Category Archives: Subtle Confict

There’s Room for Both: Risk-Taking Young Women and Risk-Assessing Young Women in Young Adult Literature

Generally, I think authors write young, female characters very well. I know what you’re thinking. But Kristin, this month is all about how authors get things wrong! You’re supposed to point out instances where a writer wrote a young woman incorrectly!

Instead of throwing some other poor soul under the bus, I’ll use my own writing as an example.

Recently, I received feedback from an older, knowledgable man about my young, female protagonist. He said that she didn’t take enough risks and needed to be more impulsive, and even make some mistakes. That piece of advice has stuck with me for months, and I recently figured out why: because it’s a misconception of what makes a female protagonist compelling.

Initially, the advice seemed fair enough. Action needs to happen in order to make a story happen. The protagonist has to (although it doesn’t always have to be the protagonist) make a move and get the plot rolling. Sometimes, that protagonist is hasty and makes a decision that comes back to bite him/her in the ass. Sometimes, the protagonist needs to take a risk. And in Young Adult Literature, we are accustomed to seeing a young, impulsive protagonist head out on a collision course like a bull in a china shop.

The rub comes when I think about traditional young male protagonists. They take risks, they act impulsively. They sometimes even make stupid decisions that are also hilarious to get the story moving along. And as a trope, that absolutely works.

I don’t mind if a young, female character is also written in this way. Weren’t we all young once and made a slew of terrible decisions? Yes. Yes we were. However, because I was a young female once, I think that female characters can be just as successfully compelling being risk-assessors instead of risk-takers.

Let’s unpack this.

The research in the article states that 83% of young women aged 16-19 in the United States have kept a journal. That, to me, is huge. I hypothesize that’s why we see so much first-person past tense in YA lit (read more about that here), and I’m digging deeper into that to also examine what kind of female characters readers can identify with.That means most women that buy books have journaled at one point in their lifetime.

Journalling is unique in that the writer will write specifically to her own experiences, but there are usually a wide range of similarities in the process of journaling. People use journals to recount the day or week, write down memories, note things of importance, and/or to work through feelings or ideas. When a person recounts their day or works through emotions or ideas, they are assessing certain actions, situations, or feelings that occurred.

Generally, we enjoy reading about protagonists we find interesting and/or can relate to. So when I received the feedback that my protagonist should take more risks, almost to the point of recklessness, it didn’t jive with me. I kept thinking that not all young women impulsively act — lots of us evaluate things first. Sometimes, we don’t even act, we take it all in, assess the situation, then make the best choice available to us. And while it can be empowering to read about a young woman taking risks and yes, even making mistakes, it can be equally empowering to read about a young protagonist that is strong in risk-assessment, and then makes her decision. And that’s what I realized: I had written a character that weighed her options, then made the best decision she could at the time, even if that didn’t turn out so well for her after all.

I absolutely do think we can empower young women to take risks, as it’s stated so beautifully in this article. But it’s also important to show a young female that many people can identify with: one who is thoughtful, weighs her options, assesses them as many young women do in their journals, and then make a decision. A young female character can be just as compelling by making smart, thoughtful decisions, and the real twist can come when the outcomes do not turn out as she expected them to, and how she deals with the fallout.

There are many young women who are impulsive and would like to read a protagonist that is as well. But there are just as many young women who are thoughtful, think of the options, and then choose. Indeed, having your protagonist make a hasty, reckless decision can no doubt move the plot. But can you still move the plot along and still make your protagonist’s virtues shine? Yes. Absolutely. And there’s room for both kinds of female protagonists, and even more so, all kinds of female protagonists.

Jackie Brown: Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece

JackieBrown

Quentin Tarantino’s Subtle Masterpiece

We’ve all seen Quentin Tarantino’s movies and the episodes of television he has guest-directed (I’m partial to his epic episode of ER), and there are so many things we love or maybe hate about them. I have my favorites and my not-so favorites like everyone else. Yet, his almost unique approach to storytelling makes him one of the examples I use when I discuss movies that are even better than their screenplays read. Does he tend to have too-long periods of conversation? Sure. Is there a lot of gratuitous violence? Yes. But it hasn’t always been that way. Along the way, he mastered subtle story-telling.

My favorite of Tarantino’s movies is Jackie Brown. The movie is based on crime fiction master Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. With a stellar cast including Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Forster, Chris Tucker, Bridget Fonda, and Robert De Niro, this film is not a hyper-violent revenge saga (Kill Bill) or a riff on alternate history (Inglorious Basterds), this is a very subtle character study and as such it is a masterpiece.

