We Need a Hero

Last week, I pondered whether a story really has to have a villain. But I do think that a story must have a protagonist, a character who wants something and whose efforts to get it drive the story — and it helps if the audience wants them to get it. In All Creatures Great and Small (which I mentioned in that post), there may not be a villain, but we have the vet who wants to save the sick cow/pig/dog and has to overcome obstacles to do so. He has a goal that we know about and want him to achieve, and he makes effort toward achieving it. A story without a real protagonist feels unfocused, and it’s hard to get involved in it.

I started thinking about this last weekend when watching the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides (I’ve been rewatching/watching the series). It felt very different from the first three and was a lot less engaging, and I figured out it was because there really wasn’t a protagonist. There were people who wanted things, but we didn’t necessarily want any of them to succeed. The general goal was the Fountain of Youth. We knew that Blackbeard and his daughter wanted it because his death had been prophesied, and they thought this would save him from his fate. But they’re the antagonists. We don’t want Blackbeard to get eternal life because he’s a terrible person. Jack Sparrow is our main character, but he doesn’t really have a goal that drives the story. We know that he’s wanted eternal life throughout the series, but he’s been kind of shifty about it. We don’t know why, exactly, he wants it. He gives up one chance at it (but after learning the consequences that came with that chance). He’s intrigued by the Fountain of Youth, but early in the movie he learns how it works, and he doesn’t seem to want it for himself anymore. We know that eternal life would probably be bad for him, so we don’t want him to get it. He just seems to be along for the ride, kind of wanting to protect Blackbeard’s daughter (though he doesn’t seem to actually like her much). He hopes to get his ship back by cooperating, but that’s treated as an “oh, by the way.” He’s not trying to stop Blackbeard. So, most of the audience probably doesn’t actually want anyone in the story to achieve their goals, and we don’t really know what the main character wants other than to not get killed. The one non-shifty good guy in the story is the missionary, but his only goal is to keep the pirates from being cruel to the mermaid. At one point, it seems like he wants to try to save the souls of the pirates, but after seeing them in action he’s like “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” And then he disappears from the story without any real resolution. So he’s definitely not the protagonist.

I think some of the problem comes from the Pirates universe being grafted onto a novel that wasn’t meant to be in that universe. From what I can tell from the book description, they took the novel’s main character, who did have a goal, and turned him into Jack Sparrow, who didn’t have the same goal, but they didn’t bother giving him a new goal of his own, and then they split out the good-guy hero part of that character to create the missionary, but without giving him that character’s actual goal. As a result, we end up with a vacuum in the center of the story by removing the protagonist and his goal from the story.

This is also a good example of how a fun secondary character doesn’t necessarily make a good main character. Jack Sparrow worked in the first three films because there were other characters to be protagonists, and he worked mostly by being a wild card who could shift things around for all the characters. I think Elizabeth was probably the protagonist of the first trilogy. For the most part, it’s her goals that are driving the story — she wants to stay alive when captured by the pirates and then she wants to save Will when she finds out what the pirates really want in the first movie. In the second movie, she’s hoping to save her father, and in the third she mostly wants to save Jack and then avenge her father. If Jack becomes less shifty, he’s no fun anymore, but as shifty as he is, it means we don’t know what he really wants or why and we don’t know what he’ll do to get it, so he’s not a good protagonist.

When a story isn’t working, it often comes down to the fact that there’s no central character who wants something and is doing something about it. There are just people running around doing stuff. The final season of the TV series Once Upon a Time was a bit of a mess for a lot of reasons, but one big one was that there was no main character who wanted something and was doing something to get it in a way that gave the story a throughline. There was a character who stated a goal, but then she never did much to bring it about and we didn’t know why she had that goal, what had clued her in to the fact that there was a problem. Everyone else just reacted to things without taking any proactive action. The only characters who had clear goals were secondary characters whose goals were about subplots that had nothing to do with the main plot. From a structure standpoint, I couldn’t tell who was supposed to be the protagonist.

I’m developing characters right now for my new project, and I’ve got three potential protagonists. They do all have goals, but I’m figuring out which will be the central one so that I have a clear protagonist, someone my readers can latch onto and follow through the story.


The Process: Worldbuilding

I’ve been tracking my process as I develop a potential new book series, and I’m now in deep worldbuilding.

