at the end of last month I’m trying not to spoil it, even though I’m holding in a lot of feelings and a really excellent joke.
The Good People by Hannah Kent
This one is set in pre-Famine Ireland, and it tells the story of three women in a remote Irish village who is suspected of being a changeling. There’s Nora, the child’s recently-widowed grandmother, who can’t come to terms with her husband’s recent death or her grandson’s behaviour. There’s Mary, a young maidservant very far from home. And there’s Nance, a wise woman who lives at the edge of the woods, who the villagers believe can cure illness and perform magic.
Now I haven’t finished this one yet, but I absolutely love it. Again, the scene-setting is great – Kent does an excellent job of modifying her characters’ speech patterns to make it clear that they’re speaking Irish, not English. Apparently it’s also based on a true story, but I haven’t looked this up yet because I’m trying to avoid two hundred-year-old spoilers. It’s brilliantly creepy and very well-written – just what you want on a cold winter’s night.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
If We Were Villains kicks off when a former theatre kid – Oliver Marks – is released from prison, after serving time for a murder he might or might not have committed. We then flash back to Oliver’s time at an elite university, where we meet his theatre kid friends, including the one who’s eventually going to get murdered. Tensions rise and there’s a mysterious incident that leaves one of Oliver’s friends dead. Only one question remains – was it murder?
I’m not sure if this one is technically cheating because this is something I had to read for work BUT I LOVE IT YOU GUYS. It’s just great. I love the way the author incorporates plays into the text and the characterisation is excellent. I didn’t go to a fancy theatre school but I’m pretty sure that I’ve met every single one of Oliver’s theatre crew. I’ve read this book three times now and it won’t be long before the fourth.
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
This is another one I had to read for work but damn is it good. Set in a fictional analogue of Weimar-era Germany, the plot follows three people – Cyril, a spy, Ari, a nightclub singer/smuggler and Cordelia, a stripper – as they try to navigate their way through life amidst the rise of what are basically Nazis. The rising tide of fascism threatens to engulf them all (particularly Ari and Cyril, who are in a gay relationship) and each character is forced to make a difficult choice – co-operation or sabotage.
This one took a while to get going. For the first half to two-thirds I was enjoying it, but not raving about it to all my friends. Then the last one hundred pages happened and I was swept away on a tide of feelings because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY DAMMIT and now I’m counting off the days until the sequel is released. Also, it was really refreshing to read a novel where homosexual and polyamorous relationships are just an ordinary feature of life, rather than A Thing That Must Be Explained To The Reader.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
What can I say about The Power that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s great. Since this book has been everywhere for most of last year I won’t go into detail on the plot, but for those of you that haven’t read it it’s set in a world where women suddenly develop the power to electrocute people.
This is a really excellent book. I could not put it down and there were some moments where I meant that literally. There was more than one moment where I was reading on a platform and ended up missing a train. It’s very well-written, has all kinds of interesting stuff to say about gender and all the characters have distinct voices. A couple of plot points really stuck with me. I read one scene and went to bed, thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, woke up at 3am thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, and was still thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’ the next morning. It was incredible.
And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve read recently that has stayed with me for one reason or another. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. I’m only halfway through The Good People.
So it’s 2018! Hooraayyyyy. Now that we’re done commemorating the inevitable march of time, let’s get back to business.
As some of you may already know, I absolutely love Terry Pratchett. I looked at three of his characters for my StrongFemaleCharacters series, and because I am totally and completely unbiased, they all passed with full marks. He was a giant of British fantasy, largely thanks to his Discworld series – a series that spanned forty-one novels, several short stories, four ‘mapps’, and a wide range of non-fiction books including diaries, trivia collections, cookbooks and picture books. Pratchett was nominated for several awards and was eventually knighted – and in the most fantasy author move ever, made himself a sword out of meteorite iron to celebrate. He died at the age of sixty-six, after battling Alzheimer’s disease for almost a decade.
Hands down, the Discworld series is Sir Terry’s best-known work. The name comes from the shape of the planet – it’s a giant disc, supported by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. At forty-one books (not counting the supplementary texts), this can look like an intimidating series from the outside. But it’s a series in quite a loose sense of the word. Most of the books can be read as standalone novels, and there are a few mini-series dealing with specific recurring characters:
Rincewind, the cowardly wizard constantly being strong-armed into saving the world
The Lancre witches, (later joined by Tiffany Aching) who shun magic as much as possible and steal all the sandwiches
The Ankh-Morpork City Watch, a police force in a city that has regulated begging, prostitution, theft and assassinations via various guilds
Unseen University, a university of wizards who unleash eldritch horrors when they aren’t trying to kill each other
Moist von Lipwig, an unfortunately-named con artist who finds himself in control of various public institutions
Death, i.e. the Grim Reaper, who TALKS LIKE THIS and has a fondness for cats.
On the surface the set-ups for these novels don’t look very different from other fantasy books. The basic elements are all there: wizards, witches, the long-lost heir to the throne, dragons, the undead, trolls, dwarves, goblins. I could go on. But what makes Discworld stand out amongst other fantasy series is the way in which these elements are treated.