Jackie Brown (Grier) is a middle-aged flight attendant who smuggles money from Mexico into the United States for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). When she’s caught by Federal agents, they propose a deal for her to help them arrest Ordell in exchange for her freedom. Ordell bails out Jackie with the intention of eliminating her, but Jackie is thinking ahead and plots a way to steal $500,000 from Ordell with the help of her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster). Things seldom are so simple.

From the beginning of the movie, the characters are so subtly handled that it almost makes you wonder if you’re watching a Tarantino film. We immediately like and empathize with Jackie in a dead-end job because we see her hurrying through the airport and putting on a smile all the while. When she’s caught, we can see she was stuck in the middle of a bad situation because it helped financially. Ordell (a masterful performance by Jackson) is creepy, distrustful, and loathsome from the moment we meet him – and he gets worse throughout the film. But these audience reactions are genuine and not ham-fisted by any means. Just by watching the movie and letting the character’s depth play out visually, you pick these things up. Tarantino mastered “show, don’t tell” and he doesn’t need product placement, direct conversation, or tedious imagery to get the point across.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Jackie and Max. We see two middle-aged people in dead-end jobs that they do not enjoy being drawn together. How Tarantino handles their relationship is simply beautiful. The gradual development of their unspoken feelings for each other reaches a crescendo when Max puts his life on the line for her. I won’t spoil the ending, but the first time I watched it I remember wishing like hell it had been different only to realize that it was perfectly crafted for the characters because of who they were and what we as the audience had learned about them throughout the film.

And one more example. Robert De Niro’s character is such a departure for the actor that you’re almost dumbfounded he’s playing that role. To me, this is brilliant casting because you’re waiting for De Niro to be De Niro, you know? And when it happens, it’s brutal and perfect. I’ll leave it at that and not spoil much more. Brilliant casting.

One final thought. I always write with music playing and I pay very close attention to movie soundtracks for what works and what does not. Music is important to mood and when done well it’s a subtle attention grabber. The soundtrack for this movie is simply amazing. Every song fits its scene perfectly.

Tarantino’s strength in bringing memorable characters to life with the subtle aspects of their personalities, likes, dislikes, and they way there simply “are” is something all of us should strive for in our writing. Beating the reader over the head with what you want them to know takes away from the level of care they should develop for your characters. Be subtle. Be brilliant.

“The Most Successful Bankrobber Ever”

Jack Foley.

The first time I met Jack Foley was in Elmore Leonard’s novel Out Of Sight. Elmore Leonard was a literary genius and his approach to storytelling and dialogue are two of my biggest influences when I write. You’ve probably been aware of his work (notably Get Shorty, 3:10 To Yuma, and the television series Justified to name a few). When I read Out of Sight, I immediately liked Foley as a character. But when the movie came out, something incredible happened. The movie version released in 1998 and was directed by Stephen Soderbergh. It remains one of my favorite movies and, in my opinion, the best of Leonard’s novels turned into film (in a tie with Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown – which I’ll discuss next month!).

Foley’s career bank robber with a good heart escapes from the Glades Federal Penitentiary in Florida and promptly runs into U.S Marshall Karen Sisco. In the commotion of the escape, they end up in the trunk of a Cadillac as Foley and his accomplice, Buddy, run. By the time we see this, we’re already in love with Foley. He is smart, good looking, charming as hell, and always has a plan. In the trunk of the car, lit by the reverse side of the taillights, Foley and Sisco have a conversation that feels as natural as one that you and I could have. In the midst of the dangerous situation, sirens and flashing lights close by, we’re pulled into their discussion as naturally as possible. By the time they got out of the car, and the rest of the tale unfolds, we’re clearly following both of them and wanting them to get together at the end of the movie.

In the movie, George Clooney plays Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez plays Karen Sisco. With Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Michael Keaton, and Albert Brooks as some of the stellar cast, the movie is very true to Leonard’s novel.

So what’s the big deal? Why is Jack Foley a memorable character?

Flash forward a few years and Elmore Leonard’s sequel to Out of Sight was released. Road Dogs follows Jack Foley after his release from prison as he tries to build a new life for himself but keeps running afoul of shady characters out for money and blood. From the book Out of Sight, which is one of my favorite Leonard titles, I liked Foley’s character. However, seeing him played by Clooney so perfectly, as I read Road Dogs, I could not stop seeing and hearing Clooney in the role. That’s where Foley transcended being a likable sympathetic character into something different. Clooney’s effortless performance as Foley indelibly attaches his “aura” to the character. The likable, memorable character has become something else entirely through the visual medium.

There are a few movies that suck me in when I find them one television. All of them have something in common. A sympathetic, regular guy protagonist with a good heart trying to get by. All of those movies have been perfectly cast so that the main characters are indelibly etched into our minds. Seriously – could anyone other than Tim Robbins have played Andy in Shawshank Redemption? Clooney’s performance as Jack Foley did exactly the same thing. When written stories become films, so many times the elements the make the books vibrant and alive are lost. Sometimes, we cannot see a character in our minds as clearly as the movies define them.