When I was in college, I took a course on “parageography,” which is the geography of imaginary worlds. In other words, worldbuilding. Although we studied worlds from fictional works (mostly classics, because the course was taught in the Classics department, which meant The Odyssey, etc.), we were mostly isolating the world from the story. In this course, our focus wasn’t on what happened, but on a place where things can happen. Our main project in the course was to create a world and find a way to show that world that wasn’t an encyclopedia entry, a list of things about it. As I recall, I used the card catalogue from a reference library in a monastery school, showing the works that were readily available in the library, as well as those that were restricted so that only some people could check them out (and this was years before Hermione tried to get books from the restricted section in the Hogwarts library).

Until recently, that’s been the only fictional world I’ve built from scratch. With the Enchanted, Inc. books, I was layering a magical world on top of the real world, so the main thing I needed to know about was the real world. I took a research trip to New York and actually walked around all the areas that I planned to use in the story. I already knew the city fairly well, having gone there for a number of conferences and business trips (I worked for a company based in New York), but once I got ready to write, I explored the specific things I needed to know. From there, I just had to add the magical things and figure out how that worked. The same thing applied for the Fairy Tale books. I took a trip just to research the real-world settings, and the fairy Realm was meant to be rather dreamlike, so there wasn’t any real worldbuilding. It was what the people there made of it. I researched a lot of folklore involving the fae and pulled from that to create that world. The Rebels books were a bit more of a challenge, as they were based on a real place but in a different time. There’s a lot about New York that still exists from that time, but a lot is gone. I didn’t make a special trip for that book. I have a historical atlas of New York I used, showing the layout of the city at given points in time, with photos of a lot of the locations. I tried to be as accurate as I could be for the time, but when I needed something to be different for the story, I figured that the fact that there was magic and the British still ruled would explain any discrepancies (I had a lot of arguments with my very literal editor about this).

I did have an imaginary “secondary” world in Spindled, but it was meant to be a generic fairy tale world, so I just had to work out some of the geography, and it was mostly based on a few towns I remembered from living in Germany. I’ve had a few projects that haven’t gone anywhere that are set in fantasy worlds, but I didn’t get to the point of truly doing worldbuilding.

Now I’m really creating an imaginary world from scratch, and the more digging I do into it, the more I realize how sketchy those shelved projects were. They were essentially Generic Quasi-Medieval European Fantasy Worlds. I’m making a real effort now to work out the culture, economics, history, etc., of the places in this world that I’m going to use in this series, and that means digging into details like what the buildings look like, their forms of transportation, arts and culture, what their major holidays are, what marriage means to them, and other details like that. I’ve got lists of worldbuilding questions I’ve been putting together from various sources over the years, and I’m going through them, making up answers to each of them (based on the research I did on some of the real-world places and situations I’m using as the basis). Making up these answers makes the world get clearer and clearer in my head and gives me other ideas. I may or may not end up using any or all of this in the story, but I have been getting some plot ideas from this work, and me knowing it may inform other choices I make along the way.

I’m not trying to create something totally from scratch. It’s still basically Earth-like with some magical touches, but I hope that doing all this thinking will keep it from being the Generic European Fantasy World.

So far, I’m finding that coming up with names for places is the most difficult part. I don’t want to use real place names or use names that actually translate in a real language, but I also want the names to be consistent and sound like they really are from the same language. I don’t want to go off the deep end into full-on fantasy names that are impossible to pronounce. I’m tempted to just translate some words into Norwegian and maybe alter a few letters.

Next week, I’m going to start developing my main characters. I already have some ideas and notes for some of them, but now it’s time to really figure out what they’re like and what makes them tick.

writing, TV, movies

Do We Really Need Villains?

Before Christmas, I wrote a post about low and high tension stories and whether you really need to have edge-of-your-seat tension for a book. Sometimes you just want to go on a fun journey (literal or metaphorical) without having to worry about the hero’s fate. In the same post, I talked about the requirement that the hero be proactive and defeat the villain, while it can sometimes be really satisfying if the villain causes their own downfall, without the hero doing anything to cause that downfall.

Now I’ve been wondering, do we actually need a villain?