Pratchett took delight on turning clichés on their heads. In Discworld, witches aren’t wicked: they’re usually overworked midwives, healers and occasional guardians against the nastier elements of the supernatural, fuelled by sweet tea. The long-lost heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork has no interest in reclaiming it; he’s pretty happy with the way things are being run. Dwarfs aren’t just gruff and bearded miners: they keep their gender secret from everyone but their families, and presenting themselves as openly female is a radical act that has led to deep divides in the dwarfish community. This is typical of Pratchett’s treatment of fantasy clichés. He has a real knack for drawing out certain aspects of fantasy tropes and turning them on their heads, without losing their connection with the original. He does this for pretty much every fantasy race we see in the Discworld series, with the result that Pratchett’s dwarfs, trolls, goblins and elves feel unique, distinct and fleshed-out. It’s a real skill.
But for me, what really lifts the Discworld series above over fantasy books is that it’s not static. It’s not just the characters that develop with every book. Their actions and decisions have a direct impact on the setting, and that changes accordingly. Technological advancements and societal changes all happen over the course of the series and are explored thoroughly, which isn’t something that we see very often in fantasy novels.
Let’s look for a moment at the character of Cheery Littlebottom.
Cheery is a dwarf in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. When we first meet Cheery she dresses like all the other dwarfs in the series – i.e. like a short, beardy man. Before this, all dwarfs are described as male – there’s only one gender pronoun in the dwarfish language, and humans have translated this to ‘he’ thanks to their beards and such. But Cheery is female, and decides that she wants to look female, too. She doesn’t shave her beard (she is a dwarf, after all), but she starts wearing make-up and dresses and glitter in the first book she appears in. This causes something of a stir – some dwarfs want to copy her, some dwarfs find her attractive, and some see her as immoral. This is all in her first appearance. Over the course of the series Cheery’s decision starts a trend, and other dwarfs start dressing as women too, particularly in Ankh-Morpork. This causes a schism in dwarfish society between Ankh-Morpork liberals and more conservative dwarfs from the mountains, ultimately causing political factions and extremist splinter groups, all with complex motivations and goals of their own.
And that’s just the dwarfs.
This is reflective of Pratchett’s development as a writer. While Pratchett had always been noted for his comic fantasy, his earlier books tended to fall into some of the same traps as more straight-laced fantasy fiction. They’re funny and well-written, but it’s really as the series gets going that Pratchett comes into his own.
The later books in the Discworld series are where Pratchett starts to establish himself as one of the greats. Having satirised a lot of explicitly fantasy clichés, Pratchett started to take aim at a much wider range of topics. He certainly hit his targets. He took on extreme nationalism in Jingo. He examined gender expectations and warfare in Monstrous Regiment. He picked apart the nature of death, belief, hysteria, good and evil and he did it all with tact and grace.
This is reflected in the complexity of his characters. Sam Vimes – the leader of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – was obviously inspired by the stereotype of the bitter, alcoholic detective often seen in noir fiction. Pratchett manages to subvert this cliché by exploring it to its fullest extent, going into detail about Vimes’s experience as a recovering alcoholic and eventual teetotaller. This frank look at Vimes’s alcohol addiction and his efforts to distance himself from it are what lifts him away from the stereotype, making him a much more believable character. And, of course, this is by no means limited to one character. Pratchett’s female characters are, quite simply, brilliant. Monstrous Regiment is one of the best depictions of gender and warfare in fantasy fiction – its female characters are so tangibly real that I am always amazed they were written by a male writer. When he wrote Tiffany Aching, the young witch protagonist of his YA Discworld novels, Pratchett was made an honorary Brownie for writing such a realistic little girl as a protagonist. Incidentally, this was what earned him his ‘Writer’ and ‘Booklover’ badges.
This is a huge part of the reason why I find Discworld so appealing. Pratchett’s fantasy setting doesn’t stop him from dealing with real-world issues like alcoholism, prejudice and systemic abuse, but his characters aren’t constrained by them. The world and its characters feel real because these bigger-than-fantasy problems are neither swept under the rug nor made the only markers of a character’s personality. His characters feel like real people, even when they aren’t people at all.
For me, this is what makes Discworld so compelling. I’ve always found high fantasy a bit too exclusive for my tastes. Characters from high fantasy have never seemed like real people to me; they’re so poised, well-spoken and noble that they seem worlds above us grubby normal people. This goes double for the female characters, who tend to be fair, perfect, and steeped in a lot of gendered stereotypes that I could really do without.
But Discworld is a different place. Its female characters face prejudice, but they overcome it. They aren’t forced to fit into very narrow boxes. They develop, they fight, they make mistakes. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: it’s welcoming. It feels like a place where I, as someone who attempts things with more enthusiasm than skill, could actually live. More than any other series I’ve read – and this goes for all books, ever – I have seen myself reflected in Pratchett’s characters. I connect with Tiffany Aching way more than with Hermione Granger, although lately, I’m more like Granny Weatherwax.
Reading a Discworld novel is like coming home. I’ve had such a strong attachment to these books that it’s lasted for half my life, and I know it’s only going to continue. I’ve read them all so many times I’ve lost count. Apart from The Shepherd’s Crown, which I’ve only read once. No matter how much time passes, it’s always going to feel a bit too soon.