But when a likable, memorable character is played by the right actor or actress – wow. And you all know exactly what I’m talking about. But is it the actor or the character that is memorable? I vote character. No matter the actor’s talent, commitment to the role, or appearance, the character is developed on paper and is the vision of the writer/screenwriter that the actor is to bring to life. When it’s done perfectly in a book, it resonates with us. When we see that on camera, it’s more than memorable. It’s legendary.

Using What Scares You

I went to a publishing conference in New York some years ago, and an agent said that a great author is a great storyteller. You can have all the craft and technique in the world, but if you aren’t a good storyteller, you won’t become a true success. Alternately, you can have the worst craft and know nothing of technique and be the next huge star of the publishing world. Yet, she could not define what made a good storyteller, like it’s some nebulous thing that cannot be truly understood. She was in the “you can’t learn it, you just have to be born with it” camp, a believer in which I am not.

But what is good storytelling if it’s not the expert use of craft and technique? I’ve been puzzling over it for years and I think I finally figured out a rather large component—a good storyteller is one who can tap into emotion with every word.

We humans, above all else, are creatures of emotion. We like to think we are creatures of intellect and reason and morality, but these things are constructs we’ve created to put limitations and controls over the nasty, hind-brain, instinctual animal side that is human emotion. Emotion motivates us in pretty much everything we do. Our desire to feel happiness, love, safety, pleasure all shape our choices. Our desire to not feel pain, sorrow, grief, all push us to move in a particular direction, even if it’s subconsciouly. Every choice we make is rooted in our emotional health, or lack thereof. Our need to feel one emotion over another.

The crazy thing is, everyone human being past, present, or future feels the same emotions. Emotion is the one, true universal language. It is the one thing we all as a species, share, and no emotion is more familiar to us all than fear. Writing our fear, more than any other emotion, can truly raise a writer’s prose to new heights.

There’s two ways of writing what frightens us, and both are equally beneficial. The first is the obvious definition—if we want our audience to fear something, start with what we, ourselves, are the most afraid of. J.K. Rowling once said that she decided to put giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets because she herself was afraid of spiders. Similarly, Peter Jackson’s rendering of Shelob in the Return of the King was built off his personal arachnophobia. Think of it as a mind hack. It’s easier to write what we know, how we personally feel about a particular thing or situation when we write about something that makes us feel the emotion we want to invoke. It’s easy to make spiders terrifying if the author is terrified of the creepy bastards, but harder to make a horse frightening if they make the author all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a monster. It can be a fear of rejection, a fear of success, a fear of fear itself. It’s making the fear personal that’s the key, no matter what genre or sub-genre we are writing. Every genre deals with some sort of fear, and the more we make that fear our own, the easier it is to make the reader feel it with us.

The second way of looking at writing what one fears isn’t so obvious, and it’s something we all face at one point or another. It’s taking on those scenes that make us cringe. You know those scenes, the ones that make us uncomfortable or leave us at a loss. Wether its fight scenes or sex scenes or scenes of moral uncertainty, we all have a scene somewhere that tempts us to just skip it and have it happen off screen. After all, the worst fear of any writer is that an important, necessary scene will suck and bring the whole piece down.

But nine times out of ten, that seemingly impossible scene will become one of the more powerful moments in a story. Dan Wells once said that a scene in I Am Not a Serial Killer, where the protagonist draws a knife on his mother, was an especially difficult scene to write, but the final product is one of the most emotionally impactful moments in the book. Alternately, I have a friend who kept skipping over scenes where people were fighting (verbally or physically) because he wasn’t comfortable with violence, but it left his work lacking conflict and the story suffered because of it.

Part of why this is so effective, I think, is that the struggle to get the scene written and fear that it won’t work makes us slow down and take a long, hard look at what we’re doing, much more so than a scene that just plops itself down on the page. Difficult scenes force us to pull out all the stops, to dig deep and give it our all, thereby forcing us to put our best work on the page because anything less would just prolong the torture. Also, fear is conflict, and whether it’s felt by the character or just subconsciously by the author, it puts an edge, an undercurrent in the scene that can lift it above simple prose. It’s always the scenes I didn’t want to write, the ones that kick my ass, that I always end up the most satisfied with, and I think it’s because of the fear. If I wasn’t afraid of what I was writing, the writing would not be as good. Period.

Use the fear, share it. It won’t be easy, but more likely than not, your readers will feel it, and what they feel is what will stay with the reader long after they finish the story.