My latest bit of joy has been the new version of All Creatures Great and Small that’s been on PBS. I rewatched the first season the week after Christmas and the second season is on now. This is a show that goes beyond cozy to downright cuddly. It’s the story of a young veterinarian from Glasgow who gets a job in the late 1930s working for a practice in Yorkshire, where they treat both pets and farm animals. His boss is gruff and demanding but turns out to be decent at heart (he mostly just likes animals more than he likes people), and he sometimes has to deal with difficult personalities but there isn’t really a villain in the story. The interpersonal conflict generally comes from people who have good intentions but disagree about the right way to deal with a situation or from people who have an emotional involvement that clouds their judgment. Otherwise, there’s a lot of “man vs. nature” conflict in figuring out what’s wrong with an animal and how to fix it — or how to deal with it if it can’t be fixed. There is some personality clashing within the vet practice, especially once the boss’s younger brother joins them, since he has a very different attitude about life (at first, you might expect him to be a bit of a rival to our hero, but they become best friends). The closest thing to a “villain” is a rival vet, but they aren’t trying to hurt each other. They “defeat” the rival by trying to do a better job of diagnosing and curing a farmer’s cow. Nobody’s really mean. There’s no evil at all, and it’s quite refreshing. This is a show I can just sit and watch without doing crosswords or knitting, so it keeps my attention even without all that conflict.

In fact, I find it ironic that the show that’s on before it has felt the need to shoehorn in a villain. That’s Around the World in 80 Days, and you’d think that just trying to deal with all the stuff they’re facing on this great journey would be enough conflict, but they’ve thrown in an enemy who’s trying to sabotage them. And I can’t watch that show without also doing something like crosswords or knitting because it doesn’t entirely hold my interest.

Another no-villain thing I’ve seen lately is Encanto, the Disney movie. It’s about a family in a Columbian village. The family all has magical powers they use to help the village, but one of the daughters has missed out on a magical gift and has realized that things are going wrong (hmm, where have I seen something along those lines before, the person without a magical gift who solves things for the magical people …). There’s conflict within the family, but there’s no villain, no evil person causing the problems. It’s just good people trying to do their best and sometimes going about that the wrong way. There are still a lot of emotional stakes. There’s even tension and action, all without a villain.

I’m reading a fantasy novel right now that may not have an actual villain in it. There are some not so great people, but they’re not what I’d call a villain, not someone that they have to defeat to save the day. I’m only about halfway through, so it could change, but mostly it seems like the force they’re having to fight is nature. So, it can be done (though this is an established author).

The series I’m developing does need a villain, so I can’t play with this concept here, but now I have a mental challenge to see if I can come up with a story with no villain.

My Books

Frequently Asked Questions

I think it’s time for another Frequently Asked Questions post, since I’ve been getting questions in e-mail and social media.

Will there be any more Enchanted, Inc. books? There are so many potential stories, like with their kids.
I don’t have anything planned at the moment. The door in my head seems to have shut on that series for me. I came up with the idea 20 years ago, started writing 19 years ago, and wrote nine books. That’s a lot and a lot of time to spend in the same world. I’m not all that interested in writing about parenthood. I’m so far removed from the corporate world that I don’t have a lot to say about that anymore. These days, I’m not even all that interested in contemporary settings. It’s possible that I might do some short pieces about other aspects of that universe (something like the TV series and non-Skywalker Star Wars stuff that explores other parts of that universe), but not in the near future. If I come up with an idea, I’ll write it. Those are still my best selling books, and it would be nice if I could come up with more in that world, but it’s just not there right now.

Will there be a fourth Rebels book?
I have one planned, but I’m kind of in limbo at the moment. The rights on the first book are close to reverting to me, so I’d control the whole series and could actually do things to promote the first book. But if I put out a new book, that would increase sales of the first book, which would reset the clock on the rights reverting. I haven’t been able to sell that series to other countries or books beyond the first in audio, so it’s not a very profitable series for me, and steampunk is kind of dead right now in the publishing world. So it’s all on hold either until the first book goes out of print or the sales shoot up for whatever reason.

Will there be a fourth Fairy Tale book?
Again, I have one planned, but I can’t get the same cover artist (she’s hit the big time, doing stuff for Marvel, and good for her!), so I’ll probably have to repackage the whole series and reissue it, and I just haven’t been up to dealing with that. And then there’s that contemporary setting issue. So, we’ll see. If it starts revving up in my brain, I’ll do it.

Will there be a sequel to Make Mine Magic?
I left room for one but don’t have anything specific planned. That book was commissioned by Audible as an Audible Original, but they’ve changed that program, so they don’t want another book for it. Sales of the e-book/paperback have been pretty low, so it may not really be worth my time to write another book.