Which leads me to ask the question: can Mary Sues ever be a good thing?
Everybody loves to make fun of Mary Sues. They’re silly, over-the-top sparkly little messes, and pointing out just how stupid they can get is certainly this nerd’s idea of a good time. But the thing that everybody tends to forget is that Mary Sues are often the hallmark of young or inexperienced writers. The kind of mistakes that Sues embody – such as a lack of flaws, a lack of consequences for their actions, or a 360-degree panorama of adoration from every other character – are the sort of things you tend to see from writers who haven’t quite got to grips with their craft yet. They’re not exactly a finished product.
For me, this is where Sues come into their own. They’re a problem that a writer tends to encounter at the beginning of their journey, much like one-dimensional villains, or scene-setting which makes the reader think all the action happens in a plain, white room. The more you write, the easier it becomes to avoid this kind of pitfall. A solid awareness of what constitutes a well-written character is one of the best tools a new writer can have, and being aware of Sues as a potential writing problem is a part of that. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is.
Here’s a short list of questions you can ask to see if your main character is a Mary Sue:
Does everyone love her?
Does she ever find anything difficult?
Do other characters care about stuff that doesn’t directly relate to her?
How much time are you spending talking about her appearance, her heritage, or her incredibly cool powers?
Does she change over the course of the story? How?
But Sues are still useful in their own right. Aside from being a test of skill for every writer they can also help writers bridge the gap between fanfiction and original fiction. It’s not uncommon for people to start out writing fanfiction, develop some confidence, and then start trying out some of their own original ideas and characters. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing.
But that’s not the only benefit of Mary Sues. They can actually be pretty empowering, particularly for young girls. Even though we have been getting more stories where women can actually do stuff instead of waiting to be rescued, there’s still a strong cultural narrative that places women firmly in a passive position. Films like Wonder Woman and books like The Hunger Games help, but they’re a drop in the ocean. Writing a Mary Sues in fanfiction can be a way for teenage girls to make their mark on a story that they already love.
Picture this. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl feeling overlooked. There’s a lot of big and important things going on around you but you don’t feel ready to meet any of them. You’ve got advertisements on all sides telling you to look a certain way, and maybe there’s people in positions of power telling you to act a certain way, too. Things which once seemed simple are suddenly incredibly complicated – sex, growing up, and all the weird expectations that come along with them. And you really love Harry Potter.
This is really where we can see the appeal of Mary Sues. In that situation, why wouldn’t you want to make a space for yourself in a fictional world you already love? And, to make things better, it’s a world where you can look the way you want, where you can be the most important person in the universe, where you can do whatever you want and where all the messy parts about growing up and falling in love will unfold in exactly the way you want them to.
Frankly, I’m the last person to judge teenage girls for writing Mary Sues. I’ve done it myself and I can understand why they do it. It’s escapism, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s safe – I completely get it. It can be a very positive force for the people who actually write them.
Confession time: I wrote several Mary Sues throughout my teenage years and every single one of them was jaw-droppingly bad. I actually found a brief snippet of something I wrote when I was thirteen on my computer and it was so awful I could feel myself shrivelling up. It was about this girl called Sofia who went to Hogwarts, had a mysterious past and was really good at drawing, and if I remember right there was a love triangle with Harry and Draco and then Voldemort wanted to steal her soul for some reason? The point is, it was terrible. Like, really, really bad. And that wasn’t the only one: I also wrote some Phantom of the Opera stuff, more Harry Potter but this time with the Marauders, and possibly also some Pirates of the Caribbean stuff as well. I really can’t remember. Fortunately for me, Quizilla, which was where it was all posted (for some reason, not really sure why I put fanfiction on a quiz site) got taken down a while ago. Hopefully they’re dead and buried.
But it was what got me interested in writing as a whole – not just actually making stuff but the mechanics of how it all works together. I got feedback, which admittedly wasn’t always helpful, but it encouraged me to go and get more. Once I got bored of fanfiction I had more confidence to move into writing my own stuff, because I’d tried out a lot of the basics in an environment I was comfortable in. And once I was getting proper criticism that got me interested in the mechanics of writing, which led to editorial gigs at university and eventually working in publishing. Now, I can look back on all the stuff I wrote in my teens and cringe-laugh, but I can also look at the stuff I’m working on now and see a tangible improvement. Writing is something I’ve really had to work at and without my legions of terrible Mary Sues I definitely wouldn’t have developed half the critical skills I have now.
So there you have it: my long-winded, slightly-TMI view of Mary Sues. There’s no denying that they are bad characters. They’re poorly written, poorly plotted and warp everything else to fit themselves. But a lot of the criticism they get isn’t justified, particularly when it starts straying into some of the weird gendered stuff. And they do actually have some benefits: learning to navigate characterisation is an important part of any writer’s journey, and they can provide an important outlet for teenage girls.
Are Sues stupid? Hell yes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses. It’s like putting stabilisers on a bike. They’re there when you need them, but sooner or later they have to come off.