Will there be a sequel to Spindled?
Back when that book went on submission, I did come up with a proposal for a second book. Sales have been so-so, but it did sell to the Japanese publisher. If that publisher wants a sequel, I’ll write it and also publish it in the US, but I probably won’t do anything otherwise. I only published it for fun and because it wasn’t doing me any good sitting on my hard drive. I first wrote it more than ten years ago, so it’s pretty “cold” in my head.

So, if you’re not writing any of those books, what are you working on?
I’ve got another Lexie book plotted that I may start writing this month while I’m still developing my new series. I’m planning a more traditional secondary world fantasy series that has taken over my brain. That’s the kind of thing I’ve been reading lately, and it’s where all my ideas seem to be right now. There are some other things that could happen that I’m not ready to talk about yet. I’m trying to get some promo stuff organized so that the books I’ve already written will sell more. I have other ideas I want to play with but that are on the back burner.

What about audio/foreign languages?
If a foreign publisher or audio publisher is interested in any of my books, I generally take them up on the offer. Doing my own translations or audiobooks would be very expensive, and my books don’t sell well enough for that to be worthwhile (which is probably why there haven’t been a lot of foreign editions other than in Japan or audiobooks). If your country didn’t finish the Enchanted, Inc. series in translation, it was because sales of the earlier books weren’t good enough to justify doing more.

I think that covers most of the questions I get frequently.


The Jerk with Layers

In my reading lately, I’ve been trying to think about what it is that I really like (and don’t), what draws me in or makes me excited about a book (so that I can be sure to put this in my own books). I’ve identified a trope that I seem to be a sucker for if it’s handled well (but it can kill a book if it isn’t). I call this one the Jerk With Layers.

This is a character who isn’t a villain. He’s definitely on the same side as the protagonist, and there’s not really a question of him betraying the hero. But he’s still kind of an antagonist, someone who might be competing with the main character at school or work, someone who’s annoying and obnoxious. But then we start to get clues that he’s more than he seems, and maybe he even has something of a reason for being the way he is — his behavior or attitude are reasonable responses to what he’s been through previously. And along the way he changes, becoming less of a jerk, possibly because of learning from the hero, possibly because of getting over whatever happened in his past, maybe because going through the experience in the story brings about growth. When this trope is at its best, I start out hating this guy and looking forward to him being taken down a peg, and at the end of the book, I’m his fiercest defender.

I know that a good percentage of romance novel heroes fit this trope, but I generally don’t like it when this character is the love interest, except maybe in a series where the romantic relationship doesn’t begin until after the layers start being obvious to the other characters and he’s already changing. I really don’t like the “I hate him, but he’s so hot and I can’t resist him” thing. I recently read the first couple of books in a series with this kind of character, and he did become a love interest, but the first hints of romance didn’t start until near the end of the first book, after he’d shown layers, had put himself at risk to help the others, and had started changing, and the relationship didn’t really begin until near the end of book 2, after the heroine had a good look at the situation that had led him to be the kind of person he was and he’d gone through a lot, leading to major growth.

I’m also not crazy about this character being the main character. That’s the Jerk Genius thing that’s been so popular lately, with the Iron Man movies and all the various Sherlock Holmes retellings (including House). I think this trope works better when he’s not the protagonist so that there’s a main character I actually like at the beginning of the story.

It’s easy to tip this over into the “woobie jerk” kind of character, where it feels like the writer is making excuses — you can’t blame this poor, misunderstood person for being a jerk because his life was so sad (even more annoying when his life isn’t all that sad, especially when compared to the protagonist, who isn’t a jerk). I think it works better if the character doesn’t seem to be consciously making excuses, if his behavior is an unknowing reaction to his situation, not a “poor, sad me.” When the character (or writer) makes excuses, the change doesn’t feel genuine or is surface-level.

I guess this character is similar to that character who has room for growth that I also like, but I think the main difference is that with that character, the layers are front-loaded, so you get the sympathy for the character before you see any of the areas where the character needs to grow. If the character has sharp edges that might make them look like a jerk, we see the reason for those edges first, so we understand the bad attitude or behavior better.

These are not meant as any kind of writing rules or how-tos. These are just my preferences of what I like. I don’t think I even represent the mainstream.

It’s hard to come up with good examples because the fact that there are layers to the jerk is usually a spoiler, but I think the poster child would have to be Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. He comes across as a real jerk at first, and then we get glimpses that there’s more to him, then we learn his side of the story, then we see him more in his comfort zone and learn about him from his family and employees. He changes in his behavior toward Lizzie, and he corrects where he went wrong. I think he works as a romantic hero for me because the novel isn’t structured like a modern romance novel. Lizzie isn’t all that impressed with him until she learns a lot more about him, so there’s no “I hate him, but he’s so hot.” And he’s offstage through most of the book, just popping up here and there, so we don’t have to sit through a lot of him being a jerk. He’s also not as big a jerk as some of the other characters.

I’ve generally found this trope to involve male characters, but I think Cordelia in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fits. She’s the snobby Mean Girl of the school who torments Buffy and her friends, but she’ll join in to help fight against monsters. We later learn there’s some bad stuff going on with her at home, so there are layers, and she ends up changing rather dramatically over time.

Even though I’ve realized I like this character type, I haven’t really used it in my own writing. The closest I might have come is Rod in the Enchanted, Inc. books and Flora in the Rebels books, but they’re very mild on the jerk scale. Now I’m looking at the book I’m currently brainstorming and trying to decide if there’s room for this kind of character. I tend to write nice people I like, and if I’ve figured out the layers of a jerk, once I start liking them I have a hard time really writing them as a jerk. Maybe I should make an effort to lean into it, since it’s fun to watch someone you disliked at first get a bit of a comeuppance and then grow. I need to try to write a Mr. Darcy.


The Process: Brain Dump

Before the holidays, I was giving updates on my writing process as I develop a new series. I’ve returned to that work this week. I’d been doing a lot of research reading to figure out what my world would be like, then once I got ideas, I began focusing my research on those areas. After completing (I thought) my research reading, I went back through my notes to pull out the things I wanted to use and organized those into categories.

This week, I did what I think of as a Brain Dump. This is one of my techniques for dealing with Shiny New Idea Syndrome, when a new idea that feels like a perfect book that will totally change my career pops up while I’m slogging through a difficult part of another project (often while I’m proofreading or doing revisions). To keep the Shiny New Idea from taking over my brain and being a distraction, I do a Brain Dump, writing down everything I know about that idea. Usually, that Shiny New Idea that I want to dump the current project for amounts to about three sketchy paragraphs, and I realize it might give me one good scene and possibly the kind of description that would go on the book cover, but it’s nowhere near ready to write. Knowing this makes it possible to get back to what I’m supposed to be doing without that idea distracting me. In the rare case when I end up with pages and pages and each idea inspires more ideas, I might actually work on it.

But this Brain Dump has a different purpose. It’s a way of pulling together all the ideas and research and seeing where I stand. I wrote out everything I knew or could think of about the world, the characters, and the plot. That made it very clear what needed a lot more development and what’s pretty sketchy. I found that although I have vivid mental images of my main characters, they actually need a ton of development to become characters I can write about. I’ve got the main society of the story pretty well fleshed out, but the rest of the world is really sketchy, and events in the rest of the world play a big role in the story. The protagonist has personal stakes and goals, but those are going to be affected by larger events. I need to know where these events are happening and what’s making them happen.

So, I have more work to do. Fortunately, I’d just bought a book a few weeks ago that should be a big help in structuring what the rival society looks like, and that will shape what’s going on elsewhere in the world. It will also affect the development of some of the characters. Once I have that all worked out, I’ll need to start doing serious character development.

2021 in Review

It’s the new year, and I’m easing myself back into work mode. The work I’m doing now is mostly thinking rather than sitting at the computer and coming up with words, so it’s perfect for this time of year, when I really just want to huddle under the electric blanket on the sofa and doze. I can do that and plan a book.

When I’ve ventured out of my blanket cocoon, I’ve been doing some record keeping and analysis of last year to help me with my business planning for next year. It was a pretty productive year, writing and publishing-wise. I got four books out, wrote two of them entirely during the year and revised/edited one and proofed one. I also wrote a novelette for an upcoming project and did a lot of development work on some things that I hope to write this year. I spent less time writing than I did the year before, but was still pretty productive, so I’m happy with that.

Financially, it was one of my better years in a long time, but most of that came from older projects and traditional publishing. I got some foreign sales and royalties and some other subsidiary rights sales. The new projects were barely a blip. The new mystery series isn’t making that much money. If I only look at those sales and how much time I’ve spent working on those books, I’d have done better if I’d gone to work at the grocery store. However, since that work has been done, as the books continue to sell that hourly “wage” will continue to rise. I’m going to try doing some promo things and see if I can boost those books a bit before I decide where to go with that series. I don’t think the problem is that people don’t like them because the sell-through is pretty good. People who read one book tend to go on to read the rest. The trick is to get people to read the first book.

That’s actually the issue with all my books. Once people read the first book, they tend to read the whole series. I just don’t have that many people reading the first book. The first Enchanted, Inc. book is nearly 17 years old, and people are still just now hearing about it. In a way, that’s good because it means I have a steady stream of income from books I wrote ages ago. But it also means that these books have been flying under the radar. Most of my income still comes from that series rather than from anything new I write.

And that makes it tricky to figure out what to write next. I’m not that interested in writing more Enchanted, Inc. stuff right now. In general, I haven’t been into contemporary-set books for the past year or so. I’ve been almost entirely reading secondary-world fantasy — stories taking place in imaginary worlds. And that’s what I really want to write. That’s what made me fall in love with fantasy fiction and want to be a writer in the first place. It may be a bit of a leap to go from my contemporary fantasy/romantic comedy stuff to imaginary world storybook kind of stuff, but that’s where my brain is right now, and trying to force myself into something else just led to some massive burnout.

And thus the huddling under a blanket and creating an imaginary world. I’ll do some promo to see if I can boost the sales of books I’ve already written while I play with this idea and see where it takes me. That’s my plan for at least the early part of the year. I’ve reached the point where this world is starting to take shape and solidify, and I need to start filling in the specifics. Then I’ll flesh out the characters who have been forming in my head, and from there I can start plotting.


Christmas in the City

Skaters at Rockefeller Center
Some city Christmas magic from my trip to New York to research Damsel Under Stress

On Twitter, I’ve been playing around with what the opposite of the standard Hallmark Christmas movie would be, reversing or inverting all the tropes. So, instead of the city girl with a corporate career and a successful, wealthy boyfriend going to her hometown for Christmas to help save her family business and deciding to ditch her career and boyfriend and get back together with her high school boyfriend, you might have the small-town girl working for her family’s business and dating her high school boyfriend who goes to the city, where she ends up getting a corporate career and successful, wealthy boyfriend.

There are also the movies where the big-city girl has to go to a small town that she’s not from, where she discovers the wonder of Christmas and finds it all so magical. I can kind of see someone going to her hometown and being touched by traditions she remembers from childhood, but it seems less likely to me that a city girl would ditch everything for a small town she’s not from.

Really, I don’t get their fascination with small towns. I’m from a small town and have no desire to go back to one. Though I think we might disagree on the definition of “small town.” The town I’m from had a population of about 3,000 when I lived there. They’re a bit above 5,000 now. The “small” towns in these movies are more what I’d call a small city. I can somewhat see the appeal of moving from a major metro area to a smaller city that’s still an actual city and that isn’t part of a major metro area. But if we’re talking about a place where Christmas is particularly magical, I’ve had small-town Christmases and big-city Christmases, and the city wins, hands down. I guess if you’re from a city in the South, you might be charmed by a New England village where you get to take a sleigh ride, but it’s still not going to be a case of “Wow, I had no idea Christmas could be so magical!” unless she was living under a rock in the city.

In most small towns, Christmas amounts to some sad, weathered plastic tinsel and lights on the lampposts of the downtown area and a Christmas parade in which Santa rides on a fire truck. There might be a tree-lighting ceremony in a park. And these things happen early in December, not a day or two before Christmas. There are smaller towns that do bigger things for Christmas, but they do this for tourism purposes and bring in a lot of people from outside the area. One lone visitor wouldn’t stand out among the crowds enough to be adopted by the friendly locals (and that’s another thing — in my small-town experience, the locals are friendly to each other but suspicious of outsiders).

The “small town” in my area that comes closest to the Hallmark Christmas ideal isn’t truly a small town. It’s a former small town that has become a big city in the heart of a major metro area. It still has the quaint old downtown Main Street, and they do it up big for Christmas, but beyond that is major suburban sprawl. At Christmas, the downtown area gets really crowded and has a lot of traffic. People come in busloads, and they book vacation packages at the big resort hotels in the town. It is really festive and Christmassy, but it’s not a truly “small town” experience.

There’s a lot more Christmas stuff going on in big cities than in most small towns. Just about every city in the metro area has a light display, a parade, and a tree-lighting ceremony. There are holiday markets, outdoor concerts, outdoor ice rinks, and concerts involving big-name groups and artists. If I have to watch a production of The Nutcracker, I’d much rather watch the New York City Ballet than the kids at Miss Edna’s Dance ’n’ Twirl. You could do a different Christmas thing every night in December. When I was in high school in a small town, we had church youth group excursions to the big city, in which we’d load up the church van and go to Dallas to go to one of the big malls for Christmas shopping and ice skating. I think it’s far more likely that someone from a small town would go to the city and think everything was so magical than the reverse.

I’m not sure where Hallmark got this small town fetish, but their older movies don’t have it. If you look before 2016 or so, a lot of them take place in cities. No one has to give up their careers or get back with their high school boyfriends. I watched one last weekend, Naughty or Nice, that has the heroine living in the suburbs of a city, and she stays there and stays with her lawyer boyfriend. From around the same time, there’s It’s Christmas Carol, a retelling of A Christmas Carol in which a high-powered professional in Chicago becomes nicer but stays in her career. That one also has Carrie Fisher as all the ghosts, carrying around and drinking from a champagne bottle.

I’d toyed with drafting a Christmas story during this month as a way to keep the writing habit while I’m working on research, but then the month got away from me, and now it’s a week until Christmas. Instead of adding work, I’m going to take next week off, so no posts (especially since my scheduling doesn’t seem to be working). I may do a “year in review” post the week after Christmas, but I’m mostly going to take it easy, bake, and snark at Christmas movies.


Fantasy and Frozen

I’ve scheduled this post a couple of times, and it never seems to post, so it’s originally from right before Thanksgiving. Maybe my server just hates Frozen.

I’ve been watching movies that give me a “fall” vibe, so I rewatched Frozen 2 recently. It’s got an autumn setting and plenty of pretty fall forest imagery. And I came to the realization while watching that I might like it a bit better than the original film. It doesn’t have any one song as iconic as a couple of the songs in the first one, but I think I like the story better, maybe because it’s more of a fantasy story and less of a Disney princess story. As much as the first one tried to interrogate the usual Disney princess tropes (like mocking the idea of marrying someone you’ve just met after you sing a duet together), it was still pretty princessy. In the second, I feel like there’s more worldbuilding and some actual development of the magic instead of there just being magic because it’s a fairy tale. Maybe that’s the distinction: the first one was more of a fairy tale, while the second was a fantasy story that actually developed the culture and history of the world and looked into what the magic was all about. We seldom learn much about the world where a Disney princess movie is set. There’s little culture or history. We just know there’s a prince.

I found myself thinking that you could take the story of this film and make a decent “serious” live-action fantasy — not in the way that Disney has been doing live-action remakes, but making a different movie with the same core story. Take out Olaf, the musical numbers, and the cutesy stuff like pretending the reindeer are talking — basically, the stuff aimed at kids — and treat the history and the battles more realistically, and you could have something that fits in the Lord of the Rings mold. Thinking about how I’d rewrite it, I think I’d pretty much ignore the first movie and just start with the given that there’s the queen with ice powers and her more extroverted sister, then bad stuff happens in their kingdom and they have to go on a quest to resolve it by facing their family’s history. I might make Kristoff one of the reindeer herders, so Anna meets and gets to know him on the quest rather than them being in an established relationship with all the waffling about proposing. Or possibly he’s someone she meets on the journey to get to the place where the enchanted forest is. Have real battle scenes in the flashbacks and real fighting in the present. CGI could make the water horse look really cool.

I noticed that on Disney+ you can get a version dubbed in Norwegian. I’ll have to try watching these movies that way when I’m a little more advanced in my language study. Right now, I can read a lot pretty well, but I can’t seem to understand much when I hear the language spoken. I don’t even pick up many words on the train announcements on Slow TV (real-time videos of train journeys in Norway — you can watch it online, and it’s nice and relaxing. They just put a camera in a train, so it’s like being on a train ride, watching the scenery go by). They’re using words that are in my vocabulary, but I don’t pick up on them when I hear them. The only time I’ve been able to actually follow and understand what a Norwegian was saying was in a video I saw of a speech by the current king of Norway. I could understand him, but he apparently is considered to have an American accent, since he spent a good chunk of his childhood and went to elementary school in the US during WWII. Maybe watching a movie with a familiar story in that language will help me tune my ear into it. I don’t think I can count on running into the king if I ever go there to travel, so I need to be able to understand what I hear. Most people there do speak good English, but it’s good to be able to understand some of what you’re hearing. That also makes eavesdropping more entertaining.


Conventional Wisdom

Some of my recent reading and viewing has made me question the conventional wisdom about writing. The things I’ve enjoyed most have violated the “rules,” while I find that stories that do what editors say they want are much less satisfying.

One of the bits of advice is to “put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them, and then set the tree on fire.” To keep tension high and pages turning, your characters should be in constant trouble. Things should never work out well for them, and if something they do works, that outcome should land them in even bigger trouble. They shouldn’t get what they want during the course of the book, until maybe the end, unless what they want is actually bad for them.

I’m reading a couple of books right now, one that follows this advice, and one that doesn’t. Following this advice is why I’m reading two books. I realized I can’t read the “characters in a tree” book at bedtime because it stresses me out too much, so this is the book I read in bits and pieces when I have reading time during the day. The main character in this book starts in a bad situation, gets out of that situation only to land in another bad situation, and everything that looks like it might help only makes matters worse. The main character is up against impossible odds and going through terrible things. It does make for an exciting book, but I have to admit that I’m not finding it very fun to read, and though you’d think this would make for a page turner, I can only bear to read a few pages at a time before I have to put the book down.

The other book isn’t really throwing rocks at the characters, but it may actually have higher stakes and deeper conflict. If the characters fail at their assignment, it could affect their futures, but they’re learning that if they succeed, it might make things worse for society. They do have some personal struggles, so things aren’t entirely easy for them, but we move in and out of those parts instead of things getting worse and worse. The “worse” part is more about that dilemma of what to do. I’m tearing through this book and only putting it down at night when I can’t keep my eyes open, even though it’s not as obviously tense as the other book. It’s by an established author, so I don’t know if that dilemma would count as enough tension for a major publisher to buy it from an author without a name.

The other conventional wisdom, something I hear often from my agent and from editors, is that the main character needs to have agency. The plot needs to be driven by the decisions the main character makes, and these decisions should be what leads to the defeat of the villain and the conclusion of the book.

But a while ago I was watching a miniseries based on a Victorian novel, and although it violated this in a big way, I found it incredibly satisfying because the villain got a huge comeuppance she brought entirely upon herself. The heroine did nothing but stand her ground and hold true to her personal ethics. She never actually tried to oppose the villain. I often find that it’s far more satisfying when the villain brings about their own downfall than when the hero defeats the villain. In this case, it was a lower-conflict situation, not really a “vs.” type of conflict. The villain wasn’t truly evil. She just wanted something and thought the heroine was in the way, but everything she did to try to get the heroine out of the way just made her own situation worse and backfired. Ultimately, circumstances shifted so that she suddenly needed the heroine to get what she wanted, after she’d spent all this time being terrible to her, and the moment in which the villain realized this was an outright fist pump of triumph moment of awesomeness. The villain bringing about her own downfall and having to eat crow was far more entertaining and satisfying than if the heroine had been trying at all to stop or defeat her.

This was based on a Victorian book, so I’m not sure you could get something like that published now, with a heroine who doesn’t have a goal other than getting through life and maybe having a little happiness and who has very little agency. I guess you could compare it to the Cinderella story, where Cinderella is just trying to survive, maybe go to a ball, but she’s not really trying to bring down her stepmother. It’s the stepmother who ends up making herself look bad to the prince.

I’ve been trying to think of ways to pull off this kind of story in today’s market because it really is so fun when the villains defeat themselves. It’s also reassuring, serving as a sign that evil doesn’t pay and that it will cause its own downfall. That doesn’t mean things are easy for the hero. They can only win by not giving in or giving up, and they may go through some tough stuff along the way. I wonder if you could make the hero fail, but then the bad guys are still defeated because they brought it upon themselves.

I think there may be a disconnect between what people want to read and what editors like. I’m sure that reading tons of manuscripts of varying quality skews your tastes. You’d be drawn to things that make you sit up and take notice, that are more intense. Quieter books don’t stand out so easily unless they have something else going for them.